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Theodoric the Goth's Boyhood

It was the custom then for tribes or nations who made treaties with each other to exchange hostages, usually important people or noble men as hostages. Often these were the young sons of the barbarian leader. These would be raised in the court of the Empire, and treated well, but executed if the barbarian leader broke his agreement. As a boy, Theodoric was given as a hostage to the court of Constantinople.

Inroad of the Huns--Their defeat by Walamir--Birth of Theodoric--War with the Eastern Empire--Theodoric a hostage--Description of Constantinople--Its commerce and its monuments.


The Ostrogoths had yet one or two battles to fight before they were quite rid of their old masters. The sons of Attila still talked of them as deserters and fugitive slaves, and a day came when Walamir found himself compelled to face a sudden inroad of the Huns. He had few men with him, and being taken unawares, he had no time to summon his brethren to his aid. But he held his own bravely: the warriors of his nation had time to gather round him; and at last, after he had long wearied the enemy with his defensive tactics, he made a sudden onset, destroyed the greater part of the Hunnish army, and sent the rest scattered in hopeless flight far into the deserts of Scythia.[14]

[Footnote 14: Jordanes (cap. iii) says that the fugitive Huns "sought those parts of Scythia past which flow the streams of the river Dnieper which the Huns in their own tongue call 'Var' (the river)". If this is correctly stated it is almost certain that it must describe some battle which happened before the great Western migration of the Ostrogoths, which was mentioned in the last chapter, for it would be impossible, if the Gepidæ were in Trans-danubian Hungary and the Ostrogoths in Pannonia that the Ostrogoths should have driven the Huns into the countries watered by the Dnieper. I am rather inclined to believe that this reference of the battle to an earlier period may be the correct explanation. But Danapri (Dnieper) may be only a blunder of Jordanes, who is often hopelessly wrong in his geography.]

Walamir at once sent tidings of the victory to his brother Theudemir. The messenger arrived at an opportune moment, for on that very day Erelieva, the unwedded wife of Theudemir, had given birth to a man-child. This infant, born on such an auspicious day and looked upon as a pledge of happy fortunes for the Ostrogothic nation, was named Thiuda-reiks (the people-ruler), a name which Latin historians, influenced perhaps by the analogy of Theodosius, changed into Theodoricus, and which will here be spoken of under the well-known form THEODORIC.[15]

[Footnote 15: Jordanes wavers between Theod_e_ricus and Theod_o_ricus. The Greek historians generally use the form (Greek: Theuderichos). German scholars seem to prefer Theoderich. As it is useless now to try to revert to the philologically correct Thiuda-reiks, I use that form of the name with which I suppose English readers to be most familiar--namely, Theodoric.]

It will be observed that I have spoken of Erelieva as the unwedded wife of Theudemir. The Gothic historian calls her his concubine,[16] but this word of reproach hardly does justice to her position. In many of the Teutonic nations, as among the Norsemen of a later century, there seems to have been a certain laxity as to the marriage rite, which was nevertheless coincident with a high and pure morality. It has been suggested that the severe conditions imposed by the Church on divorces may have had something to do with the peculiar marital usages of the Teutonic and Norse chieftains. Reasons of state might require Theudemir the Ostrogoth, or William Longsword the Norman, to ally himself some day with a powerful king's daughter, and therefore he would not go through the marriage rite with the woman, really and truly his wife, but generally his inferior in social position, who meanwhile governed his house and bore him children. If the separation never came, and the powerful king's daughter never had to be wooed, she who was wife in all but name, retained her position unquestioned till her death, and her children succeeded without dispute to the inheritance of their father. The nearest approach to an illustration which the social usages of modern Europe afford, is probably furnished by the "morganatic marriages" of modern German royalties and serenities: and we might say that Theodoric was the offspring of such an union. Notwithstanding the want of strict legitimacy in his position, I do not remember any occasion on which the taunt of bastard birth was thrown in his teeth, even by the bitterest of his foes.

[Footnote 16: "Ipso siquidem die Theodoricus ejus filius quamvis de Erelieva concubina, bonæ tamen spei natus est" (Jordanes: Getica, 52).]

It would be satisfactory if we could fix with exactness the great Ostrogoth's birth-year, but though several circumstances point to 454 as a probable date, we are not able to define it with greater precision.[17]

[Footnote 17: If there be any truth in the suggestion made above, that the Hunnish attack on Walamir was made before the Ostrogothic migration into Pannonia, the birth-year must be moved up to 452.]

