The Roman and Teuton: Dietrich’s End

18 mins read

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of twelve lectures by Charles Kingsley, published as The Roman and the Teuton (1889).

(Go back to Lecture IV: The Gothic Civilizer)


I have now to speak to you on the latter end of Dietrich’s reign—made so sadly famous by the death of Boethius—the last Roman philosopher, as he has been called for centuries, and not unjustly.  His De Consolatione Philosophiæ is a book good for any man, full of wholesome and godly doctrine.  For centuries it ranked as high as the highest classics; higher perhaps at times than any book save the Bible, among not merely scholars, but statesmen.  It is the last legacy of the dying old world to the young world which was trampling it out of life; and therefore it is full of sadness.  But beneath the sadness there is faith and hope; for God is just, and virtue must be triumphant and immortal, and the absolute and only good for man.  The whole story is very sad.  Dietrich was one of those great men, who like Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Napoleon, or the late Czar Nicholas, have lived too long for their own honour.  The old heathen would have attributed his misadventures to a φθονος θεων, an envy of the Gods, who will not abide to see men as prosperous as they themselves are.  We may attribute it more simply and more piously to the wear and tear of frail humanity.  For it may be that very few human souls can stand for many years the strain of a great rule.  I do not mean that they break down from overwork, but that they are pulled out of shape by it; and that, especially, the will becomes enormously developed at the expense of the other powers of the soul, till the man becomes, as he grows older, imperious, careless of, or irritated by counsel, determined to have his own way because it is his own way.  We see the same tendency in all accustomed for a long while to absolute rule, even in petty matters;—in the old ship’s captain, the old head of a factory, the old master of hounds; and we do not blame them for it.  It is a disease incident to their calling, as pedantry is to that of a scholar, or astuteness to that of an attorney.  But it is most dangerous in the greatest minds, and in the highest places; and only to be kept off by them, as by us, each in our place, by honest self-examination, diligent prayer, and the grace of God which comes thereby.  Once or twice in the world’s history a great ruler, like Charles the Fifth, cuts the Gordian knot, and escapes into a convent: but how few can or ought to do that?  There are those who must go on ruling, or see their country ruined; for all depends on them.  So had Queen Elizabeth to do; so had Dietrich of Bern likewise.  After them would come the deluge, and did come; and they must endure to the last, whatever it may cost to their own health of character, or peace of mind.

But most painful, and most dangerous to the veteran sovereign, is it to have learnt to suspect, perhaps to despise, those whom he rules; to have thrown away all his labour upon knaves and fools; to have cast his pearls before swine, and find them turning again and rending him.  That feeling, forced from Queen Elizabeth, in her old age, that tragic cry, ‘I am a miserable forlorn woman.  There is none about me whom I can trust.’  She was a woman, always longing for some one to love; and her heart broke under it all.  But do you not see that where the ruler is not an affectionate woman, but a strong proud man, the effect may be very different, and very terrible?—how, roused to indignation, scorn, suspicion, rage, he may turn to bay against his own subjects, with ‘Scoundrels! you have seen the fair side of my character, and in vain.  Now you shall see the foul, and beware for yourselves.’

Even so, I fancy, did old Dietrich turn to bay, and did deeds which have blackened his name for ever.  Heaven forgive him! for surely he had provocation enough and to spare.

I have told you of the simple, half-superstitious respect which the Teuton had for the prestige of Rome.  Dietrich seems to have partaken of it, like the rest.  Else why did he not set himself up as Cæsar of Rome?  Why did he always consider himself as son-in-arms, and quasi-vassal, of the Cæsar of Constantinople?  He had been in youth overawed by the cunning civilization which he had seen in the great city.  He felt, with a noble modesty, that he could not emulate it.  He must copy it afar off.  He must take to his counsels men like Cassiodorus, Symmachus, Boethius, born and bred in it; trained from childhood in the craft by which, as a patent fact, the Kaisers of Rome had been for centuries, even in their decay and degradation, the rulers of the nations.  Yet beneath that there must have been a perpetual under-current of contempt for it and for Rome—the ‘colluvies gentium’—the sink of the nations, with its conceit, its pomposity, its beggary, its profligacy, its superstition, its pretence of preserving the Roman law and rights, while practically it cared for no law nor right at all.  Dietrich had had to write letter upon letter, to prevent the green and blue factions cutting each other’s throats at the public spectacles; letters to the tribunus voluptatum, who had to look after the pantomimes and loose women, telling him to keep the poor wretches in some decent order, and to set them and the city an example of a better life, by being a chaste and respectable man himself.  Letter upon letter of Cassiodorus’, written in Dietrich’s name, disclose a state of things in Rome on which a Goth could look only with disgust and contempt.

