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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

The Conquest Of Italy

Odovacar invades Dalmatia--Conducts a successful campaign against the
Rugians--Theodoric accepts from Zeno the commission to overthrow
Odovacar--He invades Italy, overthrowing the Gepidse, who attempt to bar
his passage--Battles of the Isonzo and Verona--Odovacar takes refuge in
Ravenna--The treachery of Tufa--Gundobad, king of the Burgundians, comes
to Italy to oppose Theodoric, while Alaric II, king of the Visigoths,
comes as his ally--The battle of the Adda, and further defeat of
Odovacar--Surrender of Ravenna--Assassination of Odovacar.

The friendly relations between Odovacar and the Eastern Emperor which
had been established by the embassy last described were gradually
altered into estrangement. In the year 480, Nepos, the dethroned Emperor
of Rome, was stabbed by two treacherous courtiers in his palace near
Salona. Odovacar led an army into Dalmatia, and avenged the murder, but
also apparently annexed the province of Dalmatia to his dominion, thus
coming into nearer neighbourhood with Constantinople (487-488) This may
have been one cause of alienation, but a more powerful one was the
negotiation which was commenced in the year 484 between Odovacar and
Illus, the last of the many insurgent generals who disturbed the reign
of Zeno. At first Odovacar held himself aloof from the proposed
confederacy, but afterwards (486) he was disposed, or Zeno believed that
he was disposed, to accept the alliance of the insurgent general. In
order to find him sufficient occupation nearer home, the Emperor fanned
into a flame the smouldering embers of discord between Odovacar and
Feletheus, king of the Rugians, the most powerful ruler of those
Danubian lands from which the Italian king himself had migrated into
Italy. The Rugian war was short, and Odovacar's success was decisive. In
487 he vanquished the Rugian army and carried Feletheus and his wife
prisoners to Ravenna. In 488 an attempt to raise again the standard of
the Rugian monarchy, which was made by Frederic, the son of Feletheus,
was crushed, and Frederic, an exile and a fugitive, betook himself to
the camp of Theodoric, who was then dwelling at Novae(Sistova?), on the

When the attempt to weaken Odovacar by means of his fellow-barbarians in
Rugiland failed, Zeno feigned outward acquiescence, offering
congratulations on the victory and receiving presents out of the Rugian
spoils, but in his heart he felt that there must now be war to the death
between him and this too powerful ruler of Italy. The news came to him
at a time when Theodoric was in one of his most turbulent and
destructive moods, when he had penetrated within fourteen miles of
Constantinople and had fired the towns and villages of Thrace, perhaps
even within sight of the capital. It was a natural thought and not
altogether an unstatesmanlike expedient to play off one disturber of his
peace against the other, to commission Theodoric to dethrone the
tyrant Odovacar, and thus at least earn repose for the provincials of
Thrace, perhaps secure an ally at Ravenna. Theodoric, we may be sure,
with those instincts of civilisation and love for the Empire which had
been in his heart from boyhood, though often repressed and disobeyed,
needed little exhortation to an enterprise which he may himself have
suggested to the Emperor.

Thus then it came to pass that a formal interview was arranged between
Emperor and King (perhaps at Constantinople, though it seems doubtful
whether Theodoric could have safely trusted himself within its walls),
and at this interview the terms of the joint enterprise were arranged,
an enterprise to which Theodoric was to contribute all the effective
strength and Zeno the glamour of Imperial legitimacy.

When the high contracting parties met, Theodoric lamented the hapless
condition of Italy and Rome: Italy once subject to the predecessors of
Zeno; Rome, once the mistress of the world, now harassed and distressed
by the usurped authority of a king of Rugians and Turcilingians. If the
Emperor would send Theodoric thither with his people, he would be at
once relieved from the heavy charges of their stipendia which he was
now bound to furnish, while Theodoric would hold the land as of the free
gift of the Emperor, and would reign there as king, only till Zeno
himself should arrive to claim the supremacy[51].

