Month: May 2019

Visigothic conversion to Catholicism

This is episode 16 called Visigothic conversion to Catholicism and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Why there was a religious conflict in Visigothic Spain between Catholics and Arians
  • Why the reformed Arianism of Leovigild didn’t work and why it was so difficult to make Catholicism the state religion of the Visigothic Kingdom
  • What King Reccared did to reduce opposition following his conversion
  • Details about the three attempts to overthrow Reccared between his personal conversion and the Third Council of Toledo and how the Visigoths repelled the Frankish invasion of Septimania
  • Reccared’s strategy to strengthen royal power using the Church
  • Third Council of Toledo: Visigoths abdjure the Arian heresy and embrace Catholicism, alliance between the Visigothic state and the Church and firsts anti-Jewish policies
  • Why Reccared’s religious policy wasn’t that different from that of Leovigild and the implications of the religious unity of Visigoths and Hispano-Romans
  • Comparison of the Medieval and modern concept of nation and how Isidore of Seville blended the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together in one nation
  • The idea of mater Spania and the breakup with the ancient historiography to develop a national narrative
  • Minor events of the reign of Reccared and the short reign of his son Liuva II
  • The reigns of Witteric and Gundemar
  • Reflection about the long-term consequences of the alliance between the Visigothic state and the Catholic Church and the unique mix of caesaropapism and theocracy that resulted from it


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 16 called Visigothic conversion to Catholicism. In this episode you will learn about the reign of Reccared that led to the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism, as well as the long-term consequences that the conversion had in the formation of Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the death of the great King Leovigild and the succession of his loyal son Reccared. At the moment of his accession to the Visigothic throne, Reccared inherited two unsolved problems, one internal and one external. The internal problem is well known, the religious issue, while in terms of foreign affairs the war with the Frankish Kingdom of Burgundy was still going. Even though the war was going well for the Visigoths, King Guntram of Burgundy didn’t renounce to his claims over Septimania. We will see later in which way King Guntram tried to accomplish his pretensions, but let’s focus on the key issue, the conflict between Arians and Catholics.

Why that religious conflict happened in the first place, though? Truth is that the theological conflict was barely important. The theological difference is centered on the question of the equality and eternity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but do you think those things really mattered? Hell no. The Visigoths abandoned their Pagan beliefs and adopted Christian Arianism in the 4th century only because they lived next to the Eastern Roman Empire and it was the dominant theology back then. But why do you think the Visigoths didn’t adopt the resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon that gave birth to Christian Catholicism? It was not because they cared about theological differences, instead they stuck to their old beliefs because that gave them a distinct identity.

But by the mid-6th century, Visigothic unity started to crumble. Marriage between Hispano-Romans and Visigoths was a thing already, way before the ban was lifted, and that not only put their ethnic unity under threat, but their religious unity as well. Some Visigoths had already converted to Catholicism, that’s also why Leovigild proposed a national and more Catholic form of Arianism, to bring the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together, but he failed in achieving so. According to some sources, Leovigild regretted his religious policy and even converted to Catholicism before he died. While we cannot corroborate that, there are some clues that could confirm a change in his religious policy, as for instance he ended the exile of Leander of Seville. Truth is there were very few Arians in Hispania, most of them Visigoths, but it’s precisely because of that why it was so difficult to convert to Catholicism for the Visigothic Kingdom. Keep in mind that there was a strong association between the Visigothic elite and the Arian clergy, the breakup of this alliance could destabilize the Visigothic Kingdom in a very dangerous way. The political risk was very high, I mean you could have revolts, street violence between Arians and Catholics, a civil war, foreign states could take advantage and intervene, and the position and life of the king could be under threat as well. And some of the things I mentioned actually happened, so yeah it’s important to understand the complexity of that issue.

