The Curious Case of Wikipedia, My Book, and Odoacer’s Mother

I recently had the odd experience of discovering that my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World is cited as a source on Wikipedia, and then realizing that it is cited as a source for something the book does not actually say.

The reference is on the page about Odoacer, a “barbarian” king who ruled portions of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century CE. Here’s the sentence in which I am cited, at least as it appeared in early September, 2020:

Historian Erik Jensen, avows that Odoacer was born to a Gothic mother and that his father, Edeco, was a Hun.

 

This sentence cites page 16 of Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, but here is what page 16 actually says:

Classical ideas about identity […] allowed for fluidity and ambiguity, on both the individual and societal level. The last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, is an individual example. Though Superbus was identified as Roman, his father Tarquinius Priscus was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus, was a Greek: in three generations of the same family we find three different ethnic identities. At the other end of Roman history we find Orestes, a provincial Roman who joined Attila’s Huns and later made himself de facto western Roman emperor. He was succeeded by his son Romulus Augustus, the famed “last Roman emperor,” who was soon dethroned by Odoacer, a Goth whose father Edeco had been a Hun.

 

Do you notice what’s missing? I said nothing at all about Odoacer’s mother.

We know virtually nothing about Odoacer’s mother. Some ancient sources describe her as coming from the Sciri, one of the numerous Germanic-speaking groups who emerged on the eastern Roman frontier in the third and fourth centuries, but, like all too many women in history, she is almost entirely unrecorded in the sources.

Whoever added this sentence to the Wikipedia article made an assumption not supported by my text. It’s an understandable assumption, of course, in a modern context. Modern definitions of ethnicity tend to rely heavily on ancestry and descent. If we know that someone today identifies as, say, Irish, and their father is Lebanese, it’s a fair bet that their mother is Irish, because their Irishness has to come from somewhere. Similarly, if Odoacer was a Goth and his father was a Hun, it may seem natural to assume that he must have gotten his Gothicness from his mother.

But these kinds of assumptions don’t work in the ancient world. While ancestry was an element of ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean, it had much less weight than we give it today. And that, in fact, is the entire point of passage cited: we simply cannot assume that one ancient person’s ethnic identity necessarily tells us anything about how their ancestors or their descendants identified themselves.

Now, to be fair, in talking about Odoacer as a Goth and Edeco as a Hun, I was simplifying a far more complicated and tenuous set of scholarly arguments. This is how these figures are identified in some ancient sources, but there are arguments not just about how we should describe Odoacer and Edeco but even about whether we have correctly identified these individuals and their relationship to one another. These questions are particularly vexed both because the surviving primary sources for late Roman history in the West are so fragmentary and because the various groups that emerged on the late Roman frontiers were often loosely defined alliances rather than rigidly established ethnic tribes. Goth and Hun, in particular, were names that were readily adopted by people of many different backgrounds and cannot be assumed to tell us anything about the ancestry of any given individual.

So I’ll accept the blame for simplifying an issue that should not have been simplified and writing a sentence that suggested more certainty than the sources will really sustain. I will try to take this as a lesson for the future to be more careful about the dangers of choosing brevity over clarity. I hope this can also be a cautionary tale for us all: check that your sources actually say what you think they say.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

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