[Electronic Antiquity]

ELECTRONIC ANTIQUITY:
COMMUNICATING THE CLASSICS

Current Editor
Terry Papillon, Terry.Papillon@vt.edu
Volume 5, Number 1
February 1999


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Herwig Wolfram, *The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples*, trans. Thomas Dunlap, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997. ISBN 0-520-08511-6 $US39.95.

C.E.V. Nixon
Macquarie University
(Sydney, NSW)
cnixon@laurel.ocs.mq.edu.au


This is a volume in the series 'Siedlers Deutsche Geschichte', and some, if not all, of its characteristics (not to say peculiarities) may be explained as a result. It was originally published in 1990 under the title *Das Reich und die Germanen*, and is translated by Thomas Dunlap, whose translation of the same author's *History of the Goths* in 1988 brought Wolfram's work to the notice of a much wider English-speaking audience. The amended title of the translation gives a somewhat clearer idea both of the scope of the book, the history of the Germans on Roman soil, and of one of its principal themes, *viz.* the transformation rather than destruction of the Roman Empire by the Germans. According to Wolfram this transformation 'took place ... within a framework determined by Roman constitutional law' (240), and preserved to a considerable extent not only the Roman administrative apparatus, but even the existing social and economic conditions (308). The thesis is supported throughout, but the emphasis is much more on *die Germanen* than the institutions of *das Reich*, and more on political developments than economics and society per se. As for religion, 'sooner or later they ('the barbarian rulers') all agreed on the Catholic-Roman creed... There were, in any case, no religious wars' (302). But such rubrics fail to identify a crucial feature of the work which I shall discuss below.

The book is apparently intended for a popular audience, but one wonders how many such English readers will venture past the dense and frequently mystifying first two chapters to the rather more approachable ones, cast more in the form of a narrative, which follow. The very *Introduction* will give them pause. After brief discussion of his notions of tribal formation Wolfram sees the need to warn his readers: 'the bewilderingly diverse ways in which such ethnic units could manifest themselves force us to make observations like the following: 'a gens is composed of many gentes and is led by a royal gens', or 'the success of a royal gens promotes the creation on Roman soil of an early medieval gens and its Kingdom'. The reader is forewarned that such confusing statements, which defy any reasonable definition, are in fact the subject of this book.' (9) Again, Ch. 1, *Kings, Heroes and Tribal Origins* 'will ask the reader for a great deal of attention and discrimination. Rarely heard or unknown names of gods and divine tribal ancestors, stories about divine beginnings in distant lands of origin, memories of encounters between gods and humans: all these 'existential norms and cultic myths', in the words of Karl Hauck, call for an inordinate amount of patience, indeed almost the suspension of rational thinking, before we can accept them as traditions deserving to be taken seriously' (14). This, clearly, will not be easy for many of us.

Wolfram has two problems, the nature of the evidence for his subject, and the previous treatment of his subject in the service of German nationalism. In a natural desire to move beyond a purely Roman perspective on the 'Germans', W. wishes to salvage as much as possible from the myths and sagas of the Germans themselves (e.g. 14-15, 30-31, and passim). Take his view, for example, that behind 'Cassiodorus-Jordanes' (the *Getica*; elsewhere, 'the Amal *Origo Gothica*, 265) there lies a Gothic oral tradition and 'tribal *memoria* (32). Although it has been transformed in the interests of ruling families, 'the tradition can in fact reach back many generations and contain genuine names' (*ibid.*) These can be identified with the help of etymology and philology. W's work is necessarily very much based on literary rather than archaeological sources (His index has only three entries under 'archaeological evidence', only one of substance; but cf. 27). Diversity of tribal names far outruns that of identifiable material 'cultures' (cf. 3). But the principles by means of which the 'genuine' is sought are by no means clear, and the analysis is couched in language which is sometimes difficult and occasionally borders on the mystical. At any rate elsewhere W's meaning has on occasion eluded even the most astute of readers: cf. his mildly indignant correction of 'misrepresentation' in P. Heather's *Goths and Romans*, *Francia* 20/1 (1993) 257-8. For trenchant objections to the way in which tribal memory has been isolated in Jordanes - and believed in - see W. Goffart, 'Two Notes on Germanic Antiquity Today', *Traditio* 50 (1995) 9-30 esp. 19ff. (also *Speculum* 57 (1982) 444-5).

