Herwig Wolfram (tr. Thomas Dunlap), The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1997. Pp, xx + 361, incl. 2 maps. ISBN 0-520-08511-6. US$39.95.
Richard J. Evans
University of South Africa, Pretoria
This is a translation of Das Reich und die Germanen: Zwischen Antike und Mittelalter, which was first published in 1990.[] The following remarks apply to the newer version, although it is inevitable that some comparison be drawn between the original and its English offspring. One point may be noted at the beginning, and that is the relative abundance and lavishness of the illustrative material produced in the original by Siedler Verlag, and the notable absence of any such illustrations in the more recent product -- a sign of the times possibly? Wolfram's purpose (p. 301) is 'to describe and explain the most important non-Frankish successor states on Roman soil . . . the creation, duration and historical impact of kingdoms which are called Germanic and that simultaneously transformed, dissolved and continued the western empire'. That goal is achieved in a mostly convincing manner.
The Roman empire and its Germanic peoples, both those who came to be inside and those who either chose or were obliged to remain outside the northern frontiers, had co- existed from the time of Caesar's operations along the Rhine valley in the 50's BC. Germanic peoples had, however, impinged much earlier and more immediately on the Roman consciousness with migrations resulting in serious and bitter warfare at the end of the second century BC. Therefore, by ignoring the Germanic wars won on behalf of Rome by Gaius Marius, Wolfram jumps in medias res by beginning his volume about the Roman relationship with the Germans only with Caesar (p. 3).[] Curiously enough, Marius reappears as a military idol worthy of comparison with the great generalissimo Stilcho in poetry written by Claudius Claudianus at the start of the very century which is at the heart of this work. To be absolutely fair, however, he is most concerned with the period which we know as 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', yet mention of early Romano-Teutonic affairs would not have gone amiss.
Following an introduction (pp. 1-13) in which an attempt is made to define Germanicism and to identify the first Germans, Wolfram adopts a broad thematic approach in fifteen chapters, dealing with each of the main Germanic tribal units in turn. Their collective origin is dealt with in chapter 1 'Kings, Heroes. and Tribal Origins' (pp. 14-34), where the reader is warned to expect some gruelling detail about German myths, though happily these are, in fact, no more confusing than many of the Graeco-Roman legends. Thence to a retrospective notice of the early relationship between the Roman empire and the various tribes from the time of the Marcomannic wars in the mid-second century (chapter 2 'The Empire and the "New" Peoples', pp. 35- 50). Here something of the sombre tone of the work quickly emerges with the assertion (p. 41), surely overly dramatic, that the empire was already 'teetering' in AD 200, followed by a lengthy discussion (chapter 3 'The Germanic Peoples as Enemies and Servants of the Empire in the Fourth Century', pp. 51-101) of the irretrievable decline in Roman fortunes, and the increasingly powerful role of the Goths and their leaders both in maintaining the status quo (Stilicho) and overturning it (Alaric). Chapter 4 'Emperorship and Kingship on Roman Soil' (pp. 102-22) progresses to a discussion of the constitutional bases of the first Gothic kingdoms, while the ephemeral impact of Attila and the Hunnic Goths receives due treatment in chapter 5 'The Hunnic Alternative' (pp. 123-44).[] Wolfram moves on to describe the brief Gothic kingdom of Toulouse (chapter 6, pp. 145-58), followed by an extensive examination of the Vandalic state in North Africa (chapter 7 'The Vandals', pp. 159-82), the Italian regnum of Odovacar and Theodoric, and a comparison of the great Ostrogothic king and his contemporary Clovis, the Frank (chapters 8 - 10, pp. 194-239).[] The discussion concerning Britain (chapter 11 'Britain too was not Conquered', pp. 240-47) is however misplaced, and does not really belong in this volume, even if Angles, Saxons and Jutes were Germanic; the information Wolfram provides here adds nothing to what we know already. Chapter 12 'The Burgundians: Weakness and Resilience' (pp. 248-59), chapter 13 'The Spanish Kingdom of the Visigoths' (pp. 260-78), and chapter 14 'The Longobard Epilogue' (pp. 279-300) complete a very thorough geographical survey of the Germanic tribes and their new homes, throughout the former western empire.
Because of a lack of essential source material about the Germanic tribes, Wolfram is obliged to fall back on the usual but richer, and it is must be said always riveting, story of Roman decline and why the East (more wealthy) should have survived when the West (poorer by a long way) disintegrated. Yet far from embracing the new tribes for their vitality and novelty and rejecting the exhausted Roman civilisation, Wolfram's text remains sadly pessimistic even distraught at the fall of an empire which had surely long outlived its purpose (the 'history of the third century unfolded with dreadful monotony', p. 49). The Germans are not represented as a better alternative, but merely as part and parcel of a vast catastrophe. The language of the text often becomes as dispirited as the epoch it describes, and it is not until chapter 15 'The Transformation of the Roman World' (pp. 301-14) that some optimism and enthusiasm is finally expressed for the coming of the Medieval Age ('what happened was not merely a "relapse into Barbarism" ... we must know the Germanic past as well as the history of the empire in order to accept the European continuity in its totality', pp. 302 & 314).
