found in a grave 'Estagel. sixth century. Musée d'Archaeologi Nationale/Valorie Gö

How to Know a Goth from a Roman?

Would a Roman or a Goth in 5thcentury Toulouse be able to tell the difference between each other? Just by looking? Or were the signs of ethnic identity more subtle?

We have treated languages first, and the nations, because nations arose from languages, and not languages from nations.
Isidore of Seville IX, I, 14

When Isidore of Seville wrote his magnum opus, the Etymologies, which came to be the encyclopaedia par excellence of the Middle Ages, he order of his chapters listed the major ways in which people might differentiate themselves from each other: Chapters on languages, nations, reigns, the military, citizens and family relationships were followed by chapters on landscapes, buildings and fields as well as rural matters, wars and games, ships, buildings and clothing; and finally provisions and various implements. Interspersed were chapters on natural history matters such as the cosmos, the earth and its parts as well as animals. In this list, we get a distinct feeling for the way in which people in Late Antiquity experienced what made people “different” – languages, their social forms and types of societal organisations, the places they lived, the ways in which they tilled the land, their forms of social interactions and their material culture. This is not to claim that Isidore did not identify and explain some of the basic preconditions for this diversity of life-forms such as grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and law. But he did eventually move on to define some parameters, along which people, in general, would aim to describe and explain the differences between them.

What Isidore presented us with here here, then, was the grid by which people according to him identified each other – by laws, religion, languages, social forms, living conditions, military organisations and material culture (dress, food, behaviour). In the following, we shall concentrate upon the personal behaviours and the material culture, which seems to have been uppermost in the minds of people.


Sometime in the 5th century, a certain Vinidarius collected some of the culinary recipes of the Roman cookbook-author, Apicius, and reworked them into his own supplement. Vinidarius may have been a Goth, with his name rewritten from Vinitharjis. Apart from this alleged Gothic name, nothing is known about the man. Nevertheless, his small collection of recipes have garnered some interest. Partly, they reflect the larger and more organised collection De Re Coquina by Apicius; however, some recipes differ from these and may represent a 5th or 6th-century mixture or rework of ancient cooking. The actual interplay of Apicius and Vinidarius sadly waits for a proper analysis. These recipes are preserved in the Codex Salmasianus, belonging to the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris under the title: Codex Parisinus Latinus 10318 [1].

An interesting element, however, in this collection of recipes, are a number of Latin epigrams. One of these is often referred to as the “Gothic Epigram” because it contains some famous (rare) Gothic (or Vandal) words. The epigram was recently dated to the time around AD 534 when the Vandal state in North Africa was conquered by the East-Roman emperor. The text of the epigram is:

The Vandal Epigram

What might this mean? Snædal is rather precise: “The epigram describes the everyday experience – that someone was disturbed by carousing barbarian guests in a tavern”. We may add, that they were disturbed to the extent that a proper Romans could not carry on with a civilised behaviour, namely conducting a proper symposium by composing and reciting decent verses.

This topic – the disturbing and rowdy barbarians -– can be found elsewhere in the letter-collections of this time. One of the more fascinating descriptions of the same topoi can be read in a letter by Sidonius, who at this point has been taken prisoner by the Goth, King Euric and taken to a Gothic fortress, Livia, near the Spanish border. In a letter to “his friend Leo,” we read how “when the evening brought me at last to my quarters, ready to drop with fatigue, my heavy eyelids knew small repose; there were two old gothic women established quite close to the window of my chamber, who at once began to chatter. Quarrelsome, drunken, disgusting creatures whose like will not easily be seen again”. The description of these two chatterboxes is used to explain why he had not had the opportunity in time to copy a book, which Leo had lent him. (Sidonius VIII, 3, AD 478). Again we meet the chattering classes disturbing the civilised Roman, aristocratic-literary life. Finally, we might add a third witness to this topoi, this time from the description of a civilised Goth, Theuderic II, of whom we learn that at his dinner gross amount of food served on heavy silver plates were not the order of the day; on the contrary, “the weight lies rather in the conversation than in the plate; there is either sensible talk or none”, wrote Sidonius

Does this mean that the difference between the languages spoken by Goths and Romans was not so much constituted by their use of diverse languages? But rather, two sociolects? The above examples seem to indicate as much. It seems, though, as if the matter was not as clear-cut. At least we know, that when King Euric received an embassy from Rome, he had the negotiations carefully translated back and forth between Gothic and Latin, despite the fact that the king must have spoken and understood Latin as did his brother. In this instance, sending a signal of “Gothicness” was apparently important.

