Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous chapter]
Book IV
Note D

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next chapter]
Book IV
Chapter 8

Book 4 (continued)

Vol. III
Chapter VII​a

King and People


Sources: —

Tacitus, 'The Germania.' Jordanes, 'De Rebus Geticis.'

Guides: —

Waitz, 'Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte,' vol. I. Dahn, 'Könige der Germanen' (Abtheilungen 1‑4). Köpke, 'Anfänge des Königthums bei den Gothen.'

Now that Theodoric has safely brought his people into the promised land of Italy, has conquered and slain his enemy, and seated himself at Ravenna, undoubted king and ruler of the land, it may be well to pause for a little space, and, before we contemplate the new State which he founded there, to ask ourselves what was understood in the Gothic host by that word, kingship, in virtue of which he ruled them. We shall find indeed, as we proceed, that the spirit and maxims of the new kingdom, its form, and the machinery of its administrations, were Roman rather than Gothic. Still, even in order to grasp this fact more clearly, it will be well to devote a few pages to a subject upon which volumes have been usefully written, that of German Kingship.

The King. 'God save the King!" — words how lightly spoken  p223 by revellers at a banquet, or by shouting crowds as a monarch moves slowly through their midst! Yet in this familiar formula are enshrined two words of mysterious power, which have come down with the stream of national life, 'through caverns measureless to man,' from those distant highlands wherein the eye of science strains, and strains in vain, to discover the origins of the human race and of human society. To argue from the ancient origin of these two names of power that there is any necessary connection between them; to maintain, as the advocates of the divine right of kings once did, that religion forbids men to govern themselves under republican forms, however clear it may be that the State will best be so administered, is an absurdity of which few men will now be guilty. But, nevertheless, it is permitted us to gaze, with a wonder in which there is something of love and something of reverence, on this wonderful word, so different in form in the various languages of the earth, — Melech, Basileus, Rex, Thiudans, King, — yet so essentially the same in power, which constrains the many members of one vast community, her strong men, her wise men, her holy men, to bring the best of their gifts to the treasury, and to devote the strength of their lives to the service of one man, in mind and body no different from themselves, but — a King.

The Germanic nations essentially king-lovers. Reverence for the kingly office seems to have been deeply implanted in the heart of the Germanic branch of the great Aryan family; and it has been, in the World-life, the especial function of the Germanic peoples to carry kingship and faithfulness to the king, or — to borrow two words from the Latin tongue — Royalty and Loyalty, farther down into the ages than  p224 any other group of free nations.​1 How early the old Homeric royalties of Greece and the kings of Rome disappeared from the scene we all know. On the other hand, the long-lived royalties of Assyria, of China and of Persia, were mere despotisms, giving no free play to the national character, and stiffening the peoples that were subjected to them with immobility. To reign on such terms, to be the master of millions of slaves, was comparatively an easy task, when once the nation had become used to the clank of its fetters. But to maintain for generations, to prolong into the strangely different world of modern society, that peculiar combination of kingly authority and popular freedom which was characteristic of most of the Germanic royalties in the first century after Christ, and which contained the seeds of the institution which we now call Constitutional Monarchy, — this has been a great and marvellous work, and one which could only be accomplished by a race with exceptional faculties for governing and being governed.

Tacitus on the limited character of German kingship, We have the authority of Tacitus, that acute observer of the life of states and nations, for asserting that  p225 German kingship was, in his day, for the most part thus compounded of the two apparently antagonistic principles of Authority and Liberty. He contrasts the libertas Germanorum with the regnum Arsacis, when deciding that Rome has suffered more from the free barbarians beyond the Rhine than from the compact despotism of the monarchy beyond the Euphrates.​2 When describing the sway of the Gothic kings, he says that, 'though somewhat stricter than that of most other German rulers, it still stretched not to the infringement of liberty.'​3 with a very few exceptions. Only one race, the Suiones,​4 who dwelt in the islands of the Baltic and on the Swedish promontories, were 'under the absolute rule of one man, to whom they were bound to pay implicit obedience.'​5 The great power attained in this tribe by even the slaves of royalty, the fact that the nation could not be trusted with the custody of its own arms, which were kept, in time of peace, in a locked‑up arsenal guarded by a slave, were emphatic proofs of the absence of the popular element in the government of this nation, and strengthened by contrast the general picture of German freedom.

Great variety of political institutions among the early Germans. It is, however, from Tacitus also that we receive our impressions of the extraordinary manifoldness of political life amongst the German nations. In its  p226 way, his sketch of Germania in the first century reminds us of the mediaeval Reich, with its wonderful assortment of kingdoms, duchies, ecclesiastical states, republican free towns, all congregated together, like the clean and unclean beasts in the ark, under the rule, often only the nominal rule, of some Hapsburg or Luxemburg emperor. Of course, in the Germania, even this semblance of unity is wanting; but the variety of political life is there. Observing the language of Tacitus with attention, we soon discover from his pages that the kingly form of government was not universal among the Germans. Rex vel princeps, rex vel civitas, are alternative expressions, frequently used by him. The mere fact that the chief ruler of a barbarian state is not always called by the same name by the historians of a civilised country, who have occasion to mention his existence, is not one upon which it would be safe to lay much stress. We must be conscious that we talk with great looseness of Indian chiefs, of Zulu kings, and so forth, and that we have no very clear idea of a difference in rank and power between Cetewayo and the father of Pocahontas, when we speak of the former as a king and of the latter as a chief. Something of the same vagueness may be observed in the Roman writers, taken as a class, from Caesar to Ammianus, when they speak of the leaders of the Teutonic tribes who warred on Rome. But with Tacitus the case is different. His eye was quick for all political facts. His mind was always revolving the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of government. Even when describing the wild freedom of Germany, he is half-thinking about Rome and her vanished liberties; when face to face with  p227 Parthia, he is comforted by the thought that at least he is not under the lawless despotism of an Eastern king.

