Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Who Were the Goths?

More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, a traveller from the Greek colony of Marseilles, named Pytheas, made known to the civilized world the existence of a people called Guttones, who lived near the Frische Haff, in the country since known as East Prussia, and traded in the amber that was gathered on the Baltic shores. For four whole centuries these amber merchants of the Baltic are heard of no more. The elder Pliny, a Roman writer who died in the year 79 after Christ, tells us that in his time they were still dwelling in the same neighbourhood; and a generation later, Tacitus, the greatest of Roman historians, twice mentions their name, though he spells it rather differently as Gotones. In his little book on Germany, he says—in that brief pointed style of his which it is so difficult to translate into English—"Beyond the Lygians live the Gotones among whom the power of the kings has already become greater than among the other Germans, though it is not yet too great for them to be a free people." And in his Annals he mentions that they gave shelter to a prince belonging to another German nation, who had been driven from his own country by the oppression of a foreign conqueror. These two brief notices are all that Tacitus, who has told us so much that is interesting about the peoples of ancient Germany, has to say of the Gotones. But if he could only have guessed what was the destiny in store for this obscure and distant tribe, we may be sure that they would have received a far larger share of his attention. For these Gotones were the same people who afterwards became so famous under the name of Goths, who, a few centuries later, crowned their kings in Rome itself, and imposed their laws on the whole of Southern Europe from the Adriatic to the Western sea.

It is the story of these Goths that in the present volume we are going to relate, from the time when they were still living almost unnoticed in their northern home near the Baltic and the Vistula, down to the time when their separate history becomes blended in the history of the southern nations whom they conquered, and by whom they were at last absorbed. In many respects the career of this people is strikingly different from that of any other nation of equal historic renown. For three hundred years—beginning with the days of Tacitus—their history consists of little else than a dreary record of barbarian slaughter and pillage. A century later, the Goths have become the mightiest nation in Europe. One of their two kings sits on the throne of the Caesars, the wisest and most beneficent ruler that Italy has known for ages; the other reigns over Spain and the richest part of Gaul. We look forward two hundred and fifty years, and the Gothic kingdoms are no more; the nation itself has vanished from the stage of history, leaving scarcely a trace behind.

The story we have to tell lacks many of the elements to which the history of most nations owes a large part of its interest. Except a part of a translation of the Bible, the Goths have left us no literature; the legends which they told about the deeds of gods and heroes have nearly all perished; and even the history of their short period of greatness has to be learned from ignorant and careless writers, who have left untold a great deal that we would gladly know. And yet the story of the Goths is not without powerful attractions of its own. In all history there is nothing more romantically marvelous than the swift rise of this people to the height of greatness, or than the suddenness and the tragic completeness of their ruin. Amongst the actors in this story are some whose noble characters arid deeds are worthy of eternal remembrance; and the events which it records have influenced the destinies of the whole civilized world. And while for an Italian, a Frenchman, or a Spaniard, Gothic history is important as a part of the history of his own country, for us who speak the English tongue it has a special interest of another kind, because the Goths were in a certain sense our own near kindred. It is true that we are a people of mingled origin; but we are to no small extent descendant of the Teutonic race, from which we have inherited our language, and to this race the Goths also belonged. The Gothic language, as it is known to us from Bishop Wulfila's translation of the Bible, is very much like the oldest English, though it is still more like the language that was spoken by the ancestors of the Swedes and Norwegians. There is little doubt that in the first century all the Teutonic peoples could understand one another's speech, though even then there must have been among them some differences of dialect, which grew wider as time went on. Now since the Gothic Bible is some hundreds of years older than any book in any of the sister dialects, it is the most important help we possess towards finding out what the old Teutonic speech was like before it was developed into the different languages which we call English, German, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish. And so it comes about that scholars, who inquire into the origin of English words and the reasons for the rules of English grammar, find that they can obtain a great deal of light from the study of the long-dead Gothic tongue.

Besides the Gothic Bible there have been preserved two or three other short pieces of writing in the Gothic language. One of these—a fragment of a calendar contains the word Gut-thiuda, "people of the Goths." The word thinda  is the same as the Old English theid, meaning people; and from the compound Gut-thiuda, and from other evidence, it may be inferred that the name which, following the Romans, we spell as "Goths" was properly Gutansin the singular Guta. Like all other names of nations, this word must originally have had a meaning, but it is very difficult to discover what that meaning was. It has often been asserted that the name of the Goths has something to do with the word God (in Gothic guth). We might easily believe that an ancient people might have chosen to call themselves "the worshippers of the Gods;" but although this interesting suggestion was proposed by Jacob Grimm, one of the greatest scholars who ever lived, it is now quite certain that it was a mistake. It seems now to be generally thought that the meaning of Gutans is "the (nobly) born."

