Month: April 2019

Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion

This is episode 14 called Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The context and political map of Europe and North Africa after the traumatic Battle of Vouillé
  • What happened right after the Battle of Vouillé: Visigothic retreat led by Gesalic and Ostrogothic aid
  • The efforts of Theodoric the Great to unite the Goths under one rule to stop Frankish advance
  • How weak Visigothic rule was in Hispania at that time
  • How limited Theodoric’s influence was over the Visigoths due to the power of the appointed governor, Theudis
  • The fall of the Balti dynasty and the problems that that caused to the long-term stability of the Visigothic Kingdom
  • A revival of Roman power in North Africa and Italy under Justinian
  • Decreasing Visigothic control over Hispania and civil war between Agila and Athanagild
  • Byzantine conquest of southern Spain due to Justinian’s intervention in the civil war and the foundation of the province of Spania
  • The reemergence of sources on the Suebi: migrations of Romano-Britons and Suebic conversion to Catholicism
  • How the Visigothic Kingdom was definitely established in Toledo and the election of Liuva I
  • A depiction of the society of Visigothic Spain, talking about the heterogenous population and social stratification
  • A reflection on the importance of having a strong system of dynastic succession

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 14 called Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion. In this episode you will learn about this period of Ostrogothic supremacy over the Visigoths and the transition from the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse to the one of Toledo. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

map of europe 526

I want to draw you a picture of the political map of Europe and North Africa to understand the global context we are in after the traumatic Battle of Vouillé. The Kingdom of the Franks was a rising power that controlled most of modern France, Clovis I governed a territory that spanned from Toulouse in southern Gaul to the Rhine Valley of West Germany. The Burgundians were in a difficult position because they were an obvious target for the Franks, as the Kingdom of the Burgundians ruled over Lyon and modern Western Switzerland. The Burgundians under King Gundobad didn’t want the Franks to conquer southern Gaul at the expense of the Visigoths, but since that already happened, they wanted to take advantage of the situation. As we will soon see, that didn’t turn out well for the Burgundians. The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, was focused on reforming itself to strengthen its position and avoid being conquered like it had happened to its Western counterpart. The Vandals were still powerful in central North Africa, but they weren’t the great threat they used to be. On the other hand, Italy and part of the Balkans were firmly under Ostrogothic control. King Theodoric proved himself to be a capable administrator and he was now the real rival of Clovis of the Franks. As we will see, Theodoric the Great soon ruled over his cousins, the Visigoths, to stop Frankish expansion.

I finished the previous episode with the pivotal Battle of Vouillé and the Frankish conquest of southern Gaul. But I have yet to explain what happened next. The nobles who survived the Battle of Vouillé elected Gesalic as their king. Gesalic was a bastard son of Alaric II, and they elected him because the legitimate son Amalaric was just 5 years old, so they were being pragmatic here. Gesalic had a very important mission on his shoulders, he had to protect what was left of the Visigothic Army to save the kingdom from utter destruction. To achieve so, Gesalic ordered the retreat of his troops to Septimania, even leaving defenseless the capital, Toulouse. Then the Burgundians intervened, defeated Gesalic and plundered Narbonne, the temporary capital of the Visigoths. Because of that Gesalic had to order a tactical retreat to Barcelona, hoping to regain strength and waiting for the much-needed aid of the Ostrogoths. The help came, but the outcome was not what Gesalic expected. King Theodoric sent a large army led by a general named Ibba to make a counteroffensive against the Franks and Burgundians. Ibba lifted the siege the Burgundians had placed in Arles and decisively defeated them. The Ostrogoths were powerful enough to reconquer Septimania for the Visigoths and even to attack the lands of the Burgundians. Well played, Gundobad.

With that the war between Visigoths and Franks ended, but Gesalic couldn’t be happy because now the Ostrogoths went after him. He was labeled as a coward and ineffective leader, and Theodoric supported the legitimate son of Alaric, Amalaric, to rule the Visigoths. Because of that, Theodoric’s general Ibba went to Barcelona and defeated and deposed Gesalic. I think that he is treated too harshly, but what he did next was definitely not cool. Gesalic took refuge in the Vandal Kingdom, then he moved back to Hispania and tried to be proclaimed again King of the Visigoths with the support of the Franks. Not cool, Gesalic. Of course he failed and was killed in 513. Historian Saint Isidore of Seville said about him that “he lost his honor first and then his life”.

There’s debate about whether to consider Theodoric the Great as regent of the Visigothic Kingdom or as king of his own right. We have contradictory ecclesiastical acts on this matter, but it seems more accurate to say that the Ostrogothic King was King of the Visigoths too. It’s obvious that Theodoric wanted to unite the Goths under his family, to have better chances against the Franks. To make the union effective, Theodoric promoted mixed marriages between the Ostrogothic and Visigothic aristocracy, but of course this policy of Ostrogothic supremacy was met with resistance. What Theodoric couldn’t expect was the death of his presumptive heir for both thrones, a man named Eutharic. His death in 522 frustrated the plans of Theodoric, and the Goths would never again be united.

