Ancient History & Civilisation



THE RECEIVED IMAGE of Theoderic’s rule in Italy stands in almost complete contrast to the bold, highly calculating gambler we have just met, capable of slicing an opponent in half over the brandy and cigars. Not long after his death, Cassiodorus, one of the chief officers of his later years, penned the following portrait:

When he had laid aside the cares of the State, he would seek through your conversation the opinions of wise men of old, that by his own deeds he might make himself equal to the ancients. Into the courses of the stars, into the gulfs of the sea, into the marvels of springing fountains, this most acute questioner enquired, so that by his diligent investigations into the nature of things he seemed to be a philosopher wearing the purple.1

Not so much the violent warband leader, then, as a wise seeker after the most profound truths of nature: an image reinforced by many of the remaining letters of the collection in which this one is preserved. These purport to show his government in action. And in them, in impeccable if slightly baroque late Roman Latin, we find Theoderic busy rooting out corruption, dispensing top-notch justice, building walls and aqueducts, and even supporting the educational pillars of classical culture, often while offering up a little classical homily on the side. The same dedication to wisdom is also apparent in foreign affairs. Here he famously concocted a series of marriage alliances with all of the major peer realms within his orbit (the major kingdoms of the Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals and Franks, along with some smaller ones: Figure 4), and then endeavoured to keep the peace when a major conflict broke out between two of them, the Visigoths and the Franks in the middle of the first decade of the sixth century.

Look beneath the surface, however, and the contrast between the man of violent, occasionally explosive action who kept Constantinople on the run for a decade and a half, and the purple-clad philosopher who ran Italy, quickly subsides.


Behind every ruler who has gone down in history as a good thing, you will find at least one excellent spin doctor, and Theoderic is no exception. Not only did Cassiodorus write a Gothic History, whose account of the king’s youth – in the reworked version of Jordanes – occupied us in the previous chapter, but he also first wrote and then – crucially – collected a body of official letters from his time as senior official of the Gothic kings of Italy: the Variae. This text contains some 468 letters, edicts, and model letters (formulae) divided among twelve books, and it is the fundamental source for the wise and pacific Theoderic we have just encountered: the lofty philosopher aiming to hold together a Roman west which was otherwise falling into barbarism and violence. It is also a source which requires extremely careful handling.

For although at first glance it doesn’t look like one, it is in fact a peculiar (in both the popular and the original senses of the word) example of political autobiography. Many of the collected texts are letters written in the name of different Gothic rulers of the Italian kingdom: the majority for Theoderic himself, but a fair number too for the different successors which followed between his own death in 526 and Cassiodorus’ final departure from office in or around 538/9. But Cassiodorus assures his readers in two Prefaces that he really did draft the original letters, and that he was also responsible for selecting and ordering those that we find included. The Variae collection does not represent, in other words, every letter that Cassiodorus had ever written for each of the Gothic rulers he served, but a careful selection.

And herein lies the problem. Political autobiography is one of the most slippery of all genres. The combination of self-aggrandizement and self-justification makes it almost proverbially unreliable for historians, and Cassiodorus is no exception, despite offering us the usual prefatory rubbish that he only put pen to paper because his friends had urged him to undertake this task for the public good. The element of self-aggrandizement comes through in the Variae loud and clear, not least in the quotation at the head of this chapter, which is taken from a letter Cassiodorus penned to announce his own appointment to high office. In other words, Cassiodorus himself is the interlocutor who spent long evenings instructing Theoderic on everything from philosophy to astronomy. This is substantially hogwash. The image proved an attractive one for commentators of earlier historical generations, who found something comforting in the idea of a Gothic barbarian desiring instruction in classical knowledge, but Cassiodorus was demonstrably not that important to Theoderic’s regime; at least not until its final years. Having sliced Odovacar in half in early spring 493, Theoderic ruled his Italian kingdom for the next thirty-three years, until his own death on 30 August 526. During all that time, Cassiodorus held the important office of quaestor between 507 and 511, and the top civilian job of praetorian prefect (chief financial and legal officer) from 524 until the king’s death. For the vast majority of Theoderic’s reign, therefore, Cassiodorus held no position at all, and particularly not in the first decade or so of his rule, when the crucial lines of Theoderic’s governance were set. And even if it is probably right to think that Cassiodorus was not simply mouldering on his estates between 511 and 524, we can convincingly populate Theoderic’s court with many other Roman advisers besides, some of whom knew at least as much about classical culture as Cassiodorus, if not rather more. Only for the final two years of Theoderic’s thirty-three-year reign, then, does the picture Cassiodorus paints for us of their relations look remotely plausible.2

Even more important, by the time he was producing the Variae collection, Cassiodorus was a man with a great deal to explain. At that point, the Gothic kingdom was coming towards an untimely close at the hands of East Roman armies bent on a full-scale conquest (it is sometimes called a ‘reconquest’, but Constantinople had never before ruled, or even attempted to rule, Italy). The war began in 536, and, although the last letters in the collection are impossible to date exactly, they certainly belong to the dog days of late 538 or even 539, by which time the writing was firmly on the wall. East Roman forces had complete strategic initiative and were closing in rapidly on Cassiodorus and the last of his Gothic rulers, Wittigis, in the kingdom’s final redoubt, Ravenna. Cassiodorus thus produced the collection at a moment when defeat was looking inevitable at the hands of an East Roman army that he himself – as the Gothic regime’s chief financial officer – had spent at least three campaigning seasons helping to resist. Amongst other things, his office was responsible for victualling and army pay, and the letters imply that he was close to royal decision-making at a time when unpleasant policy decisions were having to be taken, not least one to execute some senatorial hostages, as the Gothic regime came under increasing pressure. If the victorious East Roman soldiers had had playing cards marked up with their chief opponents in 539–40, Cassiodorus’ face would have been somewhere on one of the picture cards. When Ravenna fell in summer 540, therefore, he was duly hauled off to Constantinople. For Cassiodorus, the Variae had an extremely important function to fulfil: they had to justify to the new East Roman rulers of Italy why he had continued to serve Gothic kings despite their arrival on Italian soil.

The potential for distortion in this agenda is enormous, since Cassiodorus, as a rich Italian landowner, had a lot to lose: potentially even his life in the worst-case scenario. Fortunately for us, his strategy in the late 530s was closely aligned – as other sources confirm – with that of Theoderic when the letters were first being drafted. Cassiodorus’ central justification for having continued to serve Gothic kings lay in the contention that it was right to do so because he had in fact been serving – entirely in good faith – a Gothic regime which was fundamentally ‘Roman’ in nature and practice. If, in His infinite wisdom, God eventually decided to give victory to Constantinople, then it was not for humans to dispute His judgement, but no blame – the Variae implicitly claimed – should be attached on this account to Cassiodorus himself, as he was and always had been merely a good Roman acting entirely in ways that a good Roman public servant should do. In his desire to present Theoderic’s Gothic kingdom as a fundamentally Roman regime, therefore, Cassiodorus’ needs as that kingdom collapsed so strongly echoed the king’s own propaganda at the height of his power, that there was little need for Cassiodorus to alter much in the contents of the letters.3

To understand how first Theoderic himself and then Cassiodorus later could claim that the Gothic regime in Italy was in fact ‘Roman’, when the Amal dynasty to which he belonged had so palpable and recent an origin beyond the old imperial frontier, it is necessary to explore how Romanness was understood. It was a concept that did not exist in a vacuum. As so often with self-definitions, it required a second party to display the inverse of the qualities claimed by Romans themselves: ‘barbarians’. Late Roman state ideologies identified a number of related characteristics which differentiated the two. A central contention was that the population of the Roman Empire (or at least its elite) was made more rational than other human beings by the classical literature in which it was customarily educated. Rationality was defined as the individual’s ability to control bodily passions by exercising the intellect. Immersion in classical literature exposed the individual to accumulated examples of men behaving well and badly, which, if properly digested, enabled the body to be controlled. Barbarians, by contrast, were prey to their passions, totally unable to steer a sensible course, and particularly given to gratifying the desires of the flesh. For society as a whole, the greater rationality of its individual members meant that Romans were also prepared to subordinate immediate gratification to the rule of written law: the guarantee of an ordered society. Thus for Romans the overwhelming superiority of imperial society – encapsulated, in the late imperial period by the word civilitas (roughly ‘civilization’) – came to be symbolized as the rule of written law.

Christianity gave this sense of superiority a further dimension. Graeco-Roman natural philosophy identified an underlying order in the cosmos, whose structure reflected, throughout, one divine, organizing principle which had shaped it from primeval chaos. Thus in a view descending from Pythagoras and Ptolemy, distances from earth to the planets mirrored harmonic ratios and exact proportionality. The Christian Roman Empire, following the strong lead of pagan Emperors, claimed that there was a political dimension to this cosmological order. No earthly ruler could hold power unless the Divinity so ordered. This idea was developed still further to support the claim that the Roman Empire was the particular agent of divine power for perfecting humanity. Thus Eusebius of Caesarea argued that it was no accident that Christ should have been born in the reign of Augustus. It was part of the Divine Plan that the founders of Christianity and the Roman Empire had coexisted. More generally Christian emperors arrogated to themselves the role of Christ’s vicegerent on earth. Imperial ceremonial echoed the majesty of heaven, and an aura of Christian sacrality surrounded the imperial person and his officers. A proper classical education thus led the individual to appreciate the benefits of the Roman way of life, and its historical importance within the divine scheme of things.4

Theoderic’s regime seized upon this vision of Romanitas in its entirety, not least the claim to be part of a divinely inspired world order. We have already seen him make this central claim in the letter to Anastasius (page 3), and it is in many of the otherVariaebesides. There is, fortunately, plenty of external confirmation that this self-presentation was Theoderic’s own, and not some construction of Cassiodorus’ desperate imagination as the East Roman noose tightened around his neck in Ravenna. Above all, we have the mosaics of St Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, which originally portrayed Theoderic enthroned in majesty, surrounded by his court in the new palace he had built there. Opposite him was displayed Christ Pantocrator – the ‘Ruler of All’ – and the majesty of heaven. The greater authority (heaven) was thus shown directly sustaining the lesser (Theoderic). Theoderic’s Italian palaces (that of Ravenna is best known, but two others were built at Pavia and Verona) seem to have imitated the architectural pattern of the imperial palace in Constantinople. Theoderic, of course, knew it well, from his ten years as a hostage, and he not only built ‘imperial’ palaces, but also deployed in them the imperial cult of the sacred ruler. Great public occasions such as his staged triumphal entry into Rome in the year 500 – absolutely modelled on the old imperial ceremony of the adventus – were designed to proclaim, after the Constantinopolitan pattern, the sanctity and divinely inspired nature of his rule.5


This is a particularly striking element of Theoderic’s self-presentation because he was not – at least according to the majority of his Italo-Roman subjects – an Orthodox Christian. That is, he did not adhere to the definition of the Christian Trinity laid down at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which asserted the complete equality of Father and Son. Like many Goths, Theoderic belonged to a brand of Christianity which has gone down in the textbooks as ‘Arianism’: so-called after a priest of the city of Alexandria who flourished in the 320s and 330s. We don’t really know what Arius thought, since only fragments of his works survive as quoted by his victorious opponents, and they tend to cite, usually out of context, only the things they think are most damaging. What we can say is that Theoderic’s branch of Christianity was fully Roman in origin (it was not some kind of barbarian oddity) and did not descend in any meaningful way from the teachings of Arius (whatever they may have been). It actually represented a strand of traditional pre-Nicene Christian belief rooted in the Gospel evidence (where Jesus prays to the Father ‘Thy will be done’, for instance, which doesn’t sound much like an equal relationship when all’s said and done) which was itself Orthodoxy at the moment of the first large-scale Gothic conversion to Christianity in the 370s. But whereas the Roman world, having hesitated for two generations, moved decisively towards Nicaea in the 380s, the majority of the Goths and other barbarians who came into contact with Christianity retained the older faith, preferring to define the Son as ‘like’ the Father, rather than, as Nicaea would have it, stating that both were of ‘the same substance’.

