2-3. A Balkan Bust-Up: Theodoric the Great Pt 1

c. 460 to 479 CE

We welcome to the stage Theodoric, soon to be Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. In the process we catch up on the overwritten soap opera that was politics in Constantinople in the 470s. It’s a wild ride.

Hello and welcome to the Dark Ages Podcast. Today’s episode: A Balkan Bust-Up.

I need to open today with an apology. We delayed getting our flu shots this year, just because, you know, busy busy busy, and you paid the price for it. Well, I got the flu, so I paid the price for it a bit as well, but you all didn’t get the episode in the time I’d promised, and for that I ask you to forgive me. Hopefully my American listeners enjoyed their thanksgiving, and everyone else enjoyed their Thursday. This episode is a little bit longish, so no more time for jibble-jabble, it’s time to get on with it, and I, for one, am excited for this.

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, you’ve heard him mentioned in passing, he’s been darkly hinted at in poorly-executed foreshadowing, and he shares a name with not one but two rulers already discussed in this podcast, please put your hands together for the Pannonian Punisher, the Avenger of the Amal dynasty, the Gothic Godfather, himself: Theodoric the Great!

But seriously, today is a big day. Today we welcome to the stage one of the seminal figures of the post-Roman reality. Theodoric the Great, also known as Theodoric the Amal, became king of the Pannonian Ostrogoths in 471 and then ruled in Italy from 493 to 526, and at the height of his power controlled the greatest territory in western Europe. He never claimed the title, but through his diplomatic letters it’s clear that he considered himself an equal to the emperor in Constantinople, and his influence was felt and his opinion sought all over the continent. His reign and life are so big and important that it’s going to take well more than one episode to cover him, and we’ll keep on referring back to him for many episodes after that. Today I’ll deal with his early life, the world he grew up in, how he became king of the Ostrogoths and the tortuous political roads that would eventually lead him to Italy and immortality.

By necessity, this is going to be an episode constructed mainly out of digressions. There’s a fair amount of set up needed to get Theodoric from his birthplace somewhere in Hungary onto the throne of Ravenna, and some of that set up will involve Byzantine politics – literally – and we’ve already had a taste of how that goes. Nesting digressions, wheels within wheels, hopefully it will all make sense in the end. To mark these digressions and sections, I’ve come up with this, introducing the drums of digression. *** Hopefully they’re helpful and not annoying. 

To start with, I want to talk about sources.


Theodoric’s legacy is so important because he had what Odoacer did not: a flair for propaganda. Theodoric was a patron of historians and philosophers who would shape the perception of his reign. Most notable of these for our purposes is Cassiodorus, who wrote the history of the Goths that Jordanes would summarize for us later, as well as collecting many of Theodoric’s diplomatic letters. But as you may have already guessed, Cassiodorus is not an unbiased observer, and in the case of his history had a very specific goal, which was then transmitted to us through Jordanes.

I don’t know if I’ve been clear about this by the way, so momentary digression. The historical work “The Origin and Deeds of the Goths” (Getica for short) by Jordanes, to which I have referred frequently, is a brief summary of a much larger work by Cassiodorus, written a generation earlier. Jordanes, in his introduction to the Getica, notes that he only had a few days to work with the original, and was working from memory as he wrote. The original history by Cassiodorus is lost to us. It’s obvious from what’s come to us through Jordanes that Cassiodorus very much sought to establish an ancient and supremely noble lineage for his king and patron, and to present him as an equal to the Constantinian emperor and superior to all the other rulers of the west.

The most thorough source for the early life of Theodoric is the unfortunately incomplete history written by a Greek in Constantinople, named Malchus of Philadelphia. Of his 54 volume history, only two have survived, because they were compiled in a textbook called the Constantinian excerpts, for the use and education of emperors. For our purposes, though, the remaining volumes are, for the time they were written, quite thorough and chatty.

Enough of that, let’s move on and talk about Goths and Huns some more. I know.


I’ve talked about Goths til I’m blue in the face, and from what you would gather from this podcast, they seem like a pretty peripatetic bunch. 

