BOOK REVIEW: A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy—Review by Sean Tandy

Jonathan J. Arnold, M. Shane Bjornlie, and Kristina Sessa (eds). A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy, Leiden: Brill, 2016. pp. 564. €173,00. ISBN: 978-9-0043-1376-7

The topic of Ostrogothic Italy has recently seen something of a revival in English language scholarship. Since 2013, important studies reassessing major works by the period’s two biggest literary figures, Cassiodorus and Boethius; a total reappraisal of Ostrogothic legal culture; and a fundamental restatement of Theoderic the Great’s constitutional position have all been published.[1] Given this new focus on the time period, it is perhaps unsurprising that a companion on the subject should appear, as the publication of a handbook canonizes a topic as an independent field of study. A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy commendably orients its readers to the major issues in the field and the trends of past scholarship. It simultaneously offers new interpretations of perennial problems as well as a few essays on topics previously unexplored in Ostrogothic-era scholarship, resulting in a book that appeals both to novices and experts in the field of Ostrogothic Italy.

The book is divided into nineteen chapters arranged in three larger thematic sections: “The State,” “Culture and Society,” and “Religion”. The first chapter, which sits outside of these three sections, orients the reader to the book and to the larger field of Ostrogothic studies. The front matter also includes a short foreword, a list of figures, and a helpful list of contributors that highlights past publications as well as announcing in-progress projects that should appeal to readers of this volume. The Companion ends with a “Glossary of Selected Sources,” which helpfully introduces the most important literary sources for Ostrogothic history from the Acta Synhodorum habitarum Romae to the Symmachan Forgeries, and a general index. Each chapter ends with its own bibliography, a wise editorial choice that allows readers easy access to the sources that interest them in that chapter.

The first section of the book, “The State,” contains seven essays beginning with Gerda Heydemann’s “The Ostrogothic Kingdom: Ideologies and Transitions.” This first essay sets the tone for the first section as it not only provides the historical introduction that a companion volume requires, but also attempts to move beyond the simple overarching dichotomies that have long dominated discussion of the period (Roman/Goth, Arian/Orthodox, etc.) and instead explores such identities as part of several competing ideological constructs that helped govern, but did not necessarily determine, political motivation in Ostrogothic Italy. This interest in moving beyond traditional dichotomies and exploring the intricacies of Ostrogothic-era ideologies are borne out in other essays in this section such as Federico Marazzi’s chapter on cities, Sean Lafferty’s on the law, Christiane Radtki’s on the role of the Senatorial Elite, Guy Halsall’s chapter on ethnicity and military organization, and John J. Arnold’s very useful chapter on Ostrogothic provinces, a subject that had previously not received such focused attention. M. Shane Bjornlie’s chapter on Government administration is particularly noteworthy as it offers a new line of argumentation about Ostrogothic-era administration. Bjornlie contends that a lack of fiscal resources and the absence of a strong capital city created a small itinerant bureaucracy that followed the Ostrogothic King. These administrators were required to perform a wide array of duties, many of which fell outside of the purview of their office, which suggests a drastically revised view of the size and work of the Ostrogothic-era administration that should spark future scholarship.

The seven essays of Part Two, “Culture and Society,” move away from politics narrowly defined and instead analyze the cultural productions of Ostrogothic Italy and some consequent political ramifications. Analyses of literary and artistic products and trends are offered by Natalia Lozovsky and Mark J. Johnson, while Deborah M. Deliyannis and Cam Grey discuss urban and rural life, respectively. This section also contains two essays about identity and ethnic perception. Brian Swain’s investigation into the topic of “Gothicness,” and Kate Cooper’s analysis of the Greek Historian Procopius’s narrative of the fall of Amalasuentha. Both of these essays examine the stereotypes that inform our sources. Cooper’s essay focuses on the Greek historian Procopius and his views not only of ethnicity, but also of gender. Finally, Paolo Squatriti’s chapter “Barbarizing the Bel Paese: Environmental History in Ostrogothic Italy,” analyzes another hitherto unexplored aspect of Ostrogothic history. Squatriti’s article places Ostrogothic history in the wider sweep of Late Antique environmental history, using evidence outside the realm of traditional historians such as animal bones, pollen levels, and patterns of arboreal cultivation, in order to argue that demographic drops and changes in landscape patterns need not be seen as the result of catastrophic devastation, but rather inhabitants’ adaption to the landscape and to changing economic conditions.

