Timeline of Major Medieval Events: Sixth Century

The sixth century was dominated by the reign of Justinian, the Emperor who attempted to restore the Eastern Roman Empire to its former glory. Meanwhile, Clovis and his descendants would forge a nation in central Europe, Italy would become a battleground for Goths, Byzantines and Lombards, and Christian evangelists would do their work in Britain and on the continent.


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Page from the Breviary of Alaric
Page from a 9th-century manuscript of the Breviary of Alaric, depicting King Lodhanri with a bishop, a duke and an earl. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia
  • Breviary of Alaric issued
    Compiled on the order of Visigothic king Alaric II, the Breviary was a collection of Roman law for the Romans that lived in the Visigothic Kingdom. The Breviary would help preserve Roman law in southern France for centuries.
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Clovis I
Illustration of Clovis I from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 149s. Public Domain
  • Clovis defeats the Visigoths
    The Visigothic king Alaric II had shown himself to be a peaceful leader, but Clovis, king of the Franks, used Alaric's Arianism as a pretext for war. The Franks succeeded in defeating the Visigoths, pushing them out of present-day France and confining them to what is today Spain. The Visigothic Kingdom of Spain would last another 200 years.
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Boethius and Philosophy
Boethius conversing with Philosophy, from a 14th-century manuscript of The Consolation of Philosophy. Public Domain
  • Boethius writes The Consolation of Philosophy
    Scholar, philosopher, translator and statesman, Boethius was a consul and advisor to Theodoric the Great. He fell out of favor with Theodoric, who threw the philosopher in prison. While awaiting execution, Boethius wrote this deeply personal work, which would influence medieval philosophy for centuries to come.
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Calendar page
A calendar page from the 15th-century book of hours, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Public Domain
  • Dionysius Exiguus creates the Christian Calendar
    A monk and scholar, Dionysius Exiguus was asked by Pope John I to create a chronology of Christian events. He consulted tables by Theophilus of Alexandria, and he set the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth at 753 years after the founding of Rome. Then, Dionysius started to label all later events in relation to the birth of Jesus as years of "Our Lord" (in Latin, anno domini, or A.D.) Although his estimate of the birthdate of Jesus was inaccurate, his method of dating would eventually become standard for all Christians, and is used by Christians and non-Christians alike today.
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The Abbey of Monte Cassino
The Abbey of Monte Cassino from the Polish cemetery. Photo by Ludmiła Pilecka; made available through the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
  • St. Benedict founds monastery at Monte Cassino
    Known as the Father of Western Monasticism, Benedict had led a life of asceticism, abiding in caves and attracting faithful followers from far and wide. He reluctantly emerged from his solitary life to lead other monks, and he established a dozen monasteries before going to Cassino. There he would live out the rest of his days, converting many of the locals from paganism. Here also Benedict wrote a rule for monastic living that would become highly influential in medieval monasticism. For this reason, Monte Cassino is considered the cradle of the Benedictine order. The monastery would suffer severe damage in World War II.
  • Justinian closes the Academy
    The Academy of Athens had once been a renowned center of philosophy, but over the last few centuries it had entered a serious decline. Now it focused primarily on Platonism and Neoplatonism. Justinian officially closed the Academy in 529, and the philosophers who taught there went elsewhere. It has long been claimed that the emperor did this as a way of quashing paganism out of a sense of Christian superiority and intolerance; however, an alternate theory suggests that his primary motive was to dispose of any opposition to the University he had just founded in Constantinople.
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Coin from the reign of Theuderic
Coin from the reign of Theuderic. Public Domain
  • Franks conquer Thuringia
    With the help of his younger brother Chlotar, King Theuderic of Reims successfully subdued the Thuringian kingdom.
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The Hippodrome
Ruins of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Photo by "Gryffindor"; made available through the GNU Free Documentation License
  • The Nika Revolt
    Though the Nika Revolt began in the Hippodrome, where chariot races were held, it was fueled by dissatisfaction with the regime of Justinian. The Emperor's most esteemed general, Belisarius, failed to put down the initial riots, and for nearly a week Constantinople burned. Eventually, thanks in part to his wife Theodora, Justinian showed the backbone required to face the rioters, and the violence was extinguished. Though the city suffered great devastation, the emperor emerged from the revolt a stronger ruler.
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Belisarius by François-André Vincent
Detail from the 1776 painting entitled Belisarius by François-André Vincent. Public Domain
  • Belisarius defeats the Vandals
    The Vandals had established a kingdom in northern Africa in the fifth century, and their Arian Christian rulers had long oppressed Catholic Christians in their lands. When a Catholic leader came to the throne and was overthrown and imprisoned, Justinian saw a good excuse to strike. He sent his best general, Belisarius, who in two short months soundly routed the Vandals, essentially putting an end to their nation. Their Vandal lands would remain part of the Byzantine Empire until the Muslim conquest well over a century later.


