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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book I
Chapter 1

Book 1: Introduction (end)

Thayer's Note: This page is from the first edition of the book, which Hodgkin considerably expanded into a much more detailed second edition, often refining or even outright changing his conclusions and opinions. That second edition is onsite in full; the serious student will take advantage of it.

Vol. I
Note A

On the Early History of the Goths, as told by Jornandes

In order to give the reader a perfectly fair impression of the state of our information on this subject, it is right to inform him how the extracts from Jornandes have been selected, or, as an unfriendly critic might say, garbled, in the short sketch given in the text.

That sketch, which contains the essence of what seem to be the traditions of the Goths themselves as to their early wanderings, is taken from the first four chapters of Jornandes's De Rebus Geticis. I omit all notice of the following nine chapters, and join the course of his narrative again in the fourteenth chapter, where he describes the 'differentiation' into Ostrogoths and Visigoths. 235‑238 The fifteenth contains the perfectly historical account of the Emperor Maximin, who probably was of Gothic origin; 244‑249 the sixteenth opens with the reign of Philip the Arabian, and from this point onwards the narrative runs side by side with the authentic history of the Roman Empire.

As a matter of evidence, however, the reader has a right to ask what are the contents of the nine chapters between the fourth and fourteenth, and I am bound to answer that they are omitted not as irrelevant, but as inconvenient and not coherent with the history which has been given.

Chapter V is chiefly occupied with a description of Scythia, in which the Goths were now settled, and incidentally with some account of Zamolxis their great philosopher. Now Zamolxis is mentioned by Herodotus as the teacher who communicated to the Getae the doctrine of immortality, which, according to some, he had himself learned from Pythagoras. If he was a historical personage at all he lived probably about 500 B.C.

Chapter VI records the expedition of Taunasis, king of  p83 the Goths, into Egypt, which he subdues and hands over to the king of the Medes. Deserters from his army form the nation of the Parthians.

Chapter VII gives a long and tedious account of the wars of the Amazons, the Gothic women who were left behind when their husbands undertook the aforesaid expedition into Egypt, relates their conquests in Asia, and contains a wildly incorrect sketch of the geographical position of Mount Caucasus.

Chapter VIII continues the history of the Amazons, and connects it with the classical stories of Theseus, Hippolyte, and Penthesilea (say 1200 B.C.).

Chapter IX, returning to the male Getae, asserts, on the authority of the 'Getica' of Dio (the Roman historian of the third century), that Telephus, son of Hercules and nephew of Priam, was their king.

525 B.C.
516 B.C.
429 B.C.
Chapter X contains the old classical stories about Cyrus's war with Queen Tomyris, the invasions of Scythia by Darius and Xerxes, and the wars of Sitalces, king of Thrace, with Perdiccas, king of Macedon, successor (it should be ancestor) of Alexander the Great.

Chapter XI describes the arrival of a certain Diceneus among the Goths and the science of theology which he taught them. His arrival is in the reign of Boroista. There was a king of Dacia named Boerebislas a contemporary of Augustus, who is possibly intended here. The description of the priests, who are called 'the Hatted Men' (Pileati) because they sacrificed covered with a kind of mitre, while the rest of the people are called Capillati, on account of the long hair in which they glory, has more of the ring of truth about it than the pseudo-classical legends of the chapters immediately preceding.

In Chapter XII King Corillus leads the Goths into Dacia, the geographical situation of which is described.

85‑90 A.D. In Chapter XIII the wars of the Getae against Rome during the reign of Domitian (entirely historical) are described, and the credit of them claimed for the Goths.

With Chapter XIV, as before said, we rejoin the stream of genuine Gothic history.

 p84  Now if we were reduced to the alternative of accepting all this semi-classical farrago as true, or rejecting all the pre-historic chapters of Jornandes, one would vote without hesitation for the latter alternative. If the migration of the Goths from the Baltic to the Euxine has to be placed before the Trojan War, it must be confessed that Gothic tradition concerning it at that enormous distance of time is perfectly valueless.

But I still conceive it to be not only possible but very probable that we have, in the earlier part of this treatise of Jornandes, really valuable and authentic traditions of his people, which he has distorted and muddled by the attempt — common to so many of the medieval chroniclers — to make them fit in with his own crude and inaccurate notions as to classical history. As an illustration of this tendency I may mention 'the Chronicles of Hainault' written in the thirteenth century, and occupying three volumes. Troy and Rehoboam, Zedekiah and Cyrus, Babylon, Thebes, and Carthage, figure plentifully in the first volume, towards the end of which we find twenty pages or more devoted to an abstract of the history of Christ and His Apostles. It is not till some way through the second volume that anything like the real history of Hainault commences. And how some of the medieval historians of Britain offended in the same way, what webs of sham-classic history they spun, like silkworms, out of their own internal consciousness, is sufficiently notorious. But in Jornandes's case this excuse is to be made, that he was almost invited into the error by two identifications both of which had been made long before his time, and both of which tended to glorify his nation and to link it in with the great deeds of classical antiquity. These are, (1) the identification of the Goths with the Scythians; (2) the identification of the Goths with the Getae.

