The Gothic king Athalaric (ruled 526-534)






The Gothic king Athalaric’s (ruled 526-534) reign has often been seen as the beginning of the end for Gothic rule in Italy (e.g. McEvoy [2013: 328], Heather [2013:149-51]). In today’s blog I offer a discussion on the mid-sixth century historian Procopius’ famous digression on the disputes surrounding Athalaric’s education. Like yesterday’s blog, it has been adapted from my 2013 dissertation The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire.

For Procopius, Theoderic’s strong leadership helped to unify the Goths. So too had the king largely succeeded in maintaining the bond between Italians and Goths. The historian’s descriptions of the king’s flawed successors revealed the difficulty of maintaining this unity.

Theoderic had planned originally to have his son-in-law Eutharic succeed him. The Visigoth Eutharic was named consul in 518, and most significantly in 519 he held this office with the Eastern Emperor Justin as his colleague. Though the date is unclear, Eutharic died sometime in the early 520s. Before his own death, Theoderic had named his ten-year-old grandson Athalaric as his heir, and appointed his daughter and the boy’s mother Amalasuintha, as regent.[1] Many within the Gothic aristocracy had a difficult time accepting a dynastic succession dependent solely on the Amal line.[2] So too have some historian’s recently linked the prominent philosopher Boethius and his father-in-law Symmachus’ “treasonous plotting with Constantinople” and subsequent executions to Theoderic naming Athalaric as his heir.[3] Some historians (e.g. O’Donnell) even claim that Boethius sought to name himself Western emperor.

Yet, in Procopius’ telling, the early years of Amalasuintha’s regency were a relatively peaceful and stable time for Italy.[4] Amalasuintha sought to restore harmonious relations between the Goths and the Romans by distancing herself from some of less tolerant policies of Theoderic’s final years (proof too that Procopius’ praise of Theoderic may not have been completely heart-felt). Procopius declared that she protected the Romans from the Goths’ “mad desire to wrong them” [ξυνεχώρησεν ἐςτὴνἐκείνουςἀδικίανὀργῶσιν]. Additionally, she attempted to reconcile herself to the senate by returning Symmachus’ and Boethius’ confiscated lands to their families.[5] Amalasuintha and her supporters reigned supreme, yet trouble lurked in the hearts of Gothic men spurned by the new regime.[6]

Procopius compressed the ten-year period of Athalaric’s rule into a didactic tale that appears to unfold over a much shorter time-frame.[7] According to Procopius, the struggle began as a dispute over the proper way to educate Athalaric. Amalasuintha felt compelled to raise the boy as a Roman aristocrat.[8] She sent him to a Roman school of letters and hired three “prudent and refined” [ξυνετούς τε καὶἐπιεικεῖς, 5.2.7] Gothic tutors to further educate the future king. Procopius illustrated how this decision created a backlash among some members of the Gothic nobility who wanted to raise the boy in “the barbarian fashion”. He wrote:


All the notable men among them gathered together, and coming before Amalasuintha made the charge that their king was not being educated correctly from their point of view nor to his own advantage. For letters, they said, are far removed from manliness [ἀνδρίας], and the teaching of old men results for the most part in a cowardly [δειλὸν] and submissive spirit. Therefore the man who is to show daring [τολμητήν] in any work and be great in renown ought to be freed from the timidity [φόβου] which teachers inspire and to take his training in arms. . . . ‘Therefore, O Queen’, they said, ‘have done with these tutors now, and do you give Athalaric some men of his own age to be his companions, who will pass through the period of youth with him and thus give him an impulse toward that excellence [τὴνἀρετὴν], which is in keeping with the custom of barbarians’.

