The empire in the West was over. Italy was now a barbarian kingdom run by Odoacer, an Ostrogothic chieftain. But we’ll get back to him – first lets look at the early career of a young upwardly mobile barbarian called Theoderic. He had been born into the royal family of the Ostrogoths shortly after the death of Attila. The Ostrogoths had been vassals of the Huns and had joined him in is attempt to overthrow the Western Roman Empire. When he had been unexpectedly driven back, and then unexpectedly died the Ostrogoths took their chance and grabbed their independence.
They were located in Pannonia at this stage – nominally still a Roman province but actually beyond any actual imperial authority. It is very roughly the area south of the Danube just downstream from Vienna. The Ostrogoths had solved their political problems by breaking away from the Huns but still had economic problems. They were in fact on the point of starvation. So they set off south towards Constantinople with the intention of converting their military skills and ferocity into hard cash.
The path was a well worn one. The barbarians made sure that they caused enough trouble to make sure that the empire saw the wisdom of hiring them. As part of the deal Theoderic – as a child of the royal family – was handed over to be held hostage in the imperial household. This gave him the benefit of a civilised education. He certainly learnt a lot about the way Roman society worked which he was to put to good use in his later career. This didn’t however extend to actually learning to write.
But literacy was no longer a key skill in the Roman army and as he grew older his abilities as a commander were recognised and he was given the title of magister miletum and was even appointed as a consul. At the age of 31 he returned to his tribe to take up its leadership – this was quite likely to have been an elected role – so he wouldn’t have been a shoe in. He needed to merit the role. So he was now both an official of the Roman Empire and a traditional tribal leader Just how this worked is a bit hard to determine, and my guess is that it was probably a bit ambiguous at the time.
What we can say for sure is that the job of keeping Theoderic and his Ostrogoths loyal to the authority of the empire was not an easy one. For example he was ordered to deal with a rebellion by another group of Ostrogoths led by another Theoderic. He carried out the order in his own way and ended up in charge of both groups, and thus now even more powerful. The Byzantine Emperor was no doubt right to feel uncomfortable.
The empire had faced the same situation some hundred years before. Faced with a similar powerful Gothic leader in the form of Alaric, the two halves of the empire had done their best to get him into the other half. There was no longer an emperor in the west of course – Italy was being run as an effectively independent state by the German tribal leader Odoacer, and he could easily become more ambitious still. But the same logic applied. By directing Theoderic against Odoacer the two threats would be neutralised. Ideally they would fight each other to a stalemate and leave the Byzantines alone. Theoderic was invited to invade Italy and to rule it until the emperor came.
That actually wasn’t too far off the actual text of the deal between the two men. It is hard to say whether the idea was that Theoderic was to simply hold onto Italy on behalf of the emperor, or if it was to be his. I imagine that nobody at the time was sure either.
In any event, Theoderic triumphed relatively quickly over Odoacer. He had the support of the local population, at least at first, as Odoacer was not at all popular. Getting the backing of the Senate needed a bit more work, but they came round when the campaign was clearly swinging in his direction and support for Theoderic began to coincide with self interest. He was able to trap Odoacer in Ravenna. He finally finished him off by a simple ruse. He agreed to a peace deal, but then simply murdered him – personally – at a feast held to celebrate the agreement.
This is hardly the most noble of starting point for a reign. But these were savage times, and Theoderic was a long way from the worst ruler Italy could have ended up with. His policy was one that we would describe as apartheid. The Goths were assigned a third of the Senate’s lands. This was a continuation of Odoacer’ s policy and indeed was a memory of the late empire’s policy of billeting allied barbarian troops. There were some 200,000 Goths following Theoderic, so this was some imposition.
Two legal systems were run. One for the Goths, and one for the Romans. Needless to say, the Goths had the more privileged one. But the Romans did at least still have the rule of law to protect them to some extent and so by the standards of the time it wasn’t too bad a deal. Compared to the rapacious exactions of the Huns and the Vandals Theoderic was a pretty good option. He also used his military resources for the benefit of the inhabitants of Italy as well by putting a stop to raids by the Vandals.
While it is important never to forget that Theoderic was an illiterate barbarian who owed his position to an aptitude for violence, his court was a surprisingly civilised one utilising the talents of Roman administrators. One of these in particular shines very brightly on the pages of history. His name was Boethius, and he was in many ways the last serious figure of the western Roman tradition. He was descended from a Roman family of influence, who had in the past produced emperors. He entered public service at an early age and held a number of posts culminating in Magister Officiorum – which can probably be translated as boss of the offices. He was a sort of fixer able to conjure up the kind of thing that only cultured and well connected people can. He sorted out a water clock as a present to Gundobad, the King of the Burgundians. He arranged the services of a top notch lute player to impress Clovis, the Frankish king. And as a Greek speaker he could handle diplomacy with the Byzantine Empire.
It was probably some faux pas connected to the relationship with Constantinople that led to his untimely death. He was accused of plotting against Theoderic in an obviously trumped up charge – but given that the two men worked closely with each other who knows what the real reasons for their estrangement were. But while Boethius had the brilliance, Theodoric had the power and the Roman ended up in prison under sentence of death.
He spent quite a while on death row which might well mean that Theoderic had half a mind to spare him. This was a good thing for the later reputation of Boethius, because it gave him the time to write what was to become his great legacy – The Consolations of Philosophy. This was a hugely popular and influential work in the Middle Ages. King Alfred of England even did an English translation. It’s main contribution to human thought is to explain how free will can be reconciled with an all powerful God. Later civilisation can thank Theoderic foe giving his minister a rest from day to day business and time to work on something of more long term value. Of course Boethius did end up either decapitated or garrotted – sources vary – so I suppose it was sort of swings and roundabouts from his point of view. Let’s hope he was able to be philosophical about it.
Ravenna was to be Theodoric’s capital for the next 33 years. As Odoacer had demonstrated, Italy was quite capable of being run completely independently of the emperor’s wishes and Theoderic had a free hand to do exactly as he chose. But he chose not to openly flaunt his independence and his reign continued to nominally respect the authority of Constantinople. But nominal is the word. Respecting Roman law for his non-Gothic subjects avoided one source of conflict, but was no doubt a sensible policy anyway. He certainly pursued his own foreign policy. He was opposed to the Vandal kingdom in Africa and forged alliances with other barbarian kingdoms against it. The aim appeared to be to establish himself as a de facto ruler in the west to try to fill the power vacuum left by the fall of the empire. His successes in this arena were only modest, but he was playing on a tough pitch.
But while there is no doubt that Theoderic was like all politicians motivated largely by self interest, he very much played the ideal role from the point of view of the Byzantine Empire. He provided a very useful buffer against further barbarian aggression from the West, particularly from the Vandals. At the same time he wasn’t strong enough to create a state big and powerful enough to threaten Byzantium himself. It is also worth pondering how much damage such a strong piece on the chessboard could have done deployed further to the east. As such, the biggest effect of his long reign was to create the preconditions to enable some able ruler to realise the potential power of the Byzantine Empire.