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Amalasuntha, Procopius, and a Woman's Place A. Daniel Frankfurter The evolution of feminist consciousness is a development within history that has changed the writing of history. By demonstrating the inadequacy of traditional views of women, it has prompted skepticism about historical narratives that once seemed dependable. One of these is Procopius's account of the murder of Amalasuntha, daughter of Theoderic the Great. The truth behind the events that brought Amalasuntha to a violent end is difficult to discover, for her story is told by a single, biased witness. Historians of the ancient and medieval periods are often confronted with the problem of working from a single source. And when that source deals with a woman who defied the conventions of her age by exercising political authority usually reserved for males, it is often biased.1 The problem of teasing truth from inadequate testimony is not, however, unique to the study of history. Lawyers frequently face similar challenges. Advocates for the defense and the prosecution examine the same body of evidence and seek the truth by pondering inconsistencies and by proposing plausible interpretations of fragmentary bits of information . Most of what we know about Amalasuntha comes from Procopius's history of Justinian's wars with the Goths.2 Although Procopius had many interests that affected the way he described the events of his day,3 few historians have questioned his explanation of the disasters that befell Amalasuntha, her cousin Theodahad, and the Gothic kingdom of Italy.4 The temptation to swallow whole what Procopius said on these topics has been strong, for Procopius is consistent with well-founded historical custom . His narrative of political events dismisses women as bit players in dramas composed by men. But an attentive reading of Procopius's text ought to excite some suspicion—if only because the tale is remarkably colorful. Amalasuntha's reign unfolded, according to Procopius, like a drama—or perhaps a melodrama peopled by single-dimensional stock characters. Amalasuntha is the heroine—a beautiful virtuous woman who errs by trusting men. The naivete, irrationality, and irresolution that Procopius assumes to be essential aspects of her femininity cause her to make the foolish decisions that lead to her death.5 Amalasuntha's murderer, Theodahad, is the villain—an indolent, craven coward trapped by his own © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) 42 Journal of Women's History Summer greed. The Byzantine emperor Justinian, Procopius's patron, is the hero—a champion whose efforts to rescue Amalasuntha are thwarted by an unscrupulous evil genius operating behind the scenes—Procopius's personal enemy, the empress Theodora. Procopius sees Amalasuntha not as a protagonist in political maneuvers but as the loser in a private struggle between women for a personal prize, the love of a powerful man. Although it seems reasonable to assume that a plot to murder a queen might have a political dimension, historians have for the most part accepted Procopius's claim that Amalasuntha was the victim of a private vendetta.6 Since there are no ancient sources that challenge Procopius's account, it is tempting to adopt his point of view. The temptation is particularly strong, for his description of the queen as a pawn in a game played by men is consistent with modern preconceptions of the roles women were assigned in medieval politics. Procopius's own words, however , hint that there was much more to Amalasuntha than he cares to make of her. One of Procopius's objectives in writing the history of Justinian's war with the Goths was to justify Constantinople's destruction of its former allies and resumption of direct control over Italy. By depicting Amalasuntha as a defenseless woman adrift in the sea of politics and in need of Justinian's protection, Procopius was able to use common misogynistic assumptions about the limitations of women to provide Justinian with a noble motive for what was, in essence, a land grab. In 488 the Byzantine government had commissioned Amalasuntha's father, Theoderic , to oust a German general who had usurped power in Italy. Theoderic evicted his rival and was recognized by the Byzantine emperor as viceroy for Italy. Constantinople had little...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 41-57
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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