Theoderic: Barbarian Rex or Roman Emperor?



This is an update on a draft of a  review I have recently written on Jon Arnold’s fascinating  book on the Theoderic.


The Gothic King—or is that Western Roman emperor—Theoderic (ruled 489/93-526) has recently received a great deal of scholarly attention. In The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders, Peter Heather devotes several chapters to the Amal rex.  Cambridge University Press has 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 all three of these works 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 and Heather provide their readers with traditional visions of Theoderican Italy as one of several post-Roman worlds. Their Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing. On the other hand, Jonathan Arnold is more inclined to take Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus at face value. 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.[i]

Arnold opens his study by placing his work within the context of the vast array of studies that have appeared in past fifty years devoted to Late Antique identity. After providing a succinct summery of the competing schools of thought on this controversial topic, A posits that his work will take a slightly different path. In his mind the primary mistake made by many of the studies he discusses is their often bi-polar presentation of non-Romans and Romans, and more importantly the entire idea of Ostrogothic Italy as a post-Roman kingdom. While recognising that his study is not primarily focused on the debate discussed above, A explains that he hopes to provide “a new type of accommodation model,” one that presents Theoderic’s or Ostrogothic Italy as not the successor, but the continuation of the Western Roman Empire. Indeed, he seeks to place Theoderic and his Goths firmly within a Roman context.

To accomplish this daunting task, A opens with two chapters (one and two) dedicated to the primary Italo-Roman sources for his study: Magnus Felix Ennodius and Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. Tracing both similarities and differences between these two men—living in what has usually been seen by scholars as a post-Roman world—A lucidly relates the defining civilised Romanitas of these men, as well as the thoroughly Romanised Italian landscape in which they dwelled. While these men lived in an Italy devastated by both the struggles of the “last” Western Roman emperors, and the four-year struggle (489-493) between Theoderic and Odovacer— the “barbarian” commonly seen to have overthrown the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus in 476—in A’s mind, Cassiodorus and Ennodius saw Theoderic and his Goths as saviours sent by God to resuscitate Italy and restore the honour of an Empire “denuded of its territory, stripped of its honour, and poorly governed (56).”

Chapter three sets out to differentiate the “constitutional context” of Theoderic from his predecessor Odovacer. A makes it clear that Italo-Romans like Cassiodorus and Ennodius saw Odovacer as a usurper, whilst they perceived Theoderic to be “a legitimate representative of imperial power in the West (64).”[ii] To prove this point, he traces the close relationship between the eastern Emperor Zeno and Theoderic, and provides an in-depth discussion of their shared plan for Theoderic to overthrow Odovacer. According to A, Theoderic “acting as a patrician, would thus defend Italy for the emperor (66)”. The death of Zeno in 491 upset this scheme. Indeed, the short-lived alliance between Theoderic and Odovacer, in A’s mind “may have been only a clever ruse” that “hindered ongoing attempts (by Theoderic) to secure a royal title (68-9).” Yet during the reign of eastern Emperor Anastasius (ruled 491-518) relations between the competing regimes improved. The return in 497 of the imperial ornamenta, last utilised in the West by Romulus Augustus, to Theoderic symbolized, in A’s telling, a sure sign of Eastern acceptance of Theoderic as an imperial partner, albeit in a junior role (79-80).

Chapter four in many ways is the most vital for A’s revisionist thesis. A opens by squeezing references to the “purple clad” Gothic rulers for all they are worth. He unsurprisingly rejects as anachronistic and prejudicial Procopius’ commonly accepted assertion that the rex had “never usurped the name of the Roman emperor”. A argues instead that Procopius had probably made this “mistake” on purpose(94-5), once again pointing out that Theoderic had been give the imperial ornaments. Proof that Theoderic actually utilised these symbols of imperial rule remains more elusive. The issue of whether Theoderic ever wore the traditional imperial diadem, despite A’s game attempts, also must remain controversial and unresolved. Even more tenuous is A’s use of the mosaic found in Ravenna commonly identified as Justinian, that A and others like Heather believe originally probably depicted Theoderic. Though this and other images and statues may have sought to present Theoderic “as a triumphant Roman ruler, a princeps or even imperator”, as firm evidence of Theoderic’s views we have moved onto even shakier ground.[iii] A, however, concludes the chapter on much firmer ground, by convincingly demonstrating that the “Gothic moustache” worn by Theoderic and Theodahad may not have been as significant an ethnic marker as traditionally believed.[iv]


In chapters five and six A rightly places much value on the martial reputation and military record of the Goths as a key factor in their acceptance as “new” Romans in the enfeebled West. He writes: “what separated the Goths from these (other Romanised peoples) was the fact that they remained proudly, perhaps even defiantly, unconquered by Rome”. Instead of being ruled by unmanly Greek emperors from the East like Anthemius (ruled 467-72), 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. A explains, “Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Easterners like the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius “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”. 


