Month: February 2019

First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans

This is episode 10 called First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Why the Migration Period started in the first place
  • Who the Alans, Vandals and Suebi were: their origins, characteristics and how many were they
  • What consequences had the withdraw of Imperial troops from Britannia, Gaul and Germania: the usurpation of Constantine III and execution of Stilicho
  • Why Constantine III attacked Hispania before attempting to attack Italy
  • About the usurpation of Gerontius and Maximus of Hispania, and why the Vandals, Suebi and Alans didn’t enter the Iberian Peninsula as invaders
  • How the Vandals, Suebi and Alans parceled out Hispania
  • How the Hispano-Romans received the immigrants, positive views like that of Orosius or negative like that of Hydatius, and why the barbarians weren’t that barbarian
  • How the usurpers Constantine III, and Gerontius-Maximus were defeated
  • How historiography has treated the Suebi and why most views are wrong
  • Reflections on the importance of how we label events while telling history

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 10 called First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans. In this episode you will learn what happened in the Western Roman Empire between 395 and 411 and who were the Vandals, Suebi and Alans who entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

The Barbarian Invasions of the Iberian Peninsula are part of the larger Migration Period, a period that began in the 4th century and that was the major cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. We already saw the first migrations during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and those were not caused by an external military threat but by climatic, demographic and economic factors. To sum it up, those barbarians wanted fertile lands to settle, and entire families migrated into the lands of the Romans in relatively peaceful and negotiated ways. It was then when the Roman army started a process of barbarization, while at the same time those barbarians were learning and adopting some Roman costumes.

But then the arrival of a mysterious and nomadic group of peoples known as the Huns caused a heavy escalation of the migrations during the 4th and 5th centuries. The Huns probably came from Mongolia and Central Asia, and they expanded westwards destroying and razzing everything in their path. The Huns, with the devastation they caused, provoked a domino effect because they pushed Germanic, Iranian and Slavic peoples into the territories of the Roman Empire. Now all those peoples migrating were not people who wanted to live better, they were people that just wanted to live. The barbarians, in fact, thought they could be safer from the Hunnic threat moving into the Roman provinces, and to achieve that they followed the trend that emerged centuries before of forming large military confederacies. This story may sound familiar to you because in Game of Thrones the White Walkers, aka the Huns, forced the Wildings of beyond the wall to unite under a common leadership and pushed them into the lands of the Seven Kingdoms, aka the Roman Empire.

In the 31st of December 406 an alliance of Vandals, Suebi and Alans crossed the Rhine and started ravaging Gaul. In Gaul they fought the Franks, who were at the time allies of the Romans, and in the Battle of Mainz the Vandal king was killed but the Alans came to save the situation and won. In general, barbarians met with little organized resistance and were successful pillaging in the defenseless Gaul. A few years after crossing the Rhine, most of them crossed the Pyrenees in Autumn of 409, but we will see that later.

map barbarian invasions and the kingdoms established afterwards

Now what you may be wondering is who were the Vandals, Alans and Suebi. Fair question, let’s start with the Alans. The Alans may be the most enigmatic peoples that crossed the Pyrenees in 409, as the literary and archeological sources are almost inexistent. That isn’t surprising considering that they were in theory the smallest group and that they soon were absorbed by the Vandals, as we will see in the next episode. What we do know is that the Alans were a confederacy of Iranian steppe peoples original from above the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspian Seas. As a steppe confederacy, the Alans weren’t inclined to adopt agriculture and settle in a region, instead their main activities were livestock breeding, grazing, hunting and of course pillaging. The Alans, due to their nomadic nature, were the most warlike and bellicose group. In fact, the greatest honor for an Alan man was to die on the battlefield, and the most valued trophy was the hair of the enemy, that served as ornament to the horse of the winner. The greatest contemporary historian of the Visigothic Kingdom, Saint Isidore of Seville, said that the Alans “feel tired and depressed when they have no horse”. As steppe horsemen, the Alans excelled in the use of bows and heavy cavalry, and they influenced the German peoples in the importance of those elements. To finish their portrait, the Alans elected their leader according to his military skills and the archetypical characteristics of a hero. The Alans that crossed the Rhine in 406 eventually split with some remaining in Gaul under King Goar. The other group penetrated the Iberian Peninsula under King Respendial, and historian E. A. Thompson estimated that around 30.000 Alans, soldiers and families included, could have entered Hispania.

Then we have the Vandals, who came from Scandinavia and northern Poland. They were divided in two initially independent groups, the Silingi Vandals and the Hasdingi Vandals. The Silingi Vandals later lived north of modern Czech Republic, while the Hasdingi Vandals lived in modern Hungary and Romania. The Vandals were by far the largest barbarian group to cross the Pyrenees in 409, with around 80.000 people of whom 20.000 were warriors. Unlike the Alans who were pagan, the Vandals were Arians, not in the Nazi sense, don’t panic, but in the sense that they followed Arianism. You may be wondering what the hell is Arianism. No, it’s not a different religion, instead it’s a Christian doctrine that rejects the mainstream idea of the Trinity. The Trinity says that God is one God represented in three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Arianism defends that Jesus was not equal to God and that he was a subordinate of God. The Nicene Creed, that was the official Christian doctrine of the Roman Empire, labeled Arianism as a heresy, that’s why it was problematic since Arians had their own Church too.

On the other hand, we have the Suebi. In his chronicle of the 1st century, Roman historian Tacitus made very clear that the Suebi weren’t a group of homogenous peoples, instead they were a confederacy of many different tribes that occupied a large territory around the Elbe River. Therefore, the Suebi didn’t have a strong ethnic identity like the Vandals or the Visigoths, but many small tribes joined them precisely because they were a more open group compared to others. The Suebi who came to Spain were not many, it has been estimated that they numbered 35.000 souls. So even though we don’t have actual numbers of how many people entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409, estimations range between 100.000 and 150.000 people, of whom at most 50.000 were soldiers.