It is a pity but one of the more worrying features of this work is the clear inconsistency in standard, quality and accuracy, both in the grammar and in the historical material. In several places, the translation or the editorial policy has been rather sloppy; and both are liable for censure. What is the reader to make of gobbledegook such as: 'Of course the data in the sources is very meagre for the early period. We are forced to estimate, and estimates of late antique and early medieval data, especially of population figures, are always a matter of luck - in fact they are actually impossible if one demands absolute figures. Still, results obtained with the same method can be compared and are of some value.' (p. 104)? Besides the grammatical error and the tortuous way of reaching the meaning, which could, and should, have been much more easily explained, this problem of statistical evidence is hardly one confined to the period on which Wolfram concentrates. Moreover, there is frequent repetition since the thematic chapters necessitate the retelling of episodes, though often these could have been cross-referenced by using footnotes. And is it really necessary to tell the reader six times that Bishop Ulfilas translated the bible into Gothic 'with helpers' (p, 16, 17, 69, 70, 76, 77 )?
Errors, therefore, fall into two categories: those demonstrably of the author, and those which have occurred in the translation process, and which were not caught and corrected in the proof-reading stage. Wolfram is plainly under the misplaced assumption, for example, that Valentinian II was a son of Gratian (p. 91), and that, in AD 409, most of Iberia had been Roman for 'more than five hundred years' (p. 162) when that should, of course, read 'six hundred', and that Rome 'was never in a position to conduct lengthy wars on several fronts at once' (p. 38), which certainly happened in the Second Punic War, in the 190's and 140's, in the last decade of the second century, in the 70's and in the 20's BC -- indeed most of the time.[] And to describe 'Theodoric's eastern policy' in AD 504 as being 'in the tradition of the centuries-old quarrel between the western and eastern emperors' (p. 218) is, to put it mildly, stretching the chronology.
Dunlap, however, must surely be held responsible for: Anthemius' imperium given as 476-472 (p. 153), for the past tense 'lead' for 'led' (pp. 103 & 176), for mixing Jovinus/Iovinus (pp. 145 & 146), 'Augustinian' for Augustan (p. 38), 'equites for eques (p. 55); 'warrior' for 'warriors' (p. 97); AD 250 for 260 (p. 48); 'bright daylight' for 'broad daylight' (p. 214); 'common meal' for 'shared meal' (p. 214); 'scores of Roman refugees' (p. 126) which ought to have been translated from the original 'Scharen' as 'crowds' or 'waves of Roman refugees'; 'minor' instead of 'young' or 'under age' (p. 98), 'younger' instead of 'junior' (p. 102). Some of these translations may be literal, and hence more precisely from the German, but others are simply mistakes which should have been avoided. They result in nonsense in the text, and devalue its contents, particularly for a general or student readership new to the subject.
For all the misgivings and reservations I have about the text as it stands - the endnotes (pp. 317-334) are very limited, though the bibliography reasonable (335-345), the message and the story remain striking. It is well worth retelling this tale from its Germanic standpoint. As a general guide to the period of Rome's disintegration as a major power in western Europe, and the emergence of the Gothic successor states, this volume will surely be a usually useful supplement to the existing, and perhaps more, Romano-centric accounts. However, those readers, especially fellow scholars, who possess German may be deterred by the too frequent eccentricities of the translated edition, and prefer to go back to the original, which is certainly the more attractively adorned.
[] H. Wolfram, Das Reich und die Germanen: Zwischen Antike und Mittelalter (Berlin 1990).
[] As a result there is no mention of Teutones in the entire volume. These with their cousins, the Cimbri and the Ambrones, may have been regarded with a little confusion as 'Gallic', but Plutarch, Mar.11.3-4, specifically notes Germanika and Keltoskuthas in his description of the origins of these tribes. Considering the common usage of Teutonic to mean Germanic, Wolfram's omission is surprising to say the least.
[] Gothic is used as an ethnic umbrella, but there is no mention of the frequent, if not so recent, use of 'Huns' in the pejorative sense to describe the Germans as a nation, when they were 'the enemy'.
[] Chapters 6 & 10 derive directly from H. Wolfram,History of the Goths, (Berkeley 1988) 161-171, 332-362, as noted in the present volume pp. 324 & 329, also = Geschichte der Goten (München 1979) 192-206, 409-445.
[] The same error, with regard to the half-brothers Gratian & Valentinian II, may be found in the 1990 edition (n. 1, p. 148), as well as the massive generalisation about Rome's military capacity (p. 76), while the duration of Rome's occupation of Iberia is given rather vaguely as 'mehr als einem halben Jahrtausand' (p. 234).