Ancient History & Civilisation





IN 507 OR THEREABOUTS, the ruler of Italy, Theoderic the Goth, wrote to the Eastern Roman emperor Anastasius in Constantinople:

You are the fairest ornament of all realms; you are the healthful defence of the whole world, to which all other rulers rightfully look up with reverence, because they know that there is in you something which is unlike all others: we above all, who by Divine help learned in your Republic [Constantinople: Theoderic had spent ten years in the city as a child] the art of governing Romans with equity. Our royalty is an imitation of yours, modelled on your good purpose, a copy of the only Empire; and in so far as we follow you do we excel all other nations.

This is an extraordinary letter. To Romans of any era Theoderic could only have been viewed as a barbarian. Yet here we have a Gothic king claiming to be copying Roman ideals. Naturally enough, it’s as famous as it is extraordinary, and has often been cited as evidence of Rome’s continuing psychological dominance, a generation after there had last been a Western emperor enthroned in the purple.

But on closer inspection, it demonstrates a great deal more than that. Like many diplomatic letters produced in almost any era of human history, it is written in a kind of code, carefully transmitting its full meaning via a set of conventions equally well understood by both the original parties to the correspondence. In this case, the key is provided by the long-standing ideological claims that sustained the self-understanding of the Roman imperial state. Roman ideologies claimed that the empire’s existence was so closely interwoven into the beneficent deity’s plans for bringing humankind to its fullest possible potential that it was actually providential divine power which had first brought it into existence, and supported it subsequently. An extension of an idea set that had first been rigorously articulated for the self-aggrandizing and thoroughly non-Christian successors of Alexander the Great (and is hence often labelled Hellenistic kingship), it had required remarkably little alteration when the emperor Constantine declared his allegiance to Christianity. The claim to divine support for a divinely ordained mission remained constant: the divinity providing said support was just re-identified as the Christian God, and the purpose of the mission was recalibrated to one of spreading the Christian Gospel.

Read against this ideology, Theoderic’s remarks become significantly less deferential. The critical phrase is ‘Divine help’ (auxilio divino). By employing it, the Goth made it clear to Anastasius that, in his own view of course (no one knows what the Eastern emperor thought when this was read out to him, although I could hazard a pretty good guess), Theoderic’s capacity to govern Italy as a fully fledged Roman ruler was the product not of chance or even of his own personal capacities honed by ten years’ observation of Romanness in action in Constantinople (although these played a part), but most fundamentally of God’s direct intervention. The central plank of Roman state ideology was the claim that the empire existed because it was key to the divine plan for humankind. Theoderic’s parallel claim that the divinity underpinned his own capacity to govern in a properly Roman manner amounted to a statement that he himself, together with the realm he governed, were just as legitimately ‘Roman’ – i.e. divinely ordained – as the Eastern Empire itself. As set up in this letter, Theoderic’s Romanness was not indirectly acquired from the Eastern Empire, but directly from God. Who was this Gothic upstart making these extraordinary claims, and how much substance was there in this assertion of his own Romanness?1


The first image to survive of the young Theoderic is that of a seven-or eight-year-old boy being sent as a hostage to the great capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire: Constantinople. The year was 461 or thereabouts, and, young as he was, Theoderic had an important role to play. His uncle had just forged a new diplomatic agreement with the then Eastern emperor Leo, as a result of which he was awarded foreign aid – or a subsidy, call it what you will – to the tune of 300 pounds weight of gold a year. The young Theoderic was sent to Constantinople in return as the physical embodiment of one of the agreement’s security clauses. All this was routine. Since time immemorial, Rome had demanded high-status hostages to ensure that treaties would be complied with.2

The image comes from the Gothic History or Getica of a certain Jordanes, composed in Constantinople around the year 550, and this text has played a central role in modern understandings of who the child actually was. Later in life, when securely enthroned in Italy, Theoderic liked to state (particularly to foreign potentates) that he belonged to a uniquely purple (i.e. imperial) dynasty: a gens purpura. His own legitimacy flowed from the fact that members of his family had ruled unchallenged over the Goths for seventeen generations by the time power reached his grandson and successor Athalaric in the 520s. Jordanes Getica has long been taken to provide crucial narrative support for this statement, its text including not only a full genealogy of Theoderic’s Amal family (Figure 1), but also a panoply of stories about some of its more distinguished individual members.3

Before swallowing this vision whole, however, it is important to look more closely at its sources. One of its main ones, as Jordanes states in his preface and a broader comparison with the author’s other surviving writings confirms, was a now lost Gothic history written by the Roman senator Cassiodorus, whom we will meet again in the next chapter. Jordanes tells us that he only had access to Cassiodorus’ History for three days, but the really important point here is that Cassiodorus was an insider at Theoderic’s court and composed his history while serving the king. What this does, of course, is effectively undermine any claim that Jordanes provides independent confirmation of the unique royal status of the Amal family, since both Theoderic’s claims and the Getica’s historical support ultimately derive from the same context: Theoderic’s own court.4 Once this is recognized and you go digging around a little further in the sources, it becomes possible quite quickly to shed rather more light on the real family history of the young Theoderic the Amal, whose horse plodded into Constantinople in the early 460s. He was certainly from a fairly grand family, otherwise he would not have been sent to Constantinople as a hostage in the first place. But that grandeur was both more recent and of a more limited degree than Theoderic would later pretend.

His father was the middle in age of three brothers – Valamer, Thiudimer and Vidimer in order of birth – who emerge in reasonably reliable sources as the leaders by the later 450s of a sizeable group of Goths which had been subordinate previously, and for a number of decades, to the Hunnic Empire of Attila, whose career of terror in the 440s had stretched from the walls of Constantinople to the outskirts of Paris. The traditional view of the Amal family – stemming directly from the kind of information that Theoderic was prone to give out in Italy – is that it had ruled one half of the overall Gothic ‘people’ – the Ostrogoths or ‘Eastern’ Goths – since at least the middle of the third century AD. The other half are conventionally called Visigoths (‘Western’ Goths) and have been seen as having a largely separate history from their Amal-dominated cousins, again from the third century. But all this is a fantasy directly generated by Theoderic’s own propaganda. The grandeur of the Amal dynasty, prior to the phenomenal successes of Theoderic’s own lifetime, was much more limited than the visions modern commentators have conjured into existence on the back of the king’s later pretensions.

For one thing, the Goths left in central and Eastern Europe by the 463 were far from united. Aside from those Goths led by Theoderic’s father and two uncles, settled somewhere in the old Roman province of Pannonia around what is now Lake Balaton in modern Hungary, there was another large group of allied Goths living by agreement on East Roman territory in Thrace, a moderately large third group still under Hunnic domination (where we find them as late as 467) and two more separate – if seemingly smaller – Gothic groups in the Crimea and on the eastern shores of the Sea of Azov. Numbers are not exact, of course, but, at most, the Amal family can have led no more than roughly a quarter of all the Goths of central and Eastern Europe that we know about as Hunnic power collapsed. And this makes no allowance for the perfectly real possibility that there might have been other Gothic groups of whom we know absolutely nothing.5

Equally important, the unchallenged rule of the Amal brothers over even the Pannonian Goths was a recent creation. A snippet of misunderstood narrative in the Getica catches pretended Amal grandeur with its hands in the historical till. What this passage describes is not, as it thinks, some of the successes of a Hunnic conqueror of the Goths (whom it labels Valamver), but actually the early career of Theoderic’s uncle, Valamer himself. And the picture is electric. Far from being the latest in a long line of kings exercising unchallenged dominion over half of all Goths, it shows Valamer elbowing himself to the head of a pack of other Gothic warband leaders. He starts by personally killing a certain Vinitharius and marrying the victim’s granddaughter, Vadamerca. At the same time, a rival line comprising a father (Hunimund), two brothers (Thorismund and Gensemund) and a grandson (Thorismund’s son Beremund) was steadily eliminated. After various deaths in the older generation, Gensemund chose to accept the inevitable and resigned himself to Valamer’s authority, while Beremund decided to take his personal following westwards and remove himself from the competition. The prominence of Valamer and his brothers by the late 450s, even over the Pannonian Goths, was the result of hard-fought struggles with multiple rivals among them, all probably fought out since Attila’s death in 453, since the latter’s management techniques did not generally tolerate overmighty rulers among his subject peoples.6

What this material does, in fact, is turn the Amal dynasty into a pretty familiar fifth-century story. To be the unchallenged leader of a large group of warriors required strong levers of power. There are many possible variations in detail, but this always meant an interlinked mixture of stick and carrot: enough brute force to keep potential rivals from chancing their arms against you, combined with a plentiful flow of ready cash to keep enough foot soldiers and middle-rank leaders happy, actually to generate that brute force. But both, and particularly the cash, tended to be in relatively short supply in the non-complex economies characteristic of the world beyond Rome’s European frontiers before the arrival of the Huns. Pre-AD 400, for instance, all you tend to find in non-Roman archaeological contexts is a modest amount of silver and almost no gold at all. Not that there was no gold around; it was just too valuable to be buried with the dead or for anyone to lose with any regularity.

Non-Roman, largely agricultural economies also produced only small annual surpluses which could support only relatively limited numbers of specialist non-farmers. As a result, both professional full-time warriors and the cash with which to buy their services were far from abundant, and it was only in highly unusual circumstances (mostly involving access to Roman funds by fair means or foul) that kings beyond the frontier could assemble enough military might to dominate larger geographical spaces. Small-scale kingships, run essentially by warband leaders, were the natural order of the day, not great imperial dynasties; and larger hegemonies tended to be highly temporary, limited to the lifetime of particularly effective leaders.

The rise and fall of Attila’s Hunnic Empire altered this situation in two fundamental ways. First, there was an explosion of gold in the non-Roman world beyond the frontier, in particular in the Huns’ Middle Danubian heartlands. Moveable Roman wealth was the central object of Hunnic campaigning, whether taken as booty, or in the form of annual subsidies which increased with every Hunnic victory to a maximum of 2,000 pounds in weight per annum. Not only is all this clear in the texts but it is also reflected in the archaeology, where the new wealth of the Hunnic era shows up in a large number of gold-rich burials. As Hunnic hegemony began to collapse in the mid-450s, therefore, there was now enough wealth knocking around both to generate intense competition between the rival warband leaders – like Theoderic’s uncle and his rivals – who had formed the empire’s second-tier leadership, and to sustain in the short term the larger political structures that their conflicts tended to create.

Second, even after the wheels came off in the mid-450s, the overall effect of the Hunnic period – the combined product of Attila’s victories and the greater concentration of military manpower he had assembled to win them – was to shift the longer-term strategic balance of power on the Danube frontier away from the Roman Empire. The imperial authorities of East and West were now having to deal with larger numbers of bigger, more militarily effective neighbouring forces. This meant that the new powers which formed around figures such as Valamer in the 450s were able in their own right (or wrong!) to retain access to Roman wealth by a combination of moving on to parcels of former Roman territory which still had more developed economies than anything beyond the frontier, and setting up political relations with the Roman state which involved the payment of subsidies. As Hunnic power receded – and it did so astonishingly quickly in the decade after Attila’s death – and the Hunnic brake on political centralization among subject groups such as the Goths was removed, new and militarily effective groupings quickly formed among the Huns’ former subjects. Apart from squabbling with one another, they started casting covetous eyes over bits of former particularly West Roman territory, and on potential particularly East Roman subsidies.

