A Different Sort of Goth

6th century Ostrogothic helmet

The Dark Ages get the shaft of history and art history pretty often. Of course, it’s not a rare specialty, but over the centuries it has been derided. One of the first major art historians, Giorgio Vasari, had almost nothing good to say about them. But you know who has it even worse? The mercenaries and barbarians in the interlude after the fall of Rome and before the darkness settled. Written off as by man as uncultured and war hungry, the barbarian tribes that gained considerable power in the fifth century were both cunning military strategists and artists worth studying.

Italy’s crowning achievements in art history may be Roman art and the Renaissance, but the nation actually owes a lot of its traditions to the barbarians. Some of the Late Roman Empire’s most powerful allies were the foederati. Foederati is derived from the Latin term for treaty. Though barbarian tribes, including the Franks and Visigoths, were not granted Roman citizenship, they were expected to provide military force to aid Rome. Without this band of mercenaries, Rome could not have defeated the Huns in 451.

The history of this period is pretty incestuous. Two famous barbarian kings were foederati: Alaric I of the Visigoths and Odoacer, a military leader of mixed or ambiguous ethnicity. These two men helped establish an amazing hotbed of art historical treasures: Ravenna. Alaric did not attack Ravenna in the early 400s, so the imperial capital was moved to this undamaged city. After Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of Rome, he set up shop in Ravenna. Odoacer was killed (during dinner!) and surplanted by Theodoric, turning Ravenna into the hub of the Ostrogothic empire.

5th century shoebuckle with garnets

Why does all this matter to art history? Clearly the barbarian tribes were damned clever at forming alliances and using their military prowess as leverage, but they also knew how to use art. Ostrogothic helmets from the 6th century have been found in very spread out locations, leading historians to believe they were made as gifts to win over visiting dignitaries. On the flip side, the beautiful buckle pictured may be a treasure given to tribes to persuade them to assist Rome. In other words, art mattered! The tribes grappling for power after Rome’s fall were not only concerned with political strategy, but cultivating and preserving their own aesthetic culture.

Art was also used as a way to manipulate and mark one’s territory. When Justinian, the great leader of the Roman Empire in Byzantium, took over Ravenna, he probably covered mosaics of Theodoric with his name, a bit like the destruction of Hatshepsut’s image in ancient Egypt. Besides portraiture and coins, the Franks, Lombards, and Ostrogoths also had a rich tradition of making exquisite pieces for burials, a custom that has most likely influenced Western European monarchy’s elaborate tombs and treasures laid to rest with its rulers. The Lombardic crown was even used for Italian monarchs up until the twentieth century.

TL;DR: We owe even the more obscure cultures quite a bit, whether  it’s a military or artistic tradition.

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5 Responses to A Different Sort of Goth

  1. Pingback: War Is Boring » The Starving Art Historian: A Different Sort of Goth

  2. chezjim says:

    Theodoric the Great also played a key role in food history when he hosted the Byzantine exile Anthimus, a physician, then sent him as an emissary to Theuderic I [confusing, huh?], a Frankish king, for whom Anthimus proceeded to write a dietetic (“De Observatione Ciborum Epistula”) laying out the best ways to eat for one’s health and incidentally creating the closest thing we have to a Frankish cookbook. In a crowd of approximately Roman recipes, there is at least one Greek one and discussion of the Franks’ love of raw bacon (which they also applied – apparently effectively – to wounds.

    A sample:
    “Both cultivated and wild asparagus are good and provoke urines, if water celery root or fennel root is mixed in their warm water. Add a modicum of coriander or mint when serving. Drink this hot water with wine. And asparagus must not be boiled too much, for it loses its qualities and its flavors, unless they are of the strongest. Eat with salt and oil.”

  3. That’s so interesting! I was a big Latin geek in high school and was always trying to find authentic Roman recipes, but more and more I think the barbs’ were smarter. Bacon!

  4. Great post. I didn’t know that about Justinian and Theodoric. Along the lines of “marking one’s territory” with art, you might be interested to read about what Shutruk-Nahunte did after he conquered the city of Sippar. He took the “Stele of Naram-Sin” (which was located in Sippar) back to Susa, and then wrote an inscription of his conquest on the stele. I wrote a little bit about this on my blog: http://albertis-window.com/2010/10/naram-sin-inscriptions-2/

    I enjoy reading your posts!

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