Theodoric’s life and activities represent a rare and commendable example of a barbarian who sheathed his sword in the pride of victory and the prime of life, and gave himself to the task of civil government for abiding peace and prosperity of Italy.
The victory of Theodoric had spread a general alarm in the West but the peaceful intentions, the wisdom and generosity of his government soon converted that terror into respect.
Soon Theodoric’s mediation was looked upon as the only just method of reconciliation of mutual quarrels and even civilizing their manners. It is no exaggeration to say that Theodoric’s kingdom in Italy was the most Roman of all the barbarian kingdoms. Under him the old system of administration continued without a break.
He kept himself surrounded by officials who bore the traditional titles of Diocletian’s empire. He went as far as any one could to preserve the form and authority of the Roman Senate and Roman law. Boethius, a Roman, author of the most widely read book On the Consolation of Philosophy, was appointed consul to Theodoric. In fact, he ruled as a Roman of the Romans.
It was no easy task that confronted Theodoric. He had not only to repair the ravages of long years, but also to harmonies the Goths and the Romans and weld them into a homogeneous people, to train them to live at peace together. An Arian Christian one himself, he had to win the support of the Catholic clergy on whose good will, he rightly recognized, his success as a ruler would largely depend.
The fact that he succeeded in doing these was an eloquent testimony to his greatness.
Theodoric had won Italy by right of conquest but he tried to give it a legal and moral sanction. He started negotiations with the Eastern Emperor Zeno, which did not conclude due to latter’s death in 491, and it was in 497 that he received recognition of his kingship from Emperor Anastasius. In the meantime he had secured confirmation of his kingship from his Ostrogothic followers whom he allotted a third of the lands of Italy.
The recognition of his rule by the Emperor gave him special strength to rule over the Romans and enabled him to secure the help of the Roman officials in the different work of organizing and administering the kingdom. Under Theodoric’s strong and good government for about thirty years, Italy settled down to thirty years’ (thirty-three according to some) uninterrupted peace and prosperity.
Trade developed, agriculture revived and Italy became surplus in food which enabled her to expert corn instead of importing it.
Great cities of Italy were repaired and once more adorned with works of art and defended by strong walls. Roads were improved and local produces moved easily from one part of the country to the other. Ravenna was made Theodoric’s capital.
The administration went on under the eye of Theodoric ‘who had something of Napoleon’s marvelous power of supervising all the details of administration’. He was also served by a well-organised body of officials from the highest officials of the State to the junior clerks.
The consuls and other magistrates were annually installed and the Roman Senate enjoyed its accustomed prestige. Theodoric enforced Roman law and in order to do that he promulgated his famous Edict which was modeled after the Theodosian Code. The taxes collected under Code him were the same as under his predecessor.
Theodoric revived the tradition of food supply to his subjects. This gave Italy a last renewal of prosperity. His zeal for buildings, public works, and fortifications was also in the tradition of the Roman Empire. Classic art and classic literature as testified in the mosaics at Ravenna, in the works of Boethius and Cassiodorus are illustrations of the culture fostered under Theodoric although he had no share in all this.
Theodoric’s diplomacy was not of a mean order; in his foreign policy his aim was to serve the interests of German: kingdoms. He entered into several marriage alliances all of which were calculated to preserve them both from imperial attempts at recovery and the mutual quarrels and ambitions of conquest.
He gave his sister Amalafrida to the Vandal king Thrasamund, his niece to Hermanfrid of Thuringia, one of his daughters to Alaric II the Visigoth, another to Sigismund the Burgundian and the third Amalasuntha to Eutharic. Theodoric took Audofleda, sister of Clovis the Frank, as his second wife.
Theodoric was an Arian, but he followed an enlightened policy of religious toleration. His attitude in this regard is manifest in his remark: “We cannot order a religion, because no one is forced to believe against his will. To pretend to rule over the spirits is to usurp the rights of the Divinity. The power of the greatest sovereign is limited to exterior police.”
The persecuted heathen Alamanni who had escaped from Clovis’ over lordship were settled by Theodoric in his dominion. “In his protection of the Jews against the violence of the orthodox Christians this barbarian heretic showed himself not only more enlightened than his orthodox contemporaries, but considerably more civilized than many of his successors down to the twentieth century.”
Theodoric had to rule over two peoples—the Goths and the Romans. Despite this difficulty of his situation he made himself the most loved barbarian king by the Roman way that he had followed and the keen sense of justice that he possessed. He maintained law and order, displayed tolerance towards the Catholics, protected rights of the people, was keen on maintaining the traditions of the Goths and the Romans.
He preserved the legal institutions of Rome, ordered the building of monuments after Roman and Byzantine models. Theodoric’s rescript writer Cassiodorus and his many other panegyrists lavishly praised him for his moderation, civilization and benevolence, but however lavish such praises might have been they were real and not exaggerated.
“His manner of ruling over his subjects was worthy of a great emperor, for he maintained justice, made good laws, protected his country from invasion, and gave proof of extraordinary prudence and valour.”
His choice of ministers and other high officials showed his wisdom. The reign of Theodoric, in fact, was the first attempt to harmonies the old and new, ‘to blend the Roman ideals of order and civilities with the Teutonic spirit of freedom’.