Embassy of Pope John to Constantinople--His imprisonment and death--Execution of Symmachus--Opportune death of Theodoric--Various stones respecting it--His mausoleum--Ultimate fate of his remains.
The death of Boëthius occurred probably about the middle of 524, and in the same year, as it would seem, Theodoric left Verona and returned to his old quarters at Ravenna. The danger from the barbarians on the northern frontier had apparently been averted, but a far greater danger, the hatred and the terror of his subjects of Roman origin, had entered his kingdom. It was probably during this same year 524 that the zeal of the orthodox Emperor Justin began to flame out against the Arians. Their churches were taken from them and given to the Catholics, and, as we hear that several Arians at this time embraced the Catholic faith, we may conjecture that the usual methods of conversion in that age, confiscation, imprisonment, and possibly torture, had been pretty freely employed. These measures, coming close after the alleged conspiracy of the Senators, or perhaps simultaneously with it, completed the exasperation of Theodoric, He sent for the Pope, John I., a Tuscan, who had been lately elevated to the Papal chair, and when the successor of St. Peter appeared at Ravenna commanded him, with some haughtiness in his tone, to proceed to Constantinople, to the Emperor Justin, and tell him that "he must in no wise attempt to win over those whom he calls heretics to the Catholic religion". The Pope is said to have made some protestations, distinguishing between his duty to God and his duty to his king, but nevertheless accepted a commission of some kind or other to treat with the Emperor on the subject of mutual toleration between Catholics and Arians.
[Footnote 133: Possibly of Albinus also, but he disappears from the story, according to the tantalising manner of the annalists from whom we get our information.]
(525) He set forth at the head of a brilliant train, accompanied by Ecclesius, Bishop of Ravenna, and Eusebius, Bishop of Fano, by Senator Theodorus, who had been consul in 505, by Senator Importunus, consul in 509, who was descended from the historic family of the Decii, and from whom his coevals expected deeds worthy of that illustrious name, by Senator Agapetus, who had been consul along with the Eastern Emperor in 517, and by many other noblemen and bishops.
The visit of a pope to Constantinople, an event which had not occurred since the very earliest days of the new capital, created profound sensation in that city and was the very thing to cement that union between the Papacy and the Empire which constituted Theodoric's greatest danger. The whole city poured forth with crosses and candles to meet the Pope and his companions at the twelfth milestone, and to testify with shouts their veneration for the Apostles Peter and Paul, whose representative they deemed that they saw before them. "Justinus Augustus", the fortunate farm-lad, before whom in his old age all the great ones of the earth prostrated themselves in reverence, now saluted the Vicar of St. Peter with the same gestures of adoration. The coronation of the Emperor, who had already been for six years on the throne, was celebrated with the utmost magnificence, the Roman Pontiff himself placing the diadem on his head. Then the Pope and all the Senators with tears besought the Emperor that their embassy might be acceptable in his sight. In the private interviews which were held, the Pope probably hinted to his orthodox ally the dangers which might result to the Catholic cause in Italy, if Theodoric, hitherto so tolerant a heretic, should be provoked to measures of retaliation on behalf of his Church. There does seem to have been some modification of the persecuting edicts against the Arians, and at least some restoration of churches to the heretics, though certain Papal historians, unwilling to admit that a pope can have pleaded for any concession to misbelievers, endeavour to represent the Pope's mission as fruitless, while the Pope's person was greeted with enthusiastic reverence. But that which is upon the whole our best authority declares that "the Emperor Justin having met the Pope on his arrival as if he were St. Peter himself, and having heard his message, promised that he would comply with all his demands except that the converts who had given themselves to the Catholic faith could by no means be restored to the Arians".
This last exception does not seem an unreasonable one. Surely Theodoric could hardly have expected that Justin would exert his Imperial power in order to force any of his subjects back into what he deemed a deadly heresy. But for some cause or other, probably because he perceived the mistake which he had committed in giving to the world so striking a demonstration of the new alliance between Emperor and Pope, Theodoric's ambassadors, on their return to Ravenna, found their master in a state of wrath bordering on frenzy. All, both Pope and Senators, were cast into prison and there treated with harshness and cruelty. The Pope, who was probably an aged and delicate man, began to languish in his dungeon, and there he died on the 25th of May, 526.
In the meantime, while the Papal embassy had been absent on its mission to Constantinople, Theodoric had perpetrated another crime under the influence of his maddening suspicions. Symmachus, father-in-law of Boëthius, the venerable head of the Senate, a man of saintly life and far advanced in years, had probably dared to show that he condemned as well as lamented the execution of his brilliant son-in-law. Against him, therefore, a charge, doubtless of treason, was brought by command of the king. To be accused was of course to be condemned, and Symmachus was put to death in one of the prisons at Ravenna.
