Gibbon, Part 7: Theodoric and the Rise of Justinian

The Rise of Theodoric

The Western Roman Empire ended officially with the deposition of Augustulus by Odoacer in 476, but it gave way to the rise of a truly great barbarian king, one that Gibbon speaks of in the same breadth as Theodosius and even Constantine, perhaps for the first time in The Decline and Fall. Theodoric the Ostrogoth (not to be confused with Theodoric I and Theodoric II, whom we have encountered earlier as kings of the Visigoths), who would in history be known as Theodoric the Great, was descended from a line of kings called the Amali. Theodoric’s uncle, Walamir, had successfully repulsed the attacks of the Huns and restored the independence of the Ostrogoths. But he himself was given to emperor Leo in the East as a hostage in the alliance between the two kingdoms. Theodoric was educated in the Eastern court, although he remained illiterate throughout his life. He was returned to his people upon becoming an adult, and inherited the kingship upon the death of his father. By that time, the Ostrogoths had been forced to ask the Eastern empire for economic assistance; in return for their submission they were given donatives and the guardianship of the lower Danube.

At the same time, the Eastern empire was once again embroiled in a crisis of succession after the death of Leo. At first, power was given to Leo’s infant grandson from his daughter Ariadne, with his father, Zeno, acting as regent, but the grandson suspiciously died prematurely, leaving Zeno free to take the throne. In response, the widow of Leo, Verina, started a revolt which crowned her brother Basiliscus (of the infamous failed expedition to Africa) as emperor and forced Zeno to go into hiding. But after the foolish actions of Basiliscus, the people grew dissatisfied and Zeno was recalled to the court. After Zeno died, he would be replaced by one of his servants, Anastasius.

At first, Zeno was favorable to Theodoric, giving him many titles and honors, as he commanded his Ostrogoths in the service of the Eastern empire. But the persistent hardness of their situation, combined with the avarice of the Eastern court, pressed them to resort to raiding and rapine throughout the empire. The final straw for Theodoric came when he was commanded to attack an army of Goths allied to Basiliscus. Upon meeting him, in an elaborate speech, their leader, also named Theodoric (son of Triarius) proceeded to question his subservient loyalty to the empire. This inflamed the desires of Theodoric’s army, and he was pressured to agree with them. After the sudden death of the son of Triarius, Theodoric was accepted as the king of the entire Gothic confederation. Theodoric offered his services to the Eastern senate to break the oppressive rule of Odoacer in Italy. His offer was accepted, and the entire nation of Ostrogoths, with their wives, children, and supplies in tow, marched towards Italy.

Theodoric’s Ostrogoths were more spirited to fight than Odoacer’s mercenaries, and they rapidly conquered Venetia and Milan. However, due to treachery that resulted in defeat, he was forced to ask for the help of the Gallic Visigoths. But soon enough, most of Italy including Rome and Sicily was conquered, its subjects welcoming Theodoric as their liberator. Odoacer fled to the safety of Ravenna, holding out for three years, before he was starved out and capitulated. A treaty of peace was negotiated, and the Ostrogoths entered the city in triumph. Shortly after, Odoacer was assassinated by a rival, clearing the way for Theodoric to be crowned King of Italy, with the Eastern emperor’s reluctant consent.

The Reign of Theodoric

Theodoric is universally praised by historians of the time as a great king. The Goths he brought into the country flourished under his rule, adopting some of the more refined cultural practices of the Italians such as dress but fiercely maintaining other aspects such as their mother tongue. The distinction between Goth and Italian was firmly preserved; the core of the army was Gothic and Theodoric ensured that the Gothic military culture was maintained and even technologically upgraded. The Goths were always ready to be mustered for the defense of the kingdom at a moment’s notice. At the same time he also trained his Goths to obey the rules and customs of new civil society.

A firm though gentle discipline imposed the habits of modesty, obedience, and temperance; and the Goths were instructed to spare the people, to reverence the laws, to understand the duties of civil society, and to disclaim the barbarous licence of judicial combat and private revenge.
(Chapter XXXIX)

While Constantinople was apprehensive at first, when they saw that Theodoric was content with his possessions and peace, their suspicion turned to acceptance and then admiration. This attitude was spread to numerous other nations in Europe and beyond. Many ambassadors came to his court to meet the wise, great king, and Theodoric also secured the stability of his kingdom through advantageous marriages and alliances with barbarian kingdoms in Gaul and Germany. In Gibbon’s words, “The life of Theodoric represents the rare and meritorious example of a Barbarian, who sheathed his sword in the pride of victory and the vigour of his age.” He took over the regions at the boundaries of Italy corresponding to central Europe to secure his borders. This alarmed emperor Anastasius at first, leading to a Roman invasion attempt, but Theodoric defeated them. This skirmish, however, did not lead to a large-scale war between the East and West.