Valamer followed both elements of this recipe for success to the letter. Soon after the elimination of his immediate Gothic rivals, we find him both in possession of part of the old West Roman province of Pannonia, and pushing hard for foreign aid from Constantinople. The young Theoderic trotted towards Constantinople precisely as one of the sureties for the deal which sent 300 pounds of gold per annum in Valamer’s direction in return – a quantity of regular cash which came in extremely handy when you had to convince warriors that you deserved their loyalty. The archaeological evidence makes it entirely clear, in fact, how Valamer and his peers used this wealth to win political support. The remains of post-Hunnic central Europe throw up a mixture of Roman imports, not least wine amphorae, and some extremely rich personal ornamentation for both males and females. Parties and bling provided an excellent recipe for stamping your power on a potential following. The correlation between non-Roman dynasts moving actually on to (or at least closer into) Roman territory, and their being able to use Roman wealth to build up their power by attracting a much larger body of military support than had previously been possible, had been and remained an extremely strong one as the Western Empire collapsed in the fifth century.7

We find it operating, for instance, among the Vandals and Visigoths who founded successor states to Rome respectively in North Africa and southern Gaul and Spain in the first half of the fifth century. Both started out as loose alliances of separate groups with their own independent leaderships, and became centralized under a single leader only on Roman soil. In the case of these groups, it was not only that the positive possibilities opened up by the greater wealth of the Roman world facilitated a centralization of power, but also the fact that their unity grew at a time when the West Roman state was still powerful enough actually to threaten to destroy them. The historical detail preserved by our sources makes it clear that the negative impulse provided by a still very vital Roman threat played a major role in making the originally independent groups, of which both were composed, willing to overturn their long-standing traditions of separation and create the political relationships on which the new groupings were based.

In many ways the closest parallel to the Amals’ story, however, is provided by the Frankish Merovingian dynasty, whose power, like that of Theoderic’s family, was substantially a post-Roman phenomenon, not brokered by any effective imperial threat. In this case, the history penned by Bishop Gregory of Tours in the 590s provides chapter and verse. In the era of West Roman political collapse, the Merovingian Childeric rose to considerable prominence in what is now Belgium, allowing his son Clovis to inherit a reasonably powerful kingdom based on Tournai in c.480. Clovis’ subsequent career extended Merovingian domination over pretty much the entirety of France, and large chunks of non-Roman territory east of the Rhine. It also famously encompassed a conversion to Catholicism, both of which points have given him a prominent place as ‘founder of the nation’ in the political myths of modern France. At least as important as his conquests of new territory, however, and to my mind perhaps even key to them, was the fact that Clovis extinguished a whole series of rival warband leaders, adding their surviving followers to his own. As Gregory tells it, Clovis eliminated no less than seven rivals. At least some of these were collateral relatives (as may also have been true of some of those despatched by Valamer) and Gregory closes the chapters with a speech Clovis is supposed to have made at a Frankish assembly:


Amal Genealogy

How sad a thing it is that I live among strangers like some solitary pilgrim, and that I have none of my own relations left to help me when disaster threatens!

Gregory’s comment on this is typical of his own dark sense of humour:

He said this not because he grieved for their deaths, but because in his cunning way he hoped to find some relative still in the land of the living whom he could kill.

If Valamer had been blessed with a historian of similar stature to Gregory of Tours, he might well have found something similar to put in the mouth of the great founder of Amal power. Certainly the two careers ran closely in parallel. But all of this merely restates the question with which we began with much greater urgency. How did the nephew of a fairly obscure Gothic warband leader come to affect the perquisites of a God-chosen Roman emperor?8


What the young Gothic hostage thought of his new surroundings and how much anxiety he felt are not recorded, but, by 463, what had been the small and relatively undistinguished – if certainly ancient – Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosphorus had been transformed into a mighty imperial capital. That process was less than 150 years old, initiated in the 320s – after some umming and erring – by the same Constantine who had turned the official religion of the empire towards Christianity. At one point, feeling in a classical turn of mind, and no doubt influenced by the old Roman claim that their city had been founded by the fleeing remnants of Troy’s destruction, the emperor had considered rebuilding the topless towers of Ilium. The sources also record that at another point Constantine boldly declared that ‘Serdica [Sofia, capital of modern Bulgaria] is my Rome’. But that proved another false start, and his choice finally fell on Byzantium, sited on a peninsula strategically placed to control the crossing of the Hellespont, from Europe to Asia, and equipped with abundant sheltered waters for large fleets to lie at anchor, both in the Bosphorus itself and particularly in the Golden Horn that snakes up its eastern shoreline.

In the first generation, Constantine’s decision looked far from momentous. Many structures were half-built at the time of the emperor’s death in 337, he had trouble persuading the richer landowners of the Eastern Empire to relocate to his new capital, and a fundamental problem with the water supply remained to be resolved. Like many peninsulas around the rim of the Mediterranean, it was a struggle to concentrate enough water to supply all the needs of even Byzantium’s few thousand inhabitants in the 320s, let alone the larger masses of all social classes who flocked to an imperial capital, with all the job opportunities, free food distributions, and extravagant entertainments that could be anticipated. And, in fact, many Roman emperors over the years had turned their favourite cities into new capitals which lasted maybe a generation or two at best before whim or new circumstances led to a further political and administrative relocation.

Constantinople proved the exception. Two key political developments under Constantine’s son Constantius II located political power much more permanently within its new walls. First, the new emperor created there an imperial senate for the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which was designed to match the grandeur of its Roman counterpart. This time, there were sufficient inducements on offer and a cross-section of the richer landowners of the eastern Mediterranean duly trotted off to new houses, duties and honours beside the Bosphorus. Henceforth, the Senate of Constantinople became the prime political audience for imperial policy: the men to whom imperial policies had to be sold and justified, and whose continued importance in the home provinces from which they came made their support for imperial initiatives a sine qua non for their successful implementation. Second, the fourth century in general saw a steady expansion in the size of the empire’s central bureaucratic offices. This operated equally in east and west, but, in the eastern half of the empire, all the new offices were located securely in Constantinople, bringing a further reinforcement of important personnel and functions to the city. Between them, these two developments made it impossible for effective central power ever to be exercised from anywhere else in the eastern Mediterranean. And once central power was so firmly committed to the site, the will was automatically there too, both to resolve all its logistic difficulties and provide the new capital with an appropriate range of amenities. By the time Theoderic came to Constantinople, therefore, a bog standard small-to-medium Greek city had emerged from its chrysalis as an astonishing metropolitan butterfly.9

Coming from the north-west, along the main military road through the Balkans, the young Goth entered the city by the Charisius Gate. This was the most northerly of the main gates through the Theodosian landwalls which guarded the city. Rarely has any city been so well guarded. The first obstacle to be crossed was a moat twenty metres wide and another ten in depth; this was succeeded – beyond a further twenty metres of flat killing ground – by the outer wall which was two metres thick at its base and eight and a half metres high, studded by a grand total of ninety-six towers, placed at fifty-five-metre intervals. There then followed another twenty-metre terrace before you came finally to the full might of the main wall: five metres thick and twelve metres high, reinforced with another ninety-six towers placed in between those of the outer wall, and these a full twenty metres from foot to battlement. Constructed in the years around AD 410, and still substantially visible in modern Istanbul, they were so strong that they protected the landward approaches to the city until cannon finally blew open the breach in which, according to some stories, the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, fell fighting on 23 May 1453.10

Theoderic had no cannon, and neither did anyone else in the fifth century, so to his eight-year-old eyes, the city’s fortifications can only have transmitted an impression of overwhelming power. He would have known that they had proved more than strong enough to ward off Attila the Hun less than twenty years before. The line of the walls – for excellent military reasons – was set on high ground, which reached maximum elevation towards the north, where Theoderic had entered. Once through the gate and archway, the whole imperial metropolis was laid out before him.

The immediate effect can only have been shock. Theoderic had just ridden in from the Middle Danubian plain, west of the Carpathians in modern Hungary, where he had spent his early years. In the high Roman period, this was a heavily defended frontier region which had seen much imperial investment and great prosperity in the first four centuries AD. Legionary bases studded the line of the river, and, around the soldiers’ spending power, real Roman towns had grown up, while the agricultural potential of the hinterland was exploited by retired legionaries, new settlers from Italy, and native populations turning themselves into fully paid up Romans. As multiple excavations have emphasized, the region at its height boasted walled cities, temples, then cathedrals as Christianity took over, theatres and amphitheatres, aqueducts, road systems, statues, town councils, inscriptions and villas in glorious abundance. But that was before the crisis years of West Roman collapse, and aside from a handful of massively fortified – perhaps originally imperial – villas which the new rulers of this landscape adapted to their own purposes, by the mid-fifth century the rest had fallen into decay. There was still a substantial population, and some of it inhabited the old sites, but no one was preserving any of the old cultural forms, so stonework and statues were turning rapidly to rubble, togas had been put away for good, and most of the villas had long since been destroyed.11

The contrast between the debris of old Roman provincial prosperity and the full-on metropolitan imperial splendour of mid-fifth-century Constantinople could not have been greater. The first thing to assault his senses was the sheer scale of the city. Chronologically, the Theodosian Walls were the city’s third set. The old Greek city of Byzantium possessed the first set; these enclosed a roughly rectangular area at the end of the peninsula of about two kilometres by one and a half (Figure 2). The walls added by Constantine in the 320s more than trebled the enclosed area, and then those of the emperor Theodosius more than doubled it again. Not all of the enclosed area was built up – there were extensive market gardens and parks, especially between the Theodosian and Constantinian walls – but a standard late Roman town of maybe 10,000 inhabitants had probably already become, by 463, the largest city of the Mediterranean, with a population estimated at over half a million.

Huge logistical problems had been solved along the way. Part of the solution to one of the most pressing came into Theoderic’s view immediately on his left as he rode away from the gate. The area between the Theodosian and Constantinian walls was home to the city’s three enormous open-air reservoirs, one of which – that of Aetius – lay beside Theoderic’s road. Their remains can still be seen (at least at the time of writing), each home to temporary-looking housing and a couple of football fields. These man-made lakes were supplemented by over a hundred smaller underground cisterns with a total storage capacity between them of over a million cubic metres. But that was only part of the water story. To keep these storage tanks filled, over 250 kilometres of aqueduct snaked away from the city, fanning out to the north and west to ensnare the rainfall of the Thracian hills. As with water, the mechanics of the solution to the problem of food were literally in front of Theoderic’s eyes: front left lay the two small harbours of the old Greek city, but straight ahead he could see the two new massive ones built by the emperors Julian and Theodosius to receive the grain fleets whose periodic deliveries, especially from Egypt, fed the city. Each of the harbours was lined with massive granaries where the food was stored.