The 'Republican' States of ancient Germany. Every word therefore of Tacitus respecting the political institutions of our Teutonic forefathers is precious; and these hints of his about the Rex or the Civitas show us that there were German tribes not under the sway, however lenient, of one sole king. Some modern writers speak of these tribes as Republican, and the expression, though not used by Tacitus himself, brings before us more vividly than any other the nature of the rule upon which the Cherusci,​6 the Batavi, and many other German tribes, were living at the Christian era. In time of war these republican tribes elected a leader (Heritogo, in modern German Herzog, translated in Latin by Dux, in English by Duke), who was necessarily a man of tried bravery.​7 In peace they may have been presided over by some officer, also elective, who acted as supreme judge, and as president of their assemblies; but even the name of this president has perished.​8 In any case, however, the distinguishing mark of these magistracies was their non‑hereditary character. The general or the judge was chosen for some special emergency; perhaps in some cases he held his office for the term of his natural life: but he held it only by the free choice of his countrymen, and had no claim to transmit any power to his son.9

 p228  Kingship essentially hereditary. In the royal tribes, on the other hand, the birth of the supreme ruler was everything.​10 Doubtless the king was rich, doubtless he must be personally brave (or else his warriors would soon find a fitter leader), doubtless he had a large following of devoted henchmen; but none of these things alone would qualify him to be chosen king. He must be sprung from some kingly family — the Amals, or the Balthae, or the Asdings, or the Merovings — who had been kings (or at any rate nobles) 'from a time to which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary;' some family which, while the nation was still heathen, boasted that it was sprung from the seed of gods, and which still linked itself with the remembrance of the heroes of old, even after the missionary-priest had dispeopled Walhalla and sent Odin and Gaut to dwell for ever beside Jupiter and Venus in the penal lake of fire.

But no strict order of succession. Yet, being born of the kingly family, it was by no means needful that he should be what we call 'the head of the house' by lineal descent. It is hardly necessary to say, to those who know anything of the history even of mediaeval monarchy, that the strict principles of primogeniture and representation, which would make the crown descend in a line as definitely fixed as the course of succession to an English estate settled 'in tail male,' were quite unknown to the  p229 Germanic nations. Of course a veteran Gothic warrior-king, gathered to his fathers in a good old age, and leaving a warlike eldest son in the vigour of his years, would generally be succeeded by that son. That is the natural course of things, and in all such cases monarchy and primogeniture easily become entwined together. Still, even in these instances, the nation chose, the nation raised the first-born on the shield, and acclaimed him as king. And if the dead king's children were minors, or if the eldest son was a nithing, incapable in council or a coward in the field, if there was some national hero standing near to the throne, and overshadowing by his fame the relatives who came before him in the strict order of descent, in all such cases the elective element in the Germanic kingship asserted itself, and, by no fraud upon the postponed claimants, by no usurpation of the preferred claimant, the worthiest, kingliest, wisest, Amal or Balth, was called to the throne.

Good and evil of the system. No doubt this manner of bestowing the crown — inheritance tempered by election — had its dangers, leading, as it did easily, to the wars and heartburnings of a disputed succession. It may very probably have been a presentiment of these dangers which led Gaiseric to promulgate a law of succession for the Vandals, according to which the oldest of his descendants at each vacancy, in whatever line of descent, was to be called to the empty throne; a provision, however, which did not work well in practice nor avert the dreaded danger. But in the main, for communities such as were the German tribes, living in the midst of foes, and in need, before all things, of strong and wise leader­ship, we may believe that the  p230 principle of choice out of one particular family worked well, and tended, by 'the survival of the fittest,' to bring about an improvement in the strain of royal blood, and to make the kings more and more fit by stature, strength, and capacity of brain, to stand forth as unquestioned leaders of men.

The Nobles. Around the king's person, parting him off in some degree from the great mass of the free but undistinguished warriors of the nation, but also constantly checking and curbing his power, and compelling him 'so to rule as not to transgress the bounds of liberty,' stood the nobles. Who can say whence they sprang? For they too, like the king, have an old‑world origin, and if a warrior is noble, it is because the oldest man in the host cannot remember a tradition of the days when the ancestors of that warrior were anything else but noble. Partly, perhaps, they are descended from the younger branches of the kingly house: partly they represent the vanished royalty of smaller tribes, whom the great nation, as it rolled onwards, had incorporated with itself: partly, it may be, here or there, they are the descendants of some great chief of a pre‑existing people, Finnish or Basque or Celtic, whom the invading Teutons have found it easier to win over and to assimilate than to destroy. But in any case, whatever its origin, the important thing to notice about this old Teutonic nobility is, that it is essentially a counterpoise to the kingly power. Nobility by birth. Nobility by service. In after-days, when the new Teutonic kingdoms are reared 'in Welshland,' a new nobility will arise, the so‑called 'nobility by service,' represented by the 'king's thegns' among our own ancestors. These men, the king's butlers and seneschals and chamberlains, will shine by the borrowed  p231 light of their master, and naturally for a time will do nothing to check and everything to magnify his power. While they and the obsequious ecclesiastics who stand with them round the new‑raised throne are hymning the praises of Our Lord Clovis or Chlotachar, the old nobility, which used to remind him, sometimes with a certain roughness, that he was only the first among his equals, will have had its ranks thinned by the wars and the migrations, will find itself in the midst of a new and hostile order of things, unpopular with the Roman provincials, anathematised by the clergy, vexed by the exactions of the king's officers, and continually postponed to the new and pliable 'service-noble' of the Court, and thus, silently and sullenly, will vanish away.

