Theodoric the Great and His Ostrogothic Mausoleum
Theodoric the Great was the king of the Ostrogoths from 475 to 526 AD. Born in 454 AD to the Gothic king Theodemir, Theodoric became the founder of the Ostrogothic dynasty in Italy from 474 AD onwards. One of the most fascinating aspects of Theodoric’s life is the tomb that he had constructed for himself, c. 520 AD in Ravenna, Italy. The structure’s dome weighs 230 tons but scholars, archaeologists, and historians have no idea how the gigantic piece was placed in its current position. Furthermore, the structure’s combination of Roman construction and Christian Gothic designs makes it a paramount feature of the transitional 5 th century in Italy which saw Italy shift from Roman territory into eastern hands. As such, the mausoleum of Theodoric highlights the memory of the Ostrogothic leader, not only for his achievements in defining the Ostrogoths in Italy but also for his role in the transition from the Roman period into the early medieval period of Italy.
Theodoric the Great ensured peace between the Romans and Goths of Ravenna during his reign. (Ввласенко / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Who Were the Ostrogoths?
The Ostrogoths were a Germanic people who emerged in the 5 th century AD, part of the greater Gothic presence which itself appeared in the Roman record in the 3 rd century. The Ostrogoths are believed to have originally come from one of the more eastern Germanic tribes. It is hypothesized that the Ostrogoths rose as a political entity in the area north of the Black Sea, around the region of modern day Hungary. Most of our knowledge of the early Ostrogothic culture comes from the writer Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman living from approximately 485 to 585 AD, and thereby surviving the reign of Theodoric the Great.
Along with the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths formed one of the two great Gothic kingdoms of the late Roman Empire. Together (though not necessarily as a team), the two tribes of Goths led invasions into Rome and against the Roman Empire before 375 AD. After the fall of the Huns , a nomadic tribe which led to the migration of the Goths and other peoples into Rome, the Ostrogoths became an independent nation c. 453 AD, but the Roman Empire had been significantly weakened. This chain of events led to the eventual creation of an Ostrogothic Empire with its center in Ravenna, Italy.
Having defeated the Odoacer in 493 AD, Theodoric the Great guided the rise of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Theodoric and the Ostrogothic Kingdom
The Ostrogoths continued to make incursions against the surviving Roman Empire, considered to have officially “ fallen” c. 476 AD, though the eastern Byzantine Empire survived and continued to thrive. It was some time before this that Theodoric was sent to Constantinople to as a hostage in an effort by his father to make peace with the surviving empire and his presence in Constantinople served as a beacon of the treaty his father had enacted between the Ostrogoths and Byzantine Emperor Leo I. Theodoric was therefore raised in the Greco-Roman education system, and learned the ways of governing and running an empire during his time there.
Becoming a comrade of the Byzantine emperor Zeno, Theodoric was entrusted at the young age of eighteen to command his own army in an attempt to stifle the rise of another Theodoric called Strabo, who sought power over the Ostrogoths. Strabo’s defeat saw Theodoric’s power over the Ostrogothic kingdom grow, solidifying at the same time an alliance between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogoths. As such, Emperor Zeno gave Theodoric another important task: Theodoric was sent to relieve the problem of King Odoacer in Italy, who had taken the moniker of king after defeating the last of the Roman emperors. Sources of the period do conflict, however, on whether the decision to go after Odoacer was Zeno’s or Theodoric’s own. If Theodoric was successful in removing Odoacer, Zeno said, then he would be allowed to take whatever land he wanted for himself.
After defeating the Odoacer, Theodoric the Great made his capital at Ravenna in Italy. His appreciation for Roman values and culture, allowed both cultures to thrive and grown equally during his reign. ( Public domain )
The defeat of Odoacer in 493 AD (with the aid of Visigoth forces) led to the eventual rise of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Theodoric made his capital at Ravenna, itself still populated by Romans, and his appreciation for Roman values and culture, gained during his youth in Constantinople, allowed both cultures to continue to thrive and grow equally under his reign. While promising the Ostrogothic peoples their own lands, something they had not possessed due to previous political instability, Theodoric also enabled the Romans to continue their traditions, administration, and Catholic Christianity, without much interference. (It should be noted, however, that there was some upheaval because the Goths practiced Arian Christianity.) Though such shifts are never one hundred percent seamless, Theodoric saw little resistance to his attempts at unifying the two cultures, and successfully reigned over the joint cultures in Ravenna for thirty years, from 493 AD until his death in 526 AD.
The mausoleum of Theodoric the Great is viewed as one of the few architectural constructions that remain as testament to the transition of Italy from the Roman to Gothic periods. ( Public domain )
Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great: A Testament to Transition
Theodoric’s Mausoleum is a testament to the transition of Italy from the Roman to Gothic periods, as well as to the combined Roman and Gothic populations in Ravenna following Theodoric’s move to power in the 5 th century. This period, more frequently referred to as the Migration Period due to the mass movement of nomadic peoples across Europe, has little surviving architecture. Since migrants were not necessarily settling, their art tended to be portable, resulting in very little architecture constructed to last the test of time.
