Theodoric the Great

From Academic Kids

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Tomb of Theodoric in Ravenna

Theodoric the Great (454 - August 30, 526), known to the Romans as Flavius Theodoricus, was king of the East Goths, the Ostrogoths (488-526), ruler of Italy (493-526), and regent of the Visigoths (511-526).

The man who ruled under the name of Theodoric (Gothic Thiudareiks, meaning "King of the People") was born in 454 on the banks of the Neusiedler See near Carnuntum, a year after the Ostrogoths had thrown off nearly a century of domination by the Huns. The son of the King Theodemir, Theodoric went to Constantinople as a young boy, as a hostage to secure the Ostrogoths' compliance with a treaty Theodemir had concluded with the Eastern Emperor Leo.

He lived at the court of Constantinople for many years and learned a great deal about Roman government and military tactics, which served him well when he became the Goth ruler of a mixed but largely Romanized people. Treated with favor by the Emperors Leo I and Zeno, he became Magister militum (or Master of Soldiers) in 483,and one year later he became consul. He afterwards returned to live among the Ostrogoths when he was in his early twenties, and became their king in 488.

At the time, the Ostrogoths were settled in Byzantine territory as foederati (allies) of the Romans, but were becoming restless and increasingly difficult for Zeno to manage. Not long after Theodoric became king, the two men worked out an arrangement beneficial to both sides. The Ostrogoths needed a place to live, and Zeno was having serious problems with Odoacer, the King of Italy who had overthrown the western Roman Empire in 476. Ostensibly a viceroy for Zeno, Odoacer was menacing Byzantine territory and not respecting the rights of Roman citizens in Italy. At Zeno's encouragement, Theodoric invaded Odoacer's kingdom.

Theodoric came with his army to Italy in 488, where he won the battles at the Isonzo and at Milan in 489 and at the Adda in 490. In 493 he took Ravenna. Odoacer surrendered and was killed by Theodoric himself.

Like Odoacer, Theodoric was technically only a viceroy for the emperor in Constantinople. In reality, he was able to avoid imperial supervision, and dealings between the emperor and Theodoric were as equals. However, unlike Odoacer, Theodoric respected the agreement he had made and allowed Roman citizens within his kingdom to be subject to Roman law and the Roman judicial system. The Goths, meanwhile, lived under their own laws and customs.

Theodoric the Great was allied with the Franks by his marriage to Audofleda, sister of Clovis I, and with the Visigoths, Vandals and Burgundian kings. Clovis I's ambitions to also rule over the Goths brought on intermittent warfare between 506 and 523. For much of his reign, Theodoric was the de facto king of the Visigoths as well, becoming regent for an infant Visigothic king around 505. The Franks were able to wrest control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths in 507, but otherwise, Theodoric was able to defeat their incursions. Theodoric also stopped the Vandals from raiding his territories by threatening the weak Vandal king Thrasamund with invasion.

Theodoric the Goth was no Frank or Hun. He had great respect for the Roman culture he saw himself as representing. He had an eye for outstanding talent. In about 520 the philosopher Boethius became his magister officiorum, (head of all the government and court services). Boethius was a man of science, a dedicated Hellenist bent on translating all the works of Aristotle into Latin and harmonizing them with the works of Plato, not an easy task. Eventually Boethius fell out of favor with Theodoric, perhaps out of a suspicion that he was in sympathy with Justinian, emperor of the East, for Arian Theodoric was always somewhat of an outsider among these Christians. Theodoric ordered Boethius executed in 525. In the meantime Cassiodorus had succeeded Boethius as magister in 523. The pliant historian and courtier could be counted on to provide refined touches to official correspondence. "To the monarch you [Cassiodorus] were a friendly judge and an honored intimate. For when he got free of his official cares he looked to your conversation for the precepts of the sages, that he might make himself a worthy equal to the great men of old. Ever curious, he wanted to hear about the courses of the stars, the tides of the sea, and legendary fountains, that his earnest study of natural science might make him seem to be a veritable philosopher in the purple" (Cassiodorus' letterbook, Variae 9.24.8). The gulf was widening between the ancient senatorial aristocracy whose center was Rome and the adherents of Gothic rule at Ravenna: other distinguished public figures followed Boethius to the block. Theoderic in his final years was no longer the disengaged Arian patron of religious toleration that he had seemed earlier in his reign. "Indeed, his death cut short what could well have developed into a major persecution of Catholic churches in retaliation for measures taken by Justin in Constantinople against Arians there" O'Donnell 1979, ch. 1 (

Theodoric was of Arian faith. At the end of his reign quarrels arose with his Roman subjects and the Byzantine emperor Justin I over the Arianism issue. Relations between the two nations deteriorated, although Theodoric's ability dissuaded the Byzantines from waging war against him. After his death, that reluctance faded quickly. Theodoric the Great was interred in Ravenna. His mausoleum is one of the finest monuments in Ravenna.

After his death his daughter Amalasuntha reigned as regent for Theodoric's grandson Athalaric, with the able Cassiodorus to smooth the transition,

Fictional treatments

Theodoric's afterlife was described in Epic poetry. Dietrich von Bern in the German epic Nibelungenlied is based on Theodoric the Great. He is also mentioned on the Rk Stone, carved in Sweden in the 800s, and in the Old English Deor and Widsith poems.

A fictionalized, but impressively researched, version of Theodoric's career is presented in Raptor, a novel by Gary Jennings.

The German historian Felix Dahn wrote a fictional treatment on the end of the Ostrogoth kingdom that was influential in spreading a 'vlkische' view on the early middle ages and glorified heroism in the face of certain defeat.

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  • O'Donnell, James J. 1979, Cassiodorus. (University of California Press) [1] (

de:Theoderich der Groe fr:Thodoric le Grand ko:테오도릭 대왕 it:Teodorico nl:Theodorik de Grote ja:テオドリック pl:Teodoryk ru:Теодорих sv:Theoderik den store


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