Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Amalasuintha of Italy, "An Ill-Fated Gothic Queen"

Amalasuintha of Italy, regent and queen of the Goths (assassinated 30 April 535)

Theodoric, son of an Amali nobleman, spent much of his childhood in Constantinople, a hostage to ensure the Goths kept to the terms of a negotiated peace settlement. He spent ten years at the imperial court, where he was well cared for and educated. By the time he returned home as a well-educated young prince, his father had become king of the of the Ostrogoths--and Theodoric had an empire of his own to gain.

Detail of a contemporary ivory diptych (c. 530)
showing Amalasuintha (r) and her son,
flanking a cross
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
Taking up arms immediately upon his return, Theodoric fought in the Balkans, defeating rival forces in territories that had been under his uncle's rule. 

After his father's death, Theodoric succeeded him as king of the Ostrogoths in 475. 

Two decades later, he was made king of Italy, and after defeating the Visigoths in Spain, he was  recognized as king of the Visigoths. 

He also managed to gain control over the Goths in the Balkans, in Germanic Burgundy, and the kingdom of the Vandals, eventually ruling over a significant part of what had been the Western Roman Empire. He then turned his attention to the Eastern Roman Empire, eventually threatening the city where he had spent much of his youth.

Successful in gaining an empire, Theodoric was less successful in planning for its continuation. Without a son, the seventy-two-year-old Theodoric named his grandson Athalric, a boy of about ten years old, to succeed him. 

Athalric was the son of Theodoric's daughter Amalasuintha--one of a remarkable number of women of the Amali dynasty who surrounded Theodoric.

In his discussion of "the Gothic queens of Italy," Massimiliano Vitiello notes that "the female part of the royal family in Ostrogothic Italy deserves special attention." Among the notable female members of the Amali dynasty are Theodoric's sister, Amalafrida, who became queen of the Vandals in a marriage arranged by her brother, and Amalafrida's daughter, Amalaberga, who was married into the Thuringian family and whose husband became co-ruler in Thuringia.* Amalafrida's granddaughter, Theodonantha, about whom little is known, is nevertheless believed to have been the author of a poem showing "remarkable literary ability" that has survived in fragments. 

But it is Amalasuintha of Italy who is most widely recognized for her virtue, knowledge, diplomacy, and political role in the sixth century.

Probably born in Ravenna in 495, Amalasuintha was the only child of Theodoric and his wife, Audofleda--who was the sister of Clovis, queen of the Franks. After his defeat of the various Gothic kingdoms, Theodoric had sought an alliance with the Franks, and his marriage with Audofleda took place about the year 493.

(At about the same time as this marriage, Theodoric used his two older daughters, both born while he was in the Balkans, to secure additional political alliances. The older of the two was Theodegotha, who was married c. 493 to Alaric II, king of the Goths, the younger was Ostrogotho, who was married c. 494-96 to Sigismund, king of the Burgundians. The identity of the mother of Theodoric's two older daughters is unknown--Latin sources differ about whether this unknown woman was Theodoric's wife or concubine.)

Contemporary ivory diptych (c. 530)
showing Amalasuintha (r) and her son,
flanking a cross
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
In the palace at Ravenna, Amalasuintha received an excellent (Roman) education--she was trained in grammar and rhetoric, "the nurse and mother of the liberal arts," and learned both Latin and Greek (in addition to Gothic and Frankish). 

But her qualities went beyond mastery of language and literature--she was equally imbued with Roman virtues of chastity and modesty, and would later be described as "the most wisest of women." (According to Vitiello, Amalasuintha's teachers seems to have included the Roman noblewoman Barbara.) 

In 515, Amalasuintha was married to an Ostrogothic prince from Iberia who was, like Theodoric (and Amalasuintha), a member of the Amal dynasty. Theodoric's presumed heir, Eutharic became a consul under the Emperor Justinian in 519--but by 522, he was dead, leaving behind a son, Athalaric (b. 516) and a daughter, Matasuintha (b. c. 1517, Matasuintha is another of the notable women of the Amali dynasty--Vitiello describes the praises of her upon the occasion of her marriage to the king of the Goths in 536).