The Comitatus, A conspicuous feature in the social life of the ancient Germans, and one which probably aided the development of kingly power (though assuredly it was not the origin of that power), was the institution which the Latins called comitatus, and which the Germans now speak of as Gefolgschaft. We have no name exactly corresponding to it, but our historians are endeavouring to introduce the term Comrades to describe the members of a Comitatus.​11 The description of such a band given by Tacitus remains the most accurate and the most vivid picture that we possess of it.

as described by Tacitus. 'When the young nobles have received their arms and are enrolled in the ranks of the warriors, they take their places by the side of the hardy veterans, nor do they blush to be seen among the "comrades."​12 Each receives his rank in the "comrade­ship" according  p232 to the judgment of him whom they follow, and great is the rivalry among the comrades which shall attain to the highest place beside his chief, and of the chiefs which shall have the most numerous and the most eager comrades. This is their dignity, this their strength: to be ever surrounded by a great cluster of picked youths is in peace a distinction and in war a defence. Nor is this so in a chief's own tribe only, but among neighbouring states also; his name and his glory are spread abroad if his comrade­ship excel in numbers and valour. Such chiefs are in request for embassies, are loaded with presents: by their mere renown they often virtually end a war. When the day of battle is come, it is disgraceful for the chief to be excelled in bravery by the comrades, disgraceful for them not to equal the chief's valour. Yea, and base for all the rest of his life is he accounted by himself and others who has escaped alive from the battle, leaving his chief behind him. Him to guard, him to defend in his glory to merge every brave deed of his own, this is the one great point of honour​13 with the comrade. The chiefs fight for victory, the comrades for their chief. If the community in which they were born grows sluggish with too long peace and restfulness, most of the young nobles seek of their own accord those nations which may then be waging war elsewhere, both because this race hates rest, and because renown is more easily won on well-balanced battlefields; nor can a great comrade­ship be well kept together except by violence and war. Each comrade claims from the chief's generosity that great war‑horse of his, that gory and conquering spear. For the rest,  p233 the seat at the banquet, the bountiful though coarse repast, are taken as sufficient pay. The material for the chief's generosity is provided by war and rapine. You would find it harder to persuade them to till the ground and wait a year for the harvest, than to challenge a foe and earn honourable wounds. For it seems ever to them a dull and stupid thing to accumulate, by the sweat of your brow, that which you might make your own by the shedding of blood.'

Influence of the Comitatus on national life. This passage has given rise to many dissertations which are not perhaps the most fruitful part of German archaeology. Who might become the head of a comitatus,​14 what precise relation existed between the 'comrades' and their chief, what states were founded by the leaders of a comitatus, and other questions of like nature, have been discussed with much ability and some bitterness, but seem after all to resolve themselves only into the setting of one man's guess against another's. More important is it to keep the poetical aspect of this Germanic institution vividly before us. All admit that it has in it the promise of chivalry, the germs of the feudal relation between lord and vassal. We have already had occasion, in tracing the achievements of the young Theodoric, to see how vigorous was the institution in his day, four centuries after it had been described by Tacitus. It had undoubtedly a considerable influence in developing the idea and the power of royalty among the Germanic races. Probably also the life of adventure and hardship which it promoted, favoured  p234 the growth of great qualities of mind and body among the royal families from whom some of the rulers of mediaeval, and a few of the rulers of modern Europe have descended. For to what depths of degradation they might sink when the stimulating influence of the comitatus was withdrawn, and the barbarian king could wallow undisturbed in the swinish delights of his barbarian royalty, is abundantly shown by the dreary story of the sons of the Merovings.

Simple free men. Around the king and his 'comrades,' and around the outer circle of the nobles, gathered the great mass of the nation, the free but not noble warriors, who were known as 'free Franks' in the army of Clovis, and as ceorls on the soil of England. Of the social life of these men, of their days passed in alternations of fierce excitement and sturdy idleness, of their carousings and their mad devotion to the dice‑box, Tacitus draws for us a striking and well-known picture. The public meeting. Our present business is to follow them to what our fathers called the Folc-mote, other tribes the Folks-Thing or the Mall, and Tacitus the Concilium, the assembly from which in direct lineal succession our own Parliament is descended. So long as the tribe is contained in narrow limits, each new and full moon sees the assembly of the tribesmen. As it grows into a wide-spreading nation, the times of meeting are necessarily reduced, till, in the vast Frankish Empire, they occur only twice or thrice in the year. The men come armed, and the mere fact of being free and a warrior is enough to give a right to attend the Folc-mote, though for full voice and vote it is necessary that a man should also have land — which means a home — of his own. Among all these armed men the  p235 Things-fried, the peace of the great meeting, prevails; and however hot the discussion may be, none may dare to lift a hand against his opponent in debate. They do not assemble punctually, — 'this,' says Tacitus, 'is the fault of their German freedom,' — but often waste two or three days in waiting for those who come not on the appointed day. Then, at length, when it pleases the multitude to begin, they sit down, all arrayed in their armour. The priests, inconspicuous generally in the German polity, but prominent on these occasions, — perhaps in order to guard the Things-fried by religious reverence, — call for silence, and the clash of the barbarians' talk and song ceases. The king, if there be king, if not, the head of the state, begins the debate. Age, noble birth, mighty deeds in war, the gift of eloquence, all give a speaker the right to be heard: but none, not even the king, orders; all must seek to persuade. If the speaker's advice displeases, he is interrupted by the indignant clamour of his hearers; if it meets their approval, they brandish their mighty spears and so give to the barbarian orator his most coveted applause.

Business transacted there. And what is the business thus debated of? Many matters doubtless, belonging to the peaceful life of the tribe, which Tacitus has not described to us. He mentions the accusation, or, as we should call it, the impeachment, of great offenders, upon whom the punishment of death may be inflicted. This man, who was a traitor to the tribe, is hung from a tree; that one, who was only a Nithing and a coward, is plunged into a morass with a hurdle over him to prevent his struggling out of it; another, who is found guilty  p236 of some lighter offence, is fined so many horses or oxen.

The judicial work of the assembly at an end, its administrative work begins. They elect the chiefs who are to dispense justice and keep some kind of barbarian order in each shire or village.​15 Then, no doubt, there are often questions of boundary to settle, some rudimentary works of civilisation to be talked over, the clearance of this forest, the dyking out of that encroaching stream. But after all, the debates of these warriors turned most naturally towards war. Over and over again, in this German Folc-motes, was the question raised, 'When and how and where must we make a stand against this all‑prevailing tyranny of Rome? Shall we make war on such and such a subject-tribe and punish them for their submission to the common enemy? Or shall we strike boldly at the great enemy himself? Shall we swim the Rhine, shall we swarm over the easily crossed Pfahlgraben, and win great spoil in the rich cities beyond?'