To go back to the story, King Reccared personally converted to Catholicism less than a year before succeeding his father. It was a very brave and significant action, but he knew that he needed to do more to bring the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together in religious terms. First he sealed an alliance with his mother-in-law, Goiswintha, who was herself an Arian fanatic. If Reccared got her on his side, he would have the support of a substantial number of Visigoths and Franks from Austrasia too. Moreover, he held meetings with Arian bishops and got as many as he could on his side. What the Arian clergy feared was the loss of patronage and status, but Reccared was probably able to guarantee them that they would maintain the same hierarchical status in the Catholic Church. In exchange, they had to convert to Catholicism, give all the properties of Arian churches to the Catholic Church and burn all the Arian books and texts. Although most of the Arian clergy agreed to that, there was obviously going to be opposition.

As a matter of fact, there were three attempts to overthrow Reccared between his conversion to Catholicism in 587 and the Third Council of Toledo in 589. All those conspiracies had in common that pretenders used the Arian faith to legitimize their revolt, although of course it was only a matter of politics. The first revolt happened already in 587, and it broke out in Mérida, the capital of the province of Lusitania. The conspiracy was led by a Gothic noble named Segga, and it had the backing of Sunna, the Arian metropolitan bishop of Lusitania, and several counts of the region too. The conspirators aimed to assassinate both the Duke of Lusitania, the Hispano-Roman Claudius, and Masona, who was the Catholic bishop of Mérida and metropolitan bishop of Lusitania. This Masona was a Visigoth that used to be an Arian bishop, but he converted to Catholicism during the rebellion of Hermenegild, and when Hermenegild was defeated Leovigild asked him to convert again to Arianism. However, Masona refused to do that, so we can see with this example how the conversion to Catholicism was irrevocable for some notorious Visigoths. The plot was uncovered though, because a young count named Witteric informed Claudius about the conspiracy. This Witteric earned the confidence of the King and Claudius and taking advantage of that he would later become king, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Duke of Lusitania Claudius acted before the conspiracy could actually unfold, and the leader of the conspiration had his hands cut off and was sent to Galicia while Sunna, the Arian bishop, was sent into exile outside the kingdom, in modern Morocco. The following year there was another conspiracy, this time the Queen Dowager Goiswintha and the Arian bishop of Toledo were involved, although according to historian Roger Collins the plot may have been made up to remove possible political opponents of the new order. Again, the Arian bishop was sent into exile while it’s not clear what happened to Goiswintha, but she died soon afterwards.

The third conspiracy was more serious, because it had the backing of King Guntram of Burgundy. Some counts of Septimania led the rebellion, with the ideological support of the Arian bishop of Narbonne, but the main threat was external. A significantly large army from Burgundy besieged Carcassonne, one of the key cities of Septimania, and King Reccared sent the loyal Duke of Lusitania there to suppress the rebellion and repel the Frankish invasion. Duke Claudius prevented the union of the two main Frankish armies and the Visigoths earned their greatest victory ever over the Franks, killing 5,000 Franks and capturing 2,000 of them. With that, Guntram had to give up his pretensions and the revolt was quickly suppressed. It’s very interesting to see how a Hispano-Roman general accomplished that, and this victory may have been seen as a divine sign that Reccared did the right thing converting the Visigoths to Catholicism and blending together even more than his father the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans.

After this victory and after having prevented or suppressed three conspiracies, King Reccared felt confident enough to call the most important council Visigothic Spain ever had, the Third Council of Toledo. On May 4 589 the Third Council of Toledo opened, with three days of prayer and fasting. Leander of Seville and Masona had organized and made all the arrangements of this council, and they assembled more than 70 episcopal sees, including 8 Arian bishops that subscribed the acts of the Third Council of Toledo. However, even though Leander of Seville was a key responsible of that council, King Reccared was the one who called and presided it. That is very significant in fact, because it notes the role of protection and vigilance that the Visigothic monarchy had over the Catholic Church of the kingdom, a role that was again copied from the model of the Eastern Roman Empire. The position of King was strengthened, as it then had a sacred role too. The idea is that the monarchy and the Church would work more closely and that would benefit the royal dynasty because the nobility would have a harder time revolting. That’s the idea, but as we will see, the 7th century would be yet again very unstable for the Visigoths.