The second problem arises from an equally natural desire to insist on the cohesiveness and continuity of German culture without incorporating offensive notions of racial purity and superiority (cf. 3,10ff, 204 and elsewhere). This is achieved by applying a theory of tribal formation, first propounded by Richard Wenskus in *Stammesbildung und Verfassung. Das Werden der fruehmittelalterlichen Gentes* (Cologne, 1961; 2nd ed., 1977) and subsequently taken up by Wolfram and the 'Vienna school' (W. has been Professor of Mediaeval History at the University of Vienna since 1969, and Director of the Austrian Institute of Historical Research). Unfortunately the theory, often referred to as 'ethnogenesis', is not set out fully anywhere in the book (Although it is adumbrated on 8-9, and 15ff., the burden it has to carry will not be obvious to the uninitiated reader). The theory holds that the northern peoples, for the most part collectively referred to by the Romans as Germani, more specifically as Marcomanni, Alamanni, Goths, Vandals, Franks et al., derived their distinctive 'ethnic' or cultural identity, not from blood, language or a long history before contact with Rome, but from political developments which took place often during the process of migration itself. A more powerful form of leadership, 'sacred (or 'sacral') Kingship' (204; cf. 15ff) arose as prominent barbarians mustered support from warrior bands of ethnically diverse elements by appeals to their military success and their divine descent. They maintained the integrity of their 'tribe' or *gens* by fashioning binding myths of a common tribal origin, that of the Amals in Jordanes' *Getica* being paradeigmatic. Thus a core, tradition-bearing *gens* provided leadership, transmitting its language and myths to the whole body of its followers, whatever their ethnic origin and cultural connexions. Cf. P. Amory, *People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy* (Cambridge, 1997) 33ff. for a summary of recent debate on the theory, and for a sustained critique, Charles Bowlus, 'Ethnogenesis Models and the Age of Migrations: A Critique', Austrian History Yearbook 26 (1995) 147-164 (incidentally the word 'ethnogenesis' itself is mentioned only en passant in the book under review: 31, 169, 284).

It certainly cannot be denied that there is some evidence in the sources for polyethnic confederations (e.g. the following of Odovacar, himself described by different ethnic labels, or the Longobardi), but I believe, with Peter Heather, *Goths and Romans 332-489* (Oxford, 1991) passim, but esp. 317 ff., 323 ff., that the Visigoths, for one, survived as a people to a much greater extent than Wolfram and his followers would allow. This is of course not to deny that there were non-Gothic supplements to their roving populace in the period after 376. But ethnic labels surely meant more than Wolfram concedes. Is it not significant that, long after the crushing defeat of the Siling Vandals and Alani in Spain c. 416 forced the survivors of the latter to join the Asding Vandals, the ruler of the combined peoples was officially entitled 'King of the Vandals and Alani'?

'It is difficult, for an Austrian, to pass judgment on the Goths. Anyone concerned with the history of the Goths must be resigned to being misunderstood, falsely praised, or rejected. This is hardly surprising, since the subject is so heavily laden with the ideological burden of an age-old tradition of identification with this people' (Wolfram, *Journal of Mediaeval History* 7 (1981) 309. Ironically, it has become easier for non-Germans to point to such evidence as exists for the discrete character of various peoples.

