Condition of the German kingdoms in Italy and Africa before Justinian’s campaign

In Africa, Hilderic, the king of the Vandals, had been dethroned by his cousin Gelimer, a warlike and ambitious, but very incapable, ruler. In Italy, Theodoric, the great king of the Ostrogoths, had died in A. D. 526, and his grandson and successor, Athalaric, in A.D. 533. After the death of the young Athalaric, the kingdom fell to his mother, Amalasuntha, and she, compelled by Gothic public opinion to take a husband to rule in her behalf, had unwisely wedded Theodahat, her nearest kinsman. He was cruel, scheming, and suspicious, and murdered his wife, within a year of her having brought him the kingdom of Italy as a dowry. Cowardly and avaricious as well as ungrateful, Theodahat possessed exactly those vices which were most suited to make him the scorn of his warlike subjects; he could count neither on their loyalty nor their respect in the event of a war.

Hilderic      Hilderic

Both the Vandals in Africa and the Goths in Italy were at this time so weak as to invite an attack by an enterprising neighbour. They had, in fact, conquered larger realms than their limited numbers were really able to control. The original tribal hordes which had subdued Africa and Italy were composed of fifty or sixty thousand warriors, with their wives and children. Now such a body concentrated on one spot was powerful enough to bear down everything before it. But when the conquerors spread themselves abroad, they were but a sprinkling, among the millions of provincials whom they had to govern. In all Italy there were probably but three cities—Ravenna, Verona, and Pavia —in which the Ostrogoths formed a large proportion of the population. A great army makes but a small nation, and the Goths and Vandals were too few to occupy such wide tracts as Italy and Africa. They formed merely a small aristocracy, governing by dint of the ascendency which their fathers had won over the minds of the unwarlike populations which they had subdued. The only chance for the survival of the Ostrogothic and Vandal monarchies lay in the possibility of their amalgamating with the Roman provincial population, as the Franks, under more favourable circumstances, did with the conquered inhabitants of Gaul. This was seen by Theodoric, the great conqueror of Italy; and he did his best to reconcile Goth and Roman, held the balance with strict justice between the two, and employed Romans as well as Goths in the government of the country. But one generation does little to assuage old hatreds such as that between the conquerors and the conquered in Italy. Theodoric was succeeded by a child, and then by a ruffian, and his work ended with him. Even he was unable to strike at the most fatal difference of all between his countrymen and the Italians. The Goths were Arians, having been converted to Christianity in the fourth century by missionaries who held the Arian heresy. Their subjects, on the other hand, were Orthodox, almost without exception. When religious hatred was added to race hatred, there was hardly any hope of welding together the two nationalities.

Another source of weakness in the kingdoms of Africa and Italy must be noted. The Vandals of the third generation and the Goths of the second, after their settlement in the south, seem to have degenerated in courage and stamina. It may be that the climate was unfavourable to races reared in the Danube lands; it may be that the temptations of unlimited luxury offered by Roman civilization sufficed to demoralize them. A Gothic sage observed at the time that “the Goth, when rich, tends to become Roman in his habits; the Roman, when poor, Gothic in his”. There was truth in this saying, and the result of the change was ominous for the permanence of the kingdom of Italy. If the masters softened and the subjects hardened, they would not preserve for ever their respective positions.

The case of the kingdom of Africa was infinitely worse than that of the kingdom of Italy. The Vandals were less numerous than the Goths, in proportion to their subjects; they were not merely heretics, but fanatical and persecuting heretics, which the Goths were not. Moreover, they had never had at their head a great organizer and administrator like Theodoric, but only a succession of turbulent princes of the Viking type, fit for war and nothing else.

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

Theodahat    Theodahat

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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