Part Three, “Religion,” is comprised of four essays that nuance the relationship between religious institutions, cultural identity, and political activity. Kristina Sessa’s contribution focuses on the Roman see and the role of the Pope during this period, aiming to disrupt traditional narratives of papal supremacy by noting the limited jurisdiction of the Pope. This article also examines the papacy’s political relationship with both Theoderic and Justinian. The first of Rita Lizzi Testa’s two chapters examines the relationship between the Ostrogothic state and ecclesiastical institutions, concluding that Theoderic granted new temporal powers to ecclesiastical authorities. Lizzi Testa’s second contribution maps the development of episcopal sees and monastic centers. The section’s final chapter by Samuel Cohen again treats a previously underexplored topic in Ostrogothic Studies — religious diversity. In this piece, Cohen examines three religious groups, Jews, Arians, and pagans, demonstrating the variety of ways these groups interacted with each other and the dominant Orthodox Christian culture of sixth-century Italy.

The Companion to Ostrogothic Italy has a great deal to commend it. Perhaps the most admirable feature about the book is its comprehensiveness. The work covers nearly every topic that one could want in a companion. Even those topics to which there is no dedicated chapter are explored in other chapters in the book. For example, though there is no chapter specifically dedicated to the Ostrogothic economy, the Ostrogothic fisc is discussed in the context of the administration, the financial situation of the cities is discussed in the chapter on cities, and the financial yields of the countryside are discussed in chapters on the rural economy and environmental history. Another useful aspect of the book and one that further highlights its completeness is the book’s self-referential notes that direct the reader towards other chapters in the companion to explore a particular issue more in-depth. This feature adds to the practical usability of the companion, as readers are more likely to start with the chapter most relevant for them. The notes will thus provide them other avenues of inquiry within the book itself. A final strength of the book is the diversity of viewpoints. Not all scholars agree with one another on major issues of interpretation, like Theoderic the Great’s “constitutional position” vis-à-vis Constantinople. Far from being a weakness of the volume, however, the contrasting viewpoints allow the reader to tease out current areas of debate in the scholarship; the self-referential footnotes enable the reader to pursue alternative interpretations. Readers can easily learn the state of the debates, learn more information, and make their own decision on the matter. In a similar vein, several of the articles summarize divergent opinions before presenting their own arguments. Swain’s chapter on Gothic identity, for instance, summarizes the major strands of the debate about Gothic identity, whether it was “real” or merely a cultural construct, before presenting his own view. The companion also offers nineteen different bibliographies that introduce the reader to important primary and secondary sources and give direction for further study. Thus A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy admirably provides a comprehensive overview to the state of the field, including the field’s conflicts, contradictions, and unresolved issues.

Criticisms of the volume are few. A few of the essays read too much like a list of facts rather than an essay with an argument, but in a companion volume such chapters are still of great value to the novice. A few comments here and there seem to miss the mark. For example, Lozovsky’s claim (p. 331) that Boethius kept aloof from politics until the consulship of both his sons in 522 elides the fact that he was consul himself in 510, and was asked by Theoderic to perform a number of tasks for the central government (Cassiod. Var. 1.10, 1.45, and 2.40). Such missteps are rare, however, as are typographic errors. A few editorial oddities are distracting, such as the lack of primary sources in the bibliographies of some essays, references in the main text to statements only made in footnotes, and irregular spacing between paragraphs in the appendix, but these are not serious enough to frustrate most readers. The one major drawback of the book that should be mentioned is the price tag. At $237 directly from the publisher and not significantly less expensive for an electronic version, the work is well out of the average scholar’s price range (and certainly not affordable to the average graduate student!). The best option for those interested in this volume is to convince your institution’s library to subscribe to one of Brill’s subscription services.

In the end, though, Brill’s A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy exemplifies the handbook genre by successfully providing the reader with an understanding of the basic facts of the field and ongoing scholarly controversies. The book is a perfect introduction to the field for graduate students or scholars in other fields. The text also offers several essays on new topics that should extend the volume’s appeal to experts in the field of Ostrogothic Studies. As the editors note in the introduction, the Ostrogothic era is often invoked to explain the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, and as such, the companion should also appeal to general scholars of Late Ancient and Early Medieval History. Moreover, individual chapters in the volume are sure to be welcomed by scholars and students in Boethian Studies, Ethnicity Studies, Environmental Studies, Disaster Studies, legal scholarship, Religious Studies, and Art History. In these ways, the companion should aid in further canonizing and promoting the field of Ostrogothic Studies.

Sean Tandy, Indiana University

Sean Tandy is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. His academic interests include Late Roman and Early Byzantine intellectual and political history. He has currently finishing his dissertation entitled, “Carmina qui quondam: Poetry, Identity, and Ideology in Ostrogothic Italy”.


[1] M. Shane Bjornlie, Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople: A Study of the Cassiodorus and the Variae, 527–554 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Antonio Donato, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” as a Product of Late Antiquity (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); Sean Lafferty, Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic the Great: a Study of the Edictum Theoderici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Jonathan J. Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).