Book Review: The Goths

Review submitted by: Curt Emanuel

Title: The Goths
Author: Heather, Peter
Publisher: Blackwell Publishers Ltd
Publication Date: 1998
ISBN: 0-631-20392-8

I find this book difficult to categorize. I recognize a fine work, but one which didn't fit what I was looking for. Therefore, this will likely be one of my shorter reviews.

By and large, what this volume does is trace the development of the Goths as an ethnic group - after the 4th century as two separate groups, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Regarding the early cultures, the Wielbark, Cernjachov and Przeworsk, he relies heavily on archeological finds, supplemented with the writings of Tacitus, Pliny, and others.

Later, as the Goths became more heavily involved with Rome, he relies more heavily on written accounts, though archaeological remains are still mentioned.

This work is divided into three parts. Part one relates the origin of the Goths, their migration patterns, and how by the Fourth Century they had evolved into several distinct, yet related groups, that were in a position to have a significant impact on the Roman Empire.

Part Two discusses those interactions, how the Huns pushed the Goths toward the Empire and how this impetus made itself known through events such as Hadrianople. It discusses the final division (according to Heather) of the Goths into Visigothic and Ostrogothic Kingdoms and how these two groups came to power in Spain and Italy, respectively.

Part Three discusses the Goths after 476. For the most part, it concentrates on the Ostrogoths with little mention of the Visgothic Kingdom in Spain. This section is largely narrative, with quite a bit of time spent on how Theoderic built his kingdom, how it suffered in his later years and following his death and, finally, how it was destroyed during Justinian's reconquest.

I have been deliberately vague with this account. I have little knowledge of the ethnic development and acculturation of the Goths and am unable to comment on the accuracy of Heather's account. The two areas I would have been interested in; how the Goths lived, and their administrative systems, received little mention.

I was also disappointed at the relative lack of attention paid to the Visigoths. While he goes into considerable detail regarding the end of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, there is virtually no mention of how and why the Visigoths were overcome by Islam in Spain.

If you are interested in the ethnic development of late ancient/early medieval cultures, then this book would be excellent. Heather goes into great detail to support his arguments and, from that standpoint, it is rather easy to see why, for example, he does not believe that the Visigoths actually formed until 418, rather than earlier as Jordanes relates.

However, he ignores the Goths insofar as how they lived. How were they organized - did they live in villages, cities; were they agrarian or nomadic; how large were their family units, etc. These questions are largely unanswered. What were the primary offices of their government and how did they operate? These are issues which interest me more than an in-depth discussion of the demographics of migration patterns.

To each his own however. There is a great deal of information contained here and the individual interested in the ethnic development of the Goths should certainly read this book.

Reviewer Rating: 3-Fair

Original review submitted: January 15, 2001

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