After the initial chapters W. furnishes a more or less chronologically ordered history of the various Germanic peoples (as defined above) which settled on Roman soil. But not of the Franks, who have a separate volume to themselves in the series (by H.K. Schulze), and who appear here chiefly as foes or allies of Visigoth, Burgundian and Longobard, although Clovis takes his place alongside Theodoric as an example of charismatic kings who 'were convinced that they were raised in some 'superhuman' way above ordinary mortals' (204). In keeping with W's previous research interests the Goths loom large, but Vandals, Burgundians and Longobards have their chapters, and there is a brief discussion of the 'Making of England', Ch. 5 'The Hunnic Alternative' (i.e. people could join the Hunnic polity, also thoroughly polyethnic - W. reproduces Wenskus' 'Stammesschwarm' -instead of the *imperium Romanum*) argues refreshingly *inter alia* that Attila's empire gave a breathing space to the western empire (141). But don't we detect here some tension? The 'transformation of the Roman world' which now 'proceeded inexorably and without any further interruptions' was evidently not accomplished without some loss of breath! Again, with Heather (supra), I cannot but feel that current fashion is inclined to underplay the violence and destruction of these fifth century developments. An intriguing sub-section in Ch. 5, 'the Hunnic-Gothic symbiosis' (141ff), details Gothic (and other) adoption of Hunnic social customs, names, weapons and even political attitudes, which might be held to qualify even further any notion of an overarching German cultural uniqueness. Arabs, Slavs, Avars and Persians are given a handful of pages (301-6) as peoples who played a role in the transformation of the Roman world, but the role of Sarmatians, Alani, Bretons and others is subsumed under Germanic contributions.

There is a great deal to be learnt from a scholar of Wolfram's erudition, but unfortunately there are serious flaws here in the presentation of the material. Exasperatingly, very many assertions lack any proper documentation; instead, there are too many cross-references to secondary scholarship, (understandably) mainly German - a large number to W's own *History of the Goths*; the source of quotations in the body of the text is often unclear (e.g. 158); the maps are inadequate, and it is a shame that the illustrations in the original German edition are omitted here. In short, the work is not self-standing, a serious fault in a popular work. Most extraordinarily, it is not until the final chapter that the reader is given a clear statement of the purpose of the book: this is, 'to describe and explain the most important non-Frankish successor states on Roman soil. Its topic is the creation, duration, and historical impact of Kingdoms that are called Germanic ...' (301)! This statement is immediately followed by sections on Arabs, Slavs and Avars!! The reader might be excused for thinking that there is something rather muddle-headed in the structuring of the book.

The translation is serviceable, although the verb 'administrate' (118, 169 and elsewhere), the persistent use of 'lead' for 'led' (e.g. 92, 103, 232) and the mis-spelling 'Lybia' (53, 178, Index) are jarring. There are a number of Germanisms and other oddities of expression: 'the Ulfilas Goths' (16), 'the Radigaisus warriors' (97) 'the Attilanic Huns' (123) etc; 'Dobrudscha' (140),. 'The Turcilingus Edica' (142), 'Friaul' (287) etc.; '*hesperium* regnum' (111) - the use of italics seems totally whimsical: *natio* is italicized, *gens* not (22); *foedus* is, *imperium* is not; Latin sometimes goes awry: 'each coloni' (113); '*illustri*' (117). There are wrong references: Ennodius is credited with authorship of one of the anonymous 'Gallic' panegyrics (49, n. 47 and 321); 259, n. 14 and 330: read Sidonius ... 5.5.1 and 3; *ibid.*, n. 15: read XXVIII 5: 11-13.

There are a few striking omissions from the notes and *Bibliography*. W. adopts Goffart's controversial view that tax-entitlements, not land, were given to the Visigoths in 418 (113), but the latter's *Barbarians and Romans* goes unmentioned; he accepts completely E.A. Thompson's explanation of the same settlement as motivated by a desire to 'preserve the existing social order against domestic enemies' (117), but nowhere is Thompson's name to be found. For W., Adrianople was won 'by the 'blitz attack' of the Gothic cavalry' (85): the traditional view, but it has been challenged by Thomas Burns, *Historia* 22 (1973) 336ff., an article which found its way into the bibliography of the *History of the Goths*. Virgil, but not Victor Vitensis, is listed amongst the sources.

I should like to thank my colleague Andrew Gillett for providing some stimulating ideas (and some references) on the subject of this review.

C.E.V. Nixon

Macquarie University (Sydney, NSW)

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 5 Issue 1 - February 1999
Technical Editor, Terry Papillon: Terry.Papillon@vt.edu
ISSN 1320-3606


DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals