Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

A Queen's Troubles

The Ostrogoths must have thought it a strange thing that the kingdom over which the great Theoderic had so long reigned should now be governed by a woman in the name of a child. Never before had this nation of warriors humbled itself by submitting to female rule, and scarcely ever had it acknowledged an infant as its king. In the old days of freedom the custom had been, whenever their king died and left no heir old enough to lead the army to battle or preside in the assembly, for the people to choose as his successor the ablest man amongst the kindred of the royal house. Although there was no man living who could remember those good old times, the history of the nation was still familiar through the popular songs; and there were those who talked of going back to the ancient rule, and placing the crown on the head of Thulwin, Theoderic's most honoured general, and the husband of an Amaling princess.

But Thulwin was faithful to the memory of his beloved master, and, instead of falling in with the schemes suggested to him, used all his influence to persuade the Goths to submit loyally to Athalaric and his mother. Cassiodorus wrote him a grateful letter in the young king's name, conferring on him the rank of Patrician, and loading him with praises for his generous conduct. He compared Thulwin to a famous hero of the past named Gesimund, whom, being the adopted son of a king, the people wished to raise to the throne, to the neglect of the infant heir, but who refused the choice, and served the Amaling line with a faithfulness that "was the theme of song throughout the world, and would be remembered as long as the Gothic name should last."

There was no other man in the kingdom whose claims were powerful enough to weigh against the reverence that was felt for Theoderic's memory; and although the Goths might privately sneer or lament over the altered condition of affairs, they joined their fellow-subjects in taking the oath of allegiance to Athalaric and his mother. Perhaps some of them may have been reconciled to the new government by the thought that under the weak rule of a woman they would have more opportunity to oppress their Roman fellow-subjects than had been allowed them in the past.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


If this was their hope, it was doomed to be disappointed. Amalaswintha herself was far more a Roman than a Goth. She had not, indeed, forgotten her native language; but she spoke Greek and Latin equally well, and took delight in literature and science. Her chosen friends were all Romans. Cassiodorus, who seems to have retired for a while into private life while Theoderic was playing the part of an oppressor, again assumed the office of chief minister of state, and his letters still remain to show us what sort of policy was followed. All acts of outrage on the part of Goths were rigorously inquired into and severely punished; the laws with regard to worship were altered in favour of the Catholics; the confiscated estates of Boethius and Symmachus were restored to their children; Roman officials were promoted and rewarded; and special exemptions from taxation were freely granted to the provincials. It is said that during the whole of her reign Amalaswintha never punished a single Roman either with death or loss of property.

But if these measures secured for the queen the goodwill of the Romans, they excited bitter resentment in the minds of her own people. The Goths in Theoderic's reign had sometimes complained that the Romans got too much favour; but they knew in their hearts that their king aimed at nothing but equal justice. But now they could make the same complaint with only too good reason.

What they thought worst of all was the way in which Amalaswintha was bringing up her son. Instead of having him taught to ride and fence, and letting him join in the sports of the young nobles, she kept him closely to his books, and out of school hours made him spend his time in the company of three aged Goths, "the most intelligent and well-mannered"—which means, of course, the most like Romans that she was able to find. The Gothic warriors said that Athalaric was being educated to be a sickly, useless bookworm, unfit to bear the fatigues or face the dangers of war, and despising his own people as ignorant barbarians.

One day it happened that Athalaric had done something wrong, and his mother had beaten him. The boy went crying into the men's room, and the Goths who were in attendance soon got to know what was the matter. "What a shame!" one of them said, when Athalaric had told his story; "it is plain that what she wants is to kill the child as soon as she can, so that she can marry a second husband, and share the kingdom with him." Many angry speeches were made, and it was agreed that a deputation should be sent to expostulate with the queen on her conduct.