reccared visigothic conversion to catholicism

Then on May 8 Reccared made public a declaration stating that the King and the Goths abjured the Arian heresy and embraced Catholicism, thus accepting the resolutions of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. The public declaration condemned the teachings of Arius, but there was no mention to a sensitive subject such as the religious policy of his father Leovigild or to the rebellion of his brother. Reccared then instructed the council to approve some canons to regulate the structure of the new Church, to determine the powers of the Church within the state and to reinforce ecclesiastical discipline. On the theological side, a canon confirmed the resolutions of the previous councils I mentioned, but also adding what is called the Filioque clause, that states that the Holy Spirit not only proceeds from the Father, but from the Son too. This seems like a very stupid detail, just as the theological differences between Arianism and Catholicism, but the Filioque clause caused a great deal of controversy for centuries and it was never accepted in the East. Another very important canon was one that stated the tax exemption of the clergy or the slaves of the Church, that was indeed very relevant because it granted the Church more power. The collaboration between the Visigothic state and the Church was obvious, but as the Catholic clergy gained influence in the government, Jews started being persecuted in the name of religious unity, just as it had been happening all over the Catholic kingdoms. For instance, a canon forbade Jews from marrying Christians or having Christian slaves. The persecutions and laws against Jews were still not as bad as in other countries, but they would soon be and because of that many Jews fled from Visigothic Spain to North Africa. Finally, King Reccared issued a decree giving the resolutions of national and provincial Catholic councils a force equal to that of laws, which is yet another evidence of the increasing influence of the Church.

The religious policy of Reccared may have seen as opposite to that of his father, but in the end they shared the same vision and objective: to unify and strengthen the Kingdom and its peoples. Leovigild had presented himself as the head of the national Arian Church, and Reccared was doing just the same but with the Catholic Church instead. In both cases they wanted to strengthen their legitimacy by not only ruling over secular affairs, but religious matters as well. The Visigothic conversion to Catholicism was the culmination of the process of integration of both the Goths and Hispano-Romans that King Leovigild started. The Visigoths were very Romanized at this point, they had lost the Gothic language, they wore the same clothes as the Hispano-Romans, and they had changed their burial costumes. With the conversion, a new nation was born, as contemporary scholar Isidore of Seville said in his works.

Now I want to spend some time discussing the question regarding the concept of Hispania as a nation. Previous authors from the Roman period and early Visigothic rule talked about Hispania only in a geographical sense, but Isidore of Seville was the first to refer to Hispania in a more national sense. Before I get started, let me clarify this, the concept of nation in the Middle Ages was very different from the concept of nation that was developed in the 19th century. The Medieval concept of nation was very imprecise actually, although even today there’s debate about what a nation is since it’s a very abstract concept. The modern concept of nation is defined as a community of peoples that share a common history, language, ethnicity, territory or culture. A key concept of nationalism is the principle of popular sovereignty, which means that the authority and legitimacy of a state is sustained by the consent of its people, which implies a democracy to some extent.

What’s clear though is that the elites of Medieval Europe would have laughed if someone told them about this crazy idea, so this brings us again to the question of what a nation was for the Medieval intelligentsia. Medieval relations were fundamentally personal, because of that patron and client relations were key to maintain the unity and stability of a state. Therefore, in an era where religion and personal or kin relationships were very important, a nation was defined, at least partly, as having a common biblical ancestor. So to legitimize Visigothic rule and reinforce the idea that Visigoths and Hispano-Romans were one nation, Isidore of Seville deliberately made the Visigoths Spanish. And how he made that possible? He wrote that the Hispano-Romans and Goths descended from a common biblical ancestor, Japeth. “Seven sons of Japeth are named: Magog, from whom people think the Scythians and the Goths took their origin. Tubal, from whom came the Iberians, who are also the Spaniards, although some think that the Italians also sprang from him”. As you have heard, not only did Isidore connect genealogically the people from Hispania and the Goths, but also the Romans to make us see the Visigoths as legitimate successors of the Roman Empire, especially after their conversion to Catholicism and efforts to evangelize every inhabitant of the kingdom.

