2-5. War for Italy – Theodoric the Great Pt. 3

488 to 493

Theodoric leads his people to Italy, to make war on Odoacer and win for himself a permanent kingdom.

The Vipava Valley is the easiest road through the mountains from Pannonia to Italy.

Hello and welcome to the Dark Ages Podcast. Today’s episode: War for Italy.

Hello and a very Merry Christmas and very happy holidays of whatever kind, as applicable.

To start off, a message to those of you who follow me on facebook: yes, I know I said that this episode wouldn’t be coming out for another week, but if you’ve been listening for any amount of time then you know that my statements about scheduling should always  be treated with a grain of salt. And by a grain of salt, I mean one of those great big blocks of salt you leave out for deer.

I hope you all had a wonderful time, and are right now listening to this episode while finishing off the leftover booze. I myself have a bottle of ruby port for the occasion, because I’m fancy like that, and will probably be sitting next to a fire trying to keep the cold at bay.

But you didn’t click play to hear about my fondness for raisin-flavored wine or to hear a time capsule of the extraordinary winter weather, you clicked it so you would have an excuse to ignore your relatives for half an hour. If that’s the case I’m happy to help. This episode is short. I think it’s the shortest one I’ve ever released. You’ll see why when we get to the end. I just couldn’t see much point in vamping for ten minutes just to make some arbitrary word count, and the thing was already mostly written. I figured I’d just record it and release it today, in spite of what I told the facebook people. By the way, follow the show on facebook, just search for dark ages podcast, it’ll get you there.

I left off on a bit of a cliff hanger last time, as Theodoric and the Ostrogoths were packing up and hitting the road. Again. It was a major undertaking, the largest and most ambitious movement the Ostrogoths had undertaken since they’d left Pannonia. Our sources say that Theodoric led 20,000 men out of Moesia. If that’s referring to fighting men only, as is usually assumed, then the standard rules of historical estimates suggest that between 80 and 100,000 men, women, and children set out. I’m not sure, and this is just now occurring to me, why we always assume only fighting men for these calculations. if it’s just mature men, period, and we add to it a bit for children, then the number would be closer to 50,000. Either way, it continues to be a vast undertaking. A collection of people that size moving through a town would take at least six hours to pass, and that’s not counting the inevitable livestock and the vast wagon train that would have accompanied them.

Theodoric had sought a broad consensus for this new move. He had consulted with all the Gothic leaders, both those who had been with him from the beginning, and the Thracians who had come over to him after the death of Strabo. He even contacted the Goths of the Crimea, though they declined to take part. Not everyone agreed to come, and Thrace would maintain a Gothic population. Nor were those that made the move exclusively Goths. There was Frideric, the dispossessed prince of the Rugians, who would be leading his people along with Theodoric, and there was a grab-bag of other peoples along for the adventure, including a few Romans. 

All of this was according to plan, a plan worked out and agreed with emperor Zeno in advance. The column didn’t start out until late summer, which seems strange, until you note that one of Zeno’s stipulations was that Theodoric would not live off the land while he was on Roman territory. They had to bring their own provisions with them, and that meant they had to wait for the harvest to come in, though ideally moving while there was still grass growing for the horses. Hence the late start. 

The Goths moved westward along the road that followed the course of the Danube. Roman roads in the Balkans weren’t what they once had been, years of conflict had led to neglect. But for the same reason, no one was out there building any new ones, so the Roman network remained the best choice for traveling armies. And everyone else for that matter. That would remain true throughout most of Europe, by the way, well into the Early modern era.

So, late in the year, the Ostrogoths made their way back to their old home territory in lower Pannonia. It had not sat vacant for the last twenty years, the Gepids had moved in and taken possession. The Gepids as a group continuously seem to want to rise up and demand more time than I give them, and then, like a mirage, they dissolve into the sands when you try and bring them into focus. The problem is that they left no first-person written records. They were the clear winners of the post-Hun wars, and controlled a large swathe of territory in what is now Hungary and western Romania, including the lands between the Danube and Sava rivers that the Ostrogoths had vacated. Generally good relations with Constantinople and strong trade made the elites rich, as evidenced by the large amounts of silver and gold found in Gepid cemeteries.

The king of the Gepids in 488 was named Thraustila, and he had not granted the Ostrogoths right of passage. (Herwig Wolfram suggests that he might have been Thrapsilla, which can’t be right because that’s obviously a kaiju). The Gepids deployed their army to block the Ostrogoth advance. Very little in the way of detail is known about this battle, including where it took place. If you go with Walter Goffart’s interpretation, it took place just outside Sirmium. That’s what you’ll find on Wikipedia, btw. My old buddy Wolfie, excuse me, Professor Wolfram, on the other hand, places it forty miles up the road, near modern Vukovar. That’s based on the belief that the Roman border at the time was at the Vuka River. You pays your money and you makes your choice. Choose carefully, the stakes could not be lower.

