The Ostrogoths were the eastern tribe of the Goths (a Germanic people) who rose in power in the area north of the Black Sea. The designation, Ostrogoth, taken to mean `Eastern Goth’, actually means `Goths glorified by the rising sun’ and gave birth to the term Visigoth (interpreted to mean `Western Goth’) by the Roman writer Cassiodorus who coined the term in the 6th century. Cassiodorus lived among the Ostrogoths and served their king Theodoric the Great. In an attempt to simplify the designation between the Germanic tribes which had moved toward the west, and those who remained in the east, Cassiodorus, deliberately or mistakenly, interpreted `Ostrogoth’ to mean `Eastern Goths’ and the others then became `Western Goths’ but the people themselves did not think of themselves along those lines. The Visigoths would, in time, accept and apply that term to themselves and the Ostrogoths had long known themselves by that name but neither tribe would have considered themselves `eastern’ or `western’ Goths.
The Goths first appear in history living in the area around the Black Sea. They made constant incursions against the provinces of Rome and proved a resilient and perpetual nuisance to the Empire until the invasion of the Huns in 375 CE. A large portion of the populace (according to some sources, 200,000) fled the area to seek the protection of the Roman Empire under the emperor Valens (these people became known as the Visigoths). The rest of the people remained, enduring the rule of the Huns, and retaining a certain degree of autonomy.
With the death of Attila the Hun (450 CE) the Ostrogoths declared their independence. In 474 CE, Theodoric (known as Theodoric the Great) became king of the Ostrogoths and, backed by the Byzantine Empire, led a campaign into Italy. The Byzantine Empire (formerly the Eastern Roman Empire) hoped for a return of the glory of Rome and Theodoric, it was thought, could accomplish this by re-claiming the kingdom from the Germanic King of Italy, Odoacer, who had taken it from the last Roman emperor. Theodoric defeated Odoacer, pretended to offer terms of peace, and then killed him, establishing, in 493 CE, the Ostrogothic Empire which stretched from Sicily, through Italy, to France and parts of modern-day Spain. Under Theodoric, the empire flourished and Roman art, literature, and culture were embraced. Although his campaign had been funded by the Byzantines, Theodoric ruled his empire independently and maintained friendly relations with the empire to the east.
His daughter, and successor, Amalasvintha, ruled first as regent, in 526 CE and in 534 CE became queen at the death of her son Athalaric. She was assassinated by her cousin Theodahad, who claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne.
Her death sparked the wrath of Justinian I, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, who claimed Theodahad a usurper. He sent the famous general Flavius Belisarius on campaign to Italy to bring the region back into line with the empire. Belisarius took Sicily in 535 CE and Naples, then Rome, in 536 CE. The Goths deposed Theoahad and chose Witigis as their king. He proved as ineffective as Theodahad, however, and, in 539 CE, Belisarius took Ravenna and captured Witigis prisoner. Justinian then offered the defeated Ostrogoths his terms, through Belisarius, that they could keep an independent kingdom in Italy and only give him half of their treasury rather than all of it. General Belisarius considered this too generous an offer but, as a soldier, did his duty and relayed the terms to the Goths.
The Goths did not trust Justinian or his offer; but they did trust Belisarius who had consistently treated the Goths with fairness and mercy during his campaign. They said they would agree to the terms if Belisarius endorsed them. As Belisarius could not do so in good conscience, the peace talks stalled. A faction of the nobility saw a way around the entire problem, however, and offered the crown of the Ostrogothic Empire to Belisarius. Loyal to Justinian, Belisarius pretended to accept the offer, went along with all the preparations to crown him at Ravenna, and then had the ring-leaders among the nobility arrested and claimed the whole of the Ostrogothic lands, and their treasury, in Justinian’s name.
Justinian, suspicious of Belisarius’ motives and worried over his enduring popularity among the Goths, as well as with his soldiers, recalled him to lead forces against the Persians; he placed a Byzantine official in Italy to rule over the Goths. In 545 CE, however, Belisarius was back in Italy as events had turned quite differently than Justinian expected they would. The Gothic nationalist Baduila (better known by his nom de guerre, Totila) had risen against the Byzantine government and driven many Byzantines out of the kingdom. Totila, according to the historian Durant,
astonished all by his clemency and good faith; treated captives so well that they enlisted under his banner; kept so honorably the promises by which he had secured the surrender of Naples that men began to wonder who was the barbarian and who the civilized Greek (referring to Belisarius).
Belisarius took the field against the uprising and engaged Totila a number of times until he was again recalled by Justinian and replaced with the general Narses. Narses lacked the skill and refinement of Belisarius but was still a very competent leader. Totila was killed in the fighting at the Battle of Taginae in 552 CE and his uprising was crushed utterly at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in 553 CE.
Although there were other uprisings later, they all failed. By 562 CE the name `Ostrogoth’ had disappeared and the people of the kingdom dispersed themselves into the populace of Italy, France and Germany. With the land de-populated and ravaged by eighteen years of war, the Lombards, another Germanic tribe, easily conquered northern Italy shortly after the end of the Gothic Wars and maintained the Lombard Kingdom for the next two hundred years.
About the Author
Indiana University Press (22 February 1991)Price: $21.60
Palatine Press (17 December 2015)Currently unavailable