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Sabina Walter: Der Regierungsstil Theoderichs des Großen im Spiegel der "Varien" (= Roma Aeterna; Bd. 13), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2023, 320 S., 1 Farb-Abb., ISBN 978-3-515-13442-2, EUR 65,00
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Rezension von:
Massimiliano Vitiello
Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City
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Matthias Haake
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Massimiliano Vitiello: Rezension von: Sabina Walter: Der Regierungsstil Theoderichs des Großen im Spiegel der "Varien", Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2023, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 12 [15.12.2023], URL:

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Sabina Walter: Der Regierungsstil Theoderichs des Großen im Spiegel der "Varien"

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Sabina Walter has defended at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg an interesting and provoking dissertation. The topic of this study is the governmental style of King Theoderic, which is analyzed through the mirror of the Variae, Cassiodorus's collection of letters. This dissertation is the most recent attempt to study elements of the ciuilitas of Theoderic and to contextualize the figure of this rex as both "King of the Goths and ruler of the Romans" (to evoke the title of H.-U. Wiemer's recent biography of Theoderic). In the introductory section, chapter 1 (11-25), Walter lays down the methodological frame for her thesis, which includes the works of F. Millar 1977, the reaction to his book by J. Bleicken 1982, and the more recent study of S. Schmidt-Hofner 2008. [1] Walter wonders to which extent the Variae represent a good picture of Theoderic's regular governmental activity. The answer to this question, which has intrigued scholars for a long time, lies behind the scope of the collection, behind Cassiodorus's claim (in the introduction to the Variae) to make his letters useful to future generation of bureaucrats, and behind the author's political or spiritual aims at the end of his palatine career. Therefore, the overall image of Theoderic as a pragmatic ruler may vary, depending on a scholar's understanding of why, where, and when Cassiodorus published the Variae, his criteria for selection, and whether he revised some of the letters.

Chapters 2 and 3 (26-108) discuss thoroughly Theoderic's religious policy, in particular his attitude towards the Jews of the kingdom and towards the Italian Catholic clergy. Much of the analysis is meant to rectify some of the positions of H.-C. Brennecke (1988, 2000, 2020), one of the most important scholars of Arianism. I would say that the book of B. Saitta 1993 [2] had already shed a solid methodological frame on the position of the Arian king and on his disputed "tolerance", which was often the result of having rigidly applied both the Theodosian Code and his Edict to solve the religious and social tensions in the kingdom. The new edition of the Edict by I. König should have been referenced in the footnotes, as it includes the parallel sources. [3] The edition of the Anonymus Valesianus by M. Festy and M. Vitiello would have also been helpful to contextualize the several statements by this pro-Byzantine anonymous author on the legacy of Theoderic's religious policy. [4] This includes the comparison - which Walter does not discuss - between Theoderic's death and that of Arius, which, according to the anonymous author, were both caused by dysentery (An. Val. 95: intulit in eum sententiam Arrii, auctoris religionis eius).

In the second part, the largest of the investigation (109-220), Walter deals with the senatorial elite. The author in my opinion is excessively interested in invalidating C. Schäfer's thirty-year-old dissertation. [5] Schäfer's book was necessarily influenced by the language of the late eighties/early nineties, the time when the work was conceived, including the question of political parties, divisions between families, factionalism in Rome and at the court. No doubt that I share Walter's concerns on the risk of an analysis too focused on political parties and factions (see 120-132, 193-194). However, Schäfer's book is a solid broad investigation which still represents an indispensable instrument for research. In this part, Walter moves to the deep analysis of the letters of promotion of senators in the name of Theoderic. These letters include the lists of their virtues, the reasons for their promotions, and often the eulogies of their ancestors, which in turn open important windows into the magistrates' background, their careers, and their families, and enrich the prosopography. A few senators were Goths who held key positions, like the Count Arigernus and the prince Eutharic Cilliga. It is not surprising that most of the Urban Prefects had deep ties to Rome, and they knew the practicalities that the administration of the Old Capital implied. Other most illustrious positions, like the Consulship, were expensive ones, as they carried the weight of the sponsorship of the traditional games in Rome whose expenses not many families could afford (it would have been helpful to better consider Cassiod., Var. 5,42, also Chron. s.a. 519). I would say that J. Matthews's 1975 balanced analysis on the late-imperial division of career between Roman senators and members of provincial elite families during the period 364-425 AD could largely apply to Ostrogothic Italy. [6] In this section Walter should have considered the recent book of R. Salzman 2021 (esp. 148-399 passim) [7], a fundamental work that would have helped the author to better delineate a theoretical frame for the study of the senatorial elite and its "resilience and resurgence" in the period after the death of Valentinian III until the papacy of Gregory the Great (455-604 AD). Salzman's book would also have benefitted, in a more pragmatic way than Schäfer's dissertation, Walter's analysis of the relationship between Theoderic and the Senate, as well as her analysis of the Roman elite's patronage of the citizens of the Old Capital, and of the reluctance by elite families to leave Rome to serve at the Ravenna palace.

Chapter 5 (221-274) discusses Theoderic's directions to his army, which include the building of a fleet and the development of a Gothic bureaucracy to regulate the needs of the Gothic militarized society and the interactions between Goths and Romans. In this section, Walter embraces the idea of the sharp division between Roman civilians and Gothic army as suggested by H.-U. Wiemer as "Integration durch Separation" (see most recently Wiemer 2023, 130-231). In this section the author necessarily relies on a smaller number of Cassiodoran letters. The analysis is very accurate, and the secondary literature is well distributed among the footnotes. With respect to the previous sections, this part allows the reader to better understand the status quaestionis of the analyzed documents.

