meeting the Goths

Gothic society and Greek hagiography

The late-antique Germanic tribe known as the Goths is of particular interest to Indo-Europeanists, since their language is attested in a fourth century bible translation that forms the first substantial attestation of an early Germanic language. Every student of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics in Leiden probably took the course “historical grammar of Gothic” or will do so at one time or another during his studies. Unfortunately only a really short introduction to Gothic culture is provided for the first year students. Therefore I want to discuss a major source for the culture of the fourth century Goths, the Goths in the time of Wulfila’s bible translation. This specific text is a hagiography, in this case a passio or μαρτύριον (this genre records the martyring of a saint or blessed person) written about a Goth called Saba, who was martyred during a persecution of the christian faith under the reign of Athanaricus (Gothic: Aþnareiks). However, before continuing with discussing this text I will provide the general linguists reading this article with a short introduction to who these Goths were and why they are awesome.

                Tacitus in his Germania  is one of the first classical writers to inform us of a tribe called the Gotones (Germ. 44: Trans Lugios Gotones regnantur), who lived on the Baltic shores and belonged to the Germanic sphere of influence. In the third century, people confederations, who probably in one way or another were related to the Gutones of the first century, had migrated south to central Europe were they laid waste to whatever part of the Roman limes that was ill defended, their first recorded incursion dating back to 278 CE. Living on the edge of the Roman Empire a substantial romanization of the Gothic military took place and in the course of the fourth century Arian Christianity reached the Gothic realms. In the second half of the fourth century, however, Altaic armies dominated by a people called “the Huns” poured into in East and Central Europe, pushing the Gothic confederations into Roman territory. In 370 CE the blue Danube river must have been filled with the white sails of thousands of ships when the Goths crossed the border. Maltreatment by Roman officials however, led to a Gothic revolt and the Goths went to war with the Romans once again. In 374 CE at Adrianople an Alano-Gothic army led by the warlords Fritigern (Gothic: Friþareiks), Alatheus (Gothic: Alaþewaz) and Saphrac (Alanic *saw-rag “black back”) brought about the utter destruction of the Roman army led by the Roman emperor Valens.

After the Roman defeat the Gothic peoples were on the move and wanted better lands and better guarantees that their people would be safe within Rome’s borders. A period of alternating between open warfare with Rome and fighting as Roman foederati, i.e. allies of Rome, ensued, eventually leading to the epic sack of Rome by king Alaric I in 410 AD, a story which would make a great Hollywood movie. A Gothic federation known as the Visigoths eventually moved to the south of France and Spain and founded a Visigothic kingdom there. Another Gothic federation known as the Ostrogoths conquered Italy in the late fifth century and established an Ostrogothic kingdom. The Ostrogothic king Theodericus (Gothic: Þiudareiks) became a figure of legend in the Early and High Middle Ages, being mentioned in Old English, Old High German, Middle High German, Middle Dutch and Old Icelandic literature. It is probably also at the court of Theoderic that the Codex Argenteus, the main manuscript containing the Gothic bible translations, was produced.

The text I want to discuss is called Μαρτύριον τοῦ ἁγίου Σάβα τοῦ Γότθου “the passion of St. Saba the Goth,” written in the late 4th c. CE. This text was written as letter by the Church in Gothia to Basil, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, when the Christian Goths sended the body of Saba to that province. They wanted to inform the Church of Cappadocia why this man was to be considered holy and how he died. The text is written in a literary and liturgical form, with numerous references to the Passion of st. Polycarp and the Greek New Testament. Saba was killed on a thursday, 12th of april, 372 CE, during the persecution of christians started by king Athanaric in 369 CE.

Why did Athanaric persecute the christians?  Probably because he wanted to strengthen the tribal religion and therewith the sacral bonds between the clans. We should note that allegiance and loyalty in Germanic society was dependent on sacral oaths, which were considered holy and had a religious dimension. Correct religion was therefore crucial to the adhesion of the confederation. Furthermore, Germanic kings played a crucial role in delegating the “grace” of the gods to their peoples, so guaranteeing proper worship was guaranteeing the prosperity of the people. Athanaric also wanted to get rid of Roman influence in Gothic society. We should not forget that the Christian church of the 4th c. CE was heavily entrenched in Roman society and Roman church leaders were important political agents. Since christian communities in Gothia were in direct contact with Roman church leaders, Athanaric and other Gothic leaders feared that the loyalty of these christians was to be suspected and that the christians might be more sympathetic to the Roman empire than to the Gothic authorities.

