Ostrogoths

catalaunischevelden

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Visigoths and Ostrogoths fight each other on the Catalaunian fields.

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Ostrogoths Siege of Rome AD 537

A barbarian people whose name means “Goths of the rising sun,” or “Goths glorified by the rising sun,” or simply “East Goths,” the Ostrogoths played an important role in the history of the later Roman Empire. Identified as early as the first century by Roman writers, the Ostrogoths were at first part of a larger population of Goths that included the Visigoths. During the third century, the larger Gothic population came into contact, often violent, with the Roman Empire. Defeated by the empire, with which they then cultivated better relations, the Goths divided into eastern and western groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, and their subsequent histories diverged. For the Ostrogoths, as well as the Visigoths, history in the fourth and fifth centuries was shaped by the movements of the Huns and the rise and fall of the great Hunnish empire of Attila. In the fifth century, a reconstituted Ostrogothic tribe formed into a powerful group led by kings. The most famous and important of these kings, Theodoric the Great, participated in political life in the Eastern Roman Empire and created a successor kingdom in Italy in the late fifth and early sixth century. Despite the qualities of Theodoric and the strength of his kingdom, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy did not long survive the death of Theodoric. In the 530s, the great emperor Justinian sought to conquer the Western Empire, which had fallen under barbarian control in 476. For some twenty years, Justinian’s soldiers and generals fought Ostrogothic armies before finally defeating them, destroying Theodoric’s creation, and essentially eliminating the Ostrogoths as a people and a force in history.

Ancient accounts record that Gothic history began in 1490 b.c., when a Gothic king led his people in three boats from Scandinavia to the mouth of the Vistula River. Eventually the Goths moved to the area between the Don and Danube Rivers, before being forced out in the mid-third century a.d. by the Huns. The traditional accounts of the origins of the Goths by ancient historians like Jordanes, however, are not generally accepted. The origins of the Goths are no longer traced to Scandinavia but rather to Poland, where archeological discoveries place a sophisticated, but nonliterate, culture. It was from there that the Goths moved, after which move they made contact with the Roman Empire. In the third century the Goths had repeated clashes with the empire, winning some and putting the empire, already in serious straits, into even greater jeopardy. Roman emperors gradually turned the tide and nearly destroyed the Goths. In the wake of these defeats, however, tradition holds that a great king emerged, Ostrogotha, in circa 290, who founded the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. Although it is unlikely that Ostrogotha existed, it is at that point that the division of the Goths into two groups occurred.

In the fourth century the two groups, the Tervingi, or Visigoths, and Greuthingi, or Ostrogoths, had more or less come to terms with the empire. By the 370s, however, the relationship between the various Gothic groups and the empire changed as they faced the threat of the Huns. Prior to the arrival of the Huns, King Ermanaric, a member of the Amal clan, had created a substantial kingdom in eastern Europe. He led the struggle against the Huns but was defeated by them, and in 375 he sacrificed himself to the gods in the hopes of saving his people from the Huns. His successor and some of the Goths continued the struggle against the Huns for another year before they were conquered and absorbed by them. From the end of the fourth to the middle of the fifth century, the Greuthingi/Ostrogoths remained part of the Hunnish empire and fought in the armies of the greatest Hun, Attila.

After the death of Attila, however, the fortune and composition of the Ostrogoths underwent a change. Most scholars believe that the Ostrogoths of this period are unrelated to earlier groups identified as Ostrogoths. Whatever the relationship is, in the mid-fifth century under the king Valamir, an Amal, the Ostrogoths emerged from domination by the Huns. Valamir exploited the confused situation in the empire of the Huns after Attila’s death in 453 and the defeat of Attila’s successor at the Battle of Nedao in 454. Although Valamir and his Goths most likely fought with the Huns against other subject peoples, the Ostrogoths emerged as an independent people because of the collapse of the Huns not long after the battle. Valamir then faced other rivals and endured further attacks by the Huns before their ultimate demise; he died in battle against the Gepids in 468/469.

