The Goths: Lost Civilizations
David M Gwynn
Reaktion Books
188pp, 41 colour and 18 black and white illustrations
Hardback, £15

Some lost civilisations are more lost than others. The Romans were never wholly lost to what used to be called the Dark Ages but the Goths, who sacked Rome in AD 410 and who, as the largest of the Germanic kingdoms that eroded the Western Roman Empire, played the key role in the fall of the Western empire, are more lost to us than most.

David Gwynn's The Goths is the latest in Reaktion Books' consistently informative and well-written Lost Civilizations series, and a fascinating retrieval of a people whose memory touches the antipodes of civilisation and barbarism. The Goths were vandals, destroyers of an empire; yet the conquerors were softened by the conquered and so thoroughly that modern Europe has repeatedly detected its roots in Gothic culture.

The ghost stories of the 18th century are Gothic; so were the parliament buildings and railway termini of the 19th century, and also a subculture of rock music in the late 20th century. The Goths may be lost to history, but the group of bored, black-clad teenagers sitting in a bus-shelter near you are proof that the Goths who captured Rome still have a hold on the European imagination.

'For the race whose origin you ask to know burst forth from the midst of this island [Scandza] and came into the land of Europe,' wrote the Eastern Roman historian Jordanes in Getica, circa AD 551. Scandza is probably our Scandinavia, which includes the large Swedish island of Gotland. Jordanes was writing more than a century and a half after the summer of AD 376, when the Tervingi and Greuthungi Goths, descending on Rome's Danubian frontier, had requested the Emperor Valens to let them cross the Danube, and promised 'they would live quietly and supply him with soldiers if the need arose'.

Jordanes was vague on the details of the Goths' pre-Christian religion, beyond ancestor worship and the veneration of a war god reminiscent of Mars. He also set an unfortunate precedent by mixing up the Goths with other Germanic tribes.

Nor did the Goths live quietly, or give a supply of soldiers to Valens. Instead, they rebelled against him, and defeated his legions at Adrianople in AD 378, before advancing on Constantinople. Wedged between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire, and pressed by the Huns to their north, the Gothic tribes rallied around Alaric, and forced the two Roman emperors to grant them a permanent foothold in the Balkans. In AD 401–2, after the death of Theodosius I, the last emperor to reign alone over a united empire, the Goths entered Italy.

The Sack of Rome, Gwynn writes, 'actually had very limited political or military impact' on the Western empire's fate. It was 'one episode in the gradual collapse of Roman rule in the West'. But its psychological impact was 'enormous, and shook the faith of contemporaries in Rome's destiny of eternal dominion'. The Ostrogothic and Visigothic kingdoms that arose in Italy and Spain dominated the map of early medieval Europe – and the European imagination, after their fall. While the Renaissance exalted Roman civilisation, the Reformation, Gwynn notes, 'sought liberation from Roman authority'. The Goths were revalued as 'divinely ordained heroes, their vigour and desire for freedom overcoming the tyranny and decadence of Rome'. This image filled in the gaps in Jordanes' account; by the 17th century, the English had identified a 'Gothic constitution'.

The nationalistic revival of the Gothic past petered out in the 19th century; Wagner deliberately underused his Gothic source material in the Ring cycle. But a ghostly image of revolt survives in the musical subculture that developed in England during the 1980s, amid the ruins of the Gothic Revival. Gwynn, imaginatively linking the obscure past to the everyday present, observes that, though the original Goths may be long gone, their legacy has become 'too universal to be truly "lost"'.

Dominic Green