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Heodoric's Tomb
Italy Under Odovacar
Roman Officials--cassiodorus
Rome And Ravenna
Storm And Stress
The Arian League
The Conquest Of Italy
The Might Of Attila
The Southward Migration
The Theodoric Of Saga
Theodoric's Ancestors
Theodoric's Boyhood

Heodoric's Tomb

Embassy of Pope John to Constantinople--His imprisonment and
death--Execution of Symmachus--Opportune death of Theodoric--Various
stones respecting it--His mausoleum--Ultimate fate of his remains.

The death of Boethius[133] occurred probably about the middle of 524,
and in the same year, as it would seem, Theodoric left Verona and
returned to his old quarters at Ravenna. The danger from the barbarians
on the northern frontier had apparently been averted, but a far greater
danger, the hatred and the terror of his subjects of Roman origin, had
entered his kingdom. It was probably during this same year 524 that the
zeal of the orthodox Emperor Justin began to flame out against the
Arians. Their churches were taken from them and given to the Catholics,
and, as we hear that several Arians at this time embraced the Catholic
faith, we may conjecture that the usual methods of conversion in that
age, confiscation, imprisonment, and possibly torture, had been pretty
freely employed. These measures, coming close after the alleged
conspiracy of the Senators, or perhaps simultaneously with it, completed
the exasperation of Theodoric, He sent for the Pope, John I., a Tuscan,
who had been lately elevated to the Papal chair, and when the successor
of St. Peter appeared at Ravenna commanded him, with some haughtiness in
his tone, to proceed to Constantinople, to the Emperor Justin, and tell
him that he must in no wise attempt to win over those whom he calls
heretics to the Catholic religion. The Pope is said to have made some
protestations, distinguishing between his duty to God and his duty to
his king, but nevertheless accepted a commission of some kind or other
to treat with the Emperor on the subject of mutual toleration between
Catholics and Arians.

(525) He set forth at the head of a brilliant train, accompanied by
Ecclesius, Bishop of Ravenna, and Eusebius, Bishop of Fano, by Senator
Theodorus, who had been consul in 505, by Senator Importunus, consul in
509, who was descended from the historic family of the Decii, and from
whom his coevals expected deeds worthy of that illustrious name, by
Senator Agapetus, who had been consul along with the Eastern Emperor in
517, and by many other noblemen and bishops.

The visit of a pope to Constantinople, an event which had not occurred
since the very earliest days of the new capital, created profound
sensation in that city and was the very thing to cement that union
between the Papacy and the Empire which constituted Theodoric's greatest
danger. The whole city poured forth with crosses and candles to meet the
Pope and his companions at the twelfth milestone, and to testify with
shouts their veneration for the Apostles Peter and Paul, whose
representative they deemed that they saw before them. Justinus
Augustus, the fortunate farm-lad, before whom in his old age all the
great ones of the earth prostrated themselves in reverence, now saluted
the Vicar of St. Peter with the same gestures of adoration. The
coronation of the Emperor, who had already been for six years on the
throne, was celebrated with the utmost magnificence, the Roman Pontiff
himself placing the diadem on his head. Then the Pope and all the
Senators with tears besought the Emperor that their embassy might be
acceptable in his sight. In the private interviews which were held, the
Pope probably hinted to his orthodox ally the dangers which might result
to the Catholic cause in Italy, if Theodoric, hitherto so tolerant a
heretic, should be provoked to measures of retaliation on behalf of his
Church. There does seem to have been some modification of the
persecuting edicts against the Arians, and at least some restoration of
churches to the heretics, though certain Papal historians, unwilling to
admit that a pope can have pleaded for any concession to misbelievers,
endeavour to represent the Pope's mission as fruitless, while the Pope's
person was greeted with enthusiastic reverence. But that which is upon
the whole our best authority declares that the Emperor Justin having
met the Pope on his arrival as if he were St. Peter himself, and having
heard his message, promised that he would comply with all his demands
except that the converts who had given themselves to the Catholic faith
could by no means be restored to the Arians.

This last exception does not seem an unreasonable one. Surely Theodoric
could hardly have expected that Justin would exert his Imperial power in
order to force any of his subjects back into what he deemed a deadly
heresy. But for some cause or other, probably because he perceived the
mistake which he had committed in giving to the world so striking a
demonstration of the new alliance between Emperor and Pope, Theodoric's
ambassadors, on their return to Ravenna, found their master in a state
of wrath bordering on frenzy. All, both Pope and Senators, were cast
into prison and there treated with harshness and cruelty. The Pope, who
was probably an aged and delicate man, began to languish in his dungeon,
and there he died on the 25th of May, 526.

