Theoderic the Great

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Teodorico re dei Goti (493-526).png
Medallion (or triple solidus) featuring Theoderic, c. AD 491–501.[a]
King of the Ostrogoths
Reign475 – 30 August 526
King of Italy
Reign15 March 493 – 30 August 526
King of the Visigoths
Reign511 – 30 August 526
near Carnuntum (now in Lower Austria), Western Roman Empire
Died30 August 526(526-08-30) (aged 71–72)
Ravenna, Ostrogothic Kingdom

Theoderic the Great (454 – 30 August 526), often referred to as Theodoric or Theodoric the Amal (/θiˈɒdərɪk/; Gothic: *𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌰𐍂𐌴𐌹𐌺𐍃, *Þiudareiks, Latin: Flāvius Theodericus, Italian: Teodorico, Greek: Θευδέριχος, Theuderikhos, Old English: Þēodrīc, Old Norse: Þjōðrēkr, German: Theoderich), was king of the Ostrogoths (471–526), and ruler of the independent Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy between 493–526,[3] regent of the Visigoths (511–526), and a patrician of the Roman Empire. As ruler of the combined Gothic realms, Theoderic controlled an empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Adriatic Sea. He kept good relations between Ostrogoths and Romans, maintained a Roman legal administration and oversaw a flourishing scholarly culture and the largest building program in Italy in 100 years.[4]

Youth and early exploits[edit]

Theoderic was born in AD 454 in Pannonia on the banks of the Neusiedler See near Carnuntum, the son of king Theodemir, a Germanic Amali nobleman, and his concubine Ereleuva. This was just a year after the Ostrogoths had thrown off nearly a century of domination by the Huns. His Gothic name, which is reconstructed by linguists as *Þiudareiks, translates into "people-king" or "ruler of the people".[5]

In 461, when Theoderic was but seven or eight years of age, he was taken as a hostage in Constantinople to secure the Ostrogoths' compliance with a treaty Theodemir had concluded with the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Thracian (ruled 457–474). The treaty secured a payment to Constantinople of some 300 pounds worth of gold each year.[6] Theoderic was well educated by Constantinople's best teachers.[7] His status made him valuable, since the Amal family from which he came (as told by Theoderic),[8] allegedly ruled half of all Goths since the third-century AD. Historian Peter Heather avows Theoderic's claims were but aggrandized propaganda and that the Amal dynasty was more limited than modern commentators presume.[9] Until 469, Theoderic remained in Constantinople where he spent formative developmental years "catching up on all the Romanitas" it had taken generations of Visigothic Balthi to acquire.[10] Theoderic was treated with favor by the Emperor Leo I.[11] He learned to read, write, and perform arithmetic while in captivity in the Eastern Empire.[3]

When Leo heard that his imperial army was returning from having been turned back near Pannonia, he sent Theoderic home with gifts and no promises of any commitments.[12][b] On his return in 469/470, Theoderic assumed leadership over the Gothic regions previously ruled by his uncle, Valamir, while his father became king. Not long afterwards near Singidunum-Belgrade in upper Moesia, the Tisza Sarmatian king Babai had extended his authority at Constantinople's expense. Legitimizing his position as a warrior, Theoderic crossed the Danube with six-thousand warriors, defeated the Sarmatians and killed Babai; this moment likely crystallized his position and marked the beginning of his kingship, despite not actually having yet assumed the throne.[14] Perhaps to assert his authority as an Amali prince, Theoderic kept the conquered area of Singidunum for himself.[15]

Throughout the 470s, sometimes in the name of the empire itself, Theoderic launched campaigns against potential Gothic rivals and other enemies of the Eastern Empire, which made him an important military and political figure. One of his chief rivals was the Thervingi chieftain Theodoric Strabo (also known as "the Squinter"), who had led a major revolt against Emperor Zeno. Finding common ground with the Byzantine emperor, Theoderic was rewarded by Zeno and made commander of East Roman forces, while his people became foederati or federates of the Roman army.[16]

