The beginning of the end of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and the Death of King Athalaric

2 October 534, Athalaric, grandson and successor of Theoderic the Great, died at the age of 18 in Ravenna, marking the beginning of the end of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy.

“…he called together the Gothic counts and chieftains of his race and appointed Athalaric as king. He was a boy scarce ten years old, the son of his daughter Amalasuentha, and he had lost his father Eutharic. As though uttering his last will and testament, Theodoric adjured and commanded them to honor their king, to love the Senate and Roman People and to make sure of the peace and good will of the Emperor of the East, as next after God.“ (Jordanes “The Origin and Deeds of the Goths”)

A fancy 19th century imagination by Fritz Roeber (1851 – 1924) of the Gothic withdrawal from Italy after they had lost their last battle in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius at Mons Lactarius in 553 against the Byzantine General Narses, carrying their fallen King Teja away under the eyes of Eastern Roman soldiery. 

When Theoderic the Great, Ostrogothic King of Italy, died in 529 CE, the centuries when the migrating tribes had learned what fun it might be to smash an antique store to bits, inside the Western Roman Empire across the old borders of Rhine and Danube, were finally over. His people, along with the Visigoths, Franks, Vandals and whatever their names were, had set up shop in the ruins of the empire, a ruling elite among the local Romanised population with still gradually working Roman structures. And a hundred years after the Visigoths had buried their legendary warlord Alaric with the plunder of the city of Rome itself in the waters of the river Busento in Calabria, their Ostrogothic cousins were caught in a dynastic struggle over Theoderic’s succession, with due regards to family ties the old king had established with half the western world, Italy’s native Roman population, the old traditions of Germanic kingship and the new emperor of Eastern Rome who threatened with a plan to reconquer lost territories.

Theoderic's fancy mausoleum in Ravenna

Besides a fancy mausoleum, Theoderic left, despite the covetous glances cast on Italy by various parties, a working foreign policy, a functioning administration, a partway integrated Ostrogothic population, a thoroughly Romanised daughter and a 10-years old grandson to inherit his throne. The said daughter, Amalasuntha, was expressly appointed as regent and legal guardian for her son Athalaric by Theoderic himself, despite the break of Germanic tradition of giving the mund, the guardianship, only to male family members. Accordingly, the Ostrogothic nobility was rather miffed, especially since they assumed Amalasuntha would raise the young king as a Roman. What followed was infighting between the Gothic warrior establishment, the Roman elite, mother, who gave her best to be a respected ruler and Athalaric being caught in the middle. Procopius, scandalmonger that he was, claimed that the boy was first abused by his mother to either kill him or making him kill himself so she might be free to remarry and found a new dynasty. Later, Procopius continues, she had left him under pressure of the nobility to the cares of the Gothic jeunesse dorée who “made him an exceptionally depraved youth” and “having plunged into a drunken revel which passed all bounds, was seized with a wasting disease”, and the young man died at the age of 18.

Alexander Zick (1845 - 1907):"Die Gotenschlacht am Vesuv", the Ostrogoths' last battle in 553

Whether Athalaric really lived fast and died young or if he was murdered by one of the other parties when he began to lean towards the Gothic establishment was never cleared up. Amalasuntha tried to ride the storm by seeking protection of Emperor Justinian who just had reconquered Northern Africa from the Vandals and making her cousin Theodahad into something of a co-ruler to mollify the Goths. Theodahad expressed his gratefulness by jailing her on the island of Martana in the lake of Bolsena in Tuscany where she was murdered in her bath in the spring of 535, allegedly at the instigation of Justinian’s wife Theodora. Nevertheless, the death of his protégée Amalasuntha became Justinian’s casus belli for the planned war and the recapture of Italy. His general Belisarius landed in Sicily while the Gepidic commander in Byzantine service, one Mundus, invaded Gothic Dalmatia. The campaign would last for almost 20 years and ended with the fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and a brief Eastern Roman victory. In 568, another Germanic tribe, the Lombards, had their own migration period revival, invaded the peninsula, founded their  kingdom there and ruled Italy for the next 200 years.

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