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  • The Mausoleum of Theoderic and the Seven Wonders of the World
  • Deborah M. Deliyannis

In 526, the great Ostrogothic king Theoderic died in his capital city of Ravenna and was buried just outside its walls. From his own day to the present, the extraordinary structure in which he was buried has been considered one of his most remarkable achievements (Fig. 1).1 The Anonymus Valesianus, written in the decades after Theoderic's death, points out the features that are still considered worthy of notice today: "While yet living he made himself a tomb (monimentum) of squared stone, a work of marvelous size, and he sought out a huge rock which he placed atop it."2 Theoderic probably intended this structure to echo the famous tombs of past rulers, while at the same time testifying to his own unique greatness. But which rulers, precisely, was Theoderic channeling? The mausoleum's unique features, unknown from any other previous or contemporary monument, have made it the subject of much speculative interpretation. Some have wanted to see it as a "Roman" monument, whereas others have read it as something anti-Roman and therefore "Gothic"; it is possible that this ambiguity, which was so much a part of Theoderic's political ideology, was intentional. Certainly its strange constellation of features has influenced reactions to it down to the present.3 This study [End Page 365] will suggest another layer of meaning for this monument, namely that Theoderic intended it to emulate the most famous funerary monument of antiquity, the tomb of the ancient ruler Mausolus of Halicarnassus. This structure was extant in Theoderic's day and was widely known to ancient and medieval authors as one of the "Seven Wonders of the World." This argument is based not upon formal architectural and decorative characteristics, but instead upon the contemporary description of the monument and the literary and ideological milieu in which Theoderic's tomb was conceived and created. Rather than simply building something to appeal to Roman and/or Gothic tastes, Theoderic was building a monument for the ages.

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Fig. 1.

Mausoleum of Theoderic, Ravenna, as seen from the west, 510s-520s

(Photo by S. Mauskopf)

[End Page 366]

Theoderic's monimentum

Let us first examine Theoderic's monimentum and its unique elements. The structure is a centrally planned building with two stories; each storey is visually articulated on the exterior and has a vaulted chamber on the interior, cruciform in the lower level and circular in the upper. Centrally planned tomb-structures were common in the Roman and late antique periods, and were usually circular or octagonal in plan. Theoderic's building, however, has ten sides, which has only a very few parallels.4 This feature is usually explained through reference to the sixth-century scholar Boethius' treatise on mathematics, in which ten was considered to be a perfect number and symbolic of heaven.5 Boethius was a member of Theoderic's court, and so it is certainly possible that Boethian mathematical theory influenced the design of Theoderic's tomb.6

Unlike any other building in Ravenna, Theoderic's mausoleum was built not of brick but of beautifully squared ashlar blocks of limestone imported from Istria, across the Adriatic Sea from Ravenna.7 The arches and lintels are made using "joggled voussoirs," blocks cut with a zig-zag that links with the next block. This technique had been employed throughout the Roman Empire in the imperial period, but the only other sixth-century examples come from the eastern Mediterranean. This led scholars to assume that Theoderic [End Page 367] imported architects from Syria or Asia Minor to construct his tomb.8 Why would he do this? We will return to the question below.

At the upper level, nine sides of the decagon (excluding the wall with the door) are articulated with a kind of arcade in shallow relief. This wall articulation is part of some more complex decorative plan for this level; we do not know whether the decoration was originally completed and subsequently dismantled, or whether it was never completed.9 There has been a great deal of debate about what the original decoration of the...


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