Theodoric the Great

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Medallion from Senigallia with the portrait of Theodoric.

Theodoric the Great ( Flavius ​​Theodericus Rex ; * 451/56 in Pannonia , † August 30, 526 in Ravenna ) was a king of the Ostrogoths from the Amal family . Theodoric, who is regarded as one of the most important personalities of the late ancient migration period , also acted temporarily as ruler of the Visigoth Empire and ruled Italy after his victory over Odoacer . His legal status, whether he ruled in the name of the Eastern Roman emperor over the Western Roman Empire or as ruler only over the Ostrogoths , is disputed.

Theodoric is considered to be the historical model for Dietrich von Bern ("Theodoric von Verona") in Germanic medieval heroic poetry .


Youth and the Conquest of Italy

Justinian's mosaic, probably a reworked image of Theodoric in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

There is hardly any reliable information about Theoderich's youth, and the year of birth is also used differently in research (between 451 and 456). His father was Thiudimir , a leader of Gothic foederati . In his youth Theodoric was hostage at the court of the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I in Constantinople (probably from around 459 to 469), where he presumably received rudimentary knowledge of Roman administrative and rulership practice. During this time, the Eastern Roman court was dominated by the magister militum (army master) Aspar , whose example Theoderich is said to have referred to later when the question arose as to why he did not want to become emperor himself. He returned to Pannonia around 469 and took over the leadership of one of the Gothic warrior groups operating there. After he was raised as king of the army in 471 , he succeeded his father Thiudimir as rex of the Goths Association in 474 , who had relocated his federal empire from Pannonia to Macedonia. In 476, Theodoric moved the seat of the Gothic foederati back to the Danube and later served in the imperial Eastern Roman army as a high officer in the Balkans . Theodoric was appointed magister militum by the emperor in 481, after the death of his rival and possibly relative Theoderich Strabo , whose followers now passed on to him , and in 484 also held the consulate - one of the highest dignities in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, strong tensions remained between Theodoric and the now emperor Zenon , and in 486/87 there were also fights.

At the end of 488, Theodoric was confirmed as magister militum by Zenon , appointed patricius and commissioned with a campaign against Odoacer in Italy . Whether Theodoric went to Italy of his own volition or under pressure from the emperor is controversial in research, but the alliance ( foedus ) was advantageous for both sides: Theodoric was able to win his own empire (although Zenon only formally sent Theoderic as his deputy) , while Zenon got rid of the uncomfortable general, whose Goths were operating in dangerous proximity to Constantinople, and at the same time was able to fight the rebellious Odoacer. Theodoric moved to Italy in 489 with around 20,000 warriors and their families. In addition to the approximately 20,000 predominantly Gothic foederati , approximately 80,000 other people were added, so that a total of approximately 100,000 people can be assumed. Romans and Vandals were also involved on both sides in the ensuing conflict, which caused devastation, especially in northern Italy. After the initially changeable course of the war, Theodoric was able to achieve two decisive victories in the summer of 490, first near Verona and then again on the Adda river, and in 491, when Zenon died, he controlled most of Italy. The bloody battle near Verona in particular seems to have made a great impression on contemporaries and to have increased Theodoric's fame. He then besieged Ravenna , which was considered impregnable for two years, but was unable to conquer the royal seat even after the Battle of Raven in 493 and therefore agreed to an understanding with Odoacer. Only a few days later he had his opponent killed for reasons of power politics (and less out of revenge for the murder of the Rugian royal family, as Theodoric later claimed) at a banquet and his attendants in the hall. Theoderich is said to have killed Odoaker himself. He then had numerous other men killed who were considered supporters of his rival.