In 526, Theodoric died, succeeded on the throne by Amalsuintha's son. Since Athalaric was just ten years old, Amalsuintha assumed the regency. For a woman, political authority was always difficult to maintain, even in the best of circumstances. For Amalsuintha, the task was extremely fraught:
The military values of the Gothic world were insufficient to govern the complex reality of Italy, where Roman culture still pulsed in the cities. In Rome, the Senate was still politically active. . . . In the east, clouds were gathering, as the imperial couple Justinian and Theodora dreamt of a reconquest of the western kingdoms.
While the Goths might recognize women's roles in achieving and maintaining political alliances and they might accept them as important counselors for their husbands, they had no tradition of female rulers. In Rome, there was a recognition of the tradition of female regents--but, while Amalasuintha's regency was welcomed, she was still regarded as a barbarian. As Vitiello notes, "Many Roman subjects, particularly members of the Italic aristocracy or of the Roman Senate, disdained a Gothic culture that seemed to them inferior." They may have "welcomed" her role as a regent for her son, "perhaps understanding it in light of the legacy of powerful Byzantine empresses," but "in the Italy of the two peoples, this experiment was something very new, and Amalasuintha­­, a Gothic queen with a Roman education, belonged to both worlds, and to neither."

Despite the difficulties of her position, Amalasuintha retained her role until her son's death in 534, after which she took on a new role as queen of the Ostrogoths. After a year as queen regnant, she named her cousin, Theodohad  (Amalafrida's son), as co-ruler. Although Amalasuintha seems to have intended to keep the reins of power in her own hands, using her male co-ruler to bolster her own position, her effort soon failed.

Within a short time, Theodohad had engineered Amalasuintha's fall and, ultimately, her death. She was imprisoned on the island of Martana (in Lake Bolsena). On 30 April 535, she was assassinated, murdered in her bath.**

The scholar Cassiodorus, who was one of Theodoric's administrative officials, would write of her, "Happy the commonwealth which boasts the guidance of such a mistress. It was not enough that already liberty and convenience were combined for the multitude . . .: her merits have secured the fitting reverence for the person of the Sovereign." (Ironically, he puts this assessment into the mouth of Theodohad! For his own extravagant praise of Amalasuintha, in a letter to the Roman Senate, click here and scroll down to Letter 1, p. 415).

For the historian Procopius, who write at the court of Justinian, Amalasuintha had surpassed the weaknesses of her sex; displaying "extraordinary masculine bearing" and her "masculine nature," she had overcome those who had threatened her son. But, despite her virtue and strength in this unusual circumstance, even this exceptional woman was defeated in the end.

A much later, imagined "portrait"
of Amalasuintha--which I like
just because of the great headgear
(Austrian National Library)
Almost all the current work on Amalasuintha is by Massimiliano Vitiello. I have already linked here to three of his online pieces, "'Nourished at the breast of Rome': The Queens of Ostrogothic Italy and the Education of the Roman Elite," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 149: 398-412 (click here), "Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World," Ancient Jew Review (click here), and "Amalasuintha: Woman Ruler of a Divided People," University of Pennsylvania Press's Penn Press Log (click here). Vitiello has also published a full-length study, Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World. 

The phrase "an ill-fated Gothic queen," used in the title of this post, comes from Marcelle Thiébaux's The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology. In addition to including four letters attributed to Amalasuintha, Thiébaux presents an excellent biographical overview of the queen's life and her political role.

Several biographies of Theodoric and histories of the Goths also contain accounts of Amalasuintha, including Thomas Hodgkin's 1891 Theodoric the Goth: The Barbarian Champion of Civilisation (click here), Henry Bradley's 1891 The Story of the Goths: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion in Spain (click here and go to Chapter XX), and Herwig Wolfram's The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples, trans. Thomas Dunlap (click here for limited access). 

Also very useful for its analysis of Amalasuintha and gender is Michael Edward Stewart's The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire (click here--you can read the entire dissertation if you can "prove you're human" . . . ).

*We have met Hermanfrid, Amalaberga's husband, before--he killed his brother and co-ruler, taking his niece, Radegund, home to be raised by Amalaberga. Amalaberga seems to have encouraged her husband to eliminate his brothers--I said they were "remarkable" women, not necessarily pefect. 

**In case you were wondering, things didn't work out so well for Theodahad. Soon after he had Amalsuintha killed, Theodahad himself was killed on the order of Vitiges, the husband of Amalsuintha's daughter, Matasuntha. As for Vitiges, he was taken captive by Justinian and, along with Matasuntha, taken to Constantinople. He soon died, but Matasuntha survived and married Emperor Justinian's nephew.