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in association with, click hereRome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric (Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity)
by Michael Kulikowski

The series Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity is composed of introductory-level texts that provide an essential foundation for the study of important wars and conflicts of classical antiquity. Each volume provides a synopsis of the main events and key characters, the consequences of the conflict, and its reception over time. An important feature is the critical overview of the textual and archaeological sources for the conflict, which is designed to teach both historiography and the methods that historians use to reconstruct events of the past. Each volume includes an assortment of pedagogical devices that students can use to further their knowledge and inquiry of the topics. The author of Rome's Gothic Wars, Michael Kulikowski, is an Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

The author writes in his “Prologue”:

The book sets out to answer two main questions: first, how did Gothic history develop in such a way that the unprecedented career of Alaric became possible? And second, how do we know what we think we know about the Goths? That last question is very important, and it is not usually asked in an introductory book like this one. Most introductions to a subject try to adopt a tone of omniscience which implies that, even if complex historical events are being simplified, whatever is included can be regarded as certain fact. Unfortunately, however, there are large stretches of history in which even the most basic facts are either unknown or else uncertain because of contradictory evidence. Many times, the way we resolve those contradictions has as much to do with how modern scholarship has developed as it does with the evidence itself. As far as I am concerned, the curious reader is not helped by attempts to disguise the difficulties we face in trying to understand the past. In fact, a false sense of certainty takes much of the excitement out of history. For that reason, I offer no apologies for introducing readers to uncertainty and controversy in the history of the Goths. The road to the past is bumpy, and there is often no single destination at the end of it. Reconstructing the past, and reaching conclusions about it, requires historians to make choices, and in this book I always try to offer explanations for the choices I have made. Throughout the book, we will look not only at Goths and their history, but at the ancient writers who give us our only access to Gothic history and are fascinating and important figures in their own right.

Further, he looks at modern views on Gothic history, a controversial subject among modern scholars, who “support their own positions with an intensity that most people reserve for their favourite football team or rock band … I am no exception.” (He certainly isn't…)

The story of the Goths and Mr. Kulikowski’s arguments are well laid out. The time period he discusses reaches from a brief chapter The Goths before Constantine (with a discourse on the “Scythians”) to the sack of Rome by Alaric and its aftermath, in sequence titled The Roman Empire and and the Barbarian Society, Imperial Politics and the Rise of Gothic Power, Goths and Romans, The Battle of Adrianople, Theodosius and the Goths, Alaric and The Sack of Rome, and The Aftermath of Alaric.

Considering the current discussions and disputes about the Goths, one of the most important chapters is The Search for Gothic Origins. One could quibble with the fact that the author does not start out with this and rather makes it chapter three. This reviewer, after reading the first chapter, immediate skipped to the Search of Origins because it seemed to make more sense.

The discussion revolves around the trustworthiness – or lack thereof – of the ancient writer Jordanes, whose Getica is the predominantly accepted source for the origin and migration of the Goths. He lays out in great detail why he has concluded that Jordanes is not only unreliable but “deeply misleading.” It is a hotchpotch of stories from many different sources, historic, pseudo-historic and legendary, which Jordanes weaves into one linear story, beginning in “Scandza” and ending with the the Goths being subdued by Justinian. Mr. Kulikowski states that the Getica underpins nearly every modern treatment of the Goths, consciously or not. He sees the narrative as so pervasive because the idea of northern Gothic roots has played an over-arching role in conceptualizing the northern European past. He develops this thread in sub-chapters on the northern renaissance and the Germanic past through the re-discovery of Tacitus’ Germania; romanticism and the rise of modern historical scholarship; Johann Gottfried Herder, Volk (or Volksgeist), philology and linguistics; and the pre-war and post-war scholarship, a touchy issue for German and European scholars.

Another argument which the author questions is the idea of Traditionskerne (nuclei of tradition), resulting in ethnogenesis, centering around the Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram. This assumes that Jordanes is “both a valid historical source and repository of Gothic ethnic traditions.”  He claims that the only dissent so far has come from Peter Heather, but that even Heather accepts the basic historicity of Jordanes’ migration narrative.

Other sources for the origin of the Goths, a truly complicated subject, are discussed, archaeological (not a tell-all proposition by any means) as well as societal, as all migrating groups were seen through a filter, first by the Greeks, then through the interpretatio romana, a term which derives from Tacitus’ Germania and which Mr. Kulikowski rightly calls a distorting mirror.

This is a fascinating chapter and by itself makes it worthwhile reading this book.

The remaing chapters as listed further above lay out in depth the history between the empire and the Goths and the attitude of the Romans towards barbarians, the latter’s relationship with the Roman army, the various imperial policies towards the Goths, the frontiers and the barbarian confederacies. Archaeological aspects are discussed where they show evidence of Gothic society and its elite population, agricultural life, trade, and funeral rituals and burial practices. Mr. Kulikowski devotes some space to the Sântana-de-Mureş/Cernjachov culture (also known as Sintana-Mures-Cernjachov) and why, in his opinion, it is Gothic.

He concludes his narrative with:

“[The] Goths themselves were created by the pressures of life on the Roman frontier, and the whole of their social and military history, from its beginnings in the third century until the Gothic wars of Valens in the 360s, developed in the shadow of Rome. Adrianople, and still more the lifetime of Alaric, changed all that. No longer products and victims of Roman history, the Goths – and the many other barbarian settlers who followed in their footsteps - now made Rome's history themselves.”

The book may appear controversial to some, but it is a needed addition to the subject. It's a must-read for all interested in this era of history and hopefully encourages readers to further exploration.

The chapters are divided in sub-chapters with bolded titles which makes it easy to go back to individual sections. The book has two helpful glossaries, a Glossary of Ancient Sources and a Biographical Glossary, as well as a chapter “Further Readings,” and there are four excellent maps.

Table of Contents

More on Mr. Kulikowski, Jordanes, and the Goths can be read at Ancient/Classical History at © 2007 Irene B. Hahn

in association with, click hereRome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric
(Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity)

by Michael Kulikowski
Cambridge University Press 2007, 238 pages
ISBN: 0521846331
List Price: $25.00/£14.24

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