A Brief History
On March 15, 493, Ravenna, Italy, was a scene right out of the HBO cable television series Game of Thrones when King Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths invited his defeated enemy, King Odoacer of Italy to a great banquet marking the “end” of hostilities. Odoacer, the first barbarian King of Italy, whose reign marked the end of the Western Roman Empire, was walking into a trap!
Theodoric used the banquet as a lure to draw in Odoacer so that the erstwhile King of Italy could be killed. In the manner typical of both fictional and real life kings and emperors, double crosses and conspiracies were the order of the day in the troubled times when the Roman Empire had been disintegrating into a hodge-podge of various kingdoms and other entities. Odoacer’s rise to power in Italy in 476 marked the end of the Western Roman Empire though the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople was still in existence. In fact, Odoacer styled himself as an agent or client of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno. Odoacer’s exact origins are unclear, though it is likely he was of some sort of Germanic origin.
Zeno cast his favor to King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths and promised Theodoric the throne of Italy. Zeno had become wary of the rise of Odoacer’s power and influence and sought to eliminate Odoacer as a possible rival in the Mediterranean area. When word of Odoacer communicating with would be usurpers to Zeno’s throne reached Zeno, the Emperor enlisted Theodoric as his method of eliminating Odoacer, promising Theodoric the Kingdom of Italy.Theodoric performed his assigned task, and defeated the forces of Odoacer, putting a period on the campaign by murdering Odoacer at the ill starred banquet in Ravenna.
Of course, in true Game of Thrones fashion, Theodoric previously was not just satisfied with the scraps thrown to him by Zeno, and in 485 Theodoric himself also rebelled against Zeno. Zeno deflected the revolt by Theodoric by making the deal with Theodoric for Italy in exchange for vanquishing Odoacer, whom Zeno saw as the greater danger to the throne of Zeno. In 489, Theodoric marched on Italy and began the war against Odoacer. The battles in Italy between Odoacer and Theodoric went back and forth, with alternating sides victorious on the battlefield until Theodoric began to establish the upper hand by 491. By 493, Odoacer knew he could not win, and agreed to the peace offered by Theodoric, and to attend the fateful banquet. It is said that Theodoric himself delivered the fatal sword strike to Odoacer, rising from his seat and bringing his sword down on the unlucky King’s collarbone. Odoacer whined, “Where is God?” and Theodoric replied, “This is what you did to my friends!” Not missing an opportunity for famous quotes while gloating over the body of his vanquished opponent, Theodoric added, “The man has no bones in his body.”
Seldom in History do we find Kings, Emperors, or other national leaders actually performing the person to person killing of the leader of the enemy, whether by execution or in battle. Another such instance, retold in our article “The Beheading of a Byzantine Emperor by Another Byzantine Emperor!?” concerns the killing of Byzantine Emperor Phocas by his usurper, Heraclius, who had defeated Phocas and then personally executed the deposed emperor in 610.
In modern times it is hard to imagine the wimpy leaders of current nations actually taking a sword into their own hands and killing someone. Or is it?
Question for students (and subscribers): What modern national leader, if any, do you believe would be capable of killing a rival? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Moorhead, John. Theoderic In Italy. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Reynolds, Robert. Flavius Odoacer: Barbarian Conqueror of the Roman Empire. Amazon, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a map of The Ostrogothic Kingdom (in yellow) at the death of Theodoric the Great (AD 526), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.