Theodoric’s mausoleum stands as one of the few surviving examples of “ barbarian”, or non-Roman, architecture from the 5 th century AD. Some scholars believe that due to Theodoric’s extensive work within the army of Emperor Zeno of Byzantium, he was influenced by the eastern structures of Syria, and combined those influences with the current Roman architecture present in Ravenna. It has also been suggested that his mausoleum was inspired by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus , one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Regardless, it is agreed that the mausoleum of Theodoric the Great straddles two very different traditions and historical periods, and is exceptional due to its survival.
Theodoric mausoleum cross-sections and plans from 1905 publication. ( Public domain )
The Architecture of Theodoric’s Mausoleum
Built in 520 AD, and according to tradition in the ancient world, the mausoleum was erected outside the city walls “in a Gothic burial ground.” The structure is made entirely of Istrian stone, which comes from modern day Croatia, and it is constructed from two decagonal (ten-sided polygon) structures built one on top of another. The upper level is topped by a large, monolithic dome, reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon. The upper dome measures 10.76 meters in diameter (approximately 35 feet) and 3.09 meters tall (approximately 10.14 feet), with a weight of 230 tons. Interestingly, the dome is believed to be carved from a single piece of Istrian stone.
The interior of the church is constructed from twelve arches which bear “the names of eight apostles and four evangelists,” thereby highlighting the Christian religion of Theodoric and his kingdom. There are triangular holes in the roof which give the dome the look of a crown, and it is possible that at one time, these holes were used to help in the construction of the project, afterwards repurposed to contribute to the regality of the building.
The lower structure of the mausoleum can be accessed from the upper area by a niche which “was probably a former cruciform-plan chapel, originally used for religious services,” in particular funerary ones. This structure is wider than its upper level, allowing the upper level to sit comfortably in the center of the building.
Interior image of top level at Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great containing the sacrcophagus. (Ruge / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Theodoric himself is believed to have been buried in a sarcophagus frequently compared to a bathtub, made of red porphyry. The tomb has “four rings carved into its sides, as well as two lion heads.” If Theodoric’s body truly dwelt there, it only remained for only a short while before his bones were removed from the complex and scattered by the Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius, the mausoleum itself converted by him into a Christian oratory.
Archaeologists and astronomers have done extensive research into the mausoleum’s structure and have recently hypothesized there was a deeper purpose to the building besides housing the remains of the king of the Ostrogoths. The orientation of the mausoleum might indicate that the structure was used to align with “important moments within the astrological year.” The location of the sun and the seventeen windows indicates that on certain important religious days, such as the day of the Annunciation, the sun illuminates the cross-shaped window of the tomb at sunrise. At other times of the day, the setting of the sun has illuminated the scripts within the bands of the mausoleum, thus further indicating the likelihood of a dual purpose to the tomb’s structure. It was not merely for housing bones, and paying respects, but rather possibly served as an important astronomical tool for Christian worship as well.
Visual Example of Roman and Gothic Unity Under Theodoric
The mausoleum is particularly noted for its significance in combining Roman and Byzantine artistic styles with Gothic ones, a visual reminder of Theodoric’s own role in the transition from the Roman period into the early Middle Ages. As such, it stands in contrast to the other monuments in Ravenna, Italy. The mausoleum is constructed using the Roman stone technique of opus quadratum , where stones are placed in parallel settings without the use of mortar. Instead of mortar, the building is joined by iron clamps. In addition to these Roman techniques, there is a ledge on the upper level “decorated by a ‘pincer’ frieze, a characteristic element of Gothic art.” Thus the monument stands as a visual example of the combined Roman and Gothic influences of the city during the period of Theodoric’s rule. Serving as his intended place of burial, one can only assume Theodoric’s plans were intentional in an attempt to highlight the unity he created within the city of Ravenna during his thirty-year reign.
The reign of Theodoric the Great saw peace between the Romans and Goths of Ravenna, Italy, which is best exemplified through his mausoleum. Though his reign was not without some hiccups, his mausoleum stands as a brilliant reminder of the unity of the two cultures despite their drastically different forms of Christianity and cultural beliefs practiced concurrently within his kingdom. The Roman dome and arches alongside the use of opus quadratum , combined with the Gothic frieze, come together to create one of the only surviving testaments to the architecture of the period of transition from the Roman Age to the early medieval period. Theodoric’s resting place is therefore as valuable to the history of the peoples of Europe as to the memory of the role he played at the end of the Roman Empire.
Top image: The Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great bears testament to the peace between the Romans and Goths of Ravenna during his reign. Source: ermess / Adobe Stock and Public domain .
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