FROM THE FALL OF THE BURGUNDIANS
TO THE AVAR TREASURE
“Among them, no one plows or has ever touched a plow. They have no permanent home, but drift about, without house, law, or a fixed way of life; it is if they were constantly fleeing with their wagons, on which they live. It is on their wagons that the women sew their dirty clothing, are united with their men, bear their children and raise them to manhood. No one among them can answer the question of where he comes from, for he was conceived in one place, was born somewhere else and was raised in yet another place again. Faithless during a truce, they are easily aroused by each new hope and yield completely to each new driving desire. Like animals without reason they know neither the concept of honour or of dishonour; their speech is full of double and hidden meanings, and they are influenced by a respect for no religion or even superstition. But they burn with an unconstrained greed for gold.”1
This short passage from the second chapter of the thirty-first book of the Res Gestae, written by Ammianus Marcellinus after Emperor Valens' catastrophe at Adrianople in 378, is taken from the historiographer's long description of the Huns. In this text, heavily influenced by earlier antique ethnographies and loaded with topoi describing nomads, Ammianus sought to explain the origins of late antique migrations—movements of peoples that had led to the entry of the Goths into the Roman Empire and the subsequent imperial defeat.2 In any consideration of the question of construction of identities, an examination of the statements made in this passage would appear to be fruitful. For although the presence of powerful topoi cannot
1 Ammianus Marcellinus, Römische Geschichte, 31, 2, ed. W. Seyfarth, Schriften und
Quellen der Alten Welt 21, 4 (Berlin 1971) p. 247.
2 H. Wolfram, Die Goten. Von den Anfängen bis zur Mitte des sechsten Jahrhunderts.
Entwurf einer historischen Ethnographic, 3rd edn. (München 1990) pp. 132–138.