Military Equipment

It is well-known that the Huns and the later steppe nomads were famous for their bows, arrows, and their capability to shoot from the back of a horse. When the Goths – on the run from the Huns – crossed the Danube in AD 376 and entered the Roman Empire, they had lived parallel to the Alans for a century on the Pontic Steppe. Here, they must have adopted their proficiency as excellent horse archers. We find the same focus on bows and horses in the description by Sidonius of Theoderic II. In this short biography, we hear how the king spent his morning listening to petitions, followed by an inspection of his treasure, and a visit to his stables. Later, he went hunting on foot and armed with a bow. Definitely, the Goths were considered to be excellent warriors. But did the Goths enjoy the advantage of stirrups [2] ?

Stirrups dated to the 4th and 5th centuries have been found in numerous Chinese and Asian contexts. Later finds from the Middle Volga region indicate that stirrups were adopted by the Avars in the late 5th century from the other steppe nomads; or by trading through the Tian Shan mountains along the silk road.

The earliest finds in a Western European context, however, are the iron stirrups found in Budenheim in Rheinhessen from ca. 600. This fits well with the first mention of the stirrup in a European context in the Strategikon, written either by or for the Emperor Maurice AD 539-602). Likely, the stirrup was adopted by the Byzantines in the mid-6th century through contact with the Avars, and from there spread into Western Europe.

It has also been argued that stirrups might have been made of wood or simple rattan, thus, escaping the archaeologists. Recently, this has been confirmed by Christèle Baillif-Ducros, who has studied the osteological remains of two 7th century skeletons, identifying the markers of the so-called “Horse Riding Syndrome” accompanied by micro-lesions in the knee [3].

As yet, such studies have not been carried out on skeletons from the region. Thus, whether or not the Goths used stirrups remains to be seen. Also, military-style and technology was and is free for all. Soon, the Merovingians and Carolingians would adopt the proficiency of the skilled horseman. The Goths may have been skilled warriors, but they were probably not recognised as such by their particular weapons.


Female jewellery found in agrave at Vicq (ca. 420 -50). Service archéologique/Caroline Kuhar

Did the Visigoth in Gaul dress differently than their Roman counterparts? Again we face a complicated question. Traditionally, archaeologists excelled in outlining the homelands of the different tribes through the excavated finds in graves and tombs. From this point of perspective, Nazi archaeologists following in the footsteps of Gustaf Kosinna [4] sharply outlined the common denominator between the Wielbark Culture and the Chernyakhov culture as seen in the material culture present in the burials of the two regions, which the Goths passed through during the 2nd to the 4th century. By contrast, numerous critical studies have later argued that other explanations may offer a better understanding of the events. Denying that any significant migration took place, several archaeologists have instead understood the cultural affinity between the people who lived in the two successive regions as one of simple cultural diffusion.

This ambivalence is highlighted by the case of the Visigoths after they migrated to Spain post AD 506. Here archaeologists have excavated and found an impressive collection of Gothic or Gothic- inspired artefacts indicating these Goths wore a costume identical to the one, which was known to have been worn 200 years earlier at Černjachow-Sîntana de Mures. Did these identical designs indicate a marked continuity in tradition among the Goths for several centuries? Or were the Visigothic/Iberian costume tradition a case of the adoption of a common Danubian fashion connected with the tradition of the Huns and the Avars [5]?

Female Clothing

Galla Placidia. Solidus ca. AD 422. Source: Wikipedia

Careful studies and comparisons of recently excavated female jewellery, however, offer us a slightly less nuanced version. It appears, specific brooches and assemblages were prominent in Central and Eastern Europe as well as further along the Danube towards the Pontic Steppe. From the 3-5th century.