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


About the year 200, when they were living on the north shore of the Black Sea, the Gutans or Goths divided themselves into two great branches, the Thervings and the Greutungs. These two peoples had also other names, which are much better known in history. The Thervings were called Visigoths (i.e., West Goths), and the Greutungs Ostrogoths (East Goths). These latter names referred at first to the situation which the two divisions then occupied, one east, the other west of the river Dniester; but by a curious coincidence they continued to be appropriate down to the latest days of Gothic history, for when the Goths conquered the South of Europe, the Visigoths went westwards to Gaul and Spain, while the Ostrogoths settled in Italy. Probably the Thervings and Greutungs were the only people to whom the name of Goths in strictness belonged. There was, however, a third tribe, the Gepids, whom the other two recognized as being, if not exactly Goths, at any rate, their nearest kinsfolk, and as having originally formed one nation with them. About the origin of these Gepids, the Gothic historian, Jordanes (who lived in the sixth century, and was, perhaps, bishop of Crotona in Italy) tells a curious story, founded, it seems, on ancient popular songs. He relates that the original home of the Goths was in "the island of Scanzia"—that is to say, in the Scandinavian peninsula; and that they came to the mainland of Europe in three ships, under the command of a king named Berig. One of the ships was a heavy sailer, and arrived long after the others; and for this reason the people who came over in her were called Gepids, from a Gothic word gepanta, meaning slow. Of course this is not the real explanation of the name of the Gepids, but the story must be regarded as an ancient Gothic joke at their expense. Jordanes says that the Gepids were a dull-witted and heavy-bodied nation; and as a matter of fact we generally find them lagging a little behind the Goths in their southward march.

Whether the Goths did originally come from Scandinavia is a question that has been much disputed. The traditions of a people contained in its songs are not to be lightly put aside, and there is no reason to doubt that the Goths once inhabited the northern as well as the southern shores of the Baltic. But it cannot be said that apart from tradition there is any real evidence of the fact. It is true that the southern province of Sweden is still called Gothland; but the Gautar (called Geatas by the Anglo-Saxons), from whom this province took its name, were not identical with the Goths, though doubtless nearly related to them. On the other hand, the island called Gothland, in the Baltic, was anciently called Gutaland, which seems to show that its early inhabitants were really in the strict sense Goths. And according to the Norse sagas and the Anglo-Saxon poets, the peninsula of Jutland was anciently occupied by a branch of the Gothic people, who were known as Hreth-gotan, or Reidhgotar.

There were also a number of smaller tribes, such as the Herules, Scirians, Rugians, and Turcilings, who accompanied the Goths as subjects or as allies in their southward march, and who seem to have been more closely akin to them than any other of the great divisions of the Teutonic race. The great nation of the Vandals, moreover, originally the neighbours of the Goths on the west, who about the same time as they did, though by a different path, wandered from the Baltic to the Danube, and afterwards played an important part in history, are said by Roman writers to have been identical with the Goths in language, laws, and manners. The Romans naturally often confounded the two peoples together, and not unfrequently they applied the name of Goths in a loose sense to all those Teutonic nations who invaded the southern lands. In this volume, however, we are concerned only with the fortunes of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, and shall only mention these other peoples when they come in our way.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


The Goths arc always described as tall and athletic men, with fair complexions, blue eyes, and yellow hair such people, in fact, as may be seen more frequently in Sweden than in any other modern land. A very good idea of their national costume and their general appearance may be gained from the sculptures on "The Storied Column," as it is called, erected at Constantinople by the Emperor Arcadius in honour of his father Theodosius, which represent a triumphal procession, including many Gothic captives. The dress of the men consists usually of a short tunic with girdle, wide turned-down collars, and short sleeves; an inner garment coming down to the knees; and trousers, sometimes reaching to the ankle, and sometimes ending just below the knees. The last mentioned article of dress is often referred to as distinguishing the Goths from the bare-legged Romans. A king or chief, who sits with two attendants on a car drawn by oxen, is similar in his attire to the rest of the captives, but his superior rank is denoted by the collar and skirt of his tunic being cut into an ornamental pattern. All the men wear long curly hair and long beards. Some of them are bareheaded, while others wear caps of somewhat fantastic shapes. Some of the Gothic figures in the procession seem not to be prisoners of war, but auxiliaries in the Roman

service, as they appear without any marks of humiliation, and several of them carry Roman armour. Their leaders are on horseback, and are dressed in a style similar to that of their captive countrymen, with the addition of long fur cloaks—a garment which was proverbially characteristic of their people. The female captives appear clad in long robes down to the feet; some have their heads covered with kerchiefs, while others are bareheaded, with long streaming hair. We may safely rely on the general accuracy of this interesting portraiture, for at the end of the fourth century the appearance of the Goths had become familiar to all the inhabitants of Constantinople.

