( ) were a branch of the Goths
(the other branch being the Visigoths
), an East Germanic tribe
that played a major
role in the political events of the late Roman Empire
Ostrogoths established the Kingdom of Italy, a relatively short-lived successor state of the
Western Roman Empire.
The Ostrogoths ruling Italy were also known as the
Goths" in medieval historiography.
They reached their zenith under their Romanised king Theodoric the Great
, who patronised such
late Roman figures as Boethius
, in the first quarter of the sixth
century.By mid-century, however, they had been conquered by
Justinian's army in the Gothic War
, a war with
devastating consequences for Italy.
Divided Goths: Greuthungi and Ostrogothi
The division of the Goths is first attested in 291. The Tervingi
are first attested around that date, the
Ostrogothi are all attested no earlier than 388. The Greuthungi are
first named by Ammianus
, writing no earlier than 392 and perhaps later than
395, and basing his account of the words of a Tervingian chieftain
who is attested as early as 376. The Ostrogoths are first named in a
document dated September 392 from Milan.
mentions that they together with
According to Herwig Wolfram
primary sources either use the terminology of Tervingi/Greuthungi
or Vesi/Ostrogothi and never mix the pairs. All four names were
used together, but the pairing was always preserved, as in
Gruthungi, Austrogothi, Tervingi, Visi
. That the Tervingi
were the Vesi/Visigothi and the Greuthungi the Ostrogothi is also
supported by Jordanes
. He identified the
Visigothic kings from Alaric I
to Alaric II
as the heirs of the fourth-century
Tervingian king Athanaric
Ostrogothic kings from Theodoric the
as the heirs of the
Greuthungian king Ermanaric
interpretation, however, though very common among scholars today,
is not universal. According to the Jordanes' Getica
, around 400 the Ostrogoths were ruled by
Ostrogotha and derived their name from this "father of the
Ostrogoths", but modern historians often assume the converse, that
Ostrogotha was named after the people.
Both Herwig Wolfram and Thomas Burns conclude that the terms
Tervingi and Greuthungi were geographical identifiers used by each
tribe to describe the other. This terminology therefore dropped out
of use after the Goths were displaced by the Hunnic invasions
. In support of this, Wolfram
as referring to a group of
"Scythians" north of the Danube
called "Greuthungi" by the barbarians north of the Ister
. Wolfram concludes that this people was the
Tervingi who had remained behind after the Hunnic conquest. He
further believes that the terms "Vesi" and "Ostrogothi" were used
by the peoples to boastfully describe themselves. On this
understanding, the Greuthungi and Ostrogothi were more or less the
The nomenclature of Greuthungi and Tervingi fell out of use shortly
after 400. In general, the terminology of a divided Gothic people
disappeared gradually after they entered the Roman Empire. The term
"Visigoth", however, was an invention of the sixth century.
, a Roman in the service of
Theodoric the Great, invented the term "Visigothi" to match that of
"Ostrogothi", which terms he thought of as "western Goths" and
"eastern Goths" respectively. The western-eastern division was a
simplification and a literary device of sixth-century historians
where political realities were more complex. Furthermore,
Cassiodorus used the term "Goths" to refer only to the Ostrogoths,
whom he served, and reserved the geographical term "Visigoths" for
the Gallo-Spanish Goths. This usage, however, was adopted by the
Visigoths themselves in their communications with the Byzantine Empire
and was in use in the
Other names for the Goths abounded. A "Germanic" Byzantine or
Italian author referred to one of the two peoples as the
, meaning "Roman Goths". In 484 the Ostrogoths
had been called the Valameriaci
(men of Valamir) because
they followed Theodoric, a descendant of Valamir. This terminology
survived in the Byzantine East as late as the reign of Athalaric
, who was called του
(tou Oualemeriakou) by John Malalas
"Greuthungi" may mean "steppe dwellers" or "people of the pebbly
coasts". The root greut
- is probably related to the
Old English greot
"flat". This is supported by evidence that geographic descriptors
were commonly used to distinguish people living north of the Black
Sea both before and after Gothic settlement there and by the lack
of evidence for an earlier date for the name pair
Tervingi-Greuthungi than the late third century. That the name
"Greuthungi" has pre-Pontic, possibly Scandinavian, origins still
has support today. It may mean "rock people", to distinguish the
Ostrogoths from the Gauts
(in what is today
Sweden). Jordanes does refer to an Evagreotingi
island) in Scandza
, but this may be legend.
It has also been suggested that it may be related to certain place
names in Poland, but this has met with little support.
"Ostrogothi" means "Goths of (or glorified by) the rising sun".
