15.06.22, Vitiello, Theodahad

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Edward M. Schoolman

The Medieval Review 15.06.22

Vitiello, Massimiliano. Theodahad: A Platonic King at the Collapse of Ostrogothic Italy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. pp. 352. ISBN: 9781442647831 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Edward M. Schoolman
University of Nevada, Reno
eschoolman@unr.edu

Theodahad ruled the Ostrogothic Kingdom as its sole king for only two years, between 534 and 536, a period beginning with a coup against Amalsuintha, his cousin and Theoderic's daughter with whom he had briefly co-ruled, and ending with his own overthrow and assassination at the hands of Witiges, a Gothic general (and Theodahad's successor) as war raged in Italy against a Byzantine army. As a member of the Amal family and the nephew of Theoderic, Theodahad most likely benefited from the best education offered to the royal family in Ravenna. His reported love and knowledge of philosophy and his distaste of warfare distinguish him from the other Gothic rulers of Italy and make him an enigmatic figure, one who bore the responsibilities of Gothic nobility and kingship while simultaneously appreciating the products of Roman culture and classical philosophy, and patronage of those still engaged in its arts (especially poetry). Further clouding our knowledge of his fascinating and brief reign, which marked the beginning of the end of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, are the limitations of the two main sources, Procopius's Gothic Wars and Cassiodorus's Variae, and their inherent complexities and biases.

Despite his links to the surviving fruits of classical antiquity and his involvement in the complexities of new kingdoms of the early Middle Ages--and probably because of the limits of the sources and their generally negative perspective on his brief reign--Theodahad has received relatively scant modern scholarly attention, with articles addressing the poets of his court, the onomastic background of his name, and his numismatic issues, but no monograph focused solely on his reign has appeared (outside of his coinage). The absence of other work highlights the contribution that Vitiello's comprehensive study makes and is an indication that great value can be found in weaving together the diverse sources on the life of Theodahad and his short reign as the last Amal king of the Ostrogoths.

Vitiello arranges his work to cover chronologically the distinct phases of Theodahad's life--with frequent smaller subheadings offering tangential details and excursus--and three short appendices on historical questions. To address Theodahad's almost entirely unknown youth and education, and the limited information on position as a member of the Gothic landed elite in the first chapter, Vitello offers a close reading of the traditional sources, frequently seeking parallels from within Procopius and Cassiodorus to speculate on the little available on Theodahad's early life, material augmented by verse likely written while he was king. Using the same sources, the second chapter expands more broadly to focus on the elements of Roman culture prominent in Theoderic's court and the ways in which the relationship between Theodahad and his uncle Theoderic might be understood; in the end Theodahad appears as a wealthy landowner out of touch with the majority of Goths and Romans, marginalized from and at odds with the court in Ravenna.

The third chapter explores Theodahad's short career as co-ruler with his cousin Amalsuintha following the minority of Athalaric (Theoderic's grandson and successor), whose death in 534 led to the need for a male of the Amal line to occupy the throne and the efforts to offer legitimate rule. This period is better covered in the works of Cassiodorus and Procopius, allowing Vitiello to tease out details about the often tense relationship between Theodahad and his cousin Amalsuintha, whose shared ruled, while practical in that it offered to smooth the discord brought about by various factions at the death of Theoderic, nevertheless seemed alien within the context of Roman and Ostrogothic traditions by placing Theodahad in a seemingly inferior position. In addition, the letters offered by Cassiodorus on behalf of Theodahad are utilized to explore the ways in which Cassiodorus sought to address Theodahad's shortcomings as a "philosopher-king," namely his reputation for avaricious expansion of property, his martial inexperience, and his less direct relationship to Theoderic. The chapter ends by discussing the relationship of Theodahad with the noble Roman families still present at the Ostrogothic court, and in particular the partisans of the executed Boethius and other members of the Anician family to which he belonged.

The date of the coup which deposed Amalsuintha and made Theodahad sole king, and the possible reasons it was undertaken, occupy the beginning of the fourth chapter, "Theodahad the King." Following his takeover, the presumed contact between Theodahad and the emperor Justinian in Constantinople, both in the letters of Cassiodorus and in the embassies sent between the two courts, allude to the possibility of a peaceful settlement averting a possible war and a reintegration of Italy into the Byzantine domain. As Justinian's general Belisarius made his way from North Africa, where he had just conquered the Vandal kingdom, to Sicily, and the likelihood of a Byzantine advance into Italy all but inevitable, Vitiello addresses Theodahad's final attempts at reconciliation within his own fractured kingdom, appealing to those alienated by the imprisonment and murder of Amalsuintha and moving the capital to Rome, a city whose fate he though would decide control of Italy. In the framework of his sole rule, Vitiello includes brief discussions of Theodahad's policies on religion and taxation, and his management of the growing war effort in early 536.

The end of Theodahad's reign was rooted in Belisarius's continuous successes, first in Sicily, which he had completely claimed by the end of 535, through his occupation of Naples in November of 536. Within a few days, the Gothic troops had elected Witiges, one of Theodahad's trusted commanders, as the new king, and had sent the deposed Theodahad back to Ravenna. Theodahad never made it, being murdered on the orders of Witiges while on his journey; this final chapter continues to outline difficulties and failures of Witiges as the penultimate Ostrogothic king, followed by an epilogue which revisits the enigmatic life and reign of Theodahad, whose machinations provided the impetus for a Byzantine and on whose watch the Ostrogothic Kingdom collapsed.

Despite the comprehensiveness of this work, some readers may seek more from the study. Missing, for instance, is a section that presents an overview of Theodahad's biography, and one that would place him clearly and early in the study within the larger framework of the Ostrogothic kingdom; this also would act as a welcome roadmap to the chronologically themed chapters.

The study would also have benefitted from more discussion on and critical reading of the primary sources: the problems in evaluating Theodahad's life and reign are bound by the limits in the sources on his life, and while the introduction deals with some of the issues with and biases of Procopius's Gothic Wars and Cassiodorus's Variae, those works' actual purposes and the dating of their texts are never satisfactorily examined. This is especially true for the work of Cassiodorus, who is too often relied on at face value here, but whose Variae, written originally on behalf of various Ostrogothic kings, was clearly collected and redacted with very specific aims in mind after his exit from royal service and the collapse of Ostrogothic power. As the dating and circumstances of the collection of the Variae become clearer, some of the speculations taken directly from his writing as simply from "the perspective of an insider at the Gothic court" (94) will most likely not stand.

However, as a whole the book provides satisfactory analysis, and Vitiello moves from the Latin of Cassiodorus and the anonymous poets of the sixth century to the Greek of Procopius with ease. Vitiello's book, moreover, is notably and helpfully consistent in following common naming conventions (the outlier being the errant "Theodoric" in place of Theoderic in the genealogical table [194]).

The last two years have seen a flourishing of monographs in English on the Ostrogothic kingdom and its legal and cultural production, with the publication of Shane Bjornlie's Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae, 527-554 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Sean Lafferty's Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic the Great: A Study of the Edictum Theoderici (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Jonathan Arnold's Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Vitiello's Theodahad: A Platonic King at the Collapse of Ostrogothic Italy adds much to this new corpus in its attempt to weigh the reign of Theodahad and the fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom through analysis of sources that are at times unwilling to betray their intentions.

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