The Missorium of Theodosius. Ca AD 388. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo

Ethnogenesis and Indigeneity

In the latter half of the 20th-century historians of Late Antiquity have been ferociously engaged in debates concerning the “identity of the Goths”. Were they a people? In what sense? When and how did they forge their cultural identity? And what does Ethnogenesis and Indigeneity mean? New research also points to the constitutive importance of Law.

After WW2 a political and academic reaction to the horrendous events of the Holocaust as well as the Germanic – Nazi – historians took place. Part of this political stance was a decisive clash between those historians who – despite the events during the war – continued to share the idea that it was possible to talk about “people” and “tribes”; and those who shared the conviction that any identity is always a social construction. In wider historiography, the seminal works of Edward W. Said on Orientalism (1978), and Benedict Anderson on “Imagined Communities” in 1983 came to represent a watershed in the academic understanding of how “identities” come about. Parallel to this, anthropologists entered the fray with a more reflective, albeit just as fiendish vigour (see below).

Late Antiquity

In all this, Late Antiquity came to play the part as a significant crucible in which to study the “mechanics” of such processes. The background was the need to clear the history of Late Antiquity from the cobwebs left by the Nazified historians and archaeologists of the Third Reich. Soon, also, it came about that a new and vigorous engagement with the preserved written sources had to be supplemented with the studies of theology, archaeology and art history. Lately, the new understanding of the climatic changes following the Roman optimum ca. 100 BC – AD 200, have also led to new insights. Finally, recent studies of Scandinavian Iron Age points to the role of law.

Inside these debates, the history of the Goths came to play a decisive role. Whether the Goths understood themselves as a people or not, the Romans registered how a people, which they called “the Goths” turned op north of the Danube and the Black Sea in the third century.  On par with the Persians (Sasanians), these Goths were decidedly a force to be reckoned with. Albeit considered more as a tribe (gens) than a polity (natio )[1], they figured prominently as significant foes in the historical and political writings of the Romans at that time.

Hence, numerous questions cropped up inside academia as to when and how these people came into being as “a people”? How did their “identity-formation” come about? And what might it all mean in terms of the questions concerning migration, transformation and decline? As seen in the “new”, post-WW2, world?

Core of Tradition

Officially, the debate took off in 1961 with the publication of Reinhard Wenskus’ work on Stammesbildung und Verfassung: Das Werden der frühmittelalterlichen Gentes (Berlin 1961). Never translated into English, it nevertheless came to play an inordinate role in the historiography of Late Antiquity. According to Wenskus, the barbarian gentes were multi-ethnic groups, which coalesced around a joint leader (or groups of leaders), in the process forging a marked “sense of we” (Wir-Bewustsein). Fodder for this process was a so-called “core of tradition” (traditionskern) promulgated by the elite and royalty in order for the common man to accept his group-identity. In this[2], Wenskus was deeply inspired by a German ethnologist, Wilhelm Emil Mühlman, who through somewhat ingenious manoeuvres was able to avoid being stigmatised as what history later demonstrated he was: a Nazi[3].

The work of Wenskus later inspired Herwig Wolfram and Walther Pohl, who founded the Vienna School as part of the “Transformation of the Roman World project”. The aim of the project was to foster European Integration by downplaying Ethnic identity, migration, and the role of Imperial decline. The major work of this early adoption of the ideas of Wenskus was the monograph of Herwig Wolfram and his “History of the Goths (1979). This monograph set the Goths up as the ultimate case-study; someone “good to think with” as Levi-Strauss might have phrased it. Any newcomer to this field has to acquaint themselves with a rather impressive library of later monographs.


As part of this project, the concept of ethnogenesis was fielded. According to this set of ideas, the ethnic formation of these people pre-dated the hegemony of Roman imperialism and Hellenistic culture. Although there were by definition multi-ethnic assemblages of people, they coalesced through the process of ethnogenesis during the Roman Iron Age. Later, this process of identity-formation was somewhat muted by the Romans, but later revived during Late Antiquity through the manipulation of language, physiognomy, history and material culture (dress). As such, these identities become the basis for the foundation of the successor-kingdoms as separate polities and later nations in the Early Middle Ages Europe.

General Critique of the Concept

The first critique, which has been mounted against the theory of ethnogenesis, is the complications forced by the fact that archaeology, philology, and research into place-names does provide some evidence as to the earlier (pre-Roman) events. Although the evidence nearly always end up being somehow contaminated by the writings of Caesar and Tacitus, it seems compelling.

