Amalasuntha: The Comely and Quick-Witted Queen of the Ostrogoths Whose Life Ended in Tragedy
Amalasuntha was a regent of the Ostrogoths who lived during the Late Antique period, i.e. the 6th century AD. This was the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when Italy was under the rule of the Ostrogoths. She was a strong and powerful woman who had her wits about her and made sure she got what she wanted, for as long as possible. However, the roles women were expected to hold in her time brought about betrayal and her demise.
Amalasuntha’s life is detailed in three main ancient sources – The Secret History , by Procopius, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths , by Jordanes, and the letters of Cassiodorus. These were written shortly after the demise of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, so likely hold some bearing on the events of her life.
A Royal Upbringing
Amalasuntha was the daughter of Theoderic the Great, the ruler of the Ostrogoths who established the Ostrogothic Kingdom, which included the Italian peninsula, and had its capital in Ravenna, in 493 AD. Amalasuntha was also related to Clovis I, who was the first to unite the Franks, through her mother, Audofleda. Audofleda and the Frankish ruler were siblings, thus making Amalasuntha Clovis’ niece.
Bronze statue of Theoderic the Great. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Being the daughter of a king, Amalasuntha was well-educated when she was young, and grew up to be a cultured woman. In The Secret History of Procopius, Amalasuntha is described as being “very comely to look upon and exceedingly quick at contriving ways and means for whatever she wanted,”, and had a “magnificent bearing and exceptionally virile manner”.
The future regent married Eutharic, an Ostrogothic prince of the Amali line who was living in Iberia (today known as Spain), in 515 AD. Eutharic is described in Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths as a “young man strong in wisdom and valor and health of body.”
The couple had two children, a son by the name of Athalaric, and a daughter named Matasuntha. It has been suggested that Theoderic, having no sons of his own, had intended to pass his kingdom down to his son-in-law, Eutharic, upon his death, hence uniting the two kingdoms. The latter, however, died in 522 AD. Four years later, Theoderic himself died as well, and his grandson, Athalaric, became the new king of the Ostrogoths. At that time, however, the new ruler was only a child of 10 years old, so his mother, Amalasuntha, acted as regent for him.
The Ostrogothic Kingdom (in yellow) at the death of Theoderic the Great. ( Public Domain )
A Female Ruler for the Ostrogoths
During her regency, Amalasuntha continued her father’s policy of being on good terms with the Byzantines. This, for example, can be seen in the permission she granted to the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, to use Sicily as a base for the invasion of Vandal North Africa by Belisarius. Within her court, however, Amalasuntha began facing opposition from the Ostrogothic nobility. Whilst she wanted her son to receive a classical Roman education in law, rhetoric, and the humanities, the nobles were more interested in seeing the boy grow up into a warrior, hence the conflict between the two sides.
Emperor Justinian. ( Public Domain )
In such circumstances, the regent had to be wary of conspiracies and intrigue. Three nobles suspected of plotting against Amalasuntha were sent into exile, and later executed. In any case, Athalaric became neither a scholar nor a warrior, as he had given himself to the pleasures of the flesh.
In the end, the young king’s indulgence in drinking and in other excesses delivered him to an early grave at the age of 17 / 18 in 534 AD. This made Amalasuntha’s position even more precarious, as crowning herself queen would almost certainly have resulted in a revolt by the Ostrogothic nobility, who were not prepared for a female ruler.
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Amalasiuntha regina – woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle. (1493) ( Public Domain )
Death of a Regent
Amalasuntha decided to invite her cousin, Theodohad, to share the throne with her, which she hoped would strengthen her position. This was a bad decision, however, as her cousin, with the support of the nobles, deposed her, and had her imprisoned on the island of Martana, in the Tuscan lake of Bolsena. In The Secret History , Procopius wrote that Amalasuntha had written to Justinian for protection in the event that the nobles revolted against her.
The writer also claimed that the Empress Theodora did not want the regent in Constantinople, and had her husband send a man by the name of Peter to Italy as an ambassador. Peter, who was given instructions by the Empress to get rid of Amalasuntha, is said to have persuaded Theodohad to kill the imprisoned regent. As a result, in 534 AD Amalasuntha was murdered in her bath.
Featured image: A woodcut of Amalasuntha from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Photo source: ( CC 4.0 ).
By Wu Mingren
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