Whether the thoughts of an eight-year-old Goth from the ruins of provincial Pannonia would have turned to the logistic problems of feeding and watering 500,000 people must, I guess, be slightly doubtful. More probably, his eyes were captured by the city’s astonishing range of pristine monuments which dwarfed any of the wrecks he’d seen back home or en route. First in view was Constantine’s Church of the Holy Apostles, imperial burial place and home to the skulls of St Andrew, St Luke and St Timothy. Theoderic was himself a Christian, so this collection of holy power held immediate significance, and the building itself was stunning too. The route then led past the triumphal column with a statue of the emperor Marcian, conqueror of Attila on the top (part of the column is still visible), then on to the Capitol. There a half-left led Theoderic into the ceremonial heart of the city where a full range of marble monuments succeeded one another at bewildering pace. The forum of Theodosius (now Beyazit Square), complete with another column and triumphal statue (Theodosius himself, of course), the massive triumphal arch complex of the Tetrapylon, the circular forum proper complete with Senate house, then finally to the great imperial centre of hippodrome, palace buildings and the imperial churches of Holy Wisdom and Holy Peace: Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene. These were not, in 463, the famous domed churches of that name which can still be seen in modern Istanbul, but their predecessors: rectangular, classic basilica churches with gently pitched roofs and not a dome in sight. The story of how these came to be replaced will play a major role in Chapter 3, but for now it is enough to recognize how overwhelming this all must have been. When Theoderic rode through the Charisius Gate, the city was in its pomp, resplendent with marble facades, bronze roofs and gilded statues. The extent of the contrast with everything he had ever known can only have been violently disorienting.12


Especially if you have had children, it is only natural to think about Theoderic in the light of youngsters known to you. A quick consultation of my own boys’ records tells me that the average eight-year-old male in the UK at the turn of the millennium stood about 128 centimetres (four foot three inches) high and weighed around twenty-eight kilos (fifty-seven pounds). Most eight-year-olds also come equipped with short attention spans, abundant energy and a built-in requirement for frequent inputs (in smallish quantities) of stimulation, food, and affection. But Theoderic was a prince of (reasonably) royal blood, and hence blessed (or otherwise) with an upbringing which would have prepared him better than most for the emotional deprivation and public display demanded by his new life in Constantinople.

He was the oldest male child yet produced by the three brothers, which is why presumably he was sent to guarantee the treaty. Valamer does not seem to have had any male children (the amateur psychologist might wonder if the fact that he had killed his wife’s grandfather may have had something to do with that), but, even if he had, this would not have prevented Theoderic being brought up from the outset as a potential leader. At this point, the leadership of the Pannonian Goths was still being shared, as between Valamer and his brothers. There was no primogeniture, and any male child was a potential leader of the future. Moreover, the job description was both so specific and so dangerous that you needed plenty of alternatives to hand in case of either early death or the possibility that the character of any particular individual failed to match the task. Not only did you have to sit on a horse in the front of the battle line at crunchtime, but you had also more generally to inspire a large number of alpha males with sufficient confidence to follow you enthusiastically into battle in the first place. This requires not only physical strength and personal bravery, but also that infectious charisma which comes from self-confidence, matched too with enough brainpower to know which battles to fight – and which not – and how exactly to wage them.

Succession in these kinds of contexts rarely runs simply from father to eldest son. Historians have often criticized the contemporary Merovingians for failing to develop primogeniture, since the dynasty’s succession history is broadly one of repeated infighting. But this is to miss the point. You can only have primogeniture when the personal characteristics of the son don’t matter so much; that is, when leadership is not so personal and charismatic. The troops will not be willing to be led into battle either by a poet, for instance, or – not more than once, at least – by an idiotic macho man who may be big and charismatic, but will also throw their lives away in hopeless fights against ridiculous odds. The best analogy to early medieval succession I know of is provided by The Godfather, where the chief aides and independent second-rank leaders like Tom Hagen, Luca Brasi and Peter Clemenza carefully evaluate the qualities of Vito Corleone’s different sons. Worth thinking about particularly carefully, I think, are the better and worse sides of the oldest of the three:

Sonny Corleone had strength, he had courage. He was generous and his heart was as big as his organ. Yet he did not have his father’s humility, but instead a quick, hot temper that led him into errors of judgment. Though he was a great help in his father’s business, there were many who doubted that he would become the heir to it.13

In the end, the much quieter but smarter and equally brave third son proves infinitely superior to his charismatic but rash eldest brother, while the middle son lacks the qualities ever to rank as a contender. Leading a warband, large or small, was a heavy responsibility, and potential heirs were always being watched.

The qualities of Theoderic’s home life are unlikely to have been much conducive to sentimentality, therefore, even in an eight-year-old. We know that he had brothers and sisters, although whether they had been born by 463 is unclear. More likely than not, however, they were the products of various unions. Even semi-royal warband leaders based their unions as much on political necessity as affection or desire, and often formed various simultaneous unions – by both marriage and concubinage – as circumstance dictated. Sometimes, things didn’t go quite as planned. Reputedly the Gepid princess Rosamund murdered her husband, the Lombard king Alboin, for too much boasting that he’d turned her defeated father’s skull into a drinking cup. Whether Vadamerca harboured inklings of revenge towards Valamer is unrecorded, but, even where royal family life was not so fraught, tensions between wives, mistresses, and their natural ambitions for their various children, made the experience of growing up in a fifth-century, even moderately royal family a million miles away from the norms and hopes of a modern nuclear family. And that’s without taking into account tensions between the three brothers. Valamer, Thiudimer and Vidimer may have agreed to share power in their own lifetime, but that doesn’t mean they remotely agreed on what was to happen next (anyone who has inherited something jointly from parents and then has to contemplate the next generation will, I think, recognize the experience). Jordanes records that Theoderic’s father did not want Valamer to use him as the hostage, and that has the ring of truth about it. The older brother may well have wanted his nephew out of the way in Constantinople, so that he couldn’t do anything to establish the ties of respect with the second-rank leadership which would make him the natural heir for the next generation, and maybe also in the hope that he could have sons of his own in the meantime.14

Some of these thoughts may be wide of the mark, but their general trajectory is certainly correct. It was no ordinary eight-year-old who rode through the Charisius Gate. He must have been anxious and alarmed, but his upbringing had ensured that he was uncommonly hardened. What exactly he did for the next ten years in Constantinople is not recorded, but from many other examples of hostages at Roman imperial courts over the preceding centuries, we have a very good idea of the kind of programme on offer. For while Theoderic was certainly there to guarantee that Valamer’s Goths would respect the new treaty, and the threat was real enough that he might be executed if they did not, the line of thought behind the Romans’ hostage reflex was much more ambitious. To state it succinctly, the Romans aimed to get inside the heads of royal hostages to make them pliable and useful in the longer term. They hoped to engender a mixture of genuine respect for the wonders of Roman civilization and a well-informed awe of Roman imperial power that, having eventually returned home, the ex-hostage would influence the foreign policy of his group in directions that served Rome’s interests.

Although certainly watched, but surrounded by some of his own retinue, he would have undergone at least part of the standard education programme for an upper-class Roman (as alluded to in the letter to Anastasius). The longer-term plan, after all, was to shape his opinions, and what better way to implant Roman values than by a Roman education. He would also have been free to move about at court and in the city, attending circuses, theatres, and Church too, since Constantinople still had a distinct non-Nicene Church community at this point. He may even have been attached to the Roman army for the odd operation or two as he grew older. All in all, although there was that faint shadow hanging over him – he really was a hostage after all – he was given every opportunity to learn about everything Roman, with the hope that this would make him a reliable partner if and when he succeeded to the throne back home.15 But whatever the precise details of the educational programme unloaded in Theoderic’s direction, it spectacularly failed to work. Within five years of his return to Pannonia, and still only in his early twenties, he came back to the walls of Constantinople: this time at the head of an army of 10,000 men. How did this happen, and what had gone wrong with his education?


No strategy works every time. Human beings can always respond in one of two extreme ways to any stimulus – complete acceptance or complete rejection – and most will probably fall somewhere in between, picking up some of the ideas thrown in their direction but rejecting others. In the case of Theoderic the Amal, the evidence suggests that we are dealing with a fascinatingly complex reaction: an individual who appreciated the full weight of imperial power, and the many advantages of Roman ideas and administrative structures. At the same time, he was not remotely intimidated by what he observed, calculating instead how carefully selected elements of Romanitas might be turned to advantage. All this has to be deduced – Theoderic’s private diaries do not exist – but the message screams out loud and clear from his subsequent career.

Why exactly Theoderic returned home at the age of eighteen is unclear. He was obviously pretty full grown, but in Roman law, you came of majority age only at twenty-five and we don’t know what Gothic custom might have been. There are two basic possibilities: either the return date was written into the original treaty, or it was generated by more immediate circumstances. If the latter, two lines of thought suggest themselves. First, by the early 470s Valamer was dead, killed in one of the competitive struggles for hegemony that litter the post-Attilan history of the Middle Danube region. Not only did this make Theoderic’s father Thiudimer now the pre-eminent leader of the Pannonian Goths, but it also made Theoderic, as his father’s eldest son, potentially a very immediate heir, since Valamer seems still not to have produced any male children. The imperative here to secure the boy’s return is obvious.

But Valamer’s death may have occurred as early as the mid-460s, which would deny it much of a role as the trigger behind Theoderic’s return, and, by the early 470s, momentous events were also afoot within Constantinople. For the previous twenty years, the great kingmaker had been Aspar, a general and patrician. His non-Roman Alanic origins made it impossible for him – in his own view too, it seems – to take the throne himself, but the emperors Marcian (probably 450–7) and Leo I (457 onwards) were his candidates and his pre-eminence within Constantinople was unchallenged. He also enjoyed particularly close ties to the large group of Thracian Goths who formed much of the Eastern Empire’s Balkan military establishment and provided him with the martial clout he needed, not least in the form of garrison troops in the capital, to face down any would-be rivals.