Valamir was succeeded by his brother Thiudimer, who moved his followers into Roman territory, where they became foederati (federated allies) of the empire and came into contact with another group led by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter. The two groups struggled against each other for preeminence and for preference before the emperor. The empire itself, however, underwent important changes during this period. In the 470s a new emperor, Zeno, came to power in Constantinople, and the emperor in Italy was deposed and the imperial line ended by the barbarian Odovacar in 476. These changes among the Ostrogoths and within the empire had an important bearing on the future of the Ostrogothic people.

In 473 Thiudimer died and was succeeded by his son Theodoric the Amal, or later known as the Great, who had been named successor in 471. Prior to his nomination, Theodoric had spent ten years in Constantinople as a hostage of the emperor. During that period Theodoric learned a great deal about the empire and its customs and culture, even though it appears that he did not learn to write. Upon assuming power, he found himself in competition with the other Theodoric, whose followers had revolted against the emperor in 471 and again in 474. The later revolt was part of a palace coup against the new emperor, Zeno, who turned to the Amal for support. In order to ensure that neither group of Ostrogoths or their leaders became too powerful, Zeno also began to negotiate with Theodoric settled a treaty with Theodoric Strabo in 479. The hostilities between the two Theodorics were settled for a time, too, as the two closed ranks against the emperor. In 481, Strabo attacked Constantinople but failed to take it or depose the emperor. Shortly thereafter he was killed when his horse reared and threw him onto a rack of spears. Theodoric the Amal was the beneficiary of his occasional ally and rival’s death. Although Strabo was succeeded by Rechitach, his followers gradually joined with Theodoric the Amal, who had Rechitach murdered in 484.

Theodoric the Amal, or the Great, to give him his more familiar name, was able to create a great Ostrogothic power that quickly threatened the power of Emperor Zeno. The Ostrogothic king continued the struggle with Zeno, which was resolved for a time in 483, with the emperor making great concessions to the king. Indeed, Theodoric was made a Roman citizen, given the title of patrician, and awarded a consulship for the next year. The Ostrogoths were given a grant of land within the empire. But it occurred to Zeno that he could not trust the rising power of Theodoric, and he replaced him as consul, an event followed by renewed hostilities between the Ostrogoths and the empire. Theodoric’s revolt in 485 put further pressure on Zeno, who responded by offering Theodoric the opportunity to lead the assault on Odovacar, the barbarian king in Italy since 476. This assignment, which Theodoric himself had first suggested in 479, was beneficial to both king and emperor and one that Theodoric quickly accepted.

In 488–489 Theodoric led his Ostrogoths, probably numbering some 100,000 people, against Odovacar in Italy. The struggle between the two leaders lasted until 493; it was a hard fought war, with Theodoric winning the battles but unable to take his rival’s capital of Ravenna. Indeed, after losing two battles Odovacar established himself in the capital, from which he ventured out to meet Theodoric on the field of battle. Odovacar’s hand was strengthened by one of his generals, who joined Theodoric but then rejoined Odovacar, slaying the Gothic warriors who were with him. As a result Odovacar was able to take the offensive, but only for a short while, until Theodoric was reinforced by a Visigothic army. In the early 490s Theodoric gradually took control of Italy and forced Odovacar to come to terms. On February 25, 493, the two leaders agreed to terms that were to be celebrated at a great banquet. Theodoric apparently agreed to share power with his rival, but at the banquet he killed Odovacar, and Theodoric’s followers killed the followers of Odovacar in a bloody massacre that ended the war and brought control of Italy to Theodoric.

After his victory, Theodoric was hailed king of Italy, but at first he had to refuse the title in favor of patrician of Italy. The new emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518) refused to recognize the title of king, with its implications of Theodoric’s independence, reminding him that he held power at the discretion of the emperor. Ultimately, however, Theodoric was recognized as king in Constantinople and ruled Italy until his death in 526. His reign was highly beneficial for Italy, and his relationship with the native Roman population was generally good, despite his Arianism and the Romans’ Catholicism. He preserved much of the traditional Roman administration, as had Odovacar, and cooperated with the Senate. He ensured the food supply to Italy and patronized Boethius and Cassiodorus as part of a cultural revival. He was also an active builder throughout Italy, erecting public monuments and churches as well as his famous palace and mausoleum in Ravenna. His activities were not limited to Italy, however, but included an ambitious foreign policy that saw him establish hegemony over the Vandals in Africa and the Visigoths in Spain. In competition with Clovis in northern Europe, Theodosius was able to limit the Merovingian king’s expansion into southern Gaul. Although in name only a king, Theodoric, as contemporaries admitted, ruled as effectively as any emperor.