After the deaths of these three men, Boëthius, Symmachus, and Pope John, all chance of peace between Theodoric and his subjects, and what was worse, all chance of peace between Theodoric and his nobler and truer self was over, and there was nothing left him but to die in misery and remorse. It was probably in these summer days of 526 that (as before stated) he presented his young grandson Athalaric to his faithful Goths as their king. An edict was issued--and the faithful groaned when they saw that it bore the counter-signature of a Jewish Treasury-clerk--that on Sunday the 30th of August all the Catholic churches of Italy should be handed over to the Arians. But this tremendous religious revolution was not to be accomplished, nor was an insurrection of the Catholics to be required in order to arrest it. The edict was published on Wednesday the 26th of August. On the following day the King was attacked by diarroea, and after three days of violent pain he died on the 30th of August, the very day on which the churches were to have been handed over to the heretics and ninety-seven days after the death of the Pope.
[Footnote 134: The disease and death, of Theodoric are thus described by the chief contemporary authority, the "Anonymous Valesii": "Sed qui non patitur fideles cultores suos ab alienigenis opprimi, mox intulit in eum sententiam Arrii, auctoris religionis ejus: fluxum ventris incurrit, et dum intra triduo evacuatus fuisset, eodem die, quo se gaudebat ecclesias invadere, simul regnum et animam amisit".]
There is certainly something in this account of Theodoric's death which suggests the idea of arsenical poisoning. No hint of this kind is given by any of the annalists, but they are all hostile to Theodoric and disposed to see in his rapid illness and most opportune death a Divine judgment for his meditated persecution of the Church. On the other hand it is impossible to read the account of his strange incoherent deeds and words during the last three years of his life, without suspecting that his brain was diseased and that he was not fully responsible for his actions. As bearing on this question it is worth while to quote the story of his death given by a Greek historian who wrote twenty-four years after his death. It is, perhaps, only an idle tale, but it shows the kind of stories which were current among the citizens of Ravenna as to the last days of their great king. "When Theodoric was dining, a few days after the death of Symmachus and Boëthius, the servants placed on the table a large fish's head. This seemed to Theodoric to be the head of Symmachus, newly slain. The teeth seemed to gnaw the lower lip, the eyes glared at him with wrath and frenzy, the dead man appeared, to threaten him with utmost vengeance. Terrified by this amazing portent and chilled to the bone with fear, he hastily sought his couch, where, having ordered the servants to pile bed-clothes upon him, he slept awhile. Then sending for Elpidius, the physician, he related all that had happened to him, and wept for his sins against Symmachus and Boëthius. And with these tears and with bitter lamentations for the tragedy in which he had taken part, he soon afterwards died, this being the first and last injustice which he had committed against any of his subjects. And it proceeded from his not carefully sifting, as he was wont to do, the evidence on which a capital charge was grounded".
[Footnote 135: Procopius. He was present with Belisarius in Ravenna in 540, and wrote his history of the Gothic war (first three books) probably in 550.]
[Footnote 136: This is, of course, an error. Theodoric's death was about two years after that of Boëthius, and many months after that of Symmachus.]
This story of Procopius, if it have any foundation at all, seems to show that Theodoric's last days were passed in delirium, and might suggest a doubt whether in the heart-break of these later years he had not endeavoured to drown his sorrows in wine. But it is interesting to see that the Greek historian, though writing from a somewhat hostile point of view, recognises emphatically the justice of Theodoric's ordinary administration, and considers the execution of Symmachus and Boëthius (we ought to add the imprisonment of the Pope and his co-ambassadors) as the one tyrannical series of acts which marred the otherwise fair fame of a patriot-king.
The tomb of Theodoric still stands, a noble monument of the art of the sixth century, outside the walls of the north-east corner of Ravenna. This edifice, which belongs to the same class of sepulchral buildings as the tomb of Hadrian (now better known as the Castle of S. Angelo), is built of squared marble stones, and consists of two storeys, the lower one a decagon, the upper one circular. The roof is composed of one enormous block of Istrian marble 33 feet in diameter, 3 feet in height, and weighing, it is said, nearly 300 tons. It is a marvel and a mystery how, with the comparatively rude engineering appliances of that age, so ponderous a mass can have been transported from such a distance and raised to such a height. At equal intervals round the outside of this shallow, dome-like roof, twelve stone brackets are attached to it. They are now marked with the names of eight Apostles and of the four Evangelists. One conjecture as to their destination is that they were originally crowned with statues, perhaps of these Apostles and Evangelists; another, to me not very probable, is, that the ropes used (if any were used) in lifting the mighty monolith to its place were passed through these, which would thus be the handles of the dome.
