Theoderic: Rex Genitus, Vir Inlustris




Pearl-diademed, helmeted, and cuirassed bust facing slightly right, holding spear over shoulder and shield
Victory standing left, holding long cross, RM monogram in left field, star in right; Q



Rex Genitus, Vir Inlustris

In today’s blog I will go into a little more detail on Jonathan Arnold’s stimulating new book on Theoderic and the “sixth-century” Western Roman Empire. Over the next few days I will be tackling some of the issues that he covers in Chapter 6. In this chapter Arnold expands on his idea that Theoderic “had literally become a new Augustus”. These virtues were not based solely on Theoderic’s ability to garb himself in martial virtues, but by the Goth’s ability to demonstrate that during his service in the East he had mastered the more civilised qualities of an idealised Roman from the upper-classes.

A (142) is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman “soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty.” Following concepts found in Plato’s descriptions of the ideal philosopher-king, a model Late Roman emperor needed to be both a φιλόλογος (lover of reason) and a φιλοπόλεμος (lover of war).[i] We find in the texts at our disposal from Late Antiquity that the deeply rooted Hellenic virtues of courage in battle, justice in politics and calm majesty in the face of defeat helped to define notions of ideal rulership.[ii]For our Eastern authors, these qualities remained closely aligned to the four cardinal virtues: φρόνησις (prudence), δικαιοσύνη (justice), σωφροσύνη (temperance), and ἀνδρεία (manliness or courage), that served as vital components of the principle term for “goodness” and ideal manly behaviour in ancient Greek, ἀρετή. [iii] Efficiently juxtaposing these expected political and military virtues allowed the emperor to become an exemplar of not only ideal rulership, but of supreme manly conduct as well.[iv] Despite Arnold’s claims that the Western Emperors had developed  a less despotic form of imperial rule we find the adoption of this Hellenic model into Roman intellectual culture from the time of the Republic (McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 149). Cicero (De officiis 1.5.15. ) translated these four principle virtues into Latin as, temperantia, prudentia, iustitia, and fortitudo  Late Antique examples for the continuity of this concept include: Ammianus, Res gestae 22.4, and Ambrose, De officiis 1.24.115. So I am not completely convinced that Easterners and Westerners had that different a perception of an Ideal emperor as A argues.

I do agree with his next assertion that one’s noble lineage was as important as one’s ethnic identity in this age (143). A writes:

Theoderic’s perceived background, therefore, was extremely important to his acceptance. And his knowledge of high culture, combined with a noble pedigree and illustrious Roman career in the East, served to transform the otherwise “barbarian” king into an acceptably senatorial man, who shared these ennobling attributes with his Italian audience.

Arnold covers the numerous honours Theoderic had received in the East before coming to Italy. Theoderic had spent his youth as a captive in Constantinople. Arnold argues convincingly that these years were the key way Eastern Romans crafted “new” Romans like the Amal captive. Theoderic received a Roman education and probably, like the Alan Aspar saw himself as a Roman insider. Theoderic’s subsequent consulship in 484, appointment as magister militum, naming as a patrician, and dedication of an equestrian statue in Constantinople all point to the Goth’s integration into Eastern Roman society. Even his “rebellion” against Zeno and the Roman state is painted by Byzantine writers like Malchus (e.g. frag. 20) as justified.  In his telling, Theoderic comes down as a betrayed “Roman” soldier, whilst Zeno displays the typical traits of the barbarian of duplicity and reneging on agreements. Theoderic’s honours and conduct helped to define him as a “true” Roman. This is a view of Theoderic that comes down in some Byzantine sources.

Non-Romans like the Goths Theoderic and Ricimer, and the Alan Aspar had become commonplace, and an accepted part of the ruling elite in fifth-century Roman society. Indeed, made a hostage as an eight-year old, Theoderic had grown up in a Constantinople dominated by the emperor-maker Aspar, who after decades of Roman service, to borrow the words of Walter Goffart, “was a courtly grand seigneur.”[1]The number of non-Romans that spent much of their lives within the cultural imperium of Rome should stand as a reminder that the strict polarization between the ‘barbarian” Theoderic and the “Roman” Zeno is largely a creation of our sources, ancient and modern.  Indeed, in many ways, Theoderic was more authentically Roman than the Isaurian Zeno and the humble soldier-empeor Leo (ruled 457-47) who had first taken Theoderic captive. Procopius (Wars 5.1.29) even made the claim that Theoderic held the qualities appropriate “to one who is by birth an emperor”. Considering that he wrote under an emperor who was busy destroying Theoderic’s Italy, this passage offers proof that Procopius may have been more sympathetic to the Goths and Theoderic than A allows.

Such metamorphoses were not an innovation of the Later Empire. Roman history is littered with these “new” men. ” The fifth century saw the growing power of these soldiers roaming the corridors of power in Empire, frequently at the expense of the established landed elite.  From the time of the Republic, men from the upper-crust of Roman society had always had difficulty accepting these men, however, as “true” Romans. Indeed, from the end of the Republic, a Greek education, proper deportment and a mastery of public speaking increasingly stood as the mark as a true manly man, at least as much as the martial deeds. Arnold suggests that Theoderic had mastered some of these intellectual traits and thus broken down some of these barriors. Theoderic was authentically Roman”, he writes, and this “set him apart from his troops, who might be accepted as Roman in their own unique way, but were thought to be rude and semi barbarous like all soldiers.”