The "good" years

Edictum Theodorici regis . Fragment. 512

In research it is controversial on which basis Theodoric ruled from then on. After Odoacer's murder, however, he assumed a position that made him virtually independent in Italy. For a long time he tried to get Constantinople to recognize his rule, which he received from Emperor Anastasius in 497/98 . Theodoric was now not only the leader of his Gothic warriors, but also the head of the Western Roman government. He was considered by the Romans as the administrator of Italy appointed by the emperor, while at the same time he remained rex or king of the Ostrogoths; his official self-designation was Flavius ​​Theodericus rex . The rank of patricius conferred on him by Zenon , in connection with the position as magister militum in western Rome (but not in the east), also marked the de facto head of government for decades, and the Gothic warriors led by Theodoric were in Roman service as foederati from the imperial point of view . At the same time Anastasius sent Theoderic the ornamenta palatii , i.e. the insignia of the western empire, which Odoacer had sent to Constantinople in 476: this may have been an invitation to the Goths to raise a new Augustus for Italy. If that was the case, Theodoric did not comply with this request.

The Arian Ostrogoth achieved a long-lasting peace in the interior through equal but separate treatment of Roman-Italic ( Nicene Christians) and Germanic (Arian Christians) followers and officials. This policy was facilitated by the Akakian schism between western and eastern Christianity at the time, as neither the Arian warriors nor the Catholic civilians of Italy were in communion with the Orthodox emperor. The Eastern Roman historian Prokopios of Caesarea later praised the rex as a just and strong ruler who was a true emperor in everything but his title. Even the Anonymus Valesianus praised Theodoric to the skies.

Theodoric achieved the settlement of the Goths in Italy without a major confrontation with the Italians. The resistance was so low that some researchers - such as the American Medievalist Walter A. Goffart - assume that there were no expropriations of the Romans, but that the Goths only received fallow land and a share of the taxes . If this is the case, an explanation for the largely peaceful coexistence between the still rich Italian Senate aristocracy and the Ostrogothic foederati would be found - although this thesis is not undisputed and the relevant discussion is not yet complete. Or perhaps the Goths were given abandoned land that had previously belonged to Odoacer's followers. In any case, it can be said that patricius Liberius , who on behalf of the Goths, as Praetorian prefect, carried out the settlement and accommodation of the Germanic warriors, fulfilled this task in a very short time and was widely praised for his approach - especially by the Roman landowners . It is possible that Theodoric's warriors simply took the position previously occupied by the men of Odoacer, who in turn had inherited the regular Western Roman army ( exercitus Romanus ) in 476 , so that there was no significant change.

Theodoric placed himself in the tradition of men like Ricimer , thus pretending to be the leader of his Gothic warriors on the one hand and the Western Roman "head of government" on the other. He had numerous buildings erected or renewed; Particularly noteworthy is the further development of Ravenna. In Rome, too, extensive renovations were made to the ancient buildings. In the administration, Theodoric continued largely seamlessly from late Roman practice. The Western Roman Senate was honored by him, and numerous Romans - such as Boethius and Cassiodor , who functioned as Theodoric's magister officiorum - served the king in high administrative offices, occasionally also as generals. He also continued to appoint consuls, who were soon also recognized by Ostrom, and had numerous monetary donations distributed on the occasion of his anniversaries and circus games ; Statues of him were also erected, and the Romans occasionally even referred to him as Augustus . An example of Theodoric's legal practice is the so-called Edictum Theoderici . The late antique culture in Italy, which had not experienced a break even under Odoacer, continued to flourish under the rule of the Goths. The highly educated philosopher Boethius , who translated Greek texts into Latin, acted as a high civil servant, while his father-in-law Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus wrote a Historia Romana (now a fragment has been lost) .

Theodoric's monogram on the upper edge of the capital of a column of the Venetian Palace in the Piazza del Popolo in the center of Ravenna.

In matters of religion the Arian Theodoric showed himself tolerant and endeavored to find a balance. In a letter to the Jews he let it be known: "We cannot order religion, since it will not occur to anyone that he believes against his will". In 498 he decided a controversial papal election between Laurentius and Symmachus in favor of the latter. This led to the so-called Laurentian schism . Symmachus could only prevail in 506. During Theodoric's reign there was no religious persecution (e.g. against Catholics or Jews). Theodoric also acted cautiously in the Akakian schism, which in the meantime (until 519) alienated the Eastern and Western Roman Church on the question of how to deal with the Monophysite Christians , although the alienation suited him well both as an Arian and politically. At the same time, however, he promoted the Arian creed wherever possible and had Arian churches built or expanded. The magnificent Codex Argenteus , a precious manuscript of the Gothic translation of the Bible , was produced in Italy during his reign.

