Monthly Archives: June 2015

Boys to Men: The Gothic rex Athalaric and some thoughts on an unmanly Gothic Education?

Historians make their living by looking at events that are generally thought to be well understood and challenging and reinterpreting them. For me the case of the Gothic boy King Athalaric in Procopius’ Wars is one such example. It has been generally read as an instance of the Eastern Roman historian showing the incompatibility of a barbarian King learning refined Roman virtues. Yet as is the case with much in Procopius the “truth” may be more complex. Certainly the bi-polar view of Romans and barbarians has been challenged by those like Jonathan Arnold. Moreover, as an educated Eastern Roman, Procopius certainly believed that “true” manliness was made up of far more than just marital courage and virtues. I am updating this so enjoy a bit of added material..

Athalaric: Boys to Men

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. On his deathbed, necessity had compelled Theoderic to name his ten-year-old grandson Athalaric[1] as his heir, and appointed his daughter and the boy’s mother Amalasuintha (c. 495-535), as regent.[2] Amalasuintha was the daughter of Theoderic’s second wife Audofleda, the sister of the Merovingian king Clovis. Yet despite the oaths they had sworn to Theoderic, some within the Gothic aristocracy had a difficult time accepting a dynastic succession dependent solely on the Amal line.[3] It took time, however, for this resentment to boilover. 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 ἐς τὴν ἐκείνους ἀδικίαν ὀργῶσιν]. 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 καὶ ἐπιεικεῖς, 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 boys 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 [τὴν ἀρετὴν], which is in keeping with the custom [νόμον] of barbarians’.

The “martial” faction emphasised the “dangers” of a literary education by claiming that Theoderic 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 flawed logic of this argument, since Procopius tells his audience about Theoderic’s daughter Amalasuintha’s and his nephew Theodahad’s excellent classical educations.[10] So too did this “martial faction” support ultimately the unmanly Plato-loving non-soldier Theodahad. While this discrepancy and other incongruences in his history may be the result of Procopius’ reliance 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 chapter, Procopius often utilised such inaccuracies in his set-speeches as a means of later undermining the speakers’ overall argument. Indeed this “martial faction” supported ultimately the unmanly an unwarlike Plato-loving Theodahad.

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.[11] 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.[12] Despite its obvious rhetorical aspects, this episode has some historical basis. Evidence from the Gothic side supports Procopius’ characterisation of Amalasuintha as being devoted to 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”.[13] In the Greco-Roman literary tradition even innate virtues like ἀνδρεία and one’s martial skills could be enhanced by a literary education.[14] 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.[15] We also know that Theoderic had hoped originally to have a fellow warrior-king succeed him. Only the untimely deaths of his prospective hiers Eutheric (a soldier fro Visigothic Spain) sometime around 522 and his nephew Sigeric the same year had narrowed his choice to Athalaric.[16] So Procopius may have been aware of Theoderic’s dilemma in appointing a martial successor.

Yet the evidence from the remainder of Athalaric’s biography compels us to consider his words more carefully. Procopius clearly rejected the barbarians’ contention that a young man’s curriculum should involve military training alone. The historian, 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 γυναικῶν μίξεις]. Qualities that we have already seen 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 appears to have wanted to highlight 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 “Roman” education that turned Athalaric into a leader with an unmanly lack of self-control.

[1] Following Procopius, Wars 5.2.1; Jordanes, Romana 367. Contra Jordanes claim in Getica (304) that Athalaric was eight-years old when Theoderic died.

[2] Jordanes Getica 304, Cassiodorus,Variae 8.2-7.

[3] Peter Heather, The Goths (Oxford, 1996), 250-55

[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] Procopius, Wars 5.2.5-6

[6] Herwig Wolfram claims (History of the Goths, trans. Thomas Dunlap [Berkeley: University of California Press], 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] Procopius, 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. Theoderic’s role in providing the women inhis family with a proper Roman education is discussed in Massimiliano Vitiello, Theodahad: A Platonic King at the Collapse of Ostrogothic Italy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 45-6.

