The Ostrogothic Rule in Italy and Their Destruction

Breakup of the Hunnic Empire

On the breakup of the Hunnic Empire (after Nedao, 454), the Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia (their first settlement inside the Roman frontier) as federates of the empire. Under the Huns, the emergence of a single ruler had been impossible. Thiudareiks (“ruler of the people”), corrupted into Theodoric, had been educated as a hostage at Constantinople, was elected (471), and soon became leader of his people on a march into the Balkan Peninsula, where he forced the Emperor Leo to grant them lands in Macedonia. His ambition for imperial appointment was realized when he was made magister militum praesentalis (483), and consul (484). He quarreled with the emperor and marched on Constantinople. To get rid of him, the emperor commissioned him (informally) to expel Odovacar from Italy. Arriving in Italy (489) the Ostrogoths triumphed over Odovacar, but did not reduce Ravenna until 493. Theodoric killed Odovacar with his own hands and had his troops massacred.

Theodoric the Great

In general Theodoric continued Odovacar’s policy, substituting Ostrogoths for Odovacar’s Germans, and assigning one-third of the Roman estates (as Odovacar had probably done) to his own people. Theodoric’s rule was officially recognized (497) by Constantinople. Together with the emperors he named the consuls in the west, but never named an Ostrogoth. Theodoric was the only member of his people who was a Roman citizen; constitutionally the others were alien soldiers in the service of the empire. No Roman was in military command, no Ostrogoth in the civil service. Imperial legislation and coinage continued. The so-called Edictum Theodorici was a codification of Theodoric’s administrative decrees rather than a body of legislation, as none of Theodoric’s “laws” were anything more than clarifications of imperial legislation. Theodoric’s secretary was the learned Italian Cassiodorus, and the dual state was paralleled by a dual religious system. Theodoric was tolerant of the orthodox Catholics and a protector of the Jews. His chief aim was to civilize his people under the Roman environment and to keep peace. Theodoric’s cooperation with the other Germanic peoples was close, and he cemented his associations with marriage alliances (one daughter married Alaric II, the Visigoth, another Sigismund the Burgundian, and he himself married Clovis’s sister). He intervened to protect the Alamanni from Clovis and tried to save the Visigoths. Provence was acquired from Burgundy and annexed to Italy. He was regent and protector of his grandson Amalaric after Alaric II’s death, and virtually ruled the Visigothic Kingdom until his death (526)

How the Italians saw the Ostrogothic rule

To the Italians, Ostrogothic rule was alien and heretical, and they resented it. The end of Theodoric’s reign was marked by growing ill feelings and suspicion. Boethius, the Roman philosopher and commentator on Aristotle, author of De consolatione philosophiae and an official of Theodoric’s government, and his father-in-law, the brilliant and polished Roman Symmachus, were both executed (c. 524) on a charge of treasonable conspiracy.

Reconquest of Italy by the Emperor

Justinian, as part of his grandiose reconstitution of the Roman Empire, dispatched Belisarius and later Narses, who reduced the stubborn Ostrogoths and drove them over the Alps to an unknown end. After the expulsion of the Ostrogoths, the Exarchate of Ravenna was established under Emperor Maurice (582–602). The exarch had military and civil powers and received full imperial honors. He exercised imperial control over the Church, including the bishopric of Rome. War and pestilence had completely ruined northern Italy; Rome, in ruins, had sunk from her imperial position to that of a provincial town. Ravenna was the capital of the West (c. 402–76) and was the home of Theodoric’s brilliant court. The architecture of the city offers a unique series of examples of Roman
and Romano-Byzantine buildings begun under the emperors and continued by Theodoric. Theodoric’s fame survives in the Middle High German epic Nibelungelied (c.1200). Ruined by invasion, its aqueducts cut, Rome was reduced in population from a half million to perhaps 50,000. Its aristocracy had fled, and medieval decay had replaced pagan grandeur. The city was not revived until the Renaissance.

Progress of the papacy

Gelasius (492–96) was the first pope to proclaim the independence of the papacy from both emperor and Church council in matters of faith. He asserted that two powers rule the world, the sacerdotium and the imperium. The sacerdotium, since it is the instrument of human salvation, was declared superior to the imperium. The barbarian invasions had isolated Italy, accentuated the break with the empire, and left the pope as the sole representative of ancient unity and Roman hegemony. At the same time, the Ostrogoths (half romanized as they were) did not destroy the culture, but encouraged the Church to transmit the Greco-Roman tradition (linguistic, social, cultural, administrative, and religious) in the West.


