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Who Were the Goths?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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The Goths were a group of Germanic tribes who briefly controlled large parts of Europe between the fifth and eighth centuries CE. The tribes collectively referred to as Goths varied throughout history as names and territories changed, but the two primary tribes were the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths. While the Romans may have regarded the Goths as barbarians, they actually contributed a great deal to European culture and history, especially after the fall of the Roman Empire.

These tribes are notable for, among other things, being the first Germanic tribes to convert from paganism. Evidence suggests that the conversation to Arianism, an early form of Christianity, was probably brought about by the conversion of a single Goth who then spread the word throughout the tribes, and the conversion happened very quickly, probably with the assistance of Christian Roman prisoners who undoubtedly influenced their captors. This form of Christianity, incidentally, should not be confused with the Aryan racial theory.

The origins of the Goths are not really known. It is clear that they had settlements in Northern Europe before slowly drifting into central Europe, and the Goths famously harried and sacked parts of the Roman Empire in the third century. When the Goths began to be displaced by the Huns in the fourth century, they turned to the Romans for refuge, fleeing into the Roman Empire, which they ultimately conquered in the fifth century, united under Theodoric the Great.

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Ultimately, the Goths split into two main groups. The Ostrogoths retained control of the regions now known as the Balkans and Italy, while the Visigoths moved into the Iberian peninsula. The Ostrogoths were able to hold their empire until the sixth century, when they were ultimately defeated by the Byzantine era, while the Visigoths held on in the West until the eighth century, before being displaced by the Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula.

Numerous Gothic artifacts can be found in European museums, documenting the lives and culture of these complex people. The Goths were skilled metalsmiths, producing a stunning pieces of ornamental jewelry along with functional metal items, and traces of Gothic languages endure in parts of Europe today, in regions where Germanic languages are spoken. The Goths also produced a number of remarkable architectural marvels, including expansive basilicas and churches.

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