The Roman Empire of the times of late antiquity was an establishment grown old, its knees giving out, and in the west, about to fall. The empire had seen large-scale Christian persecution followed by large-scale enforced-Christianity. The economy of this time was in peril. As J.M. Wallace-Hadrill puts it in his book, The Barbarian West: The Early Middle Ages a.d. 400-1000 (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1962), “the defense in depth of an immense frontier had combined with the need to exploit all food-producing land to make every able-bodied man the object of strict and anxious state-supervision. But…the more rigidly men were pinned down to their war-time tasks the less able society proved to adapt itself to a rapidly changing situation” (Wallace-Hadrill, pg.9). Arable land was stretched to, and perhaps beyond, its limits due to the growing population and campaigns of the Imperial army. Its frontiers, covered always by field armies, were weakening due to the increasing number of Barbarian tribes migrating from their homelands.
One of the larger groups of barbarians was the Goths, who lived mostly north of the Danube frontier around the Black sea. The Goths were one of the only groups to solidly defeat the Imperial army; in 378, at Adrianople, Valens, Emperor of the eastern Empire, was killed in battle along with hundreds of soldiers. This group greatly affected Roman history from here on out, particularly in the western part of the empire, the older portion. The east was too young and vital to be infiltrated by barbarians, and so they turned west, looking for better land and refuge from the Hunnic peoples that are theorized to have started the barbarian migrations. The Goths would later sack Rome (Visigoths, under Alaric in 410); start kingdoms in the Aquitaine, and settle all over western-Europe, shaping the events to come after the fall of the empire. Such an important group unfortunately left little historical resources on its own accord. Much of what is known of the people is derived from cemetery and village excavations, Roman historians like Jordanes, Tacitus, and Cassiodorus, and commentary and writings from people like Ammianus Marcellinus. However, from these sources historians have been able to understand Gothic society and politics, Gothic religion, and their direct involvement with late antiquity events that ended the Western Empire.
One of the questions historians are constantly confronted with, and trying to answer, is where the Goths originally came from. Peter J. Heather quotes a passage from Jordanes’ Getica in his book The Goths (Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, 1998), which is worth repeating here to try to answer where the Goths originated:
[Chapter 25] Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even today it is said to be called Gothiscandza.  Soon they moved from here to the abodes of the Ulmerugi, who then dwelt on the shores of the Ocean, where they pitched camp, joined battle with them and drove them from their homes… In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue (The Goths, 12).
Scandza, Heather goes on to clarify is Scandinavia (12). The migration was due to over-population, which eventually brought them to the Black Sea (Scythia). This migration was composed of men, women and children, known for a fact due to cemetery finds that lead in lines to certain areas. These migrations were led by military kings, who replaced tribal kings. Tribal kings were chosen for their noble blood. In the last years before Christ, tribal kings carried out the sacral duties of a high priest. They ruled alongside martial kings, who were chosen for their valor and their heroism. They did not have to have noble blood; they merely had to be responsible for some sort of victory. Herwig Wolfram equates these martial kings to the mythological hero in his book The Roman Empire and its German Peoples (tr. Thomas Dunlap, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997), like Beowulf or Thor or King Arthur. These men were often outsiders who had to work under tribal kings in times of battle, and win the respect of the people by their courage. The early martial kings get intertwined in Scandinavian sagas and Anglo-Saxon mythology. This is why noblemen often trace their lineage back to Gods, whose powers they embodied, and who they ultimately consecrated themselves to (pp. 20-22, Wolfram).
However, both Heather and Wolfram are in agreement that martial kings, which by the fourth century had superseded tribal kings, by no means had complete power: “Controlling [the] men was far from easy…sources portray…Gothic leaders ‘urging’ and ‘persuading’ their followers rather than just issuing orders,” (Heather, p.57). This is not to say that social stratification hadn’t occurred by the fourth century. The deep respect for heroism and leadership in times of conflict had created a warrior aristocracy, made up of “…a freemen class among who there were already substantial differentials in wealth” (Heather, p.57). Often this class led only small bands of people, leading them around to arable land to procure food. However, one prominent example of traditional migration, that is, migration of large groups of people, is the continuous finding of women’s belongings at excavated cemeteries. Consistently, there was found brooches, necklaces, belts and fibulae, all of the same style, which Heather contributes to the Wielbark culture of the Goths (Heather, p.48). These larger migrations were “often preceded by the activities of ‘scouts’: small groups largely of young men checking on the possibilities of new areas” (Heather, p.49). These migrations left behind archeological finds in rather thin routes from old habitats to new, refuting the idea that the Goths came in waves of warbands. By the fourth century, these “many smaller units had given way to fewer larger ones,” (Heather, p.64) – across the frontiers.
