Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Rival Namesakes

The emperor Leo died in the same year as Theudemer, and was succeeded by his son-in-law, "Trasacodissa the son of Rusumbladeotus," a native of Isauria in Asia Minor, who had exchanged his barbarous-sounding native name for the more pronounceable Greek name of Zeno. You will remember that it was to this emperor that the senate of Rome, under the dictation of Odovacar, offered in 48o the sovereignty of Italy and the West.

Zeno was, as the historians of that time tell us, "a coward who trembled even at the picture of a battle." There was no act of meanness and no humiliation from which he would have shrunk if it were necessary in order to avoid war. But the two principal "foreign powers," if we may call them so, with whom he had to do, Theoderic, king of the Ostrogoths, and Theoderic Strabo, were bitter enemies to each other, and if Zeno tried to please one of them he was sure to bring down on himself the wrath of the other. So he was constantly seeking by flattery and rich presents, to attach to his own side whichever of the two Gothic chiefs happened to be strongest, and at the same time so to arrange matters that both of them should suffer as much damage as possible from their mutual conflicts.

Before Zeno had been a year on the throne, he was driven out of Constantinople by a rebellion in which Basiliscus, the brother of Leo's widow, was made emperor. Strabo supported the usurper, and while he reigned held the rank of Patrician and commander-in-chief. But the Ostrogoths were on Zeno's side, and after two years Basiliscus was dethroned, and Zeno came back to Constantinople. The emperor made a great display of his gratitude to Theoderic the Amaling for his share in defeating the rebels; he gave him the title of Patrician, adopted him as his son, conferred on him a high command of the imperial armies, and made him a grant of large sums of money. Theoderic, however, knew very well that "his father" Zeno would not at all scruple to betray him whenever it suited his convenience, and so, to make his own position more secure, he removed his people from their Macedonian abodes, and settled them along the southern bank of the Danube, from Singidunum down to the river mouth.

Meanwhile Theodoric Strabo and his Goths ranged undisturbed over Thrace, and maintained themselves by the plunder of the country people of that province. He is said to have been guilty of many acts of cruelty, such as cutting off the right hands of the prisoners whom he took, so that they might never be able to fight against him. But the plunder of Thrace was soon exhausted, and when Strabo found it difficult to obtain food for his army he sent ambassadors to Zeno to say that he was willing to make peace—on condition of being put into the position then occupied by his rival. He argued that Theoderic the Amaling had acted like a rebel in occupying the Danube region without permission, and that it would be to the emperor's interest to break with the Ostrogoths, and entrust Strabo himself with the duty of punishing their breach of faith.

Zeno thought that Strabo's wish for peace was a sign of weakness, and therefore rejected the proposals with the utmost scorn, and gave orders to his generals to prosecute the war with all possible vigour. But Strabo's Goths showed unexpected powers of resistance; the Roman troops were beaten, and there actually seemed reason to fear that the enemy might soon threaten Constantinople itself. It was now the emperor's turn to try to make peace, and he sent to offer Strabo the undisturbed possession of the territory he had conquered, on condition that he should abstain from further hostilities against the empire, and should send his son as a hostage to Constantinople.

But Strabo by this time had got to know his own strength. He had learned, too, that he had many friends in the capital itself, and believed that it might not be difficult for him to obtain an entrance into the city and to make himself master of the empire. He accordingly rejected the proposed conditions, and Zeno in his despair was reduced to implore the help of the Ostrogoths.

Theoderic the Amaling, however, shrewdly suspected that Zeno meant to lead him into a trap, and it was a long time before he could be persuaded to move. He made the emperor swear a solemn oath never to make peace with Strabo, and promise that before he arrived in presence of the enemy he should be joined by a Roman army of eight thousand horse and thirty thousand foot. Having received these assurances, Theoderic led his soldiers into Thrace. After a long and toilsome march through a desolate country, he suddenly came in sight of Strabo's army, posted in a strong position on a mountain called Sondis. There was no sign of the coming of the promised Roman troops, and it soon became clear that Zeno had never meant to send them.