Accordingly a number of the chief Gothic nobles demanded an audience of Amalaswintha. When they were admitted into her presence their spokesman said: "We have come, O queen, to tell you that we consider that the way in which you are training up our young king is altogether wrong. A Gothic king does not want book-learning; he needs to know how to fight, and, as your father often used to say, unless the art of war was learned in youth it never would be learned at all. He never allowed Gothic boys to be sent to school; it was his maxim that a boy who had trembled at the school-master's rod would never face an enemy's sword. Look at his own example. There never was a wiser or a more powerful king than Theoderic, and yet he knew nothing of book-learning, not even by hearsay. Therefore, O queen, we demand that you send these schoolmasters about their business, and let your son be brought up as befits a king of the Goths, among companions of his own age."

No doubt it was true that Amalaswintha's way of educating her son was not altogether the right one. If Theoderic had had the training of an heir to his kingdom he would have taken care that the boy should be taught to excel in all manly exercises, and to display the courage and endurance which his people above all things demanded in their king. But, at the same time, he knew the worth of Roman learning, and though he may have thought it best that the sons of his Gothic warriors should have little to do with books, he would not have allowed the future king of Goths and Romans to grow up in barbarian ignorance.

Amalaswintha was bitterly indignant at the imperious demands of the Gothic chiefs, but she knew it was of no use to resist. She sullenly told them that they should have their own way; she gave up the young king to their management, and promised to interfere no further with his education.

The result was what might have been expected. The poor boy, suddenly set free from his mother's strict control, and with no one else to exercise wholesome restraint over him, fell under the influence of vicious companions, and spent all his time in drunkenness and dissipation. It was soon evident to everyone that his health was ruined by his excesses, and that he would not live to the age of manhood.

But Amalaswintha's concessions availed her nothing. The continued insolence of the Gothic nobles made her life a burden. Her commands were seldom obeyed, and the kingdom soon tell into utter disorder.

At length she determined to abandon Italy, and wrote to the emperor Justinian, asking if he would give her a home in Constantinople. The emperor, who was eagerly looking out for an opportunity to make Italy his own, readily consented, and had a palace splendidly furnished for her at Dyrrhachinm (Durazzo) on the Greek side of the Adriatic, when it was agreed that she should live until arrangements could be made for her to take up her abode in Constantinople.

Amalaswintha sent over to Dyrrhachium a ship containing 40,000 pounds weight of gold, and made all preparations for leaving the country. But before she took this decisive step, she determined to make one desperate effort to regain her lost power.

The opposition to Amalaswintha's government was led by three Gothic nobles who were so powerful that she felt that if they could only be got rid of she could rule the kingdom as she chose. She managed to send these three men to different parts of the country, under the pretense of employing them for the defence of the frontiers, and took means to have them assassinated. In case the plot should fail, she had a ship in readiness to take her over the Adriatic at a moment's notice.

But the news came that her three dreaded enemies were dead, and Amalaswintha abandoned her purpose of flight. It is supposed that one of the victims of this shameful murder was no other than Thulwin, the dear friend of Amalaswintha's father, the loyal servant who had preferred his duty to his master's house to the temptation of placing the crown on his own head.

For a while it seemed as if Amalaswintha had gained her object. The opposition party among the Goths were thoroughly frightened, and she reigned over Italy as an absolute sovereign. But her triumph did not last long.

Justinian was resolved by one means or other to make himself master of Italy. When he learned that Amalaswintha had abandoned her intention of going to live at Constantinople, he had to devise another plan, and found in one of the queen's own relatives a tool by which he hoped to accomplish his end.

This was Theodahad, the son of Theoderic's sister Amalafrida by her first husband. He was a man somewhat advanced in years, greatly celebrated for his learning, being well acquainted with Latin literature, and as well with the writings of Plato and the Holy Scriptures. Unfortunately he was still more celebrated for his cowardice and his avarice. Nearly all the land in the province of Tuscany belonged to him, but he was always scheming to lay hold of some "Naboth's vineyard" that lay near to his own property. More than once Theoderic had compelled him to give back his ill-gotten gains, and just at this very time Amalaswintha's judges were examining into fresh charges of extortion brought against him by the people of his province. Theodahad knew very well that the case would go against him, and he hated the queen with the bitterest hatred.

