Migration Period
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Ulfilas, ca. 311-383, bishop of the Goths, translator of the Bible into the Gothic language, follower of →Arianism . Ulfilas was presumably of mixed parentage, Greek (on his mother’s side) and Gothic. His name (Wulfilas, in Gothic) means ‘little wolf’.

The main source of biographic information on Ulfilas is the life Epistola de fide, vita et obitu Ulfilae written by his pupil, Auxentius of Durostorum (now Silistra in Dobruja, Bulgaria). According to this account Ulfilas was consecrated bishop at thirty after which, for seven years, he was missionary to the Goths the north of the Lower Danube, was banished, took refuge in Moesia and was active there for 33 years. Owing to its proximity in time the work of Auxentius is accepted as reliable although the career of Ulfilas appears to be remarkably similar to that of David of the Old Testament, and Christ too and this makes it somewhat suspect: David (and Christ also) made themselves known to the world at the age of thirty, David ruled over Hebron for seven years and for the next 33 years was King of Israel.

Ulfilas was consecrated bishop presumably in 341 at Antioch or Constantinople. In 341-348 he was active to the north of the Lower Danube. Although his missionary evidently had a major impact on the Christianisation of the Goths and other →Germanic Tribes  let us note that while some members of his congregation were →Visigoths  most of them were captive Christians and their descendants. When Christians were persecuted in the Gothic kingdom (348) →Goths  Ulfilas escaped with his congregation to Lower Moesia, to the region of Nicopolis ad Istrum (now Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria). He died in Constantinople in 381 or - and this is more likely - in 383. He is thought to have taken part in the synod held in Constantinople in 381 acting on behalf of →Arianism .

Next to his strictly religious activities Ulfilas definitely played an important role in the life of the →Goths  in Moesia (Gothi minores, or Lesser Goths, →Jordanes  267). Sozomen recorded that Ulfilas stood at the head of an embassy sent by Fritigern to Emperor Valens after the crossing of the Danube by the Goths in 376 (Sozomen, VI.37), which event opened the way for the later influx of →Germanic Tribes  to the territory of Imperium Romanum during the →Migration Period . Some researchers treat the credibility of this account with scepticism.

The most important legacy of Ulfilas is the Gothic alphabet (27 characters) he invented basing on the Greek, Latin and also the runic alphabets, and his translation of the Bible into Gothic. By doing so he contributed most significantly to the Christianization of the →Goths  and other →Germanic Tribes . Ulfilas was a follower of →Arianism  and this is the version of Christianity which would spread among the Germanic tribes during the →Migration Period  and have long-term cultural consequences.

The Bible translated by Ulfilas reportedly included all the books of the Old and the New Testament although some classical authors note that he left out the Books of Kings as too apologist of war. However the scope of Ulfilas translation may have been more modest as his work now surviving includes only a small fragment of the Old Testament, the four Gospels and fragments of St Paul’s letters.

The Bible of Ulfilas is known to us from the Codex Argenteus (silver codice) from the 6th century written presumably in Italy in the reign of Theodoric, king of the →Ostrogoths  (d. 526). It was brought to Sweden during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) as part of the booty taken by the Swedish army and since 1669 has been in the Uppsala University Library (Carolina Rediviva). The leaves of the Silver Codice are of purple dyed parchment with  letters written in silver (occasionally also, gold) ink. Of the original number of 336 leaves 187 are in Uppsala and the last page of the manuscript (no. 336) in the Speyer Cathedral in Germany. The Codex is one of the most valuable heritage objects from the →Migration Period  in Europe, it is also an invaluable source on the history of Germanic languages.


Primary sources: Auxentius of Durosturum, Epistola de fide, vita et obitu Ulfilae: Scripta Arriana Latina, pars I, R. Gryson (ed.), Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, t. 87, Turnhout 1982, p. 160-166; Biblia W. (codex argenteus): Die gotische Bibel, W. Streitberg (ed.), Germanische Bibliothek. Untersuchungen und Texte, vol III, Heidelberg 1919; digitized version: http://www.ub.uu.se/codexargenteus#

Jordanes, Iordanis de origine actibusque Getarum, F. Giunta, A. Grillone (ed.), Roma 1991.

Sozomen: Sozomenos, Historia Ecclesastica – Kirchengeschichte, G. Ch. Hansen (ed.), Fontes Christiani, t. 73, Turnhout 2004.

Studies: J. Strzelczyk, Goci – rzeczywistość i legenda, Warszawa 1984, s. 102-110; H. Wolfram, Historia Gotów, Warszawa – Gdańsk 2003, s. 96-107; K. Ilski, Gdzie został pogrzebany Wulfila, [w:] D. A. Sikorski, A. M. Wyrwa (red.), Cognitioni gestorum. Studia z dziejów średniowiecza dedykowane Profesorowi Jerzemu Strzelczykowi, Poznań-Warszawa 2006, s. 21-28.