Emperor Zeno’s reign; the last German danger in the East

The last danger which the Eastern Empire was to experience from the hands of the Germans fell into the reign of Zeno. The Ostrogoths had submitted to the Huns ninety years before, when their brethren the Visigoths fled into Roman territory, in the reign of Valens. Rut when the Hunnish Empire broke up at the death of Attila (452 A.D.), the Ostrogoths freed themselves, and replaced their late masters as the main danger on the Danube. The bulk of them streamed south-westward, and settled in Pannonia, the border-province of the Western Empire, on the frontier of the East-Roman districts of Dacia and Moesia. They soon fell out with Zeno, and two Ostrogothic chiefs, Theodoric, the son of Theodemir, and Theodoric, the son of Triarius, were the scourges of the Balkan Peninsula for more than twenty years. While the bulk of their tribesmen settled down on the banks of the Save and Mid-Danube, the two Theodorics harried the whole of Macedonia and Moesia by never-ending raids. Zeno tried to turn them against each other, offering first to the one, then to the other, the title of Magister militum, and a large pension.

Zeno     Emperor Zeno

But now—as in the time of Alaric and Stilicho—it was seen that “dog will not eat dog”; the two Theodorics, after quarrelling for a while, banded themselves together against Zeno. The story of their reconciliation is curious. Theodoric, the son of Theodemir, the ally of Rome for the moment, had surrounded his rival on a rocky hill in a defile of the Balkans. While they lay opposite each other, Theodoric, the son of Triarius (he is usually known as Theodoric the One-Eyed), rode down to his enemy’s lines and called to him,

Madman, betrayer of your race, do you not see that the Roman plan is always to destroy Goths by Goths? Whichever of us fails, they, not we, will be the stronger. They never give you real help, but send you out against me to perish here in the Desert”.

Then all the Goths cried out, “The One-Eyed is right. These men are Goths like ourselves”. So the two Theodorics made peace, and Zeno had to cope with them both at once (479 A.D.). Two years later Theodoric the One-Eyed was slain by accident—his horse flung him, as he mounted, against a spear fixed by the door of his tent—but his namesake continued a thorn in the side of the empire till 488 A.D. In that year Zeno bethought him of a device for ridding himself of the Ostrogoth, who, though he made no permanent settlement in Moesia or Macedonia, was gradually depopulating the realm by his incursions.

The line of ephemeral emperors who reigned in Italy over the shrunken Western realm had ended in 476 A.D., when the German general Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, and did not trouble himself to nominate another puppet-Caesar to succeed him. By his order a deputation from the Roman Senate visited Zeno at Constantinople, to inform him that they did not require an emperor of their own to govern Italy, but would acknowledge him as ruler alike of East and West; at the same time they besought Zeno to nominate, as his representative in the Italian lands, their defender, the great Odoacer. Zeno replied by advising the Romans to persuade Odoacer to recognize as his lord Julius Nepos, one of the dethroned nominees of Ricimer, who had survived his loss of the imperial diadem. Odoacer refused, and proclaimed himself king in Italy, while still affecting—against Zeno’s own will—to recognize the Constantinopolitan emperor as his suzerain.

In 488 A.D. it occurred to Zeno to offer Theodoric the government of Italy, if he would conquer it from Odoacer. The Ostrogoth, who had harried the inland of the Balkan Peninsula bare, and had met several reverses of late from the Roman arms, took the offer. He was made “patrician” and consul, and started off with all the Ostrogothic nation at his back to win the realm of Italy. After hard fighting with Odoacer and the mixed multitude of mercenaries that followed him, the Goths conquered Italy, and Theodoric—German king and Roman patrician—began to reign at Ravenna. He always professed to be the vassal and deputy of the emperor at Constantinople, and theoretically his conquest of Italy meant the reunion of the East and the West. But the Western realm had shrunk down to Italy and Illyricum, and the power of Zeno therein was purely nominal.

With the departure of the Ostrogoths we have seen our last of the Germans in the Balkan Peninsula; after 488 the Slavs take their place as the molesters of the Roman frontier on the Danube.

(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)

teo     Theodoric

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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