1902 Encyclopedia > Jordanes


JORDANES, or JORNANDES, the historian of the Gothic nation, flourished about the middle of the 6th century of the Christian era. All that we certainly know about his life is contained in three sentences of his history of the Goths (cap. 50), from which, among other particulars as to the history of his family, we learn that his grandfather Peria was notary to Candac, the chief of a confederation of Alans and other tribes settled during the latter half of the 5th century on the south of the Danube in the provinces which are now Bulgaria and the Dobrudscha. Jordanes himself was a notary until he renounced his worldly calling and took the vows of a monk. This, according to the manner of speaking of that day, is the meaning of his words " ante conversionem meam," though it is quite possible that he may at the same time have renounced the Arian creed of his forefathers, which it is clear that he no longer held when he wrote his Gothic history.

It is probable that the latter part at any rate of the life of Jordanes was spent in Italy. In some early editions of his works he is called " episcopus Ravennas," but the ample details which we possess as to the bishops of Ra-venna make it certain that he never occupied that see. He may have been a bishop, but the best authority for that assertion (according to the statement in Muratori's Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, i. 189) is only Sigebert of Gembloux, who lived five centuries later. Traces have been discovered of a certain Jordanes, bishop of Crotona, in 551, and a "Jordanes defensor ecclesise nostras" is mentioned in a letter of Pope Pelagius in 556.

We pass from the extremely shadowy personality of Jordanes to the more interesting question of his works.

1. The De Regnorum et Temporum Successions, or, as he himself called it, Breviatio Chronicorum, was probably composed in 550 or 551. It is a short and dry sketch of the history of the world from the creation, founded on the chronicles of Eusebius and Jerome. The book has no value, literary or historical, till the historian comes near to his own times ; and here, from about 450 to 550, the De Regnorum Successione is sometimes a really important authority, owing to the extreme scarcity of other information as to this epoch.

2, The other work of Jordanes, De Rebus Geticis, as it is commonly called, was styled by himself De Origine Actuque Geticx Gentis, and was probably written in the year 552. He informs us that while he was engaged upon the Breviatio a friend named Castalius invited him to com-press into one small treatise the twelve books—now lost— of the senator Cassiodorius, or Cassiodorus, on The Origin and Actions of the Goths. Jordanes professes to have had the work of Cassiodorius in his hands for but three days, and to reproduce the sense, not the words ; but his book, short as it is, evidently contains long verbatim extracts from the earlier author, and it may be suspected that the story of the " triduana lectio " and the apology " quamvis verba non recolo," possibly even the friendly invitation of Castalius, are mere blinds to cover his own entire want of originality. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact (discovered by Von Sybel) that even the very preface to his book is taken almost word for word from Rufinus's translation of Origen's commentary on the epistle to the Romans. There is no doubt, even on Jordanes's own state-ments, that his work is based upon that of Cassiodorius, and that any historical worth which it possesses is due to that fact. Cassiodorius was one of the very few men who, Roman by birth and sympathies, could yet appre-ciate the greatness of the barbarians by whom the empire was overthrown. The chief adviser of Theodoric, the East Gothic king in Italy, he accepted with ardour that monarch's great scheme, if indeed he did not himself originally suggest it to his master, of welding Roman and Goth together into one harmonious state, which should preserve the social refinement and the intellectual culture of the Latin-speaking races, without losing the hardy virtues of their Teutonic conquerors. To this aim everything in the political life of Cassiodorius was subservient, and this aim he evidently kept before him in his Gothic history. He translated into his somewhat stilted prose the sagas which were still sung by the Gothic warriors round their camp-fires, telling of the past migrations and dangers of their people. He reduced into form the pedigree which traced the descent of the Amals, Theodoric'3 kingly house, from gods and heroes. In all this he worked on such lines as a modern historical inquirer would have him work on. Unfortunately, he also accepted the current theory of his age which identified the Goths with the Scythians, whose country Darius Hystaspis invaded, and with the Getsa of Dacia whom Trajan conquered. This double identification enabled him to bring the favoured race in line with the people of classical antiquity, to inter-weave with their history stories about Hercules and the Amazons, to make them invade Egypt, to claim for them a share in the wisdom of the semi-mythical Scythian philosopher Zamolxis. He was thus able with some show of plausibility to represent the Goths as " wiser than all the other barbarians and almost like the Greeks" (Jord., De Reb. Get, cap. v.), and to send a son of the Gothic king Telephus to fight at the siege of Troy, on the right side, in rank with the ancestors of the Eomans. All this we can now perceive to have no relation to history, but at the time it may have made the subjugation of the Roman less bitter to feel that he was not after all bowing down before a race of barbarian upstarts, but that his Amal "overeign was as firmly rooted in classical antiquity as any Julius or Claudius who ever wore the purple. A grateful king of the Goths, the young Athalaric, truly said of Cassiodorius, " Originem Gothicam historiam fecit esse Romanam, colligens quasi in unam coronam germen flori-dum, quod per librorum campos passim fuerat ante dis-persum " (Cassiod., Var. ix. 25).

Cassiodorius completed his history of the Goths probably about the year 534. In the eighteen years which elapsed between that date and the composition of the De Rebus
Geticis of Jordanes, great events, and most disastrous fos the Romano-Gothic monarchy of Theodoric, had tran-spired. It was no longer possible to write as if the whole civilization of the Western world would sit down contentedly under the shadow of East Gothic dominion and Amal sovereignty. And moreover, the instincts of Jordanes, as churchman and Catholic, predis-posed him to flatter the sacred majesty of Justinian, by whose victorious arms the overthrow of the barbarian king-dom in Italy had been effected. Hence we perceive twer currents of tendency in the De Rebus Geticis. On the one hand, as a Goth himself and as a transcriber of the philo-Goth Cassiodorius, he magnifies the race of Alaric and Theodoric, and claims for them their full share, perhaps more than their full share, of glory in the past. On the other hand, he speaks of the great anti-Teuton emperor Justinian, and of his reversal of the German conquests of the 5th century, in language which would certainly have grated on the ears of Totila and his heroes. Gelimer the Vandal is " overtaken by the revenge of Justinian," and Africa " long subject to the Vandal yoke" is recalled into the liberty of the Roman kingdom." When Ravenna is taken, and Vitigis carried into captivity, Jordanes almost exults in the fact that " the nobility of the Amals and the illustrious offspring of so many mighty men have surrendered to a yet more illustrious prince and a yet mightier general, whose fame shall not grow dim through all the centuries."

This laudation, both of the Goths and of their Byzantine conquerors may perhaps help us to understand the political motive with which the De Rebus Geticis was written. In the year 551 German us, nephew of Justinian, accompanied by his bride, Matasuntha, granddaughter of Theodoric, set forth to reconquer Italy for the empire. His early death (in 552) prevented any schemes for a revived Romano' Gothic kingdom which may have been based on his personality. His widow, however, bore a posthumous child, also named Germanus, of whom Jordanes speaks (cap. 60) as " blending the blood of the Anicii and the Amals, and furnishing a hope under the divine blessing of one day uniting their glories." This younger Germanus did nothing in after life to realize these anticipations; but the somewhat pointed way in which his name and his mother's name are mentioned by Jordanes lends some probability to the idea that the De Rebus Geticis was put forth in the interests of a third party, Italian rather than Gothic or Byzantine, and possibly headed by Pope Vigilius, who may have wished to advocate the claims of this infant to an independent sovereignty in Italy.

The De Rebus Geticis falls naturally into four parts. The first (chaps, i.-xiii.) commences with a geographical description of the three quarters of the world, and in more detail of Britain and " Scanzia" (Sweden), from which the Goths under their king Berig migrated to the southern coast of the Baltic. Their migration across what has since been called Lithuania, to the shores of the Euxine, and their differentiation into Visigoths and Ostrogoths, follow. Chaps, v.-xiii. contain an account of the intrusive Geto-Scythian element before alluded to.
The second section (chaps, xiv.-xxiv.) returns to the true history of the Gothic nation, sets forth the genealogy of the Amal kings, and describes the inroads of the Goths into the Roman empire in the 3d century, with the foundation and the overthrow of the great but somewhat shadowy kingdom of Hermanric. _ The author here pro-bably rests to some extent on Orosius, Ammianus, and other Latin historians, but draws partially at least from native sources.

The third section (chaps, xxv.-xlvii.) traces the history of the West Goths from the Hunnish invasion to the downfall of the Gothic kingdom in Gaul under Alaric II. (376 to 507 A.D.). The best part of this section, and indeed of the whole hook, is the seven chapters devoted to Attila's invasion of Gaul and the battle of the Mauriac plains. Here we have in all probability a verbatim extract from Cassiodorius, who has interwoven with his narrative large portions of the Gothic sagas. The celebrated expression " certaminis gaudia" assuredly came at first neither from the suave minister Cassiodorius nor from the small-souled notary Jordanes, but is the translation of some thought which first found utterance through the lips of a Gothic minstrel.