Given that he was ruling Italy, the land of the papacy and defender-in-chief of Nicene Orthodoxy, you might think that Theoderic’s claim to have been appointed by God should have been a touch divisive. Not so. For the vast majority of his reign, Theoderic and the Catholic establishment treated one another with the greatest respect. On his great ceremonial adventus into Rome in 500, for instance, Theoderic greeted the Pope ‘as if he were St Peter himself’. The compliment was duly returned. The king’s good offices were sought by the Church of Rome itself when it was divided down the middle by a disputed papal succession: the so-called Laurentian schism, named after Laurentius, one of the participants (along with Pope Symmachus) and the eventual loser, destined to go down in history therefore as an antipope. It used to be argued that Theoderic’s handling of the dispute was deeply partisan (and echoes of that view are still there, I note, in the relevant Wikipedia article), but the best and most recent scholarly study of the dispute (from which extensive documentation survives) has come to the conclusion that the king went out of his way to operate evenhandedly and according to established procedures, and to do his best to bring about a speedy and conciliatory resolution. The dispute still took eight years to work its way to a conclusion, but it remains a striking testimony to the level of de facto recognition given by the Catholic Church to Theoderic’s legitimacy.

A similar recognition was granted him in formal Church assemblies. The official minutes of a Roman synod of March 499 survive and make fascinating reading. At its opening, the assembled churchmen jumped to their feet and shouted, ‘Hear us Christ. Long live Theoderic.’ They repeated it thirty times. Such acclamations were a standard part of imperial ceremonial, but the churchmen made not the slightest mention of the emperor Anastasius. Many individual churchmen were also ready to serve Theoderic, both actively and ideologically. A Catholic deacon called Ennodius pronounced a public panegyric before the king in 507, for instance, which explained how God had brought Theoderic to Italy to subdue the demon-possessed Odovacar.6 Notwithstanding his own particular creed, Theoderic thus claimed divine inspiration for his rule, acted accordingly in all Church matters, and received an appropriate response from the leading churchmen of his domains.

The propaganda and public acts of his regime also showed great awareness of the other essential elements of Romanitas. Theoderic was particularly aware of the ideological importance of written law, and of being seen to further individual human rationality via an education in the classics. Ennodius’ panegyric further observed that ius and civilitas presided in Theoderic’s palace, ius designating the fundamentals of Roman law, civilitas, as we have seen, the state of higher civilization that written law generated. Closely related to this was the concept of true freedom (libertas) of the individual, which could be attained only by those who obeyed this law. Many of the letters written for Theoderic by Cassiodorus demanded respect for Roman law, cited it, reflected upon fundamental correctness, or referred to the enduring civilitas that the king maintained.7 Education, too, received its due. Ennodius’ panegyric again stressed the importance of the classical education Theoderic had received in Constantinople. In his letter to Anastasius, Theoderic claimed, as we have seen, that it was precisely this education which had taught him to govern Romans properly. A number of the Variae underline the attention he devoted to it, or perhaps – better – wanted to be seen devoting to it. He proclaimed education to be the key to morality. Through it, the individual learns self-control, without which obedience to Roman law is impossible. Likewise, the individual who lacks self-control cannot be trusted to govern others. For the maintainance of good social order – civilitas – education had to function properly, and not for nothing did Theoderic’s family like to be seen subsidizing the pay of grammarians.8

A whole battery of means was deployed, then, to get over the message that Theoderic’s regime was ‘Roman’ in that most fundamental of ideological senses: it was in tune with God’s plans for humankind. Panegyrics, official letters, coinage (some of Theoderic’s coins proclaimed invicta Roma), visual representations and buildings were all used to sustain this claim and its supporting pillars: reverence for Roman law and classical education. The fullest and clearest expression of all this is to be found in the Variae, but the ideas which surface in it are found elsewhere, and the tone of the regime was set before Cassiodorus ever took office. The pen portrait which showed Cassiodorus helpfully instructing Theoderic on their evenings off was also written after the king was safely dead. Cassiodorus’ pretensions need to be put to one side; there is not the slightest doubt that his regime’s determinedly self-Romanizing agenda was set by Theoderic himself.9 Why did a Gothic warlord from the Amal dynasty go to so much trouble to present himself as thoroughly Roman?


It has sometimes been ascribed to sentiment: a profound respect for all things imperial. But this doesn’t do justice to the obvious calculation with which Theoderic framed the public statements of his Italian regime. Nor does it fit with the Theoderic we met in the Balkans, who had always been ready, when necessary, to confront the Eastern Empire head on, and whose desire for a closer relationship with Constantinople was so profoundly self-interested. A little more thought provides a much more satisfactory answer. Theoderic’s determined Romanitas was a highly intelligent – and frankly pushy – strategy with some very practical applications.

Appropriating the ideologies of Roman rule clothed Theoderic’s seizure of power in Italy within a verbal and ceremonial language which his Roman subjects – especially the most important among them – could immediately understand, and set the public stance of his regime on an extremely reassuring footing. This made it easier for them to respond positively to the regime that he set about building in Italy, with distinct benefits to both sides. Take, for instance, Catholic churchmen. That Theoderic claimed to have been appointed by God and then behaved as such – in showing, for instance, almost exaggerated respect for the Bishop of Rome – allowed churchmen explicitly to accept his claim in their conciliar prayers and behave respectfully in return. This allowed churchmen to retain all the advantages they had built up under a century and a half of Christian imperial rule – a long list of lands, revenues, rights and consequent influence – and even press for new ones. Theoderic thus gained extra legitimacy from the churchmen’s approval and even some influence over this powerful institution, although in big things, such as the election of popes, he was careful to be seen acting in even-handed fashion. The dangers of not participating in such a dance routine of mutual courtship are illustrated by contemporary Vandal Africa, whose rulers belonged to the same brand of Christianity as Theoderic, but where State and Church locked horns in combat. The result there was periodic bouts of Vandal persecution. In their worst moments, these plunged the kingdom virtually into civil war, particularly in the year 484, and generated some substantial losses of buildings and revenues, not to mention prestige and influence, for the Catholic Church in substantial parts of the kingdom. And not only did this conflict generally make it difficult for Vandal kings to maintain good relations with Catholic churchmen, it also poisoned relations with some of their richer Roman subjects, who were largely Catholic by this date as well. So everybody lost.10

Theoderic’s self-presentation also carefully homed in on the other main route into the hearts of both the ecclesiastical and secular Roman elites of his new Italian domains. The secular elite comprised a block of families, relatively few in number, who controlled the reservoirs of financial power in the kingdom. Both they and indeed the various institutions of the Catholic Church derived their pre-eminence first and foremost from the lands that they owned. This provided the wealth which also allowed them to dominate local politics and administration. Indeed, under the empire, it was their willingness to raise and pay over to the state taxes derived from the agricultural activities of their own estates and from those of their tenants and social inferiors that had sustained the whole imperial edifice. A militarily dominant ruler can always try to compel payment, but taxation is a political issue, and successful taxation usually requires a strong element of consent. In the Roman case, the state bought it from the landowning elite partly through the patronage it pushed in their direction in the form of offices, but more fundamentally through its legal system. Because it was relatively small and owned so much, the Roman landowning elite was potentially highly vulnerable to attack from the many who were much less fortunate. And when all the bullshit about rational, divinely inspired social order is put to one side, Roman law was all about defining and protecting property rights, so that the state-generated and state-supported legal system was the basic prop of the established elite’s social dominance. This indeed was the basic quid pro quo which made them willing to raise and pay over taxation in return.

Here too, Theoderic was right on the money, in that a key aspect of his determined Romanitas took the form of a basic commitment to the continuation of Roman law. At heart, this amounted to an explicit guarantee to the old Roman elites of Italy (not to mention richer churchmen) that their landed fortunes had a future in the new political era. The old bargain would be respected by the new management. This was again far more than mere inertia on Theoderic’s part. During his struggle with Odovacar, he at one point threatened to cancel the testamentary powers of all those Roman landowners who had not actively supported him. Those affected would have lost the right to leave their landed fortunes to the heirs of their choice, and hence would have faced effective dispossession. Eventually, Theoderic gave way in the face of an embassy led by Bishop Epiphanius of Milan, and landowner palpitations could subside.11 I doubt that Theoderic ever meant to implement the policy, at least not in full, but the threat was a salutary reminder of what the new king might do if he so chose. Making and then withdrawing the threat made it crystal clear to the Roman landowners of Italy that active participation in the governmental structures of the new regime was an enormously good idea.

It also helped Theoderic negotiate the immense public relations problem that could not be avoided at the start of his reign. There was one thing straightforwardly not Roman about Italy’s new ruler: the army he had brought with him from the Balkans. Some of it, particularly the former Thracian Goths, had been on a Roman imperial payroll, and for a long time, but in revolt even the Thracian foederati had not behaved like a normal Roman army, and the Pannonian Goths, Rugi and assorted others that Theoderic brought with him besides, all had recent non-Roman origins. By 493, some of this force had been fighting with him for twenty years. In the interim, they had marched thousands of kilometres, fought numerous small-scale engagements, and survived some major battles, both before and after crossing into Italy. Throughout, Theoderic had not simply been able to assume his followers’ loyalty, but had had to earn it. It had been a struggle for him to retain the loyalty even of some of his original Pannonian Goths immediately after his father’s death, he had won over the bulk of the Thracian Goths in the mid-480s, and the same problem had shown up in Italy, where the Rugi cheerfully swapped sides according to their perception of where the best offer was likely to come from. And now, after all that effort, his army had won a rollover jackpot in the form of Italy and all its wealth. This astonishing success merely posed the old loyalty problem in a new form. Having just, by feat of arms and endurance, put their man in total control of an extremely rich kingdom, his followers were naturally expecting full and proper rewards.

This represented a problem of potentially huge dimensions. The act of rewarding was not something Theoderic could afford to skimp on. The lives of early medieval rulers who failed to reward their followers in line with those followers’ expectations tended to be brief and not a little painful. And wealth really only took one basic form in the ancient and early medieval worlds: land and the income that could be generated from it. Hence the problem. There was so much else that would work so beautifully if the Italo-Roman landowning elite, secular and ecclesiastical, could be kept onside, but his warriors needed compensation, and where was Theoderic going to find the wherewithal if not from the landed portfolios of Italy’s established elites?

Left to their own devices, matters could have got massively out of hand. Historians are so used to the fact that the rewarding process in Italy had another outcome that they tend not even to recognize the potential for disaster. It certainly existed. Domesday Book vividly illustrates what could happen when the land-grabbing activities of a victorious army ran unchecked. Within twenty years of the Battle of Hastings, incoming Norman barons and their henchmen had replaced Anglo-Saxon landowners across almost the entirety of the English kingdom. And not only was Theoderic’s Gothic army bigger than William’s, but elsewhere in the post-Roman West other regional bodies of Roman landowners were already set, by the 490s, on trajectories towards terminal extinction at the hands of militarized intruders (again, notably, in the British Isles).12

How Theoderic’s regime solved its problem gets virtually no coverage in the Variae, partly because the job had long been completed by 507 when Cassiodorus held his first official post, and as a result we know precious little about the detail of what went on. The main outlines of the settlement can, however, just about be pieced together. The two things Cassiodorus does tell us are both significant. First, Theoderic appointed a Roman frontman to help him find the solution: one Petrus Marcellinus Felix Liberius, usually known as Liberius. He was from an old Roman landowning and senatorial family, and about as blue-blooded as it was possible to be. He had also begun his public career under Odovacar and won brownie points by refusing to jump ship to Theoderic until his former employer lay in a heap (actually two separate heaps if our source can be believed) on that dining-room floor in Ravenna. At that point, Liberius swapped over to Theoderic’s employ and, for his pains, was made praetorian prefect and given overall responsibility for settling the army into the Italian countryside. Second, Cassiodorus tells that the solution he came up with suitably enriched the Gothic army while the Romans felt ‘scarcely any loss’. The same formulation reoccurs in a letter to Liberius himself written by the deacon Ennodius – who spent his time hanging around the fringes of Theoderic’s court in search of various favours – so it was obviously the official line of the regime.13

Official lines in totalitarian regimes – even ancient ones – do not necessarily bear much relationship to reality, however, so what exactly do we know about how Liberius proceeded? His task was further defined and in part complicated by strategic imperatives, because Theoderic could not afford to disperse his armed followers, the basis of his military strength, in penny packets right across the Italian landscape. When East Roman forces invaded Italy in the later 530s, they found concentrated clusters of Goths in the north-east and northwest, around Ravenna and the coastal region to its south, and either side of the main routes through the Apennines from Ravenna to Rome. Such a distribution makes perfect sense, covering all the main likely avenues of land attack from the north, East Roman sea attack in the east, and the crucial avenue of power between the kingdom’s two major political centres.14

Areas outside the settlement clusters were the easiest to deal with. A third of the normal tax revenues from these unaffected districts (called with the Latin bureaucrat’s usual imaginative inventiveness tertiae: ‘thirds’) was earmarked for the army’s further support, and used to provide the regular cash supplements – called donatives – which were handed out periodically to qualified men of military age. In addition, East Roman sources insist that land grants were found, and this does also make good sense. There have been some highly vocal attempts in recent years to deny that physical land changed hands in the 490s, but these all depend on an argument from silence: the fact that Roman landowners did not complain about being dispossessed. But all of our contemporary Italian sources from Theoderic’s reign are official ones, where you could not expect to find such complaints, although, as we have seen, even the official line – dutifully echoed in both Cassiodorus and Ennodius – did not say that there had been noloss to Romans: just that it hadn’t been very large. If even official sources were willing to make that much of an admission, there is no good reason not to accept what the sources report; title deeds were indeed changing hands in the mid-490s.

