Theoderic the Great
Medallion featuring Theoderic, c. AD 491–501. Note Germanic moustache and hairstyle, and possible elongated skull.
|King of the Ostrogoths|
|Reign||475 – 30 August 526|
|King of Italy|
|Reign||15 March 493 – 30 August 526|
|King of the Visigoths|
|Reign||511 – 30 August 526|
|Died||30 August 526 (aged 71–72)|
Ravenna, Kingdom of Italy
Theoderic the Great (454 – 30 August 526), often referred to as Theodoric (//; Gothic: *𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌰𐍂𐌴𐌹𐌺𐍃, *Þiudareiks, Latin: Flāvius Theodericus, Italian: Teodorico, Greek: Θευδέριχος, Theuderikhos, Old English: Þēodrīc, Old Norse: Þjōðrēkr, German: Theoderich), was king of the Ostrogoths (475–526), ruler of Italy (493–526), regent of the Visigoths (511–526), and a patrician of the Roman Empire. As ruler of the combined Gothic realms, Theoderic controlled an empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Adriatic Sea. He kept good relations between Ostrogoths and Romans, maintained a Roman legal administration and oversaw a flourishing scholarly culture and the largest building program in Italy in 100 years.
Theoderic was born in Pannonia in 454 as the son of king Theodemir, a Germanic Amali nobleman, and his concubine Ereleuva. From 461 to 471, Theoderic grew up as a hostage in Constantinople, received a privileged education under imperial direction, and succeeded his father as leader of the Pannonian Ostrogoths in 473. Settling his people in lower Moesia, Theoderic came into conflict with Thracian Ostrogoths led by Theodoric Strabo, whom he eventually supplanted, uniting the peoples in 484. Emperor Zeno subsequently gave him the title of Patrician, Vir gloriosus, and the office of magister militum (master of the soldiers), and even appointed him as consul. Seeking further gains, Theoderic frequently ravaged the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, eventually threatening Constantinople itself. In 488, Emperor Zeno ordered Theoderic to overthrow the Germanic foederatus and King of Italy, Odoacer. After a victorious four-year war, Theoderic killed Odoacer with his own hands while they shared a meal, settled his 200,000 to 250,000 people in Italy, and founded an Ostrogothic Kingdom based in Ravenna. Theoderic extended his hegemony over the Burgundian and Vandal Kingdoms through marriage alliances. In 511, the Visigothic Kingdom was brought under Theoderic's direct control, forming a Gothic empire that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Adriatic Sea.
Theoderic's achievements began to unravel in his later years. The Burgundians and Vandals threw off Ostrogothic hegemony by 523, and Theoderic's presumptive heir to both Gothic realms and son-in-law Eutharic died in 522, throwing his succession into doubt. Theoderic's good relations with the Roman Senate deteriorated due to a presumed senatorial conspiracy in 522, and, in 523, Theoderic had the philosopher and court official Boethius and Boethius' father-in-law Symmachus executed on charges of treason related to the alleged plot. Theoderic died in Ravenna on 30 August 526, and was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric, with Theoderic's daughter Amalasuntha serving as regent. The Visigothic Kingdom re-acquired its independence on Theoderic's death.
Seeking to restore the glory of ancient Rome, he ruled Italy in its most peaceful and prosperous period since Valentinian I. Memories of his reign made him a hero of German legends, as Dietrich von Bern.
The man who would later rule under the name of Theoderic was born in AD 454, on the banks of the Neusiedler See near Carnuntum. This was just a year after the Ostrogoths had thrown off nearly a century of domination by the Huns. His Gothic name, which is reconstructed by linguists as *Þiudareiks, translates into "people-king" or "ruler of the people". The son of King Theodemir and Ereleuva, Theoderic went to Constantinople as a young boy, as a hostage to secure the Ostrogoths' compliance with a treaty Theodemir had concluded with the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Thracian (ruled 457–474).
He was Leo's hostage at the Great Palace of Constantinople from 461 to 471 and was well-educated by Constantinople's best teachers. Theoderic was treated with favor by the Emperors Leo I and Zeno (ruled 474–475 and 476–491). He settled his people in Epirus in 479 with the help of his relative Sidimund. Theoderic became magister militum (Master of Soldiers) in 483, and one year later he became consul in a ceremony in the presence of Emperor Zeno. Afterwards, he returned to live among the Ostrogoths when he was 31 years old and became their king in 488. The legend that he was illiterate arose from the fact that he used a stamp to affix his approval of laws; he no doubt spoke Latin and Greek and could read these languages although one cannot know how well.
