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THE DARK AGES
Copyright © Charles Oman
The Dark Ages
Arcadia Press 2017
In the summer of 477 CE a band of ambassadors, who claimed to speak the will of the decayed body which still called itself the Roman senate, appeared before the judgment- seat of the emperor Zeno, the ruler of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire. They came to announce to him that the army of the West had slain the patrician Orestes, and deposed from his throne the son of Orestes, the boy-emperor Romulus. But they did not then proceed to inform Zeno that another Caesar had been duly elected to replace their late sovereign. Embassies with such news had been common of late years, but this particular deputation, unlike any other which had yet visited the Bosphorus, came to announce to the Eastern emperor that his own mighty name sufficed for the protection of both East and West. They laid at his feet the diadem and purple robe of Romulus, and professed to transfer their homage and loyalty to his august person. Then, as if by way of supplement and addendum, they informed Zeno that they had chosen Flavius Odoacer for their governor, and trusted that their august master would deign to ratify the choice, and confer on Odoacer the title of Patrician.
It has often been repeated of late years that this date, 476 CE, does not form a very notable landmark in the history of the world, that its sole event was the transfer of the nominal supremacy of the Western World from a powerless Caesar who lived at Ravenna to a powerless Caesar who lived at Constantinople. We are reminded that the patrician Odoacer and the deputies of the Roman Senate assured the Eastern Emperor not that they had cast off allegiance to the imperial name, but that Italy no longer needed a separate Augustus, and that a single ruler might once more rule East and West, as in the days of Constantine and Theodosius. And if the representatives of the western realm then proceeded to recommend Zeno to appoint as his vice-regent among them ‘Odoacer, a mighty man of war, and a person well skilled in political matters, whom they had selected to defend their interests,' they were, in truth, making no new or startling proposition; for similar embassies had often arrived at Constantinople to announce, not the choice of a mere patrician, but the election of an independent emperor.
In a purely formal way all this is true enough, and we must concede that the permanent establishment of a Teutonic ruler in Italy as only another instance of what had already occurred in Spain and Africa. As yet nobody in either of the three countries had asserted that the Roman Empire had died out and been replaced for all purposes by a Teutonic Kingship. Documents were still dated and coins still struck with the name of a Roman Emperor upon them alike in Spain, Africa, and Italy. After 476 the subjects of the Visigoth Euric, no less than those of the Scyrrian Odoacer, proceeded to grave a rude portrait of Zeno on their moneys, just as they had done a few years earlier with a rude portrait of Valentinian. What mattered it to them that the one dwelt east of the Adriatic and the other west?
But if the historians of the last century were too neglectful of the constitutional and theoretical aspect of affairs, when they bluntly asserted that the Roman Empire ceased in the West in 476, there is a danger that our own generation may become too much imbued with the formal aspect of things, and too little conscious of the real change which took place in that obscure year. The disappearance of the Roman Empire of the West was, in truth, a long process, which began as early as 411 when Britain, first of all the Occidental ‘dioceses’, was abandoned to the barbarian, and did not, perhaps, end till Francis of Austria laid down the title of Emperor in the year 1806. Yet if we must choose a point at which, rather than at any other, we are to put the breach between the old and the new, if we must select any year as the dividing-line between ancient history and the Middle Ages, it is impossible to choose a better date than 476.
Down to the day on which Flavins Odoacer deposed Augustulus there was always at Rome or Ravenna a prince who represented in clear heritage the imperial succession that descended from Octavian and Trajan and Constantine. His crown might be fragile, his life in constant danger; his word might be less powerful in Italy than that of some barbarian Ricimer or Gundobad who stood behind the throne. Nevertheless, he was brought into real contact with his subjects, and was a visible, tangible personage whose will and character still made some difference in the governance of the state.
The weakest Glycerius or Olybrius never sank into being a mere puppet, like an eighth century King of the Franks, or a seventeenth century Mikado. Moreover, there was till the last a possibility, even, perchance, a probability, that there would arise some strong emperor who would free himself from the power of his German prime minister. Majorian nearly succeeded in doing so; and the stories of the falls of the Goths, Gainas and Aspar, in the East show that such an attempt was not a hopeless undertaking.
But when Odoacer seized the throne from the boy Augustulus, and became with the consent, if not the good-will, of the Constantinopolitan Caesar, the sole representative in the West of the imperial system, a very grave change took place in the status of the empire. Flavins Odoacer was something far more than a patrician ruling as the representative of an absentee emperor. He was not only the successor of Ricimer, but the predecessor of Theodoric and Alboin. For, besides being a Roman official, he was a German King, raised on the shield and hailed as ‘Thiudans’ by the whole Teutonic horde who now represented the old legions of the West. If he never took the title of ‘King of Italy,’ it was because territorial appellations of the kind were not yet known. Euric and Gaiseric, his contemporaries, called themselves Kings of the Visigoths and Vandals, not of Spain and Africa. And so Odoacer being King of a land and an array, but not of a nation, may have been somewhat at a loss how to set forth his royal appellation. He would not have deigned to call himself ‘King of the Italians’; to call himself King of the Scyrri or Turcilingi, or any other of the tribes who furnished part of his host, would have been to assume an inadequate name. Puzzled contemporary chroniclers sometimes called him King of the Goths, though he himself never used such a title.