How exactly Liberius and his team found the necessary assets, in the particular places where elements of the army were to be settled, varied from place to place. For one thing, subgroups of different sizes from Theoderic’s overall army were being settled in the different localities, and, as we saw in the last chapter, some of these groups had a reasonably complex pre-existing social structure. There were two statuses of warrior and unarmed slaves besides. Plausibly, each of the warrior classes qualified for a different kind of landed allotment, maybe also in legal terms as well as in quantity; it seems unlikely that slaves would have received anything for themselves. What Liberius would always have known, however, was how much land (measured in terms of the annual income it generated, not by physical extent) was available in each locality, and who owned it. The late Roman state maintained detailed registers of precisely this information for tax purposes, and we know that this bureaucratic structure survived into the reign of Odovacar. All the necessary basic data would have been available to Liberius, then, and it was at that point that his political skills came in: being inventive in how to balance Gothic gains and Roman losses to maximize the satisfaction of both.

The details of his various micro-solutions are entirely beyond recovery, but the kinds of options available to him can be reconstructed. In some places, the job may not have been that difficult. Odovacar had gone through a similar process at the start of his reign in 476 because, as more and more provinces had dropped out of the imperial orbit, the available tax revenues were by then insufficient to support the old imperial field army of Italy in the manner to which it was accustomed, which is precisely why it was ready to revolt. Some of Odovacar’s forces were re-employed by Theoderic but others were not; where not, their possessions provided a politically cost-free stock of assets. Another low-cost stock of land, in political terms, came in the form of publicly owned assets belonging to towns and public corporations of one kind or another (bath houses, guilds, etc.). When Roman administrators (exactly like Liberius and his team) had had to find lands elsewhere in North Africa for Roman landowners displaced by the Vandal conquest of its central provinces in the 450s, it was precisely to these kinds of asset that they turned. I also strongly suspect, but couldn’t prove, that any private landowners who did lose some of their lands were compensated by tax reductions on the parts of their estates that they retained, minimizing the impact on their actual annual incomes. The nitty-gritty, in other words, would have been complex and varied as Liberius’ administrators – I’m sure he did policy decisions, not the detail – set about matching army subgroup to particular locality. It must also have been time-consuming.15

But, eventually, the task was complete, and when Liberius duly retired from his prefecture in the year 500 (and perhaps this did mark the end of the settlement process) the boss’ pleasure was evident. Liberius was given an entirely honorific but rare and highly prestigious title: patrician. As far as we can see, he thoroughly deserved it. Roman landowners remained alive and kicking, and an unjust settlement process was never raised as a criticism of the regime, even when the East Romans looked to discredit it in the 530s (as we shall see in the next chapter). Theoderic’s army seems to have been happy enough as well. The king did have to execute the odd notable from time to time subsequently, but there is no sign of any large-scale revolts, which there would have been if expectations had not generally been met. Indeed, there is so little about the Gothic army in the Variae, that it has become part of one recent line of argument that Theoderic’s original followers were all so happy with what they received, that the original army essentially melted away into the Italian landscape from the later 490s, content to make olive oil and tread the grapes. You don’t have to believe that Theoderic’s army was largely Gothic in its culture to find that a highly unconvincing picture.

For one thing, when you do go looking for it, vignettes of army management subsequent to the settlement process can be found in individual letters of Cassiodorus’ collection. We see Theoderic, and sometimes his successors too, calling subgroups from particular localities in to receive their donatives (making it clear that a register of qualified individuals was being kept, as it would have to be, for the system to work), making special arrangements to protect one of his former soldiers who had passed the age of active service and had fallen on hard times, and even approving the leader which one subgroup had elected as prior – literally ‘first man’ – of the Goths of their locality.16 There may, of course, originally have been much more. Pulling out from the files letters dealing with the Gothic army was not to Cassiodorus’ purpose as the kingdom came crashing down around his ears. Be that as it may, there is, fortunately, a stronger block of evidence for the continued importance and existence of Theoderic’s army after the 490s. For while his self-proclaimed Romanitas certainly had a role in foreign affairs too, as well as in making Roman landowners feel better about life, the universe and everything, the army continued to play a massive role in the subsequent fortunes of Theoderic’s regime after the initial conquest of Italy. It was these activities which gave real substance to the Goth’s most grandiose claims.


No complete narrative can be reconstructed of Theoderic’s reign in Italy. Quite how much was originally in Cassiodorus’ lost Gothic History is difficult to say. Produced in the early 520s in the king’s final years, it ran to twelve books and was certainly triumphalist in tone. But we don’t know how long each book was, and Jordanes chose not to include much of what it had to say about the activities of Theoderic’s adult lifetime. As we saw in the last chapter, the Getica goes into some detail about Theoderic’s return from Constantinople and the events leading up to the advance on Thessalonica in 473, but runs over the next fifty-three years in a patchy narrative, sporting only very few highlights. This is then followed by an equally sparse summary of events after Theoderic’s death (which could not have come from Cassiodorus’ original), terminating with the surrender of Wittigis in the year 540.

In recording this capitulation, which took Cassiodorus to Constantinople and whose approach had set him to work on the Variae, Jordanes makes the following observation:

And thus a famous kingdom and most valiant race, which had long held sway, was at last overcome in almost its two thousand and thirtieth year.17

2,030 is an extremely odd number, and it really can only be an extrapolation from a note about a supposed 2,000th anniversary of the start of the Gothic kingdom. Subtracting ‘almost’ thirty from 540 puts us in the ballpark region of c.510, and hence certainly within the timeframe of Cassiodorus’ now lost history. I’m extremely confident, in fact, that Jordanes found this supposed anniversary in Cassiodorus’ work, not least because Cassiodorus had established form in the field of chronological computation by the time he wrote his history, having just previously produced a world chronicle which ran down to 519. It is no stretch, therefore, to detect his fertile brain behind the invention of such a grand anniversary for the Goths. Just as important, when you go back to what can be reconstructed of Theoderic’s reign, there is also really only one possible candidate for this most august of anniversaries. To understand why, it is necessary, once again, to get behind the double dose of image-making we are faced with in the Variae: Theoderic’s original pretensions to Romanitas as further intensified by Cassiodorus’ considerable need to cover his rear end as the wheels were finally falling off the Gothic wagons in the late 530s.

I’m not a believer in the supposed Scandinavian origins of the Goths (an idea that, again, is found in the Getica and may also have been in Cassiodorus’ History), but the image of Theoderic’s foreign policy which emerges from an initial reading of theVariaedoes make him look like a Norwegian peace mission on speed. As we have already seen, he was addicted to diplomatic marriage alliances. He himself married Clovis’ sister; he was also armed with many and varied female relatives of his own – and was not afraid to use them. Sundry of these were duly married off therefore to kings or princes of the Visigoths, Burgundians and Vandals. What could be more conducive to international peace than spreading a web of Amalocentric domestic harmony across the households of post-Roman Europe?

Then there’s his record on the big international relations issue of his day: not the Middle East in this era, but Gaul. When Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476, Gaul was divided not into three parts as Caesar found it, but four. The dominant power was the Visigothic kingdom which held everything from the Loire valley southwards except for the upper and middle Rhone which formed the core of the Burgundian kingdom, although the Visigoths again controlled what is now the French Riviera where the river reaches the Mediterranean. The very north-east of Gaul was under Frankish rule while everywhere from Soissons westwards was in the hands of local more or less Roman forces of one kind or another (Figure 4).

By the time Theoderic came into his pomp a couple of decades later, a huge increase in Frankish power was busy altering this situation. This had its roots, as we saw, in a process similar to that which had brought Theoderic’s dynasty to the fore. In the case of the Franks, it was the father-and-son team of Childeric and Clovis, above all the son, who united many previously independent warbands to create an unprecedentedly large power base (page 11), which, by the first decade of the sixth century, was busy redrawing the map of the post-Roman West and Gaul in particular. At this point, the various Roman groups of the north-west had long been conquered, and Frankish pressure was building on both the Visigothic and Burgundian kingdoms to the south. Clovis also had his eyes on the Alamanni, north-eastern neighbours of the Burgundians. It all came to a head around the year 505, when Clovis first smashed Alammanic independence and then closed in for the kill on the Visigoths, forcing the Burgundians to become his junior partners in crime. In 507, there duly followed the famous battle of Vouille when a Visigothic army was shredded and their king, Alaric II, killed, and when, according to French national myth, the boundaries of modern France first more or less came into being: divided Gaul had morphed into united Francia.18

From the year of the battle, the Variae preserve a series of letters which show Theoderic, to the great credit of his historical reputation, magnificently failing to preserve peace in his time. The smell of conflict may have been in the air, but the Amal was not deterred. To his brother-in-law Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, he penned the following:

Do not let some blind resentment carry you away. Self-restraint is foresighted, and a preserver of tribes; rage, though, often precipitates a crisis; and only when justice can no longer find a place with one’s opponent, is it then useful to appeal to arms.19

Gundobad of the Burgundians, caught in the middle, received a mixture of homily and appeal:

For it befits such mighty kings [Clovis and Alaric] not to seek out regrettable quarrels among themselves, with the result of injuring us too, by their own mischances. Therefore, let your fraternity labour, with my assistance, to restore their concord.20

And the mighty Clovis?:

What might you yourself think of me, if you knew I had ignored your dispute? Let there be no war, in which one of you will be defeated and come to grief … I have decided to send … my envoys to Your Excellency; and I have also sent my letters, by them, to your brother and my son Alaric, that no foreigner’s ill-will may in any way sow quarrels between you. Rather, you should remain at peace, and terminate what quarrels there are by the mediation of your friends … You should trust one whom you know to rejoice in your advantage, for it is certain that a man who directs another into dangerous courses can be no honest counsellor.21

It may all have been for nothing in the end, but the Theoderic of the Variae cannot be faulted, sending his letters and peace envoys shuttling around the courts of the post-Roman West in a desperate effort to stave off the impending showdown. Indeed, put it all together with the extraordinary letter to Anastasius with which we began, and an almost irresistibly seductive portrait emerges. Thus Theoderic has gone down in history as the former Roman hostage who was so marked by Roman values during ten years at Constantinople that he spent the remainder of his career trying to keep order among the bunch of unruly barbarians who’d taken over the rest of the Roman West.

But here, once more, we’re dealing with what was originally Theoderic’s self-presentation of his policies and their motivations. And if modern political history teaches us nothing else, it emphasizes again and again that you should never accept the self-presentation of any political leader without first giving it a thorough kicking. Equally important, we’re only dealing with a small selection of Theoderic’s letters: those which Cassiodorus thought would portray his record of service for the king and his successors in the best possible light. So two reasons already to be careful, and, as we saw in the previous chapter, the younger Theoderic was always a lot more interested in pursuing Roman cash than Roman values. Hence it should come as no great surprise to find that, looked at in the round, the evidence for the great Gallic crisis demonstrates that Theoderic’s foreign policies at this point were not nearly so pacific as an initial perusal of the Variae suggests.