In the meantime, while the Papal embassy had been absent on its mission
to Constantinople, Theodoric had perpetrated another crime under the
influence of his maddening suspicions. Symmachus, father-in-law of
Boethius, the venerable head of the Senate, a man of saintly life and
far advanced in years, had probably dared to show that he condemned as
well as lamented the execution of his brilliant son-in-law. Against him,
therefore, a charge, doubtless of treason, was brought by command of the
king. To be accused was of course to be condemned, and Symmachus was put
to death in one of the prisons at Ravenna.

After the deaths of these three men, Boethius, Symmachus, and Pope John,
all chance of peace between Theodoric and his subjects, and what was
worse, all chance of peace between Theodoric and his nobler and truer
self was over, and there was nothing left him but to die in misery and
remorse. It was probably in these summer days of 526 that (as before
stated) he presented his young grandson Athalaric to his faithful Goths
as their king. An edict was issued--and the faithful groaned when they
saw that it bore the counter-signature of a Jewish Treasury-clerk--that
on Sunday the 30th of August all the Catholic churches of Italy should
be handed over to the Arians. But this tremendous religious revolution
was not to be accomplished, nor was an insurrection of the Catholics to
be required in order to arrest it. The edict was published on Wednesday
the 26th of August. On the following day the King was attacked by
diarroea, and after three days of violent pain he died on the 30th of
August, the very day on which the churches were to have been handed over
to the heretics and ninety-seven days after the death of the Pope.[134]

[Footnote 134: The disease and death, of Theodoric are thus described by
the chief contemporary authority, the Anonymous Valesii: Sed qui non
patitur fideles cultores suos ab alienigenis opprimi, mox intulit in eum
sententiam Arrii, auctoris religionis ejus: fluxum ventris incurrit, et
dum intra triduo evacuatus fuisset, eodem die, quo se gaudebat ecclesias
invadere, simul regnum et animam amisit.]

There is certainly something in this account of Theodoric's death which
suggests the idea of arsenical poisoning. No hint of this kind is given
by any of the annalists, but they are all hostile to Theodoric and
disposed to see in his rapid illness and most opportune death a Divine
judgment for his meditated persecution of the Church. On the other hand
it is impossible to read the account of his strange incoherent deeds and
words during the last three years of his life, without suspecting that
his brain was diseased and that he was not fully responsible for his
actions. As bearing on this question it is worth while to quote the
story of his death given by a Greek historian[135] who wrote twenty-four
years after his death. It is, perhaps, only an idle tale, but it shows
the kind of stories which were current among the citizens of Ravenna as
to the last days of their great king. When Theodoric was dining, a few
days after the death of Symmachus and Boethius,[136] the servants placed
on the table a large fish's head. This seemed to Theodoric to be the
head of Symmachus, newly slain. The teeth seemed to gnaw the lower lip,
the eyes glared at him with wrath and frenzy, the dead man appeared, to
threaten him with utmost vengeance. Terrified by this amazing portent
and chilled to the bone with fear, he hastily sought his couch, where,
having ordered the servants to pile bed-clothes upon him, he slept
awhile. Then sending for Elpidius, the physician, he related all that
had happened to him, and wept for his sins against Symmachus and
Boethius. And with these tears and with bitter lamentations for the
tragedy in which he had taken part, he soon afterwards died, this being
the first and last injustice which he had committed against any of his
subjects. And it proceeded from his not carefully sifting, as he was
wont to do, the evidence on which a capital charge was grounded.

This story of Procopius, if it have any foundation at all, seems to show
that Theodoric's last days were passed in delirium, and might suggest a
doubt whether in the heart-break of these later years he had not
endeavoured to drown his sorrows in wine. But it is interesting to see
that the Greek historian, though writing from a somewhat hostile point
of view, recognises emphatically the justice of Theodoric's ordinary
administration, and considers the execution of Symmachus and Boethius
(we ought to add the imprisonment of the Pope and his co-ambassadors) as
the one tyrannical series of acts which marred the otherwise fair fame
of a patriot-king.

