Theodoric the Great, also called Theodoric the Amal, was king of the Ostrogoths from 471 to 526. He ruled the independent Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy from 493 to 526 and was a patrician of the Eastern Roman Empire. Some scholars see him as a Western Roman Emperor in all but name, given that he ruled large portions of the former Western Roman Empire.

Theodoric was transported as a captive to Constantinople as the infant son of an Ostrogothic lord, where he spent his formative years and acquired an East Roman education (paideia). Theodoric returned to Pannonia in 470 and waged war against the Sarmatians and fought for influence among the Goths of the Roman Balkans throughout the 470s. In 483 A.D., Emperor Zeno appointed him leader of the Eastern Roman armies, and in 484 A.D., he was appointed consul. Theodoric, on the other hand, was always against the emperor and kept stealing from East Roman land.

Theodoric attacked the Itaian king Odoacer in 489 at Zeno’s behest, emerging triumphant in 493. As the new ruler of Italy, he preserved a Roman judicial administration and academic culture and pushed for a massive construction program throughout the country. In 505, he moved into the Balkans, and by 511, he had established hegemony over the Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms and placed the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain under his direct rule. Theodoric died in 526 and was interred in Ravenna’s magnificent mausoleum. He was immortalized as Dietrich von Bern in Germanic heroic mythology.

 

Europe at the death of Theoderic the Great in 526
Europe at the death of Theoderic the Great in 526

Early Life

Theodoric was born on the shores of the Neusiedler Sea at Carnuntum in Pannonia in the year 454 as the son of King Theodemir and his concubine Ereleuva. This was only a year after the Ostrogoths had overthrown the Huns after almost a century of dominance. Linguists have figured out that his name, *iudareiks, which comes from the Gothic language, means “people-king” or “ruler of the people.”

He was taken hostage to secure compliance with a treaty concluded by Emperor Leo I (ruled 457–474). Theodor was well educated by Constantinople’s best teachers. He learned to read, write, and perform arithmetic while in captivity in the Eastern Empire.

When Leo learned that his imperial army was withdrawing from the Goths at Pannonia, he dispatched Theodoric home with gifts and no promises of future service. Upon his return in 469 or 470, Theodoric gained control of the Goth provinces previously held by his uncle Valamir, while his father was crowned king. Not long after, in Singidunum (modern Belgrade) in upper Moesia, the Tisza Sarmatian monarch Babai expanded his authority at the cost of Constantinople. Legitimizing his standing as a warrior, Theodoric crossed the Danube with six thousand troops, fought the Sarmatians, and murdered Babai. This likely solidified his position and signified the beginning of his reign, although he had not yet ascended to the throne. Perhaps in order to show his power as an Amali ruler, Theodoric maintained the acquired territory of Singidunum for himself.

 

Adversaries

Throughout the 470s, Theodoric waged operations against possible Gothic competitors and other adversaries of the Eastern Empire, establishing himself as a prominent military and political figure. Theodoric Strabo, the chieftain of the Thracian Goths (Strabo meaning “the Squinter”), who had led a significant insurrection against Emperor Zeno, was one of his principal adversaries. Zeno praised Theodoric for reaching an agreement with the emperor and appointed him commander of East Roman forces, while his people joined the Roman army as foederati, or federated members.

Zeno sought to play one Germanic chieftain against another and take advantage of an opening in 476/477 when he gave Theodoric Strabo the command formerly held by Theodoric after hearing Theodoric’s pleas for more regions since his people were experiencing starvation. Theodoric, enraged by this treachery, directed his fury against the villages in the Rhodope Mountains, where his men seized cattle and murdered peasants, destroyed and burned Stobi in Macedonia, and demanded supplies from the archbishop of Heraclea. Theodoric originally resisted a compromise, despite the fact that Zeno was ultimately compelled to reach a settlement as a result of Gothic pillage. Theodoric dispatched one of his trusted advisors, Sidimund, to Epidaurum to negotiate with Zeno. During the negotiations between the Roman ambassador and Theodoric, Zeno dispatched troops against some of Theodoric’s carts, which were guarded by his able general Theodimund. Unaware of the betrayal, Theodoric’s Goths lost around 2,000 wagons, and 5,000 of their people were captured.

In 479, he resettled his people in Epirus with the assistance of his relative Sidimund. He attacked Greece in 482 and sacked Larissa. Unfortunate circumstances brought forth by misfortune, rebellions, and poor choices compelled Zeno to seek another agreement with Theodoric. Theodoric governed the Danubian provinces of Dacia Ripensis and Moesia Inferior, as well as the neighboring areas, when Zeno appointed him magister militum praesentalis and consul designate in 483.

 

Reign

Odoacer

In pursuit of more conquests, Theodoric regularly destroyed the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, ultimately posing a danger to Constantinople. By the year 486, there was little doubt concerning Theodoric and Zeno’s outright hostility. The emperor enlisted the help of the Bulgarians, who were also beaten by Theodoric. In 487, Theodoric began his aggressive campaign against Constantinople by blockading the city. He  occupied strategically important suburbs, and cut off the city’s water supply. However, it appears that Theodoric never intended to occupy the city, but rather, to use the assault to gain power and prestige from the Eastern Empire.

