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Definition: Goths from Philip's Encyclopedia

Ancient Germanic people, groups of whom settled near the Black Sea in the 2nd-3rd centuries ad. In 376 the Huns drove the Visigoths westwards into Roman territory and the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome in 410. They settled in SW France, but the Franks expelled them in the early 6th century, and they migrated in Spain. Some groups united to create the Ostrogoths, who conquered Italy under Theodoric the Great (489). They held Italy until conquered by the Byzantines under Belisarius and Narses (536-53).

Summary Article: Goths
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The Goths were a loose confederation of barbarian peoples, including the Greuthungi, the Tervingi, and the Taifali, that arose as a response to the long years of Roman political and military turmoil in the third century CE (Kulikowski 2007). They first appear as raiders into imperial territory from their bases north of the Danube in the region of the Black Sea. Taking advantage of Roman military distraction, various kings or war leaders led their forces against cities in the regions of the Black Sea, the Balkans, and the coast of Asia Minor. Able emperors, such as Claudius II and Aurelian (both of whom took the victory title "Gothicus") and their generals had succeeded in containing this wave of Gothic raids by the mid-270s.

In the lead-up to the civil war that erupted between Constantine I and Licinius in 324, a sizable contingent of Goths rallied to the standards of Licinius. After the civil war, Constantine reorganized Danube defenses and won a major victory in a Gothic war against the Tervingi in 332. This period also saw the first known attempts to evangelize the Goths. A bishop named Ulfila developed an alphabet for the Gothic language and translated the Bible into this new written language. However, Ulfila was a homoian Christian, who regarded Christ as "like," but not equal to, God the Father. This fact had dramatic effects on later Roman-Gothic relations, as for much of their history the Goths professed Arian Christianity, while by the end of the fourth century, most Romans followed Nicene orthodoxy.

Gothic ties to the Constantinian Dynasty led some Gothic kings to support the usurpation of a minor relation, Procopius, against the newly installed emperor Valens in 365. After defeating Procopius, Valens led a moderately successful campaign against the Tervingi of Athanaric from 367–9. Sometime after 369, the incursions of the Huns and their allies began to put pressure on the Gothic peoples. All efforts to oppose these invasions, led by the Greuthungian king Ermanaric and the Tervingian Athanaric, met with devastating failure. As a result, 376 saw thousands of Gothic refugees lining the Danube and requesting asylum in the empire. valens, looking forward to the influx of new military recruits, allowed this crossing, while other groups entered Roman territory illegally. Unfortunately, the Roman commanders mismanaged this operation, failing to fully disarm the refugees and treating the new arrivals with appalling cruelty. These conditions, along with the attempted assassination of the Gothic leaders Alavivus and Fritigern, led to open revolt on the part of the refugees. For two years the Goths devastated Thrace and Moesia, their numbers swelled by other barbarians and Roman malcontents. In 378, Valens and a large portion of the Eastern Roman army met the Goths near the city of Adrianople. The result was a complete rout of the Roman forces and the worst military disaster of the imperial period. Two-thirds of the eastern army was wiped out and Valens' body was never recovered. The next eastern emperor, Theodosius I, chose a different tactic. After a series offailed attempts to restrain the Gothic rebels, Theodosius made peace with these groups in 382, settling the bulk of them in Thrace and recruiting others into the Roman army.

A new phase of Gothic-Roman relations began with the career of Alaric. Alaric was a military leader in charge of a group of Gothic auxiliaries in the army of Theodosius at the battle of Frigidus in 395. On his return to the east, he revolted, because he felt that he had not been properly rewarded for his service. From this point, Alaric and his followers became a sometime target, sometime ally of the eastern and western courts in their internal conflicts. Though Stilicho twice tried to subdue his forces as they ravaged Greece, the eastern court thwarted his actions for political reasons on both occasions and forced his army to return west. Alaric also received military commissions at different times from both the eastern and western courts, probably serving as MVM Per Illyricum for the east from 397–401 and in a similar position for the west from 405–7. In 407, Alaric demanded payment for his services from the western court. The fall of Stilicho in a court coup and the resultant change in regime repeatedly thwarted Alaric's attempts at negotiation with Honorius. After besieging Rome on two occasions and temporarily raising a usurper as emperor, Alaric finally abandoned his attempts to reach a settlement and sacked Rome from August 24–27, 410. Soon after, Alaric died and was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Athaulf. In the long period of wandering and failed diplomacy from 410–15, Athaulf led the Goths out of Italy, through Gaul, and into Spain. At Narbonne in 414, he married Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius, who had been captured in the sack of Rome. However, after taking Barcelona, Athaulf was murdered in a court conspiracy. Under Wallia, the Goths came to terms with the imperial court in 416. As imperial allies, they undertook a series of successful campaigns against the other barbarian groups in Spain. Constantius then settled Goths in the Gallic province of Aquitania Secunda in 417.

