The Ostrogoths (Latin: Ostrogothi or Austrogothi) were a branch of the later Goths (the other major branch being the Visigoths). The Ostrogoths, under Theodoric the Great, established a kingdom in Italy in the late 5th and 6th centuries. The Ostrogoths traced their origins to the Greutungi and a semi-legendary kingdom north of the Black Sea in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Migrating southward from the Baltic Sea, the Ostrogoths, at the time known as the Greuthungi, built up a huge empire stretching from the Dnester to the Dnipro River and from the Black Sea to the Baltic shores. The Ostrogoths were probably literate in the 3rd century, and their trade with the Romans was highly developed. Their Danubian kingdom reached its zenith under King Ermanaric, who is said to have committed suicide at an old age when the Huns attacked his people and subjugated them in about 370.
After their subjugation by the Huns, little is heard of the Ostrogoths for about 80 years, after which they reappear in Pannonia on the middle Danube River as federates of the Romans. However, a pocket remained behind in (west and central) Ukraine and in the Crimea when the bulk of them moved to central Europe, and these Crimean Ostrogoths existed until at least the 16th century. After the collapse of the Hun empire after the Battle of Nedao (453), the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great first moved to Moesia (c. 475–488) and later conquered the Italian Kingdom of the German warrior Odoacer. Theodoric became king of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493 and died in 526. A period of instability then ensued, tempting the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian to declare war on the Ostrogoths in 535 in an effort to restore the former western provinces of the Roman Empire. Initially, the Byzantines were successful, but under the leadership of Totila, the Goths reconquered most of the lost territory until Totila's death at the Battle of Taginae. The war lasted for almost 20 years and caused enormous damage and depopulation of Italy. The remaining Ostrogoths were absorbed into the Lombards who established a kingdom in Italy in 568.
Divided Goths: Greuthungi and Ostrogothi
Ostrogothic bow-fibulae (c. 500) from Emilia-Romagna, Italy
A division of the Goths is first attested in 291. The Tervingi are first attested around that date; the Greuthungi, Vesi, and Ostrogothi are all attested no earlier than 388. The Greuthungi are first named by Ammianus Marcellinus, writing no earlier than 392 and perhaps later than 395, and basing his account on the words of a Tervingian chieftain who is attested as early as 376. The Ostrogoths are first named in a document dated September 392 from Milan. Claudian mentions that they together with the Greuthungi inhabit Phrygia. According to Herwig Wolfram, the primary sources either use the terminology of Tervingi/Greuthungi or Vesi/Ostrogothi and never mix the pairs. All four names were used together, but the pairing was always preserved, as in Gruthungi, Ostrogothi, Tervingi, Vesi. That the Tervingi were the Vesi/Visigothi and the Greuthungi the Ostrogothi is also supported by Jordanes. He identified the Visigothic kings from Alaric I to Alaric II as the heirs of the fourth-century Tervingian king Athanaric and the Ostrogothic kings from Theodoric the Great to Theodahad as the heirs of the Greuthungian king Ermanaric. This interpretation, however, though very common among scholars today, is not universal. According to the Jordanes' Getica, around 400 the Ostrogoths were ruled by Ostrogotha and derived their name from this "father of the Ostrogoths", but modern historians often assume the converse, that Ostrogotha was named after the people.
Both Herwig Wolfram and Thomas Burns conclude that the terms Tervingi and Greuthungi were geographical identifiers used by each tribe to describe the other. This terminology therefore dropped out of use after the Goths were displaced by the Hunnic invasions. In support of this, Wolfram cites Zosimus as referring to a group of "Scythians" north of the Danube who were called "Greuthungi" by the barbarians north of the Ister. Wolfram asserts that it was the Tervingi who remained behind after the Hunnic conquest. He further believes that the terms "Vesi" and "Ostrogothi" were used by the peoples to boastfully describe themselves. On this understanding, the Greuthungi and Ostrogothi were more or less the same people.