The second critique focus on the need to take into account the melting-pot of creolisation, which arguably define multi-cultural societies. People are never just proponents on one cultural identity. As such, the Goths in 5th-century Toulouse seem to have enacted themselves as both well-educated Romans and ferocious barbaric warlords. Such creolisation is the antithesis of any process of homogenisation, which the model proposes.

Also, a critique has been voiced that by inferring the pro-active role of the “barbarian groups” involved in their own ethnogenesis, the whole project somehow reflects back to the old romantic idea that these groups, in the end, were responsible for the later formation of the successor-kingdoms or proto-nations; and Europe. This is the critique, which has been vehemently voiced by the so-called Toronto-School. Spearheaded by a professed cultural radical, Walter Goffart, these historians find that the Vienna-School (who launched the concept of ethnogenesis) are nothing but a bunch of “crypto-nationalists”. These scholars deny that there ever was anything, which might be termed a “core tradition”. Also – albeit specifically formed to combat Nazi ideology – the people from Toronto claim that the foundational work of Wenskus was nevertheless contaminated by such noted Nazis as Herbert Jahnkuhn and Wilhelm Emil Mühlman. The academic controversy between the two schools have at times been vitriolic bordering on the defamatory. To some extent, this debate mirrors the corresponding debate between motivation and justification among sociologists and anthropologists. Is culture an unconscious script inculcated as we grow up; to later organise our actions as reflexes? Or is culture a kind of justification marketed post festum to explain our actions? Acted the barbarians barbaric because they possessed a tradition to act thus? Or was it just a set of explanations floating around in Late Antiquity to be posited whenever relevant?

Finally, a critique has been voiced by Wolf Liebeschuetz, who as a Jewish refugee born in Hamburg in 1927, has had his academic career in England. He finds the approach “extraordinarily one-sided”. It seems fair to note that as a Jew, the idea that “tribes, peoples or ethnic identities” are nothing but socially constructed entities forged by elite leaders seems preposterous to him. Not voiced, but humming from the background we hear the questions: Can you kill 5.5 million people based on nothing except your own social construction of these people as “others”? If not, what role did their own two-millenia-long creation of “otherness” play in pointing them out as the ultimate scapegoats? Both horrendous questions, but they do pinpoint the conviction of Liebeschuetz that the construction of an identity may never not just be considered the result of a process initiated by the “over-lords”. It takes two to tango. To be noted though: It stands to reason that this remark does not in any sense imply that the responsibility for the Holocaust must be shared between the perpetrators and the victims. But it does remind us that ethnogeny must be based on a theory, which accounts for both the obverse and the reverse of the coin. Lately, the views of Liebeschuetz have been supported by the Oxford School led by Peter Heather, who has argued that the accommodating and fluid ideas of ethnogenesis has been funded by the ESF in order for modern radical multi-culturalists to be able to minimize the importance of migration and cultural conflicts for the upheavals in the 5th-6thcentury Western Europe.

Anthropological Critique and Indigeneity

It has been claimed that the specific template for imagining any ethnogenesis in Late Antiquity is the interplay of three aspects: the military success of warriors and chieftains, a foundational myth, and finally some element of charismatic and dynastic leadership. However, in this model, the economic dimension of the process has been allowed to play only a marginal role.

This is curious, since one of the main components in the army of the Roman Empire was the need to constantly fill the ranks. To this end, the military leaders developed a handful of procedures, one of which was to contract with bands of mercenaries offered up by their local leaders. As the crisis unfolded during the 3rdcentury, more and more of these “bands of brothers” became less and less Romanised. Instead, they operated as modern-day mercenaries claiming considerable or even outrageous remunerations. Recent studies from the Lower Rhine region[4]show how massive these payments must have been. Some have claimed that the Roman Empire simply bled to death through the massive extraction of gold, which took place in the 4thand 5thcenturies; and which ended up as buried hoards, sacrificial offerings, or simply “barbarian” bling.

