Theodoric's Boyhood

Inroad of the Huns--Their defeat by Walamir--Birth of Theodoric--War

with the Eastern Empire--Theodoric a hostage--Description of

Constantinople--Its commerce and its monuments.

The Ostrogoths had yet one or two battles to fight before they were

quite rid of their old masters. The sons of Attila still talked of them

as deserters and fugitive slaves, and a day came when Walamir found

himself compelled to face a sudden inroad of the Huns. He had few men

with him, and being taken unawares, he had no time to summon his

brethren to his aid. But he held his own bravely: the warriors of his

nation had time to gather round him; and at last, after he had long

wearied the enemy with his defensive tactics, he made a sudden onset,

destroyed the greater part of the Hunnish army, and sent the rest

scattered in hopeless flight far into the deserts of Scythia.[14]

[Footnote 14: Jordanes (cap. iii) says that the fugitive Huns sought

those parts of Scythia past which flow the streams of the river Dnieper

which the Huns in their own tongue call 'Var' (the river). If this is

correctly stated it is almost certain that it must describe some battle

which happened before the great Western migration of the Ostrogoths,

which was mentioned in the last chapter, for it would be impossible, if

the Gepidae were in Trans-danubian Hungary and the Ostrogoths in Pannonia

that the Ostrogoths should have driven the Huns into the countries

watered by the Dnieper. I am rather inclined to believe that this

reference of the battle to an earlier period may be the correct

explanation. But Danapri (Dnieper) may be only a blunder of Jordanes,

who is often hopelessly wrong in his geography.]

Walamir at once sent tidings of the victory to his brother Theudemir.

The messenger arrived at an opportune moment, for on that very day

Erelieva, the unwedded wife of Theudemir, had given birth to a

man-child. This infant, born on such an auspicious day and looked upon

as a pledge of happy fortunes for the Ostrogothic nation, was named

Thiuda-reiks (the people-ruler), a name which Latin historians,

influenced perhaps by the analogy of Theodosius, changed into

Theodoricus, and which will here be spoken of under the well-known form


It will be observed that I have spoken of Erelieva as the unwedded wife

of Theudemir. The Gothic historian calls her his concubine,[16] but this

word of reproach hardly does justice to her position. In many of the

Teutonic nations, as among the Norsemen of a later century, there seems

to have been a certain laxity as to the marriage rite, which was

nevertheless coincident with a high and pure morality. It has been

suggested that the severe conditions imposed by the Church on divorces

may have had something to do with the peculiar marital usages of the

Teutonic and Norse chieftains. Reasons of state might require Theudemir

the Ostrogoth, or William Longsword the Norman, to ally himself some day

with a powerful king's daughter, and therefore he would not go through

the marriage rite with the woman, really and truly his wife, but

generally his inferior in social position, who meanwhile governed his

house and bore him children. If the separation never came, and the

powerful king's daughter never had to be wooed, she who was wife in all

but name, retained her position unquestioned till her death, and her

children succeeded without dispute to the inheritance of their father.

The nearest approach to an illustration which the social usages of

modern Europe afford, is probably furnished by the morganatic

marriages of modern German royalties and serenities: and we might say

that Theodoric was the offspring of such an union. Notwithstanding the

want of strict legitimacy in his position, I do not remember any

occasion on which the taunt of bastard birth was thrown in his teeth,

even by the bitterest of his foes.

It would be satisfactory if we could fix with exactness the great

Ostrogoth's birth-year, but though several circumstances point to 454

as a probable date, we are not able to define it with greater


The next event of which we are informed in the history of the

Ostrogothic nation, a war with the Eastern Empire, was one destined to

exert a most important influence on the life of the kingly child, The

Ostrogoths settling in Pannonia, one of the provinces of the Roman

Empire, were in theory allies and auxiliary soldiers[18] of the Emperor.

Similar arrangements had been made with the Visigoths in Spain, with the

Vandals in that very province of Pannonia, probably with many other

barbarian tribes in many other provinces. There was sometimes more,

sometimes less, actual truth in the theoretical relations thus

established, and it was one which in the nature of things was not likely

long to endure: but for the time, so long as the Imperial treasury was

tolerably full and the barbarian allies tolerably amenable to control,

the arrangement suited both parties. In the case before us the position

of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia was legalised by the alliance, and such

portions of the political machinery of the Empire as might still remain

were thereby placed at their disposal. The Emperor, on the other hand,

was able to boast of a province recovered for the Empire, which was now

guarded by the broadswords of his loyal Ostrogoths against the more

savage nations outside, who were ever trying to enter the charmed

circle of the Roman State. But as the Ostrogothic foederati were his

soldiers, there was evidently a necessity that he must send them pay,

and this pay, which was called wages when the Empire was strong, and

tribute when it was weak, consisted, partly at any rate, of heavy chests

of Imperial aurei,[19] sent as strenae[20] or New Year's presents,

to the barbarian king and his chief nobles.