I’ve put together a map, not that any of you will go to the website and look at it.

Sorry, that was passive aggressive and judgy. It’s just that geology rocks, but geography is where it’s at.

And now I’m sorry for two things.

Anyway, the reason for Gepid hostility isn’t entirely clear. There are a couple of possibilities. Maybe Odoacer had been in touch with Thraustila and made some kind of agreement, to try and weaken the Ostrogoths before they arrived in Italy. Maybe it was a continuation of old beef from the civil war that had followed the disintegration of Attila’s empire. Most likely the Gepids recognized that the Ostrogoths would inevitably start plundering to feed themselves once they were beyond the borders of the empire, and would rather they not. Or a combination of all three.

Whatever it was, it was the first challenge to this new venture, and it was a serious one. Theodoric needed a place to hunker down; attempting to cross the passes into Italy in the depths of winter would be foolish. The Gepids had put a large force in his way, they clearly were not kidding around. But in that there was an opportunity, if he could inflict a significant defeat, he would be able to extract concessions, and ensure that he wouldn’t be harrassed in his winter camps. Nothing daunted, Theodoric formed up and accepted the offered battle.

It ended up being exactly the victory that Theodoric needed. The Gepids were defeated, and their king – whatever his name was – was killed. The Ostrogoths secured for themselves a safe staging area to spend the winter. In the spring of 489 they set out to cross the mountains. Around this time they were also joined by the bulk of Frideric the Rugian’s forces, Frideric himself having come to Theodoric with just a small band.

Upon setting out, the army was attacked by a band of Sarmatian nomads. They were easily seen off, but it emphasizes that chaos that was de rigueur in central europe at the time. The existence of a random encounter table somewhere would not surprise me.

To get our bearings here, a quick geography lesson. The region where the Ostrogoths overwintered lies between the Danube and Sava rivers and is now part of Serbia and Croatia. Between there and Italy, there lies some pretty significant obstacles, in the form of the Julian Alps and the northern end of the Dinaric Alps, along with just the regular Alps to the north. Those mountains pretty thoroughly channelize traffic through the region to this day.  In Roman times the main road led through Emona – now Ljubianka – and then through the Postojna Gate, leading down through the valley of the Vipava River. The road would have been familiar to most of the armies we’ve talked about on this podcast, including Alaric’s, Radagaisus’, and Atilla’s. The Vipava descends quickly to empty out onto the broad plain north of Aquileia, where it meets the Isonzo River.

The Ostrogoths’ road to Italy.

Odoacer was well aware of the approach of Theodoric. You just can’t hide 100,000 people all moving in the same direction. So the sixty-year-old Scirian king donned his armor, and marched his own army north to meet the Ostrogoths and their thirty-eight year old king.  He fortified a position near the modern town of Farra d’Isonzo, on the right bank of the Isonzo, and waited. 

The Isonzo River is one of those places that fate and geography have dictated as the site of battles over and over again. Adrianople is another such place. Being the eastern gate into Italy, it’s not surprising that the river would frequently run with blood, culminating in the no less than 11 battles fought in its valleys during world war one. Now in the summer of 489, Theodoric and Odoacer lined their men up to add their blood to the mix.

I’m going to call Odoacer’s men “the Italians” just as a convention, with the understanding that his army actually consisted of a melange of peoples who had been serving as foederati in the old Roman army, and presumably some of their children by this point. It has been thirteen years.

The Italians fought fiercely, but were unable to hold the crossing. They were driven back, and Odoacer was forced to withdraw behind the walls of Verona. That freed Theodoric and his army up for a bit of pillage.

Pillage was a bit of a problem for Theodoric. On the one hand, he needed to feed his army, and they expected rewards for all their hard work. On the other hand, this wasn’t a raiding expedition, this was a war of conquest, and Theodoric would have to work with the local landowning elites in order to make his new kingdom function. An army that was too enthusiastic in their redistribution of wealth could make that unnecessarily difficult. Some of his sub-commanders struggled with the concept, and it would cause problems for Theodoric at several points during the Italian war.

About a month later, Theodoric appeared at Verona, having accepted the capitulation of smaller cities along the Via Postumia. Odoacer again went out to meet the Goth in battle. And again, Theodoric showed himself to be the superior general, maneuvering his troops to pin Odoacer’s army against the Adige River, and prevent them from escaping into the city.  Many were killed, captured, or changed their loyalty, with Odoacer himself fleeing to the safety of Ravenna. Theodoric entered Verona in high spirits.

One of those who turned his back on Odoacer was his second in command, a commander named Tufa, who Theodoric sent to supervise the siege of Ravenna. He must have been counting on the psychological effect this former friend’s presence would have on the troops that remained loyal to Odoacer. Meanwhile, Theodoric himself moved west and captured Milan without much difficulty.

