The Goths (Gothic: Gutþiuda; Latin: Gothi) were an early Germanic people, two of whose branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe.

Possibly originating in southern Sweden, the Goths are mentioned by Roman authors as living in the Vistula basin in northern Poland in the 1st century AD. During the subsequent centuries the Goths expanded towards the Black Sea, where they replaced the Sarmatians as the dominant power on the Pontic Steppe and launched a series of expeditions against the Roman Empire as far as Cyprus. During this time the Goths became divided into two major factions, the Thervingi and the Greuthungi, who were led by the Balti dynasty and Amali dynasty respectively. In the 300s, Ermanaric, king of Greuthungi, is said to have dominated a vast territory stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as far as the Ural Mountains. During this time many of the Goths were converted to Arianism by the missionary Ulfilas, who devised a Gothic alphabet to write the Gothic Bible.

In 370s, the territories of the Goths were overrun by the Huns. While the Greuthungi became subjects of the Huns, later being known as the Ostrogoths, many of the Thervingi, later known as Visigoths, crossed the Danube into the Roman Empire, where they, after suffering severe mistreatment, ignited a widescale rebellion and inflicted a massive defeat upon the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. Under their leader Alaric I, the Visigoths embarked on a long migration within the Roman Empire, notably sacking Rome in 410 AD, and eventually settled in Gaul and Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom. The Visigoths fought together with the Western Roman Empire against the Huns of Attila and allied Ostrogoths at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD, in which the Huns were defeated. The Ostrogoths broke free from Hunnic control soon afterwards, and eventually migrated to Italy in the late 5th century under their king Theodoric, where they founded the Ostrogothic Kingdom.

Shortly after the death of Theodoric, Italy was reconquered by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, only to be conquered again soon afterwards by the Lombards, by whom the Ostrogoths were subsequently assimilated. The Visigothic Kingdom lasted until 711, when it was destroyed by the Umayyad Caliphate. In northern Spain, a remnant of the Visigothic nobility under the leadership of Pelagius of Asturias established the Kingdom of Asturias and began the Reconquista. In the Crimea, a small Gothic community, known as the Crimean Goths, were able to maintain themselves for centuries. The Crimean Goths held close religious and political relations with the Byzantine Empire, and were perpetual enemies of the Khazars, against whom they fought together with Kievan Rus'. As late as the 18th century, certain inhabitants of Crimea might still have spoken Crimean Gothic. In modern times the Goths have played an important part in the nationalisms of Spain and Sweden, where its leaders have claimed descent from the ancient Goths.

In all history there is nothing more romantically marvellous 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 and deeds are worthy of eternal remembrance; and the events which it records have influenced the destinies of the whole civilized world.[1]

Henry Bradley, The Story of the Goths (1888)


The Goths have been referred to by many names, perhaps at least in part because they comprised many separate ethnic groups, but also because in early accounts of Indo-European and later Germanic migrations in the Migration Period in general, it was common practice to use various names to refer to the same group. The Goths believed (as do most modern scholars)[2] that the various names all derived from a single prehistoric ethnonym that referred originally to a uniform culture that flourished around the middle of the first millennium BC, i.e., the original Goths.

In the Gothic language of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy, the Goths were called the Gut-þiuda, most commonly translated as "Gothic people", but only attested as dative singular Gut-þiudai;[3] another name, Gutans, is inferred from a genitive plural form gutani in the Pietroassa inscription.[4]

The word "Goths" derives from the stem Gutan-.[3] This stem produces the singular *Gutô, plural *Gutaniz in Proto-Germanic. It survives in the modern Scandinavian tribal name Gutes, which is what the inhabitants of present-day Swedish island Gotland in Baltic Sea call themselves (In Gutnish - Gutar, in Swedish "Gotlänningar"). Another modern Scandinavian tribal name, Geats (in Swedish "Götar"), which is what the (original) inhabitants of present-day Götaland call themselves, derives from a related Proto-Germanic word, *Gautaz (plural *Gautôz). Both *Gautaz and *Gutô relate to the Proto-Germanic verb *geutaną, meaning "to pour".[5] The Proto-Indo-European root of the word "geutan" and its cognates in other language is *gʰewd-.[6] This same root may be connected to the name of a river that flows through Västergötland in Sweden, the Göta älv, which drains Lake Vänern into the Kattegat [7] at the city of Gothenburg. It is certainly plausible that a flowing river would be given a name that describes it as "pouring", and that, if the original home of the Goths was near that river, they would choose an ethnonym that described them as living by the river. Another possibility is of course that the name of the "Geats" developed independently from that of the Gutar/Goths.[8]


The exact origin of the ancient Goths remains unknown. Evidence of them before they interacted with the Romans is limited.[9]


In the sagas

Both the Goths and the Gutes were called Gotar in Old West Norse, and Gutar in Old East Norse (for example in the Gutasaga and in runic inscription on the Rökstone). In contrast, the other tribe, the Geats, were clearly differentiated from the Goths / Gutes. Since Old Norse literature does not distinguish between the Goths and the Gutes, but does clearly distinguish between the Goths or Gutes on the one hand, and the Geats on the other (as do Old English literature), it is plausible that the Goths supposed to have migrated out of Scandinavia were members of the Gutes tribe. The Gotlanders themselves have oral traditions of a mass migration towards southern Europe, recorded in the Gutasaga. If the facts are related, this would be a unique case of a tradition that endured for more than a thousand years and that actually pre-dates most of the major splits in the Germanic language family.[10]

Literary evidence

The traditional account of the Goths' early history depends on the work Getica, written by the Goth Jordanes c. 551 AD. Getica is based on an earlier lost work by Cassiodorus, which was in turn based upon an even earlier work by the Gothic historian Ablabius. According to Jordanes the earliest migrating Goths sailed from Scandza (Scandinavia) under King Berig in three ships and named the place Gothiscandza, after themselves. Although the exact location of Gothiscandza is unclear, Jordanes tells us that one shipload "dwelled in the province of Spesis on an island surrounded by the shallow waters of the Vistula." From there, the Goths then moved into an area along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea which was inhabited by the "Ulmerugi" (Rugii), expelled them, and also subdued the neighboring Vandals.[11][12]

