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After Rome: The New Western Empire

Coin showing the image of King Theodoric

On 4th September 476 CE, the barbarian warlord Odoacer deposed the boy Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.  Convention has it that this act marked the end of the Roman Empire in the west.   Odoacer would go on to rule as king of Italy only.  What remained of the old western Empire dislocated into different lesser successor states.

A new western empire

For the best part of the next twenty years Odoacer would continue to rule Italy and part of the western Balkans.  Then, in the late 480s, he fell foul of the Byzantine Emperor.  The eastern emperor lacked the resources to overthrow Odoacer himself, so instead he made an agreement with the Goth warlord Theodoric.  If Theodoric could get rid of Odoacer, Theodoric could keep Italy.

By 493 it was all over, Theodoric and his army of Ostrogoths were in control of Italy and Odoacer was dead.  Then something remarkable happened. 

Over the next thirty years Theodoric came to rule not only Italy but also a large part of the western Balkans, southern Gaul and much of Spain.  He would even manage to bring the Vandals of north Africa to acknowledge him as their overlord. 

A new empire had been established in the west.  It became, in many ways, richer and more secure than the western Roman Empire had been for a long time.  It espoused Roman values and invested heavily in urban regeneration.  For a few decades in the early sixth century, it flourished. However, it was not a ‘Roman’ Empire, but a Gothic one.

But who was Theodoric the Goth and how did he build his western empire?

A young German Prince

Theodoric was born in 454 CE in the Roman province of Pannonia (which spanned modern western Hungary, eastern Austria and some northern Balkan countries).  He was the illegitimate son of Theodemir, king of the Ostrogoths.

Theodoric’s people had recently freed themselves of domination by the Huns.  The relationship with the eastern Roman Empire had to be re-defined and so a new treaty was agreed.  To ensure the Ostrogoths kept up their side of the bargain, a seven-year-old Theodoric was sent as a hostage to Constantinople.   There he received a full Roman education, learning to read, write and perform arithmetic.  By the time he returned to his people in 470, he had learnt much from the Romans and was, by all accounts, well-liked by the eastern Emperor Leo I.

Conflict in the east

During the early 470s, Theodoric emerged as a successful and important Ostrogoth military leader.  Sometimes he fought for his own people and sometimes on behalf of the Constantinople against rival Goths and other peoples such as the Sarmatians.  However, as the 470s wore on he developed a rivalry with a Thracian gothic leader, another Theodoric, known as Theodoric Strabo.

In 476/477, as the western empire fell, the eastern Emperor Zeno shifted favour to Strabo.  Theodoric, enraged, launch a campaign of pillage and plunder in southern Bulgaria and Macedonia.  An attempted negotiated truce at Epidaurum broke down when Zeno betrayed Theodoric by attacking his wagon train in the middle of talks.  This only served to anger Theodoric further. 

Over the next few years Theodoric continued his raiding until he eventually forced Zeno to come to terms.  In 483 Zeno made Theodoric consul designate and granted him the command of several Danubian provinces.  However, even this was not enough to end the bad blood between the two men.  Conflict continued to periodically erupt as either the emperor sought to clip Theodoric’s wings or Theodoric pressed for more land and resources.  Theodoric even besieged Constantinople for a time in 487.

Something had to give and in 488 the two men finally reached an understanding they could both agree on.  Theodoric wanted land and Zeno was having trouble with his western neighbour Odoacer.  If Theodoric dealt with Odoacer, he could have Italy.

The battle for Italy

Theodoric began his campaign against Odoacer in earnest in 489.  However, Odoacer put up a fierce resistance.  The two warlords battled each other for several years across the Italian peninsula as Theodoric gradually managed to gain the upper hand.

At last, in 493, Theodoric took Ravenna.  Even so, Odoacer was not yet defeated.  War might still rage on for a few years yet.  So, the two warlords finally agreed that they would jointly rule Italy.  Given their track record, it hardly seemed like an ideal (let alone permanent) arrangement, but under the circumstances it was the best that could be expected.

To seal the treaty a feast was arranged on 15 March 493.  The two war leaders and their key followers all attended.  Then, just after Theodoric had proposed a toast to the agreement, he drew his sword and cut Odoacer in half where he sat.  At this signal, his men fell on Odoacer’s principal commanders and slaughtered them all.  Theodoric was now the undisputed master of Italy.

