Goths, ancient Teutonic people, who in the 3rd to the 6th century AD were an important power in the Roman world. The Goths were the first Germanic peoples to become Christians. According to the 6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, the Goths came from Sweden across the Baltic Sea to the basin of the Wis³a (Vistula) River. By the 3rd century AD they had migrated as far south as the lower Danube, around the Black Sea. During that century Gothic armies and fleets ravaged Thrace, Dacia, and cities in Asia Minor and along the Aegean coast. They captured and plundered Athens in 267 to 268, and threatened Italy. For about a century, wars between the Roman emperors and Gothic rulers devastated the Balkan territory and the northeastern Mediterranean region. Other tribes joined the Goths, and under the great king Ermanaric in the 4th century, a kingdom was established that extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
About 370 the Goths divided into two separate groups. The Ostrogoths (Low Latin Ostrogothae,"the eastern Goths") inhabited a large kingdom east of the Dniester River on the shores of the Black Sea (part of modern Ukraine and Belarus). The Visigoths (Low Latin Visigothi,"the good Goths" or "the noble Goths") were the western Goths, with a domain extending from the Dniester to the Danube rivers.
About 100 years after the birth of Christ an ancient Teutonic people began moving out of northern Europe. In time they overran the Roman Empire. The first of these barbarians to conquer Rome were the Visigoths, or West Goths.
Where the Goths first came from is not definitely known. According to their folklore, their people had once lived far to the north, on the shores and islands of what is now Sweden. After long, slow wanderings through the forests of western Russia, the Goths reached the shores of the Black Sea. In 100 years of contact with the Romans, they learned many things, especially the Christian religion.
Christianity was spread among them by a converted Goth, a saintly scholar named Ulfilas. For more than 40 years he labored, first making a Gothic alphabet so that he could translate the Bible and then teaching his people the new faith. This Bible translated by Ulfilas has great historical value because it is centuries older than the earliest writing to survive in any other Teutonic language.
For a time the Goths ruled a great kingdom north of the Danube River and the Black Sea. Then, in AD 375, the Huns swept into Europe from Asia. They conquered the Ostrogoths, or East Goths, and forced the Visigoths to seek refuge across the Danube within the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
In a battle fought near the city of Adrianople in 378, the Visigoths defeated and murdered Emperor Valens. For a time they lived peaceably on Roman territory. On the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395, they rose in rebellion under their ambitious young king Alaric and overran a large part of the Eastern Empire. Rome itself fell into the hands of the Visigoths in 410. Alaric led the attack.
Alaric's successors led their people out of Italy and set up a powerful kingdom in southern Gaul and Spain. In the year 507 the Visigoths in Gaul were defeated by the Franks and were forced beyond the Pyrenees. For 200 years their kingdom in Spain flourished. In 711, when the Moors crossed to Spain from Africa, the Visigothic kingdom was destroyed.
The Ostrogoths for a time formed part of the vast horde that followed the king of the Huns, Attila. They settled in the lands south of Vienna when the Hunnish kingdom fell apart. Their national hero was Theodoric the Great, a powerful and romantic figure who became king in 474. As a boy he had been sent as a hostage to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and had been educated there. In 488 he invaded Italy with the permission of the emperor at Constantinople. After several years of warfare, Theodoric captured and killed Odoacer. Odoacer was a barbarian who had usurped the Roman power and had founded a powerful kingdom that included all Italy together with lands north and east of the Adriatic Sea. Theodoric's reign was one of the ablest and best in this period. He failed, however, largely because no permanent union was effected between the barbarians and the Christian-Roman population. All his wise plans for bringing this about proved futile because the Ostrogoths, in common with most German barbarians, had been converted to Arianism, a heretical form of Christianity, and so were hated by the orthodox.
After Theodoric died in 526, the generals of the Eastern Roman Empire reconquered Italy (see Justinian I). After fighting a last battle near Mount Vesuvius in 553, the Ostrogoths marched out of Italy. They merged with other barbarian hordes north of the Alps and disappeared as a people from history.
