Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.10

John Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. 300. $65.00. ISBN 0-19-814781-3.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Kaiser Wilhelm doted on Felix Dahn's novel about Theoderic Kampf um Rom, but long before that Theoderic fit the image of a German monarch so well that medieval legend didn't have to invent him, but could merely set him free from the majesty of his Ravenna tomb, rechristen him Dietrich of Bern, and let him ride off into the sunset. For Theoderic must be kept under strict rein, lest his legendary possibilities turn him into a preposterously outsized live exhibit in Ostrogothic Park, intimidating and occasionally devouring the historian who strays too close.

John Moorhead has returned from many years of study of Theoderic and his world unscathed. This book is learned, detailed, illuminating, authoritative, and crisply written. It will be a standard of reference, and at the same time a persuasive narrative. (The proofreading, alas, has been unacceptably poor -- the Press's own proofreaders lapsed badly at numerous points.)

When anecdote is hard to come by, narrative is difficult, and Moorhead has struggled. There are some organizational difficulties, with topics popping up in chapters where they might not be expected but where they are required to make sense of the story line that Moorhead selects. Even the topic and title of the book reflect distinct limiting choices. Theoderic's life before Italy is sketched briefly, his work outside Italy (though the territory under his sway usually ran well beyond what we would think of as Italy) is studied under the rubric "Foreign Affairs", and the thirty years of Ostrogothic history after his death and before the completion of the Byzantine reconquest still await reexamination. (From the reconquest to the end of the century, T.S. Brown's Officers and Gentleman has done a great service.) We get from this book political history enriched by prosopography: no small thing, but it gives the book a generally cautious and conservative disposition (even to the point of beginning with the non-events of the year 476). Moorhead accepts Goffart's thesis on the non-confiscation of Roman lands by the Goths at the time of settlement (rightly, in my view), and has many interesting things to say about the personalities of the Ostrogothic kingdom and their links. Moorhead's views on the importance of the Decii were already known from his articles, but it is good to see that family's role integrated in a larger study. Similarly Moorhead traces the ebbs and flows of family and faction with impressive precision, revealing for example a series of setbacks for senatorial worthies in the 510s, perhaps foreshadowing the tensions that would cloud Theoderic's last years. The castrum Lucullanumat Naples has been coming into view in recent decades as an important center in this period (where Eugippius wrote and where the deposed Romulus Augustulus vegetated), and now seems to be where the anti-pope Laurentius was also relegated -- hence a hotbed of something other than allegiance to Theoderic and his purposes.

The focus on Theoderic also means that other profitable veins of study of Theoderic's own Italy remain underexplored. At several points, for example, Moorhead mentions that Ennodius needs work, and it is worth emphasizing that this fertile and interesting writer, who has the distinction of having printed at the end of the preface of the MGH edition of his works a 12th-century letter savaging the ornate tediousness of his prose, offers a rich vein of evidence far from completely tapped and well worth a full independent study. We could see, for example, how Ennodius, deacon of Milan and eventually bishop of Pavia, carefully and successfully worked his way into alliance with elements in the leading senatorial families. We can see the letters that try to forge such alliance and fail (in one case because his proposed patron died unexpectedly), and the ones that succeeded. Ennodius was eventually left holding the bag for the pope, comically enough, when pope Symmachus proved reluctant to pay back monies loaned to him on E.'s guarantee by the bishop of Milan, monies expended in ways that would not surprise readers of the late news from Italy in the summer of 1993. Ennodius remains in spite of Moorhead (as Moorhead would freely admit) the best unmapped road into parts of sixth century Italian society.

And what of Boethius? At several times, Moorhead seemed to this reader to be close to broaching a hypothesis that he never mentions, and I will close the review by drawing on his study to give it context. Moorhead shows well and I think convincingly that Boethius fell because he deserved to. The libertas Romana that Boethius speaks of so piously in the Consolation of Philosophy as the cause for which he was indicted is shown to be a slogan inviting Byzantine intervention. Boethius emerges here as a strong figure, moving in his last years quite close to the reins of the Ostrogothic regime, himself an ex-consul presiding over the truly extraordinary sight (in that period) of his own son's double consulship in the Roman colosseum, the moving to Ravenna to serve as magister officiorum. In the intrigues that followed, he, his father-in-law Symmachus, and his ally pope John all found imprisonment and death. His relatives in the gens Anicia survived in Constantinople, and in Constantinople 25 years later a dynastic marriage was somewhat artificially grafted on to the Anician family tree to give it legitimacy in Italian eyes.

So far so good, for the most part uncontroversial, but with some important novelties. But what Moorhead drives us to ask, whether he means to or not, is what alternate regime Boethius and his friends could have imagined. Surely they did not hope for Byzantine reconquest and an exarchate: there was no model to suggest such a thing, and the exarchate when it did come to pass proved ruinous for Boethius' class.

No, it is surely far likelier that Boethius and his ilk would have thought the best goal the re-establishment of a resident emperor in Italy. The nostalgia for 476 that dates to their period (seen best in Latins writing in Constantinople like Marcellinus Comes and Jordanes) would point in the same direction. I do not see that Moorhead asks the question, or that anyone has seriously asked the question, just who Boethius and his friends would have liked to see on the Italian imperial throne. But perhaps to ask the question in this context as I have just done is to make explicit the suspicion to which Moorhead gives, brilliantly or unwittingly I cannot tell, rise: did no one then dream of Boethius augustus? If not Boethius, who? If Symmachus, then Boethius as son-in-law and heir is scarcely less important. It is ironic that in our great reverence for the cloistered intellectual, we may have blinded ourselves to his true role in history.

To make such a suggestion is to give indirect proof of the richness of this book. The sixth-century Mediterranean world is one of the three or four best documented periods of Greco-Roman antiquity and richly repays study as intelligent and careful as this.