The Land of Oium

30 March 2012, 15:32

The Ukrainian Week continues a series of publications about ancient peoples who once inhabited Ukrainian lands and left behind their rich cultural heritage (see The Ukrainian Week, Is. 50, 2011 about the Celts). This week we look at the Goths.

Today the Goths remain one of Europe’s most powerful cultural myths. However, the historical tribal union has, in fact, nothing to do with them in most cases. Neither Gothic architecture, nor Gothic literature and visual arts, nor the fairly common “Gothic” youth subculture that exploits the popular brand is in any way connected to the historical heritage of the East Germanic tribes that were involved in virtually all notable events in European history at the end of antiquity and the early Middle Ages.


The Goths are mentioned in historical sources starting from early 1st century AD when they migrated from the legendary island of Scandza (Scandinavian peninsula) to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea near the mouth of the Vistula River. From there they moved southeast, eventually reaching Polissia and Volhynia. The Gothic state of Oium was founded in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD and spanned what is now Right-Bank Ukraine. It became the base for a series of attacks the East European barbarians launched on the Roman Empire.

The Romans were able to put an end to these invasions only in the early 270s when, following lengthy wars, they agreed to grant their neighbours the status of confederates essentially making them allies. In the 3rd century, the Goths as a whole split into the Visigoths, ruled by the Balti dynasty, and the Ostrogoths, ruled by the Amali dynasty.

The Gothic state reached its peak in the mid-4th century under the Amali ruler Ermanaric. This state's power was not lasting however, as the Huns destroyed it when they invaded the southern Ukrainian steppes in 375. This made the Ostrogoths the first European people to face the atrocities of an invasion by nomads. They lost the war and were subjugated but managed to preserve a certain cultural-historical autonomy within the “steppe empire” of the Huns. They even had their own princes.


The history of the Ostrogoths, who found themselves under foreign rule, was dramatic. In the most prominent event of the age of Attila – the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (451) – the Ostrogoths were part of the Hunnish troops and fought against the Visigoths who accounted for about a third of the Roman army. After the breakup of the “steppe empire” soon after the death of its ruler, they actively participated in dividing Hunnish heritage. Ostrogoths often assumed key offices in the Constantinople court and in the armed forces of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Theodoric (451-526), who later earned the appellation ‘the Great’, became king of the Ostrogoths in 474. He achieved the highest military and civil ranks in Rome but was, above all, the king of his own people. After a series of misunderstandings with the Constantinople court, Theodoric raided the Apennine Peninsula, and his army proclaimed him ruler of Italy in autumn 493, thus launching the history of the Ostrogothic kingdom. Despite this victory, Theodoric's kingdom would not last long.

In 535, Constantinople Emperor Justinian (527-565), whose idée fixe was to restore the empire within the limits of the “golden age” of the Antonines, started a war against Theodoric’s heirs. This conflict continued, with varied success, until 554 when the Byzantines became the nominal victors. A small part of the Goths remained in Italy after the defeat, while the majority returned, researchers believe, to their original land of Scandinavia. The so-called Vendel period began in the 6th century. This period included  a culture filed with the vivid manifestations of a post-imperial heritage, the trappings of a state tradition likely brought with the returning Goths.

The Codex Argenteus. The manuscript of the Holy Scripture translated by Gothic bishop Ulfila

Islands of Ostrogoths were scattered across a large territory around the Black Sea in the early Middle Ages. In particular, the so-called “Small Goths” who did not follow Theodoric to Italy lived in the vicinity of Bulgaria's Nikopol and continued to serve emperors in Constantinople. The writer Jordanes who wrote the history of the Goths since their migration from Scandinavia to the mid-6th century was one of the “Small Goths” and several high-ranking officers in Justinian’s army shared the same origin. Gothic guards accompanying the emperor are also shown in the famous mosaic in the Basilica of San-Vitale  (Ravenna). Ostrogothic settlements are known to have existed in the approaches to the Crimean Mountains and even on the Black Sea coast in the Caucasus (in modern Russia). So the odyssey which lasted several centuries left large groups of the Ostrogoths scattered outside Scandinavia.

The Gothic settlement in the Crimea, with Mangup as its capital, survived the longest. It was destroyed only in 1475 by Mehmed II’s Ottoman troops. But by then the locals were not purely Gothic, as the Crimean peninsula had become a melting pot of peoples. All the Christian inhabitants of Crimea rallied around the rulers seated in Mangup, and Greek was the language of international communication. However, the Principality of Theodoro was of Gothic origin and the Orthodox eparchy there was also called Gothic.

The Crimean Goths maintained their cultural distinctiveness even in the Ottoman Empire. A small glossary of their language, compiled and published in the 16th century by Austrian ambassador Augier de Busbecq, permitted contemporary linguists to establish that it was incredibly close to Swedish, despite inclusions of numerous Turkic, Iranian and Slavic words. Catherine II put an end to the Crimean chapter in Gothic history when she decided to make the land part of the Russian Empire. She ordered all Crimean Christians moved to areas north of the Sea of Azov. Their descendants are now called “Mariupol Greeks” in Ukraine.


Despite the Goth's long sojourn in what is today modern Ukraine and their prolonged stay in the land and especially the Gothic state which prospered under Ermanaric, archaeologists have been searching for traces of the culture for over a century now.

Contemporary scholars are somewhat sceptical about this history and tend to limit the territory controlled by the Goths to the area of the Cherkiakhiv archaeological culture. But even within these “modest” limits, the Gothic state was a unique phenomenon of barbarian Europe during the late Roman Empire.

Still, Gothic heritage did not vanish without a trace in the eastern part of the continent. In the early Middle Ages, the most active group of the local “new barbarians” were the Slavs who followed in their path to a certain extent when they migrated south and southeast in the 5th century, from Polissia towards the Danube border of Byzantium. Numerous borrowings from East Germanic languages (primarily Gothic) show that they adopted a number of cultural elements from the Goths. In particular, valuable elements of the military culture of the time (swords, helmets and armour) have Germanic names. Remarkably, the ceremonial dress of wealthy Slavic women included a mandatory pair of large fibulas which matched the way noble Gothic women dressed. In the early Middle Ages, Gothic was synonymous with “elite” and “prestigious” among East European barbarians (including our ancestors). Another telling detail is that the Common Slavic name for a ruler — kniaz (prince) — is a Germanism. Even the word for bread (khlib) is present in Gothic, leaving all Ukrainians with a vestige of Gothic culture every time they ask for bread.

This is Articte sidebar