Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.13

David M. Gwynn, The Goths: Lost Civilizations. Lost Civilizations series.   London:  Reaktion Books, 2017.  Pp. 188.  ISBN 9781780238456.  £15.00​.  

Reviewed by Giovanni Alberto Cecconi, Università degli Studi di Firenze​ (


This book, part of a series called “Lost Civilizations”, is intended for the general public: there are no unprecedented theories or exhaustive arguments on specific problems or documents, except for the notes and a brief annotated bibliography for each chapter that precedes the final index. The many elegant images are useful for following the author’s arguments. With its flowing style, it is useful for specialists in Romano-barbaric societies as well: they will easily orient themselves in the historical sections and will be intrigued by the brilliant variations on the theme of the modern cultural heritage of the notion of “the Gothic”. Current historiographical debates are only briefly touched upon, but the author’s references reveal knowledge and accuracy (to cite only one example, the relationship between pre-Christian Gothic religion and the northern sagas of the Middle Ages, pp. 17-18).

The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to “The Original Goths” and the second to the “Gothic Legacy”.

The first of the eight chapters, preceded by a chronological chart, retraces the Goths’ history, acknowledging the limits imposed by the conditions of the surviving literary evidence. Naturally, there is a heavy reliance on Jordanes’ Getica, which Gwynn defines as “highly persuasive” for the most part. As is known, Jordanes was a Goth active in Constantinople in the middle of the sixth century, as Justinian’s reconquest of Italy was coming to an end, and the only vigorous Gothic kingdom was that of the Visigoths’ in Spain, which at that time still had not converted to Catholic orthodoxy. Jordanes used written sources — most importantly Cassiodorus—while inserting elements of oral traditions and popular legends in his account. After leaving the island of Scandza (Scandinavia) with the first great migration, the Goths settled in the Black Sea area, before the movement of the Huns forced them to migrate once again and to cross the Danube in 376, one of the fundamental turning points in this people’s relationship with the Roman Empire. In this area they shared cultural practices that are rather well known — thanks mostly to archaeology — with other tribes that were under their rule (for the Sîntana de Mureş-Černjachov Culture, see pp. 18-21). They were not — as Gwenn emphasizes, pointing out the anachronism in Jordanes — divided at that time into (Greuthungi) Ostrogoths and (Tervingi) Visigoths, a separation that would only come about later. The genesis of a specific Visigoth identity owes much to Alaric, a figure to whom the author devotes many pages (pp. 31-45), right down to his celebrated and grandiose burial in the riverbed of the Busento in Calabria. This event, described by Jordanes with details of rituals that are of great interest, would be evoked in the verses of Augusto Von Platen and later in those of Giosuè Carducci, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906 (two late- nineteenth-century authors who are not mentioned by Gwynn). Alaric was responsible for laying the groundwork of a state that was destined soon to bring about “the first independent Germanic kingdom to exist within the Roman empire, the Visigoth kingdom of Aquitaine” (p. 45, cf. p. 50), a statement that should be emended, since the Suebi, Alans, and Vandals had earlier settled in Gallaecia and northern Lusitania.

By the sixth century there were two main centers of Gothic power: the Ostrogothic kingdom founded by Theodoric the Amal at the end of the fifth century (see Chapter IV, pp. 62-72) and the Visigothic kingdom of the Iberian peninsula, undoubtedly the most important Gothic kingdom, for both its longevity and its national consciousness (see esp. pp. 72-82, with observations on some prominent lay and Christian figures, like Leovigild, Reccared, Isidore of Seville, and Reccesuinth). To this end, Gwynn emphasizes with an abundance of texts the role that the Visigothic monarchy played in historiography and in the building of the idea of a Spanish nation, despite the fact that conversion to Catholicism had not occurred and that the kingdom remained tied to Arianism until the end of the sixth century. His proposal that a statue of Euric stood in Madrid’s Plaza de Oriente is as illuminating as his writing. This statue was erected in the nineteenth century along with statues of other Visigoth monarchs and medieval Spanish kings under the influence of a logic that favored a strong symbolic and political use of history.

The second part of the book is undoubtedly just as fascinating as the first, even though the author has a tendency to begin, interrupt, and then return to his thoughts and observations, causing some confusion for the reader. He outlines the development of the notion of “Gothic”, its many forms, and even its distortions, up to the modern day, observing in what ways the historical identity of the Goths (sometimes treated as a symbol of barbaritas in general) was recast in different contexts and by different individuals and groups (heads of state, influential writers, social tendencies, and cultural currents).

