Portrait of a Pope: Introducing the Ostrogoths

This son would one day be acclaimed by the Senate and People of Rome.”

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction – The Historical Context
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy
Introducing the Ostrogoths
Barbarian and Roman: The Early Life of Theodoric the Great
The Greatest City on Earth: Theodoric in Constantinople 461-71

More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

Image: Raphael, The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, Wiki Commons (Source)

In this article we continue our exploration of the historical context of the life of Pope St Gregory the Great. In the previous instalments of this series, we considered the fall of the western Roman empire and the establishment of the first Germanic monarchy in Italy

In this part we continue our narrative by introducing the people under whose rule Italy would enjoy her last period of unity and prosperity before being plunged into ruin and decline.

We refer to the period of the Ostrogothic monarchy; which was established when Theodoric the Great, acting at the behest of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, invaded Italy; and succeeded, after three years of fighting, in establishing his rule over the whole peninsula in 493. Theodoric reigned in peace and prosperity until his death in 523 and was succeeded by an Ostrogothic dynasty which lasted until 554. The last two decades of this period were consumed by destructive warfare as a resurgent Roman Empire, under the Emperor Justinian, fought to return Italy to imperial rule.

It was during the period of post-Imperial Germanic rule that Pope St Gregory the Great’s immediate ancestors played significant roles in the Church and in the State. And it was during the period of destructive warfare that St Gregory was born and grew to manhood: the Italy that was lost, and the dream of what might have been, must have haunted the minds of many of his contemporaries. Therefore, the study of this period is of great importance in gaining deeper insights into the life and pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great.

Who were the Ostrogoths?

We have already seen that during the fourth and fifth centuries Germanic peoples were on the move, and that this had significant consequences for the Roman Empire. Perhaps no Germanic people played a more significant role in this process than the Goths.  

The classical Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the first century AD, placed the Goths in the Baltic region, as did the second century geographer, Ptolemy. However, like many Germanic peoples, they migrated south over the course of a number of generations.[1] By the mid-third century there were large Gothic populations dwelling on Rome’s Danube frontier.

The third century was a difficult time for the Roman Empire, which was afflicted by a combination of political instability, civil wars, economic crises, and a resurgent Persian Empire on the eastern frontier. The Empire’s internal and external military difficulties provided opportunities which those peoples who lived across the Rhine and Danube frontiers were able to exploit. The Goths were among them.

The first recorded Gothic attack on the Roman Empire took place in 238. It was the first of many. In 249 the city of Marcionople was taken and sacked. The following year a Gothic army led by Cniva defeated and killed the Emperor Decius. This was the first time that a Roman Emperor had been killed in battle against barbarians. In 257 a large Germanic force, including Goths, crossed the Black Sea and devastated parts of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).  

However, the Roman Empire did not succumb in the third century. In 269 the Emperor Claudius won a major battle against invading Germanic forces, earning the sobriquet “Gothicus.” And his successor Aurelian won another major victory in 271.

The “third century crisis” was brought firmly to a close by the political, economic and military reforms of Diocletian (r. 284-305). The Empire’s character was changed but its fortunes were renewed, and a powerful Roman Empire would hold sway in the west for another century. 

Yet when the time came for Rome to be troubled once more by her Germanic neighbours it was the Goths who were again at the fore. By this date the Goths were dominant north of the Danube frontier. They formed a number of separate political entities sharing certain cultural characteristics. During the period with which are most concerned, the two most significant groups of Goths are referred to as the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths. 

Scholars are not agreed on whether this particular division reflects earlier differences, or whether it dates wholly from the migration of Goths into the Roman Empire in 376. It will be a relatively uncontroversial simplification to say that the group we call the Visigoths were those who crossed the frontier of the Empire in 376 in order to escape the pressure of the Huns, and that the Ostrogoths were those who fell, for a time, under Hunnic domination.

The Visigothic story is a fascinating one: the battle of Adrianople in 378 with the death of the Emperor Valens; the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410; the establishment of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain, which lasted until the conquest by the Muslims in 711, and from whose remnants the seeds of the reconquista came forth. Maybe we will tell it at some future date, but it cannot detain us here.

We must remain with the Ostrogoths who like many peoples of central and eastern Europe were defeated by the Huns, were subsumed into their confederation for decades, and were forced to fight for its cause.

The Huns

The Huns were a nomadic people who migrated to Europe from the Eurasian steppes. They had a fearsome reputation. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, whose life was contemporary with the early waves of Gothic migration, wrote:

“The origin and the seedbed of all the evils… I find to be this. The people of the Huns.. who dwell beyond the Sea of Azov near the frozen ocean, are quite abnormally savage.”[2]

Ammianus, writing in the 380s, offered this image of the Huns:

“Their way of life is so rough that they have no use for fire or seasoned food, but live on the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal, which they warm a little by placing it between their thighs and on the backs of their horses. They have no buildings to shelter them… not so much as a hut thatched with reeds is found among them. They roam at large over mountains and forests and inured from the cradle to cold, hunger and thirst… Once they have put their necks into some dingy shirt they never take it off or change it till it rots and falls to pieces from incessant wear… None of them ploughs or ever touches a plough-handle. They have no fixed abode, no home or law, or settled manner of life, but wander like refugees with the wagons in which they live. In these their wives weave their filthy clothing, mate with their husbands, give birth to their children, and rear them to the age of puberty. No one if asked can tell when he comes from, having been conceived in one place, born somewhere else, and reared even further off.”[3]

