BMCR 2009.12.41

The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila. Second Edition (first edition published 1966)

, The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila. Second Edition (first edition published 1966). London: Duckworth, 2008. xxiii, 186. ISBN 9780715637005. £12.99 (pb).

[Table of contents is given at the end of the review.]

The work under review is a reprint of a 1966 publication by OUP, which although itself a reprint of articles in disparate journals, quickly attained classic status in the field.1 E. A. Thompson2 presents a social account of the transdanubian Goths in the 4th century, working primarily from textual sources. Duckworth’s new edition adds a foreword by Michael Kulikowski and an appendix containing one of the principal primary texts used by Thompson, the Passion of St Saba, in John Matthews’ 1991 translation (from The Goths in the Fourth Century).

The foreword is a short but helpful guide to recent trends in Gothic studies, describing not only how approaches have changed, but how the changes were anticipated in Thompson’s work. Kulikowski notes that the study is in no way diminished by the fact that the ‘Visigoths’ of the title are now understood not to have existed as a group as early as the time of Ulfila; Thompson predates and does without the modern scholar’s pre-occupation with highly specified ethnonyms. A bibliographical note rounds out the new front matter.

The Gothic groups that later formed the Visigoths were not only among the most significant barbarian actors in 4th century, but also the best documented. Thompson makes good use of this documentation, combined with the results of early archaeological investigation, to show changes in Visigothic society that had already occurred before the mass migration across the limes in AD 376. He relies on the Passion of St Saba to reconstruct a Gothic tribal world in which common villagers are untroubled by Christians in their midst, while a relatively distant nobility remains fanatically pagan. The distance between noble and villager is a function of living on the Empire’s borders: Out of a primitive world in which distinctions in poverty are minor, Roman trade (and Danegeld) in weapons, armour, luxury goods, and cash created disruptive social stratification. In turn, this disruption created conditions suited to the growth of Christianity, attractive as always to the impoverished and disenfranchised.

Further impetus for conversion came about through the collapse of the tribal system itself, begun by the need to confederate against the Romans, but culminating in the flight across the Danube. Thompson argues that religion was for the Goths a fundamentally tribal affair, and that the feasts and devotions of the tribal deities (or the tribal hypostases of more widely worshiped gods) were the principal criteria for and markers of tribal membership. Since tribes are not mentioned in the sources after the Goths moved into Roman Empire proper, Thompson posits that the trauma of flight, detainment by the Romans, and starvation had smashed the old order, leaving the Goths religiously underserved. Christianity, unaffected by the tribal collapse, was well placed to benefit. Thompson thus argues that, although the Goths who crossed the frontier were largely pagan, Christianization came quickly thereafter.

One of the important differences between Thompson and more recent scholarship is his willingness to approach the Goths as constituents of a Germanic world: He reports without comment the Gothic traditions related by the ancient historian Jordanes (himself a Goth) of their Scandinavian origins, and is happy to look for comparative evidence in Tacitus or Ibn Fadlan. Despite its current disfavour, there is nothing illegitimate about such comparison when disparities of time and geography are taken into account: Thompson certainly does not view the ancient Germanic peoples as socially, culturally, or otherwise monolithic.

The final section of the republished work, and the largest addition to the original publication, is the so-called ‘Passion of St Saba’. Although this translation as noted above has been published elsewhere, it is very helpful to include it with the text that brought it to the forefront of scholarship on the 4th century Goths. The Passion is a life of St Saba the Goth in epistolary form. Saba was a poor man, caught up in the persecutions of Christians by the Gothic leaders which Thompson connects to their defeats by the Romans. The persecution directives come from a central authority in Gothia, and his co-villagers make efforts to save him, which he, eager for a martyr’s crown, resists, ultimately successfully, when he is put to death by drowning.

The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila is a work likely to be well-known to scholars of the Goths already. The new edition will be purchased by those who have long used the work in libraries but could not own it. Its clear writing and lucid argumentation make it suitable for undergraduate use, and its seminal status and voluminous citations make it invaluable to any graduate in a relevant field. It is to be recommended to those directly interested in the Goths, but also teachers and students who wish to consider life on the other side of a Roman limes.


Introduction, xii

1.0 Political History to AD 395, 1
1.1 The Settlement in Dacia, 3
1.2 Constantine and Constantius II, 9
1.3 Valens and Theodosius I, 17

2.0 Material Culture and Social Organization, 25
2.1 Material Culture, 25
2.2 Trade with the Roman Empire, 34
2.3 Social Organization,43
2.4 Paganism, 55

3.0 The Passion of St Saba and Village Life, 64

4.0 The Date of the Conversion, 78

5.0 Early Visigothic Christianity, 94
5.1 The Fourth-Century Persecutions, 94
5.2 The Circumstances of the Conversion, 103
5.3 Ecclesiastical Organization, 110
5.4 Ulfila’s Achievement, 115
5.5 The Bishop Maximinus, 119
5.6 The Conversion of the Barbarians, 127

6.0 After Ulfila, 133
6.1 John Chrysostom and the Goths, 133
6.2 The Psathyrians, 135
6.3 Sunnia and Fretela, 138
6.4 The Later History of Ulfila’s Text, 144
6.5 Epilogue, 155

Appendix One: Was Fritigern a Christian?, 157
Appendix Two: Gaatha, 159
Appendix Three: The Bishop Godda, 161
Appendix Four: The Passion of St. Saba, 166

Index, 179


1. Reviews of the first edition may be found by Peter Brown in History, vol. 54, pp.79f (1969) and by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill in The English Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 326 (Jan., 1968), pp.146f.

2. An excellent biography of Thompson by R. A. Markus may be found in Proceedings of the British Academy, 111, 679-93.