Would you consider the year 751 CE one of the most important dates in human history?
In a recent article, Ryan Hatch explains that three events took place that year, all of which would have profound consequences for four empires, and produce long-lasting cultural changes. They involve a siege of an Italian city, a palace coup, and a battle that took place near the border of present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The events were not only important in themselves, but would be the catalyst for even greater changes that would take place in the eight-century.
Sack of Ravenna
The first major event noted by Hatch is the Lombard sack of Ravenna. The Lombards were a Germanic tribe from southern Scandinavia, but during the sixth century they began migrating southwards and would become a major force on the Italian peninsula. It was in the year 751 that their king, Aistulf would lead an attack on Ravenna. This port city was important as it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire’s territory in Italy. However, when the Lombards attacked the Byzantine emperor was too preoccupied with other matters to deal with the attack on this far-off outpost.
Ravenna would be captured, sacked and have its local ruler killed. Aistulf would go on to threaten the city of Rome itself. While the situation looked bleak for that city, the Lombards did not attack. Moreover, the decision by the Byzantine empire to abandon its defence of that part of Italy would help break their control over the Papacy. As Hatch writes:
It is at this moment that, while the divide between he Latin West and the Greek East had been slowly developing, Rome itself ceased to exist within the sphere of “Eastern Roman” or Greek influence and became a permanent fixture of the Germanic West. With the loss of Rome, and with Zacharias being the last elected Greek pope, one could argue that, at this point, the Eastern Roman Empire finally ceased to be “Roman,” becoming exclusively “Byzantine” or “Greek.”
Pepin becomes King of the Franks
The papacy would turn to another force for protection, which would lead to the second major event of 751 – the end of the Merovingian Empire and the rise of the Carolingians. For the last couple of decades, the real power among the Merovingians was not with its king, but rather the major domus (mayor of the palace), first held by Charles Martel (715–741) and then his son Pepin (741-768). Pepin would make an alliance with the Papacy in order to gain their support for his ambitions to seize the Kingdom of the Franks for himself. This would be done in 751:
In March of that year, as Aistulf’s army was sacking Ravenna, Pepin had the long locks that had characterized Merovingian authority shaven away from Childeric’s head, forcing him into a monastery with a tonsure, where he would die four years later. With the throne vacant, the Clausula de unctione Pippini (767) states that Pepin, backed by a sizable army, met with the Frankish nobility at Soissons, where he was crowned rex Francorum in November of 751.
It would take a couple more years before his position was secure, but Pepin would start the rise of the Carolingian dynasty. He and his son Charlemagne would also be the key protectors of the Papacy, allowing for a new political and ecclesiastical state of affairs to emerge in Western Europe.
The Battle of Talas
The third major event in 751 was the Battle of Talas, where armies from the Abbasid and Tang empires would clash in Central Asia. The Tang Empire had ruled China since the year 618, and up until the mid-eighth century it had overseen a very successful and prosperous era. Their influence was pushing westwards in the 740s, taking control of a number of states. However, when a Tang general decided to break a treaty with the small kingdom of Shigou, it would lead to a revolt against Chinese domination that would gain the support of the Abbasid Caliphate.
The Abbasid Revolution had only culminated a year earlier, with the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and the coming of a new mult-ethnic state meant to unify the Islamic world. The governor of Samarkand was dispatched to lead an army in support of the Kingdom of Shigou, and in July of 751 they would meet with the Tang Empire. Tens of thousands of soldiers were on each side, and the fighting lasted five days. However, the Abbasids emerged victorious after the Karluk Turks, switched sides, and the Tang army collapsed.
Hatch explains that:
While the victory at Talas made Islam and the Abbasids a powerful presence in the region, the Tang Dynasty did not immediately lose its dominance on the frontier. The immediate threat of the Anshi Rebellion, launched by the jiedushi An Lushan in 755, would both close the Chinese western frontier and end the Tang golden age, although the dynasty would limp on until 907. The battle at Talas marked the extent of the Abbasid Caliphate’s borders, though Islam as a faith would continue to spread eastward. With raids from Byzantium taking advantage of the recent upheaval that same year, and an independent emirate established by the last Umayyad in Cordoba in 756, Abbasid attention was suddenly drawn westward.
Hatch also notes another key impact of the battle – the introduction of paper into the Islamic world. Some sources report that among the prisoners captured by the Abbasids were papermakers, who were then sent to Samarkand. It should also be noted that other sources suggest that paper was already making its way into the Islamic world before the Battle of Talas. In any case, the production of paper would spread into Western Asia, and eventually to Europe. The superiority of paper as a writing material would greatly help aid literary and scientific discourse throughout the Abbasid Empire and beyond.
Hatch concludes that these three events would have profound consequences in both Europe and Asia, with the Carolingian and Abbasid dynasties emerging to be key powers, while the Byzantine and Tang dynasties would see a decline. He concludes that “the events of 751 made that year one of the most important dates in history … at very least, the year 751 should become as familiar to both academics and students as 1066, 1492, 1776, or 1945.”
Ryan Hatch’s article, “751 C.E.: Watershed Events in the Carolingian, Byzantine, Abbasid, and Tang Empires,” appears in the book Paradigm Shifts during the Global Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Albrecht Classen and published by Brepols.
Top Image: Pepin depicted in Imperial Chronicle (Anonymi chronica imperatorum), Corpus Christi College MS 373, fol. 14