Still he was a King, and a King with a settled territory and an organized host; not a migratory invader of Italy, as Alaric had been, but a permanent ruler of the land. In this way he was undoubtedly the forerunner of the Ostrogoths and Lombards who took his place, and, though the title would have sounded strange in his own ears, we may fairly style him King of Italy, as we so style Theodoric, or Berengar, or Victor Emmanuel. For it was the will of Odoacer that was obeyed in the land, and not the will of his titular superior at Constantinople. It was Odoacer who appointed taxes and chose officials, and interfered in the election of bishops of Rome, and declared war on the Rugians or the Vandals. In the few documents of his time that have survived, the name of Zeno is seldom mentioned, and in signing grants he styles himself Odovacar Rex, and not Odovacar Patricius, as strict Roman usage should have prescribed. Similarly, an Italian official acknowledges his regia largitas, not his patricia magnitudo. It is, then, in every way correct, as well as convenient, to style him the first German King of Italy, and to treat his reign as the commencement of a new era. If we hesitate to do this, we are logically bound to refuse to recognize the Visigothic or Frankish Kings in Spain and Gaul as independent sovereigns till the middle of the sixth century, and to protract the Roman Empire of the West till Leovigild and Theudebert formally disclaimed the imperial supremacy (540-70).
In the year 476 the greater parts of the lands which had formerly composed the Roman Empire of the West had taken new forms in the shape of six large Teutonic Kingdoms. Italy and Noricum formed the Kingdom of Odoacer; North Africa the dominions of the Vandal Gaiseric. The Visigothic realm of Euric extended from the Loire to the Straits of Gibraltar. King Gundobad the Burgundian occupied the valleys of the Rhone and Saone, as far as their extreme head-waters. The Princes of the Franks reigned on the Meuse, Moselle, and lower Rhine. Last and smallest of the six Teutonic States was the Kingdom of the Suevi in what would now be called north Portugal and Galicia. Interspersed among these German Kingdoms were three or four remnants of the old Roman Empire, which had not yet been submerged by the rising flood of Teutonism, though they were destined to disappear beneath its surface. The province of Britain had become a group of small states of unhappy Celtic Kingdoms, on whose borders the Angle and Saxon had not yet made any appreciable encroachment. Armorica, the modern Brittany, was also a rough confederacy of Celtic states. The Seine valley and the middle Loire formed a Romano-Gallic Kingdom under Syagrius, the last governor who had acknowledged the supremacy of the empire beyond the Alps. The Cantabrians and Basques in their hills above the Bay of Biscay had preserved their independence against the Visigoths, just as their ancestors, five centuries before, had held out against the Roman conquerors of Spain. Lastly, there was still a fragment of territory on the Adriatic which claimed to represent the legitimate Empire of the West. The emperor Julius Nepos, when driven from Rome and Ravenna, had fled to Dalmatia, where he contrived to keep together a small Kingdom around his capital of Salona. Of these five scattered remnants of territory which had not yet fallen into the hands of the Germans, there were two, the Kingdoms of Syagrius and Nepos, which were doomed to a speedy fall; for the other three a longer and more checkered career was reserved.
Around the solid block of land, which had once formed the Western Empire, were lying a ring of German tribes, who had worked forward from the North and East into the deserted dwellings of the races who had already passed on within the Roman border. The Frisians lay about the mouths of the Waal and Lech, north of the land lately won by the Franks.
The Alamanni, a confederacy of Suevian tribes, had possession of the valleys of the Main and Neckar, the Black Forest, and the banks of the upper Danube. East of them again lay the Thuringians and Rugians, in the lands which we should now call northern Bavaria and Bohemia. Beyond them came the Lombards in Moravia and northern Hungary, and the Herules and Gepidae on the middle Danube and the Theiss. All these tribes, like their brethren who had gone before them, were showing a general tendency to press West and South, and take their share in the plunder of the dismembered Empire.
The history of the Teutonic Kingdoms of the later fifth and earlier sixth century falls into two distinct halves. The tale of the doings of Frank, Visigoth, Burgundian, and Suevian in the West forms one. Very slightly connected with it do we find the other, the story of the doings of Odoacer in Italy, and of the Vandal Kings in Africa, whose connections and interests are far more with the Eastern Empire than with the Transalpine Kingdoms. It is with these two states that we shall first have to deal – leaving the discussion of the affairs of the Teutons of Gaul and Spain for another chapter.
Gaiseric, or Genseric as the Romans sometimes called him, first of the Vandal Kings of Africa, was still reigning at Carthage in the year when Odoacer became ruler of Italy. For forty-eight years did this first of the Teutonic sea-Kings bear sway in the land which he had won, and hold the naval supremacy in the central Mediterranean. The creation of the Vandal Kingdom had been one of the most extraordinary feats of the time of the great migrations, and must be attributed entirely to the personal energy of their King. His tribe was one of the least numerous of the many wandering hordes which had trespassed within the bounds of the empire, no more than 80,000 souls, men, women, and children all counted, when they first invaded Vandal Africa. That such a small army should have in Africa, overrun a province a thousand miles long, and should have become the terror of the whole seaboard of the Western Empire was the triumph of Gaiseric's ability. He was not one of the stalwart, hard-fighting, brainless chiefs who were generally to be found at the head of a German horde, but a man of very moderate stature, limping all through his life from a kick that he got from a horse in early youth. His mental powers alone made him formidable, for he was not only a general of note, but a wily politician, faithless not with the light and heady fickleness of a savage, but with the deliberate and malicious treachery of a professional intriguer. He was one of those not uncommon instances of a Teuton, who, when brought into contact with the empire, picked up all the vices of its decaying civilisation without losing those of his original barbarism. It is not without some reason that the doings of Gaiseric have left their mark on the history of language in the shape of the modern word ' Vandalism.' The sufferings of Italy and Africa at his hands were felt more deeply than the woes they had endured at the hands of other invaders, because of the treachery and malice which inspired them. Compared with Gaiseric, Alaric the Goth seemed a model of knightly courtesy, and Attila the Hun a straightforward, if a brutal, enemy. The Vandal King's special foibles were the conclusion of treaties and armistices which he did not intend to keep, and a large piratical disregard for the need of any pretext or justification for his raids, save indeed the single plea that the city or district that he attacked was at that particular moment not in a good position to defend itself.
