The Ostrogothic Conquest of Italy

After the overthrow of the Hunnic Empire on the field of Nadao in A.D. 454 the Ostrogoths, who had been one of the chief members of that Empire, settled in Pannonia. Now for the first time they settled on the inner side of the Roman frontier.

The settlement was made by agreement with the Emperor Marcian, and the Ostrogoths then became federates of the Empire. The Ostrogoths were not at this time under the rule of a single or predominant national king. No leader held among them the place which Hermanric had held in the fourth century. Monarchy had not developed in their case as it had developed with the Visigoths; and this is quite what we might have expected; for they had been all this time under the domination of the Huns, and it would have been obviously the policy of the Hunnic kings to encourage division rather than unity. Accordingly we find the Ostrogoths under a number of kings, prominent among whom were three brothers of the royal race of the Amals. The name of one of these brothers was Thiudemir; and the story runs that on the very day on which the news of the great victory of Nadao came to the house of Thiudemir, a son was born to him. This son was Thiuda-reiks (‘ruler of the people’), a name which was corrupted in Greek and Roman mouths into Theuderic or Theoderic.

Theoderic was sent in his boyhood as a hostage to Constantinople, where he learned to know and appreciate Roman civilisation and Roman institutions, although he did not abandon the Arian faith in which he had been brought up. He returned home in 470 or 471, at the age of sixteen or seventeen, and in 471 he was elected a king. We can be certain about this date, because thirty years later, in the year 500, when he was lord of Italy, he celebrated his tricennalia, that is the thirtieth anniversary of his election as king. But it is to be observed that neither he nor his father, who was still alive, was king of the Ostrogothic nation; they were simply petty kings, gaukönige.

Immediately after this election, Thiudemir and his son Theoderic led their portion of the Ostrogothic people southward into the Balkan peninsula, and forced the Emperor Leo to grant them new settlements in Macedonia —in the original Macedonia near the sea. Their territory included the cities of Pella, Pydna, and Methone. After Thiudemir’s death Theoderic reigned alone, and the next years were marked by his rivalry and struggle with another Ostrogothic chief of the same name who had also settled in the Balkan peninsula. It was a triangular struggle between the two rival Gothic chiefs and the Emperor Zeno, and the relations among the three vary and change like the figures of a kaleidoscope. Most likely, the object of Theoderic’s ambition, like the first object of Alaric’s ambition, was to be appointed magister militum. In the year 483, after his rival’s death, he obtained this coveted post, and was created magister militum praesentalis. In the following year, he was honoured by the consulship. He now, like Alaric, stood in a double relation to his people: he was not only their king; they were also bound to obey him as imperial commander-in-chief. But the new magister militum was still a thorn in the side of the Empire; he quarrelled with the Emperor in 487, revolted, and marched with his Ostrogoths to the walls of Constantinople. The Emperor now reached the conviction that the presence of the Ostrogoths and the Ostrogothic magister militum in the Illyrian provinces could never be placed on a satisfactory basis, and would be a constant source of trouble and danger. Could any expedient be found for getting rid of them? The idea occurred that a profitable and tempting task might be imposed upon the magister militum which would finally deliver Constantinople and the Illyrian provinces of his presence. He might be sent to Italy to conquer and displace Odovacar. Our material is too scanty to enable us to say whether Zeno adopted this resolution merely as an expedient to remove Theoderic, or whether he had already independently cherished the notion of interfering in the regime of Italy, and perhaps of resuming the peninsula under his immediate rule. Odovacar was nominally his vice-regent, a magister militum of the Empire; but Zeno had never given him a wholehearted or unreserved recognition. One of our chief authorities tells us that Zeno intended ultimately to go to Italy himself. The words (which some historians have failed to understand) are these: “The Emperor made a bargain with Theoderic: if he (Theoderic) overcame Odovacar, he should (as a reward for his services) rule provisionally in Italy until he (Zeno) should come (dum adveniret).” There is no reason for rejecting this statement, but we must be careful how we interpret it. It need not seem that Zeno had made up his mind to go to Italy or resume in his own hands the immediate government. It may have been simply the official and diplomatic way in which the bargain was expressed, so as to reserve the imperial rights, and make it clear that, while Theoderic succeeded to the quasi-imperial power wielded by Odovacar, he was still responsible to the Emperor, who would at any moment have the right to recall him or suspend him.

The Overthrow of Odovacar in Italy

Theoderic accepted the mission which was destined to lead him to a great place in history. He started for Italy in 488. It is curious how the fortunes of the Ostrogoths seemed to repeat the fortunes of the Visigoths. Nearly a hundred years after the Visigoths had been temporarily settled as federates in the llyrian peninsula, the Ostrogoths were for a brief period settled there too. The Visigoths had ravaged and vexed the provinces, until finally King Alaric had been made a magister militum; the Ostrogoths a century later did exactly the same thing, and King Theoderic, like Alaric, was in his turn made a magister militum. Then Theoderic, again like Alaric, migrated with his people to Italy.

It was not till the end of August (A.D. 489) that, having crossed the Julian Alps, the Ostrogoths reached the river Sontius (Isonzo), and that the struggle for Italy began. Of this memorable war we have only the most meagre outline. The result was decided within twelve months, but three and a half years were to elapse before the last resistance of Odovacar was broken down and Theoderic was completely master of Italy.

