2-8. Friends and Neighbors

500 – 511 CE

Theodoric and Cassiodorus work to prevent war in Western Europe, while crafting an image of imperial majesty. In the end, it works out pretty well for the Ostrogoths.

I hope you all didn’t mind my little detour last episode. Some philosophical yeast to leaven the bread of political history. This episode, though, will be all political history, specifically, diplomacy, the playground of kings. Cassiodorus collected many many diplomatic letters in the Variae, so we know quite a bit about the diplomatic waters in which Ostrogothic Italy swam. There will be quotes a-plenty from Theodoric’s primary PR official, which in addition to just being a useful source for the early sixth century, also makes very clear the image that Theodoric was trying to project to the world.

While I’m on the subject of sources, a quick side note. You may remember last time, in passing, I dropped the name of a chronicle called the Anonymus Valesianus, like it was something I said every day. And maybe you wondered, how can something be anonymous and also have a name? Or is Valesianus not a name, and just a weird historical term that I’m unfamiliar with? What is going on? And then you finished the dishes or the commute and were absent minded all day, pondering this puzzle that I had cruelly laid in front of you in your innocence.

Or you didn’t give it a second thought because you are a functional adult who has a healthy relationship with your podcasters.

Either way, the Anonymous Valesianus is a fragmentary chronicle in two sections, the first dealing mainly with Constantine the Great, the second part devoted to the reign of Theodoric. It gets its name from its compiler, a French antiquarian named Henri Valois, who put it together with an edition of Ammianus Marcelinus’ history in 1636. Valois is Latinized as Valesius, and there you have it, the Anonymus Valesianus and proof that dorky pen names have a long and proud history. The original chronicle was probably written by at least two different authors, the two sections may not actually be related to each other at all, and is surprisingly short, but it does provide a significant chunk of information about Theodoric’s time on the throne. I will have reason to refer to it later, so now you are up to date with that.

Gold medallion depicting Theodoric the Great as King of Italy. Roman Dress, Barbarian haircut and facial hair.

  Theodoric, setting up his kingdom, had three powerful forces he needed to balance. The first two we have talked about already; the existing Roman administration and aristocracy, and his army. The third, as you may already have guessed, were the other kingdoms that were simultaneously creating themselves out of the carcass of the Western empire around him. Each of these would have to be handled differently, some delicately, some not so much.

In meeting this challenge, Theodoric had with him some advantages. The first was the aforementioned Roman administration, personified for us by Cassiodorus. Secondly, regardless of Constantinople’s feelings about him at any given moment, Theodoric did have a smidgen of imperial gloss clinging to him, and with that came confidence and a certain amount of respect. That respect was given weight by the well-blooded and formidable army he had in his back pocket should it be needed.  And lastly, he had a lot of female relatives.

Most of you with even a little knowledge of history will know that in times past, if you really wanted an alliance to stick, marriage, marriage was the thing. Find yourself a daughter, son, sister, cousin, niece, nephew, yourself if necessary, and get them married to someone appropriate on the other side. Marriage was the glue of international relations, and would be the way dynastic states in Europe did business at least until the French Revolution.

What did that mean in the specific case of Theodoric, then?

To begin with, he had brought a sister to Italy with him. You may remember me saying that Theodoric had two sisters, and if you do, I am impressed, but his younger sister had died of some kind of illness back in Epirus. His surviving sister was a widow named Amalafrida, by the way, and no, we don’t know anything about her first husband. He also brought two daughters of his own, Thiudegotho and Ariagne. We know nothing about their mother, sources differ on whether she was a wife or a concubine, but she was certainly out of the picture by the time Theodoric reached Italy. Ariagne is named in most sources as Ostrogotho, probably to distinguish her from Ariadne, emperor Zeno’s wife, and in order to confuse future podcast listeners. I’ll be calling her Ariagne, because Zeno’s wife, lovely I’m sure, will not in any way be relevant to us.  Theodoric also had a niece, who may or may not have been Amalafrida’s daughter. I’m very sorry about all these names, by the way.

Early on in his reign, Theodoric set a good example and got married himself, very shortly after the war with Odoacer was over. He married a Frankish princess, named Audofleda, the sister of Clovis, king of the Franks, and with her had a third daughter, named Amalasuintha, most likely born in 495. Nobody was issuing birth certificates, of course, so birth years are a matter of guesswork. We can pretty much take that as read for anyone that shows up in this podcast, actually. Amalasuintha was Theodoric and Audofleda’s only child together.