I would agree with A that one can easily find this familiar trope concerning the unmanly and Greek identity of Eastern Romans in both Eastern and Western writers. A makes it clear that this view of enervated Greeks and Western Romans are not his own views, but the ones found in the Italo-Roman sources. This realty helps one understand why the mid sixth-century Byzantine writer Procopius spent much of his Gothic Wars trying to rebut this gendered propaganda. So too does A explain (148-49) that “Greekness was not necessarily a burden.” “Stereotypes are always two-sided,” he continues, “and are easily inverted from negative to positive.” Eastern Roman could be frequently praised by their Western counter-parts for their sophistication, paidea, and piety. A seems to want to have it both ways here, while recognizing that both positive and negative charectorization represented tradition tropes during times of friction, He tends to rely more heavily on the negative rhetoric to drive forward his main thesis. I would go further and argue that the majority of Italo-Romans did not really see Easterners like Anthemius as unmanly, only that they thought that men like Ricimer and Theoderic might want to hear such traditional tropes. Moreover, as Procopius’ showed his readers throughout the Wars,the Italo-Romans often had mixed loyalties.[v]

In chapters 5 and 6 Arnold expands on his idea found in chapters 1-4 that Theoderic “had literally become a new Augustus”. A is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman “soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty (142).” A discusses how Romanitas had long consisted of a combination of martial and intellectual virtues. The Goth’s imperial virtues were not based solely on Theoderic’s ability to garb himself in martial virtues, but by his 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.

The fact that the Goths remained the primary soldiers in Gothic Italy raises an interesting point.[vi] When describing Theoderic’s Italy, one thing that both Goths and Byzantines seem to agree on is that notion that the Italo-Romans lacked the manly courage and martial virtues to protect their native land.[vii] As the Goths become more attuned to Roman masculine ideals, the Italo-Romans become more effeminized. Roman aristocrats who had long been able to forego their martial roles for more intellectual forms of male self-fashioning had a more difficult time being seen as “true” men in the increasingly militarized world of the late fifth and early sixth-centuries.[viii] I would suggest that just as martial virtues were not enough to make Romans out of Goths, in writers like Procopius, intellectual virtues were no longer enough to make Romans out what he saw as enervated Italians.[ix]

Moreover, Procopius’ views of Italy and the major characters Gothic and Roman were not in as much dissonance with Western Sources as A posits (e.g 73). Procopius’ character sketches of leading figures in the Gothic leadership such as Amalasuintha, Theodahad, Athalaric, and Totila appear very similar to accounts given in the Western sources.[x] Indeed, much of what Procopius tells his readers about the Gothic Wars after 540 most likely came from his contacts within the Italian Senate.[xi]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. A does not address adequately the notion found in Wars that the Goths continued to live mostly amongst themselves in Northern Italy and that at least some within the Gothic hierarchy after Theoderic’s death resited the inevitable decline of Gothic cultural values that resulted from them being gradually absorbed by the Italo-Romans.[xii]

Moreover, abandoning his and his peoples’ Arianism would have been an easy step in being accepted as true Romans. In the East, the Alan generalissimo Aspar— albeit grudgingly— coaxed 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, indeed, as one scholar on Theoderic’s reign notes, “that there was a steady flow from Arianism to Catholicism among the Ostrogoths in Italy.”[xiii] Gothic identity and the need to maintain the continuing loyalty of the Gothic warriors that truly kept him in power seems the most likely reason that this step was never taken by Theoderic.[xiv]