Paulus Orosius wrote that the Goths were of the same stock as the Suiones (Swedes), the Vandals, and the other North Germanic (Scandinavian) tribes.[13] Procopius noted that the Goths, Gepids and Vandals were physically and culturally identical, suggesting a common origin.[14] According to Isidore of Seville, the Goths were descended from Gog and Magog, and of the same race as the Getae.[15]

Archaeological evidence

Sometime around the 1st century AD, there may have been a large Germanic migration out of Scandinavia. Early archaeological evidence in the traditional Swedish province of Östergötland suggests a general depopulation during this period.[16] However, there is no archaeological evidence for a substantial emigration from Scandinavia[17] and it has been suggested that they originated in continental Europe.[18]

The Wielbark culture is thought to have developed from earlier cultures in Pomerania.[19] The culture of this area was influenced by southern Scandinavian culture beginning as early as the late Nordic Bronze Age and early Pre-Roman Iron Age (c. 1300 – c. 300 BC). In fact, the Scandinavian influence on Pomerania and today's northern Poland from c. 1300 BC (period III) and onwards was so considerable that some see the culture of the region as part of the Nordic Bronze Age culture.[20]

The Wielbark culture replaced the local Oksywie culture in the 1st century AD, when a Scandinavian settlement developed in a buffer zone between the Oksywie culture and the Przeworsk culture.[21] Archaeological finds show close contacts between southern Sweden and the Baltic coastal area on the continent, and further towards the south-east, evidenced by pottery, house types and graves. Rather than a massive migration, similarities in the material cultures may be products of long-term regular contacts. However, the archaeological record could indicate that while his work is thought to be unreliable, Jordanes' story was based on an oral tradition with some basis in fact.[19] The settlement in today's Poland may correspond to the introduction of Scandinavian burial traditions, such as the stone circles and the stelae especially common on the island of Gotland and other parts of southern Sweden.

Genetic evidence

In a 2019 genetic study published in Scientific Reports and conducted on individuals identified with the Wielbark culture and the Goths, it appeared that people of the Wielbark culture were of mixed origin, with its male component largely traced to Iron Age populations of Scandinavia and its female component largely traced to local farming populations of Eastern Europe. These results seem consistent with the historical narrative of a southern Scandinavian origin of the Goths.[22]

In 2019, a genetic study of various cultures of the Eurasian Steppe was published in Current Biology. Samples from three individuals thought to belong to the Gothic component of the Chernyakhov culture were analyzed. The results appeared to confirm the theory that the Chernyakhov culture emerged as a result of a Gothic migration from the north.[23]

Early history

Pliny the Elder wrote that Pytheas, an explorer who visited Northern Europe in the 4th century BC, reported that the Gutones, a people of Germania, inhabit the shores of an estuary of at least 6,000 stadia called Mentonomon (i.e., the Baltic Sea), where amber is cast up by the waves.[24] Pliny further notes that the Gutones sold this amber to their neighbors, the Teutones. The account of Pytheas is considered authentic by Winfred P. Lehmann. In an earlier chapter, describing the peoples of Germania, Pliny states that the Gutones, along with the Burgundiones, Varini and Carini, belong to the Vandili. Pliny considers the Vandili one of the five principal "German races", along with the Ingvaeones, Istvaeones, Irminones and the Peucini.[25]

Ptolemy mentions a people called the Gutae (Gautae), living in southern Scandia.[26]

Tacitus wrote that the Goths and the neighboring Rugii and Lemovii carried round shields and short swords.[27] However, the Goths who would later fight or be allied with the Huns, and who fought for and against Rome, might not be the same people Tacitus describes.[28]

Migration to the Black Sea

Beginning in the middle 2nd century, the Wielbark culture shifted to the southeast, towards the Black Sea. The part of the Wielbark culture that moved was the oldest portion, located west of the Vistula and still practicing Scandinavian burial traditions.[29] It has been suggested that the Goths maintained contact with southern Sweden during their migration.[30]

Around 160 AD, in Central Europe, the first movements of the Migration Period were occurring, as several Germanic tribes, such as the Rugii, Goths, Gepids, Vandals and Burgundians, began moving south-east from their ancestral lands at the mouth of River Vistula, putting pressure on the Germanic tribes from the north and east.[31] As a result other Germanic tribes were pushed towards the Roman Empire, leading to the Marcomannic Wars, which resulted in widespread destruction and the first invasion of what is now Italy in the Roman Empire period.[32]

According to Jordanes, the Goths entered Oium, part of Scythia, under their king Filimer, where they subdued the Spali (Sarmatians).[33] On the Pontic Steppe, the Goths installed themselves as the rulers of the local Zarubintsy culture, forming the new Chernyakhov culture (c. 200 – c. 400).[34] The first Greek references to the Goths call them Scythians, since this area, known as Scythia, had historically had been occupied by an unrelated people of that name. The application of that designation to the Goths appears to be not ethnological but rather geographical and cultural - Greeks regarded both the ethnic Scythians and the Goths as barbarians.[35]

Upon their arrival on the Pontic Steppe, the Goths quickly adopted several nomadic customs from the Sarmatians, who had dominated the steppes before the appearance of the Goths.[36] They came to excel at horsemanship, archery and falconry,[37] and were also accomplished agriculturalists[38] and seafarers.[39] J. B. Bury describes the Gothic period as "the only non-nomadic episode in the history of the steppe."[40] William H. McNeill compares the migration of the Goths to that of the early Mongols, who migrated southward from the forests and came to dominate the eastern Eurasian steppe around the same time as the Goths in the west.[36]

Early raids on the Roman Empire

In the first attested incursion in Thrace, the Goths were mentioned as Boranoi by Zosimus, and then as Boradoi by Gregory Thaumaturgus.[41] The first incursion of the Roman Empire that can be attributed to Goths is the sack of Histria in 238. Several such raids followed in subsequent decades,[42] in particular the Battle of Abrittus in 251, led by Cniva, in which the Roman Emperor Decius was killed. At the time, there were at least two groups of Goths, who were separated by the Dniester River: the Thervingi (led by the Balti dynasty and the Greuthungi (led by the Amali dynasty). Goths were at the time heavily recruited into the Roman Army to fight in the Roman-Persian Wars, notably participating at the Battle of Misiche in 242.

The first seaborne raids took place in three subsequent years, probably 255-257. An unsuccessful attack on Pityus was followed in the second year by another, which sacked Pityus and Trabzon and ravaged large areas in the Pontus. In the third year, a much larger force devastated large areas of Bithynia and the Propontis, including the cities of Chalcedon, Nicomedia, Nicaea, Apamea Myrlea, Cius and Bursa. By the end of the raids, the Goths had seized control over Crimea and the Bosporus and captured several cities on the Euxine coast, including Olbia and Tyras, which enabled them to engage in widespread naval activities.[43]

After a 10-year gap, the Goths, along with the Heruli, another Germanic tribe from Scandinavia, raiding on 500 ships,[44] sacked Heraclea Pontica, Cyzicus and Byzantium.[45] They were defeated by the Roman navy but managed to escape into the Aegean Sea, where they ravaged the islands of Lemnos and Scyros, broke through Thermopylae and sacked several cities of southern Greece (province of Achaea) including Athens, Corinth, Argos, Olympia and Sparta. Then an Athenian militia, led by the historian Dexippus, pushed the invaders to the north where they were intercepted by the Roman army under Gallienus.[46] He won an important victory near the Nessos (Nestos) river, on the boundary between Macedonia and Thrace, the Dalmatian cavalry of the Roman army earning a reputation as good fighters. Reported barbarian casualties were 3,000 men.[47] Subsequently, the Heruli leader Naulobatus came to terms with the Romans.[44]

After Gallienus was assassinated outside Milan in the summer of 268 in a plot led by high officers in his army, Claudius was proclaimed emperor and headed to Rome to establish his rule. Claudius' immediate concerns were with the Alamanni, who had invaded Raetia and Italy. After he defeated them in the Battle of Lake Benacus, he was finally able to take care of the invasions in the Balkan provinces.[48]

In the meantime, a second and larger sea-borne invasion had started. An enormous coalition consisting of Goths (Greuthungi and Thervingi), Gepids and Peucini, led again by the Heruli, assembled at the mouth of river Tyras (Dniester).[49] The Augustan History and Zosimus claim a total number of 2,000–6,000 ships and 325,000 men.[50] This is probably a gross exaggeration but remains indicative of the scale of the invasion. After failing to storm some towns on the coasts of the western Black Sea and the Danube (Tomi, Marcianopolis), the invaders attacked Byzantium and Chrysopolis. Part of their fleet was wrecked, either because of the Gothic inexperience in sailing through the violent currents of the Propontis[47] or because it was defeated by the Roman navy. Then they entered the Aegean Sea and a detachment ravaged the Aegean islands as far as Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus. The fleet probably also sacked Troy and Ephesus, destroying the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. While their main force had constructed siege works and was close to taking the cities of Thessalonica and Cassandreia, it retreated to the Balkan interior at the news that the emperor was advancing. On their way, they plundered Doberus (Paionia ?) and Pelagonia.

Learning of the approach of Claudius, the Goths first attempt to directly invade Italy.[51] They are engaged near Naissus by a Roman army led by Claudius advancing from the north. The battle most likely took place in 269, and was fiercely contested. Large numbers on both sides were killed but, at the critical point, the Romans tricked the Goths into an ambush by pretended flight. Some 50,000 Goths were allegedly killed or taken captive and their base at Thessalonika destroyed.[47] It seems that Aurelian who was in charge of all Roman cavalry during Claudius' reign, led the decisive attack in the battle. Some survivors were resettled within the empire, while others were incorporated into the Roman army. The battle ensured the survival of the Roman Empire for another two centuries. In 270, after the death of Claudius, Goths under the leadership of Cannabaudes again launched an invasion on the Roman Empire, but were defeated by Aurelian, who however surrendered Dacia beyond the Danube.[52]

Around 275 the Goths launched a last major assault on Asia Minor, where piracy by Black Sea Goths was causing great trouble in Colchis, Pontus, Cappadocia, Galatia and even Cilicia.[53] They were defeated sometime in 276 by Emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus.[53]

In the late 3rd century, as recorded by Jordanes, the Gepids, under their king Fastida, utterly defeated the Burgundians, and then attacked the Goths and their king Ostrogotha. Out of this conflict, Ostrogotha and the Goths emerged victorious.[54]

Co-existence with the Roman Empire

In 332, Constantine helped the Sarmatians to settle on the north banks of the Danube to defend against the Goths' attacks and thereby enforce the Roman border. Around 100,000 Goths were reportedly killed in battle, and Aoric, son of the Thervingian king Ariaric, was captured. Eusebius, an historian who wrote in Greek in the third century, wrote that in 334, Constantine evacuated approximately 300,000 Sarmatians from the north bank of the Danube after a revolt of the Sarmatians' slaves. From 335 to 336, Constantine, continuing his Danube campaign, defeated many Gothic tribes.[55] Having been driven from the Danube by the Romans, the Thervingi invaded the territoy of the Sarmatians of the Tisza. In this conflict, the Thervingi were led by Vidigoia, "the bravest of the Goths" and were victorious, although Vidigoia was killed.[56] Jordanes states that Aoric was succeeded by Geberic, "a man renowned for his valor and noble birth", who waged war on the Hasdingi Vandals and their king Visimar, forcing them to settle in Pannonia under Roman protection.[57]

