Ancient History & Civilisation

Ostrogothic Italy

Theoderic the Amal had gained the position of a Roman insider during the 480s in Constantinople. Zeno had made him a “son in arms,” appointed him magister utriusque militiae praesentalis and patricius in 476. His status was reaffirmed in 484 when he was awarded a consulship. Moreover, from this period he and members of his family were given the titular Roman family name Flavius, which had been employed as a sign of rank since the Constantinian period (see p. 192).65 When he left the East to recover Italy from Odoacar, he did so in the name of Zeno:

Zeno…made Theoderic a patrician and a consul and gave him a great sum of money, and sent him to Italy. Theoderic stipulated with him that if Odoacar should be vanquished, in return for his own labours he would only rule provisionally (praeregnare) in his place, until Zeno should come himself. So, when Theoderic the patrician came from the city of Novae (in Moesia) with his Gothic people, he had been sent by the emperor Zeno from the eastern parts of the empire with the purpose of defending Italy for himself. (Anon. Val. part 2, 11, 49)

This was confirmed by Anastasius in 497 in response to an embassy which Theoderic dispatched to Constantinople. Anastasius sent the deputation back to Ravenna with the so-called ornamenta palatii, which had been returned to him by Odoacar.66 Although Theoderic is said to have dressed in a purple robe,67 these ornamenta were a sign of regal, not imperial, rank. His garb depicted a king in the classical style, in contrast to the skin-clad Visigoths, Euric and Alaric. Theoderic conducted himself as an emperor might have been expected to have done. He undertook a major state visit to Rome to celebrate thirty years of rule and this was described at length in his anonymous biography. The visit was accompanied by grain distributions to the poor, and the reconstruction of the palatium and the city walls (see p. 336). A speech to the people of Rome was duly inscribed, more Romano, on a bronze tablet (Anon. Val. part 2, 12, 65–70). The date was 500, and he reckoned his rule to have begun not from the defeat of Odoacar, but from the moment in 470 when he had taken over leadership of the Amal Goths. Although Theoderic's conduct was demonstrably imperial in manner, he avoided making claims to be emperor. This protocol is respected in the chancery style of Cassiodorus, whose collection of letters, the Variae, preserves a representative sample of official correspondence from Theoderic's court.68 Latin inscriptions from Italy also generally respected this custom, referring to Theoderic as rex, sometimes with the added words dominus noster, which had long been customary for emperors. Only one text makes the larger claim that he was an Augustus. This was carved on two bases near Terracina, to celebrate the reclamation of the Appian Way from encroachment by the Pomptine marshes, which had flooded agricultural land and threatened communications along the main route from Rome to Naples.

Our lord the glorious and famous king Theoderic, victorious and triumphant, the perpetual Augustus, born for the good of the commonwealth, guardian of liberty and propagator of the Roman name, tamer of the nations, has restored the route and places of the via Appia at Decem Novium (the nineteenth milestone), that is from Tripontium to Terracina, to the public use and safety of travellers, by wonderful good fortune and the favour of God. Under all previous princes, they had been flooded through the marshes converging from either side. Caecina Mavortius Basilius Decius, right honourable and illustrious, former Urban Prefect, former Praetorian Prefect, former ordinary Consul and Patrician, from the glorious house of the Decii, toiled industriously on the task imposed, and served with good fortune the most clement prince. To perpetuate the glory of such a lord, he led the waters into the sea through many new channels, and restored the ground to its all too ancient dryness, unknown to our ancestors. (ILS 827, trans. Barnish)69

The language of this inscription is so traditional, embodying phrases that had been used of emperors since the time of Augustus, and the role of Theoderic so closely resembled that of imperial benefactors who had backed the Senate in their care for Italy, that we should surely regard the reference to Theoderic as Augustus as an exaggerated aberration, rather than a designation of his formal status.

At a later date Procopius summed up Constantinople's view of Theoderic:

He himself secured the supremacy over both Goths and Italians. And though he did not claim the right to assume either the garb or the name of emperor of the Romans, but was called rex to the end of his life, for thus the barbarians are accustomed to call their leaders, still, in governing his own subjects, he invested himself with all the qualities that appropriately belong to one who is by birth an emperor. For he was exceedingly careful to observe justice, he preserved the laws on a sound basis, he protected the land, and kept it safe from the barbarians dwelling round about, and he attained the highest possible degree of wisdom and manliness. And although in name Theoderic was a usurper (tyrannos), yet in fact he was as truly an emperor as any who have distinguished themselves in this office from the beginning; and love for him among both Goths and Italians grew to be great, and that too contrary to the ordinary habits of men. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.1.25–29, trans. Dewing)

