493 to about 505 CE
Theodoric’s kingdom in Italy gets historians unreasonably excited. We’ll explore how he ran it, how he turned himself from warband chief to beloved king, and how he worked to restore the glory of old.
Hello and welcome back and happy new year.
Apologies first of all for the delayed episode. If you follow on facebook or instagram, then you’ll know that I committed the ultimate party foul, and dropped my laptop. The damage wasn’t too terrible, but it did mean that I was out of commission while it was repaired. But now that’s all done, and we can get back into the swing of things.
I made a mistake last time, with my title. “The War for Italy”. Do you have any idea how many wars for Italy we’re going to talk about on this podcast? Really narrowing it down there. I guess I’ll just have to be more creative in future. One other correction, there were 12 battles of the Isonzo during world war one, not eleven. Never let it be said that I cannot admit a mistake. I could lawyer my way out of it by pointing out that I said “no less than eleven”, but then you’d be completely justified in losing all respect for me. If you notice anything I get wrong and you’d like to pull me up on my ignorance, just visit the contact page on darkagespod.com.
Last time, we left off just after Theodoric had declared victory in his war for Italy, over a heap on the floor that had been Odoacer. Two heaps actually, if the stories are to be believed. He was the undisputed victor. For the next few days, his army rounded up the most important supporters and commanders of the ancien regime and put them to the sword.
But being king of a pile of corpses isn’t much fun, and only occasionally earns one the tag “the great”.
Today we’ll look at how Theodoric made the transition from successful war leader to the first great king of the new West. The Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy gets historians all hot and bothered, for good reason, really. There’s an argument to be made that it represented a continuation of the Roman tradition in Italy, and on the extreme end you could make a case for moving that fall of the Roman empire date to around 550, when the wheels came off. I’m not making that case, by the way, I’m just saying it’s doable.
Today is going to be all about the internal workings of Theodoric’s kingdom, and as such it doesn’t really have a lot of narrative to it. Next time we’ll get into how the Ostrogothic kingdom got along (or not) with its neighbors, and that will have much more of a story-telling element to it. Today though, I’m going to focus on Theodoric’s triumph, and how he went about transforming himself and his people from just another moderately successful warband into a new center of gravity in the west.
Theodoric had actually allowed his army to declare him king of Italy before the siege of Ravenna had ended, and had been steadily collecting declarations of loyalty from various senatorial families across the peninsula. The senators were as adept as they ever had been in sensing the way the wind was blowing, and arranging their own sails accordingly. Their support meant that Theodoric wasn’t starting from nothing, kingdom wise. He also had at his disposal the administrative apparatus that still ran Italy. Odoacer had left this mostly intact, as I hope I made clear in his episode, with a few tweaks here and there. THeodoric did the same, because if you’ve inherited a reliable and efficient way to collect taxes and ensure your revenue, why would you reinvent the wheel?
I don’t know about you, but in my basic ignorance, I tend to overemphasize the lack of sources in this period. What I mean is that I have the kind of snap thought that because few writings have survived from the time, that there was basically no writing going on of any kind, and that’s just not true. There were plenty of people scribbling away, mostly doing what writing was originally invented for, administration. When he took control of Italy, Theodoric gained access to the official land registers, which recorded the holdings of all the landowners in Italy, and of all the records of the military service and taxes that were owed by various subjects. The maintenance of these registers is what kept Italy running basically on autopilot through the death throes of the empire, and they would be absolutely crucial for Theodoric as he set up his new realm. They must have been massive. I have no idea whether they were kept as scrolls or as codices, but either way, the work that went into producing and maintaining them was a major part of the Roman administration’s job. Of course none of them have survived, because no one thought to reproduce them, which is the only way any manuscripts have come through to us. In order for writings from this far back, some scribe somewhere had to decide that a given piece of writing was worthy of the time and effort it would take to copy it out, and that decision had to be made several times over in order to bridge the gap between then and now. The dry columns of names and place data of the land registers didn’t make it past that filter, and so are lost.
