Visigothic Society

For a hundred years, the great gold find at Pietroasa was held to be ‘Athanaric’s treasure’ and dated from the 4th century, and this despite a Gothic necklace (torque) bearing runic characters. When researchers began to question this conclusion, and when it was established that the treasure of Szilágysomlyó, buried far beyond the borders of Gutthiuda, could not have been hidden by Visigoths planning to leave their country, the treasures of the Tervingi kings and their badges of authority mysteriously ‘disappeared’.

There is evidence that after the conquest of Dacia, and until 376, the Visigoths had a dual — partly parallel, partly entwined — {1-161.} social structure. According to a still prevailing conception, until the autumn of 376 the Tervingi lived in a ‘tribal confederation’ and had settled down grouped into ‘tribes’. In reality, the notion of ‘tribe’ (thiuda) had always signified political unity, even if initially it also implied a certain consciousness of a common descent; and by the 3rd–4th centuries, it had come to denote the entire Tervingi community, i.e., the Visigothic people and their country. Instead of ‘tribes’ and ‘chieftains’, there was a central source of power (thiudanassus) headed by a single thiudans. In Vulfila’s translation, the equivalent of the Greek ‘basileos’ is the thiudans, and certainly not in the sense of a ‘head of the tribal confederation’.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Visigoths were divided into ‘kindreds’ and clans (kunja = phylapagi) and settled in accordance with this division, each clan occupying an independent territory (garvi). By this time, the several clans (as is shown by their Latin designation) had at best a rather illusory sense of their distinctive origin; this is reflected in the fact that the clan (kuni) was led not by a ‘kuning’ — a term that denoted the leader of a consanguine community and which no longer appeared in Vulfila’s Gothic — but by the kindins (meaning dux, archon, and applied by the Goths to Roman proconsuls), which denoted a relative of high rank. By the 3rd century, military campaigns were led by kindins. The ‘clans’, which actually denoted territorial units (garvi), consisted of associated great families (sibja). A century later, few of the latter represented consanguine communities or armed groups (siponjos); in the main, the term designated village communities with a stratified social structure. However, it was impossible to live outside the sibja; unsibja, a word obtained by adding a privative prefix, means ‘outcast’ or ‘godless’. Thus the sibi was a solid political, economic and cultic unit, and one which imposed membership even on those who were not related to it by blood. Generally, each village (haims) was occupied by a single sibi. Its members, the inhabitants of the village, belonged to patriarchal families (fadreins); large and {1-162.} wealthy families exercised joint ownership over the land surrounding the villages (haimothlis). The status of outsiders or ‘guests’ (gasteis) is not clear.

The village communities preserved (or rather tried to preserve) the old clan institutions. Occasionally, the council (gamainths), in which ‘the elders’ (sinistans) played a leading role, and the other villagers would convene in the village’s meeting ground or market place (garuns). However, as revealed in the Passio S. Sabae, in the 4th century the most that sinistans could aspire to was to ‘outwit’ the real authorities; in other word, they exercised only nominal authority.

The hoary institutions of the original tribal-clan society were doomed to disappear. After the conquest of Dacia, the traditional people’s assembly (mathl, fauramathleins), which drew together the freemen (frijai) of the major territorial units, gradually became inoperative. After 376, the institution suffered a speedy and terminal decline, and within a few years its place was taken by the ‘great council’ (gafaurds).

From the 2nd–3rd centuries onwards, actual power was in the hands of the Visigoths’ warlords and their military retinue. Reiks, the term designating a military commander (Greek: ‘basilikos’, Latin: ‘regulus’) frequently appears in compound names (Aoric, Ariaric, Geberic, Munderic) as early as the 3rd century; it also appears, somewhat vaguely, in contemporary Roman sources in the sense of rex. Initially, the term probably denoted the military rank of great and powerful clan leaders; in this sense, the reiks could also be a kindins, and vice versa. This military title figures in the name of Athanaric/Athanarik, the Visigoths’ most powerful king in the 4th century. He was the only one to be distinguished by the Romans of his time with the title of iudex (judge), although, in 4th century Latin, the latter term had come to signify governor or viceroy as well (Historia Augusta!); and in one instance, he was identified as ‘iudex potentissimus’, meaning the thiudans who stood above all the other reiks. Athanaric was evidently the thiudans; in 369, he {1-163.} was the only Tervingi to parlay on equal terms with Emperor Valens. Winguric, one of the church-burners in the anti-Christian campaign ordered by Athanaric, was only a lieutenant of the thiudans, as was Munderic, the commander of Athanaric’s vanguard.