Theoderic's claims to be a just ruler, in the manner of Trajan, are projected most clearly in Cassiodorus' correspondence, whose twelve books may well have been published in direct emulation of an earlier imperial advisor, the younger Pliny. Cassiodorus was a member of one of the wealthiest senatorial families of Italy, with properties in Bruttium, whose members had served the emperors over at least three generations (Cassiodorus, Var. 1.3 and 4). In the role of quaestor, that is chief legal officer and spokesman for the regime,70 he wrote official letters, edicts, and other documents for Theoderic and his successors, Athalaric, his daughter Amalasuntha, Theodahat, and Vitigis, and also issued documents in his own right as Praetorian Prefect of Italy. The format of letters dealing with administrative matters regularly began with a paragraph of generalities, laying down the principles on which the regime operated. This was followed by details on the matter in hand, sometimes accompanied by observations or even lengthy digressions of a philosophical nature. Thus the corpus as a whole supplies three different perspectives on the conduct of Ostrogothic rule. Firstly, it laid down principles of justice and standards of public behavior. These were not innovative, but were careful restatements of the traditional virtues of the just ruler, conducted within an overtly Christian moral framework. Secondly, it provided specific information about political and legal issues that had to be resolved by a court decision. Thirdly, it gave a flattering view of the high cultural level of the Gothic court.

It is revealing that neither Theoderic nor his successors issued a code of laws in their own name, as the other Germanic kingdoms did in the fifth and sixth centuries.71 They worked entirely within the Roman framework of government, using Roman officials, mostly senior members of the Senate, and operating with Roman law. Theoderic stated in a letter to his armor-bearer:

We are pleased to live according to Roman law, which we desire to avenge by our force of arms. What benefit would we gain from having removed barbarian disorder if we could not live under the rule of law. (Cassiodorus, Var. 3.43)

All this was consonant with the conception of the Ostrogothic kingdom as a part of the Roman Empire, subservient in theory and diplomatic protocol to the eastern empire. This was the role that Theoderic had fulfilled all his life as a Gothic leader, and his conception of his own position did not change with his transfer from a base in eastern Illyricum to Italy. He achieved the vision which had been contemplated by Athaulph at his marriage to Galla Placidia in 415, of a Roman Empire reliant on and protected by Gothic strength. “The glory of the Goths is to be guardians of civilisation” (Cassiodorus, Var. 9.14).

Theoderic did not lose sight of his Gothic heritage. Jordanes' Getica, written in Constantinople in 551 contains a lengthy preamble covering the early history of the Gothic people, identified with the ancient Getae, and the genealogy over seventeen generations of the Amal family. Jordanes tells us that he based his work on Cassiodorus' Gothic history. The nature and extent of this debt are a matter for discussion,72 but a letter of Athalaric to the Senate of Rome, written on September 1, 533, demonstrates that Cassiodorus was the key literary figure in promoting the history of the Amal lineage. His purpose was not to provide accurate information about the past but to confer a glorious antiquity on the house of the Amals.73 We may compare the similar aspirations of the Isaurians, when they came to prominence in the 460s, to identify an antique and noble heritage for their people. The historian Candidus contended that the name and the race of the Isaurians were derived from the biblical Esau.74 It is also valuable to compare Theoderic with Clovis, his near contemporary. Clovis also claimed a mythical descent, but could trace this back for only two generations to his grandfather. Theoderic's own legitimate ancestry also goes back no further than to his grandfather, Valamir.

Theoderic also remained a Germanic leader of his Gothic followers.75 He had, of course, been a warrior throughout his early adult life. In a panegyric Ennodius, bishop of Milan, reminded his listeners that this was a king who led his forces into battle, and defeated his enemies by main might. Fighting the Gepids in 488 Theoderic led by example:

Whoever seeks a path through the enemy's ranks follow me; whoever seeks an example for battle look at me and no one else. Bravery does not ask about numbers; few must take the burdens of war upon themselves, many enjoy the fruits. The Gothic army will be judged by what I do, and the tribe will triumph in my deeds.

Before the battle of Verona with Odoacar in 489 he is said to have taken leave of his mother as a classical Spartan might have done:

Mother, known to all peoples through your son's honour, you know that you have given birth to a man. Today is the day when the battlefield will prove the manhood of your son. With arms I must show that the fame of my ancestors does not come to an end with me. Without reason would we invoke the deeds of our ancestors if we had none of our own to show. (Ennodius, Panegyricus 19ff., 32)

This was probably the last occasion, at the age of thirty-eight, that he fought in person. After he became sole ruler of Italy, Ostrogothic campaigns were led by other generals.