[Footnote 137: The mausoleum of Theodoric was a work that excited the admiration of his contemporaries. The "Anonymous Valesii" writes "Se autem vivo fecit sibi monumentum ex lapide quadrato, miræ magnitudinis opus, et saxum ingens quod superponeret inquisivit".]
This mausoleum, which is generally called La Rotonda by the citizens of Ravenna, was used in the Middle Ages as the choir of the Church of S. Maria della Rotonda, and divine service was celebrated in it by the monks of an adjoining monastery. It is now a "public monument" and there are few traces left of its ecclesiastical employment. The basement, as I have seen it, is often filled with water, exuding from the marshy soil: the upper storey is abandoned to gloom and silence.
Of Theodoric himself, whose body, according to tradition, was once deposited in a porphyry vase in the upper storey of the mausoleum, there is now no vestige in the great pile which in his own life-time he raised as his intended sepulchre. Nor is this any recent spoliation. Agnellus, Bishop of Ravenna, writing in the days of Charlemagne, says that the body of Theodoric was not in the mausoleum, and had been, as he thought, cast forth out of its sepulchre, and the wonderful porphyry vase in which it had been enclosed placed at the door of the neighbouring monastery. A recent enquirer has connected these somewhat ambiguous words of Agnellus with a childish story told by Pope Gregory the Great, who wrote some seventy years after the death of Theodoric. According to this story, a holy hermit, who lived in the island of Lipari, on the day and hour of Theodoric's death saw him, with bound hands and garments disarranged, dragged up the volcano of Stromboli by his two victims Symmachus and Pope John, and hurled by them into the fire-vomiting crater. What more likely, it is suggested, than that the monks of the adjoining monastery should seize the opportunity of some crisis in the troubled history of Ravenna to cast out the body of Theodoric from its resting-place, and so, to the ignorant people, give point to Pope Gregory's edifying narrative as to the disposal of his soul?
[Footnote 138: "Sed ut mihi videtur, ex sepulcro projectus est, et ipsa urna, ubi jacuit, ex lapide pirfiretico valde mirabilis ante ipsius monasterii aditum posita est".]
[Footnote 139: Corrado Ricci, "Della Corazzo d'Oro", in "Cronologio Ravennate", 1879.]
A discovery, which was made some forty years ago in the neighbourhood of Ravenna, may possibly throw some light on these mysterious words of Bishop Agnellus: "As it seems to me, he was cast forth out of his sepulchre". In May, 1854, the labourers employed in widening the bed of the Canale Corsini (now the only navigable water-way between Ravenna and the sea) came, at the depth of about five feet beneath the sea-level, on some tumuli, evidently sepulchral in their character, made of bricks laid edgeways. Near one of these tumuli, but lying apart by itself, was a golden cuirass adorned with precious stones. The rascally labourers, when they caught sight of their treasure, feigned to see nothing, promptly covered it up again, and returned at nightfall to divide the spoil. A little piece of gold which was found lying on the ground caused enquiries to be set on foot; the labourers were arrested, but unfortunately the greater part of the booty had already been cast into the melting-pot. A few pieces were, however, recovered, and are now in the museum at Ravenna, where they figure in the catalogue as part of the armour of Odovacar. This is, however, a mere conjecture, and another, at least equally probable conjecture, is that the cuirass of gold once covered the breast of Theodoric. The spot where it was found is about one hundred and fifty yards from the Rotonda, and if the monks had for any reason decided to pillage the sepulchre of its precious deposit, this was a not improbable place where they might hide it for a time. Certainly the self-denial which they showed in not stripping the body of its costly covering is somewhat surprising, but possibly the conspirators were few in number and the chances of war may have removed them, before they had an opportunity to disinter the body a second time and strip it of its cuirass, which moreover could not have been easily disposed of without exciting suspicion.
One little circumstance which seems somewhat to confirm this theory, is the fact that there is an enrichment running round the border of the cuirass very similar in character to a decoration of the cornice in Theodoric's tomb.
[Footnote 140: A "meandro", as it is called by Ricci.]
Whether this theory be correct or not, the indignity which was certainly at some time offered to the mortal remains of the great Ostrogothic king reminds us of the similar insults offered to the body of the great Puritan Protector, Cromwell, like Theodoric, was carried to his grave with all the conventional demonstrations of national mourning. He was dragged from it again and cast out "like an abominable branch" when the legitimate monarchy was restored, when "Church and King" were again in the ascendant, and when the stout soldiers, who had made him in all but the name king de facto, were obliged to bow their heads beneath the recovered might of the king de jure.