The Roman and the Teuton: The Gothic Civilizer

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

(Go back to Lecture III: The Human Deluge)


Let us follow the fortunes of Italy and of Rome.  They are not only a type of the fortunes of the whole western world, but the fortunes of that world, as you will see, depend on Rome.

You must recollect, meanwhile, that by the middle of the fifth century, the Western Empire had ceased to exist.  The Angles and Saxons were fighting their way into Britain.  The Franks were settled in north France and the lower Rhineland.  South of them, the centre of Gaul still remained Roman, governed by Counts of cities, who were all but independent sovereigns, while they confessed a nominal allegiance to the Emperor of Constantinople.  Their power was destined soon to be annihilated by the conquests of Clovis and his Franks—as false and cruel ruffians as their sainted king, the first-born son of the Church.  The history of Gaul for some centuries becomes henceforth a tissue of internecine horrors, which you must read for yourselves in the pages of M. Sismondi, or of Gregory of Tours.  The Allemanni (whose name has become among the Franks the general name for Germans) held the lands from the Maine to the Rhætian Alps.  The Burgunds, the lands to the south-west of them, comprising the greater part of south-east Gaul.  The West Goths held the south-west of Gaul, and the greater part of Spain, having thrust the Sueves, and with them some Alans, into Gallicia, Asturias, and Portugal; and thrust, also, the Vandals across the straits of Gibraltar, to found a prosperous kingdom along the northern shore of Africa.  The East Goths, meanwhile, after various wanderings to the north of the Alps, lay in the present Austria and in the Danube lands, resting after their great struggle with the Huns, and their crowning victory of Netad.

To follow the fortunes of Italy, we must follow those of these East Goths, and especially of one man among them, Theodoric, known in German song as Dietrich of Bern or Verona.

Interesting exceedingly to us should this great hero be.  No man’s history better shows the strange relations between the Teutons and the dying Empire: but more; his life is the first instance of a Teuton attempting to found a civilized and ordered state, upon experience drawn from Roman sources; of the young world trying to build itself up some sort of dwelling out of the ruins of the old.  Dietrich failed, it is true.  But if the thing had been then possible, he seems to have been the man to have done it.  He lived and laboured like what he was—a royal Amal, a true son of Woden.  Unable to write, he founded a great kingdom by native virtue and common sense.  Called a barbarian, he restored prosperity to ruined Italy, and gave to it (and with it to the greater part of the western world), peace for three and thirty years.  Brought up among hostile sects, he laid down that golden law of religious liberty which the nineteenth century has not yet courage and humanity enough to accept.  But if his life was heroic, his death was tragic.  He failed after all in his vast endeavours, from causes hidden from him, but visible, and most instructive, to us; and after having toiled impartially for the good of conquerors and of conquered alike, he died sadly, leaving behind him a people who, most of them, believed gladly the news that a holy hermit had seen his soul hurled down the crater of Stromboli, as a just punishment for the inexpiable crime of being wiser than his generation.