Lots and lots of names in this episode. I’ve gotten some feedback that the casting of actors thing was helpful in being able to put a face to the name and make it easier to remember. I had stopped because it felt too gimmicky to me, and I found myself diving into the depths of imdb to try and find actors with suitable features which did seem like a productive use of my time. But if you would like me to bring back the actors, let me know. Maybe I’ll try it again here and just see what happens. I’m going big for starters, and casting Harrison Ford as Theodoric, Theodoric would have been about 46 at the time of this marriage, so imagine Harrison around Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Oh, and put a mustache on him. For Audofleda let’s say Renee Russo.

You’re welcome.

The marriage to the Frankish Audofleda is significant, it speaks to the growing prestige and power of the Frankish kingdom and of Clovis himself. It also speaks to an effort to keep Clovis sweet, since he and his father Childeric had spent most of the last decades of the century laying about them and snapping up people and territory. We will revisit Clovis in more detail and nuance in future episodes, but from Theodoric’s point of view he would be a problem, with a capital P, and would require management.

Amalafrida, Theodoric’s sister, was sent south, to marry Thrasamund, the king of the Vandals. Evangeline Lily and Gerard Butler, for us. Thrasamund was the grandson of the wily Gaiseric, and had come to the throne in 496. Its difficult to date the marriage, but Herwig Wolfram puts it around 500, so roughly the same time as Theodoric’s own marriage. It may have been part of the treaty negotiated after Thedoric had kicked the Vandals out of Sicily. The terms of the marriage emphasized Theodoric’s dominance. As a dowry he granted Thrasamund rule of Masala, at the very western tip of Sicily. That’s nice and all, but since Thrasamund had very recently had a claim to all of the island, it was rubbing his face in it just a little bit. On her arrival in Carthage, Amalafrida was accompanied by an additional cash gift, and an elite bodyguard that the sources tell us comprised 1,000 hardened soldiers, and 5,000 additional armed men. Theodoric billeted troops on Thrasamund, and their presence might have been to assist in the defense of the Vandal kingdom, or as an incentive to stay on the Ostrogoth’s good side. 

Thiudegotho, Theodoric’s daughter, was married to the King of the Visigoths, Alaric II. Ariagne was sent to Sigismund, the son of the king of the Burgundians, and finally a niece named Amalberga was married to king Hermanfrid of the Thuringians.

Lots and lots of names there. Lots of unpacking to do. Let’s start with the Visigoths. 

A signet ring of Alaric II. It’s authenticity is still in dispute.

Euric, the aggressive and expansionist Visigothic king, had died in 484, and turned power over to his son Alaric II, played for our purposes by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Fun fact: Euric was the first Visigothic king to die a natural death since Alaric I, all the way back in 410. The sword of damocles had hung especially precariously over the Visigothic throne. Alaric II does not get very good press, but it’s all in hindsight from what comes later. He had been very helpful to Theodoric in his war against Odoacer, and this marriage in around 502 to Thiudegotho was probably part of his reward for that help. Thiudegotho will be played by Aubrey Plaza, because I have to stop thinking so hard about these and just pick somebody already. Alaric’s court remained in Toulouse, and his kingdom included most of the lands of western France between the Loire and the Pyrenees, a strip of coastline on the Mediterranean including Narbonne and Barcelona, and nominal control over most of northern Spain, though the word nominal is key.

A fanciful statue of Gundobad in Geneva.

The Kingdom of the Burgundians was, of all the successors of the west, probably the most Romanized. Their prince, Sigismund, was a son of King Gundobad, who you may remember as the magister militum that had abandoned the emperor Glycerius to go and follow his star. Not going to cast Sigismund as yet, but Gundobad will be Colin Farrell. The Burgundians’ had a close relationship with Constantinople. But the emperor was a long way away, and the Burgundians had to play an increasingly difficult game, as Clovis’ power increased, and the Burgundians found themselves squeezed between the Frankish Rock and the Ostrogothic Hard Place.

Sigismund, son of Gundobad, eventually became a saint. His relics made their way along a tortuous path to rest today in the Cathedral of Plock, in Poland.

Equally conscious of the proximity of Frankish rocks (hm) was the recipient of the last of the royal relatives, Hermanfrid of the Thuringians. He was married to Theodoric’s niece, Amalberga. I’m not going to cast these two either for the moment, because you’ve all got enough on your plates and again, they probably won’t come up too much in future episodes. Famous last words, no doubt. For Clovis, stay with me on this, I’m seeing Peter Stormare. If you’ve seen Fargo, you’ll recognize the vibe I’m going for here. If you haven’t seen Fargo, go and watch Fargo.