Now, about the year 461, the Emperor Leo (successor of the brave soldier

Marcian), whether from a special emptiness in the Imperial treasury or

from some other cause, omitted to send the accustomed strenae to the

Ostrogothic brother-kings. Much disturbed at the failure of the aurei

to appear, they sent envoys to Constantinople, who returned with tidings

which filled the three palaces of Pannonia with the clamour of angry

men. Not only were the strenae withheld, and likely to be still

withheld, but there was another Goth, a low-born pretender, not of Amal

blood, who was boasting of the title of foederatus of the Empire, and

enjoying the strenae which ought to come only to Amal kings and their

nobles. This man, who was destined to cross the path of our Theodoric

through many weary years, was named like him Theodoric, and was surnamed

Strabo (the squinter) from his devious vision, and son of Triarius, from

his parentage. He was brother-in-law, or nephew, of a certain Aspar, a

successful barbarian, who had mounted high in the Imperial service and

had placed two Emperors on the throne. It was doubtless through his

kinsman's influence that the squinting adventurer had obtained a

position in the court of the Roman Augustus so disproportioned to his

birth, and so outrageous to every loyal Ostrogoth.

When the news of these insults to the lineage of the Amals reached

Pannonia, the three brothers in fury snatched up their arms and laid

waste almost the whole province of Illyricum. Then the Emperor changed

his mind, and desired to renew the old friendship. He sent an embassy

bearing the arrears of the past-due strenae, those which were then

again falling due, and a promise that all future strenae should be

punctually paid. Only, as a hostage for the observance of peace he

desired that Theudemir's little son, Theodoric, then just entering his

eighth year, should be sent to Constantinople. The fact that this

request or demand was made by the ostensibly beaten side, may make us

doubt whether the humiliation of the Empire was so complete as the

preceding sentences (translated from the words of the Gothic historian)

would lead us to suppose.

Theudemir was reluctant to part with his first-born son, even to the

great Roman Emperor. But his brother Walamir earnestly besought him not

to interpose any hindrance to the establishment of a firm peace between

the Romans and Goths. He yielded therefore, and the little lad, carried

by the returning ambassadors to Constantinople, soon earned the favour

of the Emperor by his handsome face and his winning ways.[21]

Thus was the young Ostrogoth brought from his home in Pannonia, by the

banks of lonely Lake Balaton, to the New Rome, the busy and stately city

by the Bosphorus, the city which was now, more truly than her worn and

faded mother by the Tiber, the Lady of Kingdoms the Mistress of the

World. Of the Constantinople which the boyish eyes of Theodoric beheld,

scarcely a vestige now remains for the traveller to gaze upon. Let us

try, therefore, to find a contemporary description. These are the words

in which the visit of the Gothic chief Athanaric to that city about

eighty years previously is described by Jordanes:

Entering the royal city, and marvelling thereat, 'Lo! now I behold,'

said he, 'what I often heard of without believing, the glory of so great

a city.' Then turning his eyes this way and that, beholding the

situation of the city and the concourse of ships, now he marvels at the

long perspective of lofty walls, then he sees the multitudes of various

nations like the wave gushing forth from one fountain which has been fed

by divers springs, then he beholds the marshalled ranks of the soldiery.

'A God,' said he, 'without doubt a God upon Earth is the Emperor of this

realm, and whoso lifts his hand against him, that man's blood be on his

own head.