Zeno attempted to play one Germanic chieftain against another and take advantage of an opportunity sometime in 476/477—when after hearing demands from Theoderic for new lands since his people were facing a famine—offered Theodoric Strabo the command once belonging to Theoderic. Enraged by this betrayal, Theoderic sought his wrath against the communities in the Rhodope Mountains, where his forces comandeered livestock and slaughtered peasants, sacked and burned Sobi in Macedonia and requisitioned supplies from the archbishop at Heraclea.[17] Such plundering finally elicited a settlement from Zeno, but Theoderic initially refused any compromise. Theoderic sent one of his confidants, Sidimund, forward to Epidaurum for negotiations with Zeno.[18] While the Byzantine envoy and Theoderic were negotiating, Zeno sent troops against some of Theoderic's wagons, which were under the protection of his able general Theodimund. Unaware of this treachery, Theoderic's Goths lost around 2,000 wagons and 5,000 of his people were taken captive.[19]

He settled his people in Epirus in 479 with the help of his relative Sidimund. In 482, he raided Greece and sacked Larissa. Bad luck, rebellions, and a few poor decisions left Zeno in an unfortunate position,[c] which subsequently led him to seek another agreement with Theoderic. In 483, Theoderic became magister militum paesentalis and consul designate in 484, whereby he commanded the Danubian provinces of Dacia Ripensis and Moesia Inferior as well as the adjacent regions.[21]


The Ostrogothic Kingdom (in yellow) at the death of Theoderic the Great (AD 526)

Seeking further gains, Theoderic frequently ravaged the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, eventually threatening Constantinople itself. By 486, there was little disputing the open hostilities between Theoderic and Zeno, which incited the latter to seek the assistance of the Bulgarians, who were likewise defeated by Theoderic.[22] In 487, Theoderic began his aggressive campaign against Constantinople, blockading the city, occupying strategically important suburbs, and cutting off water its water supply, although never intending to occupy the city but instead, to use the assault as a means of gaining power and prestige from the Eastern Empire.[23]

The Ostrogoths needed a place to live, and Zeno was having serious problems with Odoacer, the Germanic foederatus and King of Italy, who although ostensibly viceroy for Zeno, was menacing Byzantine territory and not respecting the rights of Roman citizens in Italy. In 488, Emperor Zeno ordered Theoderic to overthrow Odoacer in which he received support from Rugian king Frideric, the son of Theoderic's cousin Giso. Theoderic moved with his people towards Italy in the autumn of 488.[24] On the way he was opposed by the Gepids, whom he defeated at Sirmium in August 489.[24] Arriving in Italy, Theoderic won the battles of Isonzo and Verona in 489.[25] He was defeated by Odoacer at Faenza in 490, but regained the upper hand after securing victory in the Battle of the Adda River on August 11, 490.[26] In 493 he took Ravenna. On February 2, 493, Theoderic and Odoacer signed a treaty that assured both parties would rule over Italy.[26] The on March 5, 493, Theoderic entered the city of Ravenna.[27] A banquet was organised on 15 March 493 in order to celebrate this treaty.[26] At this feast, Theoderic, after making a toast, killed Odoacer. Theoderic drew his sword and struck him on the collarbone.[26]

With Odaecer dead and his forces dispersed, Theoderic now faced the problem of settlement for his people.[28] Concerned about thinning out the Amal line too much, Theoderic could not afford to spread some 40,000 of his tribesman across the entire Italian peninsula.[29] Such considerations led him to the conclusion that it was best to settle the Ostrogoths in concentrations at three areas: around Pavia, Ravenna, and Picenum.[29]

Theoderic extended his hegemony over the Burgundian and Vandal Kingdoms through marriage alliances. In 511, the Visigothic Kingdom was brought under Theoderic's direct control, forming a Gothic superstate that extended from the Atlantic to the Danube. While territories that were lost to the Franks remained that way, Theoderic concluded a peace arrangement with the heirs of the Frankish Kingdom once their mighty king Clovis was dead.[30]

Brick with the emblem of Theoderic, found in the Temple of Vesta, Rome. It reads "+REG(nante) D(omino) N(ostro) THEODERICO [b]O[n]O ROM(a)E", which translates as With our master Theoderic the Good reigning in Rome [this brick was made].

