The Rise And Fall Of The Ostrogoths


Odoaker conquers Italy. --Theodoric leads the Ostrogoths to Italy. --He

defeats and slays Odoaker. --He becomes King of Italy. --Chlodwig,

king of the Franks, puts an End to the Roman Rule. --War between

the Franks and Visigoths. --Character of Theodoric's Rule. --His

Death. --His Mausoleum. --End of the Burgundian Kingdom. --Plans of

Justinian. --Belisarius destroys the Va
dal Power in Africa. --He

conquers Vitiges, and overruns Italy. --Narses defeats Totila and

Teias. --End of the Ostrogoths. --Narses summons the Longobards.

--They conquer Italy. --The Exarchy and Rome. --End of the

Migrations of the Races.

[Sidenote: 476. ODOAKER, KING OF ITALY.]

After the death of Ricimer, in 472, Italy, weakened by invasion and

internal dissension, was an easy prey to the first strong hand which

might claim possession. Such a hand was soon found in a Chief named

Odoaker, said to have been a native of the island of Ruegen, in the

Baltic. He commanded a large force, composed of the smaller German

tribes from the banks of the Danube, who had thrown off the yoke of the

Huns. Many of these troops had served the last half-dozen Roman Emperors

whom Ricimer set up or threw down, and they now claimed one-third of the

Italian territory for themselves and their families. When this was

refused, Odoaker, at their head, took the boy Romulus Augustulus

prisoner, banished him, and proclaimed himself king of Italy, in 476,

making Ravenna his capital.

The dynasty at Constantinople still called its dominion "The Roman

Empire," and claimed authority over all the West. But it had not the

means to make its claim acknowledged, and in this emergency the Emperor

Zeno turned to Theodoric, the young king of the Ostrogoths, who had been

brought up at his court, in Constantinople. He was the successor of

three brothers, who, after the dispersion of the Huns, had united some

of the smaller German tribes with the Ostrogoths, and restored the

former power and influence of the race.

[Sidenote: 489.]

Theodoric (who must not be confounded with his namesake, the Visigoth

king, who fell in conquering Attila) was a man of great natural ability,

which had been well developed by his education in Constantinople. He

accepted the appointment of General and Governor from the Emperor, yet

the preparations he made for the expedition to Italy show that he

intended to remain and establish his own kingdom there. It was not a

military march, but the migration of a people, which he headed. The

Ostrogoths and their allies took with them their wives and children,

their herds and household goods: they moved so slowly up the Danube and

across the Alps, now halting to rest and recruit, now fighting a passage

through some hostile tribe, that several years elapsed before they

reached Italy.

Odoaker had reigned fourteen years, with more justice and discretion

than was common in those times, and was able to raise a large force, in

489, to meet the advance of Theodoric. After three severe battles had

been fought, he was forced to take shelter within the strong walls of

Ravenna; but he again sallied forth and attacked the Ostrogoths with

such bravery that he came near defeating them. Finally, in 493, after a

siege of three years, he capitulated, and was soon afterwards

treacherously murdered, by order of Theodoric, at a banquet to which the

latter had invited him.

Having the power in his own hands, Theodoric now threw off his assumed

subjection to the Eastern Empire, put on the Roman purple, and

proclaimed himself king. All Italy, including Sicily, Sardinia and

Corsica, fell at once into his hands; and, having left a portion of the

Ostrogoths behind him, on the Danube, he also claimed all the region

between, in order to preserve a communication with them. He was soon so

strongly settled in his new realm that he had nothing to fear from the

Emperor Zeno and his successors. The latter did not venture to show any

direct signs of hostility towards him, but remained quiet; while, on his

part, beyond seizing a portion of Pannonia, he refrained from

interfering with their rule in the East.

In the West, however, the case was different. Five years before

Theodoric's arrival in Italy, the last relic of Roman power disappeared

forever from Gaul. A general named Syagrius had succeeded to the

command, after the murder of Aetius, and had formed the central

provinces into a Roman state, which was so completely cut off from all

connection with the Empire that it became practically independent. The

Franks, who now held all Northern Gaul and Belgium, from the Rhine to

the Atlantic, with Paris as their capital, were by this time so strong

and well organized, that their king, Chlodwig, boldly challenged

Syagrius to battle. The challenge was accepted: a battle was fought near

Soissons, in the year 486, the Romans were cut to pieces, and the river

Loire became the southern boundary of the Frank kingdom. The territory

between that river and the Pyrenees still belonged to the Visigoths.


While Theodoric was engaged in giving peace, order, and a new prosperity

to the war-worn and desolated lands of Italy, his Frank rival, Chlodwig,

defeated the Alemanni, conquered the Celts of Brittany--then called

Armorica--and thus greatly increased his power. We must return to him

and the history of his dynasty in a later chapter, and will now only

briefly mention those incidents of his reign which brought him into

conflict with Theodoric.

In the year 500, Chlodwig defeated the Burgundians and for a time

rendered them tributary to him. He then turned to the Visigoths and made

the fact of their being Arian Christians a pretext for declaring war

against them. Their king was Alaric II., who had married the daughter of

Theodoric. A battle was fought in 507: the two kings met, and, fighting

hand to hand, Alaric II. was slain by Chlodwig. The latter soon

afterwards took and plundered Toulouse, the Visigoth capital, and

claimed the territory between the Loire and the Garonne.

Theodoric, whose grandson Amalaric (son of Alaric II.) was now king of

the Visigoths, immediately hastened to the relief of the latter. His

military strength was probably too great for Chlodwig to resist, for

there is no report of any great battle having been fought. Theodoric

took possession of Provence, re-established the Loire as the southern

boundary of the Franks, and secured the kingdom of his grandson. The

capital of the Visigoths, however, was changed to Toledo, in Spain. The

Emperor Anastasius, to keep up the pretence of retaining his power in

Gaul, appointed Chlodwig Roman Consul, and sent him a royal diadem and

purple mantle. So much respect was still attached to the name of the

Empire that Chlodwig accepted the title, and was solemnly invested by a

Christian Bishop with the crown and mantle. In the year 511 he died,

having founded the kingdom of France.

[Sidenote: 511.]

The power of Theodoric was not again assailed. As the king of the

Ostrogoths, he ruled over Italy and the islands, and the lands between

the Adriatic and the Danube; as the guardian of the young Amalaric, his

sway extended over Southern France and all of Spain. He was peaceful,

prudent and wise, and his reign, by contrast with the convulsions which

preceded it, was called "a golden age" by his Italian subjects. Although

he and his people were Germanic in blood and Arians in faith, while the

Italians were Roman and Athanasian, he guarded the interests and subdued

the prejudices of both, and the respect which his abilities inspired

preserved peace between them. The murder of Odoaker is a lasting stain

upon his memory: the execution of the philosopher Boethius is another,

scarcely less dark; but, with the exception of these two acts, his reign

was marked by wisdom, justice and tolerance. The surname of "The Great"

was given to him by his contemporaries, not so much to distinguish him

from the Theodoric of the Visigoths, as on account of his eminent

qualities as a ruler. From the year 500 to 526, when he died, he was the

most powerful and important monarch of the civilized world.

During Theodoric's life, Ravenna was the capital of Italy: Rome had lost

her ancient renown, but her Bishops, who were now called Popes, were the

rulers of the Church of the West, and she thus became a religious

capital. The ancient enmity of the Arians and Athanasians had only grown

stronger by time, and Theodoric, although he became popular with the

masses of the people, was always hated by the priests. When he died, a

splendid mausoleum was built for his body, at Ravenna, and still remains

standing. It is a circular tower, resting on an arched base with ten

sides, and surmounted by a dome, which is formed of a single stone,

thirty-six feet in diameter and four feet in thickness. The sarcophagus

in which he was laid was afterwards broken open, by the order of the

Pope of Rome, and his ashes were scattered to the winds, as those of a


When Theodoric died, the enmities of race and sect, which he had

suppressed with a strong hand, broke out afresh. He left behind him a

grandson, Athalaric, only ten years old, to whose mother, Amalasunta,

was entrusted the regency during his minority. His other grandson,

Amalaric, was king of the Visigoths, and sufficiently occupied in

building up his power in Spain. In Italy, the hostility to Amalasunta's

regency was chiefly religious; but the Eastern Emperor on the one side,

and the Franks on the other, were actuated by political considerations.

