At some point in the third-century a hitherto unknown group of people appeared around Rome's Danube frontier. These people would come to be known as the Goths. They began their history during one of Rome’s darkest periods as one of many but grew to become an entity of their own. In 378 they destroyed the larger part of the imperial eastern Roman army at Adrianople and an emperor with it. By 410 their relations with the Empire culminated with the capture and sack of Rome under their leader Alaric and eventual settlement as the first autonomous barbarian kingdom within the Roman Empire. This is period and people of study in Michael Kulikowsky’s book Rome’s Gothic Wars.
The first in a series, the book is an introductory-level study that seeks to give the reader a general understanding of who the Goths were and how their relations with the Empire culminated with Rome’s sack under one of their leaders. The narrative begins from this point then quickly traces this leader’s steps back to a starting point of Gothic history, before returning to the subject matter at hand. We see them evolve from a simple raiding group threatening the Danube in the 3rd century to the formidable – gradually Christian – tribes of the 4th. Many of the old preconceived notions of the Goths are shattered. As opposed to a victorious Alaric defiantly shouting “Vae Victis”, Kulikowsky gives the portrait of a dejected leader who has failed to find a place in the service of the empire, an honor he desperately sought.
One of the main, and most controversial, aspects of the book is a review of the various theories of origin and their related problems. The author challenges traditional migration theories that he believes rely too heavily on a dubious 6th century source, Jordanes. In place of migrations, the Goths, like most other Germanic groups of the 3rd century, were a conglomeration produced both by pressure from the Empire and the external “barbarian world”. Moreover, Kulikowsky reviews the various epochs of European history and how they have come to shape our perception of these people. He rounds off the section with a small synopsis of the culture which the Goths left behind through archeological evidence. This is perhaps my favorite section of the book since it gave a sense of the utter mayhem that exists in Gothic and late Roman studies.
The book is brief and simple; the actual narrative is less then 200 pages and there is little in terms of detail, as much of the information is survey. The main figures of later Rome – Diocletian, Constantine and Theodosius – receive some focus in order to understand why they played the grand roles that they did. Lesser emperors are studied only through their relations with the Goths and events receive only minor detail. The battle of Adrianople, for instance, does not contain a detailed description; but rather the cause and effect is the chief concern.
Lastly, the book contains a number of indices with the names of various figures of significance to Roman history and the era in question. The important names will be introduced in the book but this is still a welcome addition, as both reference and since names often repeat and the mind is forgetful. Kulikowsky also provides the reader with a rather detailed “further reading” section describing the strong and weak points of the books he recommends, a great list for the prospective layman.
Kulikowsky does an excellent job in putting together such a confused history into this brief but effective narrative. Those who have deeper knowledge of this era should not ignore it on the basis of being introductory since the author doesn’t shy away from controversy, however they should keep in mind that this is a book targeted to a layman audience.
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