The next event of which we are informed in the history of the Ostrogothic nation, a war with the Eastern Empire, was one destined to exert a most important influence on the life of the kingly child, The Ostrogoths settling in Pannonia, one of the provinces of the Roman Empire, were in theory allies and auxiliary soldiers[18] of the Emperor. Similar arrangements had been made with the Visigoths in Spain, with the Vandals in that very province of Pannonia, probably with many other barbarian tribes in many other provinces. There was sometimes more, sometimes less, actual truth in the theoretical relations thus established, and it was one which in the nature of things was not likely long to endure: but for the time, so long as the Imperial treasury was tolerably full and the barbarian allies tolerably amenable to control, the arrangement suited both parties. In the case before us the position of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia was legalised by the alliance, and such portions of the political machinery of the Empire as might still remain were thereby placed at their disposal. The Emperor, on the other hand, was able to boast of a province recovered for the Empire, which was now guarded by the broadswords of his loyal Ostrogoths against the more savage nations outside, who were ever trying to enter the charmed circle of the Roman State. But as the Ostrogothic foederati were his soldiers, there was evidently a necessity that he must send them pay, and this pay, which was called wages when the Empire was strong, and tribute when it was weak, consisted, partly at any rate, of heavy chests of Imperial aurei,[19] sent as _strenae_[20] or New Year's presents, to the barbarian king and his chief nobles.

[Footnote 18: Foederati.]

[Footnote 19: The solidus aureus, the chief Imperial coin of this time, was worth about twelve shillings of our money.]

[Footnote 20: The same word as the French Étrennes.]

Now, about the year 461, the Emperor Leo (successor of the brave soldier Marcian), whether from a special emptiness in the Imperial treasury or from some other cause, omitted to send the accustomed strenae to the Ostrogothic brother-kings. Much disturbed at the failure of the aurei to appear, they sent envoys to Constantinople, who returned with tidings which filled the three palaces of Pannonia with the clamour of angry men. Not only were the strenae withheld, and likely to be still withheld, but there was another Goth, a low-born pretender, not of Amal blood, who was boasting of the title of foederatus of the Empire, and enjoying the strenae which ought to come only to Amal kings and their nobles. This man, who was destined to cross the path of our Theodoric through many weary years, was named like him Theodoric, and was surnamed Strabo (the squinter) from his devious vision, and son of Triarius, from his parentage. He was brother-in-law, or nephew, of a certain Aspar, a successful barbarian, who had mounted high in the Imperial service and had placed two Emperors on the throne. It was doubtless through his kinsman's influence that the squinting adventurer had obtained a position in the court of the Roman Augustus so disproportioned to his birth, and so outrageous to every loyal Ostrogoth.

When the news of these insults to the lineage of the Amals reached Pannonia, the three brothers in fury snatched up their arms and laid waste almost the whole province of Illyricum. Then the Emperor changed his mind, and desired to renew the old friendship. He sent an embassy bearing the arrears of the past-due strenae, those which were then again falling due, and a promise that all future strenae should be punctually paid. Only, as a hostage for the observance of peace he desired that Theudemir's little son, Theodoric, then just entering his eighth year, should be sent to Constantinople. The fact that this request or demand was made by the ostensibly beaten side, may make us doubt whether the humiliation of the Empire was so complete as the preceding sentences (translated from the words of the Gothic historian) would lead us to suppose.

Theudemir was reluctant to part with his first-born son, even to the great Roman Emperor. But his brother Walamir earnestly besought him not to interpose any hindrance to the establishment of a firm peace between the Romans and Goths. He yielded therefore, and the little lad, carried by the returning ambassadors to Constantinople, soon earned the favour of the Emperor by his handsome face and his winning ways.[21]

[Footnote 21: An expansion of the words of Jordanes, "et quia puerulus elegans erat meruit gratiam imperialem habere".]

Thus was the young Ostrogoth brought from his home in Pannonia, by the banks of lonely Lake Balaton, to the New Rome, the busy and stately city by the Bosphorus, the city which was now, more truly than her worn and faded mother by the Tiber, the "Lady of Kingdoms" the "Mistress of the World". Of the Constantinople which the boyish eyes of Theodoric beheld, scarcely a vestige now remains for the traveller to gaze upon. Let us try, therefore, to find a contemporary description. These are the words in which the visit of the Gothic chief Athanaric to that city about eighty years previously is described by Jordanes:

"Entering the royal city, and marvelling thereat, 'Lo! now I behold,' said he, 'what I often heard of without believing, the glory of so great a city.' Then turning his eyes this way and that, beholding the situation of the city and the concourse of ships, now he marvels at the long perspective of lofty walls, then he sees the multitudes of various nations like the wave gushing forth from one fountain which has been fed by divers springs, then he beholds the marshalled ranks of the soldiery. 'A God,' said he, 'without doubt a God upon Earth is the Emperor of this realm, and whoso lifts his hand against him, that man's blood be on his own head."