The Passion  is especially instructive as to how Gothic villages interacted with the Gothic supratribal authorities and how the persecutions were enacted on the microlevel. The passion distinguishes different phases of the persecution. Gothic nobles (μεγιστᾶνες) who visited the village of Saba went looking for christians and the villagers decided that the best way to prove there were no christians in their village was to let everyone eat sacrificial meat consecrated to the pagan gods. Saba’s fellow villagers are not too keen to have Saba get executed and go to considerable lengths to protect him, first in substituting the sacrificial meat with unconsecrated meat, later in swearing that there were no christians in the village (this is significant for perjury (*mainaiþaz) was a religious sin). But Saba, being the stubborn devote christian that he was, of course revealed himself in all occasions and insisted that they should persecute him. Too bad for Saba, even the Gothic nobles did not want to execute him and merely banished him from the village. But Saba’s obstinancy knew no bounds and, one way or another, he had to get martyred. So he returned to his village in order to celebrate Easter with a priest called Sansalas (Alanic name?) when a tribal leader called Atharidus (*Aþalrīdaz?), the son of king Rothesteus (*hrōþisþewaz?), was visiting. Saba got arrested and got tortured. Torturing plays a very important role in Passions so the hagiographer is very specific about it. Atharidus and his warrriors drive Saba naked through a thicket of burned bushes, beated him with flogs and scourges,  tied him to the axles of a wagon and broke his bones and to finish it up, they flogged him once again. At several moments Saba gets the change to eat from the sacrificial meat and end his plight, but of course he refuses. Eventually Atharidus’ warriors took him to the river Musaios (possibly the Buzaǔ) to drown him. But even these warriors do not want to kill him and decide to let him go. Saba refuses to be released and insist the warriors do their duty: “τί ματαιολογεῖτε καὶ οὐ ποιεῖτε τὸ προστεταγμένον ὑμῖν” (“why do you talk idlely and not do what you are told to!”) After a lot of begging, the warriors do their duty and drown him in the river, Saba finally having achieved the martyrdom he so desparately craved.

 Why is this text monument important? Because it is the only contemporary description of Gothic society before it got Romanized, for later descriptions of Gothic society come from 6th and 7th c.  Latinate texts, which are aimed at the elite. Detrimental to the historian’s wish to be informed about paganism in Gothic society, Early Medieval Latinate hagiographies often have no interest whatsoever in describing heathen rituals. The Passion of Saba, fortunately does describe the dinner ritual, although not in too much detail. It also indicates that Athanaric’s persecution does not only stem from political fears but may also come from genuine royal concern for the religion of the people. We hear one of the Gothic officials say to Saba when he refuses the meat: “ταῦτα Ἀθάριδος ἐκέλευσεν ὑμῖν κομισθῆναι, ἵνα φάγητε καὶ ῥύσησθε ἐκ θάνατου τὰς ψυχάς ὑμῶν” (“Atharidus ordered these things to be brought for you, so that you may eat and save your souls from death”) Another thing we should be grateful for is that the Passion clearly shows the hierarchy in Gothic society; the war leader Athanaric at the top has ordered the persecution and tribal chiefs like Atharidus and Rothesteus are responsable for enacting the persecution. They would send nobles (μεγιστᾶνες) to oversee the heathen ceremonies in the villages. To sum it up, the Passion of st. Saba the Goth is the most important source for Germanic society in late antiquity for it describes in considerable detail the persecution of christians in Gothic society at the microlevel of an agrarian village. These were the people who actually listened to Wulfila’s bible translation and spoke the Gothic that has come down to us.



Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic wars (Cambridge 2007)

E. A., Thompson, The visigoths in the time of Ulfila (Oxford 1966).

Peter J. Heather and John Matthews, The Goths of the fourth century (Liverpool 1991).

Delehaye, H., “Passio S. Sabae Gothi, in: Saints de Thrace et de Mésie, an. bol. 31 (1912)

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