You know what, I’m going to make a page on the website where you can look all these characters up. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

The Thuringians were one of the two great Germanic confederations living on the German side of the Rhine, in territory beyond the old Roman limes. They occupied the middle Rhine, while the other Germanic conglomeration, the Alamanni, occupied lands along the upper Rhine, abutting Theodoric’s Raetia. The Thuringians, Alamanni, and further North, the Saxons, all competed with each other and with the Franks for territory on both sides of the great river. At the time of Amalberga’s marriage, Thuringia was at or near its greatest strength, but the growing power of the Franks was beginning to tell.

All of these marriages probably took place between 500 and 507, though a detailed chronology isn’t possible. In fact, the actual events of Theodoric’s reign have to be spoken of in very general terms, because none of the sources are very specific. Jordanes skims over the period in a very perfunctory way, presumably because his audience would have already been familiar. Cassiodorus did not date his letters, so there’s not much help there, and Valesianus is really just a list of events, roughly in order presumably, but again with no solid dating information other than a few consular appointments. So if these things seem a little wooly, it’s not my fault, it’s the sources.

You may have picked up a theme, and if you were to plot these marriages on a map, it would become doubly clear; Theodoric was constructing a ring of alliances around the Franks. His own marriage to Audofleda was aimed at the same objective. Gaul was the most tangled geopolitical knot in the west. To review quickly, in 476 it was divided into four parts; the Visigoths in the south up to the Loire, the Burgundians in the southeast along the Rhone, the strange and sort-of-Roman domain of Soissons in the northwest, and the Franks in the northeast in the Low Countries and along the Rhine. A generation later, by the time Theodoric had established himself in Italy, Frankish power had expanded enormously, under Childeric and his son Clovis. Around 505, Clovis forced the Alamanni to submit to him, which may have prompted the marriage of Hermenaric and Amalberga as part of a defensive agreement. Clovis also forced the Burgundians into an alliance, and was brandishing his woodchipper in the direction of rich Aquetainia.  

Theodoric has a reputation as a seeker of peace once he was established in Italy, and while it’s not necessarily undeserved, it’s also clear that it was an image he consciously sought to project. The thing about being a keeper of the peace is you have to have enough power and authority to make others back down from conflict. Theodoric, by assuming the role of arbiter of the west, was assuming the functions of an emperor, who could control and command the policies of the kingdoms around him. Clovis’ aggression challenged that. If Theodoric was unable to defend his ally Alaric, it would damage his prestige, as well as make the Franks even more overweening and potentially lead to direct conflict.

Theodoric’s strenuous efforts to prevent war from breaking out are preserved for us by Cassiodorus in the Variae. He worked to convince Alaric not to take preemptive action:

“Do not let blind resentment carry you away. Self-restraint is foresight, and a preserver of tribes; rage though, only precipitated a crisis. It is only when justice can no longer find a place with one’s opponent is it useful to appeal to arms.”

He urged Gundobad of the Burgundians to help him prevent the looming conflict:

“It benefits such mighty kings [meaning Alaric and Clovis] not to seek out regrettable quarrels among themselves, with the result of injuring us too, with their mischances. Therefore, let your fraternity labor with my assistance to restore their concord.”

To Clovis himself:

“What might you think of me, if you knew I had ignored your dispute? Let there be no war, in which one of you will be defeated and come to grief … I have decided to send … my envoys to your excellency; and I have also sent letters to your brother and my son Alaric, that no foreigner’s ill will may sow quarrels between you… Rather, you should remain at peace, and terminate what quarrels there are by the mediations of your friends… You should trust one whom you know rejoices in your advantage, for it is certain that a man who directs another into dangerous courses can be no honest counsellor.”

Theodoric’s desire to avoid the looming war is obvious and sincere. It’s also obvious that he feels it is his right to get involved. While never actually declaring himself emperor – Constantinople would probably not wear it – his pretensions were in the open for all to see, and Theodoric came very close to out in the open in a letter he sent to the eastern emperor Anastasius in about 507:

“…you are the healthful defense of the whole world, to which all other rulers rightfully look up with reverence, because they know that there is in you something which is unlike all others: we above all, who … learned in your Republic the art of governing Romans with equity. Our royalty is an imitation of yours, modeled on your good purpose, a copy of the only Empire; and in so far as we follow you do we excel all other nations.”

Theodoric’s self-appointed leadership of the west extended to culture as well, and here he can get a little bit arrogant, a little patronizing of the less sophisticated rulers around him. I mentioned last time that Boethius had been commissioned to acquire a water clock to be sent as a diplomatic gift. The clock, along with a sundial, was sent to Gundobad the Burgundian, with the accompanying note:

“Possess in your native country what you once saw in the city of Rome … Under your rule, let Burgundy learn to scrutinize devices of the highest ingenuity, and to praise the inventions of the ancients … Let it distinguish the parts of the day by their [the ancients’] inventions … The order of life becomes confused if this is not truly known. Indeed, it is the habit of beasts to feel the hours by their bellies’ hunger, and to be unsure of something obviously granted for human purposes.”

While the tone is suitably diplomatic, there are the little hints, aren’t there, of superiority, the line about beasts reminding Gundobad that if you weren’t a Roman, living under Roman law, you were a barbarian, no better than the animals. It’s all part of the quasi-imperial image. It probably was particularly galling to Gundobad, who enjoyed excellent relations with Constantinople and had received honors from Anastasius. Even if Gundobad himself did not pick up on the insult – which certainly came from Cassiodorus’ pen in fact – there were plenty of well educated Gallo-Romans in his court who would have.

Cassiodorus wielded the diplomat’s pen on behalf of his king with considerable skill. Not stylistically, his writing was as purple and bloated as ever, but in the carefully calculated jab, the message that was being conveyed sub rosa.

For instance, later in his reign, after 511, it came to Theodoric’s attention that Thrasamund had offered support to one of Thedoroic’s enemies. Whether he’d raged in private when he found out or not, the tone of his letter to Thrasamund was very much in the “not angry just disappointed” vein.

“We are sure you cannot have taken counsel in this matter with your wife, who would neither have liked to see her brother injured, nor the fair fame of her husband tarnished by such doubtful intrigues. We send you our ambassadors who will speak to you further on this matter.”

This mention of further information to be coming from the ambassadors is pretty standard, by the way, a lot of diplomatic correspondence throughout the middle ages is pretty standardized and sterile, but makes reference to other messages to be conveyed in person by the emissary. We don’t know what that other message was in this case, or Thrasamund’s reply, but we do have Theodoric’s next letter to the Vandal king:

“You have shown, most prudent of kings, that wise men know how to amend their faults … In the noblest and most kinglike manner you have humbled yourself to confess … we thank you and praise you, and accept your purgation of yourself from this offense with all our heart. As for the presents … we accept them with our minds, but not with our hands. Let them return to your treasury that it may be seen that it was simply love of justice, not desire of gain, which prompted our complaints.”

Theodoric said jump, and Thrasamund asked how high. And sent along a little sweetener, which Theodoric refused. The return of diplomatic gifts, while it doesn’t seem like much, is another expression of the kind of high-handedness that probably irritated the bejeezus out of most of the rulers Theodoric corresponded with.

But Theodoric had the resources to back his arrogance up. He was not, as they used to say back home, “all hat and no cattle”, and he proved it in 504 or 5 when he expanded his kingdom at the expense of the Gepids. He already had Dalmatia, as we know, and from there pushed northward in a well-aimed campaign against the Gepid king Trasericus. There seems to have been little contest, which was probably extra difficult for Trasericus, since Theodoric had already killed his father back in 488 on the way to Italy. By the time it was all over the Ostrogoths had added the old Roman province of Pannonia Secunda to their lands, along with its major city, Sirmium, once an imperial capital. For this there would be consequences. 

Anastasius had been willing to tolerate the Gepids holding the territory, they could be managed. But he was watching Theodoric’s continuous rise with mounting concern, and Sirmium had been, for a long long time, in the East’s sphere of influence.  He sent a force to intervene, mainly Bulgar mercenaries, and Theodoric defeated this army too. He was still, first and foremost, the leader of a war-like people, whatever his pretensions. 

As relations between Clovis and Alaric continued to deteriorate, Theodoric made it clear that he would not shy away from intervening on the Visigoths’ behalf. He more or less ordered Gundobad to stay out of any conflict:

“If our kinsmen go bloodily to war while we allow it, our malice will be to blame. From me you hold every pledge of high affection, the two of us are united, if you do anything wrong on your own account, you sin gravely by causing me sorrow.”

To Clovis himself he was less imperious, but equally direct:

“I am astonished that your spirit has been so roused by trivial causes that you mean to engage in a most grim conflict … Your courage should not become an unforeseen disaster for your country, since the jealousy of kings over light causes is a great matter, and a heavy catastrophe for their people.”

For all of the effort Theodoric exerted trying to maintain peace and a balance of power, in the end it all came to nothing. Irritated by Theodoric’s capture of Sirmium, which came at the end of years of constant renegotiations of the status of Italy in relation to Constantinople, Anastasius made an agreement with Clovis. He launched a series of seaborne raids on the eastern coasts of Italy. Thrasamund was no help, and while Theodoric was distracted by these, Clovis attacked Alaric. The Franks and Visigoths met at the Battle of Vouille in 507. The Visigoths were defeated, and Alaric killed. The Franks surged south, throwing the Visigothic kingdom into chaos and threatening Theodoric’s borders.

