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How our understanding of a group of ancient conquerers continues to change


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Those who read a little history suffer from the continuing humiliation of being proven wrong. Some of us have always believed, for example, that the Goths of ancient times were brutal conquerors, famous among the marauders of history. But, once more, what we knew was wrong. The truth is that they began their collective life in Europe as a mass of polite immigrants, anxious to like and be liked.

This is the earliest truth we learn from The Goths: Lost Civilizations (Reaktion Books), an expertly made book by David M. Gwynn of the University of London.

The original Goths came from their semi-mythical homeland of Scandza in the land circling the northern coast of the Black Sea. In the summer of CE376, two Germanic tribes, the Tervingi and Greuthungi Goths, descended upon the Danube river frontier of the Roman empire. They came not as looters seeking plunder but as refugees.

Tens of thousands gathered in camps along the Danube while their leaders asked permission to settle within the empire. A credible Roman historian wrote that the Goths sent agents to the eastern Roman emperor, humbly begging to be admitted to his dominions. They “promised they would live quietly and supply him with soldiers if the need arose.” Their motive was to escape from the Scandza environment, which was good for neither fishing nor agriculture.

As they prospered, however, they lost their timidity and attained power. Their eastern division, the Ostrogoths, founded a kingdom in Italy and the Visigoths established one in Spain. Eventually they turned against the Romans and in CE410 sacked the imperial city of Rome under the fabled leader Alaric. That led to the decline and fall of the western Roman empire and the domination of Europe in the early medieval period by the Goths.

Their visual culture was impressive, as Gwynn shows in photos of Gothic jewelry and weapons. They understood the engineering of architecture, leaving behind buildings that dominated the landscape. Gothic architecture, a style that lasted until the 16th century, emphasized cavernous spaces for worship, the pointed arch and the flying buttress. Chartres Cathedral, as an example of Gothic Architecture, is as impressive today as it was when completed in 1220.

In his title, Gwynn calls the kingdoms he describes “lost civilizations” with justice. After the last Gothic state fell, more than 1,000 years ago, the Goths began disappearing as an independent people. Objects remain, and historical records, but the ancient Gothic identity is gone forever.

However, Goths are with us still, in a way of speaking. The Goths we sometimes see on our streets do their best to proclaim loyalty to their cult. They love to wear black clothes, hair dyed black, dark eyeliner and black fingernails. They listen to, or play, a variation of post-punk. Their subculture was created in the 1980s but has lasted longer than most of the fashions born in that era. Their success probably owes something to their decision to choose a name centuries old, a name that echoes doom and catastrophe — something dreadful that’s distant enough in the past to be embraced and satirized.

Their culture leans heavily on Gothic literature, a genre of horror and painful romance that began in the 18th century, followed by movies also called Gothic. Europe, particularly Germany, has proven a welcoming field for Goth expansion.

Leipzig is proud host to the world’s biggest Goth festival. Every summer for four days, the city’s stores dress their windows in black and a streetcar line is decorated in black. About 20,000 Goth visitors come to town to share in the celebrations called Wave Gotik Treffen. The visitors happily picnic together, listen to music in neo-Gothic style, and take part in (while critically studying) the endless Goth fashion show on the streets. It is not exactly a tribute to the mostly forgotten original Goths who first came down down to Europe but it keeps marginally alive one of the formative influences in western civilization.