From his contact with the empire, Gaiseric had picked up the characteristics of the two most odious types of the day – the tax-collector and the persecuting ecclesiastical bigot. There was more systematic financial oppression in Africa than in any of the other new Germanic Kingdoms, and far more spiteful persecution of religious enemies.
The system on which the Vandal organized his realm was not the comparatively merciful 'thirding of the land' that Odoacer and Theodoric introduced into Italy. He confiscated all the large estates of the great African landowners, and turned them into royal domains, worked by his bailiffs. Of the smaller estates, tilled by the provincials who owned them, he made two parts; those in the province of Africa proper and the best of those beyond it, were appropriated and made into Vandal military fiefs for his Teutonic followers. These sortes Vandalorum, as they were called, were hereditary and free from all manner of taxation. The royal revenue was raised entirely from those of the poorer and more remote provincial proprietors, who had not been expropriated, and from them Gaiseric, by pitiless taxation, drew a very large revenue.
But it was for his persecution, far more than his fiscal oppression, that Gaiseric was hated. The Vandals, like most of the other Teutons, had embraced Arianism when they were converted, and Gaiseric – evil as he was – had set his mind on forcing his subjects to conform to the religion of their masters. He confiscated all the Catholic churches in Africa, and either handed them over to the Arians or destroyed them. He forbade the consecration of new Catholic bishops, and banished or imprisoned all whom he found already existing in his dominions. Occasionally he put to death, and frequently he imprisoned or sold as slaves, prominent supporters of the orthodox faith. If martyrdoms were few, 'Dragonnades ' were many, and, by their systematic cruelty, the Vandal King and people have gained for themselves an ill name for ever in the pages of history.
Their hateful oppression of the provincials made the Vandals' power in Africa very precarious. They were far too few for the mighty land they had conquered, even when Gaiseric had attracted adventurers of all sorts to his banner, and had even enlisted the savage Moors of Atlas to serve on his fleet. The fanatical Africans, the race who had produced the turbulent Donatist sectaries and the wild Circumcelliones, were not likely to submit with meekness to their new masters. They only waited for a deliverer in order to rise against the Vandals, and twice, during the reign of Gaiseric, it seemed as if the deliverer were at hand. On each occasion, the Vandal snatched a success by his cunning and promptitude, when all the probabilities of success were against him.
In 460, the Emperor Majorian had collected a fleet of overwhelming strength at Carthagena, and was already gathering the army that was to be conveyed in it. But warned and helped by traitors, Gaiseric came down on the ships before they were manned or equipped, and carried off or burnt them all. In 468, Emperors of East and West, Leo and Anthemius, had joined their forces to crush the nest of pirates at Carthage. They actually sent to Africa an army that is said to have amounted to nearly 100,000 men, and overran the whole country from Tripoli to the gates of Carthage. In the hour of danger Gaiseric's courage and treachery were both conspicuous.
After deluding the imbecile Roman general Basiliscus, by asking and gaining a five days’ truce for settling terms of submission, he sent fire-ships by night against the hostile fleet, and, while the Roman troops were endeavoring to save their vessels, attacked their unguarded camp. After suffering a defeat, the coward Basiliscus drew off his armament, and the Vandal, saved as by a miracle, could breathe again.
The last ten years of Gaiseric's reign were filled with countless pirate raids on Italy and Sicily, unopposed by the five puppet-emperors who ruled at Rome and Ravenna in those evil days. Gaiseric survived the fall of Romulus Augustulus just long enough to enable him to make a treaty with Odoacer. By this agreement the Vandal, always more greedy for money than for land, gave up his not inconsiderable conquests in Sicily in return for an annual payment from the newly-enthroned King of Italy.
Gaiseric died in 477, and with him the greatness of the Vandals, though their Kingdom was to endure fifty years more. He left behind him a fine fleet and a full treasury, and a palace resplendent with the spoils taken at the great sack of Rome in 455. But the dominion of his handful of Vandal followers in Africa was still as precarious as ever; their one security had been the cunning and courage of their aged King, and when he was gone there was no defense left to prevent the Vandal dominion from falling, the moment that it should be attacked. Dreading rebellion among the provincials, Gaiseric had dismantled the walls and gates of every African town save Carthage. One battle lost would place the whole country-side in the hands of an assailant, and at no very distant day the assailant was to come, to avenge the sufferings of three unhappy generations of the oppressed subjects of the Vandals.
Gaiseric was succeeded by his son, Hunneric, a man already Hunneric, advanced in years, who was, like his father, an Arian and a bitter persecutor. He was married to Eudocia, the daughter of the emperor Valentinian III, a prisoner of the sack of Rome in 455. But his wife did not much influence him; he drew from her no tincture of Roman civilization, nor did her persistent orthodoxy wean him from his Arianism. After living with him for sixteen unhappy years and bearing him two sons, she at last contrived to escape secretly from Carthage, fled to Jerusalem, and died there enjoying once more the Catholic communion of which she had been so long deprived.
Hunneric was a tyrant of the worst type. His dealings with his family are a sufficient proof of his character. Gaiseric, to avoid the danger of a minority – a contingency which would have been fatal to his precarious monarchy – had prescribed that each Vandal King should be succeeded, not by his next-of- kin, but by his eldest relative. Such successions were very usual among the Teutonic tribes, though they had never before been formally made into a rule.
Now Hunneric had a grown-up son, Hildecat, whom he destined for his successor; but the prince was, of course, younger than the King's own brothers. Instead of cancelling his father's law, Hunneric set to work to exterminate his brothers, and slew them with all their children, save two youths, the sons of his next brother, Genzo, who saved themselves by timely flight.
During the seven years of his reign (477-484) Hunneric waged no wars; his fleet could no longer prey on the dying carcass of the Western Empire. The two formidable Kingdoms of the Visigoth Euric and the Scyrrian Odoacer could not be ravaged like the realm of a Maximus or a Glycerins. They were left alone, while the energies of Hunneric were devoted to persecution of the Catholics in his own realm. The orthodox declared that he from first to last caused the death of 40,000 persons, a hyperbolical exaggeration which half causes us to doubt the reality of what was in truth a very cruel and severe persecution. Hunneric delighted more in mutilation of hands and eyes and tongues than in death given by the sword and the rope, but there is no doubt that, in a considerable number of cases, he punished Catholics with the extreme penalty.
While Hunneric was thus employed it is not strange to hear that he was vexed by rebellions. The Moors of Mount Atlas rose against him, and, by no means to the grief of the Latin speaking provincials, encroached on the Southern border of the Vandal Kingdom, and pushed their incursions as far as the Mons Aurasius in Numidia. While preparing to attack them the King died, smitten, if the Catholic chroniclers are to be believed, by the same horrid disease which made an end of Herod Agrippa. His eldest and only grown-up son, Hildecat, had died before him, and the Vandals at once placed on the throne Gunthamund, the eldest of his two surviving nephews, a prince who showed great forbearance, when the circumstances are considered, in imprisoning instead of murdering Hunneric's two younger children.
While we turn from the Vandal Kingdom in Africa to the dominions of Odoacer in Italy, we are struck at once by the internal contrast between the methods of government employed in the two countries. While Gaiseric and Hunneric ruled as mere barbarians, and cast away all the ancient Roman machinery of administration, King Odoacer kept up the whole system as he found it. He appointed praetorian prefects and magisiri militum and counts of the sacred largesses, just as the Emperors before him had done. The senate still sat at Rome and passed otiose decrees, the consuls still gave their names to the year. But his great scheme of expropriation, by which one-third of the land of each of the richer proprietors of Italy was confiscated for the benefit of his mercenary troops, must have caused much trouble and heart-burning. It is curious that we find so little complaint made about it in the historians of the time. Probably Odoacer's wisdom in letting the smaller proprietors alone has preserved his name from the abuse which still clings to the reputations of many of the Teutonic conquerors of the empire.
On the whole the provincials of Italy must have felt comparatively little change, when they began to be governed by a barbarian King, instead of by a barbarian patrician, such as Ricimer or Gundobad had been. Odoacer appears to have been one of those wise men who can let well alone. Though an Arian himself, he refrained from all religious persecution; and, if he firmly asserted his right to confirm the election of bishops of Rome, we do not find that he ever forced his own nominees on the clergy and people. Indeed, he was noted as a repressor of the alienation of church lands and of simony.
Odoacer's foreign policy seems to have been limited in its scope to the design of keeping together the old 'Diocese of Italy,' that is, the peninsula with its mainland appendages of Noricum and north Illyria. He ceded to the Visigoth Euric the coastland of Provence, which he had found still in Roman hands, and made no attempt to establish relations with the Romano-Gallic governor Syagrius, who held Mid-Gaul, pressed in between Visigoth and Frank. On the other hand, he pursued a firm policy on his north-east frontier. When Julius Nepos was murdered by rebels in 480, Odoacer at once invaded and subdued the Dalmatian Kingdom, which the ex-emperor had till the last contrived to retain. Further north, in Noricum, the Rugians had for many years been molesting the Roman provincials and pushing across the Danube. Odoacer sent against them his brother Hunwulf, who drove them back over the river, and took prisoner Feva their King. But, when freed for a moment from their Rugian oppressors, the Roman provincials took the opportunity, not of repairing their ruined cities, but of migrating en masse to Italy. Protected by the army of Noricum Hunwulf, the whole population of Noricum, bearing all their goods and chattels, their treasures, and even the exhumed bodies of their saints, poured southward over the Alps, and obtained from Odoacer a settlement on the waste lands of Italy, which the Vandals had ruined. Only in the Rhaetian valleys did some remnants of the Latin-speaking population linger behind. Hence it comes that south Bavaria and archducal Austria are not at this day speaking Roumansh, like the Engadine, but the German tongue of the Rugians and Herules who passed into the deserted province of Noricum, when it was abandoned a few years later by the armies of Odoacer.
For thirteen years, 476-489, the Scyrrian King bore rule over Italy, Noricum, and Dalmatia with very considerable success. As the years rolled on without any disaster, with the army in good temper, and the Italians fairly content at being at last freed from Vandal and Gothic raids, Odoacer must have begun to believe that he had established a Kingdom as well founded as those of his Burgundian or Visigothic neighbors. But there was one fatal weakness in his position: he depended not on the loyalty of a single compact tribe, but on the fidelity of a purely mercenary army, made up of the remnants of a dozen broken Teutonic clans, which looked upon him as a general and a paymaster, and not as a legitimate hereditary prince, descended from the gods and heroes.
The regiments of Foederati, who had proclaimed him King, were in no sense a nation; it would have taken many generations to weld them into one, and the fabric of the new Kingdom was to be tried by the roughest of shocks before it was even half a generation old.
In 489 there came against Odoacer from the Danube and the Illyrian Alps, Theodoric, son of Theodemir, the King of the Ostrogoths, with all the people of his race behind him – a vast host with their wives and children, their slaves and their cattle, blocking all the mountain-passes of the north-east with the twenty thousand ox-wagons that bore their worldly goods.
