Why didn't Theodoric the Great call himself emperor, but remained simply king?

Oct 2017
110
South Australia
Part of an essay question for university on Theodoric the Great, King of Ostrogothic Italy between 475 and 526 AD. The four recommended sources which we are meant to mostly rely on don't really answer this question directly, I think I'm supposed to just come up with my own theory so it would be helpful to discuss it with you guys.

(For context, the first and main part of the question is "How 'Romanized' was Theodoric as a political leader?". )

My thoughts are that he remained "rex" (king) as basically everyone would have reacted badly if he had called himself emperor:

- The Byzantines would have objected to a Goth calling himself emperor without their permission, which they likely would have denied if he had asked for it considering his ethnicity (correct me if I'm wrong but weren't all emperors Roman or at least senatorial, whenever a Gothic magister militum held true power they still installed Roman puppet emperors?). Also, Theoderic invaded Italy at their prompting or at least with their consent, and they may have wanted him to remain somewhat under their authority (didn't actually happen). If Theoderic called himself emperor it could have been enough provocation for war.

- We can't really be sure how the Romans in Italy would have reacted, and neither could Theoderic himself probably. Although they were on good terms with Theoderic and he was somewhat Romanised, calling himself emperor may have been a step too far (see above, about his ethnicity)

-The Goths probably would have felt like Theoderic was going a bit too native and too concerned with his own ambitions rather than their welfare. Gothic kings did not command unquestioning loyalty by dynastic right, but rather they could give or withdraw support to whichever leader served their practical interests best. Theoderic only gained the throne when the Goths agreed to it. They wanted their leader to be King of the Goths, for the Goths, and if he started calling himself Emperor of the Romans it may have offended them.

Thoughts?

Sources:
Heather, P. (1995) Theoderic, king of the Goths. Early Medieval Europe, 4 (2): 145-173

Jones, A. H. M. (1962) The Constitutional Position of Odoacer and Theoderic. JRS, 52: 126-130.

Moorhead, J. (1983) The Last Years of Theoderic. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschicht, 32.1: 106-120

Moorhead, J., (2005) Ostrogothic Italy and the Lombards. Pp.140-161 in P. Fouracre (ed.) New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: CUP.

Thoughts?
 
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Oct 2011
417
Croatia
@Marshall Ney It is not just about ethnicity, but him doing so would be a challenge to entire Roman worldview. Romans considered themselves an universal empire. "One God, One Empire, One Emperor". Kinda like the Chinese with their "Son of Heaven" thing, I think, though I do not know that much about Imperial China. In proclaiming himself an Emperor, Theodoric would have essentially:
1) declared that he does not consider the Emperor in Constantinople a legitimate ruler and that he is aiming to install himself as Roman Emperor
and/or
2) declared that he will not tolerate the continued existence of / will attempt to conquer the Roman Empire as such

One way or another, him declaring himself an Emperor would not have been merely a declaration of war, but a mortal challenge, a call to existential struggle to the Roman Empire - no surrender, no negotiations or compromise, just victory or death. And that is not a struggle he could have hoped to win, especially since his authority - at least among his Roman subjects, who were the majority - depended upon him being (formally) recognized patriarch of the Roman government. Yes, it was a formality, yes, it did not count for all that much in practice, but formally he was still a subject of the Roman Empire.

The reason why the Pope could get away with crowning Charlemagne an Emperor (something Charlemagne himself did not want or need) was simply that Romans at the time had bigger fish to fry than chasing around for usurpers - they already were locked in an existential struggle.
 
Apr 2018
277
Italy
If he declared himself emperor he would have been an usurper at the eyes of Constantinople. Add also that he was arian, so also an eretic.
 
Oct 2018
1,488
Sydney
In answer to your question, not all emperors were senators when they came to power. Examples: Maximinus Thrax, Philip the Arab, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, Maximian and Carausius. I wouldn't lean too heavily into matters of ethnicity. Certainly, being a Goth would have provided fodder for invective, and was probably a bad look for the city of Rome itself, which had suffered from the Visigothic sacking. But from Septimius Severus (193-211) onward few emperors were born in Italy, and although a Goth, Theodoric was born within the borders of the empire. Then again, you do have a point about fifth-century practice: the generals and Germanic kings of the western empire were in the habit of proclaiming Italian and Gallic senators emperor as opposed to taking the purple themselves. That's a point worth pursuing. But I would also avoid appearing to exaggerate the Italian or senatorial nature of the imperial position (in light of preceding centuries).

