Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Wisdom of Theoderic

Once more we have to lament the truth of Milton's saying, that the victories of peace are "less renowned" than those of war. Far more interesting, if it could only be told, than the records of all the battles which Theoderic ever won, would be the story of the peaceful achievements which followed. By what means the Gothic usurper succeeded in giving order and prosperity to the land so long the prey of lawlessness and oppression, by what arts he so won the hearts of his subjects, both Romans and Goths, that when he died he was mourned as no ruler had been for centuries past, are questions which history gives us very imperfect answers.

The earliest act of Theoderic's which we read of after the death of Odovacar did not seem to promise well for the wisdom and gentleness of his rule. He published an edict by which all those Romans who had in any way exhibited any sympathy with Odovacar against himself should be deprived of their privileges as citizens, including the right of disposing of their own property by will. This measure was felt to be a great injustice, because many of those whom it affected had supported the cause of Odovacar under compulsion, and were quite ready, if treated with kindness and consideration, to become faithful subjects of the new king.

Fortunately the sufferers by this edict found a powerful intercessor. When, during the war with Odovacar, Theoderic had taken up his quarters in the city of Pavia, he had had a great deal of intercourse with the bishop Epiphanius, and, though the bishop was a Catholic, the holiness of his character had inspired in the king's mind the profoundest veneration. "There is not such a man in all the east," Theoderic said; "it is a privilege even to have seen him." It was this venerable man whom the Romans begged to plead their cause. Accompanied by Laurentius, bishop of Milan, he journeyed to Ravenna, and sought an audience of the king, who received him with every mark of honour, and listened with great attention to his speech. Epiphanius reminded Theoderic (not without some dexterous flattery mingled with his admonitions) of the many signs of Divine favour which had attended his career in Italy, and exhorted him to testify his gratitude by imitating the Divine example of mercy. He urged that Odovacar had fallen because of the harshness and injustice of his rule, and counseled Theoderic to be warned by the fate of his predecessor, concluding with an appeal which might almost be translated in the familiar words:

"Consider this,

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy."

There was a pause of some moments after the bishop had spoken, and every one present awaited the king's reply with deep anxiety. Theoderic began by saying that it was not always that the necessities of government permitted of the exercise of mercy, and by appealing to the Scriptural example of Saul, who incurred the Divine wrath by his ill-timed compassion for a vanquished enemy. But he added that as heaven itself yielded to the bishop's prayers, no mere earthly power could resist them: and he ordered his secretary to prepare a decree of general amnesty.

Theoderic certainly could have taken no better means of winning the goodwill of his new subjects. And the fact that this act of mercy had been granted to the entreaties of a Catholic bishop made a great impression on the minds of the Catholics, and did much to soften the prejudice which was naturally felt against the heretic king.

After this question was decided, Theoderic had a private conversation with Epiphanius, in which he spoke of the deep grief he felt on account of the wretched condition into which Italy had been brought by continual war. He referred especially to the misfortunes which had befallen the bishop's own northern diocese through the invasion of the Burgunds, who, in 490, had carried away large numbers of the peasantry as prisoners into Gaul. "I know," said Theoderic to the bishop, "that Gundobad, king of the Burgunds, has a great desire to see you; if you go to plead the cause of the Italian captives he will be persuaded to set them free, and I will supply you with money sufficient for their ransom."

Epiphanius was moved to tears by this proof of the king's interest in the people whose welfare lay so near to his own heart. He eagerly accepted the commission that was offered to him, and at once set out, braving the bitter cold of March, across the Alps to visit King Gundobad at Lyons. The king received him graciously, and granted the free release of all those captives who were under his own control. Those who were slaves belonging to private persons had to be ransomed with Theoderic's gold. From Lyons the bishop went to Geneva, where he had the same success with the other Burgund king Godegisel; and he was accompanied to Italy by many thousands of the rescued captives, who returned to bring back to fertility their long-deserted fields, and, we may be sure, to invoke blessings on the name of their deliverer Theoderic. Not to leave his work incomplete, the king bestowed large gifts of seed-corn and of cattle upon the returned peasants.