Slaves and serfs. To complete the picture of the social state of the German tribes we should need to inquire into the condition of the slaves, and of the men, if there were such, who occupied a position akin to that of the Roman colonus, bound to till the land of a lord and to make him certain payments out of the produce, and yet not entirely dependent on his caprices. That there were slaves following in the train of these stalwart barbarians there can be no doubt; nay, we  p237 are informed by Tacitus that even a German warrior, in his overmastering passion for play, would sometimes sell himself, and doubtless his wife and children also, into slavery. So far therefore, the grand outline of popular freedom exhibited to us by the German folc-mote, at which every warrior has a right to be present, requires some modification. Like the free commonwealths of Greece and Rome, the German state does rest, to some extent, on a basis of slavery. It is clear, however, that slavery was not, as in some of those commonwealths, the corner-stone of the fabric. The most careful inquirers are of opinion that slavery, or serfdom, constrained the movements of but a small part of the population of ancient Germany:​16 and it is noteworthy that when Tacitus speaks of the idle life, during peace, of the German warrior, he says that household cares and the tillage of the fields were left [not to the slaves but] to the women, the old men, the less robust members of the family.

Limitations of the royal power. To go back to our main subject, the power of the kings in that Germany which Tacitus described: it is manifest that it was subject to some strong controlling forces. A body of nobles, nearly as proud of their birth as the king himself, watched his movements and jealously resented every word or gesture which would  p238 seem to imply that he was a master and they his slaves. The frequently held popular assemblies, even if attended, as was probably the case in quiet times, by but a small part of the nation, kept alive the tradition of the rights of the people. It was a very different thing to dictate an unpopular order, as the Caesar of Rome might do, in the privacy of his secretarium, leaving the odium of its execution to the officer who sped with it to some distant province; and to have to defend that order oneself, as must the leader of free warriors of Germany, in the next assembly of the people, to see the spears brandished in menace rather than in applause, to hear the harsh murmur of martial voices uttering in no courtly tones their disapprobation of the deed.

Changes in the four hundred years between Tacitus and Theodoric. So far we have been dealing with the political life of our Teutonic forefathers at the time when Tacitus wrote. From that date till Theodoric's establishment of his Italian kingdom four centuries had passed; an interval of time which may count for comparatively little in a changeless Oriental monarchy, but which counts for much in European states, when the busy brain of an Aryan people is kindled by some new and great idea, or is brought forcibly into contact with other civilisations than its own. Four centuries before the date at which these words are being written, the Canary Islands were believed to be the uttermost limit of the habitable world in the direction of the setting sun. All the myriad influences which America has exerted upon Europe — to say nothing of those which Europe has exerted upon America — Peruvian gold, voyages of the Buccaneers, Negro-slavery, the Rights of Man — have had but those four hundred years to work in.

 p239  Roman influence ever at work. 81 to 491. During the four centuries which we are now specially considering, from Domitian to Zeno, the heart and mind of Germany were ever in contact with the wonderful fascination of the world-Empire of Rome. First, for two or three generations, they had to fight the almost desperate battle of defence against Roman aggression. 165‑181 Then, when Quadi and Marcomanni, by their stubborn resistance to the noble Marcus, had renewed the old teaching of Arminius, and shown the barbarians that Rome was not invincible; still more when, in the miserable anarchy of the third century, Rome herself seemed to have lost the power of self-preservation, and to be falling from ledge to ledge down the precipice of ruin, the Germans began to entertain the idea of something more than self-defence, and with ever-increasing pertinacity to renew the attempt to carve out for themselves settlements (not necessarily independent settlements) in the fair 'Welshland' on the other side of Rhine and Danube.

The migrations strengthened kingship. All these wars, all this stir and movement among the peoples, tended to increase the power of the kingship. A weapon which was to pierce the Empire's defensive armour of castles and legions needed to be sharpened to a point and tipped with steel; and that steel point was royalty. Moreover, in the very act of the migration, many old associations would be loosened, the kinships which had dwelt in the same secluded valley for generations, and which mistook

'the rustic murmur of their bourg

For the great wave that echoes round the world,'

would be shaken out of their boorish conservatism, which, with all its dulness, nevertheless had been  p240 a certain bulwark against royal encroachments. Above all, the members of the old nobility, conspicuous for their deeds of headlong valour, would, many of them, leave their bones to whiten on the Roman battle-field, and more and more, as they fell in war, would their places be filled up by the young and dashing 'comrades' of the king, men perhaps of noble birth themselves, but magnifying the office of their chief, and prouder of their loyal service to him round whose standard they gathered than of their own descent from the gods of Walhalla.

Instances already met with. Let the reader apply these general principles to some of those incidents in the Germanic migration which have already been recorded; let him think of Fridigern, of Athanaric, of Eriulph, the chiefs of the Visigoths, of Hermanric the mighty and wide-ruling king of the Ostrogoths: then let him remember how Alaric's elevation on the shield and the acclamation of his name as king gave at once a point and a purpose to the previously desultory warfare of the Goths, and led, by no obscure connection of causes and effects, to the occupation of the Eternal city itself by the forces of the barbarians. Alaric and the old Gothic chief at Pollentia. One instance of a Folc-mote, at least of a council of war, which might possibly bear that character, we noticed in the pages of Claudian.​17 It was that held before the battle of Pollentia, in which the poet represents an old chief pleading for peace and harshly silenced by the vengeful voice of Alaric. We do not need the doubtful authority of the poet to assure us that, if assemblies of the people were held during these marchings and counter-marchings on the soil of Italy, this would generally be  p241 the result. All military instinct would be in favour of obeying rather than arguing with the young and brilliant leader of the Goths; and the necessities of the 'war power,' which made a temporary autocrat of so constitutional a ruler as President Lincoln, might well make Alaric the Balth the unquestioned disposer of the lives and fortunes of his people.

The Hunnish dominion. The vassalage into which so many German kings were forced under the yoke of Attila the Hun probably tended towards the effacement of popular freedom. Before Attila, Ardaric and Walamir might tremble, but to their subjects they would be terrible, as representing not only their own power, but all the consolidated might of that heterogeneous monarchy.

