11 Rome-Sacking Facts About the Original Goths
By Nick Keppler
May 22 is World Goth Day, an occasion minted in 2009 when BBC 6 dedicated the day to goth rock. It has since become a happening in clubs across Europe, the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. To celebrate, we’ve compiled 11 facts about the original Goths—and we don’t mean Bauhaus.
Here are some things you may not know about the Germanic people best known for sacking Rome in 410 CE. Though deemed “savages” and “barbarians” by the Romans, they were actually complex, intelligent, and misunderstood people. The Goths by Peter Heather and The History of the Goths by Herwig Wolfram both served as invaluable sources for the facts listed below.
1. THEY PROBABLY CAME FROM SCANDINAVIA.
Only one source regarding the Goths’ origins survives: Getica, a history written by Jordanes, a 6th century Roman historian of Gothic descent. According to Jordanes, “from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago.” Most scholars have accepted Scandza as Scandinavia. Jordanes describes the Goths expelling and subduing a series of peoples along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea to create their domain there, outside the Roman Empire. Twentieth century archaeological evidence suggests such a migration in the first three centuries.
2. THE GOTHS WERE SOPHISTICATED IN TRADE, DIPLOMACY, HUNTING, AND AGRICULTURE.
Goths’ reputation as barbarians comes from Roman sources, which viewed them (at various times) as pests, threats, and second-class subjects of the Empire. In truth, during the time they were settled between the Baltic and Black Seas, the Goths were largely peaceful hunters and farmers, skilled in horsemanship, archery, and falconry. They traded extensively with neighbors, both stationary and nomadic, and Gothic furs were much in demand. “They had generated a reasonably sophisticated agricultural culture with quite complicated political structures,” according to Heather.
3. MANY WERE CHRISTIANS.
Another misconception is that the Goths were pagans. In the 4th century, the bishop of Constantinople sent a missionary named Ulfilas to convert the Goths. Though Christianity was not universal, he brought many to the faith and created an entire Gothic alphabet so as to translate the Bible. (It's worth noting that Ulfilas practiced and converted the Goths to Arian Christianity, a form deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.)
4. KINGSHIP WAS TEMPORARY.
Until the late 4th century, the Goths had no king. Instead, their political system was a network of clan chieftains who selected a central leader in times of danger or to represent them in diplomacy (usually with the Roman Empire). At times like these, “the king did not differ from other Goths in his habits, at sports or play [and] he did not set himself apart in dress or appearance,” wrote Wolfram.
5. THERE WERE TWO BRANCHES OF GOTHS.
In about 370 CE, the Huns invaded the domain of the Goths, massacring and pillaging villages. This uprooted their society and permanently divided the Goths into two groups. The Ostrogoths (low Latin for “the eastern Goths”) stayed east of Dniester River and were largely subdued by the Huns and made vassals in what was essentially a cross-continental protection racket. The Visigoths (“the good Goths” or “the noble Goths”) established a domain extending from the Dniester to the Danube River and spent the next several decades as frenemies of the Romans.
However, it’s possible that the split between the two branches is much older. Jordanes mentions that the Goths traveled in three boats, which may represent that there were distinct branches before leaving Scandza. On the third boat were the Gepidae, one of the most mysterious of the Germanic tribes. Their name means "the late ones" because their boat arrived last.)
6. THE HUNS FORCED THE VISIGOTHS INTO A RAW DEAL WITH THE ROMANS.
A contingent of Visigoths led by King Fritigern petitioned Emperor Valens, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire, for protection as they tried to escape both the Huns and an ongoing conflict with another Visigoth ruler. In 376 CE, Valens agreed, in exchange for their mass conversion to Christianity (which was largely trivial after Ulfilas’s efforts) and conscription into the Roman Army. Fritigern led about 80,000 people across the Danube River, the traditional boundary of Goth land. Their plight wasn’t much better under Roman rule. Corrupt Roman governors hijacked grain shipments meant for the Gothic refugees. At the lowest point, Goths were selling their children into slavery. Romans offered the meat of one dog carcass for one child.
