Ostrogothic Kingdom – The Rise and Fall of the Eastern Goths
The early medieval and early AD history of Europe saw many emerging nations, and plenty of migrations as well. Tribes were restless, axes sharpened, and old kingdoms were growing weak. And in such turbulent times, all is possible. The ‘Great Migrations’ saw the emergence of new cultures, of stronger national identities, and the rapid spread of Christianity.
Today we are recounting the tale of one such emerging kingdom – a nation of rulers that seized their chances and exploited opportunities. It is a tale of the Ostrogothic Kingdom – a nation of fierce Germanic conquerors and their rise and fall. Join us and explore the tale of conquests and vengeance. From the ends of one empire, to the vengeances by its rising remnants, the Ostrogoths were at the center of it all.
Theodoric the Great and the Emergence of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
The Amalungs were one of the prominent Germanic Gothic ruling dynasties, and in 454 AD, the head of the dynasty, King Theodemir, had a son. Þiudareiks he called him, the ruler of people. To his contemporaries and us today, he is known as Theodoric, and this heir of the Gothic Amalung dynasty would be the one to completely change their history.
In 453 AD, a year before his birth, the Ostrogoths were at last free from the oppressive yoke of the Huns. It was the year of the death of Attila the Hun, and with that, his short lived empire began to crumble. Several years later, the Byzantine emperor Leo the Thracian exerted his dominance over the Ostrogoths and signed a treaty with King Theodemir – it obliged the Ostrogoths to pay a yearly tribute to the Byzantine throne in Constantinople.
To ensure that the tribute would be paid and the Ostrogoths remained obedient, the Byzantines took the king’s son hostage. Theodoric was taken to Constantinople. Being of noble birth, young Theodoric was educated by the finest standards of the Byzantine court – at the time one of the most advanced in the world.
Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. (Ввласенко / CC BY-SA 3.0)
He became literate, learned arithmetic and thoroughly studied the Romanitas, the crucial aspect of Roman identity which encompasses all the political and cultural concepts and practices of Rome. This education put him ahead of his Ostrogothic compatriots.
Theodoric returned to his home around 470 AD and was given rule as a prince of the Ostrogoths, alongside his uncle Valamir and his father King Theodemir. From that point on Theodoric increasingly portrayed himself as an ally and vassal of the Byzantines, often focusing on dealing with the enemies of the empire.
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Map from the 4 th century showing the city of Ravenna, capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. (D A R C 12345 / Public Domain)
When the restless chieftain of the Germanic Thervingi tribe – Theodoric the Squinter – rebelled against the Byzantine emperor Zeno the Isaurian, young Theodoric came to his aid against the Thervingi, and in return was named a commander of Eastern Roman forces. This in turn, made the Ostrogoths – his people – a foederati of Rome. Foederati were tribes and kingdoms that provided military aid to Rome in exchange for various benefits and alliance.
But soon after, the lackluster Emperor Zeno overplayed his hand, and in an attempt to further alienate the two Germanic leaders, he gave the command of the army to his recent enemy – Theodoric the Squinter of the Thervingi. From this point on, betrayed and enraged, Theodoric and his Ostrogoths began a series of raids into Byzantine territories, raiding and plundering – with innocent civilians often getting the brunt of his rage. He quickly made the strength and the ferocity of the Ostrogoths known to the Byzantines, sending Emperor Zeno into an increasing panic.
Theodoric settled his peoples in Epirus in 479, and from there sacked Larissa in 482, and raided all over Greece. Faced with his own mistake, Zeno was forced to make Theodoric the magister militum praesentalis – a high level military commander – in 483, and a consul designate in 484. This gave Theodoric the command over the provinces of Dacia Ripensis and Moesia Inferior.
The Birth of a Kingdom – Conflicts With Zeno
Having tasted the lush spoils of the raids against the Romans, Theodoric could not be satisfied. He continued his raids into the territories of the Eastern Roman Empire and the relation between him and Zeno grew into one of open hostility.
They eventually reached a sort of an agreement, which was in fact an attempt of Zeno to get rid of his two biggest threats – Theodoric the Amal and Odoacer. Odoacer was a Germanic statesman of Rome, who deposed Romulus Augustus and murdered Julius Nepos – and is regarded as bringing the fall of the Western Roman Empire to a culmination.
Odoacer ruled Italy and grew increasingly hostile towards the empire. Thus, in an attempt to get rid of him, Zeno sent Theodoric with the offer of ruling Italy as his representative if he managed to defeat Odoacer.
Theodoric set out for Italy in 488, and in the next year he crossed the Alps and entered the peninsula. The very first confrontation with Odoacer’s forces happened almost immediately, as the two armies clashed at the river Isonzo. Odoacer’s forces were crushed and retreated into Verona. A mere month later, Theodoric descended and once again won a crushing victory.
The Ostrogoths set out for Italy. (Internet Archive Book Images / Public Domain)
For the Ostrogoths, conquering Italy was a straightforward, but nonetheless bloody affair. Odoacer, obviously finding himself in trouble, fled to Ravenna, his capital city, seeking safety. His commander, one Tufa, and a large part of the army, surrendered to Theodoric, and was tasked with attacking their previous master, Odoacer. But once a turncoat always a turncoat – Tufa once again changed allegiance and returned to the forces of Odoacer.
The next year, in 490, bolstered once again, Odoacer launched a new military campaign against the Ostrogoths. His army liberated Milan, then Cremona, and laid siege to the Gothic capital at Pavia. Things were looking up for Odoacer – until the Visigoths intervened.
The western branch of the Gothic family, these reinforcements came to Theodoric’s aid and successfully lifted the Siege of Pavia. United, the Gothic forces went on an offensive, and jointly crushed Odoacer’s forces at the Battle of the Adda River on August 11th 490 AD. Odoacer fled to Ravenna and remained there.
The capital Ravenna was quickly besieged and Odoacer was surrounded behind his walls. But since Ravenna’s port remained undisturbed, food and supplies could be easily acquired. It was because of this that the siege lasted for about 3 years. Eventually, a Gothic fleet was assembled and food supplies finally cut off from Ravenna. Odoacer was at last forced to negotiate.
Scene representing a battle between Ostrogoths and Romans. (Jastrow / Public Domain)
The two warring sides negotiated a treaty, declaring that Italy would be split in half between them. To celebrate this, they hosted a large banquet in Ravenna, on the evening of March 15 th in 493. It was then that Theodoric, in a true “ Red Wedding” fashion, offered a toast and killed Odoacer with his own hands.
Odoacer’s forces were promptly massacred as well. With this final stroke, a bloody exclamation mark on his conquest, Theodoric the Amal brought the war to an end. He conquered Italy and the Ostrogothic Kingdom was born.
Theodoric wanted to assert his power fully, and for that he needed the recognition from Constantinople. When Emperor Zeno died in 491, and Anastasius came to rule, it was crucial for Theodoric to be recognized. This finally happened in 498 after several negotiations. After these negotiations there was a clear acceptance of Theodoric’s independent rule in the Italian provinces.
From the start of his rule, Theodoric attempted to rule all the ethnicities of Italy equally. He exercised great religious tolerance and styled himself as the king of Romans and Goths – for he was both a Goth and a Roman citizen and patrician. He became known as Theodoric the Great and reigned from 493 to 526.
His rule was marked by a great period of relative peace and prosperity for the Italian peninsula and Ostrogothic Kingdom. He managed at the same time to act as a Roman ruler of Roman citizens, and as a traditional ‘King of the Goths’ for his own people. Different Christian denominations and religions got along. Still, his relations with the throne in Constantinople were strained at best, with several collisions over the year – but without warfare.
