Here is a good story of palace intrigue and conspiracy. We turn our attention to late antiquity, to the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy.
Amalasuntha (c. 495-535) was the daughter of Ostrogothic King Theoderic the Great. When Theoderic died, his grandson Athalaric nominally became king. But being a child, the real power lay with his mother Amalasuntha, who ruled as regent.
By all accounts she was an intelligent and beautiful woman, and held progressive beliefs for her time. She seems to have sought the fusion of Goths and Italians into a unified state, and to this end she enacted certain decrees that made her unpopular.
She abolished the legal distinctions between Romans and Goths; the Roman Senate was asked to participate more in government; and she dispatched emissaries to the Emperor Justinian in the east to seek good relations with the eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople. She also was determined to give her son a good traditional education, something rare for a barbarian king in that era.
But the Goths had no sympathy for this desire to Romanize the young king. They were unlettered barbarians, for the most part, and viewed education as equivalent to effeminacy. In such an environment, the young king soon abandoned himself to sensuality and alcohol, and destroyed his health.
It was not long before intrigues began to be formed against her. A monarch in those days (as well as now) had to be constantly on guard against usurpers and schemers. When she located the three men whom she believed to be engaged in conspiracies against her, she had them transferred to a remote part of Italy. They were at this point marked men.
As a security precaution, she also wrote to the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople to ask him if he would be willing to provide her safe haven should she ever be deposed in Italy. He agreed; and with this assurance as a safeguard, Amalasuntha had the three plotters executed.
She had one close relative whom she thought she could rely on. It was her cousin Theodahad, the son of Amalfrida, the Vandal queen. For some reason, her powers of judgment seem to have deserted her in the case of Theodahad. He was in fact venal and dishonest, and lacking in any positive qualities of character.
When Theodahad began to appropriate land illegally in Tuscany, Amalasuntha forced him to restore the property to its owners. This act made him hate her unyieldingly.
This fact, combined with her unpopularity with the Goths, and the declining health of her son, made her feel more isolated than ever. Justinian, along with his wife Theodora, had followed events closely from Constantinople.
And it was at this point that Amalasuntha made a fatal mistake. When her son Athalaric died, she invited the evil Theodahad to assume the throne. She had no idea of his secret grudge against her, or of the fact that he was entirely unscrupulous. But he smiled and concealed his true feelings, and formed his secret plans.
Once he became king, Theodahad contacted the families of the three men whom Amalasuntha had executed for treason. He formed a clique to isolate her, and had her supporters at the court in Ravenna thrown in jail or slain.
She herself was arrested by his agents and imprisoned on an island in Lake Bolsena in Tuscany. She was apparently force to write to the Emperor Justinian, telling him that all was well. Justinian wrote back and assured her that he would protect her; he also had emissaries in Italy at the same time to communicate this message.
Yet Amalasuntha was killed anyway; we are told that she was strangled in a bath while in captivity, at the instigation of the relatives of the three men whom she had condemned to death earlier. Justinian was furious when he heard this news, and Theodahad protested that the murder had been done against his will. Eventually the whole tragic affair fizzled out.
But there is more to the story than might appear. The historian Procopius tells us, in his Secret History, that the real story behind Amalasuntha’s death could not be told while Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora, still lived.
And Procopius’s explanation, once we hear it, has the ring of truth. How could it be possible that a queen could be executed by accident? How is it that Justinian could have emissaries in Italy seeking to save Amalasuntha, and yet she was put to death anyway? There is more to the story than appears on the surface.
According to Procopius, the real hand behind the murder of Amalasuntha was Justinian’s wife Theodora. She had no desire to see a potential female rival appear in Constantinople, possibly gaining the favor of Justinian. Theodora would have instinctively sensed that Amalasuntha was a better woman than she, from better origins, and would have loathed the prospect of seeing her about court.
Thus, it seems that the real motive of Justinian’s ministers in Italy were (at the behest of Theodora) to see to it that Amalasuntha was removed from the picture. It would not be the first time that a political murder would be borne from personal jealousy.
One of Justinian’s emissaries, a man named Peter, was devoted to Theodora and would have been well-placed to see that this scheme was carried out. Theodahad’s letters of thanks to Theodora also indicate the debt he owed her in helping him get an inconvenient rival out of the way.
We also learn that Peter’s express instructions were not to make any contact with Justinian unless it came first to her, Theodora.
This, then, is the tragic and diabolical story, as Procopius tells it.
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