It seems nearly certain that both identifications are either valueless or untrue:

1. Zosimus, writing a hundred years before Jornandes, always calls the Goths Σκύθαι, and probably most of the Greek writers would do the same. Yet it appears to be  p85 the opinion of the majority of the ethnologists​1 that the Scythians mentioned by Herodotus were a Mongolian people. Some think them to have been Sclavonic; and of the few who hold them to have been Teutonic I do not understand that any identify them with the Goths of the fourth century, the old etymology ΣκύθαιGothi being apparently quite abandoned.

It is admitted too that most of the post-Herodotean writers used the word 'Scythians' in such a very vague sense, for the inhabitants of all the countries north of the Euxine, the Caucasus, and the Parthian Empire, that the term is of little value in ethnological investigations. Like our own word 'Indians,' it proves nothing as to the origin of most of the races to which it has been applied. There cannot be a more striking proof that 'Scythian' is merely a geographical and not an ethnological term, than the fact that Priscus, a contemporary probably of Zosimus, uses it regularly to describe the Huns, the successors of the Goths in the region north of the Danube, but members of an utterly different nationality from theirs, as every Roman historian of the period knew.

2. As for the Getae, we can speak more positively. It is next to an historical impossibility that they and the Goths can have been the same people. The Getae, having lived for many centuries close to the frontiers of Greek and Roman civilisation, have a well-marked and ascertained place in history. They were a Thracian people. They fought against Perdiccas, king of Macedonia, at the time of the Peloponnesian war. They frequently sold their children as slaves to the Greeks, so that Geta is one of the commonest names for a slave in classical comedies. They occupied Dacia, and under the name of Dacians successfully resisted for some generations the power of Rome. Their hero-chief Decebalus was at length defeated by the Emperor Trajan, a defeat celebrated by the column of that Emperor. Their country was turned into a Roman province, and notwithstanding its proposed abandonment by Hadrian, it remained for 170 years under Roman influence,  p86 and for the greater part of that time under Roman government. Can any one who knows the pulverising, assimilating character of the Roman dominion believe that these Getae, so long subject to the rule of the legatus and the centurion, were the same people as the named Goths following the guidance of their own long-haired Amal chiefs, who with such fresh vigour and apparently as a hitherto unknown foe, precipitated themselves on the eastern provinces of the Empire in the reign of Caracalla? The testimony of language is still clearer. Unless the Getae had been thoroughly Romanised, whence came the Roumanian dialect (an undoubted offshoot from the Latin) which still extends over so large a part of Dacia? And if the Goths were Getae, how could they have spoken the pure and primitive Teutonic tongue which is enshrined in the Moeso-Gothic Bible of Ulfilas?

It seems therefore to be a fact past all dispute that the coincidence between the names Gothi and Getae is accidental; that the Romans themselves first called their new invaders by the former name (witness the title of the Emperor Claudius II, Gothicus, which is alone almost decisive on the controversy); that afterwards when they had abandoned Dacia to the Barbarians they called them by the name of the former inhabitants, just as we, though sprung from Angles, Saxons, and Danes, constantly call ourselves Britons; that the obvious similarity between the two names Goth and Geta aided this confusion, till at length Claudian wrote his poem De Bello Getico and Jornandes his treatise De Rebus Geticis without a suspicion, probably, that Getic and Gothic had not been synonymous terms from the beginning of the world.

To sum up the whole matter. Winnowing away everything in Jornandes's history which relates to the Scythians and the Dacians, I believe that we have a fairly trustworthy and valuable deposit of true Gothic tradition left. It is probable a priori that this should be the case. Jornandes himself wrote, let us say, in 550; Cassiodorus, on whose work he founded himself, and who was in continual communication with the king and chiefs of the Ostrogoths,  p87 in the year 500. Gothic had then been a written language since the time of Ulfilas — say from about 350. Tacitus had marked the existence of the Gothones at the south-east corner of the Baltic about A.D. 100, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that some remembrance of the achievements and migrations of the nation during the intervening 250 years would be preserved 'in the old songs, which being recited in public, almost served the purpose of a history' (Jornandes, cap. IV).

It should be stated, that comparative philology does not oppose, but rather supports the belief in a migration of the Goths from the Baltic to the Euxine, for Gothic occupies (e.g. in that set of phenomena which together constitute 'Grimm's Law') a place much nearer to Low German and Scandinavian, the dialects spoken on the Baltic coasts, than to High German, the language of South Germany.

In considering this subject I have continually been reminded of the remarks made by Grote (History of Greece, vol. I, chap. XIX) as to the danger of attempting to deduce History from Legend. There is no doubt that Jornandes is a Logographer, and one of a very bad type, knowing very imperfectly the history into which he tries to make his legends fit. But the comparative shortness of the period for which we have to trust to tradition, the limiting influence of authentic history (the history of the Roman Empire) all round the nation in question, and the possession of written monuments of that nation's language, not greatly posterior to the time under discussion, seem to give us a much surer footing than can be found by enquirers into the history of Greece in Heroic times.

The Author's Note:

1 Compare Rawlinson's Herodotus, Appendix to Book I.

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