# 9.3: Theoderic the Great

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### Learning Objective

• Analyze the political and military considerations that led to Theoderic’s rise to power

### Key Points

• Theoderic the Great was King of the Ostrogoths, a tribe of Germanic peoples in close relation to the Eastern Roman Empire.
• Zeno, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, enlisted Theoderic to defeat the current King of Italy, Odoacer.
• Theoderic defeated and killed Odoacer and took over as ruler of Italy, where he reigned successfully for 33 years.
• Under Theoderic, a considerable degree of Roman and Germanic cultural and political fusion was achieved; slowly but surely, the distinction between Germanic rulers and Roman subjects faded, followed by varying degrees of “cultural assimilation,” which included the adoption of the Gothic language by some of the indigenous people of the former Roman Empire.
• Theoderic died in 526 while planning an expedition to restore his power over the Vandal kingdom; his death soon led to the collapse of the Ostrogothic reign.

### Terms

#### Ostrogoths

The eastern branch of the Germanic tribes; they traced their origins to the Greutungi, a branch of the Goths who had migrated southward from the Baltic Sea and established a kingdom north of the Black Sea during the 3rd and 4th centuries.

#### Visigoths

The western branches of the nomadic tribes of Germanic peoples referred to collectively as the Goths.

#### Zeno

Eastern Roman Emperor from 474–475 and again from 476–491, whose reign saw the end of the Western Roman Empire under Romulus Augustus.

# Overview

Theoderic the Great (454–526) was king of the Ostrogoths (475–526), ruler of Italy (493–526), regent of the Visigoths (511–526), and a patricius of the Roman Empire. His Gothic name translates into “people-king” or “ruler of the people.”

Theoderic was born in Pannonia in 454, after his people had defeated the Huns at the Battle of Nedao. His father was King Theodemir, a Germanic Amali nobleman, and his mother was Ereleuva. Theoderic grew up as a hostage in Constantinople, received a privileged education, 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 their peoples in 484.

Emperor Zeno subsequently gave Theoderic the title of Patrician and the office of Magister militum (master of the soldiers), and even appointed him Roman 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 German Foederatus Odoacer, who had likewise been made Patrician and even King of Italy, but who had since betrayed Zeno, supporting the rebellious Leontius. After a victorious three-year war, Theoderic killed Odoacer with his own hands, settled his 200,000 to 250,000 people in Italy, and founded an Ostrogothic Kingdom based in Ravenna. While he promoted separation between the Arian Ostrogoths and the Roman population, Theoderic stressed the importance of racial harmony, though intermarriage was outlawed. Seeking to restore the glory of Ancient Rome, he ruled Italy in its most peaceful and prosperous period since Valentinian until his death in 526. Memories of his reign made him a hero of German legend as Dietrich von Bern.

Theoderic the Great
Bronze statue of Theoderic the Great (by Peter Vischer, 1512–13), from the monument of Emperor Maximilian I in the Court Church at Innsbruck.

# Relationship with Byzantium and Overthrow of Odoacer

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, he and Zeno 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.

Theoderic came with his army to Italy in 488, where he won the battles of Isonzo and Verona in 489 and the battle at the Adda in 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 organized in order to celebrate this treaty. It was at this banquet that Theoderic, after making a toast, drew his sword and struck Odoacer on the collarbone, killing him.

# Ruler of Italy

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 relations between 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 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 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. The term “Visigoth” was actually an invention of this period. Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theoderic the Great, invented the term “Visigothi” to match that of “Ostrogothi;” he thought of these terms as signifying “western Goths” and “eastern Goths” respectively. The western–eastern division was a simplification (and a literary device) of 6th-century historians; political realities were more complex. Both tribes had variable relations with Rome throughout their history, ranging from direct conflict to treaties and mutual support.

# Decline and Death

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 below), but in 523 or 524 the new Catholic Vandal king Hilderic imprisoned Theoderic’s sister Amalafrida and killed her Gothic guard. Theoderic was planning an expedition to restore his power over the Vandal kingdom when he died in 526.

After his death in Ravenna in 526, Theoderic was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric. Athalaric was at first represented by his mother Amalasuntha, who was a regent queen from 526 until 534. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths, however, began to wane and was conquered by Justinian I starting after the rebellion of 535 and finally ending in 553 with the Battle of Mons Lactarius. Theoderic may have tried too hard to accommodate the various people under his dominion; indulging “Romans and Goths, Catholics and Arians, Latin and barbarian culture” resulted in the eventual failure of the Ostrogothic reign and the subsequent “end of Italy as the heartland of late antiquity.”

Europe in 526
The Ostrogothic Kingdom (in yellow) at the death of Theoderic the Great in 526 AD.