In the autumn of the year 488, Theodoric with all his host set forth
from Sistova on the Danube on his march to Italy. His road was the same
taken by Alaric and by most of the barbarian invaders; along the Danube
as far as Belgrade, then between the rivers Drave and Save or along the
banks of one of them till he reached the Julian Alps (not far from the
modern city of Laibach), then down upon Aquileia and the Venetian plain.
As in the Macedonian campaign, so now, he was accompanied by all the
members of his nation, old men and children, mothers and maidens, and
doubtless by a long train of waggons. We have no accurate information
whatever as to the number of his army, but various indications, both in
earlier and later history, seem to justify us in assuming that the
soldiers must have numbered fully 40,000; and if this was the case, the
whole nation cannot have been less than 200,000. The difficulty of
finding food for so great a multitude in the often desolated plains of
Pannonia and Noricum must have been enormous, and was no doubt the
reason of the slowness of Theodoric's progress. Very probably he divided
his army into several portions, moving on parallel lines; foragers would
scour the country far and wide, stores of provisions would be
accumulated in the great Gothic waggons, which would be laboriously
driven over the rough mountain passes. Then all the divisions of the
army which had scattered in search of food would have to concentrate
again when they came into the neighbourhood of an enemy, whether
Odovacar or one of the barbarian kings who sought to bar their progress.
All these operations consumed much time, and hence it was that though
the Goths started on their pilgrimage in 488 (probably in the autumn of
that year) they did not descend into the plains of Italy even at its
extreme north-eastern corner, till July, 489.

There was one fact which probably facilitated the progress of Theodoric,
and prevented his expedition with such a multitude from being condemned
as absolute foolhardiness. His road lay, for the most part, through
regions with which he was already well acquainted, through a land which
might almost be called his native land, and both the resources and the
difficulties of which were well known to him. The first considerable
city that he came to, Singidunum (the modern Belgrade), was the scene of
his own first boyish battle. The Gepidae, who were his chief antagonists
on the road, had swarmed over into that very province of Pannonia where
his father's palace once stood; and though they showed themselves
bitter foes, they were doubtless surrounded by foes of their own who
would be friends to the Ostrogoths. Probably, too, Frederic, the Rugian
refugee, brought with him many followers who knew the road and could
count on the assistance of some barbarian allies, eager to overturn the
throne of Odovacar. Thus it will be seen that though the perils of the
Ostrogothic march were tremendous, the danger which in those mapless
days was so often fatal to an invading army--ignorance of the
country--was not among them.

We are vaguely told of countless battles fought by the Ostrogoths with
Sclavonic and other tribes that lay across their line of march, but the
only battle of which we have any details (and those only such as we can
extract from the cloudy rhetoric of a popular preacher[52]) is one which
was fought with the Gepidse, soon after the Goths had emerged from the
territory of the friendly Empire, near the great mere or river which
went by the name of Hiulca Palus, in what is now the crown-land of
Sclavonia. When the great and over-wearied multitude approached the
outskirts of the Gepid territory, their leader sent an embassy to
Traustila, king of the Gepidae, entreating that his host might have an
unmolested passage, and offering to pay for the provisions which they
would require. To this embassy Traustila returned a harsh and insulting
answer: He would yield no passage through his dominions to the
Ostrogoths; if they would go by that road they must first fight with
the unconquered Gepidae Traustila then took up a strong position near
the Hiulca Palus, whose broad waters, girdled by fen and treacherous
morass, made the onward march of the invaders a task of almost desperate
danger. But the Ostrogoths could not now retreat; famine and pestilence
lay behind them on their road; they must go forward, and with a
reluctant heart Theodoric gave the signal for the battle.

It seemed at first as if that battle would be lost, and as if the name
and fame of the Ostrogothic people would be swallowed up in the morasses
of the reedy Hiulca. Already the van of the army, floundering in the
soft mud, and with only their wicker shields to oppose to the deadly
shower of the Gepid arrows, were like to fall back in confusion. Then
Theodoric, having called for a cup of wine, and drunk to the fortunes of
his people, in a few spirited words called to his soldiers to follow his
standard--the standard of a king who would carve out the way to victory.
Perchance he may have discerned some part of the plain where the road
went over solid ground, and if that were beset by foes, at any rate the
Gepid was less terrible than the morass. So it was that he charged
triumphantly through the hostile ranks, and, being followed by his eager
warriors, achieved a signal victory. The Gepidae were soon wandering over
the plain, a broken and dispirited force. Multitudes of them were slain
before the descent of night saved the remaining fugitives, and so large
a number of the Gepid store-waggons fell into the hands of the
Ostrogoths that throughout the host one voice of rejoicing arose that
Traustila had been willing to fight. So had a little Gothic blood bought
food more than they could ever have afforded money to purchase.