The Vandal kings. As for the polity of the Vandals, we saw, in tracing the history of the conquest and land-settlement of Africa, how vast a preponderating influence was thereby assigned to the king. It is true that, by careful examination, some traces of the old Teutonic freedom may still be discovered among the warriors of Gaiseric,​18 but they are indeed rare and feeble. Peace and war, treaties, persecutions, all seem to be decided upon and carried through by the overwhelming authority of the king.

The Ostrogothic royalty. And thus we come to the subject with which we are now specially concerned, the kind and degree of kingly authority wielded by the Amal Theodoric. It must be stated at once that this was absolutely unlike the limited and jealously-watched authority of the German kings described by Tacitus. After the Ostrogoths crept forth from the under the world-shadowing might of Attila, they fell into a position of more or  p242 less dependence upon the power of Eastern Rome; a power materially far less formidable than that of the terrible Hun, but more potent in its influence on the minds and thoughts of men. It is impossible to prove what effect the forty years between the death of Attila and the death of Odovacar had upon the 'Walamir-Goths;' but it is almost certain that many old German ideas and customs were lost during that time of close intercourse and frequently-renewed alliance with Byzantium.​19 For the fact that they did not become altogether Romanised and sink into the position of a mere military colony of the Empire, their old hereditary loyalty to the Amal kings was mainly answerable. The reader will remember in what insulting terms Theodoric the son of Triarius taunted the squalid retinue of his rival for their fall from their once high and prosperous state. He was correct in saying that it was their loyalty to Theodoric the Amal that had brought them into that abyss of wretchedness. But the instinct of the nation was right. Theodoric was indeed the people's hope, and their loyalty to him brought them safely through so many dangers and trials and seated them at length as lords in the fairest lands of Italy.

Theodoric in Italy not a king of the limited German type. But when the great enterprise was thus at length crowned with success, the author of it was no longer a king after the old Germanic pattern, bound to consult and persuade his people at every turn. As  p243 an uncontrolled, unthwarted ruler he had led them from Novae to Ravenna. As an uncontrolled, unthwarted ruler he was thenceforward to guide the destinies of the nation in his palace by the Hadriatic.

No Folc-mote. There is no trace of anything like a single meeting of the Folc-mote during the reign of Theodoric. All action in the State seems to proceed from the king alone, and though he condescends often to explain the reason for his edicts, he does this only as a matter of grace and favour, not of necessity, and in doing so he employs the same kind of language which is used in the Theodosian code. There is, as we shall see, at his death a faint acknowledgment of the right of the people to be consulted as to his successor; but here again there is no more recognition of the elective character of the monarchy, if so much, as in the case of the successive wearers of the purple at Byzantium. In short, though Theodoric never assumed the title of emperor, his power, for all practical purposes, seems to have been exactly the same as an emperor's; and we get a much more truthful idea of his position by thinking of him as the successor of Theodosius and the predecessor of Charles the Great, than by applying to him any of the characteristics of Teutonic royalty which we find in the Germania of Tacitus.

Parallel between Theodoric and Maroboduus. But though the kingship of Theodoric was thus greatly changed from the old model of his forefathers' royalty, there is one case of an early German ruler, described to us by Tacitus himself, whose career is in some respects very similar to that of the Amal hero. A.D. 3‑19 Maroboduus, king of the Marcomanni, a very few years after the birth of Christ led his people across the Erzgebirge, and established a strong kingdom in  p244 Bohemia and Bavaria and on the Middle Danube. A disciplined army of 70,000 men, hovering upon a frontier only 200 miles from Italy, caused even the great Augustus to tremble for the peace of his Transalpine provinces. No German had ever seemed more formidable to Rome, but he was formidable only because he was despotic. It is evident that in his kingship the rein was drawn far tighter than was usual in the Germanic states of that day, and this harsher system of government, though it made him for the time a more dangerous foe to Rome, prevented his dynasty from striking root in the affections of his people. A.D. 17 When Arminius attacked him after about twenty years of rule, 'the name of king,' that is, of despotic king, 'alienated the sympathy of his own countrymen from Maroboduus, while the cause of Arminius was popular, as he was fighting for liberty.'​20 By this war Maroboduus was greatly weakened, and had to sue for the degrading help of Rome to avoid absolute overthrow. A.D. 19 Only two years later the Gothic chieftain Catualda, who had once been driven from his country by the might of Maroboduus, ventured on an expedition of revenge, which, by the help of the disloyal nobles of the Marcomannic kingdom, was completely successful; and forced Maroboduus, a hunted exile and outlaw, to seek the protection of Tiberius, who received this disarmed enemy of the Roman people into his territory, and permitted him to spend the eighteen remaining years of his life in the friendly shelter of Ravenna. Strange vicissitude of fortune,  p245 which caused the first great absolute monarch of the German nation to grow old, amid the contempt of his people, in the very same capital which witnessed the splendid reign and honoured death of the greatest of German despots, Theodoric.21

Theodoric's rule must have jarred on German feelings. Happily the reign of the Amal king ended in no such disastrous collision with the free spirit of his people as that which brought the might of Maroboduus to the ground. Yet, if there were any traditions of a healthy national life still lingering among the warriors whom he had settled in Italy, these must have been continually wounded by what they saw and what they heard at the Court of Ravenna. True, they were still summoned to appear, at any rate those who lived in the north of Italy, once a year in the presence of their King, and to receive a donative from his hand.​22 They were not turned into Roman legionaries; they fought still in the old national order, with the great Gothic broadsword and under the command of their own captains of thousands.​23 But when they stood in the presence of their countryman, the great Amal, they found him surrounded with all the pomp of Byzantine royalty. The diadem which the Western Emperors had worn was upon his head; silken robes, dyed with the purple of the murex, flowed over his shoulders; silentiarii in bright armour kept guard before the curtain  p246 which separated the awful secretum of the sovereign from the profane crowd of suitors and suppliants; the Prefect of the Sacred Bedchamber, some Roman courtier intent on currying favour with his new lord by an exaggerated display of servile devotion, stood ready to stop on the threshold any of his old 'comrades,' of however noble blood, who would venture unbidden into the presence of the King.

