I N 476, one year before the death of Genseric the Vandal, a Goth named Odoacer became ruler of Italy. He had taken the throne from the handsome boy who had been ruling as Emperor, permitting him to escape and allowing him six thousand gold pieces a year. The Roman Senate, which had once been a courageous and patriotic body of men, decided that there was no longer any Western Empire, and that its rule belonged to the Emperor in the East, whose capital was Constantinople. The Emperor accepted this view, and left Odoacer in Italy to represent him. This event is called the fall of the Western Empire.
Remains of the Palace of Theodoric at Ravenna, Italy
In this same year, 476, Theodoric became king of the Ostrogoths, or Goths of the East. The Emperor in the East had hired this nation to defend the lower Danube, and Theodoric, a little boy of the royal family, had been sent to Constantinople as a hostage, or pledge that his people would keep their promises. When Theodoric grew up and became king, the Emperor permitted him to go and drive Odoacer out of Italy. Theodoric started with his army, and with all the rest of his tribe, for they meant not only to drive out Odoacer, but to make their homes in Italy.
There were three fierce battles. Finally it was agreed that Odoacer and Theodoric should rule with equal powers. Before long, however, Theodoric treacherously murdered Odoacer and became sole ruler of Italy. He meant to rule like the Romans, but more wisely. He chose from the old Roman laws those which he thought just. He broke up the vast estates of the very wealthy and made many small farms, so that much more grain was raised. He built many handsome buildings, and he encouraged his subjects to read and study. The emperors in the East were doing their best to keep back the hordes of Huns and other barbarians, and it began to seem as if Italy would grow into a powerful, well-governed country with Goths for its rulers.
That might have come to pass if a brilliant man named Justinian had not become ruler in the Eastern Empire after the death of Theodoric. His great wish was to bring back Italy and Africa to the Empire. Fortunately for him, he had an officer named Belisarius, who was not only a skilful general, but who had the power of making his soldiers eager to follow him. Under his lead, Italy and Africa were regained, the Vandals in Africa were scattered, and the Goths in Italy were hopelessly beaten. Justinian brought together all that was known of the Roman law, and it is upon his Code of Laws that the governments of the chief countries of Europe are founded. While he lived, there seemed some hope that the Empire would be mighty again; but as soon as he died, it lapsed into the same weak, tottering state as just before his day.