Theoderic, the Goths, and the Restoration of the Roman Empire

Theoderic, the Goths, and the Restoration of the Roman Empire

By Jonathan J. Arnold

PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008

Abstract: This dissertation places “Ostrogothic Italy,” conventionally seen as a “barbarian” successor state in the West, firmly within the continuum of Roman history. It investigates conceptions of Romanness and the impact of Rome’s imperial and cultural legacy during the late fifth and early sixth centuries, telling how a number of Italo-Roman elites were able to fit Theoderic and his Goths into an understanding of a revived and reinvigorated western Roman Empire. It demonstrates that for these individuals, men like Cassiodorus Senator and Magnus Felix Ennodius, Italy remained the western Roman Empire, despite the events of 476, and that Theoderic and his Goths, once qualifying as “barbarians,” played fundamental roles in the perpetuation of Italy’s Roman and imperial identity. These Italo-Romans believed that, until the arrival of the Ostrogoths, the western Empire had languished in a state of political and cultural decline, but that both Theoderic and his Goths had provided the necessary remedies.

In the Goths Italo-Romans received valiant soldiers who once more defended the Empire against real “barbarians” and even reclaimed lost provinces in the name of Rome. By obeying and upholding Roman law, moreover, these Goths were imagined to have become tolerably Roman and, as such, could actually re-Romanize lapsing Italo-Romans and newly reclaimed provincials, such as the inhabitants of Gaul. In Theoderic Italo-Romans received the kind of emperor that they wanted, a princeps who lived up to the ideals of the Principate, looked and acted like an emperor, and restored Rome’s rightful place as the head of the world.

Theoderic’s Roman upbringing in Constantinople, east-Roman career, and noble ancestry rendered him an acceptable and welcomed candidate to the imperial purple. More importantly, the positive alterations witnessed during his reign, such as the renovation of declining cities and reassertion of Roman dominance in the West, affirmed that he was a good Roman emperor. It was for these reasons, this dissertation suggests, that Italo-Romans were hailing the restoration of the western Roman Empire and declaring that a golden age had dawned.

Click here to check out this issue of our magazine
Click here to check out this issue of our magazine

Introduction: The end of Roman rule in the West was a complicated process that lasted the better part of a century. Ironically, it began in the East in 376 when a population of Goths, later known as Visigoths, appealed to the eastern emperor Valens for admission and settlement within the Roman Empire. Valens, seeing an opportunity for new recruits, agreed, settling these Goths along the Danube as federate allies with the task of defending portions of the frontier. Famine and profiteering, however, led to a rather different outcome. The Goths revolted, winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Valens’ army was obliterated and Valens himself lost his life. Such an outcome was a serious blow to Roman prestige, yet within just a few years Valens’ successor, Theodosius I, had reestablished good relations with the Goths and was even using them in a major campaign against a western usurper, Eugenius. Theodosius would die in 395, but by then the Visigoths, led by their strong king Alaric, were becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Balkans. Played by both halves of the Empire in the aftermath of Theodosius’ death, they soon set their eyes on Italy, making an initial foray in the opening years of the fifth century. By 408 they had surrounded Rome and, having been denied their requests for land and booty, they infamously sacked the Eternal City two years later, much to the outrage and dismay of the Roman world.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Michigan


Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email