Under Constantine, on the eve of the catastrophe, one might believe for a moment that the overflowing barbarism could have been dammed. The cities appeared about to renew themselves with fresh life, since they had acquired under other forms a certain autonomy chiefly through the action of the Bishops, elected, as they were, by the citizens; indeed, the nomination of a Bishop by acclamation was generally the result of an authentic popular movement.
But it was too late. With their suffocating taxation and with foreign military chiefs, the Emperors had taken away every possibility of hope from the Italian cities. They had become indeed Dead Cities, as the great capitals of the East appeared to our fathers of the nineteenth century, those for example of Turkey and of Persia; Istanbul and Teheran were once metropolises not less rich and not less fair than Milan and Naples in the Middle Age. There was a Turkish art and even more surely a Persian art. But the cities were without municipal liberty, without autonomous life and therefore servile. If Byzantium before becoming Istanbul succeeded in conserving a little of its life, it was because under its Basileus the municipal tradition was not utterly destroyed, as was that of the Italian cities by the Caesars. The demi -- comparable to the "contrade" of Siena -- remained in Byzantium the focal points of municipal life as corporations, such as they are described to us in the Libro del Prefetto of the tenth century, with their relative freedom. The demi and the autonomous corporations offer us the keys of the real life of Byzantium, of its unexpected resistance and of its revolutions. But Byzantium remains an unique case, in the East; all the other metropolises, notwithstanding their occasional splendours, have been, if not inert masses, over disciplined, without an atom of the vitality that animated the anarchic Athens of Aristophanes even in its worst moments.
As for the Germanic dominations in Italy, if they were brief, and -- except the Lombard -- left no impression, it is owing to the fact that they ignored the force of the municipal life in Italy; it was a kind of inferiority complex that held the Germans back from the Italian cities, where we shall see, on the one hand the splendour of the Imperial régime, and on the other the marvellous, and for them mysterious, beginnings of the new Italian life. The wretched Germans, ignoring the cities, ingenuously applied their tribal and rural conceptions to a country where the city was everything, and it was because of this that they have left not a trace of themselves save in a type of battlements in the castles and walled cities, and a few words of military jargon.
Do the Italian cities then live? Much more: each is a world. The foreign historians who are moved to pity on account of the persistent hatreds between Italian cities, have not seen that they are concerned with the sort of passions about which they do not marvel when they break out between different nations.
In truth, of all the great peoples of Europe the Italians are the most particularist; but they know how to be so without risk, because time, sorrow and glory have made their unity indestructible.