Was Theoderic a Great Builder?

Was Theoderic a Great Builder?

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Theoderic the Great, who ruled the Ostrogoths and Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries, was celebrated as one of the great builders and restorers of the Roman Empire. However, archaeological evidence suggests that Theoderic did not actually build very many new buildings. Maria Cristina La Rocca attempts to figure out what did the Ostrogothic ruler actually do in terms of construction in Italy.

La Rocca gave the keynote paper last month at the 32nd Haskins Society Conference at Boston College. Entitled, ‘Mores tuos fabricae loquuntur’. Building activity and the rhetoric of power in Ostrogothic Italy, the paper focuses on the letters of the Italian statesmen Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585), who directed much of the government for Theoderic (d.526).

Cassiodorus’ collection of letters, known as the Variae epistolae, includes 27 letters (out of over 300) that dealt with construction of buildings. They reveal that Theoderic did have a personal involvement in rebuilding of early medieval Italy and other parts of the Ostrogothic kingdom, which usually involved restoring public buildings. For example, in the capital city of Ravenna the Roman aqueduct was restored, while other towns would get repairs to defensive walls and fortifications.

One interesting aspect of Theoderic’s building programme was that they deliberately made use of old building stones – taking them from previously ruined structures and re-using them for the new public works. Some of Cassiadorus’ letters consisted of orders to various places to have them send stones from ruined buildings to Ravenna, while others were authorizing local officials to make use of ruins for new purposes. La Rocca explains that in the Ostrogothic Kingdom, “using ancient stones for restoration was portrayed as just as prestigious as building new works.” One might conclude that Theoderic was a great recycler!

The letters of Cassiodorus also reveal that efforts were made to preserve public buildings throughout the kingdom, and to prohibit the construction of private homes on ‘public lands’, especially in Rome.

La Rocca also notes another important aspect of Theoderic’s building programme – the Ostrogothic ruler made sure that the people knew he was responsible that these public buildings could now be used again. Inscriptions bearing his name would be added to buildings, even on individual tiles and bricks, while Theoderic had at least three statues of himself erected in Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople, and probably had his image added to mosaics around his kingdom too. As La Rocca explains, “his name gets everywhere.”

The praise Theoderic received for his building programme, both during his own reign and in the centuries afterwards, shows how successful this endeavour was in establishing his legitimate royal authority over a newly conquered territory. It also became the new model for other early medieval kings – to demonstrate how they could be effective rulers by making sure that public buildings were rebuilt and properly maintained.

Maria Cristina La Rocca is currently working on a full edition and translation of the letters of Cassiodorus. You can read more of her books and articles on

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