Some have complained of Gibbon’s ‘hero-worship’ of Dietrich—I do not.  The honest and accurate cynic so very seldom worshipped a hero, or believed in the existence of any, that we may take his good opinion as almost final and without appeal.  One author, for whose opinion I have already exprest a very high respect, says that he was but a wild man of the woods to the last; polished over skin-deep with Roman civilization; ‘Scratch him, and you found the barbarian underneath.’  It may be true.  If it be true, it is a very high compliment.  It was not from his Roman civilization, but from his ‘barbarian’ mother and father, that he drew the ‘vive intelligence des choses morales, et ces inspirations élevées et heroïques,’ which M. Thierry truly attributes to him.  If there was, as M. Thierry truly says, another nature struggling within him—is there not such in every man?  And are not the struggles the more painful, the temptations more dangerous, the inconsistencies too often the more shameful, the capacities for evil as well as for good, more huge, just in proportion to the native force and massiveness of the soul?  The doctrine may seem dangerous.  It is dangerous, like many truths; and woe to those who, being unlearned and unstable, wrest it to their own destruction; and presume upon it to indulge their own passions under Byronic excuses of ‘genius,’ or ‘muscular Christianity.’  But it is true nevertheless: so at least the Bible tells us, in its wonderful delineations of David, ‘the man after God’s own heart,’ and of St. Peter, the chief of the apostles.  And there are points of likeness between the character of Dietrich, and that of David, which will surely suggest themselves to any acute student of human nature.  M. Thierry attributes to him, as his worse self, ‘les instincts les plus violents; la cruauté, l’astuce, l’egoïsme impitoyable.’  The two first counts are undeniable—at least during his youth: they were the common vices of the age.  The two latter I must hold as not proven by facts: but were they proven, they would still be excusable, on the simple ground of his Greek education.  ‘Cunning and pitiless egotism’ were the only moral qualities which Dietrich is likely to have seen exercised at the court of Constantinople: and what wonder, if he was somewhat demoralized by the abominable atmosphere which he breathed from childhood?  Dietrich is an illustration of the saga with which these lectures began.  He is the very type of the forest child, bewitched by the fine things of the wicked Troll garden.  The key to the man’s character, indeed the very glory of it, is the long struggle within him, between the Teutonic and the Greek elements.  Dazzled and debauched, at times, by the sinful glories of the Bosphorus, its palaces, its gold, and its women, he will break the spell desperately.  He will become a wild Goth and an honest man once more; he will revenge his own degradation on that court and empire which he knows well enough to despise, distrust and hate.  Again and again the spell comes over him.  His vanity and his passions make him once more a courtier among the Greeks; but the blood of Odin is strong within him still; again and again he rises, with a noble shame, to virtue and patriotism, trampling under foot selfish luxury and glory, till the victory is complete; and he turns away in the very moment of the greatest temptation, from the bewitching city, to wander, fight, starve, and at last conquer a new land for himself and for his nation; and shew, by thirty years of justice and wisdom, what that true Dietrich was, which had been so long overlaid by the false Dietrich of his sinful youth.

Look at the facts of his history, as they stand, and see whether they do not bear out this, and no other, theory of his character.

The year was 455, two years after Attila’s death.  Near Vienna a boy was born, of Theodemir one of the Gothic kings and his favourite Erleva.  He was sent when eight years old to Constantinople as a hostage.  The Emperor Leo had agreed to pay the Goths 300 pounds of gold every year, if they would but leave him in peace; and young Dietrich was the pledge of the compact.  There he grew up amid all the wisdom of the Romans, watching it all, and yet never even learning to write.  It seems to some that the German did not care to learn; it seems to me rather that they did not care to teach.  He came back to his people at eighteen, delighted them by his strength and stature, and became, to all appearance, a Goth of the Goths; going adventures with six thousand volunteers against the Sarmatæ, who had just defeated the Greeks, and taken a city—which he retook, but instead of restoring it to the Emperor, kept himself.  Food becoming scarce in Austria, the Ostrogoths moved some into Italy, some down on Illyria and Thessaly; and the Emperor gracefully presented them with the country of which they had already taken possession.

In every case, you see, this method went on.  The failing Emperors bought off the Teutons where they could; submitted to them where they could not; and readily enough turned on them when they had a chance.  The relations between the two parties can be hardly better explained, than by comparing them to those between the English adventurers in Hindostan and the falling Rajahs and Sultans of the last century.

After a while Theodoric, or Dietrich, found himself, at his father’s death, sole king of the Ostrogoths.  This period of his life is very obscure: but one hint at least we have, which may explain his whole future career.  Side by side with him and with his father before him, there was another Dietrich—Dietrich the One-eyed, son of Triar, a low-born adventurer, who had got together the remnants of some low-caste tribes, who were called the Goths of Thrace, and was swaggering about the court of Constantinople, as, when the East Goths first met him, what we call Warden of the Marches, with some annual pay for his Goths.  He was insolent to Theodemir and his family, and they retaliated by bitter hatred.  It was intolerable for them, Amals, sons of Odin, to be insulted by this upstart.  So they went on for years, till the miserable religious squabble fell out—you may read it in Gibbon—which ended in the Emperor Zeno, a low-born and cunning man, suspected of the murder of his own son by the princess Ariadne, being driven out of Constantinople by Basiliscus.  We need not enter into such matters, except as far as they bear on the history of Dietrich the Amal.  Dietrich the One-eyed helped Basiliscus—and then Zeno seems to have sent for Dietrich the Amal to help him.  He came, but too late.  Basiliscus’ party had already broken up; Basiliscus and his family had taken refuge in a church, from whence Zeno enticed him, on the promise of shedding no blood, which he did not: but instead, put him, his wife and children, in a dry cistern, walled it up and left them.

Dietrich the Amal rose into power and great glory, and became ‘son-in-arms’ to the Emperor.  But the young Amal longed for adventures.  He offered to take his Ostrogoths into Italy, drive out Odoacer, and seat on the throne of the West, Nepos, one of the many puppets who had been hurled off it a few years before.  Zeno had need of the young hero nearer home, and persuaded him to stay in Constantinople, eat, drink, and be merry.

Whereon Odoacer made Romulus Agustulus and the Roman Senate write to Zeno that they wanted no Emperor save him at Constantinople; that they were very happy under the excellent Odoacer, and that they therefore sent to Zeno, as the rightful owner, all the Imperial insignia and ornaments; things which may have been worn, some of them, by Augustus himself.  And so ended, even in name, the Empire of Rome.  All which the Amal saw, and, as will appear, did not forget.

Zeno gave the Amal all that the One-eyed had had before him, and paid the Ostrogoths yearly as he had paid the One-eye’s men.  The One-eyed was banished to his cantonments, and of course revolted.  Zeno wanted to buy him off, but the Amal would not hear of it; he would not help the Romans against his rival, unless they swore perpetual enmity against him.

They did so, and he marched to the assistance of the wretched Empire.  He was to be met by Roman reinforcements at the Hæmus.  They never came; and the Amal, disgusted and disheartened, found himself entangled in the defiles of the Hæmus, starving and worn out; with the One-eyed entrenched on an inaccessible rock, where he dared not attack him.

Then followed an extraordinary scene.  The One-eyed came down again and again from his rock, and rode round the Amal’s camp, shouting to him words so true, that one must believe them to have been really spoken.

‘Perjured boy, madman, betrayer of your race—do you not see that the Roman plan is as always to destroy Goths by Goths?  Whichever of us falls, they, not we, will be the stronger.  They never met you as they promised, at the cities, nor here.  They have sent you out here to perish in the desert.’

Then the East Goths raised a cry.  ‘The One-eyed is right.  The Amal cares not that these men are Goths like ourselves.’

Then the One-eyed appeals to the Goths themselves, as he curses the Amal.

‘Why are you killing your kinsmen?  Why have you made so many widows?  Where is all their wealth gone, they who set out to fight for you?  Each of them had two or three horses: but now they are walking on foot behind you like slaves,—free-men as well-born as yourself:—and you promised to measure them out gold by the bushel.’

Was it not true?  If young Dietrich had in him (and he shewed that he had in after years) a Teuton’s heart, may not that strange interview have opened his eyes to his own folly, and taught him that the Teuton must be his own master, and not the mercenary of the Romans?

The men cried out that it was true.  He must make peace with the One-eyed, or they would do it themselves; and peace was made.  They both sent ambassadors to Zeno; the Amal complaining of treachery; the One-eyed demanding indemnity for all his losses.  The Emperor was furious.  He tried to buy off the Amal by marrying him to a princess of the blood royal, and making him a Cæsar.  Dietrich would not consent; he felt that it was a snare.  Zeno proclaimed the One-eyed an enemy to the Empire; and ended by reinstating him in his old honours, and taking them from the Amal.  The Amal became furious, burnt villages, slaughtered the peasants, even (the Greeks say) cut off the hands of his captives.  He had broken with the Romans at last.  The Roman was astride of him, and of all Teutons, like Sindbad’s old man of the sea.  The only question, as with Sindbad, was whether he should get drunk, and give them a chance of throwing the perfidious tyrant.  And now the time was come.  He was compelled to ask himself, not—what shall I be in relation to myself: but what shall I be in relation to the Kaiser of the Romans—a mercenary, a slave, or a conqueror—for one of the three I must be?

So it went on, year after year—sometimes with terrible reverses for Dietrich, till the year 480.  Then the old One-eyed died, in a strange way.  Mounting a wild horse at the tent-door, the beast reared before he could get his seat; afraid of pulling it over by the curb, he let it go.  A lance, in Gothic fashion, was hanging at the tent-door, and the horse plunged the One-eyed against it.  The point went deep into his side, and the old fighting man was at rest for ever.

