The Ostrogoths, like the Visigoths, were an Indo-European group that first appears in the archaeological record in Poland in the first century b.c. From Poland the ancestors of the Ostrogoths seem to have migrated southeast rather than due south, as did the ancestors of the Visigoths, and this is why they are known as the Ostrogoths, or East Goths. They finally settled down to farm in the Ukraine, on the northern shores of the Black Sea. At that time they probably were not unified as a group and did not have a king.
In the course of the fourth century a.d., however, the Huns, leaving eastern Siberia, migrated in a group across northern Asia to the Ukraine, where they pushed the Ostrogoths out of their traditional homeland, forcing them to move to central Europe (modern-day Austria). Even after moving to central Europe, however, the Ostrogoths still suffered from Hunnic harassment, and soon they were taken over entirely by the Huns.
In a.d. 453 Attila, the king of the Huns, died, and his empire collapsed amid squabbling among his weaker sons. The Ostrogoths were able to take advantage of this disunity to break free of Hunnic control and reestablish their independence. According to tradition, they chose as their leaders three brothers, one of whom was Theudemir. By the midfifth century a.d., the Ostrogoths increasingly were involved with Roman politics. As a pledge for one of the Ostrogothic arrangements with the Romans, the Ostrogothic king Theudemir sent his own son, Theodoric (Dietrich in German), to live at the Roman court in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Theodoric was eight years old at the time, and he therefore grew up culturally as Roman as he was Ostrogothic. When Theodoric was eighteen, in a.d. 475, his father died, and Theodoric returned home to rule his people.
In a.d. 476 the last of the Roman emperors in the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Odoacer the Hun, who declared himself king of Italy. The Roman emperor Zeno in Constantinople, to the east, objected to this usurpation and tried to put in his own candidate, Julius Nepos. Zeno, however, lacked the military manpower to send troops to assert his authority in Italy. In 488 he therefore invited the former hostage Theodoric, the young king of the Ostrogoths, to invade Italy at the head of his Ostrogothic army, on Zeno's behalf. Theodoric agreed, and his prompt invasion of Italy was entirely successful. Odoacer was killed, and Theodoric became the leader of Italy as well as the king of the Ostrogoths.
Theodoric was an able and ambitious man, and although he always maintained his allegiance to the Roman emperor in Constantinople, he did very well for himself in the west during his long reign. He married a sister of Clovis, king of the Franks. Theodoric sent one of his own daughters to be married to the Visigothic king Alaric II, and when Alaric was killed in the battle of Vouillé in a.d. 507, he established himself as regent for his young grandson Amalaric. In this way Theodoric was able to rule both Italy and Spain for much of his life, with varying degrees of influence over southern France as well.
Under the rule of Theodoric, Italy seems to have prospered as well. The archaeological evidence suggests that people were still farming and the city of Rome still functioning at this time, although Rome certainly was losing population. Italy also was part of a great Mediterranean world. Despite the takeover of North Africa by the Vandals in a.d. 429, African red slip pottery continued to be imported to Italy throughout the period of Ostrogothic rule.
When Theodoric died in a.d. 526, he left no sons. His grandson Amalaric (a cousin of the child Amalaric above) succeeded him, with Theodoric's daughter Amalasuntha acting as regent for the ten-year-old boy. Under Amalasuntha's guidance, Amalaric was educated in the Roman fashion and learned to read and write. Soon Amalasuntha's influence was shunted aside in favor of less Romanized advisers, and Amalaric was diverted to more military and traditional Ostrogothic pursuits, including heavy drinking. On the death of Amalaric in a.d. 534, Amalasuntha became queen in her own right. She took on her cousin Theodahad as her partner in power, but Theodahad soon had Amalasuntha imprisoned and then, in 535, murdered.
By this time, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in Constantinople had noticed the weakness and instability of Ostrogothic rule now that Theodoric was dead, and he was preparing to invade. Justinian's army, under the able general Belisarius, conquered North Africa in 533 and then, in quick succession, Sicily and Italy in 536. When Belisarius landed at Naples, the Ostrogoths at first were defeated soundly. Justinian was suspicious of Belisarius' loyalty, however, and recalled him to Italy; the Ostrogoths seized the opportunity to revolt. The war that ensued spanned twenty years and devastated Italy. In the end the Byzantine army prevailed, and the last Ostrogothic king, Totila, was killed in battle in a.d. 552.
Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Moorhead, John. Theoderic in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.