Theoderic's situation was a desperate one. It was impossible to attack Strabo in his encampment on the mountain, and just as impossible to retreat to a safer position. He remained for several days undecided, perhaps hoping against hope that his Roman allies might after all arrive. Strabo made no attempt to assume the offensive, but rode every day to a place which was out of the reach of bowshot, and where his powerful voice could be heard in the Ostrogoth camp. "Goths!" he said, "will you let yourselves be led by that foolish boy to fight against your own brothers? Will you be made to play the game of the Romans, who desire nothing better than to see us cut each other's throats? What has Theoderic ever done for you? Some of you were rich once: he has made you poor. Nobles and freemen as you call yourselves, he has led you out like slaves to perish in this desert, that he may earn honours and wealth from the enemies of our people." Such words as these excited fierce discontent amongst the Ostrogoths, and their king was compelled to enter into an alliance with his rival. And so, while Zeno was expecting the welcome news of a bloody battle between his enemy and his too dangerous ally, he learned instead that the two chiefs had united against him, and were prepared to march together upon Constantinople unless the demands of both were fully satisfied.

The treacherous emperor could think of no other plan than that of bribing one of the new allies to betray the other. First he tried what he could do with the Amaling. He offered him immense sums of money paid down, and a larger yearly income than he had before received from the empire. He also promised him the hand of the daughter of Olybrius, the late emperor of the West. But Theoderic was not to be induced to become a traitor, and Zeno then endeavoured to buy over the other of the confederates. In this attempt he was successful. Whatever Strabo might have said about the wickedness and folly of a war between "brethren," he had no objection to fight against the Ostrogoths if the price offered was high enough, and he accepted the emperor's proposal to invest him with the honours and commands which had been held by the Amaling, and to allow him to maintain thirteen thousand Gothic soldiers at the emperor's cost.

It is no wonder that Theoderic was very angry at this shameful breach of faith. The first thing he did was to invade Macedonia, where it is said that he put the garrisons of several cities to the sword with, out quarter; then, crossing over the mountains into Epirus, he came to the Adriatic coast, and took possession of Dyrrhachium (Durazzo), the great seaport from which ships used to sail for the south of Italy.

But Zeno soon became dissatisfied with the conduct of Strabo, and so he sent ambassadors after the Amaling to try to make peace with him. He offered to grant the Ostrogoths a tract of country in Epirus, and to provide them with money to buy corn until they could raise their first harvest. Theoderic insisted on better terms; but while the negotiations were going on, his brother Theudamund was treacherously attacked by a Roman general, who took five thousand prisoners. After this the parley was broken off, and the war began afresh.

In the year 481 a rebellion broke out in the neighbourhood of Constantinople, led by two generals named Illus and Romulus. Strabo undertook, in consideration of a heavy increase of pay, to put down the rising; but he played the traitor after all, and joined the rebels in an unsuccessful attempt to take Constantinople. Soon afterwards he was accidentally killed, his horse having run away with him and thrown him against the point of a spear, which had been fixed before a tent.

So now Theoderic the Amaling was freed from the rivalry of his troublesome namesake. His army was soon joined by the greater part of Strabo's followers, and he became so formidable and did so much damage to the empire that Zeno was glad to purchase his friendship at any price. In 483 the Ostrogoths received an ample grant of land near the Danube. Two years later, Theoderic marched against the rebel forces under Illus, and gained a complete victory, for which he was rewarded with a triumph and an equestrian statue at Constantinople. But very soon the emperor and the king were quarrelling again, and the Ostrogoths took up arms and began to ravage the neighbourhood of Constantinople.

At last, however, a settlement was arrived at which satisfied both parties. Zeno gave permission to Theoderic to go and wrest Italy from the hands of Odovacar, to establish his own people there, and to rule the country as the emperor's representative.

This plan enabled Zeno to get rid of the Ostrogoths, whose expensive help was no longer necessary to him. At the same time, it was just what Theoderic himself desired. Although circumstances had compelled him to become something like a bandit chief, it had always been his great ambition to be the king of a settled and civilized people. And now, with the express sanction of the sovereign whom he regarded as the rightful lord of the world, he was to place his subjects in that very land in which, more than in any other he might reasonably hope to mould them into a great nation, which should be as glorious in the arts and the virtues of peace as in those of war.