ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise

Goths in the Samnium

" army of giants who would rather drink than eat,  and would rather fight than drink; huge men, of huge appetites, gifted with a sort of honourable judgment which would have been common sense, if it had not been strongly imbued with a spirit half poetic, half theatrical, and altogether barbaric; guileless as children and yet dangerous as madmen; spendthrifts who squandered their possessions, their strength, and themselves, and who, speaking figuratively, would swing a sledgehammer to crush a fly;

They were, in a word, a tribe of big, handsome, headstrong, quick-tempered boys...”

From “The Rulers of the South”

By Francis Marion Crawford


Illustration by Grevel 1916, Ancient German Family

Goths were described as brave, generous, patient, chaste, affectionate in family but--according to the Romans--faithless in treaties. They were tall and athletic with a fair complexion, blue eyes and curly yellow curly hair worn long and streaming (Bradley 107, 92, 97).

According to the Roman historian Procopius, they were “handsome to look upon”. The men wore beards and mustaches. In fact, young Goths did not cut their hair or beards until they had killed their first enemy in battle (Jones 134, 86).  

Gothic women wore long robes to their feet, and covered their hair with kerchiefs. Chiefs would wear long, fur cloaks. Gothic men would dress in short tunics with a girdle, wide, turned-down collars and short sleeves. They used inner garments that reached their knees (Bradley 97). Wealthier Goths wore trousers (Jones 90), which could reach below the knee or to the ankle (Bradley 97). Perhaps appropriate for the colder climates where the Goths came from, this garb contrasted with the barelegged Roman fashion. In the 4th century, certain places in the Roman Empire, like the city of Rome from 397 AD, prohibited wearing “barbarian costume” such as trousers (Kukikowski 60).

Senigallia Medallion, with Theodoric the Great. National Museum RomeAs late as Theodoric’s [links to Into Italy article] rule of Italy, the fashion of the two cultures had not reconciled. For example, the “Senigallia medallion” shows Theodoric in Roman mode—his Roman titles inscribed in Latin, wearing Roman cuirass and cloak. However, he still sports Gothic style long hair covering his ears, and a mustache (Ward-Perkins 857).  

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The Romans literally considered facial hair "barbaric.” One possible origin of the word “barbarian” was the Latin word for a bearded man.


Such was his mustache a sign of Theodoric’s “unRomanness,” there is no word in Latin for “moustache” (Ward-Perkins 858).


By H Gherts 1901. Ostara flies thru the air as Germanic peoples look up from the realm below
The Goths were originally pagan, worshipping many gods such as Odin, Thor (Masciotta 126) and Ostara. Their idolatry extended to rituals celebrating divine ancestors and founding heroes. For this reason, some Gothic leaders initially feared conversion to Christianity would dissolve their tribes’ traditional social order (Wolfram 69).

As part of a deal made in 369, Roman Emperor Valens gave the Visigoth “founder king” Athanaric a free hand to persecute Christians, and  Athanaric created many Christian martyrs before his people were converted (Wolfram 64, 68)

After they were converted to Arian Christianity, the Goths respected others’ beliefs. For example, Theodoric kept his Arian faith but did not initially impose it on his Catholic Trinitarian subjects in Italy (Masciotta 126).  

Dome, Arian Bapistry Ravenna.  The baptism of Jesus, c 500 AD

The goddess Ostara gave name to Easter
(Wikipedia, Eostre)


Valens, however, supported the Arian faith
(Wolfram 70).

Unlike Catholic Trinitarians, Arians believed the Son of God was subordinate to God the Father
(Wikipedia, Arianism)

The Council of Nicaea 355 AD condemned Arianism as heresy (Kukikowski 107); before that, Christian Roman Emperors practiced a form of Arianism.

Throughout the Gothic reign, Arianism had symbolized Gothic identity, but became as a major obstacle to peaceful co-existence with the Catholic Romans they ruled (Kukikowski 108). But the Catholic Church stirred up against Theodoric [links to Into Italy article] in his old age. He was Arian, but had tolerated Catholic practices. He had been supported by bishops and had even sided against the Arian Vandal Genseric  [links to Into Italy article] 
(Crawford 7-8). As tolerant as he had been through his 33-year reign, anti-Arian and anti-Goth rebellions led him to be “brutally repressive” in his last years (Jones 306), persecuting Catholics and imprisoning – and possibly murdering – Pope John I (Crawford 10).

Sarcophagus of Theodoric, RavennaTheodoric died in 526 (Masciotta 123). His bones were removed from his mausoleum in 540 as an effort to eliminate his memory and re-write his history. As the Vandals became “destroyers” and Attila [links to Into Italy article] “the Scourge of God,” so  Arian Goths became “savages,” (Jones 308). Belisarius  [links to Into Italy article, Gothic War] turned Theodoric’s mausoleum in Ravenna into a Catholic oratory--chapel, today a UNESCO World Heritage site (Wikipedia, Mausoleum).

Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, Ravenna

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Whhnstallhauser, large hut Germanic

Most Goths had been farmers. They had lived in densely populated, well-organized villages, dotted along rivers in their eastern European lands. Large villages hosted 12 to 15 families plus their livestock--mainly cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Horses were rare, used only by the elite (Kukikowski 89).

Early Goth settlements did not focus around a large, dominant building. Instead, most buildings were the same size (Jones 88), and organized neatly in a row (Kukikowski 89). It was not until contact with the Romans that individual Goths acquired wealth and displayed their status by erecting larger buildings (Jones 88).

