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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

All About Ostrogoths

BOOK REVIEW
A History Of the Ostrogoths
by Thomas Burns
p. 1984
Indiana University Press

   The Ostrogoths are best known for being the briefly in charge of the Italian part of the formerly Roman Empire in the very "Dark Ages" in the 5th and 6th century AD.  They were eventually dispatched by the Greek-led Byzantine army in the mid 6th century, and they left little behind except a well known Gothic language Bible that has become a cornerstone of Indo-European comparative linguistics.

  The Ostrogoths are often compared to their better known cousins, the Visigoths- the Visigoths were the conquerors of Spain until the Muslims wiped them out after the Ostrogoths lost Italy to the Eastern Roman Empire.  If you look at a chart comparing the various branches of the Germanic language family (which includes English, yeah?) the Ostrogoths are in the "Eastern Germanic" branch.  By Eastern Germanic linguists are not referring to the 20th century East Germany, rather the Goths had their roots in the Steppes of Russia.  The general consensus is that they came west as part of the Hunnic armies, and probably first entered the Roman Empire during the great western raids Attila of the Hun.

  After the Hunnic Emprie collapsed, the Ostrogoths perambulated about the Balkans, unable to settle down and farm (which is what they probably wanted to do) until their great leader Theodoric (one of several Gothic Theodorics who were running around at the same time.)  Theodoric managed to unite a bunch of related Gothic tribes into the "Ostrogoths" and they stormed into the Italian peninsula, eventually establishing their capital in Ravena.  The Ostrogoths settled inside of Italy, and Theodoric spent the next thirty ish years (490 AD-526 AD) trying to establish the kind of Indo-European Kingdom that is familiar to readers of the Rig Veda: a military elite ruling over a pre-existing domestic population.  Theodoric was mostly a failure in this regard, but the fact that the conquered peoples were in the heartland of the Roman Empire means that we know a fair deal about Theodoric, his empire and Gothic society.

   One of the main points that Burns makes is that the Ostrogoths were uncomfortable with what we moderns call "institutions."  Loyalty to government was family and personality based: Most often both attributes needed to be embodied in a single individual for Ostrogothic government to actually exist in any substantial form.   The Ostrogoths practiced the Germanic/Indo-European custom known as Comitatus, wherein a leader is supported by a small group of warriors (King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an English remnant of the larger Germanic concept.)  These Warriors were bound to the LEADER, not to the "state" or "nation."  Such was their loyalty that the death of the Leader meant the death of the remaining members of the Comitatus.

    The Comitatus was remarkably successful both inside and outside Indo-European speaking traditions.  For example, the Mamalukes of the Ottoman Empire (a Turkish speaking state) were as pure an example of Comitatus as any Indo European version.  Another example is the so-called "Slave Empire" of the Mughals.(another Turkish speaking group)  The Mughal Empire was called the "slave empire" because the Mughals had been in the Comitatus of the Persian speaking armies of Islam during their conquest of Central Asia.

  The Establishment of Ostrogothic rule in Italy is one of the better documented transitions from "barbarian" Indo European traditions to the "civilized" Mediterranean/Greek/Roman model of government.  Unfortunately, this book does little to explore that interesting development, being content to lay out the history, customs & culture of Ostrogoths in more or less conventional fashion.  Honestly though, I couldn't find anything better. Not written in English, anyway.

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