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An article from the
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.
Jordanes,1 the historian of the Gothic nation, flourished about the middle of the 6th century. All that we certainly know about his life is contained in three sentences of his history of the Goths (cap. 50), from which, among other particulars as to the history of his family, we learn that his grandfather Paria was notary to Candac, the chief of a confederation of Alans and other tribes settled during the latter half of the 5th century on the south of the Danube in the provinces which are now Bulgaria and the Dobrudscha. Jordanes himself was the notary of Candac's nephew, the Gothic chief Gunthigis, until he took the vows of a monk. This, according to the manner of speaking of that day, is the meaning of his words ante conversionem meam, though it is quite possible that he may at the same time have renounced the Arian creed of his forefathers, which it is clear that he no longer held when he wrote his Gothic history. The Getica of Jordanes shows Gothic sympathies; but these are probably due to an imitation of the tone of Cassiodorus, from whom he draws practically all his material. He was not himself a Goth, belonging to a confederation of Germanic tribes, embracing Alans and Scyrians, which had come under the influence of the Ostrogoths settled on the lower Danube; and his own sympathies are those of a member of this confederation. He is accordingly friendly to the Goths, even apart from the influence of Cassiodorus; but he is also prepossessed in favour of the eastern emperors in whose territories this confederation lived and whose subject he himself was. This makes him an impartial authority on the last days of the Ostrogoths. At the same time, living in Moesia, he is restricted in his outlook to Danubian affairs. He has little to say of the inner history and policy of the kingdom of Theodoric: his interests lie, as Mommsen says, within a triangle of which the three points are Sirmium, Larissa and Constantinople. Finally, connected as he was with the Alans, he shows himself friendly to them, whenever they enter into his narrative.
We pass from the extremely shadowy personality of Jordanes to the more interesting question of his works.
1. The Romana, or, as he himself calls it, De summa temporum vel origine actibusque gentis Romanorum, was composed in 551. It was begun before, but published after, the Getica. It is a sketch of the history of the world from the creation, based on Jerome, the epitome of Florus, Orosius and the ecclesiastical history of Socrates. There is a curious reference to Iamblichus, apparently the neo-platonist philosopher, whose name Jordanes, being, as he says himself, agrammatus, inserts by way of a flourish. The work is only of any value for the century 450‑550, when Jordanes is dealing with recent history. It is merely a hasty compilation intended to stand side by side with the Getica.2
2. The other work of Jordanes commonly called De rebus Geticis or Getica, was styled by himself De origine actibusque p511 Getarum, and was also written in 551. He informs us that while he was engaged upon the Romana a friend named Castalius invited him to compress into one small treatise the twelve books — now lost — of the senator Cassiodorus, on The Origin and Actions of the Goths. Jordanes professes to have had the work of Cassiodorus in his hands for but three days, and to reproduce the sense not the words; but his book, short as it is, evidently contains long verbatim extracts from the earlier author, and it may be suspected that the story of the triduana lectio and the apology quamvis verba non recolo, possibly even the friendly invitation of Castalius, are mere blinds to cover his own entire want of originality. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact (discovered by von Sybel) that even the very preface to his book is taken almost word for word from Rufinus's translation of Origen's commentary on the epistle to the Romans. There is no doubt, even on Jordanes' own statements, that his work is based upon that of Cassiodorus, and that any historical worth which it possesses is due to that fact. Cassiodorus was one of the very few men who, Roman by birth and sympathies, could yet appreciate the greatness of the barbarians by whom the empire was overthrown. The chief adviser of Theodoric, the East Gothic king in Italy, he accepted with ardour that monarch's great scheme, if indeed, he did not himself originally suggest it, of welding Roman and Goth together into one harmonious state which should preserve the social refinement and the intellectual culture of the Latin-speaking races without losing the hardy virtues of their Teutonic conquerors. To this aim everything in the political life of Cassiodorus was subservient, and this aim he evidently kept before him in his Gothic history. But in writing that history Cassiodorus was himself indebted to the work of a certain Ablabius. It was Ablabius, apparently, who had first used the Gothic sagas (prisca carmina); it was he who had constructed the stem of the Amals. Whether he was a Greek, a Roman or a Goth we do not know; nor can we say when he wrote, though his work may be dated conjecturally in the early part of the reign of Theodoric the Great. We can only say that he wrote on the origin and history of the Goths, using both Gothic saga and Greek sources; and that if Jordanes used Cassiodorus, Cassiodorus used, if to a less extent, the work of Ablabius.