Okay, now that you know who these groups of barbarians were, let’s see what was happening in Roman politics to really understand this confusing and chaotic period. Remember, we left the previous episode in 395 with Honorius declared Emperor of the Western Roman Empire at the age of 10 and under the regency of Stilicho. Stilicho ordered the withdraw of troops from the Rhine and Britannia to protect Italy, and thanks to that concentration of forces he successfully repelled the attacks of the Visigoths, Alans, Suebi and Vandals. Despite this short-term victory, the Western Roman Empire was doomed, as Germania, Gaul and Britannia were left unprotected. Stilicho probably had no other choice as the military power of the Western Roman Empire at the time was very weak, but that decision led to his downfall.

The Gallo-Roman and Romano-British aristocracy felt abandoned by the court of Ravenna, the de facto capital of the decadent Western Roman Empire, and that sowed the seeds for rebellion. In Britannia a usurper called Constantine III declared himself Western Roman Emperor in 407. He presented himself as the savior of the Romans who were left unprotected, and he had a marketable name since people remembered Constantine the Great. Constantine moved to Gaul to fight the Germanic confederacies and Stilicho sent one of his men, Sarus, to suppress the rebellion of Constantine, although unsuccessfully. Alaric, the first King of the Visigoths, had been previously an enemy of Stilicho, but he had now forged an alliance with him to conquer the western part of the Balkans. But due to the rebellions he had to suppress, Stilicho had to put that plan on pause, and Alaric was furious and demanded a compensation.

alaric i entering rome

That put more internal pressure on Stilicho from both the Roman aristocracy and the military, part of the army mutinied, and Stilicho was captured and executed. The execution of Stilicho was followed by the widespread massacre of the wives and children of the barbarians of Italy who served the Roman army. Because of that many of the Germans under Roman service deserted and requested the help of Alaric. The King of the Visigoths then restarted hostilities with the Western Roman Empire, and remember, most of the Roman army was German so when most of them left the army the Roman army almost disappeared. It was only a matter of time before the famous sack of Rome occurred in 410.

Before that though very interesting things had happened in Hispania. The pressure of the army of Constantine III and the Franks forced most of the Vandals, Suebi and Alans to move to what’s now southern France. They didn’t occupy the south-western part of Gaul though, and Constantine III used that route to attempt an invasion of Hispania. You may wonder why Constantine III wanted to conquer Hispania, and the reason behind it is purely strategic. The House of Theodosius dominated the diocese, with the cousins of Honorius at the head of the family. If he neutralized them, Constantine could avoid fighting a two-front war in Hispania and Italy. Constantine’s army advanced in 408 without encountering any remarkable resistance, until the armies of Constantine and the House of Theodosius met in northern Spain and two of the four cousins of Honorius were captured. Constantine allowed his German soldiers to sack the northern Meseta and left them in charge of controlling the passage of the Pyrenees. According to Christian historian Sozomen “this decision was probably, in the long-run, the cause of the ruin of the country”. The defeat of his cousins and the threat of the Visigoths forced Honorius to declare Constantine III co-emperor in 409.

Remember that the Visigoths were attacking Italy at that time? Well, even in this moment of greatest need for unity, a new usurper appeared. Honorius and Constantine III agreed to remove Gerontius, a general of Constantine, from his post in Zaragoza. Because of that, Gerontius rebelled and declared emperor his relative Maximus. The barbarians loyal to Gerontius allowed the barbarians of the other side of the Pyrenees to cross it in 409. It was the usurper Maximus who reached an agreement with the Vandals, Suebi and Alans to allow them to settle in Hispania with the duty to join his cause to become emperor of the Western Roman Empire. So the Vandals, Alans and Suebi didn’t enter the Iberian Peninsula as invaders, but as groups of families and mercenaries at the service of Gerontius and Maximus. That reminds me of the story of the Count of Ceuta who allowed the Muslims to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and conquer the Visigothic Kingdom.

hispania map 411 barbarian invasions alans vandals suebi

Anyway, the Vandals, Alans and Suebi divided the territories of Hispania either according to their military or demographic power or in a totally random way. In 411 the most powerful group were the Alans, led by a king named Attaces, and they settled in the vast provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginiensis. The Silingi Vandals were a larger group compared to the Hasdingi Vandals, so they settled in the fertile region of Baetica, while the Hasdingi settled in the northern part of modern Galicia and Asturias. Finally, the Suebi settled in the southern part of Galicia between the Hasdingi Vandals and the Alans. Hispania Tarraconensis remained in the hands of those loyal to Gerontius as it was the region next to Gaul, where Gerontius had his most immediate interests.

Germans settled in Roman provinces partly by force and partly by legal agreements with the Roman authorities, even though those were illegitimate in Hispania. The Romans could appreciate the benefits of being under the protection of those who they called barbarians, because they didn’t have the will to serve the army. On their behalf, Germans progressively adapted to the material culture and political and religious hierarchies of the Roman provinces. Just as it happened with other invaders, pillaging wasn’t a sustainable method of survival. Instead, the invaders had to change their way of life and coexist with the natives. The Romans that accepted Germanic kings as representatives of the Roman Emperor, in a few decades saw them as legitimate rulers of their own realms.

Back to the war in Hispania, Constantine III moved some of his troops, but Gerontius repelled them. Nonetheless, not everything was going well on the side of Maximus. This wave of immigrants put more pressure to the lands of Hispania, and how were Gerontius and Maximus gonna feed the barbarian warriors and their families? The only option was to put more fiscal pressure to the Hispano-Roman population and to allow the barbarians to sack and confiscate food. The local Hispano-Roman population received the barbarians either restless or with the impression that they weren’t worse than the Roman officers. Keep in mind that most of the Roman army had been composed by Germans for some decades, so it wasn’t the first time Hispano-Romans saw them. Contemporary historian Orosius said: “there are citizens who prefer to bear liberty with poverty among the barbarians that to worry about taxes among the Romans”. A monk of Tarragona named Fronto sent a letter to Consentius, a monk of the Balearic Islands, picturing the barbarians not as bloodthirsty assassins, but as prowlers that could cause some problems but who at the same time respected trade and urban authorities.

Despite that, there are other accounts like that of Hydatius that signal that the entry of Vandals, Alans and Suebi in Hispania resulted in widespread destruction and violence. He pictured a very apocalyptic image of the arrival of the barbarians, saying: “the barbarians who had penetrated the Spains ravage the provinces in bloody fighting. The plague does, on its behalf, no fewer damage. The barbarians scattered furiously through the Spains, and the plague scourged as well, the tyrannical dictator steals and the soldiers plunder the riches and supplies stored in the cities; a hunger so frightful reigns that, forced by it, humanity devours human flesh, and even mothers kill their children and cook their bodies to feed themselves. The beasts, fond of the corpses of those killed by the sword, by hunger and by the plague, destroy even the strongest men, and feeding themselves with the limbs of the dead, they become more and more fattened for the destruction of humanity. In this way, the four plagues: iron, famine, plague and beasts, are exacerbated all over the world, and the predictions made by the Lord through the mouths of their Prophets are fulfilled.”

Truth is that things like sacking or killing people are things that the Roman Republic and Empire did in their conquests too, and that’s a very important thing to highlight because sometimes we forget how Scipio Aemilianus completely destroyed Carthage or starved Numantia to death, just to mention a specific example. We can even say that the so-called barbarians were less barbarian than the Romans in the sense of oppression, because at least they didn’t enslave entire communities like Romans did.

While Gerontius was repelling Constantine III in Hispania, Honorius had to focus on the most immediate threat, the Visigothic invasion of Italy that led to the Sack of Rome in 410 and the capture of her sister, Galla Placidia. Constantine III wasn’t lucky either. The Anglo-Saxons continued sacking Britannia as Constantine left the island defenseless, and the people who initially supported him felt like he betrayed them, and thus Britannia stopped being Roman. Constantine only had some support in Gaul and the King of the Visigoths Alaric I died, so Honorius thought that the time to defeat Constantine III had come. He named general a capable man, Constantius, who would later become Constantius III. With very few troops, the usurper Constantine III had to retreat to Gaul. What’s funny is that both Gerontius and Constantius marched against him, Gerontius first defeated Constantine, and then he besieged Orleans, the capital and residence of Constantine. But while Gerontius was besieging Orleans, Constantius, the general of Honorius, arrived. Most of Gerontius’ soldiers decided to desert to the loyalist side and Gerontius had to flee. Eventually the few supporters he had turned on him and he decided to kill himself before letting others assassinate him. Maximus of Hispania then lost the pillar of his power and took refugee among the Vandals. On his part, Constantine III was defeated by Constantius in 411 and he was executed on his way to the imperial court.

His head was presented to Honorius and usurpations stopped there, right? Of course not, because Romans loved civil wars! A Gallo-Roman senator named Jovinus started a revolt in Gaul with the support of the Burgundians, Alans of Gaul and some Gallo-Roman aristocrats. In addition to that, Ataulf, brother-in-law of Alaric, became King of the Visigoths and Honorius had to be very careful if he wanted to survive. I leave that story for episode 11, but before ending the episode I wanted to dedicate some time to the Suebi because, unlike the Vandals and Alans, the Suebi had their own independent kingdom for more than a century. In fact, the Suebi did some very important firsts. The Kingdom of the Suebi was the first German kingdom to formally declare independence from the Roman Empire and it was the first to convert to Nicene Christianity.

how the suebi vandals alans are still seen in spain

Nonetheless, historiography hasn’t treated them fairly. This is the ahistorical image of the Suebi that historian Modesto Lafuente projected in his widely read 30-volume work ‘General History of Spain’: “their pleasure was to exterminate and annihilate towns and to form large deserts around. Pieces of roughly hardened skin covered some parts of their bodies. They supported themselves by hunting and by the meat and meal of their cattle. All their religion consisted in sacrificing a person each year in barbarous ceremonies. The Suebi didn’t cease to be barbarians because they were Christians, nor did the peoples experience the effects of their conversion to Christianity.” This image of the 19th century is still believed by many historians and the general public. While the Visigoths could be seen as the first founders of a Spanish and Catholic state that ruled the entire Iberian Peninsula, the Suebi have been seen as a peripheric state that contributed to nothing to the glory of Spain. The Kingdom of the Suebi is considered nothing more than a footnote, and their history is generally viewed in three ways: as a backwards barbarian kingdom, with indifference or mystifying the Suebi for Galician nationalistic purposes. Or at least that was the case before Pablo de la Cruz Díaz Martínez published his book ‘El reino suevo (411-585)’, after years of deep research and analysis.

Until his work, even widely-read books like Roger Collins’ ‘Early Medieval Spain’ only dedicate six pages to the Suebi. On the other side, Galician and to a lesser extent Portuguese nationalist consider the Kingdom of the Suebi as a foundation of their nation. These nationalists overestimate the influence the Suebi had and make claims without historical data to support their position. Truth is there are few primary sources on the Suebi, and all were written by Hispano-Romans who saw their invasion as a prelude to the Apocalypse, like Hydatius, or Visigoths who ultimately crushed them. Hydatius was a bishop of modern Galicia who wrote a chronicle that is one of the most important primary sources of the period. He represented the Hispano-Roman landowner and ecclesiastical class who resented the conquest of the Suebi, and that is important to remark because his account is biased as hell. He felt like the barbarians in Roman soil provoked a general state of confusion and decadence, and for many years he prayed for the intervention of the Roman Empire to restore order. Nonetheless, he eventually lost hope and he had to adapt to the circumstances, recognizing that the Suebi founded a kingdom that was there to stay. Hydatius unironically believed that he was chronicling the world’s last days and that the Suebi were the messengers of the Apocalypse. You really wouldn’t want to keep such a pessimistic guy around you. Going back to the point, it certainly doesn’t help that the Suebi didn’t elaborate their own legal code nor had their own national historian to praise their past. The only hope to know more about them is left to archeology, but I hope I can portray them fairly in this podcast.