The “martial” faction emphasised the “dangers” of a literary education by claiming that Theoderic had refused to allow the Goths to send their children to school; they suggested that he took this stance because he believed that a literary education would cause them “to despise sword or spear”.[9] One assumes that Procopius and his contemporary audience were aware of the illogic of this argument, since Procopius tells his audience about Theoderic’s daughter Amalasuintha’s and his nephew Theodahad’s excellent classical educations.[10] Moreover, the hardliners ultimately supported the unmanly Plato-loving Theodahad.[11] While this discrepancy and other incongruences in his history may be the result of Procopius’ heavy emphasis on rhetorical themes and disregard for the “truth”, it is also possible that he purposefully has the “martial” Goths tell a known non-truth. As we will see throughout the remainder of this essay, Procopius often utilised such inaccuracies in his set-speeches as a means of later undermining the speakers’ overall argument.

In this stylised episode, Procopius transformed an internal Gothic power struggle into a didactic debate about the proper way to educate young men. While he simplified a complex political dispute, Procopius provided his audience with the differences—real and imagined—between Roman and Gothic methods and beliefs about the best way to transform boys into manly men.[12] Each of the Gothic factions suggested that boys travelled a long and hazardous path to manhood. The two sides only differed on the best methods to overcome these obstacles. The “conservatives” preached that in order to instil courage in a young man, he needed to be surrounded by companions of a similar age and “take his training in arms”, while Amalasuintha and the Goths presumably following Roman traditions, focused on the development of a boy’s mind.[13] Despite its obvious rhetorical aspects, this episode has some historical basis. Evidence from the Gothic side supports Procopius’ characterisation of Amalasuintha as an aficionado of Roman literature. For example, in a letter to the Roman senate, Amalasuintha espoused the benefits of a Roman education by suggesting that literary learning allowed the warrior to discover “what will strengthen him with courage; the prince learns how to administer his people with equity”.[14]  In the Greco-Roman literary tradition even innate virtues like ἀνδρεία and one’s martial skills could be enhanced by a literary education.[15] Although we know very little about what constituted a “Gothic” education, we do know that officers’ children received substantial military training, and that the upper echelon of Gothic society embraced the soldier’s life.[16]

Evidence from the remainder of Athalaric’s biography appears to show that Procopius rejected the barbarians’ idea that a young man’s curriculum should involve military training alone. Procopius, in fact, responded to the barbarians’ claims about the unmanliness of a Roman education, by demonstrating how Athalaric’s exposure to the “customs of the barbarians” produced a “failed man”.Fearing her political rivals, Amalasuintha dismissed the tutors and replaced them with a group of Gothic boys who, like Athalaric, “had not yet come of age”.[17] Predictably, in Procopius’ view, this decision proved disastrous. Instead of providing Athalaric with an inclination towards manly ἀρετή, his comrades only enticed the future king “to drunkenness and to intercourse with women” [μέθην καì γυναικῶνμίξεις], qualities that in the classical tradition represented typical vices of not only barbarians, but of unmanly men as well.[18] For Procopius, Athalaric’s inability to control both his drinking and sexual appetites marked him as flawed—and ultimately—as an unmanly man.

Procopius closed his didactic tale by showing how Athalaric, having abandoned Amalasuintha and a “civilised” way of life, fell victim to this “debauched” Gothic lifestyle and died of a wasting disease brought on by the overindulgence in wine and the relentless pursuit of women.[19] Procopius highlighted the folly of permitting mere boys to educate a future king about manly ἀρετή. Torn between two worlds, Athalaric fell short of becoming either a Gothic warrior or a cultivated Roman aristocrat. I would suggest, however, that this account is less a tale about the “impossibility” of amalgamating “Roman” and “Gothic” ideals, as has been suggested by one recent study,[20] but more a way of comparing and contrasting  the martial and manly qualities of the Romans and the Goths. We shall see that each time a Goth made a claim of masculine and martial superiority, shortly after Procopius “proved” the assertion patently false. One may observe this paradigm in the case of Athalaric. Ultimately, in Procopius’ mind, it was his “barbarian” and not his “classical” education that turned Athalaric into a leader with an unmanly lack of self-control.




