Goths, Ancient and Modern

What do modern Goths have to do with ancient and medieval ones?

asterix and the goths

Ostensibly, the answer to this question is ‘not much’, apart from a name. The Goths were a group of Germanic tribes who during late antiquity sometimes fought against the Romans and sometimes served in the Roman army. They killed the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, sacked Rome in 410, and later formed kingdoms in southern France, Spain and Italy that turned out to be quite ‘Roman’ in the way that they were run. Modern-day Goths wear black clothes, like depressing music and are generally a miserable bunch, at least if you believe South Park.

Some students and I did a bit of work on modern Goths in the last semester and here’s what we came up with by searching for videos on YouTube of people talking about what it meant to be a Goth in the modern world or that made some other kind of comment on Gothic identity:

The videos reveal how important it is to think about identity as a constructed by individuals and groups and that ideas of ‘who we are’ rely on a kind of interaction between both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives. The problem in antiquity is that we usually only have partial evidence and it’s often from a strongly ‘Roman’ or ‘Gothic’ perspective. For the modern Goths, that’s not such a problem – there’s lots of evidence out there, if you know where to look.

Modern-day Goths on YouTube self-define their identity culturally. According to them, Goths have a distinct sense of fashion and style. Musical tastes are often mentioned as important defining features of what is means to be a Goth today. This identity is grounded historically by reference to ‘the Gothic’ rather than to ‘the Goths’ of the past: for example, having read 19th century Gothic novels. Ancient Goths are only mentioned (infrequently) as fellow ‘outsiders’: they occupied a place outside the Roman imperial system just as Goths today often see themselves as standing apart from conventional society. Some Gothic YouTubers have a strong sense of what it means to be a ‘proper’ Goth and exclude from the category those who do not meet their criteria, while others are concerned to draw distinctions with other groups (Emos, Punks…) or to break down modern Goths into sub-groups.

YouTube also contains plenty of videos which provide us with ‘outsider’ views on the Goths, in the same way that we’re reliant on Roman source for early Gothic history in antiquity (and, some scholars would argue, for most of the rest of their history too). On YouTube this often takes the form of satire/ comedy, as in the case of South Park’s Goth Kids (see above) or Richmond from the IT Crowd.

Interestingly, the ‘outsider’ videos often pick up on the same characteristics as the ‘insider’ YouTube clips: music, fashion, attitude (though often satirised as unremittingly miserable). Culture defines identity for those poking fun at the Goths as well.

Viewing this topic through the YouTube videos provides a novel perspective on the issue of identity in ancient history which often seems so distant and abstract. Modern Goths may not have much at all to do with ancient ones, but they can help us think about some of the issues that confronted the Goths as outsiders within a largely Roman world.

For more on this and other teaching using digital methods at the University of Lincoln, see our Making Digital History website or follow us on Twitter @MakDigHist.