THE VERDICT: It’s very interesting to see how in historiography we use the expressions of the people who wrote. We call the phenomenon we talked about today Barbarian invasions, but I’m sure that from the perspective of the immigrants they were not barbarians sent by Satan himself, as some accounts portray them. We usually call successful revolts revolutions, while most of the events labeled as revolt or rebellion were unsuccessful. We refer as usurper to people who failed to establish their power, while successful usurpers are recognized and admired as founders of dynasties. The same happens to the Reconquista, the idea to expel the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula was present in the minds of many Christian Medieval kings, but it’s a term used a posteriori in the 19th century to construct a national identity. If the Christians hadn’t won and instead Spain was a Muslim country, do you think we would see the Muslims in worse terms compared to the Christians? Hell no. But history is used not only to talk about facts, but to interpret it and to construct a national myth, and linguistics play a key role to serve that purpose. And with that, The Verdict ends.

The barbarian invasions are the kind of topic that history textbooks spend little time on. Hopefully I will explain with enough detail the history of this period and give a fair treatment to the Vandals, Alans, Suebi and Visigoths. In episode 11 I will tell the story of how the Visigoths entered Hispania serving the interests of the Western Roman Empire and how they fought against the Vandals and Alans. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

EL REINO DE LOS SUEVOS. Pablo de la Cruz Díaz Martínez

EARLY MEDIEVAL SPAIN: UNITY IN DIVERSITY, 400-1000. Roger Collins

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasiones_germ%C3%A1nicas_en_la_pen%C3%ADnsula_ib%C3%A9rica

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migration_Period

NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

Book review: The Roman Wars in Spain

the roman wars in spain daniel varga

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Review The Roman Wars in Spain

Daniel Varga’s ‘The Roman Wars in Spain: The Military Confrontation with Guerrilla Warfare‘ is a book that focuses on the military aspects of the long Roman conquest of Hispania. Daniel Varga analyzes the strategies and tactics of both the Roman side and the many different native tribes and chiefdoms that fought the Romans. The author uses both literary sources and recent archeological findings, and he examines how the wars in the Iberian Peninsula changed the organization, tactics and equipment of the Roman armies.

This is what buyers of the book said on Amazon:

This is an interesting, mostly valuable and, at times, fascinating book about the Roman wars in Spain over a period of almost two centuries, from the end of the Second Punic War down to the final subjugation of the Galicians, Asturians and Cantabrians during the reign of Augustus. Drawn from the author’s PhD thesis, it seeks to explain why it took so long for the Roman to conquer and “pacify” Iberia, but also to what extent these long and gruelling wars influenced both the development and the equipment of the Roman army.

The book contains a reasonably good – and often a very good – narrative of the numerous conflicts across the whole period, despite a few repetitions. At times, however, the analysis can be a bit unconvincing, partly because the author tends to go too far in seeking to ascribe each and every change in the Roman Army to the influence of the Spanish conflicts. Another limit is that the author’s statement about the Iberian tactics being so problematic for the Romans, and the causes of such problems, are not always clear.

All of the main points are made and well made. However, the author gives the impression of having tried, but not entirely succeeded, to ascribe the Roman armies’ difficulties to a single main cause. The first disadvantage that the Romans had to cope with was the largely mountainous and often forested terrain which tended to put Roman legionaries at a disadvantage against a more mobile and more lightly equipped enemy. This is probably the main reason explaining Rome’s difficulties and numerous defeats. A second point, which is also made, is that Rome’s armies were often commanded by second class or even mediocre generals who lead themselves and their armies be lured onto unfavourable terrain and ambushed. While true, the author does not take into consideration that not all Iberian or Lusitanian warlords were of the same calibre as Viriathus or as the Roman “renegade” general Sertorius.

A more disputable contention is the point that the Iberian and Lusitanian presented a unique challenge among Rome’s enemies in that they were capable of fighting successfully both a guerrilla war and a more “conventional” one with pitched battles. I found this point somewhat controversial.
While the point is correct, strictly speaking, because Iberian and Lusitanian armies were indeed able to fight both “conventionally” and “unconventionally”, they do not seem to have presented the same kind of challenges to Roman armies when fighting the kind of warfare in which the latter excelled. In fact, there seem to have been few pitched battles lost by Roman armies when fighting on level ground, unless such armies had been previously weakened and morally affected by guerrilla warfare and ambushes.

Then there are also other not entirely convincing points made by the author. The traditional view is that, despite all their difficulties, the Romans won their wars through attrition and because of their ability to draw on their superior reserves of manpower. The author rightly challenges this view because it is a bit of an over-simplification. One of the reasons for the time taken to conquer the whole peninsula was that Rome prioritised – and often had to prioritise – other fronts, such as wars in the Hellenistic East, Africa or Gaul during the Second and the First century. The other reason is the alleged difficulties in recruiting sufficient troops for fighting in Spain.

