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Goths between the Baltic and Black Seas
GOTHS BETWEEN THE BALTIC AND BLACK SEAS
In the middle of the sixth century A.D. the monk Jordanes recorded in his Getica the detailed history of the Goths. The story describes their crossing the Baltic Sea under the lead of King Berig, a period of time spent on its southern coast, and their later departure (during King Filimer's reign) to the Black Sea, where the Gothic kingdoms subsequently were destroyed by the Huns c. A.D. 375. The Roman historian Tacitus (in Germania) confirmed the presence of the Goths in the north, and the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy (in Geographica) located them by the lower Vistula River in the late first and the second centuries A.D. Archaeologists supported these written accounts by ascribing to the early Goths the so-called Wielbark culture in Poland (earlier known as the Gotho-Gepidic culture), with its specific cemeteries and characteristic artifacts. The Cherniakhov culture, identified between the Danube and Dnieper Rivers, came to represent later Gothic settlement.
This clear picture has come into question thanks to critical analyses of the historical evidence and precise chronological dating of archaeological finds. Historians have questioned the reliability of Jordanes and concluded that the alleged Scandinavian origin of the Goths probably was just a literary motif—a topos introduced in the tribal tradition to give people a feeling of ancient heroic unity. Moreover, an earlier chronology of typical "Gothic" finds in northern Poland, rather than in Sweden, put in doubt the sudden arrival of the Goths in the middle of the first century A.D. Thus, there are no historical or archaeological data to sustain the Scandinavian origin of the Goths as sudden mass invaders of the lower Vistula area.
It should be accepted, then, that Gothic ethnogenesis took place not in Scandinavia but south of the Baltic in the context of the advantageous circumstances of trade contacts with the Roman Empire. Control over the lucrative amber export was both a source of income and a reason for fierce competition among local elite groups, and symbolic expression of group identity played an important role in the formation of the Gothic sense of identity. It was a transformation of local populations of the older Oksywie culture into a new entity that became archaeologically visible as the Wielbark culture around the middle of the first century A.D. Various elements, including Roman traditions, were used to form a specific material culture distinctively different from traditions that prevailed in the Germanic Barbaricum: rich female adornments and handmade pottery and characteristic burial rituals (stelae, pavements and rings of stones—mostly in the early Roman period, the coexistence of cremation and inhumation burials, and poor male graves with no weapons or iron).
Jordanes's description suggests that the early Goths did not differ from other "barbarian" peoples. Like, for example, Langobards, Herulians, or Vandals, they were an opportunistic agglomeration unified by the successes of their military leaders, who legitimized their domination by creating myths of the heroic common past. Some archaeologists also suggest a polyethnic composition of the Wielbark culture. Migration of a political-military center did not mean migration of all inhabitants of a territory controlled by a chief-king. Archaeology does not support Jordanes's report of the well-organized resettlement of the Baltic Goths to the Black Sea in the first half of the third century A.D. It is thought that it was instead a gradual infiltration that began in the late second century A.D., while a substantial part of the population stayed in the north.
After some time there emerged a new elite that also decided to migrate to the south in search of better opportunities. They are identified by Jordanes as the Gepids, which meant "Late Comers." Researchers cannot discern any "Gothic" or "Gepidic" finds in Poland, which means that at the level of the material culture, symbolism, these two ethnic groups did not yet differ there. Thus, the ethnicity of the Gepids must have formed as a result of the decision taken by the second generation of Wielbark leaders to resettle in the late third century and found their new homeland around the Black Sea. That dramatic decision was taken during a deterioration of the climate in Europe and the economic crisis of the Roman Empire during the period A.D. 235–284. Elites that called themselves "Goths" and "Gepids" decided to leave their Baltic homeland in search of better circumstances to sustain their power status. The warlike mobilization of the migrating population had the effect of uniting people around their leaders, who took responsibility for the prosperity of their followers. Success in subordinating fertile lands lying close to the rich Roman markets reinforced these leaders' power and led to the formation of ruling dynasties.
The region of the lower Vistula still was not emptied, however; indeed, some of the Wielbark cemeteries were used until the fourth century or even into the early fifth century A.D. Continuity has been established by the technological tradition in pottery making that may be traced from the Wielbark culture to the West Baltic culture that expanded toward the lower Vistula at the end of the fifth century. Some studies even suggest that elements of the Wielbark tradition survived until the sixth century.
