Goths - The Greatest of the German Tribes
Jornandes in his Getica (Gothic history) states that the Goths originated from Scandza, that place described by Ptolemy as shaped like a Juniper leaf with bulging sides that taper down to a point. Jornandes added more detail:
“It lies in front of the river Vistula which rises in the Sarmatian Mountains and flows through it triple mouth into the northern ocean in sight of Scandza separating Germany and Scythia. Here also there are said to be many small islands scattered about. If wolves cross over to these islands when the sea is frozen by reason of the great cold, they are said to lose their sight. Thus the land is not only inhospitable to men but cruel even to wild beasts.”
The map above identifies the Gothic point of origin as Gotland, an island east of Sweden. It also marks the Gothic migration sequence to Sweden, eastern Poland, and then Scythia.
Again we let Jornandes explain:
“Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza. Soon they moved from here to the abodes of the Ulmerugi, who then dwelt on the shores of Ocean where they pitched camp, joined battle with them and drove them from their homes. Then they subdued their neighbors, the Vandals, and thus added to their victories. But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king--about the fifth since Berig--he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue. Here they were delighted with the great richness of the country, and it is said that when half the army had been brought over, the bridge whereby they had crossed the river fell in utter ruin, nor could anyone thereafter pass to or fro”.
Historians have identified Gothiscandza as northern Poland. Note the similarity between the words Gothiscandza and Gdansk, the port city of modern Poland.
When was this migration? Extant data suggest that the Goths crossed the Baltic Sea circa 300 B.C. inhabited the Polish territory during the 1st century A.D, and then Scythia during the 2nd century A.D.
The Goths maintained their sub-tribe names from their time in Sweden: the Ostrogoths being the eastern tribe and the Visigoths the western. After the migration, he Ostrogoths occupied the area north of the Black Sea while the Visigoths occupied the area of the Balkans (Dacia).
With respect to Roman history, we first hear of the Goths when Maximinus became emperor. He was a Thracian with Gothic ancestry – his father a Goth named Micca and his mother a member of the Alani tribe named Ababa. We next hear of the Goths when they ambush and defeat Decius in 251 A.D. at Abrittus.
Tacitus wrote a treatise on the German people titled Germania which, despite its biases, provides useful information about the Germans including the Goths. Selected quotes below:
The people of Germany appear to me indigenous, and free from intermixture with foreigners, either as settlers or casual visitants. For the emigrants of former ages performed their expeditions not by land, but by water; and that immense, and, if I may so call it, hostile ocean, is rarely navigated by ships from our world. Then, besides the danger of a boisterous and unknown sea, who would relinquish Asia, Africa, or Italy, for Germany, a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native?
I concur in opinion with those who deem the Germans never to have intermarried with other nations; but to be a race, pure, unmixed, and stamped with a distinct character. Hence a family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure.
The land, though varied to a considerable extent in its aspect, is yet universally shagged with forests, or deformed by marshes: moister on the side of Gaul, more bleak on the side of Norieum and Pannonia. It is productive of grain, but unkindly to fruit-trees. It abounds in flocks and herds, but in general of a small breed.
Even iron is not plentiful among them; as may be inferred from the nature of their weapons. Swords or broad lances are seldom used; but they generally carry a spear, called in their language framea, which has an iron blade, short and narrow, but so sharp and manageable, that, as occasion requires, they employ it either in close or distant fighting.
This spear and a shield are all the armor of the cavalry. The foot have, besides, missile weapons, several to each man, which they hurl to an immense distance. They are either naked, or lightly covered with a small mantle; and have no pride in equipage: their shields only are ornamented with the choicest colors. Few are provided with a coat of mail and scarcely here and there one with a casque or helmet. Their horses are neither remarkable for beauty nor swiftness, nor are they taught the various evolutions practiced with us. The cavalry either bear down straight forwards, or wheel once to the right, in so compact a body that none is left behind the rest. Their principal strength, on the whole, consists in their infantry: hence in an engagement these are intermixed with the cavalry; so well accordant with the nature of equestrian combats is the agility of those foot soldiers, whom they select from the whole body of their youth, and place in the front of the line.
In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire.
The Germans transact no business, public or private, without being armed: but it is not customary for any person to assume arms till the state has approved his ability to use them.
In the field of battle, it is disgraceful for the chief to be surpassed in valor; it is disgraceful for the companions not to equal their chief; but it is reproach and infamy during a whole succeeding life to retreat from the field surviving him.
During the intervals of war, they pass their time less in hunting than in a sluggish repose, divided between sleep and the table. All the bravest of the warriors, committing the care of the house, the family affairs, and the lands, to the women, old men, and weaker part of the domestics, stupefy themselves in inaction.
Their drink is a liquor prepared from barley or wheat brought by fermentation to a certain resemblance of wine.
It is well known that none of the German nations inhabit cities; or even admit of contiguous settlements. They dwell scattered and separate, as a spring, a meadow, or a grove may chance to invite them.
Remember that Germania was written in 98 A.D. during the Gothic migration so he had no sense of the Goths as a major adversary of Rome. To him they were a single member of the tribes who occupied northeastern Germany during his time. They would not reach Scythia until two centuries later.
Footnote: Jornandes is the primary source of information about the Goths. He was a Goth himself who served as a Roman bureaucrat during the sixth century A.D. He began to write late in life and chose a history of Rome as his first subject. This task was interrupted when a friend asked him to write a summary of the six volume history of the Goths written by Cassiodorus (lost). Writing in Constantinople, he completed the text in 551 A.D.