From Gotland to Aujum and Beyond: The Birth of Europe
January 15, 2020 — The birth of Europe was anything but a smooth and effortless process. The region known as Europe today has been reshaped several times by centuries of wars, raids, and the falls and rises of petty kingdoms and vast empires alike. The most destructive, intense, and violent events that eventually led to the formation of modern-day Europe — even dwarfing the brutal onslaught of the sub-sequent Viking Age — occurred in a period roughly spanning four hundred years, from around 200-600s CE. This was a hard and longspun time of battles between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire, on the one hand, and on the other; Gothic and Germanic tribes as well as mounted warriors of the steppes, including the Sarmatians, the Alans, and the Huns.
Most people have never heard of Aujum, also known as Reidgotaland, an ancient kingdom in the Black Sea region that was founded by Goths from the Scandinavian peninsula and the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, who, according to archeological, historical, and mythological sources, moved to what is now Ukraine and settled there. But when and how and did the Goths get there?
THE MAIN SOURCES OF GOTHIC HISTORY
In addition to the many Roman accounts describing the Goths both as invaders and defenders of Rome, there are three surviving pieces of historical literature that deals specifically with the Goths. Most of what is known about the early history of the Goths came from the work of Jordanes, who was Goth himself. In his work The Origin and the Deeds of the Goths, known also as the “Getica,” he retells an old legend about the very ﬁrst homeland of the Goths in Southern Scandinavia. Another source comes from Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, where the Gutasaga was written down in the 1200s in the Old East Norse language. It describes the settlement of Gotland and also makes references to the Goths of Aujum. And then there is also the History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, which chronicles the Goths from 265 to 624, written by Archbishop Isidore, of Seville in the Visigothic Kingdom (modern-day Spain.) Other ancient authors who mentioned the Goths in their writings where Ammianus Marcellinus who was a Roman soldier and historian, Procopius of Caesarea who was a Greek scholar of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Themistius, a lesser-known Byzantine philosopher.
GOTHS IN POLAND
Gothic tribes began emigrating from Gotland and southern Scandinavia around the turn of the first millennium, many historians believe the main cause was overpopulation. In search of fertile lands to settle, wealth to be amassed, and, surely, adventure to be had, the Goths first went ashore in what is now north-eastern Poland, where they defeated a concurrent tribe that many historians agree had also arrived from the north, namely the infamous Vandals who a few centuries later went on to form a short-lived kingdom in North Africa. After displacing the Vandals, the Goths gave name to the province of Gothiscandza, a Goto-Gepidic civilization in the vicinity of present-day Elbląg and Gdánsk, locations in what is now Poland that were highly practical and allowed naval access and open trade with the Gothic homelands. The Gothiscandza settlement in north-eastern Poland is widely known as the Wielbark culture, but what formerly knows as Goto-Gepidic. Modern archeology and excavations have confirmed the introduction of Scando-Gothic burial traditions including stone circles and stelae monuments that match the timeframe of the Gothic expansion in the first centuries of our age. Moreover, there are at least two esteemed Roman chroniclers, Pliny the Elder (CE 23/24–79) and Tacitus (CE 56/120), who refer to the mouth of the Vistula River in north-eastern Poland as the land of the “Gutones” (Pliny) and “Gothones” (Tacitus).
After living in Gothiscandza for about a century, the population grew and the Goths decided to expand their domains. Hence, they slowly began to move southwards along the Vistula River before trailing the Danube River eastward to the Black Sea, spreading the Wielbark culture into the ancient lands of Minor Scythia, where it evolved into the Chernyakhov culture. Led by King Filimer, the Gutar-descendants of Gothiscandza plus a few other tribes that were picked up along the way, such as the Ulmerugi who had emigrated from south-western Norway around the same time as the Goths, reached the western Pontic and began settling in their new-found land of Aujum around 175 CE.