The first great problem that the king had to encounter was how to satisfy the claims of his Gothic soldiers for lands in reward of their services, without exciting rebellion amongst the Roman proprietors at whose expense these grants were made. It was, however, fortunate for Theoderic that his predecessor had already despoiled the Roman land-owners of a third of their estates, so that for the most part the Goths had only to step into possession of the share which Odovacar's men had held, and the Roman lord was no poorer than he had been for thirteen years previously. The king, moreover, wisely placed the carrying out of this measure for the Gothic settlement in the hands of a distinguished Roman named Liberius, who had been one of Odovacar's ministers, and who knew how to manage the matter so as to spare his countrymen's feelings as much as possible. Theoderic had a great respect for Liberius, and, in a letter to the senate sometime after his death, he praises him especially for his honesty in never concealing his grief for Odovacar in order to curry favour with Odovacar's enemy and successor. Only a man of real nobleness of mind would have singled out such a characteristic for praise in a public document, and this is one of the many things which lead us to believe that the deed by which Theoderic gained the crown was not the shameful treachery that it is recorded to have been. Theoderic goes on to say that the goodwill and harmony which existed between Goths and Romans was very largely due to the tact and skill with which Liberius conducted the division of the estates and the apportionment of the burdens of taxation.

Although Theoderic did not care to run the risk of offending both his Goths and the Court of Constantinople by calling himself Caesar or Emperor, yet those titles would have exactly expressed the character of his rule so far at least as his Roman subjects were concerned. When the Emperor Anastasius in 497 acknowledged him as ruler of Italy, he sent him the purple cloak and the diadem of the Western emperors; and the act showed that Anastasius quite understood the difference between Theoderic's government and that of Odovacar. In fact, though not in name, the Western empire had been restored with much the same institutions as it had had under the best of the Caesars. Although the army was Gothic, the great offices of state were filled by Romans, and the senate, if it had less real power than it had sometimes managed to obtain under weaker sovereigns, was treated with a show of respect and deference which was some consolation for its political insignificance. Its members were appointed to act as judges in the courts, and in all cases in which Romans were concerned the Roman law still retained its authority.

One great evil from which the Roman Empire had suffered for many reigns past was the illegal exactions on the part of the officers entrusted with the collection of revenue. So long as the emperors could raise the money they wanted, they had cared little how their officials might enrich themselves by extortion. Theoderic kept, a strict watch on the conduct of his officials. All persons who had grievances against them were encouraged to bring forward their complaints; rigorous inquiries were made, and the accused, if found guilty, were severely punished. It was the king's special study so to apportion the taxes that the burden fell as equally as possible, and Finlike the Eastern emperors of the same period, who were notorious for always exacting "the uttermost farthing"—he was always ready to grant exemptions or reductions of taxation to districts that were suffering from bad harvests or similar causes of distress. The official letters of Theoderic's secretary Cassiodorus make us acquainted with many of these timely acts of generosity, which contributed more than Anything else to make the Roman subjects submit gladly to the rule of the barbarian king. One interesting instance of the same kind is known to us from another source, the biography of Epiphanius, the Catholic bishop of Pavia, whom we have already spoken of as being greatly respected by Theoderic. In the year 496 the people of Epiphanius's diocese had had their crops destroyed by floods, and the good bishop once more journeyed to Ravenna to plead the cause of his beloved flock. Theoderic listened with sympathy to the story of the sufferings of the people, and though he talked a good deal about the difficulties that lay in the way of making a sacrifice of revenue, he gladdened the bishop's heart by consenting to reduce the taxes for that year to one-third of their amount Epiphanius returned to Pavia with the good news, but the rejoicings of his people were soon mixed with sorrow, for a few days after his arrival he died from the effects of a cold taken during his journey.