This has been interpreted as "gleaming Goths" or "east
were a single nation mentioned in
several sources up to the 3rd century when they apparently split
into at least two groups, the Greuthungi
in the east and Tervingi
in the west. Both
tribes shared many aspects, especially recognizing a patron deity
that the Romans named Mars
so-called "split" or, more appropriately, resettlement of western
tribes into the Roman province of Dacia
natural result of population saturation of the area north of the
Black Sea. The Goths there established a vast and
powerful kingdom, during the 3rd and 4th centuries, between the
Danube and the Dniepr
in what is now Romania, Moldavia and western Ukraine (see
Chernyakhov culture; Gothic runic inscriptions).
This was a multi-tribal state ruled by a Gothic elite but inhabited
by many other interrelated but multi-tongue tribes including the
Iranic speaking Sarmatians
, the Germanic
, the Thracian speaking
, other minor Celtic
possibly early Slavs
The rise of the Huns
around 370 overwhelmed the
Gothic kingdoms. Many of the Goths migrated into Roman territory in
, while others remained north of
under Hunnic rule. They became one
of the many Hunnic vassals fighting in Europe, as in the Battle of Chalons
in 451. Several
uprisings against the Huns were suppressed. The collapse of Hunnic
power in the 450s led to further violent upheaval in the lands
north of the Danube, during which most of the Goths resident in the
area migrated to the Balkans. It was this group that became known
as the Ostrogoths.
Gothic was still spoken sporadically in
Crimea as late as the 16th century: the Crimean Gothic
Their recorded history begins with their independence from the
remains of the Hunnic Empire following the death of Attila the Hun
in 453. Allied with the former
vassal and rival, the Gepids and the Ostrogoths led by Theodemir
broke the Hunnic power of Attila's sons
in the Battle of Nedao
The Ostrogoths now entered into relations with the Empire, and were
settled on lands in Pannonia
. During the
greater part of the latter half of the 5th century, the East Goths
played in south-eastern Europe nearly the same part that the West
Goths played in the century before. They were seen going to and
from, in every conceivable relation of friendship and enmity with
the Eastern Roman power, until, just as the West Goths had done
before them, they passed from the East to the West.
Kingdom in Italy
greatest of all Ostrogothic rulers, the future Theodoric the Great (whose name means
"leader of the people") of Ostrogothic Kingdom, was born to Theodemir in
or about 454, soon after the Battle of Nedao. His childhood was
spent at Constantinople as a diplomatic hostage,
where he was carefully educated.
Map of Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and the Balkans
The early part of his life
was taken up with various disputes, intrigues and wars within the
, in which he had
as his rival Theodoric Strabo
distant relative of Theodoric the Great and son of Triarius
. This older but lesser Theodoric seems to
have been the chief, not the king, of that branch of the Ostrogoths
which had settled within the Empire at an earlier time. Theodoric
the Great, as he is sometimes distinguished, was sometimes the
friend, sometimes the enemy, of the Empire. In the former case he
was clothed with various Roman titles and offices, as patrician
; but in all cases alike he remained the
national Ostrogothic king. Theodoric is also known for his
attainment of support from the Catholic Church, which he gained by
appeasing the pope in 520. During his reign, Theodoric, who was
Arian, allowed “freedom of religion” which had not been done
before. However, he did try to appease the pope and tried to keep
his alliance with the church strong. He saw the pope as an
authority not only in the church but also over Rome.
Theodoric sought to revive Roman culture and government and in
doing so, profit the Italian people. It was in both
characters together that he set out in 488, by commission from the
Byzantine emperor Zeno, to recover
Italy from Odoacer.
Ravenna was taken, where Theodoric would set up his
It was also at this time that Odoacer was killed by
Theodoric's own hand. Ostrogothic power was fully established over
and the lands to the north of Italy. In
this war the Ostrogoths and Visigoths began again to unite, if we
may accept the witness of one writer that Theodoric was helped by
Visigothic auxiliaries. The two branches of the nation were soon
brought much more closely together; after he was forced to become
regent of the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse, the power
of Theodoric was practically extended over a large part of Gaul and over nearly the whole of the Iberian
Theodoric also attempted to forge an
alliance with the Frankish and Burgundian kingdoms by means of a
series of diplomatic marriages. This strengthening of power
eventually led the Byzantine emperor to fear that Theodoric would
become too strong, and motivated his subsequent alliance with the
Frankish king, Clovis I
, to counter and
ultimately overthrow the Ostrogoths.
