Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

How the Ostrogoths Won Italy

It was in the year 488 that Theoderic received the emperor's permission to go to Italy and fight against Odovacar. He betook himself at once to his head-quarters at Novae, on the south bank of the Danube (near Sistova), and called on his people to make ready for emigrating into their "promised land." The preparations were quickly made, for the Ostrogoths had only been in Moesia five years, and it was easy for them to resume the wandering life to which they had so long been accustomed. Theoderic was so eager to get to Italy that he began his march at the end of the autumn, thus exposing his people to suffer the hardships of winter in addition to those of a long journey over rugged mountains and through the territories of unfriendly tribes.

It is thought that the people whom Theoderic led out of Moesia numbered not less than a quarter of a million. For about three hundred miles this vast multitude, with all their cattle and their baggage, proceeded along the bank of the Danube without meeting opposition. But when they came to Singidunum, the place where Theoderic, when a boy, had gained his famous victory, their progress was stopped by the Gepids, who had now taken possession of the country which the Ostrogoths had occupied in King Walamer's and King Theudemer's days.

Theoderic sent messengers to Thrafstila, king of the Gepids, asking permission for the Ostrogoths to pass through his country. Thrafstila refused, and there was a great battle near a river called Ulca. The ground was marshy, and at first the Gepids were beginning to win, because they knew the place better than the newcomers; but Theoderic's own bravery inspired his soldiers with such enthusiasm that the defeat was changed into a complete victory. The Gepids had to forsake the field in confusion, and left behind them many waggons full of provisions, which the Ostrogoths were very glad to get hold of.

After the victory by the Ulca, Theoderic led his people along the river Save, and then over the steep passes of the Julian Alps. But however impatient the king might be to enter on his future kingdom, it was only possible to move very slowly forward, for amongst the throng were many thousands of women and young children, and more than once sickness broke out amongst them, and compelled them to interrupt their march. And so it was not until nearly a year after the beginning of their journey that the Ostrogothic host stood ready to cross the Isonzo, the boundary-river of Italy. On the opposite bank of the stream they saw the powerful army of Odovacar encamped to prevent their passage.

Theoderic's soldiers were weakened by their long journey and the hardships they had gone through on their way, but they still proved more than a match to Odovacar's followers—a disorderly crowd made up of a number of petty tribes, whose chiefs scorned to obey the orders of a commander whom they accounted no nobler than themselves. On August 28, 489, the Goths forced the passage of the river, and Odovacar retreated to Verona.

After giving his army a little breathing-time, Theoderic broke up his camp near the ruins of Aquileia, and set out to make a second attack upon the enemy. It was on the 3oth of September that the great battle of Verona was fought, which decided the fate of Odovacar's kingdom. On the morning of the battle Theoderic carefully dressed himself in his most splendid clothing, ornamented by the hands of his mother and his sister, saying with a smile that he hoped his bravery in the fight would show who he was, but at any rate his apparel should show it. Odovacar's men fought desperately, and the losses of the Ostrogoths were enormous. But once more the king's skillful leadership, and the animating example of his own dauntless courage, carried the day, and Odovacar fled in confusion. With the remnant of his army he endeavoured to find shelter within the walls of Rome; but the senate had no mind to side with a beaten rebel against the victorious representative of the emperor, and ordered the gates to be closed. Odovacar then marched across the country, burning villages and destroying the crops, and took refuge in the impregnable fortress of Ravenna. Meanwhile Theodoric's victory had placed him in possession of the strong cities of Verona and Milan, and he soon received the submission of a large portion of Odovacar's army.

Amongst the chiefs who deserted to Theoderic was a certain Tufa, who had held a high command in Odovacar's army. This man succeeded in thoroughly gaining Theoderic's confidence, and undertook, if he were entrusted with a large body of men, to besiege Odovacar in Ravenna. The king agreed to his proposal, and at Tufa's own request a number of Theoderic's principal officers were attached to the expedition. But before he reached the neighbourhood of Ravenna Tufa deserted back again to his former sovereign, and Theoderic's officers were loaded with chains and sent to Odovacar, by whom they were kept for some time in prison, and then shamefully murdered. The soldiers who had submitted to Theoderic when Odovacar's cause seemed hopeless now forsook him by thousands, and joined the army of Tufa. For a time it seemed as if the tide of fortune had turned, and Odovacar was, after all, going to recover his lost dominions. The Ostrogoths were compelled to abandon Milan and Verona, and to retire to the neighbourhood of Pavia.

