Goths, Romans, and Lombards: Some Recent Thoughts on Creating Identity in Early Medieval Italy

This essay was originally composed in 2002. At that time notions of ethnic identity were all the rage in late Antique studies. Modern notions of ethnicity and nationhood certainly make it difficult for us to understand how peoples in Late Antiquity identified themselves. Then, like today, identity was a complex construction. Attempts to find steadfast Germanic or Roman traits have simplified notions of identity in this era. What follows are some of my thoughts on this topic.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire is often dated as 476 CE.[1] In that year a group of “barbarian,” soldiers deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus, and proclaimed a strongman, Odoacer, king.  Although recent scholars have disputed the importance of this event, the date is significant in that another Western emperor would never again reign in Rome. Often the successors of these Roman rulers are simply called barbarians, or grouped as various “Germanic” tribes such as the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. This essay explores how two different non-Roman historians represented the past to their peoples: the Gothic historian Jordanes’ sixth-century work, the Getica, and the eighth-century Lombard historian Paul the Deacons’ History of the Lombards.

The purpose and value of these types of histories has created a sharp divide among contemporary scholars. Walter Pohl explains that scholars have used two “conflicting modes” of interpretation when examining the early histories of barbarian peoples:

One school has brought together an impressive stock of ethnographic and mythological parallels to prove the basic authenticity of the material in these histories even where it is legendary. Others have argued for the more or less fictional character of these texts.[2]


Both Jordanes’ and Paul’s history may be considered as origin stories. However, their role as accurate historical accounts, which built a sense of shared ethnic identity for the Goths and the Lombards, continues to evoke considerable debate.


The self-proclaimed Goth, Jordanes, composed the Getica around 551 CE.  Recent disputes concerning Getica has centered upon both the extent of Jordanes’ input into the work, and its purpose.[3]  Some scholars suggest that the Getica merely mimicked Cassiodorus’ history and served primarily to promote the Goths as a legitimate “people”. Jordanes admitted that his work was an abbreviation of Cassiodorus’ now lost chronicle.[4] Herwig Wolfram argues that Jordanes borrowed heavily from Cassiodorus’ Origo Gothica.[5] He contends that this indebtedness is reflected in the Getica, and that Jordanes’ writing reveals Theoderic’s attempt to create an origin myth for the Goths. This history could be used to promote his Amal dynasty and to build the heterogeneous Goths into a gens.[6] Johan Webensteinerr supports Wolfram’s claims, asserting that nearly every sentence in the Getica can be traced stylistically to Cassiodorus.[7]

Some historians, however, conclude that the Getica reflects Jordanes’ viewpoint, providing a picture of the political environment in Constantinople in the early 550s. Walter Goffart contends that the Getica closely echoed Justianic propaganda. According to him, Jordanes served in Justinian’s court. He suggests that Jordanes’ description of the marriage of the Ostrogothic woman Matasunthatha to Justinian’s cousin Germanus, in 550, helped to undermine Ostrogothic resistance in Italy. Goffart believes that the Getica had a clear political and gendered message. “It invited the Goths to cease resistance, but also gave encouragement to those who worked in Constantinople for a modus vivendi” between feminine Goths and masculine Romans.[8] Such a gendered account turned contemporary Gothic propaganda on its ear. Indeed, it echoes some of the views and themes found in the histories of Jordanes’ contemporary, Procopius.[9]

Patrick Amory rejects “Goffart’s literary reading of the Getica as an allegorical love story between (feminine) Goths and (masculine) Romans, written by a pseudonymous author for the emperor.” Amory, however, agrees with Goffart that Jordanes must have been an Eastern Roman writer—claiming that the author was a Byzantine military official. Amory alleges that the Getica represented a “classical man’s attempt to explain a changing world.  The work of Jordanes exemplifies the widening gap between ethnographic description and the newly visible diversity of the former Roman Empire.” According to Amory, “There is no reason to think that Jordanes thought of the [Byzantine] conquest of Italy as anything other than a good thing, despite his pro-Amal remarks.” Amory believes that the creation of the Getica was “an attempt to reconcile ethnography with the disappearance of a Mediterranean-wide political and cultural unity.”[10]

I would suggest that Amory overemphasizes the Getica’s links with classical Roman historians and a fading classical past. Amory’s rejection of the Goths as a genuine ethnicity has caused him to ignore any evidence of ethnogenesis in the Getica. In fact, Jordanes’ vision of the Goths follows similar pro-Gothic models found in the fifth-century Christian historian Orosius, and the seventh-century Iberian historian Isidore of Seville. Like these historians, Jordanes attempted to show how the Goths had traveled the long road from barbarity to civilization. The Getica served as a plea to both Goths and Romans to end their conflict and unite for a better future.