A time of confusion followed the death of Alaric II
, the son-in-law of Theodoric, at the
Battle of Vouillé
Ostrogothic king stepped in as the guardian of his grandson
, and preserved for him all his
Iberian and a fragment of his Gaul dominion. Toulouse passed to
the Franks but the Goth kept Narbonne and its district and Septimania, which was the last part of Gaul held by the Goths
and kept the name of Gothia for many ages.
lived, the Visigothic kingdom was practically united to his own
dominion. He seems also to have claimed a kind of
protectorate over the Germanic powers generally, and indeed to have practically
exercised it, except in the case of the Franks.
The Ostrogothic dominion was now again as great in extent as and
far more splendid than it could have been in the time of Hermanaric
; however it was now of a wholly
different character. The dominion of Theodoric was not a barbarian
but a civilized
power. His twofold position ran
through everything. He was at once national king of the Goths, and
successor, though without any imperial titles, of the West Roman emperors
. The two nations, differing in
manners, language and religion, lived side by side on the soil of
Italy; each was ruled according to its own law, by the prince who
was, in his two separate characters, the common sovereign of both.
It is believed that between 200,000 to 250,000 Ostrogoths settled
in Italy but these are guesses and the numbers may have been much
lower or higher.
The picture of Theodoric's rule is drawn for us in the state papers
drawn up, in his name and in the names of his successors, by his
Roman minister Cassiodorus
. The Goths
seem to have been thick on the ground in northern Italy; in the
south they formed little more than garrisons. In Theodoric's theory
the Goth was the armed protector of the peaceful Roman; the Gothic
king had the toil of government, while the Roman consul had the
honour. All the forms of the Roman administration went on, and the
Roman policy and culture had great influence on the Goths
themselves. The rule of the prince over distinct nations in the
same land was necessarily despotic; the old Germanic freedom was
necessarily lost. Such a system needed a Theodoric to carry it on.
It broke in pieces after his death.
War with Rome (535–554)
Upon the death of Theodoric in 526 the Ostrogoths and Visigoths
were again separated. The few instances in which they are found
acting together after this time are as scattered and incidental as
they were before. Amalaric succeeded to the Visigothic kingdom in
Iberia and Septimania. Provence
to the dominion of the new Ostrogothic king Athalaric
, the grandson of Theodoric through his
. Both were unable
to settle disputes among Gothic elites. Theodahad
, cousin of Amalasuntha and nephew of
Theodoric through his sister, took over and slew them; however the
usurping ushered in more bloodshed. Three more rulers stepped in
during the next five years.
The weakness of the Ostrogothic position in Italy now showed
itself. Byzantine emperor Justinian I
had always strived to restore as much of the West Roman Empire as
he could and certainly would not pass up the opportunity. In 535,
he commissioned Belisarius
to attack the
Ostrogoths. Belisarius quickly captured Sicily and then
crossed into Italy where he captured Naples and Rome in 536 and
then marched north, taking Mediolanum (Milan) and the
Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540.
At this point Justinian offered the Goths a generous settlement —
too generous by far in Belisarius' eyes — the right to keep an
independent kingdom in the Northwest of Italy, and the demand that
they merely give half
of all their treasure to the empire.
Belisarius conveyed the message to the Goths, although he himself
withheld from endorsing it. They, on the other hand felt there must
be a snare somewhere. The Goths did not trust Justinian, but
because Belisarius had been so well-mannered in his conquest they
trusted him a little more, and agreed to take the settlement only
if Belisarius endorsed it. This condition made for something of an
A faction of the Gothic nobility pointed out that their own king
, who had just lost, was something of
a weakling and they would need a new one. Eraric
, the leader of the group, endorsed Belisarius
and the rest of the kingdom agreed, so they offered him their
crown. Belisarius was a soldier, not a statesman, and still loyal
to Justinian. He made as if to accept the offer, rode to Ravenna to
be crowned, and promptly arrested the leaders of the Goths and
reclaimed their entire kingdom — no halfway settlements — for
This upset Justinian greatly: the Persians
had been attacking in the east, and
he wanted a stable neutral country separating his western border
from the Franks, who weren't so friendly. Belisarius was sent to
face the Persians and therefore left John, a Byzantine officer, to
govern Italy temporarily.
In 545 Belisarius then returned to Italy, where he found the
situation had changed greatly. Eraric was slain and the pro-Roman
faction of Gothic elite had been toppled. In 541 the Ostrogoths had
elected a new leader Totila
; this Goth
nationalist and brilliant commander had recaptured all of northern
Italy and even driven the Byzantines out of Rome. Belisarius took
the offensive, tricked Totila into yielding Rome along the way, but
then lost it again after a jealous Justinian, fearful of
Belisarius' power, starved him of supplies and reinforcements.