The Rhine frontier’s Alamanni of the fourth century consistently raised up men as kings whenever Romans were busy fighting elsewhere, prompting Roman policy be altered specifically to contain them. On the Danube frontier, there were still small units, though the Goths had gained control of much more land than in the previous century. The Tervingi, unlike the Alamanni, were more peaceful with the Romans, due to Valens’ treaty alterations in 368. Though they lost their tributes, and had to deal with a more tightly regulated border, they were free from “much of the substance of Roman hegemony, particularly the requirement that they had to provide military contingents” (Heather, p.62). This resulted in certain practices that will be covered later. Fourth century Gothic society, as Heather states, “Was entirely typical of the contemporary Germanic world in having a well-entrenched elite” (Heather, p.65). Some of these noblemen are named in texts like The Passion of St. Saba, a source Heather cites because of its information on the martyrdom of Saba, a Gothic Christian. Atharid, his father Rothesteos, and Winguric were all men who played a part in the Christian persecutions of 368-372. Other men are named in Ammianus’ account of the battle of Adrianople- Alatheus, Saphrax and Farnobius (Ammianus Marcellnus Res Gestae, tr. J.C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, 1939). “The Gothic term for such men was perhaps reiks…it had the general meaning of ‘leader of men’ or ‘distinguished’ (Heather, p.65). Evidence for these reiks is again found in burial sites, where more goods are buried with some than others (Heather, p.65). These reiks were never guaranteed this position of nobility, nor were their kin. If a man was lucky, he would earn this distinction in his life, and the title was not passed to his sons. He was subject to the men he tried to have follow his cause, and if he lost their support, he lost the title. It’s not until the seventh century that laws and codes are actually written down that separate the classes into three groups- “free, freed or half free and slaves” (Heather, p.75). It can be assumed that in the fourth century, these groups informally existed, and in the centuries to come, perhaps the tendency to Romanize their societies led them to establish formal classes.
As was noted before, the Gothic nobility had the say in what religion was practiced. Obviously the barbarians were pagan long after the Romans had become Christian. One of the Roman policies of containment was to send missionaries into frontier areas and try to convert the peoples, which would turn them against each other. Christianity first came across the Danube after the large-scale raids Goths acted out in 257 in the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, the dominantly Christian areas of the Empire (Wolfram, p. 75). Goths took many of the people as booty from these lands, and from these people came one of the most famous Goths, Ulfilas (Wolfram, p.76). Ulfilas was born in 310 (Wolfram, p.76), and in 341 made bishop of the land he was from. He translated the bible some time between 348 and 350. According to Wolfram, “Ulfilas…used a Gothic alphabet of [his] own creation, which incorporated elements from Latin anf Runic writing into a base of Greek letters” (Wolfram, p.77). However, this was done in the tradition of Arianism, the belief that the Son is not of the same divinity as the Father. The reason for this was Ulfilas’s affiliation with Constantius II, who rejected the Nicene Creed. Because this was “mainstream imperial Christianity for its day” (Heather, p.61) many of the noblemen tried to thwart its presence in the Gothic lands as a means to resist Romanization. In 369, when the new treaty was created between the Tervingi and the Emperor Valens, the noblemen saw the chance to get rid of Christianity by staging persecutions until 372. One of the main reasons nobles ever even voluntarily converted to Christianity, which was still Arian above the Danube, was to get admission to the Empire in 376, so they could trade and live on the lands (Heather, p. 61). Christianity was accepted begrudgingly, and was slow in winning over the people. Christianity was also used by the Goths to settle blood feuds and gain power, to become reiks. In the persecutions of 368-c.372, Athanaric, one of the nobles granted leadership to fight against Valens, used the persecution to keep himself in power. Fritigern, another reiks, “took the side of the Arian-Christians – in a pro Valens sense – and took up arms against [Athanaric] (Wolfram, p.79).
By the fifth century, the Gothic peoples were more or less solidly Arian-Christian, and they used this as a means of identity. This didn’t start until kingdoms were actually being set up in the Empire. Conversion started at the top class and worked its way down. After Arianism went out of vogue with the imperial court, the Goths saw Arianism as something to separate themselves from the Romans. The desire to be different from the Romans came from the way Romans treated and viewed Germanic peoples. Writers like Orosius tore apart Roman-German people of rank like Stilicho (Oliver Nicholson, Lecture), characterizing him as a “ratty German” who tried to strike deals with the Vandals, when in reality Stilicho was trying to protect Honorius’s part of the empire. When the Vandals made it to Northern Africa, the Roman peoples made sure to let the invaders know they were not welcome, mainly due to the difference in religious dogma. This bible went on to be used by The Goths, the Gepids, the Vandals, the Rugians, Sciri, Heruli, and the Alans (Wolfram, p.77). Consequently, all of these peoples were Arians well into the years after the fall of the Western Empire. The only Barbarian tribes that invaded the empire who weren’t Arians were the Franks, who were Catholic-Christian (they converted in 492 under Clovis), who invaded Gaul, and the Jutes, pagans who along with Angles and Saxons invaded England (Nicholson, Lectures).