Shortly after the Goths and the Ulmerugi arrived in their new homeland, they came into conflict with a Scytho-Sarmatian tribal confederation known in historical sources as the Spalaei who already claimed the fertile ground of the western Pontic steppe (a region that stretches from the Caspian to the north-western coast of the Black Sea.) The Spalaei may have included the infamous Heruli, a legendary tribe described as wolf warriors that fought in the light of the full moon while painted black, and who Jordanes mentions lived near the Sea of Azov (a part of the Black Sea) in the early centuries CE. The Spalaei were ruled by a remnant of the once-mighty Royal Scythians of Sakastan, proud warrior nomads with a documented legacy of providing several “King of Kings” emperors for ancient Persia. However, the Goths were remarkably talented in organized warfare and diplomacy, skills they had gained while serving Roman Emperors as mercenaries. Thus, the Spalaei were defeated and made Vassals of the Goths, most likely with the help of the Heruli. The Goth-Heruli kinship is confirmed by Roman writers who describe the Heruli as companions of the Goths that raided the coasts of the Black Sea and the Greco-Roman Aegean Sea in the late 200s CE (incidentally, the Norse god of the sea is named Aegir/Ægir.)
In the half-century ranging from about 250-300 CE, the Goths were Rome’s most formidable opponent. They launched raids on the Roman provinces near the Danube River and embarked on naval expeditions to Greece and Asia Minor in what is now Turkey. The Romans unsuccessfully tried to deal with the Gothic aggression through bribes, diplomatic games, and military interventions.
CONFUSED HISTORY: THE GOTHIC DIVIDE
Aujum remained prosperous and relatively peaceful for several centuries. That, however, came to an end when the Huns invaded Europe from the Eastern steppes of Asia in the 370s. The last known Gothic King to rule Aujum and the Ostrogoths was Aírmanareiks, who died in 376 in the aftermath of the Hun invasions.
The Black Sea region and the Danube valley are important locations in the history of the Gothic people since that is where they were separated into two major groups: the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths. Jordanes writes that the initial division of the Goths into two tribes was based on direction, but also notes that the Ostrogoth name may have been taken from their ﬁrst king, Ostrogotha. Historians have suggested that the Ostrogoths, which means Eastern Goths, referred to all the Goths who lived in Aujum, in the far east, relative to the Baltic shores and Gothiscandza from whence they came.
“Now Ablabius the historian relates that in Scythia, where we have said that they were dwelling above an arm of the Pontic Sea, part of them who held the eastern region and whose king was Ostrogotha, were called Ostrogoths, that is, the eastern Goths, either from his name or from the place. But the rest were called Visigoths, that is, the Goths of the western country.”
— Jordanes, Getica, XIV, 82
The Huns ﬁrst appeared in Europe in 375 when they crossed the river Tanais (Vanakvísl or Tanakvísl in Old Norse) which corresponds to the Volga, which forced the Goths to ﬂee across the Danube River and seek shelter in the Roman Empire. When the Huns killed an Ostrogothic king which led to all Goths, save for a splinter that became the Gothunni, fled to the Roman province on the opposite side of the Danube River and asked for shelter on Imperial ground.
The division of the Goths is first attested in 291, but the Ostrogoths are first named in a document dated September 392 from Milan. The Tervingi are believed to be what the Goths who formed the region of Gutthiuda in what is now Romania. The term Greuthungi was a geographical identifier used by the Tervingi to describe a people that described itself as the Ostrogoths. The terminology of a divided Gothic people disappeared gradually after the Goths fled into the Roman Empire.
It goes without saying that the Goths played an integral part in the history of Europe, and they remain among the most notorious and controversial groups in history.
Trivia & Facts
- A realm was called a “ríki” in Old Norse, which was the language spoken by the Vikings. Ríki is cognate with “þiuda,” which means folk or people in the pre-Norse Gothic language. The ancient name for Sweden was Svítjod or Sviþiud in Old Norse. Interestingly, the realm ruled by the Visigoths from 271-376 on the Roman border in what is now Romania is referred to as Gutthiuda (Gutjod/Gutþiud) in historical sources.
- The male name Erik comes from the Gothic title Reiks, which means King (Rekkr in Old Norse). Erik can be glimpsed in the Gothic name Aírmanareiks.
- Several archaeologists and historians have proposed the theory the toponym Gothiscandza evolved, through Slavic influence, into Gdańsk.
- In the Gutnish dialect of Old East Norse, as well as in modern Swedish, the original and historically attested name for the Goths or a Goth is “Gutar” in the plural and “Gute” in the singular.
- In Norway, a young attractive man, or a male infant, is called a “Gutt”.