Theodoric, the King of that half of the Gothic race which had lingered behind in the Balkan peninsula, when Alaric led the other half westward, was just at the end of a long series of rebellions and ravages by which he had reduced Thrace and Moesia to a condition even more miserable than that in which they had been left by the hordes of Attila. Having failed, like all his forerunners, to take Constantinople, and having concluded his fourth peace with the emperor Zeno, he found himself left with a half-starved army in a land which had been harried quite bare. He had tried his best to reduce the Eastern empire to the condition to which Ricimer had brought the Western, but the impregnable walls of Constantinople had foiled him. Young, capable, and ambitious, he was yearning for new and more profitable fields to conquer; while, at the same time, the emperor of the East was casting about for all possible means to get the Goths as far away from his gates as could be managed. Both Zeno and Theodoric had their reasons for wishing ill to Odoacer: the emperor believed him to have fostered or favored a late rebellion in Asia which had shaken his throne; the Ostrogothic King was being stirred up by Rugian exiles who had fled before the conquering arm of the King of Italy.
Neither party then needed much persuasion when a scheme was broached for an invasion of Odoacer's realm by the Ostrogoths. Zeno, taking the formal ground that, by the admission of Odoacer and the Italians, he was emperor as well of West as of East, proceeded to decree the deposition of the patrician who now ruled at Rome, and his supersession by a new patrician, the King of the Ostrogoths. Theodoric, in return for his investiture with his new title, and the grant of the dominion of Italy, made a loosely-worded promise to hold his future conquests as the emperor's representative. How far such homage would extend neither party much cared; the emperor only wanted to get rid of the King of the Goths; the King of the Goths knew that once master of Italy he could pay the emperor just as much or as little deference as he might choose.
In the autumn of 488 Theodoric called together the whole Ostrogothic people to a camp on the middle Danube, and bade them prepare for instant migration. The inclement season of the year that he chose for this march seems to have been dictated by fear of famine, for the war had so ravaged Moesia that the Goths had not provisions enough to last till next spring. So, in the October of 488, the Ostrogoths, a great multitude of 200,000 or 300,000 souls, followed the Roman road along the Danube, crossed at Singidunum and set out to march across Pannonia. But they soon met with opposition; Traustila, King of the Gepidae, who now occupied both banks of the mid-Danube, came out against them with his host to prevent them from passing through his land. Theodoric defeated him, but found such difficulty in pressing on through the hostile country that he had to winter on the Save, supporting all his host on the plunder of the farms of Gepidac. In the spring of 489 he moved on, invades Italy, and pressing through the passes of the Julian Alps, without meeting any opposition from the troops of the King of Italy, came out at last to the spot where the gorge of Schonpass leads down into the plain of Venetia.
Here, on the banks of the Isonzo, Odoacer was waiting for him with all his host of Foederati, and there was a mighty battle. The result was not doubtful; the Ostrogoths, a single people, fighting for their wives and families, who lay behind them in the crowded pass, led by their hereditary King, the heaven-born Amal, and knowing that defeat meant destruction, were too desperately fierce to be stopped by the mixed multitude of mercenaries that followed Odoacer. The King of Italy was routed, his camp stormed, his army scattered.
It was only beneath the walls of Verona that he could rally it for a second stand. Just a month after the battle of the Isonzo, Theodoric appeared again in front of his enemy, and again won a prompt victory. Here perished most of the old regiments of Foederati that had been wont to defend Italy, for Odoacer had fought with the rapid Adige behind him, and the greater part of his army was rolled back into the fierce stream.
Abandoning north Italy Odoacer now fell back on the marsh-girt fortress of Ravenna, which had baffled so many invaders of the peninsula. Theodoric meanwhile pressed forward and occupied Milan and all the valley of the Po; his triumph was apparently made complete by the surrender of Tufa, the magister militum [master of the soldiers]of Odoacer's host, who submitted to the Ostrogoth with the wreck of the Italian army.
But the war was destined to endure for three years more: Ravenna was impregnable and Theodoric was thrice diverted from its siege by disturbances from outside. First Tufa, with the remnant of the Foederati, broke faith and rejoined his old master Odoacer. Then, in the next year, Gundobad, King of the Burgundians, came over the Alps and had to be turned back. Last Frederic, King of the Rugians, the first of the many Frederics of German history, took arms in favor of Odoacer, though Theodoric had sheltered him three years before, when he had fled from the armies of the King of Italy. It was not till July 491 that Odoacer was for the last time driven back within the shelter of Ravenna, the marshes of Ravenna. For twenty months more he maintained himself within its impregnable walls, till sheer famine drove him to ask for peace in February 493.
Theodoric proffered his vanquished enemy far better terms than he could have expected – that he should retain his Kingly title and a share in the rule of Italy. But, when Odoacer had laid down his arms and came to his conqueror's camp, he was treacherously slain at a banquet, only ten days after Ravenna fell. This was almost the only base and mean crime in Theodoric's long and otherwise glorious career: his whole conduct at the time of the surrender seems to prove that he deliberately lured his rival to visit him, with the fixed intention of putting him to death.
So died Odoacer in the sixtieth year of his age; seventeen years after he had slain Orestes, he met the same fate that he had inflicted on his predecessor.
From the formal and constitutional point of view the substitution of King Theodoric for King Odoacer, as ruler in Italy, made no change in the position of affairs. From the practical point of view the change was important, for the new Teutonic Kingdom was very much stronger than the old. Its ruler was a younger and a far abler man, the wisest and most far-sighted of all the Germans of the fifth and sixth centuries. Moreover, the military power of the Ostrogoths was far greater than that of the mixed multitude of Foederati who had followed Odoacer. They were a numerous tribe, confident of their own valor after a century of successful war, and devotedly attached to the King, who, for the last twenty years, had never failed to lead them to victory. While they preserved their ancient courage, they had acquired, by a stay of three generations within the bounds of the empire, a higher level of civilization than any other of the Teutonic tribes. Their dress, their armor, their manner of life, showed traces of their intercourse with Rome; they had been Christians for a century, and had forgotten many of the old heathen and barbarous customs of their ancestors.