The conclusion in chapter 6 (275-300) offers on multiple layers a comparison between the governing style of King Theoderic, as traditional, conservative, and attentive to laws, in contrast to Emperor Justinian, who challenged the establishment with his political actions and legislative changes. Comparisons in this direction have been occasionally suggested by scholars, although I wonder whether discussing Theoderic in parallel to his contemporary Anastasius (at a governmental level, not the institutional one, on which for example J. Prostko-Prostyński 1994) [8] would have further raised the level of this research. The much-studied "Vertrag" of the year 488 between Theoderic and Zeno agreed that the king would rule Italy on his behalf (cf. An. Val. 49). No matter how Theoderic envisioned his position of rex, whether with or without an 'imperial patina', this ruler scrupulously applied the imperial law and his Edict. The dynamics Justinian had to deal with (e.g. the wars with the West, the Nika Riot, the plague in Constantinople) postdate the age of Theoderic. A comparison of the rules of Theoderic and Justinian would be perhaps more compelling if one accepts the thesis of S. Bjornlie that the Variae were published with a political intent in the Constantinople of Justinian. [9] But this provocative hypothesis is too risky, and for good reasons Walter does not commit to it.

The overall picture that emerges from Walter's study on the analysis of the Variae reinforces in my opinion the portrait of Theoderic by J. Arnold, which Walter considers only occasionally (cf. for example 15-19, and 294 n. 39). [10] While it is problematic to think, with Arnold, that Theoderic equaled an emperor who attempted an "imperial restoration" in the Roman West, the king's representation as a ruler in imperial style is overwhelming, and not just in the Variae. This is the case of the central part of the Anonymus Valesianus (paragraph 60, 65-73), and of Procopius of Caesarea (BG 2,6,17-19, also 1,1,26-29). A reference to the discussion in Festy and Vitiello eds. (which also includes the question of Boethius's trial) would have been helpful here. In my opinion, Arnold's book would have been strongly beneficial to Walter's investigation of the image of Theoderic's rule in Italy.

Previous attempts to investigate Theoderic's society through the Variae should have been clarified in the introduction and included in the bibliography. I think for example of the detailed work of Meyer-Flügel. [11] It would have been beneficial to the readers of this work if Walter had included in the footnotes of the chapters 2, 3, and 4, more of the extended secondary literature pertaining to the discussed documents. Walter makes a good use of the Giardina et alii's commentaries of the Variae, although she should have specified the names of the authors of the commentaries, instead of referencing Giardina in text (e.g., at 255-256 the name of A. La Rocca should be specified). [12] Walter should have complemented several of her references to the recent biography of H.-U. Wiemer (which she quotes in both the German edition of the year 2018 and in the English new edition of the year 2023) by including the bibliography of the scholars who have previously analysed the sources, and to which Wiemer's excellent book is necessarily indebted.

Walter's translations of the Variae are accurate. I found Walter's continuous references to the new translation of Bjornlie awkward, not only because that translation is in English, but especially because in most cases Walter challenges those translations with good philological arguments. [13]

Even if in this reviewer's opinion the heavy methodological frame of this work often does not help the research, overall, I think that this study is a successful one. Walter's sharp analysis generates a fresh, genuine, original research on topics that have been widely studied. This is a quite remarkable book.


[1] F. Millar: The Emperor in the Roman World (31 BC-AD 337). Ithaka 1977; J. Bleicken: Zum Regierungsstil des römischen Kaisers. Eine Antwort auf Fergus Millar. Wiesbaden 1982; S. Schmidt-Hofner: Reagieren und Gestalten. Der Regierungsstil des spätrömischen Kaisers am Beispiel der Gesetzgebung Valentinians I.. München 2008.

[2] On the contributions of H.-C. Brennecke see bibliography at p. 302. B. Saitta: La civilitas di Teodorico: rigore amministrativo, "tolleranza" religiosa e recupero dell'antico nell'Italia ostrogota. Rome 1993.

[3] I. König: Edictum Theodorici regis. Das Edikt Theoderichs des Großen. Darmstadt 2018.

[4] M. Festy / M. Vitiello (eds.): "Anonyme de Valois II": L'Italie sous Odoacre et Théodoric. Paris 2020.

[5] C. Schäfer: Der weströmische Senat als Träger antiker Kontinuität unter den Ostgotenkönigen (490-540 n. Chr.). St. Katharinen 1991.

[6] J. Matthews: Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court, AD 364-425. Oxford 1975.

[7] M. R. Salzman: The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience, and Resurgence in Late Antiquity. Cambridge 2021.

[8] J. Prostko-Prostyński: Utraeque res publicae: The Emperor Anastasius I's Gothic Policy (481-518). Poznań 1994.

[9] M. S. Bjornlie: Politics and Tradition between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae. Cambridge 2013.

[10] J. J. Arnold: Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration. Cambridge 2014.

[11] B. Meyer-Flügel: Das Bild der ostgotisch-römischen Gesellschaft bei Cassiodor. Leben und Ethik von Römern und Germanen in Italien nach dem Ende des weströmischen Reiches. Frankfurt a.M. 1992.

[12] See in Giardina et al. 2014, the "attribuzioni" at pp. 585-586.

[13] M.S. Bjornlie, trans.: Cassiodorus, The Variae: The Complete Translation. University of California Press 2019. On problem with translations see for example the reviews of M. Vitiello in The Medieval Review 2021, and of D. Shanzer in Early Medieval Europe 29, 2021, pp. 253-255.

Massimiliano Vitiello