Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Massimiliano Vitiello, Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 293. ISBN 9780812249477. $69.95.

Reviewed by Edward M. Schoolman, University of Nevada, Reno (eschoolman@unr.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Amalasuintha, the daughter of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, ruled Italy from 526-535, first as regent for her young son Athalaric and briefly in her own right, as co-ruler with her cousin Theodahad before he had her murdered. These were complicated decades for Italy and the Ostrogothic regime, not only plagued with internal political factures, but also pulled by larger external events: the growing power of Justinian's Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople and the consolidation of territory by the Franks in the north at the expense of their traditional allies. In Vitiello's Amalasuintha, the "Queen" becomes the entry point for a wide range of explorations into politics, diplomacy, propaganda, and the position of imperial and royal women extending well beyond her reign. In this way, although framed around the figure of Amalasuintha, the book is not entirely a biography; it rather serves as a careful study of late Ostrogothic Italy set within a much broader chronological and historical context.

At the outset, Vitiello is clear about the limitations and problems of the contemporary sources, Procopius and Cassiodorus, as well as those written far from Italy and long after the events in question. Beginning in the first chapter with what was reported about the Gothic court of Ravenna, he continues by dissecting the way Amalasuintha is presented in the sources, focusing specifically on interpreting the gendered aspects and institutional character of the (predominantly positive) biographical material to be found in the texts of near contemporaries. Speculating both about the descriptions of Amalasuintha as masculine and motherly and the route by which she gained royal power, Vitiello reaches satisfying conclusions: both evolved over a long period of time and in response to the shifting responsibilities of her position rather than in an institutional framework.

Other targets of Vitiello's interest are just as varied, and are raised in more or less chronological order. In the second chapter, he opens with a description of the Ostrogothic court and an assessment of Amalasuintha's education, which emphasizes the Ostrogoths' access to Roman traditions and probable use of Roman rhetoricians and teachers (which complements some of the work of his previous book on Amalasuintha's co-ruler and successor Theodahad).1 Yet this is set against a detailed analysis of the court in Ravenna in the years before Theoderic's death, in which the complexities of Amal family dynamics and history are laid out.

The third chapter, ostensibly an examination of Amalasuintha's regency over her son Athalaric, creates the opportunity to investigate her relationships with Justinian, the Vandals, and the Roman Senate and Church, (the tacit support of the latter causing rifts within the Gothic elite). Here, for example, the careful reconstruction of the events leading up to Justinian's commendatio, formalizing Amalasuintha's selection of the emperor as either guardian or protector of the kingdom, reveal the interplay between Gothic maneuvers and the uncertainty raised by succession, both imperial and royal, during the 530s.

Amalasuintha's short co-rule with Theodahad following the death of Athalaric, and the palace intrigue that rapidly brought about her own end, form the chronological basis of the fourth chapter. As in the third chapter, Vitiello excels in carefully weaving together the delicate efforts at diplomacy and legitimation from fragments within the surviving sources (efforts that were complicated by Justinian's renewed military ventures). Given her new role as co-regent with Theodahad, the changes in the use of gendered language around her power are examined, but these were only short-term changes. The politics of the new court put her at a distinct disadvantage; according to Vitiello, her favoritism of "Romans" and their institutions made her the target of the "Gothic" elite, and Theodahad's own ambition led to her imprisonment. Exact details about her murder remain uncertain, but it resulted from the outcry of Goths alienated during her regency.

The fifth chapter is perhaps the book's most expansive. For Vitiello, Amalasuintha represented the nexus of imperial Roman traditions (in which she was cast as an Augusta) with those of the post-Roman world (the latter term a deliberate choice). Here, to looks to place Amalasuintha's career within both traditions, comparing her legacy to those of fifth- and sixth-century Roman augustae and their contemporaries in the "post-Roman" west (especially the Franks), and more broadly seeking to understand the political roles females played in royal and imperial courts. The argument here is that Amalasuintha can best be understood as following imperial Roman traditions and precedents. In support, Vitiello presents a range of evidence, including iconographic representations in consular diptychs and the texts of Cassiodorus and Procopius, although he hedges by suggesting that her reign marked an intermediary position between Roman and post-Roman, perhaps exemplifying the Ostrogothic situation as a whole. The work ends with an epilogue in the same vein, sketching parallels and differences between Amalasuintha and her "successors," the queens of Lombard Italy.

Although it is not strictly a biography, there should be no mistake that the Ostrogoths, their royal court, and especially the Amal family, are at the center of Vitiello's book. Across the volume as a whole, there are some real highlights: an excellent analysis of the court's many diplomatic efforts, and a deep and critical use of Procopius and Cassiodorus. Yet some hazards remain, when hypothetical late-antique grudges skimmed from the sources are given over as facts, and sometimes we are left to ponder the origins of judgments such as a description of Theodahad, "corrupt, dishonest, greedy man that he was" (p. 126).

As with Vitiello's book on Theodahad, the present volume adds to a large and vigorous debate about the nature of the Ostrogothic kingdom, and especially its decline, caught between its basis in evolving Gothic traditions on the one hand and its use of Roman customs and institutions to shore up its legitimacy on the other. Without question, Romans, like Cassiodorus, contributed to and recorded the actions of kings and regents who sought to suggest continuity between Italy's imperial Roman past and the compromises of Gothic rule. Yet the dangers of this arrangement for the ruling Amal family were clear, and both Gothic rule and even a sense of Gothic identity would not survive long after Amalasuintha's fall. What Vitiello succeeds in presenting most lucidly are these dynamics and the development of this complex political and diplomatic situation under Amalasuintha, adding a new perspective to the last decades of a post-Roman kingdom.


1.   Massimiliano Vitiello, Theodahad: A Platonic King at the Collapse of Ostrogothic Italy (Toronto: 2014).

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