The Visigothic Kingdom that Theodoric ruled was one that only controlled firmly Septimania, Hispania Tarraconensis, the Meseta of central Spain and little more, in other regions the Visigoths had influence but not a strong and effective dominance. Some Visigoths emigrated to Hispania from southern Gaul, but others chose to remain there under the rule of the Franks. What’s important to understand is that these Gothic migrations were aristocratic and military, which means that the migrations were based on patron and client relationships, they weren’t popular and disorganized.

Theodoric administered both Italy and Spain respecting the old Roman administrative apparatus, he was both king for the Goths and patricius for the Romans. We have seen multiple times and we will continue to see how those Barbarian rulers tried to legitimate their rule emulating the Roman Empire. The administration was kind of dual, because the Ostrogoths and Romans had different institutions, and Theodoric restored some Imperial institutions when he ruled over Hispania too.

Nonetheless, during much of the Ostrogothic interval, the sword-bearer of Theodoric the Great ruled the Visigothic Kingdom quite autonomously. His name was Theudis and he was the appointed governor of Hispania during the minority of Amalaric, and yeah Theudis paid the annual tribute required to the Visigoths, but he didn’t follow all the orders from Italy. Theudis had married a wealthy Hispano-Roman woman who had large estates and thousands of slaves. I guess the legal prohibition of intermixing may not have been strictly enforced, and what’s clear is that the Germanic and Hispano-Roman upper classes was starting to fuse. Anyway, Theudis used that leverage and the legitimacy of his appointment to grow his power. There was discontentment among the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman aristocracy due to the fiscal reforms of Theodoric the Great, and Theudis took advantage of that. Why didn’t Theodoric intervene, you ask? Apparently, Theodoric didn’t confront him because he feared the Franks could use that as an excuse to intervene.

Theodoric died in 526 and with him direct Ostrogothic rule died as well. The premature death of Eutharic, the opposition of much of the Visigothic aristocracy and the autonomy of Theudis left no other option but to leave the two Gothic kingdoms separate. The grandson of Theodoric succeeded him in Italy while Amalaric of the Balti dynasty could finally rule the Visigoths on his own. The Visigoths stopped paying the annual tribute to the Ostrogoths and the Ostrogoths returned the Visigothic royal treasure, but Amalaric had to cede Provence to his cousin. Amalaric then took up residence in Narbonne, in the region of Septimania, and this detail is very important, because the Visigoths still had hopes of reconquering southern Gaul.

king of the visigoths amalaric

Amalaric probably tried to get rid of Theudis and remove his influence, but he failed to achieve that. We know more about his foreign policy, as the Visigothic King tried to recover the prestige of his peoples and restore Visigothic rule over southern Gaul. Amalaric needed to defeat the Franks, and he was so determined to achieve that that he personally led his troops. Unfortunately for Amalaric, his plan didn’t work as he had planned. Childebert, Frankish King of Paris and Orleans, defeated the Visigothic Army in Septimania in 531. Amalaric was able to flee to Barcelona, with the intention to set sail from there to go to Italy and seek the help of his Ostrogothic cousin. Nonetheless he was assassinated, it’s not known if by his own men at the orders of Theudis or if by a Frankish man, but in any case, Theudis was the prime beneficiary of that murder. I say that because Theudis was then able to use his influence to get elected King of the Visigoths. That supposed the extinction of the Balti dynasty that had always ruled the Visigoths up to that point. The transmission of royal authority and legitimacy was then weakened, because the loyalty of the aristocracy towards the ruling dynasty disappeared and after that succession from father to son became always very difficult in the Visigothic Kingdom. So no, the fall of the Balti dynasty wasn’t good news for the long-term stability of the kingdom.

Now, before I move forward, I should leave Hispania and talk about important things that were happening outside. The political map of Europe and North Africa was rapidly changing again, but this time the cause was not the Barbarians but the Eastern Roman Empire. The ambitious Justinian I started his reign in 527 with a clear objective in mind: the restoration of the Roman Empire with the reconquest of the Western half. Justinian first attacked the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa with the pretext of supporting the deposed king. His general Belisarius conquered in a year the once fearsome Pirate Kingdom, including the Balearic Islands and Ceuta. Then another dynastic struggle allowed Justinian to have an excuse to intervene in Ostrogothic Italy. Italy had been peacefully reigned by the Ostrogoths, but the Gothic Wars that lasted almost 20 years devastated the region. The Romans managed to destroy the Ostrogothic Kingdom by 554 and they defeated an attempted Frankish invasion of Italy as well. What’s interesting for us is that Justinian’s campaigns changed dramatically the balance of power. The Visigoths lost their main allies, and the Barbarian kingdoms were under threat.