The most stubborn competitor was the Franconian Clovis I until his death, who fought Theodoric's alliance policy, which aimed at the integration of the Germanic empires (see Migration ), and who had allied himself with Anastasius against the West and Ostrogoths around 507. The fact that Theodoric had married the Franconian Merovingian Audofleda  - daughter of Childerich I and sister of Clovis - as part of his anti-Eastern marriage and alliance policy in 493 did nothing to change this. In these years, Theodoric practiced as successors of the Western Roman government de facto a hegemony over the foederati of the west, although he recognized at least nominal sovereignty of the emperor.

Theodoric's "foreign policy" was initially very successful and secured the borders of his Italian empire, but ultimately it was unsuccessful: When Clovis defeated and killed the Visigoth king Alaric II in 507, Theodoric took some hesitation (he was bound in the Balkans, where there was fighting with Ostrom at that time) a; the Gallic part of the Visigothic Empire fell largely to the Franks. After an intra-Gothic war (until 511), he became the guardian of the still underage rex of the Visigoths (his grandson Amalaric ) and their ruler. In 515 he married his daughter Amalasuntha to the Visigothic Amaler Eutharich , but he died only a little later (approx. 523), so that the dynastic connection between the Visigothic and Eastern Gothic empires was only an episode. Theodoric could not also prevent the allied with him Herulians in the Balkans by the Lombards were defeated.

Death and Outlook

Empire of Theodoric 508 AD

As already described, the Roman culture of late antiquity experienced a remarkable rejuvenation under Theodoric, and several researchers still count the Eastern Gothic period of Italy as part of Western Roman history due to numerous continuities. The good impression was, however, tarnished in the last years of Theodoric's reign. The background to the events was party struggles at the court of Ravenna between the pro (east) Roman and the anti-imperial factions and between various groups within the Senate . Senator Boethius , magister officiorum and an important scholar, had protected himself in front of Senator Flavius ​​Albinus iunior , who had confessed to a compromising correspondence with Constantinople and was therefore accused of treason by the court official Cyprianus and other god-friendly senators. Apparently, Boethius had acted quite clumsily, the result was that charges were brought against himself and he was executed some time later (still 524 or not until 526). The verdict was not made by Theodoric, but by a senate court. The father-in-law of Boethius, the prominent Senator Symmachus, was eventually condemned and executed by his peers - but whether Theodoric really interfered and behaved incorrectly in these cases is often doubted today: both the indictment and the conviction went back to Roman senators. In late antique sources ( Anonymus Valesianus , Prokopios ) the Goth is criticized for his approach, however, because he did not use the given opportunity to prevent the executions.

The tomb of Theodoric the Great in Theodoric Park ( Parco di Teodorico ) of Ravenna

From 518 onwards Ostrom showed increased interest in what was going on in the West, and from 519 on there was again a church union between the emperor and the Catholic Christians of Italy. Theodoric felt threatened - perhaps with good reason - and evidently reacted sensitively. For the first time, religious political measures were taken against Catholics whom he suspected of colluding with Ostrom. His plan for a Germanic alliance system (with the Burgundians and Visigoths) had failed. Likewise, his marriage and succession policy had no lasting success. Theodoric had no son. But still in 519 he succeeded in having his son-in-law Eutharich adopted by the new Eastern Roman Emperor Justin I as his son in arms ( adoptio ad armas ), which could be understood as an imperial declaration of guarantee for the rule of the Amals. The early death of the presumptive successor thwarted this hope, but the emperor at least considered Eutharich's little son Athalaric to be legitimate.