Forging a western empire

Over the next three decades Theodoric set about re-building the western Roman empire.  He was able to achieve this in a way that had not been possible for his Roman predecessors of the fifth century.  Theodoric understood the culture of the different Gothic tribes in a way no Roman could.  However, thanks to his education in the Constantinople, he also understood the Romans.  This made him uniquely placed to rule both peoples.

Theodoric’s Ostrogoths represented a significant military power.  They had challenged the eastern Empire and successfully defeated Odoacer.  However, Theodoric understood that military force was not the only way to win a kingdom.  He had already demonstrated that he was equally happy to use diplomacy and duplicity to get what he wanted.  He knew full well that people like the Goths respected strength.  In addition, he also knew that there would be many amongst the barbarian tribes who would be keen to be associated with his success.

Through a series of marriage alliances, he extended his influence over southern Gaul, the Burgundians, and the Spanish Visigoths.  He married one sister to the Frankish king Clovis, to ensure peaceful relations with his powerful northern neighbours.   He married another sister to the king of the Vandals in north Africa buying himself a significant influence at the Vandal court.

Map of the empire of Theodoric
The Empire of Theodoric the Great in 523 CE.  Areas shown in solid colour are under Theodoric’s direct rule.  Stippled areas acknowledged him as overlord

Theodoric fought wars when he needed to, however.  In 504-505 he led a campaign in the Balkans against the Gepids that added Pannonia, the province of his birth, to his empire.

Lord of the Visigoths

In 507, war broke out between the Visigoth King Alaric II and the powerful Frankish King Clovis.  Things came to a head at the battle of Vouillé, where the Franks crushed the Visigoth army and killed Alaric.

The Visigoths in their desperation now turned to Theodoric for aid.  The heir to the Visigoth throne was Theodoric’s grandson, Amalaric.  However, Amalaric was only five years old and so Theodoric assumed the role of joint regent.  Initially Theodoric was happy to take a hands-off approach and allow the Visigoths to continue governing their own affairs to a large extent.

After Alaric II’s death, his illegitimate son Gesalec attempted to assume leadership of the Visigoths in their war with the Franks.  Initially, Theodoric was happy to support him but as time went by it became increasingly clear that his leadership was proving a disaster.  Eventually, Gesalec’s capital Narbonne was plundered, and he was forced to flee to Barcelona.

Theodoric deposed him in 511 and assumed direct rule of the Visigoth kingdom.  Theodoric then negotiated a peace with the Franks.  From this time onwards he effectively ruled the Visigoths, appointing officials and collecting taxes in the name of his grandson.

Gesalec fled overseas to the Vandals seeking support for his cause.  The Vandal king, Thrasamund, initially provided sympathy and money, but no men, no doubt wary of a direct confrontation with Theodoric.  Letters from Theodoric soon persuaded Thrasamund that it would be unwise to throw in his lot with Gesalec. 

Gesalec made one last desperate bid to re-gain power by was defeated and executed by one of Theodoric’s generals, just outside Barcelona in 513.  Theodoric was now the undisputed master of the kingdoms of both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths.

A new Emperor in the west

For all his power, Theodoric remained, at least nominally, a viceroy of the eastern emperor in Constantinople.  In practice he acted autonomously but he tried to maintain the formalities of his relations with the east.  His relationship with Zeno’s successor, Anastasius I, was very good, allowing both empires to enjoy a long period of relative peace together.

In other ways Theodoric was behaving increasingly like a Roman Emperor, holding court in Ravenna and wearing imperial purple.  He nevertheless maintained good relations with the Senate and pursued a policy of co-operative rule rather than autocracy.

Theodoric was not simply interested in power for the sake of power.  He also wanted to build a lasting legacy.  Experts in well-boring were brought from Africa to help restore dry lands for cultivation.  He organised projects to drain swamps and issued edicts to protect ancient buildings.  He also initiated the largest program of construction and urban regeneration Italy had seen since the time of Emperor Honorius (395-423).

Picture of Theodoric's palace at Ravenna
The Palace of Theodoric at Ravenna

His reign was characterised by relative religious tolerance.  Although he was an Arian Christian, he was quite happy to allow Catholicism to thrive under his rule.  He was also tolerant of certain religious minorities such as the Jews.  In 519, when a mob destroyed a Synagogue in Ravenna, he ordered it to be re-built at the expense of the city.