Cassiodorus began his work, at the request of Theodoric, and therefore before 526: it was finished by 533. At the root of the work lies a theory, whencesoever derived, which identified the Goths with the Scythians, whose country Darius Hystaspes invaded, and with the Getae of Dacia, whom Trajan conquered. This double identification enabled Cassiodorus to bring the favoured race into line with the peoples of classical antiquity, to interweave with their history stories about Hercules and the Amazons, to make them invade Egypt, to claim for them a share in the wisdom of the semi-mythical Scythian philosopher Zamolxis. He was thus able with some show of plausibility to represent the Goths as "wiser than all the other barbarians and almost like the Greeks" (Jord., De reb. Get., cap. v.), and to send a son of the Gothic king Telephus to fight at the siege of Troy, with the ancestors of the Romans. All this we can now perceive to have no relation to history, but at the time it may have made the subjugation of the Roman less bitter to feel that he was not after all bowing down before a race of barbarian upstarts, but that his Amal sovereign was as firmly rooted in classical antiquity as any Julius or Claudius who ever wore the purple. In the eighteen years which elapsed between 533 and the composition of the Getica of Jordanes, great events, most disastrous for the Romano-Gothic monarchy of Theodoric, had taken place. It was no longer possible to write as if the whole civilization of the Western world would sit down contentedly under the shadow of East Gothic dominion and Amal sovereignty. And, moreover, the instincts of Jordanes, as a subject of the Eastern Empire, predisposed him to flatter the sacred majesty of Justinian, by whose victorious arms the overthrow of the barbarian kingdom in Italy had been effected. Hence we perceive two currents of tendency in the Getica. On the one hand, as a transcriber of the philo-Goth Cassiodorus, he magnifies the race of Alaric and Theodoric, and claims for them their full share, perhaps more than their full share, of glory in the past. On the other hand he speaks of the great anti-Teuton emperor Justinian, and of his reversal of the German conquests of the 5th century, in language which would certainly have grated on the ears of Totila and his heroes. When Ravenna is taken, and Vitigis carried into captivity, Jordanes almost exults in the fact that "the nobility of the Amals and the illustrious offspring of so many mighty men have surrendered to a yet more illustrious prince and a yet mightier general, whose fame shall not grow dim through all the centuries." (Getica, LX §315).
This laudation, both of the Goths and of their Byzantine conquerors, may perhaps help us to understand the motive with which the Getica was written. In the year 551 Germanus, nephew of Justinian, accompanied by his bride, Matasuntha, grand-daughter of Theodoric, set forth to reconquer Italy for the empire. His early death prevented any schemes for a revived Romano-Gothic kingdom which may have been based on his personality. His widow, however, bore a posthumous child, also named Germanus, of whom Jordanes speaks (cap. 60) as "blending the blood of the Anicii and the Amals, and furnishing a hope under the divine blessing of one day uniting their glories." This younger Germanus did nothing in after life to realize these anticipations; but the somewhat pointed way in which his name and his mother's name are mentioned by Jordanes lends some probability to the view that he hoped for the child's succession to the Eastern Empire, and the final reconciliation of the Goths and Romans in the person of a Gotho-Roman emperor.
The De rebus Geticis falls naturally into four parts. The first (chs. i‑xiii) commences with a geographical description of the three quarters of the world, and in more detail of Britain and Scanzia (Sweden), from which the Goths under their king Berig migrated to the southern coast of the Baltic. Their migration across what has since been called Lithuania to the shores of the Euxine, and their differentiation into Visigoths and Ostrogoths, are described. Chs. v‑xiii contain an account of the intrusive Geto-Scythian element before alluded to.
The second section (chs. xiv‑xxiv) returns to the true history of the Gothic nation, sets forth the genealogy of the Amal kings, and describes the inroads of the Goths into the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, with the foundation and the overthrow of the great but somewhat shadowy kingdom of Hermanric.