And what if he discovered (or thought that he discovered) that these prating coxcombs—who were actually living on government bounty, and had their daily bread, daily bath, daily oil, daily pork, daily wine, found for them at government expense, while they lounged from the theatre to the church, and the church to the theatre—were plotting with Justin the scoundrel and upstart Emperor at Constantinople, to restore forsooth the liberties of Rome?  And that that was their answer to his three and thirty years of good government, respect, indulgence, which had raised them up again out of all the miseries of domestic anarchy and foreign invasion?

And what if he discovered (or thought that he discovered) that the Catholic Clergy, with Pope John at their head, were in the very same plot for bringing in the Emperor of Constantinople, on the grounds of religion; because he was persecuting the Arian Goths at Constantinople, and therefore would help them to persecute them in Italy?  And that that was their answer to his three and thirty years of unexampled religious liberty?  Would not those two facts (even the belief that they were facts) have been enough to drive many a wise man mad?

How far they were facts, we never shall exactly know.  Almost all our information comes from Catholic historians—and he would be a rash man who would pin his faith on any statement of theirs concerning the actions of a heretic.  But I think, even with no other help than theirs, we may see why Dietrich would have looked with horror on any intimacy between the Church of Rome and the Court of Constantinople.

We must remember first what the Greek Empire was then, and who was the new Emperor.  Anastasius the poor old Emperor, dying at eighty with his heart broken by monks and priests, had an ugly dream; and told it to Amantius the eunuch and lord chamberlain.  Whereon Amantius said he had had a dream too;—how a great hog flew at him as he was in waiting in the very presence, and threw him down and eat him fairly up.  Which came true—though not in the way Amantius expected.  On the death of Anastasius he determined to set up as Emperor a creature of his own.  For this purpose he must buy the guards; to which noble end he put a large sum of treasure into the hands of Justin, senator, and commander-in-chief of the said guards, who takes the money, and spends it on his own account; so that the miserable eunuch finds, not his man, but Justin himself, Emperor, and his hard-earned money spent against him.  The mere rise of this unscrupulous swindler and his still more unscrupulous nephew, Justinian, would have been enough to rouse Dietrich’s suspicion, if not fear.

Deep and unspeakable must have been the royal Amal’s contempt for the man.  For he must have known him well at Constantinople in his youth; known how he was a Goth or other Teuton after all, though he was called a Dardanian; how his real name was Uprauda (upright), the son of Stock—which Uprauda he had latinized into Justinus.  The Amal knew well how he had entered the Emperor’s guard; how he had intrigued and fought his way up (for the man did not lack courage and conduct) to his general’s commission; and now, by a crowning act of roguery, to the Empire.  He had known too, most probably, the man’s vulgar peasant wife, who, in her efforts to ape royalty, was making herself the laughing-stock of the people, and who was urging on her already willing husband to persecute.  And this man he saw ready to convulse his own Empire by beginning a violent persecution against the Arians.  He was dangerous enough as a villain, doubly dangerous as a bigot also.

We must remember next what the Greek Church was then; a chaos of intrigue, villainy, slander, and wild fury, tearing to pieces itself and the whole Empire by religious feuds, in which the doctrine in question becomes invisible amid the passions and crimes of the disputants, while the Lords of the Church were hordes of wild monks, who swarm out of their dens to head the lowest mobs, or fight pitched battles with each other.  The ecclesiastical history of the fifth century in the Eastern Empire is one, which not even the genius of a Gibbon or a Milman can make interesting, or even intelligible.

