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”.


3 thoughts on “Theodahad: A Plato-Loving Ostogothic King

    1. mikeaztec Post author

      Hi Chris, I have been a bit bogged down, so I have not started the review, but will send it off to Networks & Neighbours when I hopefully finish. After reading Vitiello, I thought of your piece, which I have printed off and read several times, something that I found interesting as I too feel that Theodahad served as a bit of a fall guy for both factions. I would love to see your review. I am going to give Vitiello a solid re-read and will try to post some of my immediate thoughts.



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