At the time, the Ostrogoths were settled in Byzantine territory as foederati (allies) of the Romans, but were becoming restless and increasingly difficult for Zeno to manage. Not long after Theoderic became king, the two men worked out an arrangement beneficial to both sides. The Ostrogoths needed a place to live, and Zeno was having serious problems with Odoacer, the King of Italy who had come to power in 476. Ostensibly a viceroy for Zeno, Odoacer was menacing Byzantine territory and not respecting the rights of Roman citizens in Italy. At Zeno's encouragement, Theoderic invaded Odoacer's kingdom. In this endeavor he received the support of the Rugian king Frideric, who was the son of Theoderic's cousin Giso.
Theoderic moved with his people towards Italy in the autumn of 488. On the way he was opposed by the Gepids, whom he defeated at Sirmium in August 489. Arriving in Italy, Theoderic won the battles of Isonzo and Verona in 489. He was defeated by Odoacer at Faenza in 490, but regained the upper hand after securing victory in the Battle of the Adda River on August 11, 490. In 493 he took Ravenna. On February 2, 493, Theoderic and Odoacer signed a treaty that assured both parties would rule over Italy. A banquet was organised on 15 March 493 in order to celebrate this treaty. At this banquet, Theoderic, after making a toast, killed Odoacer. Theoderic drew his sword and struck him on the collarbone.
Like Odoacer, Theoderic was ostensibly only a viceroy for the emperor in Constantinople. In reality, he was able to avoid imperial supervision, and dealings between the emperor and Theoderic were as equals. Unlike Odoacer, however, Theoderic respected the agreement he had made and allowed Roman citizens within his kingdom to be subject to Roman law and the Roman judicial system. The Goths, meanwhile, lived under their own laws and customs. In 519, when a mob had burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, Theoderic ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.
Theoderic the Great sought alliances with, or hegemony over, the other Germanic kingdoms in the west. He allied with the Franks by his marriage to Audofleda, sister of Clovis I, and married his own female relatives to princes or kings of the Visigoths, Vandals and Burgundians. He stopped the Vandals from raiding his territories by threatening the weak Vandal king Thrasamund with invasion, and sent a guard of 5,000 troops with his sister Amalafrida when she married Thrasamund in AD 500. For much of his reign, Theoderic was the de facto king of the Visigoths as well, becoming regent for the infant Visigothic king, his grandson Amalaric, following the defeat of Alaric II by the Franks under Clovis in 507. The Franks were able to wrest control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths, but otherwise Theoderic was able to defeat their incursions.
Theoderic's achievements began to unravel even before his death. He had married off his daughter Amalasuntha to the Visigoth Eutharic, but Eutharic died in August 522 or 523, so no lasting dynastic connection of Ostrogoths and Visigoths was established. In 522, the Catholic Burgundian king Sigismund killed his own son, Theoderic's grandson, Sergeric. Theoderic retaliated by invading the Burgundian kingdom and then annexing its southern part, probably in 523. The rest was ruled by Sigismund's Arian brother Godomar, under Gothic protection against the Franks who had captured Sigismund. This brought the territory ruled by Theoderic to its height (see map), but in 523 or 524 the new Catholic Vandal king Hilderic imprisoned Amalafrida and killed her Gothic guard. Theoderic was planning an expedition to restore his power over the Vandal kingdom when he died in 526.
Family and progeny
Theoderic was married once.
He had a concubine in Moesia, name unknown, with whom he had two daughters:
- Theodegotha (ca. 473 – ?). In 494, she was married to Alaric II as a part of her father's alliance with the Visigoths.
- Ostrogotho (ca. 475 – ?). In 494 or 496, she was married to the king Sigismund of Burgundy as a part of her father's alliance with the Burgundians.
By his marriage to Audofleda in 493 he had one daughter:
- Amalasuntha, Queen of the Goths. She was married to Eutharic and had two children: Athalaric and Matasuntha (the latter being married to Witiges first, then, after Witiges' death, married to Germanus Justinus; neither had children). Any hope for a reconciliation between the Goths and the Romans in the person of a Gotho-Roman Emperor from this family lineage was shattered.
After his death in Ravenna in 526, Theoderic was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric. Athalaric was at first represented by his mother Amalasuntha, who served as regent from 526 until 534. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths, however, began to wane and was conquered by Justinian I in 553 after the Battle of Mons Lactarius.