There is clearly some value in these elements and they are both to some extent sustained by the written sources. The problem, however, is that the author gives the impression of exaggerating the points at times. He also gives the somewhat misleading impression that the Roman Senate deliberately chose to prioritise wars in the East, and that these were more popular because the wars were easier to win and the plunder that could be expected was more abundant. While the later point may be correct to some extent, at least once the silver mines of Southern Spain had been secured by Rome; it would be a mistake to believe that the wars against Macedonia and the Seleucids were deemed “easy” just because the Roman victories turned out to be decisive. In fact, Roman senators and generals were rather concerned, not to say nervous, when having to face pike phalanxes, heavy cavalry and elephants and the victories that they won were more closely fought than what is generally believed or even admitted by some of the (Roman, of course) sources.

Finally, there are also a handful of glitches and questionable statements which could perhaps have been corrected through a more thorough editing process. Here are just two examples. One is to mention that “the Roman army was organised according to the Macedonian phalanx formation” until the introduction of manipular legions. Instead of “Macedonian phalanx formation”, the reader should understand “Greek hoplite phalanx formation”, especially since the reference is to the fifth century – a time where Macedonians did not fight in phalanx formation at all – and since the Romans never used pike formations during the Republic. A second questionable statement is that the Romans, at a disadvantage when fighting over broken and/or forested terrain “eventually learned”. They did develop and use more cavalry and more auxiliary units to mitigate the vulnerability of heavy infantry over broken terrain or forests. However, if anything, the persistence of Roman disasters and defeats when Roman forces when ambushed, mauled or even destroyed when fighting under such conditions – think of the annihilation of Varus and his legions in Germany in 9 AD, or the near destruction of the Ninth legion during the revolt of Boudicea, both of which happened well after Spain was pacified – should lead to qualify such a statement.

Four stars.” – JPS

Lots of scholarly errors, such as incorrect info, wrong dates, etc. Not enough maps, I shouldn’t have to use the internet to look for maps to follow the terrain the book describes. The book skips around a lot, isn’t chronological organized, makes it very confusing to read.

This book should not have been published without much more editing.” – Chelsie Steinhauser

Summary of reviews: reviews are mixed, with an average 3/5 stars at the moment of the writing of this article. Criticism mainly comes from some wrong dates and information, the editing of the book and the quite scholarly nature of the book, even though it’s a short book. The positive aspects of the book are the good analysis the author makes about the causes that made the conquest of Hispania so long and how the wars in Spain changed the Roman army.

Hispania: Dominate and Expansion of Christianity

This is episode 9 called Hispania: Dominate and Expansion of Christianity and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • What aspects did the Crisis of the Third Century change in Hispania and the Roman Empire
  • About the firsts Germanic raids in Hispania, as well as the brief alliegance of Hispania to the breakaway Gallic Empire
  • A discussion on the three ecclesiastical theories (preaching of Saint James the Greater, preaching of the Seven Apostolic Men and arrival of Paul the Apostle) that try to explain how Christianity expanded into Hispania
  • How did Christianity arrive from North Africa and which were the first Christian persecutions in Hispania
  • What reforms did Diocletian enact to end the Crisis of the Third Century and what was the bagaudae phenomenon
  • A very brief talk about the civil wars that plagued most of the 4th century, Constantine’s Edict of Milan and how was the ecclesiastical hierarchy substituting Roman institutions on a local level
  • What Priscillianism was
  • A discussion on the reign of Theodosius, the last Hispano-Roman emperor and last emperor of a unified Roman Empire
  • Roman legacy in Spain and in the world. A travel guide for those interested in visiting Roman sites in Spain

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 9, called Hispania: Dominate and Expansion of Christianity. In this episode you will learn the political and economic history of Roman Spain in the Dominate period before the Germanic invasions, as well as the history of early Christianity in Hispania. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

map roman empire crisis of the third century

In 235 the Crisis of the Third Century began with the assassination of the last of the Severan dynasty, a crisis that weakened and changed forever the Roman Empire. Emperors and wannabe emperors were continuously proclaimed causing a constant state of civil war, Rome was threatened by external enemies like the Germanic tribes or the Sassanid Empire in the east, plagues reappeared and crippled the population, and all that of course had very negative economic effects. Commerce declined as there were no safe roads or safe maritime trade routes, cities suffered from both plagues and economic depression and that ended the tendency to urbanize and instead there was a tendency to go back to small rural communities. Rome based their economy in the military expansion to capture slaves, spoils of war and new lands for the landowner class. But expansion could hardly continue, and the military apparatus was expensive to maintain. Moreover, as there were less slaves, they became more expensive, so landowners stopped using slaves and instead used farmers who paid landowners for leasing their land to farm it and for protection. That was the germ of feudalism, because free farmers lost their freedom to move to other lands and their condition of semi-slavery was hereditary.

That was what was happening all over the Roman Empire, but what was happening in Hispania? The negative consequences of the Military Anarchy weren’t as obvious in Hispania as in other regions. The reason behind it is that Hispania was already in economic decline during the reign of the Severan dynasty. But outside of the economic crisis and social changes, Germanic tribes entered for the first time the Iberian Peninsula. In 258 thousands of Franks and Alamanni from Germany penetrated into Gaul. They devastated and sacked everything in their path. Hispania had enjoyed peace for more than a century as battles of civil wars occurred in other regions, so cities weren’t properly fortified. Knowing that Hispania could be the next target of the Franks, some cities were able to build fortifications that, because of the hurry, weren’t very solid. Worse was that ever since the Severan dynasty few Hispano-Romans joined the army. The Franks eventually crossed the Pyrenees and razed the Mediterranean coasts of Hispania. They destroyed and left in ruins Emporion, Girona, Lleida, Tarragona, Zaragoza and everything in between. Hispania Baetica resisted effectively the invasion, either because they built fortifications after the Berber raids of previous decades or because Postumus intervened. Who is this Postumus, you wonder? Postumus was the Roman governor and general of the Roman forces of Germania. In 260 he was tremendously successful in repelling new waves of Franks who were trying to invade the Roman Empire. In a time of chaos, many saw on him the leader that could ensure their protection and survival. Postumus quickly established the breakaway Gallic Empire, that controlled Gaul, Germania, Britannia, and, for some time, Hispania. Let me clarify this, historiography considers that Postumus created a separate state because he didn’t attempt to conquer Italy and he created institutions that emulated the Roman ones.