But the scholar Isidore of Seville didn’t stop there, because he also invented the idea of mater Spania, or mother Spain, and this metaphor was also used in the Middle Ages to define nations. This idea of motherland links every human being to the land where each one was born, so the people that was born in Hispania had a kind of mother-son relationship with the land, with the mater Spania. In his History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suebi, Isidore of Seville wrote his famous prologue De Laude Spaniae, or In Praise of Spain, and this prologue is very relevant because he wrote an exalted patriotic and chauvinistic poem that is the precedent of the idea of the Spanish nation.

isidore of seville

Let me read a fragment of In Praise of Spain: “Of all the lands from the west to the Indies, you, Spain, O sacred and always fortunate mother of princes and peoples, are the most beautiful. Rightly are you now the queen of all provinces, from which not only the west but also the east borrows its shining lights. You are the pride and ornament of the world. [..] Rightly did golden Rome, the head of the nations, desire you long ago. And although this same Romulean power, initially victorious, betrothed you to itself, now it is the most flourishing people of the Goths, who in their turn, after many victories all over the world, have eagerly seized you and loved you: they enjoy you up to the present time amidst royal emblems and great wealth, secure in the good fortune of empire.”

Isidore of Seville wrote a narrative history that broke with the ancient historiography that praised the Roman past and depicted the Visigoths as Barbarians. Instead, the Visigoths were depicted as the legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire in Hispania. Because of that Isidore was key in the development of the independent ideology that legitimized Visigothic role, but his work outlived the Visigothic Kingdom too because during the Reconquista Christian Kingdoms presented themselves as heirs of the Catholic Visigothic state.

Wow, I really had a hard time researching this part about the Medieval concept of nation and the ideas of Isidore of Seville, but I hope I have explained it in a comprehensive way. Let’s pick up again the narrative, the Third Council of Toledo ended, and the Visigoths converted to Catholicism, but what happened next? Truth is that after that landmark moment of Spanish history, we don’t know much about the reign of Reccared, but we have a few events. There was yet another attempt to overthrow him in 589, that time led by the Duke of Carthaginensis. However, the conspiracy would be suppressed, the associates of the Duke were executed and he himself was tortured, then had his right hand cut off, and he was displayed throughout Toledo as an example to all that “servants should not be presumptuous to their masters”. However, Reccared then had a pro-noble policy of giving them back some states that had been confiscated by his father Leovigild, so during his reign both the nobility and clergy were rewarded overall. That policy contradicted the overall policy of Reccared though, because still the majority of the laws he promulgated had the objective to centralize power and emulate the Eastern Roman Empire, just as his father had done.

In terms of foreign policy, the Visigoths fought again the Vascones and Byzantines. The Vascones continued their raids in the Ebro Valley, even though the Visigoths had pressed them to migrate to the other side of the Pyrenees. In any case the Visigoths just kept them in check, but they didn’t conquer their homeland. On the other hand, the Byzantines recovered a few lands, which isn’t that surprising considering that at that time the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire engaged in some expansionist campaigns in Africa and Italy. Unlike his father, Reccared attempted to maintain the status quo, and he asked for the mediation of Pope Gregory I to fix the borders of the province of Spania. He was in good terms with him because Reccared had founded several churches to make effective the religious unity of the kingdom and because of his anti-Jewish policies.

Moving on, Reccared died in 601 and he was succeeded by his only son, Liuva II, who was then 18 years-old. His mother wasn’t a noblewoman, and that affected his legitimacy to rule. Because of that there was a successful coup in 603, thus ending the dynasty of Leovigild. The coup was led by Witteric, the man that reported the first conspiracy against Reccared, and he had Liuva II executed. Witteric was a king with a military background, so his energic policy against the Romans of Spania shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Witteric took advantage of the internal problems that the Empire was facing, and he conquered several towns close to the Gibraltar Strait and he even occupyied a town that was very close to Cartagena, the capital of Spania. Apart from that, Witteric arranged the marriage of one of his daughters with the King of Burgundy, but the marriage was cancelled even after his daughter had already arrived there. That infuriated Witteric and he attempted to form a coalition against Burgundy, but it all came to naught. In terms of internal policy, King Witteric faced some opposition from factions of the nobility and clergy. His policy was similar to that of Leovigild or Reccared, he wanted to maintain or increase the power of the monarchy, but because of that some of the nobles that had supported him in his conspiracy turned against him. Witteric realized that his life was under threat and he tried to reconcile with that part of the nobility, but he was unsuccessful and was assassinated in 610. Isidore of Seville wrote that “He killed with a sword; he was killed with a sword”.