If you’re thinking that this all is sounding too easy, just hold your horses.

There’s no way to know what Tufa said to Theodoric to make the Ostrogoth trust him so quickly, but it was a mistake. Outside the walls of Ravenna, Tufa returned to Odoacer’s side, and the Ostrogothic troops he’d been entrusted with were massacred. Odoacer was able to take to the open field again, and Theodoric was forced to retreat behind the walls of Pavia. Odoacer occupied Cremona and used it as a base to punish Milan, which had proved so willing to surrender to the invader. To emphasize that the rumors of his defeat had been greatly exaggerated, Odoacer marched to Rome itself and had his son proclaimed Caesar. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but by this time the title Caesar referred to a junior emperor, and usually was bestowed on an heir apparent. Odoacer was planting a flag for his dynasty on Italian soil. Here I stand, I can do no other.

Neither side seemed to have the upper hand, and with loyalties fungible, the unpredictable situation in Italy had a predictable result. The Burgundians crossed the mountains and plundered the northwest. Liguria was thoroughly devastated. Romans that were captured in this invasion would spend nearly three years in captivity until they were freed by King Theodoric’s later diplomatic efforts.

Other diplomatic efforts were underway. Theodoric had been in contact with the new king of the Visigoths, Alaric II. Alaric was the son of the aggressive and expansionist Euric, succeeding him when Euric died in 484. We will be circling back to the Visigoths in a later episode. In an extraordinarily rare display of inter-Gothic cooperation, Alaric sent troops into Italy in support of Theodoric. The arrival of the Visigoths allowed Theodoric to take the initiative again, and he met up with them and moved against Odoacer, who was at the time besieging Pavia. Once again battle was joined, this time on the banks of the Adda river, probably near Pizzighettone, and once again Odoacer was defeated and forced to retreat to Ravenna. 

Again, maps on the website, and I will also put them on instagram.

The conquest of Italy.

Theodoric should have been able to celebrate his victory, but though the big bear was back in its cage, there were still cubs everywhere that needed to be… no, that’s not a metaphor I want to finish. Um… though the main fire had been put out … no …. Screw it, there was trouble all over the place. 

For one thing, not all of the Italian forces were stuck inside that magnificent cage, though. Tufa had an army of his own, and remained at large. He prevented Theodoric from consolidating his winnings, launching attacks from a base in the Adige Valley. Civil conflict had broken out among the cities and towns south of Ravenna. Theodoric’s own men kept undermining his efforts to assert control with over-enthusiastic plundering or enforcement actions. And the neighbors remained belligerent and greedy; The Burgundians continued their raids, and the Vandals, smelling blood in the water, invaded Sicily. In spite of his 3 and 0 battle record, 490 was a stressful year for Theodoric. Like the red queen, he was forced to run very fast in order to go nowhere. And through it all, Odoacer remained wedged in Ravenna, like a poppyseed between his teeth.

Man, I am all over the place with the metaphors today.

In 491, the Vandals were dealt with, so effectively that I have no real details to offer, other than they were forced to renounce any claim to Sicily or to the tribute that Odoacer had been paying them. But if it’s not one thing it’s another, and no sooner had Sicily been re-secured, did problems arise within Theodoric’s own cohorts. Theodoric’s policy toward the locals had been to win them over by acting in as Roman a manner as possible, to cast himself as a savior of the Roman people. That was probably what he had pitched to Zeno as well. The Rugians, led by their prince Frideric, had been left behind to garrison and hold Pavia, and they abused and harassed the locals to the point where it made a mockery of Theodoric’s policy.

In August of 491 there was enough of a lull in the back and forth fighting for Theodoric to move to intervene with his erstwhile ally. The intervention, whatever it was, was harsh enough for Frideric to “violate his loyalty”.  He took his Rugians and went north to join Tufa. Theodoric was able to restrict their activities to the area north of Verona, but not deal with them decisively while he still had a siege of Ravenna to maintain.

491 overall was an up year for Theodoric, as more and more cities and senators recognized that his momentum was unstoppable, and Odoacer in the long run could not hope for victory. Odoacer knew it too. In July, he made his last large-scale attempt to break out of Ravenna. The sortie failed, with heavy losses on both sides, but Theodoric’s much larger force was able to absorb those losses without compromising the siege, and Odoacer was forced back into the city. He still refused to surrender, though. Ravenna could be infinitely supplied by ship unless an effective blockade could be set up, and it took Theodoric until August of 492 – another year later – to put together a fleet big enough to accomplish that, based at Rimini.

I can’t imagine that the irony was lost on Odoacer, that his reign should come to an end in such a perfect mirror to the way it had begun. I wonder how much his determination to hold out in the face of hopeless odds was based on a refusal to go down as meekly as Romulus had.