It was perhaps where the Sontius and the Frigidus meet that Theoderic found Odovacar in a carefully fortified camp, prepared to oppose his entry into Venetia. Odovacar had considerable forces, for besides his own army he had succeeded in enlisting foreign help. We are not told who his allies were: we can only guess that among them may have been the Burgundians, who, as we know, helped him at a later stage. The battle was fought on August 28; Odovacar was defeated and compelled to retreat, his next line of defence was on the Athesis (Adige), and he fortified himself in a camp close to Verona, with the river behind him. Here the second battle of the war was fought a month later (about September 20) and resulted in a decisive victory for Theoderic. The carnage of Odovacar’s men is said to have been immense; but they fought desperately and the Ostrogothic losses were severe; the river was fed with corpses. The defeated king himself fled to Ravenna. The greater part of his army, with Tufa who held the highest command, surrendered to Theoderic, who immediately proceeded to Milan.

Northern Italy was now at the feet of the Goth; Rome and Sicily were prepared to submit, and it looked as though nothing remained to complete the conquest but the capture of Ravenna. But the treachery of Tufa changed the situation. Theoderic imprudently trusted him, and sent him with his own troops and a few distinguished Ostrogoths against Odovacar. At Faventia (Faenza) Tufa espoused again the cause of his old master and handed over to him the Goths, who were put into irons.

Theoderic made Ticinum (Pavia) his headquarters during the winter, and it is said that one of his motives for choosing this city was to cultivate the friendship of the old bishop Epiphanius, who had great influence with Odovacar. In the following year Odovacar was able to take the field again, to seize Cremona and Milan, and to blockade his adversary in Ticinum. At this juncture the Visigoths came to the help of the Ostrogoths and sent an army into Italy. The siege was raised, and the decisive battle of the war was fought on the river Addua (Adda), a battle in which Odovacar was utterly defeated (August 11, A.D. 490). He fled for the second time to Ravenna. It was probably this victory that decided the Roman senate to abandon the cause of Odovacar, and to accept Theoderic. It made him master of Rome, southern Italy, and Sicily.

The agreement that Zeno made with Theoderic had been secret and unofficial. The Emperor had done  nothing directly to break off his relations with Odovacar. But Odovacar seems some time before the battle of the Addua to have courted a formal rupture. He created his son Thela a Caesar, and this was equivalent to renouncing his subordination to the Emperor and declaring Italy independent. He probably calculated that the policy of cutting the rope which bound Italy to Constantinople would be welcomed at Rome and throughout the provinces. The senators may have been divided on this issue, but the battle of the Addua decided them as a body to ‘betray’ Odovacar, and before the end of the year Festus, the princeps of the senate, went to Constantinople to announce the success of Theoderic, and to arrange the conditions of the new Italian government.

Coin depicting Flavius Theodoricus (Theoderic)

The Completion of the Ostrogothic Conquest

Theoderic confidently believed that his task was now virtually finished. But the cause of his thrice-defeated enemy was not yet hopelessly lost. Tufa was still at large with troops at his command; and various unexpected difficulties beset the conqueror. The Burgundian king Gundobad, for example, sent an army into north Italy and laid waste the country. Theoderic had not only to drive these invaders out, but he had also to protect Sicily against the Vandals, who seized the opportunity of the war to attempt to recover it. Their attempt was frustrated, and they were forced to surrender the fortress of Lilybaeum as well as all their claims to the island.

It seems to have been in the same year that Theoderic resorted to a terrible measure for destroying the military garrisons which held Italian towns for Odovacar. The Italian population was generally favourable to the cause of Theoderic, and secret orders were given to the citizens to slaughter the soldiers on a prearranged day. The pious panegyrist, who exultantly, but briefly, describes this measure and claims Providence as an accomplice, designates it as a “sacrificial massacre”; and Theoderic doubtless considered that the treachery of his enemy’s army in surrendering and then deserting justified an unusual act of vengeance. The secret of the plot was well kept, and it seems to have been punctually executed. The result was equivalent to another victory in the field; and nothing now remained for Theoderic but to capture the last stronghold of his adversary, the marsh city of Honorius.

The siege of Ravenna lasted for two years and a half. The Gothic forces entrenched themselves in a camp in the pine-woods east of the city, but were not able entirely to prevent provisions from reaching the garrison by sea. Yet the blockade was not ineffective, for corn rose to a famine price. One attempt was made by Odovacar to disperse the besiegers. He made a sortie at night (July 10, A.D. 491) with a band of Herul warriors and attacked the Gothic trenches. The conflict was obstinate; but he was defeated. Another year wore on, and it appeared that the siege might last for ever unless the food of the garrison could be completely cut off. Theoderic managed to procure a fleet of warships—we are not told whether or not they were built for the occasion—and, making the Portus Leonis, about six miles from Ravenna, his naval base, he was able to blockade the two harbours of the city (August A.D. 492). Odovacar held out for six months longer, but early in A.D. 493 negotiations, conducted by the bishop of Ravenna, issued in a compact between the two antagonists (February 25) that they should rule Italy jointly. Theoderic entered the city a week later (March 5).

The only way in which the compact could have been carried out would have been by a territorial division. But Theoderic had no mind to share the peninsula with another king, and there can hardly be a doubt that, when he swore to the treaty, he had the full intention of breaking his oath. Odovacar’s days were numbered. Theoderic, a few days after his entry into Ravenna, slew him with his own hand in the palace of Laretum (March 15). He alleged that his defeated rival was plotting against him, but this probably was a mere pretext. “On the same day“, adds the chronicler, “all Odovacar’s soldiers were slain wherever they could be found, and all his kin“.

In three years and a half Theoderic had accomplished his task. The reduction of Italy cost him four battles, a massacre, and a long siege. His capital blunder had been to trust Tufa after the victory of Verona. We may be sure that throughout the struggle he spared no pains to ingratiate himself in the confidence of the Italian population. But when his rival had fallen, and when he was at last securely established, Theoderic’s first measure was to issue an edict depriving of their civil rights all those Italians who had not adhered to his cause. This harsh and stupid policy, however, was not carried out, for the bishop Epiphanius persuaded the king to revoke it and to promise that there would be no executions.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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