The nomenclature of Greuthungi and Tervingi fell out of use shortly after 400. In general, the terminology of a divided Gothic people disappeared gradually after they entered the Roman Empire. The term "Visigoth", however, was an invention of the sixth century. Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theodoric the Great, invented the term Visigothi to match Ostrogothi, which terms he thought of as "western Goths" and "eastern Goths" respectively. The western-eastern division was a simplification and a literary device of sixth-century historians where political realities were more complex. Furthermore, Cassiodorus used the term "Goths" to refer only to the Ostrogoths, whom he served, and reserved the geographical term "Visigoths" for the Gallo-Hispanic Goths. This usage, however, was adopted by the Visigoths themselves in their communications with the Byzantine Empire and was in use in the seventh century.
Other names for the Goths abounded. A "Germanic" Byzantine or Italian author referred to one of the two peoples as the Valagothi, meaning "Roman [walha] Goths". In 484 the Ostrogoths had been called the Valameriaci (men of Valamir) because they followed Theodoric, a descendant of Valamir. This terminology survived in the Byzantine East as late as the reign of Athalaric, who was called του Ουαλεμεριακου (tou Oualemeriakou) by John Malalas.
"Greuthungi" may mean "steppe dwellers" or "people of the pebbly coasts". The root greut- is probably related to the Old English greot, meaning "flat". This is supported by evidence that geographic descriptors were commonly used to distinguish people living north of the Black Sea both before and after Gothic settlement there and by the lack of evidence for an earlier date for the name pair Tervingi-Greuthungi than the late third century.
However, that the name "Greuthungi" has pre-Pontic, possibly Scandinavian, origins has support. It may mean "rock people", (from the Old Norse grjut huningi) to distinguish the Ostrogoths from the Geats (referred as Goths in Scandinavia) from Götaland (Gothland) in southern Sweden. The Roman historian Jordanes refers to an Evagreotingi (Greuthung island) in Scandza, as part of his description of Gothiscandza. It has also been suggested that Greuthungi may be related to certain place names in Poland, but this has met with little support.
"Ostrogothi" means "Goths of (or glorified by) the rising sun". This has been interpreted as "gleaming Goths" or "east Goths". By the 4th century the Ostrogoths had developed a distinct language known as Gothic. Classified by linguists as an east Germanic language, Gothic eventually died out sometime in the Middle Ages as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths were absorbed by other European peoples.
While none of the eastern Germanic languages are still spoken, Gothic is the only one with "continuous texts" remaining. Singularly the most important work amid the surviving Gothic texts is the translation of the Bible by the Visigothic bishop Ulfilas, comprising the earliest remnants of the Germanic languages known. Smatterings of the Gothic language can be found in Italian but its presence is minimal. Gothic was still spoken sporadically in Crimea as late as the 16th and 17th centuries (Crimean Gothic language). Much of the disappearance of the Gothic language is attributable to the Goth's cultural and linguistic absorption by other European peoples during the Middle Ages.
Mentioned in several sources up to the third century AD when they apparently split into at least two groups, the Greuthungi in the east and Tervingi in the west, the two Gothic tribes shared many aspects, especially recognizing a patron deity the Romans named Mars. 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 north of the Black Sea. The Goths in Dacia established a vast and powerful kingdom during the third and fourth centuries between the Danube and the Dniepr in what is now Romania, Moldova and western Ukraine. This was a multi-tribal state ruled by a Gothic elite but inhabited by many other interrelated but multi-tongue tribes including the Iranian-speaking Sarmatians, the Germanic-speaking Gepids, the Thracian-speaking Dacians, other minor Celtic and Thracian tribes and possibly early Slavs. Unfortunately the exact geographical dividing line between the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths is not known but in general terms, the Visigoths occupied Dacia, Moldavia and Walachia, whereas the Ostrogoths lived in the steppe regions beyond the Dniester River.
The rise of the Huns around 370 overwhelmed the Gothic kingdoms. Many of the Goths migrated into Roman territory in the Balkans, while others remained north of the Danube under Hunnic rule. Frequently the Ostrogoths fought alongside both Alans and Huns. It was the Ostrogoths who were first subdued by the Huns. Like other tribal peoples, they became one of the many Hunnic vassals fighting in Europe, as in the Battle of Chalons in 451. Several uprisings against the Huns were suppressed. The collapse of Hunnic power in the 450s led to further violent upheaval in the lands north of the Danube, during which most of the Goths resident in the area migrated to the Balkans. Their rule was marked by turmoil with hostile neighbors all around and the land they acquired between Vindobona (Vienna) and Sirmium (Belgrade) was not well managed, a fact which rendered the Ostrogoths dependent upon Constantinople for subsidies.
Their recorded history begins with their independence from the remains of the Hunnic Empire following the death of Attila the Hun in 453. Allied with the former vassal and rival, the Gepids and the Ostrogoths led by Theodemir broke the Hunnic power of Attila's sons in the Battle of Nedao in 454, although the Ostrogoth contribution to the battle's success was minimal.
The Ostrogoths now entered into relations with the Empire, and were settled on lands in Pannonia, becoming foederati (federates) to the Byzantines. During the greater part of the latter half of the 5th century, the East Goths played in south-eastern Europe nearly the same part that the Western Goths (Visigoths) played in the century before. They were seen going to and from, 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.
Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and the Balkans
The greatest of all Ostrogothic rulers, the future Theodoric the Great (whose Gothic name meant "leader of the people") of Ostrogothic Kingdom, was born to Theodemir in or about 454, soon after the Battle of Nedao. His childhood was spent at Constantinople as a diplomatic 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 that had settled within the Empire earlier. 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. Theodoric is also known for his attainment of support from the Catholic Church, which he gained by appeasing the Pope in 520. During his reign, Theodoric, who was an Arian, allowed freedom of religion, which had not been done before. However, he did try to appease the Pope and tried to keep his alliance with the church strong. He saw the Pope as an authority not only in the church but also over Rome.
Theodoric sought to revive Roman culture and government and in doing so, profited the Italian people. 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, where Theodoric would set up his capital. It was also at this time that 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. Around 500, Theodoric celebrated his thirtieth anniversary as King of the Ostrogoths. In order to improve their chances against the Roman Empire the Ostrogoths and Visigoths began again to unite in what became a loose confederation of Germanic peoples. The two branches of the nation were soon brought much more closely together; after he was forced to become regent of the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse, the power of Theodoric was practically extended over a large part of Gaul and over nearly the whole of the Iberian peninsula. Theodoric forged alliances with the Visigoths, Alamanni, Franks and Burgundians, some of which were accomplished through diplomatic marriages.
The Ostrogothic dominion was now again as great in extent as 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. Due to his ability to foster and leverage relations between the various Germanic kingdoms, the Byzantines began to fear Theodoric's power, which led to an alliance between the Byzantine emperor and the Frankish king, Clovis I, a pact designed to counteract and ultimately overthrow the Ostrogoths. In some ways Theodoric may have been overly accommodating to both the Romans and other Gothic people as he placated Catholics and Arian Christians alike. Historian Herwig Wolfram suggests that Theodoric's efforts in trying to appease Latin and barbarian cultures in kind brought about the collapse of Ostrogothic predominance and also resulted in "end of Italy as the heartland of late antiquity." All the years of creating a protective perimeter around Italy were broke down by the Franco-Byzantine coalition. Theodoric was able to temporarily salvage some of his realm with the assistance of the Thuringians. Realizing that the Franks were the most significant threat to the Visigothic empire as well, Alaric II, (who was the son-in-law of Theodoric) enlisted the aide of the Burgundians and fought against the Franks at the urging of the magnates of his tribe, but this choice proved an error and he allegedly met his end at the hand of the Frankish king, Clovis.
A time of confusion followed the death of Alaric II who was slain during the Battle of Vouillé. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric stepped in as the guardian of his grandson Amalaric, and preserved for him all his Iberian and a fragment of his Gaul dominion. Toulouse passed 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. From 508–511 under Theodoric's command, the Ostrogoths marched on Gaul as the Vandal king of Carthage and Clovis made concerted efforts to weaken his hold on the Visigoths. On the death of Theodoric in 526, the eastern and western Goths were once again divided. By the late 6th century, the Ostrogoths lost their political identity and assimilated into other Germanic tribes.
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. Meanwhile, the Frankish king Clovis fought protracted wars against various enemies while consolidating his rule, forming the embryonic stages of what would eventually become Medieval Europe.
War with Byzantium (535–554)
Coin of Theodahad (534-536), minted in Rome. He wears the barbaric moustache.