Anyway, going back to the point, a military aid from Postumus in 265 or 266 would explain the brief allegiance Hispania showed to the Gallic Empire. The Franks who were in Hispania either had a miserable destiny or fled to Mauritania. Emperor Aurelian reconquered the Gallic Empire in 274, as he did with the Palmyrene Empire of the east. That earned him the title of Restorer of the World, but that didn’t last long. He was assassinated the following year, which made the Roman Empire vulnerable to external threats again. In 276 thousands of Franks and Alamanni invaded Gaul and a few raided Hispania, although presumably not with the devastating magnitude of the previous one. This time they raided Northern Spain, sacking Pamplona, Astorga, Mérida, Lisbon and rural areas too.

Hispano-Roman cities rebuilt their walls and created local militias, but it was too late. Some cities were able to rebuild, some could not, but what all cities had in common is that they lost population. To have better chances of survival many started moving back to the countryside. People in those times of uncertainty moved back to the countryside to avoid plagues and to reduce the odds of suffering an attack from barbarian invaders. The basic pillar of the Roman Empire was the municipality, and municipalities kept disappearing or losing importance. Valuable Spanish industries like olive oil farming, mining or salting diminished their production. It’s very indicative of a loss of purchasing power that there are no pieces of art dating from between 260 and 280. The economy became less market-oriented and more agrarian and local. Europe was one step closer to feudalism.

In this era of desperation, a new religion spread to bring some hope: Christianity. As you know, Spain and Christianity eventually became very tied concepts, so let me dedicate some time to the origins of Christianity in Hispania, how it expanded and the heresies and martyrs of Spain. Before we talk about Christianity, we must talk about the Jewish community of Hispania. We’ve very few literary references about Jews in the Iberian Peninsula before the 4th or 5th centuries. We have some archeological evidence that confirms the presence of Jews in Hispania at least since the 1st century, but judging from the quantity of findings there weren’t many Jews. Why do I bring this up? Well, the followers of Christ were considered a Jewish sect until the 2nd century. It was only then that Christianity became a clearly different thing that competed against Orthodox Judaism as both religions wanted to proselytize. If there weren’t many Jews in Hispania, it makes sense that Christianity took more time to arrive and establish itself.

The ecclesiastical historiography has always made an effort to prove the apostolic origin of Spanish Christianity, based on three independent traditions: the preaching of Apostle James the Greater, the preaching of the Seven Apostolic Men and the arrival of Paul the Apostle. The preaching of James the Greater has no historical basis, because it wasn’t until the 9th century that we have accounts claiming that Apostle James the Greater was buried in Santiago de Compostela. Yeah, we don’t have historical justification for the Camino de Santiago, but this legend helped to boost the morale of the Christians during the Reconquista. Even today James the Greater is the patron saint of Spain and the Spanish armies used for centuries the battle cry “Santiago y cierra España”, which means Saint James and strike for Spain. The second tradition I mentioned was the preaching of the Seven Apostolic Men, who were seven clerics sent to evangelize Spain. Again, it’s only many centuries after the event supposedly happened that we have news of them, so it’s very unlikely that they existed.

Nonetheless, the third tradition about the arrival of Paul the Apostle could be true. Saint Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans that he willed to travel to Hispania and start proselytizing. His will isn’t a confirmation that he actually travelled to Spain, but according to Pope Clement I Paul preached the Gospel of Christ to the edges of the West, a sentence that unquestionably refers to the Iberian Peninsula. There are other mentions of this travel in other early Christian texts as well. The question that arises from it is why there would be a discontinuation between Paul’s preaching and the later Spanish Christianity, something that did not happen in the other places he proselytized.

Whatever is the truth behind the arrival of Paul the Apostle in Hispania, the most widely accepted and corroborated theory is that Christianity in Hispania came from Africa. Both the military and commerce with Africa had a very important role in the expansion of Christianity. The Legio VII Germina was moved from North Africa to northern Spain, using the Vía de la Plata that connected Mérida with Astorga in Asturias. That would explain why the churches of Mérida, Astorga and also Zaragoza, the capital of modern Aragon, appealed to the bishop of Carthage to solve an issue instead of Rome in 254. It’s good to remind that Early Christian churches were very independent from each other, but the appeal to Carthage would demonstrate a relationship that Spanish churches didn’t have with Rome. There are other evidences that reinforce the veracity of this theory. The Synod of Elvira, in modern-day Granada, mentions characteristics that could only be found in North African churches. Besides, the liturgy and the architecture of the firsts Spanish churches have strong North African characteristics.

About persecutions against Christians, we don’t have news of any in the 1st or 2nd centuries. The first Christian persecution that affected Hispania was ordered by Decius in 250. A major persecution was ordered by Valerian and some important priests of the Spanish Church were affected. For instance, the bishop of Tarragona Fructuosus and deacons Augurius and Eulogius were sentenced to death by burning in 259. Diocletian had the dubious honor to be the last Roman emperor to persecute Christians, and in Hispania many became martyrs because of him.

diocletian reform hispania

However, it was also Diocletian the man to reform the empire to end the Crisis of the Third Century. His reforms consisted in the division of the empire into the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and the centralization of power, expanding the bureaucracy of the empire and ruling more autocratically than ever. Diocletian doubled the number of provinces of the empire to make them easier to manage and to reduce the power of provincial governors.  Hispania specifically had the province of Hispania Tarraconensis divided in three: Hispania Gallaeica, Hispania Carthaginensis and a smaller Hispania Tarraconensis. To control and coordinate provincial governors Diocletian created dioceses that grouped several provinces. The Diocese of Hispania not only grouped the provinces of Hispania but also Mauretania Tingitana, modern Morocco.

