S. J. B. Barnish, Federico Marazzi, eds., Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress. The Ostrogoths From the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007. 497 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-074-0.
Reviewed by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield University)
Published on H-German (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Laughing at the Ostrogoths
It is a part of academic folk wisdom that discussions at conferences are of value equal to the actual papers delivered. The organizers of the Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology series, led by Georgio Ausenda, have taken this maxim to heart. The series, which publishes the proceedings of regular conferences held under the auspices of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress, remarkably includes not just reworked versions of the contributions, but also transcripts of the discussions that followed each presentation. These transcripts are taken direct from tape recordings, apparently unmediated by editorial oversight.
This particular conference concerned the Ostrogoths, one of the Germanic groups whose penetration of the Roman Empire is associated, to put it no more strongly, with the collapse of that empire's western half. The Ostrogoths have a special place in that story. Emerging from the wider grouping labeled as the Goths--their name means literally "eastern Goths," as opposed to the "western Goths," or Visigoths--they took over Italy under the leadership of their greatest king, Theodoric, in 493, and for a while constituted the dominant barbarian group in western Europe. We are uniquely well informed about them thanks to the survival of two sets of sources: Jordanes's sixth-century Getica, a history of the people, and the contemporary letters of Cassiodorus, a Roman aristocrat intimately involved in running the kingdom. Defeated by armies of a resurgent eastern Roman Empire sent by Justinian, the Ostrogoths totally vanish from history by 600. Yet paradoxically, their centrality to European history has recently been reasserted, as they have served as the paradigmatic barbarian grouping.
The twelve papers presented here, all by leading specialists, can be divided into three groups. Three papers focus not so much on the Ostrogoths as such as on the economy of Ostrogothic Italy. Ghislaine Noyé shows the changing conditions prevailing in the south of Italy, where Ostrogothic presence was only ever light, and where Roman aristocratic control of the means of production if anything tightened, before the eastern Roman invasion brought disaster. Federico Mazarri's fine study of Rome prefers to characterize the city as entering a stage not of collapse but of "retrenchment," typified by benign neglect. Gian Pietro Broglio complements Mazarri's focus on Rome and Noyé's on the south with a wide-ranging survey of Italian settlement patterns in the period.
Four papers cluster around a second theme, that of political ideology and organization. Ian Wood examines the buildings of Theodoric at Ravenna, the Ostrogothic capital (Rome was still in the grip of the senatorial aristocracy), though without coming to any firm conclusions. Sam Barnish asks how the Ostrogoths managed to hold Italy together, and considers a range of factors. Pablo Diaz and Rosario Valverde together weigh up Ostrogothic relations with their weaker cousins, the Visigoths, and conclude that Theodoric never intended to assimilate them. Wolfgang Haubrichs offers a technical but fascinating discussion of Germanic terms for kinship, highlighting first the peculiar characteristics of Germanic, compared with Indo-European, then of Eastern Germanic (Gothic), compared with Western.
The third strand tackles Ostrogothic identity. In a wide-ranging paper, Dennis Green asks how the Ostrogoths were recorded and remembered, as a people. Two papers take positions on the controversial work of Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy (1997), with Tom Brown reassessing Amory's idea of the role of the Arian church, and Peter Heather offering something of a counter-study in miniature. The remaining two papers, both by archaeologists, approach the Ostrogoths through their material culture, Michel Kazanski in a nuanced fashion, Andrej Kokowski more trenchantly.
Excellent though most of these papers are, it is indeed the discussion transcripts that are the more compelling. The book is an ethnology of historians as much as of Ostrogoths: it is fascinating to see how some interventions are ignored, while others are enthusiastically embraced. Particularly revealing is the manner in which disagreements were managed. Barnish and Heather hold totally different opinions about Gothic identity from those of Kazanski and Kokowski, but these differences are dealt with cordially and in good humor.
The ghosts at this banquet were Amory and Walter Goffart, whose radical views did much to reinvigorate questions of barbarian settlement, but found no representative here, only critique. This conference by no means put these ghosts to rest, in my opinion at least. Nevertheless, the papers are all stimulating, and the section on future research is required reading for anyone interested in the field. What most struck this reader, though, was the laughter, diligently recorded in the transcripts: "[Laughter]." That laughter, revealing the conference's relaxed atmosphere (in spite of references to academic cartels and even dueling pistols), demonstrates the health of the field as effectively as the quality of the contributions does.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Charles West. Review of Barnish, S. J. B.; Marazzi, Federico, eds.; Stress., Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social, The Ostrogoths From the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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