7. FRITIGERN’S REVENGE CHANGED EUROPE.
The hungry, downcast Visigoths soon rebelled against their Roman overlords and destroyed much of an area called Thrace. Valens led an army to repel Fritigern’s, and at the city of Adrianople, the Goths slaughtered between 10,000 and 20,000 Roman soldiers, including Valens himself. The battle had repercussions that changed Europe. The defeat of such a nation, including the killing of an emperor at the hands of a “barbarian” force, was humiliating and perhaps the start of the fall of the long-eroding Roman Empire.
Valens’s successor, Theodosius I, had little choice but to make peace with the Visigoths. A 382 CE treaty deemed them an autonomous group within the Roman Empire, with a right to lands between the Danube River and Balkan Mountains. (It denied them connubium, the right to marry Roman citizens.) However, facing an unending series of foreign enemies and internal usurpers, Theodosius couldn’t resist stipulating that Goths fight in Rome’s army—a caveat that proved to be Rome’s undoing.
8. THERE WERE 15 YEARS OF SACKINGS BEFORE ROME.
For the most part, the Visigoths were used as cannon fodder (in the figurative sense) by the Roman army, placed on the deadly front lines so that the sons of Rome would be safely tucked behind. This stoked Goth resentment of the Romans and prevented consolidation of the two groups.
At the end of the 4th century, a military leader named Alaric rose up among the Visigoths. He had fought in the Roman army and seemed to be angling for a lucrative generalship. Perhaps a denial of a promotion played a role in his later actions, but, in any case, Alaric organized the Visigoths. Throughout his 15 years of leadership, they rebelled against the Romans several times, sacking cities across the Empire. Provincial leaders often gave into Alaric’s demands of land, money, and titles, indicating he had control of their soldiers. Central Roman leaders abused and slaughtered Goth citizens and slaves in retaliation, but this only brought Alaric more followers.
9. THE VISIGOTH SIEGES LASTED FOR TWO YEARS, THE SACKING FOR THREE DAYS.
In 408 CE, with the Roman army distracted in campaigns against the Franks and Vandals, Alaric finally marched to Rome, the heart of the empire, with little resistance (although Rome hadn’t been the capital since the 3rd century CE, moving first to Milan and then in 402 to Ravenna). He assimilated former slaves and members of other outsider tribes on his way and began the first siege of Rome.
The first siege was successful, earning Alaric and his army several tons of gold and silver, thousands of tunics and hides, and 3000 pounds of pepper. Two more sieges would follow: one in 409 CE that led to a puppet Emperor being placed on the throne, and the 410 CE siege which famously led to the sacking of Rome.
It was first time in 800 years “the Eternal City” fell to outside attackers, though the siege was mild by 5th century standards, and there was no wholesale slaughter of citizens. The Visigoths burned buildings, desecrated statues, stole possessions, and rounded up captives to be ransomed or sold as slaves. The Goths stole books, even though few were literate, because books represented wealth to Romans. His point made and his pockets filled, Alaric moved on to the tip of Italy, hoping to invade a piece of Africa and sustain his people there, but he died along the way.
10. THE GOTHS WENT ON TO RULE ITALY AND REUNITE IN FRANCE.
In the face of the Roman Empire’s collapse, Theoderic the Great built the Ostrogoth Kingdom, which stretched across Italy. He then sought to reunite his tribe with the Visigoths, taking on a position as regent of the Kingdom of Toulouse, the Visigoth power center in what is now France, established after they left Rome.
11. THEY ALSO SORT OF SAVED ROMAN CULTURE.
The Visigoths pushed into the Iberian Peninsula where they set up a capital under the name of Toledo. Because they had interacted with the Romans so extensively, much of the attire, language, architecture, and legal codes of this kingdom showed Roman influence at a time when the Empire’s culture was deteriorating. The Visigoths eventually converted to Catholicism and merged, culturally and militarily, with the peninsula’s native population, creating the coalition that birthed Spain.