Oh come on, you can do better than that; a pretty peripatetic people. 


But of course, for the vast majority of the time, I’ve been specifically talking about the Goths who followed Alaric and his dynasty out of the Balkans and into France and Spain via Italy. These goths, the visigoths, made up a tiny fraction of the people in Europe who spoke Gothic or thought of themselves as Gothic. There remained the Ostrogoths who broke loose from the failing Hunnic empire, who we’ve heard about. There were the Goths that had lived in Thrace since before the Huns’ coming. We also know of populations of Goths in Crimea and along the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, and probably many others far beyond the Carpathians and still under Hunnic domination, who we will never know about. It’s those first two groups, the Ostrogoths, and what I will call the Thracian Goths, that concern us today.

Europe in 477 CE, showing the Ostrogoth’s territory in Pannonia. Not shown are the many other Gothic populations found throughout the Balkans and European Steppe.

To take the Thracian Goths first. These were descendants of the very first wave of Gothic refugees to arrive on Roman soil, a generation or so before the Huns’ arrival. They had been settled by emperor Valens along the right bank of the Danube during Athanaric’s persecution of Christian converts. They lived in the standard arrangement, providing manpower to the roman army in return for the right to stay and work the land and make their living. History, as the man said, is just one damn thing after another, and things were up and down for the Thracian Goths, but overall their trajectory was up. So it came to be that after a hundred years there remained a now deeply rooted Gothic population in Thrace, led by a man named Theodoric.

That’s unfortunate, because he’s not the Theodoric that I introduced at the beginning of this episode. Theodoric means “ruler of the people” so was a pretty common name in aristocratic circles back in the day. Fortunately for us, this Theodoric also had a nickname, Theodoric “the squinter”, which in Greek is Theodoric “Strabo”. So that’s what I’m going to call him from here on out. Strabo.

How deeply rooted were Strabo’s Goths? Very. And they had had plenty of time to extend those roots and make connections in the Roman government, specifically in Constantinople. And here now it’s time for a new digression, to bring you up to speed with Constantinopolitan politics. You probably are going to want some hip waders, and brace yourself, the water’s cold.

Deep breath. 

And begin.


Semissis issued during Zeno’s second reign.

We don’t talk about Zeno. No wait, we do need to talk about Zeno.

You may have been asking yourself during the last episode just what could have been going on that would keep Zeno from just taking Odoacer out. Well, here’s where we find out. 

Zeno’s predecessor was named Leo I, and if you have a very good memory then you’ll know that Leo had been maneuvered onto the throne by the East’s master of soldiers, Aspar. Aspar occupied the same puppet master position that men like Stilicho and Aetius did in the west. He’d been there for fifty years, and where the eminence gris  gig in the west was a bit of a revolving door, in the East, it was just Aspar and his talent for not dying. His intention had been that Leo would be a biddable pawn. Leo, while no doubt grateful for the advancement, had no intention of being beholden to anyone, and set to working to ensure his independence.

Part of Aspar’s power was the close relationship he had with the Gothic elements of the army, who also comprised a significant chunk of Constantinople’s city guard. Close enough to have a family connection; Aspar’s wife was Theodoric Strabo’s aunt. Leo needed a loyal armed force of his own to counter Aspar’s Goths. Conveniently, the threat of the Huns had led to increasing recruitment among the more marginal peoples of the empire, including some called the Isaurians. 

The Isaurians were an ethnic group that lived in the Taurus mountains in modern Turkey. In spite of their homeland’s long history of incorporation in the empire, the Isaurians hadn’t ever been fully romanized, and maintained a tribal lifestyle that revolved around banditry and pastoralism. Leo saw in them a potential counterweight to the power of Aspar and his Goths, and he played the traditional game with the Isaurian tribes, offering subsidies and promotion for the leaders of various war bands, and built them into a cadre in imperial service that depended on him and had no loyalty or connection to Aspar. 

Some of Leo’s Isaurians were led by a man named Tarasikodissa, but as his status rose he took the Greek name Zeno to be more acceptable to Constantinople society. There were other Isaurian leaders with their own men and agendas, but Zeno rose to the top of the heap. He apparently had a hand in the removal of Aspar’s son Ardabur from office by passing on some incriminating letters from the Persians. His son’s fall weakened Aspar, and assured Zeno of the emperor’s gratitude and Aspar’s animosity.

From the beginning, Zeno comes across as an energetic, cunning, and capable man who was also utterly ruthless and utterly self-interested. Which, to be fair, doesn’t really set him apart from most of the characters that I’ve introduced on this show. He showed a flair for the intrigues that Constantinople was famous for, as we’ll see as we go on here. 

By 471, Zeno and another Isaurian named Illus were generals, Zeno had been married to Leo’s daughter Ariadne and had a son with her, and Leo felt ready to make his move. A poorly recorded conspiracy toppled Aspar and at least one of his sons, who were both murdered. Procopius puts it this way “the emperor Leo destroyed both Aspar and Ardabur in the palace, because he suspected they were plotting against his life.” That’s it. They never write about the parts you really want to know.

The fall of Aspar couldn’t happen without consequences. The Thracian Goths, led by Strabo, went into rebellion at the loss of their powerful patron. In the intensely personalized political environment of late antiquity, the removal of any single powerful individual would result in some degree of systemic instability, and Aspar had been a particularly powerful individual. It was more than a matter of loyalty and honor, though it was that too. The Thracians’ relationship had meant economic prosperity for their people and prestige and power for their leaders, and that was now not just in danger, but under active threat from Leo and the Isaurians. So they resorted to the traditional negotiating tactic of attacking Roman cities to remind Constantinople that they could not be ignored or discarded. It all makes perfect sense in the logic of the time. Equally logically, Leo sent Illus and Zeno out to meet Strabo and deal with him, both militarily and diplomatically. There was, though, a cat about to insert himself among these pigeons, and for that we need another digression.


The largest band of Ostrogoths who were liberated from Hunnic domination at the battle of Nedao were led by three brothers, Valamer, Thiudemir, and Vidimer, with Valamer, the eldest, preeminent. Cassiodorus, via Jordanes, would have us believe that these three were scions of the ancient Amal dynasty, which had ruled the Greuthungi ever since they’d migrated down from the Baltic Sea in an unbroken succession. I, still wet behind my podcast ears, repeated all of that to you back in episode one. 

That story is horse pucky, ladies and gentlemen, warm, herbaceous horse pucky. It’s part of that program I mentioned earlier to retroactively concoct a respectable lineage for Theodoric. First off, such dynasties among a warrior culture like I’ve described ad nauseam are incredibly difficult to maintain for more than a few generations under normal circumstances. And the idea that the Huns, and especially Attila, would have allowed an ancient and powerful dynasty to remain ancient and powerful is profoundly naive. The preeminence of Valamer, Thiudemir, and Vidimer was achieved the same way it was in every other Germanic warrior tribe, through marriage, maneuver, coercion, and sometimes murder.

However they’d gotten there, in the 450s the Amal brothers managed to grab a chunk of Roman Pannonia, and pushed for a relationship with and especially subsidies from Constantinople, in the person of Leo I. A treaty was eventually hammered out, grudgingly on the Romans part, that included continued occupancy of Pannonia and a subsidy of 300 pounds of Roman gold per year. In return, the usual military service would be forthcoming, as well as the delivery of Thiudemir’s eldest son to Constantinople as a hostage. So in 463, the eight-year-old Theodoric of the Amal, along with appropriate servants and retainers, arrived in the great Capital. 

One of the towers along the Theodosian walls of Constantinople, the first thing young Theodoric would have seen as he approached the city.