Archaeological excavations around Toulouse – and more precisely the valley surrounding the Garonne River, linking Toulouse and Bordeaux and stretching ca. 80 km to either side – have exposed a typical assemblage consisting of two cross-bow brooches (so-called blechfibeln) and a composite belt buckle, with the brooches placed on each shoulder or asymmetrically on one shoulder and one on the breast. These graves in Aquitaine can be dated after AD 450 (when furnished graves became more prominent) and stretch into Iberia after AD 507. The main argument for identifying these burials as “Visigothic” is the dating to the 5th–6th century, that the design is reminiscent of comparable finds in the earlier Černjahov – Sîntana de Mureş context and the initially very limited zone of these finds to the Garonne Valley. Joan Pinar Gil concludes that a “Ponto-Danubian clothing tradition did indeed spread out across Southern Gaul, and probably in close connection with the progressive increase of Southern Gallic territories controlled by the Visigothic regnum” (p. 543). From here, the tradition moved on to the Iberian Peninsula and can be found in burials from the last decades of the 5th century and later (ca. AD 450–530). At the same time, the tradition shifted in the region surrounding the Danube. Here the female dress changed from peplos-style to the new and more modern tunic, fastened with a circular fibula at the neck.

The tradition of wearing the cross-bow fibulas on the shoulders and in a peplos-style manner differed distinctly from the clothes of a Roman woman at that time – as indicated by the portrait of Gala Placidia on the solidus, ca. AD 433. Whether or not the tradition of wearing a specific “Gothic” dress among woman in the second half of the 5th century reflected a “fashion” or a distinct “ethnic statement” is complicated to decide [6]. Probably, it is safe to say that the difference was not to be missed. Walking into the marketplace, they would have looked different from each other. If – and this is a big “if” – the burial fashion among the Visigoths in Gaul and later Hispania did mirror the actual daily fashion. It might have been nothing more than a “burial fashion” alluding to the past history of the Gothic people, that is a “historic statement” [7].

Male Clothing

The impression gets even more blurred when we move on to male clothing. Here, though, we do have some precious written descriptions, foremost that of Sigismer and his retinue, as described by Sidonius. In his letter to his friend Domnicus, we get a glimpse of a “Barbarian prince” parading up to the palace of his father-in-law, the Burgundian King, Gundobad. Sidonius writes:

The Christ from Grésin near Lyon. 5th-6th century. Musée Archeologie Française Source: Wikipedia
The Christ from Grésin, also called the Plaque de Broc. Found near near Lyon. 5th-6th century. Musée Archeologie Française Source: Wikipedia

You who are so fond of looking at arms and armed men, what delight, I believe, you would have felt if you had seen the young prince, Sigismer, decked out in the garb and fashion of his nation, as the chosen lover or as suitor paying a visit to the palace of his father-in-law.

Before him went a horse gaily caparisoned; other horses, which were laden with flashing jewels, preceded and followed him. But the most gracious sight of the procession was the prince himself marching on foot amid his runners and footmen, clad in gleaming scarlet, ruddy gold, and pure-white silk, while his fair hair, glowing cheeks, and white skin matched the colours of such a bright dress.

The princelings and allies who escorted him presented an aspect terrifying even in peacetime. Their feet from toe to ankle were laced in hairy shoes; knees, shins, and calves were uncovered: above this was a tight-fitting many-coloured garment, drawn up high, and hardly descending to their bare knees, the sleeves covering only the upper part of the arm. They wore green cloaks with crimson borders. Their swords were suspended from the shoulders by overrunning baldrics, pressed to their body, which was girded with studded deerskins. This equipment adorned and armed them at the same time. Barbed lances and missile axes filled their right hands, and their left sides were protected by shields, the gleam of which, golden on the central bosses and silvery-white round the rims, betrayed at once the wearers’ wealth and ruling passions…
(Loeb, Vol 2: pp 136 – 139. Translation, slightly amended)

Detail from the Grande Ludovisi Sarchophagus, ca. AD 250. Source: Wikipedia
Detail from the Grande Ludovisi Sarchophagus, ca. AD 250. Source: Wikipedia

Through the pen of Sidonius, we are invited to enjoy the spectacle of a “Roman” youth wearing a white tunic and wrapped in a purple cloak, probably decorated with gleaming golden spangles, as those, which were discovered a few years back in a treasure trove near Mainz. However, this princeling is surrounded by his opposite: the barbarian soldier, looking ferocious even in peacetime. Showing off their legs and arms, they were clad in “multi-coloured” tunics. Probably this means the tunics were embellished with appliqued and embroidered roundels and stripes as we know them from the archaeological discoveries in Egypt and the Middle East. Across these tunics, they wore a baldric with a hanging sword, and a green cloak, a sagum, the traditional symbol of a Roman military man. However, above this, they carried a pelted cape studded with metal bullets, while their shoes were made of pelted skin, laced to their feet. Perhaps, their shoes were simple leather coverings fit for the accomplished horsemen, which these warriors would have been.