Until, that is, the emperor Leo started to scheme for independence and used the leaders of recently recruited Isaurian troops from mountainous regions of the Taurus (modern Turkey) as a counterweight to Aspar’s power. Major recruiting drives had begun in this region in the 440s, when the empire needed to expand its forces to fend off Attila, and, by the 460s, the political consequences of this move were becoming apparent. The most prominent of the Isaurians, Zeno (Greek xenon, ‘stranger’, ‘guest’, as in ‘xenophobia’: ‘hatred of guests’), first emerges in the disgracing of Aspar’s son Ardaburius in 466, and then moved swiftly up the military hierarchies, making the requisite contacts as he went. By 471, emperor and Isaurian were ready to strike. Reportedly urged on by Zeno, Leo had Aspar cut down in the palace, earning the sobriquet Macelles ‘the Butcher’. The move also prompted an immediate uprising among the Thracian Goths, which can’t have come as any surprise. Like many in similar circumstances, before and since, however, Leo also found out that relying on someone else to rescue you from unwanted dependence is not such a good strategy. Zeno had married Leo’s daughter Ariadne, and their son, Leo II, was heir to the throne, so one éminence grise replaced another. Whether the butcher slept more happily at night, history doesn’t record.16

It was in the midst of all this mayhem that Theoderic left Constantinople, just possibly because of it in some way, and, even if not, what had originally been two separate sequences of events quickly became inextricably entwined as a result of what our Gothic tyro chose to do next. On his return to Pannonia, Theoderic’s most immediate need was to establish some legitimacy as the son of his father and potential leader of the group. Not surprisingly, we quickly find him leading a plundering expedition against some Sarmatians who were occupying territory close to the old Roman city of Singidunum (modern Belgrade). The Sarmatians had once been fierce but in late antiquity they had evolved into everyone’s favourite whipping boy. In similar circumstances, in the autumn following the Romans’ shocking defeat at Hadrianople, the very-soon-to-be Emperor Theodosius I picked on the Sarmatians to show that God was on his side. Nearly a hundred years later, Theoderic chose the same victims. According to Jordanes, here likely enough following Cassiodorus again, he mounted his expedition without his father’s knowledge, but I don’t believe a word of it. After such a long gap, and with so much at stake now that Valamer was dead without male offspring, father and son had a joint interest in establishing Theoderic’s credibility. The point was duly made by the Sarmatians’ ‘slaves and treasure’ with which he returned.17

Not only were the Sarmatians suitably supine, but Singidunum was itself a significant choice. For the newly returned Theoderic had, much more ambitiously, convinced his father that the political upheavals generated by the murder of Aspar offered an unmissable opportunity, which the Pannonian Goths set about grabbing with both hands. As with most really ‘big’ decisions, the evidence suggests that a range of motivations were in play. For one thing, his sojourn in Constantinople must have rammed home for Theoderic the limitations of the Goths’ current situation in Pannonia. Here they were locked into an intraregional struggle for dominance with a whole series of other highly militarized groups which had emerged in the region from the wreck of Attila’s war machine: Rugi, Suevi, Sciri, Gepids, Alans, not to mention the poor old Sarmatians and contingents of actual Huns under various of Attila’s sons. Attila’s trick had been to unite all of these – just about – and point them in a Roman direction, extracting very large amounts of gold bullion and other forms of wealth, which show up, as we’ve seen, so dramatically in the Hunnic-period archaeology of the region. But, if it didn’t stop, the flow of new wealth into the area quickly subsided once the groups were no longer acting together. The new intra-regional conflicts which replaced long-distance wealth-extraction expeditions on to Roman soil thus quickly became struggles over less and less (not least as the existing wealth was buried with the dead), but remained equally nasty. It was in one round of these battles that Valamer had fallen:

[He] rode on his horse before the line to encourage his men, the horse was wounded and fell, overthrowing its rider. Valamer was quickly pierced by his enemies’ spears and slain.18

The fact that his followers are said to have extracted great revenge would have been of little comfort to the king who had just died so unpleasantly. The prospect of continuing the endless struggle for mastery in the Middle Danube, a fight for control of a declining stock of assets, with an eventual nasty death a likely outcome, did not strike the returning Theoderic as a fantastic career path. Constantinople had opened his eyes to a much bigger world.

In particular, the revolt of the Thracian Goths provided the leadership of the Pannonian Goths with real reason to think that an exciting opportunity might be up for grabs. To understand its nature, it is necessary to understand the highly privileged position occupied by the Thracian Goths within the East Roman polity. Barbarian soldiers per se were not any kind of oddity within Roman armies of any era. From Augustus onwards, at least half the imperial military establishment had been composed of non-citizens. In the late Roman era, however, a new type of agreement came to be made, whereby non-Roman contingents were allowed to settle on Roman soil and placed permanently on the army roster under their own leaderships, retaining a considerable degree of legal and political (and hence possibly too cultural) autonomy. This stood in marked contrast to earlier periods, when barbarian soldiers permanently in the Roman army always served under Roman officers, or contingents under their own leaderships were temporary reinforcements for particular campaigns drafted in from client kingdoms beyond the frontier. There is much argument about when the new kind of arrangement – which created groups known to the Romans as foederati (often rendered into English as ‘federates’, though the term is bandied about far too loosely) first came into existence. And although the new arrangements probably evolved in stages, an excellent case can be made that they were first deployed in their full form precisely for the Thracian Goths. They originated as a group of Hunnic subjects extracted from their overlords’ domination by Roman military action in Pannonia in the 420s, and resettled in Thrace. For the Romans, the gain was twofold: Hunnic military manpower was substantially reduced, and their own consequently increased. For the Goths, all too aggressive Hunnic overlordship was replaced by a privileged position within the East Roman state.

By the time Theoderic was observing it at first hand in the 460s, this relationship was into its second and third generations, and the advantages to the Thracian Goths were obvious. For one thing, the pay wasn’t at all bad. Where Valamer had been able to extract 300 pounds of gold per annum from Constantinople in the treaty which had sent his nephew to the Eastern court, the leader of the Thracian Goths received seven times that amount per year as payment for his followers’ services. The Thracian Goths were also extremely well connected at court. By the early 470s, their paramount leader was also called Theoderic: an astonishing, not to say confusing, coincidence you might say, except that in Gothic the name means ‘King of the People’ so it’s a likely enough name to give to any self-respecting princeling. In this case the Thracian Theoderic comes equipped with a nickname – Strabo ‘the Squinter’ – which can be used to avoid confusion. Strabo, we know, was the nephew of Aspar’s wife, so a marriage alliance tied the Thracian leadership closely to the great patrician. They also had strong ties to a range of other top court functionaries, and supplied at least part of the city’s garrison. Nor, unlike their Pannonian counterparts, did they have to spend their time fighting off the attentions of Suevi, Sciri and others in a futile competition over a declining stock of old Hunnic assets in the Middle Danube, occupying instead good settlement areas on the Thracian Plain, with recognized land rights which supplemented their yearly pay.19

This happy situation was rudely interrupted by Leo’s penchant for Isaurians and the murder of their patron. You can entirely see why they went into revolt. As was usually the case in late Roman politics, the crash of so dominant a figure as Aspar generated a period of great political instability, and the Thracian leadership must have calculated that their revolt would help undermine the Isaurian position and offer them a path back to the good old days. What they had failed to notice is that the young Gothic prince from Pannonia had taken full stock of their privileges, and detected in the Thracian uprising a massive opportunity for self-advancement. This is why the decision to prove his mettle against the Sarmatians of Singidunum had a wider significance. For Singidunum, which Theoderic refused to return to imperial control, was a key crossroads, whose control opened up major routes south into the East Roman Balkans (Figure 3). Theoderic had returned to Pannonia with the daring plan that he and his father should move their joint enterprise lock, stock and two smoking barrels right on to East Roman soil, offering themselves as direct replacements for the revolting Thracians. Probably in late summer 472, the Pannonian Goths gathered themselves up and hit the road south. Constantinopolitan politics, tricky enough at the best of times, were about to get a lot more complicated.

This decision was not undertaken lightly. The sheer logistics were staggering enough. Theoderic and Thiudimer controlled between them in excess of 10,000 warriors, but it wasn’t just an armed body of men which hit the road. Nineteenth-century nationalists, reviewing the action of the fourth to the sixth centuries, saw in groups like the Pannonian Goths ancestral ‘peoples’ for the nations of modern Europe. As a result, German nationalists in particular usually threw a little wishful thinking into the mix about what they saw as their own nation’s particular moral virtues, and came up with a vision of free and equal, culturally homogeneous groups of men, women and children, closed to outsiders, moving off complete with farming equipment, animals and folk dances: miniature ancestral nations on the march, some of which survived the trek to found kingdoms which lasted, and some of which did not.

In the last two scholarly generations, there has been a great deal of necessary revision to this hopelessly romantic picture. This has generated some consensus, but also points of continuing dispute. Consensus, I think, exists in two areas. First, that the warrior groups were not composed of equals. Contemporary narrative sources show us that there were at least two hierarchically ranked status groups among just the warriors, and the point is confirmed by more or less contemporary legal materials, which describe armed free and semi-free classes and note that there were unarmed slaves besides (what the law codes can’t give you is any sense of what proportion of the groups’ total populations belong to each of the status groups). Second – and this reflects a sea change in the way in which the group affiliations of individual human beings have come to be understood more generally in the postwar period – everyone would agree that it was entirely possible for individuals to change their group identity in the course of their own lifetime. As a result, the old vision of these groups as mini, ancestral, culturally homogeneous proto-nations just won’t hold water.

Two further issues, though, remain highly contentious. First, does the fact that some individuals demonstrably changed their affiliations mean that the larger entities we meet in the narrative sources (like the Pannonian Goths) had no real group identity at all? A negative answer would mean that they were never more than loose and shifting agglomerations of disparate warriors. Second, and it is in fact closely related, were these groups constituted solely for military action, or were the warriors part of a broader society which engaged in farming and other activities besides?

It is extremely difficult to get a sense of where consensus might be falling when you’re a participant in an ongoing debate, as I am in this one. The jury is still out, but, for what it’s worth, let me state my views on these issues, because the line you adopt on this absolutely dictates what you envisage to have set out from Hungary in 472 to follow the old Roman roads south into the Balkans. Taking them in reverse order: once in the Roman Balkans, the negotiating positions of both the Pannonian Goths’ own leadership, and of the imperial representatives sent to treat with them, explicitly assumed that any resolution of their relations would involve finding the Goths a block of farming land on Roman soil, which the Goths would exploit themselves. They were, in other words, farmers as well as fighters. This does make good general sense. Specialist warriors numbering 10,000–plus can only exist in a relatively developed economic context, when enough surplus wealth is being produced by non-fighting farming populations to feed, clothe and arm them. Non-Roman agricultural economies look nothing like this productive, and we know that non-Roman kings of the fourth and fifth centuries maintained specialist warrior retinues only of a few hundred, not several thousand men.

Nor does it follow, just because some individuals can be seen changing allegiance, that the groups they were moving between had no real solidity at all. What matters here are the rules and norms regulating the entry and subsequent behaviour of individuals on the move. Is membership open to all, do new members enjoy full rights within the group, and does membership involve responsibilities as well as privileges? Here the fact that the groups demonstrably contained higher and lower grades of warrior – not to mention slaves – makes it clear that membership was by no means a matter of unrestricted personal choice, unless we are thinking, of course, that many thousands of individuals across fifth-century Europe simply wanted to be slaves. I would argue, therefore, that the higher-status warrior elites within each group, at least, did have a strong sense of group political identity (whether they also had the same folk costumes and folk dances as nineteenth-century nationalists imagined, I have no idea), though, like any identity, even that could change in the right circumstances. But, at the same time, the lower-status warriors and even more the slaves had much less of a stake in their group’s existence, so that the strength of individual affiliation to the group’s identity fell off dramatically as you moved down the social scale.20

Either way, your response to these debates forms your view of what the Pannonian Goths looked like on the road. We know that the group contained many non-combatants and a wagon train at least 2,000 strong. For self-styled revisionists, who see them as essentially a free-form warrior group, this is just the normal baggage train that attended most pre-modern armies, where you would find many women, wives and prostitutes, together with children, cooks, barbers, entertainers and God knows who else. In my view, however, the fact that surrounding economic structures (and this is an important difference between the fifth century and pre-modern or even high medieval Europe) could not support large numbers of specialist warriors, the diplomatic emphasis on the need to find farmland, and the fact that higher-level group membership was not remotely open to all-comers, brings a different model to mind. Rather than an early modern army going off to war with its baggage train, to my mind the Pannonian Goths would have looked much more like one of the Boer wagon trains rumbling off on the great trek north away from British imperial rule: a collection of farmer-fighters and their families, together with all their accoutrements. In this model, the group would consist of higher numbers of non-combatants, with a more ‘normal’ age distribution among them, and faced a much greater need to take with them everything associated with farming as well as weaponry and substantial food supplies.

