It is well known that the use of the term “Gothic” to describe the literary phenomenon that began in the later eighteenth-century has little, if anything, to do with the people from whom it is derived. Nevertheless, a companion to the Gothic should contain some mention of the historical Goths and some discussion of the strange history of the term and its uses before Horace Walpole set the seal upon a new usage in English with his famous description of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ as a Gothic story in 1764.
It is a fascinating coincidence that at the time when Walpole was writing, Edward Gibbon was meditating his ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, the first volume of which was published in 1776. That the advent of the Gothic should more or less coincide with the account of the Goths composed by the great historian of the Enlightenment, in a work that recounted their role in the overthrow of the ancient civilization upon which the modern depended, is an irony that might have appealed to Gibbon himself if he could have seen its significance and a circumstance which must still occasion fruitful reflection for the modern reader. We could wish to have more of the thoughts of Walpole too, one of Gibbon’s first admirers, as he remarked upon the “strange contrast between Roman and Gothic manners.”
Through history, the word “Gothic” has always been chiefly defined in contrasting juxtaposition to the Roman, and a constant factor in its various uses, perhaps the only constant factor, has continued to be its antithesis to the Roman or the classical, an antithesis that is wittily expressed by the sophisticated Touchstone when he finds himself among the simple rustics of the forest of Arden: “I am here with thee and thy goats as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths” (As You Like It, III.iii.9).
In Renaissance humanism, before its reevaluation in the eighteenth century, “Gothic” had usually, though not quite always, meant non-Roman in a pejorative sense, more a negative definition implying a lack than a description that has much constructive meaning in itself.
A Gothic library, since the Goths did not have literature to transmit, is an empty and impossible notion, but in the fantastical context of this highly imaginative work, we can appreciate the meaning of Pope’s fiction only too well. Earlier humanists seemed to represent such impossible fictions as facts, like Roger Ascham in ‘The Schoolmaster’ (1570) when he talks of “our beggarly rhyming, brought first into Italy by Goths and Huns when all good verses and all good learning too were destroyed by them, and after carried into France and Germany, and at last received into England by men of excellent wit indeed, but of small learning and less judgement in that behalf.” (Ascham, 1967, 145)
Not only is there no written literature, but there is no later record of Gothic oral tales in prose or verse. In this absence of any literature or art of their own, the Goths came to be seen merely as the corrupters and destroyers of the culture of the Romans: of their language, in Dryden’s words, “It is little wonder that rolling down through so many ages from the spring of Virgil, it bears along with it the filth and ordures of the Goths and Vandals”; and of their artifacts, “Rome raised not art, but barely kept alive, And with old Greece, unequally did strive: Till Goths and Vandals, a rude northern race Did all the matchless monuments deface.”
Yet the balance of history always allows a more moderate view. In his judgment of the Goths, the magisterial Gibbon sounds a cautionary note: “The emperor Decius had employed a few months in the works of peace and the administration of justice, when he was summoned to the banks of the Danube by the invasion of the Goths [ad 250]. This is the first considerable occasion in which history mentions that great people, who afterwards broke the Roman power, sacked the Capitol, and reigned in Gaul, Spain, and Italy. So memorable was the part that they acted in the subversion of the Western empire, that the name of Goths is frequently but improperly used as a general appellation of rude and warlike barbarism.” (I, 255)
The import of Gibbon’s qualification becomes apparent later in his long narrative, but in its early stages, the Goths are indeed thoroughgoing pillagers, ravagers, looters, and spoilers (as a glance at the entry under Goths in his index will confirm). Of their conduct in this first Gothic war, the historian is moved to write: “In the general calamities of mankind, the death of an individual, however exalted, the ruin of an edifice, however famous, are passed over with careless inattention. Yet we cannot forget that the temple of Diana at Ephesus, after having risen with increasing splendour from seven repeated misfortunes, was finally burnt by the Goths in their third naval invasion. The arts of Greece and the wealth of Asia had conspired to erect that sacred and magnificent structure […]. But the rude savages of the Baltic were destitute of a taste for the elegant arts, and they despised the ideal terrors of a foreign superstition. (I, 281)”
Against his better judgment, Gibbon cannot then resist the telling of a famous anecdote revealing Gothic ignorance: “Another circumstance is related of these invasions, which might deserve our notice, were it not justly to be suspected as the fanciful conceit of a recent sophist. We are told, that in the sack of Athens the Goths had collected all the libraries, and were on the point of setting fire to this funeral pile of Grecian learning, had not one of their chiefs, of more refined policy than his brethren, dissuaded them from the design; by the profound observation, that as long as the Greeks were addicted to the study of books, they would never apply themselves to the exercise of arms. The sagacious counsellor (should the truth of the fact be admitted) reasoned like an ignorant barbarian. In the most polite and powerful nations, genius of every kind has displayed itself about the same period; and the age of science has generally been the age of military virtue and success.” (II, 282)
One of the earliest mentions of the Goths is a single short passage in Tacitus’s ‘Germania’ (c. ad 98): “Beyond the Lugii is the monarchy of the Gotones: the hand upon the reins closes somewhat tighter here than among the other tribes of Germans, but not so tight yet as to destroy freedom. Then immediately following them and on the ocean are the Rugii and Lemovii. The distinguishing features of all these tribes are round shields, short swords, and a submissive bearing before their kings.” (Tacitus, 1958, 324)
In his description of the early manners of the Goths, Gibbon interprets Tacitus (whose Latin he cites in a note) as follows: “The use of round bucklers and short swords rendered them formidable in a close engagement; the manly obedience which they yielded to hereditary kings gave uncommon union and stability to their councils” (I, 258).
In his account of the barbarians, Gibbon has frequent recourse to the Germania (which has been an influential text in the formation of German identity), and he has something of its ambivalent attitude toward the tribes beyond the pale of Roman civilisation.
While Tacitus does not exhibit any romantic regard for the Germans as noble savages, he nevertheless admires their simplicity, purity, and toughness, which are clearly to be contrasted, along with the old Roman virtue of frontier generals like Agricola, with the luxury, corruption, and innervation of the ruling powers of Rome that he delineates in his Annals and Histories. In the later phases of the Roman empire that are the subject of Gibbon’s enquiry, the contrast is even more marked. One of the causes of the decline and fall is Roman corruption and self-betrayal.
In the absence of early written records, there is an element of the mythical about the mysterious Goths, but modern archaeology confirms their early settlement in the Baltic and provides evidence of their migration along the Vistula down to the Black Sea.
Their first major incursion into Roman territory from the east in the third-century (the occasion of Gibbon’s remarks above) was successfully repelled, but subsequently, as they moved toward the lower Danube, the Romans lost the province of Dacia to them, were compelled to pay them tribute for a time and were subject to continuous pressure on their eastern frontier.