That the Gothic people had many noble qualities was frequently acknowledged even by their enemies, and is abundantly proved by many incidents in their history. They were brave, generous, patient under hardship and privation, and chaste and affectionate in their family relations. The one great reproach which the Roman writers bring against them is that of faithlessness to their treaties, a charge frequently made by civilized peoples against barbarians, and one which the barbarians have too often had good reason to retort. In the first flush of victory they were sometimes terribly cruel; but on the whole there is nothing in their history more remarkable than the humanity and justice which they exercised towards the nations whom they had conquered; and there are many instances on record in which Romans were glad to seek under the milder sway of the Goths a refuge from the oppressions of their own rulers. It is true, however, that their history gives but little evidence of their possession of the gentler virtues until after their conversion to Christianity an event which had unquestionably a very profound effect on their national character. The Roman clergy, by whom the Goths were disliked both as alien conquerors and as heretics, were often constrained to own that these barbarians obeyed the precepts of the gospel far better than did their own countrymen.

We have no contemporary description of the state of society which existed amongst the Goths when they were living in their ancient abodes near the Baltic; but it was probably in its main features similar to that of the other Teutonic peoples as described by Tacitus. By combining the information supplied by Tacitus with what we know of the manners and institutions of the Goths in later days, it is possible to arrive at some general conclusions respecting their mode of life before their southward wanderings began. We must imagine them as dwelling, not in cities or compact villages, but in habitations scattered over the woods and plains, each with its own enclosure of farm land, which they cultivated with the help of slaves, the descendants of captives taken in war. Their chief subsistence, however, was not derived from their crops, but from their vast herds of cattle, which they pastured on their wide common lands. Their drink was mead and beer, in which, no doubt, like the other Teutonic peoples, they often indulged to excess. At their feasts they entertained themselves with songs relating the deeds of famous heroes of the past. At the season of new moon the men of each district assembled in the open air to administer justice and to make laws for themselves; and from time to time the whole nation was gathered together to discuss great questions such as those of war or peace. The kings were chosen by the voice of the assembled people from certain great families, two of which, the Amalings and the Balthings, are known to us by name. The Amalings were said to be descended from a hero whose deeds had earned for him the title of Amala, "the mighty"; the name of the Baithings is derived from the same root as our English word "bold." Of these two noble houses we shall hereafter have much to say, for the Amalings became the royal line of the Ostrogoths, while the Visigoths chose their kings from the Balthings.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


Of the religion of the Goths in their heathen days we know but little. Their native historian tells us that they worshipped certain beings called Anses, and this word is plainly the same as 1Esir (plural of Ass or Ans), the name which the Scandinavians applied to the greater gods of their mythology. No ancient writer has mentioned the name of a single Gothic deity, but there is reason, to believe that amongst their chief gods were "the Great Twin Brethren," corresponding to Castor and Pollux, and we may feel sure that, like all their Teutonic kindred, they worshipped Wodan, the spirit of wind and storm, the inspirer of poetry and wisdom. Another of their gods, no doubt, was Tiw, whose name shows that he was once the same with Dyaus, Zeus, Jupiter, the ancient sky-god of the Indians, Greeks, and Romans and whom the Teutonic warriors invoked as their god of battles. Probably, also, they worshipped under what names we know not—the Sun-god and the Thunder-god, whom the Scandinavians called Baldr and Thorr. And there is proof that Halya, which in the Gothic Bible is the word for "hell," must originally have been the name of the goddess of the lower world. But which of these divinities were regarded as higher than the rest, and what other gods and goddesses were reverenced besides them, are questions that cannot be answered. Images of the gods (not complete statues, but pillars surmounted with the likeness of a human head), raised aloft on chariots, were carried from place to place to receive the adoration of the people. The sodden flesh of animals was offered in sacrifice, and sometimes we read that human victims were laid upon the altars, but whether this is fact or fable we cannot tell. The Gothic temples were served both by male and female priests, and during the war-like journeyings of the nation the place of a temple was supplied by a sacred tent. These few particulars are all that we really know about Gothic heathendom, for when the people became Christians their clergy strove to blot out the recollections of their old beliefs, and in this endeavour they succeeded only too well.