This statement above is vital to Arnold’s main thesis. While most modern academics will accept that Theoderic  was highly Romanized, many will probably have a more difficult time accepting the majority of Italians felt the same about his soldiers. A  is on shakey ground here.  Eastern sources, in particular relied on the old trope concerning the barbarous nature of the Gothic troops, and indeed, some of the “foreigners” serving in Justinian’s armies. However, these Eastern writers’ views of soldiers both Roman and non-Roman is much more complex than Arnold suggests above. Indeed, Arnold’s consistent portrayal of Procopius as an Easterner with an axe to grind against the Goths is not backed up in the historian’s writings. Procopius often provided a nuanced view of foreign peoples whom he generally labelled 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) 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”. Indeed, I would suggest that a closer reading of Procopius provides even more support for Arnold’s overall thesis on the acceptance of Theoderic and his Goths as at least semi Romans.

The idea that Roman aristocrats perceive their soldiers to be little better than barbarians is also more nuanced than A suggests. To be sure, some urbanised elites saw citizen soldiers to be little better than barbarians and saw them as potential threats to the “civilised” parts of the Empire. Late Roman writers frequently criticised Roman soldiers for their troublesome behaviour, particularly when the military interacted with Roman civilians. [v] One fourth-century critic of the senatorial elites even tells us that some members of the nobility had rejected military service as “a squalid occupation unfitting for a free man.”[vi] Most scholars of the Late Roman army agree, however, that this reluctance to serve had more to do with practical reasons, such as a dislike of distant postings, dissatisfaction with the Late Roman government and reluctance on the part of landowners to give up tenants, than with “an extreme loathing or fear of military service on the part of the Roman citizenry.”[vii]

Moreover, while it is true that some Romans from the upper crust of Roman society had seen even Roman soldiers as semi-barbarous because of their lack of “intellectual” masculine virtues, this animosity is sometimes exaggerated by our sources and balanced by other sources that continued to see an idealised “Roman” soldier as one who demonstrated a mastery of his physicality and his intellect. For example, following contemporary military treatises, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Agathias (Histories, 2.22.5) made it clear that “brains not brawn” represented the primary characteristics of a Roman general. Earlier in his account he had a Roman general (the eunuch-Narses, whose brains compliment his soldiers’ brawn) claim that, in stark contrast to the Frankish forces, the Roman soldiers had the complete package of the ideal soldier. He writes (2.12.6): It would indeed be shameful, fellow Romans, if you were to suffer the same fate as the barbarians and not outshine them as much by your superior intelligence as you do in physical prowess.”

We can see from this passage that by the sixth, many Easterners believed in the supremacy their soldiers. Control of Italy for the Goths must have been difficult once the “superior” Gothic armies suffered defeats at the hands of supposedly unmanly “Greeks”.

Indeed, there is evidence that increasingly from the end of the fifth century, Byzantium was becoming a more militarized culture.  Indeed, Conor Whately has recently shown how the sixth century witnessed the increasing militarization of the Eastern Roman aristocracy. The relatives of the reigning emperors in this period frequently served as high-ranking military commanders. These positions were not just symbolic. For instance, the future emperor Basiliskos (ruled 475/6), the brother of the empress Aelia Verina, led the failed campaign against the Vandals in 468. Three of the Emperor Anastasios’ (ruled 491-518) nephews—Hypatius, Pompey,  and Probus—held important military commands during the first quarter of the sixth century. One need not be a member of the imperial family to strive for a career in the military. We find, in fact, a growing number of men from elite Eastern Roman families serving in the armed forces. [viii] These men could not always count on their pedigree to land top commands. Even members of the imperial family were expected to serve and succeed as junior officers before taking on the highest ranks in the military. [ix] This militarization of Byzantium’s ruling elites only accelerated in the latter half of the sixth-century. [x]

I will conclude today’s blog with a few final thoughts. Advisors often rightly recommend to their PhD candidates to avoid tackling too large or revisionist of topics. This sage advice helps to explain why most dissertations concern very micro topics and/or concentrate their grand ideas onto one or two ancient writers. I am thankful that Arnold’s advisor at the University of Michigan took the opposite tact; expanding his original topic on the Goth’s in southern Gaul to its current form. While I do not agree with aspects of his thesis, the main argument seems plausible. To drive his thesis further Arnold could improve his presentation of Western Roman attitudes towards Eastern Emperors and soldiers in the fifth and sixth centuries. He takes the trope concerning the unmanly Greek identity of the Eastern Romans in the minds of Western Roman elites too far. While Arnold does discuss how Italo-Roman authors could have bi-polar views of a Goth like Ricimer, I am certain this bipolar view exists concerning both the Roman-ness and manliness of Eastern Romans. Moreover, further focus on the second half of Theoderic’s and his Gothic successors’ reigns would add to his study and main thesis. A deeper analysis of Procopius’ nuanced attitudes towards, “Goths, Italians, and Eastern Romans (P of course sees them as Romans though he does describe them as Greeks and Byzantines as well) is also needed. Finally, the disputed nature surrounding the date and purpose of Cassiodorus’ Variae must be dealt with in a future article, not just a footnote. With that said, the avenues for future research discussed above speak volumes to the both the quality of Arnold’s work, and the coming impact of his revisionist view of the sixth-century Western Empire.



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