Recollect that Dietrich had seen much of this with his own eyes; had seen actually, as I told you, the rebellion of Basiliscus and the Eutychian Bishops headed by the mad Daniel the Stylite against his foster father the Emperor Zeno; had seen that Emperor (as Dean Milman forcibly puts it) ‘flying before a naked hermit, who had lost the use of his legs by standing sixteen years upon a column.’  Recollect that Dietrich and his Goths had helped to restore that Emperor to his throne; and then understand in what a school he had learnt his great ideas of religious toleration: how deep must have been the determination to have no such doings in his kingdom; how deep, too, the dread of any similar outbreak at Rome.

Recollect, also, that now in his old age he had just witnessed the same iniquities again rending the Eastern Empire; the old Emperor Anastasius hunted to death by armies of mad monks about the Monophysite Heresy; the cities, even the holiest places of the East, stained with Christian blood; everywhere mob-law, murder, treachery, assassination even in the house of God; and now the new Emperor Justin was throwing himself into the party of the Orthodox with all the blind rage of an ignorant peasant; persecuting, expelling, shutting up the Arian Churches of the Goths, refusing to hear Dietrich’s noble appeals; and evidently organizing a great movement against those peaceable Arians, against whom, during the life-time of Dietrich, their bitterest enemies do not allege a single case of persecution.

Remember, too, that Dietrich had had experience of similar outbreaks of fanaticism at Rome; that the ordination of two rival Popes had once made the streets run with blood; that he had seen priests murdered, monasteries fired, nuns insulted, and had had to interfere with the strong arm of the law, and himself decide in favour of the Pope who had the most votes, and was first chosen; and that in the quarrels, intrigues, and slanders, which followed that election, he had had too good proof that the ecclesiastics and the mob of Rome, if he but let them, could behave as ill as that of Constantinople; and, moreover, that this new Pope John, who seems to have been a hot-headed fanatic, had begun his rule by whipping and banishing Manichees—by whose permission, does not appear.

Recollect too, that for some reason or other, Dietrich, when he had interfered in Eastern matters, had been always on the side of the Orthodox and the Council of Chalcedon.  He had fought for the Orthodox against Basiliscus.  He had backed the Orthodox and Vitalianus their champion, against the late Emperor Anastasius; and now as soon as the Orthodox got into power under Justin, this was the reward of his impartiality.  If he did not distrust and despise the Church and Emperor of the East, he must have been not a hero, but a saint.

Recollect, too, that in those very days, Catholic bigotry had broken out in a general plunder of the Jews.  At Rome, at Milan, and Genoa their houses had been sacked, and their synagogues burnt; and Dietrich, having compelled the Catholics to rebuild them at their own expense, had earned the hatred of a large portion of his subjects.  And now Pope John was doing all he could to thwart him.  Dietrich bade him go to Constantinople, and plead with Justin for the persecuted Arians.  He refused.  Dietrich shipt him off, nolentem volentem.  But when he got to Constantinople he threw his whole weight into the Emperor’s scale.  He was received by Justin as if he was St. Peter himself, the Emperor coming out to meet him with processions and wax-lights, imploring his blessing; he did exactly the opposite to what Dietrich bade him do; and published on his return a furious epistle to the bishops of Italy, calling upon them to oppress and extirpate the Arian perfidy, so that no root of it is left: to consecrate the Arian churches wheresoever he found them, pleading the advice of the most pious and Christian Emperor Justin, talking of Dietrich as tainted inwardly and wrapt up outwardly with the pest of heresy.  On which Cochlæus (who religiously believes that Dietrich was damned for his Arianism, and that all his virtues went for nothing because he had not charity, which exists, he says, alone within the pale of the Church), cannot help the naive comment, that if the Pontiff did really write that letter, he cannot wonder at Dietrich’s being a little angry.  Kings now, it is true, can afford to smile at such outbursts; they could not afford to do so in Dietrich’s days.  Such words meant murder, pillage, civil war, dethronement, general anarchy; and so Dietrich threw Pope John into prison.  He had been in bad health before he sailed to Constantinople, and in a few months he died, and was worshipped as a saint.