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Ruins of a building once believed to have been the Palace of Theodoric, and probably his cathedral church. in Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Wikimedia user Incola; made available through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
  • Justinian initiates his campaign in Italy
    In his attempt to reclaim the lands that had once been part of the Roman Empire, Justinian sent his general Belisarius to Italy to face the Ostrogoths, who had ruled most of the Italian peninsula for the preceding six decades. Belisarius struck quickly, successfully taking Sicily before moving on to the mainland, where he would have no trouble with Naples and only a little difficulty with Rome over the next few years. However, the triumphs of Belisarius would not last after Justinian recalled him to Constantinople and others were left to handle the campaign. This "Gothic War" (only one of three conflicts to be so named by historians) would last twenty years.


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Burgundian belt-buckle
Burgundian belt-buckle from about the 7th century. Public Domain
  • Franks conquer Burgundy
    Spurred on by their mother, Clotilda, whose father had been murdered by Burgundian King Gundobad, the sons of Clovis set their sights on Burgundy. After a long (if intermittent) campaign, Childebert and Chlotar at last succeeded in subduing the kingdom and incorporating it into their own territories.
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Hazy Sun
Hazy sun and stone wall from Easby Moor, looking down to Brough Green Farm. Photo by Mick Garratt for the Geograph project, made available through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
  • June: Dust Veil falls
    A thick, bluish fog descended on much of Europe and Asia Minor, darkening the skies, shortening the days, and lowering temperatures. Lasting from about a year to 18 months, the Dust Veil was noted by contemporary chroniclers Procopius, John of Ephesus and Cassiodorus, among others. To this day, the cause of the veil is uncertain; a particularly strong volcanic eruption and the impact, or even near miss, by a large comet remain the most likely culprits.
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The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia. Public Domain
  • Hagia Sophia completed
    Justinian took advantage of the rebuilding efforts after the Nika Revolt to recreate the beautiful cathedral as he saw fit. The Hagia Sophia would serve as the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for a thousand years.
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Plague procession
Penitents fall victim to the plague during a processional led by Pope Gregory I. From Folio 72 of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Public Domain
  • Plague strikes the Eastern Roman Empire
    Also known as Justinian's Plague, the Sixth-Century Plague struck Egypt in 541, came to Constantinople in 542, and spread from there through the Byzantine Empire and beyond. It would return several times before the end of the sixth century, at which point, it is estimated, population levels had declined by about 40%.
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c. 550

Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk
Image of court ladies preparing newly-woven silk, from a painting attributed to Emperor Huizong, c. 12th century. Public Domain
  • Sericulture comes to Byzantium
    For centuries, the secret to making silk had been a closely-guarded secret of China, and only comparatively recently had India solved the mystery. Then, according to the 6th-century writer Procopius, Justinian decided that the Eastern Romans should be privy to that secret, as well. He convinced a pair of monks from India who claimed to know how silk was made to go east and procure silkworm eggs. After the success of the monks' venture, Byzantium would maintain a monopoly on silk production for the next several hundred years.
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St. Columba saved by a bear
Depiction of St. Columba being saved by a bear, by an unknown 14th-century artist. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia
  • May 12: St. Columba lands at Iona
    The monastery that Saint Columba would build on the island of Iona would become a highly-esteemed center of monasticism, and would serve as a springboard for Columba and his associates to evangelize Scotland.
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The Assassination of Alboin
The Assassination of Alboin by Charles Landseer, 1856. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia
  • The Lombards cross the Alps into Italy
    Recognizing that the extended wars between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths had left Italy in a militarily weakened state, Alboin, ruler of the Lombards, judged it a good time to invade the peninsula. Over the next few years the invaders took control of Venice, Milan, Tuscany, Benevento and, eventually, Pavia, which would become the capital of the Lombard kingdom.


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Saint David
Statue of Saint David at St.David's Cathedral, Wales. Adapted from a photo by Wolfgang Sauber; made available through the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
  • The Synod of Victory
    The synod, which was called to address the issue of the Pelagian heresy, met at Caerleon-on-Usk, Monmouthshire, and was presided over by Saint David. The synod received its name because it apparently conquered the heresy in Britain.
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Detail of The Conversion of Reccared by Antonio Muñoz Degrain, 1888. Public Domain
  • Reccared converts to Catholicism
    The Visigoths in Spain had long been Arian Christians. When King Reccared announced his conversion to Catholicism at the Third Council of Toledo, he opened the door to many conversions among his people, which, though turbulent at first, paved the way for more harmony between the Visigoths and the Catholic Hispano-Romans who also inhabited Spain. Eventually, the Visigothic kingdom would become a powerful Catholic nation.
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Pope Gregory Writing
Pope Gregory writing in his scriptorium by Meister Theoderich von Prag c. 1370. Public Domain
  • Sept. 3: Gregory I consecrated as pope
    Gregory, who would become known as Gregory the Great, would be more influential than any other cleric in shaping the early medieval papacy. He centralized the Church's administrative system, vigorously supported successful evangelization missions, and consolidated the lands that would come to be known as the Papal States.


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Saint Augustine and the Saxons
Image of Saint Augustine and the Saxons from Pictures of English History: From the Earliest Times to the Present Period by Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1868. Public Domain
  • Gregory sends evangelical mission to England
    Pope Gregory sent a contingent of 40 or so monks, led by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, to England to convert the largely pagan island. The mission was welcomed by King Ethelbert of Kent, and Augustine's success would begin the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.