The taking of young noble hostages to reinforce treaties was accepted practice across the ancient world and had been for a long time. The implication being, of course, you keep up your end of the deal, and your young son will stay just as handsome as he is now; you don’t, well, then whatever happens to him really is on you, isn’t it? In spite of the threat, many barbarian leaders were perfectly happy to send their children as hostages to the Romans, knowing that they would make connections that could prove extremely helpful in their later leadership roles. The Romans also saw a secondary benefit in the idea that barbarian leaders who had received roman education were likely to be more sympathetic to Roman interests. At least in theory.

Theodoric would spend ten years in residence at the imperial city. We don’t have any detailed information about the time he spent there, but he certainly received the standard Roman education, which certainly informed his later work. Whether it had made him more sympathetic to Roman interests, that all depends on how you look at things.

While he was away, his people balanced in a precarious position. This episode brought to you by the letter P. Unlike their Thracian cousins, the Ostrogoths (which is what I’m calling them from here on in, as opposed to the Thracians) had no strong relationships with the Roman power structure, no deep connections to the land the occupied or the people on it, and a pile of neighbors who varied in their military strength but were all equally hostile to the Ostrogoths. Valamer kept his people together, but it wasn’t easy, and the inevitable tensions between the three brothers made things even more difficult.

Things became more unstable with the death of Valamer. The eldest of the Amal brothers had had no children of his own, so Thiudemir assumed the mantle of leadership. At about the same time, Theodoric returned from his sojourn in Constantinople. Whether he had been sent for or the terms of the treaty had always stipulated that he would be returned after ten years, it was certainly fortuitous that he was on hand to bolster his father’s position, as well as place himself in the line of succession. He’d come with a strong education, youthful energy, and a headful of ideas. He also needed to prove himself as a fighting man worthy of leading fighting men and earn his place in the succession. So immediately upon his return to Pannonia, Theodoric organized a plundering expedition and aimed them at the Sarmatians, who were occupying land further down the Danube. The choice was wise both tactically and strategically. Tactically because the Sarmatians had been whittled down by the last century or so until they’d become at this point everyone’s favorite target. Strategically, because in the course of the campaign, Theodoric took Singidunum, modern Belgrade, from the Sarmatians. It was an old and important Roman city, one of the keys of the middle Danube, and Theodoric was not going to give it back. The young man had seized the opportunity to make a splash with both hands.

Theodoric would have been right in the thick of it when the Thracians’ revolt was kicking off, probably traveling through territory in the throes of conflict on his way home. From his time in the capital, he understood that there was better to be had than scratching a living in the borderlands. The rift between the Thracian Goths and the empire was exactly the sort of gap that Theodoric and his Ostrogoths could widen, if they could get their wedge in.

Theodoric set out to convince his father and uncle of the feasibility of his plan. It would require a bold move. With Singidunum as a base, Theodoric proposed loading up the whole of the Ostrogoths and moving south into what was clearly Roman territory, to demand a place at the table, similar to if not in the place of the rebellious Thracians. Thiudemir was apparently convinced. Vidimer, Theodoric’s uncle, seems to have been less so. There is an odd passage in Jordanes that summarizes the decision making process, and provides a lesson in reading between the lines:

“As the spoils taken from one and another of the neighboring tribes diminished, the Goths began to lack food and clothing, and peace became distasteful to men for whom war had long furnished the necessities of life. So all the Goths approached their king Thiudemir and, with great outcry, begged him to lead forth his army in whatever direction he might wish. He summoned his brother [Vidimer] and, after casting lots, bade him go into the land of Italy … saying that he, as the mightier, would go against the mightier empire.”

Okay, so let’s unpack this a bit. The parts about the spoil diminishing is probably mostly true, Theodoric’s success at Singidunum notwithstanding. Theodoirc also would have become aware of the vastly greater subsidy that was being provided to the Thracian goths than what the Ostrogoths were getting, and obviously would have shared that information. So both the positive and negative incentives for moving were there.  Like every other people of the period, the Ostrogoths had enormous logistical challenges to overcome, and it couldn’t be a decision taken lightly. The idea of ten to twelve thousand people all deciding to take the same action simultaneously and then pushing that decision on their leaders rings hollow, as does the suggestion that the leadership would then choose their course by a random casting of lots, not to mention divide their forces before such an undertaking. What seems more likely to me, and to author Peter Heather, is that Jordanes is passing on a sanitized version of a much messier process, that Theodoric and other like minded elite Ostrogoths pushed Thiudemir and Vidimer to make the bold move into Roman territory, and the result was a factionalization, with some arguing for a westward facing strategy, Theodoric’s faction favoring the east. It’s possible as well that the casting of lots thing is a cover for political maneuvers designed to get Vidimer – a potential rival for leadership of the tribe – out of the way before he might have an opportunity to challenge Thedoric.