With the intention of having his revenge, and adding to his own wealth at the same time, Theodahad contrived to let Justinian know that he was ready—for a sufficient bribe—to deliver up Tuscany into the emperor's hands. Just then Justinian was sending over an embassy, partly to Amalaswintha and partly to the pope, and he instructed his ambassadors to see Theodahad secretly, and try to bargain with him for the proposed treason. The price which the traitor asked was the permission to live in Constantinople, the rank of senator, and most important of all—a large sum of: money paid down.

Meanwhile, however, the ambassadors had been negotiating with the queen. They laid before her a long list of wrongs which the empire had suffered from the Goths, and claimed that reparation should be made. One of the principal demands was that the Goths should surrender to the emperor the town of Lilybaeum in Sicily. This was a place which King Theoderic had given as a present to his sister Amalafrida when she married the Vandal king. Now that Justinian, through his general Belisarius, had subdued the Vandals (with the very good will of the Ostrogoths, who had their own wrongs to avenge), he claimed that Lilybaeum belonged to him as the conqueror; but the Goths had taken possession of the place and would not give it up.

Amalaswintha laid these demands before her ministers, and by their advice wrote a very dignified letter to Justinian, respectfully acknowledging that Athalaric was the emperor's vassal, but refusing to yield to his unjust claims, and suggesting that it would be more worthy of a great sovereign to show kindness to "an orphan boy" than to try to pick a quarrel with him over trifles. After having publicly returned to the ambassador this queenly answer, the crafty woman sent for him privately, and made a solemn promise, which was to be kept strictly secret, that she would hand over the kingdom to Justinian as soon as the needful arrangements could be made.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


The ambassadors returned to Constantinople. Justinian was delighted with their report; he had secured "two strings to his bow," and felt no doubt that Italy would soon be his. He determined to lose no time in following up his advantage and despatched a certain Peter of Thessalonica, a famous professor of eloquence at Constantinople, to Italy for the purpose of making both the queen and her cousin bind themselves by oath to fulfill their respective parts in the compact. It is said that the Empress Theodora, whose jealousy had been excited by the accounts of Amalaswintha's beauty and accomplishments, gave Peter private instructions of her own to manage matters so that the Gothic queen should never come to Constantinople.

Before Peter had arrived at Ravenna, towards the end of 534, important events had taken place. On October 3rd, Athalaric died of consumption. His mother continued to rule the kingdom in her own name, but she felt that her position was full of peril. The Goths had submitted unwillingly enough to a female regent; there was little hope that they would tolerate anything so unheard of as a female sovereign. Much as the cowardly Theodahad was hated and despised, he was the next heir to the crown, and with their new-fashioned ideas about hereditary succession it was likely that the Goths would choose him as their king. Amalaswintha was resolved not to be set aside: if she meant to resign her kingdom in favour of Justinian it must be "for valuable consideration," and to be dethroned by the Goths would be ruin to all her prospects.

In her desperate extremity she hit upon a strange plan, which no doubt she thought wonderfully cunning, though it turned out to be the height of folly. She invited Theodahad to Ravenna, and exhausted all her eloquence in protestations of the utmost friendship and respect for the man whom above all others she detested, and whom she knew to be her bitterest enemy. She assured her dear cousin that it had caused her great pain to have to treat him with apparent unkindness, but it had all been done for his own good. Knowing that her poor boy had not many years to live, she had been anxious that Theodahad should be his successor, but she had seen that his course of conduct was prejudicing his future subjects against him, and endangering his prospect of being acknowledged as king. She had, therefore, felt it her duty to interpose, and she congratulated him that by his obedience to her commands he had saved his imperiled popularity, so that she could now venture to associate him with herself in the kingdom. Not that she proposed to make him her equal in power: she would avail herself of his valuable advice, he should have the title of king, and share equally in the outward honours and the revenues of royalty, but he must take an oath to leave the actual government of the kingdom entirely in her hands.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Of course Theodahad could not for a moment be deceived by Amalaswintha's absurdly transparent pretenses of friendship, but it is hardly necessary to say that he professed to be deeply touched by the discovery that his dear sister, whom he had always profoundly esteemed, even when he imagined her to be his enemy, had after all only been dissembling her love, and with the best possible motives. He gratefully accepted her offer of the kingly title, and bound himself by the strongest oaths never to attempt to make himself king otherwise than in name. But so far from intending to keep his oath, he was all the while thinking how he could make himself independent of Amalaswintha, and inwardly vowing that he would someday be revenged upon her for all the humiliations she had made him suffer. In the game of mutual imposture which these two were playing, the daughter of Theoderic was no match for her antagonist. She fully believed that Theodahad had been deceived by her clever acting, and had been converted from an enemy into a humble and grateful friend.