And then came a strange peripeteia for the Amal.  Zeno, we know not why, sent instantly for him.  He had been ravaging, pursuing, defeating Roman troops, or being defeated by them.  Now he must come to Rome.  His Goths should have the Lower Danube.  He should have glory and honour to spare.  He came.  His ideal, at this time, seems actually to have been to live like a Roman citizen in Constantinople, and help to govern the Empire.  Recollect, he was still little more than five and twenty years old.

So he went to Constantinople, and I suppose with him the faithful mother, and faithful sister, who had been with him in all his wanderings.  He had a triumph decreed him at the Emperor’s expense, was made Consul Ordinarius (‘which,’ saith Jornandes, ‘is accounted the highest good and chief glory in the world’) and Master-general, and lodged in the palace.

What did it all mean?  Dietrich was dazzled by it, at least for a while.  What it meant, he found out too soon.  He was to fight the Emperor’s battles against all rebels, and he fought them, to return irritated, complaining (justly or unjustly) of plots against his life; to be pacified, like a child, with the honour of an equestrian statue; then to sink down into Byzantine luxury for seven inglorious years, with only one flashing out of the ancient spirit, when he demanded to go alone against the Bulgars, and killed their king with his own hand.

What woke him from his dream?  The cry of his starving people.

The Goths, settled on the lower Danube, had been living, as wild men and mercenaries live, recklessly from hand to mouth, drinking and gambling till their families were in want.  They send to the Amal.  ‘While thou art revelling at Roman banquets, we are starving—come back ere we are ruined.’

They were jealous, too, of the success of Odoacer and his mercenaries.  He was growing now to be a great power; styling himself ‘King of nations,’ giving away to the Visigoths the Narbonnaise, the last remnant of the Western Empire; collecting round him learned Romans like Symmachus, Boethius, and Cassiodorus; respecting the Catholic clergy; and seemingly doing his best to govern well.  His mercenaries, however, would not be governed.  Under their violence and oppression agriculture and population were both failing; till Pope Gelasius speaks of ‘Æmilia, Tuscia, ceteræque provinciæ in quibus nullus prope hominum existit.’

Meanwhile there seems to have been a deep hatred on the part of the Goths to Odoacer and his mercenaries.  Dr. Sheppard thinks that they despised him himself as a man of low birth.  But his father Ædecon had been chief of the Turklings, and was most probably of royal blood.  It is very unlikely, indeed, that so large a number of Teutons would have followed any man who had not Odin’s blood in his veins.  Was there a stain on Odoacer from his early connexion with Attila?  Or was the hatred against his men more than himself, contempt especially of the low-caste Herules,—a question of race, springing out of those miserable tribe-feuds, which kept the Teutons always divided and weak?  Be that as it may, Odoacer had done a deed which raised this hatred to open fury.  He had gone over the Alps into Rugiland (then Noricum, and the neighbourhood of Vienna) and utterly destroyed those of the Rugier who had not gone into Italy under his banner.  They had plundered, it is said, the cell of his old friend St. Severinus, as soon as the saint died, of the garments laid up for the poor, and a silver cup, and the sacred vessels of the mass.  Be that as it may, Odoacer utterly exterminated them, and carried their king Feletheus, or Fava, back to Italy, with Gisa his ‘noxious wife;’ and with them many Roman Christians, and (seemingly) the body of St. Severinus himself.  But this had been a small thing, if he had not advised himself to have a regular Roman triumph, with Fava, the captive king, walking beside his chariot; and afterwards, in the approved fashion of the ancient Romans on such occasions, to put Fava to death in cold blood.

The records of this feat are to be found, as far as I know them, in one short chapter (I. xix.) of Paulus Diaconus, and in Muratori’s notes thereto; but however small the records, the deed decided the fate of Italy.  Frederic, son of Fava, took refuge with the Ostrogoths, and demanded revenge in the name of his royal race; and it is easy to conceive that the sympathies of the Goths would be with him.  An attack (seemingly unprovoked) on an ancient Teutonic nation by a mere band of adventurers was—or could easily be made—a grievous wrong, and clear casus belli, over and above the innate Teutonic lust for fighting and adventures, simply for the sake of ‘the sport.’