Theoderic had brought a large group of around 100,000 Goths into Italy, including 20–25,000 fighting men. Their settlements, according to the written sources and the archaeology, were to be found in the Po valley and guarding the main Alpine passes, along the Adriatic coast with concentrations around Ravenna and in Picenum, in southern Italy around Naples, in Sicily and across the Adriatic in Dalmatia.76 Other Germanic groups were attracted to join his kingdom, including the Rugi, but according to Procopius these refused to intermarry with the Ostrogoths, preserving their discrete bloodlines and ethnic identity (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.21–23). This carries the obvious implication that they lived in separate settlements. The cultured voice of Cassiodorus insinuates that the rule of law in Theoderic's Italy had brought back years of stability under a powerful empire, but beneath the rhetoric and in the parts not reached by the smooth governance of senatorial officials, there is also a view of Gothic settlements, led by local strong men, such as Quidila at Nursia (Cassiodorus, Var. 8.26), and a network of Gothic as well as Roman counts of the cities, charged with defense and the administration of justice.77 These men held their positions with Theoderic's approval, but they owed their authority to their own personal qualities and the prestige they enjoyed at a local level. They appear from the pages of Procopius' narrative of the wars in Italy as responsible for local resistance to the Roman forces: Pitzas in Samnium (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.15.1–2); Hildebad at Venice (Bell. Goth. 6.29.41, 7.1.25–27); Sisigis on the western boundary of the Cottian Alps (Bell. Goth. 6.28.28–35). Thus individual Gothic leaders outside the king's circle commanded local garrisons during the wars, and arbitrated between Goths and Italians in peacetime.78 The true nature of the Ostrogothic kingdom is surely demonstrated by the events that followed Theoderic's death (Plate 6.1). There was no stability to the succession. During peace time Amal rule continued under Amalasuntha's invalid and irresponsible son, Athalaric, and Theoderic's unwarlike but vindictive nephew, Theodahat. But when the Roman army advanced up the Italian peninsula in 536, Theodahat was displaced to make way for a warrior unconnected to the Amal family, Vitigis, who in turn was supplanted by Totila after the fall of Ravenna to Belisarius. The claims that prevailed as the kingdom changed hands were not dynastic but those of military prowess and authority among the Goths at large.

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Plate 6.1    Mausoleum of Theoderic at Ravenna (akg images/Bildarchiv Steffens)

Cassiodorus draws a picture of Theoderic as a ruler thoroughly assimilated to the prevailing Roman ethos, but also offers insights into the relationships which held the Gothic tribal people together. Some leading Romans learned the German language, as Syagrius had done in Burgundy. Cyprian, who was Theoderic's comes sacracrum largitionum, was trained in three languages, Latin, Greek, and German, and his children also learned language and weapon skills from the Goths (Cassiodorus, Var. 5.40.5, 8.21.6ff.). A greater number of Goths certainly mastered Latin, and although the newcomers were generally easily distinguished from the Roman inhabitants of Italy, in many contexts they must have lived alongside one another, adopted language and customs, and begun to intermarry.79

Theoderic pursued dynastic politics with the neighboring kingdoms of the West. He himself married Audofleda, sister of the Frankish king Clovis. His daughters Theodogotha and Ostrogotho married respectively Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, and Sigismund, king of the Burgundians, while his niece Amalaberga was given to Herminafrid, king of the Thuringians. The marriage policy was matched by diplomatic initiatives. Cassiodorus drafted impeccable missives to advertise his friendly intentions. The senator Boethius, in a fascinating letter, was asked to design and build a water-clock, to be presented to the Burgundian ruler Gundobad (Cassiodorus, Var. 1.45 and 46). The versatile Boethius was then asked to find a skilled musician, a cithara player, who could be sent to the court of Clovis. Theoderic accompanied this with a plea for the life of the king of the Alemanni, lately defeated by Clovis, who was seeking Theoderic's protection (Cassiodorus, Var. 2.40 and 41). These initiatives date to 506, the year before the decisive triumph of the Franks over the Visigoths. As the storm clouds gathered in Gaul, Theoderic attempted to keep the contestants apart by a vain flurry of diplomatic correspondence, addressed to Alaric, to Clovis, to Gundobad, and to the lesser kings of the Heruls and the Warni. Neither the letters nor the diplomacy of the Ostrogothic envoys who carried them availed.80

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