The Dissipating Kingdom – Death of the Great King
Theodoric the Great died on August 30th 526 AD, in his seventy second year. And with him gone all the achievements he accomplished in his 33 year reign began dying too. The alliance began dissipating and the successors began vying for power. Theodoric’s heir was his infant grandson Athalaric who was unable to rule.
The Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, ruler of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, Ravenna, Italy. (Richard / CC BY-SA 2.0)
In his stead, acting as regent, was his mother and Theodoric’s daughter – Amalasuntha. She was disliked by the Gothic nobles due to her sex, and her policies which relied on positive Goth and Roman relations. She relied on the support from Emperor Justinian I, to the dislike of her contemporaries. They eventually planned to overthrow her.
When her son, young Athalaric, died, she knew that her only solution was the support of her cousin Theodahad. She also sent proposals to Justinian to cede Italy to him. Amalasuntha then proceeded to crown Theodahad, giving him a kingly crown to ensure his support. But instead, he imprisoned her on an island in Lake Bolsena. There, she was executed in her bath in May 535.
For Emperor Justinian I, this served as a great excuse to reclaim Italy and end the Ostrogothic Kingdom and the threat it posed. This resulted in the beginning of the Gothic War. It lasted from 535 to 554 and was an attempt by Justinian to reclaim the territories of the Roman Empire that were lost in the previous century.
With two great generals at his side, Narses and Belisarius, he set out to once and for all reclaim Italy from the Germanic hands. In the previous years, Justinian successfully reconquered the province of Africa from the Germanic tribe of Vandals.
In the first five years of the war, the Byzantines scored great victories from two sides. Mundus reconquered Dalmatia (but died in the process), while Belisarius conquered Sicily, then Naples in 536, Rome in the same year, and at last the capital Ravenna in 540. With this, the Byzantines seemingly reconquered their lost province. But after the departure of Belisarius, and lack of a Roman commander in chief to keep things together, the Goths – who still held the northern parts of the province – chose a new king – Baduila – and from 542 began a new offensive.
Under his leadership, Goths marched south and bypassed Rome. Most Roman garrisons were not strong enough, and southern Italy was soon once again under Gothic rule. He then returned to besiege Rome. The city was under siege for a whole year. In the meanwhile, Belisarius returned to Italy with fresh forces and reconquered the south.
In December 546, with Belisarius still in the south, Baduila’s forces entered Rome and plundered and razed the city walls. Once they left, Belisarius reconquered Rome in 547 and made repairs.
It wasn’t until 551 that the Byzantines amassed enough troops to launch a final reconquest of Italy and a last attempt at destroying the Ostrogoths. They succeeded at this in October of 553 AD, when they decisively won at the Battle of Mons Lactarius, destroying the last remnants of the Ostrogoths, and reconquering their lost province. The Ostrogoths were no more – and with them faded the Ostrogothic Kingdom.
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The Goths at the Battle of Mons Lactarius. (Hohum / Public Domain)
The Longobards Seize the Chance
The wars for Italy left the peninsula utterly devastated and depopulated. Paradoxically, once the Ostrogoths were gone, and the land barren, the Byzantines could not successfully keep their territory. The wars were in vain – in 568 AD the Germanic Longobard tribe descended upon Italy, conquering large parts of it. They would rule until 774 AD.
Such was the dreaded fate of Italy – in a period that saw great migrations and ravenous appetites, it was the common people that suffered. Lives were lost, villages raided, towns razed. Generations perished at sword tip, and ethnicities disappeared in whole.
Such was the will of the Germanic warrior tribes – battle upon battle upon battle – eroding themselves until they are no more. And history and time sweep over their memory, with nothing to keep it alive.
Top image: The spread of the Ostrogothic Kindom, The Goths at the Battle of Mons Lactarius. Source: Hohum / Public Domain
Arnold, J., Bjornlie, S., and Sessa, K. 2016. A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy. Brill.
Burns, T. 1991. A History of Ostrogoths. Indiana University Press.
Wolfram, H. 1990. History of the Goths. University of California Press.