Let’s go back to the Visigothic Kingdom for a while. Theudis had a hard time defending the kingdom from Frankish attacks, with the Visigoths losing forever some cities of Septimania, and the Franks put Zaragoza under siege. The Visigoths repelled the Frankish invasion, but they were in a weak situation from both an internal and external perspective. Theudis used diplomacy to secure Visigothic power over the almost independent region of Baetica, because he realized the threat of a possible Byzantine intervention in Hispania. Theudis was right to fear the Romans, as we will see. In 548 the Visigothic King was killed in his palace, although it seems that it was for personal instead of political reasons. Theudis was succeeded by Theudigisel, the general that had defended Zaragoza from Frankish attacks, but he was killed after just one year. A group of nobles had conspired to assassinate him because he apparently had slept with the wives and daughters of many Visigothic nobles. That’s what happens when you are too naughty. The Gallo-Roman historian Gregory of Tours stated that “the Goths had adopted the reprehensible habit of killing out of hand any king who displeased them and replacing him on the throne by someone they preferred.”

His death was followed by more than two decades of anarchy and decreasing Visigothic control over Hispania. Agila was elected king with the wide support of the nobility, but everything went wrong quickly. The Hispano-Roman aristocracy of Córdoba started a revolt against the centralizing policies of the Visigoths, as they had been used to rule independently for decades. Agila failed miserably in his attempt to suppress the revolt, losing his son and part of the royal treasure. The royal treasure it’s especially important for the Visigoths and the rest of Germanic peoples, because it represents the tangible evidence of a shared history of a group. The defeat was humiliating, and for many Agila lost the legitimacy to govern. Because of that a noble named Athanagild declared himself king in Seville with the support of part of the Visigoths. The Visigothic Kingdom was in a state of civil war, and who is an expert in exploiting civil wars? Justinian.

It’s not clear who called the Romans, although I would say that it was probably Athanagild. In exchange of their support, Athanagild agreed to give the coastal region of southern Spain from Cádiz to Valencia to the Empire, and the imperial province of Spania was then founded. The Byzantines sent a small army in southern Spain in 552 and Athanagild and the Romans defeated Agila. In the next two years there were skirmishes, but nothing decisive. In 554 the costly Gothic War in Italy ended, so Justinian could now send a massive army in Hispania if he wanted to. Justinian sent reinforcements that landed in Cartagena and it was then when the Visigothic nobility opened their eyes. The leading aristocracy realized that the Visigothic Kingdom could face the same fate as the Ostrogothic or Vandal Kingdoms if they remained divided. The fear of a full-scale Roman invasion was so real that the supporters of Agila turned against him and assassinated him.

byzantine province of spania

We have very few news about the reign of Athanagild, but it’s clear that he attempted to repair the weakened central authority, although with little success. Athanagild recovered a few towns from the Romans, but the Byzantines established a strong defensive system to consolidate the newly formed province of Spania. We don’t know if the Visigothic and Imperial authorities signed a new treaty to clearly define the frontier, but in that case both states recognized the status quo and allowed trade and travels between the two states. The Romans couldn’t destroy the Visigothic Kingdom and reincorporate all Hispania to the Roman Empire not only because the Visigoths ended the civil war, but also because of the damage provoked by the Justinian Plague and the exhaustion of the financial and manpower reserves after years of wars. The province of Spania wasn’t very strategically important for the Empire, the Byzantines mainly wanted to control the southern coast to prevent a Visigothic invasion of North Africa, therefore there were few stationed troops and the countryside was at the mercy of Visigothic raids. The key fortified cities of Spania were Málaga and Cartagena, while we don’t know who controlled Córdoba, if the Romans, the Visigoths or the local aristocracy.

The Visigothic Kingdom had more problems than the Romans in the south. The state was essentially bankrupted and because of that Athanagild couldn’t deal with separatist revolts in other regions. The north was out of Visigothic control, and even the region of modern Zamora was autonomous. If the Visigoths couldn’t dominate regions that were not states, it’s quite safe to guess that the Kingdom of the Suebi wasn’t a vassal state anymore. From 550 to the fall of the kingdom, we have sources about the Suebi again, and among other things we know that some Romano-Britons emigrated from the British Islands to Gallaecia, we know that leprosy was quite common in the region and that the King of the Suebi at that time was Chararic. We have contradictory accounts on the Suebic conversion to Catholicism, but it seems that their conversion was quite gradual. The Frankish historian Gregory of Tours wrote that Chararic had a son that suffered from leprosy, Chararic heard about Martin of Tours through the bishop of Braga Martin of Braga, and the Suebic king promised to convert to Catholicism if his son was cured through the relics of Martin of Tours. His son was cured and because of that the Suebi converted. The conversion to Catholicism of the Suebi after other Germanic peoples like the Franks was a prelude that announced that the same would happen to the Visigoths, but we are not there yet.

