Theodoric the Great was king of the Germanic tribe of the Ostrogoths, who dominated the western Balkans in the fifth century c.e. He received a Roman education during his teenage years spent as a political hostage in Constantinople under the watchful eyes of the Byzantine government. When he returned to his people, Theodoric took up arms against the empire and gained additional land, a position in the Byzantine military command, and imperial rank.

Faced with a powerful and sometimes hostile neighbor, Byzantine emperor Zeno encouraged Theodoric to attack Italy where another German, Odovacar, had deposed the last legitimate Roman ruler, Romulus Augustulus. Theodoric and his Ostrogoths migrated to Italy, defeated Odovacar, and ruled as the representative of the Byzantine emperor. His capital was in the northeastern Italian city of Ravenna, located on the Adriatic Sea.

As ruler of Italy, Theodoric attended to the redevelopment of this land. He encouraged settlement to areas that had been depopulated due to war and fostered agricultural production and trade. He was also concerned with the repairing and building of walls, aqueducts, churches, and other buildings in Roman cities. Several of his impressive monuments still stand in Ravenna, including the Church of St. Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, and his own mausoleum.

Although a German king, Theodoric respected Roman traditions. Since the majority of the subject population was Roman, Theodoric respected prevailing structures of government, from local urban magistrates to the Roman Senate, as well as Roman law.

Many Romans served in his court, such as Boethius and Cassiodorus, two of the most important Latin authors of the period. Even the pope and the Roman Senate received him in the city of Rome, where he stayed for a short period before returning to Ravenna. Besides developing a certain harmony between cultures, Theodoric was also a shrewd and powerful German king, cognizant of the reality of German power in the West.

He sought to expand his kingdom and also to secure his position. He married a sister of Clovis, the king of the Franks and founder of the Merovingian dynasty, and joined his family by marriage to the kings of the Vandals, Visigoths, and Burgundians.

The Italian cultural harmony was made more difficult by the fact that the Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, while the Roman population was Orthodox Christian. They differed theologically over their understanding of Jesus’s relationship to God the Father, whether he was created (Arian) or begotten (Orthodox).

The Orthodox condemned Arian theology at the Council of Nicaea (325) and Council of Constantinople (381). At first Germans and Romans joined together as allies against the East. But when rapprochement occurred between Rome and Constantinople, Theodoric feared a Byzantine invasion with potential Roman support.

Making matters worse, the Byzantine government began to persecute Arians in the early 520s. Theodoric commenced a more hostile approach to his Roman population. Roman offi cials were accused of collaboration and arrested, among them Boethius, who wrote his Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his execution.

Theodoric sent the pope to negotiate with Constantinople but did not trust him and, upon his return, imprisoned him. Theodoric died in 526, only a few years before the start of the Byzantine invasion that did, in fact, end Ostrogothic rule.