Cue the letter to Anastasius again. We’ve already seen one level of subversion within it: the idea that Theoderic’s power and overall Romanitas came directly from God, rather than merely from his time in Constantinople, making him just as legitimately ‘Roman’ in the proper sense of the word as the Eastern emperor, and superior, again like the emperor, to any other ruler. Having made these initial points, the letter continues:

We have thought fit therefore to send … ambassadors to your most serene Piety, that Peace, which has been broken, through a variety of causes, may, by the removal of all matters of dispute be firmly restored between us. For we think you will not suffer that any discord should remain between two Republics [the Eastern and Western Roman states] which are declared to have ever formed one body under their ancient princes, and which ought not to be joined by a mere sentiment of love, but actively to aid one another with all their powers. Let there be always one will, one purpose in the Roman Kingdom. Therefore, while greeting you with our respectful salutations, we humbly beg that you will not remove from us the high honour of your Mildness’ affection, which we have a right to hope for if it were never granted to any others.22

The second half of the letter thus glides seamlessly into what is effectively a demand note. Because Theoderic runs the only other authentically Roman state in the world, then Constantinople should be in peaceful and harmonious alliance with him. The Goth’sRomanitas has turned into an effective rhetorical stick with which to beat away at the emperor to end all quarrels.

Behind the velvet glove, Theoderic’s iron fist is not so well hidden, and the evidence makes it clear that this was no isolated moment, but, in fact, the general rule in his relations with Constantinople. Much scholarly ink, for instance, has been expended in trying to work out the exact nature of the agreement that had sent Theoderic to Italy in 488/9. This reflects a basic disagreement in the sources which falls, as we saw, exactly where you would expect it. Eastern sources stress the emperor Zeno’s initiative and that Theoderic was to rule in Italy as a thoroughly dependent subordinate. Western sources, many of them stemming directly or indirectly from Theoderic’s court, emphasize Theoderic’s initiative and independence. As with many diplomatic agreements designed to solve an immediate crisis – as this one was; remember thousands of armed Goths were sitting outside Constantinople – it cannot be pinned down precisely because its whole point was to fudge in the short term the different agendas of the two main participants in the hope that, in the longer term, and having experienced peace in the interim, neither party would want to return to war. But if it was already a fudge from the outset, then, having successfully inserted himself into power in Italy, Theoderic set about renegotiating its terms with determination.

We know that a first embassy went back to Zeno as early as 491, a second followed to Anastasius following Zeno’s death in 492, but full agreement only came in 497 or 498 when a third embassy won concessions from Constantinople which included sending royal clothing and palace ornaments to Ravenna.

What went on in Italy took matters a great deal further than that. On ceremonial occasions, which as we have noted always involved the ritual shouting of acclamations, not only was Theoderic’s name shouted rather than (or possibly before) that of the eastern emperor, but his statues were also placed in the position of honour, with those of the emperor relegated to the left-hand side. It was nice that they were there at all, of course, but the emperor expected his to be on the right. Theoderic furthermore won or merely arrogated to himself the right to grant the major honours of the Roman state – nomination to the consulship, the rank of patrician, and to membership of the Senate – and took full legal authority over both Roman notables and dignitaries of the Catholic Church.23

We don’t know how much of this Anastasius explicitly signed up to in 498 and how much Theoderic simply did off his own bat. But the emperor clearly agreed to quite a lot of it, since the vestments were sent and Theoderic’s consular nominees were recognized in the East. And we can also be absolutely sure of two other points of enormous importance. First, it hadn’t all been granted freely. Theoderic extracted it with the same type of aggressive diplomacy we find not so well hidden beneath the surface of the letter to Anastasius at the head of the Variae collection. Second, the mixture of diplomatic concessions from Constantinople and self-asserted expropriations on Theoderic’s own part added up to one thing, and one thing only: from 498 onwards, Theoderic was ruling with all the rights and perquisites of a Western emperor, clothed in some of the appropriate vestments, and living in a palace which was not only styled on that of Constantinople, but decorated as such. As he stated in the letter to Anastasius, Theoderic had clearly learned how to rule as a Roman in Constantinople, but to rule as a fellow emperor, and not as a subordinate. And looked at again, it rapidly becomes clear that Theoderic’s whole foreign policy, not just his relations with Constantinople, was run on exactly the same premise, even when he was apparently engaged in shuttle diplomacy.

The first foreign power to feel the weight of Theoderic’s might was Vandal Africa. In the time of Odovacar, the Vandals had maintained partial control over Sicily and extracted protection money not to attack it further. As early as 491, Theoderic’s armies defeated a Vandal force there which was trying to take advantage of his war against Odovacar. This led to the Vandals abandoning their claims to any Sicilian cash, and, in about 500, there followed a marriage alliance between the two kingdoms. A handsome dowry went to the Vandal king Thrasamund along with his new bride, Theoderic’s sister Amalafrida, but the Ostrogothic princess was accompanied to the wedding by a military force of reportedly 5,000 men, some of whom stayed on afterwards. This was not a meeting of equals. About ten years later, Thrasamund was caught out by Theoderic actively supporting one of his enemies. A very ‘disappointed’ Gothic king wrote to his brother-in-law:

We are sure that you cannot have taken counsel in this matter with your wife, who would neither have liked to see her brother injured, nor the fair fame of her husband tarnished by such doubtful intrigues. We send you … our ambassadors who will speak to you further on this matter.

Thrasamund’s response prompted a second surviving letter:

You have shown, most prudent of Kings, that wise men know how to amend their faults, instead of persisting in them with that obstinacy which is the characteristic of brutes. In the noblest and most truly kinglike manner you have humbled yourself to confess your fault … We thank you and praise you, and accept your purgation of yourself from this offence with all our heart. As for the presents … we accept them with our minds, but not with our hands. Let them return to your Treasury that it may be seen that it was simply love of justice, not desire of gain, which prompted our complaints.24

The exchange beautifully illustrates the nature of relations between Italy and North Africa at this point. Having been told to jump, Thrasamund asked how high, and immediately tried to buy his way back into Theoderic’s good books. But the Goth was having none of it. In the language of gift-giving, sending back a present, whatever the words used, was always a calculated insult. Theoderic was warning Thrasamund that the Vandal kingdom was still on probation.

Theoderic’s next recorded expansionary move came in 504–5 when he increased the boundaries of his kingdom in the Middle Danubian region. He had inherited from Odovacar parts of Dalmatia and the province of Savia. A well-directed campaign against the Gepids of Trasericus (whose father had been killed trying to stop Theoderic’s advance into Italy at the back end of 488) then allowed him to add to this the old Roman province of Pannonia II along with its main city, the ex-imperial capitial of Sirmium. Again, Theoderic did not baulk from conflict with Constantinople. Anastasius did not view the Goth’s waxing strength with untarnished joy, and intervened with a force, consisting mostly of Bulgar mercenaries but led by an imperial general. This too Theoderic defeated.25Even after the conquest of Italy, then, Theoderic’s record is not remotely that of a peacemaker. Aggressive towards Constantinople, dominant over the Vandals, expansionary in the Middle Danube, though the narrative sources are fragmentary and brief they are more than enough to demonstrate that the Gothic leopard did not change its spots just because it had shifted its centre of operations and started to employ first-class Roman spin doctors. This track record also gives the lie to the idea that Theoderic’s army had simply melted away into the Italian landscape. Nor, looked at closely, does the dossier of letters relating to the Gallic crisis of 506–7 suggest that Theoderic was quite so fixated upon peace as is often thought.

Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, was certainly Theoderic’s main ally. The Visigothic kingdom had supplied some extra military muscle at a crucial point in the war against Odovacar, and there’s nothing in any of the surviving material to suggest that Theoderic was anything other than serious in his support of the Visigothic kingdom. On closer inspection, however, the letters to both Gundobad and Clovis are much less emollient in total than more isolated sentences suggest. The king of the Burgundians had a warning shot fired across his bows:

If our kinsmen go bloodily to war while we allow it, our malice will be to blame. From me you hold every pledge of high affection; the two of us are united; if you do anything wrong on your own account, you sin gravely by causing me sorrow.

And, in fact, Theoderic’s general tone to Gundobad throughout the Variae is haughty and patronizing. Even the ostensibly friendly gift of two time pieces (a sun dial and a water clock) could be made the occasion of a pointed assertion of superiority:

Possess in your native country what you once saw in the city of Rome … Under your rule, let Burgundy learn to scrutinise devices of the highest ingenuity, and to praise the inventions of the ancients … Let it distinguish the parts of the day by their inventions; let it fix the hours with precision. The order of life becomes confused if this separation is not truly known. Indeed, it is the habit of beasts to feel the hours by their bellies’ hunger, and to be unsure of something obviously granted for human purposes.

Classical cultural ideologies, you will recall, considered that it was rationality that distinguished the truly human from men still living in ignorance like beasts. Even when giving presents, Theoderic used the occasion to offer a cultural leg up, and emphasize that the Burgundians were still lumbering about like animals. There were more than enough educated Romans still at Gundobad’s court, notably Bishop Avitus of Vienne, for this calculated insult to be fully understood.26

The Burgundians were not just being urged to use their good offices to help maintain the peace, but Theoderic was also more or less ordering them not to deviate from his line by siding with Clovis. As for Clovis, well, he was too powerful to be bossed around like Gundobad, but not too grand to avoid a telling-off:

The holy laws of kinship [the marriage ties he had with the rulers of both the Franks and the Visigoths] have purposed to take root among monarchs for this reason: that their tranquil spirit may bring the peace which peoples long for … In view of all this, I am astonished that your spirit has been so roused by trivial causes that you mean to engage in a most grim conflict.

This was followed by a warning:

Your courage should not become an unforeseen disaster for your country, since the jealousy of kings over light causes is a great matter, and a heavy catastrophe for their peoples.

What catastrophe was Clovis facing? On one level, potential defeat at the hands of the Visigoths, since the outcome of war is often not straightforward, but also the threat that Theoderic would himself intervene. Indeed, Theoderic was not remotely averse to warning off Clovis, having done so a year or so earlier when the latter was threatening to pursue some of the defeated Alamanni on to Italian soil:

Accept the advice of one long experienced in such affairs: those wars of mine have turned out well which were carried through with moderation at the end. For it is the man who knows how to exercise restraint in all things that is habitually the victor … Submit gently, then, to my guiding spirit … So you will be seen to gratify my requests, and you will have no anxiety over what you know affects me.27

More tactful than the handling of Gundobad, certainly, but the message is clear nonetheless. It would be a good idea for Clovis to exercise restraint or Theoderic will become involved, and, being a man of restraint himself, he’s never yet lost a war …

There’s not enough in the subtexts of these letters to convict Theoderic actually of stirring up the crisis; he does seem to have been genuinely trying to ward it off. On the other hand, his authoritarian and patronizing missives to both Clovis and Gundobad were far from conciliatory in tone, and cannot have been well received. If he was not fomenting war, therefore, neither was he desperately trying to avoid it. Just as much, he was pointing out to the aggressors the likely consequences should he be forced to join in.

And, as matters turned out, the prime beneficiary of the crisis proved to be Theoderic himself. This is usually missed because Clovis’ dynasty and the Franks in general were destined for historical greatness, as we shall see later in this book. But even from the fragmentary narrative available to us, the extent of Theoderic’s gains emerges in glorious Technicolor. Not that everything went according to plan. In 507, Theoderic was prevented from coming to Alaric’s assistance by an East Roman seaborne raid on the Adriatic shore of Italy. This, indeed, brings out the full and final layer of meaning in that famous letter to Anastasius. Fed up with Theoderic’s aggressive renegotiating of his agreements, not to mention the defeat of their army of Bulgar mercenaries, the authorities in Constantinople had signed up to an alliance with Clovis and kept the Goth busy while their ally defeated the Visigoths. But Clovis’ victory over Alaric, stunning as it was, was not the end of the story. In 508, Theoderic’s forces, free now from the Constantinopolitan threat, surged out of Italy and over the Alps. Both Frankish and Burgundian forces (Gundobad had not heeded the warnings) were driven back, although the Franks did gain and retain control over much of Aquitaine. And there was still more to come.

