Turning a 3800 word review into 1200

I am a bit long winded. Yes I know surprise surprise. Editing can be a painful process when you must cull in two hours 1600 words from a 3800 word-article you had already pruned. As followers of this blog already know I have posted quite a few blogs recently on Jon Arnold’s new book Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration. What follows is the truncated version of the review that will appear in the April 2015 Medieval History Journal.

The Gothic King—or is that Western Roman emperor—Theoderic (ruled 489/93-526) has received much recent attention.  Peter Heather’s Restoration of Rome (2013) devotes several chapters to the Amal rex. Two major studies on Theoderic have also appeared by Sean Lafferty (Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic, 2013) and Jonathan Arnold (Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration, 2014).

Lafferty and Heather provide traditional visions of Theoderican Italy as a post-Roman kingdom. Their Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing.  Arnold takes Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus more seriously, maintaining that Theoderic ‘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 (p. 90).’

The introduction places the study within the context of recent work on Late Antique identity. Arnold rejects the entire concept of Ostrogothic Italy as a post-Roman kingdom, arguing for ‘a new type of accommodation model,’ one that proves that Theoderic’s Italy represented the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire.

To accomplish this daunting task, the first two chapters scrutinise the primary sources for the study: Magnus Felix Ennodius and Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. Tracing the similarities and differences between these two men, Arnold lucidly relates the lingering Romanitas of these men. The chapter closes by concluding that both men saw Theoderic and his Goths as manly saviours sent by God to resuscitate an Italy ‘denuded of its territory, stripped of its honour, and poorly governed (p. 56).’

Chapter three proposes that Italo-Romans like Cassiodorus and Ennodius saw Odovacer as a usurper, while they perceived Theoderic to be ‘a legitimate representative of imperial power in the West (p. 64).’ To prove this thesis, Arnold provides a diachronic analysis of the Eastern Emperor Zeno’s and Theoderic’s scheme to eliminate Odovacer. Theoderic ‘acting as a patrician, would thus take and defend Italy for the emperor (p. 66).’ The death of Zeno in 491 disrupted this plan. This resulted in a rift between Theoderic and the Eastern Empire (pp. 68-69). Yet gradually relations between the regimes improved. The Eastern Emperor Anastasius return of the imperial ornamenta to Theoderic in 497 symbolized Eastern acceptance of Theoderic as an imperial partner, albeit in a junior role (pp. 79-80).

Chapter four squeezes references to the ‘purple clad’ Gothic rulers for all they are worth. It rejects Procopius’ commonly accepted assertion that the rex had ‘never usurped the name of the Roman emperor (pp. 94-95). Proof that Theoderic actually utilised these ornamenta or ever wore the traditional imperial diadem, despite Arnold’s game attempts,   must remain unresolved. Even more tenuous is its use of the mosaic found in Ravenna commonly identified as Justinian, that Arnold contends originally depicted Theoderic. Though this and other images and statues may have sought to present Theoderic ‘as a princeps or even imperator,’ as firm evidence of Theoderic’s views we have moved onto even shakier ground. The chapter concludes on much firmer ground, by demonstrating that the ‘Gothic moustache’ worn by Theoderic may not have been as significant an ethnic marker as traditionally believed.

Chapters five and six rightly place much value on the martial reputation and military record of the Goths as a key factor in their acceptance as ‘new’ Romans (p. 141).’ Arnold also wisely explains (pp. 148-49) that ‘Greekness was not necessarily a burden’, recognizing that Eastern Romans could be praised by their Western counter-parts for their sophistication, paidea, and piety. The study, however, tends to rely more heavily on the negative rhetoric to drive its primary thesis.

The fact that the Goths remained the primary soldiers in Gothic Italy raises an interesting point. When describing Theoderic’s Italy, one thing that both Goths and Eastern Romans seem to agree on is that notion that the Italo-Romans lacked the manly courage and martial virtues to protect their native land. If the Goths were truly ‘new’ Romans we should see more juxtaposition. Arnold does not address adequately the notion found contemporary sources that the Goths dominated the military and continued to live mostly amongst themselves in Northern Italy.

Arnold’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 makes sense. The question that might be asked is why these men seemed to hang onto their non-Roman 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 Arnold discusses (p. 146) the Alan 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 Aspar’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 Arnold does not explore 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

Arnold focuses instead on the diverse cultural traits that peoples like the Gauls had preserved during their long tenure under Roman rule, concluding that while Italian elites had accepted peoples like the Gauls as ‘true’ Romans, during times of friction they could view them as barbarians.’ These regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could ‘retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman (pp. 122-23).’ While this conclusion is likely correct, the analogy made between Gallo-Romans and Theoderic’s Goths is flawed. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and, as Arnold recognises, were a people from a non-Roman homeland who had been conquered by the Romans and become ‘full-fledged members of Rome’s order (p. 238),’ whilst the Goths were largely unvanquished recent arrivals, who were busy carving out territories within the Empire. This is a significant difference.

My hesitance to accept his methods does not invalidate his argument that the Goths were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire in the fifth century, and could be seen as Roman by the sixth century. What seems 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.

The study ends rather abruptly; a deeper discussion of Theoderic’s controversial final years and the reigns of his Gothic successors would have provided fertile material to test his thesis. This comment, however, is less of a criticism and more an indication of the stimulating nature of the study.

In closing, Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period has been crafted by those who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. 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.

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