The Crimean Goths
Gothic Ruins, Mangup, the
Heather, Peter, The Goths,
Vasiliev, A. A., The Goths in the Crimea,
History of the Goths,
The Goths: guilty of destroying the
Roman Empire, but innocent of Gothic
architecture. Their language is the only known example of the
now-extinct Eastern Germanic family, and originally they lived on
the southeastern shores of the Baltic in what is now Poland (rather
than in Scandinavia as legend has it). Early in the Christian era
they saturated the basins of the Vistula, the Bug, and the other
rivers flowing north to the Baltic, until about 200 A.D. when they
were finally able to make the jump to the rivers flowing south to the Black
Sea: the Dnieper and the Bug. (The south-flowing Bug is sometimes called the Southern Bug
by people with no sense of humor.)
Heather argues, against the recent
consensus, that this was a genuine migration of peoples rather than
just an invading army achieving dominance over local populations,
and also that, in the end, Goths had a considerable degree of group
identity. However, in the beginning Goths' primary loyalties
were to the militarized local groups to which they
belonged rather to the Gothic nation, and the southern Goths were
also transformed by the
new landscape and by their new associations (becoming Scythized or
Hunnified in many respects). The Visigoths and Ostrogoths
crystallized around large armies put together late in the game in
the face of Roman and Hun pressure: the Visigoth / Ostrogoth
split was neither traditional nor ancient, and many Goths
(including the Crimean Goths of whom I speak) never belonged to either group.
For a considerable
period the Goths were Roman borderers, causing occasional trouble but
also receiving Roman tribute and defending Rome against other
barbarians.1 In 375 A.D. they were defeated by Huns from
the east, and
the Goths who were not pressed into Hun service escaped across the Danube
into the Empire. They were not really welcome there, but after they
had defeated the Romans at Adrianople in 376, killing Emperor Valens, a place
had to be found for them.
From that point on, both the Goths and the Huns sometimes served the
Empire and sometimes invaded it. (The men who ultimately brought
down Rome were disgruntled and unpaid mercenaries, not foreign
enemies.) In 376 the Huns still dominated the steppe, but in 451 their
power came to an end when they launched a frightening but
unsuccessful invasion of Rome. (Goths fought on both sides in the
final battle). Later that century the Roman Empire ceased to
function, though Gothic rulers kept things limping along in Italy
until 555 A.D., and in Spain until 751 A.D.
But I am writing about the Goths who did not invade
Rome (and who, incidentally, did not become Arian heretics). In 376 A.D. the Goths who had settled
in the Crimea stayed where they were, and for the next 1400 years
the southeastern Crimean coast between Balaclava and Sudak, together
mountains nearby, would be called "Gothia". Gothia was seldom fully
independent but was usually semi-independent before it fell to the Turks
in 1475 A.D., and after that it survived until 1786 as a Russian
Orthodox bishopric. The Goths themselves were first Hellenized and later Turkified, though they did remain Christian.
In 1592 a traveler
reported meeting a speaker of Gothic, but he didn't record enough
to verify that it wasn't really some other German language: most believe that he
had encountered a Saxon or some other German living in the area. Nobody
is sure exactly when the Gothic language finally died out.
In the Crimea and on the north coast of the Black Sea,
the southerly path of the northern forest peoples intersected with
the westward path of the steppe nomads from the east. The first to follow the Dnieper from the Baltic region to the Black Sea
were the Goths, who they encountered the Huns from Asia. A few centuries
later they would be followed by the Varangians / Rus, and still later
would come the pagan
Lithuanians, whose southward expansion was stopped in 1363
by the Tatars and their Gothian allies. The last to follow this
route was Karl XII of Sweden, but he never reached the Black Sea
until he was defeated and forced to retreat to the Ottoman Empire. Sweden's defeat at Poltava
in the Ukraine in 1709 marked the demise of the Swedish Empire and
the rise of Russia, which has controlled the route between the Baltic
and the Black Sea ever since.
At one time or another Gothia lived under the
control of (or within the sphere of influence of) the Scythians, the
Romans, the Byzantines, the Huns, the Khazars, the Comans / Polovtsi / Kipchaks, the Varangians / Rus / Russians, the
Genoese, the Mongols, the Tatars, Tamerlane, the Cossacks, and
Russia, and Gothia also had
significant dealings with the Bosporan Greeks, the Greeks of
Trebizond, the Petchenegs, the Alans, the Avars, the Bulgars, the
Hungarians, the Crusaders (from "Romania"), the Wallachians, the
Zikhians (whoever they were), and the Lithuanians.
Vasiliev's book is for connoisseurs only.
Crimean Gothia is an inconsequential footnote to history,
lacking much deep significance and apparently short on
anecdotes too. Few readers would be interested in more than a
two-page summary of this 300-page book (which is based on thousands of pages
of research). But to me the time and the place are interesting, and I
enjoyed watching the slow unrolling of the unexciting story of Gothia. And
given my pedantic nature, watching the methodical workings of
the old philological methods was a pleasure too.
1. The Gothic King Cannabas /
Cannabaudes was defeated and killed by the Romans in 271 A.D., and
it would be another century before the Goths challenged Rome again.
Wolfram speculates that King Cannabas may in fact have been "King Hemp"
-- and the Goths' Scythian neighbors and allies did indeed use cannabis as
part of their
ritual life. (Wolfram, pp. 35, 56, 97, 107, 400 n. 103).
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J