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The Origin and Deeds of the Goths

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The Origin and Deeds of the Goths

For other uses, see Getica (disambiguation).

De origine actibusque Getarum (The Origin and Deeds of the Getae/Goths[n 1]),[1] or the Getica,[2] written in Late Latin by Jordanes (or Jornandes) in 551,[3] claims to be a summary of a voluminous account by Cassiodorus of the origin and history of the Gothic people, which is now lost.[4] However, we cannot assess the extent to which Jordanes actually used the work of Cassiodorus (see the discussion below on the sources also used by Jordanes). It is significant as the only remaining contemporaneous resource, which gives the full story of the origin and history of the Goths. Another aspect of this work is its information about the early history and the customs of Slavs.

Synopsis of the work

The Getica begins with a geography/ethnography of the North, especially of Scandza (16-24). He lets the history of the Goths commence with the emigration of Berig with three ships from Scandza to Gothiscandza (25, 94), in a distant past. In the pen of Jordanes (or Cassiodorus), Herodotus' Getian demi-god Zalmoxis becomes a king of the Goths (39). Jordanes tells how the Goths sacked "Troy and Ilium" just after they had recovered somewhat from the war with Agamemnon (108). They are also said to have encountered the Egyptian pharaoh Vesosis (47). The less fictional part of Jordanes' work begins when the Goths encounter Roman military forces in the 3rd century AD. The work concludes with the defeat of the Goths by the Byzantine general Belisarius. Jordanes concludes the work by stating that he writes to honour those who were victorious over the Goths after a history of 2030 years.

Importance and credibility

Because the original work of Cassiodorus has not survived, the work of Jordanes is one of the most important sources for the period of the migration of the European tribes, and the Ostrogoths and Visigoths in particular, from the 3rd century CE. Cassiodorus had claimed to have the Gothic "folk songs" — carmina prisca (Latin) — as an important source; recent scholarship regards this as highly questionable.[5][page needed] Its main purpose was to give the Gothic ruling class a glorious past, to match the past of the senatorial families of Roman Italy.

Jordanes stated that Getae are the same as the Goths, on the testimony of Orosius Paulus.[2] A controversial passage identifies the ancient people of Venedi mentioned by Tacitus, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy, with the Slavs of the 6th century. As early as 1844,[6] it has been used by eastern European scholars to support the idea of the existence of a Slavic ethnicity long before the last phase of the Late Roman period. Others have rejected this view, based on the absence of concrete archaeological and historiographical data.[7]

The book is important to some medieval historians because it mentions the campaign in Gaul of one Riothamus, "King of the Brettones," who was a possible source of inspiration for the early stories of King Arthur.

One of the major questions concerning the historicity of the work is whether the identities mentioned are as ancient as stated or date from a later time. The evidence allows a wide range of views, the most skeptical being that the work is mainly mythological, or if Jordanes did exist and is the author, that he describes peoples of the 6th century only. According to the latter, his main source's credibility is questionable for a number of reasons. First, the originality of his main source, Cassiodorus, is debatable because large part of it consists of culling of ancient Greek and Latin authors for descriptions of peoples who might have been Goths.[8] Not only that but it seems that Jordanes has distorted Cassiodorus's narrative by presenting us a cursory abridgement of the latter, mixed with 6th century ethnic names.[9][10]

Some scholars claim, that while acceptance of Jordanes at face value may be too naive, a totally skeptical view is not warranted. For example, Jordanes says that the Goths originated in Scandinavia 1490 BC. Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram, believe that there might be a kernel of truth in that claim, if we assume that a clan of the Gutae left Scandinavia long before the establishment of the Amali in the leadership of the Goths. This clan might have contributed to the ethnogenesis of the Gutones in east Pomerania (see Wielbark culture).[11] Another example is the name of the king Cniva which David S. Potter thinks is genuine because, since it doesn't appear in the fictionalized genealogy of Gothic kings given by Jordanes, he must have found it in a genuine 3rd-century source.[12]