Like Odoacer, Theoderic was ostensibly only a viceroy for the emperor in Constantinople. In reality, he was able to avoid imperial supervision, and dealings between the emperor and Theoderic were as equals. Unlike Odoacer, however, Theoderic respected the agreement he had made and allowed Roman citizens within his kingdom to be subject to Roman law and the Roman judicial system.[31] The Goths, meanwhile, lived under their own laws and customs. In 519, when a mob had burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, Theoderic ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.

Theoderic sought alliances with, or hegemony over, the other Germanic kingdoms in the west. He allied with the Franks by his marriage to Audofleda, sister of Clovis I, and married his own female relatives to princes or kings of the Visigoths, Vandals and Burgundians. He stopped the Vandals from raiding his territories by threatening the weak Vandal king Thrasamund with invasion, and sent a guard of 5,000 troops with his sister Amalafrida when she married Thrasamund in AD 500. For much of his reign, Theoderic was the de facto king of the Visigoths as well, becoming regent for the infant Visigothic king, his grandson Amalaric, following the defeat of Alaric II by the Franks under Clovis in 507. The Franks were able to wrest control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths, but otherwise Theoderic was able to defeat their incursions.

Theoderic's empire at the height of its power in 523, with territory marked in pink ruled directly by Theoderic and stippled areas under his hegemony.

Theoderic's achievements began to unravel even before his death. He had married off his daughter Amalasuntha to the Visigoth Eutharic, but Eutharic died in August 522 or 523, so no lasting dynastic connection of Ostrogoths and Visigoths was established. In 522, the Catholic Burgundian king Sigismund killed his own son, Theoderic's grandson, Sergeric. Theoderic retaliated by invading the Burgundian kingdom and then annexing its southern part, probably in 523. The rest was ruled by Sigismund's Arian brother Godomar, under Gothic protection against the Franks who had captured Sigismund. This brought the territory ruled by Theoderic to its height (see map), but in 523 or 524 the new Catholic Vandal king Hilderic imprisoned Amalafrida and killed her Gothic guard.

Theoderic's good relations with the Roman Senate deteriorated due to a presumed senatorial conspiracy in 522, and, in 523, Theoderic had the philosopher and court official Boethius and Boethius' father-in-law Symmachus executed on charges of treason related to the alleged plot.

Theoderic was planning an expedition to restore his power over the Vandal kingdom when he died on 30 August 526, and was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric, with Theoderic's daughter Amalasuntha serving as regent. The Visigothic Kingdom re-acquired its independence on Theoderic's death.

Bronze weight, inlaid with silver, with the name of Theoderic, issued by prefect Catulinus in Rome, 493–526

Seeking to restore the glory of ancient Rome, he ruled Italy in its most peaceful and prosperous period since Valentinian I. Memories of his reign made him a hero of German legends, as Dietrich von Bern.

Family and progeny[edit]

Theoderic was married once.

He had a concubine in Moesia, name unknown, with whom he had two daughters:

  • Theodegotha (ca. 473 – ?). In 494, she was married to Alaric II as a part of her father's alliance with the Visigoths.
  • Ostrogotho (ca. 475 – ?).[32] In 494 or 496, she was married to the king Sigismund of Burgundy as a part of her father's alliance with the Burgundians.

By his marriage to Audofleda in 493 he had one daughter:

  • Amalasuntha, Queen of the Goths. She was married to Eutharic and had two children: Athalaric and Matasuntha (the latter being married to Witiges first, then, after Witiges' death, married to Germanus Justinus; neither had children). Any hope for a reconciliation between the Goths and the Romans in the person of a Gotho-Roman Emperor from this family lineage was shattered.

After his death in Ravenna in 526, Theoderic was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric. Athalaric was at first represented by his mother Amalasuntha, who served as regent from 526 until 534. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths, however, began to wane and was conquered by Justinian I in 553 after the Battle of Mons Lactarius.

Building program[edit]

Theoderic promoted the rebuilding of Roman cities and the preservation of ancient monuments in Italy.[33] The fame of his building works reached far-away Syria.[34] Theoderic's building program saw more extensive new construction and restoration than that of any of the Western Roman Emperors after Honorius (395–423).[35]


Mosaic depiction of the front of Theoderic's Palace on the upper part of the south wall of the nave of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Theoderic and his court were removed from the image by the Eastern Romans.

