middle ages Search TheMiddleAges.net

Theodoric the Great

by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

The "fall of the Roman Empire" is one of the great benchmarks of history in modern thought. Yet it was not until the Renaissance that the populace of Europe realized that it had fallen; to those living in the Middle Ages, Charlemagne had been as much a Roman Emperor as had Augustus. Charlemagne, of course, is well-known. Less famous, but in many ways more compelling as a transitional figure, is Theodoric the Great, one of the last monarchs to rule a unified Italy until the nineteenth century.

Theodoric's people, the Ostrogoths, had originally came from the area now known as the Ukraine. Inroads by the Huns had gradually pushed them east starting in the fourth century, until they reached central Europe, where they were subjugated by the Huns. The death of the great Hunnic leader Atilla in 451, however, caused the Hunnic confederation to break down and allowed the Ostrogoths to rule themselves once more. Three brothers of the royal Amal line assumed joint leadership. Theodoric, born about 451, was the son of Thiudimir, one of the brothers.

The establishment of an Ostrogothic kingdom inevitably brought contact and conflict with their neighbors to the south--the Romans. This early period is marked by alternating good and bad relations, as the Romans used the Ostrogoths, who sought to become a client kingdom, as a bargaining chip in their own political turmoils. The result of one treaty sent the young Theodoric, aged eight, to Constantinople as a royal hostage. This was no dishonour, and Theodoric, at the very least, was given the good treatment due to a son of a king. If his later behaviour is any indication, Theodoric gained in this formative period a great appreciation for Roman culture--especially in the area of law.

The rise of another Ostrogoth named Theodoric--nicknamed "Strabo", which means "squinter"-- caused the Romans much alarm. Strabo claimed royal blood and seemed dangerously close to assembling a force that would threaten Roman power. Thus Theodoric, now eighteen years old, was sent home as encouragement to his father and uncle to counter this rise. The young Theodoric was given his own command and won a stunning victory over a rebellious town; as a result, he was elevated to the joint kingship. Four years later, his father was dead and his uncle had moved further west to form his own kingdom, leaving Theodoric as sole king. The problem of Strabo was not easily solved, however. Over the next decade and a half, the two Theodorics vied for the loyalty of the Ostrogothic people. It was only Strabo's accidental death that gained Theodoric the final victory.

Theodoric had now succeeded in doing what the Romans had feared most--uniting the Ostrogoths under one ruler. Their own political situation was unstable. Something had to be done. Theodoric was appointed Consul in Constantinople--the highest honour which could be given to a Roman. His people were promised land to meet their needs. The emperor Anastasius, however, continued to delay the final settlement. Theodoric was on the verge of marching on Constantinople when an agreement was finally reached: Theodoric would reclaim Italy for the Empire.

In 476, the last Roman Emperor in the West had been deposed by Odovacar, one of his military officials. Odovacar changed the forms of government very little; but unlike his predecessors, he was unwilling to be merely the power behind the throne. The remaining Empire in the East, however, mourned the loss of control in the West. Enter Theodoric. Anastasius would allow him and his people to journey to Italy, regain it from Odovacar, and to rule there in his name until he could come in person. After a long journey and two years of fighting and siege, Theodoric agreed to share the kingship with Odovacar on March 5, 493. Ten days later, Odovacar was slain at a feast--legend says by Theodoric's own hand. This act of violence, ironically, initiated thirty years of peace in Italy.

Theodoric is remembered as a patron of learning. His court fostered such scholars as Cassiodorus, whose diplomatic correspondence in the name of the king is marked by ornate Latin and contains letters addressed to all variety of officials---from low-level military and bureaucratic functionaries to Emperors and kings such as Clovis. The philosopher Boethius was also a court treasure and friend of the king. Despite the fact that he was an Arian Christian and thus considered a heretic by the Catholic church, Theodoric was asked by the Pope to mediate a schism. Throughout his reign, Theodoric put much effort into building and restoration throughout Italy, but particularly in Ravenna, his capital. Several buildings built by Theodoric, including the church of San Apollinaire, famed for its mosaics, stand to this day.

While Theodoric kept the peace in Italy, he was active in wars elsewhere. Until the death of Clovis in 511, Theodoric had to be constantly on guard against the threat of Frankish expansion. He was able to stop Frankish advances towards Visigothic Spain, and upon the death of Alaric II in 507, he became king of all the Goths, uniting Spain and Italy under one rule. Theodoric also formed marriage alliances by sending his daughters to several Germanic kings. He himself married Audofleda, the sister of Clovis. Theodoric gave all of his daughters (he had no sons) an education in classical culture--particularly Amalasuintha. Amalasuintha was given in marriage to Eutharic, a Visigothic prince, in hopes that this would permanently cement the two Gothic nations. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Though Eutharic and Amalasuintha had a son, Athalaric, Eutharic died prematurely.

This was not the only matter to go awry in Theodoric's final years. Old Emperor Anastasius, who had never been strong enough to come to Italy in person, had at last died. His successor was Justin, who was also advanced in years, but who had an energetic young nephew by the name of Justinian. Theodoric himself, now in his seventies, had only Athalaric, his infant grandson, as an heir. Rumours came to Theodoric's ear that some within his own court were conspiring against him in favour of a return to direct imperial rule. Furthermore, the Catholic church, its internal problems solved, was now turning against the Arian Theodoric. Several leading senators were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy, including Boethius. It was while he was imprisoned awaiting execution that this philosopher wrote the famous Consolation of Philosophy. Theodoric's last years were unfortunately marked by growing suspicion and distrust, as the fragile union of Goths and Romans he had forged began to unravel. He died in 526, naming the boy Athalaric as his heir and his daughter Amalasuintha as regent. His kingdom outlived him barely a decade before falling before the Byzantine forces under Belisarius and Justinian. Yet he is remembered as <"great"--for in the turmoil of the fifth and sixth centuries, he somehow united Goths and Romans for three decades of peace.

Excerpta Valesiana , J. Moreau and V. Velkov, ed. Leipzig, 1968.
Jones, A.H.M. The Later Roman Empire . Baltimore, 1986.
Procopius, History of the Wars V-VI , H.B.Dewing, trans.London,1919.
Wolfram, Herwig, History of the Goths . Berkeley, 1988.



Related Links:

The Middle Ages

Christine de Pisan


Return to The Middle Ages