The donative and the ration-money were given​24 and were welcome to the spendthrift Goth, who had perhaps already diced away his lands to some fellow-soldier after they had sung together the old Gothic songs and drunk too deeply of the new delights of the wine of Italy. But before receiving the money, the old and grizzled warrior had perhaps to listen to some eloquent harangue from the lips of the fluent Roman quaestor, Cassiodorus, about the delights of being admitted to the royal presence and the living death which those endured who beheld not the light of his countenance — a harangue which almost made the donative loathsome, and which, if anything could have done so, would have quenched his loyal enthusiasm, when at last the veil was drawn asunder and the well-known form, conspicuous in so many battle-fields from the Bosporus to the Ticino, moved forth to receive their acclamations.

Scanty information as to the inner life of the Goths. The picture here drawn of Gothic dissatisfaction at the exaltation of the royal prerogative is chiefly  p247 a conjectural one, but the fact is that almost all our information as to the feelings of the Gothic element in Theodoric's new state has to be derived from a few faint and widely-scattered hints, combined and vivified by the historical imagination. The information which reaches us as to the manner of the kingdom — and it is abundant — comes all from the Roman side. The rhetorical Cassiodorus, the courtly Ennodius, the dispirited Boethius, are all Romans. Even the Goth Jordanes is more than half-Roman at heart, and derives all his materials from Cassiodorus. We are therefore really without a picture of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy from the true Ostrogothic point of view. Only, in reading the phrases in which these rhetoricians and churchmen magnify the might of their master, we are sure that they must have grated on the ears of all that was self-respecting and genuinely Teutonic in the countrymen of Theodoric.

Theodoric's own probable attitude towards his ministers. To a certain extent we, who have imbibed from our childhood the idea that kingship is never so great a blessing to the world as when it is rigorously — almost jealously — controlled by the national will, can share the feelings of disgust with which our imaginary Gothic warrior listened to the fulsome flatteries of his Roman fellow-subjects. It is difficult for the most loyal admirer of Theodoric not to turn away with something more than weariness from the volume of state correspondence in which, for page after page, the great King, by the pen of his secretary, praises his own virtue, his own wisdom, his own moderation, his own love of equal justice for Goth and Roman. Partly we become reconciled to this apparent want of modesty  p248 by remembering that, though the King is supposed to speak, it is well understood that the clever Quaestor really speaks for him. All the world knew that in these letters it listened, not to Theodoric praising himself, but to Cassiodorus praising Theodoric. The will of the King is undoubtedly expressed in these letters, and we may be sure that his share in them was by no means limited to a mere formal assent, or the languid addition of his stencilled signature at the bottom. Yet when Theodoric knew that the substance of the royal will was therein contained, he probably gave himself little trouble about the form. For that, the learned Quaestor was responsible. A brave Gothic warrior would have blushed to enumerate his own good qualities with so many swelling words of vanity. But if this was the custom of the country, it must be complied with; and probably the King saw his short, business-like, verbal instructions expanded into the turgid state document, with similar feelings to those with which an Englishman receives from his lawyer the great expanse of sheepskin covered with legal verbiage, that is required to give validity to a purchase which was settled in an interview of an hour.

The noble aim which he kept in view. After all, the great justification for the somewhat despotic form assumed by the government of Theodoric must be found in the object which he proposed to himself, and which, with signal success, he achieved. What was that object? It was in one word, Civilitas; the maintenance of peace and tranquillity, and the safeguarding of all classes of his subjects from oppression and violence at the hands either of lawless men or of the ministers of the law. The golden words of  p249 Ataulfus, as recorded by Orosius,​25 seem to have expressed exactly the aim which Theodoric kept constantly before him. Not to obliterate the Roman name, not to turn Romania into Gothia, but to correct the inherent lawlessness of the Gothic character by the restraint of those laws without which the state would cease to be a state, to restore the Roman name to its old lustre and increase its potency by Gothic vigour; this was the dream which floated before the mind of Ataulfus, this was the dream which became a reality for forty years under Theodoric and his descendants.

Absolute fusion of the two peoples not attempted. The state papers of the Ostrogothic monarchy, as will be seen by any one who glances through the abstract of the letters of Cassiodorus, are filled almost to satiety with the praises of this great gift, Civilitas. It was attained, however, not by the fusion, but rather by the federation, of the two peoples, over both of whom Theodoric was king. Whatever may have been his hope as to the ultimate effect of his measures, and probably the vision of a united Italian people did sometimes fascinate the mind of the King, or at any rate of his ablest minister, they well knew that at present the absolute assimilation of the two nations was impossible. The Goth could not be taught in one generation that reverence for the name of Law, that disposition to submit to authority, however harshly displayed, which had become an instinct with the Roman people. The Roman could not in one generation become imbued with that free heroic spirit, that love of danger and of adventure, which rang in every Gothic battle-song. This had perhaps never  p250 been precisely the endowment even of his forefathers, for even the Fabricii and the Valerii were inspired to do great deeds rather by a lofty sense of duty, self-respect, loyalty to their comrades and their country, than by the mere animal delight in fighting which fired the sons of Odin. And whatever the Roman's prowess had once been, it had now utterly left him, and generations of intermixture with a new stock were needed to bring back the iron into his blood.

A strong and just rule needed. Meantime, then, the two nations were to be governed with a strong and impartial hand, not as one people, but for one end, the happiness of all. The Gothic sword was to preserve the soil of Italy from foreign foes, while the Roman practised the arts of peace and administered the laws which had come down from his forefathers.​26 Similar cases. The situation was like that which existed in Normandy under William Longsword, like that which his descendant William the Conqueror. William the Bastard strove to establish in England after the Conquest; striving unsuccessfully because his English subjects, at any rate after the revolt of 1068, refused to give him that willing obedience which undoubtedly was rendered during the larger part of his reign by the Roman population to Theodoric.​27 Or, to choose an illustration  p251 from our own times, the relation of the Ostrogothic King to the classes of his subjects was like that of an enlightened and conscientious Governor-General of India to the Europeans and Hindoos under his sway. Fusion of the two nations is at present an impossibility. It is impossible to legislate for the European indigo-planter exactly as if he were a native Rajah, or for the headman of a Hindoo village as if he had the same ideas as a Queen's soldier from Devonshire. The best rulers keep the fusion of the two nations before them as an event possible in the far‑distant future, and meanwhile strive so to govern that the thought of a common interest in the prosperity of the whole country, the idea of a true Res Publica, may take root in the minds of both races, that no violence be practised by the European against the Hindoo, and no chicane by the Hindoo against the European, that 'Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.'

