Ostrogothic Italy – J.B. Bury


Born into the Ostrogothic nobility, but raised among the Roman aristocratic elite of Constantinople, Theodoric the Great embodies the synthesis of two disparate civilizations. Theodoric had been educated at the Pandidakterion in Constantinople, and was a Roman citizen. However, he captured fame as a Gothic warlord who united the fragmented Ostrogothic people under his rule, and was later directed to conquer the Italian peninsula by the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno.

Ruling Italy as – officially – a viceroy of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodoric was in reality a Western Roman Emperor in all but name. Although nominally a barbarian by birth Theodoric’s reign in Italy had considerable continuity with the institutional mores of the Western Roman Emperors of the fifth century, and he expertly balanced Roman culture with Gothic culture to advance a calibrated fusion of both.


“The formal relation of Italy to the Empire, both under Odovacar and under Theoderic, was much closer and clearer than that of any other of the states ruled by Germans. Although practically independent, it was regarded officially both at Rome and at Constantinople as part of the Empire in the fullest sense.

“Now what about the highest office of all, that of Master of Soldiers? Under Odovacar we hear of Masters of Soldiers. But under Ostrogothic rule no Master of Soldiers is mentioned. The generals employed by Theoderic are not described by this title… The solution, as Mommsen has shown, is that Theoderic himself was the magister militum. He had, as we saw, received that title – magister militum praesentalis – from Zeno ten years before he conquered Italy; he bore it when he conquered Italy, and he continued to retain it while he ruled Italy. It is intelligible that he did not designate himself by this title, because his powers as ruler of Italy far exceeded the powers of the most powerful magister militum; but this does not mean that he gave the office up.

“The senate continued to exist under the Ostrogothic kings, and to perform the same functions as it had performed throughout the fifth century. It was still formally recognised as a sovereign body… The constitutional difference between a senator and the emperor was that the senator was under the law and the emperor was not. But only the senators of the highest class, the illustres, had the right of voting, and as this class consisted of men who held the highest state offices, and were appointed by the emperor, it was the emperor who nominated the senators. Such was the constitutional position of the senate: politically it had no power, and its functions were practically confined to the affairs of Rome.

“In Procopius, it is expressly stated by representatives of the Goths, that neither Theoderic nor any of the Gothic rulers issued a law. This statement involves the admission that the right of legislation was the supreme prerogative of the emperor. And there is no formal contradiction between this statement and the fact that ordinances of Theoderic exist. None of these ordinances are designated as leges. They are only edicta… In legislation, the position of Theoderic as an official of the empire is clear and unmistakable, and it is remarkable how loyally he adhered to the capitulations.

“The essential fact is that the constitutional system of administration which Theoderic adopted and observed was not a necessity to which he reluctantly or half-heartedly yielded; it was a system in which he was a convinced believer, and into the working of which he threw his whole heart and his best energies. His avowed political object was to civilise his own people in the environment of Roman civilisation.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, Endeavour Press Ltd.