Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Theodoric |
The empire that never was

Theodoric is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 264, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Ostrogoth Theodoric, who once cut a man in two with a single blow, dreamed that Romans and Goths could fashion a new realm, and he nearly succeeded

Theodoric - The empire that never was

Theodoric - The empire that never was
After Ravenna fell to the Byzantines, all traces of Theodoric were removed or mutilated. In the mosaic of his palace, the king and his court were originally placed between the columns. Their images were rather clumsily removed, leaving dismembered hands and arms on the columns, such as the portion of an arm (inset).

In 493, the Latin-speaking population of Italy cowered under the joint rule of two Germanic chieftains, Odovacar and Theodoric. The pair had come to a truce after battling each other to a draw at Ravenna, which by then had supplanted Rome as the Italian capital. On March 15 of that year, the truce and the war and Odovacar all came to an end at once. It happened during a banquet, memorable for an act of treachery and of butchery.

To solemnize the truce, Theodoric invited his erstwhile enemy to a dinner in the Palace of the Laurel Grove in the southeast quarter of the city. Odovacar arrived, and two suppliants appeared before him and knelt down, each grasping one of his hands, apparently to make a petition. Too late, the chieftain realized this was not why they were gripping him.

Theodoric strode forward and raised his broadsword. “Where is God?” cried his guest, defenseless but reportedly unafraid. “This is what you did to my friends!” roared the enraged Theodoric, referring to an earlier treachery against his personal bodyguards. With one blow, he split Odovacar from shoulder to crotch. As the corpse toppled, his royal killer gibed, “I think that weakling never had a bone in his body.” Thus perished Odovacar, king of the Heruli, the man who had conquered the last Roman emperor in the west.

His murderer goes down in history as Theodoric the Great, a king whose ambiguities of both character and policy make general description of him difficult. Accomplished in war, he nevertheless provided Italy with the only stable peace its people enjoyed for many decades before and after his reign. Generous and patient, he would nevertheless deal savagely with betrayal. Though he could not write and had to use a gold stencil to sign the first four letters of his name on decrees, he placed the highest value on Roman learning. In an age when corruption was the norm, he acted vigorously to prevent his Germanic officers and Latin administrators from robbing his subjects. Finally, a personal believer in Arianism, he ruled with universally acknowledged impartiality between faiths and nationalities.

His Ostrogoths (meaning East Goths) were large-framed, fair-haired men who fought and farmed. Historical details about them are sparse. In the mid-fourth century, they were living in Pannonia, a Balkan province between Italy and Byzantium, under a king named Walamir. His brother Theodomir, Theodoric’s father, willingly served as a common soldier before being crowned as co-ruler. He also remained loyal for life to Erelieva, Theodoric’s mother, although their love remained unchurched. (Arian rulers sometimes left the formal marriage rite open, in case it was needed for a state alliance.)

Theodoric was born around 454, on the shores of Hungary’s Plattensee, the largest lake in central Europe. His birth was deemed highly propitious. It coincided to the day with tidings that Walamir had destroyed the last army of the Huns, who had lorded it over the Goths for about seventy-five years. At age eight, Theodoric was sent to live at the Byzantine court, as an assurance that the Ostrogoths would honor their latest treaty. Jordanes, an Italian historian of Gothic descent, says the hostage princeling’s face and charm won favor with Emperor Leo I.

For ten years, the youngster had a palace-eye-view of the western world’s most sophisticated city. Commentators suggest that here he likely developed respect for civilitas–civilization. A Byzantine emperor displayed himself to the public in purple robe and shoes, his head encircled with a jewel-encrusted band of white linen, his person surrounded by eunuch clerks and glittering armored soldiers. To a child this pomp would present an overwhelming contrast to rough Goth procedure, where a man conducted his business, public and private, while armed.

Upon his return home, Theodoric immediately made a name for himself as a military campaigner–and none too soon. Two or three years later, his father died. In Germanic fashion, the Ostrogoth warriors assembled and proclaimed as monarch this twenty-year-old scion of their royal Amali clan. In coming years, he sometimes fought in alliance with the Byzantines, who in return made him annual payments and bestowed titles like “patrician” or “consul.” When the payments lapsed, however, Theodoric retaliated. By 488, his troops were ravaging farmsteads within fourteen miles of the imperial capital.

Leo had been succeeded as emperor by Zeno. This imperial schemer feared the rising power of Odovacar, another Arian king (sometimes rendered in English as Odoacer), who, eleven years earlier, had seized power at Rome and Ravenna, deposing Romulus Augustulus, who is regarded as the last Roman emperor in the west.

So Zeno made a pact with Theodoric. If he could take Italy from Odovacar, he would have Constantinople’s authority to rule it. Zeno, of course, had good reason to pit one heretic barbarian against another. Theodoric, for his part, understood that Italy was an easier target than Byzantium, because his troops could never breech the formidable walls of Constantinople.