All this tended towards despotism. This equal balance held between the two diverse nations requires, however, a steady hand holding the scales. A Folc-mote of the Goths would have made short work of the liberties of the Romans; a meeting of citizens in the Roman Forum, lashed to fury by the harangue of some windy orator, would soon have pulled down the statues of the Gothic king. And thus we are brought by these considerations to the same conclusion to which, as we have seen, all the events in the history of his nation tended. German kingship as wielded by Theodoric had to be despotic. The crown of the arch must be made strong and  p252 heavy to repress the upward thrust of the two opposing nationalities.

Consequently Theodoric's kingdom throws little light on Teutonic institutions. This being so, the laws and usages of the Gotho-Roman state throw not much light on the development of Teutonic institutions. It is the dying Empire, as we shall see, rather than dawning Feudalism, which is displayed in the correspondence of Theodoric's secretary. The Edictum Theodorici, to which reference will be made in the next chapter,​b is not, like the codes of other German races — the Burgundian, the Salian, the Ripuarian — an exposition in barbarous Latin of the customary law of the tribes who had come to seat themselves within the borders of the Empire; but it is rather a selection of such parts of the Theodosian code and of the Roman Responsa Prudentium as were suitable for the new monarchy, a few unimportant changes being made in some of their provisions by the supreme will of the king.28

Gothic law we may be sure there was, to be administered where Goths only were concerned;​29 but it has left little trace in any written documents, no doubt because in the great majority of cases Romans were concerned either alone or together with Goths, and here the irresistible tendency of the magistracy which Theodoric had taken over from the Empire was to make Roman law supreme.

 p253  There are two offices, however, which we may notice here, before we pass on to consider the Roman side of Theodoric's administration, since they are both purely Teutonic, and were no doubt always held by men of barbarian origin. One is that of the Count of the Goths, the other that of the Saiones.

Comes Gothorum. 1. The Comes Gothorum (we know not his Gothic title) was no doubt in practice always a general high in office, perhaps usually a great provincial governor. But his chief duty was to decide, doubtless according to the old traditional law of his people, any disputes which might arise between one Goth and another. Should the controversy lie between a born Goth and a born Roman, in that case he was to associate with himself a Roman jurisconsult and decide the strife 'according to fair reason.'​30 In estimating what 'fair reason' required, we may probably conclude that the Roman law, with its vast store of precedents, the accumulated experience of ages, aptly quoted and enforced by a quick-witted jurisconsult, would be almost uniformly victorious over the few and crude maxims of German Right, born in the forest or the pasture-land, and dimly present in the brain of some stalwart Count of the Goths, more able to enforce his conclusions with his sword than with his tongue.

Saio. The Saiones were apparently a class of men peculiar to the Ostrogothic monarchy. More honoured than the Roman lictor (who was but a menial servant of the magistrate), but hardly perhaps rising to the dignity of a sheriff or a marshal, they were, so to speak, the arms by which Royalty executed its will.  p254 If the Goths had to be summoned to battle with the Franks, a Saio carried round the stirring call to arms.​31 If a Praetorian Prefect was abusing his power to take away his neighbour's land by violence, a Saio was sent to remind him that under Theodoric not even Praetorian Prefects should be allowed to transgress the law.​32 If a new fort had to be built on some Dolomite peak commanding the ravines of the Adige, and shutting out the barbarians of Northern Tyrol, a Saio was despatched to urge and guide the exertions of the provincials. The Saiones seem to have stood in a special relation to the king. They are generally called 'our Saiones,' sometimes 'our brave Saiones,' and the official virtue which is always credited to them (like the 'Sublimity' or the 'Magnificence' of more important personages) is 'Your Devotion.'

Tuitio regii nominis. One duty which was frequently entrusted to the Saio was the tuitio of some wealthy and unwarlike Roman. It often happened that such a person, unable to protect himself against the rude assaults of sturdy Gothic neighbours, appealed to the King for protection. When the petition was granted, as it probably was in almost all cases, the person thus taken under the tuitio regii nominis acquired peculiar rights,​33 and any maltreatment of his person or injury to his property was treated as more than an ordinary offence against civilitas, as a special act of contempt towards the royal authority. He seems to have had, at any rate in certain cases, a peculiar privilege of suing and being sued directly in the Supreme Court (comitatus) of the King, overleaping all courts of inferior jurisdiction.  p255 But the chief visible sign of the King's protection, and the most effective guarantee of its efficiency, was the stout Gothic soldier who as Saio was quartered in the wealthy Roman's house, ready to fight all his battles, and to make all other Goths respect the person and the property of him to whom Theodoric had pledged the royal word for his safety. A payment, of the amount of which we are not informed, but which probably varied according to the wealth of the Roman and the lineage of the Goth, was paid, commodi nomine, by the way of douceur, by the defended to the defender.

Abuses to which the institution was liable. The relation thus established was one which, being itself a somewhat barbarous remedy for barbarism, might easily degenerate from its original intention. Sometimes the protected Roman, having this robust Goth in his house, sharing his hospitality and ready to do his bidding, used him not merely for his own defence but for the oppression of his poorer and weaker neighbours.​34 Sometimes the Saio, tired of ever guarding the soft, effeminate noble committed to his care, and perhaps stung by the silent assumption of superiority in knowledge and culture which lurked in all the Roman's words and gestures, would turn against his host and even violently assault his dainty person. Thus, to his eternal disgrace, did Amara,​35 who actually drew a sword against the Senator Petrus, whose defender he was. He wounded his hand, and, had not the Roman been partly sheltered by a door, would have severed it from the wrist. Yet, notwithstanding  p256 this evil deed, he had the audacity to claim from Petrus, commodi nomine, the Saio's usual gratuity. Rightly did the indignant King order that Amara should be removed from the post of defender, the duties of which he so strangely discharged, that his place should be given to his countryman Tezutzat, and that he should refund twice the sum which he had exacted for his gratuity.