Thus, through foes and famine, hardships of the winter and hardships of
the summer, the nation-army held on its way, and at length (as has been
already said) in the month of August (489) the last of the waggons
descended from the highlands, which are an outpost of the Julian Alps,
and the Ostrogoths were encamped on the plains of Italy. Odovacar, who
apparently had allowed them to accomplish the passage of the Alps
unmolested, stood ready to meet them on the banks of the Isonzo, the
river which flows near the ruins of the great city of Aquileia. He had a
large army, the kernel of which would doubtless be those mercenaries who
had raised him on the shield thirteen years before, and among whom he
had divided one-third part of the soil of Italy. But many other
barbarians had flocked to his standard, so that he had, as it were, a
little court of kings, chieftains serving under him as supreme leader.
He himself, however, was now in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and his
genius for war, if he ever had any, seems to have failed him. He fought
(as far as we can discern his conduct from the fragmentary notices of
the annalists and panegyrists) with a sort of sullen savageness, like a
wild beast at bay, but without skill either of strategy or tactics. The
invaders, encumbered with the waggons and the non-combatants, had
greatly the disadvantage of position. Odovacar's camp had been long
prepared, was carefully fortified, and protected by the deep and rapid
Isonzo. But Theodoric's soldiers succeeded in crossing the river,
stormed the camp, defended as it was by a strong earthen rampart, and
sent its defenders flying in wild rout over the plains of Venetia.
Odovacar fell back on the line of the Adige, and the beautiful
north-eastern corner of Italy, the region which includes among its
cities Udine, Venice, Vicenza, Padua, now accepted without dispute the
rule of Theodoric, and perhaps welcomed him as a deliverer from the
stern sway of Odovacar.[53] From this time forward it is allowable to
conjecture that the most pressing of Theodoric's anxieties, that which
arose from the difficulty of feeding and housing the women and children
of his people, if not wholly removed was greatly lightened. Odovacar
took up a strong position near Verona, separated from that city by the
river Adige. Theodoric, though not well provided with warlike
appliances,[54] rightly judged that it was of supreme importance to his
cause to follow up with rapidity the blow struck on the banks of the
Isonzo, and accordingly, towards the end of September, he, with his
army, stood before the fossatum or entrenched camp at Verona. In order
to force his soldiers to fight bravely, Odovacar had, in defiance of the
ordinary rules of war, placed his camp where retreat was almost
hopelessly barred by the swift stream of the Adige, and he addressed his
army with stout words full of simulated confidence in victory. On the
morning of the 30th of September, when the two armies were about to join
in what must evidently be a most bloody encounter, the mother and sister
of Theodoric, Erelieva and Amalfrida, sought his presence and asked him
with some anxiety what were the chances of the battle. With words,
reminding us of the Homeric saying that the best omen is to fight
bravely for one's country, Theodoric reassured their doubting hearts.
On that day, he told his mother, it was for him to show that she had
given birth to a hero on the day when the Ostrogoths did battle with the
Huns. Dressed in his most splendid robes, those robes which their hands
had adorned with bright embroidery, he would be conspicuous both to
friend and foe, and would give a noble spoil to his conqueror if any man
could succeed in slaying him. With these words he leapt on his horse,
rushed to the van, cheered on his wavering troops, and began a series of
charges, which at length, but not till thousands of his own men as well
as of the enemy were slain, carried the fossatum of Odovacar.

The battle once gained, of course the dispositions which Odovacar had
made to ensure the resistance of his soldiers, necessitated their ruin,
and the swirling waters of the Adige probably destroyed as many as the
Ostrogothic sword. Odovacar himself, again a fugitive, sped across the
plain south-eastward to Ravenna, compelled like so many Roman Emperors
before him to shelter himself from the invader behind its untraversable
network of rivers and canals. It would seem from the scanty notices
which remain to us that in this battle of Verona, the bloodiest and
most hardly fought of all the battles of the war, the original army of
foederati, the men who had crowned Odovacar king, and divided the third
part of Italy between them, was, if not annihilated, utterly broken and
dispirited, and Theodoric, who now marched westward with his people, and
was welcomed with blessing and acclamations by the Bishop and citizens
of Milan, received also the transferred allegiance of the larger part of
the army of his rival.

It seemed as if a campaign of a few weeks had secured the conquest of
Italy, but the war was in fact prolonged for three years and a half from
this time by domestic treachery, foreign invasion, and the almost
absolute impregnability of Ravenna.

