Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.12

P.J. Heather, Goths and Romans, 322-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991 (= 1992). Pp. xvi + 378. ISBN 0-19-820234-2.

Peter Heather and John Matthews, The Goths in the Fourth Century. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991. (Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 11). Pp. xiv, 210. ISBN 0-85323-426-4.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

If Cassiodorus' Gothic History had survived in its original form, its author would surely be regarded as the Herodotus of late antiquity. We would have had twelve books of circumstantial and detailed narrative tracing the history of the Goths from their native home in southern Scandinavia through the vicissitudes of the centuries to the culmination and disaster of the Gothic kingdom in Italy.1 We are almost, however, fortunate that the original was lost; for just as with Herodotus, the presence of a powerful and tantalizing narrative tends to pre-empt the field and dictate the way later ages have thought and felt about the period under review. To have the details that a late antique Herodotus could offer would be delightful; to have to do without them has in many ways made us better historians.

But we do have Jordanes' abridgment of Cassiodorus. Despite the defects of his language and style, enough of the original (and perhaps a fair amount of additional material?) is there to give him a central place in Gothic history-making. The implicit structure of almost all modern Gothic study has been dictated by Jordanes: we happily assume that a coherent nation (if not almost a race) lived and thrived outside the boundaries of the Roman empire for centuries, preserving its traditions by oral transmission, until the two distinct families into which the tribe had long divided, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, entered the Roman world by turns and eventually achieved political mastery over Iberia, southern Gaul, Italy, and parts of the Alps and Dalmatia. The names of great heroes of this tradition are passed along with confidence by the abridging narrator.

As students of Herodotus will have recognized by now, there are grave difficulties with history that proceeds in this way. But until within living memory, Jordanes-study has been the heart and soul of Gothic studies. We have explored his sources, worried about his credibility, and summoned the limited archaeological evidence to justify itself in his light. For all the progress of modern Gothic studies, even the most recent (and extraordinarily distinguished) general study, Herwig Wolfram's History of the Goths (the 1988 Berkeley-published English translation is the most current form of the book) has been characterized by another eminent scholar as an attempt to write a new Jordanes, better, fuller, and more detailed, but still a narrative of the old tribe in the old conceptual framework. That eminent skeptic, Walter Goffart of Toronto, has written two important books, Barbarians and Romans (Princeton, 1980) and Narrators of Barbarian History (Princeton, 1988), pressing hard on the weaknesses of the traditional view and insisting that received narrative is as much an impediment as an adjutant in the study of 'barbarian' history. Though Goffart's arguments occasionally veer off into cloud-ranching, the main line of his approach are valid and necessary. One point on which he has insisted is that the received forms of Gothic community, the two 'tribes' of Visigoth and Ostrogoth, were not ancient, venerable, and racially pure associations of blood brothers, but historically contingent collocations of veritable melting pots of humanity, brought together by civilized, that is to say brutal, forces at specific times and places within recorded history. If 'Goths' led these communities and if the Gothic language was a lubricant to their workings, they were far from homogeneous, and their history much shorter than any venerable narrative would allow.

Peter Heather's Oxford thesis formed the basis of his book reviewed here. At the time he began writing, in the early 1980s, he was ahead of his time; since then, while the thesis has been reworked into this lean and lucid book, some of his thunder has been stolen by the appearance of Wolfram's History, Goffart's Narrators, and now J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz's Barbarians and Bishops (Oxford, 1990). But he still has an important contribution to make. The question is how far he has succeeded in breaking free of earlier patterns.

The study falls into three parts. The first is a review of the value of Jordanes' Getica. Momigliano's British Academy lecture of 1955 gave irresistible impetus to Jordanes studies, but he is now cited mainly out of pietas as the majority of scholars have moved away from his optimistic and a prioristic conclusions. The second traces the historical formation of the Visigothic community during the decades from their entry into the Roman territory in the reign of Valens to their settlement in Gaul forty years later; it is the story of Alaric and the world he made. The third part performs a similar service for the emergence of the Ostrogoths in the wake of the Hunnic invasions and carries that story up to the eve of the Ostrogothic settlement in Italy.

Once Jordanes is demoted, a new approach to the old materials is possible. Heather has attended to the archaeological evidence from Romania and Ukraine but as always such evidence resists assimilation to narrative, and narrative is still the goal. The method has been to re-allocate the relative degrees of credibility assigned to the textual and archaeological sources, with the textual sources perforce predominating, and to seek then to tell the story in narrative terms again. Taken on those terms, the exercise is successful and the analysis of Gothic movements in the ages of Alaric and Theoderic leading up to their respective settlements in Gaul, Spain, and Italy is detailed, thorough, and on many points fresh and convincing.

On one central interpretive point, Heather has to take sides, and opinions will differ whether he has taken the right one. Briefly put, the question is whether we are to imagine the 'barbarians' of late antiquity as an authentic alien presence, the intrusion upon the 'civilized' Mediterranean of the disturbing other from beyond the pale; or whether we should instead take them to be participants from the outset in the wider culture of the Mediterranean world, differing from more 'civilized' Romans by degree but not by kind, and in practice very little different from ordinary military or rural Romans at all. To force the distinction is slightly artificial, since all scholars nowadays would grant some validity to the second suggestion, but since Heather himself in his conclusion accepts the distinction, it is worth keeping on the table for discussion.

Goffart and Liebeschuetz have been the strongest voices suggesting, but it seems to me that even they could have gone further, that the groups we call Visigoths and Ostrogoths were largely happenstance collections of military units and hangers-on, brought together by political and military chance and necessity, and then hypostasized as huge barbarian war bands by propaganda on all sides. If this view is accepted, then the question arises how far Rome created its own nemesis, by insisting on the otherness of the barbarian and by insisting on seeing Alaric and his followers as an alien intrusion rather than as a renegade military leader and his truculent troops. Did Rome have an alternative in the age of Honorius and Arcadius that would have led to accommodation? Did the Romans by their fear of the other take a principal role in creating the hypostasized 'barbarian' tribes that then plagued Roman government to its demise?

Heather is conservative in approach and conclusions. At 317: 'This account of the transformation of the Goths between c. 350 and 500 puts the emphasis firmly on the mass of the Goths, associating the main forces at work with their needs and aspirations. It is only fair to note that such a view to a considerable extent contradicts some other recent reconstructions which concentrate on the role of the royal dynasties.' Here Heather is reacting against the work of Herwig Wolfram, who leans toward seeing the Goths as agglomerations rather than tribes, but then explains their unity by their attachment to specific royal families of Gothic origin. The weakness of that explanation is Heather's pretext for going back in the other direction and insisting that the unity must have been that of the peoples who followed rather than merely the leaders who postured. One difficulty with this view is that it does not do justice to the resemblances between the 'Goths' and other motley crews of 'barbarians' who had moments in the sun in the fifth century. Even so, Heather gives away much to an alternate interpretation: while promising another general book on the Goths in which he will say just what was 'Gothic' about them, he here suggests language, religion (propagated by Ulfila -- so therefore, one of his distinguishing features of this 'barbarism' is itself a sign of the 'Romanization' of the tribe -- and another difficulty is that there were non-'Gothic' 'tribes' of 'barbarians' who accepted that same brand of religion), and legal customs. So far, so good: these are functional rather than ethnic distinctions. But it remains stoutly unproven how far these functional distinctions inhered in specific people of specific ethnic background, which is in the end what Heather holds out for on a priori grounds. That general book on the Goths will have its work cut out for it. In the meantime, at numerous points in this book we are reminded that we are about to see an important book from Alan Cameron (and collaborators), Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley, prob. 1992), that will address important questions of Gothic ethnogenesis, or perhaps better ethnopoesis, from a Constantinopolitan point of view.

The second volume reviewed here is a valuable complement to Heather's monograph. It pushes the limits of a series of translated texts to include fifty pages of archaeological data, but in this case at least the decision to do so is excellent. The reports on this late antique common culture of modern Romania and Ukraine are not easy for anglophone readers to handle, and the distillation and summary (with illustrations and maps) is valuable. In addition, the volume contains only texts not readily found elsewhere (so not, for example, Ammianus or Jordanes): a letter of Gregory the Wonder-Worker on the earliest Gothic invasions (from the third century), parts of two orations of Themistius, hagiographic texts (in particular the precious 'Passion of St. Saba the Goth', first ever here in English), an essay on the life of Ulfila the bishop, and a remarkably useful and informative chapter about the Gothic bible: with translations and samples of the text itself, the commentary shows how valuable a tool a biblical translation can be for opening up the thought and culture of the people for whom the translation was made. The book is a compact and exciting do-it-yourself kit for the student of Gothic history; its presentation of a range of evidence and the skill with which that presentation is calibrated to the serious novice historian are outstanding. Monograph and handbook together will legitimize and enrich an important aspect of late antique studies for a generation of anglophone readers and students.


  • [1] To be sure, Heather at p. 52 n. 52 follows Goffart's view that the books of C.'s original Gothic History were probably quite short, but the argument on which that view rests is arbitrary and unlikely.