Much ink has been spilt over what the “deerskin” (reno) looked like. As a matter of fact we possess a precious clay tablet which depicts a “barbarian” soldierly God, the so-called “Christ from Grésin” or “Plaque du Broc”. What we have in front of us is a barbarian soldier-king wearing a Roman diadem, and with what perhaps appears to be a Suevian knot to the left of his head. His face is bearded. The figure is dressed in a tunic with his phallus clearly sticking out from beneath, and wearing a baldric with a hanging sword. Wrapped around his neck, we see a cape and on the top of this, the slight indication of a (golden) chain. Perhaps, the curious ears indicate that the cape is fitted with a hood made out of the head of the animal? In one hand, he carries a lance and in the other, what appears to be a globe. As Christ Triumphant, the man steps on the snake. As the embodiment of the Gallic God, Lugh, however, he carries his attributes: a slinging stone (and not a globe), a lance and a chain. The same ambiguity clings to a burial marker from Niederdollendorf near Bonn. For our purpose here, the main point is the clear rendition of the cape, a part of Sidonius’s description, which has caused some confusion among translators, but here seems rather straight forward.

What we may conclude, thus, is the double visualisation of a spectacle, in which Sidonius identifies a “Romanised” princeling dressed in a white silk tunic and a purple (imperial) cloak surrounded by a “Barbarian” guard of honour, clad in pelts.

What about trousers (bracae)? We know that they were ostensibly forbidden to be worn inside Rome by the emperor Honorius in AD 397. And we also know they were sported by Germans and Romans alike. Probably, they were gradually becoming part of the daily life of people clad in tunics. And not worth mentioning by Sidonius. O tempora, o mores!

Solidus with portrait of Severus. Minted in Toulouse between AD 461-465. © Musée Saint-Raymond and Daniel Martin
Solidus with portrait of Severus. Minted in Toulouse between AD 461-465. © Musée Saint-Raymond and Daniel Martin
Gold Bractate mirroring a Roman imperial coin. Sandinavian/Danish design, ca. 5th century. © National Museum of Copenhagen
Honorius tramps on a longhaired barbarian. Source: National Museum of Copenhagen, RP 1335
Honorius tramps on a longhaired barbarian. Source: National Museum of Copenhagen, RP 1335


Tombstone from Niederdollendorf, c. 600. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn.
Tombstone from Niederdollendorf, c. 600. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn. Notice the hand holding a comb to the hair. Source; Wikipedia

Finally, we come to the main distinction of the barbarians and the Romans, namely their hairstyles; or rather, the manipulation of their hair according to different positions and situations, they might enjoy [8].

First of all, we must note that long hair in Roman eyes was definitely synonymous with “barbarians”. We know this from numerous coins, which on the reverse present the emperor dragging a defeated foe by his long hair. This motive was used on coins from the 4th century. For instance, it may be found on a coin minted by Constantine the Great where he drags one barbarian by the hair, who is dressed in trousers, while at the same time stepping on another prisoner, likewise clad. On the reverse of a coin from the time of Honorius, we see the emperor stepping on one of his prisoners, who is made out to have a long and flowing hairstyle. Such coins were later reminted as bracteates showing off the victorious God Wodan, with his beautiful and flowing hairstyle riding on his eight-legged stallion, Sleipnr.

The question, however, is, what would happen with the hair, when these foes were defeated? The answer is: shorn.

Again, Sidonius offers us precious vignettes of how hair might be wielded according to tradition and situation in 5th century southern Gaul. In one of his letters, we read that the Gothic king, Theoderic II, sported his hair in such a way that his upper ears were “buried under overlying locks as was “the fashion of his race”. It appears that Theoderic II was not bearded except for a set of prominent sideburns. This was definitely not the case for his contemporary, the Emperor Honorius. On his coins, we see him with his ears clearly visible.

