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Amalasuntha, Queen of the Ostrogoths

Daughter of Theoderic; Mother of and regent for Athalaric

Amalasuntha was the daughter of Theoderic, perhaps the most famous of the Ostrogothic kings in Italy. This was a strange period in the history of Europe. The official date for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West was A. D. 476, but from 493 until 526 Italy enjoyed the reign of an Ostrogothic king who ruled more like a Roman emperor. Theoderic was, in fact, on friendly terms with two of the three Eastern emperors who reigned in Constantinople during Theoderic’s reign in Italy. Theoderic had no sons, but he did have in Amalasuntha an intelligent and capable daughter who had received a good Roman education.

Amalasuntha had been married to Eutharic, an obscure Gothic nobleman. She gave birth to Athalaric in 518. Eutharic later died, leaving Amalasuntha a widow to raise their young son.

It was the custom amongst the Ostrogoths that a king should name someone to succeed him, subject to the approval of the Gothic nobility. During the final months of his life, Theoderic indicated that he wished Athalaric to succeed him as king and that Amalasuntha his mother should act as regent, managing the affairs of the kingdom while Athalaric was still a child.

It was over the education of the young prince that trouble began between Amalasuntha and the majority of the Gothic noblemen. Amalasuntha had appointed three learned and civilized Gothic tutors to ensure that Athalaric received a classical Roman education in law, rhetoric, and the humanities. The Goths placed a value on a man’s strength and ferocity in warfare. How could a son who feared the tutor’s whip grow up to face the sword and spear? Besides, Theoderic had been a good king and had not needed to know how to read. Soon, Amalasuntha discovered a plot by some of the noblemen to do away with her and she had the men executed. She did, however, relent and allow young Athalaric to have some rough young Gothic companions his own age with which to spend time. This did not work out, though. They succeeded not in instructing him in the arts of war but taught him to spend his time drinking and womanizing instead.

In 534, Athalaric died. Amalasuntha’s position was now critical. The Goths would not have a woman rule them in her own name; they had barely tolerated a woman as regent. She decided to offer the kingship to her cousin Theodahad if he would consent to sharing the ruling power with her.

It seems that Theodohad was nursing a grudge against her. Theodohad owned most of the land in the province of Tuscany. He had used extortion and strong-arm tactics to seize property belonging to his neighbors. The people of Tuscany had objected and petitioned Amalasuntha to do something and she made Theodohad give back some of the property he had extorted. Now that she had invited him to be king, it appeared that all was forgiven and they would rule together in harmony. Theodohad even wrote letters to the Senate praising her wisdom and promising to imitate her when he became king.

As soon as Theodohad became king, he did an incredibly stupid thing. He imprisoned Amalasuntha on an island in the middle of Lake Bolsena. What this ignorant and vengeful man did not know is that during the period when the Gothic nobles had threatened to depose her, Amalasuntha had secretly written to the Eastern emperor Justinian asking his protection if the discontented nobles had made a move against her.

Soon. Justinian got wind of the situation despite Theodohad’s clumsy attempt to conceal the facts. Justinian sent a fast messenger to Ravenna informing Theodohad that he would soon be there with an army if Amalasuntha was harmed.

These promises of aid to a lady in distress were to no avail. It was probably in April, 535 that Amalasuntha was murdered. The story that has come down to us is that she was strangled in her bath by relatives of the three traitors she has had executed. In spite of her great popularity and immaculate reputation amongst both Roman and Gothic subjects, Theodohad could not restrain himself from gratifying his hunger for revenge. The population of all Italy was shocked by this foul deed.

What Theodohad had bought for himself and Italy was a period of destructive war that lasted for most of the next fifteen years. Justinian did not need much of an excuse to invade Italy to reclaim the lost province and deal a death blow to the hated Aryan heresy at the same time. It was this intermittent warfare carried on first by Justinian’s general Belisarius, then later by Narses that finally finished off what was left of the ancient Roman Empire. Cities taken first by one side, then by the other, were burned and their buildings were thrown down. Atrocities were committed on the Italian population first by the gothic troops, then by the Byzantine. It was the beginning of a long period if oppression for the Italian people during which they were ruled by one petty ruler or city state after another. Nothing was to change for the peasantry for 1200 years except the name and nationality of their tormentors. It was a tragic state of affairs that was to last until the Italian liberator Garibaldi founded a new nation of Italy during the Nineteenth Century.

The coin at the top right hand corner of the page bears the monogram of the Gothic prince Athalaric. As far as we know, Amalasuntha did not strike any coins in her own name. She probably looked and dressed like most Sixth Century Roman noblewomen, when large, ornate earrings and wearing several strings of pearls both in the hair and about the neck was in fashion. The coin is a typical example of the tiny, crudely struck bronze coins of later Roman and Gothic kingdoms in the West. The coin is only about 12mm in diameter, and the image is an 8X magnification. Most of these coins are found in extremely worn or corroded condition and cannot be identified at all. This little coin is in extremely nice condition for a small bronze of a Western kingdom during this period.

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