Procopius’ views on the Gothic rex Theoderic


In yesterday’s blog I gave my preliminary thoughts on Jonathan Arnold’s magnificent new book on the Gothic king…..or is that…Roman Emperor Theoderic. Today I will post my own piece on Theoderic. it is an excerpt from a larger article that will be published early next year. My version suggests that Procopius gives a more sympathetic view of Theoderic than Arnold suggests. 


Theoderic: The Manly Protector

Procopius opened the Gothic Wars by relating his version of events that had led to Theoderic’s and the Goths’ rise to power in Italy. In his introduction, Procopius explained that his history would be a story of three peoples: the Goths, the Italians, and the Romans.[1] Military matters and men’s martial virtues play a key part in Procopius’ prologue. Indeed, the decline of the “native” Western army and the demilitarisation of the Italian populace, according to the historian, represented one of the primary reasons for the loss of Italy.[2] Similar to Synesius’ argument from nearly a century and a half before, in Procopius’ eyes, as the barbarian make-up of the Western army grew stronger, the native element grew weaker.[3] In Procopius’ opinion, these “barbarians” had no grasp of Roman law and little respect for the “native” population. Barbarian control of the army led to an inability on the part of the Western Romans to protect themselves from the “foreigners” who “tyrannically” demanded a share of the lands of Italy.[4] Under the inept rule of the last Western Roman emperors, the “barbarian” generals became the true power behind the throne. In 476, a group of these rebellious barbarians proclaimed one of these strongmen, Odoacer, king. Odoacer deposed the Western Roman emperor (Romulus Augustus, whom Procopius does not name). 

In contrast to the Western Romans, who accepted barbarian rule and domination of the army, Procopius suggested that the Eastern Romans’ continued adherence to a martial lifestyle and control over their armed forces had allowed them to continue to utilise the barbarians as their pawns. One finds an example of this paradigm in Procopius’ description of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno’s adept use of allied barbarians to punish his enemies. In Procopius’ version of events, Zeno convinced Theoderic the Amal to gather his forces in Thrace and the Balkans and to march into Italy to eliminate Odoacer.[5] Procopius depicted this confrontation as something more than a clash between two “barbarian” peoples. He, in fact, made an effort of “de-barbarising” Theoderic somewhat. He highlighted the Goth’s patrician rank and the fact that Theoderic had attained “consular office in Byzantium”. After a fierce struggle, Theoderic slew Odoacer and took control of Italy. Despite emphasising his subordinate position to the Roman emperor and his role as a barbarian “king” [ῥὴξ, 5.1.26], Procopius made the rather extraordinary claim in a work that would have been read in imperial circles that Theoderic held the qualities appropriate “to one who is by birth an emperor”.[6] The historian even blamed Theoderic’s “unjust” execution of the Roman senators and consuls, Boethius and Symmachus, on the treachery of the Gothic king’s advisors.

 Throughout the Gothic Wars, Procopius portrayed Theoderic’s reign as a “Golden Age”.[7] In a theme that marks many of his subsequent portraits of the Gothic leadership, Theoderic frequently acted the opposite way one might expect of a barbarian rex.[8] The Gothic king undoubtedly treated the Italians with justice and compassion, especially in comparison with what Procopius represented as the tyrannical rule of the Vandals in North Africa and of Odoacer’s short reign in Italy. Procopius certainly respected the Gothic king’s martial qualities. Theoderic ruled as a military leader, and, in Procopius’ view, part of his success stemmed from his ability to provide stability and a renewed sense of military pride to the Western Romans. Procopius’ portrait also revealed the Gothic king’s mastery of the “intellectual” virtues that allowed a good leader to treat his subjects justly. Procopius emphasised that Theoderic’s juxtaposition of “wisdom and manliness” [ξυνέσεώς τε καὶἀνδρίας] allowed him to both “observe justice” [δικαιοσύνης], and to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. These traits earned Theoderic “the love of the Goths and the Italians”.[9] The question of whether the Italians owed greater loyalty to their current “protectors”, the Goths, or to the Byzantines, represented a recurrent topic in the Gothic Wars. According to Procopius, this issue of fidelity had little to do with the Eastern and Western Romans’ shared past, but more on which side, Goth or Byzantine, could both better protect the “non-martial” Italians from foreign threats and treat them “justly”.[10]

These are remarkable views for a Byzantine writer to express. The irony that a barbarian ruler seemed the only man capable of protecting Italy from barbarian invaders would not have been lost on Procopius’ contemporary audience.[11] Beside the fact that these sentiments may have represented Procopius’ true feelings towards the Gothic monarch, I can think of three other possible reasons for such effusive praise.[12] Firstly, this flattering description of Theoderic may represent a barb aimed at the emperor Justinian, whose humble origins, lack of battle experience, and inability to fend off barbarian incursions into Byzantine territory earned Procopius’ scorn in Secret History.[13] Secondly, it may be a veiled insult aimed at the Italians, who in Procopius’ mind were incapable of protecting their own lands. Finally, it allowed Procopius to present Theoderic as a manly archetype whose character could be compared to those of his Gothic successors and the leading Byzantine generals, and in particular, Belisarius.