Aside from the administrative reforms, Hispania experienced economic and urban changes. Hispania was one of the first regions of the Roman Empire to partly recover its former economic importance. Of course, Hispania did not completely recover until many centuries later with the Emirate and Caliphate of Cordoba, but at least people didn’t live fearing attacks or suffering massive epidemics. Hispalis, modern Seville, became the most important city of Hispania, due to the flourishing waterway transportation of goods of the Guadalquivir Valley, like olive oil, wine, horses or Serrano ham. Barcelona gained importance as Tarragona never recovered from the destruction the Germanic invaders caused, and Cádiz also declined in importance. On another note, brigandage was rampant in the countryside, with special importance in the Pyrenees and Northern Spain. This phenomenon was called bagaudae and it was not just brigandage but a revolutionary movement against the upper classes as well, led by groups of impoverished peasants, runaway slaves and army deserters. The crème de la crème of society, right? They were more or less subdued in the late 3rd century, but bandits continued to cause problems for centuries.

With the abdication of Diocletian, a new civil war started to seize power. Man, it’s like if they wanted their empire to fall. Constantine emerged as victor in this conflict and reunified the empire. Constantine moved the imperial capital to Byzantium in 330, renaming the city Constantinople, a decision that ensured the survival of Rome in a different form until the Late Middle Ages. More importantly for us, he proclaimed the Edict of Milan in 313 that ordered the toleration of Christianity across the Roman Empire. The Synod of Elvira is contemporary of the Edict of Milan, and I would like to analyze a bit the text of this synod to understand the influence of the Church in Hispania in the early 4th century. The texts left by this synod reveal that Christianity had a strong presence in the cities and especially in the most urbanized region of Hispania, the Baetica. We can also conclude that Christianity had followers from every social class, from oligarchs to slaves. Churches in Spain had enough power to start condemning some jobs and behaviors, and the Christian Hispano-Roman leaders showed concern in relation to the competing Judaism. Even though the Edict of Milan tolerated Christianity, the process of gaining followers wasn’t easy, and in the less-Romanized Asturias, Cantabria and Basque Country, Christianity had a hard time expanding.

After the death of Constantine, guess what happened? Yeah, chaos came back to the Roman Empire. Numerous civil wars and usurpations took place between 337 and 394. Yes, during more than 50 years the empire was in chaos, again, after the disastrous Crisis of the Third Century. I could name all the usurpers and pretenders, but you know, there’s few relevant political stuff from this period, aside from the fact that the Roman Empire was dooming itself. On the religious side though, interesting things were happening. The declining Roman institutions were being replaced by Christian churches that had a capacity to work on a local level that Rome didn’t have.

The faith in the Gospel of Jesus kept expanding, but with the lack of a strong central Church and with the discontentment of some against the increasingly wealthy hierarchies of Nicene Churches, numerous heresies raised as well. In Hispania we have the case of Priscillianism, a Christian movement with characteristics derived from Gnosticism and Manichaeism that promoted a strict ascetic lifestyle. The word of the Hispano-Roman Priscillian expanded in the 370s, and the Synod of Zaragoza in 380 and the First Council of Toledo condemned Priscillianism and showed the increasing political confluence of the religious power with the secular power. The dream of a new fair and more egalitarian social order that Jesus talked about was dead. Priscillian was executed in 385, but his doctrine was stilled followed by many in Hispania and Gaul until the 6th century.

There was little to be saved when Theodosius became the last emperor of the unified Roman Empire and the last Hispano-Roman emperor. Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the official and sole religion of the Roman Empire, any other religion or heresy was banned. Theodosius recognized that many Roman citizens, including himself, had converted to Christianity between the 3rd and 4th centuries, and it made sense to consolidate a political alliance with the Church, a Church that had the Hispano-Roman Damasus as its Pope. During his rule he persecuted paganism, heresies and other faiths, and he tolerated or encouraged the destruction of pagan temples. To mention a specific event that shows how powerful was the Church at this point, Ambroise, bishop of Milan, refused to let Theodosius enter his church until he showed remorse for the Massacre of Thessalonica, a tragic massacre of 7,000 people ordered by Theodosius. If you have watched Game of Thrones, you may see a parallelism with this and how the High Sparrow humiliated Tommen and Cersei in public.

ambroise barring theodosius from milan cathedral

His decision to allow barbarian Germanic peoples to settle in Thrace, very close to the heart of the Roman Empire, has been a matter of controversy for centuries. That certainly was a policy that demonstrated how weak the empire was at the time, but did he have another possible choice? Probably not. While the Huns were massacring Germans, Germans were forced to move to the Roman Empire. They started filling the ranks of the Roman army, to the point where most of the Roman army was Germanic. I mentioned that Theodosius was the last emperor of the unified Roman Empire, but why he decided so? Theodosius knew that if he tried to appoint a sole successor civil wars would continue, so instead he opted to divide the empire once and for all.

In the West Honorius succeeded Theodosius at the age of 10 in 395. For obvious reasons, the one who was actually ruling the Western Roman Empire was a regent, Stilicho, a general with both Roman and Vandal ancestry. This and the fact that most of the Roman army was German proves how decadent Roman society was at this point. I mean, if your own citizens refuse to serve and defend the country, your state sooner rather than later will fall. I will talk about his rule and that of his successors in upcoming episodes, but spoiler alert, the Western Roman Empire won’t survive the 5th century.

