The Gothic King…or is that Western Roman emperor….. Theoderic (ruled 489/93-526)







The Gothic King…or is that Western Roman emperor….. Theoderic (ruled 489/93-526) has received a great deal of scholarly attention in the past year. Peter Heather (The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders [London: MacMillan, 2013]) devotes several chapters to the Amal rex.  So too has Cambridge University Press published two major studies on Theoderic in the past year alone: Sean Lafferty’s Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic the Great: A study of the Edictum Theoderici (2013) and Jonathan Arnold’s Theoderic and the Roman Restoration. Though both studies have done much to advance Theoderican studies their bipolar presentations of Theoderic will probably leave graduate students assigned these works confused.

On the one hand, Lafferty presents a traditional vision of Theoderican Italy as one of several post-Roman worlds. His Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing. Theoderic’s Italy is seen by L as bit of a magician”s trick, heavy on rhetoric, but based on a much more humble and depressing reality. Despite his claims to the contrary, in L’s (20) mind, Theoderic was unable to solve most of Italy’s structural problems. L points out rightly that our major source for the reign, Cassiodorus’ Variae, “do not necessarily reflect conditions as they were”. Under the Goths Italy was becoming increasingly militarized and he sees a merging of the civilian and military branches of the Italo-Roman government (101-102). L does find that in “Ostrogothic” Italy that “the integrity of the judicial system were the same as in the Later Roman Empire. He concludes, however, that the Ostrogoths offered Italo-Romans and Goths a watered down version of Roman law and justice.  Ultimately Theoderic, in L’s mind, was a bit of a charlatan. While recognising Theoderic’s ability “to mask these problems behind a rhetoric of Roman renewal that stressed continuity between his reign an those of other great Emperors like Trajan or Valentinian.” He believes that the ordinary citizen was worse off, unable to overcome the inherent biases that favoured the rich and the well-connected and marked by a failure of “judges who were unable or unwilling to enforce the King’s laws.”(155).

On the other hand, Jonathan Arnold accepts Theoderic’s rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Arnold, (90) goes so far to say “Theoderic’s reign…constituted much more than simply that of a king along the same lines as Odovacer or other ‘barbarian’ kings of the West. He was a princeps Romanus, or Roman emperor, acknowledged as such by his own subjects and presented as such, though in a deferential and conciliatory manner, to the East.” The “glorious” opening decades of Theoderic’s rule were nothing less than the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire. Instead of being ruled by unmanly Greek emperors from the East like Anthemius, the effeminized fifth-century Italo-Romans had been both rescued and reinvigorated by the manly Goths, cast by men like Ennodius and Cassiodorus as “new” Romans draped in traditional Roman martial virtues. Arnold explains, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer “as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Anthemios “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.”  (153).  “Goths and Gothicness”, he continues, “represented martialism, the old Roman virtue of virtus (the very source of the term virtue), which meant “manliness” or “courage.” Virtus was an ideal that the Romans had seemingly lost, becoming overly effeminate (perhaps even overly Greek), yet which until recently had been most Roman indeed”.

This view of the “collapse” of the West as the fault  of enervated Western Romans at the hands of manly barbarians troubles me. Depictions of  the Later Empire like those found in Arnold bring to mind the image of cowed unmanly Roman aristocrats handing over their lands to “magnificently armoured barbarians” that so angers scholars like Walter Goffart. As Goffart reminds us, “The ‘fall’ of the West Roman Empire is not now (perhaps not ever) envisioned as a military defeat by brave barbarians of enervated troops that had lost the will to fight.”[i] Even in the final years of the West, Roman generals like Aetius continued to prove this dominance on the battlefield.[ii]Most scholarship on the Late Roman army agree with this assessment, contending that when properly led, the Eastern and the Western Roman armies continued to maintain a distinct advantage in direct confrontations with their foreign enemies.[iii] Certainly Italo-Romans would have remembered a good number of manly fifth-century Western Roman soldiers. So too was there an acceptance amongst many Italo-Romans of a shared Romanness between Easterners and Westerners well into the sixth century.

I would agree, however, with Arnold that the familiar trope concerning the unmanly and Greek identity of Eastern Romans is found in both Eastern and Western writers. I have written recently a long article of Procopius’ attempts to rebut this gendered propaganda by the Goths. This does not mean that it was, however, a widely held view on the part of Italo-Romans, only a view that they thought men like Ricimer and/or Theoderic might want to hear. Tropes do not always reflect reality. As Procopius’ shows us, in Wars the Italo-Romans often had mixed loyalties. So too does there appear to be a continuing divide between Goths and Italo/Romans in the generation after Theoderic. If the Goths were truly “new” Romans more juxtaposition should be seen. Arnold nowhere addresses the notion found in Wars that the Goths continued mostly to live amongst themselves in Northern Italy. Moreover, abandoning his and his peoples’ Arianism would have been an easy step in being accepted as true Romans. In the East, the generalissimo Aspar was willing to have his son convert to Orthodoxy in order to marry the Emperor Leo’s daughter in 470 to be better accepted… why not Theoderic? Religious conviction seems unlikely, Gothic identity and maintaining the continuing loyalty of the Gothic warriors who truly kept him in power seem the most likely reason that this step was never taken.

Despite my concerns with some of A’s more sweeping statements, his study is much more thorough and interesting for both the novice and the expert than Lafferty’s work that is based largely on a tenuous source. Indeed, despite L’s claims, whether Theoderic even composed the Edictum is not clear, or accepted by specialists who see it as a much later product. On another note, it is a bit strange given the two scholars’ familiarity and similar topic that they do not engage one another’s disparate views of Theoderic’s Italy. Perhaps their friendship played a role. Indeed, like mixing matter and anti-matter, neither work may have survived the confrontation!

So if you only have time to read one new book on Theoderic this year, make it Roman Restoration. I would, however,  keep my mentor John Moorhead’s less sensational—but in places more sound and thorough— 1992 tome on Theoderic (Theoderic in Italy)  by my side to check and compare some of the broader assertions. Heather’s chapters on Theoderic and Procopius can also provide the usually accepted alternative views to be found largely in A’s extensive footnotes. In closing, (for now!) though one need not always agree with his conclusions, A’s thorough reanalysis of evidence is thorough and engaging, and despite my reservations about the overriding thesis, this is my favourite book to come out on the period in the past few years.

Since I am in the midst of writing a detailed review of this important work, I will make one last comment. Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period is often crafted by both ancient and modern historians who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. As he points out both mid-sixth century historians Procopius and Jordanes offer us an Eastern viewpoint after Justinian’s reconquest had driven the Goths to near extinction. Seen from the vantage of 511 Rome, Theoderic’s regime may have offered much hope for Italo-Romans seeking to restore the Greatness and military prowess of ancient Rome.


[i] Goffart, Barbarian Tides, 28.


[ii] For the continued effectiveness of the Western army under the command of Aetius, see Hugh Elton, “Defence in fifth-century Gaul”, in Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity?, ed. John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton (Cambridge: University Press, 1992) 167-76.


[iii] Southern and Dixon, Later Roman Army, 177; see also Heather, Fall of the Roman Empire, 446, who argues that  the dual problems of the Hunnic invasions combined with political infighting in the fifth-century Western Empire led to a perfect storm of calamity, whereby “the barbarian peoples had just enough military might to carve out their enclaves.”

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