Defeat at Vouille left the Visigothic kingdom in disarray. Power passed in the first instance to Alaric’s son Gesalic, the product of a union prior to the king’s marriage to Theoderic’s daughter. Having driven off the invaders and secured the new and reduced frontiers, Theoderic was finally ready to act. In 511, his commanders drove Gesalic out of the kingdom (it was Thrasamund’s support for the fugitive which led to that letter exchange which generated the fit of abject Vandal grovelling we have already met). It is sometimes said that Theoderic mounted this coup d’état in favour of his daughter’s son by Alaric II: Amalaric by name. There is, however, not the slightest evidence of this. Rather, Theoderic proceeded to rule both Gothic kingdoms – his own in Italy and its Visigothic peer in southern Gaul and Spain – as an entirely unitary state. The Visigothic royal treasury was shipped to Ravenna and Theoderic took control of the registers recording the lists of Visigothic military manpower. The one relevant letter Cassiodorus included in his collection (there is only one because Cassiodorus left office precisely in 511) also shows problems of governmental administration in the Visigothic kingdom being dealt with centrally from Ravenna.28

There’s little doubt, therefore, that 511 was the annus mirabilis picked out by Cassiodorus for the 2,000th anniversary of the Gothic kingdom. By dint of his military power, Theoderic had now come into direct control of Italy, Mediterranean Gaul, most of Spain, the Dalmatian coast, and a goodly chunk of the Middle Danubian region south of the river. He was also exercising, though Thrasamund clearly resented it, hegemony over the Vandal kingdom, and possibly also over the Burgundians too, by the time his intervention came to an end. In short, by the end of 511, the son of a moderately important Gothic warband leader was directing the affairs – one way or another – of somewhere between a third and a half of the old Western Empire, and his dominance of the post-Roman West was beyond challenge. What better year to identify with a massive – if entirely notional – anniversary for the emergence of Gothic power?


Despite Theoderic’s astounding success, he continued to hold back about one quarter of a step from claiming the title of West Roman emperor explicitly, although his cards were firmly on the table. The extent of his domains, the imperial ceremonial he adopted, his rhetorical pretensions as the font of rationality and classical learning in the western Mediterranean, all proclaimed the Goth’s own vision of his status as straightforwardly Roman and imperial. Why he hesitated to take that extra quarter step is a fascinating question, but I suspect Theoderic was showing his customary ability to recognize when prudence was better than valour. For one thing, making his claim still more explicit could only have worsened relations with Constantinople. Already in 507–8, Anastasius had shown himself happy to fish in troubled waters if it could help cut Theoderic down to size, and that was before the Spanish coup de main. Were Theoderic to have styled himself emperor, that hostility would only deepen, threatening some of the diplomatic concessions he had already invested so much effort into extracting, not least the right to have his nominees for the consulship – that dignity so beloved of the Italian elite – recognized in the East.

I do wonder, too, whether he might not have risked alienating opinion among his leading Gothic henchmen. Equating the year 511 with a notional 2,000th anniversary of the Gothic kingdom was a significant choice. According to all the standard calculations, the history of Rome began with the foundation of the city in 753 BC, an understanding encapsulated in massive celebrations of its 1,000th anniversary by the emperor Philip in AD 248. Simple maths will tell you that equating 511 with the Goths’ 2,000th anniversary amounted to a claim that the Gothic realm was older than Rome itself. This suggests that Cassiodorus – and Theoderic too – may have had to factor into their calculations the opinions of some within Theoderic’s immediate following who were not signed up to a vision of the total superiority of all things Roman, and for whom Emperor Theoderic would have been unpalatable.

But this well-placed regard for some of the more acute sensibilities of the key constituencies with whom he had to operate still left no one in the slightest doubt about the extent of Theoderic’s actual power, and the claim being made about its nature. Certainly not Catholic churchmen. Victory in 508 and the coup of 511 had brought substantial new territories in southern Gaul under Theoderic’s control, including the see of Arles and its highly prominent leader, Bishop Caesarius. Soon after 511, the bishop made a trip to Italy. According to his Life, this was involuntary, prompted by suspicions that his loyalty was questionable. I rather suspect that the author (one of Caesarius’ deacons writing shortly after the bishop’s death) didn’t want his Catholic hero to be remembered as cosying up too closely with an Arian Goth. But even the Life doesn’t try to hide that, as soon as they met, Arian quasi-emperor and Catholic bishop hit it off like wildfire. Theoderic instantly recognized Caesarius’ holiness, and, loading him with gifts, sent him on to Rome for the Pope to give him the pallium – a plain strip of cloth – which recognized Caesarius’ status as papal vicar and the most senior prelate of southern Gaul. This status then provided the bishop with the launching pad for what is his great claim to ecclesiastical fame: a series of reforming Church councils in the 520s, which formalized many standard practices of early medieval Christianity. The extra point which is not so often noticed is exactly how much in tune with Theoderic’s plans Caesarius’ activities actually were. The pallium gave Caesarius a notional reach that extended beyond the boundary of his own see to all those that fell within his metropolitan jurisdiction, including many of the sees which were now part of the Burgundian kingdom. Theoderic, likewise, claimed a kind of hegemony over the Burgundians, and it was a further assertion of Gothic dominance over the Burgundian kingdom in the early 520s (to which we will return in a moment) which would later make sure that the bishops of these sees would actually attend Caesarius’ meetings.29

If Roman – and Catholic – churchmen courted Theoderic as though he were an emperor, the Goth did nothing to discourage them, and all the signs were being read by members of the secular Roman elite as well. The hints could not, indeed, have been more brazen, or, indeed, golden. A unique object to survive from Theoderic’s reign is the so-called Senigallia medallion, a solid gold coin bearing a representation of the king (Plate 8). The reverse inscription describes him as ‘conqueror of peoples’, so it was perhaps issued precisely to celebrate the great triumphs which culminated in 511. But issuing gold coins was an imperial monopoly, which was generally respected in the former Roman west, at least down to the later sixth century. The fact that Theoderic ignored this nicety of protocol is yet another occasion of his non-imperial mask slipping slightly, and no one was remotely fooled by the pretence. In so many ways, aside from his actual power, Theoderic deliberately allowed those who so wished, to see him as the first in a new line of Western emperors, and many were happy to do so. When one of his leading Roman senatorial subjects, a certain Caecina Mavortius Basilius Decius, chose, in a particularly famous inscription, to hail Theoderic as ‘semper Augustus’ (forever Augustus), that most imperial of titles, he was merely stating out loud what everyone was supposed to think.30

Amidst all the success of 511, however, there remained two clouds on the Goth’s horizon. First, the East Roman Empire was hardly reconciled to Theoderic’s new-found grandeur. It had already been hostile in 508; it takes no guesswork to imagine how Anastasius and his advisers felt about Theoderic pretty much doubling his power base by adding in Spain and southern Gaul and the military manpower of the Visigothic kingdom. The other problem was an internal one. By 511, Theoderic was fast approaching sixty and had no sons, his marriage with Clovis’ sister Audefleda having produced just the one known daughter: Amalasuentha. This posed the problem of succession in a highly acute form. Although we know with hindsight that Theoderic would actually live for another fifteen years, sixty was already old for a medieval ruler. No one has ever had the patience to calculate average age at death for all medieval rulers, but males of Charlemagne’s dynasty averaged around fifty years, and this probably gives us a reasonable guide. The Goth’s great Western rival Clovis himself died in 511 (which would surely have concentrated minds in Italy on the succession issue, although I’m confident they would not have needed concentrating), and he cannot have been much above fifty. And while female succession was not absolutely impossible, it was certainly difficult. The main element in the job description was controlling a potentially unruly gang of armed followers, who would not be easily reconciled to female rule. By 511, Theoderic could conceivably have dropped dead at any moment and there was not a plausible heir in sight.

Uncertain succession, moreover, was the mother of all internal political problems in the ancient and medieval worlds, with the capacity to generate more internal strife for a body politic than every other issue combined. Why this was so is straightforward. To start with, it encouraged every even vaguely plausible contender to come out of the woodwork: collateral male relatives, strong generals married to junior female members of the dynasty, everybody with any ambition and half a claim. The result could only be division and contention within the leadership group of the kingdom. Worse, the different candidates needed to court supporters. One obvious body of support would be those not doing so well under the current regime, since the disgruntled are always relatively easy to rally to the flag of future change. But that kind of recruiting drive only served to unsettle those who were already doing well, since they needed a candidate for continuity, to guarantee that, when the old man finally kicked it, they would not lose their current privileges. And this takes no account, of course, of those who were doing quite well currently, but thought that they might do a bit better: such being the nature of human aspiration. Insecure succession in other words – like US presidential elections at the end of a second presidential term, or in a year when the economy’s bad – encouraged multiple, mutually condemnatory candidacies and a huge jockeying for position which had the potential to turn all existing political alliances on their head. If, at the end of 511, Constantinople’s continued hostility was far from desirable, Theoderic’s lack of an heir was potentially disastrous. As it turned out, events in the East were to give Theoderic the opportunity to resolve both matters before the end of the decade.

By 515 at the latest, Theoderic clearly abandoned all hope of having a son of his own, but found another means to vest succession in his own direct line. To that end he married Amalasuentha to a certain Eutharic, or Flavius Eutharic Cilliga to give him his kennel name. This was both a canny and fascinating choice. In the Amal genealogy transmitted by Jordanes’ Getica, but originating certainly in Cassiodorus’ Gothic History, Eutharic is presented as a collateral relative: the grandson of Beremund the son of Hunimund who gave up the struggle against Valamer’s inexorable rise to power and fled west to the Visigothic kingdom, probably sometime in the late 450s (Figure 1 and above, page 7). There is no independent confirmation of this relationship outside the Getica, but while it’s completely unclear whether Beremund was himself originally related to Valamer as the genealogy suggests (although, as we saw, Clovis’ industrious elimination of collateral male relatives might make a good parallel) it seems likely enough that Eutharic was indeed Beremund’s grandson. That is probably too close a relationship to have attempted to lie about in prominent political circles where ancestry tended to be a known quantity. Theoderic thus chose for his daughter’s consort and his own heir an individual who could reasonably claim some residual loyalty from among the core of military supporters in his following who derived from the original Pannonian Goths. At the same time, Eutharic was important in his own right as a noble from the Visigothic kingdom, and came to Ravenna from Spain for the marriage. To my mind, there is not the slightest doubt, therefore, that Theoderic intended the happy couple to inherit from him both his Italian and his Hispanic and southern Gallic territories; in other words that the newly united Gothic kingdom should continue on after his death. The point here, of course, is that Eutharic had strong pre-existing ties to the Visigothic nobility, and could be reasonably counted on to help stabilize that part of the realm. One more or less contemporary source also describes him as ‘an excessively rough man’, which was entirely to the point when the job description involved controlling several thousand members of a Gothic warrior elite dispersed in a geographic arc from the Adriatic coast of Italy to the Mediterranean coast of eastern Spain.31

The hostility of Constantinople was defused by a more convoluted route. When Theoderic came to power, much of the Eastern Church, and particularly the patriarchate of Constantinople, was, from a Roman point of view, in a state of schism. Apart from Attila and the Hunnic Empire, the middle years of the fifth century had also been difficult in theological terms. Everyone accepted that man and God were combined somehow in the person of Jesus, but exactly how was not so clear. One Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius (428–31, when he was deposed), had argued that it was absurd to suppose that the Almighty God element in Christ could have died by crucifixion and argued therefore that only the human was involved at this point. Other Eastern churchmen, however, particularly Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, thought that the mystery of salvation absolutely required God to die on the Cross, so the result was a vitriolic dispute which spanned the generations, leading the emperor Marcian to attempt to resolve it by calling a council of the entire Church (an ecumenical council) at Chalcedon, just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople, in 451. The then Pope, Leo I, didn’t attend but he sent his delegates and contributed a major doctrinal statement: the Tome of Leo. As a result, papal prestige was inextricably linked to the theological outcomes of the council which helpfully declared Christ to be both man and God, constructed ‘in two natures’.

