When in Rome…

…do as the Romans do. Its an old adage, expressing a simple idea, and yet to the many Germanic peoples who arrived on the scene of Roman decline, doing as the Romans did was anything but simple. Roman law, taxation, governance, military administration, and craftsmanship were all activities to be admired, if not emulated outright, and the process of deciding what to keep and what to forego from Roman precedent played itself out over much of western Europe in the early Middle Ages.

While it would be impossible to survey this process as a whole–academics spend their whole life researching, and arguing over, it–we can see its effects in microcosm by studying a valuable collection of early mediaeval writings. These are the Variae, or collected letters, of Cassiodorus, a Roman living in Italy around the year 500 CE.

A portrait of Theodoric, with Gothic-style garment, struck in the name of Anastasius. (Wikimedia)

A portrait of Theodoric, with Gothic-style garment, struck in the name of Anastasius. (Wikimedia)

An administrator and diplomat, Cassiodorus was responsible for writing many of the letters which the Ostrogothic king Theodoric issued during his reign in Ravenna. Through them, we can see how this ‘barbarian’ leader–who initially invaded Italy at the behest of Emperor Zeno–navigated the thin line of legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects and fellow monarchs.

In one letter, for example, we see Theodoric preoccupied with the trappings of leadership as the Romans saw it: clothed in royal purple. Cassiodorus waxes eloquent as he delivers a rebuke for delays in obtaining the proper dyes; the colour, he explains

‘…is gay with too great beauty; ’tis a blushing obscurity, an ensanguined blackness, which distinguishes the wearer from all others, and makes it impossible for the human race not to know who is the king…’ (I, 2, p.143.)

Here, Cassiodorus’ rhetoric provides a window into the visual language of power claimed by Theodoric. Although in practice he ruled Italy in his own right, however, Theodoric could not always appear to act so imperiously. The Eastern Roman Empire at this time still maintained substantial theoretical control over Italy (and would invade after Theodoric’s death in 530). When dealing with Constantinople, therefore, Cassiodorus’ letters on Theodoric’s behalf view the Roman legacy in a rather different light.

In a letter to the Emperor Anastasius, for example, Cassiodorus mixes a generous dose of flattery with a well-developed narrative of Theodoric’s subservience to Roman ideals:

‘Our royalty is an imitation of yours,’ he writes, ‘modelled on your good purpose, a copy of the only Empire; and insofar as we follow you do we excel all other nations. … Often have you exhorted me to love the Senate, to accept cordially the laws of past Emperors, to join together in one all the members of Italy.’ (I, 1, p.141)

A portrait of Justinian in Ravenna, often believed to have been adapted from an earlier portrayal of Theodoric. (Wikimedia)

A portrait of Justinian in Ravenna, often believed to have been adapted from an earlier portrayal of Theodoric. (Wikimedia)

Here, we see Theodoric not as an imperious figure, but as a diligent and humble servant to the traditions of the state. This was a necessary diplomatic fiction, which preserved the pride of the Eastern Roman Empire while also providing Theodoric a legitimate role as its representative in Italy. Cassiodorus’ erudite and polished Latin was a perfect symbol of this mediation between the realities of Gothic power and the niceties of imperial ideology.

Although Cassiodorus deftly portrayed Theodoric as the subordinate when necessary, his letters also communicated his relative strength where appropriate. The means by which he did so, however, can seem comical to us today. In a letter about the gift of a water-clock and sundial from Theodoric to Gundibad, King of the Burgundians (another Germanic people), Cassiodorus justifies it as a symbol for the civilising mission of Rome:

‘It will be a great gain to us that the Burgundians should daily look upon something sent by us which will appear to them little short of miraculous.’ (I, 45, p.169).

Here, the great technical accomplishment of Greco-Roman culture, as well as the ordering of God’s universe through regulating time, are deployed to impress Theodoric’s neighbours and bolster his prestige.

Thus, although many aspects of Theodoric’s rule rested upon ‘barbarian’ elements (such as Arian Christianity, Gothic courts alongside Roman courts, and the maintenance of Gothic troops), there were many others which preserved Roman methods. Cassiodorus was an instrumental part of this process, translating not only between Gothic and Latin, but also between cultural modes. Through his letters, Theodoric was able to inhabit the role of a cultured Roman emperor both to his subjects and his peers–whether civilised or barbarian.

Learn More:

Hodgkin, Thomas, The Letters of Cassiodorus (London, 1886); available online from Open Library.

For more about Ravenna mosaics, see http://www.ravennamosaici.it/

Heather, Peter, ‘Theodoric, King of the Goths,’ Early Mediaeval Europe 4.2 (1995).

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