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8-10-2015, 16:23

Theodoric and the Ostrogoths in Italy

The best-documented example of how Roman and German lived alongside each other is the kingdom of the Ostrogoth Theodoric in Italy (493-526). ‘Ostrogoths’ is the name conventionally given to those Goths who had remained north of the borders of the empire under the domination of the Huns, in contrast to the forerunners of the Visigoths who had fled over the border in the 370s.

Again it is not clear how far the Ostrogoths were a clearly defined group but certainly peoples from north of the Danube migrated into the Roman empire after the collapse of Attila’s empire in the 450s, and by 484 had been united under a new leader, Theodoric. As with the Visigoths their adherence to Arianism and their own language helped maintain their sense of a separate identity from the Romans. Yet Theodoric had spent ten years of his early life as a hostage in Constantinople (461-71) and so had absorbed some elements of classical culture. The Ostrogoths were based in Thrace but from here they offered a potential threat to the eastern capital. In 488, the eastern emperor Zeno decided to protect himself by sending Theodoric to Italy to overthrow Odoacer, giving him a promise that he could remain in charge there. After enduring a long siege in Ravenna Odoacer surrendered to Theodoric but was then murdered with his family. This left Theodoric as the most powerful man in Italy and when news arrived of Zeno’s death his own men hailed him as king of Italy. He was to rule for over thirty years.

It has been estimated that Theodoric may have had a following of some 100,000 men. Archaeological and literary evidence combines to suggest they were settled mostly in the north-east of Italy, probably to protect Theodoric’s new kingdom against invasion from the north by other German tribes. Theodoric steadily consolidated his position and he is an example of a trend, typical of the period, through which a warlord transformed himself into a king whose prestige still depended on his military prowess. (The later case of Charlemagne is the classic example.) Theo-doric guarded against counter-attack from the east by assuming control over Pan-nonia and the military highways in 505. When the Visigothic kingdom collapsed in Provence in 508 after the defeat by the Franks at Vouille in 507 (see further below), Theodoric annexed the province and also annexed Visigothic Spain in 511. Marriage links were made with the Burgundians and Vandals and his palaces were centres of opulent display and patronage.

Theodoric’s ‘Roman’ subjects numbered some 4 million so accommodation with them was essential. In fact, Theodoric showed much sympathy for classical civilization. After he took over Provence he wrote to its ‘Roman’ inhabitants, ‘Having been recalled to your old freedom by the gift of God, clothe yourselves with manners befitting the toga, eschew barbarism and put aside the cruelty of your minds, because it is not fitting for you to live according to strange customs in the time of our just rule.’ The Romans were encouraged to use their own laws for disputes among themselves. It helped that Theodoric took a personal interest in Rome, even restoring some of the buildings there and allowing the senators to retain their status and prestige. Although Rome, like other cities in the west, was in decline there was a revival of the city’s ancient pride. Games were held when Theodoric visited the city in 500 and he brought enough grain with him to feed 3,500 of the poor for a month. Images of the former emperors were replaced by pictures of Romulus and Remus suckled by the wolf and the motto Roma invicta.

In short, Theodoric quickly gained the respect of Romans (even being compared by some to the emperors Trajan and Valentinian). A number, including the scholar Cassiodorus (whose letters provide one of the best sources of the reign), the senator Symmachus (descendant of the pagan Symmachus of the fourth century), and Sym-machus’ son-in-law, the senator and philosopher Boethius, served the regime as senior civil servants. Although the Ostrogoths were Arians, and proud of it, Theodoric tolerated orthodox Christianity and showed respect for the papacy. In Ravenna, which Theodoric made his capital, orthodox and Arian churches coexisted, though their very splendour (as in the contrasting ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’ baptisteries that survive) suggests some rivalry between the two churches. There was no lack of sophistication in Arian Christianity. An exquisite Gospel book, the Codex Argenteus, survives as well as the fine mosaics from the Arian church, now known as San Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna.

With time the distinction between Ostrogoth and Roman began to break down. Many Ostrogoths moved from being warriors in one generation to landowners in the next. Some took Roman names, converted to orthodox Christianity, and intermarried with the Roman nobility. Cassiodorus was able to write to some of his Gothic correspondents in Latin. By the sixth century the Ostrogoths as a group disappear, apparently absorbed into the Roman majority. The kingdom also succumbed within a few years of Theodoric’s death in the chaos of the Byzantine invasion (535, see further p. 661).