The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 4

Page 3

Meanwhile, agriculture prospered once more; the Pontine Marshes were drained; the imperial ports restored, and new cities sprang up. 'The new ones,' say Machiavelli 'were Venice, Siena, Ferrara, Aquileia; and those which became extended were Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Milan, Naples, and Bologna.' Of these the great sea-ports, especially Venice, were founded not by Goths, but by Roman and Greek fugitives: but it was the security and liberality of Dietrich's reign which made their existence possible; and Venice really owes far more to the barbarian hero, than to the fabled patronage of St. Mark.

'From this devastation and new population,' continues Machiavelli, 'arose new languages, which, partaking of the native idiom of the new people, and of the old Roman, formed a new manner of discourse. Besides, not only were the names of provinces changed, but also of lakes, rivers, seas, and men; for France, Spain, and Italy are full of fresh names, wholly different from the ancient.'

This reign of Dietrich was, in fact, the birth-hour of modern Italy; and, as Machiavelli says, 'brought the country to such a state of greatness, that her previous sufferings were unrecognizable.' We shall see hereafter how the great Goth's work was all undone; and (to their everlasting shame) by whom it was undone.

The most interesting records of the time are, without doubt, the letters of Cassiodorus, the king's secretary and chancellor, which have come down to us in great numbers. There are letters among them on all questions of domestic and foreign policy: to the kings of the Varni, kings of the Herules, kings of the Thuringer (who were still heathens beyond the Black forest), calling on them all to join him and the Burgundians, and defend his son-in-law Alaric II., king of the Visigoths, against Clovis and his Franks. There are letters, too, bearing on the religious feuds of the Roman population, and on the morals and social state of Rome itself, of which I shall say nothing in this lecture, having cause to refer to them hereafter. But if you wish to know the times, you must read Cassiodorus thoroughly.

In his letters you will remark how most of the so-called Roman names are Greek. You will remark, too, as a sign of the decadence of taste and art, that though full of wisdom and practical morality, the letters are couched in the most wonderful bombast to be met with, even in that age of infimæ Latinitatis. One can only explain their style by supposing that King Dietrich, having supplied the sense, left it for Cassiodorus to shape it as he thought best; and when the letter was read over to him, took for granted (being no scholar) that that was the way in which Roman Cæsars and other cultivated personages ought to talk; admired his secretary's learning; and probably laughed in his sleeve at the whole thing, thinking that ten words of honest German would have said all that he meant. As for understanding these flights of rhetoric, it is impossible that Dietrich could have done so: perhaps not even Cassiodorus himself. Take as one example, such a letter as this.---After a lofty moral maxim, which I leave for you to construe---'In partem pietatis recidit mitigata districtio; et sub beneficio præstat, qui pœnam debitam moderatione considerata palpaverit,'---Jovinus the curial is informed, after the most complex method, that having first quarrelled with a fellow-curial, and then proceeded to kill him, he is banished for life to the isle of Volcano, among the Liparis. As a curial is a gentleman and a government magistrate, the punishment is just enough; but why should Cassiodorus (certainly not King Dietrich) finish a short letter by a long dissertation on volcanoes in general, and Stromboli in particular, insisting on the wonder that the rocks, though continually burnt, are continually renewed by 'the inextricable potency of nature,' and only returning to Jovinus to inform him that he will henceforth follow the example of the salamander, which always lives in fire, 'being so contracted by natural cold, that it is tempered by burning flame. It is a thin and small animal, connected with worms, and clothed with a yellow colour;'.....Cassiodorus then returns to the main subject of volcanoes, and ends with a story of Stromboli having broken out just as Hannibal poisoned himself at the court of Prusias;---information which may have been interesting, though not consoling, to poor Jovinus, in the prospect of living there; but of which one would like to have had king Dietrich's opinion. Did he felicitate himself like a simple Teuton, on the wonderful learning and eloquence of his Greek-Roman secretary? Or did he laugh a royal laugh at the whole letter, and crack a royal joke at Cassiodorus and all quill-driving schoolmasters and lawyers---the two classes of men whom the Goths hated especially, and at the end to which they by their pedantries had brought imperial Rome? One would like to know. For not only was Dietrich no scholar himself, but he had a contempt for the very scholarship which he employed, and forbade the Goths to learn it---as the event proved, a foolish and fatal prejudice. But it was connected in his mind with chicanery, effeminacy, and with the cruel and degrading punishments of children. Perhaps the ferula had been applied to him at Constantinople in old days. If so, no wonder that he never learnt to write. 'The boys who trembles at a cane,' he used to say, 'will never face a lance.' His mother wit, meanwhile, was so shrewd that 'many of his sayings (says the unknown author of the invaluable Valesian Fragment) remain among us to this day.' Two only, as far as I know, have been preserved, quaint enough:

 'He that hath gold, or a devil, cannot hide it.'

And

'The Roman, when poor, apes the Goth: the Goth, when rich, apes the Roman.'

There is a sort of Solomon's judgment, too, told of him, in the case of a woman who refused to acknowledge her own son, which was effectual enough; but somewhat too homely to repeat.

As for his personal appearance, it was given in a saga; but I have not consulted it myself, and am no judge of its authenticity. The traditional description of him is that of a man almost beardless---a rare case among the Goths---with masses of golden ringlets, and black eyebrows over 'ocolos cæsios,' the blue grey eyes common to so many conquerors. A complexion so peculiar, that one may believe it to be truly reported.

His tragic death, and the yet more tragic consequences thereof, will be detailed in the next lecture.

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