When the Ostrogothic king Theoderic died in Ravenna in 526, Italy had been part of his kingdom for over 30 years. Theoderic was anything but the stereotypical barbarian ruler. He was just, cultured, educated and mostly tolerant. Furthermore, he had excellent strategic insight and most of Italy prospered economically under his rule, much more than it had done in the previous century under truly ‘Roman’ emperors. Theoderic chose Ravenna as his capital, and the city was provided with many new buildings, some of which were only finished by Theoderic’s successors. One monument that is still standing is closely connected to the Ostrogothic king himself: his mausoleum in a park – the Parco di Teodorico – in the north-eastern quarter of the city.
Theoderic was born in the region known as Pannonia around the year 454. As a young boy, he had been sent to the court of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople as a hostage, to ensure that the Ostrogoths – who had signed a treaty with the emperor – complied with their obligations and did not attack Eastern Roman territories. It was at Constantinople that Theoderic presumably received his education. In 470 or 471, he was allowed to return to his people and a few years later, Theoderic succeeded his father Theodemir as king of the Ostrogoths, perhaps after a period of joint rule. Theoderic might have gone down in history as yet another relatively insignificant king of a rather insignificant tribe, had not a certain Odoacer decided to depose the last Western Roman emperor, the boy Romulus Augustulus, in 476.
Odoacer was a member of a tribe called the Skirians and served in the Roman army as commander of the foederati, Germanic allied troops. After deposing the boy-emperor Romulus Augustulus and sending him away to the country in Campania, he styled himself King of Italy and sent the imperial regalia back to Constantinople. Although Odoacer formally ruled in the name of the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno (474-491), it was clear that he was in fact an autonomous king and could do whatever he wanted in Italy. Initially, Zeno seems to have accepted the status quo, but in the end he lost patience with the Skirian, who may or may not have supported a rebellion against the emperor in Constantinople. Zeno decided to make clever use of Theoderic and his Ostrogoths, who were still struggling and fighting to carve out a kingdom for themselves in the Balkans. Since this was all happening close to Zeno’s borders and the Ostrogoths were still seen as a threat, Zeno offered Theoderic the opportunity to invade Italy with his army, depose Odoacer and rule it in his stead and in Zeno’s name.
Theoderic’s campaign started in 489 when perhaps 20.000-100.000 Ostrogoths entered the Italian peninsula. The campaign was a great success. Odoacer was defeated and ultimately cornered in Ravenna. In 493, Theoderic offered his opponent a seemingly excellent deal: the two kings would rule Italy together. Odoacer accepted, but was later treacherously murdered at a banquet in the palace, organised to celebrate the peace treaty. According to tradition, Theoderic drew his sword and single-handedly killed his rival by splitting him in half with a tremendous blow.
Although Theoderic’s reign in Italy had started violently, he turned out to be a mild and benevolent ruler. The Ostrogoths made up perhaps five to ten percent of the entire Italian population, so they were always a minority. Most of them were furthermore Arians, Christians who did not believe in the consubstantiality of God of the Father and Jesus his Son (they were not “of the same substance”, which was the Orthodox position). The Arian doctrine on the nature of Christ had already been condemned as heresy at Nicaea in 325, but it remained popular with the ‘barbarian’ tribes outside the Empire, who of course later served as foederati in the Roman armies on a massive scale and brought along their religious beliefs. With Theoderic – and with Odoacer before him – Italy now even had an Arian king on the throne.
Theoderic, however, proved to be tolerant with regard to religion. He allowed his Orthodox subjects to practice their religion freely and was even very tolerant towards the small Jewish population of his kingdom. The king was also known as a patron of scholars and artists. Nevertheless, even Theoderic had his imperfections. Towards the end of his life, he seems to have become paranoid. The king was responsible for the execution of the historian Symmachus and his son-in-law, the philosopher Boethius, who were killed on charges of treason. Theoderic also imprisoned pope John I (523-526), after the latter’s mission to the court in Constantinople to stop the persecution of Arian Christians in the Eastern Empire had failed (see Rome: Santi Cosma e Damiano).
Theoderic died on 30 August 526 and was laid to rest in the splendid mausoleum that would have been very close to the seashore in those days. Today, because of almost fifteen centuries of sedimentation, the Adriatic Sea is some eight kilometres further to the east. The mausoleum is special in many ways. First of all, it is decagonal in shape, i.e. it has ten sides. Unlike many contemporary buildings in Ravenna, it is not made of brick, but of blocks of limestone that were imported from Istria. The architects of the structure are unknown, but it is speculated that they may have been from the Eastern Roman Empire, either from Syria or Asia Minor. The mausoleum was originally surrounded by a fence, but this was removed long ago.
The building consists of two storeys. We have no way of knowing whether Theoderic was buried on the lower or the upper level. It is possible that the upper level was used as a burial chamber, perhaps in part because of the problem of flooding, while the ground floor was arranged as a memorial chapel. However, it has also been argued that it was the other way round, as was apparently the case with some other mausoleums found elsewhere in Europe (see Mauskopf Deliyannis 2010, p. 133). It is important to notice that originally there would not have been any stairs to reach the upper level; there are now, but these stairs are obviously a modern construction. That makes the option of a chapel on the first floor somewhat unlikely, as it would have been rather hard to enter it. Chapels ought to be accessible, while a rather inaccessible burial chamber makes perfect sense. In any case, we nowadays find a large porphyry marble bathtub on the upper level, which in the past served as someone’s sarcophagus, although there is no way of finding out whether this person was really Theoderic. It is certain, however, that Theoderic’s body was removed long, long ago, possibly in 561, a few years after the Eastern Roman emperor Justinianus had reconquered Italy and many Arian churches and oratories were rededicated by Ravenna’s Orthodox bishops.
Although the building is quite elegant, the lack of decoration is rather striking. The most impressive part of the whole mausoleum is obviously the roof. It is made of a single monolith, i.e. a single slab of stone with a diameter of 10.76 metres, a height of 3.09 metres and an estimated weight of between 230 and 300 tons. Part of the slab are twelve arches or ‘spurs’ whose precise functions – purely ornamental or in a way functional? – are not known. On the arches are the names of apostles and evangelists. Below the monolith is a decorative frieze – the name Zangenfries has been proposed – that is usually noted as being specifically non-Roman.
A pope interred?
There is a story, mentioned for instance in John Julius Norwich’s history of the Papacy, that pope Victor II was buried in the mausoleum in 1057. This pope had been born as Gebhard of Calw and had been appointed as Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria when he was still in his twenties. When pope Leo IX died in 1054, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III nominated Gebhard – now in his mid-thirties – as his successor, but it was not until March of 1055 that Gebhard had both accepted this nomination and arrived in Rome to be enthroned as pope. Pope Victor II proved to be quite competent, but his papacy was a short one and he died after just two years on the throne of Saint Peter, in Arezzo, where he had been for a synod. His final wish was apparently to be buried in Eichstätt, but his funeral cortege was intercepted near Ravenna and his body seized. Norwich says that brigands did it, but it seems more much likely that the citizens of Ravenna were the perpetrators, as the pope was subsequently buried in the Mausoleum of Theoderic. That does not sound like the act of highwaymen, who would surely have disposed of the body in a less honourable way.
It is a strange story, and I do not know whether one should believe it. In any case, it is not even mentioned on the Ravenna Turismo website and a tomb clearly marked as pope Victor’s is no longer there, and neither is the body. A publication about the popes that I bought at the Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome states that pope Victor II was buried in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the Eternal City. That makes no sense either, as Rome is way south of Arezzo – where the pope died – while Eichstätt in Bavaria is to the north. In other words, Rome is not on the road from Arezzo to Eichstätt in Bavaria. Ravenna is, or could be, depending on what route you want to take. But whether or not the pope was really interred in Theoderic’s mausoleum, it is clear that he is no longer there.
- All the Popes. From St. Peter to Francis, p. 35;
- Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 108-114 and 124-136;
- John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History, chapter IX;
- Ravenna Turismo website.
 A case can be made that Julius Nepos, murdered in 480, was the de jure last emperor of the Western Empire.