 Procopius based much of his esteem for Theoderic on the monarch’s ability to be both a political and military leader. It was, however, Theoderic’s martial virtues that the historian appeared to have admired most. At the close of his biographical sketch, in fact, Procopius explained that it was Theoderic’s ability to make “himself an object of terror to all of his enemies” that contributed to his lasting legacy.[14]


[1] Procopius, Wars 5.1.1-2: “I shall now proceed to the Gothic War, first telling all that befell the Goths [Γότθοις] and Italians [Ἰταλιώταις] before this war”. In the next sentence, he described the Eastern Roman Zeno, as “the reign of Zeno in Byzantium [βυζαντίω]”. Though Procopius used the term “Byzantine” or at times “Greek” to describe the Eastern Romans, the historian’s preferred term was “Roman”. He also distinguished (e.g., Wars 5.1.26.) between Goths and Italians in the post-Roman kingdom. P. Amory (People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge 1997, 120) asserts that in the later part of the fifth-century Western Romans began calling themselves Itali in order to distinguish themselves from the Eastern Romans. He suggests that this development broke down some of the social barriers between the Western Romans and the Goths.


[2] Cf. Procopius’ comments at the opening of the Vandalic Wars (Wars 3.3.15) describing the two fifth-century Western generals, Boniface and Flavius Aëtius, “as the last of the Romans” immediately after he had described the enfeebled and effeminate rule of Valentinian III.


[3] Synesius, On Kingship 14.


[4] Procopius (Wars 3.5.12-13) described a similar land-grab by the Vandals in North Africa.


[5] Perhaps in an effort to magnify the Eastern Emperors’ power, Procopius exaggerated the Byzantine leadership’s ability to control men like Theoderic and to influence politics in the fifth-century Western Roman Empire.

[6] Proc., Wars 5.1.29. J. Arnold, (Theoderic, 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.” Cf. the more restrained views found in J. Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy. Oxford 1992, 77-78.


[7] See, e.g., Proc., Wars 7.9.10, 7.21.12, 23.


[8] For Procopius’ use of such inversions in his accounts of the Gothic rulers, see G. Halsall, Funny Foreigners: Laughing at Barbarians in Late Antiquity, in: G. Halsall ed. Humour, History, and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge 2004, 106-11.


[9] Proc., Wars 5.1.27-29: “ἔρωςτεαὐτοῦἔν τε Γόθοις καὶἸτλιώταις”.


[10] See, e.g., Proc., Wars7.4.16, 7.9.10-15, 7.30.24.


[11] Western Italo-Roman propaganda frequently used the idea that the Goths under Theoderic were protecting the Italians from the barbarians, e.g. Ennodius, Panegyricus dictus Theoderico 12.69.


[12] Procopius often provided a nuanced view of foreign peoples whom he generally labeled as barbarians.  While, at times, he displayed the traditional Greco-Roman distrust of “barbarians”, overall, his attitude towards foreign peoples like the Goths and the Vandals seems quite enlightened. Geoffrey Greatrex argues that Procopius’ sympathetic portrayal of the Goths mirrored other sixth-century writers’ flexible attitude towards “barbarians”, and reflected the blurring of boundaries between Eastern Romans and foreign peoples in the sixth century.  G. Greatrex, Roman Identity in the Sixth Century, in: S. Mitchell and G. Greatrex eds.Ethnicity and Culture in Late Antiquity.London 2000. See too Kaldellis’ comment (Procopius of Caesarea,221) that Procopius “treated Romans and barbarians impartially, condemning the former as often as he praised the latter”. Cf., however, A. Cameron (Procopius and the Sixth Century. London 1985, 239) who argues that Procopius attempted to preserve the “established order” by creating “a strong demarcation between civilised peoples and barbarians”, and W. Goffart (Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Philadelphia 2006, 94-6) who uses Procopius’ account of the Herules to make the larger claim that Procopius wanted to expel all the barbarians from the Roman Empire.


[13] As Kaldellis points out (Procopius of Caesarea, 60), contrasts can be made as well with Procopius’ negative portrait of Justinian in Secret History, where the historian described the emperor as a land-hungry tyrant.


[14] Proc., Wars 5.1.31. Procopius praised (Wars 3.12.8-22, 6.8.1-18) Belisarius for being an object of fear amongst his soldiers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s