Athanagild established the capital of the kingdom in Toledo before he died. Toledo is located near the center of the Iberian Peninsula, it had access to important Roman roads and it was easy to defend, so it was ideal to consolidate the weakened Visigothic monarchy in Hispania. Then Athanagild died of natural causes and the nobility had to discuss the succession. There was a long interregnum of 5 months, which leads me to think that the Visigothic nobility couldn’t agree to name a candidate. The chosen candidate was Liuva I, who was probably the Duke of Septimania. One possible interpretation of why the Visigothic nobility chose a noble from Gaul could be that Liuva was chosen precisely because he was far from the center of power that was now Toledo. Otherwise, the different noble factions could have started a new civil war that the weakened Visigothic Kingdom couldn’t bear.

hispania visigothic spain 560

I will stop the political talk here to dedicate some time to the society of the Visigothic Kingdom, and in the next episode I will talk about its economy. Keep in mind that there were probably less than 150k Visigoths living in the Iberian Peninsula, over a population of around 6 million Hispano-Romans, so we are talking about a militaristic minority that dominated a larger population. At first both populations were strictly divided, they were like two neighbors that live in the same flat but that hardly speak to each other. But after some decades coexisting and seeing that the Roman Empire wasn’t coming back any time soon, both the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman elites started to closely collaborate, to influence each other and to even marry. The laws of the Roman Empire and the Church largely influenced the Visigoths, but some Germanic customary practices and social institutions were adopted in Hispania and elsewhere in Western Europe. There were not only Hispano-Romans and Visigoths in Hispania, there were also Suebi, Cantabri, Astures and Vascones that hadn’t been completely Romanized, Bretons, Berbers, Africans, Roman Greeks and Jews. Therefore, Hispania was not an ethnically homogenous region, and it was not religiously unified either. Most of the population was Catholic, but the Visigoths were still Christian Arians, there were still some followers of Priscillianism or even some that had Pagan beliefs. These points are important to highlight because ruling over diverse groups of people wasn’t easy.

As it was happening in the rest of Europe, the societies of the Early Middle Ages were slowly transitioning to feudalism. The trends of the Late Roman Empire I talked about in the episode about Hispania in the Roman Dominate still apply to this period. To refresh your memory, we are talking about a process of ruralization, a substantial decline of trade, and a tendency to go back to subsistence agriculture. The society of Visigothic Spain was stratified in free privileged and non-privileged estates, and the colonus. The free privileged estates were the nobility and clergy, both Hispano-Roman and Visigothic. The non-privileged estates were the free peasants and urban workers that didn’t have a relationship of dependency with a landlord. And finally the majority were colonus, who were in a state of semi-slavery. This system of land tenancy started with the substitution of slaves for free peasants that worked in the lands of their previous owner, paying a rent in exchange for protection and a land to farm. The problem started when the colonus and landlord relationship degraded into a relationship of dependence because of debt, and the problem only grew when many free peasants with insufficient lands to survive had to become colonus. The colonus couldn’t abandon the land of their lord, their condition was hereditary, and they were constantly mistreated. The colonus had no rights, as for instance they couldn’t litigate against their estate owner. They were also forced to serve as soldiers if their lord ordered them to do so, as there was not something like a regular professional army in a Medieval state. You can’t find a difference from a colonus and a slave? Well, there’s a slight difference, and is that they could not be separated or sold separately from the land property. Doesn’t seem much better, right?

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I wanted to discuss the importance of having a strong system of dynastic succession. The Visigothic Kingdom had an elective system of succession, but when the Balti dynasty was still prestigious the Visigothic nobility only chose members of that prestigious dynasty. The prestige and mystical aura of the Balti ended with the Battle of Vouillé, and that’s why that dynasty eventually fell. After that, successions were always a problem for the Visigoths, and they suffered many revolts and civil wars because of that. Something similar happened to the Roman Empire, as their institutions weren’t strong enough to prevent constant usurpations and coup d’états. That’s why I think that neither an elective nor a simple primogeniture hereditary system is good for the stability of monarchies. The best system would probably be an elective system within the royal family with some kind of tests to choose the best possible successor, male or female. Nonetheless, the best way to ensure the survival of a dynasty is to prove the effectiveness of the monarch to rule, otherwise the dynasty will for sure fall. And with that, The Verdict ends.

The next episode will be quite interesting because I will talk about the important reigns of Leovigild and Reccared.  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 biweekly 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 VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

HISTORY OF THE GOTHS. Herwing Wolfram

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

Good bye, Roman Empire!

This is episode 13 called Good bye, Roman Empire! and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Who were Ricimer and Majorian, leaders of the coup d’état against Emperor Avitus
  • The situation of Hispania, especially in Gallaecia that was divided between two factions of Suebi
  • The very delicate situation of the Western Roman Empire when Emperor Majorian took power in 457
  • The impressive achievements and conquests of Majorian, against the Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians and Suebi
  • What went wrong in 460 that ended the dream of the restoration of the Western Roman Empire
  • How the Visigoths under Theodoric II and Euric conquered much of Hispania
  • How the Kingdom of the Suebi was restored under King Remismund, as a vassal state of the Visigoths, and why we don’t have information about the Suebi for the next 80 years
  • The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the peak of Visigothic power
  • The consolidation of the Visigothic state with the promulgation of the Code of Euric and Breviary of Alaric and the division of Goths and Romans by law
  • Where did the Visigoths settle in Hispania and how they distributed its lands
  • The Frankish expansionism under Clovis I and the decisive Battle of Vouillé of 507, that supposed the end of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, the death of Alaric II, the weakening of the Balti dynasty and the end of Visigothic supremacy
  • A reflection on the importance of not overextending

