In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theoderic the Great and Ostrogothic Italy

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and General Interpretations
  • Collections of Studies
  • Theoderic and the Ostrogoths on the Balkans
  • Warfare and Foreign Policy
  • Political and Administrative Institutions
  • Economy and Society
  • Senate and Senators
  • Religious Communities
  • The End of Gothic Italy
  • Afterlife

Classics Theoderic the Great and Ostrogothic Italy
Hans-Ulrich Wiemer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0363


The Ostrogothic king Theoderic is the only non-Roman ruler of Late Antiquity to have acquired the epithet the Great, albeit only in modern times. Born around 453 in Pannonia (Hungary) as the son of a Gothic king named Thiudimir, he grew up in Constantinople, where he was held as a hostage for ten years. He returned to Pannonia in 471, in 474 succeeding his father, who had meanwhile led the “Pannonian Goths” into Macedonia. For several years Theoderic fought a Gothic king and rival claimant to imperial favor likewise named Theoderic whose power base was in Thrace (hence “Thracian Goths”). Only after the latter’s death in 481 did he succeed in uniting the two groups under his leadership. Although he was subsequently appointed magister militum and held the consulship in 484, relations with the emperor Zeno soon became hostile. In 488, Theoderic and Zeno made an agreement that Theoderic should take his people to Italy and eliminate Odovacer. After a devastating war, he slew Odovacer by his own hand in March 493, in breach of an oath sworn shortly before to share rule in Italy. Having secured sole rule in Italy, Theoderic turned his mobile and militarized followers into a standing army by allotting them ownership rights to landed estates (rather than shares in land tax, as some have argued). He defined his position as ruler over two peoples, Goths and Romans, to which he assigned complementary but separate roles (“integration by separation”). While Goths were warriors by definition, the civilian population was labeled Roman. Theoderic won over the senatorial elites by preserving their privileges, wealth, and social power and by giving them a share in his rule. He left the administrative structures of the Late Roman state largely unaltered and filled all positions of a civilian nature with people from the senatorial milieu. Although he belonged to a Christian denomination considered heretical by Catholics (“Arian”) he treated Catholic bishops with respect; they in turn asked him to act as an arbitrator when in 498 Symmachus and Laurentius were simultaneously elected to be bishop of Rome. From 508 to 511 he extended his rule over Provence and the Iberian peninsula. Relations with the senatorial elites and the Roman church became strained at the end of Theoderic’s life. He died in Ravenna on 30 August 526 without having nominated an heir to the throne. His kingdom fell within a generation after his death, but his memory lived on in Italy and in all Germanic-speaking lands where legend transformed him into Dietrich of Berne.

Biographies and General Interpretations

The biography Moorhead 1992 is focused on Theoderic’s rule in Italy, while Wiemer 2018 puts the king’s life and rule into the broader context of the Late Roman world. Ensslin 1959 is a masterpiece, but somewhat outdated. Goltz 2007 is a useful guide to the literary sources (with the exception of Cassiodorus’s “Variae”). Arnold 2014 is unconventional and selective. Heather 1995 can be recommended as a short introduction to the subject.

  • Arnold, Jonathan J. 2014. Theoderic and the Roman imperial restoration. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107294271

    The author argues that Theoderic and his Goths actually were or quickly became Romans after they settled in Italy and that Theoderic ruled this country not as a Roman magistrate (i.e., patricius), but as emperor of the Western Roman empire with the title of princeps. Deals with contemporary depictions of Theoderic and studies the incorporation of the Provence into his kingdom but breaks off abruptely fifteen years before the king’s death.

  • Ensslin, Wilhelm. 1959. Theoderich der Große. 2d ed. Munich: F. Bruckmann.

    The classic biography, first published in 1947. Depicts Theoderic as a Germanic king of exceptional qualities who strove to preserve Roman culture while remaining attached to the traditions of his own Gothic people. Includes detailed accounts of the court, the law, and administrative structures. Still worth consulting, but impregnated with the ideology of great men and Germanophile ideas. The notes are very full, but unpractical to use.

  • Goltz, Andreas. 2007. Barbar—König—Tyrann. Das Bild Theoderichs des Großen in der Überlieferung des 5. bis 9. Jahrhunderts. Millenium-Studien 12. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

    A detailed and thorough review of the literary sources for the reign of Theoderic, both contemporary and later, with the exclusion of Cassiodorus’s “Variae.” Puts the texts within the context of the time and circumstances of their composition, assessing their reliability against Mommsen’s model of Theoderic’s constitutional position. Very useful as a sort of source-critical handbook.

  • Heather, Peter J. 1995. Theoderic, king of the Goths. Early Medieval History 4:145–173.

    An incisive article interpreting Theoderic’s rule within the framework of power relations among the Gothic nobility. Examines the problems he had to face and the resources he could muster in governing the Goths. The best short introduction in English.

  • Moorhead, John. 1992. Theoderic in Italy. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise, sober, and well-documented account, focused on Theoderic’s reign in Italy, and stressing its essentially Roman character. The author judges the king’s achievement to have been “immense.” He interprets the Laurentian schism in terms of differing attitudes to the emperor and argues for a shift in Theoderic’s recruiting policies in the early 6th century excluding aristocrats from high office. Not an easy read for beginners.

  • Wiemer, Hans-Ulrich. 2018. Theoderich der Große. König der Goten, Herrscher der Römer. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    DOI: 10.17104/9783406719097

    A detailed and up-to-date study of Theoderic and his Goths against the background of their age, including chapters on the history of the Goths, Late Roman Italy, Provence and Spain, the end of the Gothic kingdom in Italy and Theoderic’s afterlife. According to the author Theoderic pursued a policy of functional separation between Gothic soldiers and Roman civilians (“integration by separation”). An English translation for Yale University Press is in preparation.

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