The one great obstacle to Theoderic's popularity was that he was an Arian, while the great mass of his Roman subjects were Catholics. But in his government he never allowed himself to make any difference between the two parties. One of his most honoured Gothic generals, Ibba, was a Catholic; and the Catholic clergy, if they were by their character worthy of their office, were regarded by him with as much respect as those of his own creed. This tolerant conduct was not merely adopted because Theoderic feared to offend the Catholics. He had really a profound conviction of the truth, known to so few in his age, that kings have no right to meddle with the religious faith of their subjects, and that persecution, though it may make men hypocrites, will never make them sincere believers. The best proof that Theoderic's toleration was a matter of principle is seen in his conduct towards the Jews. Ever since the Roman Empire had become Christian, this unhappy people had been subjected to cruel persecution, and even the Visigoths in Gaul had shamefully oppressed them. If Theoderic had followed this bad example he would no doubt have been applauded both by the Romans and by many of his own countrymen. But he had courage and firmness enough not only to announce publicly that "the benefits of justice are not to be denied even to those who err from the faith," but to act up to this maxim in the most uncompromising manner. In one instance a Jew at Rome had been murdered by his Christian slaves. The perpetrators of the crime were condemned to death. The people of the city could hardly believe that such a monstrous sentence would be carried out, and, when the execution actually took place, the mob made a furious attack on the Jews, and burnt their synagogue. The offenders were brought before the senate for trial, and pleaded the many acts of extortion of which they said the Jews had been guilty. They were told that these complaints were nothing to the purpose; if the Jews had acted illegally the courts were open, but acts of violence would meet with due punishment, whether committed upon Jew or Gentile. Another case of synagogue burning occurred at Ravenna, and in that instance the building had to be restored at the expense of those who had destroyed it, while those of the offenders who had not means to pay were whipped through the streets. In some places the Jews had been robbed of their synagogues by Christian priests, who had converted the buildings into churches, and now argued that twenty or thirty years possession gave a title to the ownership. But Theoderic would listen to no such reasoning; the churches had to be restored t6 their original use, notwithstanding all the fierce indignation of the Christians, few of whom had any sympathy with the spirit of the text, "I hate robbery for burnt-offering." It is true that Theoderic, or his secretary, when writing to the Jews to announce some concession or act of justice in their favour, generally takes the opportunity to lecture them on the sin of unbelief, and to express compassion for their gloomy prospects in the next world. But he is always careful to add that their perversity in this respect is no reason for treating them with injustice. One of his letters written on an occasion of this kind ends with the significant words, "Religion is not a thing which we can command, because no man can be compelled to believe against his will." It is to Theoderic's eternal honour that he was willing to brave the fierce indignation of the vast majority of his subjects for the sake of doing justice to a weak and oppressed people.

We have already said that Theoderic, though bearing the title only of king, aspired to fulfill the perfect ideal of a Roman Cesar. He did not neglect to display the bounty and magnificence which were appropriate to the character. You remember how "Bread and Circus games" was the demand which the Roman populace used to make of their rulers in the palmy days of the empire. It was long since these demands had been satisfied by imperial generosity, but now once more the poor of Rome and the other Italian cities received their periodical gifts of food, and the public spectacles were exhibited with something like their ancient splendour, though happily without the cruel fights of gladiators, in which the heathen world delighted. The king himself took great pleasure in the theatre and in exhibitions of gymnastic skill.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


To those who are accustomed to regard "the Goths" as tasteless destroyers of the vestiges of ancient civilization, it will seem strange to be told of the extraordinary zeal which Theoderic displayed in the preservation of the buildings and statues of antiquity. But perhaps there had never been a Roman emperor who was so anxiously concerned about this matter as this barbarian king. In the official letters of his secretary Cassiodorus we find continual proofs of Theoderic's endeavours to arrest the destruction of the works of ancient art. Judging him by his conduct in this respect, we might fairly say that he was the first civilized ruler that Italy had had for centuries. The Christian emperors had allowed their subjects to use the temples and other public edifices of heathen days as quarries for their own buildings, and not seldom had they been themselves guilty of pulling down venerable historical monuments to erect new buildings in their place. Theoderic indignantly forbade this work of waste and ruin. He was himself a great builder, and bestowed honours and rewards freely on those who adorned the cities with splendid works of architecture; but it was a saying of his that "reverently to preserve the old was even better than to build afresh." Except an act of extortion or oppression on the part of one of his own officials, nothing excited his anger so fiercely as any wanton destruction of works of art. On one occasion he was informed that a bronze statue had been stolen from a public place at Como during the night. In hot haste he writes to Thankila the senator (from his name evidently a Gothic officer, and apparently governor of the city), ordering him to offer a reward of a hundred gold pieces for the discovery of the perpetrator, and to have a strict inquiry made of all the metal smiths of the town, as it was probable that such a theft could not have been carried out without skilled assistance. This letter was promptly followed by another, in which a free pardon was offered to the guilty person if he confessed and made restitution, otherwise, in the event of a discovery, the penalty was to be death. In the year 500 Theoderic spent six months at Rome, and in his letters he often refers to the profound admiration which had been inspired in him by the contemplation of the treasures of ancient art. The grandeur of the forum of Trajan, especially, is often mentioned by him. While at Rome, he decreed that a sum of 200 pounds weight of gold (C'8,00o sterling, or 40,000 dollars) should be set apart every year for the repair of the walls and the public buildings. It used to be the fashion to blame "the Goths" for the destruction of the monuments of ancient Rome; but the truth is that we are indebted to a Gothic king for the preservation of many a noble building which, but for his pious care, would have totally disappeared.

Theoderic was earnestly desirous that his reign should be distinguished, not only as a period in which the ancient masterpieces were protected and valued, but also as a period of original artistic productiveness. In this it was impossible for him to succeed, for in the many years of misery and disorder from which Italy, and the Roman world generally, had suffered, the nobler arts had fallen into hopeless decline. But at any rate he spared no labour or cost in seeking out and rewarding the best architects, sculptors, and painters that could be found; and one branch of art, namely, mosaic-work, may be said to have attained perhaps its highest level in his reign. When we read of the enormous number of works which Theoderic carried out—building of churches, theatres, palaces, public baths, not only in Rome, Ravenna, and Verona, the three capitals of his kingdom, but in many of the smaller cities of Italy—we are at first tempted to accuse him of recklessly lavish expenditure; but we are informed that although he found the treasury deeply in debt, his wise management not only enabled him to find money for all these costly undertakings, but to leave the finances of the kingdom in a thoroughly prosperous condition.

Although Theoderic was not so ignorant of books as he is commonly said to have been, it is not likely that he had any great appreciation of literature. But to protect and encourage literature was part of the duty of a pattern Ronan emperor, and Theoderic was not wanting in this respect. The age was one of miserable degeneracy, in letters even more than in art; but the principal writers and scholars of the time, such as they were, were all rewarded by Theoderic with honours and official rank. There was Cassiodorus, whom he made his "quaestor" and secretary of state—an orator, historian, theologian, and grammarian, many of whose writings still exist. Poor enough in literary merit they certainly are, but they show a good knowledge of classical literature, and give us besides a very favourable impression of the author's upright and kindly character. His twelve books of official letters, written in the names of Theoderic and his successors, are of great value to the historian, though they are perhaps the most bombastic State papers ever known in Europe, not excepting the Latin charters of some of the Anglo-Saxon kings. One work of his which has unfortunately perished in his "History of the Goths," of which the history by Jordanes, so often quoted in the early part of this book, is a very clumsy abridgement. Jordanes says that he had managed to get a loan of Cassiodorus's history for three days, and that his own book was written chiefly from the hasty notes he had been able to make in that time.

There was also Symmachus, famed in his own day for learning and eloquence, the author of a Roman history in seven books, which has not been preserved. Theoderic gave him the office of Prefect of the city of Rome and of patrican. We shall in a future chapter have to tell how Symmachus was put to death on suspicion of treason, sharing the fate of his more renowned son-in-law, the philosopher Boethius.