Slight indications like this of the footing upon which the two nations lived may help us to understand the difficulty of the problem set before Theodoric the common ruler of both of them, and to appreciate more highly the skill which for thirty years he displayed in solving it.

The Author's Notes:

1 As Waitz finely says: 'The word King is the expression for an Institution which has been most intimately connected with the constitutional history of the Germans, which has thereby maintained its hold on the life of the European peoples, while the beginnings of a similar development in the nations of classical antiquity were early stifled and never able to show their true importance for the life of the State' (Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte, I.326). Shelley's phrase, 'King-deluded Germany,' puts this thought from a republican point of view. Tennyson's words —

'The one true seed of freedom sown

Betwixt a people and an ancient throne,'

contain the same idea, but expressed with some insular exclusiveness.

2 'Quippe regno Arsacis acrior est Germanorum libertas' (Germ. 37).

3 'Gothones regnantur, paulo jam adductius quam caeterae Germanorum gentes, nondum tamen supra libertatem' (Germ. 44).

4 Together with their neighbours the Sitones, who were yet more enslaved, inasmuch as their despot was a queen.

5 'Eoque unus imperitat, nullis jam exceptionibus, non precario jure parendi' (Germ. 44: compare 25).

6 Waitz's view seems to me here more in accordance with the spirit of Tacitus' narrative than Dahn's.

7 'Reges ex nobilitate, duces ex virtute sumunt.'

8 Our early English ealdorman is as likely a name as any, but there seems to be no evidence of its wide extension.

9 It seems that the 'republican tribes' were chiefly in the west of Germany and the monarchical tribes in the east. Perhaps we may infer that the nations which pushed forth first moved furthest from the central Aryan home, lost their kingship the soonest, just as monarchical institutions have struck a deeper root in England than in her colonies. But, on the other hand, when the migrations were resumed (no doubt under circumstances of greater danger and difficulty) in the centuries after Christ, we shall see that they distinctly tended in favour of kingship.

10 'Reges ex nobilitate sumunt.'

11 See Stubbs' Const. Hist. I.27; Green's Making of England, 173; and cp. Freeman, Comp. Politics, 257‑263.

12 Comites.

13 'Praecipuum sacramentum.'

14 Dahn thinks every free man had this privilege. Waitz strongly urges that only a king or chief (in a republican state) might claim it.

15 'Eliguntur in iisdem conciliis et principes qui jura per pagos vicosque reddunt' (Tac. Germ. 12). Though Shire is not scientifically accurate as a translation of Pagus (= Gau), no English word seems to express it better. (Compare Freeman, English Towns, &c., 'The Shire and the Gá.')

16 It is probable that this conclusion may have to be modified, if my friend Mr. Seebohm should establish his contention on behalf of the general prevalence of a servile tenure of land. But in his view the influence of the Roman system of coloni and the Roman villa counted for much in bringing about this state of things, which was not therefore purely Germanic; and, besides, his inquiries relate chiefly to a period beginning with the fifth century after Christ, whereas I am for the moment dealing with the first.

17 See vol. I p718.

18 They are enumerated by Dahn (Kön. der Germ. I.224‑227).

19 I venture to doubt whether Dahn, in his extremely careful analysis of the German and Roman elements in the state-system of Theodoric, has made quite sufficient allowance for the Byzantinisation of the Goths themselves during these forty years of close contact with the Empire.

20 'Sed Maroboduum regis nomen invisum apud populares, Arminium pro libertate bellantem favor habebat' (Tac. Ann. II.44).

21 Dahn's use of the early despotism of Maroboduus to illustrate the despotic tendencies of Theodoric and other kings of the Völkerwanderung, seems to me one of the best things in the Könige der Germanen.

22 This seem to be a fair inference from Variarum V.26.

23 From the Millenarii of Cassiodorus (Var. V.26) we may fairly infer the continued existence of the thusundifaths of Ulfilas.

24 Donativum and Annonae. When Dahn (Kön. der Germ. III.66‑82) has carefully traced the times and manner in which these two kinds of payment were made to the Gothic soldiers, he leaves, it seems to me, little real distinction between their remuneration and that given to the ordinary paid soldiers of the imperial army.

25 VII.43. See vol. I p822.

26 Various passages are quoted by Dahn (Kön. der Germ. III.58) from the Variae to illustrate this proposition. Perhaps the most striking is to be found in VII.3 (translated at length in my Abstract of the Variae). But none of his quotations convince me that a Roman desirous to serve would have been absolutely excluded from the army, which seems to be Dahn's view. And in fact the case of Cyprian (Var. VIII.21), undoubtedly a Roman, yet serving himself and sending his sons to serve in the army, is fatal to the theory as thus stated. But no doubt such cases were excessively rare.

27 Compare Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest, I.191, for the case of William Longsword, and V.56‑61 for a striking comparison between William the Conqueror and Theodoric.

28 And thus the Edictum Theodorici was in many respects a similar document to the Breviarium put forth by his son in‑law, Alaric the Visigoth, for the use of his Roman subjects.

29 It seems to me that Dahn has conclusively proved this point in the fourth part of his Könige der Germanen. The very existence of the Comes Gothorum, and the manner in which he is ordered (Var. VII.3) to do justice as between Goth and Goth, and as between Goth and Roman, must convince us that there was still a Gothic law.

30 For the duties and functions of the Comes Gothorum see Cassiodorus, Variarum, VII.3.

31 Var. I.24.

32 Var. III.20.

33 His position perhaps resembled that of a ward in Chancery.

34 So we may perhaps infer from the caution contained in Var. II.4, as well as from human nature.

35 Var. IV.27.

Thayer's Notes:

a In this chapter, facing p240, the printed edition includes a large foldout table, "Chronology of the Reign of Theodoric"; but it is not mentioned in the text. I've placed it on its own separate webpage.

b The body of Chapter 8 does have some further slight discussion of the Edict (p276), but Hodgkin is really referring here to Note E, "The Edictum Theodorici Regis" that follows the chapter, in which he will break down the Edict by subject matter; I in turn have linked each subject to the text of the chapters given by Hodgkin.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 31 Jul 20