From this point, scholarly literature commonly refers to these Goths as " Visigoths" or "West Goths" (although the name itself is first attested in the sixth century, "Vesi" are known in the fourth century). Under the leadership of Theodoric I, Wallia's successor, the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse soon grew into a political power in its own right, absorbing territory and influential Gallic senators into its orbit. Though frequently valuable Roman allies, they also occasionally used Roman political turmoil to seize new territories. The Roman general Aetius relieved a Gothic siege of Arles in 425 and fought an extended campaign against the Visigoths from 436–9. However, the Visigoths formed a vital part of the allied army that defeated the Hunnic invasion of Attila in 451. In the late 450s, the Visigoths took part in the succession crisis following the death of Valentinian III, first raising the Gallic Senator Avitus to the throne, then reluctantly acting as allies to his successor, the emperor Majorian. Both of these emperors had ill-fated plans for a Vandal campaign, which inadvertently led to the first extension of Visigothic influence into the Spanish peninsula. Though initially continuing conciliatory relations with Rome, the Visigothic king Euric adopted a policy of territory acquisition in the early 470s (Gillett 1999). By his death in 484, Euric had succeeded in bringing the Auvergne, as well as cities such as Arles and Marseilles, into the Gothic purview.

In the Eastern Empire, new Gothic groups had emerged, following the collapse of the Hunnic confederacy in 456/7. These groups, commonly referred to as "Ostrogoths," became intimately involved in the political struggles plaguing the eastern court. By 481, the Goths under Theodoric the Amal had achieved political dominance. In 488, the emperor Zeno decided to rid himself of Theodoric by sending him against Odovacer, the self-styled king of Italy. After a series of battles, Theodoric finally succeeded in killing Odovacer through treachery in 493. Theodoric then established a quasi-imperial style of rule that maintained Roman offices and traditional Roman aristocratic culture. He also attempted to act as the elder statesman of the various barbarian kingdoms that now occupied former imperial territory. In this capacity, Theodoric tried to arbitrate the disputes between the Visigothic court of Alaric II and the expansionist Frankish realm of Clovis I. However, these attempts ended in failure. In 507, Frankish troops defeated the Visigoths at the battle of Vouillé, killing Alaric II and effectively ending the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse. Theodoric was able to regain some parts of this former Visigothic territory, and he became regent for Alaric's young son, Amalaricus, ruling the Gothic holdings in Italy, Gaul, and Spain. Following the death of Theodoric in 526, a succession crisis provided the excuse for the emperor Justinian's interference in, and eventual reconquest of, the Italian peninsula. Byzantine forces under the general Belisarius and later Narses fought a long campaign against a variety of Gothic kings, the most successful being Wittigis and Totila. In 561, the last Ostrogothic defenses collapsed and the ravaged Italian peninsula fell under Byzantine control.

After 507, the Visigothic kingdom moved south into Spain. Though the Visigoths had long claimed hegemony over the Spanish provinces, effective control for much of the sixth century extended only to the provinces of Carthaginiensis and Tarraconensis (Kulikowski 2004). Only with the conquests of Leovigild (569–86), did the majority of the Iberian Peninsula come under Visigothic administrative control. At the Third Council of Toledo in 589, Leovigild's successor Reccared denounced the traditional Arianism of his forefathers and adopted orthodox Christianity as the religion of his kingdom. From their capital of Toledo, the Visigothic kingdom of Spain endured until defeat of its last king, Roderic, at the hands of Islamic forces in 711. However, various groups claiming Visigothic identity survived on the frontiers of the new Spanish kingdom of al-Andalus through the tenth century (Wickham 2005).


Adrianople, battle of; Rome, Fall of; Theoderic; Zeno, emperor.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Gillett, A. (1999) "The accession of Euric." Francia. 26, 1: 1-40.
  • Goffart, W. (1980) Barbarians and Romans, AD 418-584: the techniques of accommodation. Princeton.
  • Halsall, G. (2007) Barbarian migrations and the Roman west, 376-568, Cambridge.
  • Heather, P. (1991) Goths and Romans, 332-489. Oxford.
  • Kulikowski, M. (2004) Late Roman Spain and its cities. Baltimore.
  • Kulikowski, M. (2007) Rome's Gothic wars. Cambridge.
  • Wickham, C. (2005) Framing the early Middle Ages. Oxford.
  • Wolfram, H. (1988) History of the Goths, 2nd ed. London.
  • Thomas Christopher Lawrence
    Wiley ©2012

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