As the central institutions of the Roman Empire in the west crumbled and the provinces splintered off and went their own way over the course of the fifth century, new kingdoms popped up to take their place. Today, we tend to identify these new political units with specific barbarian groups: the Visigoths in southwest Gaul, the Franks in northern Gaul, the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, and the Vandals in North Africa.
Italy, the core of the Western Empire, was the last region to come under the control of a barbarian group. Odoacer, the last generalissimo in the west and the commander of a mixed force of barbarians, ruled Italy for 17 years after deposing the hapless Romulus Augustulus in 476. What replaced Odoacer’s regime in Italy was one of the most creative and fascinating of all the barbarian kingdoms, a new state that blended the trappings and self-image of the Roman Empire with a radically new ruling class.
This was the Ostrogothic Kingdom, which came into existence under the leadership of its first and greatest king, Theoderic the Great. The Ostrogoths were recent migrants into the Roman Empire. They had been a part of Attila’s Hunnic Empire beyond the Danube, one of several groups of Goths descended from those who had stayed behind while their cousins—the group that eventually became the Visigoths and sacked Rome—crossed over into Roman territory in 376 and began their epic journey. Out of the smoking ruins of Attila’s empire came the Ostrogoths, one of many new groups coalescing around the charismatic leadership of a king or general.
After three decades of politicking in the Eastern Empire, fighting both for and against the emperor and court, this Theoderic accepted a commission to take his Goths to Italy, where he would replace the increasingly troublesome Odoacer with a new regime more amenable to the Empire. It worked: By 493, Theoderic had personally murdered Odoacer at a banquet—“This man has no bones in his body,” he said, after cutting him in half with his sword—and had begun to construct a new kingdom in Italy.
What Theoderic built, though, wasn’t necessarily a kingdom, and he wasn’t necessarily a king. What’s most intriguing about this new Ostrogothic state was the fact that it presented itself as a continuation of the Western Empire, and Theoderic as its emperor. It was something radically new—a barbarian kingdom led by a general whose father had served Attila the Hun—cloaked in the language and political concepts of the past.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. I always wished that more professional historians tried to talk to the general public, so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
This week’s episode focuses on Theoderic and the new regime he built, one that built on the legacy of the Roman Empire in the west with a sophisticated propaganda campaign designed to integrate his Gothic army with the Roman populace in Italy. For more than 30 years, Theoderic was remarkably successful. After his death, though, things changed, and 20 years of war left Italy a smoking ruin in the hands of the newly resurgent Eastern Empire.
If that sounds interesting to you, give this episode a listen.
Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths
Peter Heather, The Goths
Jonathan Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration
M. Shane Bjornlie, Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae 527-554