According to their own traditions, the Goths originated in a land called 'Gothiscandza', identified as southern Scandinavia. It was population pressure which, according to their legends, caused them to move en masse to what would become their long standing homeland between the Oder and the Vistula, in what is now Poland. Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence to support the legend. What does seem to have happened is that there was a slow, steady drift from the Oder-Vistula region into the Ukraine, or Scythia as it was known to the ancients.
This region already contained a very mixed population, and the Goths would very certainly have mixed with these to produce a population that was far from homogeneous. By the middle of the Third Century AD, they were becoming a formidable power, of which the Romans were given notice when a Gothic army crossed the Danube in 238, extorting substantial bribes before withdrawing.
It did not take long for Goths to find their way into the ranks of the Imperial Army, and there may even have existed a formal treaty with the Emperor Gordian III. This did not prevent a second invasion in 250, the Goths being led by their king, Kniva, who also commanded warriors of other tribes, including the Vandals, as well as a number of Roman deserters. Kniva led his army as far south as Philippopolis, which he sacked, then comprehensively defeated a Roman army at Abrittus in 251.
Further invasions followed, including sea-borne raids, culminating with the taking of no less a prize than Trebizond. A massive invasion of Asia Minor followed, resulting in the acquisition of massive plunder and many slaves, who may have been instrumental in the conversion of the Goths to Christianity. The subsequent spread of the new religion was largely the work of Ulfila, a native Goth, born in about 311. It was Ulfila, also, who created the Gothic alphabet, which enabled his translation of the Bible into Gothic. The fact that the strand of Christianity which took hold amongst the Goths was Arianism, was to prove significant centuries later, when they came up against the Catholic Franks.
Gothic power came to an abrupt and dramatic end in the 270s, when the Emperor Aurelian caught up with a raiding army and destroyed it, killing the Gothic king, Cannabaudes. This precipitated a major shift in the balance of power in Eastern Europe. The appearance of the Gepids to fill the vacuum, drove a wedge between the Tervingi branch of the Goths, west of the Dniester, and the Greutungi, east of the Sea of Azov. While the Tervingi consolidated their realm between the Dniester and the Danube, and became known to the Romans as the 'Visigoths', the Greutungi, or Ostrogoths, were conquered by the Huns, who swept into Europe from the Asiatic steppes in the latter half of the Fourth Century.
For more information on the history of the Goths after their division see;
Thanks to the efforts of Rien van de Wall, this page is now available in Dutch translation at http://users.pandora.be/vroege-middeleeuwen/goten.htm (Or just click on the flag).
Mark Furnival, 1998
My thanks go to Sydney Swan for some of the information contained on this page, which was last updated on 10 August, 2002