The nobles then proclaimed King the Duke of Narbonne, Gundemar. Under his reign the Visigoths increased the pressure on the Byzantine possessions of southern Spain and he led expeditions against the Vascones, Cantabri and Astures, that were yet again raiding the territories of the Ebro and Duero Valleys. And just like it had happened previously, these expeditions weren’t successful enough to completely dominate the peoples of the north. Unlike his predecessors, Gundemar gave up some powers of his position, such as appointing bishops. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the nobility and clergy that had put him in power were against the centralizing policies of the dynasty of Leovigild and Witteric. That allowed him to die from natural causes just 2 years after he started reigning. Sisebut succeeded him, and this Sisebut was supported by the same nobility of his predecessor, but let’s leave things here for the following episode.

THE VERDICT: in today’s verdict I want to discuss a bit more why Reccared converted to Catholicism and the long-term consequences of the alliance between the Visigothic state and the Catholic Church. The thing is that the conversion wasn’t a top-down phenomenon, because even before the reign of Leovigild the Visigoths were increasingly becoming Romanized, and that included individual conversions to Catholicism. When Reccared succeeded his father, it was clear that the reformed Arianism formula wasn’t going to work and that there was no way to stop the Romanization of the Visigoths, so it was better if the kingdom just recognized that fact. Then, about the long-term consequences of the alliance, we can say that the Visigothic Kingdom evolved and became much more associated with the religious power. The Visigothic Kingdom was then transformed into a very unique form of government that couldn’t be found anywhere, at least in Europe. The state became a mix of caesaropapism and theocracy, and that’s actually contradictory because in a caesaropapist regime the king ruled over the Church while in a theocracy the Church has the secular power too. But that’s why it’s unique, because the King had some prerogatives over the Church but the Church assumed new administrative and legislative functions. The only problem was that the association with the Church didn’t make the position of the king more secure, it didn’t serve as a way to prevent the endemic noble revolts and conspiracies, and that’s definitely one of the big failures of the Visigothic Kingdom. And with that, The Verdict ends.

To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website,, 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!




VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins


EL CONCILIO III DE TOLEDO. Juan Antonio Zugasti and Francisco Javier Simonet



‘El concepto de España en la historiografía visigoda y asturiana’. Alexander Pierre Bronisch

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

Leovigild, restorer and unifier

This is episode 15 called Leovigild, restorer and unifier, and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The solution of Liuva to save the Visigothic Kingdom and the importance of that decision
  • Leovigild’s successful campaign against the Byzantine province of Spania
  • The first campaign against self-governed areas in Baetica
  • Visigothic campaign in the north to conquer the buffer zone between the Suebi and themselves and the short campaign against the Suebi
  • The conquest of the last self-governed region of southern Spain, Orospeda
  • Leovigild’s legal, administrative and territorial reforms to strengthen the Visigothic state and unify the Goths and Hispano-Romans to rule over a more homogenous society
  • The background of the rebellion of his son Hermenegild
  • Why Hermenegild’s rebellion wasn’t a religious nor an ethnic war
  • The attempts of Leovigild to solve the religious issue by imposing religious unity with a national, reformed, and more Catholic version of Arianism
  • How Hermenegild’s rebellion failed
  • The last conquest of Leovigild: the annexation of the Kingdom of the Suebi
  • How the economy of Visigothic Spain was
  • Reflection on the importance and true legacy of Leovigild’s reign


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 15 called Leovigild, restorer and unifier. In this episode you will learn about the ambitious conquests of King Leovigild and the economy of Visigothic Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the election of Liuva as King of the Visigoths. Before being elected king, Liuva was the Duke of Septimania that protected the region more prone to Frankish attacks. He took the throne in a moment of weakness for the Visigoths, the Frankish and Eastern Roman conquests had left the Visigothic state in a state of decomposition, not to mention to numerous revolts and civil wars. The situation was very bad for the Visigoths, and the Franks took advantage of that by putting the key city of Arles under siege in 569. The Franks successfully took Arles, and because of that Liuva had to take a desperate and tough decision: he associated the throne to his brother Leovigild, named him co-ruler and heir and gave him full powers to govern Hispania. Liuva was kind of a Jon Snow type of leader, he was a military man above anything, a man of action that put on his shoulders the mission to personally defend Septimania from Frankish attacks. In addition to that, Leovigild married the widow of King Athanagild, Goiswintha, a political move that could be interpreted as a way to get the support of the old noble faction that had supported Athanagild.

