I have recently been advised by usually trustworthy and well-informed individuals that when maintaining a blog, providing the occasional bit of content is, while perhaps not sensu stricto absolutely necessary, then at least a very good idea. After due consideration, I have gradually come around to their point of view.

So today we’ll be talking about Goths. Not the post-punk-related, Thanatos-inspired music-genre-turned-contemporary-subculture with its lugubrious, mystical sound and outlook that is especially flourishing in Western Europe,* mind you. No, we’ll be talking about the group (or groups) of (possibly) Germanic barbarians (which is not a fair way to describe them, but no one knows what else to call them) that invaded (more or less) the Roman Empire in 378 and decided (not that they had much choice) to stick around. So they wandered around the Empire, sacked Rome (perhaps not so big a deal as one might think), conquered (or not) Hispania and Italia, and eventually brought about (maybe) the Fall of the Roman Empire (which may or may not actually have fallen).

That is at least the classical understanding of the Goths, but as you might guess, there are certain issues with that. As is often the case with history, the more we research, the more complex things turn out to be, and the less it seems like we can actually say with certainty.

Late 19th century historians had no such concerns. They confidently drew maps of the Late Antique Roman Empire with long, colourful lines and arrows, accurately reflecting where the barbarians hordes went and what they did, and the areas where they eventually settled also cheerfully got marked with bright colours and thick border lines to signify that these were “Kingdoms” and Definititely Not The Empire. So there.

The historical accounts suffered from equally few doubts:

For three hundred years – beginning with the days of Tacitus – their history consists of little else than a dreary record of barbarian slaughter and pillage. A century later, the Goths have become the mightiest nation in Europe. One of their two kings sits on the throne of the Caesars; the other reigns over Spain and the richest part of Gaul. We look forward two hundred and fifty years, and the Gothic kingdoms are no more; the nation itself has vanished from the stage of history, leaving scarcely a trace behind. **

Such interpretations are of course not very current any more. Modern historiography has raised questions about Gothic ethnicity, social structures, actions, aims and motives, the relationship between the new Gothic political entities and the Empire, and so forth. Some have even questioned whether it is appropriate to view the group that entered the Roman Empire in ethnic terms at all, seeing them rather as a army with a core of Gothic commanders, but otherwise a quite flexible membership.***

However, my current interest in the Goths is a little more limited in scope, focusing on their history after 418 when the main body of Goths (perhaps or perhaps not called ‘Tervingi’ or ‘Visigoths’) were given control of and settled in the province of Aquitania around the city Toulouse in southern Gaul. This point in time is quite interesting for a number of reasons – definitely for the Goths, because it marks their transition from an ambulatory and more or less outlawed group to one that is settled in and actually excercises a reasonably legitimate authority over a particular area; but also for the Romans, in that transferring political authority over a part of the Empire to an outside group was almost unprecedented at the time. The settlement in Aquitania of course also had consequences for the local aristocracy and other power elites that were already in the area and now had to adjust to the arrival of a new group of rulers that did not conform at all to their own values and expectations.

It is particularly this last point that I am currently working on, and which should hopefully result in a brief paper shortly. How did the relations evolve between the old, established power structure and the new rulers – two groups which most likely differed significantly in values, world view, religion, and a number of other characteristics? Were there accomodation, conflicts, or both? And how did these factors affect the political events in general, and vice versa?

The main source for answering these questions is the collection of letters by the mid-to-late fifth century Galllic aristocrat and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris.**** Like most other Gallic aristocrats of his time, Sidonius was a prolific letter writer; the exchange of letters played a very important role in establishing and maintaining social and political ties among the members of the fifth century aristocracy, so it was important to master the very embellished and, some might say, rather stilted writing style***** that was common at the time, and to use it frequently.

However, contrary to what one might expect, Sidonius doesn’t actually have all that much to say about the Goths – there are some references, certainly, but they are relatively rare considering the size and scope of the collection. The same pattern is found in a slightly later collection by the bishop Ruricius of Limoges,****** and while drawing conclusions ‘from silence’ is always a bit dangerous, I think there are explanations for this that can in themselves shed some light on the relationship between the Goths and the Romans, and in turn about the nature of the Gothic domination of southern Gaul.

More about that in a later post.


* – Yeah, I totally lifted that off Wikipedia. But it’s not plagiarism if you list your sources… is it?

** – H. Bradley: The Goths (London, 1888), p. 3; quoted from P. Heather: The Goths (Oxford, 1996), p. xii.

*** – Especially Reinhard Wenskus: Stammesbildung und Verfassung. Das Werden der frühmittelalterliche Gentes (Cologne 1961), and more recently Herwig Wolfram: Das Reich und die Germanen (Berlin, 1990).

**** – Sidonius: Poems, Letters I-II, ed. W. Anderson, Loeb Classical 296 (Cambridge, 1936) and Sidonius: Letters III-IX, Loed Classical 420 (Cambridge, 1965)

***** – Anderson, the translator of the standard Loeb edition, seems to carry a particular dislike for it. His footnotes are sometimes quite amusing.

****** – Ruricius: Ruricius of Limoges and Friends. A Collection of Letters from Visigothic Gaul, ed. Ralph W. Mathisen (Liverpool, 1999)