“He was as truly an emperor as any who have distinguished themselves in this office from the beginning” – the Death of Theoderic the Great

30 August 526, Theoderic the Great, Ostrogothic King of Italy, died at the age of about 72 in Ravenna.

“Þjóðríkr the bold,
chief of sea-warriors,
ruled over the shores of the Hreiðsea.
Now he sits armed
on his Goth(ic horse),
his shield strapped,
the prince of the Mærings“ (Reference of Theoderic the Great on the Rök Runestone in Sweden, early 9th century)

Theoderic the Great's mausoleum in Ravenna,
one of the most original and artistically valuable edifices of late Antiquity
- a painting created by the Norwegian architect Harald Sund (1876 - 1940) in 1913

It was a foregone conclusion. Early high medieval chroniclers identified Verona in Northern Italy, one of Theoderic’s seats of power, with Welschbern or Bern and the old Ostrogothic condottiero who ended up as King of Italy became Dietrich von Bern and the old heroic epics were transformed into Northern European romances to rival the French chansons de geste and the Arthurian cycle. Dietrich or Thidrek, the exiled Lord of Ravenna, gathers a group of heroes together, pretty much like the once and future king, they save damsels in distress, fight monsters and villains, there is treason of trusted relatives, magic swords and what not until the showdown comes and Dietrich confronts his evil uncle Ermanaric in the epic Rabenschlacht, literally the Battle of the Ravens or Ravenna, that ends in a bloody draw and the hero is forced to return to his liege lord Attila until he can finally reclaim his domains towards the end of his life. Theoderic alias Dietrich makes his first appearance in High Medieval Romance guise in the second part of the German Nibelungenlied from around 1200 as perfect knight and gentleman at Attila’s court who defeats and captures the last two Nibelungs standing, Siegfried’s murderers Gunther and Hagen. Few stories get as dramatic as the Lay of the Nibelungs and not many medieval epics as fantastic as the later Thidrekssaga and the heroes’ exploits told there, but even contemporary chroniclers pointed out that Dietrich and Theoderic the Great could rather not be the same person, since the latter was born about the time when Attila the Hun died in 453 and the historical Battle of Ravenna was actually fought some forty years later. In the considerably older Lay of Hildebrand, written down around 800 at the court of Charlemagne, Dietrich’s or Theoderic’s old master-at-arms Hildebrand returns home after the battle and he might well have served Atilla in his youth before he became the instructor and fatherly friend of a prince of a tribe that was part of the Hunnic confederation. The Lay of Walter, recorded about the same time consequently takes the same turn. Whatever might have happened over the next three hundred years with the tales of Theoderic the Ostrogoth to make him a legendary and almost unhistorical legendary figure is quite unclear, but it might be a condensation of several traditions of various Theoderics, a name the Völkerwanderungszeit and early Middle Ages certainly had no shortage of. The Visigoths had at least two, one of them died fighting Attila at the Battle of Chalons, there’s a son of Clovis the Frank and maybe there even was a local petty king named Theoderic or Dietrich ruling the city of Bonn, known to the Romans as Bonna, Verona or Bern, who finally ended up conquering and ruling from Rome, meaning Trier, for decades the Roman capital of the North and known to the locals under the name of the Eternal City itself well into the days of Charlemagne.

Dietrich von Bern capturing the Dwarf Alberic, Illustration by Johannes Gehrts (1883)

The existing sources concerning the historical Theoderic the Great are rather not as complete or reliable as one might hope for either. Most of the material is handed down by the notoriously fabulating Jordanes who created, more often than not, a version of the history of the Goths as he thought it should be rather than it was. However, he is supposed to have the studied the now lost body of Gothic history compiled by the more authoritative Cassiodorus who, in turn, collected and recorded documents and other papers from the Roman offices under Ostrogothic rule – and these give the impression of a rather well-ordered state business, peace and prosperity after a century of complete chaos and the end of the Western Empire in 476. In fact, Theoderic the Great was ordered by the Eastern Emperor Zeno to do exactly that. Bring order about in Italy ruled by Odoacer after he had deposed the last Western Roman ruler Romulus Augustulus and fell from grace at the court in Constantinople. The next barbarian invader of Italy got his marching orders in 488, set his 100,000 Ostrogoths, about 20,000 of them warriors, in motion and fought for five years until Odoacer lost the climactic Rabenschlacht or Battle of Ravenna and was forced to negotiate with Theoderic. Allegedly, the King of the Ostrogoths personally slew Odoacer during the peace talks and made himself the new King of Italy afterwards. Zeno’s successor Anastasius finally acknowledged him as head of state of the Roman West in 498. Under Theoderic’s rule the Ostrogoths did indeed become the dominant power of Western Europe and the Germanic tribes who had set up shop in the ruins of the old empire, rivalled only by Clovis’ Franks, kept at bay rather by diplomacy than by force of arms. When Clovis tried to push the Visigoths out of southern France and move his domains immediately to the Italian borders, Theoderic reacted with military operations though. He won but somehow his victory might have cost him Constantinople’s favour and there is the theory that Anastasius and Catholic Clovis might have allied against the heretically Arian Theodoric, but that might be a much later interpretation. However, towards the end of Theoderic’s rule, the eastern emperors began to develop again an intensified interest in the West and Western affairs and pointed out their role as head of the church and nominal overlords or Rome and the neighbourhood. Naturally, the Ostrogothic King of Italy conceived the claim as intrusion and reacted accordingly. Approving the execution of several good Catholics or at least non-Arians, most prominently the philosopher and theologian Boethius by the Roman senate did not exactly win Theodoric the favour of prominent church historians anyway, who usually have him gone to hell for heresy and martyring their saints, but at that point Theoderic had become a legend long since while basic Catholic disapproval of his rule did not do any good to the available contemporary sources.

Brick with the emblem of Theodoric, found in the temple of Vesta, Rome. It reads "+REG(nante) D(omino) N(ostro) THEODE/RICO [b]O[n]O ROM(a)E", which translates as With our master Theodoric the Good reigning in Rome [this brick was made]. (Quoted from Wikipedia)

There is the time-honoured rule of thumb that the first generation works terribly hard to amass a fortune – or an empire – the second is barely able to maintain it and the third usually gambles it away. After almost 30 years of ruling Italy, the old king died, probably of malaria or diarrhoea, leaving his domains more or less well ordered but just an underage grandson as heir and pretty soon the charming relatives, most prominently the boy’s mother, tripped over their own court intrigues and claims to rule Italy, providing the Eastern Romans under Justinian with a welcome occasion to begin the reconquest of Italy in 535. The campaigns ended with the last Ostrogothic king killed in battle almost twenty years later and Italy completely devastated, a state the peninsula would not recover from until at least the High Middle Ages if not the Renaissance. Besides few textual sources, tales and legends the Ostrogothic legacy is scarce and there is hardly any archeological evidence that they were there at all, apart from Theodoric’s magnificent mausoleum in Ravenna, certainly one of the most original and artistically valuable edifices of late Antiquity.

The end of the Ostrogoths in the Battle of Mons Lactarius, early in 553 with their last king, Black Teja making his last stand, as imagined by Alexander Zick (1845 - 1907

And more about Theoderic the Great on:

and the medieval legends about Dietrich von Bern and Thidrek on: