Theodoric the Great

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Theodoric the Great

His Youth - As Imperial Federate - His War with Odovacar - As King of Italy

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Theodoric's Youth

When King Thiudimir of the Ostrogoths was presented with a son by one of his concubines (not herself a Goth, in all probability), the boy was christened Dietrich, a common name amongst the Germans of that era. In Late Latin, the name translated as Theodoricus and the boy grew up to become the man known to history as Theodoric the Great.

Born in or about AD 451, the young Theodoric was sent as a hostage to the Imperial Court in Byzantines at the age of eight. There he was to remain for ten years, and it was there that he absorbed Graeco-Roman cultural values to a degree not previously equaled by any barbarian ruler. Yet a barbarian he remained, versed in the warlike ways of his people. He never learned to read and write, it seems, for throughout his life he was to sign his name only by means of a golden stencil.

On his return from Constantinople, he took control of the eastern portion of the Ostrogothic lands in Pannonia and immediately began to build a reputation by defeating the Sarmatians in battle. Over the following few years he became known as an able and ambitious ruler, leading his people to new lands on the lower Danube, and accepting for them the status of Roman federates (foederati).

The Imperial Federate

His relationship with the Roman Emperor, Zeno, constantly swung between friendship and hostility. Between laying waste to Macedonia (479) and Thessaly (482), for example, Theodoric helped Zeno to put down the two major rebellions of his reign.

After the accidental death of his principal rival - Theodoric Strabo ("the Squinter") - he was left in effective control of the Ostrogoths. In 484, he was elected to the consulship in Constantinople as 'Flavius Theodoricus' and slew Strabo's son in the city. By 486, his power was such that he was able to match against Constantinople itself, occupying its outlying districts and cutting off its water supply.

In 488, eager to rid the Empire of the threat, the Emperor Zeno encouraged Theodoric to invade Italy. It is uncertain which of the two men came up with the plan; The Gothic historian Jordanes credits Theodoric while the great Byzantine historian, Procopius, firmly maintains that it was Zeno. Both men had much to gain from such an invasion. For Theodoric it promised a settled homeland for his wandering people while for Zeno it offered not only the prospect of ending the Ostrogoth menace to his capital, but also of regaining Italy for the Empire.

The War against Odovacar

Setting out along the valley of the Danube, Theodoric's host paused briefly to brush aside an army of Gepids, then swung southwards and defeated the self-styled King of Italy, Odovacar (or Odoacer) at the Isonzo Bridge on the River Wippach. Theodoric's Ostrogoths moved into northern Italy and, defeating Odovacar in a series of battles, blockaded him in Ravenna.

In 493, when all of Italy had been subdued, a local bishop arranged a truce between the two leaders. Theodoric, supported by the Church and in control of most of Italy, offered what seemed to be remarkably generous terms. Alas, he had not the slightest intention of honouring them. He invited Odovacar, together with his son and chief officers, to a banquet. As Odovacar took his seat, Theodoric stepped forward and, with one tremendous blow of his sword, clove through his enemy's body from collar-bone to thigh.

"The wretch cannot have had a bone in his body," he is reported to have commented, surprised by the effect of his stroke.

Odovacar's brother was shot down by arrows as he tried to escape. His wife, Sunigilda, was thrown into prison where she died of hunger. His son, Thelane (whom Theodoric already held as a hostage) was sent to Gaul but subsequently murdered. The whole unsavoury episode seemed to bode ill for the future but, in fact, Theodoric was to bring a period of peace and prosperity which Italy had rarely known. With the support of his warriors, Theodoric claimed kingship over Italy and was finally recognised as "King of the Goths and the Romans" by the Emperor Anastatius I in 497.

The King of Italy

He inherited a wealthy kingdom, the surpluses of which poured into his capital, Ravenna. His thirty-three year reign was devoted to the consolidation of his new realm, which he ruled wisely and well. Despite his own devout Arianism, he proved tolerant of all other Christian sects in what was an intolerant age. He promoted agriculture and commerce, respected Roman institutions and improved public works; repairing the defences, aqueduct, baths and palace at Verona, for example, and undergoing extensive building and repair works in Pavia. Ravenna itself was made fit to be the seat of an Emperor.

But Theodoric was not an Emperor; He was merely king of the Ostrogothic army in Italy, not king of the Goths. He owed allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople, and indeed held the highest military rank in the Empire - that of magister militum. And Theodoric was at great pains to ensure Italy remained part of the Roman Empire, while leaving no room for doubt that Gothic power was paramount in the West.

The government of Italy was run by Romans using Roman methods. The statesmen Cassiodorus and the philosopher, Boethius, both served in Theoderic's administration, for example. The senate continued to be respected and the power to nominate senators and consuls remained with the Emperor in Constantinople. Yet the Romans themselves were sufficiently impressed by his power to give him the title of dominus, or even Augustus.

Theodoric consolidated his power by means of marriage alliances, which he used to co-ordinate the policies of the various western kingdoms. He married his daughter to Alaric, King of Visigothic Toulouse, for example, while he himself married Audofleda, sister of the great Frankish king, Clovis.

The closing years of Theodoric's reign, however, were dominated by growing tension with the Empire as anti-Arian feeling grew in Constantinople - a foreboding of what was to come when Justinian donned the purple. And his reign ended, as it began, in iniquity - with the imprisonment and brutal execution of Boethius - the 'last of the Romans' - on a false charge of treason. It was an act of which Theodoric was to repent and which he came bitterly to regret.

When Theodoric died, in 526, he was succeeded by his daughter Amalasuntha as regent for her son Athalaric. His magnificent mausoleum still stands in Ravenna. The realm he created, however, was to survive him by barely a generation.

See also: The Ostrogoths

Theodorik de Grote

Thanks to the efforts of Rien van de Wall, this page is now available in Dutch translation at http://users.pandora.be/vroege-middeleeuwen/theodor.htm (Or just click on the flag).

Mark Furnival, 1998

This page was last updated on 10 August, 2002