[1] Amalasuintha was the daughter of Theoderic’s second wife Audofleda, the sister of the Merovingian king Clovis. For a description of Eutharic, see now Arnold, Restoration, 43, 86, 215-218, 296.


[2] P. Heather, The Goths. Oxford, 1996, 250-55. For the last years of Theoderic’s reign as a turbulent period in Italo-Roman and Goth relations, see Moorhead, Totila, 216-18. For a less pessimistic vision, see Arnold, Restoration, 296-97.


[3]McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule, 327-28.


[4] Procopius tells (Wars 7.21.12) his readers that by 550 many Goths recalled the years of Theoderic’s and Athalaric’s rule fondly.


[5] Proc.,Wars 5.2.5-6.


[6] Herwig Wolfram claims (History of the Goths, trans. Thomas Dunlap. Berkeley 1999) that these men were Gothic hardliners who took a tough stance against Constantinople. He suggests that members of this faction, who probably included Theodahad among its members, realised by late 532/early 533 that they needed to gain control over Athalaric before he reached his majority.  It remains, of course, difficult to know how much of Procopius’ depiction is based on actual events.  Procopius revealed (Wars 5.4.12-13) that Theodahad had initiated a coup in 535 with the support of the relatives of the large numbers of Goths who had been slain by Amalasuintha and her followers.


[7] Discussed in Amory, People and Identity, 156.


[8] For further contemporary evidence of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning, see Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.


[9] Proc., Wars 5.2.11-17.


[10] The sixth-century historian John Malalas (Chronicle, 15.9) tells us that Theoderic had received an education during his years in Constantinople, a point that Procopius, with his focus on the Gothic king’s early embracing of Byzantine culture, may have been aware of. So too does Theoderic’s panegyrist Ennodius (Panegyricus dictus Theoderico 3.11) make it clear that Theoderic had received an education in Constantinople. Cf. Theophanes (AM 5977). Contra  Anon. Valesiani 12.61.


[11] I would like to thank Jonathan Arnold (pers. comm.) for highlighting this particular point for me.


[12] Of course, many young men from the Byzantine literate classes would have received military training as well. On the increasing militarization of the sixth-century ruling class, see Conor Whately, Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. Oxford, 2013, 49-57.

[13] Proc., Wars 5.2.11-17.


[14] Cass., Variae, 10.3 (trans. Barnish).


[15] J. Connolly, Like the labors of Heracles: Andreia and Paideia in Greek Culture under Rome, in:R. Rosen and I. Sluiter, eds. Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity. Boston 2003, 287, 328.


[16] Amory, People and Identity, 96. For the Goths’ military ethos, see Heather, The Goths, 322-26, M. Whitby, Armies and Society in the Later Roman World, in: A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins and Michael Whitby, eds. CAH Volume XIV. Cambridge 2000, 472.


[17] Proc., Wars 5.2.18-20.


[18] Proc., Wars 5.2.19. Athalaric’s alcoholism is hinted at in the Variae of Cassiodorus, see S.J.B. Barnish, introduction to Variae, 16. Procopius revealed that an addiction “to the disease of drunkenness” [μέθης νόσῳ] was particularly prevalent among barbarian peoples (Wars 4.4.29, 6.1.28, 7.27.5-6). This point is illustrated when Procopius praised the Herul Pharas for his energetic and serious nature, but noted sarcastically: “For aHerulian not to give himself over to treachery and drunkenness, but to strive after uprightness, is no easy matter and deserves abundant praise (Wars 4.4.29)”. The susceptibility of barbarian armies to drunkenness served as a topos in classical literature. This drunkenness made “barbarians” unreliable soldiers. For instance, Polybius (Histories 11.3) partly blamed the Carthaginians’ defeat in Spain on the Gauls’ drunken state during the battle of Metauras (207 BCE).


[19] Proc., Wars 5.4.4.


[20] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 108.


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