Danish scholar Arne Søby Christensen on the other hand claims that the Getica was an entirely fabricated account, and that the origin of the Goths in the book is a construction based on popular Greek and Roman myths as well as a misinterpretation of recorded names from Northern Europe. The purpose of this fabrication, according to Christensen, was to establish a glorious identity for the peoples that had recently gained power in post-Roman Europe.[13] Canadian scholar Walter Goffart suggests another incentive: Getica was part of a conscious plan by emperor Justinian and the propaganda machine at his court. He wanted to affirm that Goths (and their barbarian cousins) did not belong to the Roman world, thus justifying the claims of the Eastern Roman Empire to the western part of the latter.[14]

Similarities with Gutasaga

The migration of the Goths from Scandinavia however bears some similarities with the story of the Gutasaga, which tells of an emigration, that is associated with the historical migration of the Goths during the Migration period:

This Thielvar had a son called Hafthi. And Hafthi's wife was called Whitestar. Those two were the first to settle on Gotland. The first night they slept together she dreamt that three snakes were coiled in her lap. And it seemed to her that they slid out of her lap. She told this dream to her husband Hafthi. He interpreted it thus:

"All is bound with bangles, it will be inhabited, this land, and we shall have three sons."

While still unborn, he gave them all names:

"Guti will own Gotland, Graip will be the second, and Gunfiaun third."

These later divided Gotland into three parts, so that Graip the eldest got the northern third, Guti the middle third, and Gunfjaun the youngest had the south. Then, over a long time, the people descended from these three multiplied so much that the land couldn't support them all. So they selected every third person by lot to leave, with the right to keep and take away with them everything they owned except for their land. They were unwilling to leave then, but went to instead Torsburgen and settled there. But afterwards the country (i.e. Gotland) would not tolerate them, and drove them away.

Then they went away to Fårö and settled there. They couldn't support themselves in that place, so they went to a certain island off the coast of Estland, called Dagö, and settled there and built a town that can still be seen. But they couldn't support themselves there either, so they went up the river Dvina, up through Russia. They went so far that they came to the land of the Greeks (i.e. the Byzantine empire). They asked leave of the Greek king to stay there while the moon waxed and waned. The king granted that, thinking it was just for one month. Then after a month, he wanted to send them away, but they answered that the moon waxed and waned for ever and always, and so they said they were allowed to stay. Word of this dispute of theirs reached the queen. She said, "My lord king, you granted them permission to dwell while the moon waxed and waned; now that's for ever and always, so you can't take it off them." So they settled there, and live there still, and still have something of our language.

That the Goths should have gone "to the land of the Greeks" is consistent with their first appearance in classical sources: Eusebius of Caesarea reported that they devastated "Macedonia, Greece, the Pontus, and Asia" in 263.

The emigration would have taken place in the 1st century AD, and loose contact with their homeland would have been maintained for another two centuries, the comment that the emigrant's language "still has something" in common shows awareness of dialectal separation. The events would have needed to be transmitted orally for almost a millennium before the text was written down.

The mention of the Dvina river is in good agreement with the Wielbark Culture. Historically, the Goths followed the Vistula, but during the Viking Age, the Dvina-Dniepr waterway succeeded the Vistula as the main trade route to Greece for the Gutes (or Gotar in standard Old Norse), and it is not surprising that it also replaced the Vistula in the migration traditions.[15]


A manuscript of the text was rediscovered in Vienna in 1442 by the Italian humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini.[16] Its editio princeps was issued in 1515 by Konrad Peutinger, followed by many other editions.[17]

The classic edition is that of 19th-century German classical scholar Theodor Mommsen (in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, auctores antiqui, v. ii.). The best surviving manuscript was the Heidelberg manuscript, written in Heidelberg, Germany, probably in the 8th century, but this was destroyed in a fire at Mommsen's house on July 7, 1880. Subsequently, another 8th-century manuscript was discovered, containing chapters I to XLV, and is now the 'Codice Basile' at the Archivio di Stato in Palermo.[18] The next of the manuscripts in historical value are the Vaticanus Palatinus of the 10th century, and the Valenciennes manuscript of the 9th century.