Map of the Ostrogoths’ initial migration into the Eastern Empire.

 So Vidimer and his followers set off for the west, while Thiudemir and Theodoric gathered the ten thousand or so remaining Goths and struck out south and east, into the Roman Balkans and an uncertain future.

The fate of Vidimer’s contingent is uncertain. I mentioned them in passing in episode 22 of last season, the end of the beginning. He threatened to invade Italy, and was bought off by the emperor Glycerius and redirected into the kingdom of the Visigoths. There they were either destroyed in battle or incorporated into the armies of their cousins, or more likely a combination of the two. EIther way, Vidimer’s ostrogoths disappear from history as a distinct group shortly after their departure from Pannonia.

The main body of the Ostrogoths moved south toward Naissus. The romantic nineteenth century notion that these migratory groups represented singular homogenous proto-nations, composed of free individuals and destined to settle in one spot and blossom into the nation-states of today, has been pretty well torpedoed by modern scholarship, and I’ve banged on about it quite a bit as well. For one thing, there were certainly at least as many unfree persons in the mix as there were free – if not slaves, then certainly lower status people attached to those of higher rank by obligations or simple physical need. For another thing, as we shall see, people often moved between groups when they were free to do so, changing their allegiance from one to another as the perceived advantage of doing so changed. The going idea among historians seems to be that ethnic (with great big air quotes around it) identification and loyalty was strongest at the upper ends of the social scale, falling off dramatically as you traveled down it. Slaves, obviously, would have had little to no problem switching their loyalties if a better deal presented itself with minimal risk. Conversely, social elites would be the least likely to accept outsiders into their particular subgroup without strong inducements.

How did we get here?

Let’s get back to the Ostrogoths, moving south. We’ve been here before, and so had the empire. Everyone knew the deal, on both sides of the equation. The minute the goths set foot on Roman territory, the end deal would have to involve some chunk of land within the empire that the Ostrogoths could work in order to feed themselves. 

With such a large group, the Ostrogoths were limited to the main roads, and indeed Jordanes explicitly states that they divided into two columns for the trek through the Balkan mountains before rejoining on the approach to Thessaloniki. The plan was a simple one, having demonstrated their power by taking Naissus, they would threaten Thessaloniki, the capital of the Illyricum prefecture, and see what the empire could come up with by way of an offer. This may all sound eerily familiar to the strategy employed by Alaric way back when, and that’s because the strategic realities of the east hadn’t changed much at a fundamental level.

Now if we believe Jordanes, an arrangement was made, and the next sixteen years passed happily enough, until Theodoric came to the Roman officials with an idea to go and recover Italy for them. His men were becoming bored with all the peace and prosperity, you see.

As if.


The presence of the Ostrogoths upset the already unstable political situation in the Balkans. Lets review the factions at play, just as a reminder of how things stood. We have the emperor himself, Leo the first. We have the Thracian Goths led by Theodoric Strabo, still in rebellion but used to being close to power and well taken care of by the powers that be. We have the newly arrived Ostrogoths, of course, led by Thiudemir and his son Theodoric. Added to that we have at least two and probably more Isaurian factions, one led by Zeno, who has the whip hand at the moment, but has plenty of rivals, such as the general Illus, who is a leader of Isaurian men in his own right. Zeno has the trump card of an imperial wife and a son, pointedly also named Leo, who is clearly in line for the throne.

