Monday, 4 August 2014

Theoderic the Ostrogoth

A/N: Part I: paper 13 essay on Ostrogothic Italy from Easter term of the 2007/08 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. Sarris at Trinity. 

How near did Theoderic the Ostrogoth come to establishing a lasting kingdom in Italy?

With the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, in 476 Odoacer removed all pretence of the survival of Rome’s ancient imperialism, and took power in Italy for himself. Odoacer then managed to rule Italy for 13 years before the military might of the Ostrogoths took the former jewel of the Western Empire for itself. On the face of it such a takeover would appear to fit in with the chaos and violence perpetrated by the barbarian kings and their people in the fifth century. Contemporary sources however suggest that Theoderic, king of the Ostrogoths, was sent to Italy on orders from the Eastern emperor Zeno, and indeed some modern historians such as Goffart have argued that Theoderic was in fact a federate ruler of the empire, whose powers were restricted under a treaty with the emperor. Others, such as Barnwell have disagreed, arguing that whatever the original terms under which Theoderic entered Italy were, within a few short years he was exercising complete control over the region and was even expanding his territory outwards in an attempt to reunify the former Western empire under his own command. If this were indeed the case the question remains how, by the dawning of the sixth century, Ostrogothic rule became little more than a memory in Italy.

The sources for Ostrogothic Italy are more varied than for any other contemporary barbarian kingdom; they include chronicles, histories, legal records, and state letters. Even so they are not without their drawbacks; in particular historians have argued over the validity of the accounts of Cassiodorus and Jordanes. For the most part it has been accepted that Cassiodorus’ interests lay in presenting the Ostrogoths as a Romanised and, therefore, civilised group. This casts doubt over how much continuity there actually was between the rule of Thedoeric and the later Roman emperors, and the extent to which the Roman aristocracy welcomed rather than tolerated Ostrogothic rule. That Cassiodorus’ Gothic History exists only through the paraphrasing of it in Jordanes’ Getica presents further problems; the argument has been put forward that Jordanes was in fact using Cassiodorus’ name to add weight to anti-gothic propaganda in support of Justinian’s attempted re-conquest. Momigliano has suggested that Jordanes was actually employed by Cassiodorus to write a summary of his own history, to encourage Gothic and Roman conciliation on the eve of Narbonne. Whatever the truth of the matter, although it would appear most likely that Jordanes used Cassiodorus merely as a recognised authority for his own historical writings, it exemplifies the difficulties many of our sources present.

Theoderic moved into Italy with his followers in 489, within a few years he had taken power from Odoacer. The establishment of his rule however was not a straightforward triumph, contemporary chronicles such as the ‘pars posterior’ tell us that Theoderic was to rule Italy “only until the arrival of Zeno,” the Eastern Roman emperor. In 490 an Ostrogothic embassy was sent to Constantinople to try and change this ruling, unsuccessfully, and in 493 another was on its way to the Eastern capital when Zeno died. Mommsen argued that Theoderic was only granted the title of Magister Militum and had no power to legislate or appoint high officials, such as city prefects. If this were true it would suggest that Theoderic could never have created a lasting Ostrogothic kingdom as he was, essentially, just a glorified provincial governor who answered to the Eastern emperor. The picture is in fact more positive for Theoderic; in 497 the emperor Anastasius recognised Theoderic as the king of Italy (and, therefore, that Italy was no longer part of the Roman empire) and under the emperor Justin Theoderic was described as the “pre-eminent king” in correspondence from the East. Restrictions placed on Theoderic’s power were in fact self-imposed – his decision to only bestow senatorial status on Goths rather than actually instating Goths in the senate en masse made it easier for him to win support from the resident Roman majority in Italy. Whilst sent to Italy with permission only to rule as a client king, after wrestling control from Odoacer Theoderic instead set about consolidating the empire for himself and his dynasty.

Theoderic’s attitude towards his fledgling kingdom can be seen in his increasing ambitions to extend his power outside of Italy. In the past historians have argued that Theoderic’s system of alliances with his neighbours were simply for defence but the evidence in fact points to a quite different situation. For example the marriage alliance between Vandal Africa and Ostrogothic Italy, on the surface, might appear to be for protection until the fact that Amalafrida’s dowry included 5000 Ostrogothic troops is taken into consideration; through marriage alliances with the Vandals, Burgundians, Thuringians and others Theoderic was able to exert considerable influence over other kingdoms. Theoderic was not afraid to gain territory in more active ways either; in 504 the Ostrogoths extended their power into the Balkans, taking Sirmium from the Gepids. Similarly Heather suggests that the failure of Ostrogothic troops to arrive in time to reinforce the Visigothic army at Vouille in 507 was deliberate. In 508, the Visigothic army having been crushed by the Franks, on their arrival the Ostrogoths were able to take control of Visigothic Gaul. Although Theoderic never attempted to use the title of emperor his ambitions for the future of the Amal dynasty are clear, by 511 he ruled over almost a third of the old Western Roman Empire and was intent on consolidating Ostrogothic control to one day pass it on to his chosen successor, Eutharic.