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 13 called Good bye, Roman Empire! In this episode you will hear the story of the last days of the Western Roman Empire and how the Visigoths finally conquered much of Hispania for themselves. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Suebi and the death of Emperor Avitus. Let’s take a look of what was happening in Italy first and then in Hispania. The conspirators that overthrew Avitus were the Germanic general Ricimer and the Roman general Majorian. Ricimer was not just a random Germanic general under Roman service, he was the son of Rechila and the son of a daughter of the King of the Visigoths Wallia. After the death of Wallia the Visigoths broke relations with the Suebi and because of that, as a loser of these kinds of struggles among Barbarians, Ricimer joined the Romans. Majorian, on the other hand, belonged to an aristocratic Roman family and he had made a name for himself in different wars. The thing is that Ricimer and Majorian were friends, they both had influential positions and they had the support of the discontented Italian aristocracy to get rid of the Gallo-Roman Avitus. Ricimer and Majorian forced Avitus to abdicate and after a few weeks they killed him. The Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I decided not to appoint a Western Emperor because he wanted to rule alone with Ricimer acting as viceroy, but after a few months the Roman Army proclaimed Majorian Western Roman Emperor. Ricimer could not become Emperor himself because of his barbarian origins, but he expected to make Majorian a puppet emperor since he was the one controlling the army. Both the Eastern Emperor and the Visigoths initially refused to recognize him as Augustus as they considered him a usurper, but by the end of the year 457 Leo I recognized him, given that there was no other possible alternative.

Now let’s look at the chaotic situation of Hispania. In the north, the less Romanized region of Hispania, the Astures, Cantabri and Vascones continued to live without any kind of central authority. Gallaecia, as I mentioned in the previous episode, was in a state of chaos and anarchy after the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Suebi. The remnants of the Suebi continued to live there, and the region became split between two factions after the assassination of Aioulf. One faction had its base in southern Gallaecia and part of Lusitania, while the other faction had its base in northern Gallaecia. What both groups had in common is that they barely had a permanent base and instead spent their time moving around raiding and pillaging. They sometimes competed to unify the Suebi under one rule, but in general they acted independently to survive. Hispania Tarraconensis was controlled by the local Hispano-Roman aristocracy, while Hispania Carthaginensis and part of Baetica was under the influence of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse.

When Emperor Majorian took power, the Western Roman Empire consisted of Italy and a portion of Gaul. But even that was at risk, because the Vandals of Genseric were attacking Italy and the Gallo-Roman aristocracy refused to recognize Majorian. Instead the Gallo-Roman aristocracy allowed the Visigoths and Burgundians to conquer what was left of Imperial Gaul. Therefore, the urgent priority of Majorian was the defense of Italy and then the reconquest of south-eastern Gaul. Majorian himself led his troops against the Vandals that were sacking the region of Campania in southern Italy. He crushed the Vandals and expelled them from Italy. That victory earned him prestige as a capable emperor, a true hero that appeared in the moment of greatest need. I really admire these kinds of strongmen that appear in the adversity, like Almanzor for the Caliphate of Cordoba or Napoleon for the French Republic. But these kinds of powerful leaders earn the enmity of other envious people, as it happened with his old friend Ricimer. Remember, Ricimer had the ambition to be the de facto ruler of the Western Roman Empire, and he didn’t expect Majorian to be such a magnificent emperor. He didn’t like to be eclipsed, so Ricimer distanced himself from Majorian and slowly started working on weakening the position of his old friend.

Majorian conquests

While Majorian was focused on the affairs of Italy, Theodoric II boldly expanded the Kingdom of the Visigoths both in Gaul and Hispania, conquering Hispania Baetica, including the important city of Seville with the support of the local nobility. The Roman Emperor now controlled firmly Italy, but to launch an expedition to reconquer much of Gaul the Emperor needed to recruit more troops among the Barbarians, including Ostrogoths, Burgundians and Suebi. Majorian also started rebuilding the navy to confront the Vandals, but with only a defensive capacity for the moment.

In late 458 Majorian started his campaign to reconquer Gaul, leading himself the army and leaving Ricimer in Italy. Romans and Visigoths fought against each other in the Battle of Arelate, near the key city of southern Gaul, Arles. There the Romans decisively and overwhelmingly defeated the Visigoths. Theodoric II was forced to abandon Septimania, the south-eastern region of France with cities such as Narbonne, and to sign a harsh treaty. The treaty, signed in 459, returned the Visigoths to federate status and forced them to abandon not only Septimania but the conquered territories of Hispania as well. Majorian appointed a trusted general named Aegidius to govern Gaul, while the Emperor continued his campaign against the Burgundians that were also returned to federate status. Majorian then reconciled with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy to continue his ambitious campaigns to recover the former glory of the Western Roman Empire. It seemed like his dream could become true.