The title of reiks survived in the names of some of Athanaric’s successors, who after 376 held together the Visigothic warrior groups (Alaric I and II, Theoderic I and II, Amalaric), but it disappeared completely in the second half of the 6th century. By the 4th century, however, the presence of reiks in compound names did not necessarily mean a king or a warlord; Frithareikeis (= Fridarik), martyred in Athanaric’s anti-Christian campaign, was at best the descendant of a noble family.

The reiks (or several reiks together) drew his support from the class of the optimates or megistanes, and was himself a member of this class. The Greek term megistanes (= ‘great, powerful men’) corresponds perfectly with the Gothic mahteigs (= ‘powerful, mighty’, and also ‘aggressive’; cf. mahts = ‘power’, ‘might’) and maistans (= ‘great people’). Members of this class were already landowners in the 3rd–4th centuries. A member’s domain consisted of a manor house (gards, which also indicated the surrounding land) as well as landed property (aihts) and livestock (faihu; those who owned livestock were called faihu habands, meaning ‘the rich’). The landowner was master (frauja = despotes) of those attached to the manor house and imposed his rule with the aid of his private armed retinue (andbahts = ‘steward’). The armed detachments of the Visigothic landed gentry and those of the one or several reiks made up the Visigothic army (harjis) and its smaller detachments (hansa); by the 4th century, this army consisted mostly of ‘professional’ soldiers (gadrauhts = miles; drunhtinonds = warrior). Their principal weapons were swords (meki) and shields (skildus), but they also used armor (brunjo) and helmets (hilms).

In the 4th century the territorial clan organizations, on the one hand, and the military power structure, on the other, were still joined by many links; the kindins, the reiks and the thiudans could {1-164.} be one and the same person (e.g. Athanaric), although this was more the exception than the rule. But the reality was far from harmonious. In the story of the martyr Saba, the background is one of the conflicts between the ‘central’ armed authority and the clans’ ‘local’ autonomy.

By the 4th century the ‘free’ (freis) Visigothic society had become markedly stratified. The larger social classes were those of the free peasants (waurstwja) and of the paupers (unleths); they were probably joined by the liberated slaves (fralets). The wage labourers (asneins = ‘hired harvesters’) on the aigin (domanial) lands presumably came from these classes.

The servants’ class was complex. Prisoners of war (bandja) became either ‘trading goods’ or enslaved servants (skalks) and farm labourers (thewisa). The manservants (thius) and maids (thivi) who worked in households may have enjoyed slightly better living conditions.

So far, it has proven virtually impossible to establish links between archaeological finds and the complicated social structure in which the old clan traditions mingle with incipient forms of centralized authority and military power. The 4th century gold torque found between Szászbuda and Szászfehéregyháza must have been a badge worn by one of the dignitaries known as megistanes/optimates. The splendid, jewelled gold fibula dating from the 4th century — a unique masterpiece from the world of the Visigoths that was found in Transylvania and became part of the Jankovich Collection — must have been worn by an aristocratic Gothic woman. A Gothic noblewoman’s small fibula of pure gold, unearthed at Felsőpián (formerly Oláh-Pián), is of somewhat older vintage; it remains the sole Transylvanian example of the craftsmanship that flourished around 300 on the East Germanic ‘grave horizon’ (Osztrópataka, Céke, etc.). The silver jewellery found at Tekerőpatak-Kápolnaoldal surpasses the richest trove in the burial grounds that have been uncovered so far, and must have belonged {1-165.} to a woman socially superior to the common people found in most graves. The jewels — a fibula with semi-disc shaped plate, buckles, bracelets, rings, and crescent-shaped pendants that are replicas of a Roman original — are of the same shape and type as those found in graves of the richest women, and thus confirm that the owner had been a notable of the clan. The difference is that her jewels are heavy castings of fine silver, and that she also possessed ‘wealth in coin’. An apparently similar hoard of gold and silver jewellery was reported to have been found at Borszék-Hollóvölgy, but it has disappeared.

The social stratification of the burial grounds is analogous to that of the village of the Gothic martyr, Saba. In a community of 50 to 100 people, there were four or five wealthy couples, an elite that probably played a leading role in the village council. The majority of villagers consisted of the families of common peasants, roughly equal in rank and wealth. The paupers (of whom Saba was one) were distinguished from slaves only by their legal status; their graves differ from those of the slaves in that their inhumation was accompanied by funeral rites. Although the slaves were buried in the village graveyard — which undoubtedly indicates a degree of patriarchalism — their inhumation lacked any ceremony. Deceased slaves were summarily interred by their surviving fellows.