But if sheer logistics meant that any decision to move anywhere could not be taken lightly, there’s no doubt that in this instance everything really turned on the politics. The higher-status warriors had to be convinced that the potential opportunities presented by Constantinopolitan chaos were sufficiently promising to make such an enormous effort worth their while. Again, the general context came to Thiudimer’s and Theoderic’s assistance. It is a demonstrated fact that population groups with an established history of migration are more ready than more settled peers, even if that history has skipped a generation or two, to use further movement as a strategy for self-advancement, and at least the warrior elites – the key group who needed to be convinced – had a long-established history of migration. They were descended from Gothic populations who had made – perhaps in several shorter stages – one long trek from the shores of the Baltic to the Black Sea in the third and earlier fourth centuries, and another from east of the Carpathian Mountains to Middle Danubian Hungary in the late fourth and fifth. As such, they will have been easier to persuade that hitting the road again was worthwhile.21

At least, some of them were. For all the potential positives, Theoderic had convinced his father to take what was certainly a massive gamble. While the Western Empire was fast running out of money and hence soldiers in the early 470s, caught in a fierce downdraught that was about to extinguish its final embers, its eastern counterpart was alive and kicking. Attila had been faced down, there was peace with Persia, and Constantinople’s flow of tax revenues from its eastern provinces – the lifeblood of its armies – was fully intact. Moving into its territories as uninvited guests, therefore, even if you were claiming to be there to help, was always likely to generate substantial nastiness, and no one with any brains at all within the group can have had the slightest doubt that this would be the case. Not surprisingly, the decision to move caused a split – and a highly significant one – within the group.

Late fourth- and fifth-century sources record several moments when different non-Roman groups similar in type to the Pannonian Goths faced comparable decisions about whether to move on or stay put. In all cases, a mixture of positive and negative motives applied (in this instance, respectively the greater riches potentially available on East Roman soil on the one hand, and the declining profits of the violent competition for pre-eminence in the Middle Danube on the other), though the balance between them varied. The earlier Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi who had crossed the Danube in 376, for instance, were, like the Pannonian Goths, attracted by the potential wealth of Roman economic structures, but Hunnic violence is what made them move in the first place. In every case where we have any detailed evidence, and whatever the precise mix of motivations, such treks caused political splits in the groups undertaking them. This reflects the degree of stress involved in major migrations, even for populations with an established migration reflex. It also naturally took the form of one influential body among the leadership arguing for the move, and another arguing against it. In the case of the Pannonian Goths, Jordanes preserves the following:

As the spoil taken from one and another of the neighbouring tribes diminished, the Goths began to lack food and clothing, and peace became distasteful to men for whom war had long furnished the necessaries of life. So all the Goths approached their king Thiudimer and, with great outcry, begged him to lead forth his army in whatsoever direction he might wish. He summoned his brother [Vithimer] and, after casting lots, bade him go into the land of Italy … saying that he himself as the mightier would go east against a mightier Empire.

This is another moment when Jordanes is at least partly reproducing the kind of sanitized version of the Gothic past that Cassiodorus had generated at Theoderic’s court in Italy. Not only does the casting of lots partly camouflage the deeply predatory intent with which the Gothic leadership was contemplating the move east, but it also attempts to hide the clear division among them. The third of the brothers, Vithimer, clearly was not happy to follow Thiudimer on to East Roman soil, and Thiudimer, I feel great confidence in claiming, was happy enough to use the issue to cut him out of the group.

Theoderic’s return to Pannonia as an adult male had reopened that perennial can of worms which was succession. So far, the three Amal brothers had shared power and, when the eldest died, pre-eminence had passed to the next in age. In Theoderic’s own generation, however, no such arrangements would apply, even though he had at least one brother, Theodimund. To my mind, it is as clear as daylight that Thiudimer used the argument over the move into the Balkans to present the second-rank leaders with his solution to the current succession dilemma: his eldest son, fresh from Constantinople and a nice win over the Sarmatians, was to be preferred to his younger brother. No doubt opinion was canvassed and prepared before the crunch moment, since Thiudimer couldn’t afford to lose too much of his military manpower with a predatory intrusion into the East Roman Balkans in mind, but the gambit worked. Vidimer (like Beremund before him in the previous generation) departed for the West to leave Theoderic unchallenged, and clearly took only a small number of followers with him (probably just his own family – for he did have a son: another reason why Thiudimer and Theoderic wanted him gone – and a personal retinue of warriors numbering no more than a few hundred) since the refugees do not figure again as an independent unit and had to attach themselves to the service of the Visigothic king Euric in Gaul.22 This completed the dramatic revolution initiated by Theoderic’s return from Constantinople: succession resolved, the Pannonian Goths prepared to move down the Roman road systems into the Balkans laid open for them by Theoderic’s capture of Singidunum.



Getting 10,000-plus warriors, together with their familial and personal dependants, farming equipment, animals and as many personal items as could be fitted into their many thousand wagons, all moving in the same direction at the same time was a massive feat of organization. The congestion on the roads will have been extraordinary. One of the most haunting historical facts that I’ve ever come across is that the wagon train hauling the Confederate wounded home after Gettysburg took a full twenty-four hours to pass any given spot. The Gothic wagon train working its way south through the Balkans in 472 can have been no shorter, though it was much less a cavalcade of misery. The problem facing Thiudimer and Theoderic was that, with such a monster at their heels, movement was confined to the main roads, and there was really only one major route available. The mountainous terrain of the Balkans still, in fact, confines travel to a few highways; in this case the Axius/Vardar valley is the crucial route. For part of its length, there were two alternatives, and Jordanes records explicitly that both were utilized. After taking the city of Naissus (modern Nis), Thiudimer headed directly south, while Theoderic led his forces round to Ulpiana via Castrum Herculius (Figure 3). Both had the same destination, however: Thessalonica, capital of the Roman Balkans, and seat of the prefecture of Illyricum, responsible for everything west of the Succi Pass. There they were confronted by the patrician Hilarianus who had been sent to meet them with such forces as he could muster, and the negotiations began. The Goths’ strategy was straightforward. Pose a threat to Thessalonica, offer to negotiate rather than fight, and see what the empire would put on the table.

At this point, Jordanes’ narrative of Balkans events gives out rather abruptly and cuts with wonderful dexterity to a happy scene where emperor and Gothic leader agree, after a few years of happy coexistence, that the latter would move on to Italy, because all this peace and harmony was making his followers a little bored.23 Whether this was because Cassiodorus skipped over what happened next out of embarrassment (not impossible) or whether Jordanes’ notes, like those of many a student in the middle of an essay crisis, became rather scrappy at this point as his three days ran out, is unclear.

Thankfully, East Roman sources take up the story and a beautifully complex one it turns out to be. Jordanes omits a full sixteen years of political cut and thrust, which was the real backdrop to the Goths’ eventual departure for la bella Italia. The father-and-son team’s bold gambit set up a struggle for power with their Thracian rivals which not only reverberated through the Balkans but spilled over with even greater toxicity into the imperial palace at Constantinople.

The list of active political protagonists for these years is a lengthy one, but getting them straight at the start helps explain why it proved so difficult to resolve the dilemma posed by the Pannonian Goths’ arrival on East Roman soil. Out in the Balkans itself, first of all, there were two groups of Goths: the parvenus from Pannonia and the long-established Thracian foederati, presently in revolt but accustomed to a privileged, inside role. Whoever was in power in Constantinople, there were funds (or maybe the necessary political will) available only to pay one of these groups the much higher rate of annual subsidy becoming to fully fledged Roman allied soldiery, rather than the three-ha’pence farthing customarily dished out in foreign aid. Thus only one of the two Gothic groups could be made fully part of a ruling coalition at any one time (or so the authorities in Constantinople liked to claim): and, in fact, the interests of the two groups’ leaderships were so much at odds that even if you had managed to pay them both, they probably would still have fought.24

Inside Constantinople, we have, at the beginning at least, the emperor Leo and various members of the imperial family, engaging, as you would expect, in the normal kinds of struggle either for the imperial throne itself, or, as appropriate to their own eminence, for the various positions of power around it. These tussles were played out in front of a traditional (and occasionally itself participatory) audience of court bureaucracy and imperial senate, and the higher echelons of the regular army general staff. This entirely normal cast of Constantinopolitan characters was supplemented, however, in the 470s by leading officers among the new Isaurian forces which had been originally recruited to help fight Attila. And by the early 470s, they really had risen a long way. The most prominent among them, Zeno, had married the emperor Leo’s daughter Ariadne, and they already had a son (born in 467) who carried the uncompromisingly significant name of his grandfather, whom he was clearly destined to succeed. Zeno’s startling climb up the greasy pole, you will remember, had also directly generated the fall of Aspar and the rebellion of the Gothic foederati, so that Isaurians and Thracian Goths were in some ways natural political enemies that any ruling coalition would again find difficult to combine. But, here again, there is a complication: Zeno was only the most prominent of several Isaurian leaders, each of whom led their own men and were potentially their own bosses. Zeno could not simply or naturally command the allegiance of other Isaurian generals such as Illus, therefore, but had to win it. Two groups of Goths, and at least two groups of Isaurians, combined in exciting ways with the normal cast of the long-running Constantinopolitan political soap opera to make the years after 473 compulsive viewing.

By the end of the year, an initial compromise had been negotiated. The patrician Hilarianus diverted the Pannonian Goths away from Thessalonica, and granted them billets in a series of small agricultural towns in the canton of Euboia to the west of the city (Figure 3). But in gathering an army to face Thiudimer and Theoderic in the western Balkans, Leo was forced to remove troops from the eastern Balkans, giving the other Theoderic, Strabo, a free hand. His forces ranged freely among the cities of the Via Egnatia, burning the suburbs of Philippi and laying siege to Arcadiopolis, all to apply political pressure on the emperor. Leo quickly had enough. The Thracian Goths were returned to favour, with Strabo being appointed to the most important position on the imperial general staff – magister militum praesentalis to be precise – and annual payment of 2,000 pounds of gold restored to his following in the appointment’s wake.

The initial effect of the arrival of the Pannonians, paradoxically, had been to make it imperative for the emperor to do a deal with the Thracians. But this was a holding action, not a solution with any long-term viability. For one thing, the Amal-led Goths had achieved none of the benefits for which they had trekked south: the massive annual gold payment to the Thracian Goths agreed by the emperor Leo precluded anything similar to themselves. Equally important, both Gothic leaderships were now locked in a potential death struggle, and they knew it. The agreement between Theoderic Strabo and the emperor is summarized for us in considerable detail by an East Roman historian called Malchus of Philadelphia. It included the fascinating stipulations that:

[Theoderic Strabo] should be ‘sole ruler’ of the Goths, and that the emperor should not give admission to anyone who wished to cross into his territory.