As for the political conspiracy, we shall never know the truth of it.  The ‘Anonymus Valesii,’ meanwhile says, that when Cyprian accused Albinus, Boethius answered, ‘It is false: but if Albinus has done it, so have I, and the whole senate, with one consent.  It is false, my Lord King!’  Whatever such words may prove, they prove at least this, that Boethius, as he says himself, was the victim of his own chivalry.  To save Albinus, and the senate, he thrust himself into the fore-front of the battle, and fell at least like a brave man.  Whether Albinus, Boethius, and Symmachus did plot to bring in Justin; whether the senate did send a letter to him, I cannot tell.  Boethius, in his De Consolatione, denies it all; and Boethius was a good man.  He says that the letters in which he hoped for the liberty of Rome were forged; how could he hope for the impossible? but he adds, ‘would that any liberty could have been hoped for!  I would have answered the king as Cassius did, when falsely accused of conspiring by Caligula: “If I had known of it, you should not.”’  One knows not whether Dietrich ever saw those words: but they prove at least that all his confidence, justice, kindness to the patrician philosopher, had not won him from the pardonable conceit about the Romani nominis umbram.

Boethius’ story is most probably true.  One cannot think that that man would die with a lie in his mouth.  One cannot pass by, as the utterances of a deliberate hypocrisy, those touching appeals to his guiding mistress, that heavenly wisdom who has led him so long upon the paths of truth and virtue, and who seems to him, in his miserable cell, to have betrayed him in his hour of need.  Heaven forbid.  Better to believe that Dietrich committed once in his life, a fearful crime, than that good Boethius’ famous book is such another as the Eikon Basilike.


Boethius, again, says that the Gothic courtiers hated him, and suborned branded scoundrels to swear away his life and that of the senate, because he had opposed ‘the hounds of the palace,’ Amigast, Trigulla, and other greedy barbarians.  There was, of course, a Gothic party and a Roman party about the court; and each hated the other bitterly.  Dietrich had favoured the Romans.  But the Goths could not have seen such men as Symmachus and Boethius the confidants and counsellors of the Amal, without longing for their downfall; and if, as Boethius and the Catholic historians say, the whole tragedy arose out of a Gothic plot to destroy the Roman party, such things have happened but too often in the world’s history.  The only facts which make against the story are, that Cyprianus the accuser was a Roman, and that Cassiodorus, who must have belonged to the Roman party, not only is never mentioned during the whole tragedy, but was high in power under Theodatus and Athalaric afterwards.

Add to this, that there were vague but wide-spread reports that the Goths were in danger; that Dietrich at least could not be ignorant of the ambition and the talents of that terrible Justinian, Justin’s nephew, who was soon to alter, for a generation, the fortunes of the whole Empire, and to sweep the Goths from Italy; that men’s minds must have been perplexed with fear of change, when they recollected that Dietrich was seventy years old, without a son to succeed him, and that a woman and a child would soon rule that great people in a crisis, which they could not but foresee.  We know that the ruin came; is it unreasonable to suppose that the Goths foresaw it, and made a desperate, it may be a treacherous, effort to crush once and for all, the proud and not less treacherous senators of Rome?

So, maddened with the fancied discovery that the man whom he had honoured, trusted, loved, was conspiring against him, Dietrich sent Boethius to prison.  He seems, however, not to have been eager for his death; for Boethius remained there long enough to write his noble book.

However, whether fresh proofs of his supposed guilt were discovered or not, the day came when he must die.  A cord was twisted round his head (probably to extort confession), till his eyes burst from their sockets, and then he was put out of his misery by a club; and so ended the last Roman philosopher.  Symmachus, his father-in-law, was beheaded; and Pope John, as we have heard, was thrown into prison on his return, and died after a few months.  These are the tragedies which have stained for ever the name of ‘Theodoric the Great.’

Pope John seems to have fairly earned his imprisonment.  For the two others, we can only, I fear, join in the sacred pity in which their memories have been embalmed to all succeeding generations.  But we must recollect, that after all, we know but one side of the question.  The Romans could write; the Goths could not: they may have been able to make out a fair case for themselves; they may have believed truly in the guilt of Boethius; and if they did, nothing less could have happened, by such rules of public law and justice as were then in vogue, than did happen.

