Ostrogothic Kingdom

At least as early as the Christian era,6 and as late as the age of the Antonines,8 the Goths were established towards the mouth of the Vistula, and in that fertile province where the commercial cities of Thorn, Elbing, Koningsberg, and Dantzic were long afterwards founded.1 Westward of the Goths, the numerous tribes of the Vandals were spread along the banks of the Oder, and the sea-coast of Pomerania and Mecklenburg. A striking resemblance of manners, complexion, religion, and language, seemed to indicate that the Vandals and the Goths were originally one great people. The latter appear to have been subdivided into Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Gepidaa. The Ostro and Visi, the eastern and western Goths, obtained those denominations from their original seats in Scandinavia. In all their future marches and settlements they preserved, with their names, the same relative situation. The distinction among the Vandals was more strongly marked by the independent names of Heruli, Burgundians, Lombards, and a variety of other petty states, many of which, in a future age, expanded themselves into powerful monarchies.

Without attaching undue importance to the date 476 as marking the boundary between ancient and modern history, there is no doubt that this year opened a new age for the Italian people. Odovakar, a chief of the Herulians, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Augustus of the West, and placed the peninsula beneath the titular sway of the Byzantine emperors. At Pavia the barbarian conquerors of Italy proclaimed him king, and he received from Zeno the dignity of Roman patrician. Thus began that system of government, Teutonic and Roman, which, in the absence of a national monarch, impressed the institutions of new Italy from the earliest date with dualism. The same revolution vested supreme authority in a non-resident and inefficient autocrat, whose title gave him the right to interfere in Italian affairs, but who lacked the power and will to rule the people for his own or their advantage. Odovakar inaugurated that long series of foreign rulers-Greeks, Franks, Germans, Spaniards, and Austrians - who successively contributed to the misgovernment of Italy from distant seats of empire.

At the time of the "fall" of Rome in 476 AD, the Ostrogoths occupied a district south of the middle Danube, which the government at Constantinople had hired them to defend. The Ostrogoths proved to be expensive and dangerous allies. When, therefore, their chieftain, Theodoric, offered to lead his people into Italy and against Odoacer, the Roman emperor gladly sanctioned the undertaking.

In 488 Theodoric, king of the East Goths [ie, Ostrogoths], received commission from the Greek emperor, Zeno, to undertake the affairs of Italy. He defeated Odovakar, drove him to Ravenna, besieged him there, and in 493 completed the conquest of the country by murdering the Herulian chief with his own hand. Theodoric respected the Roman institutions which he found in Italy, held the Eternal City sacred, and governed by ministers chosen from the Roman population. He settled at Ravenna, which had been the capital of Italy since the days of Honorius, and which still testifies by its monuments to the Gothic chieftain's Romanizing policy.

The enlightened policy of Theodoric was exhibited in many ways. He governed Ostrogoths and Romans with equal consideration. He kept all the old offices, such as the senatorship and the consulate, and by preference filled them with men of Roman birth. His chief counselors were Romans. A legal code, which he drew up for the use of Ostrogoths and Romans alike, contained only selections from Roman law. He was remarkably tolerant and, in spite of the fact that the Ostrogoths were Arians, was always ready to extend protection to Catholic Christians. Theodoric patronized literature and gave high positions to Roman writers. He restored the cities of Italy, had the roads and aqueducts repaired, and so improved the condition of agriculture that Italy, from a wheat-importing, became a wheat exporting, country. At Ravenna, the Ostrogothic capital, Theodoric erected many notable buildings, including a palace, a mausoleum, and several churches. The remains of these structures are still to be seen.

Those who believe that the Italians would have gained strength by unification in a single monarchy must regret that this Gothic kingdom lacked the elements of stability. The Goths, except in the valley of the Po, resembled an army of occupation rather than a people numerous enough to blend with the Italian stock. Though their rule was favorable to the Romans, they were Arians; and religious differences, combined with the pride and jealousies of a nation accustomed to imperial honors, rendered the inhabitants of Italy eager to throw off their yoke. When, therefore, Justinian undertook the reconquest of Italy, his generals, Belisarius and Narses, were supported by the south. The struggle of the Greeks and the Goths was carried on for fourteen years, between 539 and 553, when Teia, the last Gothic king, was finally defeated in a bloody battle near Vesuvius. At its close the provinces of Italy were placed beneath Greek dukes, controlled by a governor general, entitled exarch, who ruled in the Byzantine emperor's name at Ravenna.

This new settlement lasted but a few years. Narses had employed Lombard auxiliaries in his campaigns against the Goths; and when he was recalled by an insulting message from the empress in 565, he is said to have invited this fiercest and rudest of the Teutonic clans to seize the spoils of Italy. Be this as it may, the Lombards, their ranks swelled by the Gepidie, whom they had lately conqueted, and by the wrecks of other barbarian tribes, passed southward under their king Alboin in 568. The Herulian invaders had been but a band of adventurers: the Goths were an army; the Lombards, far more formidable, were a nation in movement. Pavia offered stubborn resistance; but after a three-years siege it was taken, and Alboin made it the capital of his new kingdom.

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