Strabo was clearly feeling the pressure. He did not want Thiudimer and Theoderic moving on to his patch and claiming either his honours or – potentially – attracting away the Gothic rank and file from whom he derived his power. And this, it is important to realize, was a distinct possibility. Although some very close confidants were too committed to one dynasty or another to do so, the motto of much of the warrior manpower of these Gothic (and other non-Roman) groups loose on Roman soil in the late fourth and fifth centuries was clearly ‘this spear’s for hire’. Clovis not only eliminated his rivals, but he also expanded his own power at the same time by adding most of their warbands to his own, and this was no isolated occurrence. In the years after 473, Gothic manpower was indeed to move backwards and forwards between the two leaderships, and, in securing the emperor’s backing for his own pre-eminence as Gothic leader, Strabo was merely getting his retaliation in first.25

If the compromise of 473 could never have lasted long, the deaths in quick succession of three main protagonists ensured perhaps its extremely swift demise. The first two occurred in Constantinople. On 18 January 474, aged seventy-three, the emperor Leo passed away, to be succeeded by his grandson via Zeno, the younger Leo. Leo II was crowned on the same day that his grandfather died. The evident haste is itself a sign that urgent agendas were afoot, and less than a month later, on 9 February, the young emperor crowned his father joint Augustus. Zeno, it seemed, had completed the ascent from Isaurian warlord to divinely chosen emperor of the Romans: an astonishing career progression and one of the most bizarre legacies of Attila to the Roman world.

But before the end of the year, the young Leo died (of natural causes: 474 being a very bad year for Leos) leaving Zeno in sole occupation of the throne. The Isaurian might have faced competition for control of his son in any case, but Leo’s death deprived Zeno of his cloak of imperial legitimacy – his son, after all, was the offspring of an imperial princess – and the plotting thickened. In particular, Leo I’s widow, Verina, had a brother called Basiliscus, and these two were much better placed than Zeno to win support from the traditional movers and shakers within Constantinople. Theoderic Strabo, Zeno’s natural enemy, was only too willing to join in, as was one of the other major Isaurian power brokers, the general Illus. Sensing that power was slipping through his fingers, Zeno crept out of the city in the first month of the new year, and Basiliscus became emperor, crowned on 9 January 475.

A very Constantinopolitan coup had achieved the desired effect, but the outcome was far from normal. Most deposed emperors met a quick end, unless they retained the loyalty of a large portion of the field army and its commanders, which Zeno did not. But as an Isaurian chieftain, Zeno had other resources at his disposal, and because he had clearly got some notice of the plot and left the city early, he made a successful dash for Isauria, taking refuge in one of the mountain fortresses at the heart of his domain.

Illus was duly sent to Isauria to mount a siege: set one Isaurian to catch another. We don’t know exactly where Zeno’s fortress was situated, but extensive fieldwork in the Taurus Mountains has uncovered the kind of structure we need to be thinking of. If you have in mind high walls on top of a bare mountainous crag, dominating a narrow but agriculturally productive valley below, you’re in the right ballpark. Well supplied by cisterns with water, and with lots of hidden ways of getting food inside at odd moments, these mountain fastnesses were essentially impregnable, and could only be taken by starvation or betrayal. Illus’ own headquarters, for instance, withstood a four-year siege in the 480s.26 Happily ensconced in the purple as he was, therefore, Basiliscus would still have been uneasy in the spring of 475, knowing that Zeno remained at large and that bringing him to heel would be no easy matter. Unease turned to concern as soon as news reached him of what was happening simultaneously out in the western Balkans.

When exactly it happened we don’t know, but soon after the former Pannonian Goths were established in Macedonia, Thiudimer, the third of our major protagonists, bit the dust. He need only have been in his mid-forties, but his foresight in cutting out his younger brother Vidimer from the group was rewarded. With no challenger in sight, kingship duly passed to Theoderic, still only in his early twenties. This was a problem for Basiliscus, because Theoderic was not content to stand still. Sensing renewed opportunity in all the mayhem, he made contact with Zeno, pledging his Goths’ support in return for an imperial generalship and all the financial and other privileges that Leo had restored to Strabo and the Thracian Goths in 473. Everything was packed up in the wagons once again, and the whole group set off from their Balkans backwater towards the business end of events: the Thracian Plain much closer to Constantinople, and the enormous challenge posed by their Gothic rivals. Again, the young king’s daring is striking, although this move was really only a continuation of the same gamble that had brought everyone south from Pannonia; and, in a very real sense, Theoderic had no choice but to keep rolling the dice. To be stuck in political no-man’s-land out in Euboia was not a long-term option, if warrior manpower was not to start shifting to his rival.

Back in Constantinople, Theoderic’s mobilization, combined with an extraordinary stroke of chance – the kind of thing that really does make you think of Fates out there having fun – derailed Basiliscus’ regime. Theoderic’s move from Euboia was directed precisely at the Thracian Goths. Its effect was to keep Strabo and his men, the most definitively anti-Zeno force available to Basiliscus, occupied in the summer of 476, at the crunch moment when a revivified Zeno was advancing on Constantinople. This advance was itself the result of that stroke of luck, which at first cannot have seemed so. By spring 476, Illus had been cooling his heels below Zeno’s fortress gates for over a year, when he happened to capture Zeno’s brother Longinus. This should have been a further setback for the deposed emperor, you might think, but, in a world of personalized politics, the effect was electric. Having Zeno’s brother Longinus at his disposal actually gave Illus leverage on the former emperor, security that Zeno would keep any bargain they might make. Perhaps they had already been negotiating, we don’t know, but Longinus was the vital guarantee that Illus required. He promptly switched sides back to Zeno, and the two Isaurians marched their combined forces back towards Constantinople.

By this stage, concern was turning to alarm, and Basiliscus sent his last remaining field forces to confront them, led by his nephew Armatus: a safe enough choice, you would have thought. But Basiliscus had children, including sons, whereas Zeno, after the death of Leo II, had not. Zeno thus offered Armatus all the usual court honours, and then tossed in the clincher: he would make Armatus’ son (also called Basiliscus) Caesar: effectively heir to the throne. Armatus bit, changed sides as well, and suddenly Basiliscus had no armed forces at all. His regime had melted away as the key players each saw more to be extracted from Zeno’s restoration and Theoderic the Amal kept the Thracian Goths occupied.

As a textbook case study in human nastiness and the vanity of ambition this could hardly be bettered, and events soon generated an appropriate denouement. Basiliscus and his family sought sanctuary in a church, and were lured out when Zeno promised not to execute them. He exiled them instead to Limnae in Cappadocia where, true to his word, they were not executed. Instead, he had them walled up in a dry cistern and left to die. As for Zeno, he regained the throne in August 476, just in time to receive the embassy from Odovacar, new ruler of Italy, which handed over the imperial vestments of the deposed Romulus Augustulus in that striking gesture with which we began (page xiii). After so many centuries, the western half of the Roman Empire had ceased to exist. How and why the young Theoderic would play a starring role in the first attempt to restore it, stems directly from what the emperor Zeno did next.27

Although Zeno had returned to power, or at least its semblance, after eighteen months of exile, his situation was in fact far from satisfactory. For one thing, he now owed a great deal – altogether too much – to a series of kingmakers, especially Armatus and Illus, who had swapped sides for their own reasons at the crucial moments. Then there was the Gothic problem. The Thracian Goths had been prevented from keeping Basiliscus on the throne, but Strabo’s power remained intact. Some things were easily resolved. No one, it seems, much cared for Armatus. An arrogant dandy who liked to dress up as Achilles and parade in the Hippodrome, his betrayal of his uncle Basiliscus left him pretty fair game. Zeno duly had him murdered by one of his own protégés, a certain Onoulphus who was actually the brother of Odovacar, the ruler of Italy, but who had decided to pursue a career in Constantinopolitan circles rather than follow his brother west. Both were originally princes of the Sciri but they had been forced to follow new pathways when theSciri had suffered a massive defeat at the hands of the Pannonian Goths in the 460s, though this was also the battle in which Valamer was killed (a point that will not be without significance in what follows). Armatus’ son was spared but ordained a priest, and no one else seems to have batted an eyelid. Zeno’s preference for direct action will need to be borne in mind, however, when trying to understand the behaviour of his various political opponents over the next decade.

The Thracian Goths posed a more substantial problem. The numbers preserved in our sources (pretty good ones by early medieval standards) indicate that they could field somewhat more than 10,000 warriors. As part of one deal, Strabo was granted rations and pay for 13,000 men: a good indication of the size of his command. The figures we have for Theoderic the Amal’s following suggest that it too was of about this size, and the general narrative outline confirms the point: neither group, by itself, was able decisively to confront the other. And therein lay Zeno’s problem. Theoderic originally promised to attack the Thracian Goths, but in the end, undertook no more than a little skirmishing in 476 and 477, while asking Zeno for imperial assistance. The emperor dithered and even thought of trying to do a deal with Strabo instead, not least because the latter had attracted some deserters from the Pannonian Goths.28 If this sounds odd, it should be remembered that Theoderic was not yet the all-victorious ruler of Italy, but a young leader who had risked his men in a major gamble. And some of the latter, at least, had clearly come to think that Strabo was the better bet.

In the end, Zeno stuck by his young ally, and over the winter of 477–8 an agreement was reached for the next campaigning season that:

Theoderic should move his own force, which was concentrated around Marcianople, and bring it closer in. When he reached the gates of the Haemus range, the master of the soldiers of Thrace would come to him with 2,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry. When he had crossed the Haemus range, another force of 20,000 infantry and 6,000 infantry would meet him … near to Hadrianople.

Still more soldiers were to be available from the garrison forces of cities on the Thracian Plain, but surely they wouldn’t be needed. Since Strabo had around – perhaps a bit over – 10,000 men, as did Theoderic himself, the plan was to mobilize close to 50,000 men against him: a four-to-one advantage. This was more than sufficient to crush the Thracian Goths once and for all (Figure 3).29

The result, however, was not remotely what Theoderic had in mind. Eighteen months later, he found himself back in the western Balkans, outside the great Roman port of Epidamnus (modern Durres in Albania), deep in discussions with an imperial ambassador. The Goth had three specific complaints about what had actually happened in the campaigning season of 478, compared to what had been planned:

First, you promised that the general of Thrace would immediately join me with his forces. He never appeared. Then you promised that Claudius, the paymaster of the Gothic soldiery, would come with the mercenaries’ pay. I never saw him. Third, you gave me guides who left the easier way towards the enemy and led me aside over a steep path with sheer cliffs on both sides. Here, since I was naturally travelling with the cavalry, wagons and all the army’s baggage, I was not far from complete destruction with all my force, had the enemy suddenly attacked.30

In fact, the route down which he was guided, as we know from Malchus’ narrative, led Theoderic’s forces straight into the arms (in both senses of the word) of Strabo and the Thracian Goths. This was no accident. Zeno had been negotiating with Strabo in the winter of 477–8 before he decided – apparently – to solve his Gothic problem by helping Theoderic win, so he knew precisely where the Thracian Goths were encamped. Rather than implementing what had been agreed, Zeno’s real intention, in 478, was to manipulate the two Gothic groups into the set-piece confrontation they’d been avoiding since 476. He did indeed mobilize the armies mentioned in the agreement with Theoderic, but kept them back: presumably to mop up whatever remained of both groups’ military manpower after the two Theoderics had fought each other to a standstill. Having removed Armatus from the scene, our Isaurian emperor was trying to simplify the political chess game still further, by organizing the dramatic removal of both Gothic pieces from the board in one fell swoop.