Belisarius was forced to go on the defensive, and in 548, Justinian
relieved him in favor of the eunuch general Narses
, of whom he was
Totila was slain in the Battle of
in July 552 and his followers Teia
Aligern, Scipuar, and Gibal were all killed or surrendered in the
Battle of Mons Lactarius
October 552 or 553. Widin
, the last attested
member of the Gothic army revolted in late 550s, with minimal
military help from the Franks. His uprising was fruitless; the
revolt ended with Widin captured and brought to Constantinople for
punishment in 561 or 562.
With that final defeat, the remaining Ostrogoths went back north
and (re)settled in south Austria.The Ostrogothic name wholly
died... The nation had practically evaporated with Theodoric's
death. "The leadership of western Europe therefore passed by
default to the Franks. Consequently, Ostrogothic failure and
Frankish success were crucial for the development of early medieval
Europe", for Theodoric had made it "his intention to restore the
vigor of Roman government and Roman culture". The chance of forming
a national state in Italy by the union of Roman and Germanic
elements, such as those which arose in Gaul, in Iberia, and in
parts of Italy under Lombard rule, was thus lost. As a result the
Goths hold a different place in Iberian memory from that which they
hold in Italian memory: In Italy the Goth was but a momentary
invader and ruler, while in Iberia the Goth supplies an important
element in the modern nation. That element has been neither
forgotten nor despised. Part of the unconquered region of northern
Iberia, the land of Asturias, kept for a while the name of Gothia, as did the
Gothic possessions in Gaul.
Ostrogoth ear jewels, Metropolitan
Museum of Art
Of Gothic literature
we have the Bible of
and some other religious writings
and fragments. Of Gothic legislation in Latin
we have the edict of Theodoric of the year 500, and the
of Cassiodorus may pass as a collection of the
state papers of Theodoric and his immediate successors. Among the
Visigothic written laws had already been put forth by Euric
. Alaric II put forth a Breviarium of Roman law
for his Roman subjects; but the great collection of Visigothic laws
dates from the later days of the monarchy, being put forth by King
about 654. This code gave
occasion to some well-known comments by Montesquieu and Gibbon
, and has been discussed by Savigny
(Geschichte des romischen Rechts
, ii. 65) and various
other writers.They are printed in the Monumenta Germaniae,
, tome i. (1902).
special Gothic histories, besides that of Jordanes, already so
often quoted, there is the Gothic history of Isidore, archbishop of Seville, a special source of the history of the Visigothic
kings down to Suinthila (621-631).
But all the Latin and Greek
contemporary with the days of Gothic predominance make their
constant contributions. Not for special facts, but for a general
estimate, no writer is more instructive than Salvian of Marseilles
in the 5th
century, whose work, De Gubernatione Dei
, is full of
passages contrasting the vices of the Romans with the virtues of
the "barbarians", especially of the Goths. In all such pictures we
must allow a good deal for exaggeration both ways, but there must
be a groundwork of truth. The chief virtues that the Roman Catholic presbyter
praises in the Arian Goths are their
chastity, their piety according to their own creed, their tolerance
towards the Catholics under their rule, and their general good
treatment of their Roman subjects. He even ventures to hope that
such good people may be saved, not withstanding their heresy
. This image must have had some basis
in truth, but it is not very surprising that the later Visigoths of
Iberia had fallen away from Salvian's somewhat idealistic
- Wolfram, 24.
- Wolfram, 387 n52.
- Wolfram, 25.
- Heather, 52–57, 300–301.
- Burns, 44.
- Wolfram, 387 n57.
- Wolfram, 26.
- Wolfram, 389 n67.
- Burns, 30.
- Wolfram387–388 n58.
- Cantor, 109.
- Cantor, 105–107.
- Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy,
489–554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0
52152 635 3.
- Burns, Thomas S. A History of the Ostrogoths.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. ISBN 0 253 32831
- Cantor, Norman F. The
Civilization of the Middle Ages. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0 06
- Heather, Peter. The
Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
- Heather, Peter. "Theoderic, king of the Goths." Early
Medieval Europe, Volume 4, Issue 2 (Sep., 1995),
- Mierow, Charles Christopher (translator). The Gothic History of Jordanes.
In English Version with an Introduction and a
Commentary. 1915. Reprinted by Evolution Publishing, 2006.
ISBN 1 889758 77 9.
- Wallace-Hadrill, John
Michael. The Barbarian West, 400–1000. 3rd ed. London:
- Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Thomas J.
Dunlap, trans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.