Having originated in the East in the 2nd century, monasticism, female as well as male, rapidly expanded in the West in the 5th and 6th centuries, but it had no structure, and had ascetic extremes on the one hand, laxness on the other. In 529 Benedict of Nursia, scandalized by conditions in Rome, withdrew to Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples, established a colony, and gave it a Rule, or constitution. The Rule of St. Benedict represents the accumulated spiritual wisdom of earlier centuries of monastic experience, drawing as it does on the writings of Cassian (See c. 340), the practice of monastic life in southern Europe, and (especially) The Rule of the Master, a long, detailed, exhortatory document. By classical standards, Benedict was not well educated: his Rule contains not one reference to an ancient Greek or Latin author. But it displays a deep knowledge of Scripture, the writings of the Church fathers, and the Egyptian monastic tradition. Modern scholars stress the major influence of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament—the Book of Proverbs, the Psalms, Sirach, and Wisdom. Benedict’s Rule contains both theoretical principles for the monastic life and practical, everyday directives. He legislated for a community of laypersons governed benevolently by an abbot (father)—a community whose purpose was the glorification of God and the salvation of the individual. After a year’s novitiate, or probation, the monk professed three vows: stability (in the monastery), the reformation of his life, and obedience. Benedictine life meant a routine lived in a spirit of silence, dedicated to prayer and work and characterized by moderation and flexibility in all things. Benedict planned the monastery as a self-sufficient socioeconomic unit, “so constructed that within it all the necessities, such as water, mill, and garden are contained and the various crafts are practiced. Then there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because that is not at all good for their souls”. Having stated that “idleness is the enemy of the soul; therefore, the brethren should be occupied at stated times in manual labor, and at other fixed times in sacred reading” (ch. 48), the
Rule prescribes that all monks in good health should spend part of the day in manual labor. Anticipating the entrance of persons of all social classes, Benedict advised the abbot, “Let him make no distinction of persons…Let not the one of noble birth be put before him who was formerly a slave”. He expected that many recruits would be oblates, children offered to the monastery by their parents to be brought up and eventually professed (vowed) there, a system that lasted well into the 19th century; thus monasticism fulfilled an important social function in a world in which career opportunities were severely limited. Each monastery was autonomous; strictly speaking, there was and is no Benedictine order. Gradually replacing other forms of monastic life in the West, and drawing both men and women, Benedictine monasticism served as the chief instrument for the reform of the Frankish Church and for the conversion and civilization of England and Germany. It was the sole form of corporate and organized religious life between the 6th and 11th century.

The bubonic plague

Probably more destructive of population than the Germanic invasions and the wars connected with Justinian’s reconquest was the plague. In 541–42 the bubonic plague (identified only in 1894 by bacteriologists, who labeled the bacillus that causes the disease Pasteurella pestis after one scientist’s teacher, Louis Pasteur) swept into Italy, southern France, the Rhine Valley, and the Iberian Peninsula, killing 20 percent of the population. Reappearing in cycles (558–61, 580–82, 588–91, 599–600), though each time with reduced intensity, it swept as far north as Sweden and as far west as Ireland. Scholars estimate that by 700 southern Europe and the Rhine Valley had lost between 50 and 60 percent of their populations. Consequences of the plague were a sharp rise in the price of labor, reduced trade, and an intensification of religious belief (that disease, suffering, and death are God’s punishment for sin).

Justinian’s Pragmatic Sanction

Justinian’s Pragmatic Sanction restored the Italian lands taken by the Ostrogoths and made a pro forma restoration of government, but agricultural lands had been depopulated and had reverted into wilderness, and the rural proprietors were sinking into serfdom. Town decline was similar. The Roman Senate ceased to function after 603, and the local curiae disappeared at about the same time. Duces were appointed, probably over each civitas, as part of the imperial administration, but they gradually became great landowners, and their military functions dominated their civil duties. A fusion of the ducal title and landownership ensued, and a new class of hereditary military proprietors emerged beside the clergy and the old nobles. The details of this process are, of course, hard to determine, because evidence is scant.


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