There was an immediate challenge to be met, and it was the same one that had faced Odoacer when he had become king. In meeting it, the land registers would be crucial.
A whole bunch of very serious, very tough men had been with Theodoric through a lot, and they needed rewarding. He also had a very rich, well established, and proud local nobility, whose noses he couldn’t afford to put too out of joint. Where to find the land that would be needed to reward the former, without irritating the latter too much.
To solve that particular problem, Theodoric turned to a Roman, named Petrus Marcellinus Felix Liberius. He had stuck by Odoacer right up to the very end, and in this instance Theodoric decided that that kind of loyalty recommended Liberius highly. He came from a family with blood blue enough to nearly be purple, which as a whole had given its loyalty to Theodoric early, and they may have put a word in for the young man. Liberius must have been impressive in some way, because immediately upon taking him into his service, Theodoric made him the praetorian prefect, the head of administration for the entirety of italy. Specifically, he charged him with working out how to find room for the Goths while keeping the natives happy.
Liberius didn’t let his new boss down.
As I say, details don’t come down to us, but in the sources there is a palpable sense of relief, and more than a little amazement, at how well the whole thing was handled. Cassiodorus, in a work of his that has survived, remembered that “the landholdings of the Goths and the Romans, like their hearts, have been bound together through the assignment of the third-shares.”
Once again we’re faced with a problem of interpretation, and once again we are frustrated in our attempts to understand these arrangements bringing new people into Roman territory. Cassiodorus goes on to say that “the friendship between the peoples grew in strength through this loss, and in return for a portion of the land a defender was gained, so that complete protection of the property was assured.”
So, clearly, someone had had to give up land for the Ostrogoths to take over? Or so it would seem. But that kind of redistribution of wealth doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would have won such universal praise. A lot of historian’s ink has been spilled to try to work out how it was all accomplished, and resolve this apparent contradiction.
The key seems to be found in Roman accounting practice. I swear I just heard all of you groan, across time and space, but it’s not that bad, I promise. In Roman tax law, the various words for units of land, and their subdivisions, do not refer to the land itself, but to the revenue that can be expected from that land. In private law, the same words referred to the land itself. So as an example, a iugerum, might produce six siliquae of tax income, then the word iugerum would be synonymous with six siliquae. Thus, if we were to be told that a particular goth was granted a third of the iugerum, that may mean that he was actually entitled to two siliquae, and not any actual land. Just to be clear, I’m making up numbers, I have no idea how much tax revenue a iugerum of land might generate. It’s about ⅔ of a modern acre, by the way.
Oh, and a siliqua is a silver coin. There’s more to it than that, but I promised I wasn’t going to get stuck in the swamp, and I can feel the mud sucking at my ankles. So I’ll move on.
So let’s accept that the Gothic army was paid off by assigning a third of the royal revenue to their support, rather than a mass redistribution of real estate. Lodgings were found for them in various towns, paid for out of the state income. The highest-ranked Goths were probably given grants of actual land, much of which was simply transferred from the dead supporters of Odoacer to the live ones of Theodoric. Some of it may have been distributed from the land directly held by the king, which was considerable. However it was accomplished, places were found for the Ostrogothic army.
Theodoric’s authority obviously rested on that army, and he needed both to keep them close and happy, while constantly reinforcing the fact that he was the one in charge. This is the basic need of all medieval rulers. Actually it’s the basic need of all governments, even today, it’s just that in the medieval model, things are much more personal, and the state is embodied in the person of a single man, the king.
