Early History

In the early period of the first millennium AD, the tribes known as the Goths are said to have journeyed from southern Scandinavia (the island of Gotland is commonly considered to be partial proof) and settled on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. Over the subsequent centuries these peoples migrated south and generally east, harrying the other tribes they met and forcing them to migrate before the southward moving Goths. By the fifth century AD the Goths had reached the Black Sea and settled an area reaching from the Ukraine to the areas north of Danube.

The Goth tribes who settled in the Ukraine and around the northwestern shores of the Black Sea would become known as the Ostrogoths, while their cousins who settled between the Danube and Dniester Rivers became the Visigoths. Unlike their southwestern cousins, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths settled in an area that had been only sparsely settled by various tribes. So while the Visigoths spent many a year raiding their powerful, Roman neighbors to the south, the Ostrogoths quickly rose to supremacy in the Ukraine.

During the third century, the Ostrogoths spread their control of the area, subjugating other lesser tribes. Among those subjugated where the Gepids, another Germanic race, who had been late to establish a foothold in the area and thus vulnerable to the Ostrogoths. Until the latter half of the 4th century AD, the Ostrogoths continued to enjoy this supremacy of the area, but their name fades from the written annals of history.

Hunnish Vassals

It was in 370 AD that the Ostrogoths were first forced back into a central role of European history. It was at this time that the Huns are said to first have swept out of the deep steppe of Sibir and into Europe. The Ostrogoths made at least one major attack to defend their territory, in which they were soundly defeated by the Hunnish forces and within a few years, they had been made to swear fealty to their new overlords.

It is here that history gets a little foggy as to the events that swirled around the Goth tribes and the southern Roman Empire. One report, by one Ammianus, state that the Ostrogoth leader Ermanaric would commit suicide in 378 AD, thus placing the probable point of full subjugation of the Ostrogoths to their new Hunnish leaders at about that time. Other sources, one Getica of Jordanes, reports that Ermanaric would live to a ripe old age of 110. Whatever we do know, one fact is certain; by the end of the 4th century, the Ostrogoths and their vassals now served the Huns.

Again though the threads of history grow indistinct in this period, for south of the now Hunnish lands of the Ukraine and the Black Sea, the Visigoths suddenly requested the right, from the Roman Emperor Valens, to move into Roman lands and to settle there. History has long stated that it was the Huns and their Ostrogoth vassals raiding the Visigoths who forced the southern movement, but this has never been proved in fact and merely remains an accepted truth of history, proven or not. Whatever can be said, the Visigoths moved south and the Roman Empire would destroy their own hopes of peace, plunging the empire in years of strife.

Ostrogoths and the Empire

The Ostrogoths too would come into contact with the Romans. Still as allies to the Huns, they fought in the Battle of Chalons in 451 AD under Attila. Following the death of Attila, the Ostrogoths broke ranks with the Hunnish forces. Led by their chieftain Theodimir the Ostrogoths allied with their former vassal, the Gepids, and defeated Attila’s sons at the Battle of Nedao in 454 AD. The Ostrogoths then, like their Visigoth cousins before them, entered a semblance of friendly relations with the Roman Empire and were settled in the Pannonia area of the East. For the next few decades they roamed the area, alternatively reeking havoc and making peace within these new borders.

The next great period in Ostrogoth history would begin with the reign of Theodoric the Great. Raised as a hostage in Constantinople, Theodoric came into his reign as both the leader of a mighty barbarian nation and as a consul for the Emperor of all Rome. In 488 Theodoric was sent to Italy to recover the eastern throne from the Hun leader Odoacer. By 493, Ravenna, the capitol of Italia had fallen and Theodoric was the new leader of Italy. Myth states that Theodoric actually killed Odoacer in a banquet, killing the rival king with his own sword. With this victory, the Ostrogoths established their power over all of Italy, as well as Dalmatia and Sicily. They also began to draw close to their long estranged cousins, the Visigoths, and politically Theodoric was much the protector of the Visigoth kingdom.

When the leader of the Visigoths, Alaric II, died at the Battle of Vouille, to King Clovis of the Franks, Theodoric assumed the regency of the young Amalaric. It was under Theodoric’s guiding hand that the Franks were stayed from advancing further south and that the Visigoth kingdom was preserved. As in many other cases, when tribes settled and ruled once Roman lands, the kingdom that Theodoric now ruled, though large, was a dual kingdom in fact. The Ostrogoths were settled among the Romans and Theodoric ruled both as the leader of this tribe and as the leader of the Western Roman Empire; two completely distinct titles, and even kings, within one man.

