A virago – a woman-man, whose distorted gender imbued a woman with male qualities. A foolish Arian heretic. A regent. A mother. A Queen. Perhaps even an empress. Our sources leave us with a conflicted and contradictory image of Amalasuintha, a remarkable woman who ruled for almost a decade (August 526-ca. December 534) over the most significant portion of the former Western Roman Empire. This fractal portrait survives in the letters of Cassiodorus, a high palace official in Ravenna, who was part of her inner circle at court; in the accounts of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who wrote at the court of Justinian; in the work of the monk Jordanes, who lived in Constantinople during the Byzantine Reconquista of Italy; and in the hostile account of the Catholic bishop Gregory of Tours, who portrayed Amalasuintha as a character similar to other foolish Arian queens who contributed to the disintegration of their kingdoms. Philological exploration of these sources reveals the world of female power in the post-Roman kingdoms of this period.
Amalasuintha was not simply a barbarian woman ruling a post-Roman kingdom. She was a complex political thinker and a brave and innovative ruler. In this, she was truly her father’s daughter. Theoderic the Great (r. 474-526), a warrior and a king of world-wide reputation, had in 471, at only seventeen years old, earned the respect of his people and his army by victory at Singidunum (Belgrad). About twenty years later, with the blessing of Emperor Zeno in Constantinople, he seized Italy from Odoacer. For thirty-three years he ruled over the largest kingdom of the Empire, and during his reign the Romans and the Goths coexisted pacifically in the civilitas. Many contemporaries may have even considered Theoderic as a sort of emperor in the traditional style.
When the king passed away at the age of seventy-two, he had no son, and his son-in-law, Amalasuintha’s husband, had already died. Therefore, Theoderic chose his ten-year-old grandson, Amalasuintha’s only son, as his heir. Perhaps Amalasuintha alone could fully envision the difficult path ahead for her child. After all, what could reasonably be expected of a king too young to rule and entirely inexperienced on the battlefield? The military values of the Gothic world were insufficient to govern the complex reality of Italy, where Roman culture still pulsed in the cities. In Rome, the Senate was still politically active, and for almost a century the Catholic Church had claimed the primacy of the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter. In the east, clouds were gathering, as the imperial couple Justinian and Theodora dreamt of a reconquest of the western kingdoms. In this uncertain and dangerous world, Amalasuintha defied expectations by remaining unmarried, and stepping herself into the role of her son’s regent.
Amalasuintha, though herself a Goth, was no stranger to the Roman world she would attempt to rule. She had been educated in the Ravenna palace in the Roman style. This included grammar and rhetoric, the Greek and Latin languages, and traditional virtues like modesty, chastity and faith (virtues that authors like Jerome and Augustine had urged elite Roman women to cultivate). She was pro-Roman, and ready to protect the Romans from the abuses of the Goths. Her family dwelt in a sumptuous palace, her father was buried Roman-style in a mausoleum, and her people’s uncertain history was re-envisioned with a Greco-Roman model (Cassiodorus, Variae 9.25.4-6). For Amalasuintha, the Roman world and its legacy represented an avenue for safety. By prioritizing the culture that she felt she belonged to, she tried to protect her little son and to maintain her father’s political construction. She gave her child a Roman education and she supported the Roman schools of grammar and rhetoric, which benefitted the court. Barbarian kings (barbari reges), she claimed, did not need Rhetoric: this was only for lawful rulers (legales dominos) like the lords of the Romans, while the tribes (gentes) possessed only arms (arma [Cassiodorus, Variae 9.21,4]).
The Ravenna palace was an ideal site for Amalasuintha to experiment with models of Roman female power. She sought precedent for her own political position in a tradition of female influence and power that began with the Julio-Claudians at Rome, continued through the age of the Antonines and of the Severians, and exploded in the pompous courts of Late Antiquity in Milan, Ravenna and Constantinople. The Gothic world had also changed during the sixty-year period that separated Theoderic’s origins as a chieftain in the Balkans from Amalasuintha’s government over Italy, and the late fifth and early sixth centuries were a time of radical development of barbarian queenship. As barbarian kingdoms developed in the ruins of the Western Empire, migrations slowed, and royal women were no longer simply valuable cargo in the wagons following the wandering tribes. New generations of queens grew up in established courts and experienced to varying degrees the process of acculturation and assimilation into the Roman world.
It was this education and cultural immersion that prepared Amalasuintha to step into the role of regent for her son with thoughtfulness, expertise and great success. But it was also that education that perhaps inspired Amalasuintha to go beyond a more conventional role as advisor and regent. For when her young son unexpectedly died, Amalasuintha held tight to the reins of power. Defying expectations, she remained unmarried. To assuage the doubts of her Gothic subjects, she elevated her cousin Theodahad to share her throne in an unprecedented unmarried coregency, but nevertheless retained the superior position and never relaxed her hold on power.
Contemporary authors described Amalasuintha as a virago, a woman who acted like a man. Indeed, Amalasuintha was a unique ruler. The other Gothic queens of her generation, including those of her own family – Amalafrida in Africa, Amalaberga in Thuringia, Ostrogotho-Ariagni in the land of the Burgundians, Thiudigotho in Spain – acted in traditional roles as advisors to their husbands, but did not directly hold the reins of power. Unlike these Gothic queens, Amalasuintha was more than an instrument of diplomacy: she was diplomacy, a ruling mother who dealt with legates directly, without an interpreter since she knew so many languages (Cassiodorus, Variae 11.1.6-7). And even if her gender forced her to entrust the kingdom to prefects and generals, she was no passive regent. Rather she retained the authoritative voice of a woman unafraid to cross the limits that Gothic culture imposed on barbarian noble women. Amalasuintha closely and deliberately mirrored imperial figures such as Galla Placidia, or even Ariadne, the most powerful Byzantine empress of her generation.
While dealing with the conservative Gothic world at the Ravenna palace, Amalasuintha realized that only extreme solutions could save her. She rid herself of enemies and carefully cultivated diplomacy with the Byzantine Emperor, placing her kingdom under the protection of Justinian. This prevented the Franks from invading Italy, but it did not save Italy from Justinian’s acquisitiveness and his relentless Reconquista. Nor did it save Amalasuintha from Theodahad, who sowed discontent among the Goths and finally engineered her imprisonment and murder. Ultimately, Amalasuintha’s political experiment failed, victim to the treachery and betrayal of her cousin and of Constantinople. But she also perhaps fell victim to an eagerness to accelerate the process of synthesis between barbarian and Roman cultures, and she paid with her life the price of a dangerous political experiment in a transforming society. In her wake, however, female power continued to develop. Just a few decades after Amalasuintha’s assassination, queens like Brunhild in Merovingian Gaul and Theodelinda in Lombard Italy wielded more power and direct rulership than the precedent generations. Barbarian aristocracies began to recognize and accommodate the authority of mother regents. These powerful women formed the roots of queenship in Medieval Europe.
 J.J. Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restauration, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press) 2014.
 Significant works include: S.E. Wood, Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 BC-AD 68. Leiden, Boston, Koln (Brill) 2000; C. Kunst and U. Riemer (eds.), Grenzen der Macht. Zur Rolle der römischen Kaiserfrauen, Stuttgart (Franz Steiner) 2000; A. Kolb (ed.), Augustae. Machtbewusste Frauen am römischen Kaiserhof? Herrschaftsstrukturen und Herrschaftspraxis. Akten der Tagung in Zürich 18.-20. 9. 2008, Berlin (De Gruyter) 2010; J. Langford, Maternal megalomania: Julia Domna and the imperial politics of motherhood, Johns Hopkins University Press 2013; F. Cenerini, “Il ruolo e la funzione delle Augustae dai Giulio-Claudi ai Severi,” in F. Cenerini and I.G. Mastrorosa (eds.), Donne, istituzioni e società fra tardo antico e alto medioevo, Lecce (Pensa MultiMedia), 2016, p. 21-46.
Massimiliano Vitiello is associate professor and Norman Royall professor of Ancient History and Late Antiquity at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. This post was adapted from his last book: Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World, University of Pennsylvania Press 2017.