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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


Theodoric the Ostrogoth is one of those men who did great deeds and
filled a large space in the eyes of their contemporaries, but who, not
through their own fault, but from the fact that the stage of the world
was not yet ready for their appearance, have failed to occupy the very
first rank among the founders of empires and the moulders of the
fortunes of the human race.

He was born into the world at the time when the Roman Empire in the West
was staggering blindly to ruin, under the crushing blows inflicted upon
it by two generations of barbarian conquerors. That Empire had been for
more than six centuries indisputably the strongest power in Europe, and
had gathered into its bosom all that was best in the civilisation of the
nations that were settled round the Mediterranean Sea. Rome had given
her laws to all these peoples, had, at any rate in the West, made their
roads, fostered the growth of their cities, taught them her language,
administered justice, kept back the barbarians of the frontier, and for
great spaces of time preserved the Roman peace throughout their
habitations. Doubtless there was another side to this picture: heavy
taxation, corrupt judges, national aspirations repressed, free peasants
sinking down into hopeless bondage. Still it cannot be denied that
during a considerable part of its existence the Roman Empire brought, at
least to the western half of Europe, material prosperity and enjoyment
of life which it had not known before, and which it often looked back to
with vain regrets when the great Empire had fallen into ruins. But now,
in the middle of the fifth century, when Theodoric was born amid the
rude splendour of an Ostrogothic palace, the unquestioned ascendancy of
Rome over the nations of Europe was a thing of the past. There were
still two men, one at the Old Rome by the Tiber, and the other at the
New Rome by the Bosphorus, who called themselves August, Pious, and
Happy, who wore the diadem and the purple shoes of Diocletian, and
professed to be joint lords of the universe. Before the Eastern Augustus
and his successors there did in truth lie a long future of dominion, and
once or twice they were to recover no inconsiderable portion of the
broad lands which had formerly been the heritage of the Roman people.
But the Roman Empire at Rome was stricken with an incurable malady. The
three sieges and the final sack of Rome by Alaric (410) revealed to the
world that she was no longer Roma Invicta, and from that time forward
every chief of Teutonic or Sclavonic barbarians who wandered with his
tribe over the wasted plains between the Danube and the Adriatic, might
cherish the secret hope that he, too, would one day be drawn in triumph
up the Capitolian Hill, through the cowed ranks of the slavish citizens
of Rome, and that he might be lodged on the Palatine in one of the
sumptuous palaces which had been built long ago for the lords of the

Thus there was everywhere unrest and, as it were, a prolonged moral
earthquake. The old order of things was destroyed, and none could
forecast the shape of the new order of things that would succeed to it.
Something similar has been the state of Europe ever since the great
French Revolution; only that her barbarians threaten her now from
within, not from without. The social state which had been in existence
for centuries, and which had come to be accepted as if it were one of
the great ordinances of nature, is either menaced or is actually broken
up, and how the new democracy will rearrange itself in the seats of the
old civilisation the wisest statesman cannot foretell.

But to any shepherd of his people, barbarian or Roman, who looked with
foreseeing eye and understanding heart over the Europe of the fifth
century, the duty of the hour was manifest. The great fabric of the
Roman Empire must not be allowed to go to pieces in hopeless ruin. If
not under Roman Augusti, under barbarian kings bearing one title or
another, the organisation of the Empire must be preserved. The
barbarians who had entered it, often it must be confessed merely for
plunder, were remaining in it to rule, and they could not rule by their
own unguided instincts. Their institutions, which had answered well
enough for a half-civilised people, leading their simple, primitive life
in the clearings of the forest of Germany, were quite unfitted for the
complicated relations of the urban and social life of the Mediterranean
lands. There is one passage[4] which has been quoted almost to
weariness, but which it seems necessary to quote again, in order to show
how an enlightened barbarian chief looked upon the problem with which he
found himself confronted, as an invader of the Empire. Ataulfus,
brother-in-law and successor of Alaric, the first capturer of Rome, was
intimate with a certain citizen of Narbonne, a grave, wise, and
religious person who had served with distinction under Theodosius, and
often remarked to him that in the first ardour of his youth he had
longed to obliterate the Roman name and turn all the Roman lands into an
Empire which should be, and should be called, the Empire of the Goths,
so that what used to be commonly known as Romania should now be
'Gothia,' and that he, Ataulfus, should be in the world what Caesar
Augustus had been. But now that he had proved by long experience that
the Goths, on account of their unbridled barbarism, could not be
induced to obey the laws, and yet that, on the other hand, there must be
laws, since without them the Commonwealth would cease to be a
Commonwealth, he had chosen, for his part at any rate, that he would
seek the glory of renewing and increasing the Roman name by the arms of
his Gothic followers, and would be remembered by posterity as the
restorer of Rome, since he could not be its changer.

This conversation will be found to express the thoughts of Theodoric the
Ostrogoth, as well as those of Ataulfus the Visigoth, Theodoric also, in
his hot youth, was the enemy of the Roman name and did his best to
overturn the Roman State. But he, too, saw that a nobler career was open
to him as the preserver of the priceless blessings of Roman
civilisation, and he spent his life in the endeavour to induce the Goths
to copy those laws, without which a Commonwealth ceases to be a
Commonwealth. In this great and noble design he failed, as has been
already said, because the times were not ripe for it, because a
continuation of adverse events, which we should call persistent ill-luck
if we did not believe in an overruling Providence, blighted and blasted
his infant state before it had time to root itself firmly in the soil.
None the less, however, does Theodoric deserve credit for having seen
what was the need of Europe, and pre-eminently of Italy, and for having
done his best to supply that need. The great work in which he failed was
accomplished three centuries later by Charles the Frank, who has won for
himself that place in the first rank of world-moulders which Theodoric
has missed. But we may fairly say that Theodoric's designs were as noble
and as statesmanlike as those of the great Emperor Charles, and that if
they had been crowned with the success which they deserved, three
centuries of needless barbarism and misery would have been spared to

Next: Theodoric's Ancestors

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