King Theudemir sat in his carved seat at the head of the long Gothic hall, thinking deeply. Warriors of hostile nations, who met the king only when he was commanding his troops in war, could not understand why his people called him "Theudemir the Affectionate," "Theudemir the Good," and "Theudemir the Beloved." To them the stern, fierce general who was always in the forefront of the battle, seemed more like some old Teutonic war-god, appearing on earth once more in human form. Had they seen him to-night, as the firelight played about his features, they would not have wondered at the love his people bore him, for the piercing blue eyes were gentle, and the stern lines of his face were softened. All the court had gone on a hunt, but Theudemir had remained at home to consider what answer he should give to the message which had come that morning from the Roman court. His little son, Theodoric, had come with his tiny broadsword to show him the new drill which he had learned, and his wife, the fair queen Erelieva, had sat with him for a time; but he had sent them both away and was alone with his problem.
It was the old story of tribute money and boundaries, but now it was the Romans who paid, the money, hiding its real meaning under the name of "New Year's presents," and they paid it only to the barbarian nations from whom they feared attack. When at the beginning of the new year the money failed to come, the East Goths had known that something was wrong. The messengers whom Theudemir sent to Constantinople returned from their mission humiliated and angry. The emperor had transferred his friendship to another Gothic chieftain, another Theodoric, who sat at his table and took the money that had been theirs, assuring the emperor that the East Goths were a feeble and unimportant nation of whom he need not take an anxious thought.
The East Goths had soon shown Emperor Leo his mistake. Theudemir smiled as he thought of the quick raid into the nearest Roman provinces which had followed closely on the return of the ambassadors. There was never a Goth who would not rather ravage his neighbor's field for corn and grain, even at the risk of his life, than plant and till and harvest by his own slow, laborious toil.
The message of conciliation had come from the emperor that morning, and the Goths had gone wild with delight. "Leo has learned his lesson!" "Now the emperor knows that the East Goths are not a weak people to be trodden down and neglected." The hall with its high Gothic arches had rung with the boasts and taunts of the nobles, and then they had gone on a great hunt to celebrate the occasion. But Theudemir had remained behind. One part of the message the others had passed over lightly and seemed to forget. The emperor would pay the friendship money which was due; he would promise that henceforth an even larger sum should come regularly. But he demanded of the Goths one pledge,—that they would keep the faith and not send any more war parties across the Danube. They must give over to be brought up as a hostage in the Roman court the heir to the East Gothic throne, Theodoric, the eight-year-old son of Theudemir.
It was no wonder that the king had sent the child away when he came to him with his happy, thoughtless prattle. To deliver this child, the pride and hope of the Gothic nation, over to the Romans to be trained by Roman teachers in Roman ways in a court hundreds of miles away! To have his son the price of Gothic peace! The father's heart might well be troubled. The Goths loved the lad, but would they remember, through the long years while he was growing to manhood, that his life was forfeit if once they broke the peace? One expedition of plunder into the forbidden territory, and Theodoric's life would be worth nothing at the imperial court, where murder and assassination were far too common for the putting to death of a hostage to be questioned. Moreover the boy must be prepared for the Gothic kingship. Would he not lose in the Roman life that love of freedom which was the safety of the Gothic nation?
These questions King Theudemir had been pondering all day, and in the evening, when darkness had fallen and the great hall was lighted only by the fires on the hearths, he came to his decision. He owed it to his people to give his royal consent and let the boy go. He must trust the God of the Christians, whose faith his nation had so lately adopted, that Theodoric would return safely when his period of exile was over. Moreover his old heathen superstition, in which he still half believed, gave him encouragement. Theodoric had been born on a lucky day, the day of the last great defeat of the Huns. The messenger who brought Theudemir the news of his son's birth had carried back to the anxious house hold the report of the victory which meant that the Goths had been delivered from their forty-year-long subjection to a barbarian despot, and that their prince was born to the kingship of a free and independent people. Remembering that day, could he not take it as a prophecy that Theodoric would go through this new peril unharmed, and carry further the fulfillment of the family name which his father and many generations of kings before him had borne so proudly, the noble name of Amal, which means in the Gothic language "the fortunate"?
Of the life of the boy Theodoric at Constantinople little is reported. That he never learned to read or write we know, for when he was ruler of a great empire he could not sign his own name, but had a gold plate with the first four letters of his name pierced through it, so that when he wished to sign any document he could place the plate upon the parchment and trace through the lines the first four letters of his name, "theo." Whether no one took pains to teach the young barbarian, or whether he scorned the young Romans who knew better how to use the pen than the sword, we do not know. His handsome face and his ready wit found him a place in the close circle of the emperor's favorites, and his skill at arms and his horsemanship made him a leader in the drill and sports which were the occupation of every Roman youth. It was with regret that Emperor Leo granted his request, when he was seventeen years old, that he be no longer detained at the court, but be allowed to return to his own people and his father's palace, and he sent him home loaded with royal presents.
King Theudemir's fears that the Roman training would spoil the Goth in Theodoric were soon dispelled. The feasting and merrymaking over his return had hardly ended before the young prince was missing and with him a group of young Gothic nobles who had been his playmates in childhood and with whom he had fallen into a cordial comradeship on his return. The king smiled when the word of his son's absence was brought to him, and waited well pleased for the report which soon came from the frontier of the Gothic kingdom. A Roman army had just been defeated by Babai, the king of the Sarmatians, who had conquered and taken from the Romans one of their leading eastern cities, the modern Belgrade. Babai was gloating over his victory when the young Roman trained barbarian appeared before the gates of the city with an array of forces which he had carried off from his father's army, and succeeded in wresting it from him. If the Emperor Leo had thought he had tamed the young barbarian into a submissive Roman courtier, he soon found he was mistaken. Theodoric did not hand back to the Romans the city which their army had just lost, but kept it for his own private rulership.
The Goths had given Theodoric a warm welcome when he returned from his long exile in Constantinople. Now they took him to their hearts. In spite of his Roman dress and Roman ways he was no foreigner. He had followed the unwritten law of the Gothic nobility that every young man must prove himself by some warlike deed, and had shown himself worthy of their love and pride. With one accord the people declared that he and he alone should succeed his father as their king.