Theoderic promoted the rebuilding of Roman cities and the preservation of ancient monuments in Italy. The fame of his building works reached far-away Syria. Theoderic's building program saw more extensive new construction and restoration than that of any of the Western Roman Emperors after Honorius (395–423).
Theoderic devoted most of his architectural attention to his capital, Ravenna. He restored Ravenna's water supply by repairing an aqueduct originally built by Trajan. He proceeded to construct a "Great Basilica of Hercules" next to a colossal statue of Hercules. To promote Arianism, the king commissioned a small Arian cathedral, the Hagia Anastasis, which contains the Arian Baptistery. Three more churches built by Theoderic in Ravenna and its suburbs, S. Andrea dei Goti, S. Giorgio and S. Eusebio, were destroyed in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.
Theoderic built the Palace of Theoderic for himself in Ravenna, modeled on the Great Palace of Constantinople. It was an expansion of an earlier Roman structure. The palace church of Christ the Redeemer survives and is known today as the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. An equestrian statue of Theoderic was erected in the square in front of the palace. This may have been the Regisole, which was moved to Pavia, then destroyed during the French Revolution by the local Jacobin Club.
Theoderic the Great was interred in Ravenna, but his bones were scattered and his mausoleum was converted to a church after Belisarius conquered the city in 540. His mausoleum is one of the finest monuments in Ravenna. Unlike all the other contemporary buildings in Ravenna, which were made of brick, the Mausoleum of Theoderic was built completely from fine quality stone ashlars.
The Palace of Domitian on the Palatine Hill was reconstructed, using the receipts from a specially levied tax. The city walls of Rome were rebuilt, a feat celebrated by the Senate of Rome with a gilded statue of Theoderic. The Senate's Curia, the Theatre of Pompey, the city aqueducts, sewers and a granary were refurbished and repaired. Statues were set up in the Flavian Amphitheatre.
In 522 the philosopher Boethius became his magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services). Boethius was a dedicated Hellenist bent on translating all the works of Aristotle into Latin and harmonizing them with the works of Plato. A year later, he was imprisoned and put to death after being accused of treasonous correspondence with the Eastern emperor Justin I.
In the meantime Cassiodorus had succeeded Boethius as magister in 523. The pliant historian and courtier could be counted on to provide refined touches to official correspondence. "To the monarch you [Cassiodorus] were a friendly judge and an honored intimate. For when he became free from his official cares, he looked to your conversation for the precepts of the sages, that he might make himself a worthy equal to the great men of old. Ever curious, he desired to hear about the courses of the stars, the tides of the sea, and legendary fountains, that his earnest study of natural science might make him seem to be a veritable philosopher in the purple" (Cassiodorus' letterbook, Variae 9.24.8). The gulf was widening between the ancient senatorial aristocracy, whose center was Rome, and the adherents of Gothic rule at Ravenna: other distinguished public figures followed Boethius to the block.
Theoderic in his final years was no longer the disengaged Arian patron of religious toleration that he had seemed earlier in his reign. "Indeed, his death cut short what could well have developed into a major persecution of Catholic churches in retaliation for measures taken by Justinian in Constantinople against Arians there."
Theoderic was of the Arian (Christian) faith. At the end of his reign quarrels arose with his Roman subjects and the Byzantine emperor Justin I over the Arianism issue. Relations between the two nations deteriorated, although Theoderic's ability dissuaded the Byzantines from waging war against him. After his death, that reluctance faded quickly.
Theoderich is an important figure in medieval German literature as Dietrich von Bern, and in Icelandic literature as Þiðrekr. In German legends, Dietrich becomes an exile from his native kingdom of Lombardy, fighting with the help of Etzel against his usurping uncle, Ermenrich. Only the Old High German Hildebrandslied still contains Odoacer as Dietrich's antagonist. The Old Norse version, based on German sources, moves the location of Dietrich (Thidrek)'s life to Westphalia and northern Germany. The legends paint a generally positive picture of Dietrich, with only some influence from the negative traditions of the church visible.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Theoderic the Great.|
| King of the Ostrogoths
| King of Italy|
Anicius Acilius Aginatius Faustus,
Post consulatum Trocundis (East)
| Consul of the Roman Empire
with Decius Marius Venantius Basilius
Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus,
Post consulatum Theoderici (East)