In the event, Zeno’s cunning plan was derailed by two further developments, one beyond his control, the other of his own making. First, the Goths refused to fight. Malchus gives us a highly rhetorical scene where Theoderic Strabo has to persuade his younger namesake to recognize the emperor’s treachery:

Having summoned you and having announced that they would come and campaign along with you, [the Romans] are not here nor did they meet you at the gates [of the Haemus Mountains] as they promised. They have left you alone to be destroyed most disgracefully and to pay to the people whom you have betrayed a just penalty for your rashness.

I really doubt, bereft as he was of reinforcements and pay, and brought down an odd route which just happened to lead him straight to Strabo, that Theoderic needed anyone to point out to him that he’d been betrayed. Malchus also has Strabo spell out Zeno’s real intentions:

While remaining at peace, [the Romans] wish the Goths to wear each other down. Whichever of us falls, they will be the winners with none of the effort, and whichever of us destroys the other side will enjoy a Cadmean victory, as they say, since he will be left in diminished numbers to face Roman treachery.

Again, I doubt either that Theoderic needed any assistance in grasping the point, or that Strabo would have seen a reference to Cadmus (the founder of Thebes who was left with only five warriors, born from the dragon’s teeth, after they fought themselves to a standstill) as a likely clincher for his argument, but there is a smell of greater authenticity about how Malchus closes the scene. In his account, it is Theoderic’s Pannonian followers who force him not to fight; they realize exactly how much they are likely to lose as a result of any confrontation, and threaten to vote with their feet (as some of their compatriots had already done) should their young leader attempt to fight.31 The result was a Gothic non-aggression pact. Each was allowed to extract from Constantinople whatever deal they might, but they would not fight one another.

Since the Goths weren’t stupid, Zeno must have always calculated that this was a possible outcome, and his mobilized armies were there to step in and retrieve matters if necessary. Or they should have been. In fact, they weren’t, because Illus had left Constantinople in high dudgeon and the central field armies – as always this means their officers – were in such an uproar that they had to be sent back to winter quarters. Again, the Gothic problem and events in Constantinople intertwined. Zeno seems to have been a bit too greedy in 478, looking to orchestrate a Godfather-like finale where all the obstacles to his power were removed simultaneously. Illus, you will remember, had been a key figure in putting Zeno back on the throne in 476, but did so only because he held leverage over him in the form of the emperor’s hostage brother. This was not a situation that Zeno was going to leave unresolved for long: not, at least, if he could help it. True to form, he had a first go at assassinating Illus in 477, which the Isaurian not only survived but chose to profit from, extracting extra honours from Zeno, including the consulship for 478, as the price for his continued participation in the regime. Early in 478, however, there was a second attempt. Again Illus survived, but this time, in the aftermath, he took the perpetrator with him to Isauria to help him with his inquiries. The dispute made the central field army unreliable, and it was this development which really brought the Gothic chickens home to roost.

Once the two Theoderics had worked out what was actually going on and decided not to fight – a process that must have taken all of two nanoseconds – the younger of them advanced towards Constantinople. Betrayed and disgusted, with a following that was becoming deeply unruly given the failure – so far – of the great gamble to pay off (literally, if the reported complaints about the non-appearance of the Gothic paymaster are to be believed, and which I see no reason to doubt), the younger Theoderic was badly in need of success. Some of his following had defected to Strabo the year before, and their overall loyalty was based on his uncle’s personal prowess, not an ancient unbroken tradition of royalty. In 478 the Eastern Empire, at least in the person of Zeno, had responded with a decided negative to the – entirely uninvited and thoroughly self-interested – offer of support enacted by the Pannonian Goths’ trek south five years before, and everyone was trying to work out what to do. Zeno had two hostile Gothic groups at large in the vicinity of his capital, and no reliable army. Since Strabo was a bit less angry about it all than his younger rival, the emperor decided to do a deal with him, offering a blank cheque, which the Thracian leader duly filled out. The senior generalship in the empire became his, and gold and rations flowed out of Constantinople northwards to his followers.

This bought Zeno some time while Theoderic cooled off, but the poor provincial populations of the Balkans had to pay a stiff price for it. From his time as a hostage, the Goth knew that its walls made Constantinople impregnable, so he made a slow retreat westwards along the 1,120 kilometres of one of the greatest of ancient imperial highways: the Via Egnatia, first constructed in the second century BC to link a chain of Roman colonies stretching from the Adriatic to the Bosphorus. To keep his followers happy with booty, to vent his spleen, and to force Zeno to make him an offer – in almost equal quantities – major towns en route were sacked; the archaeology of both Philippi and Stobi bear the scars. He then decided to make a dash with his more mobile forces for the highly defensible and strategic port of Epidamnus, which he seized by subterfuge in the summer of 479. And there, Malchus tells us, his plan was to wait and see what would happen next.32

It was also at a small strongpoint just outside the city that he met the imperial ambassador to voice his complaints about the campaigning season of 478. Having got all that off his chest, and feeling confident behind the city walls, he also put a series of proposals to the no doubt discomfited ambassador. Should everything else be resolved between them, he would be willing to place his non-combatants in a city of Zeno’s choice, hand over his mother and sister as hostages, and campaign with 6,000 of his men wherever the emperor chose. His first idea, not surprisingly, was that:

With these and the Illyrian troops and whatever others the emperor should send, he would destroy all the Goths in Thrace, on condition that, if he did this, he would become general in place of [Strabo] and be received in the City to live as a citizen in the Roman manner.


He was willing, if the emperor commanded it, to go to Dalmatia and restore Nepos.

Julius Nepos was the last Western Roman emperor recognized by Leo in Constantinople. Commander of the West Roman forces in Dalmatia, he had landed at Portus (one of Rome’s two seaports, further down the Tiber to the sea) on 19 June 474 to overthrow the pretender Glycerius, being proclaimed emperor there in his place on the same day, and again in Rome a few days later. He had been overthrown in turn by the Italian army commander Orestes, whose son Romulus, know as Augustulus, is commonly designated the last Western emperor, and upon whose deposition in 476 Odovacar had sent the imperial vestments to Constantinople.

Restoring Nepos, therefore, would involve marching upon Italy and Rome itself.33 How serious Theoderic was in making this offer in 479 is very unclear; I suppose he more expected some kind of renewed alliance against Strabo. But his offer was to prove prophetic: within a decade, Theoderic’s wagon train would head back north out of the Balkans, its destination not a return to Pannonia, but to Italy itself. The circumstances which generated this outcome would have been unforeseeable to Theoderic as he left his meeting with Zeno’s ambassador at the back end of summer 479.


Getting Theoderic from Epidamnus to Ravenna is a harder task than getting him from Singidunum to Epidamnus, because we run out of extracts from the extraordinarily detailed history of Malchus of Philadelphia, quite likely because the history itself came to an end. There is enough in other sources to tell the story in outline, not least because of the insight that Malchus’ material provides into long-term negotiating positions, rivalries and motivations. The available material still leaves open – or half-open – one major issue of interpretation, as we shall see in a moment, but I guess that’s not such bad going when the events happened over 1,500 years ago.

By autumn 479, matters had reached stalemate. Zeno had concluded a deal that was massively advantageous to the Thracian Goths – because he had no choice – while Theoderic had seized a strategic asset. What Theoderic didn’t know as he discussed matters with Zeno’s ambassador, however, was that his slow-moving baggage train had been ambushed as it trundled towards Epidamnus, resulting in the capture of 2,000 wagons, 5,000 prisoners and a mass of booty. This was enough of a success for Zeno to think that a sufficient military advantage might yet be achieved over the Amal’s forces to enable him to dictate the terms of a lasting settlement, and perhaps even the Goths’ retreat from Roman territory.34 Sadly, we never hear what actually happened to the wagon train and prisoners, or what Theoderic tried to do when he heard of their loss. There probably was not a great deal he could do in the immediate aftermath, but his more or less complete loss of initiative was to be reversed as the political soap opera continued to deliver its twists and turns in Constantinople.

The fact that Zeno and Strabo had done a deal could not hide the fact that they did not trust each other more than two and a half centimetres, for the very simple reason that their longer-term interests were diametrically opposed. When a new plot unfolded against Zeno late in 479, therefore, Strabo backed it. As usual, a minor royal was at the heart of it: this time a certain Marcian, who was a grandson of that Marcian who had preceded Leo I on the eastern throne, and who was married to Leontia, a younger daughter of Leo (hence he was also Zeno’s brother-in-law). When the plot broke, Strabo advanced quickly towards the city to put the Thracian Goths’ weight behind the coup, but it was suppressed too quickly, leaving Strabo stranded. When challenged by Zeno’s envoys, he claimed to have been coming to Zeno’s rescue. You have to admire the Goth’s cojones, but no one believed him, and the agreement of 478 quickly unravelled. Zeno hired some Bulgars from beyond the frontier to keep Strabo busy during the campaigning season of 480, but, in 481, Strabo was free to move, presumably because most of Zeno’s available troops were in the western Balkans where a military option was still being pursued against the other Theoderic, whose base remained at Epidamnus.

Strabo’s move was bold and irrevocable. Mobilizing all his forces, he advanced again on Constantinople: this time determined to storm it. The first assault fell on the main gates of the city, but was beaten off by Illus’ troops. The Theodosian Walls had proved themselves once again fit for purpose. Strabo then renewed operations from Sycae on the other side of the Golden Horn, but still got nowhere. He finally moved to near Hestiae and Sosthenium, small harbour towns beside the Bosphorus, in an attempt to move his forces over to Asia Minor, but the imperial navy frustrated this stratagem as well.

As this final manoeuvre makes clear, Strabo had by this time given up entirely on the idea of coming to any kind of agreement with Zeno. Since the last coup’s failure, he had been giving asylum to two of Marcian’s brothers, and his plan was probably to put one of these on the imperial throne. Indeed, whether he ever really thought he could take the city by storm must be doubtful. Malchus stresses Strabo’s close links to important circles at court – as befits the leader of military forces who had been integral to the empire’s armies for two generations – and I suspect the plan was that the Goths’ advance would stimulate a major coup within the walls. When that failed, the projected move to Asia Minor was surely not about assaulting the city from another (even more difficult) direction, but designed to stimulate a broader revolt against Zeno in the heartlands of the Eastern Empire, to isolate him and force his eventual overthrow.

Zeno, however, had Illus’ forces to secure the city, and the imperial navy to frustrate Strabo’s grander designs, leaving the Gothic leader uncertain what to do next. Eventually he decided to move his forces westwards along the Via Egnatia, perhaps hoping to concoct a new plan involving his younger namesake who was still holed up at the other end of it. What that plan might have been is unclear, because one of history’s great ‘ouch’ moments intervened: ‘while mounting his horse early one morning, it threw him on to an upright spear standing at the side of his tent’. So passed Theoderic Strabo.

