15.11.23, Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration

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Charles N. Aull

The Medieval Review 15.11.23

Arnold, Jonathan J. Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. xii, 340. ISBN: 9781107054400 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Charles N. Aull

Was Theoderic another barbarian king or a Roman emperor? Was Italy an Ostrogothic kingdom or the western Roman Empire? For Jonathan J. Arnold, the answers to these questions are clear: Theoderic was not only a Roman emperor, but an emperor whose imperial style harkened back to Augustus; not only was Italy the western Roman Empire, it was a rejuvenated and reinvigorated Roman Empire. When Justinian's armies arrived in the West to reconquer it in the name of Rome, "ironically, just two generations earlier, Theoderic had already done so" (302). Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration offers a "new type of accommodation model" and a "study of Romanness and the Roman Empire that fully accepts Theoderic's reign as a continuation of Roman history" (6-7). It is an argument against the "disruption" models of late Roman and early medieval history.

The book is not quite what one might expect. It is not biography. In fact, one learns little about Theoderic's pre-imperial life and the events that shaped him as a person and a leader until Chapter Six. It also not a holistic survey of Theoderic's reign. Arnold ends his account in 511, while Theoderic ruled until 526. Instead, Arnold's work is an examination of a specific place (Italy) and a specific moment in the late Roman past (roughly 476 to 511). The book is endlessly fascinating and an artful exercise in high-quality historical writing and research.

Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration begins with a brief introduction. Five major sections, divided up into a total of ten chapters, form the book's core narrative. A short epilogue concludes the study.

The introduction opens in the city of Rome in 511, a year that celebrated the consulship of a Gallo-Roman named Felix and the reunification of Italy with the lost province of Gaul. For contemporary participants and witnesses in Italy, 511 represented nothing less than a Roman Empire restored to its former glory. The event encapsulates Arnold's primary question: if, as many modern scholars and late Roman sources have argued, this really was Ostrogothic Italy and Theoderic was just another barbarian king, then why were Italo-Romans celebrating a Roman Empire renewed? Were they simply mistaken (2)? The rest of the introduction turns to a brief survey of modern interpretations of fifth and sixth century Europe. Arnold then proceeds to define the scope of his work and lays out the book's contents.

Part I discusses the book's two major sources: Ennodius and Cassiodorus. We learn not only about their principal extant and non-extant works, but also about their lives and uniquely Italian perspectives. Here, Arnold's precise attention to details, which colors and elevates the book as a whole, is on full display. He contrasts, for example, Ennodius' northern background with Cassiodorus' southern upbringing while illuminating and harmonizing the differences between these worlds. The larger point of these chapters, however, is that Ennodius and Cassiodorus never perceived a fallen or collapsed Roman Empire in their lifetimes. Rather, they saw the fifth-century western Empire as "denuded of its territory, stripped of its honor, and poorly governed" (56). Theoderic, in their view, rescued it.

Part II turns to Theoderic's rise to power in the West, the official nature of his position vis-à-vis Constantinople, and his self-fashioning as a ruler. The first half of Part II (Chapter Three) argues that Theoderic presented himself not as an Ostrogothic king but as a princeps Romanus in the vein of Augustus, an imperial style deeply grounded in ancient Italo-Roman concepts of ideal rulership. In communications with the East, Theoderic's approach was "deferential and conciliatory" (90), but he viewed his domain as one of two Roman republics. The West, from Theoderic's and his subjects' perspectives, was dominant. In Chapter Three, Arnold makes a number of interesting points and observations. There are too many to mention here, but some examples include a fascinating comparison of Theoderic to Maxentius (76-77); an analysis of the Anonymus Valesianus' use of the words regnare and praeregnare (69); a close reading of Variae I.1 (78-83); and a learned discussion of the meanings of imperial and royal titles in Late Antiquity (72-77). This is arguably the book's strongest chapter.