Still can we behold the situation of the city, that unrivalled

situation which no map can adequately explain, but which the traveller

gazes upon from the deck of his vessel as he rounds Seraglio Point, and

the sight of which seems to bind together in one, two continents of

space and twenty-five centuries of time. On his right hand Asia with

her camels, on his left Europe with her railroads. Behind him are the

Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles, with their memories of Lysander and

AEgospotami, of Hero, Leander, and Byron, with the throne of Xerxes and

the tomb of Achilles, and farther back still the island-studded

Archipelago, the true cradle of the Greek nation. Immediately in front

of him is the Golden Horn, now bridged and with populous cities on both

its banks, but the farther shore of which, where Pera and Galata now

stand, was probably covered with fields and gardens when Theodoric

beheld it. There also in front of him, but a little to the right, comes

rushing down the impetuous Bosphorus, that river which is also an arm of

the sea. Lined now with the marble palaces of bankrupt Sultans, it was

once a lonely and desolate strait, on whose farther shore the hapless

Io, transformed into a heifer, sought a refuge from her heaven-sent

tormentor. Up through its difficult windings pressed the adventurous

mariners of Miletus in those early voyages which opened up the Euxine to

the Greeks, as the voyage of Columbus opened up the Atlantic to the

Spaniards. It is impossible now to survey the beautiful panorama without

thinking of that great inland sea which, as we all know, begins but a

few miles to the north of the place where we are standing, and whose

cloudy shores are perhaps concealing in their recesses the future lords

of Constantinople. We look towards that point of the compass, and think

of Sebastopol. The great lords of Theudemir's court, who brought the

young Theodoric to his new patron, may have looked northwards too,

remembering the sagas about the mighty Hermanric, who dwelt where now

the Russians dwell, and the fateful march of the terrible Huns across

the shallows of the Sea of Azof.

The great physical features of the scene are of course unchanged, but

almost everything else, how changed by four centuries and a half of

Ottoman domination! The first view of Stamboul, with its mosques, its

minarets, its latticed houses, its stream of manifold life both

civilised and barbarous, flowing through the streets, is delightful to

the traveller; but if he be more of an archaeologist than an artist, and

seeks to reproduce before his mind's eye something of the Constantinople

of the Caesars rather than the Stamboul of the Sultans, he will

experience a bitter disappointment in finding how little of the former

is left.

He may still see indeed the land-ward walls of the city, and a most

interesting historical relic they are.[22] They stretch for about four

miles, from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn. It is still,

comparatively speaking, all city inside of them, all country on the

outside. There is a double line of walls with towers at frequent

intervals, some square, some octagonal, and deep fosses running along

beside the walls, now in spring often bright green with growing corn.

These walls and towers, seen stretching up hill and down dale, are a

very notable feature in the landscape, and ruinous and dismantled as

they are after fourteen centuries of siege, of earthquake, and of

neglect, they still help us vividly to imagine what they must have

looked like when the young Theodoric beheld them little more than ten

years after their erection.[23]

[Footnote 22: For the fact that these walls are still visible we have to

thank the good offices of a recent British ambassador, I believe Lord

Stratford de Redcliffe. The Sultana Valide (Sultan's mother) had

obtained from her son an order to pull down the walls, and sell the

materials for the benefit of her privy purse. The ambassador, however,

protested against this act of Ottomanism (rather than Vandalism), and

the walls were saved.]

[Footnote 23: The walls of Constantinople were first built in 412, but

having been much injured by an earthquake were rebuilt (we are told in

the short space of sixty days) by the Prefect of the City, Constantine,

at the command of Theodosius II. This rebuilding, which was partly due

to the terror caused by Attila, took place in the year 447.]

Of the gates, some six or seven in number, two are especially

interesting to us. The first is the Tep-Kapou (Cannon Gate), or Porta

Sancti Romani. This was the weakest part of the fortifications of

Constantinople, the heel of Achilles, as it has been well called,[24]

and here the last Roman Emperor of the East, Constantine Palaeologus,

died bravely in the breach for the cause of Christianity and

civilisation, The other gate is the Porta Aurea, a fine triple gateway,

the centre arch of which rests on two Corinthian pilasters. Through this

gateway--the nearest representative of the Capitoline Hill at Rome--the

Eastern Emperors rode in triumphant procession when a new Augustus had

to be proclaimed, or when an enemy of the Republic had been defeated. It

is possible that Theodoric may have seen Anthemius, the Emperor whom

Constantinople gave to Rome, ride forth through this gate (467) to take

possession of the Western throne: possible too that the great but

unsuccessful expedition planned by the joint forces of the East and West

against the Vandals of Africa may have had its ignominious failure

hidden from the people for a time by a triumphal procession through the

Golden Gate in the following year (468). This gate is now walled up, and

tradition says that the order for its closure was given by Mohammed, the

Conqueror, immediately after his entry into the city, through fear of an

old Turkish prophecy, which declared that through this gate the next

conquerors should enter Constantinople.

[Footnote 24: By Dr. Dethier. Bosphore et Constantinople, p. 51.]