The accuracy of Ammianus’s account can be challenged, but it is the earliest description we have of the Huns. In the decades that followed, the Roman world would become much better acquainted with them, as both allies and enemies. The advance of the Huns into central Europe – probably seeking to profit from the Empire and the more developed territories that bordered it – caused other population groups to flee before them, often into Roman territory. Those who remained suffered being conquered and subsumed under their rule. This led to the creation of a Hunnic empire, consisting largely of subjugated peoples who were forced to pay tribute and fight for them. These peoples retained to some measure their old political structures, but under the firm control of the Huns. During the period of the subjection of the Ostrogoths some kind of overlordship was maintained by men among them who were connected to pre-conquest kings.

The Hunnic empire reached its apogee under the infamous Attila (r. 434-453) during whose reign the Huns dominated central and eastern Europe. Yet Attila, for all his conquests, failed to prevail against Rome. The Roman armies, led by Aetius, won one of their last great victories at the Catalaunian Fields in 451, which saved Gaul from Hunnic invasion. At this battle the Ostrogoths under Attila fought against the Visigoths, who were allied with Rome. 

The spiritual power of Rome also prevailed against Attila. The year after his defeat in Gaul, Attila invaded in Italy, sacking cities and advancing on Rome. Pope St Leo the Great rode out to meet his armies and negotiate with him. St Prosper of Aquitaine, a contemporary of these events, records that Attila was so impressed by Leo that he agreed to withdraw. A later story says that during his meeting with Leo he was warned by a vision that if he attacked Rome he would die. Attila retreated, but the following year, 453, he died anyway.

Liberation of the Ostrogoths

The death of Attila, and disunity among his heirs, provided the subject peoples with an opportunity for freedom. At the battle of Nedao, a Germanic coalition won a decisive victory against Attila’s sons. The Gothic historian Jordanes (writing a century later) gives us a poetic account of this battle:

“There an encounter took place between the various nations Attila held under his sway. Kingdoms with their peoples were divided, and out of one body were made members not responding to a common impulse. Being deprived of their head, they madly strove against each other… And so the bravest nations tore themselves to pieces… One might see the Goths fighting with pikes, the Gepids raging with the sword, the Rugi breaking off the spears in their own wounds, the Suevi fighting on foot, the Huns with bows, the Alans drawing up in a battle line of heavy-armed and the Herules of light-armed warriors.”[4]

It is unclear whether Ostrogoths fought at Nedao, but it is certain that they broke away from the Hunnic confederation. At the time of Nedao, political overlordship of the Ostrogoths had rested with three brothers of the old Amal royal house: Valamer, Thiudimer and Vidimer.  Of these three brothers Jordanes writes:

“Valamer, by succession to his relatives, ascended the throne, the Huns still keeping a general supremacy over them, as over all surrounding nations. And a fair sight was it then to see the union of these brothers when the admirable Thiudimer fought under the orders of his brother Valamer, while Valamer helped each of the other two by the honours with which he adorned them and Vidimer, though serving, remembered that he served his brother.”[5]  

After Nedao, these three brothers assumed the authority over an independent Ostrogothic people.

The search for an Ostrogothic homeland

The disintegration of the Hunnic empire provoked a new crisis for the Roman Empire, as formerly subject peoples tried to find land and resources to support their new independence, often leading them into Roman territories. The Ostrogoths were no different, as Jordanes writes:

“They preferred to seek lands from the Roman realm, rather than at their peril to invade the lands of others, and thus they accepted Pannonia… a country adorned with a great number of cities, from Sirmium at one end to Vindobona [Vienna] at the other.”[6]

Imperial control of this part of Europe had been crumbling for decades and it seems that their occupation of the province was in some sense consented to by Rome, and that in return the Ostrogoths promised military service. The land was divided in three, and each brother ruled his own territory.

The Huns were not prepared to allow the Ostrogoths to enjoy their new freedom and possessions without challenge. The historian Thomas Hodgkin elegantly writes:

“Their old lords the Huns would not accept the verdict of the day of Nedao as final, but still considered the Ostrogoths as absconding slaves. The sons of Attila came with a great host against Walamir [Valamer], before his brothers were apprised of his danger. He met them, we are told, with an army greatly inferior in numbers, but so bravely withstood their onset that only a comparatively small part of the invading army was able to escape”.[7]

A messenger was sent by Valamer to inform his brother Thiudimer of this great victory. Thiudimer was able to send back his own message of rejoicing: on the same day, a son had been born to him.

Little did anyone know that this son, whom he would name Theodoric – “ruler of the people” – would one day be acclaimed as king of Italy by the Senate and People of Rome.

That is the story we must take up in the next part of this series.

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[1] See the lengthy discussion of the migration of the Goths in chapter 2 of Peter Heather, Empire and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe(London, 2008). (UK: here)

[2] Quoted in Heather, Empires, p209.

[3] Quoted in Heather, Empires, p210.

[4] Quoted in Heather, Empires, p207.

[5] Quoted in Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders: Volume IIIp11. (UK: here)

[6] Quoted in Hodgkin, Italy, p12.

[7] Hodgkin, Italy, p13-14.


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