Theodoric's death ushered in the end of Ostrogothic rule over Italy, as there were soon disputes over the throne. Theoderic's successor was his underage grandson Athalaric, who died in 534 and for whom his mother Amalasuntha, a daughter of Theoderic (another daughter named Thiudigotho had been married to the Visigoth King around 494), had run the business of government. This was ousted from power by her relative Theodahad . Emperor Justinian , in whose eyes only direct descendants of Theodoric had the right to rule Italy in the imperial name, seized the opportunity and had the old heartland of western Rome conquered by his generals Belisarius and Narses (535 to approx. 552). The last phase of this war in particular caused such severe damage to the Italian economy that many ancient traditions broke off.

Theodoric's monumental tomb in Ravenna, one of the most original buildings of late antiquity, is empty today. A contemporary portrait of Theodoric has been preserved on the gold medallion from Senigallia , which is now in the Museo Nazionale Romano .


Bronze statue of Theodoric (1512/13) by Peter Vischer the Elder Ä. in the Innsbruck court church

Theodoric the Great, like Attila , Gunther and Ermanarich, is one of the few figures from the period of the Great Migration whose memory remained alive for centuries in the oral heroic epic . As Dietrich von Bern - ie "Theodoric von Verona" - he plays an important role in the German heroic saga ( Dietrichepik ) and also appears in the Nibelungen saga . The formation of the legends turns the historical facts on their head: Dietrich is expelled from his legacy Italy in the legend, has to spend many years in exile with the Hun Etzel / Attila and on his return massive battles around Verona (which was called Bern in the Middle Ages ) and Ravenna ("Raven Battle") exist.

A memorial plaque for him was placed in the Walhalla near Regensburg .


Important sources include the Anonymus Valesianus (2nd part), the historical work of Malchus of Philadelphia (only fragmentary preserved) as well as some passages in the work of Prokopios of Caesarea (especially Bella , 5th book). Also Magnus Felix and Ennodius Jordanes (although not always reliable) provide useful information, as do the various legislative acts. The Variae Cassiodors , collected documents and files of the Ostrogoth chancellery, which allow a very detailed insight into the inner structure of the Ostrogoth realm , are of great importance . Cassiodor's brief chronicle has also been preserved , whereas his Gothic story has been lost; but it was used by Jordanes (to what extent is unclear).

Editions and translations

  • Ludwig Janus (ed.): Letters from the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great and his successors. From the "Variae" of Cassiodorus. Introduced, translated and commented by Peter Dinzelbacher . Mattes, Heidelberg 2010, ISBN 978-3-86809-033-8 .
  • Ingemar König : From the time of Theodoric the Great. Introduction, text, translation and commentary from an anonymous source (= texts on research. Vol. 69). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1997, ISBN 3-534-13277-7 (Anonymus Valesianus II).


Overview works and specialist articles
Lexicon article
Source studies and reception
  • Michael Dallapiazza: Theoderic. In: Peter von Möllendorff , Annette Simonis, Linda Simonis (ed.): Historical figures of antiquity. Reception in literature, art and music (= Der Neue Pauly . Supplements. Volume 8). Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2013, ISBN 978-3-476-02468-8 , Sp. 977-988.
  • Andreas Goltz: barbarian - king - tyrant. The image of Theodoric the Great in the tradition of the 5th to 9th centuries (= Millennium Studies, Vol. 12). de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 2008, ISBN 978-3-11-018985-8 .
  • Elisabeth Lienert (ed.): Dietrich testimony from the 6th to the 16th century (= texts and studies on Middle High German heroic epics, vol. 4). Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-484-64504-2 .
  • Edith Marold : Change and constancy in the representation of the figure of Dietrich von Bern. In: Heinrich Beck (Hrsg.): Heldensage und Heldendichtung in Germanic (= Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Supplementary volumes. Vol. 2). de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1988, ISBN 3-11-011175-6 , pp. 149-182.

