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Metamorphoses of a Figure

John Noël Dillon

All consideration of history presumes a point of view rooted in the present, and this “point of observation” can change over the course of someone’s life. The perception and assessment of events changes as interests, norms, and orientations shift, as new experiences compel one to rethink events both witnessed personally and transmitted by others. This rule is true not only for Cassiodorus, but for ourselves, too, because every image of the past is influenced by one’s perspective. The greater the distance from the persons and events of the past, the easier it becomes to recognize perspectivity. Modern historians, however, still took a very long time before they could escape the suggestive power of the letters that Cassiodorus composed in the service and largely also in the name of the Gothic kings; until well into the twentieth century, the depiction the royal central administration painted of itself was often taken at face value. As we look back at Theoderic and the Gothic kingdom in Italy from the twenty-first century, however, we should take advantage of the chance to free ourselves of this perspective. The goals that men like Theoderic and Cassiodorus considered worthwhile and the standards of their time are no longer our own. The questions that we ask ourselves are different from those that the royal chancellery sought to answer.

If we consider Theoderic from his origins, he first comes into view as the leader of a community of violence that had crisscrossed Western Europe in Attila’s army before the Goths successfully freed themselves of Hunnic domination. Theoderic had proven himself as a warrior in his youth and, after his father’s death in 474, assumed command of this warrior confederation, which depended on plunder, subsidies, and tribute to survive. Theoderic labored for almost a decade and a half in vain to win formal recognition from the emperor as leader of an allied warrior people. During this time, he led his people back and forth across the Balkans, and the number of his followers sometimes shrank dramatically. The death of his rival Theoderic Strabo enabled him to unite the vast majority of the Goths on the Balkan Peninsula under his leadership, but his Goths’ material existence still remained precarious. Only after the conquest of Italy did Theoderic gain access to resources that enabled him to transform his vagabond warrior confederation into a standing army whose members could live off the rents they collected as landlords. He successfully persuaded the power brokers of this conquered land to cooperate by recognizing their privileges and conferring important tasks and offices on them. He made the state apparatus serve his purposes and, in this way, created a dual state in which the civil administration was run by Romans while the military was the Goths’ business. He won over the bishops of the Catholic church by giving them the freedom that they needed to pursue their activities. Nonetheless, Theoderic always remained a Gothic king as ruler of Italy: the support of the men with whom he had defeated Odoacer in a four-year-long war was and always remained the fundamental basis of his power. Theoderic never completely cast off the warlord of his early years.

Theoderic’s ruling concept must be understood as an answer to the urgent problems that he had to solve after the conquest of Italy. The king was confronted by the need to reward the army to which he owed his victory. He therefore furnished his warriors with landed estates so that they could live comfortably off the rent they collected. Since Theoderic defined this army as the Gothic people in arms, his warriors stood opposite the Romans as a military elite who cultivated a specific lifestyle and who were supposed to maintain their cultural distinctness. This policy amounted to integration through separation. At the same time, Theoderic recognized that he needed the support of the Roman elites if he hoped to take advantage of the resources that ruling a land like Italy offered. He therefore left the civil administration that he inherited essentially unchanged. This state apparatus brought him so great a steady income that he could pay his soldiers, finance the civil administration, adorn his residences with buildings, hold court magnificently, and generously reward his faithful servants.11

Theoderic’s ruling concept was by its very nature conservative. Since Theoderic defined his army as the Gothic people in arms, he set in stone a division of labor between immigrants and natives that presumed that Goths and Romans would go separate ways. The cultural assimilation of the Goths to their Roman environment was not at all desirable, even if it was impossible to prevent in everyday life. The social fusion of Goths and Romans was simply incompatible with Theoderic’s ruling concept. Theoderic did not at all intend to change, let alone “reform,” the social conditions that he found in Italy; he wanted to make permanent the state of affairs he himself had created when he settled the Goths on the land.

In the first phase of his reign in Italy, Theoderic tried to protect his kingdom by entering into treaties and marriage alliances with other Germanic rulers. After he had consolidated power, he enlarged his kingdom by military means as opportunities arose. He sought to prevent war between the Visigoth Alaric and the Frank Clovis. When that failed, he seized the opportunity to annex Provence to his Italian kingdom. He soon also extended his rule to the Gothic kingdom in Hispania. Theoderic was at the peak of his power in the second decade of the sixth century. The succession also seemed to be secure when Emperor Justin held the consulship of the year 519 together with Theoderic’s son-in-law Eutharic.

No other barbarian ruler of his time could point to successes comparable to Theoderic’s. The Vandal Thrasamund tried in vain to halt the decline of royal power in his kingdom until his death in 523. The Frank Clovis waged war incessantly since 482 and ultimately brought most of Gaul under his control, but his kingdom was cut off from the Mediterranean and was divided among his four sons after his death in 511. The kings of the Burgundians, Thuringians, Heruli, and Lombards were no competition for Theoderic at all.

This success story is only one side of the coin.

11. Theoderic’s ruling concept: Wiemer 2013b and 2014; cf. chap. 6, section 1, above.

From Theoderic the Great: King of Goths, Ruler of Romans by Hans-Ulrich Wiemer, translated by John Noël Dillon. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Hans-Ulrich Wiemer is professor of ancient history at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. He has published books and articles on Alexander the Great, Hellenistic history and historiography, Late Roman history, and the history of the Goths. He lives in Fürth, Germany. John Noël Dillon is lecturer in Latin at Yale Divinity School and translates scholarly work from German, French, and Italian. He lives in Branford, CT.

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