One more fact, and that a very interesting one, is known respecting the early condition of the Goths. They possessed an alphabet of their own, the letters of which were called "runes." We cannot suppose, however, that they had any extensive written literature, for they seem in their heathen days to have used no more convenient writing material than boards and wooden staves, on which their inscriptions were carved. It is not likely that the great bulk of the people knew how to read and write. The word "rune" literally means a secret or mystery, and that shows that the art of writing was looked upon with superstitious awe as a sort of half-miraculous endowment. Very likely the knowledge of it was kept carefully in the hands of the priesthood, or some learned caste, The Goths used their runes for inscribing the names of their dead heroes on their tombstones, and for marking their swords and jewels with the owner's name. Their wise men wrote witchcraft spells to hang up in the people's houses to drive away bad spirits or to bring good luck. Sometimes, perhaps, a new law might be carved in wood or stone to be handed down to later ages; letters (very short and pithy we may be sure they would be) might be sent from one chief to another about matters too weighty to be trusted to word of mouth; or a poet might now and then call in the aid of the rune-man to preserve the memory of one of his songs. Perhaps too there were some rude attempts at history writing, such as we have in the early part of the Saxon Chronicle just brief memoranda of events put down at the time, saying that "such a king died; So-and-so was made king; Goths fought with Gepids; Gepids were beaten, with great slaughter: this or that chief was killed." But all this is only guessing, for only one or two Gothic inscriptions, and those very short ones, have been preserved. From the Goths, however, the Runic alphabet passed to the kindred nations dwelling near the Baltic, and it is found on hundreds of tombstones and memorial pillars in Scandinavia, Iceland, and the British Isles. Two of the characters, p and p, were adopted in Old English to express the sounds of th  and w, for which the Roman alphabet supplied no proper sign. When people write y  instead of the, or ye  instead of that  (as is still sometimes done in England), they are really using one of the "runes" inherited from the heathen Goths who lived two thousand years ago. A specimen of the Gothic runes may be seen in the accompanying engraving of a gold necklet found in 1838 amid the ruins of a heathen temple near Bucharest, in the country where the Goths were dwelling early in the fourth century. The inscription has been read by some scholars as Gut-annum hailag, "sacred to the treasure of the Goths."

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


The Goths certainly did not invent these letters for themselves, and there has been a great deal of discussion on the question how they got them. If we compare the oldest runes with the Latin letters, or, what is very much the same thing, with an early form of the Greek letters, we see at once that several of them are just the Latin or old Greek characters, altered so as to render them more convenient for cutting on wood. It is usually believed amongst scholars that the runes are of Latin origin; but as the evidence seems to show that they were first used in the far northeast, where Roman influences could hardly have reached, we prefer to accept the view of Dr. Isaac Taylor, that they are a corruption of an old Greek alphabet used in certain colonies on the northwest coast of the Black Sea. But how the knowledge of this alphabet was carried to the Goths dwelling six hundred miles away, and what caused the changes in the sounds expressed by some of the letters, are questions we have no means of answering.

Before we leave the subject of this chapter, there is one more point that must be touched on, because it affects our understanding of some parts of the succeeding history. In ancient times the countries north of the Danube mouths were inhabited by a people called Getes (in Latin Getae). You may remember that the poet Ovid was sent to live among this people when Augustus banished him from Rome. Now in the third century after Christ the Goths came and dwelt in the land of the Getes, and to some extent mingled with the native inhabitants; and so the Romans came to think that Goths and Getes were only two names for the same people, or rather two different ways of pronouncing the same word. Even the historian Jordanes, himself a Goth, actually calls his book a Getic history, and mixes up the traditions of his own people with the tales which he had read in books about the Getes. In modern times some great scholars have tried to prove that the Getes really were Goths, and that the early territory of the Gothic nation reached all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea. But the ablest authorities are now mostly agreed that this is a mistake, and that when the Goths migrated to the region of the Danube it was to settle amongst a people of a different race, speaking a foreign tongue.

As late as the middle of the second century (unless, as is not unlikely, the geographer Ptolemy copied his information from much earlier writers) the "Gythones" or Goths were still dwelling along the eastern bank of the Vistula. A few years later they began their great southward journey, and left their ancient homes to be occupied by new possessors, the kinsmen of the Slavonians and Lithuanians.