The best books on the Goths of history and legend

David M. Gwynn Author Of The Goths: Lost Civilizations
By David M. Gwynn

Who am I?

Born and raised in New Zealand, about as far from the Roman world as one can get, I got hooked on history as a child and began university life as an ancient and medieval double major, studying everything from the classical Greeks and Romans to Charlemagne and the Crusades. By the time I came to Oxford to write my PhD, I decided that my greatest interest lay in the dramatic transformation which saw classical antiquity evolve into medieval Christendom. I've been fortunate enough to write and teach about many different aspects of that transformation and I'm currently Associate Professor in Ancient and Late Antique History at Royal Holloway, in the University of London. 

I wrote...

The Goths: Lost Civilizations

By David M. Gwynn,

Book cover of The Goths: Lost Civilizations

What is my book about?

The Goths are truly a “lost civilization”. After migrating from their ancient homeland of Scandza to settle north of the Black Sea, the original Goths were driven westward by the Huns and in the years that followed Gothic tribes sacked the imperial city of Rome and set in motion the decline and fall of the western Roman Empire. Ostrogothic and Visigothic kings ruled over Italy and Spain, dominating early medieval Europe. Yet the last Gothic kingdom fell more than a thousand years ago, and down the centuries the Goths have been remembered as both barbaric destroyers and heroic champions of liberty. This book brings together the interwoven stories of the original Goths and the diverse Gothic heritage, a contradictory legacy that still influences our modern world.

The books I picked & why

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Goths and Romans, 332-489

By Peter Heather,

Book cover of Goths and Romans, 332-489

Why this book?

The early history of the Goths is a complicated and controversial subject, with difficult sources and large gaps in our literary and archaeological evidence. Heather provides an excellent guide to those problems and how they might be resolved. His book is particularly valuable for those interested in the only major source actually written by a Goth, the Getica of Jordanes, and in how the Visigoths and Ostrogoths emerged as independent peoples. The dramatic events which Heather narrates include the first entrance of Gothic tribes into the Roman Empire, the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, and the creation of the original Visigothic kingdom in southern France, ending with the newly formed Ostrogoths poised to launch their conquest of Italy.

Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

By Guy Halsall,

Book cover of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Why this book?

To understand the Goths and their importance in western history, we must set them within their broader context. That is the great value of Halsall’s book, which explores in depth the relationship between the Germanic peoples and the Roman Empire and how the barbarian migrations transformed early medieval Europe. This is history on a large scale, as the title suggests, and Halsall ranges widely from Britain to North Africa as he examines how different Germanic groups settled and forged new identities across the Roman west. It is a story in which the Goths played a crucial role, particularly the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths in Spain, although in the long-term the Goths would disappear, unlike the Franks who succeeded in founding a lasting kingdom.

Theoderic In Italy

By John Moorhead,

Book cover of Theoderic In Italy

Why this book?

Theoderic the Ostrogoth, arguably the greatest Gothic king, ruled over Italy for more than thirty years (493-526). Moorhead offers an insightful and detailed examination of how Theoderic succeeded in maintaining peace between Goths and Romans and extended his power and prestige, only for the Ostrogothic kingdom to collapse shortly after his death due to political and religious divisions and the Reconquest by the eastern emperor Justinian. Scholars still debate the extent of Theoderic’s own responsibility for the Ostrogothic decline, and as Moorhead observes the very policies which underlay Theoderic’s success also contributed to his kingdom’s vulnerability. I just wish that Moorhead had expanded his very brief comments on Theoderic’s remarkable legacy, which included appearing in the Nibelungenlied and as a symbol of German unification.

The Visigoths in History and Legend

By J.N. Hillgarth,

Book cover of The Visigoths in History and Legend

Why this book?

The Visigothic kingdom of Spain was long dismissed in older books as a barbaric backwater, the darkest point of the so-called Dark Ages. Yet it was, in truth, a vibrant cultural centre for more than two centuries, until falling to the forces of Islam in 711. Hillgarth’s fascinating book gives an excellent short survey of Visigothic history, and then explores how the legends surrounding the Goths were developed and exploited by later Spanish generations, from the Christian Reconquista and the sixteenth-century Golden Age to modern times. This creation of an idealized Gothic past provided inspiration and a sense of identity in Spain, in sharp contrast to Italy where the Goths were depicted during the Renaissance as the savage destroyers of classical civilization.

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction

By Nick Groom,

Book cover of The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

The Gothic is a vast subject, ranging from medieval architecture and debates over the origins of English democracy to literature and cinema, music, and fashion. Groom does superbly to introduce all these highly diverse elements in an accessible and engaging manner, opening up a variety of avenues for those who wish to explore further. The relationship between what is now called ‘Gothic’ and the original Goths ranges from tenuous to almost non-existent, which explains the limited attention paid here to the Goths of history—indeed, I wrote my own book on the Goths in part to provide that historical framework, while drawing gratefully on Groom’s work for many of the themes which have shaped how Goths and the Gothic are understood today. 

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