Barbarian and Roman: The Early Life of Theodoric the Great

“The western half of the empire had been found wanting in the day of its trial, the eastern half had weathered the storm.”

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: Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (Wiki Commons CC)

We ended the last instalment of this series where this one begins, with the birth of the boy who would become known to history as Theodoric the Great.

Theodoric was probably born in the year 454 AD. His father was Thuidimer, one of three brothers who ruled over a group of Goths who had broken away from the Hunnic empire as it collapsed following the death of Attila. Indeed, there was a tradition that Theodoric was born on the day on which his uncle, Valamer, won a victory which had secured their independence from Attila’s sons. 

Thuidimer gave his son the name Thiuda-reiks, the “people-ruler”, which Latin authors turned into Theodoricus.  

Who were the people to which Theodoric belonged?

In the previous instalment we told the story of the collapse of the empire of Attila the Hun after his death, and how many subject peoples broke away from its grip. These former subjects then competed to gain themselves a secure and independent position in the post-Attila world. For many this involved trying to negotiate a relationship with the Roman Empire. 

The Goths of Valamer and his brothers entered into a federate relationship with the empire. This means that they received financial subsidies from the Roman state in return for fighting for Rome against her enemies. 

According to the terms of their agreement with Marcian, the eastern Roman emperor, they were to dwell in the province of Pannonia, (covering parts of modern-day Austria and Hungary) where indeed they may already have been resident at the time the Hunnic empire collapsed.[1] The three brothers split the territory between them and Thuidimer is said to have held lands around Lake Balaton in western Hungary. 

It was here that we must suppose that Theodoric was born and spent his early childhood. We know very little about his life at this time. We can say that he was a member of the ruling Amal family, and would have grown up as a member of the aristocratic warrior elite. 

During his earliest years his father’s people farmed the lands they had been granted and fought to defend them against their neighbours. Throughout this time it would seem that the Goths of Pannonia remained federates of the Roman Empire. But in the year 461 the annual subsidy from Constantinople did not arrive. 

This was because the most powerful man in the east, Flavius Ardabur Aspar, had formed an alliance with the rival Goths, led by Theodoric Strabo. Roman gold was now flowing to these Goths in Thrace (the area to the north and east of Greece), rather than to the three brothers in Pannonia.

Roman wealth was crucial for the leaders of a people like the Pannonian Goths because their position was dependent on their ability to reward their supporters. A leader who could not provide land and wealth would not survive. The failure of Constantinople to pay up could only have one consequence – war. The three brothers attacked and devastated the Roman province of Illyricum, which stretched along the eastern seaboard of the Adriatic Sea. This prompted negotiations with Constantinople, which restored the Pannonian Goths federate status.

The treaty made with Emperor Leo I secured the Goths an annual subsidy of 300lbs of gold, in return for which they pledged their loyalty to the Empire. However, there was a further price for the Goths to pay: they must hand over a hostage into Roman hands. The taking of hostages had been part of Roman diplomacy since the earliest times. High ranking members of ruling families would be sent to live in Roman custody as a pledge that a treaty would be kept. They would live in comfort and honour – but if the agreement was broken their lives would be forfeit.

The hostage chosen in 461 was Theodoric, son of Thuidimer, who was then about seven years old. The heir of Thuidimer was heading to Constantinople, the heart of Roman imperial power. He was not to return until he reached manhood, and what he was to learn was to change the course of history.

It will be worthwhile for us to consider in more detail the recent history of the empire in which Theodoric was to spend some of the most formative years of his childhood.

The Roman Empire in the East

The city to which Theodoric was headed was the centre of Roman government in the eastern half of the empire. Back in the late third century, Diocletian, as part of a wider programme of reform of the Roman state, had established the practice of two co-emperors jointly ruling the empire, one in the east and one in the west. From his time, until 476, there had generally been two Roman emperors, though at certain periods the empire had been united under only one. The empire was always legally one. There were never two Roman empires, even though, speaking loosely, historians refer to an eastern and western empire.

It was one of the emperors who ruled both east and west – Constantine the Great – who founded a new imperial city on the Bosporus. The ancient city of Byzantium was transformed into a new centre of government and administration, named after himself. It was from Constantinople that the Roman Empire would be ruled for nearly a thousand years after there ceased to be an emperor in the west.

As the imperial Roman administration crumbled in western Europe, the empire in the eastern provinces remained strong. Relative security from Germanic invasions, and a larger and wealthier population, contributed to the east’s prosperity. They also benefited from stronger government.

Emperor Theodosius the Great had died in 395, at the age of just 48. He had been succeeded by his two sons: Honorius in the west, and Arcadius in the east. Both were young when they ascended to their thrones and both proved to be weak emperors. Honorius’s reign was long and utterly disastrous. When he died in 423 the empire in the west had been terminally wounded. Arcadius had died earlier, leaving the throne to his seven year old son, Theodosius II in 408.

Theodosius II has generally been regarded as another emperor who lacked strength of character and was not directly responsible for the direction of the state, but during most of his reign power was in the hands of men capable of exercising it. His relatively long reign (408-450), and his status as the grandson of Theodosius the Great, contributed to the political stability of the empire in the east. 

One example of the capable men who ruled in the east at this time is Anthemius, the Praetorian Prefect of the East, who acted as regent for Theodosius II during his childhood. Among his many achievements was the building of the great defensive walls that still stand in Istanbul today – “the Theodosian Walls”. These walls protected Constantinople from all enemies until the capture of the city by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, in which gunpowder and cannons caused them to be finally breached. Throughout Theodosius’s reign the frontiers of the eastern half of the empire were successfully defended by means of both war and diplomacy.

