Origin of the Visigoths

The traditional story of the the origin and migration of the Visigoths goes roughly like this (Collins, 2004):

  • first century BC: originated in southern Sweden
  • first century AD: migrated to north-eastern Germany
  • second century AD: gradual migration south towards the Danube
  • 251 AD: cross the Danube and defeat the emperor Trajan Decius
  • 20 years: remained within the Empire, looting and destroying
  • Early 270s AD: expelled by Claudius II Gothicus (268-70) and Aurelian (270-5)
  • Established themselves between the Danube and the Ostrogoths to the northeast.
  • 370 AD: received Ostrogothic survivors of the Hunnic onslaught
  • 376 AD: admitted into the Empire as refugees by Valens (364-78) but soon revolt due to lack of supplies
  • 378 AD: kill Valens at the Battle of Adrianople
  • 379-95 AD: served Theodosius I (379-95) in his wars against the western empire. Ended up under the leadership of Alaric, a member of the ancient ruling house of the Balt dynasty
  • 480 AD: Alaric led his forces into Italy
  • 410 AD: sacked Rome but Alaric died and the new King, Ataulph, led them into Gaul

The trouble is little to no evidence for the early part of this story and some counter-evidence (Collins, 2004):

  • In the fifth century the two big Gothic confederations were actually called the Teruingi and Greuthungi.
  • Roman historians make it clear that elements of both groups crossed into Roman territory in the 370s.
  • Many of both groups stayed beyond the Danube and subsequently became subject to the Huns, i.e. it wasn’t a migration en-masse.
  • In the sixth and seventh centuries writers in Italy and Spain used the term “Goth” rather than “Visigoth” or “Ostrogoth”. These terms only came into use later.

It is now thought that the “Visigoths” formed in the confused period post the battle of Adrianople (378 AD)(Collins, 2004). They comprised individuals from a wide variety of cultural, genetic, and linguistic backgrounds although they came to think of themselves as “Goths”. Unlike their brethren who stayed in their homelands they had a military lifestyle and were permanently in arms. After the treaty of 381 this group was a permanent military force in the service of the emperor Theodosius I. They were supplied either by the imperial administration or by requisitions on the local population. They were Christian as were all Germanic groups within the empire at that time. Alaric had assumed leadership by about 392 AD. There is no evidence that Alaric was from a long established ruling house. He took advantage of the confusion after the death of Theodosius to make his group an independent mercenary army for hire to which ever emperor could offer more. Collins estimates them as 30,000 people including men, women and children.

Apparently Theudis’s (531-48) personal following comprised the 2,000 armed slaves of his Hispano-Roman wife (Collins, 2004, citing Procopius).


Collins, R. (2004). Visigothic Sain 409-711. Blackwell.

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