Still can we behold "the situation of the city", that unrivalled situation which no map can adequately explain, but which the traveller gazes upon from the deck of his vessel as he rounds Seraglio Point, and the sight of which seems to bind together in one, two continents of space and twenty-five centuries of time. On his right hand Asia with her camels, on his left Europe with her railroads. Behind him are the Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles, with their memories of Lysander and Ægospotami, of Hero, Leander, and Byron, with the throne of Xerxes and the tomb of Achilles, and farther back still the island-studded Archipelago, the true cradle of the Greek nation. Immediately in front of him is the Golden Horn, now bridged and with populous cities on both its banks, but the farther shore of which, where Pera and Galata now stand, was probably covered with fields and gardens when Theodoric beheld it. There also in front of him, but a little to the right, comes rushing down the impetuous Bosphorus, that river which is also an arm of the sea. Lined now with the marble palaces of bankrupt Sultans, it was once a lonely and desolate strait, on whose farther shore the hapless Io, transformed into a heifer, sought a refuge from her heaven-sent tormentor. Up through its difficult windings pressed the adventurous mariners of Miletus in those early voyages which opened up the Euxine to the Greeks, as the voyage of Columbus opened up the Atlantic to the Spaniards. It is impossible now to survey the beautiful panorama without thinking of that great inland sea which, as we all know, begins but a few miles to the north of the place where we are standing, and whose cloudy shores are perhaps concealing in their recesses the future lords of Constantinople. We look towards that point of the compass, and think of Sebastopol. The great lords of Theudemir's court, who brought the young Theodoric to his new patron, may have looked northwards too, remembering the sagas about the mighty Hermanric, who dwelt where now the Russians dwell, and the fateful march of the terrible Huns across the shallows of the Sea of Azof.

The great physical features of the scene are of course unchanged, but almost everything else, how changed by four centuries and a half of Ottoman domination! The first view of Stamboul, with its mosques, its minarets, its latticed houses, its stream of manifold life both civilised and barbarous, flowing through the streets, is delightful to the traveller; but if he be more of an archaeologist than an artist, and seeks to reproduce before his mind's eye something of the Constantinople of the Cæsars rather than the Stamboul of the Sultans, he will experience a bitter disappointment in finding how little of the former is left.

He may still see indeed the land-ward walls of the city, and a most interesting historical relic they are.[22] They stretch for about four miles, from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn. It is still, comparatively speaking, all city inside of them, all country on the outside. There is a double line of walls with towers at frequent intervals, some square, some octagonal, and deep fosses running along beside the walls, now in spring often bright green with growing corn. These walls and towers, seen stretching up hill and down dale, are a very notable feature in the landscape, and ruinous and dismantled as they are after fourteen centuries of siege, of earthquake, and of neglect, they still help us vividly to imagine what they must have looked like when the young Theodoric beheld them little more than ten years after their erection.[23]

[Footnote 22: For the fact that these walls are still visible we have to thank the good offices of a recent British ambassador, I believe Lord Stratford de Redcliffe. The Sultana Validé (Sultan's mother) had obtained from her son an order to pull down the walls, and sell the materials for the benefit of her privy purse. The ambassador, however, protested against this act of Ottomanism (rather than Vandalism), and the walls were saved.]

[Footnote 23: The walls of Constantinople were first built in 412, but having been much injured by an earthquake were rebuilt (we are told in the short space of sixty days) by the Prefect of the City, Constantine, at the command of Theodosius II. This rebuilding, which was partly due to the terror caused by Attila, took place in the year 447.]

Of the gates, some six or seven in number, two are especially interesting to us. The first is the Tep-Kapou (Cannon Gate), or Porta Sancti Romani. This was the weakest part of the fortifications of Constantinople, the "heel of Achilles", as it has been well called,[24] and here the last Roman Emperor of the East, Constantine Palaeologus, died bravely in the breach for the cause of Christianity and civilisation, The other gate is the Porta Aurea, a fine triple gateway, the centre arch of which rests on two Corinthian pilasters. Through this gateway--the nearest representative of the Capitoline Hill at Rome--the Eastern Emperors rode in triumphant procession when a new Augustus had to be proclaimed, or when an enemy of the Republic had been defeated. It is possible that Theodoric may have seen Anthemius, the Emperor whom Constantinople gave to Rome, ride forth through this gate (467) to take possession of the Western throne: possible too that the great but unsuccessful expedition planned by the joint forces of the East and West against the Vandals of Africa may have had its ignominious failure hidden from the people for a time by a triumphal procession through the Golden Gate in the following year (468). This gate is now walled up, and tradition says that the order for its closure was given by Mohammed, the Conqueror, immediately after his entry into the city, through fear of an old Turkish prophecy, which declared that through this gate the next conquerors should enter Constantinople.

