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The Goths in the Fourth Century - Peter Heather/John Matthews

Book Review by docoflove1974

If one wishes to peer into the life of a society, one of the most direct and interesting methods is to read the texts of that society. Not only do these gems of literature detail the events of the day, but also give the biases and perspectives of the author and, often of the society of that place and age. Heather and Matthews’ The Goths in the Fourth Century is a short collection of texts and analysis of artifacts which help to further illustrate Romano-Gothic relations from the late third century through the fourth century CE.

This volume is one in a series put out by Liverpool University Press in the Translated Texts for Historians series. Peter Heather is a professor of late Antiquity and early Medieval history at the Oxford University; his colleague John Matthews is holds similar research interests as a professor at Yale University. Both have committed a lifetime of research to the study of life in the sunset of the Roman Empire, describing the various relationships Rome had with her neighbors and enemies, both internal and external.

While one would naturally think that this book is a cover-to-cover read, it actually is set up more as a specific-topic read; that is to say, if one has an interest in one of the texts translated in this book, then one would use it accordingly. There is no cohesive theme to the book; rather it is a combination of texts and data which heretofore were unavailable in English, and which could be useful for the scholar of Romano-Gothic relations in the fourth century CE. This is not necessarily a criticism of the book, as the authors state clearly in the preface the intention behind the volume: “Nearly all the texts we have chosen for translation are either unavailable, or are very inaccessible, in English. Most of them were written in Greek” (vii). Heather and Matthews give several other books and texts for the general knowledge of the Gothic peoples—in both a diachronic and synchronic perspective—in the preface and in their ample reference section. However, they make it clear that this book is not meant for the novice of late Antiquity history.

Since the book is truly meant to be read as individual texts, I will discuss each chapter individually. It should be noted that every chapter begins with a concise but informative history behind the text and the people involved, as well as discussion on critique when possible. Additionally, where there are variances in translation or transcription, this is noted in the footnotes, with Heather and Matthews not only giving the other options but their opinion and rationale for their choice. The book ends with a copious reference section of both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, it is a valuable addition to the library of anyone who is interested in the late Roman Empire.

Chapter 1:
The Canonical Letter of Gregory Thaumaturgus and the Third-Century Invasions

The chapter begins with a brief introduction to Gregory Thaumaturgus, a bishop in Neocaesarea (now Niksar) in Pontus in the mid-third century. He was a fairly important figure in the early Catholic Church, and among the many witnesses to the Gothic raids of Roman lands in Pontus. His letter addressed the violence between the two groups in the mid-200s; at this time, the Goths were predominantly Christian, albeit of the Arian sect, so he and others in the Christian religion viewed this as Christian-on-Christian crime. Heather and Matthews also provide a general but concise overview of the socio-political situation of the Goths at that moment, both the invasions and the contemporary accounts of the events. The text translated is taken from Page 10.1020-1048 of the letter.

Chapter 2:
Themistius, Orationes 8 and 10: Goths and Romans in the Fourth Century

Themistius was a pagan advisor of Paphlagonian extraction who “played a major role in the regimes of a succession of Christian emperors: Constantius II, Jovian, Valens and Theodosius I” (11). He made various political speeches to the emperors and the other members of the political elite of the late Roman Empire. Speeches 8 and 10 were chosen by Heather and Matthews because the texts “provide a framework for a description of Romano-Gothic relations of the fourth century before the arrival of the Huns” (12). Speech 8 was delivered on the fifth anniversary of the reign of Valens, on 28 March 368, at Marcianople, a military establishment for the troops going into battle against the Gothic tribes. Themistius discusses “a reduction of the tax burden is of greater importance to the empire as a whole than winning great victories on the frontiers, which benefits only the particular area in which warfare is being waged (172f./114ff.)” (13); essentially, it is a straightforward message to Valens that too many conflicts are not good for the Empire. Before Heather and Matthews’ volume, speech 10 had never been fully translated. The speech was given in January or February of 370, and is often titled ‘On the Peace of Valens’, regarding the peace treaty that Valens brokered with the Goths.

Heather and Matthews give a succinct but thorough history of the Roman-Gothic wars in 367-369, and the not-so peaceful relationship between the two groups. This provides a vivid backdrop behind the speeches, and places the reader not only in the location and time of the oratory, but also helps the reader understand the ramifications from the speech. The texts follow, which were translated by David Moncur, and include annotations by him and Heather and Matthews.

Chapter 3:
The Sîntana de Mures-Cernjachov Culture

Instead of focusing on a text or a series of texts, Heather and Matthews here describe findings from various publications in French, German, Russian and Rumanian regarding the Sîntana de Mures and Cernjachov sites, the former in Rumania and the latter in the Ukraine. The findings are from cemetery excavations, and yield a picture of life for the ‘Gothic’ peoples that helps to form a picture of who they were.

“No large-scale study of the Culture has appeared in English, and what follows makes no claim to be based on detailed knowledge of the original artifacts. It is rather intended as a critical distillation of what has so far been published—a user’s guide to the physical culture of the world which generated, in contact with the Roman Empire, the texts translated in this volume” (47).
This chapter includes a large number of maps, drawings, and figures in order to illustrate various points on the following topics: dating and attribution, settlements, cemeteries and funerary practice, ceramic wares, personal possessions, economic life, and ethnic identities. What becomes clear is that while linguistically the Goths were an Eastern Germanic group, and while they came into the Lower Danube/Black Sea region with certain key Germanic cultural aspects, they absorbed aspects of the technology and culture of the ethnic groups around them. The various artifacts and cemetery practices are evidence of such assimilation, and Heather and Matthews successfully guide the reader into this world a little deeper than before. Additionally, there is a separate bibliography for this chapter. If there is one criticism of this chapter, it is that its place is out of order; for me this chapter should be placed at the beginning of the book, so as to lead the reader into a cultural understanding of the Gothic peoples before reading about them, either through Roman or Gothic perspectives.