Be that as it may, the deed was done; and the punishment, if deserved, came soon enough.  Sitting at dinner (so the story runs), the head of a fish took in Dietrich’s fancy the shape of Symmachus’ head, the upper teeth biting the lip, the great eyes staring at him.  He sprang up in horror; took to his bed; and there, complaining of a mortal chill, wrapping himself up in heaps of blankets, and bewailing to his physician the death of his two victims, he died sadly in a few days.  And a certain holy hermit, name not given, nor date of the vision, saw the ghosts of Boethius and Symmachus lead the Amal’s soul up the cone of Stromboli, and hurl him in, as the English sailors saw old Boots, the Wapping usurer, hurled into the same place, for offences far more capable of proof.

Theodoric’s mausoleum in Ravenna

So runs the story of Dietrich’s death.  It is perfectly natural, and very likely true.  His contemporaries, who all believed it, saw in it proof of his enormous guilt, and the manifest judgment of God.  We shall rather see in it a proof of the earnest, child-like, honest nature of the man, startled into boundless horror and self-abasement, by the sudden revelation of his crime.  Truly bad men die easier deaths than that; and go down to the grave, for the most part, blind and self-contented, and, as they think, unpunished; and perhaps forgiven.

After Dietrich came the deluge.  The royal head was gone.  The royal heart remained in Amalasuentha ‘the heavenly beauty,’ a daughter worthy of her father.

One of her first acts was to restore to the widows and children of the two victims the estates which Dietrich had confiscated.  That may, or may not, prove that she thought the men innocent.  She may have only felt it royal not to visit the sins of the fathers on the children; and those fathers, too, her own friends and preceptors.  Beautiful, learned, and wise, she too was, like her father, before her age.  She, the pupil of Boethius, would needs bring up her son Athalaric in Roman learning, and favour the Romans in all ways; never putting to death or even fining any of them, and keeping down the rough Goths, who were ready enough, now Dietrich’s hand was off them, to ill-use the conquered Italians.  The Goths soon grew to dislike her, and her Roman tendencies, her Roman education of the lad.  One day she boxed his ears for some fault.  He ran crying out into the Heldensaal, and complained to the heroes.  They sent a deputation to Amalasuentha, insolent enough.  ‘The boy should not be made a scholar of.’  ‘She meant to kill the boy and marry again.  Had not old Dietrich forbidden free Goths to go to schoolmasters, and said, that the boy who was taught to tremble at a cane, would never face a lance?’  So they took the lad away from the women, and made a ruffian of him.  What with drink, women, idleness, and the company of wild young fellows like himself, he was early ruined, body and soul.  Poor Amalasuentha, not knowing whither to turn, took the desperate resolution of offering Italy to the Emperor Justinian.  She did not know that her cousin Theodatus had been beforehand with her—a bad old man, greedy and unjust, whose rapacity she had had to control again and again, and who hated her in return.  Both send messages to Justinian.  The wily Emperor gave no direct answer: but sent his ambassador to watch the course of events.  The young prince died of debauchery, and the Goths whispered that his mother had poisoned him.  Meanwhile Theodatus went on from bad to worse; accusations flowed in to Amalasuentha of his lawless rapacity: but he was too strong for her; and she, losing her head more and more, made the desperate resolve of marrying him, as the only way to keep him quiet.  He was the last male heir of the royal Amalungs.  The marriage would set him right in the eyes of the Goths, while it would free her from the suspicion of having murdered her son, in order to reign alone.  Theodatus meanwhile was to have the name of royalty; but she was to keep the power and the money—a foolish, confused plan, which could have but one ending.  Theodatus married her of course, and then cast her into prison, seized all her treasures, and threw himself into the arms of that party among the Goths, who hated Amalasuentha for having punished their oppressions.  The end was swift and sad.  By the time that Justinian’s ambassador landed, Amalasuentha was strangled in her bath; and all that Peter the ambassador had to do was, to catch at the cause of quarrel, and declare ‘inexpiable war’ on the part of Justinian, as the avenger of the Queen.

And then began that dreadful East Goth war, which you may read for yourselves in the pages of an eye-witness, Procopius;—a war which destroyed utterly the civilization of Dietrich’s long and prosperous reign, left Italy a desert, and exterminated the Roman people. That was the last woe: but of it I must tell you in my next Lecture.

Continue to Lecture VI: The Nemesis of the Goths

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Trump to End Critical Race Theory in Government

Next Story

News Has Always Been ‘Fake’

Latest from Culture