They possessed, too, first of all Teutonic peoples, the germ of a written literature in the famous Gothic Bible of Ulfilas. There are documents surviving, written in the character which Ulfilas had devised for his people, which show that there were Gothic clergy and even laymen who could commit their contracts to paper in their own tongue. Theodoric himself never learnt to write, but there must have been many among his subjects who could do so. Though the King actually discouraged the Goths from giving themselves up to book-learnings, yet in the generation which followed him there were Goths skilled both in Roman and Greek literature, some even who called themselves philosophers and claimed to follow Plato.
Of all the German nations it seemed that the Ostrogoths were the most suited to form the nucleus for a new Kingdom, which should grow up a young and strong yet civilized state on the ruins of the Roman empire. And if any one man could have brought such a consummation to pass, Theodoric was certainly the most fitted for the task. Ten years spent as a hostage at Constantinople had shown him the strong and the weak points in the Roman system of administration; twenty years spent in the field at the head of his tribes had won him an experience in war, both with Roman and barbarian, that made him unequalled as a general. Italian statesmen found him a master-mind who could comprehend all difficulties of the administration of an empire. Gothic warriors looked up to him not only as the most skillful marshaller of a host, but also as the stoutest lance in his own army. Alike when he smote the Gepidae by the Danube, and when he drove the Foederati of Odoacer into the Adige, the King had himself headed the final and decisive charge that broke the shield-wall of the enemy. But Theodoric was even more than a great statesman and warrior: he was a man of wide mind and deep thought. His practical wisdom took shape in numerous proverbs which his subjects long treasured. And, in spite of one or two deep stains on his character, we may say that his brain was inspired by a sound and righteous heart. The essential justice and fairness of his mind shines out in his official correspondence, even when enveloped in the obscure and grandiloquent verbiage of his secretary Cassiodorus. Among all the Teutonic Kings he was the one who set himself to curb the violence of the Goth, no less than the chicanery of the Roman, and taught both that he was no respecter of persons, but a judge set upon the throne to deal out even-handed justice. Alone among all rulers, Roman or German, in his day, he was a believer without tending in the least to become a persecutor. No monarch for a thousand years to come could have been found to echo Theodoric's magnificent declaration that ‘religion is a thing which the King cannot command, because no man can be compelled to believe against his will.’
Though an Arian himself he employed Catholics, Gothic and Roman, as freely Theodoric's as those of his own sect. Even the Jews got religious strict justice from him, when every other state in the world dealt hardly with them. The abuse which he won from fanatical Christians for resenting the mobbing of a Rabbi, or the profanation of a synagogue, is one of the highest testimonies in his praise. 'The benefits of justice,' he said, 'must not be denied even to those who err from the faith.' Yet he was not, as were some others who tolerated Jews, a semi-pagan or an agnostic; the very prescripts which grant temporal justice to the oppressed Hebrews end with an appeal to them to leave their hard-heartedness and flee from the wrath to come.
In managing the settlement of his victorious tribesmen on the soil of Italy, Theodoric showed much ability. The third of the land, which Odoacer had confiscated seventeen years before, seems to have sufficed for their establishment. The greater part of the Foederati who had been holding this third, had fallen in battle, and those who escaped the Gothic sword seem mostly to have perished in a simultaneous outbreak of riot and murder, by which the Italians celebrated the downfall of Odoacer, when they heard that he had finally been defeated. Hence Theodoric was able to provide for his countrymen without further spoliation of the native proprietors. He threatened indeed for a moment to deprive of their lands and rights those Italians who adhered too long to Odoacer, but better counsel prevailed, and even those men were spared.
So the Goths settled down with little friction among their new subjects: they lay thickly along the valley of the Po, and in Picenum, more sparsely scattered in Tuscany and central Italy; into the south few seem to have penetrated. Nearly all settled down to farm the country-side; only in the royal towns of Ravenna, Pavia, and Verona did the Goths become an appreciable element in the urban population.
Theodoric's plan for dealing with the government of conquered Italy deserves careful study. He did not abolish the remains of the Roman administrative system which he found still existing, nor did he, on the other hand, endeavor to subject the Goths to Roman law. He was content that, for a time, two systems of administration should go on side by side.
The Goths were to be ruled and judged by his 'counts,' the Gothic governors whom he set over each Italian province according to the traditional folk-right of their tribe. The Romans looked for justice to magistrates of their own race. If a Goth and a Roman went to law, the case was heard before the count and the Italian judge, sitting together on the same bench.
In the central administration the same mixture of systems was seen. Theodoric's court was like that of another German King in many ways; he had about him his personal retinue of military retainers, the King's men, whom the Goths called by the name of Saiones, but whom, in writing our own English history we should call thegns or gesiths. The Saiones went on the King's errands, served him in bower and hall, and acted as his bodyguard on the battlefield. Above their rank and file rose two or three more prominent followers who seem to represent the great officers of the central household of the later Middle Ages; such were Government, the chamberlain, regiae praepositus domus, and the great captains who in Roman usage were styled magistri militum and the King's high-butler and steward.
But beside his Teutonic court – 'the hounds of the royal hall,' as Boethius called them –Theodoric kept up a full establishment of Roman officials, bearing the old titles that had been used under the empire praetorian prefects, masters of the offices, quaestors, and notaries. He showed great skill and discretion in choosing the most honest among his Italian subjects for these posts, so that his courtiers never became an oppressive official clique, as had habitually been the case under the later emperors. He even chose as his praetorian praefect Liberius, who had adhered to Odoacer to the last, and told him that he esteemed him all the more for his fidelity to his first master.
The best men in Italy were undoubtedly set to administer the central government; but it was Theodoric's misfortune that the better the man the more likely he was to indulge in vain dreams of old Roman glory, and to resent in his heart the wise rule of the Ostrogoth. Boethius, the last of the Romans as he may be called, served Theodoric all his life without learning true loyalty to him.
