The Goths were a group of people who flourished in Europe. The Ostrogoths and the Visigoths rose after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

The earliest records mentioning the Goths date back to the first century A.D., but there are more recent records that suggest they migrated from Sweden.

The Goths are believed to have helped to preserve Roman culture. After the fall of Rome, a group of Goths moved to France and Spain and formed the Visigothic Kingdom, which incorporated Catholicism and other aspects of Roman culture. The Moors conquered the last Gothic kingdom.

The meaning of the word "Goth" is different today than it was in the past. Large, imposing cathedrals and castles were the hallmarks of the late Middle Ages. "Gothic" was a synonym for "barbaric" and was used as a critique.


The dramatic ruins of the 7th century Whitby Abbey on the coast of North Yorkshire, England. The imposing building is made out of gray stone bricks, with numerous archways. We are facing a 3 by 3 layout of tall, thin window arches that get shorter as it goes up.

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England is the Gothic castle that inspired Dracula.  (Image credit: Photos by R A Kearton)

Gothic fiction flourished during the 18th and 19th century. The genre got its name from the Gothic locations in which the stories took place, for example, the dark, foreboding castle of "Dracula"

The term "goth" has been used to describe a culture with its own style. Gothic fiction influenced the goth imagery.

Where did the ancient Goths come from?

There is a mystery about the origin of the Goths. The author Jordanes wrote a history of the Goths in the 6th century A.D. He claimed that the Goths could have come from Scandza. It is not known when they would have been there.

"Now from the island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth many years ago under their king, Berig by name," he wrote. They lived close to the Roman Empire's borders after a series of southward migrations.

We have limited knowledge of the Goths before they met the Romans. Runic inscriptions were used in the written language they had. Only a few of these inscriptions have been found. "Only a few 'Gothic' runic inscriptions have survived, on objects which were found in modern-day Romania and Hungary," Tineke Looijenga wrote in her book.

Gothic style buckle with rectangular plate deriving from Roman forms. The decoration reveals regional Gothic fashion. The gilded silver buckle with an eagle's head is typical of the northern Black Sea area which was settled by Crimean Goths. A.D. 400- 660.

Gothic style buckle with rectangular plate deriving from Roman forms. The decoration reveals regional Gothic fashion. The gilded silver buckle with an eagle's head is typical of the northern Black Sea area which was settled by Crimean Goths. A.D. 400 to 660. (Image credit: World History Archive via Alamy Stock Photo)

Prior to the Goths' conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, Jordanes claimed that they had a religion that worshiped a god of war and avenged heroes. The Goths hung human arms from trees in honor of the war god, according to Jordanes.

The history of the Goth is hazy. They adopted some Roman customs after moving into the empire. They established new kingdoms after moving into the Roman Empire. They were more nomadic prior to contact with Rome, according to goth records.

Goths vs. Greeks

The Goths invaded Greece in the third century A.D. The Austrian National Library and The Journal of Roman Studies contained fragments of a text written by a third-century Athens writer.

The Roman emperor Decius led the army against the Goths but was defeated. There was a battle between the Goths and Greeks at the pass of thermopylae. The battle was probably fought in the 250s or 260s. A Greek force tried to stop the Goth army from reaching Athens while they were on their way. Before the outcome of the battle is known, the fragment ends.

Goths' attacks on the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was invaded by the Goths in the 3rd century A.D. Peter Heather, a medieval history professor at King's College London, wrote in his book "The Goths" that the first attack happened in 238. A number of large land incursions followed a decade later.

The Goths and other barbarians broke into the Aegean Sea and wreaked havoc. The temple dedicated to the goddess Diana was destroyed in the attack on Ephesus.

Heather wrote that the Roman response to the attack on land and sea was fierce. No major raid ever again broke through the Dardanelles.

A black and white painting titled

Here we see a painting titled "The Goths Approaching Rome," by W. Edward Wigfull. (Image credit: Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The relationship between the Goths and Rome lasted into the fourth century. There was a lot of conflict when Goths was a Roman soldier.

The Tervingi supported two unsuccessful claims to the emperorship. They supported Licinius in A.D. 321 and Procopius in A.D.365. Constantine and Valens launched attacks against the Tervingi after they became emperor.

The Goths were home to a form of Christianity called Arianism. The bishop of the Gothic style was named Ulfilas or Wulfila. According to Robin Sowerby, a former senior lecturer in English studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, a script based on the uncial Greek alphabet was used to translate the Bible.

The Goths adopted the Catholic form of Christianity in the future.

Goths and the Huns

The relationship between the Romans and Goths was changed by the appearance of a new group called the Huns. The Goths were pushed by the Huns.

The Goths were treated badly. The barbarians were forced to sell their children into slavery because they lacked food.

A black and white painting showing Roman general Flavius Aetius and the Visigoth king Theodoric I fighting against the Huns. Rising above everyone else is a moustachioed man with a billowing cloak. He is holding a curved sword in his right hand and a shield attached to this left. Beneath him there is a lot of fighting going on: some people are on horseback, some are holding bows and others spears. In the background you can see the Roman army with this large shields, spears and Roman helmets.

Roman general Flavius Aetius and the Visigoth king Theodoric I against the Huns. (Image credit: imageBROKER/Sunny Celeste via Getty Images)

The Goths revolted, plundering Roman towns after being refused entry to the city ofMarcianople.

The Goths were defeated in the Balkans by an army commanded by Emperor Valens. The Goths were engaged in a battle near the city of Adrianople. Valens thought the Gothic force was smaller than it really was. The emperor's army was overwhelmed by the Goths and destroyed.

It was believed that the emperor was mortally wounded with an arrow when he was among a group of soldiers, but no one said that he had seen him or been near him.

Theodosius made a treaty with the Goths before he died.

Rise of Alaric

The treaty with Rome broke down after A.D. 395. The conflict between the Goths and the Roman Empire was complicated by the rise of a Gothic leader. The Goths would get good farmland and monetary rewards in exchange for the deal. The Romans were being pressured by raids.

A depiction of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, in Athens, by German painter Ludwig Thiersch. He has long hair and a large beard and moustache. He is sitting in the center of a room, surrounded by many people offering him goods, such as wine and flowers. There is even a man in playing a lyre-like musical instrument.

A depiction of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, in Athens, by German painter Ludwig Thiersch. (Image credit: Public domain)

Heather wrote that the law of the Balkans was rejected by both halves of the Empire. There was a massacre of the Gothic inhabitants of Constantinople in A.D. 400 after an attempt by Alaric to move the Goths into Italy.

When the Western Roman Empire fell, fortune changed for the Goths. The emperor Honorius faced rebellion among his army and a man named Constantine III took over. Honorius had his general killed in the aftermath of the problems.

Stilicho's former supporters as well as runaway slaves supported Alaric when he advanced into Italy a second time. He used Rome as a bargaining chip in order to get concessions from Honorius' government. The city was sacked on August 24th.

Two kingdoms: Visigoths and Ostrogoths

The death occurred a few months after Rome's dismissal. Two Gothic kingdoms rose as the Western Roman Empire waned.

The map of the former western Roman Empire was dominated by Gothic kingdoms. The Ostrogoths came to power in Italy after forming the Visigoth Kingdom.

The Kingdom of the Ostrogoths dominated the entire peninsula in Italy. The kingdom was short lived. The capital of it was Ravenna, in northern Italy, which was ruled over by Theodoric of Amal. Theodoric ruled over Goths and Romans for more than 30 years after his death. The emperor of the Byzantine Empire launched a campaign to wipe out the kingdom after he died.

A detailed Byzantine mosaic of five people, with Emperor Justinian in the middle of his retinue.

Byzantine mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his retinue. (Image credit: Richard T. Nowitz via Getty Images)

The rulers of the Visigoth Kingdom would eventually rule from Toledo in Spain. In 552, Justinian I took advantage of a civil war to capture part of southern Iberia for the Byzantine Empire. In the seventh century, art and writing flourished in the kingdom.

Roman art traditions continued during this time period. In the 19th century, a group of artifacts from the seventh century were found near Toledo. Heather wrote in her book " The Visigoths from the Migration Period to the Present" that the gold crowns and crosses were a perfect blend of Roman and Byzantine traditions.

The kingdom was invaded by the Moors in A.D. 711. The Kingdom of Asturias was founded by the Visigothic nobleman Don Pelayo. Ingmar Shrman, professor of languages and literature at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, wrote in an article that the reconquest of Iberia would take nearly 800 years. Gothic heritage was used as a symbol of legitimacy by the rulers of the reconquest.

The Roman culture, including its religion and artistic traditions, would be preserved by the Visigothic Kingdom. The Goths helped keep the Roman culture alive.

Additional resources

The original was published on Live Science in March of 2016