No one knows for sure where the Goths came from. According to a sixth-century C.E. Gothic historian named Jordanes, they originated in Scandinavia. In the fourth century B.C.E., Goths were living along the shores of the Black Sea; and by the end of the second century C.E., these Germanic peoples had migrated to the banks of the Danube River—a region bordering on territory held by the Romans.

The relations between Goths and Romans were always ambivalent. Whereas many Goths embraced Roman institutions, with some rising to positions of power in the Roman army, others had more belligerent impulses, creating formidable military forces that attacked Roman outposts in Asia Minor and the Balkans.

Perhaps no event influenced Gothic history more than the arrival of the Huns, a nomadic Mongolian people who swept into Europe around 375 C.E. The Huns destroyed the Gothic settlements that bordered the Black Sea, and a great many Goths fled west into territory controlled by Rome. This influx meant trouble for the Roman Empire, which was already in decline. In 378 C.E. Gothic forces killed the Roman emperor Valens in a battle near the city of Adrianople, in the Thracian (European) region of modern Turkey.

Around the beginning of the fifth century C.E., an ambitious Goth named Alaric united two groups of Goths into the Visigoths, or the Goths of the West. The Visigoths then marched west, crossing Europe and establishing kingdoms in Gaul and Spain. The Visigoths survived in Gaul until 507 C.E., when they were conquered by the Franks. In Spain, however, Visigothic rule lasted until the Islamic Moors took power in 711 C.E.

What became of the Goths who remained in the East, those who did not flee the invading Huns in 375 C.E.? After the death of the notorious Attila in 453, the kingdom of the Huns collapsed, and the eastern Goths became unified. Now known as the Ostrogoths, or Goths of the East, they settled in Roman lands south of modern Vienna, Austria, coexisting with the Roman Byzantine Empire (which had its capital at Constantinople). Theoderic (454–526 C.E.), the young son of the Ostrogothic chieftain Thiudimir, was sent to Constantinople, where he received a Roman education and became a favorite at court. He became king of the Ostrogoths in 471 C.E. and later decided to carve out a kingdom for his people in Italy. (At the time, Italy was ruled by the barbarian king Odoacer, a former officer in the Roman army who was of Gothic extraction.)

Theoderic led some 100,000 Ostrogoths (75,000 of whom were non-combatants) into Italy, where he engaged Odoacer’s forces from 488 to 493 C.E. Unable to conquer Ravenna, Theoderic convinced Odoacer to accept joint rule over Italy. At the celebratory banquet, Theoderic murdered Odoacer and became the sole ruler of Italy, with his capital at Ravenna.

Theoderic’s 33-year reign was characterized by peace, prosperity and tolerance. He maintained most of the old Roman laws and appointed Romans to civil offices. He recognized the authority of the emperor in Constantinople. He treated his orthodox Christian, pagan Roman and Jewish subjects with respect. And he left an architectural legacy, constructing public buildings and repairing roads. Several of Theoderic’s structures remain standing in Ravenna today, including the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (see photos of the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the main article), an Arian baptistery and the king’s mausoleum.

After Theoderic’s death in 526 C.E., he was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric, with Theoderic’s daughter Amalasuntha serving as co-regent. Their rule was neither peaceful nor long-lived; after some years of war, Byzantine forces from the east defeated the Ostrogoths in 552 C.E. and expelled them forever from Italy.