A’s contention that years of service by the Goths within the armies of Rome and subsequent integration into Roman society would have made it difficult for one to distinguish the fifth and sixth-century Roman from the non-Roman certainly makes sense. The question that might be asked, and in my view A never tackles satisfactorily, is why did these men in some cases seem to hang on to their Gothic and/ or Alan identities so vigorously. Was this perhaps, not a sign of non-acceptance by Romans, but a personal choice? Put more simply, why would you keep calling yourself a Goth and/or Alan, if you truly wanted to be seen as Roman?  For example, when A discusses (146) Aspar’s son Patricius’ Romanised name as an indication of the generalissimo’s hopes to integrate him more firmly into Eastern Roman society, he also mentions that the generalissimo’s two other sons had been given un-Roman names of Ardabur and Hermineric since they were expected to “follow in his footsteps” as military men.  His assumption behind these names is likely correct, but what A does not explore here, or indeed in his account of Theoderic, is why non-Romans like Aspar and Theoderic, even after years under the umbrella of Roman culture, appear to have wanted to maintain their non-Roman identity and culture.[xv] Though hinted at, A does not consider the ramifications that such dedication to their sense of Gothicness might have on his larger arguments.

A’s tactic instead, is to focus on the diverse cultural traits the individual peoples like the Gauls had preserved during their long tenure under Roman rule. In chapter five, he offers an adjustment to his previous story of a largely gentle merging between two martial peoples. Arnold writes:

The very nature of the Empire aided in the acceptability of such diversity, its existence an inevitable consequence of the assimilation process that radiated outward from the Roman core to its periphery (and back again). The Roman world was a heterogeneous composition of numerous ethnic and subethnic groups all of which had adopted various Roman cultural aspects to differing degrees and over different amounts of time thus becoming “Roman”, but with diverse manifestations that were constantly in flux (122).

He resumes by suggesting that many Romans, and by this he means Italian elites, never fully accepted peoples like the Gauls as “true” Romans and, indeed, continued to view them in some cases as barbarians.

Fine so far, his next assertion and analogy, however, is more problematic. Arnold continues, “Gallo-Roman culture was still in flux….Gallo-Roman culture was still readily identifiable to outsiders as different or even bizarre, and to some degree Gallic society really did retain certain Celtic attributes (122)”. Okay, this is true to a degree, indeed, in his writings, the fourth-century Emperor Julian described the Celts and Germans as “fierce and warlike”, but “unruly”, “easterners” like the Syrians as “intelligent and effeminate”, North Africans as “argumentative”, and Greeks and Romans as “warlike and intelligent”, all of which may seem a bit strange for some modern readers since almost all of these peoples were now Romans.[xvi] Anthony Kaldellis, I believe correctly, sees these not so much as ethnic, but as regional stereotypes: a bit like some Americans seeing southerners as a bit dim-witted.[xvii]

Arnold concludes that these regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could “retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman” (123). While I agree with this conclusion, the analogy he makes between Gauls and Goths is not apt. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and indeed, as Arnold later mentions, were a people from a non-Roman homeland who had been conquered by the Romans, whilst the Goths were recent arrivals, who had never been subjugated and were busy carving out territories within the Empire. This to me is a major difference.

The ethnic tropes discussed above are old standbys in Roman literature, but one needs to be careful to accept them as accurately reflecting contemporary views. Much opposing evidence could be gathered to prove that the Gauls were seen as primarily Roman.

A knows this, and he does an admirable job of warning his audience once again, but he still makes the tenuous claim. Why? I would suggest that it is because he needs to explain away evidence that is rife in fifth and sixth-century literature depicting the Goths as typical barbarians.[xviii] My hesitance to accept his methods does not mean that I do not accept his main argument that the Goths—or at least certain peoples and individuals who called themselves Goths— were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire in the fifth century, and could be seen as Roman in the sixth century. What remains less clear, however, is how much of the Goths’ Romanization was voluntary or the inevitable result of a relatively small social group being gradually absorbed by the dominant culture.[xix]

For me the study ended rather abruptly. I found myself hungering for a more in-depth discussion of Theoderic’s controversial final years, and indeed, a chapter or two on the reigns of his successors. Surely these regimes would provide fertile ground to test A’s primary thesis. This is, however, a minor quibble, and more of an indication of the stimulating nature of A’s study as a whole. One can only hope that he takes up this challenge soon.

So if you only have time to read one new book on Theoderic this year, make it Roman Restoration. I would, however, keep 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 more sweeping 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. Indeed, Arnold’s footnotes are detailed and packed with interesting information that engages with much current scholarship. Here he also ably translates and interacts with the difficult Latin texts of Ennodius and other Italo-Roman sources. Therefore his interpretations remain mostly his own and are not reliant on other scholars’ viewpoints.