Thus, the alleged quick resettlement of the Baltic Goths toward the Black Sea as a result of an organized migration led by King Filimer in A.D. 150 must be considered a myth. Instead, archaeologists suggest a slow southern expansion of cultural patterns promoted by Wielbark-Gothic elites. Contacts between the Baltic and Black Sea zones never broke down, however, which resulted in the formation of a huge area inhabited by populations with cultural similarities—biritual cemeteries, male graves with no weapons, and female jewelry.
It seems that the later history of the Goths, who escaped to the west pushed by invading Huns, should be changed or at least supplemented. German archaeologist Eduard Šturms already had suggested in 1950 that some of the Black Sea Goths returned to the north to join those "Goths" who had never left the Baltic zone. There are no written sources to support this claim, but inflow of Byzantine golden coins (dated to A.D. 455–518) to the region of the lower Vistula may indicate such a remigration in the circumstance of the sudden disintegration of the Hun "empire" after A.D. 455.
Thus, modern archaeological knowledge undermines the long-held traditional view of the Goths as coming from Scandinavia, an already organized "people," to subordinate the region of the lower Vistula, only to migrate later toward the Black Sea and then to the west. Instead, one can envisage a story of a long development and gradual changes with no clear beginning and no end, a story that should not be equated with the heroic history of Gothic kings as described by ancient authors.
See also Ostrogoths (vol. 2, part 7);
Visigoths (vol. 2, part 7); Germany and
the Low Countries (vol. 2, part 7).
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Wolfram, Herwig. "Origo et religio: Ethnic Traditions and Literature in Early Medieval Texts." Early Medieval Europe 3, no. 1 (1994): 19–38.
——. Geschichte der Goten: Von den Anfängen bis zur Mitte des sechsten Jahrhunderts. Entwurf einer historischen Ethnographie. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1979.
Wo?a?giewicz, Ryszard. Ceramika kultury wielbarskiej mie?dzy Ba?tykiem a Morzem Czarnym [Pottery of the Wielbark culture between the Baltic and Black Seas]. Szczecin, Poland: Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie, 1993.
——. "Kultura wielbarska—problemy interpretacji etnicznej" [The Wielbark
culture—problems of ethnic identification]. Problemy kultury wielbarskiej.
S?upsk: Wyz?sza Szko?a Pedagogiczna (1981): 79–106.
The Visigoths (Good Goths) were located in central Germany when they first came into contact with Roman traders and soldiers in the first century B.C. They were an Indo-European people who seemed to have originated in Poland and not in Scandinavia, as some ancient historians believed. Around 300 B.C. some of these people left Poland for unknown reasons and began migrating south through the Balkans. When they reached the borders of the Roman Empire, the ancestors of the Visigoths found it easier to settle down than to continue south by fighting the Romans, and there they stayed, along the Danube River on the borders of the Roman Empire. They were small farmers, growing mostly wheat and barley.
Throughout the Roman Imperial period, the ancestors of the Visigoths constantly traded with the Romans and intermittently fought with them. Both sides benefited from this exchange of goods and information. It was through this contact that the Visigoths encountered new technologies and products, such as blown drinking glasses and bottles, writing, and poured concrete. In about A.D. 300 the Visigoths converted to Christianity through the missionary work of Roman Arians. The Visigoths also taught the Romans their own military techniques, and in the fourth century A.D. many Roman soldiers on the Rhine and Danube were buried carrying Gothic weapons and wearing Gothic clothing and jewelry.
Starting in about A.D. 200, however, the situation of the Visigoths became untenable. The Huns, leaving their homeland in eastern Siberia, had migrated across Asia and were sweeping down through Europe, pushing refugees ahead of them. The Visigoths, attacked by the Huns, tried desperately to move across the Danube into the safety of the Roman Empire but found themselves trapped between two powerful opponents. Perhaps as a result, they began to develop a more formal identity and leadership. In A.D. 378 the Visigoths took advantage of Roman military mistakes to kill the Roman emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople, cross the Danube, and take over a piece of the Balkans within the empire. The Romans were unable to push the Visigoths out but refused to provide the refugees with food, seeds, or tools so that they could reestablish themselves as farmers.
A generation later, the Visigoths were still in the Balkans, struggling as refugees and growing increasingly angry. Their leader, Alaric, demanded food and supplies from the Roman emperor Honorius in Ravenna, but Honorius did nothing. In response, Alaric took his entire people and began moving toward Rome. Meeting no serious opposition, Alaric's army sacked the city of Rome in A.D. 410. The Visigoths stayed only three days, because Honorius immediately cut off food supplies to Rome. When they left, the Visigoths headed south down the Italian coast, apparently hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Africa. Most of Italy's food came from Africa, and the Visigoths thought of it as a promised land. In the toe of Italy, however, a bad storm destroyed the boats they were planning to use, and the Visigoths hesitated, having no experience with seafaring and frightened by the storm. Unexpectedly, Alaric died. Alaric's brother-in-law Ataulf (Ataulphus or Adolf) took over and led the Visigoths back up north and past the Alps into southern France.