[Footnote 24: By Dr. Dethier. "Bosphore et Constantinople", p. 51.]

Of the palace of the Emperor, into which the young Goth was ushered by the eunuch-chamberlain, no vestige probably now remains. The Seraglio has replaced the Palation, and is itself now abandoned to loneliness and decay, being only the recipient of one annual visit from the Sultan, when he goes in state to kiss the cloak of Mohammed. The great mosque of St. Sophia on the right is a genuine and a glorious monument of Imperial Constantinople, but not of Constantinople as Theodoric saw it. The basilica, in which he probably listened with childish bewilderment to many a sermon for or against the decrees of the council of Chalcedon, was burnt down sixty years after his visit in the great Insurrection of the "Nika", and the noble edifice in which ten thousand Mussulmans now assemble to listen to the reading of the Koran, while above them the Arabic names of the companions of the Prophet replace the mosaics of the Evangelists, is itself the work of the great Emperor Justinian, the destroyer of the State which Theodoric founded.

But almost between the Church of St. Sophia and the Imperial Palace lay in old times the Great Hippodrome, centre of the popular life of the capital, where the excited multitudes cheered with rapture, or howled in execration, at the victory of the Blue or the Green charioteer; where many a time the elevation or the deposition of an Emperor was accomplished by the acclamations of the same roaring throng. Of this Hippodrome we have still a most interesting memorial in the Atmeidan (the Place of Horses), which, though with diminished area, still preserves something of the form of the old racecourse. And here to this day are two monuments on which the young hostage may have often gazed, wondering at their form and meaning. The obelisk of Thothmes I., already two thousand years old when Constantinople was founded, was reared in the Hippodrome, by order of the great Emperor Theodosius, and some of the bas-reliefs on its pedestal still explain to us the mechanical devices by which it was lifted into position, while in others Theodosius, his wife, his sons, and his colleague sit in solemn state, but, alas! with grievously mutilated countenances. Near it is a spiral column of bronze which, almost till our own day, bore three serpents twined together, whose heads long ago supported a golden tripod. This bronze monument is none other than the votive offering to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, presented by the confederated states of Greece, to celebrate the victory of Platæa. The golden tripod was melted down at the time of Philip of Macedon, but the twisted serpents, brought by Constantine to adorn and hallow his new capital by the Bosphorus, bore and still bear the names, written in archaic characters, of all the Hellenic states which took part in that great deliverance.

All these monuments are on the first of the seven hills on which Constantinople is built. On the second hill stands a strange and blackened pillar, which once stood in the middle of the Forum of Constantine; and this too was there in the days of Theodoric. It is called the Burnt Column, because it has been more than once struck by lightning, and is blackened with the smoke of the frequent fires which have consumed the wooden shanties at its base. But

"there it stands, as stands a lofty mind, Worn, but unstooping to the baser crowd".

It was once 150 feet high, but is now 115, and it consists of six huge cylinders of porphyry, one above another, whose junction is veiled by sculptured laurel wreaths. On its summit stood the statue of Constantine with the garb and attributes of the Grecian Sun-God, but having his head surrounded with the nails of the True Cross, brought from Jerusalem to serve instead of the golden rays of far-darting Apollo. Underneath the column was placed (and remains probably to this day) the Palladium, that mysterious image of Minerva, which Æneas carried from Troy to Alba Longa, which his descendants removed to Rome, and which was now brought by Constantine to his new capital, so near to its first legendary home, to be the pledge of abiding security to the city by the Bosphorus.

These are the chief relics of Constantinople in the fifth century which are still visible to the traveller. I have described with some little detail the outward appearance of the city and its monuments, because these would naturally be the objects which would most attract the attention of a child brought from such far different scenes into the midst of so stately a city. But during the ten or eleven years that Theodoric remained in honourable captivity at the court of Leo, while he was growing up from childhood to manhood, it cannot be doubted that he gradually learned the deeper lessons which lay below the glory and the glitter of the great city's life, and that the knowledge thus acquired in those years which are so powerful in moulding character, had a mighty influence on all his subsequent career.

