As a nation, the Goths materialised during the third-century CE in response to political pressures from within and without the Roman Empire, as Huns and other barbarian groups pushed them towards the safety of Rome’s borders and Rome refused to accept them. The dichotomy of Roman versus Barbarian which Romans maintained throughout these centuries of conflict helped to solidify Gothic identity. The Goths who were a creation of the Roman frontier and had only wanted admission into the Empire eventually became dominant both politically and culturally within Italy, appropriating and perpetuating Roman symbols of authority.
Our literary sources for the Goths shed little light on their origins. In part, this stems from the practice employed by ancient authors to sort barbarian groups into broad ethnographic categories such as Scythian, German, or Celt. These umbrella terms obscured the distinctions between the vast numbers of ethnic groups which populated the barbaricum. For this reason, Roman sources are not useful in locating the Goths historically before the third-century CE. The only source for a Gothic past which predates contact with the Roman Empire is Jordanes’ Getica. This collection of pseudo-history relates the migration story of the Goths south from modern-day Sweden to the lands around the Black Sea. Jordanes bases his account on the lost works of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, a first-hand witness to Gothic culture as the praetorian prefect to the Ostrogothic Kings of Italy in the 530s CE.1 Unfortunately, Jordanes’ account, which places the Goths in Scandza around 1400 BCE, is not supported by archaeological evidence.
Two material cultures, the third-century Wielbark and fourth-century Chernyakhov cultures, located near the Baltic and Black Sea have been long associated with the Goths. Jordanes account encourages the Wielbark and Chernyakhov cultures to be seen as successive stages in the cultural evolution of the Gothic people although these two cultures were no more closely connected than Chernyakhov was to any other nearby culture at the time. The burial practices, artefacts, and housing structures of the Chernyakhov culture coincide with elements within Roman provincial culture, Wielbark, Przeworsk culture from the North, and nomadic steppe culture from the East. It is only safe to say that in the fourth-century, a group within the Chernyakhov culture, who became known as the Goths, attained political dominance.
The Goths became the dominant political body across the Danube with Roman assistance. It was Rome’s policy to upset power hierarchies beyond their borders and to subsidise certain kingdoms to the detriment of others in order to maintain a favourable status quo among their enemies. It was this system which led to the creation of the Visigoths, the Western branch of the Goths, as the main power body across the Danube. In addition to coin or grain subsidies, Roman Emperors also physically intervened in inter-barbarian conflict, as when Constantine lent troops to support the Visigoths against the Carpi in the Gothic War. The peace treaty Constantine later made with the Visigoths in 332 CE gave them the respite needed to build power and authority over the next thirty years. During the 350s, the Visigoths continued to benefit from Roman favour, as Emperor Constantius II spent the decade suppressing the Sarmatians and Limigantes, who were rivals for Visigothic control across the Danube. By 378 when the Romans and Goths were once again at odds at the Battle of Adrianople, the Visigoths were established enough to soundly defeat a Roman army in the field.
After Valens fell in the Battle of Adrianople, his successor Theodosius the Great incorporated the Goths as foederati into the Roman army. Gothic leaders, like Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, exercised authority both in their capacity as tribal rulers and also as generals within the Roman army. With soldiers organised into Gothic military contingents, the men within these units identified more and more with each other and their Gothic designation. With Rome continually referring to these leaders and soldiers legally as Goths, they began to think of themselves as such. Unlike other barbarian groups such as the Gauls or Celts who became Romanised, the Goths were never definitively conquered or integrated within the Empire as provincials. Roman hostility drew the Goths together. Coins and monuments depicting conquered barbarians were visible throughout the Roman Empire. Gothic soldiers would have been well aware of Roman attitudes. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the deployment of Alaric I’s soldiers by Theodosius at the Battle of Frigidus against the Franks in 394. Alaric I’s men were sent into the most heated part of the battle with the expectation that vast numbers would die, yet net an overall victory. The fifth-century Christian apologist Paulus Orosius wrote of the loss of the Gothic soldiers as a double triumph, “to have lost these was surely a gain, and their defeat a victory.”
Roman intolerance further swelled the ranks of the Goths when Flavius Stilicho, a half-vandal magister militum in the Roman army, was publicly beheaded having incurred the displeasure of the Emperor Honorius, on whose behalf he had effectively ran the Western Empire. Public resentment against foreigners broke out with his death. Throughout Italy, the wives and children of barbarian soldiers were murdered by local Romans and these husbands and fathers of those slaughtered deserted, joining the Goths in their raiding of Italy. In the face of imposing Otherness of Rome, the internal differences among the various people who comprised the Goths became less divisive.
Just as the threat of Persia and Carthage encouraged Greek and Roman unity, the military might of Rome forced smaller barbarian groups to coalesce along the frontier. Once established, the Goths achieved a number of striking military victories which cemented their sense of identity. The Battle of Adrianople in 378 and Alaric I’s Sack of Rome in 410 were defining moments in Gothic history in which the Goths underwent definitive moments of ethnogenesis. Their victory demonstrated what could be accomplished with Germanic unification against a standing Roman army. The changing attitude of Romans towards the Goths as they became less manageable can be ascertained from a number of speeches extant from the orator Themistius. In one of his earlier orations from 379, the fourteenth, he praises Theodosius as a militaristic Emperor. By 381, Themistius claims that the main job of an Emperor is civilian government, shifting tact perhaps because great military victories could no longer be obtained. Allowing outside groups to settle somewhat autonomously within the Empire showed great administrative relaxation and broke with tradition. The Goths would not be conquered and divided after Adrianople; rather Romans were forced to change their outward ambitions and policies to match reality.
The psychological effect on the Roman world from Alaric I’s Sack in 410 prompted all manner of religious writings. It inspired the Augustine of Hippo’s ‘The City of God,’ (426 AD) written to reassure a shaken Church body that in the grand scheme of Heaven, the fall of one city meant little. Meanwhile, from Jerusalem, Jerome believed the end of the world was at hand, he wrote in one letter, “the City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” Paulus Orosius was inspired to write ‘History Against the Pagans’ to prove tit for tat that worse crises had befallen Rome in its pagan heyday, while Salvian blamed the Romans for not being as virtuous as the ideal which the Goths had become. The Goths were viewed as blank slates, post-colonial “noble savages”, ready to take on the positive aspects of Roman civilisation, without the moral vices which the Romans believed had caused their own decline.