Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.08


John Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. 300. £35. ISBN 0-19-814781-3.


Reviewed by Patrick Amory, St John's College, University of Cambridge.

This year is the fifteen hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy (493-552), then "incomparably the most powerful state in Western Europe," and the last time that Italy formed a unified state until 1870. We are all in debt to John Moorhead for producing the first political history in English of Theoderic's kingdom. Its neglect in our language has been due to the combination of an overwhelming abundance of written evidence with serious problems in its interpretation and organization. The letters of Ennodius and Cassiodorus illuminate the periods 503-513 and 523-538 too brightly in comparison with the intervening years; the papal documents and ecclesiastical records focus too fully on the theological disputes arising from the Acacian and Laurentian schisms (484-519 and 499-507) to allow much exegesis of related secular events. The writings of Boethius have attracted a vast and confusing scholarship devoted to his philosophical achievements, his influence on subsequent European thought and the question of his martyrdom. The only narrative history, the tendentious and corrupt chronicle known as the Anonymus Valesianus, presents as many problems as it solves. Moorhead disentangles all these strands with care and elegance, without committing himself too irrevocably in any of the most contentious disputes.

Theoderic the Great (c. 454-526) emerges from this book as a model post-Roman ruler, and, indeed, as one of the great statesmen of European history. Having led his people, the Ostrogoths, from the obscurity of a Balkan warband to the conquest of Odovacer's Italy by 493, he established himself as "king" of the peninsula that for centuries had been, until only two decades earlier, the capital of the Mediterranean world. Here he had to accommodate the proud traditions of the still-powerful senatorial aristocracy of Rome, the claims of the Eastern emperors at Constantinople and the growing power of the popes and the Catholic church. As a barbarian Arian with no great ancestry, Theoderic faced great potential opposition.

Moorhead draws on both sources and the large number of articles and books published in the last twenty years to explain how Theoderic managed to reconcile the powerful oppositions inherent in his rule. The king succeeded in acting like a Roman emperor toward his Italian subjects, without claiming so much of the formal attributes of emperorship to alienate the Byzantines or terrify his barbarian neighbors. Brought up in Constantinople, and probably literate in Greek and Latin, Theoderic enlisted in his Ravenna government the cream of the Roman senate, sons of consuls, members of the clans of the Anicii, the Decii and the Petronii and statesmen who had served under Odovacer such as Liberius and Cassiodorus père. He carried out strenuous diplomacy with the East and the other barbarian kingdoms, doing his best to reconcile the Acacian schism dividing the Roman and Eastern churches, and deploying a series of marriage alliances with the royal families of the Burgundians, Franks and Vandals. In the Laurentian schism dividing Rome between Pope Symmachus and the antipope Laurentius, Theoderic maintained a position of scrupulous neutrality, sporadically winning praise from both sides. He regulated his own Goths by installing them as the army of Italy and maintaining a theoretically strict military-civilian division in society. Moorhead accepts Walter Goffart's thesis that the barbarian soldiers were accommodated by the gift of tax-revenues rather than land-grants, a reciprocal tie that would have contributed to the maintenance of Theoderic's division of society by profession. Secured from disturbance after the 490s, Theoderic's Italy became a center of prosperity learning, nurturing scholarship in geography, theology, science, philosophy and Greek translation. Unlike almost any other late antique or medieval ruler, Theoderic not only practised but preached a policy of religious tolerance.

Moorhead is particularly successful in using difficult and scanty source material to illuminate royal policy in the years when Cassiodorus and Ennodius fail us, between 513 and 523. Analysis of the names of the consuls and urban prefects of these years show that the king decided to favor new men rather than the senatorial families of Rome honored in the first two decades of his reign. Like Cassiodorus himself (consul 515), these men came from the provincial aristocracy, or from Gaul or the East. One was a Goth, Theoderic's chosen heir Eutharic. Moorhead refuses to make too much of this evidence: he adduces the early court connections of Boethius and the wide correspondence of Ennodius to warn against making a strict division between court parvenus and senatorial traditionalists. It is also a revelation to find that, of the senatorial families, Theoderic seems to have favored the Decii over the better-known Anicii in official appointments. But again, Moorhead points out that neither family acted as a political unit: the Decii were split between the Blue and Green factions in the 510s, and probably supported opposing sides in the Laurentian schism. The gentilicium Anicius appears in the names of two great senators called Faustus who also appear to have been on opposite sides in the schism. Moorhead thus makes no direct connection between Theoderic's apparent shift toward favoring new men and the alienation of part of the senate at the end of Theoderic's reign. He rather suggests that a small party of senators with intellectual and religious interests maintained relations with people that Constantinople that could be seen as treasonous. The parvenus at court were then able to exploit these relations against senators when the latter returned to office in the early 520s. Here Moorhead analyzes with skill the difficult sources relating to the end of the Acacian schism in 519, and the writings of Boethius's intellectual circle, which appears to have had contacts with pro-monophysite groups in Africa and the East.