Thus Theodoric revived the spirit of the original Western Empire, though this under the banner of the Goths. Agriculture, husbandry, mining, architecture, and luxury flourished as before. The government institutions of the Romans were copied with its strengths and weaknesses in the new kingdom. The Eastern Empire and the Gothic kingdom regularly maintained an alliance, as demonstrated by their annual joint appointment of two consuls. But Theodoric did not address the Eastern court in the servile manner of a vassal; he freely and openly referred to himself as equal or even superior to the Emperor. At the height of its power,

The Gothic sovereignty was established from Sicily to the Danube, from Sirmium or Belgrade to the Atlantic Ocean; and the Greeks themselves have acknowledged that Theodoric reigned over the fairest portion of the western empire.

Theodoric’s rule was only disturbed by the rise of the Franks under Clovis, which we covered last time, but even in that he managed to rescue the Goths in time from being completely extirpated.

In terms of religion Theodoric was an Arian like the rest of the Goths and barbarians. (In time, the Christian Franks would convert Gaul to Catholicism, and the Visigoths in Spain would also be converted. The Vandal kingdom of Genseric and his successor son Hunneric was the only region which continued to be a strong bulwark of Arianism, even resulting in strong persecution of Catholics, until the defeat of the Vandal kingdom by Belisarius.) While this was at odds with Italy’s strong orthodox Catholicism, he was not a fanatic, and tolerated the prominence of Catholicism in his kingdom, entertaining and recognizing members of the clergy in his court.

His rule was not perfect, however. Theodoric’s nephew was avaricious and corrupt. The religious toleration he introduced was not always approved of by the Catholic establishment, including an episode where he commanded restitution to be paid to the Jews who had their synagogue and properties destroyed in a riot. His worst mistake, however, was his treatment of the senators Boethius and Symmachus. These were truly eloquent, capable, and honorable statesmen, “the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman.” But Boethius made the mistake of defending Albinus, a senator who was convicted of entertaining thoughts of Roman independence from the Gothic kingdom. He was soon framed (probably by political rivals) in a conspiracy to invite the Eastern empire to overthrow Gothic rule, and Theodoric imprisoned and then executed him. During his imprisonment Boethius wrote his philosophical work The Consolation of Philosophy which would become one of the most influential works of philosophy in the Middle Ages. After his death, Symmachus, a fellow senator and Boethius’ father-in-law, dared to lament and perhaps intended to revenge his death, leading also to his execution.

The execution of these two innocent and upstanding men was quickly regretted by Theodoric. He was continually haunted by their memory to the day of his death. During a dinner, Theodoric claimed to see the face of Symmachus and retired from the table. He fell into sickness and died after a few days, concluding a reign of 37 years. His kingdom was divided between his two grandsons: Spain was given to Amalaric, and Italy to the young Athalaric.

Justin the Elder and the Rise of Justinian

Justin was originally a Dacian shepherd who became a soldier during the rule of Emperor Leo and later Anastasius. He served in wars between the empire and the Isaurians and Persians, rising to become general and then senator. During the power vacuum after the death of Anastasius, Justin the Elder became emperor with the support of the army. He was already 68 years old at his elevation, and reigned only 9 years. He was illiterate and incapable at governing: most of it was entrusted to the quaestor Proclus. More importantly, he adopted his ambitious and talented nephew Justinian. After the assassination of the dangerous consul and general Vitalian (who had earlier conducted a civil war against Anastasius for the sake of orthodox Christianity), Justinian was promoted to master-general of the Eastern armies. He won over the approval of the senate and the circus through his liberal distribution of gifts. His strict orthodoxy won over the clergy. He was appointed consul, and then given the title nobilissimus by the senate. A few months before the death of his uncle, Justinian was crowned emperor, and reigned for the next 38 years. Under him and his great general Belisarius, the Eastern Empire underwent a resurgence that including the reconquering of Africa and Italy, which we shall cover in the following post.

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