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As mother, as regent, and as queen, Amalasuintha struggled at the palace of Ravenna to maintain the Ostrogothic dynasty. Massimiliano Vitiello demonstrates the ways in which her life shows the influence of both Western and Eastern imperial models on the formation of female political power in the post-Roman world.

The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World

Massimiliano Vitiello

2017 | 312 pages | Cloth $75.00
Classics / History
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Table of Contents

Author's Note
Map of Europe and the Mediterranean World at the Beginning of Amalasuintha's
Regency, Late A.D. 526
Genealogy. The Family of Theodoric

Chapter 1. Mother, Regent, and Queen: Amalasuintha and the Institutions of Power
Chapter 2. Amalasuintha at the Palace of Ravenna: The Making of a Queen
Chapter 3. A Regent with Imperial Ambitions
Chapter 4. Balancing Gothic Tradition with Roman Ideals
Chapter 5. Amalasuintha: A Meeting Point Between Kingdoms and Empire
Epilogue. Amalasuintha's Legacy in Early Medieval Italy


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 1733 Carlo Goldoni presented his first play in Milan, a tragedy with the title Amalasunta. The work was critiqued so harshly that the author, despairing, finally threw it into the fireplace, and Amalasunta turned out to be the tragedy of a tragedy. Popular legends about Amalasuintha's fate in beautiful Lake Bolsena are plentiful. Still today, the fishermen claim that during the windy days of the tramontana they can hear the wailing of the Gothic queen, her desperate cries coming from the small lake island of Martana, where she is believed to have spent the last days of her life. The northern wind that encourages the little waves whispers this melancholy story over and over again to the people of Marta, the small village that lies just southeast of the island. Almost fifteen hundred years after her death, Amalasuintha's last days still echo on Lake Bolsena, between the little island and the still waters that surround it.

If much of this tragic, literary Amalasuintha is the stuff of legend, the woman herself was certainly real. Queen Amalasuintha was one of the most significant women of power in her day. She was the daughter of Theoderic the Great, the Gothic king and hero who defeated Odovacer and made Italy his kingdom. Her portrait is preserved not on mosaics but rather in some letters of Cassiodorus and in the histories of Procopius of Caesarea. Over the past century, the queen has become the object of scholarly interest as a political figure. More recently, her life story has attracted the attention of gender historians. But direct evidence is sparse, so she has usually been discussed in single entries in encyclopedias and occasionally in articles. While some scholars have attempted more comprehensive studies, no scholarly monograph has been devoted to Amalasuintha. Ginetti's 1901 study focused on religious policy and the administration of Italy in the years 526-535 (Il governo di Amalasunta e la Chiesa di Roma). Almost a century later, Craddock's master's thesis, "Amalasuintha: Ostrogothic Successor A.D. 526-535" (1996), unfortunately never developed into a book. Sirago's brief narrative book Amalasunta: La regina (ca. 495-535) (1998), is a work of popular nonfiction intended for a general audience. As such, it contains much excursus and speculation but very little direct analysis of the evidence. In 2003, Neria De Giovanni published a short novel focused on the dramatic vicissitudes of this "barbarian" queen, Amalasunta: Regina barbara.

The nature of the evidence may explain why a comprehensive scholarly study of Amalasuintha has not been attempted before now. The material is sufficient to reconstruct a portrait of her and to explore portions of her life, but it is admittedly scanty for a full biography. The first half of her life is virtually undocumented, though occasionally a detailed, deep analysis of our sources reveals some biographical elements. We could, however, claim exactly the same thing for almost all the imperial women and queens of the ancient world, including those who have been the objects of extensive research, such as Cleopatra VII, as well as the Roman empresses, beginning with Livia and the other Julio-Claudian women up to the fifth-century Galla Placidia. Many monographs have been written about Theodora, but hers is a portrait that relies almost entirely on a single author. In terms of sources, there are no fewer for Amalasuintha than there are for many empresses and queens who have been the subject of scholarly treatment in monographs. On the contrary, especially when compared to that for other barbarian queens, our evidence for her is relatively abundant.

Like Galla Placidia and Theodora, Amalasuintha was an important, powerful woman in an age of profound changes. As a bridge between the Gothic and the imperial worlds, this queen was confronted with expectations that were shaped by a variety of traditions. Her rule marks a unique experimental moment in the formation of female power in her era. An understanding of Amalasuintha is of great importance for fifth- and sixth-century politics and diplomacy between Rome and Constantinople, as well as for the idea of queenship and the power of royal women in the post-Roman kingdoms and the early Middle Ages. She needs to be understood in the political and cultural contexts of both the Roman imperial palace and the Gothic court. Amalasuintha is a key figure in the process of experimentation with power by women in the barbarian kingdoms, who would influence the development of queenship in early medieval Italy.