So Amalaswintha and Theodahad were solemnly proclaimed king and queen of Italy, and each of them sent to Justinian a letter (drawn up by Cassiodorus, and still preserved in the collection of his despatches) informing the emperor that Athalaric was dead, that Amalaswintha had succeeded him in the kingdom, and had associated "her brother" Theodahad with herself. The queen was full of praises of her brother's learning and virtues, and Theodahad for his part was full of gratitude for the kindness of "his sister and sovereign"; and both letters abounded in expressions of respect for the emperor, and asked his continued protection of the kingdom. To the senate also Amalaswintha and Theodahad wrote letters in the same strain of mutual flattery.

Only a few weeks later the faithless Theodahad had openly allied himself with Amalaswintha's enemies, the relatives and partisans of the three murdered chiefs. The men who had been employed in the murder were put to death, and the queen herself was imprisoned on an island in the lake of Bolsena, about sixty miles northwest of Rome.

Through his ambassador Peter, who now arrived in Italy, the emperor expressed to Theodahad his displeasure at what had happened, and his intention to act as Amalaswintha's protector. But not long after the avengers of the blood of Thulwin and his companions found admission to the island castle, and the imprisoned queen was strangled in her bath.

Amalaswintha's cruel fate was after all the fruit of her own deeds, and we cannot regard her with the unqualified pity due to an innocent sufferer. But her temptations were assuredly great. Surrounded throughout her reign by conspiracy and treason, involved in perplexities from which there seemed no escape, it was rather from weakness than from wickedness that she allowed herself to resort to those acts of violence and treachery of which she afterwards met the just reward.

Theodahad zealously protested to the emperor's ambassador that he had nothing to do with the murder; but the honours which he bestowed on the men who perpetrated the deed showed plainly that he had at least connived at it. The real history of the crime will never be fully known. It is said on good authority that Peter, who was professedly the agent of the emperor, but secretly also the agent of the wicked empress Theodora, managed to persuade his mistress that Amalaswintha's death had been brought about by his own contrivance, and was rewarded by her with high office in consequence. The correspondence between the empress and Theodahad's wife Gudelina contains some mysterious allusions, which have been supposed to show that these two women had conspired together to have Amalaswintha murdered. It is possible enough: in that evil time there were few among the great ones of the earth who were free from hideous suspicions, which were often certainties, of being concerned in plots for the assassination of their enemies.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Although Justinian had himself no hand in procuring the queen's death, yet no event could have been more fortunate for his schemes. It gave him, what he had long desired, a good excuse for a war of conquest against the Goths. To profess himself the avenger of the murdered daughter of Theoderic was to assume a character which commanded sympathy not only from all the Romans of Italy, but even from many of the Goths themselves, who were still loyal to the memory of their great hero, and were filled with loathing for the treachery and cowardice of Theodahad. The weakness of Italy, divided into hostile parties, with its military system fallen into decay through years of feeble government, invited attack; and the emperor was conscious of the strength which he possessed, not so much in the numbers of his army as in the talents and energy of his general Belisarius, "in himself a host."

And so in the year 535, Justinian declared a war which he vowed should continue until the Gothic power in Italy was annihilated. He kept his promise; but the struggle was harder and longer than he dreamed. It was not until twenty years had passed that the sword was sheathed, and Italy became a part of the dominions of the Eastern empire.