One anthropological theory posits that the “constructions” of “cultures” as opposed to “civilisations” takes place in the periphery whenever a centre is under siege. While the centre appears homogenous at its peak, it gets battered by people coalescing into “cultures” and hence, heterogeneity, whenever the centre is threatened economically. They sort of crop up in the periphery. This happened in the USA in the 70s when Japan came to threaten the American economy and production system, and the indigenous people began building casinos and regaining a sense of their tribal identity, while at the same time stopping to live as motley drunkards. During these years the number of members of the tribes grew from 750.000 to 1.5 mill people. Also, a whole new Indian tribe was reinvented as part of this general process of ethnogenesis – or indigeneity – as anthropologists prefer to call the process. Another famous incident is the establishment of the Washitaw nation, a self-identified tribe, inhabiting the Louisiana area. All black, they claim “to be descended from West Africans who moved to America, when the continents were still joined, i.e. before the Indians”[5].

The process of indegeneity sounds close to that of ethnogenesis: “Diverse Indigenous communities weave indigeneity through a multifaceted array of space and time to revive identities and cultural practices and to regain or retain land, human rights, heritage, and political standing”. However,the anthropological approach to indigeneity such as it is argued from a global-system perspective differs from the theory of ethnogenesis by stressing the economic dimension of the cultural processes involved in the formation of identities; an important consideration, which involves archaeologists and anthropologists at quite a new level.

The Law

Forsa Rune Ring ca. 800.
Forsa Rune Ring ca. 800.

Finally, a group of British and Scandinavian archaeologists and historians have explored yet another dimension of the processes of state-formation, namely the role of law and the forms of its prehistoric or oral character. The project was initiated in 2010 as part of a European research programme exploring the ancient assemblies of “Things” or “Meeting-places” in Northern Europe AD 400-1500. Inside the project assembly sites were registered archaeologically as well as chronologically and esplored according to territorialisation. Also, studies were carried out exploring how law and collective norms and values were established and enforced onto colonised/conquered areas.Finally, a historiography of assemblies and their relevance to the concepts of national identity and statehood was established [6].

In one of the latest publications [7] building upon the results from this project, Frode Iversen, shows how the political structure of Scandinavian society underwent a readical transformation between AD 500 and 1350. By analysing the social landscape through mapping 170.000 single graves and cemeteries as well as 1700 hillforts and 130 royal sites and manors, the establishment of a series of larger law areas and their later coalescence. In all, 29 peoples (or tribes) might be identified in the 6th century in the Getica and Widsith, which could be located in the Scandinavian peninsula (Sweden and Norway). Based on these, thirteen kingdoms could be identified, During the next 850 years, these were reduced to two kingdoms. Central to this process was the emergence of larger legal entities. In western Scandinavia control of trade and transport along the major sailing rute was a driving force. However, to the east – the traditional homeland of the Goths, the control of the major lakes connecting various folklands was central to the formation of the new kingdoms or polities. In this equation, the orally and later written compilation of vernacular “laws” were central.

One of the earliest pieces of such a venacular law, is preserved in the form of an iron ring, the so-called Forsa Runic Ring. Originally, this ring hung on the door of the parish church of Forsa in the Province of Hälsingland, northern Sweden. It carries an inscription written with almost 250 runes. These runes on the ring are the same type as those on the Rök runestone in Östergötland which date to c. 800. The ring stipulates that anyone who destroys a sacred “Vi” have to pay:

“One ox and two aura [in fine] [to?] staf [or] aura staf [in fine] for the restoration of a cult site (vi) to a valid state for the first time; two oxen and four aura for the second time; but for the third time four oxen and eight aura; and all property in suspension, if he doesn’t make right. That, the people are entitled to demand, according to the law of the people; that was decreed and ratified before. But they made [the ring, the statement or?], Anund from Tåsta, and Ofeg from Hjorsta. But Vibjörn carved”.
Translated by Stefan Brink In: Law and Society. In The Viking World. Ed. by Stefan Brink and Neil S. Price,Routledge 2008, pp. 23 -31.

Likely, the ring was originally deposited as a door-handle on a sacral building on a “Vi” at the neighbouring locality “Hög”, known for its three large mounds located next to what was later known as a royal farm. One of the mounds is called “The King’s Mound” and is located next to the vicar’s farm. Tentative studies of the archaeology and historical sources indicate the complex included an ancient site for an assembly (a “thing”), which might be dated back to AD 200. In the burials and as strays were found rich imports from Roman time, dated to ca. AD 200. Hillforts along the coast indicate that the region continued to be well-integrated in the political landscape and the Baltic trade dominated by the people living near the west-coast of the Baltic and the islands, that is the Goths.