Both the Greuthungi and Thervingi became heavily Romanized during the 4th Century. This came about through trade with the Romans, as well as through Gothic membership of a military covenant, which was based in Byzantium and involved pledges of military assistance. Reportedly, 40,000 Goths were brought by Constantine to defend Constantinople in his later reign, and the Palace Guard was thereafter mostly composed of Germanic warriors, as Roman soldiers by this time had largely lost military value.[58] The Goths increasingly became soldiers in the Roman armies in the 4th Century AD leading to a significant Germanization of the Roman Army.[31] Without the recruitment of Germanic warriors in the Roman Army, the Roman Empire would not have survived for as long as it did.[31] Goths who gained prominent positions in the Roman military include Gainas, Tribigild, Fravitta and Aspar. Mardonius, a Gothic eunuch, was the childhood tutor and later adviser of Roman emperor Julian, on whom he had an immense influence.

The Gothic penchant for wearing skins became fashion in Constantinople, which was heavily denounced by conservatives.[59] The 4th century Greek historian Eunapius described the Goths' powerful build in a pejorative way: "Their bodies provoked contempt in all who saw them, for they were far too big and far too heavy for their feet to carry them, and they were pinched in at the waist just like those insects Aristotle writes of."[60] The 4th century Greek bishop Synesius compared the Goths to wolves among sheep, mocked them for wearing skins and questioned their loyalty towards Rome:

A man in skins leading warriors who wear the chlamys, exchanging his sheepskins for the toga to debate with Roman magistrates and perhaps even sit next to a Roman consul, while law-abiding men sit behind. Then these same men, once they have gone a little way from the senate house, put on their sheepskins again, and when they have rejoined their fellows they mock the toga, saying that they cannot comfortably draw their swords in it.[61]

In the 4th century, the Gothic missionary Wulfila devised the Gothic alphabet to translate the Wulfila Bible and converted many of the Goths from Germanic paganism to Arian Christianity.

In the 4th century, Geberic was succeeded by the Greuthungian king Ermanaric, who embarked on a large-scale expansion. Jordanes states that Ermanaric conquered a large number of warlike tribes, including the Heruli (who were led by Alaric), the Aesti and the Vistula Veneti, who, although miliary weak, were very numerous, and took up a strong fight.[62] He came to dominate a vast area of the Pontic Steppe, which possibly stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as far eastwards as the Ural Mountains.[63] Jordanes compares the conquests of Ermanaric to those of Alexander the Great, and states that he "ruled all the nations of Scythia and Germany by his own prowess alone."[62] Ermanaric's dominance of the Volga-Don trade routes made historian Gottfried Schramm consider his realm as a forerunner of the Viking founded state of Kievan Rus'.[64] According to Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek), a 13th-century legendary saga, Árheimar was the capital of Reidgotaland, the land of the Goths. The saga states that it was located on the Dnieper river. Jordanes refers to the region as Oium.

In the 360s, Athanaric, son of Aoric and leader of the Thervingi, supported the usurper Procopius against the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens. In retaliation, Valens invaded the territories of Athanaric and defeated him, but was unable to achieve a decisive victory. Athanaric and Valens thereupon negotiated a peace treaty, favorable to the Thervingi, on a boat at the Danube river, as Athanaric refused to set his feet within the Roman Empire. Soon afterwards, Fritigern, a rival of Athanaric, converted to Arianism, gaining the favor of Valens. Athanaric and Fritigern thereafter fought a civil war in which Athanaric appears to have been victorious. Athanaric thereafter carried out a crackdown on Christianity in his realm.[65]

Arrival of the Huns

Around 375 AD the Huns overran the Alans, an Iranian people living to the east of the Goths, and then, along with Alans, invaded the Goths themselves. A source for this period is Ammianus Marcellinus. He wrote that Hunnic domination of the Gothic kingdoms in Scythia began in the 370s.[66] The battles between the Goths and the Huns is also described in the Hlöðskviða (The Battle of the Goths and Huns), a medieval Icelandic saga. The sagas recall that Gizur, king of the Geats, came to the aid of the Goths in an epic conflict with the Huns. It is possible that the Hunnic attack came as a response to the Gothic eastwards expansion.[67][68][69] Ermanaric later committed suicide, and the Greuthungi fell under Hunnic dominance. Christopher I. Beckwith suggests that the Hunnic thrust into Europe and the Roman Empire was an attempt to subdue independent Goths in the west.[67] The Huns fell upon the Thervingi, and Athanaric sought refuge in the mountains (referred to as Caucaland in the sagas). Ambrose makes a passing reference to Athanaric's royal titles before 376 in his De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Ghost).[70]

Although the Huns successfully subdued many of the Goths, who joined their ranks, Fritigern approached the Eastern Roman emperor Valens in 376 with a portion of his people and asked to be allowed to settle on the south bank of the Danube. Valens permitted this, and even assisted the Goths in their crossing of the river (probably at the fortress of Durostorum).[71] Upon arrival, the Goths were to be disarmed as according to their agreement with the Romans, although many of them still managed to keep their arms.[71] The Moesogoths settled in Thrace and Moesia.[72]

The Gothic War

Mistreated by corrupt local Roman officials, the Gothic refugees were soon experiencing a famine; some are recorded having being forced to sell their children to Roman slave traders in return for rotten dog meat.[71] Enraged by this treachery, Fritigern unleashed a widescale rebellion in Thrace, in which he was joined not only by Gothic refugees and slaves, but also by disgruntled Roman workers and peasants, and Gothic deserters from the Roman Army. The ensuing conflict, known as the Gothic War, lasted for several years. Meanwhile, a group of Greuthungi, led by the chieftains Alatheus and Saphrax, who were co-regents for Vithericus, son and heir of the Greuthungi king Vithimiris, crossed the Danube without Roman permission. The Gothic War culminated in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Romans were badly defeated and Valens was killed.