Reflecting Amal propaganda, Jordanes dismisses him with barely a sentence, implying that, because he was not a member of the Amal dynasty, he was of negligible significance. This is manifestly untrue. Where Theoderic the Amal, perhaps because of his inexperience, was busy signing up for one after another of Zeno’s questionable deals between 475 and 478 (what a second-hand-car salesman that emperor would have made), Strabo had kept a cool eye on the longer term and successfully attracted away some of his Gothic rival’s supporters. With just a little more luck, it could easily have been Strabo who emerged triumphant from the clash of the two Theoderics, since both before and after (as we shall see in Chapter 3) these Goths were open to leaders from outside the Amal family, just so long as they were effective. That, of course, was fated not to happen, and, instead, his untimely death presented our Amal gambler with a whole new set of opportunities.35

Succession among the Thracian Goths passed initially to Strabo’s son Recitach, ruling jointly with two of his uncles. The resemblance here to the power-sharing arrangement of the Amal family in the generation before Theoderic is striking. And, like those arrangements, the agreement underlying it fell apart – only with more speed and greater nastiness. Quickly, Recitach had his two uncles murdered to assume sole power: once again, this makes the point that family ties work differently among the very powerful, where relations are always as much potential rivals as allies. This clearly stretched loyalties among those crucial second-rank leaders, whose choices always play such a critical role in the success of any reign. All right, Recitach was Strabo’s son, and Strabo had been a first-rate leader; but was Recitach of the same calibre?

Outside events soon conspired to suggest not. Strabo’s great if ultimately doomed campaign of 481 had only been possible in the absence of any imperial field forces from the vicinity of Constantinople. Zeno responded by withdrawing the forces who had been facing Theoderic in the West, which in turn meant that he had to switch from a military to a diplomatic option in his dealings with the Pannonian Goths. And what a price Theoderic extracted, his argumentative ardour fuelled no doubt by the emperor’s previous betrayals. Under the terms of a new agreement in 482–3, his forces were resettled in the eastern Balkans, in Dacia Ripensis and Lower Moesia, while Theoderic himself was appointed senior imperial general, with the elevated levels of remuneration for his forces that this implied. After a decade of intermittent movement and fighting, the great gamble had paid off.

What’s more, Theoderic was appointed consul designate for the year 484: the announcement of which was made sometime in 483. The consulship was by this point in imperial history not an office, but the supreme honour within the imperial gift, conferring a type of immortality since Romans named the years after the consuls, and was customarily held only by emperors and their closest associates. No individual who owed his political prominence to the fact that he was in command of a non-Roman military force had ever received such an honour before. Clearly Zeno had been forced to find something entirely beyond the norm to pay off Theoderic for the double-dealing of 478. The balance had shifted. All the momentum was now behind Theoderic the Amal and he was not a man to waste it. Late in 483 or early in 484, but certainly after the agreement which so favoured him had come into force, Theoderic had Recitach murdered on his way from a bath to a feast in a district of Constantinople known as Bonophatianae.

And this is where we have to face a critical gap in the sources. No one tells us what the bulk of the second-rank leaders among the Thracian Goths did next. A handful did nothing. A few of the senior officers of the East Roman military in the next generation are referred to as Goths who did not follow Theoderic to Italy. On the other hand, the Thracian Gothic foederati completely disappear from the pages of East Roman history at this point, in what is much more than a mere argument from silence. The Balkans military was the focus of a major revolt against Zeno’s successor Anastasius in the next generation, for instance, which receives detailed coverage in our surviving sources. There is not the slightest sniff that the Thracian Goths, such a major feature of the 470s, still existed there as a coherent unit. Since it is also apparent that Theoderic led out of the Balkans far more than the 10,000 or so warriors he had led into it – the best estimate is 20,000-plus – there is no doubt where the smart money lies. On the elimination of Recitach, most of the second-rank leaders among the Thracian Goths switched their allegiance over to Theoderic, reversing the move made by some of the Amal’s followers in 477–8. (Indeed, this had probably all been carefully pre-negotiated before the Bonophatianae hit.) At the beginning of 484, Theoderic was triumphant. Assured of immortality by the consulship, he had secured a huge flow of cash for his followers and eliminated another set of rival Gothic dynasts.36

According to our sources, Zeno was not only in on the plan, but pushed it. The gain for him was twofold. For one thing, it simplified the political scene enormously. Instead of two Gothic leaderships, one of which would always be out of favour and therefore hostile, there was now only one. Equally important, he had his eyes on a larger prize. The biggest pain in Zeno’s neck was actually Illus. Illus had kept him in power at crucial moments, bringing Isaurian troops to the capital both to suppress Marcian’s coup in 479 and to fight Strabo’s Goths at the walls of the city in 480. But Illus also had Zeno’s brother as a hostage which gave him unacceptable leverage, and Zeno was always looking for a chance to eliminate him. In 481, he had tried assassination for a third time, which cost Illus part of an ear, and Zeno an arm and a leg. To restore good relations afterwards, the emperor had been forced to grant Illus a more or less free hand in part of the empire’s richest eastern lands. Illus set up base in Antioch, second city of the empire, and ruled from there virtually an independent fiefdom. This was not a situation that Zeno could tolerate in the long term, and solving the Gothic problem by promoting Theoderic to such heights prepared for the final showdown. All his available forces – including large numbers of Theoderic’s Goths – could now be concentrated against his great Isaurian rival. At the same time as Recitach was being eliminated, therefore, Zeno broke with Illus by notionally dismissing him from his official posts and setting in motion a trial of strength. Perhaps Theoderic’s Goths swayed the military balance, but it was all over pretty quickly. Both sides mobilized everything they could, yet when the two armies met near Antioch in September 484, Illus was decisively defeated. He fled to his mountain fortress in Isauria, much as Zeno had done in 475, and proved equally hard to dislodge. He plotted away for four years, but, in the end found no way back into Constantinople. Finally, the fortress was betrayed and Illus taken and executed, but already by autumn 484 Illus had been effectively eliminated from Constantinopolitan politics.37

And then there were two. The minor royals had been steadily eliminated: all the likely contenders from among the old Emperor Leo’s in-laws had made their moves and paid the price. Zeno’s main Isaurian rival had been cut down, and the Thracian Goths had lost their coherence as an independent political force. The only cloud left on Zeno’s horizon in late 484 was Theoderic the Amal: consul, imperial general and, above all, commander of an independent force – now numbering upwards of 20,000 men – which owed its primary allegiance to him and not to the emperor. Given Zeno’s track record of tolerating political pluralism, this was not a situation that was ever likely to last. Even though the Goth was not a serious contender for the Eastern throne himself (being even less of an insider than Aspar), he might back someone else who was. The final reckoning was not long in coming. Initial whisperings started even during the Illus campaign, causing Theoderic to return to Constantinople, though the force he had sent continued to fight. Once Illus was safely bottled up and the army returned, however, Theoderic moved into open rebellion in 485.

It is reported that, in doing so, the Goth had in mind the fate of Armatus: made general for life by Zeno in 476 but quickly assassinated. This makes perfect sense, but Theoderic might just as well have been thinking of Basiliscus or Illus besides. When it came to sharing power or making promises, Zeno could not be trusted: any more, of course, than could Theoderic from Zeno’s point of view. By 487, the endgame had been reached. Theoderic advanced towards Constantinople, causing considerable damage in some of the wealthy suburbs outside its walls, but, more importantly, cutting part of the aqueduct system. From his time in the city, the Goth knew exactly how dependent its half a million inhabitants were upon the flow of collected rainfall from the hills of Thrace. But Theoderic was not intent on actually taking the city. Nor, unlike Strabo six years before, does he seem to have had in mind his own candidate for the imperial throne. His aim was to pressure Zeno into a final solution of their grievances that both sides could actually believe in. That, however, was the problem. Zeno had spent the last decade and a bit fighting off the influence of over-mighty subjects, and Theoderic was yet another, especially after the incorporation of most of the Thracian Goths into his following.

We have no detailed account of the negotiations which followed outside the city, nor even a sense of how long they took. But eventually – or maybe quickly – both sides recognized the impossibility of real coexistence and agreed that the departure of the Goths for Italy would be the ideal solution to their problems. Later Western sources stemming from Theoderic’s court in Italy stress his initiative in the decision and ignore Zeno, as you might expect. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong, though, even if their Constantinopolitan counterparts take precisely the opposite view. Theoderic’s thoughts had turned towards Italy as long ago as 479 at that meeting outside Epidamnus, and, however seriously he meant it at that point, the idea had conceivably been bubbling away in the back of his mind ever since. Either way, both sides were soon to adopt it, and, after a year’s break which again emphasizes the logistical nightmares such moves entailed, the Gothic wagon train rumbled north-west out of the East Roman Balkans in autumn 488: its eyes firmly on the prize of rich new lands in Italy.38

Others had different ideas. One major battle against the Gepids and a series of skirmishes with various Sarmatians had to be fought before the Goths even reached the frontiers of Italy, and Italy, of course, was not waiting with open arms. Since 476 it had been ruled by Odovacar, and he was not about to resign, even supposing that Theoderic would have let him. Odovacar’s paychest was presumably behind the Gepids’ and Sarmatians’ attempts to erode Theoderic’s will and strength en route. But Theoderic fought his way past these obstacles, leading a forced river crossing of what is now the Vuka (close to the site of the horrible massacre of 1991) himself, to bring his wagon trains in due course into Italy by the Vipava valley, the main route through the Julian Alps, connecting the Friulian lowlands with what is now central Slovenia. At Pons Isontii, Odovacar’s army was waiting but it was driven back into Italy proper after a major defeat on 28 August 489. Theoderic beat him again on 30 September close to the city of Verona, and that appeared to be that. Odovacar fled to Ravenna, which had become an imperial and then post-Roman capital in the fifth century because its marshes made it impregnable, and its port invulnerable to sieges.

In fact, there were a few twists and turns to go. One of Odovacar’s generals (called Tufa) swapped sides to Theoderic early on, but then did so again before the end of 489. And, likewise, a force of Rugi who had joined Theoderic after the destruction of their Austrian kingdom by Odovacar in 487, were nonetheless sufficiently attracted by the latter’s promises – for a time – to switch allegiance too. In the winter of 489–90, therefore, Theoderic was himself forced into a fortified redoubt: the city of Pavia. But in summer 490, Theoderic won a third major battle on 11 August, where the road from Lodi to Cremona crosses the river Adda, and over the next two years tightened the noose around Odovacar’s neck. Tufa’s force was eliminated, the Rugi returned to the fold, and, in August 492, Theoderic began a sea blockade of Ravenna from nearby Rimini. Matters dragged on because Ravenna was so hard to capture, until negotiations finally opened on 25 February 493. On 5 March, Theoderic entered the city having agreed to share power. But the Goth had not spent most of his life in and around Constantinople for nothing. Ten days later, at a banquet:

Theoderic himself rushed forward and struck him with a sword on the collarbone … The fatal blow cut through Odovacar’s body as far as the hip, and it is said that Theoderic exclaimed, ‘There clearly wasn’t a bone in the wretched man’s body.’

On the same day, Odovacar’s key supporters and their families were rounded up and massacred. The roll of the dice which had begun a full twenty years before had finally paid off.39 Many thousands of kilometres, a host of minor engagements and several major battles later, the land of Italy was his to rule: and all the result of the Gothic unification his manoeuvring had eventually achieved. But Theoderic had learned a great deal more in Constantinople than how to make agreements in bad faith. With Italy’s resources at his back, its new king, still not yet in his forties, set about unleashing a still grander range of ambition even than he’d shown so far. A first attempt to restore the Western Empire was under way.

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