In pursuit of the glittering prize represented by Rome, Ravenna and Italy, Theodoric’s nation-army set out that autumn, with women, children, and all their possessions loaded on thousands of lumbering wagons. British historian Thomas Hodgkin, in his classic Italy and her Invaders (Oxford, 1896), estimates that the warriors alone numbered perhaps forty thousand. Much of their route lay through mountainous terrain, where food was scarce and enemies plentiful. At one point, a horde of Gepids, another Germanic tribe, almost broke the Gothic vanguard, until Theodoric personally led a desperate assault across marshy ground through a hail of arrows. This victory fortunately yielded a welcome windfall of supplies. Next summer, the barbaric invaders moved out of the Julian Alps into the fertile plain of northern Italy.

At that period, the bulk of Germanic mercenaries already recruited into Italy came from minor tribes. Odovacar, who was Hun and Scyrrian himself (though some highly reputable historians deny he had any Hun ancestry), was a chieftain among the Teutonic Heruli. His crucial opening battle with the Ostrogoths came near Verona. To make his hireling troops fight, Odovacar placed them with their backs to the swift current of the Adige; many of them died in it. Theodoric, purposely wearing distinctively bright garments, led repeated charges until his Goths broke through the enemy positions.

In 490, an army of Ostrogoths and their western cousins the Visigoths defeated Odovacar and his Burgundian allies ten miles from Milan. Many of Italy’s cities, perhaps impressed by the Ostrogoths’ imperial commission and relatively restrained behavior, rebelled against Odovacar’s garrisons. The vanquished general fled to Ravenna, which was nearly impregnable because of its surrounding swamps. Theodoric, after besieging his foe there for more than two years, agreed to a joint kingship as the price of peace–but that truce would end with the fatal banquet in 493.

For the next three decades, the new king of the Goths and Romans ruled with a competence that struck his contemporaries as nearly miraculous. His vision was clear. Roman and German together could restore the faded glory of the western empire. Roman roads and aqueducts were rebuilt, classical works of art protected, skilled artists patronized, churches erected, the ravaged state treasury restored. Merchants operated in peace, reportedly unafraid by day or night. Food prices plunged, greatly benefiting the poor. Justice was so consistently even-handed that western Christians willingly submitted a complex dispute over the papal succession to their Arian overlord. n

Perhaps because his own mother was not Arian, the king consistently favored religious toleration. He once told the Jews of Genoa: “We cannot legalize only one religion, for no one can be compelled to believe against his will.”

Land was a crucial issue, the major source of wealth and power. The Ostrogoth soldiers appear to have been allotted one-third of the agricultural property, a massive incursion that seems to have triggered remarkably little protest from Latin landowners. In part, the redistribution process had already begun under Odovacar, and many potential fields may have lain fallow in the frequently ravaged countryside. Besides, the prospect of having a Gothic warrior as neighbor may have appealed to many Latins.

Theodoric’s diplomatic skill in handling property rights is commemorated in one Solomon-like legend. A young man attempted to claim his inheritance after his father died. The widowed mother, wishing that the property be transferred to her new lover, denied that the lad was in fact her child. To resolve the impasse, Theodoric ordered the widow to marry the young claimant, shocking the woman into confessing that he was indeed her son.

Like the Franks in Gaul, the Ostrogoth sovereign perceived that he could best govern a new realm by using the administrative structure of the conquered Romans. His selection of Roman officials was particularly astute. His most important choice was Cassiodorus, a senator with a shrewd grasp of his civilization’s devious ways, yet constantly upright and trustworthy himself.

The renowned scholar of the age was Boethius, a man whose talents ranged from clock design to a treatise on music that remained a definitive work throughout the Middle Ages. He also translated thirty books of Aristotle into Latin. The king appointed Boethius’s two young sons as consuls, a signal honor, and frequently accepted his appeals on behalf of Romans suffering from miscreant royal officials.

However, Boethius came to a bad end. By 523, Theodoric was aging, and worse still, lacked a mature son. At Byzantium, the new emperor Justin took to persecuting his Arian subjects as heretics, and on similar religious grounds, many Christians in Italy began yearning for a return to Byzantine rule. At this difficult time, Boethius apparently failed to report communication between a friend and Byzantium, a neglect Theodoric considered treacherous. He ordered Boethius put to death. While awaiting execution, the scholar had time to compose The Consolation of Philosophy, a famous book later translated into Saxon English by Alfred the Great. But the execution of Boethius signaled the final failure of the Ostrogoth monarch’s attempt to unify Goth and Roman.

Following Theodoric’s own death in 526, an imperial army successfully invaded Italy amid wild enthusiasm from the Latin population. But Byzantine tax collectors and soldiers proved to be rapacious parasites, whose grip did not hold. The peninsula fragmented irreversibly into petty principalities. Henceforth, Rome’s role in world affairs would be exercised by its popes, whose religious dominion proved far more enduring than the statesmanship of barbarism’s noblest monarch.

This is the end of the Theodoric category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 264, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Theodoric from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at