Following the decisive Gothic victory at Adrianople, Julius, the magister militum of the Eastern Roman Empire, organized a wholesale massacre of Goths in Asia Minor, Syria and other parts of the Roman East. Fearing rebellion, Julian lured the Goths into the confines of urban streets from which they could not escape and massacred soldiers and civilians alike. As word spread, the Goths rioted throughout the region, and large numbers were killed. Survivors may have settled in Phrygia.[73]

With the rise of Theodosius I in 379, the Romans launched a renewed offensive to subdue Fritigern and his followers.[74][75] Around the same time, Athanaric arrived in Constantinople, having fled Caucaland through the scheming of Fritigern.[74] Athanaric received a warm reception by Theodosius, praising the Roman Emperor in return, and was awarded a magnificent funeral by the emperor following his death shortly after his arrival.[76] In 382, Theodosius decided to enter peace negotiations with the Thervingi, which were concluded on 3 October 382.[76] The Thervingi were subsequently made foederati of the Romans in Thrace and obliged to provide troops to the Roman army.[76]

Later division and spread of the Goths

In the aftermath of the Hunnic onslaught, two major groups of Goths emerged, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths.[77][78][79][80] The Visigoths, led by the Balti dynasty, were descended from the Thervingi and lived as foederati inside Roman territory, while the Ostrogoths, led by the Amali dynasty, were subjects of the Huns. Procopius interpreted the name Visigoth as "western Goths" and the name Ostrogoth as "eastern Goth", reflecting the geographic distribution of the Gothic realms at that time. A people closely related to the Goths, the Gepids, were also living under Hunnic domination. A smaller group of Goths were the Crimean Goths, who remained in Crimea and maintained their Gothic identity well into the Middle Ages.


Following Theodosius' treaty, Visigoths received prominent positions in the Roman army.[81] Relations with Roman civilians were sometimes uneasy; in 391, Gothic soldiers, with the blessing of Theodosius I, massacred thousands of Roman spectators at the Hippodrome in Thessalonica as vengeance for the lynching of the Gothic general Butheric.[82]

The Visigoths suffered heavy losses while serving Theodosius in the civil war of 394 against Eugenius and Arbogast. In 395, following the death of Theodosius I, the Visigoths elected Alaric I as their king and invaded Greece, where they sacked Piraeus (the port of Athens) and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta.[83] Athens was spared by paying a large bribe, and the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius subsequently appointed Alaric magister militum (“master of the soldiers”) in Illyricum 397.[83]

In the spring of 399, Tribigild, the Gothic leader in charge of troops in Nakoleia, rose up in rebellion and defeated the first imperial army sent against him, possibly seeking to emulate Alaric's successes in the west.[84] Gainas, a Goth who along with Stilicho and Eutropius had deposed Rufinus in 395, was sent to suppress Tribigild's rebellion, but instead plotted to use the situation to seize power in the Eastern Roman Empire. This attempt was however thwarted by the pro-Roman Goth Fravitta, and in the aftermath, thousands of Gothic civilians were massacred in Constantinople, many being burned alive in the local Arian church where they had taken shelter.[84] As late as the 6th century Goths were settled as foederati in parts of Asia Minor. Their descendants, who formed the elite Optimatoi regiment, still lived there in the early 8th century. While they were largely assimilated, their Gothic origin was still well-known: the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor calls them Gothograeci.

In 401 and 402, Alaric made two attempts at invading Italy, but was defeated by Stilicho. In 405-406, another Gothic leader, Radagaisus, also attempted to invade Italy, but was defeated by Stilicho. In 408, the Western Roman emperor Flavius Honorius ordered the execution of Stilicho and his family, then incited the Roman population to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman military. Subsequently, around 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric.[83] Alaric in turn invaded Italy, where he liberated tens of thousands of Gothic slaves and sacked the city of Rome in 410. Although the city's riches were plundered, the civilian inhabitants of the city were treated humanely, and only a few buildings were burned.[83] Alaric died soon afterwards, and buried along with his treasure in an unfound grave under the Busento river.

Alaric was succeeded by his brother-in-law Athaulf. He settled the Visigoths in Gaul and Honorius' sister Galla Placidia, who had been seized during Alaric's sack of Rome.[85][86] After being driven from Gaul, Athaulf retreated into Gaul in early 415, and was assassinated in Barcelona shortly afterwards. He was succeeded by Sigeric and the Wallia, who succeeded in having the Visigoths accepted by Honorius as foederati in southern Gaul with their capital at Toulouse. Wallia subsequently inflicted severe defeats upon the Silingi Vandals and the Alans in Hispania.[85] Periodically they marched on Arles, the seat of the praetorian prefect but were always pushed back. In 437 the Visigoths signed a treaty with the Romans which they kept.

