Goths, Lombards, Romans, and Greeks: Creating Identity in Early Medieval Italy
By Michael E. Stewart
Paper given in 2002, updated in 2014
Introduction: The fall of the Western Roman Empire is often dated as 476 CE. In that year a group of “barbarian,” soldiers deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus, and proclaimed a strongman, Odoacer, king. Although recent scholars have disputed the importance of this event the date is significant in that another Western emperor would never again reign in Rome. Regularly, the successors of these Roman rulers are simply called barbarians, or grouped as various “Germanic” tribes such as the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. This essay explores how two different non-Roman historians represented the past to their peoples: the Gothic historian Jordanes’ sixth-century work, the Getica, and the eighth-century Lombard historian Paul the Deacons’ History of the Lombards .
The purpose and value of these types of histories has created a sharp divide among contemporary scholars. Walter Pohl explains that scholars have used two “conflicting modes” of interpretation when examining the early histories of barbarian peoples:
One school has brought together an impressive stock of ethnographic and mythological parallels to prove the basic authenticity of the material in these histories even where it is legendary. Others have argued for the more or less fictional character of these texts.
Both Jordanes’ and Paul’s history may be considered as origin stories. However, their role as accurate historical accounts, which built a sense of shared ethnic identity for the Goths and the Lombards, continues to evoke considerable debate.