As we consider Amalasuintha's experience as a woman between cultures, I try as far as possible to avoid the use of the words "German" and "Germanic" to reference the peoples and rulers of the post-Roman kingdoms, because this term generalizes very different situations. For this and other reasons, scholars now question its use. After all, contemporary authors did not refer to the tribes of the Roman-barbarian kingdoms, except for a few gentes, as "Germani." However, the categorization of Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals, Alemans, Lombards, and Franks, as Germanic tribes is still common in modern literature, especially because "barbarian" sounds pejorative, gentilis is too technical, and "post-Roman" is not always applicable. A satisfactory alternative term that refers to all the gentes of the Migration Period ("Völkerwanderungen") has not yet been suggested. I therefore prefer the term "post-Roman" whenever it is appropriate.

Structure, Methods, and Goals

This book is divided into five chapters. The first considers the "masculine" representation of Amalasuintha in the sources, in combination with her political power. It also explores her institutional position as regent and queen by analyzing the juridical lexicon of the authors, and by challenging some of the traditional assumptions of modern scholars on the subject. Chapter 2 begins the biography of Amalasuintha: her life at the palace of Ravenna, her education in the Roman style, and her marriage, including its significance for international politics. This chapter also examines the years following the death of Theoderic, and the tensions at the palace between the Gothic aristocracy and Amalasuintha, now standing as regent for her son. Her external and internal political relationships with the empire, with the Roman Senate and the church, and also with the other kingdoms, are the subject of Chapter 3. Chapter 4 is dedicated to the co-regency of Amalasuintha and Theodahad; it explores the consortium regni as devised by the queen to maintain her position of power undisturbed. It also explores Amalasuintha's diplomacy with Justinian and her secret plans, first to step down and leave the kingdom, and later to remain in power, by reconsidering the date on which Theodahad was elected king. Finally, the so-called Amalasuintha affair, the conspiracy that ended with Theodahad's orchestration of her murder, concludes the reconstruction of the biography. Chapter 5 contextualizes Amalasuintha between the worlds of the Roman-barbarian kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire. Here, comparisons with post-Roman queens and with Byzantine empresses are used to examine Amalasuintha's representation as a woman in power. Finally, the Epilogue considers the significance of Amalasuintha in her time and places her legacy in the broader context of the Frankish Merovingian world and Lombard Italy.

Placing the surviving evidence in careful comparison with post-Roman and Byzantine models of female power, this book intends to build a complex portrait of this queen in the context of the events in which she was the protagonist. It also analyses the adoption of imperial models for the formation of female power in Gothic Italy, relying upon detailed examination of the sources. Gothic sources are almost entirely lacking, and we are left with the post-Roman perspectives of Cassiodorus, Jordanes, and Gregory of Tours, and the imperial perspective of Procopius. Some of the sources, written as they were from the Roman view, could sometimes make seem normal or unremarkable situations that to Gothic eyes would have been extraordinary and probably even unwelcome. The close readings of the sources are placed in a wider context, including frequent comparisons with other queens and empresses as found in the accounts of both Western and Eastern authors. The deep understanding of Amalasuintha's daring political experiments reveals key parallels and contrasts between the concepts of female power in the imperial and post-Roman worlds, at a time before female regencies and authoritative queenships became a standard practice.

This is not an effort to rewrite the history of Italy during the government of Amalasuintha, which has been well established over the past hundred and fifty years. Nor does the present work reexamine the administration of Italy in the years 526-535, a topic that also has inspired a large literature, which will be further increased by a new comprehensive translation and commentary of the Cassiodoran letters, Variae. Books 11 and 12 of this correspondence collect Cassiodorus's orders as Praetorian prefect (late 533-537/8). Many of these letters are difficult to date precisely, and only some of them were issued during the last year of Amalasuintha's government. While these documents are important for the study of the administration of Italy in this period, they generally do not reveal significant changes in royal policies. Books 8-10 are quite different, for they contain royal correspondence, most of which was written in the name of Athalaric but supervised by Amalasuintha. Of these documents, I have focused on the letters in her name and those that reveal her influence.

Finally, this book seeks to contribute to the discussion of gender and political authority in late antiquity, in a form that is valuable to those working on ideas of gender, power, and queenship in other epochs. Amalasuintha stood between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, between Roman and post-Roman cultures, and between the Western and Eastern worlds. Not only was Amalasuintha multilingual, she was also bicultural, with one foot in the Gothic world and the other in the Roman. Because of the multiple chronological, geographical, and cultural intersections, the study of Amalasuintha is challenging. It requires not only a deep study of documents of different genres, different periods, and different milieus but also a parallel understanding of the perspectives of late Roman, Byzantine, and early medieval sources.

A study of Amalasuintha, a woman at once famous and elusive, demands the traditional methods of late antique and early medieval historiography—historical philology and textual analysis—combined with some of the methods of both microhistory and cultural history. And where the sources are silent, we must look carefully to the wider milieu of female power in the late fifth- and sixth-century Mediterranean and European worlds to understand the woman, her political ambitions, her struggles, and her life. . . .

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