In Constantinople the general perception was that there is only enough land and/or gold to accommodate one bunch of Goths, not two. It’s possible that really there was only enough political will to accommodate one bunch of goths, which is six of one half dozen of the other, really. And really, even if somehow it had been possible to find an arrangement for both Goths with the empire, their interests were so at odds they probably would have fought anyway.

That’s what Jordanes was either too embarrassed or too uninformed to report, sixteen years of Goth on Goth action in the Balkans. Fortunately, Roman sources, chief among them Malchus of Philadelphia, happily relate the back and forth.

The official tasked with negotiations was the prefect of Illyricum, responsible for all the Balkans west of the Succi pass, a man named Hilarianus. He stalled long enough for Leo to gather forces to march west and put counter pressure on the Ostrogoths, who accepted a deal where they would be billeted in several towns in Euboea and Macedonia.

But those troops being taken away from Thrace gave Strabo a free hand. He moved with impunity between the cities of the Thracian plain, burning Phillipi’s suburbs and laying siege to Arcadiopolis. It didn’t take long for Leo to call it quits, and make a deal toward the end of the year 473. The Thracian Goths were returned to their most-favored-federate status, with the 2000 pound subsidy reinstated and Strabo named magister militum praesentalis – master of soldiers in the imperial presence. There was also the interesting stipulation reported by Malchus that Strabo was to be recognized as the “sole ruler of the Goths, and that the emperor should not give admission to anyone who wished to enter his territory.” Strabo recognized the game Thiudemir and Theodoric were playing, and put his foot down hard on his own patch. The position of pet Goths has already been filled, thank you, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The Ostrogothic gamble appeared to have failed. The massive subsidy agreed for the Thracians precluded any similar gift to the Ostrogoths, and a lifetime spent as guests of unhappy Macedonians wasn’t what the men and women who had made the long trip south had had in mind. More trouble was inevitable.

A series of deaths in the next year accelerated events. First, in January of 474, Leo died aged 73, to be succeeded by his grandson, seven year-old Leo II. It evidently came as no surprise, as the younger Leo was crowned the very same day his grandfather died. On February 9, Leo crowned his father, Zeno the Isaurian, as co-emperor. It was a pretty impressive rise for a bandit warlord from the sticks. He couldn’t have expected an easy time of it, but his position was dealt a potentially fatal blow when Leo II died in November of 474. There’s no suspicion of foul play, Leo was a victim of the horrifying child mortality rates of the ancient world, which took no notice of social class. Absent the legitimacy granted by his son, who after all was the child of an imperial princess, Zeno found himself on the head of a pin, with the traditional power centers of Constantinople, the senate, church, and bureaucracy, not terribly well disposed toward the imposition of this barbarian. Soil was added to the garden, and the plot thickened.

The beneficiary of these plots was a man we’ve met before – Basiliscus, who had so badly bungled the naval campaign against the Vandals that he’d had to hide from the mob when he’d returned to Constantinople. He’d worked his way back into the city’s good graces, and as brother of Leo’s widow, was much better placed than Zeno to make a play for the purple. Strabo, naturally opposed to Zeno because of, well, everything, threw his weight behind Basiliscus, as did the other Isaurian general, Illus, and Zeno was forced to flee to the mountains of his homeland. Basiliscus was crowned emperor in January of 475. Are you beginning to see why Odoacer was able to act freely over in Italy?

Zeno holed up in his fortress in the Taurus mountains, besieged by Ilus. We don’t know exactly where it was, but all the fortifications of the region are classic impregnable-ramparts-on-an-unclimbable-craig kind of affairs, and it’s clear Ilus had his work cut out for him.

Basilscus had the throne and the diadem, but couldn’t rest easy with Zeno still at large, and his concerns rose as news arrived from Macedonia. Thiudemir had died, in his mid-forties, and with no other candidates on hand, leadership of the Ostrogoths passed smoothly to Theodoric, who was still in his early 20s. Theodoric managed to contact Zeno, promising him support in return for considerations when he’d been returned to the throne. Zeno of course agreed, and the Goths packed up again and headed east, onto the Thracian plain and into the storm. The effect was to keep Strabo distracted and unable to come to Basiliscus’ aid as events took another turn.