[11] Of course, some young men from the Byzantine literate classes would have received military training as well.

[12] Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17

[13] Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3 (trans. Barnish). Cf. Variae 4.1, 2.

[14] Joy Connolly, “Like the labors of Heracles: Andreia and Paideia in Greek Culture under Rome”, in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), 287, 328.

[15] Amory, People and Identity, 96. For the Goths’ military ethos, see Peter Heather, The Goths, 322-26, Michael Whitby, “Armies and Society in the Later Roman World”, in CAH Volume XIV, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Michael Whitby (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), 472.

[16] Vitiello, Theodahad, 51-2.

[17] Procopius, Wars 5.2.18-20.

[18] Procopius, 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 a Herulian 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] Procopius, Wars 5.4.4. October 2, 534 is the date given for Athalaric’s death by Agnellus (LPR 62) a later Italian source.

[20] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 108.

Theodahad: A Plato-Loving Ostogothic King

At the moment I am rewriting a piece on Procopius’ Gothic Wars that appeared in my dissertation and as an article in the Greek literary journal Parekbolai. Basically it is a look at how and why Procopius portrayed the Gothic Kings and Queens as he did: Manly Theoderic, Manly yet tragic Amalasuintha her drunken son Athalaric a victim of forgoing a Roman education for a barbarian one, and in a complete reversal Theodahad a non-martial Gothic king who reads Plato and screws up the defence of Italy until he is replaced by a more traditional warrior type Vittigis….While I was pretty happy with my analysis of Theoderic, Amalasuintha, Vittigis, Totila, and Teias…my section on Theodahad was a bit lacking, although it did make a good point that most scholars who comment on the martial faction that wanted to teach Athalaric in the Gothic martial fashion miss the obvious point that they ultimately picked a guy that if we trust both Cassiodorus and Procopius  had avoided the military path for a life of letters. Which brings me, at last to my main point in today’s blog the fact that Massimiliano Vitiello has managed to mine the rather minimal material available on Theodahad to create an excellent study on this important if neglected Ostrogothic King. Having given it a quick read, I am now conducting a closer read for a book review…it is that good…though I disagree on aspects of his account, especially his rather strange view of Theoderic as someone who only wanted to educate the women in his family. Where I criticised Arnold in my recent review  for going too far in crafting Romanised Goths and a highly educated emperor Theoderic, Vitiello goes in the opposite direction crafting a bipolar view of barbarian Goths and effete intellectual Romans. I would suggest that the educated Theodahad may not have been as rare as our modern historian and Procopius wants us to believe. The good news is that this is a minor quibble and I am busy bouncing my thoughts off his lucid and engaging interpretation of the key details of Theodahad’s brief yet crucial reign. More  good news is the fact that Vitiello is at work on a new study on Amalasuintha that should provide the needed update on her reign. I am busy adapting this material into the paper I am working on for my paper IMC Leeds on Generalship and andreia in Procopius that I will post here. In the meantime here is an excerpt on Theodahad from my dissertation:

One may presume then that Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha was based on these traditional precedents, and as such, Procopius used her manliness as a means to, on the one hand, praise the Gothic queen and, on the other, to comment on the character defects of her male rivals to the Gothic throne, and in particular, her royal colleague after Athalaric’s death, the Gothic king Theodahad (ruled 534-536).

Theodahad: Unmanly Man

After the death of Athalric, political necessity had Amalasuintha forced to name Theodahad co-ruler.[1] Jordanes explained that Amalasuintha, fearing that ‘she might be despised by the Goths on account of the weakness of her sex,’ had summoned her rival and made him her partner.[2] In Procopius’ truncated version of the co-regencey[3], Amalasuintha had underestimated her cousin and his anger towards her for an earlier reprimand that had forced him to return lands that he had confiscated from the Italian nobility. Theodahad, however, imprisoned the Queen and then following the advice of a Gothic faction had her strangled around at his private fortress on Lake Bolsna in Tuscany on or around April 30 535.[4] This move, which provided Justinian with the convinient excuse to invade Italy, according to Procopius, upset many Italo-Romans and Goths.[5]