Byzantine Reconquest of Italy

Theodoric proved to be the only Ostrogoth capable of holding a stable Italy under his grasp. When his grandson Athalaric, through Theodoric’s only daughter Amalasuntha, rose to the throne, he was but a young man. His early rule degenerated into a power struggle between his mother and the Ostrogoth nobles. When the nobles took Amalasuntha’s ability to rear her own child in the Roman way from her, she fled to Constantinople to seek help from the emperor Justinian I. Athalaric did not live long enough for the plot to come to fruition though and is said to have died in his wine, and his brother Theodahad rose to the throne.

The new situation forced Justinian to call his hand and he sent in the Byzantium’s most famed general, Belisarius, to retake Italy or restore order, whichever created stability in a Roman ruled west. Belisarius quickly took Sicily in 535 and then Naples and Rome in 536, whereupon Theodahad died and one Vitiges took up the throne. By the year 540 AD, Milan had fallen and the Italian capitol of Ravenna was surrounded by the Byzantine forces. The Ostrogoths had lost the strength to resist it seemed and the war was drawing to a close. But Justinian I did not have in mind the total destruction of the Ostrogoths, he simply wished stability and was well willing to allow other peoples to rule Italy in his stead, especially while they offered some form of fealty. And now that the Persians to the east had again reared up to threaten the Byzantium, Justinian especially wanted peace.

So a treaty proposition was sent from Justinian, though he did not specifically approve it himself, to the Vitiges. The Ostrogoths would be allowed to keep their own kingdom, dependent upon the Byzantium, in northwestern Italy. They would also be required to submit half their wealth to the Byzantium court. This message was conveyed to the Ostrogoths by Belisarius, but was little trusted by the leaders of the kingdom. They deliberated what to do before deciding to support one Eraric’s plan, that the only man who could lead them to safety and prosperity would be, Belisarius. So it was that Belisarius was offered the crown of the Western Empire in return for sparing the wealthy in Ravenna. Accepting, Belisarius rode into Ravenna, but instead sacked the city and turned the whole of the Ostrogoth kingdom over to Justinian.

Normally one would expect a king to rejoice in gaining control over the entirety of an opposing kingdom, especially one so large, rich in history and important to the Roman people. But in fact Justinian had lost the stable west he had craved. Belisarius was recalled from Italy, given no parades and promptly shipped off to fight the Persians, and the area was left governed by minor generals.

But while Belisarius was away in the east, the Byzantium generals left in Italy managed to anger the majority of the Roman subjects and the Ostrogoths regrouped under a new leader named Totila. By 545, when Belisarius was returned to Italy by Justinian I, Totila had managed to reclaim most all northern Italy and had managed to retake Rome. Belisarius landed and quickly managed to retake Rome with a tiny force and trickery, but Justinian who had long since stopped trusting Belisarius, refused to give the general much in the way of supplies of manpower and the Byzantine general was forced into a defensive posture. Finally in 548 Justinian recalled Belisarius, convinced the war was all but lost.

But the sack of Rome by Totila forced the abduction of the Pope by Justinian and the need to dispatch a new force. So Justinian sent the eunuch general Narses with 35,000 soldiers to oversee the campaign. Narses would lead the Byzantine forces to victory, killing Totila at the Battle of Taginae in July, 552. One Teias would take up control of the Ostrogoth forces, but he too was killed in the Battle of Mons Lactarius in October of 553. The age of the Ostrogoths would finally expire near the end of the 550s AD, when the, Frank supplied, uprising of a general named Widin was crushed. The Ostrogoth nation had devolved to the tribe during the long war, with the Italian citizenry becoming independent bystanders. So it was that with the lost war, the leadership, as well as the majority of the Ostrogoths, had ceased to exist and the kingdom faded away.

Ostrogoth Leaders:

Theodoric/Thiudareiks the Great (493-526)
Athalaric (526-534)
Theodatus/Theodahad (534-536)
Vitiges (536-540)
Theodebald (540)
Eraric (540-541)
Totila/Baduila (541-552)
Teias (552-553)

Os"tro*goth (?), n. [L. Ostrogothi, pl. See East, and Goth.]

One of the Eastern Goths. See Goth.


© Webster 1913.

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