But Odovacar was unable to follow up his advantage. His followers, unlike those of his adversary, were a mere band of mercenaries, held together by no tie of national sentiment, and feeling little attachment to the person of their leader. They soon began to desert in large numbers; and the quarrels between the generals rendered it impossible to take any effectual action. In August, 490, the arrival of a body of Visigoths sent by Alaric of Toulouse enabled Theoderic to inflict a crushing defeat upon his enemy, and before very long Odovacar was closely besieged in Ravenna. Just about this time it is said that an event took place which resembles that which is so gloomily celebrated in English history under the name of "St. Brice's day." The partisans of the emperor, according to a concerted plan, massacred the supporters of Odovacar all over Italy. Before the year 490 had closed, the only important place in Italy, except Ravenna itself, which had not submitted to Theoderic was the seaport of Rimini (Ariminum) on the Adriatic. The senate at Rome despatched its most distinguished member, the consul Faustus, to Constantinople, to ask that Theoderic might be invested with the royal robes, and be authorized to bear the title of king of Italy. But when the envoy arrived at Constantinople the emperor Zeno was breathing his last, and the petition seems to have remained unanswered.

It was not till the blockade of Ravenna had lasted for two years and a half that the pressure of famine compelled Odovacar to offer terms of surrender. The bishop of Ravenna acted as mediator, and Theoderic was so tired of the long siege that he was glad to agree to conditions which were extravagantly favourable to his rival. It was stipulated that Odovacar should be allowed to live in Ravenna with the title of king, and should be treated, so far as pomp and ceremony were concerned, as the equal of his conqueror. His son Thelane, whom he had shortly before, in imitation of the example of Orestes, proclaimed emperor of the West, were delivered up to the Ostrogoths as a hostage, and on March 5, 493, Theoderic entered the city, and took possession of the imperial palace in "the Laurelgrove."

The two kings met one another with a great show of friendliness, but before many days had passed Theoderic heard that Odovacar was plotting his assassination. At any rate that was what he said afterwards to justify his own cruel and treacherous action. On the 15th of March he invited his rival to a banquet at the "Laurel-grove" palace. In two side chambers to the right and the left of, the seat which the royal guest was to occupy he placed armed men, who were instructed on hearing a certain signal to rush out and cut down Odovacar and his followers. As soon as Odovacar had taken his seat, two soldiers of Theoderic approached him, pretending that they wished to ask some favour from him, and seizing his hands as if in the eagerness of their entreaty. The signal was given, and the armed men came into the hall, but when they saw that their business was to be the murder of a defenceless man, and not, as they had expected, the frustration of an attack upon their own king, they stood as if stupefied. Theoderic then drew his sword, and raised it to strike Odovacar. "Where is God?" exclaimed the unhappy victim. "This is how you treated my friends!" shouted Theoderic, and dealt him such a violent blow on the collar-bone that the body was almost cut in two. Theoderic looked with astonishment at the effect of his stroke, and said with an inhuman sneer, "The poor wretch must have had no bones." Thus died Odovacar, at the age of sixty years. He was buried outside the city, in a piece of ground which was close to the Jews synagogue, and was deemed to be polluted by the neighbourhood of infidel worship. His wife, Sunigilda, was starved to death in prison, and his son was sent as a prisoner to King Alaric at Toulouse, but afterwards escaped to Italy and was there killed.

We have told this sad story of Odovacar's end as it is related by a historian of the seventh century. It contains some things that sound rather improbable, and we would fain hope that some of the circumstances of treachery and brutality have been exaggerated. When we think how gloriously Theoderic reigned over Italy for thirty-three years, how he laboured to secure the happiness of his subjects, and how Goths and Romans alike acknowledged the even-handed justice of his rule, we cannot help believing that the act by which he gained his kingdom was not altogether the cold-blooded treason which his account represents it to have been. Nothing that we know of Odovacar, on the other hand, forbids us to think him capable of plotting the murder of the rival with whom he had sworn peace and friendship. If Theoderic had indeed discovered evidence of such a plot we can scarcely wonder that he should be moved to take violent means to render its execution impossible. But whatever may be said in palliation of the murder of Odovacar, we cannot help feeling sorry that the reign of the great Theoderic should have begun with this fierce and lawless deed.