Though the modern political scientist might see Theodahad’s moves as the actions of a prudent and astute politician, Procopius depicted these deeds as evidence of Theodahad’s unstable and unmanly nature. Procopius used his rather banal characterisation of Theodahad as another example of men destroying their ἀρετή, by failing to balance study and military training. He wrote:

There was among the Goths one Theodahad by name, son of Amalafrida, the sister of Theoderic, a man already of mature years, versed in the Latin literature and the teachings of Plato, but without any experience whatever in war and taking no part in active life [δραστηρίου], and yet extraordinarily devoted to the pursuit of money[φιλοχρηματίαν]. This Theodahad had gained possession of most of the lands in Tuscany, and he was eager by violent methods to wrest the remainder from their owners.[6]

Procopius did not necessarily criticise Theodahad for his love of learning, but primarily for his failure either to follow the virtues he had learned in writers like Plato, or to balance his zeal for literature with a zest for the military life.[7] In fact, Theodahad represented the antithesis of the ideal ruler praised by Plato, who typically rejected φιλοχρηματία and sought to safeguard his subjects’ property.[8] Theodahad represents an anti-Theoderic.[9] It is important to point out, however, that Procopius did not necessarily see the Gothic king’s hunger for other peoples’ land as a barbarian trait. In Secret History, Procopius condemned Belisarius for similar “crimes” in Italy. I would suggest that Procopius saw both instances as examples of unmanly behaviour.[10]

Moreover, Procopius did not necessarily fault Theodahad for his attempt to become a Romanised Goth; Procopius, who claimed Theodahad was by “nature unmanly” [φύσει ἄνανδρος], criticised the Gothic king for allowing his love of learning to thwart his fighting spirit.[11] When the Gothic king faced the prospect of confronting Justinian’s invading forces, Procopius described how Theodahad’s lack of a “firm mind”, combined with his fear of war, caused Theodahad to enter into a state that Procopius described as “the antithesis of boldness”.[12]

Behind much of this rhetoric is the ancient idea linking indecision and a fickle mind to unmanliness and vice. Procopius demonstrated that Theodahad’s inability to be “steadfast”, display a “fighting spirit” live an “active” life [δραστήριος] or to observe “justice” exposed him as “unmanly” Using Theodahad as an example of an “unmanly” leader allowed Procopius to lay bare the difficulties and the perils of amalgamating the “manliness” of a warrior-king with the finer refinements of Roman civilisation.[13]

Such a view of the Gothic rex—though exaggerated—seems to reflect Theodahad’s actual personality. Cassiodorus corraberates Procopius view of Theodahad as an educated Goth who had avoided what both modern and ancient historians consider as a mandatory Gothic military education.[14]

According to Procopius, kind, yet “soft or effeminate” rulers were often too weak to face the rigors of war. Yet, this softness was not always due to one’s Romanitas. He described the Vandalic king Hilderich (ruled 523-30), as “easily approachable” and “altogether gentle” towards Christians and all of his subjects. However, when faced with battle, his “softness in war” [πόλεμον μαλθακός] forced Hilderich to rely on his nephew Hoamer, the “Achilles of the Vandals”, to fight his battles. It must also be remembered that Procopius frequently praised the manliness and fighting abilities of Roman generals like Germanus, an aristocrat who had almost certainly received a Roman education.[15] So too, as we will below, does Procopius frequently praise other generals, Roman and barbarian, for displaying martial qualities based upon their Romanitas. Thus, I reject the dominant modern view that posits that Procopius saw Theodahad’s indecision, failure to grasp philosophy, and greed as necessarily “barbarian” traits, but more as tell-tale markers of his unmanly nature and a trait that could afflict Roman as well as barbarians. [16]