Dietrich went back, and from that day, the dream of eastern luxury was broken, and young Dietrich was a Goth again, for good and for evil.

He assembled the Goths, and marched straight on Constantinople, burning and pillaging as he went.  So say, at least, the Greek historians, of whom, all through this strange story, no one need believe more than he likes.  Had the Goths had the writing of the life of Dietrich, we should have heard another tale.  As it is, we have, as it were, a life of Lord Clive composed by the court scribes of Delhi.

To no Roman would he tell what was in his mind.  Five leagues from Constantinople he paused.  Some say that he had compassion on the city where he had been brought up.  Who can tell?  He demanded to speak to Zeno alone, and the father in arms and his wild son met once more.  There was still strong in him the old Teutonic feudal instinct.  He was ‘Zeno’s man,’ in spite of all.  He asked (says Jornandes) Zeno’s leave to march against Odoacer, and conquer Italy.  Procopius and the Valesian Fragment say that Zeno sent him, and that in case of success, he was to reign there till Zeno came.  Zeno was, no doubt, glad to get rid of him at any price.  As Ennodius well says, ‘Another’s honour made him remember his own origin, and fear the very legions which obeyed him—for that obedience is suspected which serves the unworthy.’  Rome was only nominally under Zeno’s dominion; and it mattered little to him whether Herule or Gothic adventurer called himself his representative.

Then was held a grand function.  Dietrich, solemnly appointed ‘Patrician,’ had Italy ceded to him by a ‘Pragmatic’ sanction, and Zeno placed on his head the sacrum velamen, a square of purple, signifying in Constantinople things wonderful, august, imperial—if they could only be made to come to pass.  And he made them come to pass.  He gathered all Teutonic heroes of every tribe, as well as his own; and through Roumelia, and through the Alps, a long and dangerous journey, went Dietrich and his Goths, with their wives and children, and all they had, packed on waggons; living on their flocks and herds, grinding their corn in hand-mills, and hunting as they went, for seven hundred miles of march; fighting as they went with Bulgars and Sarmatians, who had swarmed into the waste marches of Hungary and Carniola, once populous, cultivated, and full of noble cities; fighting a desperate battle with the Gepidæ, up to their knees in a morass; till over the passes of the Julian Alps, where icicles hung upon their beards, and their clothes cracked with frost, they poured into the Venetian plains.  It was a daring deed; and needed a spirit like Dietrich’s to carry it through.

Odoacer awaited him near the ruins of Aquileia.  On the morning of the fight, as he was arming, Dietrich asked his noble mother to bring him some specially fine mantle, which she had embroidered for him, and put it over his armour, ‘that all men may see how he goes gayer into the fight than ever he did into feast.  For this day she shall see whether she have brought a man-child into the world, or no.’

And in front of Verona (where the plain was long white with human bones), he beat Odoacer, and after a short and sharp campaign, drove him to Ravenna.  But there, Roman fortifications, and Roman artillery, stopped, as usual, the Goth; and Odoacer fulfilled his name so well, and stood so stout, that he could only be reduced by famine; and at last surrendered on terms, difficult now to discover.

Gibbon says, that there was a regular compact that they should enjoy equal authority, and refers to Procopius: but Procopius only says, that they should live together peaceably ‘in that city.’  Be that as it may, Odoacer and his party were detected, after awhile, conspiring against Dietrich, and put to death in some dark fashion.  Gibbon, as advocatus diaboli, of course gives the doubt against Dietrich, by his usual enthymeme—All men are likely to be rogues, ergo, Dietrich was one.  Rather hard measure, when one remembers that the very men who tell the story are Dietrich’s own enemies.  By far the most important of them, the author of the Valesian Fragment, who considers Dietrich damned as an Arian, and the murderer of Boethius and Symmachus, says plainly that Odoacer plotted against his life.  But it was a dark business at best.

Be that as it may, Dietrich the Amal found himself in one day king of all Italy, without a peer.  And now followed a three and thirty years’ reign of wisdom, justice, and prosperity, unexampled in the history of those centuries.  Between the days of the Antonines and those of Charlemagne, I know no such bright spot in the dark history of Europe.