It was another six months, February 25, 493, before ecclesiastical intervention brought an end to the war. John, the bishop of Ravenna, brokered a deal by which Odoacer and Theodoric would share joint rule of Italy, and occupy  Ravenna together. On March 5, Theodoric entered the City. By doing so, Theodoric was technically violating the agreement he’d made with Zeno, but Zeno had died in 491, succeeded by Anastasius, and besides, the arrangement finally ended the war.

I wonder if anyone thought it would work?

Ten days later, at a banquet celebrating the new peace, Theodoric made it clear that he had forgotten nothing he’d learned about politics in Constantinople. According to John of Antioch, as Odoacer rose to speak “Theodoric himself rushed forward and struck him with his sword on the collarbone … the blow cut through Odoacer’s body as far as the hip, and it is said that Theodoric exclaimed, ‘There clearly wasn’t a bone in the wretched man’s body.’”


Odoacer was about 60 years old. He had ruled Italy, competently if not popularly, for 13 of his last 17 years.

Two justifications for what was obviously murder were circulated by Theodoric’s PR team. First, the killing of Odoacer was vengeance for his murder of the Rugian’s king and queen. Supposedly Theodoric told the Scirian “This is what you have done to my people” right before the fatal blow was struck. That Theodoric’s family connection to the Rugians was tangential at best, and that the Rugian’s real son and prince was in active revolt against Theodoric at the time were glossed over. The second justification was that Theodoric merely preempted a similar ambush by Odoacer. Which, you know, is possible, but is also exactly the excuse offered by many murderous strongmen when they eliminate a weaker rival. 

“They were planning to attack us, so we had to attack first.”

“How were they going to do that? Their whole army is bottled up in Ravenna, we hold the whole  country.”

“Dude, trust me.”

My one little quibble about this story is the date, the Ides of March. It’s a little too poetic for me, given what we know about Roman historians’ fondness for symbolism. That’s just a quibble, of course, but I couldn’t let it go by unremarked.

Odoacer’s family and all his supporters were immediately set upon and killed by Theodoric’s, by the way, in case you were thinking this whole thing hadn’t been carefully coordinated from the moment Theodoric had agreed to the power-sharing proposal. Odoacer’s wife was starved to death. His son managed to escape to the court of the Visigoths and wasn’t pursued, but he was killed some years later, when he attempted to return to Italy. And thus did the royal Tercelingi dynasty of the Sciri perish. The Sciri themselves ceased to exist as a separate tribe. Those who weren’t killed were absorbed into Theodoric’s new kingdom. 

There were still Romans who had stood by Odoacer to the end, who did not meet so harsh a fate. Theodoric made noises about financial penalties and confiscations, but allowed himself to be dissuaded by the bishops.

One more loose end ultimately took care of itself. Frideric, prince of the Rugians, was apparently a handful. He and Tufa argued and in 493 fought a battle, somewhere in the Adige valley between Verona and Trento. Tufa was killed, and Frideric was either discredited as a commander or killed as well. Either way, he disappears from the record, and the Rugians he had led returned to Theodoric’s side. Oh the tangled webs, et cetera. 

Theodoric was free and clear. After twenty years of restlessness and uncertainty, the Ostrogoths were in possession of a rich territory they could call their own. The great gamble had paid off at last, in impressive style. But their leader had even greater ambitions. As he set about consolidating his new kingdom, he had one eye on an even bigger prize. He would attempt, in practice if not in name, to restore the western empire, with himself at its center.

Next time, we’ll see how successful he was, and decide whether or not Theodoric the Great really earned himself that eponym.

If all goes well, that next time will be in the customary two weeks, so look for it to drop January 9th.

Signing off, first danke to Historyfanatic476 for leaving a review on Austrian Apple Podcasts. The jokes aren’t random, my friend, it all makes perfect sense in my head, trust me.

Also, warm thank yous to Katie, Lily, and Charlie for their generous support on Ko-fi.com. Charlie, I’m starting to feel like I owe you an executive producer credit or something. 

If you would also like to humble me with your support, you can do so on ko-fi.com/darkagespod. If that’s not an option for you, no problem, just rate the show wherever it is you’re listening, and write a review if you can. A five star rating, I should be specific, five stars is what we’re looking for here. If neither one of those things is an option for you, then the next time someone asks what you’re listening to, tell them about the show. After you glare at them for making you take out your earbuds, of course.

Thank you all so much for listening, and for a great year. There’s been a massive surge in listening in just the last month, and that’s been really amazing to see. Welcome to all you new listeners, I hope you all will stick with the show long enough to hear this. 

I’ll see you again in 2023. Until then, take care.


Heather, Peter J. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Martindale, J.R. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. II. vol. 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980. 3 vols. The Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/prosopography-later-roman-empire/PLRE-II/mode/1up.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas Dunlap, University of California Press, 1990.


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