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This article deals with the continental Ostrogoths. For information on the Ostrogoths that Jordanes placed in Scandinavia, see Ostrogothia, Scandza and Geats.

The Ostrogoths (often problematically denoted "Eastern Goths", as opposed to "West Goths", Visigoths) were a Germanic tribe that influenced the political events of the late Roman Empire. They were originally called the Greutungi (probably Hill fort people, see Scandza), but this was soon replaced by Ostrogothi. The meaning of ostro- (from austro-) is presumably "shiny."



The Goths were a single nation mentioned in several sources up to the third century, when they apparently split into Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Both tribes shared many aspects especially recognizing a patron deity that the Romans named Mars (Tyz [1]). This so-called "split" or more appropriately, resettlement of western tribes into the Roman province of Dacia, was a natural result of population saturation of the area along the Black Sea where these Ostrogoths established a vast and powerful kingdom. Gepids became their vassal and rival.

The rise of the Huns around 370 brought the Ostrogoth under their supremacy, possibly prompting the Visigothic leader Fritigern to request resettlement across the Danube, and perhaps the Ostrogothic ruler Ermanaric's suicide in 378 reported by Ammianus. According to the Getica of Jordanes, this Ermanaric lived to be 110 years old.

Over the following decades, the Ostrogoths dwelled in the Balkans with the Huns, becoming one of the many Hunnic vassals fighting in Europe as in the Battle of Chalons in 451. Several uprisings against the Huns were suppressed; however introduction of Hunnic horseback culture was one major benefit.

Some sources report that Gothic language was still spoken sporadically in Crimea by the 16th century.


Their recorded history begins with their independence from the remains of the Hunnic Empire following the death of Attila the Hun. Allied with the former vassal and rival, the Gepids and the Ostrogoths led by Theodimir broke the Hunnic power of Attila's sons in the Battle of Nedao in 454.

The Ostrogoths now entered into relations with the Empire, and were settled on lands in Pannonia. During the greater part of the latter half of the 5th century, the East Goths play in south-eastern Europe nearly the same part which the West Goths played in the century before. They were seen going to and fro, in every conceivable relation of friendship and enmity with the Eastern Roman power, until, just as the West Goths had done before them, they passed from the East to the West.

Zenith - Theodoric the Great

The greatest of all Ostrogothic rulers, the future Theodoric the Great was born to Theodemir in or about 454, soon after the Battle of Nedao. His childhood was spent at Constantinople as a hostage, where he was carefully educated. The early part of his life was taken up with various disputes, intrigues and wars within the Byzantine empire, in which he had as his rival Theodoric Strabo , a distant relative of Theodoric the Great and son of Triarius . This older but lesser Theodoric seems to have been the chief, not the king, of that branch of the Ostrogoths which had settled within the Empire at an earlier time. Theodoric the Great, as he is sometimes distinguished, was sometimes the friend, sometimes the enemy, of the Empire. In the former case he was clothed with various Roman titles and offices, as patrician and consul; but in all cases alike he remained the national Ostrogothic king.

It was in both characters together that he set out in 488, by commission from the Byzantine emperor Zeno, to recover Italy from Odoacer. By 493 Ravenna was taken; Odoacer was killed by Theodoric's own hand. Ostrogothic power was fully established over Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia and the lands to the north of Italy. In this war the Ostrogoths and Visigoth began again to unite, if we may accept the witness of one writer that Theodoric was helped by Visigothic auxiliaries. The two branches of the nation were soon brought much more closely together, when the power of Theodoric was practically extended over a large part of Gaul and over nearly the whole of Spain when events forced him to become regent of the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse.

A time of confusion followed the death of Alaric II, the son-in-law of Theodoric, at the Battle of Vouillé. The Ostrogothic king stepped in as the guardian of his grandson Amalaric, and preserved for him all his Spanish and a fragment of his Gaul dominion. Toulouse passed away to the Franks but the Goth kept Narbonne and its district and Septimania, which was the last part of Gaul held by the Goths and kept the name of Gothia for many ages. While Theodoric lived, the Visigothic kingdom was practically united to his own dominion. He seems also to have claimed a kind of protectorate over the Germanic powers generally, and indeed to have practically exercised it, except in the case of the Franks.

The Ostrogothic dominion was now again as great in extent and far more splendid than it could have been in the time of Hermanaric; however it was now of a wholly different character. The dominion of Theodoric was not a barbarian but a civilized power. His twofold position ran through everything. He was at once national king of the Goths, and successor, though without any imperial titles, of the West Roman emperors. The two nations, differing in manners, language and religion, lived side by side on the soil of Italy; each was ruled according to its own law, by the prince who was, in his two separate characters, the common sovereign of both.

The picture of Theodoric's rule is drawn for us in the state papers drawn up in his name and in the names of his successors by his Roman minister Cassiodorus. The Goths seem to have been thick on the ground in northern Italy; in the south they formed little more than garrisons. In Theodoric's theory the Goth was the armed protector of the peaceful Roman; the Gothic king had the toil of government, while the Roman consul had the honour. All the forms of the Roman administration went on, and the Roman policy and culture had great influence on the Goths themselves. The rule of the prince over distinct nations in the same land was necessarily despotic; the old Germanic freedom was necessarily lost. Such a system needed a Theodoric to carry it on. It broke in pieces after his death.

