Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.12.08


Herwig Wolfram, The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Thomas Dunlap, trans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. ISBN 0-520-08511-6. $39.95


Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, kulikows@chass.utoronto.ca.

Herwig Wolfram is in a position which every scholar must envy. Since the appearance twenty years ago of his first book on the Goths, the model of early Germanic history which he developed and publicized has become the standard from which others depart. The terms of an often polemical debate on Germanic origins are those set by Wolfram, and even dissenters must operate within them. The result of this is that Wolfram's own contributions to the ongoing debate are a sort of required reading which command the attention of all those with an interest in the early Middle Ages. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples is the latest of these contributions to appear in English, though in German a short volume on Die Germanen (Munich, 1995) is more recent still. The present volume is a translation of Das Reich und die Germanen which first appeared in 1990. While it cannot, therefore, take into account the large quantity of relevant literature that has appeared since that year, it does nevertheless represent an up-to-date statement of the Wolfram approach to the early history of the barbarians.

At the centre of that approach is the notion of ethnogenesis. The term is slippery, and has found wide currency, so that different authors use it to mean different things. Still, even within W[olfram]'s own work, the word ethnogenesis is multivalent, and can take in a number of different concepts. As it is employed in the present volume, ethnogenesis refers to the coming together of heterogeneous people into a single tribal group which shares a belief in a common descent. The traditions which make up that belief are preserved by noble houses which can trace their own descent back to gods and heroes, and it is around these noble houses that a people can form. Success or failure in battle determines which noble houses will be the nuclei around which tribal groups can form, can experience, that is, an ethnogenesis.

The notion of ethnogenesis is thus the intellectual framework on which W.'s stretches his narrative, though the reader is never given an introduction to the theory as a whole. (In this respect both W.'s own more recent Die Germanen and his forerunner and inspiration, Reinhard Wenskus' Stammesbildung und Verfassung are superior, and very much clearer, introductions than either the current book or W.'s earlier history of the Goths.) Instead, we are plunged into two introductory chapters on "Kings, Heroes, and Tribal Origins" and "The Empire and the 'New' Peoples", before the substance of the book begins in chapter three, on the Germanic peoples in the fourth century.

The first two chapters are dense, and at times confusing, and yet they do illustrate one of the hallmarks of W.'s approach to Germanic origins. This is a deliberate blurring of the line between myth and history. As he puts it, the sources for Germanic origins require "the suspension of rational thinking, before we can accept them as traditions deserving to be taken seriously" (p. 14). What this appears to mean is that the extant literary accounts of tribal origins, most of which date from a century or more after the integration of the Germans into Roman society, can be manipulated in two ways by the modern scholar. On the one hand, for instance, Paul the Deacon can show how late eighth-century Lombards constructed their past, while at the same time he can be used as a source of traditions which reflect the memory of real events in the distant past of the tribe. In practice, this means that the various colourful stories preserved in our sources and dismissed as either myth or literary flourish by many scholars, can be introduced by W. into a modern narrative of the Germanic past. This technique gives W.'s work its distinctive flavour, and makes the first two chapters of the book a doorway into W.'s historical method.

The next twelve chapters form the substance of the book and comprise a history of the different Germanic groups from their ethnogenesis onwards, in roughly chronological order. Because of both the quality of the extant sources and the author's earlier research, the Goths bulk large in what follows and the treatment of them here takes in not only the kingdom of Toulouse and Theodoric's Italy, but also the later Spanish kingdom of Toledo. There are also, however, good chapters on the Germans under Hunnic dominion, Odovacar's Italy, and the Burgundians. The chapter on Britain is rather cursory, but that on the Vandals is very important. Its title, "The Vandals: A Unique Case?", sets the agenda, which is to show that the Vandal occupation of Africa is very much of a kind with the other Germanic settlements on Roman soil. In very short order W. puts paid to the notion that the Vandal kingdom was either uniquely savage or uniquely decadent and incompetent, viewpoints which still make their insidious way into textbooks.

One important theme, however, runs through all the chapters and ties them together. This is the tension and the symbiosis between the Germanic and the Roman in the individual barbarian. That is to say, there were Roman and tribal modes of behaviour, in either of which a Germanic individual could choose to partake. They were not mutually exclusive, in that leaders like Gainas or Theodoric or even Clovis could act according to one or the other mode at different times and in different circumstances. On the other hand, the tribal and the Roman modes could never be successfully integrated to form a genuine fusion of any sort. Stated baldly like that, the topic will seem less compelling than W. succeeds in making it, but when discussing the options available to the barbarian individual on Roman soil, W. handles the sources deftly and with care.

This in turn leads us to the question of audience. In its original German form, the book seems to have been aimed at an audience of educated laypeople, with a broad interest in history but without a scholar's concern for argument and documentation. In its English version, it is being marketed as a comprehensive narrative of the Germanic peoples in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. This may pose problems. The book cannot, for one thing, be used as a tool for further research, since the notes are inadequate for the purpose. Primary sources are cited more or less at random, and most of the notes are to a handful of recent secondary works in German. This, one assumes, is a consequence of the book's original audience, though it does mean that too much non-German scholarship is simply ignored (e.g. Goffart's Barbarians and Romans is never cited, though his views on settlement are adopted so enthusiastically that the word chora in Procopius, Bell. 5.1.29 is glossed as "taxes", and Brian Croke is cited neither on Mundo the Gepid nor on the year 476). More alarmingly, several dozen direct quotations appear throughout the book without citation. Many of these are part of an unspoken polemic with earlier German scholars, but some are taken from primary sources. The end result is that the evidentiary basis of too many statements remains a mystery to the reader.

The translation is workmanlike, though ghosts of the German survive in many spellings (Drau for Drava, Friaul for Friuli, Isidor for Isidore, etc.). It is annoying to read "administrate" as a verb and to see the past tense of "lead" consistently given as "lead" and not "led", while the number and kind of typographical errors testify to proofreading by computer and not the human eye. Finally, the translation of "französisch" as Frankish makes nonsense of a full paragraph on p. 213.

There is no question, however, that the book is worth reading, though by whom is another matter. It cannot, I think, serve as an introductory text to the period for the English reader. For the advanced student or the practising scholar, however, it is an excellent introduction to W.'s historical method and the ideas which have shaped what is now the orthodox approach to early Germanic history.