In 376 the Visigoths, threatened by the Huns, sought the protection of the Roman emperor Valens, and they were given permission to settle into the empire's province of Moesia, which was south of the Danube. When Gothic soldiers were maltreated by Roman officers, the Goths revolted, and the resulting war climaxed in a decisive battle in 378 near Adrianople (now Edirne, Turkey), in which Valens was killed. The victorious Goths then threatened Constantinople (present-day Ýstanbul). Theodosius I, who succeeded Valens as emperor in the East, made peace with the Goths and incorporated their army into the Roman forces. From that time on, the Visigoths were an important influence in the Roman Empire. Many who had settled in Moesia became farmers and were known as Moeso-Goths. Ulfilas, bishop of the Goths, translated the Bible into Gothic and was largely responsible for the conversion of the Goths to a form of Christianity called Arianism.
On the death of Theodosius in 395, the Visigoths renounced their allegiance to Rome and chose Alaric I as their ruler. Alaric invaded Greece and then Italy, and in 410 he captured and pillaged the city of Rome. In that same year he was succeeded by Ataulf, who led the Visigoths across the Pyrenees mountain range into Spain.
From 415 to 418, under the next ruler, Wallia, the Visigoths extended their realm over a great part of Spain and southern Gaul, with Toulouse as their capital. Wallia was succeeded by the reputed son of Alaric, Theodoric I, who died fighting as an ally of Rome against the Huns at the Battle of Châlons. The most notable of the Spanish Visigothic kings was Euric, who reigned from about 420 to 484. He was a son of Theodoric I. Under Euric, who declared his rule to be independent of any federation with Rome, the kingdom of Toulouse included almost all of Spain and most of Gaul west of the Rhône River and south of the Loire River. Euric introduced many aspects of Roman civilization and drew up a code of law combining Roman and German elements. The kingdom was, however, continually beset by both internal and external difficulties. The kingship was nominally elective, and the powerful Visigothic nobles stood against attempts to found a hereditary royal house. Externally, the Byzantine Empire and the Franks menaced the Visigothic lands. In order to instill greater loyalty in his rebellious Roman and Christian subjects, Alaric II in 506 introduced the collection of laws known as the Breviary of Alaric. A year later, Clovis I, king of the Franks, defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouillé, in which Alaric II was killed. Most of Provence was separated from the Gothic lands, and the Visigothic kingdom was confined almost entirely to Spain. Despite the attempts of a long line of Gothic kings to hold the kingdom together, the power of the Visigoths steadily declined. The last king, Roderick, was defeated and probably killed by the Muslims in the Battle of Río Barbate in 711. By 713 Spain was partially conquered by the Moors, and the Visigothic power survived in the independent Christian kingdom of Asturias.
The first Germanic people to penetrate the frontiers of the empire were the West Goths , or Visigoths. The Goths had originally lived in southern Scandinavia and around the Baltic. But moving south in the second century they had split into two groups, the East Goths, or Ostrogoths, who had remained in southern Russia to live off the land as an army of conquerors, and the West Goths, or Visigoths, who drove the Romans out of Dacia (modern Rumania). The Goths were receptive to Roman ways of life, developed a taste for Roman luxuries, and adopted the Arian form of Christianity. Many were recruited into the Roman army, and even took offices of state in Constantinople itself. Thus, when the westward drive of a Mongolian people called the Huns from the steppes of Russia overwhelmed the Ostrogoths, the emperor Valens of Constantinople was not unwilling to permit the Visigoths to move into the empire in 376 to defend its Danube frontier. Apparently outraged at the treatment they had received from imperial officials, the Visigoths took up arms against the emperor, who was defeated and killed at the battle of Adrianople in 378. His successor Theodosius I placated the Visigoths with gifts of land and payment of tribute, and they in return furnished recruits to the imperial army. Relations with the Visigoths deteriorated after the death of Theodosius I in 395, when the empire was divided again between his two sons, Arcadius (reigned 395-408) who inherited the Eastern Roman Empire and Honorius (reigned 395-423) who inherited the Western Roman Empire. Furious at the conditions of military service imposed on his people, Alaric, the leader of the Visigoths, led his troops against Constantinople in 395, but was persuaded to divert his army into Greece, capturing Athens. Alaric, after declaring himself king of the