Revisiting the Goths

Roman amber perfume pot. ca. 100-120. Source: Wikipedia
Roman amber perfume pot. ca. 100-120. Source: Wikipedia

In this connection, we might revisit the early history of the Goths. Jordanes tells us in his Getica that the Goths originally came out of Scandza, Scandinavia. Studies of toponomy have demonstrated that indeed a people lived in Sweden calling themselves “Goths”. Later, some of these Goths appears to have migrated to the lower Vistula at the Polish shore of the Baltic. Archaeological excavations have shown a marked continuity between these people and those, who somewhat later lived north of the Danube, and who the Romans called “Goths”. A common hypothesis is these people in the first century became heavily engaged in the very lucrative trade with amber and skin, which ran along the ancient “amber-road”. “The price of a figurine in amber, however small, exceeded that of a living slave”, Pliny tells us. Pliny also tells us that at the beginning of Nero’s reign, demand for amber was so great that to obtain a supply, a Roman merchant, Pythias, was sent to the north in search of the ”mines”. Some historians believe it to be one of the more significant historical events of the Roman era because it opened up for trade with the Baltic people; or more specifically, the Goths.

Likely, these Goths made fortunes furnishing Romans with these luxurious items. Perhaps – although this we do not know – they even marketed their wares by wearing them. This was a common practice for rural merchants or tradesmen in the Middle Ages and later. Why not in ancient Rome? Later again, we hear in a panegyric to Honorius that Goths appear as skin-clad warriors, while the same emperor forbids his court to wear fur and trousers (AD 397-98).

At this time, though, Alaric with his “Gothic” army was already traversing Italy on his way to his ultimate feat, the sack of Rome. This plunder garnered him 5000 pounds of gold, 30.000 pounds of silver, 4000 silk tunics, 3000 scarlet skins, and 3000 pounds of pepper. It has been claimed, this treasure sucked the life out of ancient Rome.

We may wonder to what extent the events in 4thand 5thcentury Late Antiquity de-centred Rome in the same way as Japan de-centred USA in the 70s and 80s; a feat, China is now set to repeat with a vengeance. Perhaps, the time has even come to talk about indigeneity rather than ethnogenesis in Early Medieval History.

Perhaps, though, we should also begin to reconsider the role of vernacular law before the earliest written evidence, Euric’s Code from ca. AD 480. Unfortunately only preserved as a fragment – and not available in a modern commentated and translation edition, the code is seldom understood as what it was: a piece of precious evidence that the Goths did not just copy Roman law, when they began legislating.


[1]” The term gens indicated primarily a group of persons unified by common descent and consanguinity…As such, gens expressed an exclusive concept of peoplehood, which granted membership, at least in theory, only by reason of shared blood… As for the term natio, grammatical treatises provide us with definitions of the word’s meaning. Natio referred to the territory of origin of a person. Moreover, it designated a group of people who were born on the same soil”. From: What they talked about when they talked about people. By Cinzia Grifoni. Blogpost at IMAFO. 15.01.2019. –

[2]Reinhard Wenskus and the concept of ethnicity in the age of barbarian invasions. By Francesco Filotico. In: Nuova rivista storica (2011) Vol. 95 No. 3 pp. 787-826

[3]On barbarian Identity. Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages. Ed. by Andrew Gillett. International Congress on Medieval Studies. Brill 2002

[4]Gold, Germanic foederati and the end of imperial power in the Late Roman North. By Nico Roymans. In: Social Dynamics in the Northwest Frontiers of the Late Roman Empire. Beyond decline or transformation. Ed. by Nico Roymans et al. Series: Archaeological Studies Vol 26. Amsterdam University Press 2018.

[5]Globalization, Class and Culture in Global Systems. By Jonathan Friedman. In: Journal of World-Systems Research (2000) Vol. VI No. 3, pp.636-656.

[6] A website – Thingsites – aims to keep the programme going as part of a more popular informational project

[7] Between Tribe and Kingdom – People, Land, and Law in Scandza AD 500–1350. By Frode Iversen,
In: Rulership in 1st to 14th century Scandinavia. Royal graves and Sites at Avaldsnes and beyond. Red af Dagfinn Skree.
De Gruyter (2020), pp. 245 -298.


The Missorium of Theodosius. AD 421. Likely commissioned by Galla Placidia. Notice the “Gothic” soldiers to each side with their trousers, golden torcs and long hair. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo





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