Crumbling - conquests of Belisarius and Narses

On the death of Theodoric in 526 the Ostrogoths and Visigoths were again separated. The few instances in which they are found acting together after this time are as scattered and incidental as they were before. Amalaric succeeded to the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and Septimania. Provence was added to the dominion of the new Ostrogothic king Athalaric, the grandson of Theodoric through his daughter Amalasuntha. Both were unable to settle disputes among Gothic elites. Theodahad, cousin of Amalasuntha and nephew of Theodoric through his sister, took over and slew them; however the usurping ushered in more bloodshed. Three more rulers stepped in during the next five years.

The weakness of the Ostrogothic position in Italy now showed itself. Byzantine emperor Justinian I had always strived to restore as much of the West Roman Empire as he could and certainly would not pass up the opportunity. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths. Belisarius quickly captured Sicily and then crossed into Italy where he captured Naples and Rome in 536 and then marched north, taking Mediolanum (Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540.

At this point Justinian offered the Goths a generous settlement -- too generous by far in Belisarius' eyes -- the right to keep an independent kingdom in the Northwest of Italy, and the demand that they merely give half of all their treasure to the empire. Belisarius conveyed the message to the Goths, although he himself withheld from endorsing it. They, on the other hand felt there must be a snare somewhere. They didn't trust Justinian, but because Belisarius had been so well-mannered in his conquest they trusted him a little more, and agreed to take the settlement only if Belisarius did endorse it. This made for something of an impasse.

A faction of the Gothic nobility pointed out that their own king Witiges, who had just lost, was something of a weakling and they would need a new one. Eraric , the leader of the group, endorsed Belisarius and the rest of the kingdom agreed, so they offered him their crown. Belisarius was a soldier, not a statesman, and still loyal to Justinian. He made as if to accept the offer, rode to Ravenna to be crowned, and promptly arrested the leaders of the Goths and reclaimed their entire kingdom -- no halfway settlement -- for Byzantium.

Justinian was furious. The Persians had been attacking in the east, and he wanted a stable neutral country separating his western border from the Franks, who weren't so friendly. Belisarius was sent to face the Persians and therefore left John, a Byzantine officer, to govern Italy temporarily.

In 545 Belisarius then returned to Italy, where he found the situation had changed greatly. Eraric was slain and the pro-Roman faction of Gothic elite had been toppled. In 541 the Ostrogoths had elected a new leader Totila; this Goth nationalist and brilliant commander had recaptured all of northern Italy and even driven the Byzantines out of Rome. Belisarius took the offensive, tricked Totila into yielding Rome along the way, but then lost it again after a jealous Justinian, fearful of Belisarius' power, starved him of supplies and reinforcements. Belisarius was forced to go on the defensive, and in 548, Justinian relieved him in favor of the eunuch general Narses, of whom he was more trustful.

Narses did not disappoint Justinian. Totila was slain in the Battle of Taginae in July 552 and his followers Teia, Aligern , Scipuar , Gibal were all killed or surrendered in the Battle of Mons Lactarius in October 552 or 553. Widin , the last attested member of the Gothic army revolted in late 550s, with minimal military help from the Franks. His uprising was fruitless; the revolt ended with Widin captured and brought to Constantinople for punishment in 561 or 562.

With that final defeat, the Ostrogothic name wholly passed away. The nation had evaporated practically with Theodoric's death. The chance of forming a national state in Italy by the union of Roman and Germanic elements, such as those which arose in Gaul, in Spain, and in parts of Italy under Lombard rule, was thus lost. As a result the Goths hold a different place in Spanish memory from that which they hold in Italian memory: In Italy the Goth was but a momentary invader and ruler, while in Spain the Goth supplies an important element in the modern nation. That element has been neither forgotten nor despised. Part of the unconquered region of northern Spain, the land of Asturias, kept for a while the name of Gothia, as did the Gothic possessions in Gaul.

Ostrogothic culture

Of Gothic literature in the Gothic language we have the Bible of Ulfilas and some other religious writings and fragments. Of Gothic legislation in Latin we have the edict of Theodoric of the year 500, and the Variae of Cassiodorus may pass as a collection of the state papers of Theodoric and his immediate successors. Among the Visigothic written laws had already been put forth by Euric. Alaric II put forth a Breviarium of Roman law for his Roman subjects; but the great collection of Visigothic laws dates from the later days of the monarchy, being put forth by King Reccaswinth about 654. This code gave occasion to some well-known comments by Montesquieu and Gibbon, and has been discussed by Savigny (Geschichte des romischen Rechts, ii. 65) and various other writers. They are printed in the Monumenta Germaniae, leges, tome i. (1902).

Of special Gothic histories, besides that of Jordanes, already so often quoted, there is the Gothic history of Isidore, archbishop of Seville, a special source of the history of the Visigothic kings down to Suinthila (621-631). But all the Latin and Greek writers contemporary with the days of Gothic predominance make their constant contributions. Not for special facts, but for a general estimate, no writer is more instructive than Salvian of Marseilles in the 5th century, whose work De Gubernatione Dei is full of passages contrasting the vices of the Romans with the virtues of the barbarians, especially of the Goths. In all such pictures we must allow a good deal for exaggeration both ways, but there must be a groundwork of truth. The chief virtues which the Catholic presbyter praises in the Arian Goths are their chastity, their piety according to their own creed, their tolerance towards the Catholics under their rule, and their general good treatment of their Roman subjects. He even ventures to hope that such good people may be saved, notwithstanding their heresy. All this must have had some groundwork of truth in the 5th century, but it is not very wonderful if the later Visigoths of Spain had a good deal fallen away from the doubtless somewhat ideal picture of Salvian.

Lists and figures

The Ostrogothic rulers in Italy:

See also


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Last updated: 05-10-2005 04:13:42
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