The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 5

Page 2

As for the political conspiracy, we shall never know the truth of it. The 'Anonymus Valesii,' meanwhile says, that when Cyprian accused Albinus, Boethius answered, 'It is false: but if Albinus has done it, so have I, and the whole senate, with one consent. It is false, my Lord King!' Whatever such words may prove, they prove at least this, that Boethius, as he says himself, was the victim of his own chivalry. To save Albinus, and the senate, he thrust himself into the fore-front of the battle, and fell at least like a brave man. Whether Albinus, Boethius, and Symmachus did plot to bring in Justin; whether the senate did send a letter to him, I cannot tell. Boethus, in his De Consolatione, denies it all; and Boethius was a good man. He says that the letters in which he hoped for the liberty of Rome were forged; how could he hope for the impossible? but he adds, 'would that any liberty could have been hoped for! I would have answered the king as Cassius did, when falsely accused of conspiring by Caligula: "If I had known of it, you should not."' One knows not whether Dietrich ever saw those words: but they prove at least that all his confidence, justice, kindness to the patrician philosopher, had not won him from the pardonable conceit about the Romani nominis umbram.

Boethius' story is most probably true. One cannot think that that man would die with a lie in his mouth. One cannot pass by, as the utterances of a deliberate hypocrisy, those touching appeals to his guiding mistress, that heavenly wisdom who has led him so long upon the paths of truth and virtue, and who seems to him, in his miserable cell, to have betrayed him in his hour of need. Heaven forbid. Better to believe that Dietrich committed once in his life, a fearful crime, than that good Boethius' famous book is such another as the Eikon Basilike.

Boethius, again, says that the Gothic courtiers hated him, and suborned branded scoundrels to swear away his life and that of the senate, because he had opposed 'the hounds of the palace,' Amigast, Trigulla, and other greedy barbarians. There was, of course, a Gothic party and a Roman party about the court; and each hated the other bitterly. Dietrich had favoured the Romans. But the Goths could not have seen such men as Symmachus and Boethius the confidants and counsellors of the Amal, without longing for their downfall; and if, as Boethius and the Catholic historians say, the whole tragedy arose out of a Gothic plot to destroy the Roman party, such things have happened but too often in the world's history. The only facts which make against the story are, that Cyprianus the accuser was a Roman, and that Cassiodorus, who must have belonged to the Roman party, not only is never mentioned during the whole tragedy, but was high in power under Theodatus and Athalaric afterwards.

Add to this, that there were vague but wide-spread reports that the Goths were in danger; that Dietrich at least could not be ignorant of the ambition and the talents of that terrible Justinian, Justin's nephew, who was soon to alter, for a generation, the fortunes of the whole Empire, and to sweep the Goths from Italy; that men's minds must have been perplexed with fear of change, when they recollected that Dietrich was seventy years old, without a son to succeed him, and that a woman and a child would soon rule that great people in crisis, which they could not but foresee. We know that the ruin came; is it unreasonable to suppose that the Goths foresaw it, and made a desperate, it may be a treacherous, effort to crush once and for all, the proud and not less treacherous senators of Rome?

So, maddened with the fancied discovery that the man whom he had honoured, trusted, loved, was conspiring against him, Dietrich sent Boethius to prison. He seems, however, not to have been eager for his death; for Boethius remained there long enough to write his noble book.

However, whether fresh proofs of his supposed guilt were discovered or not, the day came when he must die. A cord was twisted round his head (probably to extort confession), till his eyes burst from their sockets, and then he was put out of his misery by a club; and so ended the last Roman philosopher. Symmachus, his father-in-law, was beheaded; and Pope John, as we have heard, was thrown into prison on his return, and died after a few months. These are the tragedies which have stained for ever the name of 'Theodoric the Great.'

Pope John seems to have fairly earned his imprisonment. For the two others, we can only, I fear, join in the sacred pity in which their memories have been embalmed to all succeeding generations. But we must recollect, that after all, we know but one side of the question. The Romans could write; the Goths could not: they may have been able to make out a fair case for themselves; they may have believed truly in the guilt of Boethius; and if they did, nothing less could have happened, by such rules of public law and justice as were then in vogue, than did happen.