The fourth section (chaps, xlviii. -Ix.) traces the history of the East Goths from the same Hunnish invasion to the first overthrow of the Gothic monarchy in Italy (376-539). In this fourth section are inserted, somewhat out of their proper place, some valuable details as to the Gothi Minores, " an immense people dwelling in the region of Nicopolis, with their high priest and primate Vulfilas, who is said also to have taught them letters." The book closes with the allusion to Germauus and the panegyric on Justinian as the conqueror of the Goths referred to above.

As to the style and literary character of Jordanes, every author who has used him speaks in terms of severe censure. When he is left to himself and not merely transcribing, he is sometimes scarcely grammatical. There are awkward gaps in his narrative and statements inconsistent with each other. He quotes, as if he were familiarly acquainted with their writings, about twenty Greek and Roman writers, of whom it is almost certain that he had not read more than three or four. At the same time he does not quote the chronicler Marcellinus, from whom he has copied verbatim the his-tory of the deposition of Augustulus. All these faults make him a.peculiarly unsatisfactory authority to depend upon where we can-not check his statements by those of other authors. It may, how-ever, be pleaded in extenuation that he is professedly a transcriber, and, if his story be correct, a transcriber under peculiarly unfavour-able circumstances. He has also himself suffered much from the inaccuracy of copyists. But nothing has really been more unfortu-nate for the reputation of Jordanes as a writer than the extreme preciousness of the information which he has preserved to us. The Teutonic tribes whose dim original he records have in the course of centuries attained to world-wide dominion. The battle in the Mauriae plains, of which he is really the sole historian, is now seen to have had at least as important bearings on the destinies of the world as Marathon or Waterloo. And thus the hasty pamphlet of a half-educated Gothic monk has been forced into prominence, almost into rivalry with the finished productions of the great writers of classical antiquity. No wonder that it stands the comparison badly ; but with all its faults the De Rebus Geticis of Jordanes will probably ever retain its place side by side with the De Moribus Germanonim of Tacitus, as a chief source of information respect-ing the history, institutions, and modes of thought of our Teutonic forefathers.

Manuscripts. —The chief MSS. of the De Reims Geticis are one at Heidelberg of the 8th century and one at the Vatican of the 10th, one at Milan, two of the 11th and 12th centuries at Vienna, and one of the 12th century at Munich. Unfortunately the Heidelberg and Vienna MSS. perished in the fire at Prof. Mommsen's house, but not before he had accurately collated them.

Editions. The editio princeps of the De Rebus Geticis was published by Peu-
tinger, at Augsburg, 1515. Two of the best known editions are those in Muratori's Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. i. (which gives Garet's text collated by J. A. Saxe with the Ambrosian MS., and which also contains the De Regnorum Successione), and in Grotius's Historia Gotthorum, Vandalorum, et Langobar-dorum, Amsterdam, 1655. A new edition is expected from Professor Moramsen.

Literature.—The foregoing article is chiefly founded on Von Sybel's essay, De
fontibus Jordanis (1888), Schirren's De ratione gum inter Jordanem et Cassio-
dorum intercedat Commentatio, Dorpat, 1858; Kopke's Die Anfänge des König-
thums bei den Gothen, Berlin, 1859; Dahn's Die Könige der Germanen, vol.
ii., Munich, 1861; Ebert's Geschichte der Christlich-Lateinischen Literatur,
Leipsic, 1874; and Wattenbach's Deutschland''s Geschichtsquellen im Mittelalter,
Berlin, 1877. (T. H.)


The evidence of MSS. is overwhelming against the form Jornandes adopted in the two earliest editions. Strictly speaking, the MSS. favour Jordanis ; but this seems to be only an incorrect spelling of Jordanes.
The terms of the dedication of this book to a certain Vigilius make it impossible that the pope of that name is meant.

'' Quemadmodum et in priscis eorum carminibus pseno histórico ritu in commune recolitur," De Reb. Get., iv.
'' Quemadmodum et in priscis eorum carminibus pseno histórico ritu in commune recolitur," De Reb. Get., iv.

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