The former, the last of the great Emperors, Justinian, determined to

recover Italy for the Empire: the latter only waited an opportunity to

get possession of the whole of Gaul. Amalasunta was persuaded to sign a

treaty, by which the territory of Provence was given back to the

Burgundians. The latter were immediately assailed by the sons of

Chlodwig, and in the year 534 the kingdom of Burgundy, after having

stood for 125 years, ceased to exist. Not long afterwards the Visigoths

were driven beyond the Pyrenees, and the whole of what is now France and

Belgium, with a part of Western Switzerland, was in the possession of

the Franks.

[Sidenote: 534. END OF THE VANDALS.]

While these changes were taking place in the West, Justinian had not

been idle in the East. He was fortunate in having two great generals,

Belisarius and Narses, who had already restored the lost prestige of the

Imperial army. His first movement was to recover Northern Africa from

the Vandals, who had now been settled there for a hundred years, and

began to consider themselves the inheritors of the Carthaginian power.

Belisarius, with a fleet and a powerful army, was sent against them.

Here, again, the difference of religious doctrine between the Vandals

and the Romans whom they had subjected, made his task easy. The last

Vandal king, Gelimer, was defeated and besieged in a fortress called

Pappua. After the siege had lasted all winter, Belisarius sent an

officer, Pharas, to demand surrender. Gelimer refused, but added: "If

you will do me a favor, Pharas, send me a loaf of bread, a sponge and a

harp." Pharas, astonished, asked the reason of this request, and Gelimer

answered: "I demand bread, because I have seen none since I have been

besieged here; a sponge, to cool my eyes which are weary with weeping;

and a harp, to sing the story of my misfortunes." Soon afterwards he

surrendered, and in 534 all Northern Africa was restored to Justinian.

The Vandals disappeared from history, as a race, but some of their

descendants, with light hair, blue eyes and fair skins, still live among

the valleys of the Atlas Mountains, where they are called Berbers, and

keep themselves distinct from the Arab population.

[Sidenote: 552.]

Amalasunta, in the mean time, had been murdered by a relative whom she

had chosen to assist her in the government. This gave Justinian a

pretext for interfering, and Belisarius was next sent with his army to

Italy. The Ostrogoths chose a new king, Vitiges, and the struggle which

followed was long and desperate. Rome and Milan were taken and ravaged:

in the latter city 300,000 persons are said to have been slaughtered.

Belisarius finally obtained possession of Ravenna, the Gothic capital,

took Vitiges prisoner and sent him to Constantinople. The Goths

immediately elected another king, Totila, who carried on the struggle

for eleven years longer. Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and even

Alemanni, whose alliance was sought by both sides, flocked to Italy in

the hope of securing booty, and laid waste the regions which Belisarius

and Totila had spared.

When Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople, Narses took his place,

and continued the war with the diminishing remnant of the Ostrogoths.

Finally, in the year 552, in a great battle among the Apennines, Totila

was slain, and the struggle seemed to be at an end. But the Ostrogoths

proclaimed the young prince Teias as their king, and marched southward

under his leadership, to make a last fight for their existence as a

nation. Narses followed, and not far from Cumae, on a mountain opposite

Vesuvius, he cut off their communication with the sea, and forced them

to retreat to a higher position, where there was neither water for

themselves nor food for their animals. Then they took the bridles off

their horses and turned them loose, formed themselves into a solid

square of men, with Teias at their head, and for two whole days fought

with the valor and the desperation of men who know that their cause is

lost, but nevertheless will not yield. Although Teias was slain, they

still stood; and on the third morning Narses allowed the survivors,

about 1,000 in number, to march away, with the promise that they would

leave Italy.