Be that as it may, the deed was done; and the punishment, if deserved, came soon enough. Sitting at dinner (so the story runs), the head of a fish took in Dietrich's fancy the shape of Symmachus' head, the upper teeth biting the lip, the great eyes staring at him. He sprang up in horror; took to his bed; and there, complaining of a mortal chill, wrapping himself up in heaps of blankets, and bewailing to his physician the death of his two victims, he died sadly in a few days. And a certain holy hermit, name not given, nor date of the vision, saw the ghosts of Boethius and Symmachus lead the Amal's soul up the cone of Stromboli, and hurl him in, as the English sailors saw old Boots, the Wapping usurer, hurled into the same place, for offences far more capable of proof.

So runs the story of Dietrich's death. It is perfectly natural, and very likely true. His contemporaries, who all believed it, saw in it proof of his enormous guilt, and the manifest judgment of God. We shall rather see in it a proof of the earnest, child-like, honest nature of the man, startled into boundless horror and self-abasement, by the sudden revelation of his crime. Truly bad men die easier deaths than that; and go down to the grave, for the most part, blind and self-contented, and, as they think, unpunished; and perhaps forgiven.

After Dietrich came the deluge. The royal head was gone. The royal heart remained in Amalasuentha 'the heavenly beauty,' a daughter worthy of her father.

One of her first acts was to restore to the widows and children of the two victims the estates which Dietrich had confiscated. That may, or may not, prove that she thought the men innocent. She may have only felt it royal not to visit the sins of the fathers on the children; and those fathers, too, her own friends and preceptors. Beautiful, learned, and wise, she too was, like her father, before her age. She, the pupil of Boethius, would needs bring up her son Athalaric in Roman learning, and favour the Romans in all ways; never putting to death or even fining any of them, and keeping down the rough Goths, who were ready enough, now Dietrich's hand was off them, to ill-use the conquered Italians. The Goths soon grew to dislike her, and her Roman tendencies, her Roman education of the lad. One day she boxed his ears for some fault. He ran crying out into the Heldensaal, and complained to the heroes. They sent a deputation to Amalasuentha, insolent enough. 'The boy should not be made a scholar of.' 'She meant to kill the boy and marry again. Had not old Dietrich forbidden free Goths to go to schoolmasters, and said, that the boy who was taught to tremble at a cane, would never face a lance?' So they took the lad away from the woman, and made a ruffian of him. What with drink, women, idleness, and the company of wild young fellows like himself, he was early ruined, body and soul. Poor Amalasuentha, not knowing whither to turn, took the desperate resolution of offering Italy to the Emperor Justinian. She did not know that her cousin Theodatus had been beforehand with her---a bad old man, greedy and unjust, whose rapacity she had had to control again and again, and who hated her in return. Both send messages to Justinian. The wily Emperor gave no direct answer: but sent his ambassador to watch the course of events. The young prince died of debauchery, and the Goths whispered that his mother had poisoned him. Meanwhile Theodatus went on from bad to worse; accusations flowed in to Amalasuentha of his lawless rapacity: but he was too strong for her; and she, losing her head more and more, made the desperate resolve of marrying him, as the only way to keep him quiet. He was the last male heir of the royal Amalungs. The marriage would set him right in the eyes of the Goths, while it would free her from the suspicion of having murdered her son, in order to reign alone. Theodatus meanwhile was to have the name of royalty; but she was to keep the power and the money---a foolish, confused plan, which could have but one ending. Theodatus married her of course, and then cast her into prison, seized all her treasures, and threw himself into the arms of that party among the Goths, who hated Amalasuentha for having punished their oppressions. The end was swift and sad. By the time that Justinian's ammbassador landed, Amalasuentha was strangled in her bath; and all that Peter the ambassador had to do was, to catch at the cause of quarrel, and declare 'inexpiable war' on the part of Justinian, as the avenger of the Queen.

And then began that dreadful East Goth war, which you may read for yourselves in the pages of an eyewitness, Procopius;---a war which destroyed utterly the civilization of Dietrich's long and prosperous reign, left Italy a desert, and exterminated the Roman people.

That was the last woe: but of it I must tell you in my next Lecture.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page