As R.I. Moore rightly comments, studies on a big subject are always prone to oversimplification.[xx] Every chapter in Arnold’s investigation gave me new insights—even where I disagreed. His reanalysis and fresh readings of the evidence surrounding Theoderic is thorough and engaging.  It is the best and ultimately most important of the three books reviewed above.

In closing, 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 military prowess and renown of ancient Rome.






[i] Other scholars have accepted that some Italo-Romans saw Theoderic as a new Western emperor, but suggest that Theoderic remained wary of taking such a step. See e.g. John Moorhead (Theoderic in Italy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 49]) who writes: “Despite the degrees to which some of his subjects were prepared to assimilate Theoderic into the category of emperor, for official purposes he remained cautious.”


[ii] A is correct when he asserts that too many historians have relied on the latter, and at times, prejudicial views found in two Eastern historians writing in early 550s Constantinople, Procopius and Jordanes.


[iii] The difficulty in making such deductions from mosaics reworked numerous times over the centuries is discussed in detail by Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 164,


[iv]Jonathan Arnold, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache,” Journal of Late Antiquity 6 (Spring, 2013): 152-83

[v] A discussion of these mixed loyalties is found in Maria Kouroumali, “The Justianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses,” in War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, 2 vols (Brill, 2013), 970-71. Cf. with John Moorhead’s assertion (Theoderic in Italy, 111) that during Justinian’s reconquest most Italo-Romans “supported the armies of the Byzantines.”

[vi] On the primary role that the Goths played within Theoderic’s armies, and a discussion of the limited participation of Italians in these forces, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 71-75.


[vii] Procopius, Wars 3.3.10-13, 7.11.12-14. Though as Arnold points out, the opposite appears to have been true. The fifth-century Western Roman Empire had become increasingly militarized. The ban on civilians carrying arms had been lifted and a good number of aristocrats had led their own private armies.


[viii] The increased militarization of Romanitas from the fourth century is discussed in Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 88-93.


[ix] For the increased militarization of sixth-century Byzantine culture as represented in writers like Procopius, 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.


[x] E.g. the similar descriptions of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning found in Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.4; Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. Her “manliness” is extolled by both authors as well; Athalaric’s alcoholism discussed by Procopius is hinted at by Cassiodorus. The Goths’ seizures of Italian lands is discussed by Cass. Variae 8.29 and Proc. Wars 5.3.1. Totila’s restraint and “fatherly” treatment of the citizens of Rome: 7.8.12-25, and the Liber Pontificalis 61.7. In fact the entire episode found in Cassiodorus and discussed by Arnold (50-51) concerning the Western Emperor Valentinian III’s unmanly education at the hands of his mother Placida as a primary cause for the fifth-century Western Empire’s troubles is found in Procopius Wars 3.3.9-14. There are many more congruencies that could be added.


[xi] J.A.S. Evans, Procopius (New York: Twayne, 1972), 31-36.


[xii]Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. For a discussion of the creation of separate Gothic communities outside of Rome and Ravenna, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 112. On the other hand, Moorhead (84-87) also discusses the inevitable Romanization of some Goths through intermarriage primarily with wealthy Italo-Roman women.


[xiii] Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 95.


[xiv] I do recognise, however, that there did not appear to be too much friction between Arians and Catholics in Theoderic’s Italy.


[xv] Aspar’s father had served in the Roman army and Aspar was the senior senator in East Roman at the time of his assassination in 471, having served the Roman state for nearly fifty years.



[xvi] Julian, Against the Galileans (trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols.[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923, reprint 2003]) 116 A. On the Celts’ fierceness in comparison to the Romans, see Julian, Misopogon 359 B. Julian amalgamated both environmental and social reasoning for the Eastern and Southern barbarians’ propensity to have effeminate and unwarlike natures. In 138 B He maintained that all nations “who possess and are contented with despotic governments” tended to be by nature “mild” (tiqasός) and “submissive” (ceiroήqhς).  


[xvii] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, 82-84.


[xviii] For some Italo-Romans’ continuing perceptions of the Goths as barbarians in Theoderic’s Italy, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 83.


[xix] Full discussion in Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 100-104.



[xx] R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed (London: Blackwell 2007), 196

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