Theodoric’s later years and the years following his death were marked by increasing turmoil, leading to the eventual fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom. This situation was due in part to changes in the Eastern Empire, as well as to mistakes on his own part. In 518 a new emperor, Justin, assumed the throne and brought an end to a period of doctrinal uncertainty in the empire. He was a Catholic Christian who promoted traditional orthodox teaching, and in 523 he prohibited Arianism in the empire. The support for orthodox teaching and stability in doctrine restored the Italian population’s faith in imperial leadership. Moreover, Theodoric was further challenged in matters of religion by the success of the Catholic Clovis against the Visigoths. His concerns were heightened by an alleged plot involving a number of senators, including his advisor Boethius. He ordered Boethius executed and at the same time imprisoned the pope, who had just returned from an embassy to Constantinople. These actions strained relations with his Roman subjects and darkened an otherwise enlightened reign.

Theodoric’s situation was worsened by his lack of a male heir, and just prior to his death he encouraged his followers to accept his widowed daughter, Amalswintha, as regent for his grandson Athalaric. At first Theodoric’s wishes were accepted, but gradually the Ostrogothic nobility turned against Amalswintha. Although she was praised for her intelligence and courage, the nobility were divided over her guidance of Athalaric and her pro-Roman foreign policy. When Athalaric reached his majority in 533, a number of nobles sought to persuade him to turn on his mother. The rebellion was nearly successful. Amalswintha requested a ship from Emperor Justinian to take her to Constantinople, but ultimately stayed and triumphed over her rivals. She married a cousin, Theodohad, in 534 to stabilize the throne, but her husband failed to remain loyal to her, and Athalaric died that same year. Her arrest and murder, which was inspired, according to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, by Justinian’s wife Theodora out of jealousy, provided the emperor with the pretext for his invasion of Italy.

Justinian’s invasion of Italy, led at first by Belisarius and later Narses, opened the final chapter of the history of the Ostrogoths. The Gothic Wars, which lasted from 534 to 552, were devastating for both Italy and the Ostrogoths. The opening phase of the war saw rapid victories and much success for the invading armies, in part because of the weakness of Theodohad. Belisarius reached Rome in 536, and Theodohad was deposed in favor of Witigis. The rise of Witigis and the arrival of a second Byzantine general, Narses, slowed imperial progress. When Narses was recalled, Belisarius went on the offensive again and may have forced Witigis to take desperate measures, which possibly included Belisarius’s acceptance of the imperial title. Although this remains uncertain, Belisarius was recalled in 540 and took the Ostrogothic king with him. In 541, Witigis was replaced as king by Totila.

Under Totila’s leadership, the Ostrogoths fought back successfully and prolonged the war for another eleven years. Totila was able to win back territory in Italy from Byzantine armies and forced the return of Belisarius in 544. In 545 Totila began a siege of Rome; he occupied it in 546, laying waste to the city in the process. Control of the city swung back and forth between the two sides for the rest of the war, which Belisarius was unable to conclude, despite putting great pressure on his rival, because of inadequate supplies and soldiers. Belisarius was recalled in 548, at his own request, and replaced by Narses two years later. Narses demanded sufficient resources to bring the war to a swift conclusion and got them. In 552 Narses won the Battle of Busta Gallorum, at which Totila was killed and organized Gothic resistance was ended. Although Totila had a successor as king and pockets of Ostrogoths resisted until 562, the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy was crushed by the Byzantine invasion. The Ostrogoths ceased to be an independent people, and the last of the Ostrogoths were probably absorbed by the Lombards during their invasion of Italy in 568.

Bibliography

Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Burns, Thomas. The Ostrogoths: Kingship and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

—. A History of the Ostrogoths. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarians and Romans a. d. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.

Moorhead, John. Theodoric in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Procopius. History of the Wars. Trans H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969-1993.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

—. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

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