- Rome’s Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric
At the battle of Adrianople (378 AD) the Romans suffered the worst military defeat since that inflicted on them by Hannibal at Cannae nearly six hundred years earlier (216 BC). Seemingly the Gothic achievement is the greater considering that only two years before, the Goths had entered Roman territory as pitiful refugees fleeing Hunnic invasions. This surprising victory, and the Goths who won it, provides the subject of Michael Kulikowski's study. He offers a stimulating new interpretation of Gothic origins and of such storied figures as Alaric, the sacker of Rome, and Theodosius, the exiled Roman commander who revived Roman fortunes after Adrianople. Worthwhile, too, is the accompanying narrative that gives a crisp and readable account of events from the Gothic arrival in the empire to Alaric's sack of Rome.
The great strength of this study is its reappraisal of Gothic identity, i.e., where the Goths came from and how they came to be. Since the nineteenth century, scholars have accepted and rationalized Jordanes's account of Gothic origins, their movements south from a primeval home in eastern Europe into the Roman empire, imagining that they came into being fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Such development seems doubtful. The counter argument, one supported by archaeology and a critical review of the evidence, is that the people later called Goths emerged on the frontiers of Rome in response to Roman interactions with the barbarian peoples of the borderlands, both as victims of Roman aggression and beneficiaries of Rome's civilizing impulses. Much like the Alamanni and the Franks in the west, the Goths are a creation of Roman imperial power and needs.
Adrianople set into motion many events and launched many careers. Chief among the latter was the rise to the imperial throne of the Spanish soldier Theodosius, whose connections enabled him to maneuver his way into ruling the eastern empire, eventually making peace with the Goths. On the Gothic side, Alaric, "who became a Roman general but never held a regular military command," and who "may have been a Gothic king, but … never found a kingdom" (p. 157), would fail in his attempts to become part of the Roman establishment. But he would win eternal infamy as the man who sacked the Eternal City, touching off debates between pagans and Christians as to whose god(s) bore responsibility for the greatest disaster since Eve offered a bite to Adam.
Yet for a book titled Rome's Gothic Wars, there is little analysis of the fighting between Goth and Roman, including the great battle (of which the Livian allusions to Cannae are omitted). There seem some missed opportunities. In [End Page 553] recounting events before Adrianople, for example, Kulikowski remarks that "the rationale of Gothic movements is totally obscure" (p. 136), yet a Roman victory at the Thracian city of Beroea clarifies. A junction town like Bastogne in December '44, holding Beroea enabled the Romans for a time to frustrate Gothic movements, burdened as they were with wagon trains of families and belongings.
Germanic origins have long been concealed in forest mists, but Kulikowski's study of the Goths brings much to light and is not to be missed.
Los Angeles, California