Under Theodoric I the Visigoths allied with the Romans in inflicting a severe defeat upon Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, although Theodoric was killed in the battle.[85] Under Euric, the Visigoths established an independent Visigothic Kingdom and succeeded in driving the Suebi out of Hispania proper and back into Galicia.[85] Although the barbarians controlled Spain, they still formed a tiny minority among a much larger Hispano-Roman population, approximately 200,000 out of 6,000,000.[85]

In 507, the Visigoths were pushed out of most of Gaul by the Frankish king Clovis I at the Battle of Vouillé. They were able to retain Narbonensis and Provence after the timely arrival of an Ostrogoth detachment sent by Theodoric the Great. The defeat at Vouillé resulted in their further penetration of Hispania and establishment of a new capital at Toledo.[85]

Under Liuvigild in the latter part of the 6th century, they succeeded in subduing the Suebi in Gallicia and the Byzantines in the south-west, achieving dominance over most of the peninsula.[85] Liuvigild also abolished the law which prevented intermarriage between Hispano-Romans and Goths, and he remained an Arian Christian.[85] The conversion of Reccared I to Roman Catholicism in the late 6th century prompted the assimilation of Goths and Hispano-Romans.[85]

At the end of the 7th century, the Visigothic Kingdom began to suffer from internal troubles.[85] Their kingdom fell and was progressively conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate from 711 after the defeat of their last king Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete. Some nobles found refuge in the mountain areas of the Pyrenees and Cantabria. The Christians began to regain control under the leadership of the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius of Asturias, who founded the Kingdom of Asturias in 718 and defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Covadonga in ca. 722, in what is taken to be the beginning of the Reconquista. It was from the Asturian kingdom that modern Spain and Portugal evolved.[85]

The Visigoths never became completely Romanized, as they became rather 'Hispanicized' and further became widespread over a large territory and body of population. They progressively adopted a new culture, retaining little of their original culture except for practical military customs, some artistic modalities, family traditions such as heroic songs and folklore, as well as select conventions to include Germanic names still in use in present-day Spain. It is these artifacts of the original Visigothic culture that give ample evidence of its contributing foundation for the present regional culture.[67] Portraying themselves heirs of the Visigoths, the subsequent Christian Spanish monarchs declared their responsibility for the Reconquista of Islamic Spain, which was completed with the Fall of Granada in 1492.[85]


After the Hunnic invasion, the Ostrogoths became subjects of the Huns, fighting together with them at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. Following the death of Attila and the defeat of the Huns at the Battle of Nedao in 454, the Ostrogoths broke away from Hunnic rule under their king Valamir. Under his successor, Theodemir, they utterly defeated the Huns at the Bassianae in 468, and then defeated a coalition of Roman-supported Germanic tribes at the Battle of Bolia in 469, which gained them supremacy in Pannonia.

Theodemir was succeeded by his son Theodoric in 471, who was forced to compete with Theodoric Strabo, leader of the Thracian Goths, for the leadership of his people.[87] Afraid of the threat posed by Theodoric to Constantinople, the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno ordered Theodoric to invade Italy in 488. By 493, Theodoric had conquered all of Italy from the Scirian Odoacer, whom he killed with his own hands. Theodoric subsequently formed the Ostrogothic Kingdom. Theodoric settled his entire people in Italy, estimated at 100,000-200,000, mostly in the northern part of the country, and ruled the country very efficiently. The Goths in Italy constituted a small minority of the population in the country.[58] Intermarriage between Goths and Romans were forbidden, and Romans were also forbidden from carrying arms. Nevertheless, the Roman majority was treated fairly.[87]

The Goths were briefly reunited under one crown in the early 6th century under Theodoric, who became regent of the Visigothic kingdom following the death of Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé in 507.

Shortly after Theodoric's death, the country was invaded by the Eastern Roman Empire in the Gothic War, which severely devastated and depopulated the Italian peninsula.[88] The Ostrogoths made a brief resurgence under their efficient king Totila, who was however killed at the Battle of Taginae in 552. After the last stand of the Ostrogothic king Teia at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in 553, Ostrogothic resistance ended, and the remaining Goths in Italy were assimilated by the Lombards, another Germanic tribe, who invaded Italy and founded the Kingdom of the Lombards in 567 AD.[89]

Crimean Goths

Gothic tribes who remained in the lands around the Black Sea, especially in Crimea - were known as the Crimean Goths. During the late 5th and early 6th century, the Crimean Goths had to fight off hordes of Huns who were migrating back eastward after losing control of their European empire.[90] In the 5th century, Theodoric the Great tried to recruit Crimean Goths for his campaigns in Italy, but few showed interest in joining him.[91] They became affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Church through the Metropolitanate of Gothia, and became closely associated with the Byzantine Empire.

In the Middle Ages, the Crimean Goths were in perpetual conflict with the Khazars. John of Gothia, the metropolitan bishop of Doros, capital of the Crimean Goths, briefly expelled the Khazars from Crimea in the late 8th century, and was subsequently canonized as an Eastern Orthodox saint. In the 10th century, the lands of Crimean Goths were once again raided by the Khazars. As a response, the leaders of the Crimean Goths made an alliance with Sviatoslav I of Kiev, who subsequently waged war upon and utterly destroyed the Khazar Khaganate.[92] In the late Middle Ages the Crimean Goths were part of the Principality of Theodoro, which was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century. As late as the 18th century a small number of people in Crimea may still have spoken Crimean Gothic.[93] The language is believed to have been spoken until as late as 1945. They are believed to have been assimilated by the Crimean Tatars.

Physical appearance

[T]hey all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon[14]


In ancient sources, the Goths are always described as tall and athletic, with light skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.[94] Their physical size became a source of contempt among the Romans.[60] Procopius noted that the Vandals and Gepids looked similar to the Goths, and on this basis, he suggested that they were all of common origin.[14]



Before the invasion of the Huns, the Gothic Chernyakhov culture produced jewelry, vessels, and decorative objects in a style much influenced by Greek and Roman craftsmen. They developed a polychrome style of gold work, using wrought cells or setting to encrust gemstones into their gold objects. This style was influential in West Germanic areas well into the Middle Ages.


The Gothic language is the Germanic language with the earliest attestation, from the 300s, making it a language of interest in comparative linguistics. All other East Germanic languages are known, if at all, from proper names or short phrases that survived in historical accounts, and from loan-words in other languages. It is known primarily from the Codex Argenteus, a translation of the Bible. The language was in decline by the mid-500s, due to the military victory of the Franks, the elimination of the Goths in Italy, and geographic isolation. In Spain the language lost its last and probably already declining function as a church language when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism in 589.[95] The language survived as a domestic language in the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) as late as the 8th century, and Frankish author Walafrid Strabo wrote that it was still spoken in the lower Danube area in the early 9th century.