Except that it wasn’t helpful at all. It did enough to rule out the most extreme version of Nestorius’ line of argument, but, for many of Cyril’s latter-day supporters, had come up with a definition of faith which was hazy enough to allow some dodgy, overly Nestorian thinkers still to sign up to it. So dispute did not go away after 451, but reoriented itself around a debate on Chalcedon itself. By 482, the Emperor Zeno had had enough of the bickering and pressured his then Patriarch of Constantinople, Acacius, to issue a compromise document – the Henotikon (literally ‘Act of Union’) – to try to get everyone to shut up about the word nature, and get on with the rest of Christianity. But this involved stepping back to some extent from what had been said at Chalcedon, and the papacy was having none of it. Exchanges of letters and mutual recriminations followed, with the result that Pope Felix and Acacius excommunicated each other in 484, inaugurating the so-called Acacian schism (Christian schisms are universally named from the Orthodox – i.e. winning – point of view: that is, after the name of whoever lost and whose fault therefore the whole damn thing is held to be).32

Such are the tortuous paths of international diplomacy that the eventual resolution of this schism provided Theoderic with the mechanism he needed for overturning East Roman hostility. The schism was acutely embarrassing for the Eastern Empire. No one could doubt the prestige of the Roman see, with its connections to St Peter and St Paul, so for the Patriarch of Constantinople, head Church of the divinely appointed emperor’s dominions, to be labelled by it as mistaken on matters of faith was a substantial PR problem. Not surprisingly, any likely opportunity was taken up with explorations to find a resolution, a particularly busy period following the change of papal regime on the death of Pope Symmachus in July 514. Multiple embassies and letter exchanges led nowhere, however, and it was regime change in Constantinople which eventually provided the right moment. On 9 July 518 Anastasius passed away. He had no sons and had either been unwilling – or, more likely, unable – to mobilize sufficient political support behind one of his several nephews (who will reappear in the next chapter). Succession passed instead to a fairly elderly, rather distinguished-looking guards officer by the name of Justin.

Opportunity came knocking thereby at Theoderic’s door because one of the areas in which the new regime chose to put clear blue water between itself and its predecessor was by bringing the embarrassing schism to an end. Normal Roman imperial ideologies still held sway, so a properly divinely appointed emperor might be expected to act decisively to create unity in matters of religion. It was also a good idea from an East Roman perspective since much of its Balkans military had been in revolt since 514 under the command of its general Vitalian, one of whose complaints against Anastasius was precisely his rejection of Chalcedon. Once Justin and his advisers had decided to include Vitalian in their regime and end the revolt, then they were pretty much also committed to reinstating the full authority of Chalcedon.

Events moved fast. Justin wrote to Pope Hormisdas for the first time on 1 August 518, announcing his succession. A further letter was despatched with an imperial legate on 7 September, asking the Pope to send back to him envoys who were ready to negotiate peace, and a letter from the new emperor’s nephew, Justinian, asking if the Pope would even like to come to Constantinople. The legate didn’t reach Rome until 20 December, but in January 519 the papal mission was on its way. It was met ten miles outside the city by a high-ranking imperial delegation, including the general Vitalian, on 25 March, which was the Monday of Holy Week in that year. Just three days later, Patriarch John of Constantinople signed up to the letters from Rome, and poor old Acacius was erased from the diptychs, the official listings of true-believing patriarchs regularly prayed for and to in the liturgical practice of the Church.33

All well and good, but what has any of this to do with Theoderic? Not a lot, you could be forgiven for thinking, and, in fact, one line of scholarship has long seen the ending of schism as marking an ominous turn in the history of Theoderic’s kingdom. When he came to power, the fact of schism kept the Church of Rome and all the good – especially senatorial landowning – Catholics of Italy isolated from their natural peers in the Eastern Empire. Once the schism was resolved, nothing stood in the way of these men cosying up to Constantinople, and the peace and harmony of the Arian Theoderic’s relations with them – and hence the political and administrative workings of his kingdom – were bound to suffer. Sounds plausible in the abstract, but it’s not in tune with how things went. The alert reader will have noticed that Justin’s legate took rather a long time to get to Rome. Having left Constantinople on 7 September, he got there only on 20 December. This is because he had spent a great deal of time at Theoderic’s court at Ravenna on the way. The Pope, likewise, consulted carefully with the Goth before sending back his own embassy which presided over the great Constantinopolitan climbdown in Holy Week 519. In other words, Theoderic was entirely in on the deal, and so good and so close were his relations with Rome, that the Pope had not moved a muscle without his approval, repeating a pattern already seen, in fact, in the papal response to the peace offers of the ageing Anastasius.

Not only did Theoderic not see any threat in the termination of the schism, therefore, but he actually made it happen. Indeed, with the brilliant opportunism that we have by now come to know and love – or at least recognize – he turned the situation to absolute maximum advantage. For what happened at court in Ravenna in autumn 518 was the construction of the deal to end all deals. In return for his good offices in bringing the schism to an end, Theoderic extracted formal East Roman recognition of his choice of heir, Amalasuentha’s husband Eutharic, a union which had already been blessed with its own son and future heir for the next generation: Athalaric. Recognition came in two forms. First, Eutharic was adopted as the emperor Justin’s son-at-arms, which involved sending formal gifts of weaponry in a diplomatic protocol which was being used very widely by the empire in the sixth century as an act of recognition. Even more dramatically, Justin agreed to serve as joint consul with Eutharic for the year 519. They officially took up this dignity on New Year’s Day 519, so that the arrangement was negotiated at the latest in the previous autumn.

For the new emperor to agree to share the consulship with Theoderic’s chosen heir was about as big a statement of friendship as you can possibly imagine.

Theoderic’s cup was overflowing: East Roman hostility and succession issues erased simultaneously. There had been more than a few rocky moments along the way, but Theoderic’s reborn Western Empire looked set for prosperity into its next generation, based now not only on brute force and self-assertion but also on official Constantinopolitan recognition. 1 January 519 was a red-letter day for the new Western Empire, and to celebrate Cassiodorus had a first stab at history, producing his (still surviving) Chronicle, which presented world and salvation history as culminating in Eutharic’s consulship.34

By the time of Theoderic’s eventual death on 30 August 526, however, these joyous and costly celebrations were a distant and bitter memory. At this point, the Catholic Church was minus one pope. John I returned to Italy in May 526 after an embassy to Constantinople which the official papal biography writes up as an overwhelming success. Theoderic clearly didn’t think so, since he threw him in jail immediately, where the Pope soon died. He was joining in jail – metaphorically, that is – two leading members of the Roman Senate, Symmachus and his much more famous son-in-law Boethius, both of whom had been accused of treason, imprisoned, and then finally executed in 525 and 524 respectively. And to cap it all, the ruler who had enjoyed such excellent relations with the Catholic Church throughout his reign was reputedly on the cusp of launching a major persecution – according to one source – when death intervened. After more than thirty years of group-hugging with Italian landowners and the Roman Church, long-cherished relationships had come crashing down. The change was so inexplicable to one anonymous Italian chronicler, writing within a couple of decades of Theoderic’s death, that he could only conclude that Theoderic had literally gone to the Devil.35 What on earth – or, maybe, in hell – had gone wrong?


The narrative silence on Theoderic’s last years, apart from our Italian chronicler, is pretty much deafening, but some scholars have felt confident that they know what went wrong. In particular, one of the giants of post-war classical studies, Arnaldo Momigliano, produced a wonderfully crafted and highly influential paper, which started life as a lecture to the British Academy in the later 1950s. In this he argued that the root cause of the disasters of Theoderic’s final years lay in the fact that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the Goth’s original charm offensive had never really worked. In his view, you could identify a profound divide in the overall Italo-Roman landowning elite, between the much less grand – more or less gentry level – bureaucratic functionaries (like our old friend Cassiodorus), who happily signed up to the new regime, and the real old-time Roman senatorial aristocracy, who were never convinced. Men such as Symmachus and Boethius would always have preferred to be part of the Roman Empire, and when, in the 520s, they were caught in treasonable correspondence with Constantinople, this was but the last act in a long-running saga of political failure.

It’s an emotionally satisfying story, and features Roman grandees acting as you might think they ought to have done: rejecting barbarian rule, no matter how many imperial vestments it borrowed, and holding on to Roman ideals. I suspect, too, that much closer to World War Two, its story of an established bureaucracy collaborating happily with conquering outsiders carried an extra resonance.36 But emotionally pleasing (and as beautifully written) as it is, the picture really doesn’t work very well when confronted with all the evidence.

One huge problem is the career trajectory of Boethius. Just before he wound up in jail, the scholar-cum-politician enjoyed a period of enormous success in Theoderic’s service. Both his father-in-law Symmachus and he himself seem to have been actively if peripherally involved in the ending of the Acacian schism, which was, as we have just seen, positively desired by Theoderic. There should thus have been no problem in this as far as Theoderic was concerned, and this is exactly what our evidence indicates. For in 522, or thereabouts (the lack of narrative sources makes the chronology just a little fuzzy), Boethius left his study and assumed one of the most important administrative positions in the entire system: the post of magister officiorum (master of offices). It’s hard to overstate the importance of this job, since its holder was responsible for overseeing much of the rest of the bureaucracy, and for many of the day-to-day operations of the court, such as scheduling legal hearings, introducing foreign ambassadors, as well as being generally a constant presence at the ruler’s side. If that were not mark of favour enough, both of Boethius’ infant sons were made joint consuls for the year 522. The consulship was the single greatest public service gong available in the late Roman world, and no one had ever seen both of their children hold it at the same time before. And since Theoderic and Constantinople each usually nominated one consul, this also means that the emperor Justin’s positive approval was part of the story.37

Not much of an aristocratic/bureaucratic divide here, then, nor the slightest trace of an ideological problem. And when you go looking for it, our scanty information throws up much more of a track record of positive engagement with Theoderic’s regime on the part of the high aristocracy than Momigliano’s evocative picture suggested. For one thing, he did not say very much about our old friend Liberius, responsible for finding suitable financial compensation for the incoming army at the beginning of the reign. The blood in Liberius’ veins was blue enough to be virtually purple, but he co-operated more than happily with Italy’s new rulers. Equally important, there were a number of different forms of participation. It had not been at all de rigueur, or indeed usual, for members of the old elite families of Italy to pursue active careers in government and administration, even when Italy had still formed part of the Western Empire. Some did, but it was really a matter of how ambitious a particular individual actually was. Basically, they were all so damn rich that they didn’t need to be politically active unless they really wanted to. But that did not mean that they were not prominent in public life more generally. The old senatorial ideology of leisure – otium – meant freedom from officeholding and the daily grind, but it did not mean sitting around the house all day peeling grapes. Senators were expected to be active in cultural terms, editing the old classics, writing commentaries on them, and discussing them; not to mention occasionally adding their own compositions to the pile. They were also, by dint of their wealth and connections, much in demand as patrons for a wide range of communities right across Italy, and that is all without even mentioning the Senate itself. As a body of extremely rich men, it was a public body of and in itself, even if it had none of the formal powers of some of its counterparts in modern democracies. Just being a senator made you a public figure, therefore, and brought you into direct contact with your ruler on a whole series of levels.38

Judged against this broader definition of what positive participation might look like, Boethius and his father-in-law were both publicly active figures in Theoderic’s kingdom long before the 520s. Much of the evidence comes from Cassiodorus’ Variae, so it is limited in time to the brief period that Cassiodorus was in office before Boethius’ fall, that is 506/7–11, but that really makes it only the more impressive. During those few years, Boethius was charged with finding diplomatic gifts on two separate occasions for foreign rulers (Clovis himself, no less, and Gundobad of the Burgundians: the famous clocks), and in making the second of these requests Theoderic showed extensive, detailed knowledge of Boethius’ scholastic activities (of course, Theoderic hadn’t read the books, but he could be bothered to detail one of his functionaries to do the necessary research). Symmachus brought actions in the Senate, was one of five senators appointed to advise in the trial of some senators accused of magical practices, and himself tried a case of parricide. All of these involved Symmachus in extensive contacts with Theoderic, who also reimbursed him for expenses he had taken on in repair works to the Theatre of Pompey in Rome, so he was clearly persona grata at court at this point. Indeed, we know from a manuscript annotation that he also conducted some of his own cultural studies actually in Ravenna. The note is undated, and might have been in the time of Odovacar rather than Theoderic, but the odds are on the latter, and what it anyway underlines is that Momigliano’s absolute distinction between the aristocracy and the bureaucracy, between Rome and Ravenna, was much too clearly drawn.39

Top bureaucrats were aristocrats in origin or became new ones by virtue of the wealth and distinction they acquired from holding office, sometimes marrying off their children – as has happened at all times and in all places – to the offspring of those with older distinctions, but lesser means. Aristocrats were also just as – if not more – likely to fight with other aristocrats as with bureaucrats, since their fellow aristos were their usual competitors for the utmost heights of power and privilege. And, in this context, it is certainly worth noting that some of their fellow aristocrats (not just Momigliano’s bureaucratic functionaries) were happy both to conduct the trials which condemned Boethius and Symmachus in the 520s, and to continue to work with Gothic rule in the aftermath of their fall. The two were condemned by their fellow senators, and men such as Liberius did not forsake their Gothic allegiance because of their fall.