Many different things were weakening the empire- religion, agriculture, invasions, and power struggles- and the Goths were involved in almost all of these areas. The Goths put an end to Arianism in the Empire in 378, when at Adrianople the Eastern Emperor Valens, a pro-Arian like Constantius II before him, a force of Goths, “…the Therungi under the command of King Fritigern, and the Greuthungi led by Alatheus and Saphrax” (Ammianus, 31.12.18) ambushed Valens and his troops:
[31.18.4.] Here one might see a barbarian filled with loft courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side…and by the fall of the combatants on both sides the plains were covered with the bodies of the slain strewn over the ground, while the groans of the dying and of those who had suffered deep wounds caused immense fear when they were heard. (Ammianus)
In the course of action Valens was killed by an arrow, and his body was never found. As a result of this battle, Theodosius, Valens’ successor, was rather conciliatory with the Goths. They were now very near to Constantinople, and so Theodosius let a large body of Visigoths settle in the Balkans and retain their arms and tribal structures. This gave the Goths a refuge from the Huns who had pushed them from their former land above the Danube frontier, and it also gave them a home base to turn west and claim more land. Theodosius had to pacify the Visigoths because of the Persian and Roman dispute over Armenia, which needed his attention. With this attention taken away from the Visigoths, they were free to move across Europe. After Theodosius’ death in 395, his two sons Arcadius and Honorius succeeded him, Honorius taking the West, Arcadius the East. Both men were young, under the thumbs of their advisors, and so the emperor traveling throughout the empire ceased with these two, dividing the Empire, leaving the west at the mercy of the barbarians. Fifteen years after Theodosius dies, Rome is sacked by Alaric, who was once in the service of Rome against Constantine III in Gaul, but after Stilicho was killed, Alaric was free to rouse his people and take Rome. He attacked it twice, once in c.407, but ceased the siege to negotiate with Honorius in Ravenna. When Honorius stalled, Alaric took the city again and demanded annual payment, and when that didn’t happen, Alaric seized the port of Rome, cutting off the grain supply from North Africa. On August 24th, 410, he captured Rome, where he and his warband pillaged for three days before trying to get to North Africa, but when his fleet got wrecked, he stayed, and died, in Southern Italy. Rome had never been captured in all of its history. Now, not only had the Goths killed an emperor, they had taken the Central City of the Empire of which every citizen considered their home. Alaric helped to stress and undermine the cohesiveness of the two halves of the empire. Little to no help was sent from the East to the West in the fifteen years between Theodosius’ death and the sack of Rome. This is what made the Empire become two halves. Between Honorius’ death in 423 and the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus’ end in Ravenna, the Barbarians had moved into Gaul, Italy, and Northern Africa. (Nicholson).
Most of the Gothic peoples had been trying to get to Northern Africa because of its grain. The Vandals were able to get ships and sail to North Africa, about 80,000 strong, and headed to Morocco, skipping the fertile land of Tunisia. By the late 420’s, the Vandals had gotten to Hippo, and as St. Augustine lay dying, the Arian-Vandals besieged the city. In 439 the Vandals took Carthage, where they set up a kingdom that lasted for a century. The king of the Vandals at the time was Giseric, who ruled until 477. The Vandals made sure to destroy all the walls of the North African cities as they passed. Giseric was also able to take control of the Western Mediterranean sea lane when he captured Sardinia and Corsica, and sacked Rome again. Giseric stole the Menora Titus had stolen from Jerusalem, and brought it to Carthage. This was what earned the Vandals the reputation of being despicable and in this time was the word “vandalism” created, due to Gothic tribes laying ruin to the Western world (Nicholson, 4/18). The Goths had effectively ruined the illusion that the old Roman way of life was still living, and separated the two halves of the Empire, through battles, religion, and power struggles.
As important as the Goths were to shaping the history of late antiquity, and beginning the middle ages, there is still much more to be learned of them. Not made up of a single ethnic disposition, they integrated with people all over Europe, changing bloodlines forever. They lived the stuff of legends, showing insane bravery on the battlefield, and living for war. But the voices of the Goths themselves are yet to be heard. What we know is shaped by observations made about them by Romans, and later Germanic-Romans of the 6th and 7th centuries. Their effect cannot be ignored. Without the Goths, Catholicism would not be what it is today. It is because of their severe disruption of Roman bureaucracy that Bishops were able to rise as central figures of power in cities, which would prove very important in the middle ages (Nicholson). The majority of Americans today contain some of that same blood in their veins that coursed through the bodies of barbarians long ago. These are our people. They have just as much influence on the modern world as the Romans from all the eras of the Empire. The Goths were monumental forces in shaping the societies and religion of the world that would come after the Empire, through their actions in the 4th and 5th century.
- Heather, Peter J. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Ltd, 1998. (pp.11-12, 48-49, 57, 61- 62, 64-65, 75).
- Marcellinus, Ammianus. Res Gestae. Trans. J.C. Rolfe. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1939. (XXXI., 12, 18; XXXI., 12, 18, 4)
- Nicholson, Oliver P. Lecture. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. 2005.
- Wallace-Hadrill, J.M.. The Barbarian West: The Early Middle Ages A.D.400-1000. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. p. 9 .
- Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California P, 1997. pp.20-22, 75-77, 79