Evidence of this theme may be observed in the Getica’s focus on the Romans’ and Goths’ political relationship. Jordanes described the negative as well as the positive exchanges between the two peoples. Jordanes credited the ecclesiastical writer Orosius— not Pliny or Tacitus—for his geographical introduction. He proclaimed that the Goths, like many northern barbarians, had “burst forth like a swarm of bees into Europe.” At first, it was the Goths’ fighting prowess that had brought them to the Romans’ attention. Jordanes suggested that Rome depended upon the Goths’ martial manliness for its survival. He wrote: “Now it had long been a hard matter for the Roman army to fight against any nations whatsoever without them. This is evident from the way in which the Goths were frequently called upon.”[11] The notion that the Goths had achieved their right to rule because of their fighting abilities was a theme that would be used again by Isidore of Seville to explain how and why the Visigoths had defeated and driven the Romans out of Spain.[12]

Yet Jordanes, who praised the Goths for their fighting prowess, needed to explain how the Goths had been defeated and subjugated by the Huns. While he recognized that the Huns were “fiercer than ferocity itself,” he suggested that the Huns were not necessarily better warriors than the Goths, but “by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom they did not really surpass in war.”[13]

The Goths and the Romans, in Jordanes telling, shared a symbiotic relationship. The Goths association with the Romans helped them “restrain their barbarous customs.” Under the influence of the Romans, the Goths learned ethics and logic, attributes, which Jordanes argued, “made them skilled in reasoning beyond all other races.” Jordanes believed that the Goths had become a “civilized” people, “the Goths no longer as strangers and pilgrims, but as citizens and lords, began to rule the inhabitants, and to hold their own right all over the northern country as far as the Danube.[14]

This development, according to Jordanes, had created two choices for the Goths and the Romans: they could fight each other to the detriment of both peoples, or join together and rule the world. “Bad” emperors, like Valens, had attempted to destroy the Goths, both by war and heresy. Following other pro-Gothic historian, like Isidore and Orosius, Jordanes argued that the emperor Valens had “tricked” the Goths into accepting Arianism.[15] Jordanes blamed the Goths’ Arianism on an “evil Emperor,” suggesting that under a “benevolent Emperor” this error could be eliminated. This passage also indicates that Jordanes disapproved of the Goths continued rejection of orthodoxy.

Jordanes laid out the Goths’ and Romans’ long political relationship as a series of missed opportunities. Jordanes argued that “good” Roman emperors nurtured an amicable relationship with the Goths. He praised the Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-395) as a “lover of peace and the Gothic race.” Theodosius’ respect for the Goths led to an alliance between the two peoples, and together they defeated the usurper Eugenius. This chance at unity, however, dissolved due to Theodosius’ heirs’ incompetence. After Theodosius’ death, the emperor’s sons’ “luxurious living,” and failure to grant the Goths their customary gifts, had led to the Goths’ abandonment of the Romans.[16]Throughout his account Jordanes used certain Emperor’s villainy as a means to justify Gothic attacks and seizures of Roman territory.

Jordanes’ depiction of the Romans’ and Goths’ mid-fifth-century joint effort to defeat the Huns represented another lost opportunity for the two peoples to work together. Only unified were the two gens capable of defeating the powerful Huns.  Again, however, a disagreement between some Roman and Gothic generals destroyed their mutual trust. Jordanes lamented: “Thus while human frailty rushes into suspicion, it often loses the opportunity of doing great things.”[17]

Torn apart once more, Jordanes emphasized that the fifth-century Goths had been enticed to seize Roman territory in Spain and Italy. He attributed these attacks on the teetering Western Roman Empire and the detrimental prying of the Vandal king, Gaiseric into Roman affairs.[18]He indicated that Theoderic had only hesitantly led the Ostrogoths into Italy in 489. Theoderic had only invaded Italy at the bequest of the emperor Zeno, whom had asked the Goth to “become ruler over both the Goths and Romans.” According to Jordanes, Theoderic was merely protecting Italy for his superior in Constantinople. Indeed, Jordanes pointed out that in Theoderic’s will, he commanded his people “to love the Senate and the Roman peoples and to make sure of the peace and good will of the Emperor of the East, as next after God.[19] This view closely follows propaganda from the Ostrogoths that, in the view of Jonathan Arnold, since the reign of Theoderic had sought to promote the Goths as new Romans, and their Kings as Western emperors.[20]