Theodoric, through Liberius, distributed the army through Italy strategically, in regional concentrations. Compared to the local population, of course, there weren’t that many Ostrogoths, no more than around 15% of the total at the most, so spreading them out too much would be asking for trouble. Theodoric felt the greatest threat from the east, from Constantinople or the Gepids or any of that grab-bag of tribes out on the Pannonian plains. Permanent Gothic settlements were therefore concentrated in what is now Lombardy and Venetia in Northern Italy, along with several in Dalmatia. The road between Ravenna and Rome was also dotted with Gothic enclaves along either side. In places where no permanent settlement was planned, mobile units were used as garrison troops, who may have been rotated or moved around as there was need. This was more common in Italy south of Rome and in Sicily, along with the Alpine forts of the Aosta Valley. They weren’t the only troops defending these regions, there were still local militias, the descendents of the old Roman limitanei, who the Goths both supported and strengthened.
These soldiers were paid their salary from the earmarked tax income, but additionally received regular bonuses, called donatives in the long tradition of Roman generals keeping their men sweet. These would be distributed in person in Ravenna, and served to gather the fighting men in one place, reinforcing their bonds to each other and to the king. These donatives could be substantial, and usually were paid for from the revenue of the king’s own land holdings. A five solidi donative, which was not unusual, could have fed eight to ten people for a year.
I’ll say that again just so we have a sense of the value of gold in the late antique economy: five solidi, around 23 grams of gold, could feed a family and several servants for a year. And Theodoric was in a position to distribute such an amount to thousands of families on a pretty regular basis.
Theodoric did his best to ensure that his generosity toward his own people didn’t inconvenience the natives too much. For instance, in addition to the donative they received, the march to Ravenna to collect it was considered active military service and the men provided expense money for the journey. That prevented plundering, as soldiers would be able to buy what they needed from the communities they passed through. Nonetheless, patience with the transients could at times wear a little thin. There remained too, Goths who did not share Theodoric’s commitment to fairness and cooperation. His nephew, Theodehad, who would eventually become king himself, had to be summoned to Ravenna and rebuked for his greed and illegal land-grabbing at least a few times, including grabbing royal lands in Tuscany under false pretenses. No idea how he got away with that.
All of that wealth was derived from that royal patrimony – the lands the king controlled and collected income from directly. These were mostly inherited – if that’s the right word – from Odoacer, and were truly vast. They came to include most of Dalmatia and a good chunk of Sicily, as well as broad sections of Tuscany and other properties scattered around the Italian Peninsula.
Theodoric found in Odoacer’s Italy a structure where a barbarian military establishment worked in parallel to the existing Roman administrative establishment. And truth be told, this wasn’t too very different from the way things had been when there had been an Augustus in Ravenna. Theodoric merely replaced Odoacer’s army with his own, and gradually the Ostrogoths found their groove among their Italian neighbors.
The distinction between them didn’t ever disappear though, and was indeed, actively maintained. Intermarriage wasn’t forbidden, but seems to have been uncommon. The Roman population lived under Roman law, while the Ostrogoths kept their own customs. The highest ranks of leadership around the king were all goths. They would decide the succession on the death of the king, and their families would become the highest noble castes moving forward. Romans were absolutely accepted as advisors and administrators, like Liberius, and later Boethius and Cassiodorus would be well-regarded and powerful, but only in the civil sphere. And truth be told, the highest levels of Italian society – ie the senate – were so rich that there was very little incentive for them to seek advancement in government service. They focused instead on academic and literary pursuits. Theodoric found his corps of administrators among the second, more local rung of elites – the curiales, which we could anachronistically think of as the gentry. Unlike in Gaul, in Italy this stratum of society remained relatively more engaged in public life, and were more than willing to serve the new Gothic rulers.
The military under Theodoric, though, remained firmly in the hands of the Goths and their descendants, with recruitment among the Italian population discouraged. It would remain so until the Ostrogothic state came under pressure from a resurgent Byzantine empire, later in the sixth century. But that story lies in the future.
