History of goths: What do fans of atmospheric post-punk music have in common with ancient barbarians? Not much. So why are both known as goths? Is it a weird coincidence or a deeper connection stretching across the centuries? The story begins in Ancient Rome. As the Roman Empire expanded, it faced raids and invasions from the semi-nomadic populations along its borders.
Among the most powerful were a Germanic people known as Goths who were composed of two tribal groups, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. While some of the Germanic tribes remained Rome’s enemies, the Empire incorporated others into the imperial army. As the Roman Empire split in two, these tribal armies played larger roles in its defense and internal power struggles. In the 5th century, a mercenary revolt lead by a soldier named Odoacer captured Rome and deposed the Western Emperor.
Odoacer and his Ostrogoth successor Theoderic technically remained under the Eastern Emperor’s authority and maintained Roman traditions. But the Western Empire would never be united again. Its dominions fragmented into kingdoms ruled by Goths and other Germanic tribes who assimilated into local cultures, though many of their names still mark the map. This was the end of the Classical Period and the beginning of what many call the Dark Ages. Although Roman culture was never fully lost, its influence declined and new art styles arose focused on religious symbolism and allegory rather than proportion and realism.
This shift extended to architecture with the construction of the Abbey of Saint Denis in France in 1137. Pointed arches, flying buttresses, and large windows made the structure more skeletal and ornate. That emphasized its open, luminous interior rather than the sturdy walls and columns of Classical buildings. Over the next few centuries, this became a model for Cathedrals throughout Europe.
But fashions change. With the Italian Renaissance’s renewed admiration for Ancient Greece and Rome, the more recent style began to seem crude and inferior in comparison. Writing in his 1550 book, “Lives of the Artists,” Giorgio Vasari was the first to describe it as Gothic, a derogatory reference to the Barbarians thought to have destroyed Classical civilization. The name stuck, and soon came to describe the Medieval period overall, with its associations of darkness, superstition, and simplicity.
But time marched on, as did what was considered fashionable. In the 1700s, a period called the Enlightenment came about, which valued scientific reason above all else. Reacting against that, Romantic authors like Goethe and Byron sought idealized visions of a past of natural landscapes and mysterious spiritual forces. Here, the word Gothic was repurposed again to describe a literary genre that emerged as a darker strain of Romanticism. The term was first applied by Horace Walpole to his own 1764 novel, “The Castle of Otranto” as a reference to the plot and general atmosphere.
Many of the novel’s elements became genre staples inspiring classics and the countless movies they spawned. The gothic label belonged to literature and film until the 1970s when a new musical scene emerged. Taking cues from artists like The Doors and The Velvet Underground, British post-punk groups, like Joy Division, Bauhaus, and The Cure, combined gloomy lyrics and punk dissonance with imagery inspired by the Victorian era, classic horror, and androgynous glam fashion.
By the early 1980s, similar bands were consistently described as Gothic rock by the music press, and the stye’s popularity brought it out of dimly lit clubs to major labels and MTV. And today, despite occasional negative media attention and stereotypes, Gothic music and fashion continue as a strong underground phenomenon. They’ve also branched into sub-genres, such as cybergoth, gothabilly, gothic metal, and even steampunk.
The history of the word gothic is embedded in thousands of years worth of countercultural movements, from invading outsiders becoming kings to towering spires replacing solid columns to artists finding beauty in darkness. Each step has seen a revolution of sorts and a tendency for civilization to reach into its past to reshape its present.