Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Theoderic's Evil Days

Happy would it have been for Theoderic if he had died in the beginning of the year 523, instead of living three years longer. Till that time he had succeeded in all his undertakings; he possessed the respect and affection of the great mass of his subjects; and he had never committed any great mistake, or shown himself unfaithful to the noble ideal of justice and mercy which he had set himself to realize. In the last three years of his life all this was changed. He discovered, or was made to believe, that those in whom he had most implicitly trusted were conspiring for his ruin. His mind, worn by age and by the cares of his laborious reign, became a prey to universal suspicion, which impelled him to rash and violent deeds strangely at variance with the whole spirit of his reign. The benefactor of Italy died full of remorse and sham for the acts of folly and wrong which had gone so far to undo the work of thirty toilsome years.

The beginning of trouble was early in the year 523, when Cyprian, one of the king's chief ministers, informed Theoderic, then at Verona, that Albinus, a wealthy Roman noble and a senator, was guilty of entertaining a treasonable correspondence with the emperor at Constantinople. A court, composed of the ministers and the principal senators was assembled in the royal palace to hear the case. Albinus was confronted with his accuser, and denied the charge. Amongst those who were present was Boethius, of whose wealth and influence, as well as his fame as a philosopher and a man of science, we have already spoken. On hearing the accusations against Albinus, Boethius lifted up his voice with the words: "My lord the king, the charge is false. If Albinus be guilty, so am I, and so is every other member of the senate!"

But instead of protecting Albinus, as Boethius expected it would, this emphatic declaration only drew down suspicion upon himself. Witness after witness, all of them members of the senate, came forward, and brought what seemed to be clear proof that not only Albinus, but Boethius also, had been plotting against his sovereign. The accused were captured at Pavia, and thrown into prison. The written testimony of the witnesses was sent to Rome, and laid before the senate, who unanimously condemned Boethius to death, without allowing him to answer for himself or to cross-question his accusers. What became of Albinus history does not say.

Boethius was not put to death at once, but was kept nearly a year in prison. After his condemnation he wrote that famous book "The Consolation of Philosophy," which is the only one of all his works that still finds readers. It is not exactly a literary masterpiece, but as a book written from the heart, as the record of the meditations by which a brave and high-minded man consoled himself when, fallen suddenly from the height of wealth and power to the lowest abyss of misery, he was looking forward to an ignominious death, it has a deep interest, and will always be counted among the world's classics. It has been translated into every language in Europe; and amongst the English translators have been King Alfred, Chaucer, and, we are told, Queen Elizabeth.

Whether Boethius was really guilty of treason will never be known for certain. He says himself that the evidence on which he was condemned consisted partly of forged letters; but his words imply that his own conduct had given some ground for suspicion. It seems most likely that he had been drawn into some correspondence with Constantinople inconsistent with his duty to his king, but that his enemies had resorted to falsehood and forgery to strengthen their case against him. One of the charges, it seems, was that he had tried to compass the king's death by witchcraft; in those days a very likely accusation to be brought against the most learned man of science of the age.

It is worth notice that Boethius himself, though smarting under the injustice of his sentence, does not omit to bear testimony to the love of righteousness shown by the king in earlier days, and to record the indignation which he always showed at any act of oppression on the part of his Gothic ministers:

After the death of Boethius, his father-in-law, the aged Symmachus, was sent for to Ravenna, and executed, apparently without a trial, and for no other reason than that it was feared that he would conspire to avenge his relative. The wild panic which possessed Theoderic's mind is shown by his issuing an edict forbidding all Romans, under heavy penalties, to carry or possess arms.

Even the policy of religious liberty, which Theoderic had regarded as one of the proudest glories of his reign, was now to be abandoned. This change was provoked by the conduct of the court of Constantinople, which in the year 524 decreed that the Arian churches throughout the empire should be taken from their rightful owners and consecrated afresh for Catholic use. The news filled Theoderic with the fiercest indignation. He sent for the Pope, John the First, and compelled him at once to set out for Constantinople as his ambassador, to demand from the emperor the restoration of his Arian subjects to their former rights.

Pope John was received by the emperor with the profoundest demonstrations of respect. It is even said that Justin submitted to the ceremony of a second coronation, by way of testifying his reverence for the head of the Christian Church, The pope was well assured that if he returned to Italy without having accomplished his errand his life would be forfeited; and so, against his will, he achieved the distinction of being the only Roman pontiff who ever pleaded with a Catholic monarch for the toleration of heretics. He represented to the emperor the danger which would be incurred by himself and the church of Italy if the request were refused. Justin was constrained to yield. The edict was repealed; the Arian churches were given back to their original possessors. Theoderic's demands were fully complied with except in one point; the Arians whom fear or interest had induced to join the Catholic Church were not to be allowed to apostatize back again.