After 493, Theodoric stopped leading the army personally, and instead settled in the palace in Ravenna, as Odoacer had done. Unlike later medieval rulers, his court was not peripatetic. Instead, he designated trusted and noble members of his entourage to act as his agents, and carry his will out wherever he assigned them. These men were called saiones, and held plenipotentiary power, and were used by Theodoric to communicate with the far flung men running his kingdom. These retained latin titles, which would gradually morph into the noble ranks we know today. For instance, each civitas – city – was under the supervision of a comes, from the latin for “companion”, and this word by way of old French, became “count”. The commander of a military district was a dux, which became duke. The comes might also be any prominent member or official of the king’s retinue, and be given specific jobs not attached to a locality. The comes patrimonii, for example, was in charge managing the king’s own lands, and keeping those accounts, which were separate, by the way, from those of the official treasury. He was also one of only two civilian positions occupied by Goths.
Those lands brought in enormous wealth, as I’ve said, and Theodoric set about putting it to good use. We’ve already talked about how he kept his army fed and rewarded his people. He also started building.
Ravenna had been, off and on, the seat of imperial power ever since Stilicho had plonked Honorius into the palace there to keep him safe from Alaric’s Visigoths in 408. It was considered especially defensible, surrounded as it was by marshes, and easily supplied by sea. That hadn’t stopped it from falling to various armies, as we’ve heard, but usually to treachery, starvation or negotiation, rather than storm. As the home of the emperor, of course, it had already been the benefit of building projects. Galla Placidia, for instance, had funded a number of church buildings, including San Giovanni Evangelista, which in much renovated form remains today, and a chapel annex on the Church of Santa Croce which is incorrectly called her mausoleum, and graced with stunningly beautiful mosaics. Now Theodoric was determined to expand, refresh, and put his own stamp on the old city.
Theodoric was a ruthless, violent, and uncompromising man, every inch the warrior chieftain. He was also entirely capable of recognizing the advantages of the Roman way of life, of appreciating the majesty of Roman culture and art, as well as the political advantage to be gained by presenting himself and his reign as a continuation and renewal of imperial splendor. He consciously modeled himself on the Great Emperors of the past, Trajan, Valentinian I, Constantine. Games, circuses, and building projects were all part and parcel with that presentation.
In Ravenna and Verona he repaired and restored aqueducts. Baths were built in Verona and Pavia, and in the latter city new walls and an amphitheater. He re-started the grain subsidy for the city of Rome and restored its palace and walls. Across northern Italy inscriptions have been found crediting theodoric with public works projects both flashy and practical. He saved the most magnificent for his capital.
He expanded the imperial palace. The palace was not just a residence, it was the administrative heart of the kingdom, with work spaces for meetings, scribes, storage, and entertainment.
And there were churches.
Theodoric’s relationship with the Orthodox church was notably peaceful and built on mutual respect, but neither he nor his followers had given up their Arian creed. So they needed their own cathedral, and Theodoric set about building one, now called Spirito Santo.
The one that everyone gets all excited about though, is Theodoric’s palace church. At the time it was dedicated to Christ Redeemer, and after a handful of name changes, it’s now known as Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. It’s laid out as a classic Roman-style basilica, a rectangular building with columns dividing it into three rows, with an apse and altar at one end. The construction of the columns matches methods used in Constantinople, and this has been seen as evidence that Theodoric may have hired builders from the east. Theodoric sought to bring some of the magnificence he had grown up around in Constantinople to Ravenna, to claim some of that imperial prestige.
The most impressive feature of Sant’Apollinare is its mosaics. Shining on backgrounds of gold, the walls on either side are covered in them, in three rows. At the top are scenes depicting the life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. The next row down is taller, and pierced by arched windows. In between each window is a mosaic portrait of a prophet or evangelist, thirty-two in all, all of them in Roman style robes and holding books, but each of them unique. My personal favorite is the one in the middle on the south wall with the red book, because he kind of looks like Ringo Starr. The bottom row depicts processions of saints and martyrs, female on one side, male on the other. These mosaics were subject to significant … lets call it revision … when the church was converted from Arian to Orthodox use, but the basic layout of the scene remains. Most historians make a point of noting that the palace of Ravenna appears on as the starting point for the male procession, and that it once probably included portraits of Theodoric and his major courtiers, now removed, though disembodied hands and feet remain.