Reflecting Justinian’s propaganda, Jordanes claimed that this bond between Roman and Goth was broken by Amalasuintha’s “murder” at the hands of her cousin Theodahad.[21] Almalasuintha’s death marked the end of the “true” Ostrogothic dynasty. Jordanes does not even mention the Ostrogothic King Totila or his numerous victories over the Romans. Instead he proclaimed that the emperor Justinian had at last conquered the Goths. This defeat was a good thing for the Goths, because it not only restored Italy to its rightful rulers, but finally united the Goths and the Romans.[22]

Jordanes’ responsibility or motivation for writing the Getica may never be fully known. However, the Getica’s conclusion reveals Jordanes feeling on ethnogenesis:

And now we have recited the origin of the Goths, the noble line of the Amali and the deeds of brave men. The glorious race yielded to a more glorious prince and surrendered to a more valiant leader Justinian and his consul Belisarius shall be named and known as Vandalicus, Africanus, and Geticus.[23]


With the end of their military struggle in Italy, the Getica served as a reminder to both the Goths and the Romans that by working together, the two peoples could merge as one, and thus protect the Roman Empire form “true” barbarian invaders.

History of the Lombards

Paul’s motive for creating his history also remains controversial. Pohl proposes that the Lombard’s need to create a common ethnic identity became more important after the Lombard kingdom lost its independence at the hands of the Franks. He explains: “In the Lombard period Italy was a country of multiple ethnic and political identities. Lombards and Romans, Greeks and Franks became integral parts of a political universe that could not define itself as a clear-cut ethnic identity.”[24]

Goffart suggests that Paul’s primary purpose was to place the Lombards in a Christian setting. By depicting the Lombards as good Christians, Paul also achieved his secondary aim of promoting good relations with both the conquering Franks and the papacy in Rome.[25] This view is reasonable. Paul often portrayed the Franks favorably; this passage demonstrates that they had become the protectors of the Christian world:

At that time the nation of the Saracens, passing from Africa in the place, which is called Septem, invaded all of Spain. Then after ten years they came with their wives and children and entered the province of Aquitaine in Gaul so as to inhabit it. Charles, indeed, had a quarrel with Eudo, prince of Aquitaine, but they joined together and fought by common consent against the Saracens. The Franks attacked them and killed three hundred and seventy-five thousand of the Saracens.[26]


Goffart also argues that Paul wanted to expel the Byzantines from Italian soil.[27] Paul frequently depicted the Byzantines as heretics, intent on constantly interfering with the papacy in Rome:

Then Paul the patrician sent his men out of Ravenna to kill the pope, but the Lombards fought against them in defense of the Pope. . . At this time the emperor Leo burned the images of saints placed in Constantinople and ordered the Roman pontiff to do the like if he wished to have the emperor’s favor, but the pontiff disdained to do this thing. Also the whole of Ravenna and Venetia resisted such commands, and if the pontiff had not prohibited them they would have attempted to set up an emperor for themselves.


Paul described the on-going political turmoil in Italy as an ideological and political struggle between the diverse power bases on the peninsula. By portraying the Lombards as the popes’ protectors, Paul was attempting to ally the Lombards with the papacy as well as the invading Carolingian armies.

Paul’s entire work, thus, must be seen in the context of eighth-century Frankish historiography. Mathew Innes convincingly shows that in the eighth century, “intellectuals began to sense a more radical discontinuity between their world and that of Rome.” Charlemagne saw himself as a ruler “of the peoples who had replaced the Romans in the west. . . .This in turn led to the possibility of viewing the gentes that had succeeded the Romans as rulers in the west.[28] Paul’s description of the Lombards’ invasion of Italy may have served as a way for the Lombards to show that they were members of this new wave of rulers.

Nevertheless, Innes rejects, I believe rightly, the notion that the Lombards or the Franks recognized each other as similar “Germanic peoples.” He argues that by the seventh century the Franks preferred to see themselves as descendants of Troy. Innes argues that this origin legend arose out of the interaction of the Roman and Frankish populations in Gaul. The Franks wanted to be seen—not as the ancestors of fifth-century barbarian invaders— but as “new” Romans.