In the second half of Part II, Arnold argues that Theoderic "cultivated a public image that was indicative of his standing as an actual Roman emperor, and that this gave substance to ideological claims of his realm as a revived and restored western Roman Empire" (111). He goes on to point out that Theoderic's more Gothic qualities, such as his mustache and hair, were more ambiguous in Late Antiquity than modern scholars have come to think of them today. These qualities may not have been wholly Gothic, and they likely did not deduct from Theoderic's overall Romanness, especially in an early sixth century context. Alone, the argument is not entirely convincing, but when taken into the context of the book's other arguments, it makes more sense. Theoderic, for example, often referred to himself as a rex, a seemingly barbarian and anti-Roman epithet, but one that had become acceptable to late antique Romans. Where we tend to see certain qualities as definitive markers of identity, Arnold suggests that the boundaries between Gothic and Roman identities were fluid and often ambiguous in fifth and sixth century Italy.

Unfortunately Chapter Four is probably the weakest in the book because it leaves much to speculation. But this should hardly be taken as a criticism. Arnold's challenge was an imposing one. The chapter focuses on Theoderic's visual self-presentation to his subjects, yet few visual representations of Theoderic actually survive. (As someone who has studied Valentinian I's visual self-presentation in the fourth century, this reviewer can sympathize with the magnitude of such an obstacle.) Ultimately, what saves this chapter are crucial discussions of the ideological significance of Anastasius sending to Theoderic in 497 Romulus Augustulus' imperial regalia that Odovacer had sent to the East in 476 (95) and comparisons of what we know of how Theoderic dressed to what we know of how Odovacer dressed (97).

Part III addresses questions of identity. The first half explains how contemporary Italo-Romans could perceive a world politically dominated by Goths to be Roman. In short, Goths were understood to have facilitated the existence of Romanness in the late antique West. This essentially made them "Roman." For Arnold, some of this idea had to do with the Goths' dedication to upholding Roman law and concepts of civilitas, but he stresses that martial valor was the key concept. He argues that "Goths and Gothicness represented martialism, the old Roman virtue of virtus" and that "as idealized soldiers and embodiments of manly courage" they symbolized the Roman victory, and to a certain degree Roman identity itself, that "barbarians had snatched away in the fifth century" (141). One particularly intriguing point made in this chapter is the notion of a shared ancestor in Mars between Romans and Goths, a concept hinted at in Variae 8.10.11. Arnold is right to remember that this was a Christian world where such a shared ancestry may have counted for less than it would have only a few centuries before, but the suggestion is an interesting one nonetheless (136-7).

Chapter Six does with Theoderic what Chapter Five did with the Goths. Theoderic was as Roman as any in the late antique Mediterranean: "Goths were Romans, and Theoderic and his family the most Roman of them all" (174). A few characteristics of Theoderic's background made this possible: he grew up and was educated in Constantinople; he spoke Latin and Greek (possibly quite well); he held high offices and even achieved the elite rank of vir inlustris; he boasted a royal pedigree; and, as an Amal, he could point to his family's "extreme antiquity," a concept that Arnold notes held considerable value in the minds of elite Romans (171). Readers looking for a biographical sketch of Theoderic will find much of interest in this chapter. An added bonus is a useful discussion of Cassiorodus' lost history (170-174).

Parts IV and V hone in on the book's core concept, Theoderic's restoration of the Roman Empire. These chapters move past the propaganda to show that this concept was grounded in reality. Theoderic greatly improved the physical and economic condition of Italy. He also reclaimed lost territories and brought them back within the fold of Roman power. Chapters Seven and Eight focus on Italy. Chapters Nine and Ten examine the situation in southern Gaul.

Chapter Seven uses war-torn Liguria as a case study of Theoderic's treatment of Italy. The region was decimated by Roman and Gothic armies throughout the course of the fifth century. Its fortunes changed considerably under Theoderic. Through Ennodius' Life of Epiphanius, Arnold elucidates Theoderic's resuscitation and patronage of Liguria. Attention is given to the region's economic improvement and the resurgence of several of its cities.