We have not space to notice half of Theodoric's reforms in the administration of Italy. Most wise among them was the careful restoration of the old roads, aqueducts, and drainage canals, which had been the glory of the early empire. He was himself a great builder, and erected royal palaces at Verona and Ravenna, of which only the smallest fragments survive. But he spent even greater care in keeping up ancient edifices. In Rome he set apart every year two hundred pounds in gold pieces for the repair of palaces and public buildings. He took under his protection even statues and monuments, and added representations of himself to the crowd of effigies which adorned Rome.
So thoroughly did he put himself in the place of the Caesars that he even took care to celebrate games in the circus, and harangued the Theodoric assembled people in the Forum. He attended in Rome and took part in the debates of the Senate, and endeavored to strengthen it by the appointment of a few Gothic senators. If he showed some unwisdom in arranging for the resumption of the bread-dole, which had been such a curse to Rome, he atoned for it by a liberal scheme for the rearrangement of taxes, which at once relieved the people and filled the treasury. At his death the royal hoard at Ravenna amounted to no less than 40,000 pounds weight of gold.
Theodoric's wise administration at home was accompanied by an equally firm and able foreign policy. His first care was to establish friendly relations with the Eastern Empire. Even before Odoacer had met his death, he dispatched an embassy to report to Zeno that he had carried out his commission of conquering Italy, and claimed an imperial confirmation of his title. But the embassy found Zeno just dead, and his successor, Anastasius, engrossed in the suppression of riots and rebellions. It was not till 497 that the emperor recognized the King of the Goths as ruler in Italy. Then, however, Anastasius made up for his tardy recognition by sending to Theodoric the regalia which Odoacer had forwarded to Zeno twenty years before, the robes and palace ornaments, which had last been used by the boy Romulus Augustulus.
During the thirty-three years of the Amal's reign in Italy he had only one dispute with the emperor: this was a frontier quarrel in 505, caused by troubles in Illyricum. Theodoric had taken in hand the restoration of the bounds of the Western Empire towards the East, and his generals, having subdued Pannonia as far as Sirmium and Singidunum, trespassed on to Moesian soil, and came into contact with the Eastern Roman armies. There was some trouble for three years, but no great war, though in 508 two of Anastasius' generals made a destructive raid on Apulia. But peace was ultimately made on the terms that the boundary should be drawn, as in the days of the Western Empire, at the Save and Danube.
Much more important were Theodoric's dealings with his neighbors to west and north. He took over the task of Odoacer in guarding the old Roman districts beyond the Alps, which had once composed the provinces of Rhaetia and Noricum. Both were now becoming Teutonic rather than Latin-speaking lands. Into Rhaetia had fled many of the Alamanni, or Suabians, when Clovis I the Frank in 496 drove them out of their lands on the Main and Neckar. This people gladly acknowledged Theodoric as over-lord, in return for his protection against the pursuing Franks, whom the Ostrogoth bade halt at the line of the upper Rhine, between Basel and Constanz. Farther east, in Noricum, the place of the emigrant Roman provincials had now been taken by a mixed Teutonic population, the remnant of the broken clans of the Rugians, Scyrri, and Turcilingi, who were just beginning to call themselves by the common name of Bavarians, under which we know them so well a few years later. They, too, like the Alamanni, were glad to acknowledge Theodoric as suzerain, and pay him tribute.
To the west, Theodoric at his accession found his Kingdom bounded by the Alps, for Odoacer had given up to the Visigoths Marseilles, and the other towns which had obeyed the emperor down to the year 476. Beyond the Alps, Alaric the Visigoth now held the mouths of the Rhone and the Provengal Coast, while Gundobad the Burgundian ruled on the middle and upper Rhone, from Avignon as far as Besangon and Langres. North of both Burgundian and Visigoth, and far from the Alpine borders of Theodoric, lay the new Frankish Kingdom of Clovis I, now reaching as far as the Loire and the upper Seine.
With all these three monarchs the King of the Ostrogoths had many dealings. At the very beginning of his reign he asked for the hand of Augofleda, the sister of Clovis I, and hoped that by this alliance he had bound the clever and unscrupulous Frank to himself. By Augofleda he became the father of Amalaswintha, the only child born to him in lawful wedlock, though he had two elder daughters by a concubine ere he came to Italy. Soon after his own marriage with the Frankish princess, Theodoric wedded one of the natural children to Sigismund, the son of the Burgundian Gundobad, and the other to Alaric the Visigoth. Thus all his neighbors became his relatives.
But this did not secure peace between the new kinsmen of Theodoric. In 499 Clovis fell on Gundobad, to strip him of his realm, routed him, and shut him up in Avignon, the southernmost of his strongholds; but after many successes the Frank lost all that he had gained, and turned instead to attack the King of the Visigoths. Theodoric strove unsuccessfully to prevent both wars, and was not a little displeased when, in 507, his brother-in-law Clovis overran southern Gaul, and slew his son-in-law Alaric in battle. Burgundian and Frank then united to destroy the Visigoths, and might have done so had not Theodoric intervened. The heir of the Visigothic throne was now Amalric, the son of Alaric and of the King of Italy's daughter. To defend his grandson's realm Theodoric declared war both on Clovis and on Gundobad, and sent his armies over the Alps to save the remnants of the Visigothic possessions in Gaul. One host crossed the Cottian Alps, and fell on Burgundy; another entered Provence, and smote the Frank and Burgundian besiegers of Aries. With his usual good fortune, Theodoric recovered all Gaul south of the Durance and the Cevennes (509), so that the conquests of Clovis were confined to Aquitaine. The way was now clear for the Ostrogothic armies to march into Spain, to support the claims of the child Amalric against Gesalic, a bastard son of Alaric, who had been proclaimed King of the Visigoths at Barcelona. After two years of guerilla fighting, the pretender was hunted down and slain, though he had sought and obtained some help from the Vandal King Thrasamund (511).