I can’t end this episode without talking about the legacy Rome left in Spain. As you know, the Roman Empire was the most solid foundation of Western civilizations that later expanded to America and beyond. To start with, Romans left the Roman laws that developed the framework that the majority of legal systems use today. Then of course Latin became the common language and lingua franca of the empire. Latin survived the empire and was still used in intellectual, cultural, theological and scientific works for centuries. The common people kept using Latin but it eventually evolved into multiple European languages. In the Iberian Peninsula all languages except for Basque derive from Latin, including Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan or Galician. Today 1/3 of the world’s population speaks a language derived from Latin, with Spanish being the third most spoken language after Chinese and English.

Continuing with the cultural legacy, Romans left an amazing artistic legacy that they pretty much copied from the Greeks, with idealistic and narrative sculptures, paintings and mosaics. There were prominent Hispano-Roman writers, playwrights, poets and philosophers. We have Seneca the Elder and the Younger, Lucano, Martial, Columella, Orosius… The existence of a Mediterranean Empire allowed an intercultural and religious exchange that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Under the Roman Empire the Roman polytheist faith expanded, but also Egyptian, Syrian, and other Oriental beliefs. Eventually that also helped in the expansion of Judaism and Christianity, even if the Roman elites were opposed to these monotheists faiths that challenged their political system. It’s difficult to imagine all these religions expanding if Europe, Africa and Asia had had different rival states.

aqueduct of segovia

Then we have a more material legacy. Here I’m going to comment public works and monuments that are still standing in Spain, so if you travel to Spain I highly recommend you to visit a few sites I’m going to mention. You have the script of the podcast in the website thehistoryofspain.com if you want to see photos or have all the names written down. That said, the Romans were very pragmatic people, that’s why they were great engineers and they heavily invested in public works to connect the empire. We have the system of Roman roads that allowed to move troops, people and goods in Hispania and beyond, that’s why we have this proverb that says that All roads lead to Rome. It’s very unlikely that the empire would have survived as long as it did without such a network of roads. During the Middle Ages and until the 18th and 19th centuries no one in Europe invested in constructing and maintaining roads as the Romans did. Many highways in Spain go over the old Roman roads, although there are still some visible remnants of Roman roads here and there. To provide water to sustain urban populations they built aqueducts that were incredible works of civil engineering. We have the aqueducts of Segovia, Les Ferreres Aqueduct in Tarragona, or the Aqueduct de los Milagros in Mérida, Extremadura.

theater of merida

temple of diana merida

The Romans built amphitheaters for spectacles and sports, like the amphitheaters of Santiponce, Mérida, Tarragona or Segóbriga; and theaters for plays like the theaters of Mérida, Málaga, Medellín or Zaragoza. There is also a substantial amount of Roman bridges, the problem is that in the Medieval or Early Modern Era many needed to be reformed and restored, so it’s difficult to tell how Roman they are now. We have the Roman bridges of Córdoba, Mérida, Salamanca or Alcantara. The same that happened with bridges happened with Roman walls and many Medieval walls have a Roman origin. You can visit the walls of Zaragoza, Tarragona or the Portal del Bisbe in Barcelona that is the only door preserved from the original Roman walls. We have a few Roman pagan temples or temples dedicated to the cult to the emperor, like the Temple of Diana in Mérida, the temple of Vic or the four columns of the Temple of Augustus that are still standing in Barcelona.

mosaic roman villa la olmeda

Romans loved public baths too, not only for hygienic purposes but also to chat and do business. There are not too many relevant rests of Roman bathhouses, but to mention a few, there are the Roman baths of Lucentum in Alicante, Lugo, Segóbriga or Caldas de Montbui. On the other hand, rural villas are very useful to study the lifestyle of wealthy Roman landowners and to contemplate the luxury of their buildings. If you had to visit one Roman villa in Spain you should visit the villa of La Olmeda in Palencia, but you could also visit Fuente Álamo in Puente Gentil, Córdoba, or Almenara in Puras, Valladolid. But apart from all the infrastructures and buildings I mentioned, there are other buildings and monuments that I can’t leave out from this episode. The first would be the Proserpina and Cornalvo dams that were used to ensure the supply of water of Mérida. Then we have the Roman arch of Medinaceli and the arch of Berá, but these arches aren’t as extraordinary as others you can find in Italy, France or Algeria. To end this list, we have the Mines of Las Médulas in León, where the Romans left an impressive landscape with their method to extract gold, and the Tower of Hercules in Galicia, which is the oldest Roman lighthouse still in use today. If you can only go to a few places, the first on the list is of course Mérida, but Zaragoza, Santiponce or Tarragona also have very remarkable Roman archaeological sites.

mines las medulas leon roman gold extract method mines las medulas leon

tower of hercules a corunna

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to bring up this question: is history cyclical? Does history repeat itself? Ancient historians like Thucydides in Greece or Sima Qian in China believed so, and there are many modern theories that stand up for historic recurrence, like social cycle theory or the Strauss-Howe generational theory. I bring this up because some see parallelisms in the contemporary decline of the West with the decadence of the Late Roman Empire, even though the world at that time was very different from the current era we live in. I don’t want to enter the eternal debate of whether history is linear or cyclical, instead I want to encourage you to look up information from both perspectives. Something is clear though, unless we evolve biologically, human nature will not change and similar events will occur in new historical contexts. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In episode 10 I will talk about the first Barbarian invasions of the Iberian Peninsula, with the Suebi, Vandals and Alans, and from then on, I expect to cover each period of the history of Spain more deeply. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA ANTIGUA. TOMO II. HISPANIA ROMANA. José María Blázquez and others

LATE ROMAN SPAIN AND ITS CITIES. Michael Kulikowski

https://memoriasdeuntambor.com/hispania-romana

http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra/posible-origen-africano-del-cristianismo-espaol-0/

https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_del_cristianismo_en_Espa%C3%B1a#Hispania_romana

NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license