Ilus had been hanging around outside Zeno’s fortress for nearly a year, and getting antsy, when he had the good luck to capture his quarry’s brother Longinus. You would think that this would be bad news for Zeno, but here’s the thing; having Longinus as a hostage meant that Zeno would be likely to stick to any deal he made with Ilus, and he would probably be willing to make a better deal than Basiliscus would. The switch was flipped, and Zeno and Ilus combined forces and marched on Constantinople against the suddenly exposed Basiliscus.

Did Basiliscus panic? Yes he did, but he wasn’t out of options just yet. He sent out the last forces he had available to meet the two Isaurians, led by his nephew, Armatus. The thing is, Basiliscus had sons to succeed him, Zeno did not. So Zeno offered Armatus a pile of honors, and a promise to make Armatus’ son his (Zeno’s) successor. Armatus was hooked, and he too turned on Basiliscus. It wasn’t the most edifying display of loyalty, but it put Zeno back in the driver’s seat. Basilisiscus and his family were lured out of hiding with a promise that they would not be executed. Zeno was as good as his word, they were instead exiled to Cappadocia and walled up in a cistern to starve to death. But they weren’t technically executed. So there’s that.

Zeno returned to the throne in August, and thus had been on the throne less than a month when he received the embassy from Odoacer announcing the end of the western imperium.

There was much to put in order, and Zeno was beholden to far too many benefactors to be comfortable. Zeno had a tidy mind, and this many kingmakers lying around was just a level of clutter that couldn’t be borne. One could be handled with minimal fuss; Armatus wasn’t well liked in the city, and so no one raised much of a fuss when Zeno had him murdered. The man who did the deed, as it happens, was Hunnulf, Odoacer’s older brother, who had found a career in the corridors of the great city. The son who was supposed to be made Zeno’s successor was ordained as a priest, and so was removed from consideration. Zeno would maintain his preference for this kind of underhanded but decisive action for the rest of his reign.

That probably made Theodoric nervous, and the facts were that Strabo remained in control of around 13,000 fighting men, and that they still had to be reckoned with. Theodoric’s force was about the same, and a clash seemed in the offing. Theodoric appealed to Zeno for the support he’d been promised, but the emperor dithered, which didn’t help Theodoric’s nerves. As it happened, 476 and 77 were mainly given over to maneuver, with just a few skirmishes between Ostrogoths and Thracians and nothing decisive.

In 478 though, Zeno moved in favor of the younger of the Goths, and Theodoric was instructed to bring his army closer in toward Adrianople, there to meet other units that were to be attached to his, along with various town garrisons. Theodoric’s total command would be thus swollen to some 50,000 troops, more than enough to put down Strabo and the Thracians for good.

That was the plan that was presented to Theodoric, anyway.

The Ostrogoths marched east, and were met by guides sent to help them find the rendezvous spot where they were to meet with reinforcements. The path was an odd one, off the main road, through the Haemus mountains by way of a narrow path between steep slopes on each side. And there was no sign of either the reinforcements or the pay that had been promised. What they did find, though, was Strabo and his men, waiting for them near Novae. According to Malchus, Theodoric Strabo sent a long and slightly condescending letter to Theodoric, explaining that the emperor had betrayed them both. I very much doubt that it took Theodoric long to reach that conclusion all on his own. Malchus goes on to suggest that Theodoric still considered fighting his rival even in these much less favorable circumstances, but was overruled by his men, who threatened to desert rather than fight such an obviously unwinnable battle. In Malchus’ version of Strabo’s letter, he spells out Zeno’s intentions: “While remaining at peace, the Romans wish the Goths to wear each other down. Whichever of us falls, they will be the winners with none of the effort, and whichever of us destroys the other side will enjoy a Cadmean victory… since he will be left in diminished numbers to face Roman treachery.” Whether Strabo would have actually made that reference to the ancient Greek myth of Cadmus and the Hydra I rather doubt, but no doubt Malchus was proud of his own erudition.

