The Roman elite and the power of the past: continuity and change in Ostrogothic Italy

The Roman elite and the power of the  past: continuity and change in Ostrogothic Italy

David Malcolm McOmish

University of Glasgow: PhD Dissertation, (2011)


This thesis examines the changes forced upon the Roman elite in the evolving political climate of Ostrogothic Italy. It examines what mechanisms the Roman elite employed to renegotiate their position of influence within the state. The relationship the elite had with the past provides evidence for wider changes in society. I assert that, using the language and landscape of the past, the elite formed discourses which responded to, and which attempted to facilitate a realignment in, a changing environment.

The education system still provided the Roman elite with a mechanism through which they could define themselves and prepare for what they considered to be the important aspects of the world outside the classroom. Religious discussions and debate in the post-imperial Italy of Late Antiquity were increasingly directed toward attempts to reunite the fractured Roman Empire through a unified empire of Orthodox faith.

Having such a close relationship with the Roman Empire and its political and philosophical culture, education and religion are particularly suitable fields to reflect the changes to the political map of the Roman Empire. Focusing on the elite’s relationship with education and religion, this thesis will uncover examples of continuity and change which are implied by the construction of, and interaction with, discourses designed to facilitate the elite’s renegotiation strategies. Reconstructing the education of prominent members of the elite from their writings provides the evidence for such discourses. The emphasis on this part of the thesis is on discovering how the discourses circulating in relation to education responded to the political and philosophical problems through the language of the past and what these responses tell us about changes in the present. The religious discussion focuses on the attempts of the opinion formers in Italy to create and direct narratives designed to establish the superiority of one religious world-view over another. An examination of the language of tradition in the construction of these narratives provides evidence for the potency of the past in the decision-making process and ideology-forming strategies of the Roman elite. It also provides evidence for the changes in society to which the strategies were responding.

A final-chapter case study provides an opportunity to see evidence of the effectiveness of these discourse-forming strategies. In this chapter we see a contemporary historical source interacting with those narratives and discourses we witnessed the elite employing in the education and religion chapters. It also provides an opportunity to see how the past is used to justify the actions of the Roman elite in Ostrogothic Italy to a post-Gothic audience (as the work was composed in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Ostrogothic Italy). This final consideration provides an instructive contrast which brings into sharp focus the extent and nature of continuity and change brought about by the Ostrogothic state.

Click here to read this article from the University of Glasgow

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine