Theoderic: The ‘Barbarian’ who Preserved Classical Ideology

Guest post by David White

In 476, Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor, was removed from the imperial throne.[1] Seventeen years later, with the permission of the eastern emperor Zeno, the Ostrogothic king Theoderic with his ‘barbarian’ army took control of Italy and ostensibly ruled it as if he were an emperor himself. During his thirty-three-year rule (493 – 526), Theoderic reversed much of the territorial and economic decline that had beset the Western Roman Empire throughout much of the fifth century. Indeed, Theoderic’s rule was so successful that one near-contemporary author wrote:

…so that even by the Romans he was called a Trajan or a Valentinian, whose times he took as a model. [2]

Such a sentiment is a far cry from the words of the early fifth century author Synesius who wrote of ‘barbarians’:

Unfortunately, the Barbarian does not understand chivalrous conduct. From the very beginning till now these men have treated us with derision, knowing both what they deserved at our hands, and what they were assumed to deserve; and this reputation of ours has encouraged their neighbours to make their way hither. Now hordes of foreign mounted archers keep pouring forth seeking out our easy-going people, begging for their indulgence and pointing out the case of these scoundrels as a precedent for it. [3]

So, considering the mammoth change in authorial opinion concerning ‘barbarians’ amongst two Roman Italians, we may ask: What changed?

Firstly, we must understand that the concept of a ‘barbarian’ was fluid and very much dependent on social, geographical and economic contexts, for both the ‘barbarian’ and the one who is labelling a person ‘barbarian’. In fact, by the mid fifth century, Goths, Alans, Franks, Heruli, Vandals etc. had become a vital part of the Roman military – whose own nobility was found in the upper stratum of Roman society. By the 450s, ‘barbarians’ residing within the Roman Empire had adopted imperial Christianity and had integrated themselves within the civil and palatine administrations, making the, as much Roman as the Romans.

Theoderic was certainly one such ‘barbarian’. Besides his native Gothic language he could certainly speak Greek and most likely knew at least a little Latin.[4] Theoderic served within the highest military and civilian offices of the Eastern Roman Empire as both magister militum praesentalis and Consul in the early 480s. As ruler of Italy, he became involved with its ecclesiastical affairs, befriending Italian and Gallic bishops as well as financing the repair and construction of several churches.

Theoderic is rightfully credited with reversing the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. His Ostrogothic kingdom closely imitated the former Western Empire and for a while, it outshone the other Western successor kingdoms of Gaul and Hispania. Unfortunately, unlike the Merovingian kingdom of Gaul or the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania, Theoderic’s Ostrogothic kingdom did not survive long after his death in 526. His daughter’s murder in 535, on the orders of his nephew Theodahad, gave the emperor Justinian the excuse he needed to invade Italy. The resulting twenty year war did more to destroy the classical heritage of Italy than any violence inflicted upon it by any of the previous invading ‘barbarian’ armies.

Following the belated Byzantine victory, a quasi-military state was created which, owing to a lack of imperial attention following Justinian’s death in 565 was for the most part overrun by the Lombards who controlled most of Italy until Charlemagne’s army managed to expel them in the late 770s. Yet, despite the crushing defeat of the Ostrogoths in 554, Theoderic’s memory was never forgotten. As early as the seventh century, Theoderic was remembered as Dietrich von Bern who became a mythological hero within the high German sagas of the middle ages, even making a brief appearance in the revered Nibelungenlied.

In hindsight, though a ‘barbarian’, Theoderic was instrumental in aiding the transference of classical ideology in its late antique form into the early middle ages. Without Theoderic’s ‘barbarian’ rule, it is quite possible that Italy would have continued its territorial, social and economic decline as self-serving aristocrats and devastating warlords fought over the spoils of the once great Western Roman Empire. Instead, Theoderic’s stable and prosperous rule renewed the vigour of Roman Italy, reversing its decline and fomenting a late antique renaissance that successfully passed its traditions into the succeeding centuries.

[1] The idea that the Western Roman Empire had come to an end with the disposition of Romulus Augustulus first appears in Constantinople in the second and third decades of the sixth century. See B. Croke “AD 476: The Manufacture of a Turning Point,” Chiron 13 (1983) pp. 81-119 (reprinted in Brian Croke, Christian Chronicles and Byzantine History, 5th-6th Centuries (1992), Chapter V).

[2]Anonymi Valesiani pars posterior .60

[3] Synesius, De Regno 15.10

[4] Theophanes AM 5977 Theoderic had a great reputation among both the barbarians and the Romans for bravery and providence and was not without a share of education. For he had once been a hostage in Byzantium and had studied under the best teachers.

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