Chapter 4:
Martyrs and Martyrologies

The central focus of this chapter, according to Heather and Matthews, stems from when Ulfila and his followers went into Gothia to convert the Goths; they were subsequently driven out of the region in 347-348. From this time, the tensions between the ‘pagan’ Goths, the Christian (and mostly Arian) Gothic and the Christian (Catholic/Orthodox) Roman populations increased. In the early 370s, Anthanaric, the iudex of the Goths, drove out the Christians from Gothia, killing and displacing numerous members of his own tribe as well as those from the Roman Empire. The texts in this chapter chronicle the lives of several who perished during the episodes with Anthanaric. They are as follows:

1. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 6.37: a fifth century historian for the church who wrote based on the works of his predecessor, Socrates Scholasticus, and other materials. This text, according to Heather and Matthews contains many errors, many of which come from Socrates, and therefore they find it difficult to judge the validity of the statements. Yet it is still a valuable text to translate;

2. The Passion of St. Saba the Goth: a traditional Greek martyrology, it reveals much about the local nature of a Gothic village community, especially as it relates to tribal authorities, and furthermore seems to work along side the cemetery excavations detailed in the previous chapter;

3. Basil of Caesarea, Epp. 155, 164, 165: this epistle is in response to the relics of St. Saba which were brought to Caesarea. Epistle 155 is to an anonymous audience, but Heather and Matthews are fairly confident that it is to Junius Soranus, the dux Scythiae, who brought back the relics of St. Saba; Epistle 164 and 165 are to Acholius (or Ascholius), the bishop of Thessalonica. They discuss the Gothic Christians and their persecutions, and reveal much about the animosity and prejudices between the various sects of Christianity at play in the region at that time;

4. Gothic Martyrologies: Similar to the texts above, they talk of the various persecutions of the Gothic Christians of the time, at the hands of both the ‘pagan’ Goths and the other Christian sects. The importance of this text is the calendar with annotations, which Heather and Matthews include.

Chapter 5:
The Life and Work of Ulfila
This chapter serves as an opportunity for Heather and Matthews to outline the history and controversy with Ulfila, the so-called Arian bishop who first went to Gothia on evangelical purposes, and later translated (with his followers) the Bible into Gothic. There are two major sources that deal with the life of Ulfila that still exist, both of which were written by Arian Christians; this is significant, as the Catholic Church destroyed most Arian documents. While Ulfila was not a full Arian follower, his views were sympathetic to the sect, and therefore his position was still considered to be ‘Arian’ by the Catholic Church. His beliefs, as chronicled by his student and friend Auxentius, reveal that he was critical of aspects of the Arian sect, despite being lumped into their camp.

Within this chapter there is a brief overview of the Arian vs. Catholic vs. ‘other’ controversy, with the central argument being the hierarchy of the Holy Trinity. The review takes up a substantial section of the chapter, yet Heather and Matthews acknowledge that so much more has been chronicled about this controversial era of the Christian faith; Heather and Matthews direct the reader to several primary and secondary sources for further reading.

The two documents in this chapter deal with histories of Ulfila. The first is a passage from Photius’ tenth-century writings, in which he pulls a passage from Philostorgius’ fifth-century Church History (chapter 2.5), and Heather and Matthews do not entirely agree with all of the information in this text. The second document is part of a letter by the fifth-century Arian theologian Maximinus in his dissertatio on the Council of Aquileia of 381, in which he quotes the Letter of Auxentius directly. Perhaps even more interestingly, Heather and Matthews choose to close this chapter with a demonstration on the Gothic alphabet, in which one can see Latin, Green and Runic influences on the writing system.

Chapter 6:
The Gothic Bible

The focal point of this chapter is to talk about the background of the Gothic Bible, and its role in Gothia. The authors surmise that Ulfila and his followers probably translated the entire Bible (save for Kings) in the over 35 years that Ulfila was exiled from Gothia. In these years he worked as a bishop at a monastery in Moesia. The Gothic Bible follows the ‘Old Latin’ order on the Gospels (Matthew, John, Luke, Mark), and the influence of Greek and Latin texts is quite obvious. Heather and Matthews chronicle the various sources for the Gothic Bible. Included in this chapter is a translation of the preface of the Codex Brixianus, which is bilingual Gothic and Latin.

Chapter 7:
Selections from the Gothic Bible

In what is the most linguistic element of the book, Heather and Matthews chose to examine elements of the Gothic Bible which were reproduced in The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels in Parallel columns with the Versions of Wycliffe and Tyndale by Rev. Joseph Bosworth and George Waring, an 1865 British book. What is fascinating is to look at the way the Gothic language is presented in the texts: while the vocabulary is mostly Gothic (there are some elements which are directly lifted from Greek or Latin), the syntax is quite similar to the Greek Bible, and is not a natural Gothic word order. The comparative Gothic and 19th-century English sections are: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), ‘Render unto Caesar’ (Mark 12:13-17); The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-18, 24-29); The Trial of Jesus (Matthew 27:1-18 and John 18:28-40). Inserted is a figure from the Codex Argenteus of Matthew 6:14-16.

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Book Review of The Goths in the Fourth Century - Related Topic: Roman Timeline 4th Century AD


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