BMCR 2021.07.26

Jordanes. “Romana” and “Getica”

, , Jordanes. "Romana" and "Getica". Translated texts for historians, 75. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020. Pp. 480. ISBN 9781789628104. £110,00.

Jordanes may get less respect than any other well-preserved ancient historian.  But now the inexhaustible learning of Lieve Van Hoof and Peter Van Nuffelen has made him honorable amends.  This TTH volume is now the best and essential introduction to Jordanes’s work, while remaining eminently serviceable for use in classroom settings.

Jordanes’s surviving works were written in the mid-sixth century, at a point when the overweening confidence of Justinian’s earlier years had sagged, as Theodora died, wars went badly, theology went badly, and the finances of empire grew shaky under thundery skies.  Though Jordanes does not tell us directly of the affairs of that moment, the way he chooses to tell the stories of Roman and Gothic history reflects the uncertainties and competing viewpoints of the time.

Jordanes’s limitation, to be sure, is that much of what he reports is drawn from obvious surviving sources and the one area where he has most original material to offer has been taken away from him by the haste and inattention of scholars over a very long period.  His two surviving and well-preserved works are properly entitled de summa temporum vel origine actibusque gentis Romanorum and de origine actibusque Getarum.  He wrote to provide comprehensive histories of the world from a Roman perspective and of the nation we call Goths, lately established within the Roman empire and variously in contention with it.  Romana and Getica are the lazy titles moderns have given the two works.  The Getica offers otherwise unattested — if also dubiously reliable — narrative for much of its extent, but his words and modern interpretation have conspired to claim that even that work is only a ham-fisted digest of the historia Gothica of Cassiodorus, written some thirty years earlier.  In the 1950s, Arnaldo Momigliano, moreover, offered in a vivid and widely-read article a strong reading of that dependency with the claim that Cassiodorus was the invisible hand even of the digest.[1]  Thus Jordanes has faded into the background.

Starting in the late 1970s, Momigliano’s hypothesis has crumbled to dust.  But one further misfortune has oppressed Jordanes: the obsession of moderns to get at the historic truth underlying his narrative in order to carry on a further set of arguments about barbarians, tribes, ethnogenesis, and the nature of the transformation of the late Roman world in the period when Goths and Vandals, Franks and Lombards, Huns and Heruls, Gepids and Avars, and others beside begin to be players in that world.

What has escaped comparable attention for too long is Jordanes himself and his own position as an historian writing, undoubtedly in Constantinople, at a tense moment in what Mischa Meier’s important book calls “the other age of Justinian.”[2]  Accepting the dating documented in this volume of both works to 551, we catch the moment when Justinian’s disastrous reconquest of Italy was coming to an end, while his reconquered Africa, the Thracian north, and the Persian east were all restive.  Worse, Justinian’s long-running struggle to make ecclesiastical peace on his neo-Chalcedonian terms between the intransigence of western Chalcedonians, the conflicts in Constantinople itself, and the growing insurgency of Syrian and Egyptian monophysitism was coming to a head.  The church council he called at Constantinople two years later (“Second Constantinople”) forced a resolution that no one much liked and left nascent schism in the west and an undiminished insurgency in the east.  Mohammed in the next century was no monophysite, but his passionate devotion to the unity and uniqueness of Allah draws on the climate of the Roman east and is one marker of Justinian’s failure.

What van Hoof and van Nuffelen have done in this volume is give Jordanes his context, his perspective, and his dignity as a standing historian in his own right.  Their translation of the Romana is the first into English (I know only one other, into Italian) and that of the Getica is the first in English since 1915 (several in other European languages have appeared more recently).  The translations are accurate, lucid, and readable and can be used even by advanced scholars without obsessive reference back to the original texts; in other words well up to the quality of TTH’s well-edited volumes.  The extensive annotation of sources, parallels, and comparative interpretations with which they furnish the translations make this effectively the best modern commentary on the two works.  The bibliography is authoritative and the detailed index could be improved only by adding dates for the lives of principal figures.  Finally, their concise but comprehensive introduction well surveys the facts and issues of Jordanian studies.  (Almost simultaneously, the authors published as well an edition, translation, and commentary of fragmentary Latin historians from 300-620 CE.[3] The treatment there of Cassiodorus’ historica Gothica overlaps what they say here but is useful in its own right.)

So what do van Hoof and van Nuffelen make of Jordanes for us and for the next generation of readers?

First, they show in detail how the story as Jordanes tells it is very much a politically and historically aware document of its mid-sixth century moment.  Jordanes departs from the regime propaganda of Cassiodorus to make a genuine effort to describe the world he lived in, with “Goths” and “Romans” on comparably ancient footings.  His emphasis on the dignity and antiquity of the Gothic people strongly implies a prospect of a future community of interests.  An impatient modern might press harder for him and his readers to understand the possibilities of a Mediterranean world that embraced newcomers and found a devolved but diplomatically aligned system of governance that would manage the issues they faced.  Arab conquests were not inevitable and the consequent shift of power and influence north and west in Europe could have been a genuine expansion of Mediterranean community, not the translatio that it effectively became.  Jordanes could not see that far ahead, but his approach imagined a world that was to be lost in the years to come.

Second, van Hoof and van Nuffelen do not insist upon drawing one tantalizing conclusion from their work, but the topic is now firmly open.  I mean that they show by their close study of the language and sources of Jordanes’s work (and their principled refusal to give credit to Cassiodorus for everything interesting), that the shape of Jordanes’s work on the Goths particularly may be quite different from what we have assumed.  The traditional reading is that Jordanes digested his Cassiodorus on the fly and added a few pages at the end in a rush, so the great bulk of the Getica is taken as effectively dating to Cassiodorus’s authorship of thirty years earlier.  But van Hoof and van Nuffelen offer evidence to suggest that the Cassiodoran digest consists of archaeological passages (the pre-history of Goths in Sweden and beyond the Roman borders) and of the period from the reign of Theodosius in the late fourth century forward.  They also suggest that the work of Jordanes himself was not only that of a digester but of active insertion of fresh material taken from sources other than Cassiodorus.  van Hoof and van Nuffelen insist that further detailed study is necessary and I take it that their modesty in putting forward the hypothesis that I summarize here arises from their awareness of that need, but the real Jordanes, historian of more originality than he has ever been granted before, will emerge more clearly into the light as such work is done.

As in other areas of late antique studies, we find ourselves here in an age of the final breakup of very old and persistent narratives that have not changed in two hundred years since Gibbon or, in this case, the 1500 years since Jordanes and his contemporary, the continuator of Marcellinus Comes.  Peter Brown recounts in his memoir of Momigliano the senior scholar’s strong caution at the idea suggested to him by a young scholar in the 1950s imagining a Braudelian The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Justinian.[4]  It’s still not a bad idea to encourage us to look at this period on a larger geographical scale and a longer chronological timeline.  Jordanes gives us a vantage point, admittedly in the imperial capital, from which to imagine what such a survey could tell us.  This volume enables us to share that perspective and think it through in detail.


[1] A. Momigliano, Cassiodorus and Italian Culture of His Time, PBA 41(1955) 207-245.

[2] M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians (Göttingen 2003).

[3] L. van Hoof and P. van Nuffelen, The Fragmentary Latin Histories of Late Antiquity.  (Cambridge 2020).

[4] P. Brown, Arnaldo Momigliano, PBA 74 (1988) 405-442 at 422.