The third section (chs. xxv‑xlvii) traces the history of the West Goths from the Hunnish invasion to the downfall of the Gothic kingdom in Gaul under Alaric II (376‑507). The best part of this section, and indeed of the whole book, is the seven chapters devoted to Attila's invasion of Gaul and the battle of the Mauriac plains. Here we have in all probability a verbatim extract from Cassiodorus, who (possibly resting on Ablabius) interwove with his narrative large portions of the Gothic sagas. The celebrated expression certaminis gaudia assuredly came at first neither from the suave minister Cassiodorus nor from the small-souled notary Jordanes, but is the translation of some thought which first found utterance through the lips of a Gothic minstrel.
The fourth section (chs. xlviii‑lx) traces the history of the East Goths from the same Hunnish invasion to the first overthrow of the Gothic monarchy in Italy (376‑539). In this fourth section are inserted, somewhat out of their proper place, some valuable details as to the Gothi Minores, "an immense people dwelling in the region of Nicopolis, with their high priest and primate Vulfilas, who is said also to have taught them letters." The book closes with the allusion to Germanus and the panegyric on Justinian as the conqueror of the Goths referred to above.
Jordanes refers in the Getica to a number of authors besides Cassiodorus; but he owes his knowledge of them to Cassiodorus. It is perhaps only when he is using Orosius that we can hold Jordanes to have borrowed directly. Otherwise, as Mommsen says, the Getica is a mera epitome, laxata ea et perversa, historiae Gothicae Cassiodorianae.
As to the style and literary character of Jordanes, every author who has used him speaks in terms of severe censure. When he is left to himself and not merely transcribing, he is sometimes scarcely grammatical. There are awkward gaps in his narrative and statements inconsistent with each other. He quotes, as if he were familiarly acquainted with their writings, a number of Greek and Roman writers, of whom it is almost certain that he had not read more than one or two. At the same time he does not quote the chronicler Marcellinus, from whom he has copied verbatim the history of the deposition of Augustulus. All these faults make him a peculiarly unsatisfactory authority where we cannot check his statements by those of other authors. It may, however, be pleaded in extenuation that he is professedly a transcriber, and, if p512 his story be correct, a transcriber in peculiarly unfavourable circumstances. He has also himself suffered much from the inaccuracy of copyists. But nothing has really been more unfortunate for the reputation of Jordanes as a writer than the extreme preciousness of the information which he has preserved to us. The Teutonic tribes whose dim origins he records have in the course of centuries attained to world-wide dominion. The battle in the Mauriac plains of which he is really the sole historian, is now seen to have had important bearings on the destinies of the world. And thus the hasty pamphlet of a half-educated Gothic monk has been forced into prominence, almost into rivalry with the finished productions of the great writers of classical antiquity. No wonder that it stands the comparison badly; but with all its faults the Getica of Jordanes will probably ever retain its place side by side with the De moribus Germanorum of Tacitus as a chief source of information respecting the history, institutions and modes of thought of our Teutonic forefathers.
Editions. — The classical edition is that of Mommsen (in Mon. Germ. hist. auct. antiq., v., ii.), which supersedes the older editions, such as that in the first volume of Muratori's Scriptt. rer. Ital. The best MS. is the Heidelberg MS., written in Germany, probably in the 8th century; but this perished in the fire at Mommsen's house. The next of the MSS. in value are the Vaticanus Palatinus of the 10th century, and the Valenciennes MS. of the 9th.
Authorities. — Sybel's essay, De fontibus Jordanis (1838); Schirren's De ratione quae inter Jordanem et Cassiodorum intercedat Commentatio (Dorpat, 1858); Köpke's Die Anfänge des Königthums bei den Gothen (Berlin, 1859); Dahn's Die Könige der Germanen, vol. II (Munich, 1861); Ebert's Geschichte der Christlich-Lateinischen Literatur (Leipsic, 1874); Wittenbach's Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen im Mittelalter (Berlin, 1877); and the introduction of Mommsen to his edition.
[T. H.; E. Br.]
1 The evidence of MSS. is overwhelming against the form Jornandes. The MSS. exhibit Jordanis or Jordannis; but these are only Vulgar-Latin spellings of Jordanes.
2 The terms of the dedication of this book to a certain Vigilius make it impossible that the pope (538‑555) of that name is meant.
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