What remains confusing is the process by which Theoderic's rule of consensus broke down at the end of Theoderic's reign, leading to the executions of Boethius and his father-in-law, and the imprisonment of Pope John I. Moorhead's careful description of the aristocratic factions in the Laurentian schism, and their possible continuation through the 510s, is a miracle of clarity. But I am not convinced that the intellectual circle of Boethius, Dionysius Exiguus and John I definitely traced its formation back to supporters of Laurentius, or that pro-Byzantine sentiments were the crucial dividing factor in the schism of the 500s and later in the arrest of Boethius in 523. The issue of the alienation of ecclesiastical property was the chief point at stake between the disputants in the Laurentian schism, as Moorhead himself remarks. Moorhead's conjectural factions, often based on prosopographical similarity of aristocratic names, occasionally look fragile. (There were several Basilii, Fausti, Avieni and Symmachi floating around in early sixth-century Italy.) Although he has toned down the arguments of his earlier series of articles on this subject, Moorhead focuses so intently on the actions of a few, well-documented aristocrats that he perhaps discounts the impact of other sections of society on Theoderic's late policies. One fruitful area for investigation is the suggestion of Thomas Noble and Peter Heather that Byzantium became alarmed by the potential consequences of Theoderic's adoption of the Spanish Eutharic, which could have created a vast Italo-Spanish empire in the West.

Nevertheless, Moorhead makes a well-argued case for some kind of connection between Theoderic's victims in the years 523-526, and the senatorial aristocrats excluded from the consulship by the choice of parvenus in the preceding period 513-519, with the consequent rise of a senatorial opposition to the king. Outside the Laurentian circles, Moorhead's treatment of faction membership is properly cautious, particularly on the Puckishly fickle affections of Cassiodorus. His summary of the huge body of secondary work on the circumstances and the dating of the fall of Boethius, from Momigliano to Bark, Coster, Chadwick and Matthews, is masterly. Opposing views receive full airing in the copious notes. More research remains to be done on the political tragedy of Theoderic's last years: it will build on Moorhead's foundations.

The weakest section of the book is on the question of the ethnic identity of Theoderic and his followers, and on that of any "Germanic" or non-Roman culture that they may have brought with them into Italy. Given the state of flux that pervades the scholarship on late antique ethnicity, it would have been wise to avoid using words like "race" to label Goths, Romans or Gepids. The physiological connotation carried by the word "race" today is not only distasteful but inappropriate: no source suggests that Goths bore some kind of hereditary physical resemblance to one another. Moorhead may intend "race" to translate gens, but there is still no consensus on what the latter word meant to men and women of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. He might have taken more notice of the theories of Reinhard Wenskus and Herwig Wolfram on barbarian ethnogenesis than simply noting that the Goths constituted a polyethnic confederation. Moorhead's discussion of the ethnic division of labor and of intermarriage is vitiated by his assumption that a Germanic or a Latin name is a key to an individual's ethnic identity. Fortunately, this chapter is the most dispensable to his central arguments.

It is a shame that in a book so well-written and handsomely produced Oxford could not have ensured better proof-reading. Theoderic in Italy is ridden with elementary printing errors. On page 87, all references to footnotes in the text must have one subtracted in order to lead to the correct notes. The chapter reference to the Vita Caesarii at p. 183, n. 45, ought to read 1.34. The note reference at p. 213, n. 5, should refer to n. 131. There are also glaring misprints, e.g. p. 171, "i527" for "in 527;" p. 175, n. 6, "Fölker" for "Völker" (repeated in the bibliography); p. 239, "difgcult" for "difficult." Many others mar the pages of the book. Such shoddiness is inexcusable in a scholarly book retailing at the price of £35 for 300 pages.

Notwithstanding, Moorhead's book is essential for all historians of the fall of Rome and formation of medieval Europe, and is one of the few currently available in English that may safely be recommended to students as a summary of up-to-date thought on the history of the barbarian kingdoms. It is a suitable monument to an intelligent and fascinating ruler in a period of great social and political change, a man of whom Moorhead rightly says, "There can be no doubt that his achievement was immense."