Of the palace of the Emperor, into which the young Goth was ushered by

the eunuch-chamberlain, no vestige probably now remains. The Seraglio

has replaced the Palation, and is itself now abandoned to loneliness and

decay, being only the recipient of one annual visit from the Sultan,

when he goes in state to kiss the cloak of Mohammed. The great mosque of

St. Sophia on the right is a genuine and a glorious monument of Imperial

Constantinople, but not of Constantinople as Theodoric saw it. The

basilica, in which he probably listened with childish bewilderment to

many a sermon for or against the decrees of the council of Chalcedon,

was burnt down sixty years after his visit in the great Insurrection of

the Nika, and the noble edifice in which ten thousand Mussulmans now

assemble to listen to the reading of the Koran, while above them the

Arabic names of the companions of the Prophet replace the mosaics of the

Evangelists, is itself the work of the great Emperor Justinian, the

destroyer of the State which Theodoric founded.

But almost between the Church of St. Sophia and the Imperial Palace lay

in old times the Great Hippodrome, centre of the popular life of the

capital, where the excited multitudes cheered with rapture, or howled in

execration, at the victory of the Blue or the Green charioteer; where

many a time the elevation or the deposition of an Emperor was

accomplished by the acclamations of the same roaring throng. Of this

Hippodrome we have still a most interesting memorial in the Atmeidan

(the Place of Horses), which, though with diminished area, still

preserves something of the form of the old racecourse. And here to this

day are two monuments on which the young hostage may have often gazed,

wondering at their form and meaning. The obelisk of Thothmes I., already

two thousand years old when Constantinople was founded, was reared in

the Hippodrome, by order of the great Emperor Theodosius, and some of

the bas-reliefs on its pedestal still explain to us the mechanical

devices by which it was lifted into position, while in others

Theodosius, his wife, his sons, and his colleague sit in solemn state,

but, alas! with grievously mutilated countenances. Near it is a spiral

column of bronze which, almost till our own day, bore three serpents

twined together, whose heads long ago supported a golden tripod. This

bronze monument is none other than the votive offering to the temple of

Apollo at Delphi, presented by the confederated states of Greece, to

celebrate the victory of Plataea. The golden tripod was melted down at

the time of Philip of Macedon, but the twisted serpents, brought by

Constantine to adorn and hallow his new capital by the Bosphorus, bore

and still bear the names, written in archaic characters, of all the

Hellenic states which took part in that great deliverance.

All these monuments are on the first of the seven hills on which

Constantinople is built. On the second hill stands a strange and

blackened pillar, which once stood in the middle of the Forum of

Constantine; and this too was there in the days of Theodoric. It is

called the Burnt Column, because it has been more than once struck by

lightning, and is blackened with the smoke of the frequent fires which

have consumed the wooden shanties at its base. But

there it stands, as stands a lofty mind,

Worn, but unstooping to the baser crowd.

It was once 150 feet high, but is now 115, and it consists of six huge

cylinders of porphyry, one above another, whose junction is veiled by

sculptured laurel wreaths. On its summit stood the statue of Constantine

with the garb and attributes of the Grecian Sun-God, but having his head

surrounded with the nails of the True Cross, brought from Jerusalem to

serve instead of the golden rays of far-darting Apollo. Underneath the

column was placed (and remains probably to this day) the Palladium, that

mysterious image of Minerva, which AEneas carried from Troy to Alba

Longa, which his descendants removed to Rome, and which was now brought

by Constantine to his new capital, so near to its first legendary home,

to be the pledge of abiding security to the city by the Bosphorus.

These are the chief relics of Constantinople in the fifth century which

are still visible to the traveller. I have described with some little

detail the outward appearance of the city and its monuments, because

these would naturally be the objects which would most attract the

attention of a child brought from such far different scenes into the

midst of so stately a city. But during the ten or eleven years that

Theodoric remained in honourable captivity at the court of Leo, while he

was growing up from childhood to manhood, it cannot be doubted that he

gradually learned the deeper lessons which lay below the glory and the

glitter of the great city's life, and that the knowledge thus acquired

in those years which are so powerful in moulding character, had a mighty

influence on all his subsequent career.