With Theodahad’s “unmanly” reign, the “martial” Gothic factions’ accusation that a Roman education made a leader unmanly seemed to have come true. Yet, like many themes in the Wars, the answer may not be so straightforward. Theodahad’s inability to adhere to the virtues found in the literature he read was not necessarily a natural result of his “barbarian” nature.[17] As we observed in the cases of Amalasuintha and the Gothic tutors, Procopius knew of “barbarians” who could master the finer nuances of a Roman literary education. Certainly, the ancient Greek and Roman literature that Procopius was familiar with provided examples of barbarians who had mastered a Hellenistic education.[18]It is also to point out once again that it was the martial faction that had likely supported Theodahad’s overthrow of the “manly” Amalasuintha. Procopius who could reveal a sense of humour in Wars probably would have expected his educated readers to understand this irony. I would suggest, then, that Procopius’ portrait of Theodahad represented only the opening salvo in his exploration on the similarities and the differences between Gothic and Roman notions of virtue and manly courage. The remainder of his account of the campaigns in Italy tells the tale of Gothic kings who, on paper at least, represented the martial and manly archetype of the barbarian warrior-king espoused in these early rhetorical set pieces. It is to these “martial” Gothic leaders that we now turn.


[1] As Vitiello, points out (Theodahad, 61), as a legitimate Amal heir, Theodahad represented the best available choice ‘to save the kingdom and maintain power”. Amalasuintha may have hoped, once Theodahad was secure on the throne, to flee to the East

[2] Jordanes, Getica 306: “Tum mater, ne pro sexus sui fragilitate a Gothis sperneretur, secum deliberans, Theudahathum consobrinum suum germanitatis gratia arcessitum a Tuscia, ubi privatam vitam degens in laribus propriis erat, in regno locavit”.

[3] Vitiellos (Theodahad, 95-8) does an admirable job of  recreating the time-frame of co-regency.

[4]Following Justinianic propaganda, Jordanes (Getica 306) claimed that this bond between Roman and Goth had been broken by Amalasuintha’s “murder” at the hands of her cousin Theodahad.

[5] Procopius, Wars 5.4.28. In Secret History 16.1-5 Procopius provided a different version, suggesting plausibly that Theodora was behind the Queen’s death. Cassiodorus’ (Variae 10.20-1) might support this claim.

[6] Procopius, Wars 5.3.1. Further evidence of Theodahad’s literary learning is found in Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3. On the Goths’ seizures of Italian land, see Cassiodorus, Variae 8.28.

[7] Kaldellis (Procopius of Caesarea, 110) contends that Procopius presented Theodahad as a failed “philosopher king,” proposing that this analogy reveals the influence of Plato’s Republic on Procopius’ perceptions of ideal and non-ideal kingship.

[8] Plato, Republic 391C.

[9] Despite it rhetorical aspects, Procopius presentation of Theodahad as a greedy, Plato-loving, non-martial Gothic rex is corraberated by contemporary Italian sources. For his lack of military experience, see Cassiodorus, Variae 10. 31, 2; his education, Cassiodorus, Variae 11.13.4; his greed for other people’s lands, Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.

[10] Procopius, Secret History 5.4-7.

[11] Procopius, Wars 5.9.1.

[12] Procopius Wars 5.7.11. I have changed the translator Dewing’s “opposite extreme of unspeakable boldness” for ἀντικαθίστη θράσος to “the antithesis of boldness”.

[13] Procopius Wars 3.9.1.

[14] Vitiello (Theodahad, 27-9), admidtly without concrete evidence, suggest perhaps some physical imparement had prevented Theodahad for the “prerequisite” Gothic military education.

[15]Procopius, Wars 7.40.9.

[16] E.g., Halsall, 106; LaRocca, 140.

[17] As Vitiello, points out, Theodahad would have read Plato in a Latin translation. For the possibility that Theodahad had a “intellectual’” relationship with Boethius, see Vitiello, Theodahad, 55-6.

[18] See, e.g., Julian’s description (Mispogon 351A-351C) of his “barbarian” tutor Mardonius, who the emperor credited both for his early love of classical literature. The second-century writer, Lucian (The Skythian, 1.3) too made it clear that he knew “Celts and Scythians”, who despite their barbarian births, “could become indistinguishable from Athenians” through their paideia. Procopius’ familiarity with, and grasp of, classical literature is discussed in Greatrex, “Classical Past”.