Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

East-Goths and Lombards

After sixteen years Odoacer was overthrown, and a new ruler arose in his place. This was Theodoric, the King of the EAST-GOTHS. From the days of the battle of Adrianople to the death of Attila, this people had been subject to the Huns. At the battle of Chalons they had fought on the side of the Huns, and against their kinsmen, the West-Goths. Now, however, they were free; and a great leader had arisen among them in the person of Theodoric, the descendant of a long line of Gothic kings.

When Theodoric was a young boy, he had been sent as a hostage to Constantinople, where he had lived for ten years. There he had learned to like the cultured manners of the Romans, but he had not forgotten how to fight. When he had returned home, a handsome lad of seventeen, he had gathered together an army, and without guidance from his father, had captured an important city. This act showed his ability; and when his father died he was acknowledged as the King of his people. He was a man of great strength and courage; he was also wise and anxious for his people to improve. For some years his people had been wandering up and down in the Eastern Empire; but they were unable to master that land because of Constantinople's massive walls. So, with the consent of the Emperor, Theodoric now decided to lead his East-Goths into Italy, drive Odoacer from the land, and settle his people there.

The Goths set out over the Eastern Alps, two hundred thousand strong. With them went their wives and children, their slaves and cattle, and behind came twenty thousand lumbering ox carts laden with their goods. But Odoacer proved a stubborn fighter. Several hard battles had to be fought, and a siege three years long had to be laid to his capital before he was beaten. Then Theodoric, for almost the first and last time in his life, did a mean and treacherous act. His conquered enemy was invited to a friendly banquet; and there he was put to death with his own sword.

In this way Theodoric completed the conquest that made him master of the whole of Italy, together with a large territory to the North and East of the Adriatic Sea.

For thirty-three years after that, Theodoric ruled over the kingdom of the East-Goths, as a wise and able king. Equal justice was granted to all, whether they were Goths or Italians; and Theodoric sought in every way to lead his people into a settled and civilized life. The old roads, aqueducts, and public buildings were repaired; and new works in many places were erected.

Tomb of Theodoric


Theodoric was not only a great warrior and statesman; he was also a man of deep and wide thought. If any man and any people were suited to build up a new kingdom out of the ruins of the Empire, and end the long period of disorder and confusion which we call the Dark Ages, it would seem that it was Theodoric, and his East-Goths. But no sooner was Theodoric dead, than his kingdom began to fall to pieces.

The Eastern Empire had now passed into the hands of an able Emperor, who is renowned as a conqueror, a builder, and a law-giver. His name was JUSTINIAN; and he was served by men as great as himself. Under their skillful attacks, much of the lands which had been lost were now won back. The Vandal kingdom in Africa was overturned; the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia were recovered; and at last, after years of hard fighting, the East-Goths too were conquered. The last remnant of that race then wandered north of the Alps, and disappeared from history.

It was only for a little while, however, that the Eastern Emperor was able once more to rule all Italy. Within thirteen years a new Germanic people appeared on the scene,—the last to find a settlement within the Empire. These were the LOMBARDS, or "Langobards," as they were called from their long beards. Ten generations before, according to their legends, a wise queen had led their race across the Baltic Sea, from what is now Sweden, to Germany. Since then they had gradually worked their way south, until now they were on the borders of Italy. The northern parts of the peninsula at this time were almost uninhabited, as a result of years of war and pestilence. The resistance to the Lombards, therefore, was very weak; and the whole valley of the river Po—thenceforth to this day called "Lombard"—passed into their hands almost at a blow.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


These Lombards were a rude people and but little civilized, when they first entered Italy. It was not until some time after they had settled there, that they even became Christians. A wild story is told of the King who led them into Italy. He had slain with his own hand the King of another German folk, and from his enemy's skull he had made a drinking cup, mounted in gold. His wife was the daughter of the King he had slain. Some time after, as he sat long at the table in his capital, he grew boisterous; and sending for the cup, he forced his Queen to drink from it bidding her "drink joyfully with her father." At this the Queen's heart was filled with grief and anger, and she plotted how she might revenge her father upon her husband. So, while the King slept one night, she caused an armed man to creep into the room and slay him. In this way she secured her revenge; but she, and all who had helped her, came to evil ends,—for, as an old writer says, "the hand of Heaven was upon them for doing so foul a deed."

The Lombards were not so strongly united as most of the Germans, nor was their form of government so highly developed. Many independent bands of Lombards settled districts in Central and Southern Italy, under the rule of their own leaders, or "dukes." In this way the peninsula was cut up into many governments. The northern part was under the Lombard King; a number of petty dukes each ruled over his own district; and the remainder, including the city of Rome, was ruled by the officers of the Eastern Emperor.

The kingdom of the Lombards lasted for about two hundred years. Then it, too, was overturned, and the land was conquered by a new German people, the greatest of them all and the only one, with the exception of the English, that was to establish a lasting kingdom. These were the FRANKS, who settled in Gaul, and founded France. But before we trace their history we must first turn aside and see how the Christian Church was gaining in strength and power in this dark period of warfare and confusion.