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The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila. Second Edition. By E.A. THOMPSON. 
Introduction by Michael Kulikowski. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. xxiii + 
186. Paper, $24.00. ISBN 978–0–7156–3700–5.

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CJ Online 2010.03.05

Thompson’s (henceforth, T.) Visigoths first appeared in 1966. It was a 
pioneering study of Gothic society during the important but obscure time 
from the reign of Constantine I (306–337) to that of Theodosius I 
(379–395), for most of which the Goths were close associates of the Roman 
Empire but still outsiders. During this period Ulfila, a Goth of Roman 
provincial descent, was recruited by the Arian church establishment of 
Constantinople to support fellow Arian Christians in his homeland, to which 
end he devised a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible into Gothic. The 
2008 volume, though presented as a second edition, is a reprint of that of 
1966, with the addition of an Introduction by Michael Kulikowski 
(henceforth, K.) and a translation of the Passion of St. Saba the Goth by 
John Matthews, first published in Peter Heather and John Matthews, The 
Goths in the Fourth Century (1991, Liverpool). The reprint’s hybrid 
nature is evident in, for example, the lack of pagination of the 
Introduction (the “K” numbers below are mine), and by the re-use of the 
original Index, which ignores new material.

T.’s Visigoths was highly influential. As K. says (p. K2), its 
originality lay in taking Germani seriously, not as elemental forces but as 
ordinary people reacting to shifts in their circumstances. T., like many 
other distinguished historians of his day (e.g., de Ste. Croix, Finley, 
Hill and Hobsbawm), drew this fruitful approach from Marxist historical 
materialism. Key elements were T.’s consideration of emerging 
archaeological evidence, relating to what is now called the “Sîntana de 
Mureş-Černjachov culture,” and his identification of neglected 
hagiographical works, such as the Passion of St. Saba, as potential sources 
of historical information. There has been much work, however, done on the 
Goths since 1966, one result of which is, ironically, as K. notes (pp. 
K6–7), a recognition that there were no “Visigoths” before the 5th 
century, and thus only “Goths” “in the time of Ulfila.” The new 
work was reflected in Heather and Matthews’ Goths, which follows T.’s 
Visigoths so closely that it may be regarded as its proper second edition. 
Perhaps too closely: Heather and Matthews also make much of the “Sîntana 
de Mureş-Černjachov culture” and of Saba. Contra K. (p. K7) I have 
expressed my doubts as to both the validity of the Passion as evidence for 
Gothic life, and the “Gothicness” of the Sîntana de Mureş-Černjachov 
material (in CR NS 43 (1993); on the archaeology, see now also Andrew 
Poulter, in John Drinkwater and Benet Salway, eds., Wolf Liebeschuetz 
Reflected (2007, London). But Goths contains much valuable material and, 
supplemented by Heather’s Goths and Romans 332–489 (1991, Oxford), may 
be said to have replaced Visigoths as the standard work in English.

So why the reprint? In his Introduction K. expresses grave dissatisfaction 
with the current state of early-Germanic and, in particular, Gothic 
studies. At fault are two new “interpretative trends” (p. K4). The 
first, stimulated by the work of Richard Wenskus, is “ethnogenesis”: 
the contention that there were no permanent Germanic “tribes” or 
“peoples” engaged in great “migrations,” but only constant “cores 
of tradition” maintained by small elites, around which various political 
associations, made up of various ethnic groups, perennially formed, 
dissolved and re-formed. The second, which K. has elsewhere (JRS 98 (2008) 
269) associated with “recent Oxonian writers,” is a reversion to the 
model that ethnogenesis was devised to supplant: a vigorous re-statement of 
the existence and importance of tribal and national identity, and of 
“migration” and “invasion.” In T.’s Visigoths K. sees a pure 
spring of historical reconstruction, rising upstream of waters now 
contaminated by such notions. K. also sees T. as an early, albeit 
unconscious champion of a more valid explanation of events—recently 
developed by K. in his Rome’s Gothic Wars (2007, New York and 
Cambridge)—that the “Germanic” peoples of the Later Roman Empire were 
a construct of that Empire.

There is no doubt that, unusually for his time, T. made much of the 
“Romanness” of the Goths, presenting them as open to Roman influences 
and benefiting greatly from them, and thereby accepting that the Empire was 
a huge force in their evolution (e.g., in their post-376 conversion to 
Christianity: pp. 86, 90–1, 106–7, 127–8). In line with contemporary 
thinking, however, from beginning to end (e.g., pp. 1–2, 144) he treated 
the Goths as a migratory people; and one wonders what he might have made of 
ethnogenesis. Since T.’s Visigoths was published five years after 
Wenskus’ Stammesbildung und Verfassung (1961, Cologne and Graz), an 
awareness of this might reasonably have been expected in his text, as is 
not the case. But Visigoths was a deft amalgamation of earlier articles, 
and the second in a trilogy of major works, The Early Germans (1965, 
Oxford) and The Goths in Spain (1969, Oxford), with which T. was already 
engaged and all of which were rigorously source—not “model”—based. 
Furthermore, Wenskus’ ideas registered only slowly in anglophone 
scholarship—probably not until after their deployment by Herwig Wolfram 
in his Geschichte der Goten (1979). T. is thus free of ethnogenesis. On the 
other hand, as I re-read him with ethnogenesis in mind, I became convinced 
that, if he had ever engaged with it, he would not necessarily have 
rejected it out of hand. For while T. stresses the Goths’ Romanness, he 
also stresses differences between them and Romans, in particular (e.g. pp. 
113, 128) pointing up the Goths’ choice of Arianism over Catholicism, as 
a means of maintaining such differences. In short, T. identifies a 
“strategy of distinction”—the subject of a recent book edited by a 
leading scholar of the current generation of Wenskus’ followers (Walter 
Pohl, Strategies of Distinction, 1998). He also emphasizes the fragility of 
Gothic political and religious structures (pp. 43–4, 62–3, 101, 
128–30), and when discussing tribal cults (pp. 56–7, 62–3), he seems 
to come close to identifying elements of a “core of tradition.”

While it is therefore gratifying to have Visigoths available again at a 
reasonable price, the book is not quite the “Urquelle” K. would have it 
be. Nor, it must be said, does it offer “a full and coherent vision of 
Gothic history before the Danube crossing of 376” (p. K1). The narrative 
is, and remains difficult: we simply do not know enough about Gothic life 
in this period. But this is a book that should continue to be read, for it 
contains aperçus ahead of their time. In the context of recent debate, for 
example, I was struck by T.’s early identification of Roman aggression as 
a significant feature in “barbarian” wars (p. 12). A final point: in a 
brief but very useful closing bibliographic review, K. observes (p. K9) 
“the two-volume Teubner edition of Ammianus Marcellinus by W. Seyfarth 
(1978) improves dramatically on the text of Rolfe from which Thompson 
worked.” Edward Thompson, like Hugo Jones, belonged to a generation of 
philologists who had no need for Loeb translations. As Thompson’s 
original list of abbreviations (p. xi) shows, for Ammianus he used not 
Rolfe but Clark.

J.F. DRINKWATER
Nottingham, U.K.


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