Web links

Commons : Theodoric the Great  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Cf. Herwig Wolfram: Theodoric the Great. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde (RGA). 2nd Edition. Volume 30, Berlin et al. 2005, p. 415 ff.
  2. Anders Wilhelm Enßlin: Theodoric the Great. 2nd edition, Munich 1959, p. 13; accordingly Theodoric did not come to Constantinople until 461.
  3. Cf. Theodor Mommsen (Ed.): Acta Synhodorum habitarum Romae. In: Monumenta Germaniae Historica . 1: Scriptores. 1: Auctores antiquissimi. Volume 12. Weidmann, Berlin 1894, pp. 392-455, here p. 425 .
  4. ^ After Wilhelm Enßlin: Theodoric the Great. 2nd edition, Munich 1959, p. 33, Theodoric did not leave Constantinople until 471. The fact that Theoderich celebrated his 30th anniversary in 500 and this can be traced back to a victory in 470 (after his return to the Goths) speaks against it, see. Herwig Wolfram : The Goths. 4th edition. Munich 2001, p. 264 ff.
  5. ^ On the unclear and much discussed position of Theodoric in Italy cf. including Wilhelm Enßlin: Theodoric the Great. 2nd edition, Munich 1959, p. 74 ff .; John Moorhead: Theoderic in Italy. Oxford 1992, p. 32 ff .; Herwig Wolfram: The Goths. 4th edition. Munich 2001, p. 286 ff.
  6. ^ Overview in Wilhelm Enßlin: Theodoric the Great. 2nd edition, Munich 1959, p. 62 ff .; Herwig Wolfram: The Goths. 4th edition. Munich 2001, p. 279 ff.
  7. See Henning Börm : Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-17-023276-1 , pp. 129 ff. See also Hans-Ulrich Wiemer : Odovakar and Theoderich. Concepts of power after the end of the empire in the west . In: Mischa Meier , Steffen Patzold (Ed.): Chlodwigs Welt. Organization of rule around 500 . Steiner, Stuttgart 2014, pp. 293–338.
  8. See Henning Börm: The Western Roman Empire after 476 . In: Henning Börm, Norbert Ehrhardt , Josef Wiesehöfer (eds.): Monumentum et instrumentum inscriptum. Inscribed objects from the imperial era and late antiquity as historical evidence. Festschrift for Peter Weiß on his 65th birthday. Steiner, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-515-09239-5 , p. 47 ff.
  9. ^ Walter Goffart : Barbarians and Romans AD 418-584. The techniques of accommodation. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1980, ISBN 0-691-05303-0 .
  10. ^ So in a famous inscription (ILS 827). Cf. Herwig Wolfram: The Goths. 4th edition. Munich 2001, p. 288. In the latest research, it is occasionally assumed that Theodoric was literally an emperor, but in the tradition of the principate ; see. Arnold (2014).
  11. On the Gothic administration in Italy and on the culture there, cf. general Wilhelm Enßlin: Theodoric the great. 2nd Edition. Munich 1959, p. 237 ff .; John Moorhead: Theoderic in Italy. Oxford 1992, p. 66 ff. And p. 140 ff.
  12. ^ " Religionem imperare non possumus, quia nemo cogitur ut credat invitus ", quoted from Karl von Montalembert : Die Mönche des Abendlandes vom h. Benedict until h. Bernhard. German edition by P. Karl Brandes approved by the author. Volume 2. Manz, Regensburg 1860, p. 80 ( Memento of the original dated February 6, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  13. For example Henning Börm: Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-17-023276-1 ; Massimiliano Vitiello: Momenti di Roma ostrogota. Aduentus, Solid, Politica (= Historia . Individual writings. Vol. 188). Steiner, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-515-08688-9 .
  14. ^ Giuseppe Bovini: Ravenna. Art and history. Longo, Ravenna 1991, p. 123; Philipp von Rummel : Habitus barbarus. Clothing and representation of late antique elites in the 4th and 5th centuries (= Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Supplementary volumes. Vol. 55). de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 2007, ISBN 978-3-11-019150-9 , p. 258.
  15. Detailed overview from Andreas Goltz: Barbar - König - Tyrann. The image of Theodoric the Great in tradition from the 5th to 9th centuries. Berlin et al. 2008.
predecessor Office successor
Thiudimir King of the Ostrogoths
Gesalech King of the Visigoths