In pockets of Crimea, a related dialect known as Crimean Gothic survived up until the early modern period, and the 4th-century Bible translation was in use there until at least the ninth century.[96]


Archaeological evidence in Visigothic cemeteries shows that social stratification was analogous to that of the village of Sabbas the Goth. The majority of villagers were common peasants. Paupers were buried with funeral rites, unlike slaves. In a village of 50 to 100 people, there were four or five elite couples.[97] In Eastern Europe, houses include sunken-floored dwellings, surface dwellings, and stall-houses. The largest known settlement is the Criuleni District.[34] Chernyakhov cemeteries feature both cremation and inhumation burials; among the latter the head is to the north. Some graves were left empty. Grave goods often include pottery, bone combs, and iron tools, but hardly ever weapons.[34]




Archaeology shows that the Visigoths, unlike the Ostrogoths, were predominantly farmers. They sowed wheat, barley, rye, and flax. They also raised pigs, poultry, and goats. Horses and donkeys were raised as working animals and fed with hay. Sheep were raised for their wool, which they fashioned into clothing. Archaeology indicates they were skilled potters and blacksmiths. When peace treaties were negotiated with the Romans, the Goths demanded free trade. Imports from Rome included wine and cooking-oil.[98]

Roman writers note that the Goths neither claimed taxes from their own nor their subjects. The early 5th century Christian writer Salvian compared the Goths' and related people's favourable treatment of the poor to the miserable state of peasants in Roman Gaul:

For in the Gothic country the barbarians are so far from tolerating this sort of oppression that not even Romans who live among them have to bear it. Hence all the Romans in that region have but one desire, that they may never have to return to the Roman jurisdiction. It is the unanimous prayer of the Roman people in that district that they may be permitted to continue to lead their present life among the barbarians.[99]


Initially practising Gothic paganism, the Goths were gradually converted to Arianism in the course of the 4th Century as a result of the missionary activity by the Gothic bishop Ulfilas, who devised a Gothic alphabet to write the Gothic Bible.

During the 370s, Goths converting to Christianity were subject to persecution by the Thervingian king Athanaric, who was a pagan.

The Visigothic Kingdom in Hispania converted to Roman Catholicism in the late 6th Century.

The Ostrogoths (and their remnants, the Crimean Goths) were closely connected to the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the 5th Century, and became fully incorporated under the Metropolitanate of Gothia from the 9th Century.


The Goths' relationship with Sweden became an important part of Swedish nationalism, and until the 19th Century, before the Gothic origin had been thoroughly researched by archaeologists, Swedish scholars considered Swedes to be the direct descendants of the Goths. Today, scholars identify this as a cultural movement called Gothicismus, which included an enthusiasm for things Old Norse.

In Medieval and Modern Spain, the Visigoths were believed to be the origin of the Spanish nobility (compare Gobineau for a similar French idea). By the early 7th Century, the ethnic distinction between Visigoths and Hispano-Romans had all but disappeared, but recognition of a Gothic origin, e.g. on gravestones, still survived among the nobility. The 7th century Visigothic aristocracy saw itself as bearers of a particular Gothic consciousness and as guardians of old traditions such as Germanic namegiving; probably these traditions were on the whole restricted to the family sphere (Hispano-Roman nobles did service for Visigothic nobles already in the 5th century and the two branches of Spanish aristocracy had fully adopted similar customs two centuries later).[100]

Beginning in 1278, when Magnus III of Sweden ascended to the throne, a reference to Gothic origins was included in the title of the King of Sweden:

We N.N. by the Grace of God King of the Swedes, the Goths and the Vends.

In 1973, with the death of King Gustaf VI Adolf, the title was changed to simply "King of Sweden."

The Spanish and Swedish claims of Gothic origins led to a clash at the Council of Basel in 1434. Before the assembled cardinals and delegations could engage in theological discussion, they had to decide how to sit during the proceedings. The delegations from the more prominent nations argued that they should sit closest to the Pope, and there were also disputes over who were to have the finest chairs and who were to have their chairs on mats. In some cases, they compromised so that some would have half a chair leg on the rim of a mat. In this conflict, Nicolaus Ragvaldi, bishop of the Diocese of Växjö, claimed that the Swedes were the descendants of the great Goths, and that the people of Västergötland (Westrogothia in Latin) were the Visigoths and the people of Östergötland (Ostrogothia in Latin) were the Ostrogoths. The Spanish delegation retorted that it was only the "lazy" and "unenterprising" Goths who had remained in Sweden, whereas the "heroic" Goths had left Sweden, invaded the Roman empire and settled in Spain.[101]

In Spain, a man acting with arrogance would be said to be "haciéndose los godos" ("making himself to act like the Goths"). In Chile, Argentina and the Canary Islands, godo was an ethnic slur used against European Spaniards, who in the early colony period often felt superior to the people born locally (criollos). In Colombia, the members of the Colombian Conservative Party were referred to as godos.