Modern notions of ethnicity and nationhood make it difficult for us to understand how peoples in Late Antiquity identified themselves. Then, like today, identity was a complex construction. Attempts to find steadfast Germanic or Roman traits have simplified notions of identity in this era. As Amory argues, a Goth or Lombard could be a Catholic as well as an Arian. Peoples who considered themselves as Romans, Goths, or Lombards could also share hairstyles and dress.[29] Indeed, as Jonathan Arnold has shown, the “Gothic moustache” worn by Theoderic and Theodahad may not have been as significant an ethnic marker as traditionally believed.[30]

Yet, we should not go too far. Maria Kouroumali has rightly criticized Amory and others for “falling into the trap of modernizing the past.” As she maintains, “It should be kept in mind that most people in those times (the sixth century) were distinguished either by the home of their father or their birthplace.”[31] One finds in the sixth-century sources of Cassiodorus, Procopius, and Agathias that Romans and Goths in the fifth and sixth centuries certainly could tell each-other apart. Pohl, concludes, as well, that by the seventh century, people in Italy considered themselves as the heirs to triumphant “Lombard” invaders.[32]  Moreover, we must not see Goths, Romans, and Lombards as homogenous groups. As Peter Heather has noted recently, “affiliation to the group’s identity fell off dramatically as you moved down the social scale.”[33]

Even today, an individual’s notion of identity has many levels. One may rapidly shift an allegiance from one ethnic group to another. This malleability makes it difficult to understand ethnicity in the modern world, and may help to explain why historians continue to struggle to understand how Early Medieval historians, like Paul and Jordanes, attempted to do the same for their own peoples. Humans, indeed, seem to have an innate way of pointing out difference that frequently defies scientific or historical explanation.













[1] E.g, Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle 476.2 (26). Though, as Brian Croke (101) points out, Marcellinus represents largely an Eastern perspective. Cf. Jonathan Arnold’s (2014) convincing arguments, suggesting that the rule of the Gothic rex Theoderic (ruled493-526) was represented by contemporary Italians as an imperial restoration.

[2] Walter Pohl, “Memory, Identity and Power in Lombard Italy,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 9-10


[3] Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History A.D. 550-800: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 21.


[4] Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, Trans Thomas J. Dunlap (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 15.

[5] Jordanes, The Gothic History of Jordanes, trans. Charles Mierow (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1915), 51.

[6] Wolfram, 3-18.

[7] Quoted in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 306.

[8] Goffart, 97-106. A position that Goffart latter backed away from (2005, xviii).

[9] For the Goths and Italo-Romans’ long campaign to paint Theoderic and his heirs as manly “ Romans”, whilst painting the Eastern Romans as unmanly “Greeks”, see Arnold (2014); Stewart (2013, ch.5). I would like to thank Jonathan Arnold for sharing his views in a paper “Manly Goths, Effeminate Romans” that he shared with me before publication.

[10] Amory, 292-303.

          [11] Jordanes, 52-3.

[12] Isidore of Seville, (prologue).

[13] Jordanes, 85-6.

[14] Jordanes, 90.

[15] Jordanes, 88, 112.

[16] Jordanes, 92

[17] Jordanes, 120.

[18] Jordanes, 103.

[19] Jordanes, 138-139.


   [20] Jonathan Arnold [ Theoderic, the Goths, and Restoration of the Roman Empire (Ph.D diss.,University of Michigan, 2008), 75]goes so far to say “Theoderic’s reign…constituted much more than simply a king along the same lines as other ‘barbarian’ kings of the West. He was a Roman emperor, acknowledged as such by his own subjects and presented as such, though in a deferential and conciliatory manner, to the East.” Cf. the more restrained views found in John Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 77-78


[21] Procopius (Secret History 16.5) claimed that Theodahad had murdered Amalasuintha at Theodora’s behest.

[22] Jordanes, 141-142.

[23] Jordanes, 142.

[24] Pohl, 21.

[25] Goffart, 402.

[26] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, trans. William Dudley Foulke (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1915, reprint, 1974), 287.

[27] Goffart, 411.

[28] Mathew Innes, “The Carolingians and the Germanic Past,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 200), 235.

[29] Amory, 412.

[30] Jonathan Arnold, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache,” Journal of Late Antiquity 6 (Spring 2013): 152-83. Contra Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: oxford University Press, 2005), 73.


[31] Maria Kouroumali, “The Justianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses,” in War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, 2 vols (Brill, 2013), 970-71.


[32] Pohl, 23.


[33] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Oxford: Macmillan, 2013), 28.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s