I. At the head of the soldiers of Odovacar who had apparently with
enthusiasm accepted the leadership of his younger and more brilliant
rival, was a certain Tufa, Master of the Soldiery among the foederati
Either he had extraordinary powers of deception, or Theodoric, short of
generals, accepted his professions of loyalty with most unwise facility;
for so it was that the Ostrogothic king entrusted to Tufa's generalship
the army which assuredly he ought to have led himself to the siege of
Ravenna. When Tufa arrived at Faventia, about eighteen miles from
Ravenna, his old master came forth to meet him; the instinct of loyalty
to Odovacar revived (if indeed he had not all along been playing a part
in his alleged desertion), and Tufa carried over, apparently, the larger
part of the army under his command to the service of Theodoric's rival.
Worst of all, he surrendered to his late master the chief members of
his staff the so-called comites (henchmen) of Theodoric some of whom
had probably helped him in his early adventure against Singidunum, and
had shared his hardships in many a weary march through Thrace and
Macedonia. These men were all basely murdered by Odovacar, a deed which
Theodoric inwardly determined should never be forgiven (492).

Such an event as the defection of Tufa, carrying with him a considerable
portion of his troops, was a great blow to the Ostrogothic cause. Some
time later another and similar event took place. Frederic the Rugian,
whose father had been dethroned, and who had been himself driven into
exile by the armies of Odovacar, for some unexplained and most
mysterious reason, quitted the service of Theodoric and entered that of
his own deadliest enemy. The sympathy of scoundrels seems to have drawn
him into a special intimacy with Tufa, with whom he probably wandered up
and down through Lombardy (as we now call it) and Venetia, robbing and
slaying in the name of Odovacar, but not caring to share his hardships
in blockaded and famine-stricken Ravenna. Fortunately, the Nemesis which
so often waits on the friendship of bad men was not wanting in this
case. The two traitors quarrelled about the division of the spoil and a
battle took place between them, in the valley of the Adige above Verona,
in which Tufa was slain. Frederic, with his Rugian countrymen, occupied
the strong city of Ticinum (Pavia), where they spent two dreadful
years, Their minds, says an eye-witness,[55] in after-time the Bishop
of that city, were full of cruel energy which prompted them to daily
crimes. In truth, they thought that each day was wasted which they had
not made memorable by some sort of outrage. In 494, with the general
pacification of Italy, they disappear from view: and we may conjecture,
though we are not told, that Pavia was taken, and that Frederic received
his deserts at the hands of Theodoric.

II. In the year 490 Gundobad, king of the Burgundians, crossed the Alps
and descended into Italy to mingle in the fray as an antagonist of
Theodoric. In the same year, probably at the same time, Alaric II., king
of the Visigoths, entered Italy as his ally. A great battle was fought
on the river Adda, ten miles east of Milan, in which Odovacar, who had
emerged from the shelter of Ravenna, was again completely defeated. He
fled once more to Ravenna, which he never again quitted.

While these operations were proceeding, Theodoric's own family and the
non-combatants of the Ostrogothic nation were in safe shelter, though in
somewhat narrow quarters, in the strong city of Pavia, whose Bishop,
Epiphanius, was the greatest saint of his age, and one for whom
Theodoric felt an especial veneration. No doubt they must have left that
city before the evil-minded Rugians entered it (492), but we hear
nothing of the circumstances of their flight or removal.

As for the Burgundian king, he does not seem to have been guided by any
high considerations of policy in his invasion of Italy, and having been
induced to conclude a treaty with Theodoric, he returned to his own
royal city of Lyons with goodly spoil and a long train of hapless
captives torn from the fields of Liguria.

III. These disturbing elements being cleared away, we may now turn our
attention to the true key of the position and the central event of the
war, the siege of Odovacar in Ravenna. After Tufa's second change of
sides, and during the Burgundian invasion of Italy, there was no
possibility of keeping up an Ostrogothic blockade of the city of the
marshes. Odovacar emerged thence, won back the lower valley of the Po,
and marching on Milan, inflicted heavy punishment on the city, for the
welcome given to Theodoric. In the battle of the Adda, 11 August, 490,
however, as has been already mentioned, he sustained a severe defeat, in
which he lost one of his most faithful friends and ablest counsellors, a
Roman noble named Pierius. After his flight to Ravenna, which
immediately followed the battle of the Adda, there seems to have been a
general movement throughout Italy, headed by the Catholic clergy, for
the purpose of throwing off his yoke, and if we do not misread the
obscure language of the Panegyrist, this movement was accompanied by a
wide-spread popular conspiracy, somewhat like the Sicilian Vespers of a
later day, to which the foederati, the still surviving adherents of
Odovacar, scattered over their various domains in Italy, appear to have
fallen victims.