List of early literature on the Goths

In the sagas

In Greco-Roman literature

See also

Notes and sources


  1. Bradley 1888, p. 3
  2. Wolfram 1990, pp. 16–56, 209–210
  3. Lehmann 1986, pp. 163–164
  4. Braune 1912
  5. Compare modern Swedish gjuta (pour, perfuse, found), modern Dutch gieten, modern German gießen, Gothic giutan, old Scandinavian giota, old English geotan all cognate with Latin fondere "to pour" and old Greek cheo "I pour".
  6. "gheu-". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  7. Wolfram 1990, p. 21
  8. "Götar". Nationalencyklopedin. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  9. Jarus, Owen (18 March 2016). "Who Were the Ancient Goths?". Live Science. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  10. Wolfram 1990, p. 23
  11. Jordanes 1908, IV (25)
  12. Jordanes 1908, IV (26)
  13. Orosius 1776
  14. Procopius 1914, Book III, II
  15. Isidore of Seville 1970
  16. Oxenstierna 1948, p. 73
  17. Heather 1998, p. 26
  18. Kortlandt 2001, pp. 21–25 "[T]he original homeland of the Goths must therefore be located in the southernmost part of the Germanic territories, not in Scandinavia..."
  19. Kaliff 2001
  20. Dabrowski 1999, p. 73
  21. Kokowski 1999
  22. Stolarek, I. (1 May 2019). "Goth migration induced changes in the matrilineal genetic structure of the central-east European population". Scientific Reports. 9 (1): 6737. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-43183-w. PMC 6494872. PMID 31043639.
  23. Järve, Mari (22 July 2019). "Shifts in the Genetic Landscape of the Western Eurasian Steppe Associated with the Beginning and End of the Scythian Dominance". Current Biology. 29 (14): 2430–2441. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.06.019. PMID 31303491. Genetic makeup agrees with the Gothic source of post- Scythian Chernyakhiv culture
  24. Pliny 1855, Book XXXVIII, Chap. 11
  25. Pliny 1855, Book IV, Chap. 28
  26. Ptolemy 1932, Book 10, Chapter 10
  27. Tacitus 1876, XLIV
  28. Mark, Joshua J. (12 October 2014). "The Goths". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  29. Skorupka, Tomasz. "Jewellery of the Goths". Poznan Archaeological Museum. Archived from the original on 12 July 2012. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  30. Arrhenius 2013, pp. 119, 134
  31. Aubin, Hermann. "History of Europe: Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  32. Heather, Peter. "Germany: Ancient History". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  33. Jordanes 1908, IV (28)
  34. Heather & Matthews 1991
  35. Kulikowski 2006, p. 19
  36. McNeill, William H. "The Steppe". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  37. Wolfram 1990, pp. 209–210
  38. Kershaw 2013
  39. Wolfram 1990, pp. 52–56
  40. Bury 1913, p. 428
  41. Kulikowski 2006, p. 15
  42. Kulikowski 2006, p. 18
  43. Bowman, Cameron & Garnsey 2005, pp. 223–229
  44. Syncellus 1829, p. 717
  45. Bury 1911, pp. 203–206
  46. Disputed 1932, The Two Gallieni, 13
  47. Zosimus 1814, I.42-43
  48. Bray 1997, pp. 279–291
  49. The Augustan History mentions Scythians, Greuthungi, Tervingi, Gepids, Peucini, Celts and Heruli. Zosimus names Scythians, Heruli, Peucini and Goths.
  50. Disputed 1932, The Life of Claudius , 6
  51. Tucker 2009, p. 150
  52. "Goth". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  53. Bowman, Cameron & Garnsey 2005, pp. 53–54
  54. Jordanes 1908, XVII (96-100)
  55. Eusebius 1900, Book IV, Chapters 5-6
  56. Wolfram 1990, p. 95
  57. Jordanes 1908, XXXII (113-115)
  58. Paul, Petit; MacMullen, Ramsay. "Ancient Rome". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  59. Cameron, Long & Sherry 1993, p. 99
  60. Moorhead & Stuttard 2006, p. 56
  61. Cameron, Long & Sherry 1993, p. 99
  62. Jordanes 1908, XXXIII (116-120)
  63. Wolfram 1997, pp. 26–28
  64. Schramm 2002, p. 54
  65. Wolfram 1990, pp. 64–72
  66. Marcellinus 1862, Book XXI, II, 1. "The following circumstances were the original cause of all the destruction and various calamities which the fury of Mars roused up, throwing everything into confusion by his usual ruinous violence: the people called Huns, slightly mentioned in the ancient records, live beyond the Sea of Azov, on the border of the Frozen Ocean, and are a race savage beyond all parallel."
  67. Beckwith 2009, pp. 331–332
  68. Beckwith 2009, pp. 81–83
  69. Beckwith 2009, pp. 94–100
  70. Ambrose 2019, Book I, Preface, Paragraph 15
  71. Kulikowski 2006, p. 130
  72.  "Goth" . Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.
  73. Kulikowski 2006, pp. 145–147
  74. Wolfram 1990, pp. 130–139
  75. Kulikowski 2006, pp. 150–152
  76. Kulikowski 2006, pp. 152–153
  77. "Visigoth". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  78. "Ostrogoth". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  79. Waldman & Mason 2006, pp. 336–341
  80. Waldman & Mason 2006, pp. 573–577
  81. Kulikowski 2006, pp. 156–157
  82. Kulikowski 2006, pp. 158–160
  83. "Alaric". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 19 September 2019.
  84. Kulikowski 2006, pp. 168–169
  85. O'Callaghan, Joseph. "Spain: The Visigothic Kingdom". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  86. "Ataulphus". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  87. Thompson, E. A. "Theodoric". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 19 September 2019.
  88. London 1917, p. 8
  89. Wickham, Christopher John; Foot, John. "Italy: History". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 19 September 2019.
  90. Wolfram 1988, p. 261
  91. Wolfram 1988, pp. 271–280
  92. Vasiliev 1936, pp. 117–135
  93. Bennett 1965, p. 27
  94. Bradley 1888, p. 9 "The Goths are always described as tall and athletic men, with fair complexions, blue eyes, and yellow hair..."
  95. Pohl & Reimitz 1998, pp. 119–121
  96. Nemalevich, Sergey (25 December 2015). "Молитвы на камнях". Meduza. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  97. Bóna 2001
  98. Bóna 2001
  99. Kristinsson 2010, p. 172
  100. Pohl & Reimitz 1998, pp. 124–126
  101. Söderberg 1896, pp. 187–195
  102. Ambrose 2019, Book I, Preface, Paragraph 15

Ancient sources

Modern sources

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