He saw here for the first time, and by degrees he apprehended, the results of that state of civilitas which in after years he was to be constantly recommending to his people. Sprung from a race of hunters and shepherds, having slowly learned the arts of agriculture, and then perhaps partly unlearned them under the over-lordship of the nomad Huns, the Ostrogoths at this time knew nothing of a city life. A city was probably in their eyes little else than a hindrance to their freebooting raids, a lair of enemies, a place behind whose sheltering walls, so hard to batter down, cowards lurked in order to sally forth at a favourable moment and attack brave men in their rear. At best it was a treasure-house, which valiant Goths, if Fortune favoured them, might sack and plunder: but Fortune seldom did favour the children of Gaut in their assaults upon the fenced cities of the Empire.

Now, however, the lad Theodoric began to perceive, as the man Ataulfus had perceived before him, that the city life upon which all the proverbs and the songs of his countrymen poured contempt, had its advantages. To the New Rome came the incessant ships of Alexandria, bringing corn for the sustenance of her citizens. Long caravans journeyed over the highlands of Asia Minor loaded with the spices and jewels of India and the silks of China. Men of every conceivable Asiatic country were drawn by the irresistible attraction of hoped-for profit to the quays and the Fora of Byzantium. The scattered homesteads of the Ostrogothic farmers had no such wonderful power of drawing men over thousands of miles of land and sea to visit them. Then the bright and varied life of the Imperial City could not fail to fill the boy's soul with pleasure and admiration. The thrill of excitement in the Hippodrome as the two charioteers, Green and Blue, rounded the spina, neck and neck, the tragedies acted in the theatre amid rapturous applause, the strange beasts from every part of the Roman world that roared and fought in the Amphitheatre, the delicious idleness of the Baths, the chatter and bargaining and banter of the Forum,--all this made a day in beautiful Constantinople very unlike a day in the solemn and somewhat rude palace by Lake Balaton.

As the boy grew to manhood, the deep underlying cause of this difference perhaps became clearer to his mind. He could see more or less plainly that the soul which held all this marvellous body of civilisation together was reverence for Law. He visited perhaps some of the courts of law; he may have seen the Illustrious Prætorian Prefect, clothed in Imperial purple, move majestically to the judgment-seat, amid the obsequious salutations of the dignified officials,[25] who in their various ranks and orders surrounded the hall. The costly golden reed-case, the massive silver inkstand, the silver bowl for the petitions of suitors, all emblems of his office, were placed solemnly before him, and the pleadings began. Practised advocates arose to plead the cause of plaintiff or defendant; busy short-hand writers took notes of the proceedings; at length in calm and measured words the Prefect gave his judgment; a judgment which was necessarily based on law, which had to take account of the sayings of jurisconsults, of the stored-up wisdom of twenty generations of men; a judgment which, notwithstanding the venality which was the curse of the Empire, was in most instances in accordance with truth and justice. How different, must Theodoric often have thought, in after years, when he had returned to Gothland,--how different was this settled and orderly procedure from the usage of the barbarians. With them the "blood-feud", the "wild justice of revenge", often prolonged from generation to generation, had been long the chief righter of wrongs done; and if this was now slowly giving place to judicial trial, that trial was probably a coarse and almost lawless proceeding, in which the head man of the district, with a hundred assessors, as ignorant as himself, amid the wild cries of the opposed parties, roughly fixed the amount of blood-money to be paid by a murderer, or decided at hap-hazard, often with an obvious reference to the superior force at the command of one or other of the litigants, some obscure dispute as to the ownership of a slave or the right to succeed to a dead man's inheritance.

[Footnote 25: Officium, or Militia Literata.]

Law carefully thought out, systematised, and in the main softened and liberalised, from generation to generation, was the great gift of the Roman Empire to the world, and by her strong, and uniform, and, in the main, just administration of this law, that Empire had kept, and in the days of Theodoric was still keeping, her hold upon a hundred jarring nationalities. What hope was there that the German intruders into the lands of the Mediterranean could ever vie with this great achievement? Yet if they could not, if it was out of their power to reform and reinvigorate the shattered state, if they could only destroy and not rebuild, they would exert no abiding influence on the destinies of Europe.

I do not say that all these thoughts passed at this time through the mind of Theodoric, but I have no doubt that the germs of them were sown by his residence in Constantinople. When he returned, a young man of eighteen years and of noble presence to the palace of his father, he had certainly some conception of what the Greeks meant when he heard them talking about politeia, some foreshadowing of what he himself would mean when in after days he should speak alike to his Goth and Roman subjects of the blessings of civilitas.







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