Theoderic devoted most of his architectural attention to his capital, Ravenna.[36] He restored Ravenna's water supply by repairing an aqueduct originally built by Trajan.[36] He proceeded to construct a "Great Basilica of Hercules" next to a colossal statue of Hercules.[36] To promote Arianism, the king commissioned a small Arian cathedral, the Hagia Anastasis, which contains the Arian Baptistery.[37] Three more churches built by Theoderic in Ravenna and its suburbs, S. Andrea dei Goti, S. Giorgio and S. Eusebio, were destroyed in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.[38]

Theoderic built the Palace of Theoderic for himself in Ravenna, modeled on the Great Palace of Constantinople.[39] It was an expansion of an earlier Roman structure.[40] The palace church of Christ the Redeemer survives and is known today as the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo.[41] An equestrian statue of Theoderic was erected in the square in front of the palace.[42] This may have been the Regisole, which was moved to Pavia, then destroyed during the French Revolution by the local Jacobin Club.

The Mausoleum of Theoderic in Ravenna

Theoderic the Great was interred in Ravenna, but his bones were scattered and his mausoleum was converted to a church after Belisarius conquered the city in 540.[43] His mausoleum is one of the finest monuments in Ravenna. Unlike all the other contemporary buildings in Ravenna, which were made of brick, the Mausoleum of Theoderic was built completely from fine quality stone ashlars.[44]


The Palace of Domitian on the Palatine Hill was reconstructed, using the receipts from a specially levied tax.[34] The city walls of Rome were rebuilt, a feat celebrated by the Senate of Rome with a gilded statue of Theoderic.[34] The Senate's Curia, the Theatre of Pompey, the city aqueducts, sewers and a granary were refurbished and repaired.[34] Statues were set up in the Flavian Amphitheatre.[34]


The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, the church of the Palace of Theoderic in Ravenna

In 522 the philosopher Boethius became his magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services). Boethius was a dedicated Hellenist bent on translating all the works of Aristotle into Latin and harmonizing them with the works of Plato. A year later, he was imprisoned and put to death after being accused of treasonous correspondence with the Eastern emperor Justin I.

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 became free from 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 desired 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 Justinian in Constantinople against Arians there."[45]

Theoderic was of the Arian (Christian) 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 Theoderic's ability dissuaded the Byzantines from waging war against him. After his death, that reluctance faded quickly.


Bronze statue of Theoderic the Great (by Peter Vischer the Elder, 1512–13), from the monument of Emperor Maximilian I in the Court Church at Innsbruck

Medieval reception[edit]

Theoderich is an important figure in medieval German literature as the character, Dietrich von Bern, known also in Icelandic literature as Þiðrekr. In German legends, Dietrich becomes an exile from his native kingdom of Lombardy, fighting with the help of Etzel against his usurping uncle, Ermenrich. Only the Old High German Hildebrandslied still contains Odoacer as Dietrich's antagonist. The Old Norse version, based on German sources, moves the location of Dietrich (Thidrek)'s life to Westphalia and northern Germany. The legends paint a generally positive picture of Dietrich, with only some influence from the negative traditions of the church visible.[46][47]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Whether this is a coin at all or a medallion to be only worn around the neck is debated by historians, due to its weight, detail and thickness.[1] The Late Latin inscription of REX THEODERICVS PIVS PRINCIS also confounds, with "princis" possibly meaning, "princ[eps] i[nvictus] s[emper]" (roughly, 'ever-unconquered leader').[2] Note Germanic moustache and hairstyle, and possible elongated skull.
  2. ^ Historian Herwig Wolfram suggests this gesture by Leo may have been taken to elevate the Pannonian Goths against his former general, the rebellious Aspar, who had joined up with Theodoric Strabo.[13]
  3. ^ One of the events comprising Zeno's bad luck was the untimely death of Theodoric Strabo in 481, which resulted from being thrown from a horse and impaled on a supporting tent lance. Otherwise, contends Wolfram, Theoderic might not ever have become "the Great."[20]