The result was a Gothic armistice. The two Theodorics agreed that each would make whatever deal they could with Zeno, but would not fight each other.

Zeno wasn’t an idiot, and he knew that the Goths weren’t either, so he likely understood this was a possibility. He had gathered the armies that he had promised Theodoric (and presumably Strabo), intending to use them to mop up whatever remained from the inter-Gothic battle, and they were still sufficient to take on either of the two Theodorics, if he could get them separately. But Zeno had overreached himself back home in Constantinople, and chickens were coming home to roost that would prevent him from putting the Gothic issue to bed.

It seems that Zeno had been trying to tie up every loose end all at once in 477 and 478. Ilus, the Isaurian general and the other key player that had put Zeno back on the throne, survived an assassination attempt in 477. He used it to his advantage, blackmailing extra honors out of the emperor, but Zeno tried again in 478. Again the assassin failed, and this time was captured and taken out of the city with Ilus to get some answers, with utensils. All that meant that Zeno couldn’t rely on the field armies to fight the Goths, and so could not bring the matter of the two Theodorics to a satisfactory close.

Once the solidus dropped, which again, probably took zero time, and the chaotic situation in the capital became known, the younger Theodoric set off south toward the city in high dudgeon, determined to make Zeno pay for his duplicity. Literally. This wasn’t just about Theodoric’s offended honor, though it certainly was that. So far the decision to leave Pannonia hadn’t paid off nearly as well as the Ostrogoths had been led to believe, and there was a very real danger, if Theodoric didn’t find a way to deliver soon, that his men would abandon him, either going over to join Strabo – as some already had – or finding some other third option that seemed to have a better chance of producing the wealth and stability that had been promised. 

The far-ranging movements of Theodoric and his Ostrogoths in the search for a reasonable deal.

Zeno decided that since Strabo was slightly less hacked off with him, that he would do a deal with Strabo, and offered the Thracian whatever he wanted to make things right. Strabo duly grasped the offered olive branch with both hands, demanding and receiving senior generalship and a vast array of gold and other goodies that flowed north from the city to the Thracian Goths. Right past Theodoirc and his Ostrogoths. 

Knowing that the Theodosian walls made direct action against the city unwise at best, but still needing to vent his understandable feelings of disgust, betrayal and rage, Theodoric decided to take it out on the poor citizens of the southern Balkans. He turned his force around and worked his way slowly westward along the Via Egnatia, sacking major towns all along the way. The marks of his rage are visible in the archaeology of Phillipi and Stobi. Once he was a little calmer, he picked up the pace and made a dash across the mountains to the coastal town of Epidamnus – modern Dures, in Albania. He somehow tricked or bribed his way into the city and took possession in the summer of 479. And then, according to Malchus, he settled down to wait. 

And there is where I will leave him for this episode. It’s not quite as far as I had hoped to get, but this is getting to be a bit on the long side.

Thank you all so much for listening. Apologies again for the long wait. I will continue to strive to do better.

Special thanks are in order to Geldis, Allen, and Charlie again, for their generous support on ko-fi.com. It is humbling and I can’t express my gratitude enough. Thanks also to Maude the Third and M (I’m not going to try to pronounce your last name because I’ll only screw it up, but you know who you are), who left reviews on apple podcasts. Maude made good use of her shift key, and M, I hope this episode wasn’t too long for your run. Thanks to everyone who has left a rating wherever you listen, and to everyone who has subscribed to the show on whatever platform. The number of subscribers that I can see has doubled in the last six months, which is very gratifying. 

I will try to get maps for this episode up on the website, www.darkagespod.com, they will be linked in the show notes, as well as in the transcript post for the episode.

That’s all for now, next time we’ll carry on with the story of Theodoric the Amal and his ongoing duel with Zeno. Until then, take care.


Frassetto, Michael. Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation. ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Heather, Peter J. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas Dunlap, University of California Press, 1990.

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