Theoderic the Great

From The Wall Street Journal:

If there was a Roman version of “1066 and All That,” the satirical romp through English history, the year 476 would surely be one of those suspiciously bold lines in our collective historical imagination. It was then that Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, was deposed in the west. On one side of his 10-month reign lay Antiquity. On the other, the Middle Ages.

Where does that leave Theoderic the Great, the Ostrogothic king who reigned in Italy from 493 until his death in 526? Under the rule of this Gothic-speaking warrior, the Colosseum still rang with the roar of spectators, crisp mountain water still streamed through the aqueducts, and giants of Latin literature, like Cassiodorus and Boethius, still served in the senate.

Hans-Ulrich Wiemer’s “Theoderic the Great: King of Goths, Ruler of Romans” is a monumental exploration of the life and times of this remarkable leader. It is the most important treatment of its subject since Wilhelm Ensslin’s 1947 biography, and since Mr. Wiemer’s book (here in John Noël Dillon’s fluid English translation) surpasses its predecessor in breadth and sophistication, the author can claim the laurel of having written the best profile of Theoderic we have.

The story of Theoderic is epic and improbable. He was born in 453 or 454 in the ever-contested Danubian borderlands, probably in what is now the east of Austria, to an elite Gothic warrior and a mother of obscure background. The Gothic tribe to which Theoderic belonged had just emerged, following the recent death of Attila, from a long spell of domination by the Huns. In 461, the boy Theoderic was shipped to Constantinople as insurance for a treaty. He spent almost a decade, his formative youth, in the great metropolitan capital of the Roman Empire.

Theoderic’s power derived less from his distinguished ancestry or the Gothic respect for royal legitimacy, Mr. Wiemer emphasizes, than from his success as a warrior. As an upstart prince, he killed the Sarmatian King Babai with his own hands. As a commander at the head of a fearsome Gothic army, he proved a fickle ally for the eastern Roman Empire, whose emperors were hardly models of loyalty themselves. In the early 480s, he was named commander-in-chief by the Romans. Within a few years, he was besieging Constantinople.

If his career had ended there, Theoderic’s name would belong among the distinguished mercenary warlords of the troubled fifth century. But fortune favors the bold, and Theoderic had even grander ambitions. In 488, he set off with some 100,000 followers—men, women and children—in an armed wagon train on an uncertain journey from the banks of the Danube (in what is now Bulgaria) to Italy. Their goals were to unseat Odoacer—the deposer of Romulus Augustulus—and to find for themselves a permanent home. Theoderic cornered Odoacer and his forces in the major stronghold of Ravenna, and the two signed a treaty by which they were meant to share power. The treaty lasted all of about 10 days, before Theoderic personally clove his rival in two (“with a single sword stroke,” Mr. Wiemer tells us, “slicing him apart from collarbone to hip”). From such sanguinary beginnings emerged a generation of peace in Italy.

What makes Mr. Wiemer’s survey so rich is his mastery of recent research on the twilight of antiquity. Theoderic’s reign cuts to the heart of virtually every great debate among scholars of this period. Were his Ostrogoths an essentially Germanic tribe, or is ethnicity a fiction ever reconfigured by contingent power dynamics?

For Mr. Wiemer, a professor of ancient history at the University of Erlangen–Nuremberg, Ostrogoths were a “community of violence” whose material basis was war and plunder. But the author recognizes that the masses who followed Theoderic on his Italian adventure were a people of shared history and culture, setting them apart from the natives in Italy and drawing them closer to other groups, such as the Visigoths who had settled in Spain and Gaul.

Mr. Wiemer is convincing on the main lines of Theoderic’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, Theoderic pursued functional specialization between the Goths and the Romans. The former were warriors (if also landowners), the latter civilians. A two-track government reflected this essential division of labor. Theoderic sought complementarity, not fusion.

Abroad, he sought legitimacy from the eastern Roman capital, along with stability in the post-Roman west. By means of strategic treaties and an astonishing network of marriage alliances among the Vandals, Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and others, Theoderic emerged as the most powerful ruler west of Constantinople. Thanks to opportunistic expansion, he came to control wide swathes of the Balkans, much of southern Gaul and (nominally) the Iberian Peninsula. In the early sixth century, it would not have been obvious that the Frankish kingdom would prove more enduring and consequential.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Coin depicting Flavius Theodoricus (Theodoric the Great). Roman Vassal and King of the Ostrogoths. Only a single coin with this design is known; it is in the collection of Italian numismatic Francesco Gnecchi, displayed in Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mausoleum of Theoderic, built in 520 AD by Theoderic the Great as his future tomb, Ravenna, Italy Source: Wikimedia Commons