Odovacar and the Ostrogothic kings


The reign of Odovacar (476–93)

In 475, during a period of great turmoil in the western part of the Roman Empire, Orestes (the magister militum of Emperor Julius Nepos) led a rebellion that allowed him to seize power. Nepos was forced to flee to Dalmatia and Orestes was able to raise his son Romulus to the position of emperor. The coup was possible thanks to Orestes’ foederati, Germanic mercenaries to whom he had promised lands in the event of victory.[1] As Orestes did not keep his word on this deal, the troops acclaimed Odovacar as their rex (king) on 23 August 476.

The tribal origin of Odovacar is unclear. Among the ancient sources, John of Antioch stated that Odovacar’s father’s name was Edeko and was possibly an ambassador of Attila. Jordanes described him as a member of the Turlingi or the Rugii,[2] while Marcellinus Comes[3] argued that he was a Goth, which is considered by modern scholars to be unlikely.[4] Odovacar was certainly a mercenary officer who had become a member of the imperial guard in 472. In the following year he became a comes domesticorum[6] of Emperor Glycerius and later a supporter of Julius Nepos, leading a group of foederates consisting of Eruls, Rugii and Turlingi.[6]

Odovacar rebelled against Orestes, defeated him and deposed Romulus Augustulus[7] (who is widely recognized as the last emperor of the western Roman Empire) and handed back all the imperial insignia to the eastern emperor Zeno. As a mark of gratitude, Odovacar requested for himself the title of patricius in order to govern Italy in the name of the eastern emperor. Zeno wrote back, claiming that only the exiled Julius Nepos could agree to this. However, the eastern emperor’s tacit acceptance was conveyed in the way he addressed Odovacar as both rex and patricius.[8]

Odovacar’s position in Italy seemed secure since he was king by popular acclamation and through a certain degree of collaboration with the Roman Senate and apparent acquiescence from the court of Constantinople. Once in power, Odovacar acted swiftly in strengthening his dominion over Italy. He began initially by conquering Sicily from the Vandal king Genseric. This was followed in 481 by his taking control of Dalmatia on the pretext of avenging Julius Nepos’ assassination and in 487 he led his army into victory against the Rugii.[9] After this victory Odovacar acted once again with the utmost respect towards Zeno, sending part of the war booty to him. However, this was not enough to allay concerns over Odovacar’s increasing power. The eastern emperor decided to eliminate the problem by sending Theoderic, leader of the Ostrogoths, to fight him.

Theoderic crossed the Alps with 20,000 troops and met Odovacar for the first time in battle at Pons Isontii on 28 August 489, where the Ostrogoths were victorious although not conclusively so. The following clash on 30 September forced Odovacar to flee to Ravenna. Fortunes seemed to change in Odovacar’s favour when one of his generals, Tufa, managed to kill a few elite Goths, forcing Theoderic to retreat to Pavia (Ticinum). Visigoths came to Theoderic’s help and on 11 August 490 he managed to force Odovacar once again to retreat to Ravenna. This time the Ostrogoths also managed to block the sea route to the town and left Odovacar isolated within it.[10]

Negotiations between the two commanders began on 25 February 493 and, following the advice of Bishop John of Ravenna, Odovacar finally surrendered after a siege that had lasted over two years. Theoderic entered Ravenna ten days later on 5 March. It seems plausible that the initially amicable surrender involved an agreement of joint rule or at least that Odovacar’s life would be spared. If this was the case, then Theoderic did not keep to his word and killed his antagonist during a banquet, most likely alongside the majority of Odovacar’s supporters and relatives.[11] Theoderic had become the new ruler of Italy, elevated by his men to the title of king, the second rex of Italy.

A history of the Ostrogoths

At the beginning of the 4th century, the Hunnic invasions displaced the Gothic tribes and whilst some moved inside the borders of the Roman Empire, others decided to stay and fight the invaders. The Goths were eventually subdued,[12] despite several episodes of suppressed uprising. After the death of Attila the Hun, the Goths tried to win back their independence through the leadership of Valamer, who belonged to the tribe of the Amals.[13] With the help of his two brothers,[14] Valamer resisted the attack of Attila’s son in a victory that was recorded on the day his nephew Theoderic was born in 453/4.[15]

Having won back their independence, the Goths remained divided in three groups within their Pannonian homeland. When their leader Valamer was killed in a battle against the Sciri, his brother Theodemir took over and eliminated the third brother, Vidimer, and consequently raised his own son, Theoderic, as his rightful successor. Following a series of battles engaged by Theodemir against some allies of the Byzantines,[16] a peace treaty was signed between the Byzantine emperor and the Ostrogoths in 461.

Under the terms of the peace treaty that his father had signed with the eastern emperor, Theoderic left for Constantinople in 461 and spent ten years of his life at court as an aristocratic hostage. As a result of his fighting skills and him being a favourite of the emperor, he was elevated to the title of magister militum[17] in 483 and was granted the title of consul and Roman citizen the following year.

Following the death of his father, Theoderic was elected King of the Ostrogoths, leading a people who were becoming restless and increasingly difficult for Emperor Zeno to manage to the extent that in 486 and 487 they attempted to take over the city of Constantinople. At the same time, Odovacar, who had successfully fought against the usurper Orestes and his son Romulus Augustulus in the Italian peninsula, was now engaging a war against the Rugii, allies of the Byzantines. This event presented an opportunity for the Byzantine emperor to deflect the Goths from the eastern empire: Zeno sent Theoderic to Italy to win back from Odovacar the occupied territories of the former western empire in a pact whereby the Goth would hold power until the arrival of the emperor.[18]

Theoderic left for Italy with 20,000 men in 488, leading his troops and marching through Sirmium, which was to become the capital of the Gepids.[19] After stopping for the winter in Slovenia, the army departed for the Italian peninsula and Theoderic engaged in his first battle against Odovacar on 28 August 489. As discussed above, after a few battles and changes in fortunes, Odovacar withdrew to Ravenna.[20] After two and a half years of resistance, Theoderic entered Ravenna on 5 March 493.

Following Odovacar’s death,[21] Theoderic was proclaimed rex. Despite several efforts to receive official recognition from the emperor, the new king was acknowledged only in 497/8 by Anastasius I (491–518).

Theoderic is remembered by ancient[22] and contemporary historians[23] as a great king who carried out works of reconstruction especially in Rome and his capital Ravenna, but he also carefully administered affairs with the Roman Church.[24] The Ostrogoths were Christians but of Arian faith,[25] like many other populations who were invading areas of the former Roman Empire at this time. However, unlike the Vandals who were not tolerant and in fact tried to eradicate the Orthodox faith in the areas of North Africa they had conquered, Theoderic not only appeased the Pope for support, but allowed freedom of faith. Theoderic did maintain, however, a separation between the Germanic elite (of Arian faith) and the native population (of Orthodox faith).[26]In his capital Ravenna, Theoderic erected the only known examples of monumental buildings dedicated to the Arian faith,[27] which coexisted alongside those of the Orthodox faith. These buildings, however, were situated in two different parts of the city.


Theoderic’s Mausoleum, Ravenna (photo: author)


Once king, and in order to establish his power, Theoderic started to create a network of alliances in 493 by marrying Audofleda, sister of the Frankish king Clovis. He also married his sister Amalfrida to the Vandal king Thrasamund in 500. On the battlefield, he defeated the Vandals as well as the Gepids, conquering their territories and their capital Sirmium. In addition to this, he became the de facto ruler of the Visigoths by acting as regent for his grandson Amalric, successor of Alaric II. Finally, he married his daughter Amalasuntha to the Visigoth Eutharic. Eutharic died around 522, leaving Amalasuntha with a son, Athalaric, whom Theoderic designated as his successor.[28]

Troubles for the Ostrogothic kingdom began to emerge at this point as the rightful heir according to tribal custom should have been the eldest male of the Amal family, Theodahad,[29] a choice supported by the court of Constantinople, unlike that of Athalaric.[30] Furthermore, on account of Athalaric’s youth, his mother Amalasuntha wanted to take over the regency. However, the members of the Gothic elite wanted the boy to remain under their care in the fear that she might perhaps remarry or raise the boy to take up Roman customs. To counteract this, she had three members of the elite sent to peripheral areas of the kingdom and consequently murdered, which solved the problem in the short term.[31]

Unfortunately, Athalaric’s health was not good and he died at a young age in 534. Before his death Amalasuntha tried to save her position by electing her cousin Theodahad to the throne, making him swear that he would follow her command.[32] This failed and Amalasuntha was imprisoned by him on an island on Lake Bolsena where she was murdered in the bath on 30 April 535 by the relatives of the three tribal leaders she had put to death.[33]The death of Amalasuntha became a useful expedient for Justinian I (527–65) who sent his magister militum, Belisarius, to the Italian peninsula on the pretext of avenging Amalasuntha’s murder, but his main intention was to regain these territories. Belisarius had a successful expedition in Dalmatia and in 536 he led the conquest of the territories of Naples. Theodahad, who was apparently known more for his philosophical and religious studies than his fighting skills,[34] did not act to defend the town and his kingdom. As a result of his incompetence, he was deposed and killed by a group of leading Goths.

Witigis (536–40), who succeeded him, was an army man who had distinguished himself in several battles, but was not a member of the Amal family. To establish his position, he married Amalasuntha’s daughter, Matasuntha. In 536/7 he prepared for war against the encroaching Byzantines, but he had to retreat to Rimini and then Ravenna. From the capital he tried to negotiate with Belisarius to whom he promised co-regency; the magister militum pretended to accept these terms, but once the doors of the city opened, he detained Witigis and sent him and his wife to Constantinople where he died in 540.[35]

Whilst the Italian peninsula was conquered up to the Po River and the areas in the north were still held by Gothic troops, the Byzantines were under attack from the Persians and Belisarius was called back for the war in the east. The newly elected King of the Ostrogoths, Hildebad, initially shared the power with Urais before murdering him. Hildebad (540–1) was also killed within a short period, possibly in retaliation for his actions.[36] Eraric (541), the leader of the Rugii, claimed the leadership, but was soon murdered and the power passed to Totila (541–52). Totila was known on coinage as Baduila[37] and, according to Procopius, he became the leader of an army composed of several non-Gothic peoples. Baduila managed to retake the lost territories down to Naples or Beneventum in 543, and laid siege to the city of Rome which surrendered on 17 December 546.[38] Baduila attempted a political settlement with Justinian and at the height of his success he offered to give Dalmatia and Sicily to Constantinople, with the payment of an annual tribute and provision of military contingents.[39] However Justinian did not accept and instead prepared to conquer Italy once again by sending Narses who destroyed the Ostrogothic fleet at Ancona in 551.[41] In June/July 552 Baduila and Narses met on the battlefield of Busta Gallorum,[41] where the Ostrogothic king was mortally wounded.[42]

Theia (552–3), one of Baduila’s soldiers, was chosen as his successor. The new king gathered support and tried to fight off the Byzantines with the help of Frankish allies in the battle of Mons Lactarius,[43] but he died on the battlefield.[44] Three Gothic leaders continued to fight, holding onto Pavia, Cumae and Consa della Campania, but Narses wiped out the resistance. By 555 the last regions to fall to Byzantine power were the north-eastern areas of the peninsula held by a Gothic count, Widin, until 561.

[1] Procopius in Cesa 2001, 42.

[2] Jordanes, Getica XLVI, 242, Romana 344.

[3] Marcellinus Comes, Chronicon sine anno, 476.

[4] Heather 1996.

[5] Head of the domestici and a member of the protectores domestici (the protector of the house), the comes domesticorum was the commander of the emperor's personal troops, serving as a bodyguard and staff officer to the emperor.

[6] Cesa 2001, 42; Jordanes, Getica, XLVI, 242.

[7] The Latin suffix -ulus is a diminutive. Romulus officially reigned as Augustus but was nicknamed Augustulus, as he was only a young boy when his father made him emperor.

[8] Cesa 2001, 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Heather 1996, 219.

[11] Cesa 2001, 45; John of Antioch, fr. 214a.

[12] Heather 1996, 98–111.

[13] Ibid., 52.

[14] Heather 1991, 319; Heather 1996, 114. Valamer had united the Pannonian Goths.

[15] Heather 1991, 115.

[16] Ibid., 125.

[17] Carile 1995, 17. The magister militum was one of the highest military ranks in the Roman army.

[18] Ibid., 18.

[19] Ibid., 18.

[20 Heather 1996, 219.

[21] John of Antioch, fr. 214a.

[22] Anonymous Valesiansus, Pars Posterior, 12.70 in Sarris 2011, 108.

[23] Heather 1996, 223; Carile 1996, 19; Sarris 2011, 108.

[24] Heather 1996, 223; Carile 1996, 19; Sarris 2011, 109.

[25] Hanson 1988; Sarris 2011, 108. Arianism is perhaps one of the earliest doctrinal disputes. Arius (256–336) was a presbyter in charge of the church and district of Baucalis in Alexandra, certainly of Libyan origin. Arius became a controversial figure at the Council of Nicaea (321) where he denied the trinity of God, claiming that Jesus is not consubstantial with the Father and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal. Orthodox creed, on the other hand, always maintained that Christ was truly the Son and God. After becoming the faith of a few members of the imperial household, the creed was outlawed in 381 at the Council of Constantinople. The reason why it became the religion of the Goths is related to a Gothic convert called Ulfilas who changed faith whilst Arianism was still flourishing in Constantinople. Ulfilas travelled across the Danube to convert the Gothic tribes and he succeeded in his task, converting the Goths to an Arian form of Christianity. Some populations like the Ostrogoths were more tolerant, while others like the Vandals tried to eradicate the Orthodox faith from the conquered areas of North Africa. The heresy was finally suppressed during the 6th and 7th century.

[26] Sarris 2011, 105.

[27] Still visible in Ravenna are the Palatine church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Basilica of Spirito Santo, the Arian Baptistery located in the Piazzatta degli Ariani (Arians’ Square) as well as his final monument, the Mausoleum of Theoderic, which is located in a now peripheral area of Ravenna and once a long stretch of sand dunes along the ancient coastline.

[28] Athalaric became king at the age of 8 or 10 on the death of his grandfather.

[29] Heather 1996, 254.

[30] Cassiodorus, Variae 8.1.3.

[31] Procopius, De Bellis 5.2.2; Heather 1991, 260.

[32] Procopius, De Bellis 5.4.4.

[33] Ibid., 5.4.12.

[34] Heather 1991, 341; Procopius, De Bellis 5.8.1–11, 9.

[35] Heather 1991, 336.

[36] Heather 1996, 267.

[37] The name Totila is found in Procopius and was probably a war name, whilst Baduila is the only name that appears on the coinage.

[38] Heather 1996, 268.

[39] Procopius, De Bellis 7.37.6–7, 8.24.4.

[40] Ibid., 8.23.

[41] Modern Fabriano in the Marche region.

[42] Procopius, De Bellis 8.28–32.

[43] Now Monti Lattari, in the Campania region.

[44] Procopius, De Bellis 8.33–5.