In short, neither the activities of Boethius and Symmachus, nor what we can reconstruct about the general context provide real support for Momigliano’s view of the working of Italian politics. Nor is there any sign either of his crucial extra ingredient. Momigliano assumed that Boethius was caught in treasonable correspondence with Constantinople which was encouraging an East Roman intervention to restore direct imperial rule in Italy. His thinking was influenced here by the fact that Justin’s successor Justinian would order an invasion of Italy just over a decade after Theoderic’s death. But, as we will explore in the next chapter, conditions in Constantinople were entirely different by the mid-530s compared to the 520s, and, at that earlier date, a military intervention was simply not on the cards. As recently as 519, Justin had gone so far as to recognize Theoderic’s choice of heir, and an East Roman chronicle written in the early 520s by a functionary with court connections, who can be taken to be echoing the official line of the regime, was happy to condemn Anastasius’ attacks on Italy in 508 as a ‘piratical assault upon fellow Romans’.40 The construction of a consistently dissident aristocracy trying to engineer an East Roman military intervention just doesn’t hold up. The fall of Boethius does not look so much like the final act in a long-running saga of aristocratic resistance, but the sudden falling out of the ruler and one of the great men who had been circling around his court throughout the reign.

What caused this catastrophic breakdown in relations? It cannot have been something that affected all or even many of the Italo-Roman aristocracy, since most of the usual suspects carried on working for Theoderic afterwards. And some even benefited from it: particularly Cassiodorus, who became magister officiorum immediately after Boethius’ disgrace. From Boethius himself, we have the famous Consolation of Philosophy penned while he was in prison, but all he says there is that the charges were false and that he was really imprisoned because the upright form of government which philosophy compelled him to bring to his tenure of office had made him enemies at what was in fact a highly corrupt court. But he doesn’t say what the charges actually were, and, on the whole, the Consolation leaves us none the wiser as to what had brought Theoderic and his so recently best friend, the magister officiorum Boethius, to loggerheads.41

If you step back from the detail and the furore surrounding Theoderic’s last years, however, there is really only one issue that could possibly have caused this amount of chaos: succession. Theoderic thought he had it nailed when he married off Amalasuentha to Eutharic, and especially when the marriage quickly produced an heir apparent in the person of Athalaric. But here the king’s own vigorous longevity proved counterproductive, since, now pretty much into his seventieth year, Theoderic outlived his chosen heir. True to narrative form – or the lack of it for Theoderic’s kingdom – we don’t know exactly when Eutharic expired, but it was somewhere in and around 522 or 523. Immediately, of course, all bets were off, and the whole can of succession worms flew open. Athalaric was born in 516 or 518, so was at most seven years old, and there were manifestly sharp differences of opinion over whether a minor could conceivably inherit Theoderic’s mantle.

Theoderic eventually decided that he could. We don’t know how long it took him to come to this decision, but the sources make it clear that he did. It was also precisely at this moment, during Cassiodorus’ tenure of the post of magister officiorum, that all the nonsense we encountered in the previous chapter about the Amals being a unique gens purpura started to appear at every available opportunity in the letters he had to compose for his master. Dynastic continuity was the main card to be played in Athalaric’s favour, and Theoderic threw it in at every opportunity as he sensed mortality catching up with him. But even Theoderic’s undoubted prestige was not enough to guarantee a smooth succession for his chosen heir, when that chosen heir lacked the wherewithal to fulfil the basic job description of effective war leader.

We also don’t know whether Theoderic himself considered other possibilities before throwing all his weight behind Athalaric, but others certainly did. Perhaps the most obvious alternative was Theoderic’s nephew Theodahad. He was an Amal of majority age, and he received a very large pay-off at the beginning of Athalaric’s reign because he had been ‘obedient’. The smart money is on this ‘obedience’ having taken the form of Theodahad not putting himself forward as a candidate at the moment of Theoderic’s death when there was certainly unrest around. Cassiodorus tells us, for instance, that Liguria – home to one of the main Gothic settlement clusters – saw serious disturbances on Athalaric’s succession: conceivably agitation in favour of a different candidate. Others had looked elsewhere. A senior noble called Tuluin who had already distinguished himself on the battlefield, likewise received major rewards for supporting Athalaric’s succession, including the titular honour of patrician, the first Italian Goth to receive this title, which had been borne in the past by such luminaries as Aetius, who had laboured so long and hard to hold the Western Empire together in the 430s and 440s. Tuluin also received a letter explicitly comparing him to a great Gothic hero of the past, that Gensemund, the son of Hunimund, who had chosen to support the three Amal brothers as they built up their power base rather than continue the fight – that his brother Thorismund and nephew Beremund pursued in different ways – to remain independent lords in their own right (page 7). Tuluin had obviously done something similar; that is, not press his own claim and, again, the Variae make it clear that a non-Amal heir was at one point considered.42

In Spain, too, the consequences of Eutharic’s death started to reveal themselves. One reason for choosing Eutharic was that, as a Visigothic noble in origin, he could help keep together the vast realm that Theoderic gathered into his hands by ousting Gesalic. But Alaric II had another son, Amalaric, this one Theoderic’s own grandson via his daughter Theodegotho. So peripheral was this grandson to Theoderic’s succession plans that he sent one of his henchmen, a certain Theudis, to Spain explicitly to make sure that no one used Amalaric to stir up trouble. After Eutharic’s death, however, Theudis started to see things differently. He had himself made an excellent match in Spain, a Roman heiress of great wealth, and used her money to maintain a private army of a few thousand men. In the uncertain conditions created by Eutharic’s exit, Theudis now acted increasingly independently, absolutely refusing several summonses to Ravenna. Instead of keeping guard over Amalaric, he now actively championed his cause, positioning himself as theéminence grise behind a potential throne, and eventually got his way. After Theoderic’s death, Italy and the Visigothic kingdom were repartitioned, with Amalaric inheriting the latter. But this was a deal done after Theoderic’s demise, not one that he had sanctioned. Our main East Roman source, the historian Procopius, is quite explicit that the split was something agreed between Athalaric and Amalaric (for which, read their supporters) after Theoderic’s death, not something that the old king wanted. And, for his part, Theudis was not disobeying orders out of some devotion to his young charge, but for his own gain. On Amalaric’s death, he would himself inherit the Visigothic throne, and hold it for an impressive seventeen years.43

In short, Eutharic’s death landed Theoderic in a position analogous to that of the classic lame-duck president. Aged more or less seventy, and absolutely in the latter days of his final term in office, Theoderic was struggling to make anybody listen to him any more. All the major players at court were busy calculating who might make a decent successor, while all those worried about losing their current gains were looking to offer support to someone who would reassure them, and those who had not done so well were hunting for someone to reverse their current misfortunes. Further away in Spain, Theudis would never have dared to grab power so blatantly had Theoderic’s court not been in such disarray, and he was not the only outsider to smell an opportunity. In 522, the Burgundian king Sigismund executed his son and ex-heir Sergeric. Sergeric was Sigismund’s son by Theoderic’s daughter Ostrogotha who had just died, and part of this story was an attempt to throw off Theoderic’s hegemonic influence. In 523, likewise, after the death of King Thrasamund, the new Vandal king Hilderic killed the Gothic military retinue which had stayed in North Africa with Theoderic’s other daughter Amalafrida, and had her arrested. She eventually died in detention. In both cases, timely deaths at home were part of the story, but so too was the death of Eutharic and the paralysis at Theoderic’s court. Nothing could offer his unwilling satellites a better opportunity to throw off his hegemony, and they happily took it.

One of them was successful, the other not. A fleet was being readied for a punishment expedition to the Vandal kingdom in the summer of 526, reportedly, but, on Theoderic’s own death, it never sailed, so that Hilderic never had to face the music. The Burgundians were not so fortunate. Power passed to Sigismund’s brother Godomar, who held on to his throne in the face of both Frankish and Gothic interventions, but Tuluin added further lustre to his potential candidacy by detaching more territory in Provence from Burgundian rule and adding it to Theoderic’s domains, so the old king at least had the satisfaction of seeing the uppity Burgundians get some kind of come-uppance.44

If all this were not enough, the smell of the old order’s blood in the water attracted one other, still larger shark to the last rites of Theoderic’s regime: Constantinople. Both the Burgundians and the Vandals looked to reinforce their new assertions of independence from Ravenna by making alliances with the Eastern Empire. These were granted, most happily. At much the same time, Justin’s regime began to persecute non-Nicene Christians – of the same persuasion as Theoderic and his Goths – living within its borders, having tolerated these communities for well over a century. Theoderic saw this as a personal slight and threatened countermeasures against Italian Catholics. This might seem like an overreaction on the old king’s part, except for one thing. Justin’s regime also refused to grant Theoderic’s eventual choice of heir, Athalaric, the same recognition that had been granted his father. We know this because Cassiodorus wrote a letter to the emperor on behalf of his new master shortly after his accession, asking that Athalaric be adopted as son-at-arms, just as his father had been. I have no doubt that Theoderic had asked for this to happen, having made his choice probably fairly swiftly after Eutharic’s death and certainly a year or two before his own. This prompts the conclusion that Justin’s regime deliberately refused to grant the request of their erstwhile ally, whose good offices had helped heal the Acacian schism. Such a stance can in turn only mean that it was attempting to exacerbate the political unrest paralysing Theoderic’s court and giving encouragement to all those wanted to undermine his power. To my mind, this is probably also the problem that led Pope John to breathe his last in one of Theoderic’s jails. Clearly, his embassy had failed to negotiate something that Theoderic wanted, despite all the celebrations and applause that the Pope reportedly received in Constantinople. The most likely concession that Theoderic would have wanted at this stage was East Roman recognition for his heir, and this was not forthcoming.45

From this perspective, you can understand the old Goth’s irritation at the sudden outbreak of religious persecution. Add that to the alliances with the rebellious Vandals and Burgundians, and the non-recognition of his heir, and it is an inescapable conclusion that all the bonhomie of the late 510s meant absolutely nothing. As soon as opportunity presented itself, the duplicitous East Romans returned to type, acting not as allies but to undermine Theoderic’s power and prestige in every way they could. Their object in this, I suspect, although it is nowhere recorded, was not to prepare the path for an invasion of Italy. As we shall see in the next chapter, a huge amount of highly contingent water would still have to flow under an equally large number of bridges, over the next decade or so, before Constantinople became seriously interested in annexing Italy to its direct rule. In my view, the East Romans were much more likely seeking to sow enough dissent within the elite political circles of the kingdom to break up Theoderic’s Gothic superstate, and detach the Visigothic kingdom from Ravenna’s rule. This made perfect sense. No other single act would more weaken whoever came to power in Ravenna after Theoderic’s death, and, since the two had only so recently been combined, it was a highly achievable goal.

