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Ostrogoths in Italy


The Ostrogoths were some of the ferocious barbarian groups that descended into Roman territories just as the Western Empire was on the brink of disintegration. According to Jordanes, the Goths came from Scandza—which modern historians associate with present day Scandinavia. They were members of various tribes that streamed southward during the first century. These tribes temporarily settled in the lands north of the Black Sea until they were driven out by the Huns in 372 AD; the Goths, themselves a terror to other tribes and the Romans, were now hunted by a more brutal tribe from the east. They decided to part ways; the Goths who migrated west into Gaul (and eventually into Hispania) were called Visigoths, while those who remained near the Black Sea were called Ostrogoths. The Ostrogoths went to Italy in 534 AD according to the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History.

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Barbarians at the Gates

The relationship between the Goths and the Roman Empire constantly shifted from peaceful cooperation to subjugation to outright hostilities. After the Huns had driven them out of their settlements north of the Black Sea, the Goths sent a delegation to the Emperor Valens to negotiate for peace and allow them to settle on Roman territory to escape the invaders. The Emperor Valens agreed to this treaty for peace and allowed them to enter Thracia, but the Empire was inadequately prepared to meet the needs of the Goths who streamed into the land in large numbers.

The Goths felt that they were betrayed by the emperor when the treaty fell apart which resulted in their angry rampage through Thracia. They reached Hadrianople where they killed the Emperor Valens and a large part of his troops in battle, but they failed in the invasion of Hadrianople and Constantinople.

Theodoric the Great

“Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and the Balkans”

In less than a hundred years the Ostrogoths rose from refugees to rulers of the Western Roman Empire through King Theodoric the Great. The Ostrogoth king grew up in Constantinople and spent many years in the Byzantine city as a hostage for peace. The Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno later sent him westward to get rid of the usurper of the Western Roman throne Odoacer. Theodoric ruled Italy after he killed Odoacer and he was successful in keeping other Germanic tribes in check through alliances throughout his thirty-year reign.

Upon Theodoric’s death in 526 AD, the Ostrogoth-led kingdom of Italy passed on to his young grandson Athalaric with his mother, Amalasuntha, as regent. His mother insisted for him to grow up as a proper Roman—refined and civilized—but the Ostrogoth nobles in the Italian court scoffed at this and insisted that he be brought up as a warrior. He became neither and according to historian Procopius of Caesarea, he wasted away and died as an alcoholic. The Ostrogothic rule quickly disintegrated when Athalaric died in 534 AD, eight years after he was proclaimed as king. Some Ostrogoth noblemen rebelled against Amalasuntha’s rule, but the first plot against the queen failed. The following year, Amalasuntha made her cousin Theodahad as co-ruler to gain the support of the Ostrogoth noblemen. He, however, joined the second plot against Amalasuntha and exiled the queen on the island of Martana in Lake Bolsena. He ordered the murder of the ill-fated queen on the island in the same year.

Decline of Ostrogoth Domination in Italy

The Eastern emperor Justinian was fully aware of the events in Italy and he sent his chief general Belisaurus to take back the Western half of the empire from the Ostrogoths. Belisaurus first conquered Sicily and sailed toward the coast of Naples in central Italy, which he easily captured from the Ostrogoths with the help Byzantine forces in 535 AD. Meanwhile in the Italian capital of Ravenna, the elderly Theodahad was assassinated by an Ostrogoth warrior named Witigis, who then declared himself king. It was not until 540 AD that Belisaurus would capture the renegade Ostrogoth king. Witigis died in captivity while the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines fought a long battle back in Italy.

Picture By Public Domain,
Barnish, S. J. B., and Federico Marazzi. The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2007.
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
“Full Text of “Procopius History of the Wars, Books V. and VI.”” Full Text of “Procopius History of the Wars, Books V. and VI.” Accessed July 15, 2016.
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