This consolidation of Ostrogothic power could not come from military might alone, especially as the Romans far outnumbered the Ostrogoths who, according to Barnish, could not have settled over even a third of Italy so few were their number. Although the Ostrogoths were a grouping of warrior tribes, to hold Italy, and the later conquests, by force alone would thus have been very difficult, if not impossible. Instead Theoderic sought a more conciliatory means of keeping control of his new kingdom; he adopted and upheld the imperial structure and values of the Western Roman Empire. Having spent ten years as a hostage in Constantinople Theoderic was well aware of the importance of maintaining a veneer of the “civilitas” that meant so much to the Roman elite. So we see Theoderic maintaining the prestige of the senate and allowing the existing senatorial elite families to retain office, the senator Flavius Faustus served as magister officiorum in 492 and Boethius’ sins served as consuls, for example. He appointed praetorian prefects for Italy and Gaul, held chariot races and games, and even honoured the church of St Peter “as devotedly as if he were a Catholic.” The pars posterior claims that even Romans compared Theoderic to the Roman emperors Trajan and Valentinian. This whole scale use of imperial language and custom can be seen clearly in a letter addressed from Theoderic to the people of Gaul after the Ostrogothic takeover of the Visigothic kingdom: “Obey the Roman customs. You are now by God’s blessing restored to your ancient freedom, put off the barbarian, clothe yourselves with the morals of the toga; unlearn cruelty, that you may not be unworthy to be our subjects.” By clothing himself in the respectability of imperial rhetoric Theoderic had made himself acceptable to the Italo-Romans and even the Eastern Empire. 

We should perhaps exercise caution and not accept this view unthinkingly however, in many ways this veneer of civilised Romanisation was always in danger of cracking. Barnish points out how the Ostrogoths used their military strength to oppress the Romans, for example there are to records of a Goth violently stealing a small estate from two Romans and then challenging their free status, exemplifying a problem Barnish claims was “commonplace.” Barnwell took the argument further claiming that Theoderic’s rule was no different to that of the other barbarian kings, citing the diminished independence of the praetorian prefect and other officials as proof. Whilst Barnwell’s views are extreme it is important to realise that the idealised image of Theoderic and Ostrogothic rule presented in the accounts of Cassiodorus, a courtier in the king’s employ, are unlikely to have been the whole truth. The simmering tension beneath the front of Romanitas can be seen in the executions of the philosopher Boethius and his father-in-law Symmachus in the 520s. In many ways Ostrogothic rule closely copied the imperial rule of old but, fundamentally, Theoderic remained a barbarian king and in some ways was forced to implement more “barbarian” styles of rule in order to ensure his continued control of the kingdom.

The question of Gothic and Roman integration sheds much light on the extent to which Theoderic was able to establish a lasting kingdom. For long lasting Ostrogothic rule it stands to reason that the Roman elite would either have to be subsumed or the two groups would have to eventually integrate, or else there would always be the danger that the Ostrogoths could be removed. Given that Theoderic was happy to implement a conciliatory policy towards the Roman elite it would seem that integration should have been the way forward. Neither the Ostrogoths nor the Romans were a completely homogeneous group, the Ostrogoths including amongst their number Gepids and Rugi; this suggests that integration may have been easier than is generally assumed. Although Goths were not introduced into the senate they were given equal status; the prince Theodehad, Theoderic’s nephew, appears not to have differed to Roman senators in status or influence. Goths were introduced into lower senatorial jobs so it would seem that here, as with expansionism, Theoderic had the long term picture in mind; he understood that integration could not happen overnight. Significant steps forward were made nevertheless: hospitalitas, if Goffart’s revenue theory is discounted, would have encouraged considerable interaction between Roman and Goth as the two shared estates and Cassiodorus exemplifies a new generation of career officials who were more than happy to work alongside the Goths, Cassiodorus going so far as to write a history that provided the Ostrogoths with a respectable, Romanised, past. Even into the reign of Witigis Cassiodorus continued to serve the Ostrogoths and there is evidence of Romans putting up resistance to the armies of Justinian – Theoderic, then, had laid stable foundations for a lasting Ostrogothic kingdom.