For the next fourteen years, till Amalric reached manhood, Theodoric ruled Spain in his grandson's behalf. He was recognized as King of the Visigoths, in common with Amalric, and ruled both halves of the Gothic race – reunited after an interval of two hundred years – with equal authority, and his royal mandates ran in Spain as well as in Italy. His delegate was Count Theudis, an Ostrogothic noble, who was made regent, and ruled at Narbonne over all the Visigothic realm west of the Rhone; while the Roman Liberius, named praetorian praefect of Gaul, administered Visigothic Provence from the ancient city of Aries.
Theodoric's power was now supreme from Sirmium to Cadiz, and from the upper Danube to Sicily. He ruled the larger half of the old Roman Empire of the West, and exercised much influence in Gaul and Africa, the two parts of it that were not absolutely in his hands. After the war of 507-10 Clovis the Frank had died, and his four sons, who parted his realm, made peace with the Ostrogoth; while Gundobad, the Burgundian King, had been fain to follow their example even earlier.
Twelve years of peace followed (511-523) before Theodoric, now in extreme old age, had occasion to interfere in Gaul. Sigismund, the husband of Theodoric's elder natural daughter, was now King of the Burgundians. He was a gloomy and suspicious tyrant, and drew down the wrath of Theodoric by murdering his own heir, Sigeric, who was the Gothic King's eldest grandson. To punish this crime Theodoric leagued himself with the Franks, and attacked Burgundy. He conquered, and took as his share of the spoil the lands between Durance and Drome, with the cities of Avignon, Orange, and Viviers, the farthest extension to the north-west of the Ostrogothic empire.
The circle of family alliances which Theodoric had made with his European neighbors was extended even beyond the Mediterranean. He married his sister, Amalafrida, a widowed princess, no longer in her first youth, to Thrasamund, the old King of the Vandals. In virtue of this connection he seems to have treated Thrasamund as a younger brother, if not as a vassal. When the Vandal dared to help the usurper Gesalic in Spain, Theodoric imposed a tribute on him, and bade him for the future do nothing without the counsel of his wife Amalafrida. Thrasamund did not resent this treatment, and for the future did all he could to propitiate his brother-in-law.
The Vandal state, indeed, was not in a condition to risk a quarrel with Theodoric. Ever since the death of Hunneric it had been steadily on the decline. In the reigns of Gunthamund (484-496) and Thrasamund himself (496-523) it was continually losing ground to the insurgent Moors of Atlas.
Gunthamund, who was not a persecutor like his predecessor Hunneric, had endeavored to win the favor of the Catholics by allowing them to recall their exiled bishops and open their churches. But these boons did not check the falling away of his subjects, and during his reign the Moors conquered from him the whole sea-coast from Tangiers to the gates of Caesarea. His brother Thrasamund tried the opposite policy, resumed the persecutions of Catholics, deported two hundred bishops to Sardinia, and renewed the horrors of the days of Hunneric. Naturally, he was no more fortunate in dealing with the native rebels than his brother had been. A quarrel with Theodoric would have meant ruin, so he kept himself from all foreign war. He died in 523 at a great age, killed, it is said, by the news of a great defeat which his armies had suffered at the hands of the Moors. His successor was his cousin Hilderic, the son of Hunneric and the Roman princess Eudocia, the last scion of the house of Theodosius the Great. Educated by a Catholic mother, Hilderic was himself the first orthodox Vandal King, and ended the long African persecutions. But his reign was not happier than those of his two cousins. His enthusiastic championship of the Catholicc cause brought him into collision with the bulk of his Vandal subjects, and he was attacked by a rebellious party, headed by Theodoric's sister, the queen-dowager Amalafrida, who wished to proclaim as King of Africa one of her late husband's nephews. Hilderic had the better of the fighting, defeated the rebels, and captured Amalafrida, whom he consigned to a dungeon, to the great wrath of her brother, the King of the Goths (523). As long as Theodoric lived he merely kept her in close confinement, but the moment he heard of the old man's death, in 526, he had the cruelty to slay the aged queen, a deed which alienated forever the Vandals and the Ostrogoths.
The captivity of his sister was not the only sorrow which clouded the last few years of Theodoric s long life. He was left in some trouble as to the succession to his crown. He had married his only legitimate child, Amalaswintha, to a Visigothic prince named Eutharic, of whose prudence and valor much was expected. Theodoric intended him to reign with his daughter as colleague and King-consort, but in 522 Eutharic died, leaving as his heir a boy of only five years of age. Theodoric could not but see that on his death the accession of a woman and a child to the throne would be fraught with the gravest danger, more especially as his nephew Theodahad, the nearest male heir of the Amal house, was known to be an unscrupulous intriguer.
It was perhaps owing to a temper embittered by these family troubles that Theodoric was led, during the last few years of his life, into an unhappy quarrel with some of the best of his Italian subjects. Rightly or wrongly, he had imbibed a notion that the Italians would take advantage of his death to stir up the emperor at Constantinople against his infant heir. The idea was very justifiable; for, in spite of all Theodoric's wisdom and goodness, most of his Roman subjects never learnt to look kindly upon a ruler who was at once an Arian and a Goth, and it seems that some, at least, of the Senaie were secretly corresponding with the emperor Justin. That monarch, the first Eastern Emperor for fifty years who was undisputedly orthodox, had fired the enthusiasm of Catholics all over the world by his attempts to suppress Arianism, and the faithful in Italy were undoubtedly contrasting his action with the strict impartiality of Theodoric, to the latter's disadvantage.