Your point about Gothic attitudes to their monarchy is interesting. It's not something that I know much about. But I think it's important to consider the precedent of Odoacer (like Jones appears to do, judging from the title). Theodoric wasn't the first military man to take over Italy but avoid the imperial title. I think you'll find that an important commonality between the two is indeed relations with Constantinople. Now, one could take the imperial title and seek the recognition of the ruling emperor. After all, imperial colleges had been the norm from the third century to the fifth. Constantine did it with Galerius. Julian did it with Constantius II. Libius Severus (or, rather, Ricimer) did it with Leo I. In Constantine's case this worked. However, he was no doubt helped by the fact that he was the son of the emperor he sought to succeed (Constantius I), and claimed that he had designated him his successor. Theodoric did not have the strong claim that Constantine had. So to become emperor without incurring war with Byzantium was no easy task. He would have done well to canvas court opinion in Constantinople first. And that brings us to the point of whether such a title would really be worth the risk. Constantinople was his benefactor and theoretical superior, and it made for a better friend than enemy. By this time did the emperorship really carry any practical benefits? The true powers in the western empire had been generals and Germanic kings since the time of Stilicho. The emperors increasingly became puppets, as exemplified most clearly by the emperors set up and brought down by Ricimer, but also by the civil war fought under Valentinian III by his own generals: Boniface and Aetius. The western empire at large had drifted away from the emperorship. Allied Germanic kingdoms like that of the Visigoths acted independently, as did generals like Aegidius and Syagrius in Gaul, and Marcellinus and Nepos in Dalmatia. Odoacer and Theodoric perhaps represent the growing recognition that, in Italy too, one no longer needed an emperor to govern.
 
Last edited:

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,000
Italy, Lago Maggiore
My opinion is that it would have been a very wide step to take ... theoretically the Empire was still there and the Pope didn't crown the kings or the emperors yet. So that, a part the good relations with the Eastern Empire [until this didn't think that it was better to put Theodoric against Odoacer], theoretically Theodoric wasn't in the conditions to become Emperor, but only Rex, since the Emperor existed in the Eastern regions of the Empire. Without imperial recognition Theodoric [Anastasius recognized him] would have been an usurper just only declaring himself King. Furthermore his politics were smart and he wanted to keep very good relations with the Romans. It's all evident that this meant to appease the Eastern Imperial Power. An evidence of this was that some of the coins produced in Italy under Theodoric showed his monogram, but the image of the Emperor ...
 
Oct 2017
110
South Australia
@Marshall Ney It is not just about ethnicity, but him doing so would be a challenge to entire Roman worldview. Romans considered themselves an universal empire. "One God, One Empire, One Emperor". Kinda like the Chinese with their "Son of Heaven" thing, I think, though I do not know that much about Imperial China. In proclaiming himself an Emperor, Theodoric would have essentially:
1) declared that he does not consider the Emperor in Constantinople a legitimate ruler and that he is aiming to install himself as Roman Emperor
and/or
2) declared that he will not tolerate the continued existence of / will attempt to conquer the Roman Empire as such

One way or another, him declaring himself an Emperor would not have been merely a declaration of war, but a mortal challenge, a call to existential struggle to the Roman Empire - no surrender, no negotiations or compromise, just victory or death. And that is not a struggle he could have hoped to win, especially since his authority - at least among his Roman subjects, who were the majority - depended upon him being (formally) recognized patriarch of the Roman government. Yes, it was a formality, yes, it did not count for all that much in practice, but formally he was still a subject of the Roman Empire.

The reason why the Pope could get away with crowning Charlemagne an Emperor (something Charlemagne himself did not want or need) was simply that Romans at the time had bigger fish to fry than chasing around for usurpers - they already were locked in an existential struggle.
Excellent argument, but my interpretation of the question is that it is asking why he didn't call himself *Western* Roman Emperor, not Roman Emperor, in which case it wouldn't be a challenge to the existence of the Eastern Empire but rather merely an upgraded title as ruler of Italy and the West.
 
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Maki

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,540
Republika Srpska
Excellent argument, but my interpretation of the question is that it is asking why he didn't call himself *Western* Roman Emperor, not Roman Emperor, in which case it wouldn't be a challenge to the existence of the Eastern Empire but rather merely an upgraded title as ruler of Italy and the West.
Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire are modern inventions, in minds of Romans at the time it was simply Roman Empire except it now had two rulers. After the collapse of the imperial authority in the West, the Eastern Roman Emperors just considered themselves only legitimate Roman Emperors.
 
Oct 2017
110
South Australia
If he declared himself emperor he would have been an usurper at the eyes of Constantinople. Add also that he was arian, so also an eretic
Yeah, that's exactly what I'm thinking in terms of the Byzantine reaction. I hadn't thought to bring religion in but that is a good idea.

