Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, b. A.D. 454 (?); d. August 26, 526. He was an illegitimate son of Theodomir, of the royal Ostrogothic family of Amali. When eight years old Theodoric was brought as a hostage to the Court of Constantinople. Here he learned to comprehend the education given by ancient civilization. At eighteen he was allowed to return home and became the leader of a great horde of his countrymen, whose increasing numbers drove them to seek new lands. As King of the Qstrogoths he was sometimes an ally, sometimes an enemy, of the emperors. The inconsistencies of his policy may probably be explained by his having as rival another Theodoric, called Strabo (squint-eyed), who was able to influence the Court of Constantinople against him. When Strabo died in 481, Theodoric the Great received from the Emperor Zeno the titles of patricius and magister militum, and in 484 was appointed consul.
Theodoric was now compelled to set out with his own people to conquer new territory. The course to be pursued was suggested by the Emperor Zeno. The Ostrogoths were to expel the usurper Odoacer, and thus the emperor thought to be rid of dangerous neighbors. In 488 Theodoric started on the march with his own people and a large number of Rugians. In 489 he defeated Odoacer on the Nonsa, later at Verona, and in 490 on the Adige. He then besieged him in Ravenna and forced him to surrender in 493. Theodoric promised Odoacer both life and freedom, but murdered him at a banquet fearing perhaps that he might revolt again.
Theodoric’s mastery of Italy being thus established, he at once showed his appreciation of the ancient culture and political organization of the Empire, claiming to be its vicegerent and restorer in Western Europe. His efforts in this capacity were faithfully seconded by his minister Cassiodorus. Proud of his Gothic nationality, Theodoric, unlike the earlier barbarian emperors, believed it possible to reconcile Roman and Germanic interests. His people seemed to him equal to the Romans in antiquity of descent and military renown, and he realized that his power rested solely on Gothic prowess. Apparently his kingdom was a continuation of the Roman Empire; in reality his policy was in direct and fundamental contradiction to the Roman conception, by which all national individuality was to be lost in the State as a whole. This theory of government which sought to suppress nationalities was opposed by Theodoric: he had a profound respect for national independence, and had repeatedly taken up arms to maintain it.
Among his many schemes was a great project to combine in one harmonious system, around the shores of the Mediterranean, all the conflicting barbarian nations, and for this reason he repeatedly aided the Frankish king Clovis against the Alamanni and Visigoths. He based his authority to carry out this wide policy not on his office as vicegerent of the Eastern Emperor, but, as he said, on the leges gentium. The precise degree of his dependence on the Byzantine Empire is not known: he certainly recognized its suzerainty and desired to maintain friendly relations with Constantinople. Still, the “Variae” of Cassiodorus, a collection of documents of the reign of Theodoric, shows that he firmly believed the Western Empire to be continued in his person. The many intermarriages between his family and the royal families of other Germanic kingdoms were undoubtedly intended to prepare the way for the predominance of his dynasty in the West. Yet his supremacy was a divided one: to the Goths he was the king; to the Romans the patrician. Both nations were ruled by their own laws. The Edictum Theodorici of 512 was intended to introduce some degree of uniformity into the criminal law. All Theodoric’s decrees, including this code, were in their language very conciliatory towards the Romans: the Roman population was to consider Gothic supremacy the guarantee of its security and prosperity.
In reality Theodoric’s reign appeared to bring once more a Golden Age to the sorely-tried peninsula. Experts in well-boring were brought from Africa to help restore the cultivation of the waterless country where the woods had been cut down; and swamps were drained. Books of magic and theatres were forbidden, edicts were issued for the protection of ancient monuments. Roman literature once more flourished in Italy: its most brilliant representative was Boethius, who was able to combine the lofty ideals of Christianity with the dignity of the ancient philosophy. While tolerating the Catholic Church, Theodoric considered himself the protector of Arianism; accordingly he sought to intervene diplomatically in favor of the Arians who were being persecuted by Justinian I. Nevertheless he allowed complete freedom to the Catholic Church, at least so far as dogma was concerned, though he considered himself entitled to appoint a pope, or to act as arbitrator in the schism between Symmachus and Laurentius, and in general to bring any ecclesiastic to judgment. This same king who had come to Italy as the emperor’s representative should not, at the end of his reign, have used such barbarous cruelty in suppressing that Roman national revolt against Gothic rule in which the opposition of the Roman Church to Arianism led the pope, Constantinople, and the educated laity to unite. The Senate in its judicial capacity was ordered to try those implicated in this conspiracy, and Boethius and his aged father-in-law, the Senator Symmachus, were condemned to death. Theodoric succumbed to the effects of the bitter conviction that his conciliatory policy had failed, and from that time his health declined. He was buried in the truly regal tomb at Ravenna. At a later date excessive zeal prompted the disinterment of the Arian king, but he continues to live in a wonderful legend, which assumes many forms, as the warrior king of the heroic age of the German people. On stormy nights the peasants still whisper of Dietrich of Berne, as they call Theodoric, riding through the air with his wild followers.