As for his transferring the third of the lands of Italy, which had been held by Odoacer’s men, to his own Goths,—that was just or unjust (even putting out of the question the rights of conquest), according to what manner of men Odoacer’s mercenaries were, and what right they had to the lands.  At least it was done so, says Cassiodorus, that it notoriously gave satisfaction to the Romans themselves.  One can well conceive it.  Odoacer’s men had been lawless adventurers; and now law was installed as supreme.  Dietrich, in his long sojourn at the Emperor’s court, had discovered the true secret of Roman power, which made the Empire terrible even in her fallen fortunes; and that was Law.  Law, which tells every man what to expect, and what is expected of him; and so gives, if not content, still confidence, energy, industry.  The Goths were to live by the Gothic law, the Romans by the Roman.  To amalgamate the two races would have been as impossible as to amalgamate English and Hindoos.  The parallel is really tolerably exact.  The Goth was very English; and the over-civilized, learned, false, profligate Roman was the very counterpart of the modern Brahmin.  But there was to be equal justice between man and man.  If the Goths were the masters of much of the Roman soil, still spoliation and oppression were forbidden; and the remarkable edict or code of Theodoric, shews how deeply into his great mind had sunk the idea of the divineness of Law.  It is short, and of Draconic severity, especially against spoliation, cheating, false informers, abuse by the clergy of the rights of sanctuary, and all offences against the honour of women.  I advise you all to study it, as an example of what an early Teutonic king thought men ought to do, and could be made to do.

The Romans were left to their luxury and laziness; and their country villas (long deserted) were filled again by the owners.  The Goths were expected to perform military service, and were drilled from their youth in those military evolutions which had so often given the disciplined Roman the victory over the undisciplined Goth, till every pomoerium (boulevard), says Ennodius, might be seen full of boys and lads, learning to be soldiers.  Everything meanwhile was done to soothe the wounded pride of the conquered.  The senate of Rome was still kept up in name (as by Odoacer), her nobles flattered by sonorous titles, and the officers of the kingdom and the palace bore the same names as they would have done under Roman emperors.  The whole was an attempt to develop Dietrich’s own Goths by the only civilization which he knew, that of Constantinople: but to engraft on it an order, a justice, a freedom, a morality, which was the ‘barbarian’ element.  The treasures of Roman art were placed under the care of government officers; baths, palaces, churches, aqueducts, were repaired or founded; to build seems to have been Dietrich’s great delight; and we have left us, on a coin, some image of his own palace at Verona, a strange building with domes and minarets, something like a Turkish mosque; standing, seemingly, on the arcades of some older Roman building.  Dietrich the Goth may, indeed, be called the founder of ‘Byzantine’ architecture throughout the Western world.

Theodoric’s palace in Ravenna, Italy

Meanwhile, agriculture prospered once more; the Pontine Marshes were drained; the imperial ports restored, and new cities sprang up.  ‘The new ones,’ says Machiavelli, ‘were Venice, Siena, Ferrara, Aquileia; and those which became extended were Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Milan, Naples, and Bologna.’  Of these the great sea-ports, especially Venice, were founded not by Goths, but by Roman and Greek fugitives: but it was the security and liberality of Dietrich’s reign which made their existence possible; and Venice really owes far more to the barbarian hero, than to the fabled patronage of St. Mark.

‘From this devastation and new population,’ continues Machiavelli, ‘arose new languages, which, partaking of the native idiom of the new people, and of the old Roman, formed a new manner of discourse.  Besides, not only were the names of provinces changed, but also of lakes, rivers, seas, and men; for France, Spain, and Italy are full of fresh names, wholly different from the ancient.’

This reign of Dietrich was, in fact, the birth-hour of modern Italy; and, as Machiavelli says, ‘brought the country to such a state of greatness, that her previous sufferings were unrecognizable.’  We shall see hereafter how the great Goth’s work was all undone; and (to their everlasting shame) by whom it was undone.

