The great king of the Ostrogoths and regent of the Visigoths
Theodoric was king of the Ostrogoths, ruler of Italy, regent of the Visigoths and viceroy of the Eastern Roman Empire. He was born in 454 AD in what is now the border region of Austria and Hungary. The son of a king, he travelled as a child to Byzantium as a hostage against his father’s good conduct and as was traditional for those in his position benefited from the education his more cultured circumstances offered. This enabled him to become a master of the military art providing him with skills and knowledge which served him well when he took power as monarch. He was 31 years old before he returned to his own people. At the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno. Theodoric invaded King Odoacer’s Italian kingdom fighting battles at Isonzo, Verona, Adda and Ravenna between 488 and 493 AD. The invasion established his power base and his influence with the emperor since Odoacer had been a troublesome vassal ruler and the Ostrogoths now were able to occupy much needed new territory for expansion. Allied with the Franks, Theodoric campaigned successfully against the Vandals, but as is often the case for those with dynastic aspirations his conquests and political machinations did not long survive his death in 526. Nevertheless Theodoric was a significant figure in Europe during the final phase of the Western Roman Empire and this account will offer much to students of the period.
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It seemed at first as if that battle would be lost, and as if the name and fame of the Ostrogothic people would be swallowed up in the morasses of the reedy Hiulca. Already the van of the army, floundering in the soft mud, and with only their wicker shields to oppose to the deadly shower of the Gepid arrows, were like to fall back in confusion. Then Theodoric, having called for a cup of wine, and drunk to the fortunes of his people, in a few spirited words called to his soldiers to follow his standard—the standard of a king who would carve out the way to victory. Perchance he may have discerned some part of the plain where the road went over solid ground, and if that were beset by foes, at any rate the Gepid was less terrible than the morass.<br>
So it was that he charged triumphantly through the hostile ranks, and, being followed by his eager warriors, achieved a signal victory. The Gepidæ were soon wandering over the plain, a broken and dispirited force. Multitudes of them were slain before the descent of night saved the remaining fugitives, and so large a number of the Gepid store-waggons fell into the hands of the Ostrogoths that throughout the host one voice of rejoicing arose that Traustila had been willing to fight. So had a little Gothic blood bought food more than they could ever have afforded money to purchase.<br>
Thus, through foes and famine, hardships of the winter and hardships of the summer, the nation-army held on its way, and at length (as has been already said) in the month of August (489) the last of the waggons descended from the highlands, which are an outpost of the Julian Alps, and the Ostrogoths were encamped on the plains of Italy. Odovacar, who apparently had allowed them to accomplish the passage of the Alps unmolested, stood ready to meet them on the banks of the Isonzo, the river which flows near the ruins of the great city of Aquileia.<br>
He had a large army, the kernel of which would doubtless be those mercenaries who had raised him on the shield thirteen years before, and among whom he had divided one-third part of the soil of Italy. But many other barbarians had flocked to his standard, so that he had, as it were, a little court of kings, chieftains serving under him as supreme leader. He himself, however, was now in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and his genius for war, if he ever had any, seems to have failed him.<br>
He fought (as far as we can discern his conduct from the fragmentary notices of the analysts and panegyrists) with a sort of sullen savageness, like a wild beast at bay, but without skill either of strategy or tactics. The invaders, encumbered with the waggons and the non-combatants, had greatly the disadvantage of position. Odovacar’s camp had been long prepared, was carefully fortified, and protected by the deep and rapid Isonzo.<br>
But Theodoric’s soldiers succeeded in crossing the river, stormed the camp, defended as it was by a strong earthen rampart, and sent its defenders flying in wild rout over the plains of Venetia. Odovacar fell back on the line of the Adige, and the beautiful north-eastern corner of Italy, the region which includes among its cities Udine, Venice, Vicenza, Padua, now accepted without dispute the rule of Theodoric, and perhaps welcomed him as a deliverer from the stern sway of Odovacar. From this time forward it is allowable to conjecture that the most pressing of Theodoric’s anxieties, that which arose from the difficulty of feeding and housing the women and children of his people, if not wholly removed was greatly lightened. Odovacar took up a strong position near Verona, separated from that city by the River Adige.<br>
Theodoric, though not well provided with warlike appliances, rightly judged that it was of supreme importance to his cause to follow up with rapidity the blow struck on the banks of the Isonzo, and accordingly, towards the end of September, he, with his army, stood before the fossatum or entrenched camp at Verona. In order to force his soldiers to fight bravely, Odovacar had, in defiance of the ordinary rules of war, placed his camp where retreat was almost hopelessly barred by the swift stream of the Adige, and he addressed his army with stout words full of simulated confidence in victory.<br>
On the morning of the 30th of September, when the two armies were about to join in what must evidently be a most bloody encounter, the mother and sister of Theodoric, Erelieva and Amalfrida, sought his presence and asked him with some anxiety what were the chances of the battle. With words, reminding us of the Homeric saying that “the best omen is to fight bravely for one’s country,” Theodoric reassured their doubting hearts. On that day, he told his mother, it was for him to show that she had given birth to a hero on the day when the Ostrogoths did battle with the Huns. Dressed in his most splendid robes, those robes which their hands had adorned with bright embroidery, he would be conspicuous both to friend and foe, and would give a noble spoil to his conqueror if any man could succeed in slaying him. With these words he leapt on his horse, rushed to the van, cheered on his wavering troops, and began a series of charges, which at length, but not till thousands of his own men as well as of the enemy were slain, carried the fossatum of Odovacar.<br>
The battle once gained, of course the dispositions which Odovacar had made to ensure the resistance of his soldiers, necessitated their ruin, and the swirling waters of the Adige probably destroyed as many as the Ostrogothic sword. Odovacar himself, again a fugitive, sped across the plain south-eastward to Ravenna, compelled like so many Roman emperors before him to shelter himself from the invader behind its untraversable network of rivers and canals. It would seem from the scanty notices which remain to us that in this Battle of Verona, the bloodiest and most hardly fought of all the battles of the war, the original army of fœderati, the men who had crowned Odovacar king, and divided the third part of Italy between them, was, if not annihilated, utterly broken and dispirited, and Theodoric, who now marched westward with his people, and was welcomed with blessing and acclamations by the bishop and citizens of Milan, received also the transferred allegiance of the larger part of the army of his rival.<br>
It seemed as if a campaign of a few weeks had secured the conquest of Italy, but the war was in fact prolonged for three years and a half from this time by domestic treachery, foreign invasion, and the almost absolute impregnability of Ravenna.