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Bill Thayer

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Book I
Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press
London, 1892

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
Note B

Book 1 (continued)

Vol. I
Note A

On some omitted Chapters of the De Rebus Geticis,
and on the Identification of the Goths and Getae

In common with almost all recent enquirers into Gothic history I reject, as not properly belonging thereto, certain chapters in the treatise of Jordanes. Still, in order to avoid the charge of garbling historical evidence, it is right to give the reader a hint of the contents of these rejected chapters.

The first part of the foregoing 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 Jordanes' 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.

What, then, is the subject-matter of the nine chapters which have been passed over in silence?

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​a 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 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  p96 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 (about 1160 B.C.).

525 B.C. Chapter X contains the old classical stories about Cyrus's war with Queen Tomyris, 516 B.C. the invasions of Scythia by Darius and Xerxes, 429 B.C. 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 were called 'the Hatted Men' (Pileati), because when they sacrificed they were covered with a kind of mitre, while the rest of the people were called Capillati, on account of the long hair in which they gloried, 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 stated, we rejoin the stream of genuine Gothic history.

It is evident that our historian here professes to cover a vast period of time. From the indications furnished by the text, and from a computation at the end of the Gothic history,​1 Mommsen  p97 (following the calculation of another German scholar, Gutschmid) estimates that Jordanes himself placed the first migration, from Sweden, 1490 B.C., and the second, to the Euxine, 1324 B.C.2

Now if we were bound to accept or reject in their entirety these first thirteen chapters of the history of Jordanes, there would be little doubt that we must vote for their rejection. Any tradition as to the migrations of the Gothic people, fourteen or fifteen centuries before the Christian Era, is so remote as to be almost valueless; and the allusions to classical history are all of a kind which show us that we are dealing not with true Teutonic saga, but with the reconstructive work of a Greek or Roman scholar in his library. They are not genuine coins, however worn, but sharp and modern imitations that we have here before us.

Moreover, if the Gothic nation had migrated from the Baltic to the Euxine thirteen centuries before Christ, Tacitus and Pliny would not have written about them as still dwelling by the Baltic shore in the first century after Christ.

Happily we are not reduced to the necessity of accepting or rejecting the first thirteen chapters as a whole. We know that Jordanes copied from Cassiodorus, and we know that the one object of Cassiodorus was to convince his countrymen that the Goths were a respectable and long-descended nation, having their roots deep in classical antiquity. In carrying their ancestors back to the Trojan war, he is rendering them exactly the same service which the professional genealogist renders to the successful tradesman in discovering for him an ancestor who came over with William the Conqueror.

This process of 'making the origin of the Goths a part of Roman history'​3 was assisted and almost invited by two mistaken identifications, for neither of which was Cassiodorus or his copyist Jordanes responsible. (1) The identification of the Goths with the Scythians, and (2) the identification of the Goths with the Getae.

1. We have seen that Zosimus and Dexippus, writing concerning the great invasions of the third century made by the Goths and their kindred tribes, call the actors in them Scythians.  p98 It appears however to be the opinion of the majority of ethnologists 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 none 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 words 'Scythians' in such a very vague sense, for the inhabitants of all the countries north of the Euxine, the Caucasus, and the Persian 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 at Rome. Their country was turned into a Roman province, and notwithstanding its proposed abandonment by Hadrian, it remained for 150 years under the Roman influence, 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 nomad Goths following the guidance of their own long-haired Amal chiefs, who  p99 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. If the Goths were Getae, how could they have spoken the pure and primitive Low‑German tongue which is enshrined in the Moeso-Gothic Bible of Ulfilas?

It seems therefore to be now generally admitted 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 of the controversy); that afterwards when they had abandoned Dacia to the Goths they called them by the name of the former inhabitants, just as we, though sprung chiefly from Angles, Saxons, and Danes, constantly call ourselves Britons; and that the obvious similarity between the two names Gothus and Geta aided this confusion, till at length Claudian wrote his poem De Bello Getico and Jordanes his treatise De Rebus Geticis without a suspicion, apparently, 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 Jordanes' history which relates to the Scythians and Dacians, I believe that we have a fairly trustworthy and valuable deposit of true Gothic tradition left. It is probable à priori that this should be the case. Jordanes 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), about the year 520. Gothic had then been a written language since the time of Ulfilas, that is from about 350, to say nothing of the possibility of a few barbarous records having been preserved before that time in Runic characters. 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' (Jordanes, cap. iv).

It should be stated, that comparative philology does not oppose, but rather supports the belief in a migration of the  p100 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.

The Author's Notes:

1 Jordanes, speaking of the surrender of Ravenna to Belisarius (A.D. 540), says, 'Sic famosum regnum, fortissimamque gentem diu regnantem tandem pene duo millensimo et tricensimo anno . . . Justinianus . . . vicit' (2030‑540 = 1490).

2 Prooemium, p. xxi.

3 See Cassiodori Variarum, IX.25. I may refer to the Introduction to my Letters of Cassiodorus, p29, for a somewhat fuller statement of the above argument.

Thayer's Note:

a IV.93‑96 — and other writers as well, chief among them Strabo (VII.3.5).

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