Michael Kulikowski’s Rome’s Gothic Wars is part of a series of introductory-level works meant to introduce the reader, and particularly students, to ancient history. The series is intended to teach by providing detailed overviews of specific situations, methods of research, and the historiography of debates as well as critical analysis of events. Rome’s Gothic Wars fulfills well the agenda of the series.
Rome’s Gothic Wars covers the history of the Goths and their interactions with the Roman Empire from the third century, when they are first positively attested in historical sources, through the sack of Rome in 410 and slightly beyond. Kulikowski begins the book with a vivid picture of the events surrounding Alaric’s sack of Rome. He then turns the focus of the book back to the third century, following the history of the Goths back up to 410. By starting and finishing the book with the history of Alaric, the author is able to emphasize his thesis that Gothic identity was directly tied to Gothic interaction with Rome. He therefore takes a distinctly post-colonial view, that the Goths were such because of how Romans identified them: “Roman elite discourses about what a Goth was helped to define how people came to identify themselves as Goths, to codify the signs that conveyed Gothicness” (p.69). Indeed, as Kulikowski notes, it is not until 376, when the Tervingian Goths enter the Roman Empire, that a full narrative history of the Goths is able to be written.
Furthermore, in the process of defining the Goths and telling the history of their interactions with Rome, the author introduces the reader to various key debates within the field. He also challenges old assumptions and disagrees with how certain contemporary historians treat the sources. Kulikowski especially focuses on the ancient and linear progression of the Goths as presented in the Getica of Jordanes. He disagrees strongly with the traditional acceptance of Jordanes’ account of the ancient ancestry and lineage of the Goths. Indeed, this is absolutely essential to his thesis that the Goths were a Roman creation and that evidence for them begins in the third century.
In addition to refuting both the evidence of and historiography surrounding Jordanes, the author uses the archaeological and anthropological evidence of the Sântana-de-Mures/Cernjachov culture to claim that the Goths, part of this culture, were products of Roman interactions in the fourth and fifth centuries. Kulikowski presents stunning evidence of Gothic identity through Roman interaction. One example, for instance, is the amazing structure from the 4th century village of Sobari, which had at least 14,000 terracotta roof tiles, sixteen colonnades and even some glass windows; most surprising is that this village was “nearly 300 kilometers from the Roman frontier” (p.93). This shows the importance of Roman material life and identity in this culture of the Goths.
The archaeological evidence also underscores the author’s view that “massive cultural changes can take place without much movement of population” (pp.65-6). In light of this, the author also challenges the role of the Huns in pushing the Tervingi south of Danube in 376 by repeatedly noting the lack of evidence for such an event and the utter lack of detail, timeline or solid proof in ancient authors. He stresses that the simple domino effect of the Huns seems implausible, particularly since no Huns are mentioned by name until decades after 376 and were not at the Roman frontier until 400 (p.154). However, Kulikowski does agree, and works to show, that there were indeed strong pressures in the Sântana-de-Mures/Cernjachov regions, especially involving the major polities (e.g. Tervingi, Greuthungi), and that this perhaps made groups seek settlement in Roman territory. The author also notes the Gothic civil wars occurring just before the crossing of 376. In relation to the civil wars Kulikowski shows that those who crossed were actually Arians, like their apparent imperial supporter Valens, while the Goths who did not, and later were not allowed to, cross were not Arians. He does not derive any revolutionary reason for the events of 376 from this information, but simply uses it to clarify the complexity of the events and to challenge old (renewed) assumptions.
Finally, Kulikowski provides detailed descriptions of the primary sources as well as an excellent and lengthy bibliographical glossary. The book is easy to read, the narrative flows well and there are many subheadings within the chapters that keep the pace moving at an appropriate rate for an introductory text. In such a short space of 184 pages the author does an exceptional job of introducing the key debates of this complex and sometimes volatile topic, while still presenting a solid contemporary analysis of the most recent sources.