The tomb of Theodoric still stands, a noble monument of the art of the
sixth century, outside the walls of the north-east corner of Ravenna.
This edifice, which belongs to the same class of sepulchral buildings
as the tomb of Hadrian (now better known as the Castle of S. Angelo), is
built of squared marble stones, and consists of two storeys, the lower
one a decagon, the upper one circular. The roof is composed of one
enormous block of Istrian marble 33 feet in diameter, 3 feet in height,
and weighing, it is said, nearly 300 tons. It is a marvel and a mystery
how, with the comparatively rude engineering appliances of that age, so
ponderous a mass can have been transported from such a distance and
raised to such a height.[137] At equal intervals round the outside of
this shallow, dome-like roof, twelve stone brackets are attached to it.
They are now marked with the names of eight Apostles and of the four
Evangelists. One conjecture as to their destination is that they were
originally crowned with statues, perhaps of these Apostles and
Evangelists; another, to me not very probable, is, that the ropes used
(if any were used) in lifting the mighty monolith to its place were
passed through these, which would thus be the handles of the dome.

This mausoleum, which is generally called La Rotonda by the citizens
of Ravenna, was used in the Middle Ages as the choir of the Church of S.
Maria della Rotonda, and divine service was celebrated in it by the
monks of an adjoining monastery. It is now a public monument and there
are few traces left of its ecclesiastical employment. The basement, as
I have seen it, is often filled with water, exuding from the marshy
soil: the upper storey is abandoned to gloom and silence.

Of Theodoric himself, whose body, according to tradition, was once
deposited in a porphyry vase in the upper storey of the mausoleum, there
is now no vestige in the great pile which in his own life-time he raised
as his intended sepulchre. Nor is this any recent spoliation. Agnellus,
Bishop of Ravenna, writing in the days of Charlemagne, says that the
body of Theodoric was not in the mausoleum, and had been, as he thought,
cast forth out of its sepulchre,[138] and the wonderful porphyry vase in
which it had been enclosed placed at the door of the neighbouring
monastery. A recent enquirer[139] has connected these somewhat ambiguous
words of Agnellus with a childish story told by Pope Gregory the Great,
who wrote some seventy years after the death of Theodoric. According to
this story, a holy hermit, who lived in the island of Lipari, on the day
and hour of Theodoric's death saw him, with bound hands and garments
disarranged, dragged up the volcano of Stromboli by his two victims
Symmachus and Pope John, and hurled by them into the fire-vomiting
crater. What more likely, it is suggested, than that the monks of the
adjoining monastery should seize the opportunity of some crisis in the
troubled history of Ravenna to cast out the body of Theodoric from its
resting-place, and so, to the ignorant people, give point to Pope
Gregory's edifying narrative as to the disposal of his soul?

A discovery, which was made some forty years ago in the neighbourhood of
Ravenna, may possibly throw some light on these mysterious words of
Bishop Agnellus: As it seems to me, he was cast forth out of his
sepulchre. In May, 1854, the labourers employed in widening the bed of
the Canale Corsini (now the only navigable water-way between Ravenna and
the sea) came, at the depth of about five feet beneath the sea-level, on
some tumuli, evidently sepulchral in their character, made of bricks
laid edgeways. Near one of these tumuli, but lying apart by itself, was
a golden cuirass adorned with precious stones. The rascally labourers,
when they caught sight of their treasure, feigned to see nothing,
promptly covered it up again, and returned at nightfall to divide the
spoil. A little piece of gold which was found lying on the ground caused
enquiries to be set on foot; the labourers were arrested, but
unfortunately the greater part of the booty had already been cast into
the melting-pot. A few pieces were, however, recovered, and are now in
the museum at Ravenna, where they figure in the catalogue as part of the
armour of Odovacar. This is, however, a mere conjecture, and another, at
least equally probable conjecture, is that the cuirass of gold once
covered the breast of Theodoric. The spot where it was found is about
one hundred and fifty yards from the Rotonda, and if the monks had for
any reason decided to pillage the sepulchre of its precious deposit,
this was a not improbable place where they might hide it for a time.
Certainly the self-denial which they showed in not stripping the body of
its costly covering is somewhat surprising, but possibly the
conspirators were few in number and the chances of war may have removed
them, before they had an opportunity to disinter the body a second time
and strip it of its cuirass, which moreover could not have been easily
disposed of without exciting suspicion.

One little circumstance which seems somewhat to confirm this theory, is
the fact that there is an enrichment[140] running round the border of
the cuirass very similar in character to a decoration of the cornice in
Theodoric's tomb.

Whether this theory be correct or not, the indignity which was certainly
at some time offered to the mortal remains of the great Ostrogothic king
reminds us of the similar insults offered to the body of the great
Puritan Protector, Cromwell, like Theodoric, was carried to his grave
with all the conventional demonstrations of national mourning. He was
dragged from it again and cast out like an abominable branch when the
legitimate monarchy was restored, when Church and King were again in
the ascendant, and when the stout soldiers, who had made him in all but
the name king de facto, were obliged to bow their heads beneath the
recovered might of the king de jure.

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