Goths and Romans in Sixth Century Italy

Tutor: Katherine Cross (tutor for 2018-19) / Mary Garrison

Module type: Period Topic

Module code: HIS00007C

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the conflicts between Romans and the tribes who founded new kingdoms on previously Roman soil have captivated historians for centuries. Today historians are more likely to speak of the 'transformation of the Roman world' than the Fall of the Empire, and to understand the cultural encounter between Romans and Barbarians less in racial terms than in anthropological and cultural ones. Italy was the last Roman area in the West to be abandoned by the failing empire, then based in the East with its capital at Constantinople. While sixth-century Italy was governed by barbarians, the Ostrogoths, its culture and art remained recognizably Roman for most of the century. And yet there were drastic turning points: a plague, a devastating war of reconquest, and the arrival of yet more barbarians: the Lombards.

Students will use a mixture of primary sources (chronicles, the letters of Cassiodorus, writings by Gregory and architecture and mosaics from Ravenna) and exemplary secondary sources (including extracts from Gibbon, but also the most recent work on the 'ethnogenesis' of the Goths and Lombards). Sixth century Italy can thus serve as an historical and historiographical laboratory to see how contemporaries and historians alike sought to understand a century of cataclysmic change.

Seminar topics may include:

  • Theodoric and the Goths
  • Cassiodorus the Collaborator? A Goth's Roman Secretary
  • Boethius: The Mystery of the execution of a Philosopher
  • Justinian and Theodora
  • Mosaics at Ravenna: Churches and Royal Mausolea (and who was Galla Placidia?)
  • Foul Lombards' and a Dream Deferred: Cassiodorus at Vivarium and Benedict at Monte Cassino
  • Pope Gregory the Great: The Man of the Century or Man for a New Age?
  • 536 AD: The year of cold, plague and famine


To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • Markus, R. A. Gregory the Great and his World. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy (any translation)


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.