Goths Between the Baltic and Black Seas

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In the middle of the sixth century a.d. the monk Jordanes recorded in his Getica the detailed history of the Goths. The story describes their crossing the Baltic Sea under the lead of King Berig, a period of time spent on its southern coast, and their later departure (during King Filimer's reign) to the Black Sea, where the Gothic kingdoms subsequently were destroyed by the Huns c. a.d. 375. The Roman historian Tacitus (in Germania) confirmed the presence of the Goths in the north, and the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy (in Geographica) located them by the lower Vistula River in the late first and the second centuries a.d. Archaeologists supported these written accounts by ascribing to the early Goths the so-called Wielbark culture in Poland (earlier known as the Gotho-Gepidic culture), with its specific cemeteries and characteristic artifacts. The Cherniakhov culture, identified between the Danube and Dnieper Rivers, came to represent later Gothic settlement.

This clear picture has come into question thanks to critical analyses of the historical evidence and precise chronological dating of archaeological finds. Historians have questioned the reliability of Jordanes and concluded that the alleged Scandinavian origin of the Goths probably was just a literary motif—a topos introduced in the tribal tradition to give people a feeling of ancient heroic unity. Moreover, an earlier chronology of typical "Gothic" finds in northern Poland, rather than in Sweden, put in doubt the sudden arrival of the Goths in the middle of the first century a.d. Thus, there are no historical or archaeological data to sustain the Scandinavian origin of the Goths as sudden mass invaders of the lower Vistula area.

It should be accepted, then, that Gothic ethnogenesis took place not in Scandinavia but south of the Baltic in the context of the advantageous circumstances of trade contacts with the Roman Empire. Control over the lucrative amber export was both a source of income and a reason for fierce competition among local elite groups, and symbolic expression of group identity played an important role in the formation of the Gothic sense of identity. It was a transformation of local populations of the older Oksywie culture into a new entity that became archaeologically visible as the Wielbark culture around the middle of the first century a.d. Various elements, including Roman traditions, were used to form a specific material culture distinctively different from traditions that prevailed in the Germanic Barbaricum: rich female adornments and handmade pottery and characteristic burial rituals (stelae, pavements and rings of stones—mostly in the early Roman period, the coexistence of cremation and inhumation burials, and poor male graves with no weapons or iron).

Jordanes's description suggests that the early Goths did not differ from other "barbarian" peoples. Like, for example, Langobards, Herulians, or Vandals, they were an opportunistic agglomeration unified by the successes of their military leaders, who legitimized their domination by creating myths of the heroic common past. Some archaeologists also suggest a polyethnic composition of the Wielbark culture. Migration of a political-military center did not mean migration of all inhabitants of a territory controlled by a chief-king. Archaeology does not support Jordanes's report of the well-organized resettlement of the Baltic Goths to the Black Sea in the first half of the third century a.d. It is thought that it was instead a gradual infiltration that began in the late second century a.d., while a substantial part of the population stayed in the north.

After some time there emerged a new elite that also decided to migrate to the south in search of better opportunities. They are identified by Jordanes as the Gepids, which meant "Late Comers." Researchers cannot discern any "Gothic" or "Gepidic" finds in Poland, which means that at the level of the material culture, symbolism, these two ethnic groups did not yet differ there. Thus, the ethnicity of the Gepids must have formed as a result of the decision taken by the second generation of Wielbark leaders to resettle in the late third century and found their new homeland around the Black Sea. That dramatic decision was taken during a deterioration of the climate in Europe and the economic crisis of the Roman Empire during the period a.d. 235–284. Elites that called themselves "Goths" and "Gepids" decided to leave their Baltic homeland in search of better circumstances to sustain their power status. The warlike mobilization of the migrating population had the effect of uniting people around their leaders, who took responsibility for the prosperity of their followers. Success in subordinating fertile lands lying close to the rich Roman markets reinforced these leaders' power and led to the formation of ruling dynasties.

The region of the lower Vistula still was not emptied, however; indeed, some of the Wielbark cemeteries were used until the fourth century or even into the early fifth century a.d. Continuity has been established by the technological tradition in pottery making that may be traced from the Wielbark culture to the West Baltic culture that expanded toward the lower Vistula at the end of the fifth century. Some studies even suggest that elements of the Wielbark tradition survived until the sixth century.

Thus, the alleged quick resettlement of the Baltic Goths toward the Black Sea as a result of an organized migration led by King Filimer in a.d. 150 must be considered a myth. Instead, archaeologists suggest a slow southern expansion of cultural patterns promoted by Wielbark-Gothic elites. Contacts between the Baltic and Black Sea zones never broke down, however, which resulted in the formation of a huge area inhabited by populations with cultural similarities—biritual cemeteries, male graves with no weapons, and female jewelry.

It seems that the later history of the Goths, who escaped to the west pushed by invading Huns, should be changed or at least supplemented. German archaeologist Eduard Šturms already had suggested in 1950 that some of the Black Sea Goths returned to the north to join those "Goths" who had never left the Baltic zone. There are no written sources to support this claim, but inflow of Byzantine golden coins (dated to a.d. 455–518) to the region of the lower Vistula may indicate such a remigration in the circumstance of the sudden disintegration of the Hun "empire" after a.d. 455.

Thus, modern archaeological knowledge undermines the long-held traditional view of the Goths as coming from Scandinavia, an already organized "people," to subordinate the region of the lower Vistula, only to migrate later toward the Black Sea and then to the west. Instead, one can envisage a story of a long development and gradual changes with no clear beginning and no end, a story that should not be equated with the heroic history of Gothic kings as described by ancient authors.

See alsoOstrogoths (vol. 2, part 7); Visigoths (vol. 2, part 7); Germany and the Low Countries (vol. 2, part 7).


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PrzemysŁaw UrbaŃczyk