Sidonius also writes about the different Germanic people present at the court of Euric at Bordeaux:

“We see at his court the blue-eyed Saxon, lord of the seas, but a timid landsman here. The razor’s keen blade, content no more to hold its usual course around the head’s extremity, with clean strokes shearing to the skin, drives the margin of the hair back from his brow, till the head looks smaller and the visage longer. We see the aged Frankish warrior, the back of his head shaven in a sign of his defeat; but also his new-grown locks guided to cover the old neck again. Here strolls the Herulian with his white cheeks, the inhabitant of the furthest shore of the ocean, and with the complexion of its weedy deeps”.
(Book VIII, Letter IX)

Hair in the 5th century was obviously cut as part of a submissive act. Thus, according to the Frankish law, Lex Salica (24: 2-3), persons who took it upon themselves to cut “longhaired” free boys or girls without the permission of their parents were liable to pay a fine. Which also answers the question why the Merovingian kings fifty years later wore their hair long and uncut, while their subjects had to have theirs summarily cut. To have your hair cut was the ultimate symbol of submission. Who was allowed to cut your hair had a vested power over you. We also know that clerics, who had their hair cut off as part of the tonsure, kept it in their belt buckles formed as small cases.

Hairstyles showing ears - and not. Goths depicted on the Missorium of Theodosius. Ca. AD 419. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo
Hairstyles showing ears – and not. Goths guarding a Roman Emperor depicted on the Missorium of Theodosius. Notice the long hair covering the ears of the Goths; and the Emperor flaunting his ears. Ca. AD 419. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo


[1] The epigram is found on p. 141 in the manuscript.

[2] Steigbügel. By Manfred Nawroth. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Volume 29. De Gruyter (Berlin, New York) 2005

[3] Stirrups and archaeological populations: Bio-anthropological considerations for determing their use based on the skeletons of two Steppe riders. By: Christèle Baillif-Ducros and George McGlynn.
In: Bulletin der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Anthropologie (2013) Vol 19, issue 2, pp 43-44. See also: The Earliest Avar-Age Stirrups, Or The “Stirrup Controversy” Revisited. By Florin Curta. In: The Other Europe in the Middle Ages. ed. by Florin Curta. Brill 2008

[4] Gustaf Kossinna and His Concept of a National Archaeology. By Ulrich Veit. In: Archaeology, Ideology and Society: The German Experience. Ed by heinrich Härke. P. Lang 2012

[5] Westgotische Gräberfelder auf der Iberischen Halbinsel als historische Quelle. Probleme der etnischen Deutung. By Christoph Eger. In: Cum grano salis. Festschrift für Volker Bierbrauer zum 65. Geburtstag. Ed. By B. Päffgen/M. Schmauder. Friedberg 2005.

[6] A Note on Female Clothing in 5th-Century Southern Gaul. By Joan Pinar Gil
In: Romania Gothica II: The Frontier World. Romans, Barbarians and Military Culture. Proceedings of the International Conference at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, 1 – 2 October 2010). Ed. By Tivadar Vida. Budapest 2015, pp. 517-556.

[7] Le costume féminin “princier” de tradition germanique orientale à l’époque des Grandes Migrations rn Espagne et en Gaule du Sud et ses réminiscences dans le royaume hispano-wisigothique. By Michel Kazanski, Jorge López Quiroga, and Patrick Périn. From: In Tempore Sueborum. El tiempo de los Suevos en la Gallaecia (411-585). Volumen de Estudios,Deputación Provincial de Ourense (2019), pp.61-84.

[8] The literature is vast. An introduction may be found in: Hair, Sacrality and Symbolic Capital in the Frankish Kingdoms. By Maximilian Diesenberger. In:   Se also: Hair and Beards in the Early Medieval West. By Ian Wood. In: Al-Masāq. Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean (2018) Vol 30, Issue 1 (Hair in the mediaeval Muslim world) and Technologies of Appearance: Hair Behaviour in Early Medieval Europe. By Steven P. Ashby. In Archaeological Journal (2014) vol. 171, issue 1, pp. 151 – 184


Telling the Differece. Signs of Etnic Identity. By Walter Pohl. In: Strategies of distinction: the construction of ethnic communities, 300-800. Ed. by Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz
Brill 1998.