An extraordinary testimony to his religious tolerance survives in letters he wrote at the time:

“We cannot order a religion, because no one can be forced to believe against his will.” 

Theodoric the Great, in Cassiodorus, Variae, II.27

Roman Patrician, Gothic King

Theodoric’s reign was ultimately a political balancing act.  On the one hand he was a king to the Goths.  On the other, he was a Patrician to the Romans of Italy.  Given the Roman distaste for the concept of kings, he had to rule his Roman citizens with a different style of leadership to his Goth subjects.

In many ways it was a role he performed extremely well.  His ability to provide security for Italy and his willingness to sponsor civic works earned him the respect of the Romans, as one account from the period noted.

“Theodoric was a man of great distinction and of good-will towards all men, and he ruled for thirty-three years. Under his rule, Italy for thirty years enjoyed such good fortune that his successors also inherited peace. For whatever he did was good. He so governed two races at the same time, Romans and Goths, that although he himself was of the Arian sect, he nevertheless made no assault on the Catholic religion; he gave games in the circus and the amphitheatre, so that even by the Romans he was called a Trajan or a Valentinian, whose times he took as a model; and by the Goths, because of his edict, in which he established justice, he was judged to be in all respects their best king.”

Anonymus Valesianus, Excerpta II 59-60

Theodoric was a remarkable visionary, able to rule a society of Romans and Goths in such a way that the two peoples were able to live harmoniously together.

Last years of the western empire

The last few years of Theodoric’s reign showed signs of troubles to come.  Theodoric’s relations with Justin I, Anastasius’ successor, were less cordial and showed signs of the strain that would eventually erupt into conflict in future years.  The eastern Empire hardened its attitudes to ‘barbarian’ rule in the west and, perhaps because of these growing tensions, Theodoric dealt harshly with a suspected senatorial conspiracy against his government in 523.

However, the main challenge faced during his later reign came from the Vandals.  Theodoric’s Vandal ally, King Thrasamund, died in 523 and was succeeded by the Catholic, Hilderic.  One of Hilderic’s first acts was to have Theodoric’s sister Amalafrida arrested and her Goth retinue slain.  Amalafrida died in prison at some time later in 523.  Theodoric was not about to let the offence pass unpunished and began preparing to invade Africa and depose Hilderic.

Photograph of Theordoric's mausoleum in Ravenna
Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great

However, before he was able to launch a campaign against the Vandals, Theodoric the Great died of dysentery in the summer of 526.  He had ruled his western empire for 33 years.  In emulation of Augustus, he was buried in a spectacular mausoleum; it can still be seem today, just outside Ravenna.


Theodoric had sought to build a new western Roman Empire.  It was built on the values of civitas that had served as a foundation for the old empire but aimed to accommodate the Goths within the Imperial elite.

It was a vision that became a reality for a time.  However, it was not destined to last.  Theodoric’s successors lacked his political and military skills and were not able to project the same gravitas that had kept his barbarian and Roman subjects in line for so long.

Dynastic disputes de-stabilised the Ostrogothic empire.  Then a disastrous war with the Byzantine empire would bleed both empires dry of their military resources between 535 and 554. The Ostrogoths were at last defeated but it would prove a pyrrhic victory for Constantinople.  The Byzantines emerged from the wars so weakened and stretched that Italy would eventually be overrun by Lombards in 568. 

The dream of the western Roman Empire had finally died.

Other articles on late Roman and early Medieval history

If you enjoyed reading this article and are interested in late Roman or early Medieval history, you may wish to read some of my other pieces on this period:

The fall of Roman Britain and the rise of Anglo-Saxon England (300-600 CE)

A history of the Sassanid Persian Empire (224-651 CE)

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References & further reading

Catholic Encyclopaedia – Theodoric

Ideology and identity in sixth century Ravenna – The York History

Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration, Jonathan J Arnold, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Wikipedia – Theodoric the Great


Coin showing the image of King Theodoric (Wiki Commons)

Theodoric’s Empire 523 CE – by Howard Wiseman (Voltimer at Wiki Commons)

Theodoric’s Palace – Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenna –  José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Mausoleum of Theodoric – José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

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