Jordanes' work had been well known prior to Mommsen's 1882 edition. It was cited in Edward Gibbon's classic 6 volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), and had been earlier mentioned by Degoreus Whear (1623) who refers to both Jordanes' De regnorum ac temporum successione and to De rebus Geticis.[19]


In his Preface, Jordanes presents his plan

" condense in my own style in this small book the twelve volumes of [Cassiodorus] Senator on the origin and deeds of the Getae [i.e. Goths] from olden times to the present day."

Jordanes admits that he did not then have direct access to Cassiodorus's book, and could not remember the exact words, but that he felt confident that he had retained the substance in its entirety.[20] He goes on to say that he added relevant passages from Latin and Greek sources, composed the Introduction and Conclusion, and inserted various things of his own authorship. Due to this mixed origin, the text has been examined in an attempt to sort out the sources for the information it presents.

Jordanes himself

Main article: Jordanes

Former notarius to a Gothic magister militum Gunthigis, Jordanes would have been in a position to know traditions concerning the Gothic peoples without necessarily relying on anyone else. However, there is no evidence for this in the text, and some of the instances where the work refers to carmina prisca can be shown to depend on classical authors.[5]


Main article: Cassiodorus

Cassiodorus was a native Italian (Squillace, Bruttium), who rose to become advisor and secretary to the Gothic kings in various high offices. His and the Goths' most successful years were perhaps the reign of Theodoric. The policy of Theodoric's government at that time was reconciliation and in that spirit he incorporated Italians into the government whenever he could. He asked Cassiodorus to write a work on the Goths that would, in essence, demonstrate their antiquity, nobility, experience and fitness to rule.

Theodoric died in 526 and Cassiodorus went on to serve his successors in the same capacity. He had not by any means forgotten the task assigned to him by his former king. In 533 a letter ostensibly written by King Athalaric to the senate in Rome, but ghosted by Cassiodorus, mentions the great work on the Goths, now complete, in which Cassiodorus "restored the Amali with the illustriousness of their race." The work must have been written at Ravenna, seat of the Gothic kings, between 526 at latest and 533.

What Cassiodorus did with the manuscripts after that remains unknown. The fact that Jordanes once obtained them from a steward indicates that the wealthy Cassiodorus was able to hire at least one full-time custodian of them and other manuscripts of his; i.e., a private librarian (a custom not unknown even today).

Jordanes says in the preface to Getica that he obtained them from the librarian for three days in order to read them again (relegi). The times and places of these readings have been the concern of many scholars, as this information possibly bears on how much of Getica is based on Cassiodorus.

There are two main theories, one expressed by the Mierow source below, and one by the O'Donnell source below. Mierow's is earlier and does not include a letter cited by O'Donnell.[21]

Gothic sovereignty came to an end with the reconquest of Italy by Belisarius, military chief of staff for Justinian, ending in 539. Cassiodorus' last ghost writing for the Gothic kings was done for Witiges, who was removed to Constantinople in 540. A number of token kings ruled from there while Belisarius established that the Goths were not going to reinvade and retake Italy (which was however taken again by the Lombards after Justinian's death).

Cassiodorus retired in 540 to his home town of Squillace, where he used his wealth to build a monastery with school and library, Vivarium.

Authors cited by Getica

The events, persons and peoples of Getica are put forward as being up to many centuries prior to the time of Jordanes. Taken at face value, they precede any other history of Scandinavia.