Having seen off the Roman raiders, Theodoric was free to turn and face this Frankish threat. His army crossed the Alps in 508 and pushed the Franks and the Burgundians (the water clock had not worked as well as had been hoped) back and reinforced the border fortifications. The Frankish advance was stopped, but they captured and kept control over most of Aquitaine. Just like that, Gaul became Francia, and the Visigoths were forced to reestablish themselves in Northern Spain. Theodoric’s army defeated the Franks near the fortress of Carcasonne, and stopped them from reaching the Med. The strip of land along the coast and into Spain was called Septimania, centered on the port city Narbonne, which became the Visigoths’ new capital.

If Theodoric was disappointed by the collapse of his diplomatic house of cards, it didn’t stop him from turning it to his own gain. The Visigothic kingship passed to Alaric’s son Gesalic. Gesalic was either the product of a previous marriage or illegitimate, not Theodoric’s daughter Thiudegotha. He managed to hold things together for a while, but his failure to deal effectively with continuing Burgundian raids on Septimania, led to the rapid erosion of his support. By 511 he had become unpopular enough to face a coup, maybe orchestrated and certainly supported by … yep, THeodoric the Great. Gesalic was driven out of the kingdom, to seek refuge in Carthage. (It was Thrasamund’s support for Gesalic that prompted that stern rebuke we read earlier). Eventually he made his way to Aquitaine and was killed while attempting to re-enter Spain with an army. 

Theodoric’s empire at its height in 523. He held direct control over the dark regions, hegemonic influence over the lighter (North Africa and Burgundia).

Ostensibly, Theodoric now took control of a regency for his grandson, the son of Thiudegotha and Alaric. In practice, though, tax revenue was sent directly to the royal treasury in Ravenna, along with the land registers. In spite of the veneer of regency, Theodoric had effectively taken control of the Visigothic kingdom.

So in 511 Theodoric had carpe’d that diem, and more than doubled the size of his realm. Slightly dishonorably perhaps? Eh?

He held the reins of power in Italy, Dalmatia, Panonia, across the Alps into Austria and Switzerland. With the addition of the Visigothic lands the Riviera and most of Spain came into his control, plus he was effectively the overlord of North Africa.  It was the largest territory ruled from Italy since the days of Valentinian III. He could, with some justice, claim to have taken a real step toward the revivification of the Roman Empire.

We’ll see how everyone else feels about that next time.

Okay, that last piece of housekeeping I mentioned at the beginning. I have been thinking a lot about how I’m going to manage this thing going forward. I’ve spent much more time on Theodoric than I had originally planned and we’re obviously not done yet. The annoying thing about history is that it’s going on everywhere all the time. The next big narrative topic on the list is the Franks, and I can’t imagine that I will spend much less time on Clovis than I have on Theodoric. And in the meantime I promised you interludes of society and culture kind of things.  It’s that old problem of the fractured narrative thing. I’m in over my head, timeline wise, is what I’m saying. When I first outlined the show I was planning on doing a century per season. And now saying that out loud I can only laugh hollowly.

So here’s my short-term plan, I’m going to take probably another two episodes to bring down the curtain on Theodoric and his kingdom – no spoilers. Then hopefully I will have been able to pull together a thematic episode. I was thinking about the papacy, but am open to suggestions. Then we’ll move on to talk about Clovis and the Franks, and just see how long that takes us. It means that we will probably not even get to the middle of the sixth century by the end of this season – if seasons continue to be a thing – but I’ve decided to let that go, and let the narrative set the pace. Does that sound okay? 

Normally when I ask does that sound okay, it’s entirely rhetorical, but in this case, I’m really asking. Let me know how you feel about the pace, about the plan, and if you have any brilliant ideas, or things you want to hear about. You can get in touch via the contact page on the website, darkagespod.com, email me directly at darkagespod@gmail.com, or I am on twitter @herbert_bushman, and it’s very lonely over there in these strange days of decline. Other kinds of contact are available, mainly the financial kind, via ko-fi.com/darkagespod, which is my digital tip jar, where if you want you can help defray the costs of hosting and research and so on. Absolutely fine if you don’t of course, but if you do, you can have the sense of smug satisfaction that you have become one of my very favorite people in all the land.

I think that’s all the grubby commercialism and everything else out of the way. Thank all of you for listening, and until next time, take care.

Shanzer, Danuta. “Two Clocks and a Wedding: Theodoric’s Diplomatic Relations With the Burgundians.” Romanobarbarica, 1996.


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