The Ostrogoths needed a place to live, and Zeno had serious problems with Odoacer, the Germanic foederatus, and the King of Italy. Even though he was Zeno’s viceroy, he threatened Byzantine land and didn’t respect the rights of Romans in Italy. Zeno persuaded Theodoric to depose Odoacer in 488. For this mission, he obtained assistance from the son of Theodoric’s cousin Giso, King Frideric of Romania. Theodoric and his followers migrated to Italy in the fall of 488. The Gepids, whom he vanquished in August 489 at Sirmium, presented a challenge to him while on the journey. Theodoric arrived in Italy in 489 and won the wars of the Isonzo and Verona.

In the year 490, Zeno urged Theodoric to battle Odoacer once more. Odoacer’s soldiers beat Theodoric’s army in Faenza in 490, but Theodoric’s army got the upper hand again on August 11, 490, when they won the Battle of the Adda River. On the Italian peninsula, Odoacer and Theodoric’s armies engaged in a protracted struggle for power. In 493, Theodoric conquered Ravenna.
 
On February 2, 493, Theodoric and Odoacer signed a treaty stating that each would rule over Italy. During a feast to celebrate the new treaty, Theodoric killed Odoacer and his devoted followers, an act that made him king of Italy.

With Odoacer’s death and the dispersal of his armies, Theodoric was now confronted with settling his people. Concerned about excessively thinning out the Amal line, Theodoric feared he could not afford to disperse his 40,000 tribesmen throughout the whole Italian peninsula. Such factors led him to the conclusion that it was better to concentrate the Ostrogoths in three areas: Pavia, Ravenna, and Picenum. Theodoric’s empire was one of the most “Roman” of the barbarian ones, and after he betrayed Odoacer, he was able to keep most of Italy under his control for 33 years.

 

Marriage & Expansion
Through matrimonial partnerships, Theodoric expanded his rule over the Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms, as well as the Visigothic royals. He had wed the sister of Clovis, the powerful ruler of the Franks, perhaps in acknowledgement of Frankish might.
 
For his sister Amalafrida’s marriage to Thrasamund, king of the Vandals and Alans, he sent significant dowry accompanied by guard of 5,000 men. Theodoric expanded his territories in the Balkans by fighting the Gepids and gaining Pannonia in 504–505.
 
Theodoric became regent for the newborn Visigothic monarch, his grandson Amalaric, when Alaric II was defeated by Clovis’ Franks in 507.
 
In 511, Theodoric took direct leadership of the Visigothic Kingdom, creating Gothic superstate that stretched from the Atlantic to the Danube. Theodoric struck peace agreement with the successors of the Frankish Kingdom after Clovis’ death. 
 
In addition to the acts of church councils held in Tarragona and Gerona in 516 and 517, the “regnal years of Theoderic, which seem to begin in the year 511,” provide additional proof of the Gothic king’s expansive royal reach.

 

Death

Like Odoacer, Theodoric was a member of the Amal tribe and a viceroy of the Eastern Roman Empire. He was able to avoid imperial supervision, and his dealings with Emperor Anastasius I were as equals. He allowed Roman citizens within his kingdom to be subject to Roman law and the judicial system, but he lived under his own laws and customs. In 519, when a mob burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, he ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.

He had married off his daughter Amalasuintha to the Visigoth Eutharic, but died before their marriage could be consummated. The new augustus, Justin I, was under the influence of his nephew Justinian and imperial views hardened against the West. Talk of Rome’s fall emerged during this period, leading to questions about the legitimacy of barbarian rule. Theodoric’s good relations with the Roman Senate deteriorated due to a presumed senatorial conspiracy; he had Boethius and Symmachus were arrested for treason. In spite of their complicated relationship, Theodoric and his son-in-law, the Catholic Burgundian king Sigismund, enjoyed fifteen years of mutual peace. Theodoric eventually invaded the Burgundian kingdom alongside the Franks after Sigismund murdered his own son, Theodoric’s grandson Sigeric. Sigismund’s Burgundian army was defeated. Godomar, Sigismund’s Arian brother, governed the remaining Burgundian kingdom for a decade as king.

When Theodoric’s sister Amalafrida attempted to alter the course of Vandal succession after the death of her husband, the former Vandal king Thrasamund, the new Catholic Vandal ruler Hilderic had her and her accompanying Gothic retinue executed. Theodoric, who was enraged, planned an expedition to reclaim the Vandal kingdom but died of dysentery in the summer of 526. Since Athalaric was just ten years old when Theodoric passed away, his granddaughter Amalasuintha served as regent. Her duty was to carry out the deceased ruler’s political will, negotiate with the senate, and keep the peace with the emperor. Theodoric’s grandson Amalaric governed the newly independent Visigothic kingdom for the following five years after the Goths were eventually divided. 

 

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Recommended Books

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History of the Goths by Herwig Wolfram
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Sources

  • © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, December 5). Theodoric the Great. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodoric_the_Great

  • Droysen/Andrée; G. Kossina rev., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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