Goths did not privately own their land. Instead, each year, the chieftain would allocate land among the families, and re-distribute it to different families the following year. In this way, no family could acquire extensive estates, or become more attached to farming than fighting. Further, fewer attachments and possessions allowed the people to be more mobile (Jones 88-90) during their migration period.

By the 530s, the Samnium was a primary region of Goth settlement (Barnish 40) in Italy. This had come about by land grants offered to Goth soldiers. As was common in the last days of the Roman Empire, Odoacre [links to Into Italy article] allotted 1/3 of the land he ruled to discharged soldiers who had fought for him. Theodoric [links to Into Italy article] also demanded land, but took only that previously allotted to Odoacre’s soldiers, or land that had been long abandoned (Colabella 49). In addition, after the Gothic War, Belisarius [links to Into Italy article, Gothic War]  dismissed his soldiers to their farms in the Samnium, but left them unpaid (Hodgkin 4108, 4139).

Map of ancient Samnium, 4-6 c AD

In the 5th century, the Samnium was made of waste- and abandoned-lands, what Christie calls “agriderserti” (Christie, Landscape 9). 

At the time of the Gothic rule, the Samnium had few important urban centers, mainly Larino, Sepino, Boiano, Isernia, Termoli, Venafro and Trivento. The surrounding countryside was dotted with many villages, remnants of the Samnite culture or Roman colonies, including Riccia and Ferrazzano. According to Masciotta, there is not enough archeological or archived materials to list the existing towns, but it is “safe to assume that even then existed Guardialfiera and Pietrabbondante.” In addition, many small towns probably arose during Goth rule. For example, Ripabottoni was once called Ripagottorum, reflecting the Goth origin of its name. However, we do not know if it was founded, or just expanded, under the Goths. Finally, “other imprints, memories of splendor or harm, vanished in the mists of centuries” such as the town named for the Goth King Totila [links to Into Italy article, Gothic War]. A mountain farming town, Totila was once located between Sessano and Pescolanciano, but no longer exists (Masciotta 125).

Although the Biferno valley [opens map] was not a major transport route for the many invading armies, the Larino-Campobasso road a secondary road across the Apennines and saw considerable use [e.g., Rome to Ravenna]. As the Roman period ended, the valley suffered devastation of several wars, including the Gothic Wars [links to Gothic War section of Into Italy article] of 535-554 (Barker 254).

Map of ancient Roman roads, southern Italy

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                                                                                  Ulfilas, a Bulgarian bishop, codified Goth as a written language only in the 4th century AD (Kukikowski 68).

Bishop Ulfilas explains Bible to the Goths


Ulfilas was a Goth whose ancestors came from Cappadocia, modern Turkey (Wolfram 75). His mission was to convert the Goths from paganism to Arian Christianity.


Ulfilas invented an alphabet to allow the Gothic language to be written so he could translate the Bible.  
Page from codex, showing Gothic letters He based this alphabet on Greek but with new letters for sounds not found in Greek (Kukikowski 110).  

During the Goth rule, Goths continued to speak their native language and some Romans chose to learn it. The language was still the norm in the 530s (Ward-Perkins 849-855). In fact, the Huns spoke Gothic in Attila’s court (Jones 225), as Gothic was the spoken “lingua franca” in the Hun territories (Sinor).

Generally, only the clergy in post-Roman times were literate. By Ward-Perkins’ analysis, 71 percent of clergy versus 14 percent of laypersons could sign their own name (Ward-Perkins 1800).

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Ulfilas did not translate the Book of Kings. He thought it might incite the Goths to violence (Kukikowski 110).


names usually started with “Wala” or “Theude” and ended with “wulf,” “mir,” or “mund” (Hodgkin 224).

Even Charlemagne struggled to “master his letters in later life” (Ward-Perkins 1805).


Couples were often betrothed young, but married around 20 years old--both bride and groom, which Goths considered a perfect age. Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “The young men marry late and their vigor is thereby unimpaired. The girls, too, are not hurried into marriage. As old and full-grown as the men, they match their mates in age and strength, and the children reproduce the might of their parents” (Herlihy 73).

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Before Christianity, Gothic soldiers were buried without armor, as the Goths did not believe they would need it in the afterlife (Wolfram 61). However, burials near a Christian chapel or hallowed ground had become the norm by the 7th century, so scattered tombs would indicate burials continued in the native Italian style even after Christianity. For example, archaeologists found 50 tombs from the 5th to 6th centuries, scattered across a ruined villa, near an apsed bath suite, in Casalpiano near Morrone (Christie, From Constantine 449). 

Few items were found in the tombs, but a coin from 570 AD was recovered
(Christie, Landscapes 9).

Sepluchers,  Casalpiano

By 1000 AD, the bath and cemetery were partly covered by the church of Santa Maria, which was a possession of the Montecassino Abbey since 1017 (Christie, From Constantine 449).

Ring found in tomb, Colle Miozze
In Summer 1983 near Bonefro, a deep plowing of Colle Miozze unearthed a stone tomb dating to the 7th century, not long after the Goth rule.   The tomb was covered with stone slabs.  Inside, the skeleton was found with a bronze ring ending in two dark green eyes and decorated with a knurled or notched midline.  The find was similar to those found in Santa Maria Casalpiano (Colabella 50).  

Even the ancient pagan sanctuary at Campochiaro [links to Samnites article] saw its fair share of burials into the 4th century, before it was destroyed by fire and abandoned (Christie, From Constantine 119).

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