His next target was Hispania, and he sent emissaries there to announce that the region had returned to Imperial control. With the help of the Visigothic federates, the Roman Empire reestablished control of Hispania Tarraconensis, Carthaginensis and Baetica. Meanwhile, the Romans also reestablished control of Illyria in the Balkans and Sicily. In Hispania the real campaign started in Lusitania and Gallaecia against the factions of the Suebi. There the Romans and Visigoths reconquered important fortified cities like Lugo or Santarem, but the operation was limited in scope, as the Empire didn’t decisively crush them. Majorian himself led a large army through Zaragoza to then go to Elche, near Valencia, where a major fleet was docked to launch an expedition to finally defeat the Vandals in Africa. Genseric was nervous and feared the seemingly unstoppable Majorian, and because of that he tried to negotiate peace with the Romans, only to be rejected. Majorian was determined to restore Roman control over the former breadbasket of the Empire. Everything was going perfect up to this point, Majorian could accomplish something much greater than Aurelian did in the 3rd century.

However, destiny decided to not give him that honor. From 460 on, everything went wrong for the Western Roman Empire. The Vandals paid some of the people in charge of the dock of Elche to destroy the large fleet that was needed to land on Africa and destroy the Vandal Kingdom. Majorian was then forced to cancel the expedition and abandon his dream of reincorporating the African provinces. He then decided to return to Italy, making a stop in Arles. Ricimer, the Germanic general left in Italy and old friend of Majorian, started plotting against the Emperor while he was bravely fighting away from Italy. Ricimer had the support of some aristocrats that weren’t happy because Majorian had forced them to pay taxes for his great ventures. Before reaching Rome, Ricimer met Majorian with a military detachment, had him arrested, beaten and tortured, and then beheaded in 461. Such a sad end for a hero and virtuous man like Majorian. The treacherous Germanic rat that was Ricimer then appointed a puppet emperor, as he had always dreamed. However, his puppet emperor was not recognized by the Eastern Roman Emperor, nor by any of the generals who served Majorian like Aegidius in Gaul, Nepotianus in Hispania or Marcellinus in Illyria and Sicily.

The dream to reestablish the Western Roman Empire died along Majorian. From then on, Ricimer ruled what was left of the Empire, which mainly consisted in Italy, and Eastern Roman puppets were appointed as well. The different Barbarian peoples seized the opportunity and conquered the Western provinces, and the native nobilities actively collaborated with the Barbarian elites. The Burgundians conquered Lyon and the Visigoths regained access to the Mediterranean Sea by conquering the region of Septimania. Meanwhile, Aegidius and Marcellinus ruled independently northern Gaul and Illyria. Aegidius stopped an attempt of the Visigoths to expand in northern Gaul in 463 with the aid of the Alans and Franks, while the Roman commander of Hispania Nepotianus was deposed by Theodoric II.

The Imperial government lost control over Hispania too, as the Visigoths cut off the land connection between Italy and Hispania and the maritime routes were controlled by the Vandals. It’s very significative how the Hispano-Roman noble Palagorius went to the court of Toulouse instead of Ravenna to ask for a military intervention of the Visigoths against the Suebi that were fighting a civil war. That shows how Imperial Roman authority was broken forever in the West.

As I have said, apart from reconquering Septimania, the Visigothic Kingdom under Theodoric II tried to expand northwards in Gaul after the death of Majorian but failed. Theodoric II negotiated peace with the Franks and the Western Roman Empire, but many Visigothic nobles thought that they had nothing to negotiate with the decadent Imperial authority. Therefore, as it had already happened among the Visigoths and it will continue to happen throughout their history, there was a conspiracy to overthrow and assassinate the king. The only alive brother of Theodoric II, Euric, succeeded in eliminating his brother in 466.

Euric quickly defeated other pretenders and independent chieftains, and unified the Visigoths. After that, he launched expeditions both in Gaul and Hispania, capturing for the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse Hispania Baetica and Carthaginensis. The conquest of Mérida was especially important to control most of Hispania using the old Roman roads. On the other hand, it wasn’t until 472 that the Visigoths conquered with little to no opposition Hispania Tarraconensis, I mean even the last imperial representative in Spain, the dux Hispaniarum Vicentius, collaborated with the Visigoths. Euric also captured a few key cities of northern Spain, but the Visigoths didn’t firmly control that region. Actually, the Visigoths had weak control over other areas like the coast of Hispania Baetica, but the consolidation of Visigothic power in Hispania would be the work of other monarchs. Although his reign started with a sin, Euric was smart enough to integrate the Gallo-Roman and Hispano-Roman aristocracy in military and administrative positions. That was a very important step to consolidate the position of the Visigothic Kingdom, because you can’t rule forever a territory with the enmity of the local powers.

In Gallaecia, the Suebic king Remismund won the civil war and reunified the Suebi, although to achieve that he had to make the Kingdom of the Suebi a vassal state of the Visigoths. Apart from the political and military supremacy of the Visigoths over the Suebi, the Suebi abandoned their paganism and converted to Arian Christianity in 466. Nonetheless, it’s not like Remismund liked being a vassal of the Visigoths. Remismund attempted to get rid of their influence by sealing alliances with the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and by getting the support of the Galician and Lusitanian nobility. Remismund successfully occupied Lisbon and other towns with the collaboration of the locals, and we can interpret that as a change in the attitude of the local nobility towards the Suebi. Unfortunately, the chronicle of Hydatius abruptly ends in 469 with his death, and we have an obscure period of around 80 years that we virtually know nothing about. I hate when that happens, because we can only guess what was happening. However, we can conclude that the provincial nobility accepted the rule of the Suebi to preserve their privileges and avoid the centralism of a more powerful kingdom like the Visigothic Kingdom.

Going back to the Visigoths, in 472 the de facto ruler of the Western Roman Empire, Ricimer, died. That opened an opportunity for the different Barbarian powers to take what was left of the Empire in the West. Euric for instance conquered the region of Provence in south-eastern Gaul. Meanwhile, the Barbarian mercenaries rebelled and the East Germanic leader Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus and proclaimed himself King of Italy in 476. That’s the conventional date of the end of the Western Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages, and from that point until this very day Europe and North Africa remained divided in multiple rival states. I won’t even dedicate a The Verdict about the fall of the Western Roman Empire, because only Majorian showed greatness in his ambition to restore the Empire and after that the Empire had little to do with Spain.

Map Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse at their peak of power

So moving on, I want to highlight that Hispania for Euric was a reserved area for future Visigothic expansion, but the core of the kingdom was still in Gaul, modern France. Nonetheless, the disintegration of Roman power and the pressure of the Franks in the north encouraged the Visigothic conquests of Hispania. The Visigoths reached their maximum expansion then, with their natural borders in the Loire and Rhone rivers, and the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse became the most powerful state in the West. King Euric was more ambitious than that, as he wanted to expand towards Italy and to crush the Franks, but he failed to achieve those things.

The last thing I wanted to talk about the reign of Euric is his administrative and religious policy. His most important administrative work was the Code of Euric, the first written collection of any Germanic laws, as the Germans had always been governed by unwritten costumes. It’s noteworthy that the Code of Euric was only applied to the Visigoths, not the Gallo or Hispano-Roman population. The Goths and Roman subjects were clearly divided by law, I mean among other things the Goths were forbidden to marry and have children with the local population. That division eventually disappeared, but that’s decades ahead. On the other hand, Euric was sometimes viewed as an anti-Catholic, but that wouldn’t be fair, because he didn’t want religious conflicts. What Euric wanted is that the powerful Catholic clergy from Gaul and Hispania submitted to the Visigoths, but some opposed them, and they were purged for political reasons, not religious.

alaric ii

In 484 King Euric died and he was succeeded by his son Alaric II. Alaric II has been treated quite unfairly until recently, because of the disastrous Battle of Vouillé in 507 that I will talk about later. Nonetheless, his policies were similar to those of his father, and sometimes even better. Alaric worked to consolidate Visigothic power in Hispania, as the line between direct Visigothic control and influence must have been very thin, especially in the most marginalized areas of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to that, Alaric II focused his efforts on strengthening royal authority and integrating the Gallo and Hispano-Roman aristocracy and clergy into the Visigothic state. With those objectives in mind, we can understand the promulgation of the Breviary of Alaric and his relaxed policy towards the Catholic clergy.

Let’s start with the Breviary of Alaric, that was a very complete collection of Roman laws compiled and approved in 506 with the collaboration of the clergy and aristocracy. The laws from the Breviary of Alaric were the ones applied to the non-Visigothic population, and it’s remarkable how the Visigoths continued the Roman tradition and tried to present themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire in the West. With the Breviary of Alaric, the Visigothic Kingdom recognized that Roman laws were fundamental for the constitution of the kingdom, while at the same time the promulgation of laws represented the full sovereignty of the Visigoths.

Equally important was the religious policy of Alaric II towards the Catholic hierarchy, since the clergy was even more powerful than the nobility in many regions. Alaric II used a carrot and stick approach to reward those loyal to the Visigothic Kingdom and exile those who were conspiring with the Franks or Burgundians. Among other things, Alaric eliminated the subordination of the Gallic and Spanish churches in relation to Rome, something that the influential bishop of Arles Caesarius desired. More importantly, Alaric II summoned the bishops of his kingdom in Agde to celebrate a council in 506 presided by Caesarius of Arles. That is indicative of how fundamental the Catholic churches were to support the Visigothic monarchy. The Spanish bishops didn’t attend the council, but a new one was planned to be held in Toulouse the following year. As we will soon see, that council couldn’t be held due to a tragic political event.

The tragic political event I’m talking about is related to the Franks. Since the death of King Euric, the Franks emerged as a powerful Barbarian kingdom that expanded from modern Belgium to northern modern France. Clovis I managed to unite the Frankish tribes and he conquered the Domain of Soissons, the rump Roman state founded by Aegidius after the assassination of Majorian. The threat of the Franks became more and more clear, and in the 480s and 490s Visigoths and Franks met in battle multiple times. The Franks failed in their intervention in the Burgundian Civil War of 500 and 501, and because of that the victorious King of the Burgundians sealed an alliance with Alaric. At around the same time the alliance of the Visigoths of Alaric II and the Ostrgoths of Theodoric the Great was strengthened with a marriage too, and that was a very important alliance since the Ostrogoths had conquered Italy after their victory over Odoacer, the same that ended the Western Roman Empire.

Before I continue talking about the Franks, I want to focus the attention on what was happening in Spanish soil. Our only source of information is the Chronicle of Zaragoza, that informs us that there were two unsuccessful revolts against the Visigoths in Hispania Tarraconensis between 496 and 506. What’s more important is the increasing migration and settlement of Visigoths in Hispania. Some Visigoths settled in the Ebro Valley, La Rioja and around Toledo, but most of them settled in the region that is known as Tierra de Campos. This area comprises the modern provinces of Palencia, León, Zamora and Valladolid, in the northern area of the Meseta, below the Douro river. It’s a vast and dry region ideal to cultivate cereals, and it was an area with few inhabitants and little urban development. The Visigoths settled in central Spain, around rivers and important roads to control more easily the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and to avoid putting more demographic pressure in Hispania Baetica and Tarraconensis. Apart from those settlements, it’s important to remember that before those the Visigoths had already established garrisons and small colonies of Visigoths in key strategic cities like Mérida, Seville or Astorga, as well as in Lusitania to keep the Suebi in check. About how those lands were distributed among the Visigoths, it’s likely that the Visigoths occupied abandoned Hispano-Roman and Imperial states.

Okay, with that said, let’s go back to the conflict between Visigoths and Franks. Clovis I, the King of the Franks, restarted hostilities against the Visigoths in 507, this time decisively. Although Alaric II tried his best to integrate the Catholic hierarchy into the power structure of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, many Catholics were unhappy about being ruled by the Arian Visigoths that often abused the local population. Clovis I, who had converted to Catholicism in the 490s, saw the opportunity of waging a war of liberation, instead of invasion, against the Visigothic possessions of Gaul. To prove that it was a war of liberation, Clovis banned his troops to raid and pillage. The religious factor was overemphasized by the Frankish clergy as a variable that contributed to the victory of the Franks, but it was a factor, nonetheless. The Burgundians switched sides and joined the Franks, while the father-in-law of Alaric II, Theodoric the Great, was busy dealing with an attack of the Byzantines.

frankish conquests 481-814

Knowing that at least for a while he wouldn’t receive any help, Alaric II decided to meet the Franks in the Battle of Vouillé. The Battle of Vouillé occurred near Poitiers and there the Franks decisively defeated the Visigoths. Visigoths and Franks fought hand-by-hand, the Visigoths were less prepared since they hadn’t had a serious battle in years, but they were resisting. The crucial moment happened when Clovis presumably killed Alaric, because that provoked the rout of many Visigoths who were massacred in the chaos of the stampede. Imagine the confusion of this situation, the leaderless Visigoths didn’t know how to react. Seizing the opportunity, Clovis marched south conquering Bordeaux and the capital of the kingdom, Toulouse, with much of the royal treasure included.

I will leave for the next episode what happened next because the war was not over, but the consequences of the Battle of Vouillé still resound today. The Franks conquered most of Gaul and that defined, in very broad terms, the borders of modern France. The Pyrenees were established as a definitive natural frontier between the Visigoths and the Franks, as it happens today between France and Spain. For more than 50 years, the Visigoths suffered from unrest, as the supremacy of the Balti dynasty was in question. The Battle of Vouillé ended the dream of the Visigoths to achieve supremacy and the role of heir of Rome. That role seemed briefly left to the Ostrogoths, but for the following centuries it was obvious that the Franks constituted the most powerful Western state. Finally, the battle ended the phase known as the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse and opened a new one, the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo, a period where Hispania was the core of the kingdom.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to signal the importance of not overextending. I think one of the causes the Visigoths were crushed in Gaul is that they were overextended, just as it happened to many other kingdoms and empires like Habsburg Spain, Nazi Germany or Napoleonic France. The Visigoths had much more population than the Suebi for instance, but not as much as to dominate both Gaul and Hispania. I mean, the Ostrogoths had around the same population, 200-250k peoples, they settled in Italy and they didn’t expand much more. The Visigoths didn’t decide whether to settle in Gaul or in Hispania, but the Franks chose that for them. What’s better, to seize the opportunity even if you know that you won’t be able to hold a territory for too long, or to only advance if you can consolidate your state there? I leave the answer to you. And with that, The Verdict ends.

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 biweekly 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

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

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

HISTORY OF THE GOTHS. Herwing Wolfram

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