Wulfilas and the conversion of Goths to Arianism

Towards the middle of the fourth century a great warrior arose among the Ostrogoths, by the name Hermanric, who seems to have created a Gothic empire which lasted for a few years and secured him a place in Teutonic legend. He is said to have extended his dominion eastwards to the Don and also over the Slavonic peoples -Wends and Slovenes- whose habitations stretched from the Upper Vistula to the Dnieper. It is even stated that his power reached to the shores of the Baltic Sea, to the neighbourhood of the old home of the Gothic people. There is nothing really incredible in the record that he formed one of those transitory barbarian empires of which there have been several other examples in Europe, fabrics which soon and suddenly dissolved because they had no organisation and could not be consolidated, but owed their existence to momentary conditions.


Meanwhile among the Visigoths something of much more importance was happening than the erection of a transitory empire. A Goth of greater ecumenical significance than Hermanric was busy at work. The first introduction of Christianity among a German people outside the Roman Empire, and the first translation of the Bible into a German tongue, mark the beginning of a new era in the history of the Germanic world. The man who accomplished these tasks, and thus became a maker of history, was not of pure Gothic descent. He was sprung from a Cappadocian family which had been carried into captivity among the spoil secured in one of the Gothic raids in the time of Decius or Claudius. But he had been brought up as a Goth, speaking the Gothic tongue, bearing the Gothic name of Wulfilas. Born in the second decade of the fourth century, he was sent while a boy as a hostage to Constantinople, where he came under the influence of Arian Christians, was ordained as a lector, and when he was not more than thirty years of age was consecrated bishop by the great Arian leader, Eusebius of Nicomedia, for the purpose of spreading and organising a Christian church in Gothland. He worked in Dacia and made many converts; but the leaders of the Goths were hostile to Christianity, and their persecutions finally drove him to a course which earned for him from the Emperor Constantine the title of a new Moses. He led his band of Gothic converts out of the pagan land, across the Danube, within the borders of the Empire. They were permitted to settle in Moesia, not far from the ancient city of Nicopolis, and not far from the site where afterwards was to arise the Bulgarian city of Trnovo. They were known as the Lesser Goths -Gothi Minores. The Arianism of Wulfilas is of great importance, for it determined the form in which the Goths ultimately accepted Christianity, a form which was, we may suspect, simpler for their intelligence than the difficult doctrine of Nicaea. Important as the work of Wulfilas was in actually making converts, it would have been of very much less moment if he had not achieved two great feats as a means for the accomplishment of his mission. One was the creation of a Gothic alphapbet; the other was the translation of the Scriptures into Gothic. Of this Gothic Bible we possess some parts; more than half of the Gospels, a great part of the Epistles, some small fragments of the Old Testament. By a strange chance the famous ancient manuscript which contains part of the New Testament, the oldest literary monument of the Teuton, is preserved in Sweden -in that island of Scanzia which the Gothic race remembered as its most ancient home.

The alphabet which Wulfilas invented was based on the Greek, but also partly on the runic alphabet; a fact which shows that the runes were in use among the Goths. But we have another highly interesting record of the use of runes by the Goths in their Dacian period. In 1838 a gold ring was found at Petrossan in Little Walachia. It bears a runic inscription, of a dedicatory nature: the word hailag, ‘holy’ is clear, but about the other words there is doubt. The inscription has been interpreted variously as ‘holy to the temple of the Goths’ or ‘Scythia is holy to Woden’. It is in any case a memorial of the pagan period of Gothic history, and of the Gothic period of the history of Dacia.

The Goths were brought into serious collision with the Empire during the civil war which followed upon the death of the Emperor Jovian in A.D. 364. They furnished help to Procopius, the unsuccesful candidate for the Empire, an on the defeat of his cause they incurred the vengeance of his rival Valens, who sent an army against them, notwithstanding their wish to pacify him. The war ended in a complete triumph for the Empire and peace with honour; and it looked as if for many a long year the Danube frontier would be secure.

Meanwhile there was trouble among the Visigoths themselves. They were passing through that painful and exciting crisis which occurs when an old religion is striving to maintain itself against a new religion which is gradually spreading. With the exodus of bishop Wulfilas and his company, Christianity had not died out in Gothland, and the pagan chiefs, especially one of the most prominent, named Athanaric, were intent upon killing it. It made them indignant to see men of their folk withholding sacrifices from the national gods, insulting the images, even burning the sacred groves. And so the blood of martyrs flowed in Dacia. A religious test was instituted. On feast days statues were carried round the wooden dwellings in every village, and whosoever refused to worship was burned alive. You may read about this persecution in the Acts of the martyr Saint Sabas, which preserve a general practice of its character. Besides the religious strife, there was also political strife arising from the jealousy which flamed between the powerful Athanaric and another judge named Fritigern, whose name becomes prominent in the seventies of the fourth century.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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