Visigoths, led them north into Illyricum ( Yugoslavia ). In Italy , Honorius sought seclusion and luxury in the city of Ravenna , which was well protected by broad marshes, leaving his regent, the Vandal soldier Stilicho, to deal with Alaric's invasion of Italy after 403. Stilicho used strategic cunning as well as bribery to keep the Visigoths away from Rome; but, after Stilicho was unjustly executed on charges of treason, Alaric was able to besiege and finally in August 410 to capture and sack Rome. It was eight hundred years since a foreign invader had broken through the walls of Rome . "The world sinks into ruin," wrote St. Jerome . "Yes! but shameful to say our sins still live and flourish. The renowned city, the capital of the Ro- man Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile." Fortunately, Jerome was exaggerating. Few people were killed; the houses of nobles were plundered. The Forum was set ablaze, but all the churches were spared. Alaric even organized a fine procession to Saint Peter's to present the treasures he had saved for the pope. Alaric died shortly afterwards, and a river was temporarily diverted to provide a secure grave for him in its bed. The Visigoths then moved on to southern France and Spain , where they finally settled. Al- though they were tolerant of the Catholic worship in the areas they con- trolled, they were isolated from the Latin population for almost two centuries by their refusal to give up Arianism. They were finally converted toward the end of the sixth century
When the Huns swept into Europe about 370, many of the Ostrogoths were conquered and compelled to aid their conquerors. They joined the king of the Huns, Attila, in his expedition against Gaul in 451 and many Ostrogoths were killed by the Visigoths at the Battle of Châlons. When the Huns were finally forced back, the Ostrogoths again became independent. With the permission of Rome, they settled in Pannonia, an area now including western Hungary, northern Croatia, Slovenia, and eastern Austria. They were joined by other Ostrogoths who had taken refuge within the Roman Empire at the coming of the Asians. In 474Theodoric, the greatest of the Ostrogothic kings, was elected to the throne. After various periods of warfare and alliance with Zeno, the Byzantine emperor, Theodoric invaded Italy in 488 (with the consent and advice of the emperor), slew Odoacer, the first barbarian ruler of Italy, and became ruler himself. He held the power although not the title of the Western Roman emperors. A Roman consul was given nominal authority, and the two peoples lived together amicably, with Roman culture greatly influencing the Teutons.
The unity of Romans and Goths could be preserved only by a ruler of the stature of Theodoric. After his death in 526, disruption in Italy became so violent that in 535 the Byzantine emperor Justinian I sent his general Belisarius to conquer the peninsula. The Byzantines broke the Gothic power in 555, and the throne of Italy was filled by the exarchs (Byzantine governors) of Ravenna.
The Ostrogoths themselves gradually became absorbed into other tribes, such as the Alani, Vandals, Franks, and Burgundians, who had established themselves in the dominions of the old Roman Empire.
Once they had broken loose from Hun control, the Ostrogoths moved slowly toward northern Italy . Their leader was Theodoric, one of the most talented leaders of all the Germanic peoples. He had spent ten years in Constantinople as a hostage, knew both Latin and Greek, and had developed a profound admiration for the ancient civilization he had been forcibly acquainted with. He had not, however, lost his tribal skills, for after conquering most of northern Italy , he demonstrated his ability with the broad- sword by slicing in two his rival for control of Italy and his ruthlessness by exterminating the rival's family. Theodoric then showed more constructive statesmanship. From 493 till his death in 526, he governed Italy and large parts of the Balkans as the regent of the emperor in Constantinople and as King of the Goths, establishing both in title and in actuality a successful policy of racial coexistence. The Goths took one-third of the land and houses and all military duties. The Romans kept the rest, and devoted themselves to peaceful pursuits. Gothic law applied to Goths, Roman law to Romans. Intermarriage was forbidden. Although Theodoric was an Arian Christian, he tolerated the Catholic religion and even the Jewish and other faiths. "Religion is not something we can command," he said. "No one can be forced into a faith against his will." He showed great concern for Roman culture. He restored monuments that had fallen into ruin, including the Coliseum in Rome , where circuses were still presented. But it was at the capital of Ravenna that the Ostrogothic king showed the heights of civilization that could be achieved with the fusion of Germanic and Roman skills.