Thus gloriously came to an end, after enduring sixty years, the Gothic

power in Italy, and thus, like a meteor, brightest before it is

quenched, the Gothic name fades from history. The Visigoths retained

their supremacy in Spain until 711, when Roderick, their last king, was

slain by the Saracens, but the Ostrogoths, after this campaign of

Narses, are never heard of again as a people. Between Hermann and

Charlemagne, there is no leader so great as Theodoric, but his empire

died with him. He became the hero of the earliest German songs; his name

and character were celebrated among tribes who had forgotten his

history, and his tomb is one of the few monuments left to us from those

ages of battle, migration and change. The Ostrogoths were scattered and

their traces lost. Some, no doubt, remained in Italy, and became mixed

with the native population; others joined the people which were nearest

to them in blood and habits; and some took refuge among the fastnesses

of the Alps. It is supposed that the Tyrolese, for instance, may be

among their descendants.


The apparent success of Justinian in bringing Italy again under the sway

of the Eastern Empire was also only a flash, before its final

extinction. The Ostrogoths were avenged by one of their kindred races.

Narses remained in Ravenna as vicegerent of the Empire: his government

was stern and harsh, but he restored order to the country, and his

authority became so great as to excite the jealousy of Justinian. After

the latter's death, in 565, it became evident that a plot was formed at

Constantinople to treat Narses as his great cotemporary, Belisarius, had

been treated. He determined to resist, and, in order to make his

position stronger, summoned the Longobards (Long-Beards) to his aid.

This tribe, in the time of Caesar, occupied a part of Northern Germany,

near the mouth of the Elbe. About the end of the fourth century we find

them on the north bank of the Danube, between Bohemia and Hungary. The

history of their wanderings during the intervening period is unknown.

During the reign of Theodoric they overcame their Germanic neighbors,

the Heruli, to whom they had been partially subject: then followed a

fierce struggle with the Gepidae, another Germanic tribe, which

terminated in the year 560 with the defeat and destruction of the

latter. Their king, Kunimund, fell by the hand of Alboin, king of the

Longobards, who had a drinking-cup made of his skull. The Longobards,

though victorious, found themselves surrounded by new neighbors, who

were much worse than the old. The Avars, who are supposed to have been a

branch of the Huns, pressed and harassed them on the East; the Slavonic

tribes of the north descended into Bohemia; and they found themselves

alone between races who were savages in comparison with their own.

[Sidenote: 568.]

The invitation of Narses was followed by a movement similar to that of

the Ostrogoths under Theodoric. Alboin marched with all his people,

their herds and household goods. The passes of the Alps were purposely

left undefended at their approach, and in 568, accompanied by the

fragments of many other Germanic tribes who gave up their homes on the

Danube, they entered Italy and took immediate possession of all the

northern provinces. The city of Pavia, which was strongly fortified,

held out against them for four years, and then, on account of its

strength and gallant resistance, was chosen by Alboin for its capital.

Italy then became the kingdom of the Longobards, and the permanent home

of their race, whose name still exists in the province of Lombardy. Only

Ravenna, Naples and Genoa were still held by the Eastern Emperors,

constituting what was called the Exarchy. Rome was also nominally

subject to Constantinople, although the Popes were beginning to assume

the government of the city. The young republic of Venice, already

organized, was safe on its islands in the Adriatic.

The Migrations of the Races, which were really commenced by the Goths

when they moved from the Baltic to the Black Sea, but which first became

a part of our history in the year 375, terminated with the settlement of

the Longobards in Italy. They therefore occupied two centuries, and form

a grand and stirring period of transition between the Roman Empire and

the Europe of the Middle Ages. With the exception of the invasion of the

Huns, and the slow and rather uneventful encroachment of the Slavonic

race, these great movements were carried out by the kindred tribes who

inhabited the forests of "Germania Magna," in the time of Caesar.