The high point was perhaps the promulgation, on 15 February 438, of the Theodosian Code, which was a compilation of the laws of the empire, which was to remain in force until the Code of Justinian was promulgated a century later. Another important development was the foundation of a university at Constantinople in 425, to rival the schools of Athens and Alexandria. 

The historian J B Bury summarised his reign as follows:

“The beginning of the fifth century was a critical period for the whole Empire. At the end of the same period we find that while the western half had been found wanting in the day of its trial, the eastern half had weathered the storm; we find strong and prudent emperors ruling at New Rome. The improvement began in the reign of Theodosius. The truth is that this Emperor, though weak like his father, was far more intelligent, and had profited more by his education. Throughout the greater part of his reign the guidance of affairs seems to have been in the hands of prudent ministers”.[2]

When Theodoric arrived in Constantinople, he would have found that the empire in the east was not in decline. 

Emperor Marcian and the Council of Chalcedon 

As he lay dying following a fall from his horse in 450 AD, Theodosius is said to have indicated who would succeed him. The most powerful man in the Empire was Aspar, the senior commander of the Roman armies in the east. Aspar was an Alan (an Iranian speaking people) and an Arian heretic. There was no possibility of a foreign heretic being accepted as emperor by the Catholic and Roman people of Constantinople. 

Theodosius’s choice was therefore an ally of Aspar, a middle-aged military officer named Marcian, who had distinguished himself in campaigns against the Huns and the Persians. This proved to be an excellent choice.

In his short reign (450 -457) Marcian showed himself to be an administrative genius. He significantly cut both taxes and public spending. By the time of his death the treasury at Constantinople contained an amount of gold and silver which could be estimated as worth more than $260 million at present value.

The most significant achievement of Marcian’s reign was the triumph of Christological orthodoxy at the great Council of Chalcedon. 

In 448 AD, Eutchyes, Archimandrite of a large monastery at Constantinople, had been condemned by a synod presided over by St Flavian, the Patriarch of Constantinople, because of his profession of a form of the Monophysite heresy, which asserted that Christ has only one nature. After his condemnation Eutchyes appealed to Pope St Leo the Great, who began to enquire into the case. St Flavian corresponded with the pope, apprised him of the facts and urged him to act to uphold the orthodox faith:

“The matter only requires your weight and support, which through your wisdom will at once bring about general peace and quietness.”[3]

In response to this appeal the pope composed his famous “Tome”, which is addressed to St Flavian. The Tome defines the teaching of the Catholic Church that Our Lord Jesus Christ is one divine person with two natures; Our Lord is fully human and fully divine. 

Meanwhile, Emperor Theodosius II proceeded with plans to hold a Council, to which Roman legates were sent. The Council was dominated by Dioscorus, the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria, who was supported by the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem. They refused to allow the Tome of Pope Leo to be read, and excommunicated and deposed St Flavian of Constantinople. 

Pope St Leo the Great referred to this synod as the “Robber Council” and declared its acts to be null and void.

St Flavian, the deposed patriarch, issued a rallying call of orthodoxy and fidelity to the Roman See:

“When I began to appeal to the throne of the Apostolic see of Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and to the whole sacred synod which is obedient to your holiness… I beseech Your Holiness… to rise up first on behalf of the cause of our orthodox faith… Further issue an authoritative instruction… so that a like faith may everywhere be preached, by the assembly of a united synod of the fathers, both eastern and western. Thus the laws of the fathers may prevail and all that has been done amiss be rendered null and void: bring healing to this ghastly wound.”[4]

It was in this context that Theodosius II died and Marcian ascended to the imperial throne. He immediately expelled Eutyches from Constantinople and entered into correspondence with Pope St Leo. It was appropriate, he wrote, that he who has “primacy in the episcopate of the divine faith” should be “the first addressed” by his letters.[5] The fruit of the collaboration between Roman Emperor and Roman Pontiff was the opening of the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451.

From the beginning Marcian was determined that the doctrine of the Roman Pontiff should prevail. When the bishops who were drafting the Acts of the Council hesitated to accept the demands of the Roman legates, he threatened to send them all to Italy, so that Pope St Leo could preside personally over the Council. 

The Tome of St Leo was read and accepted at Chalcedon by almost the entire body of six hundred bishops present, with their submission being expressed in the Acts of the Council with the famous words:

“This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken through Leo. So taught the Apostles.”[6]

Only ten bishops, all Egyptian, left Chalcedon without signing, a harbinger of future schism, with disastrous consequences for the Roman Empire in the east.

Emperor Marcian defended the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon for the rest of his short reign and took measures for the suppression of heresy. He also accepted the annulment by Pope St Leo of the 28th canon of the Council which elevated the See of Constantinople to equality with Rome. He died on 27 January 457. Decades later crowds gathering to hear the announcement of a new emperor would cry out “Give us another Marcian!” The Orthodox venerate Marcian as a saint, and his feast day is 17 February. 

The death of Marcian left the empire in the same difficult position as at the death of Theodosius II. Aspar remained the most powerful man in the state, and he remained equally ineligible due to his heresy and barbarian birth. However, he once more used his influence to secure the election of an associate – Leo I.

Emperor Leo I was the ruler who would welcome Theodoric to Constantinople as a hostage in 463, and it is to him, and Theodoric’s childhood in the great imperial city that we will turn next.

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[1] Peter Heather, Goths and Romans 332-489, (Oxford, 1991). Available from Amazon in the UK.

[2] J. B. Bury, The Later Roman Empire, Vol. I(London, 1923), p215. (UK: here).

[3] Eric Ybarra, The Papacy: Revisiting the Debate between Catholics and Orthodox, (Steubenville, 2022), p297.

[4] Ybarra, The Papacy, p306.

[5] Ybarra, The Papacy, p311.

[6] Ybarra, The Papacy, p316.


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