It happened today - February 25, 2016

On February 25 of 493 A.D. Odoacer, first king of Italy, surrenders Ravenna to Theodoric the Great and makes peace with him. At a subsequent reconciliation banquet in March, Theoderic kills Odoacer and has him sliced neatly in two. Man, if that’s how you make peace, I don’t want to be there when you make war. Or alliances.

Odoacer’s fate is a curious commentary on the nature of worldly ambition. He himself was a soldier who seized power in Italy, posing as representative of the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople but really running it himself at sword-point. He ousted the last emperor in the West, the hapless Romulus Augustulus, himself the product of a coup, (ironically it was by successfully besieging Augustulus in Ravenna, the capital of the Western “Roman” Empire between 402 and that siege in 476, that Odoacer prevailed) and for some reason called himself “Rex” as well as the title “patrician” received from Zeno against whom Odoacer was at war.

His biography makes for unattractive reading, slaying this guy, conquering that territory, lying, cheating, overreaching and being cleaved in twain at a peace banquet following which many of his followers were slaughtered for having backed the wrong thug. I think it’s fair to say it didn’t work.

Emperor Zeno himself had asked Theoderic to become king of Italy and do something about the no-good Odoacer. And he did. With his own hands. And to be fair ruled more or less happily ever after, promoting racial harmony between the Ostrogoths he settled in Italy and the Romans with whom he, um, forbade intermarriage (harmony is apparently an elastic term), slaying this guy, conquering that territory and yet contriving to die peacefully in bed in 526 in, of all places, Ravenna. I think I’d avoid it if I lived back then.

Or if I died. He was buried there, but another conqueror Belisarius scattered his bones in 540 A.D. and turned his mausoleum into a church that still stands. Unlike his kingdom.

Theoderic briefly united Ostrogoths and Visigoths through a complex system of alliances and marriages whose lowlights included his son-in-law Sigismund, king of Burgundy, killing his own son Sergeric, Theoderic’s grandson, leading to renewed war during which Sisigmund was beaten, disguised himself as a monk, and was beheaded and flung down a well.

Would it be naïve to ask, in light of such results, what’s with all the hacking, slaying and treachery?

I’m not saying I’d have had terribly useful advice if I’d lived there at the time, except the bit about not going to Ravenna without first prearranging. I’m not even having much luck giving advice in Canada where they never invite you to a peace banquet before smiting you on the collarbone with the sharp edge of a sword. But I am struck by the dangerously fatuous way people keep thinking this time killing, plotting and lying will build something lasting and worthy because this time it’s me.

Retreating into a monastery somewhere remote might not be a better answer, especially as the guys with swords will find you sooner or later no matter where you hide. Trying to straighten out the mess in public affairs is a duty of engaged citizens. I just wonder if being a bit more honest and less self-seeking might not be an improvement. Well, that and trying not to murder people at banquets.

Is it so much to ask?

It happened todayJohn Robson