Outside the palace, in truly imperial style, he had erected an equestrian statue of himself in a heroic pose. That statue would remain there until the eighth century, when Charlemagne removed it to decorate his capital at Aachen, though he believed it to represent Constantine the Great.
At every opportunity, Theodoric sought to accrue to himself the patina of imperium. In his palaces (not only at Ravenna but in Pavia and Verona as well) and churches he deployed all the imagery connected with emperors and the faint whiff of divinity that hung around them. In its original form, above the altar in Sant’Apollinare was a portrait of Theodoric enthroned, and facing him opposite a portrait of Christ Pantocator, the ruler of all, with all the majesty of heaven. The messaging was clear, her was the authority of heaven sustaining and underpinning the authority of the king. And this diving support was recognized by both Arian and Orthodox establishments. In 499, at the opening of a church synod, the assembled clerics stood and shouted exaudi nos, Christus, salve Theodoricus! “Hear us, Christ, long live Theodoric!” They repeated it thirty times. This was a standard formula for the accolade of emperors. But, even though Theodoric claimed to rule on behalf of the emperor in Constantinople, no mention of Anastasius was made at this assembly.
The following year he made a formal and triumphant entrance into Rome itself. It was in every way designed to evoke the imperial adventus of the old days, and Theodoric was greeted with wild enthusiasm. When he arrived, according to a chronicler called the Anonymous Velisarius, he greeted the Pope “as if he were Saint Peter himself”.
Well that’s all very well, but what, you may be asking, did the actual emperor think about all of this?
That’s actually a pretty complicated question. One might even call it Byzantine. Ba-dum-tish.
The original treaty with Zeno had stipulated that 1) Odoacer, having become a tyrant, had to be removed. 2) Theodoric, having removed him, would act as a viceroy for the emperor until such time as Zeno could come to Italy in person. But now, both Odoacer and Zeno were dead, and Anastasius had other things on his mind and was clearly not going to be making the trip anytime soon. The most practical course seemed to be the one that Theodoric took; to exercise the regnal power on behalf of the legitimate emperor. So why, when the Gothic army acclaimed Theodoric as their king, did Anastasius regard this as an act of usurpation? Why did he withhold recognition of Theodoric’s rule for four whole years, even though Theodoric had not claimed the imperial title or dress?
To be honest I don’t have an answer. One of the reasons may have been religious, but not because Theodoric was a heretic. Pope Gelasius was embroiled in a dispute with the eastern Patriarch called the Acacian schism, which is frankly too gum-bleedingly obscure to get into right now. The point is that Theodoric backed the pope, and this may have slowed down imperial recognition, but it can’t be known for certain.
Anastasius’ ultimate recognition of Theodoric, in 497, is equally mysterious. But, third time’s the charm, the third senatorial embassy returned to Theodoric bearing news of recognition of his rule, along with the vestments and imperial insignia that had been sent back to Constantinople by Odoacer. Relations would remain difficult though. Constantinople clearly saw the Italian kingdom as part of the empire, but a junior partner. THeodoric would, throughout his rule, push for and achieve greater and greater influence, and at the height of his power could very plausibly make the claim that he had restored the West.
Next time, we’ll look at how this junior partner came to overshadow the other Germanic kingdoms of the west. In the process I will have occasion to introduce some new characters and get a good look at the kind of world that’s taking shape out there. I hope you’re all looking forward to it.
Grateful thanks before I go to Adriana, Nicholas, and Alex for their kind donations at ko-fi.com.
And Alex, re: your email, that’s possibly the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said to me.
Thanks to everyone who rates or reviews the show, or subscribes. I’m aware that a lot of you have started listening on Spotify in the last month or so, welcome, welcome. Spotify does not provide a place for reviews, but a five-star rating is just as gratifying. And thank you all for listening, and for your continuing patience. Until next time, take care.
Halsall, Guy. 2007. Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heather, Peter J. 2014. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Herrin, Judith. 2022. Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wolfram, Herwig. 1990. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press.