Only two cities, Caesena and Rimini, beside Ravenna, now remained to
Odovacar, and for the next two years and a half (from the autumn of 490
to the spring of 493) Ravenna was straitly besieged. Corn rose to a
terrible famine price (seventy-two shillings a peck), and before the
end of the siege the inhabitants had to feed on the hides of animals,
and all sorts of foul and fearful aliments, and many of them perished of
hunger. A sortie made in 491 by a number of barbarian recruits whom
Odovacar had by some means attracted to his standard, was repelled after
a desperate encounter. During all this time Theodoric, from his
entrenched camp in the great pine-wood of Ravenna, was watching
jealously to see that no provisions entered the city by land, and in
492, after taking Rimini, he brought a fleet of swift vessels thence to
a harbour about six miles from Ravenna, and thus completed its
investment by sea.

In the beginning of 493 the misery of the besieged city became
unendurable, and Odovacar, with infinite reluctance, began to negotiate
for its surrender. His son Thelane was handed over as a hostage for his
fidelity, and the parleying between the two rival chiefs began on the
25th of February. On the following day Theodoric and his Ostrogoths
entered Classis, the great naval emporium, about three miles from the
city; and on the 27th, by the mediation of the Bishop, peace was
formally concluded between the warring kings.

The peace, the surrender of the city, the acceptance of the rule of the
new King from the East, were apparently placed under the especial
guardianship of the Church. The most blessed man, the Archbishop John,
says a later ecclesiastical historian,[56] opened the gates of the
city, 5 March, 493, which Odovacar had closed, and went forth with
crosses and thuribles and the Holy Gospels, seeking peace. While the
priests and the rest of the clergy round him intoned the psalms, he,
falling prostrate on the ground, obtained that which he desired. He
welcomed the new King coming from the East, and peace was granted unto
him, including not only the citizens of Ravenna, but all the other
Romans[57], for whom the blessed John made entreaty.

The chief clause of the treaty was that which assured Odovacar not only
life but absolute equality of power with his conqueror. The fact that
Theodoric should have, even in appearance, consented to an arrangement
so precarious and unstable, is the strongest testimony to the
impregnability of Ravenna, which after three years' strict blockade,
could still be won only by so mighty a concession. But of course there
was not, there could not be, any real peace on such terms between the
two queen-bees in that swarming hive of barbarians. Theodoric received
information--so we are told--that his rival was laying snares for his
life, and being determined to anticipate the blow, invited Odovacar to a
banquet at the Palace of the Laurel-grove, on the south-east of the
city (15th March, 493). When Odovacar arrived, two suppliants knelt
before him and clasped his hands while offering a feigned petition. Some
soldiers who had been stationed in two side alcoves stepped forth from
the ambush to slay him, but at the last moment their hearts failed them,
and they could not strike. If the deed was to be done, Theodoric must
himself be the executioner or the assassin. He raised his sword to
strike. Where is God? cried the defenceless but unterrified victim.
Thus didst thou to my friends, answered Theodoric, reminding him of
the treacherous murder of the henchmen. Then with a tremendous stroke
of his broadsword he clove his rival from the shoulder to the loin. The
barbarian frenzy, which the Scandinavian minstrels call the fury of the
Berserk, was in his heart, and with a savage laugh at his own too
impetuous blow, he shouted as the corpse fell to the ground: I think
the weakling had never a bone in his body.

The body of Odovacar was laid in a stone coffin, and buried near the
synagogue of the Jews. His brother was mortally wounded while attempting
to escape through the palace-garden. His wife died of hunger in her
prison. His son, sent for safe-keeping to the king of the Visigoths in
Gaul, afterwards escaped to Italy and was put to death by the orders of
Theodoric. Thus perished the whole short-lived dynasty of the captain of
the foederati.

In his long struggle for the possession of Italy, Theodoric had shown
himself patient in adversity, moderate in prosperity, brave,
resourceful, and enduring. But the memory of all these noble deeds is
dimmed by the crime which ended the tragedy, a crime by the commission
of which Theodoric sank below the level of the ordinary morality of the
barbarian, breaking his plighted word, and sinning against the faith of

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