In 569 it may not have looked this way because Visigothic rule was under serious threat, but the decision of Liuva to name Leovigild co-ruler and heir became extremely important for the consolidation and expansion of the Visigothic state. It’s truly a landmark in the history of Spain, because after that the history of the Iberian Peninsula can be followed and learned in a much more unitary way. When the reign of Leovigild started, the kingdom was surrounded by enemies: the north wasn’t under Visigothic control, in the west the Suebi still had their independent kingdom with some support from the Franks and Eastern Romans, beyond the Pyrenees the Frankish kingdoms were constantly making incursions in Septimania and Hispania, and in the south there were the Eastern Romans and the powerful Hispano-Roman nobility that was de facto independent. Therefore, Leovigild thought that the best way to ensure the survival of the Visigothic Kingdom was to take the offensive and launch a series of military campaigns against the enemies of the Crown. By doing so, Leovigild could not only rule more territories, but strengthen the power of the royal dynasty as well. Leovigild needed to be bold, he needed to not give them a break, so the Visigoths campaigned yearly for 7 years, from 570 to 577.

leovigild portray

The first campaign was against the Byzantines that had set up the province of Spania in southern Spain. We don’t know if Leovigild wanted to expel them altogether from Spain, but if that was the case he failed. We must understand this in a more global context, because the Lombards were conquering Italian territories from the Eastern Roman Empire too. In any case the priority was to push the Romans towards the coast as much as possible, because the rich Guadalquivir Valley needed to be under Visigothic control. To piss the Romans as much as he could, Leovigild tried to divide Spania in two parts by conquering Málaga, but the Visigoths failed to take the city. Nonetheless, the Visigoths did manage to conquer Baza, a key city of the province of Granada. The conquest of Baza was important, as it left much of the inland territory of Spania vulnerable to conquest. Then the Visigoths headed towards the westernmost area under Byzantine control, in the modern province of Cádiz, as Imperial control threatened Visigothic control over the Guadalquivir Valley. Leovigild managed to conquer the key fortified city of Medina Sidonia thanks to the treason of the Imperial governor of the city, and then he was able to take Cádiz. That ended the Visigothic campaign against the Eastern Romans, that left them only with the control of the Gibraltar Strait and the coast of southern and southeastern Spain.

This campaign not only served to remove any serious threat from the Byzantines, but to allow Leovigild to fight the rebel nobility of Baetica and to prevent the Byzantine to support them. Leovigild lost no time and attacked Córdoba and several fortified towns and castles of the region. The Visigoths managed to conquer them all, although apparently massacring the farmers that had been armed by the local aristocracy. That was a word of warning to the rest of the autonomous aristocracy of Hispania: the Visigoths will eventually come and conquer them, the decision to prevent a bloodshed was up to them. In early 573 Liuva died, leaving the Visigothic throne solely to his brother. The situation didn’t change much, but now Leovigild had more responsibilities since he had to worry about the Franks too.

In 573 the target of the campaign changed completely, as it moved to the northwest. The Visigoths may not have had another choice, because the Suebic King Miro decided to attack the Ruccones. The Ruccones were an obscure group of autonomous peoples that lived between the Astures and Cantabri in northern Spain. Apparently, the Ruccones lived in the mountains and survived by raiding the peoples that lived in the plains of the north. The Visigoths had a problem with that, because King Miro was attacking an area that was just too close to the Tierra de Campos, an area with many Visigothic settlements. Apart from that, the Visigoths needed to keep the Suebi in check to reaffirm their position of hegemony in Hispania, and they had a good pretext to subdue the autonomous peoples of the north. Leovigild first attacked the region of Sabaria, between modern Zamora and Braganza, and then he conquered Cantabria, a territory that hadn’t had any kind of central authority for more than a century. The Visigoths set up some permanent outposts, but Leovigild dismissed the possibility of completely subjugating the Atlantic side of the Cantabrian Mountains. The real strategic objective was to stabilize communications between the Ebro Valley and the northern part of the Meseta.