Of Boethius himself there is much more to be said, for he is by far the greatest literary name of Theoderic's reign, or indeed of the whole sixth century. Of noble rank, and born to great wealth, he devoted his leisure to the study of science, and to the task of rendering the treasures of Greek learning accessible to his countrymen. It was from his translations and commentaries that the Western world became acquainted with the writings of Aristotle on logic, which had so powerful an influence that they set all the great minds of Europe, for eight or nine centuries, studying nothing else than the theory of reasoning and subtle questions of metaphysics, which were profitless because unanswerable, even if they had any rational meaning at all. He also translated Greek treatises on music, astronomy, and mathematics; he wrote poetry and books on theological controversy, and his skill in mechanics was greater than that of any man of his time. When quite a young man he was made, by Theoderic, consul and patrician, and afterwards "Master of the Offices"; and for many years there was no man whom the king more deeply honoured and esteemed. How this career of prosperity and dignity came to a sudden end how Boethius was accused, of treason, judged guilty, and condemned to death we shall relate further on.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Theoderic's great anxiety, however, was to restore to Italy its long-lost material prosperity and plenty. Of course when the country was firmly and justly ruled, and the people had protection against violence and fraud, there was very soon a revival of agriculture and trade. Theoderic was eager to help on this revival by active means. He encouraged the opening of iron mines in Dalmatia, and gold mines in the south of Italy. He assisted the development of the shipbuilding and fishing industries. He promoted the draining of the marshes at Terracina and Spoleto, and granted the reclaimed land, free from taxes, to those who had borne the cost of the undertaking. He spent large sums yearly in the repair of the highways, and in the restoration of the old aqueducts and the building of new ones. The extortions of the custom-house officers, which in the days of the empire (as Cassiodorus says) "foreign merchants had dreaded more than shipwreck," were now firmly put down, and the import duties were assessed by a committee, among whose members were the bishop and several influential citizens of the seaport town. A uniform standard of weights and measures was introduced; the coinage, which had been debased, was restored to its propel value, and the uttering of false money was severely punished.

Some other things which Theoderic did with the same object do not seem to have been equally well advised. He appointed in every town a committee, consisting of the bishop and some of the citizens, to fix the price of articles of food, and inflicted severe punishment on all tradesmen who ventured to charge higher rates. The exporting of corn from Italy was forbidden under heavy penalties; and if a corn merchant was found "speculating for a rise," as it is called, that is to say, buying up a large quantity of grain when it was cheap, in order to sell it at a great profit when it became dearer, the king compelled him to sell out his stock immediately at cost price. No doubt these measures did more harm than good but they were well meant, and show how zealously Theoderic strove to promote the welfare of his subjects, especially of the poorer part of them. And on the whole his philanthropic policy was wonderfully successful. In after times people looked back to the reign of Theoderic as to a period of almost fabulous plenty and prosperity.

So much for Theoderic's relations with his Roman subjects. With the Goths his relations were to some extent different. Though they lived amongst the Romans, the Goths did not become blended with them; they were still a separate nation, with their separate laws and a separate system of government. Just as in their earlier days, the army and the nation were really the same thing; the officers who led the people in war judged and ruled them in peace. It must be remembered that Theoderic had no soldiers except his Goths; the native Italians were not allowed to enter the army. The Goths of each province were governed by a military chief, called the "Count of the Goths," who in time of peace was accountable only to the king himself. When a lawsuit arose between Goth and Goth, it was judged by the count, according to Gothic law; while cases between Goth and Roman were tried before the count and a Roman judge sitting together.

But still the political constitution of the Ostrogothic kingdom had undergone a great change. The Gothic warriors had gained a settled home lands, and money; but they had paid for these advantages by the loss of their ancient freedom. Their popular assembly met no more to make laws or to decide the policy of the State. The king acted as he chose, without asking their advice or consent. Over Goths as well as Romans, though under different forms, Theoderic reigned as a despot—a just and merciful despot, indeed, but a despot nevertheless. Although, as we have said, the two nations were governed in the main according to their own laws, Theoderic issued a brief code of his own, which so far as its provisions extended was binding both on Romans and Goths. This code was chiefly founded on the law of the Roman Empire, but many points in it are plainly of Theoderic's own devising. No offences, we can well believe, were so hateful to the Gothic king's justice-loving soul as the taking of bribes by judges and the bringing of false accusations of crime. The first of these, under the Roman law, had been punished by transportation to an island and confiscation of property. Theoderic (who significantly makes it the subject of the very first paragraph of his edict) decreed that the penalty should be death. The emperors had already punished the false accuser with death; in the new law he is ordered to be burnt alive. On the other hand, some of Theoderic's alterations of the Roman code are on the side of mercy. The later emperors had enacted that when a man was condemned for any crime, his property should be forfeited to the State, unless he had parents or children. Theoderic ordained that if the condemned man had relatives as far as the third degree their right to inheritance should be undisturbed.