Among the examples discussed in abundant detail is the Nibelungenlied, the great German saga in verse, composed around 1200, that told stories tied to the Germanic migrations, when the concept of Germanic and Gothic tended to overlap. Later in the book the author deals with the research of the Brothers Grimm on legends and heroes that were ascribed to the German national culture and to the epics that were later put to Wagner’s music (see pp. 141-42). Dietrich von Bern (Bern meaning Verona) has a significant position in the Nibelungenlied as a Christian hero inspired by Theodoric the Amal, perhaps the monarch who most often was taken as a model ruler over the centuries.

Particularly instructive is Gwynn’s disussion of the writings on the Germanic invasions and various barbaric figures during the Italian Renaissance. It is here that he begins to give more and more space to art and architecture. In the Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori (1550/1568) Giorgio Vasari offered a destructive judgement on the uncivilized nature of the Goths, pointing to the ruins caused by Alaric during the capture of Rome as undeniable proof (pp. 92-93). It should also be noted here that Vasari contradicted Christian contemporaries of the sack such as Orosius and Augustine, who in famous passages emphasized the respect, inspired by divine pronoia, shown by an Arian — thus Christian — barbarian towards the Christian buildings of the city. Vasari’s influence was such that it determined a new approach to the Goths in relation to art: at the dawn of the modern era, Germanic art and architecture were often seen as undermining classical models (pp. 93-95). On the other hand, it is true that with the Protestant reformation, a much more favorable opinion of the changes brought by the barbarians of the later empire and early Middle Ages arose. They were celebrated for having been able to free themselves from Rome’s cultural dominion, and this encouraged a positive attitude towards their descendants. Among the advocates of this redemption, Gwynn mentions Johann Carion (1499-1537) and Heinrich Pantaleon (1522-1595).

There is also an admirable discussion devoted to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which, in spite of its title, the setting and the theme embrace various Gothic characters, depicted with contrasted originality, instead of a more simplistic “binary opposition of barbaric Goths and civilized Romans” (p. 101). In Chapter VI (“Barbaric Liberty”, pp. 103-24), we return to the relationship between the history of the Visigoths and the Spanish monarchy and national identity, focusing on the claim that used the Gothic precedent to affirm the right to a Reconquista and liberation of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims, a theme that had already appeared during the reign of Ferdinando III of Castile (1201-1251). The discussion then moves into different contexts, like the revisiting of the Gothic in Sweden and, more extensively, in England (pp. 114-124). These pages offer a comparison between the image of the cultural and the architectural concept of “Gothic” — considered a lesser style in the milieus that were more influenced by the Renaissance — and its political and constitutional image, which saw in the “Gothic” a liberal and progressive force (a distinction the Gibbon was aware of, see p. 121). In this section, Gwynn briefly touches upon the development of Gothic literature, which he then picks up again further on in the book, from Walpole to Mary Shelley and Stoker. In chapter VII (pp. 125-46), the analysis of the Gothic legacy also reaches the United States, with references to relevant passages of the Declaration of Independence penned by Jefferson (p. 138) and the important work by George Perkins Marsh, The Goths of New England, written in 1843. In this work, the role played by the Goths in relation to Rome is somehow (according to an evidently arbitrary mental framework) equated with the Americans in relation to the British. Edgar Allan Poe is mentioned more briefly than would be expected (a few lines at p. 140).

It is almost impossible to offer an exhaustive definition of the concepts of “Gothic” investigated by the author: the Gothic is malleable and ever-changing, and when one tries to identify its characterizing features, it is easy to fall into abstraction, for example, by identifying it with the rejection of traditional values. Gwynn recognizes these difficulties and in the eighth and final chapter (“Gothic Culture”, pp. 147–72, which mainly focuses on architectural examples, such as Saint Denis, Notre Dame, and Strawberry Hill), he observes that “‘Gothic culture’ has never been an easy concept to define... Each passing generation naturally responds to its own contemporary concerns, and over time the associations between what is called ‘Gothic’ and the original Goths become ever more tenuous” (p. 147). I would say it is intangible more than tenuous. Coming back in this final section as he does to topics that have already been discussed risks generating some confusion for the reader. The chapter ends with a series of references to very recent Gothic literature, film, and even to “Gothic Rock”.

Every author makes his own choices and has to consider the space that he has available. Perhaps when discussing contemporary and American Gothic (see, for example, The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, 2017), it would have been worth mentioning the famous 1930 painting, American Gothic, by Grant Wood. The painting is highly evocative and enigmatic: in the background is a home with its lancet window, typical of the rural “carpenter Gothic” architectural style; in the foreground is a farmer with an uncertain, puzzled expression, a pitchfork in his hand, and slightly behind him, on the left, his wife or daughter looks over at him from the corners of her eyes. Countless references and allusions to this painting have been made over the past fifty years. Among them, constant references are made in the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (J. Sharman, 1975), a classic of Gothic horror cinema, which is also not mentioned in this praiseworthy and dense little book.

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