Chapter Eight is all Rome. Theoderic's physical and ideological rehabilitation of Rome serves as a key example of a restored Roman Empire in a highly traditional sense of the phrase—not merely a restoration of the Empire's late antique incarnation, but rather a restoration of Augustus' Empire. Though Ravenna served as Theoderic's principal base of operations, Arnold argues that "Within this revived Roman Empire, Rome could rightly and proudly claim to be the center and capital of the world..." (228). He pays special attention to how Rome's political and ideological positioning in previous centuries placed its new position under Theoderic into relief. Theoderic, he notes, "worked within this legacy of neglect and reconciliation" (202). Arnold highlights Theoderic's six-month stay in the city, a unique event in late antique Rome which rarely even saw emperors, much less hosted one for an extended period of time. He also surveys several instances of imperial benefactions and patronage and explores how Theoderic cultivated relationships with Roman elites and, most importantly, the Roman Senate.

Part V concludes the book's core narrative with a study of southern Gaul. As Arnold states, several territories were reincorporated into the western Empire in the age of Theoderic, but sources for Gaul are far more plentiful. The provinces were deeply important to the Theoderican ideology of restoration. Just as the loss of territories like Gaul "dealt a serious blow to Roman prestige and honor" in the fifth century, their reacquisition in the early sixth century legitimized Theoderic's propaganda and made possible the very concept of a restored western Roman Empire.

Chapter Nine has much to say about identity in late antique Gaul and Italo-Roman perceptions of life and culture in the region. The letters of Ennodius are mined extensively in this chapter, and they present us with a complex reality. Italo-Romans, we learn, viewed their Gallic counterparts as both Roman but increasingly alien at the same time. They were becoming what Arnold calls "post-Roman," victims of a "barbarization process" (261). Theoderic's intervention in the early sixth century was understood to have halted this transition and thus bolstered his self-fashioning as a restorer and protector of Romanitas. An additional argument that Arnold puts forth in this chapter that some will likely find intriguing is the historical lens through which Italo-Romans may have understood the loss and recovery of Gaul. This was not the first time in Roman history that the province had been lost and recovered, and the situation in the third century under Tetricius serves as a prime example. Consequently, the concept of losing and recovering Gaul was probably a familiar one. What was different this time around was the fact that Gaul had not rebelled but had instead been captured. Moreover, its time "in captivity," one could add, was substantially longer than previous instances. In the minds of Italo-Romans, "the longer Gaul remained outside Rome's political sphere, the greater the potential grew for a barbarization model to dominate" (240).

The tenth and final chapter traces the actual restoration process that saw Gaul returned to the Empire. The idea of reincorporation, we learn, was considered unlikely in the fifth century, even after Theoderic's rise to power. But a series of events in western Europe changed this, and by 511 Theoderic had effectively conquered the region. Arnold's handling of this tricky set of early medieval geo-politics is impressive and demonstrates his versatility as a historian. The rest of the chapter concentrates on reintegration. The process was difficult. Gaul had lingered outside of Rome's political reach for generations at the time of its reincorporation into the Empire. During this interim, loyalties had shifted and political and cultural identities had changed. Moreover, Arnold is keen to point out that for all these Gauls knew, Theoderic was simply another barbarian king. They were not yet privy to the renewed Roman Empire (275-6). Another problem was that years of warfare had left the province crippled. Provincial administration and Roman law, however, soon returned, and Theoderic enacted policies to help stabilize the region's economy. The chapter ends by returning to where the story began in 511, the consulship of the Gallo-Roman Felix. This time around, the significance of this event and the jubilation with which Romans celebrated it makes perfect sense.

A brief, yet important epilogue concludes the book. Arnold reminds us of how easily teleology can trick us into missing the nuances and individual moments that underlie larger historical narratives. Knowing what we know now about the trajectory of Theoderic's reign and that of Italy after 511, not to mention the commentary of later sources such as Procopius, it is difficult to take serious the notion of a truly restored Roman Empire in the early sixth century. The execution of Boethius; rioting in Rome and Ravenna; succession crises; and, of course, Justinian's "reconquest"; these events complicate arguments for restoration. But in 511, and even into the 530s, we are told, the idea of a restored Roman Empire seems to have been very real in the minds and extant writings of contemporary Italo-Romans. Perhaps we should follow Arnold's advice and take them seriously.

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