The most interesting records of the time are, without doubt, the letters of Cassiodorus, the king’s secretary and chancellor, which have come down to us in great numbers.  There are letters among them on all questions of domestic and foreign policy: to the kings of the Varni, kings of the Herules, kings of the Thuringer (who were still heathens beyond the Black forest), calling on them all to join him and the Burgundians, and defend his son-in-law Alaric II., king of the Visigoths, against Clovis and his Franks.  There are letters, too, bearing on the religious feuds of the Roman population, and on the morals and social state of Rome itself, of which I shall say nothing in this lecture, having cause to refer to them hereafter.  But if you wish to know the times, you must read Cassiodorus thoroughly.

In his letters you will remark how most of the so-called Roman names are Greek.  You will remark, too, as a sign of the decadence of taste and art, that though full of wisdom and practical morality, the letters are couched in the most wonderful bombast to be met with, even in that age of infimæ Latinitatis.  One can only explain their style by supposing that King Dietrich, having supplied the sense, left it for Cassiodorus to shape it as he thought best; and when the letter was read over to him, took for granted (being no scholar) that that was the way in which Roman Cæsars and other cultivated personages ought to talk; admired his secretary’s learning; and probably laughed in his sleeve at the whole thing, thinking that ten words of honest German would have said all that he meant.  As for understanding these flights of rhetoric, it is impossible that Dietrich could have done so: perhaps not even Cassiodorus himself.  Take as one example, such a letter as this.—After a lofty moral maxim, which I leave for you to construe—‘In partem pietatis recidit mitigata districtio; et sub beneficio præstat, qui poenam debitam moderatione considerata palpaverit,’—Jovinus the curial is informed, after the most complex method, that having first quarrelled with a fellow-curial, and then proceeded to kill him, he is banished for life to the isle of Volcano, among the Liparis.  As a curial is a gentleman and a government magistrate, the punishment is just enough; but why should Cassiodorus (certainly not King Dietrich) finish a short letter by a long dissertation on volcanoes in general, and Stromboli in particular, insisting on the wonder that the rocks, though continually burnt, are continually renewed by ‘the inextricable potency of nature;’ and only returning to Jovinus to inform him that he will henceforth follow the example of a salamander, which always lives in fire, ‘being so contracted by natural cold, that it is tempered by burning flame.  It is a thin and small animal, connected with worms, and clothed with a yellow colour;’ . . . Cassiodorus then returns to the main subject of volcanoes, and ends with a story of Stromboli having broken out just as Hannibal poisoned himself at the court of Prusias;—information which may have been interesting, though not consoling, to poor Jovinus, in the prospect of living there; but of which one would like to have had king Dietrich’s opinion.  Did he felicitate himself like a simple Teuton, on the wonderful learning and eloquence of his Greek-Roman secretary?  Or did he laugh a royal laugh at the whole letter, and crack a royal joke at Cassiodorus and all quill-driving schoolmasters and lawyers—the two classes of men whom the Goths hated especially, and at the end to which they by their pedantries had brought imperial Rome?  One would like to know.  For not only was Dietrich no scholar himself, but he had a contempt for the very scholarship which he employed, and forbade the Goths to learn it—as the event proved, a foolish and fatal prejudice.  But it was connected in his mind with chicanery, effeminacy, and with the cruel and degrading punishments of children.  Perhaps the ferula had been applied to him at Constantinople in old days.  If so, no wonder that he never learnt to write.  ‘The boy who trembles at a cane,’ he used to say, ‘will never face a lance.’  His mother wit, meanwhile, was so shrewd that ‘many of his sayings (says the unknown author of the invaluable Valesian Fragment) remain among us to this day.’  Two only, as far as I know, have been preserved, quaint enough:

‘He that hath gold, or a devil, cannot hide it.’


‘The Roman, when poor, apes the Goth: the Goth,
when rich, apes the Roman.’

There is a sort of Solomon’s judgment, too, told of him, in the case of a woman who refused to acknowledge her own son, which was effectual enough; but somewhat too homely to repeat.

As for his personal appearance, it was given in a saga; but I have not consulted it myself, and am no judge of its authenticity.  The traditional description of him is that of a man almost beardless—a rare case among the Goths—with masses of golden ringlets, and black eyebrows over ‘oculos cæsios,’ the blue grey eyes common to so many conquerors.  A complexion so peculiar, that one must believe it to be truly reported.

His tragic death, and the yet more tragic consequences thereof, will be detailed in the next lecture.

Continue to Lecture V: Dietrich’s End

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.

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