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