It was also in precisely this web of deceit, I fear, that Boethius and his father-in-law eventually found themselves ensnared. Boethius is much too evasive in the Consolation for us to be absolutely certain why he met such a terrible fate. He did have strong connections in Constantinople, so that, perhaps like Pope John, he fell foul of Justin’s determination to stir up as much trouble as possible in the Italian kingdom by refusing to recognize the new choice of heir. Given these connections, you can see that Theoderic might well have expected his magister officiorum to be able to deliver the recognition that would have helped secure Athalaric’s succession and stabilize the political scene at Ravenna once again. And when that recognition was not forthcoming – a bit like Cardinal Wolsey when he failed to secure that famous divorce – the king’s wrath was unrelenting.

This reconstruction, I think, is entirely possible, but there is also a second, more specific alternative. Boethius, you will recall, states that his fall was all to do with Theoderic’s regime having rejected philosophy’s good teaching on the art of government. That could be code, as others have suggested before. For, of the various potential candidates for the throne after Eutharic’s death, Theodahad is known to have had strong interests in Neoplatonic philosophy. We also happen to know that there were reasonably close ties between him and Boethius. The main alternative to the Cardinal Wolsey scenario, therefore, is that Boethius fell because he backed the wrong horse in the intense political manoeuvring which followed Eutharic’s death.46 Either way, it’s a safe bet that Boethius got caught up somewhere in the fallout. Succession was the big, chaotic and unresolvable issue of Theoderic’s final years, and it was this that surely claimed Boethius’ life.


Within a few months of Theoderic’s death, the imperial aura had quickly and decisively faded away from his former domains. The break-up of the united kingdom of Italy, Gaul and Spain was the fundamental cause, but it was reinforced by the Vandal Hilderic’s entirely successful rejection of Ostrogothic overlordship and the Burgundians’ partially successful acts of self-assertion. In its heyday after 511, Theoderic really had put together a very decent copy of the only empire, as he proclaimed to be his aim in the famous letter to Anastasius. The territorial extent of his direct rule was enormous, and his hegemony stretched not only over North Africa and the Burgundian kingdom of the Rhone valley, but also, with an ever-increasing degree of looseness, up into central Europe. It is worth stressing this point, because it has so often been missed. The fact that the Franks, as we shall see later in the book, were destined for longer-term historical stardom must not be allowed to hide the fact that, in their own lifetimes, Theoderic’s career eclipsed that of Clovis, and that, in the second decade of the sixth century, it was his power that was truly imperial in character. It was his friendship, not that of Clovis, that was sought both by leading Gallic churchmen, such as Caesarius of Arles, and the papacy alike.Semper Augustus was not brown-nosing hyperbole but an entirely appropriate title for the greatest ruler of his day.

Several reasons have been identified over the years for the subsequent failure of his imperial project, not least the impacts of the potential religious divide between Arian and Catholic, and a political one caused by the fact that he only ever generated lukewarm acceptance from those ever-important blue-blooded Romans of Rome. The religious divide only became an issue, however, when the regime of Justin and Justinian chose to make it so, by persecuting the old Arian communities of their domains while simultaneously refusing to recognize Theoderic’s new choice of heir after the death of Eutharic. After all the rapprochement of the 510s and the joint consulship of 519, I can only conclude that Theoderic was entirely correct to interpret the new Constantinopolitan religious policy as a deliberate diplomatic slight, and entirely reasonable in threatening countermeasures. All the heat went out of the issue, however, when Theoderic’s united Gothic realm failed to survive his own demise, and Catholic–Arian relations both within Italy and on the diplomatic front between Ravenna and Constantinople quickly returned to the cheerful old ways of happy coexistence. Caesarius of Arles’ greatest days of influence, for instance, came after Theoderic’s death, notably with the Council of Orange in 529 under the rule of Athalaric. The fall from grace of Boethius and his father and Symmachus, likewise, do not look, on close inspection, to provide good evidence of a long-standing fault line in the foundations of Theoderic’s rule. Their deaths were part of a major crisis, no doubt, but belong to a different story than the one that is normally spun around them: more that of perennial favourite of autocratic ruler falling out with former regime loyalists over a major new issue, than of long-term resistance to a hated tyrant.

The real reason for loss of imperial status was much more prosaic: the inability of Theoderic’s chosen successor to hold on to the overwhelming military might represented by a combination of the Gothic armies of both the old Visigothic and Theoderic’s new Ostro-gothic kingdoms. That this combination failed to survive his death, however, is not really so very surprising. He had only brought the two military capabilities together in 511, so that no long-standing ties and traditions of co-operation, nor even of joint campaigning, knit them together. Even if Eutharic had not predeceased him, therefore, it must be highly doubtful that Theoderic’s Gothic Roman Empire could really have replicated itself in the next political generation. And with the renewal of the old Gothic division, Theoderic’s successors were in no position to match his level of political pre-eminence in the former Roman West. The descendants of the force he led into Italy in 489 clearly were still much more powerful than the forces of the Burgundian or Vandal kingdoms, and probably too, to judge by events of the first decade of the sixth century, of those of the reinvented Visigothic kingdom. But, especially once his successors had fully integrated Clovis’ new conquests east and west of the Rhine, the Franks certainly became at least as powerful. Dividing again the Gothic military of Italy and Spain in this broader strategic context made it impossible for Theoderic’s successors to bestride the old Roman West in his colossal footsteps.

The roots of Theoderic’s failure on the imperial stage thus in the end lie in the fragility of his control over those most recent, Visigothic additions to his military power base. But at the same time, it is worth pointing up the countervailing durability of that centrepiece of his life’s political project: the combined army that he brought with him to Italy in 489. This is a point which has come rather to be lost in recent scholarly emphases on the all-encompassing fluidity of so-called barbarian group identities in the fifth and sixth centuries, so it is worth taking just a moment to survey the major planks of the case. Certainly, Theoderic’s following was no ancient ‘people’, united by ancient cultural commonalities, and, thus far, I have no issue at all with revisionist approaches to the subject. Theoderic’s Ostrogoths were an entirely new formation created out of two major components – the Pannonian Goths and the Thracian Gothic allies – which had had entirely separate histories for at least several generations prior to their unification in the 480s (and in fact potentially for centuries, since their fourth-century ancestors may well have belonged to separate Gothic kingdoms north of the Black Sea). Even this much, however, goes nowhere close to bringing out the full messiness of the army’s origins. The Pannonian Goths themselves had only been created in the 450s by Theoderic’s uncle from a series of warbands who had been incorporated into the Hunnic Empire of Attila, while the Thracian Goths too may have in fact also been an amalgam of originally smaller groups with various origins, even if it does look as though a resettling of former Hunnic subjects in the 420s from Pannonia to Thrace started the whole enterprise off. And if its two main component parts had messy origins, Theoderic had also recruited plenty of other human flotsam and jetsam from the collapse of Attila’s empire by the time he entered Italy. Rugi from the kingdom destroyed by Odovacar formed the biggest group, but Bittigur Huns also turn up in Italy, and others besides.

From these highly ragged beginnings, Theoderic managed to knit the various components together into a highly effective military machine. The tools he had available were mostly Roman in origin, some positive, some negative. On the negative side, Zeno’s double-dealing hostility provided all these various recruits with one excellent reason for operating together. If they did not, the emperor was aiming at their mutual destruction. But the empire also provided more positive motivation too, since, operating together, they stood much more chance of extracting a share of Zeno’s tax revenues in the form of annual subsidies. And it was this positive side of things which really won out in Italy, where the strength of the united army allowed Theoderic to take such total control of the landscape that he was then able to mobilize Italian wealth, in the form of both land grants and continuing tax flows, to reward his loyal followers. The strength of their loyalty to him, and the overall power that he had welded together, shows up in the extent to which this army allowed Theoderic to dominate at least the western Mediterranean even before the Visigoths were added to his musters.

This was no mean achievement given the massively disparate origins of his army, and, in early medieval terms, the group identity of the army he created was extremely durable. Certainly, not everyone felt the same degree of loyalty to their leader. The Rugi, as we have seen, were quick to change sides during the initial conquest, but they were a very recent addition at that point of course, having joined up only in 487/8. Likewise, when East Roman armies moved into Italy in the 530s, in the generation after the king’s death, some elements of the Gothic forces surrendered immediately.47 But in point of fact, only a small minority did so, and, as we shall see in Chapter 4, the vast majority of the descendants of those whom Theoderic had brought to Italy had to be fought to a standstill over twenty-five years of campaigning before the identity of the group was broken down. This identity was not ancient; it had first been created in Theoderic’s lifetime. Nonetheless, it was far from ephemeral. The experiences of campaigning together and the bonds of the shared struggle against first Zeno and then Odovacar had a major transformative effect. Then, I suppose above everything else, you put on top of all that the wealth distributions that followed from the conquest of Italy and which gave the original army members and their descendants a common and powerful interest in defending the major new privileges that had come their way. The result was a new group identity certainly, and, for the majority of the army’s membership, not remotely an ephemeral one, since it took twenty years of armed struggle to dismantle.

Even if this army was by itself an insufficient power base for asserting empire in the post-Roman world, its essential character does bring into focus exactly why the Roman Empire in Western Europe had ceased to exist by the end of the fifth century. When the empire first came into existence, the largest political structures they encountered in the Germanic-dominated world of the central zone were temporary alliances of military manpower from a large number of separate groupings, put together for highly immediate offensive or defensive purposes. At most, such structures had enough staying power to win a single big victory, like that of Arminius over Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg Forest, but that was a very rare phenomenon, and, within a few years of that victory, the victorious alliance had already ceased to exist. Theoderic, by contrast, could create an extremely large force by putting together just two base units – the Pannonian and Thracian Goths – which were already substantial in size: a much simpler type of political problem involving many fewer key decision-makers. Add to that situation a set of common bonds which came from serious and eventually successful joint campaigning, plus a joint interest in maintaining control over the reward set that Theoderic pushed their way after the conquest of Italy, and you can absolutely understand why the vast majority of this force, even in its second and third generation of descent, proved so resilient in the face of the East Roman invasion of Italy.

All the bodies of military manpower which created the successor states to the Western Empire were, like Theoderic’s Goths, new formations very much created on the march. But that did not make their group identity any more ephemeral than that of the Italian Goths. All of these groups – such as Visigoths, Vandals, and eventually Franks – went through very similar experiences and all came out much the same way. Forged in the fierce fires of the competition they found on Roman soil originally for survival in the face of Roman counter-attack, but then increasingly – faced with a weakening central empire – for an ever larger slice of the old Roman tax base, the already substantially big base units from which they were born became larger still, and that much more durable. The contrast with Germanic groups of the first centuries BC and AD could not be stronger. Long-term transformation had created the building blocks for really large and lasting military formations capable of carving off slices of Roman territory when they were forced into that vital final process of political unification. And once they started to do that, the central Roman authorities quickly found both tax base and the armies it had supported were fading away. Even the largest Germanic alliance of the period of Roman expansioncould never have stood up to Roman imperial power in this way, and the fact that, in the course of the fifth century, several groups of this kind were loose on Roman soil does indeed explain why the central imperial authorities found it impossible any longer to maintain the structural integrity of the empire.48

But if the new size and durability of the Germanic groups that could be put together on Roman soil in the fifth century explains the erosion of that military edge which had made empire possible, the new groups were also strong enough, in the main, to fend off each other’s attentions. Theoderic’s coup of 511 aside, no one successor state in the post-Roman West of the sixth century disposed of a large enough military power base of sufficient resilience to build a state with long-term viability that was truly imperial in scale. Theoderic could browbeat Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms when at the height of his career, and temporarily extend his direct rule over the Visigoths when their kingdom was disrupted by defeat; but neither his kingdom nor that of any of his rivals – all of whom had equally been born in the highly competitive circumstances of the fifth century – had sufficient military strength definitively to absorb enough of their neighbours to build something that really looked like a restoration of Rome over the long term. Not surprisingly, therefore, the second major attempt to reestablish empire in the West had to come from outside the old Western imperial territories entirely. It was rooted, instead, in the East Roman Empire, whose resources dwarfed those of any of the individual Western successor states. That power had always been there, of course, but for two political generations after the defeat of its great Armada of 468, its last serious attempt to maintain the existence of a serious Western empire, Constantinople limited its interventions in the western Mediterranean to carefully targeted diplomatic interference, such as that which so disturbed Theoderic’s final years. How and why that came to change leads us straight to the emperor Justinian.

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