Absent the unifying presence of Theodoric, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths were unable to consolidate their realms despite their common Germanic kinship. The few instances where they acted together after this time are as scattered and incidental as they were before. Amalaric succeeded to the Visigothic kingdom in Iberia and Septimania. Theodoric's grandson Athalaric took on the mantle as king of the Ostrogoths for the next five years. Provence was added to the dominion of the new Ostrogothic king Athalaric and through his daughter Amalasuntha who was named regent. 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.
The weakness of the Ostrogothic position in Italy now showed itself. The Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I always strove to restore as much of the Western Roman Empire as he could and certainly would not pass up the opportunity. Launched on both land and sea, Justinian began his war of reconquest. In 535, he commissioned Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths following the success he had in North Africa against the Vandals. It was Justinian's intention to recover Italy and Rome from the Goths. Belisarius quickly captured Sicily and then crossed into Italy where he captured Naples and Rome in December of 536. Sometime during the spring of 537, the Goths marched on Rome with upwards of 100,000 men under the leadership of Witiges and laid siege to the city, albeit unsuccessfully. Despite having a majority margin of five-to-one, the Goths could not loose Belisarius from the former western capital of the Empire. After recuperating from siege warfare, Belisarius marched north, taking Mediolanum (Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540.
With the attack on Ravenna, Witiges and his men were trapped in the Ostrogothic capital. Belisarius proved more capable at siege warfare than his rival Witiges had been at Rome and the Ostrogoth ruler, who was also dealing with Frankish enemies, was forced to surrender but not without terms. Belisarius refused to grant any concessions save unconditional surrender in lieu of the fact that Justinian wanted to make Witiges a vassal king in Trans-Padane Italy. This condition made for something of an impasse.
Totila razes the walls of Florence: illumination from the Chigi ms of Villani's Cronica.
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 settlements—for the Empire. Fearful that Belisarius might set himself up a permanent kingship should he consolidate his conquests, Justinian recalled him to Constantinople with Witiges in tow.
As soon as Belisarius was gone, the remaining Ostrogoths elected a new king named Totila. Under the brilliant command of Totila, the Goths were able to reassert themselves to a degree. For a period of nearly ten years, control for Italy became a seesaw battle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic forces. Totila eventually recaptured all of northern Italy and even drove the Byzantines out of Rome. The recapturing of the Roman capital by the Goth Totila afforded him the opportunity to take political control of the city, partly achieved by executing the Roman senatorial order. Many of them fled eastwards for Constantinople.
By 550 Justinian was able to put together an enormous force, an assembly designed to recover his losses and subdue any Gothic resistance. In 551, the Roman navy destroyed Totila's fleet and in 552 an overwhelming Byzantine force under Narses entered Italy from the north. Attempting to surprise the invading Byzantines, Totila gambled with his forces at Taginaei, where he was slain. Broken but not yet defeated, the Ostrogoths made one final stand at Campania under a chief named Teia, but when he was also killed in battle at Nuceria they finally capitulated. On surrendering, they informed Narses that evidently "the hand of God was against them" and so they left Italy for the northern lands of their fathers. With that final defeat, the remaining Ostrogoths went back north and (re)settled in south Austria. The Ostrogothic name wholly died. The nation had practically evaporated with Theodoric's death. "The leadership of western Europe therefore passed by default to the Franks. Consequently, Ostrogothic failure and Frankish success were crucial for the development of early medieval Europe", for Theodoric had made it "his intention to restore the vigor of Roman government and Roman culture". The chance of forming a national state in Italy by the union of Roman and Germanic elements, such as those that arose in Gaul, in Iberia, and in parts of Italy under Lombard rule, was thus lost. The failures of the barbarian kingdoms to maintain control of the regions they conquered were partly the result of leadership vacuums like those which resulted from the death of Theodoric (also the lack of male succession) and Totila but additionally as a consequence of political fragmentation amid the Germanic tribes as their loyalties waned between their kin and their erstwhile enemies. Frankish entry onto the geopolitical map of Europe also bears into play as had the Ostrogoths attained more military success against the Byzantines on the battlefield by combining the strength of other Germanic tribes, this could have changed the direction of Frankish loyalty. Military success or defeat and political legitimacy were interrelated in barbarian society.
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 that the Roman 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. This image must have had some basis in truth, but it is not very surprising that the later Visigoths of Iberia had fallen away from Salvian's somewhat idealistic picture.
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