In A.D. 409, however, the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves had invaded Spain. Honorius now invited the Visigoths to counterattack and get rid of these people in exchange for the right to settle in southern France. Ataulf accepted the contract, and the Visigoths wiped out the Alans and some of the Vandals. At this point, in A.D. 415, Honorius belatedly realized the danger that the Visigoths would cross from Spain to invade Africa; fearing that the Visigoths would cut off the food supply of Rome, and he hastily recalled them to France, leaving the remaining Vandals and Sueves in place in Spain.
The Visigoths were happy to settle down in southern France, establishing their capital at Tou-louse. It seems that they received tax revenues from the whole area, although it is unclear by what mechanism. By the death of King Theoderid in 451, they had established a kingdom essentially independent of Rome and even proposed their own candidate for emperor in the 450s. The Visigoths fought alongside Roman generals against Attila and the Huns in the 460s. Under King Euric (r. 466–484), they established their own laws, with separate codes for the Goths and for their Roman subjects.
After the Vandals abandoned Spain for Africa in A.D. 429, however, the Visigoths gradually expanded into the power vacuum in Spain. At the same time, the Frankish king Clovis was pushing southward from his base in northern France. In A.D. 507 Clovis defeated the Visigoths at the battle of Vouillé and killed the Visigothic king Alaric II. The Visigoths ceded southern France to Clovis and took over Spain instead, establishing their new capital at Toledo in central Spain.
With the death of Alaric, the Visigoths were left with a child king, Amalaric. Amalaric's grandfather was the powerful Theodoric the Ostrogoth, ruler of Italy. Theodoric announced that he would act as regent for his grandson, and in this way the Ostrogoths dominated Spain and the Visigoths for the rest of Theodoric's long life, until A.D. 526. Even after Theodoric died, Amalaric soon was assassinated in favor of another Ostrogothic ruler, Theudis (r. 531–548).
A civil war starting in 549 resulted in an invitation from the Visigoth Athanagild, who had usurped the kingship, to the Byzantine emperor Justinian I to send soldiers to his assistance. Athanagild won his war, but the Romans took over Cartagena and a good deal of southern Spain and could not be dislodged. Starting in the 570s Athanagild's brother Leovigild compensated for this loss by conquering the kingdom of the Sueves (roughly modern Portugal) and annexing it, and by repeated campaigns against the Basque separatists. Leovigild's son, Reccared, converted from Arianism to Catholicism, which did much to wear down the old distinctions between Hispano-Roman and Visigoth. This newfound unity found expression in increasingly severe persecution of outsiders, especially the Jews.
After Reccared's death, the seventh century saw many civil wars between factions of the aristocracy. Despite good records left by contemporary bishops, such as Isidore and Leander of Seville, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish Goths from Romans, as the two became inextricably intertwined. Despite these civil wars, by A.D. 625 the Visigoths had succeeded in expelling the Romans from Spain and had established a foothold at the port of Ceuta in Africa.
In the late 600s, however, the great Islamic conquest of the Mediterranean coast was in full swing. The Moors, recently converted to Islam, seized the port of Ceuta, attacking unexpectedly on Easter Sunday in 711. Then, in a reprise of the events of the late 500s, one of the Visigothic parties to a civil war invited the Moors to help him, and the Moors invaded Spain. They found no army that could mount any serious opposition, and by 712 Spain was firmly under Moorish control. The Visigoths, by then entirely assimilated with the Romans, retreated to the Pyrenees, from where they began the long, slow process of reconquest.
See also Huns
(vol. 2, part 7); Ostrogoths (vol. 2,
Carr, Karen Eva. Vandals to Visigoths: Rural Settlement Patterns in Early Medieval Spain. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400–1000. 2d ed. New Studies in Medieval History. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1995.
Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Stocking, Rachel L. Bishops, Councils and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom 589–633. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Wolf, Kenneth Baxter, trans. and ed. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain. 2d ed. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
The Ostrogoths, like the Visigoths, were an Indo-European group that first appears in the archaeological record in Poland in the first century B.C. From Poland the ancestors of the Ostrogoths seem to have migrated southeast rather than due south, as did the ancestors of the Visigoths, and this is why they are known as the Ostrogoths, or East Goths. They finally settled down to farm in the Ukraine, on the northern shores of the Black Sea. At that time they probably were not unified as a group and did not have a king.
In the course of the fourth century A.D., however, the Huns, leaving eastern Siberia, migrated in a group across northern Asia to the Ukraine, where they pushed the Ostrogoths out of their traditional homeland, forcing them to move to central Europe (modern-day Austria). Even after moving to central Europe, however, the Ostrogoths still suffered from Hunnic harassment, and soon they were taken over entirely by the Huns.
In A.D. 453 Attila, the king of the Huns, died, and his empire collapsed amid squabbling among his weaker sons. The Ostrogoths were able to take advantage of this disunity to break free of Hunnic control and reestablish their independence. According to tradition, they chose as their leaders three brothers, one of whom was Theudemir. By the midfifth century A.D., the Ostrogoths increasingly were involved with Roman politics. As a pledge for one of the Ostrogothic arrangements with the Romans, the Ostrogothic king Theudemir sent his own son, Theodoric (Dietrich in German), to live at the Roman court in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Theodoric was eight years old at the time, and he therefore grew up culturally as Roman as he was Ostrogothic. When Theodoric was eighteen, in A.D. 475, his father died, and Theodoric returned home to rule his people.
In A.D. 476 the last of the Roman emperors in the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Odoacer the Hun, who declared himself king of Italy. The Roman emperor Zeno in Constantinople, to the east, objected to this usurpation and tried to put in his own candidate, Julius Nepos. Zeno, however, lacked the military manpower to send troops to assert his authority in Italy. In 488 he therefore invited the former hostage Theodoric, the young king of the Ostrogoths, to invade Italy at the head of his Ostrogothic army, on Zeno's behalf. Theodoric agreed, and his prompt invasion of Italy was entirely successful. Odoacer was killed, and Theodoric became the leader of Italy as well as the king of the Ostrogoths.
Theodoric was an able and ambitious man, and although he always maintained his allegiance to the Roman emperor in Constantinople, he did very well for himself in the west during his long reign. He married a sister of Clovis, king of the Franks. Theodoric sent one of his own daughters to be married to the Visigothic king Alaric II, and when Alaric was killed in the battle of Vouillé in A.D. 507, he established himself as regent for his young grandson Amalaric. In this way Theodoric was able to rule both Italy and Spain for much of his life, with varying degrees of influence over southern France as well.
Under the rule of Theodoric, Italy seems to have prospered as well. The archaeological evidence suggests that people were still farming and the city of Rome still functioning at this time, although Rome certainly was losing population. Italy also was part of a great Mediterranean world. Despite the takeover of North Africa by the Vandals in A.D. 429, African red slip pottery continued to be imported to Italy throughout the period of Ostrogothic rule.
When Theodoric died in A.D. 526, he left no sons. His grandson Amalaric (a cousin of the child Amalaric above) succeeded him, with Theodoric's daughter Amalasuntha acting as regent for the ten-year-old boy. Under Amalasuntha's guidance, Amalaric was educated in the Roman fashion and learned to read and write. Soon Amalasuntha's influence was shunted aside in favor of less Romanized advisers, and Amalaric was diverted to more military and traditional Ostrogothic pursuits, including heavy drinking. On the death of Amalaric in A.D. 534, Amalasuntha became queen in her own right. She took on her cousin Theodahad as her partner in power, but Theodahad soon had Amalasuntha imprisoned and then, in 535, murdered.
By this time, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in Constantinople had noticed the weakness and instability of Ostrogothic rule now that Theodoric was dead, and he was preparing to invade. Justinian's army, under the able general Belisarius, conquered North Africa in 533 and then, in quick succession, Sicily and Italy in 536. When Belisarius landed at Naples, the Ostrogoths at first were defeated soundly. Justinian was suspicious of Belisarius' loyalty, however, and recalled him to Italy; the Ostrogoths seized the opportunity to revolt. The war that ensued spanned twenty years and devastated Italy. In the end the Byzantine army prevailed, and the last Ostrogothic king, Totila, was killed in battle in A.D. 552.
See also Goths between
the Baltic and Black Seas (vol. 2, part 7); Huns
(vol. 2, part 7); Merovingian
Franks (vol. 2, part 7); Visigoths
(vol. 2, part 7); Poland (vol. 2, part 7).
Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Moorhead, John. Theoderic in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Wickham, Chris. Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society, 400–1000. London: Macmillan, 1981; rev. ed., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.
Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
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