Book Review: Theoderic the Great: King of Goths, Ruler of Romans


by Hans-Ulrich Wiemer

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023. Pp. xxiv, 635. Illus, maps, stemma, appends., notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0300254431

The Greatest Goth

In popular culture, “Goths” are a subculture of young people who favor black clothes, dark eyeliner, and somber, morbid music. In antiquity, the Goths were a warlike Germanic people who rose to prominence in the fourth century C.E, and played a decisive role in the so-called “Decline and Fall” of the Roman Empire. The Goths divided into two tribal confederations, Visigoths, who eventually migrated into Spain, and Ostrogoths, who carved out a kingdom in Italy and the Balkans. The Goths converted to the Arian version of Christianity, which taught that the Son was not co-eternal with the Father. The Church of Rome regarded this as a heresy, but Gothic rulers were generally tolerant of their Catholic and Orthodox subjects. Theodoric “the Great,” a Goth warlord who fought his way to the throne of Italy, was born about 454 and lived until 526. This book by a German scholar (professor of ancient history at Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nürnberg) is the first full-length biography of this remarkable man in over 75 years.

We know what Theodoric looked like, thanks to the survival of a unique gold medallion, found in a grave in 1894, now in a museum in Rome. His facing portrait has long, flowing locks, curled at the ends, unlike contemporary Romans who cut their hair short, and a prominent mustache, something no clean-shaven Roman would wear. His title on the inscription is simply “Prince,” a diplomatic gesture of respect to the distant Emperor in Constantinople.

On March 15, 493 at Ravenna, Theodoric slew with his own hand the warlord Odovacar (or Odoacer), who seventeen years earlier had deposed Romulus, the puppet child emperor regarded as the last Roman ruler in the West. In the world of the Goths, a leader proved himself by his personal prowess in hand-to-hand combat. But Theodoric was not simply a barbarian brawler. At the age of seven he was sent to the Imperial court of Constantinople, where he spent ten years as a VIP hostage. He was educated in Latin and probably Greek.

A list of chapter titles provides a good overview of the scope of this masterful book:

1. Approaching Theodoric the Great

2. Theodoric in the Eyes of Contemporaries

3. Who Were the Ostrogoths

4. From Attila to Theodoric: The Ostrogoths in the Balkans

5. The Path West: The Conquest of Italy

6. The Consolidation of Power

7. Theodoric’s Dual State

8. Reluctant Expansion: Theodoric’s Foreign Policy

9. A “Golden Age”? Italy Under Gothic Rule

10. A Heretic King: Religious Diversity and the Imperative of Orthodoxy

11. From Cooperation to Conflict: Theodoric’s Final Years

12. The Gothic Kingdom in Italy after Theodoric

13. Theoderic the Great: Metamorphoses of a Figure.

The English translation from German by John Noel Dillon is flawless, the several dozen black and white photographs are thoughtfully chosen, and the 15 maps are clearly drawn and well designed. For an academic publication, the book is reasonably priced.

At 635 pages of footnoted scholarly text, this is not easy reading, but for anyone with an abiding interest in the “Age of Migration” (Völkerwanderung in German, c. 375 - 568 CE) Theodoric the Great offers a deep dive into our current academic understanding of this important era.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, Bohemond of Taranto, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Ancient Rome: Infographics, Byzantium and the Crusades, and A Short History of the Byzantine Empire.



Note: Theoderic the Great is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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