Jordanes does cite some writers well before his time, to whose works he had access but we do not, and other writers whose works are still extant. Mierow gives a summary of these, which is reviewed below, and also states other authors he believed were used by Jordanes but were not cited in Getica (refer to the Mierow source cited below). Mierow's list of cited authors is summarized as follows:

The late Latin of Jordanes

The early Late Latin of Jordanes evidences a certain variability in the structure of the language which has been taken as an indication that the author no longer had a clear standard of correctness.[22] Jordanes tells us in Getica that he interrupted work on the Romana to write Getica, and then finished Romana. Jordanes states in Romana that he wrote it in the 24th year of the emperor Justinian, which began April 1, 551. In Getica he mentions a plague of nine years previous. This is probably the Plague of Justinian, that began in Egypt in 541, reached Constantinople in 542 and went on to Italy in 543. The time is too early to identify a direction of change toward any specific Romance language, as none had appeared yet. This variability, however, preceded the appearance of the first French, Italian, Spanish, etc. After those languages developed, the scholastics gradually restored classical Latin as a means of scholarly communication.

Jordanes refers to himself as agrammaticus before his conversion. This obscure statement is sometimes taken to refer to his Latin. Variability, however, characterizes all Late Latin, and besides, the author was not writing just after his conversion (for the meaning of the latter, see under Jordanes), but a whole career later, after associating with many Latin speakers and having read many Latin books. According to him, he should have been grammaticus by that time. More likely, his style reflects the way Latin was under the Goths.

Some of the variabilities are as follows (Mierow):

Orthography. The spelling of many words differs from the classical, which Jordanes would certainly have known. For example, Grecia replaces Graecia; Eoropam, Europam; Atriatici, Adriatici.

Inflection. Substantives migrate between declensions; verbs between conjugations. Some common changes are fourth to second (lacu to laco), second declension adjective to third (magnanimus to magnanimis), i-stems to non-i-stems (mari to mare in the ablative). Gender may change. Verbs may change voice.

One obvious change in a modern direction is the indeclinability of many formerly declined nouns, such as corpus. Also, the -m accusative ending disappears, leaving the preceding vowel or replacing it with -o (Italian, Romanian), as in Danubio for Danubium.

Syntax. Case variability and loss of agreement in prepositional phrases (inter Danubium Margumque fluminibus), change of participial tense (egressi .. et transeuntes), loss of subjunctive in favor of indicative, loss of distinction between principal and subordinate clauses, confusion of subordinating conjunctions.

Semantics. A different vocabulary appears: germanus for frater, proprius for suus, civitas for urbs, pelagus for mare, etc.




  • Christensen, Arne Søby. Cassiodorus, Jordanes, and the History of the Goths. Studies in a Migration Myth, 2002, ISBN 978-87-7289-710-3
  • Costa, Gustavo. Le antichità germaniche nella cultura italiana da Machiavelli a Vico, 1977. ISBN 88-7088-001-X
  • Curta, Florin The Making of the Slavs. History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c.500-700, Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-521-03615-1
  • Geary, Patric. The Myth of Nations, the Medieval Origins of Europe, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-691-11481-1
  • Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides, The Migration Age and the Later roman Empire, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8122-3939-3
  • Jordanes. The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, translated by C. Mierow, Princeton University Press, 1908
  • , Historia, 1982, vol 31, 223-240
  • Potter, David Stone. The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-10058-5
  • Seyffert, Oscar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, edited by Henry Nettleship and J. E. Sandys, 1894
  • [1]
  • Thomas, William and Gamble, Miller. The Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Its Inheritance in Source-valuation and Criticism, Washington: Catholic University of America, 1927
  • Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths (transl. by Thomas J. Dunlap), University of California Press, 1988, ISBN 0-520-06983-8

External links

  • "The Origin and Deeds of the Goths", trans. Charles C. Mierow, with introductory note by J. Vanderspoel, Department of Greek, Latin and Ancient History, University of Calgary
  • Northvegr edition, C. Mierow translation online

English translation

  • Charles Christopher Mierow (translator). The Gothic History of Jordanes. In English Version with an Introduction and a Commentary, 1915. Reprinted 2006. Evolution Publishing, [2]
  • Charles C. Mierow. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Princeton: University Press, 1915. (Reprinted at Cambridge: Speculum Historiae, 1966.)
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