Theodoric the Great

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Ostrogothic king, "the Amal" (475526) and ruler of Italy; b. c. 455; d. Aug. 30, 526, in Ravenna. While a hostage in Constantinople (462471), he conceived an admiration for Greco-Roman culture, and this, together with his gifts of leadership and his barbarian power, made him the greatest of the first Germanic kings. As ruler of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia, he found himself in a struggle with Emperor Zeno and with Theodoric Strabo, a fellow Ostrogothic chieftain who died in 481. When Theodoric made peace with Zeno in 483, he received new lands and the titles Master of Troops and Patrician. In 488 Zeno commissioned him to occupy Italy and to drive out Odoacer, then dominating the peninsula. Theodoric won a decisive battle at the Adda River in 490, but only in 493 did he capture Ravenna and murder Odoacer.

As king of the Ostrogoths, in control of military power, he governed Italy as the emperor's viceroy and, with the support of the senatorial aristocracy, maintained the traditional Roman government. From Ravenna Theodoric governed wisely, restored prosperity, and encouraged arts and letters. Distrustful of the emperors in Constantinople, he strove to form a confederation of the western Germanic kingdoms. Matrimonial alliances with rulers of the Franks, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Heruls, and Thuringians contributed to this policy, but the rapid rise of Clovis upset his plan and led him to extend his own power into Provence and to assume control of the Visigothic monarchy.

Theodoric's religious policy was to preserve the separation of the Arian Ostrogoths and the Catholic Italo-Romans. cassiodorus considered this toleration a farsighted policy, but it may have sprung from expediency as much as from principle. Theodoric allowed the Church greater liberty than did most Germanic kings and was reluctant to intervene in Church matters. Invited by the Catholics to mediate the dispute between Pope sym machus and the antipope Lawrence (498506), Theodoric, himself an Arian, vacillated but then supported Symmachus. He protected Catholics from the efforts of Zeno and Anastasius to promote monophysitism. The acacian schism (482519) worked to his advantage, but he raised no obstacles when Pope Hormisdas carried on negotiations that ended it. After 523, Theodoric's program broke down as a result of the measures of the Emperor justin i against eastern Arians. Theodoric, with reason, saw in them an attempt to undermine his position in Italy. When certain prominent Romans endorsed Justin's measures, Theodoric suspected treason. In these circumstances he executed boethius and the senator Symmachus on political charges. Late in 525 Theodoric sent Pope John I to Constantinople to secure an amelioration of Justin's decrees, but John returned without all the desired concessions and died of natural causes soon after being imprisoned by Theodoric. Before his own death Theodoric procured the election of his own candidate, felix iv, as pope.

Bibliography: Decrees, edicts in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Auctores Antiquissimi 12:393455; Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Leges 5:145179. a. nagl, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 5.2:174571. w. ensslin, Theoderich der Grosse (2d ed. Munich 1959). e. stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire, tr. j. r. palanque (Paris 194959) v.2.

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Theodoric the Great

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Theodoric the Great

King of the Ostrogoths and conqueror of Italy, Theodoric the Great (c. 453-526) was the second barbarian to rule as king in Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.

Theodoric was the son of Theudemir, king of the Ostrogoths, a Germanic people who moved into the Roman Empire in the 5th century and who were initially retained as military allies by the Roman emperors. Theodoric was born in Pannonia. In 461, in keeping with barbarian-Roman custom, he was sent to the imperial court at Constantinople as a hostage for his people's behavior. He attracted imperial attention and received a Roman education before returning to his people in 471.

Upon his father's death in 474, Theodoric became king of the Ostrogoths. He was a vigorous and intelligent ruler, and although allied with Rome, he disliked Roman officials and possibly the terms of the treaty allying him with the Romans. On several occasions he threatened Roman settlements, and in 487 he began a march on Constantinople. The emperor Zeno convinced Theodoric that the Western part of the empire offered richer plunder than the East, and he commissioned Theodoric to go to Italy and to punish the barbarian general Odoacer, who had in 476 dismissed Zeno's coemperor and assumed his rule. Theodoric's mission was to defeat Odoacer and pacify Italy.

Theodoric marched into Italy, and by 493 he had defeated Odoacer's army, killed the usurper, and established himself with the official title of Patrician and Master of Soldiers as the actual ruler of Italy. His position, however, was not secure. He had been given his Italian commission primarily to prevent him from capturing Constantinople. His titles did not prevent Roman aristocrats in both East and West from regarding him as an uncouth barbarian invader, little better than Odoacer. Moreover, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths were Arians, their heretical version of Christianity being particularly repellent to orthodox Romans.

Theodoric's Roman education, however, offered him a means of reconciling some of the profound differences between Goths and Romans. He genuinely admired many of the Romans' social institutions, and he employed as ministers Roman aristocrats, first the philosopher Boethius and later the statesman and author Casiodorus. Theodoric retained royal title over his own subjects, but he did not claim to be king of the Romans in Italy. He depended upon his "official" status as Master of Soldiers, and his documents consistently echoed his view that the Goths were in Italy only to protect and to preserve Roman civilization by force of arms. His personal "Romanism" and the propaganda work of his subordinate officials thus made him and his people, for a time at least, acceptable to the Romans. Theodoric ruled from Ravenna, not Rome, and he beautified his capital with magnificent architectural works. He restored cities, cultivated the arts, and repeatedly announced his admiration of Roman antiquity.

After 507, however, the Arianism of the Goths and their presence in Italy began increasingly to alienate the Romans. In a fit of cruelty, Theodoric imprisoned and later executed his secretary, Boethius. The growing hostility of the Emperor at Constantinople made Theodoric distrustful of the Romans, and he persecuted Pope John I in 526 and later demanded that all churches be turned over to the Arians. During the last years of his reign, Theodoric attempted to rule within a loose framework of Roman institutions and pro-Roman propaganda. However, rebellions sprang up, his Gothic subjects grew restive under Roman rule, and the military power of the East fomented distrust and revolt among the Romans. When Theodoric died in 526, he was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric under the regency of Theodoric's daughter Amalasuntha.

Further Reading

The most extensive biography of Theodoric is by Thomas Hodgkin, Theodoric the Great (1891, rep. 1980). For historical background see J. B. Bury, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (1928), and H. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages, 395-814 (1935).

Additional Sources

Moorhead, John, Theoderic in Italy, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. □

Theodoric the Great

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Theodoric the Great (454–526) King of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy. He drove Odoacer from Italy (488) and attempted to recreate the Western Roman Empire with himself as emperor. Religious differences and political rivalries frustrated his empire-building, and his kingdom was destroyed by Justinian I after his death.

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