He saw here for the first time, and by degrees he apprehended, the

results of that state of civilitas which in after years he was to be

constantly recommending to his people. Sprung from a race of hunters and

shepherds, having slowly learned the arts of agriculture, and then

perhaps partly unlearned them under the over-lordship of the nomad Huns,

the Ostrogoths at this time knew nothing of a city life. A city was

probably in their eyes little else than a hindrance to their freebooting

raids, a lair of enemies, a place behind whose sheltering walls, so hard

to batter down, cowards lurked in order to sally forth at a favourable

moment and attack brave men in their rear. At best it was a

treasure-house, which valiant Goths, if Fortune favoured them, might

sack and plunder: but Fortune seldom did favour the children of Gaut in

their assaults upon the fenced cities of the Empire.

Now, however, the lad Theodoric began to perceive, as the man Ataulfus

had perceived before him, that the city life upon which all the proverbs

and the songs of his countrymen poured contempt, had its advantages. To

the New Rome came the incessant ships of Alexandria, bringing corn for

the sustenance of her citizens. Long caravans journeyed over the

highlands of Asia Minor loaded with the spices and jewels of India and

the silks of China. Men of every conceivable Asiatic country were drawn

by the irresistible attraction of hoped-for profit to the quays and the

Fora of Byzantium. The scattered homesteads of the Ostrogothic farmers

had no such wonderful power of drawing men over thousands of miles of

land and sea to visit them. Then the bright and varied life of the

Imperial City could not fail to fill the boy's soul with pleasure and

admiration. The thrill of excitement in the Hippodrome as the two

charioteers, Green and Blue, rounded the spina, neck and neck, the

tragedies acted in the theatre amid rapturous applause, the strange

beasts from every part of the Roman world that roared and fought in the

Amphitheatre, the delicious idleness of the Baths, the chatter and

bargaining and banter of the Forum,--all this made a day in beautiful

Constantinople very unlike a day in the solemn and somewhat rude palace

by Lake Balaton.

As the boy grew to manhood, the deep underlying cause of this difference

perhaps became clearer to his mind. He could see more or less plainly

that the soul which held all this marvellous body of civilisation

together was reverence for Law. He visited perhaps some of the courts of

law; he may have seen the Illustrious Praetorian Prefect, clothed in

Imperial purple, move majestically to the judgment-seat, amid the

obsequious salutations of the dignified officials,[25] who in their

various ranks and orders surrounded the hall. The costly golden

reed-case, the massive silver inkstand, the silver bowl for the

petitions of suitors, all emblems of his office, were placed solemnly

before him, and the pleadings began. Practised advocates arose to plead

the cause of plaintiff or defendant; busy short-hand writers took notes

of the proceedings; at length in calm and measured words the Prefect

gave his judgment; a judgment which was necessarily based on law, which

had to take account of the sayings of jurisconsults, of the stored-up

wisdom of twenty generations of men; a judgment which, notwithstanding

the venality which was the curse of the Empire, was in most instances in

accordance with truth and justice. How different, must Theodoric often

have thought, in after years, when he had returned to Gothland,--how

different was this settled and orderly procedure from the usage of the

barbarians. With them the blood-feud, the wild justice of revenge,

often prolonged from generation to generation, had been long the chief

righter of wrongs done; and if this was now slowly giving place to

judicial trial, that trial was probably a coarse and almost lawless

proceeding, in which the head man of the district, with a hundred

assessors, as ignorant as himself, amid the wild cries of the opposed

parties, roughly fixed the amount of blood-money to be paid by a

murderer, or decided at hap-hazard, often with an obvious reference to

the superior force at the command of one or other of the litigants, some

obscure dispute as to the ownership of a slave or the right to succeed

to a dead man's inheritance.

Law carefully thought out, systematised, and in the main softened and

liberalised, from generation to generation, was the great gift of the

Roman Empire to the world, and by her strong, and uniform, and, in the

main, just administration of this law, that Empire had kept, and in the

days of Theodoric was still keeping, her hold upon a hundred jarring

nationalities. What hope was there that the German intruders into the

lands of the Mediterranean could ever vie with this great achievement?

Yet if they could not, if it was out of their power to reform and

reinvigorate the shattered state, if they could only destroy and not

rebuild, they would exert no abiding influence on the destinies of


I do not say that all these thoughts passed at this time through the

mind of Theodoric, but I have no doubt that the germs of them were sown

by his residence in Constantinople. When he returned, a young man of

eighteen years and of noble presence to the palace of his father, he had

certainly some conception of what the Greeks meant when he heard them

talking about politeia, some foreshadowing of what he himself would

mean when in after days he should speak alike to his Goth and Roman

subjects of the blessings of civilitas.

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