Ravenna had been made the capital of the western part of the Roman Empire because of its excellent harbor and because it was protected by wide marshes. It was a city of islands, canals, bridges, and causeways, looking across lagoons to the Adriatic Sea . Here Theodoric found that the Roman artists had brought to perfection one of the most demanding and un- compromising of all artistic forms, the art of mosaic; and it was for this achievement that his Ravenna would be principally remembered. In mosaic the artist must set enormous numbers of tiny bits of marble, enamel, glass, and colored stone into damp cement. He cannot produce those subtleties of expression possible in an oil painting, but must seek an overall effect usually visible only from a distance. But in return he is able to use the play of light not only upon the many different angles of the tiny mosaic stones but within the mosaic itself. In Ravenna , the artists were developing new materials for this art, applying gold leaf to glass cubes and covering them again with a thin film of glass, using metallic oxides to produce variations of color, or employing mother of pearl to produce just the right effect of creamy perfection. In the windows, they often used thick sheets of alabaster, so that the entering light already had a soft opacity before playing upon the planes of yellow marble and the complexity of the mosaic surface. In Ravenna, they constructed buildings as though they were galleries meant to display mosaics, with bare wafls designed to permit the artist to create the largest, most complex compositions yet attempted in that exacting form of art. One last advantage is still evident today; the process is almost permanent. Unlike frescoes, which fade fairly rapidly, many of the mosaics in Ravenna have required no restoration, and shine as brightly today as in the sixth century.
The building that turned Theodoric to the use of mosaic for his churches and palaces was the tiny mausoleum of Gaila Placidia, probably the tomb of an emperor's daughter who had been married to a Visigothic prince. The architecture was simple, a cross of unadorned brick with very small windows. Its mosaics however are the loveliest possible introduction to the art that was the glory of Ravenna and later of Constantinople itself. The mosaic over the entrance to the mausoleum represents the good shepherd, a kindly protector, not feeding his sheep but patting them benevolently on the nose. He is dressed in a stunning robe with red piping and deep blue stripes that could appear unchanged at a present-day fashion show. In the center of the tiny chapel, one turns to look upward to the dome, the Dome of Heaven, lit up by almost eight hundred golden stars; these become smaller as the dome rises, increasing the sensation of the swirling distance wherein a gold cross symbolizes Redemption.
Theodoric called on the skilled mosaic artisans to decorate one of the most beautiful basilicas in Europe , Sant' Apollinare Nuovo. The church consists of a central aisle, with a narrow nave on each side separated by a line of columns, with a small semicircular apse at the east end. As one steps inside the central nave one at once feels the rushing, forward motion built up by the long line of columns surmounted by the figures in the mosaics above. On each side are twelve columns of Greek marble, topped by delicately carved capitals. The mosaic carries on the forward motion of the pillars. On the north side is a procession of twenty-two virgin martyrs, pre- ceded by a very lifelike group of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Madonna and the child Jesus. Again the clothes are amazingly modem. The three kings seem to be wearing stretch pants decorated with the most imaginative designs in orange and deep vermilion. Indeed, King Caspar seems to be wearing a pair of leopard-skin tights. We are a long way from the impersonality of Greek sculpture, and the three men, one brown-bearded, one white-bearded, and one clean-shaven, are hardly idealized pictures of piety. On the opposite side of the church, above a line of twenty-two male martyrs, there is a whole panoply of scenes, each one worth looking at in detail. Perhaps most moving of all is the scene of the paralytic being lowered on ropes from a roofless building to be healed by Christ below.
Theodoric died in 526. His successors lacked his skills, and in less than forty years, the Ostrogoths were driven from Italy by the army of the Eastern Roman emperor; they moved north of the Alps , and rather surprisingly disappeared from history. Thus, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Vandals, who were largely responsible for the disappearance of the Roman Empire in the West, left little lasting trace. The Franks and the Anglo- Saxons, however, were to become the principal creators of medieval civilization.