The Ostrogoths sometimes murmured over the loss of their freedom; perhaps they may sometimes have been indignant at the severity with which the king punished all lawlessness on their part, all insulting or oppressive conduct towards their Italian fellow-subjects. But they never rebelled, though as the only armed people in the kingdom they had every opportunity of doing so successfully. If they blamed the king for taking away their liberties, they could not help seeing that he was no selfish tyrant, but a ruler who laboured zealously and wisely for the common good of all. If he was stern to wrong-doers, they knew that he did not neglect to honour and reward faithful service; and they had learned to value the blessings of ordered and settled life too well to think of overthrowing the sovereign to whose firmness and sagacity their enjoyment of these blessings was due.

Theoderic did not, as has sometimes been thought, endeavour to unite the Goths and the Romans into one nation. Perhaps he may have hoped that such a union would at some time be realized under his successors. But in his own day he was content that the two peoples should live together in mutual friendship and respect, each of them being charged with its own special function in the commonwealth. The Goths were to undertake the defence of the country from attack, the maintenance of order, and the execution of the law; the Romans were to labour for the development of art and science; while in the cultivation of the soil both nations were to take their part. So long as Theoderic lived this ideal seems to have been in a great degree realized.

It is no wonder that Theoderic became the subject of many fabulous stories, and that tradition represented his reign as having been almost a kingdom of heaven upon earth. Even before the sixth century closed, men told in Italy nearly the same story that was told in England respecting the days of Alfred

how the great king had so made righteousness to prevail in his realm that gold pieces could be left exposed on the highway for a year and a day without being stolen. Many of his sayings were quoted as proverbs in the land, and anecdotes were related to show how, like Solomon in the matter of the two mothers and their infants, Theoderic had displayed in the judgment seat his wonderful insight into human nature. But it was not in Italy or amongst the Goths that his legendary fame reached its highest point. The whole Teutonic race regarded his glory as their own, and his imagined deeds were the theme of popular songs in all the German lands. The story of "Dietrich of Bern" (the High German way of pronouncing Theoderic of Verona") is indeed, as told in the poems, very different from the history of the real Theoderic. He is described as the vassal of Attila and the foe of Ermanaric, who is partly confounded with Odovacar; and in some of the songs "Dietrich" is even represented as vanquished, and as a fugitive or a captive. But amid all this strange distortion of the history, the character of the legendary Dietrich is essentially that of the Gothic king. A lover of peace and justice, he never takes the sword save unwillingly and at the call of duty; but when he is once prevailed upon to fight there is none more fearless and more terrible than he. The traditions embodied in popular poetry are generally wildly confused with regard to the order of events, but the accounts they give of the characters of famous men are often wonderfully true. Probably it is not without good reason that the German songs have confounded Odovacar with the cruel and treacherous Ermanaric,

The reign of Theoderic is perhaps the finest example in all history of what is called a "beneficent despotism." No freer system of government could under the circumstances have produced such wonderful results; perhaps with a freer system Theoderic could not have established or maintained his kingdom at all. But the efficiency of the government depended wholly on the wisdom and energy of one man, and it might easily have been foreseen that grave troubles would arise when the sceptre passed into weaker hands. For this reason a great historian has described Theoderic's whole policy as "a blunder of genius"; and we can hardly deny that this harsh and exaggerated judgment has in it something of truth. Even the great king himself, in the last three years of his life, when his marvelous vigour of mind had been impaired by age, found himself involved in perplexities with which he was unable to deal. But the sad story of the mistakes that tarnished the lustre of a glorious reign must be reserved for a future chapter.