In answer to your question, not all emperors were senators when they came to power. Examples: Maximinus Thrax, Philip the Arab, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, Maximian and Carausius. I wouldn't lean too heavily into matters of ethnicity. Certainly, being a Goth would have provided fodder for invective, and was probably a bad look for the city of Rome itself, which had suffered from the Visigothic sacking. But from Septimius Severus (193-211) onward few emperors were born in Italy, and although a Goth, Theodoric was born within the borders of the empire. Then again, you do have a point about fifth-century practice: the generals and Germanic kings of the western empire were in the habit of proclaiming Italian and Gallic senators emperor as opposed to taking the purple themselves. That's a point worth pursuing. But I would also avoid appearing to exaggerate the Italian or senatorial nature of the imperial position (in light of preceding centuries).
Good point. I was aware of that but wasn't quite sure how to express it in my original post so I'm using ethnicity as a generalisation

Your point about Gothic attitudes to their monarchy is interesting. It's not something that I know much about. But I think it's important to consider the precedent of Odoacer (like Jones appears to do, judging from the title). Theodoric wasn't the first military man to take over Italy but avoid the imperial title. I think you'll find that an important commonality between the two is indeed relations with Constantinople. Now, one could take the imperial title and seek the recognition of the ruling emperor. After all, imperial colleges had been the norm from the third century to the fifth. Constantine did it with Galerius. Julian did it with Constantius II. Libius Severus (or, rather, Ricimer) did it with Leo I. In Constantine's case this worked. However, he was no doubt helped by the fact that he was the son of the emperor he sought to succeed (Constantius I), and claimed that he had designated him his successor. Theodoric did not have the strong claim that Constantine had. So to become emperor without incurring war with Byzantium was no easy task. He would have done well to canvas court opinion in Constantinople first.
My point about Gothic attitudes to their monarchy is closely based on Peter Heather's article. Good point about requiring Byzantine recognition, I am planning to talk about that as hinted at in my original post.

whether such a title would really be worth the risk. Constantinople was his benefactor and theoretical superior, and it made for a better friend than enemy. By this time did the emperorship really carry any practical benefits? The true powers in the western empire had been generals and Germanic kings since the time of Stilicho. The emperors increasingly became puppets, as exemplified most clearly by the emperors set up and brought down by Ricimer, but also by the civil war fought under Valentinian III by his own generals: Boniface and Aetius. The western empire at large had drifted away from the emperorship. Allied Germanic kingdoms like that of the Visigoths acted independently, as did generals like Aegidius and Syagrius in Gaul, and Marcellinus and Nepos in Dalmatia. Odoacer and Theodoric perhaps represent the growing recognition that, in Italy too, one no longer needed an emperor to govern.
Yes I think that is a clincher, I'd been thinking about it but didn't mention it earlier. Theodoric had a long, stable rule over a strong kingdom, I doubt calling himself emperor would have brought him any benefits other than a fancy title. *If* the Italians really supported him it might have increased his popularity, but I think thats unlikely, its more probable that they would have been offended by it
 
Oct 2017
110
South Australia
Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire are modern inventions, in minds of Romans at the time it was simply Roman Empire except it now had two rulers. After the collapse of the imperial authority in the West, the Eastern Roman Emperors just considered themselves only legitimate Roman Emperors.
That is a good argument. However, I may be wrong but Ive always thought it was a bit more complex than just two rulers. Each ruler had their own government, their own treasury and their own armies which I believe couldn't operate in the other's territory without permission (Stilicho had some trouble with this). You are probably correct that they considered it one empire with two rulers, but I thought that they were still quite spearate entities cooperating under the overall identity of the Roman Empire. Weren't there civil wars between West and East?

As I said to Picard, I think if Theodoric had tried to call himself Emperor he would have been trying to revive the title of Western Roman Emperor as co-ruler with the Eastern Emperor, rather than challenging him as sole emperor.
 
Oct 2018
1,488
Sydney
That is a good argument. However, I may be wrong but Ive always thought it was a bit more complex than just two rulers. Each ruler had their own government, their own treasury and their own armies which I believe couldn't operate in the other's territory without permission (Stilicho had some trouble with this). You are probably correct that they considered it one empire with two rulers, but I thought that they were still quite spearate entities cooperating under the overall identity of the Roman Empire. Weren't there civil wars between West and East?
The process whereby the empire became divided was a slow one, and you are correct that, by the fifth century, the empire was effectively divided between two closely-associated governments (although the fifth-century college of two emperors rather than three had only been the case since the death of Theodosius I in 395). But all of this still fell under the ideological banner of the Roman Empire. Note for example that emperors issued laws in the names of themselves and their colleagues. There was no title of 'Western Roman Emperor.' There were two Roman emperors administering different parts of the empire.