  1. ^ Silber 1970, p. 42.
  2. ^ Steffens 1903, p. 3.
  3. ^ a b Frassetto 2003, p. 335.
  4. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 74, 95.
  5. ^ Langer 1968, p. 159.
  6. ^ Heather 2013, pp. 4–5.
  7. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 73.
  8. ^ Geary 1999, p. 122.
  9. ^ Heather 2013, p. 6.
  10. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 262.
  11. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 263.
  12. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 265.
  13. ^ Wolfram 1988, pp. 264–265.
  14. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 267.
  15. ^ Burns 1991, p. 56.
  16. ^ Frassetto 2003, p. 337.
  17. ^ Burns 1991, pp. 58–59.
  18. ^ Burns 1991, p. 59.
  19. ^ Burns 1991, p. 63.
  20. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 276.
  21. ^ Burns 1991, p. 64.
  22. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 277.
  23. ^ Wolfram 1988, pp. 277–278.
  24. ^ a b Heather 2013, p. 50.
  25. ^ Heather 2013, pp. 50–51.
  26. ^ a b c d Heather 2013, p. 51.
  27. ^ Elton 2018, p. 221.
  28. ^ Burns 1991, p. 80.
  29. ^ a b Burns 1991, p. 81.
  30. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 245.
  31. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 74.
  32. ^ Dailey 2015, p. 88.
  33. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 76.
  34. ^ a b c d e Johnson 1988, p. 77.
  35. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 95.
  36. ^ a b c Johnson 1988, p. 78.
  37. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 79.
  38. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 80.
  39. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 82.
  40. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 81.
  41. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 85.
  42. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 87.
  43. ^ Ring, Salkin & La Boda 1996, p. 556.
  44. ^ Johnson 1988, p. 93, 96.
  45. ^ O'Donnell 1995.
  46. ^ Haymes & Samples 1996, pp. 20-21.
  47. ^ Heinzle 1999, pp. 1-10.


  • Burns, Thomas (1991). A History of the Ostrogoths. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-25320-600-8.
  • Dailey, E. T. (2015). Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite. Leiden; Boston: Brill. ISBN 978-9-00429-089-1.
  • Elton, Hugh (2018). The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity: A Political and Military History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-10845-631-9.
  • Frassetto, Michael (2003). Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-263-9.
  • Geary, Patrick J. (1999). "Barbarians and Ethnicity". In G.W. Bowersock; Peter Brown; Oleg Grabar (eds.). Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-67451-173-6.
  • Haymes, Edward R.; Samples, Susan T. (1996). Heroic legends of the North: an introduction to the Nibelung and Dietrich cycles. New York: Garland. ISBN 0815300336.
  • Heather, Peter (2013). The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-936851-8.
  • Heinzle, Joachim (1999). Einführung in die mittelhochdeutsche Dietrichepik. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-015094-8.
  • Johnson, Mark J. (1988). "Toward a History of Theoderic's Building Program". Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 42: 73–96.
  • Langer, William L. (1968). "Italy, 489–554". An Encyclopedia of World History. George G. Harrap and Co.
  • O'Donnell, James (1995). "Cassiodorus". Georgetown University online text. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Retrieved 16 July 2017.
  • Ring, Trudy; Salkin, Robert M.; La Boda, Sharon (1996). International Dictionary of Historic Places: Southern Europe. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-884964-02-2.CS1 maint: Date and year (link)
  • Silber, Manfred (1970). The Gallic Royalty of the Merovingians in Its Relationship to the Orbis Terrarum Romanum During the 5th and the 6th Centuries A.D. Zürich: Peter Lang.
  • Steffens, Franz (1903). Lateinische Paläographie: Hundert Tafeln in Lichtdruck, mit gegenüberstehender Transscription, nebst Erläuterungen und einer systematischen Darstellung der Entwicklung der lateinischen Schrift. Freiburg: Universitäts-Buchhandlung. Retrieved 19 April 2019 – via Google Books.
  • Wolfram, Herwig (1988). History of the Goths. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05259-5.

Further reading[edit]

Related links[edit]

Preceded by
King of the Ostrogoths
Succeeded by
Preceded by
King of Italy
Preceded by
Anicius Acilius Aginatius Faustus,
Post consulatum Trocundis (East)
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Decius Marius Venantius Basilius
Succeeded by
Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus,
Post consulatum Theoderici (East)