The pope returned to Italy to announce the success of his embassy. But Theoderic had been informed—whether truly or falsely we cannot tell that his strangely chosen messenger had taken advantage of his visit to Constantinople to betray to the emperor the weakness of the kingdom, and to urge him to attempt an invasion. The pope was thrown into prison, where he died in May, 526; and the king, feeling now that the whole Catholic Church had become his enemy, promulgated a decree that the orthodox worship should be suppressed, and that the churches should on a given day be transferred to Arian hands. But before the edict could be carried into effect Theoderic was dead.

It was in August, 526, he was seized with his fatal illness. A story, which may or may not be true, ascribes this sickness to the terrors of a guilty conscience. It is said that when seated at supper he fancied that he discovered in the head of a large fish that had been placed on the table a likeness to Symmachus, and rushed from the room exclaiming that the face of the murdered senator was looking at him with eyes full of hatred and revenge. He then took to his bed, complaining of deadly cold which nothing could remove. His frenzied delusion passed away, but the self-reproach that had caused it continued, and he expressed to his physician, his bitter repentance for the murders of Symmachus and Boethius.

When Theoderic knew that his end was near, he sent for his Gothic generals and the Roman ministers of state, that they might bid him farewell and receive his last commands. He appointed his grandson Athalaric, a boy of ten years old, as the heir of the kingdom, and the child's mother Amalaswintha, as regent during his minority. The chiefs of the army and the state took, in Theoderic's presence, a solemn oath of fidelity to Amalaswintha and Athalaric; and then the dying king talked with them long and earnestly of the policy that was to be followed in the government of Italy when he should be no more. He urged them to endeavour to maintain friendship with the emperor, to forget their jealousies of race and creed, and to labour unitedly for the common welfare of the people. Above all, he charged them to be faithful to those great principles of equal justice to all, of strict obedience to law, which at heart he had always loved, even though, amid, the infirmities of age and blinded by panic terror, he had for a moment let them slip. He further directed that the government of the Visigoth kingdom should be placed unreservedly in the hands of Amalaric, who was now grown up to manhood, and no longer needed a guardian.

On the thirtieth of August Theoderic died. His remains, enclosed in a coffin of porphyry, were placed in a vast circular tomb of white marble at Ravenna, which afterwards became the church of Santa Maria della Rotonda, and still remains entire, though no longer used for worship. A century or two after Theoderic's death, when the Goths had been driven out of Italy and the Catholics were once more supreme, the tomb was robbed of its contents. The porphyry coffin was found at the door of a neighbouring monastery. What became of the body was unknown, but a discovery made some thirty years ago may, it has been supposed, possibly throw some light upon the question. In the year 1854 some labourers who were excavating a dock, one or two hundred yards, from the tomb of Theoderic, came upon a skeleton in golden armour, with large jewels in the helmet and the hilt of the sword. The place was an ancient cemetery, but the body had evidently not been regularly buried; it had just been thrust into the earth in as hurried a manner as possible. The workmen had intended to keep their lucky find to themselves, but the secret leaked out, and came to the knowledge of the authorities: The men were arrested, and made a full confession; but of the golden armour there was nothing left but a few pieces of the cuirass; all the rest had been melted up and sold.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Now, who was the warrior or prince whose body had the strange fate of being buried in golden and jeweled armour, and yet not in a stately sepulchre, but in a shallow trench dug in a common graveyard? Some have thought that it was Odovacar; but it seems more likely that it was Odovacar's conqueror. If the skeleton found in 1854 was, indeed, that of Theoderic, it is plain that those who plundered the tomb of the Arian king were moved only by religious hate, and not by selfish greed, or they would have stolen the gold and jewels instead of burying them with their owner. How fierce was the hatred felt by pious churchmen for Theoderic's memory we may learn from the dialogues of the famous pope, Gregory the Great, who tells how, at the moment of the heretic monarch's death, a saintly hermit beheld in a vision his soul dragged by the victims of his persecutions, and cast into the mouth of the volcano of Lipari.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Here ends the story of Theoderic the Great. To estimate his character aright we must look not at those last sad three years, when, with a mind weakened by age and stung into fury by the treachery of trusted friends, he stained by deeds of cruelty and wrong the glory of a great career, but at the thirty years which he spent in unselfish labour for the welfare of his people. If we so judge him, we shall surely assign to him a place among the noblest men who ever wore a crown. Perhaps Alfred of England—different as the two were in many ways—is of all the kings known to history the one with whom Theoderic may most fitly be compared; and it would be hard to say which was the greater man.