Unsurprisingly such an idyllic view of Ostrogothic-Roman relations is much contested. Whilst the lower ranks of the Ostrogoths undoubtedly consisted of a vast number of tribal identities, the nobility actually had a distinct Gothic identity. Similarly whilst some Romans, like Cassiodorus, were more than accommodating to the Goths others merely tolerated their new masters. Boethius is widely believed to have belonged to this “senatorial” elite, as opposed to the “imperial” structure favoured by Cassiodorus, suggesting that, given the opportunity, many of the Roman elite would withdraw their support for the Ostrogothic regime. The uniquely Gothic aspects of Theoderic’s followers, their language and non-Nicene faith, served only to alienate them from the Romans and where diverse identities existed within the Ostrogoth formation they often undermined Theoderic’s control. For example Theudis, one of Theoderic’s bodyguards, was made commander in Spain but then married a rich Hispano-roman and secured a 2000 strong personal following – effectively making himself independent. The accession of the emperor Justin in 518 saw increasing interference from the East over religious matters, making the East a focal point for any of the Roman elite dissatisfied with Gothic rule. Justinian’s re-conquest and the arrival of Belisarius’ troops illustrate exactly how segregated the Romans and Ostrogoths actually were; rather than uniting against the Eastern Roman troops the Goths rallied behind Witigis who executed all the senators he was holding in Ravenna in 537. Later, in 552 Teias massacred 300 Roman senatorial children he had as hostages; the two groups had been able to co-exist under the careful guidance of Theoderic but the succession of the ten year old Athalaric on his death in 526 weakened the empire. As Justinian pushed his own expansionist policies the situation became ever more unstable; as Italy came under siege and no ruler of Theoderic’s calibre emerged the kingdom he had spent so long building imploded.

In conclusion it is clear that Theoderic did not establish an infallible kingdom in Italy, but then that is something which is impossible. Theoderic did in fact create a stable and peaceful kingdom for himself that should have lasted longer. Although it had its problems the foundations were in place for Ostrogothic Italy to survive – gradual integration of Goths and Romans had begun and Theoderic’s appropriation of imperial rhetoric had made his kingdom, if not welcomed, certainly tolerable to the Eastern Roman Empire. If, as Theoderic had planned, Eutharic had succeeded him the fate of the Ostrogothic kingdom may have been very different. As it was the succession went to the sickly child king, Athalaric; although the kingdom was ruled fairly well under the boy’s mother Amalasuntha, her son’s death spelt the downfall of the empire. A woman was unacceptable as a ruler to the Goths and Theodehad was more interested in securing money and titles from Constantinople than in maintaining his uncle’s kingdom. In addition the succession of Justinian in the East, someone who was intent on re-establishing Roman power throughout the former Western empire created an insurmountable problem for the Ostrogoths once he set his sights on Italy. In short, had the stable conditions of Theoderic’s time continued his long-term plans may have come to fruition and enabled the Ostrogothic kingdom to have a long life; unfortunately the kingdom was just not strong enough to survive the onslaught of problems it faced after Theoderic’s death.


  • The Gothic History of Jordanes tr. C.C. Mierow (1915) 
  • The Letters of Cassiodorus tr. T. Hodgkin (1886) – books 1-4 
  • The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius -Pars Posterior tr. J.C. Rolfe 


  • The Narrators of Barbarian History W. Goffart (1988) Chapters 1-2 
  • Goths and Romans Peter Heather (1991) Chapter 2 
  • The Goths Peter Heather 
  • The Struggle for Power in Medieval Italy G. Tabacco. Chapter 1 
  • Cassiodorus and the Italian Culture of his Time A. Momigliano (Proceedings of the British Academy, 1955) 
  • The Constitutional Position of Odoacer and Theoderic A.H.M. Jones (Journal of Roman Studies, 1962) 
  • Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius J. Matthews (In - Boethius. His Life, Thought and Influence. M. Gibson. 1981) and Wormald’s review. 
  • Emperors, Prefects and Kings P. Barnwell (1992) – section on Theoderic. 
  • Early Medieval Europe R. Collins. (chapter 8) 
  • Justinian J. Moorhead (chapter 3) 
  • Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians W. Goffart 
  • Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire S.J.B. Barnish

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