In 575 the Visigoths conquered some bordering territories between the Suebi and their kingdom, because hostilities between the two caused the proliferation of local independent leaders. Then Leovigild launched an expedition against Suebic territory, but it quickly ended as King Miro sued for peace. It seems that Miro offered some kind of subordination, especially in terms of foreign policy, but of course he would still betray the Visigoths if he had the chance. For some reason Leovigild accepted that, maybe because the troops needed some rest, maybe because he couldn’t launch a large-scale campaign to destroy the Suebi, but who knows. In 577 the tireless King of the Visigoths launched a new campaign, this time against the independent aristocracy of Orospeda, a marginalized region like Sabaria that bordered the Imperial province of Spania, above the region of modern Murcia. After conquering Orospeda he had to return briefly to put down a peasant revolt. It was then when Leovigild established a defensive system of bordering fortified towns along the border of Spania, just as the Byzantines themselves had done before.

After 7 years of continuous campaigns in different regions of Hispania, there was one year of peace. Leovigild had managed to consolidate and strengthen the Visigothic Kingdom, as now the Visigoths had less enemies compared to the precarious situation at the start of his reign. His bloody campaigns were certainly effective. Leovigild took back some territories and incorporated marginalized areas that had been out of Visigothic control, but also rich regions like the Guadalquivir Valley. I’ve only talked about his military achievements for the moment, but a good king needs to do more than that. During those years he issued legal reforms and he reorganized the state. His vision was clear, Leovigild wanted to build a strong centralized state, similar to the Eastern Roman Empire of Justinian. To achieve that purpose, he strengthened royal power by adopting measures to reduce the power of the nobility and by making the Visigothic monarchy elective but hereditary within the royal family, just as it used to happen with the Balti dynasty. He named his sons Reccared and Hermenegild heirs, but not with the same powers of the ruling king as it had happened when Liuva associated Leovigild to the throne. Leovigild also emulated Roman Emperors by issuing his own coins and by giving a strong symbolic power to the position of king, using distinct ceremonies and clothing. He also founded a new city, Reccopolis in honor to his son Reccared, which was yet another prerogative of Roman Emperors.

In terms of administrative and territorial reforms, Leovigild emulated yet again the Eastern Roman Empire by dividing the territory in provinces governed by both military and civil officers. Furthermore, to unify the diverse peoples that lived under Visigothic rule he lifted the ban of mixed marriages between the Gothic and Hispano-Roman population and he unified the legal code to be applied to both populations. That was a very important step to consolidate the Visigothic Kingdom as an independent and Spanish-based monarchy.

However, his efforts to strengthen the ruling dynasty caused serious tensions. In 579 Hermenegild, eldest son of Leovigild and co-heir of the kingdom, married a twelve-year-old Catholic Frankish princess, Ingund, daughter of the King Sigebert of Austrasia. Ingund was also the granddaughter of Goiswintha, the Queen of the Visigothic Kingdom, so the alliance between the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasia and Visigothic Spain looked quite solid. Queen Goiswintha received her granddaughter warmly at first, but things deteriorated quickly. The Queen tried to force the conversion of Ingund to Arianism, but the twelve-year-old princess refused it firmly. Because of that Goiswintha lost her temper and beat her granddaughter up herself. Goiswintha was an Arian fanatic, and it was very painful for her to see how his daughter and mother of Ingund had to convert to Catholicism when she married, as well as the tragic death by strangulation of another daughter at the orders of her Frankish husband. You know, these details are important to understand the motives behind her overreaction. Anyway, the situation within the Court of Toledo was so delicate that Leovigild decided to send Hermenegild and Ingund to Seville to rule Baetica and southern Lusitania. He had no other choice, otherwise the conflict could escalate and cause the end of the alliance between Frankish Austrasia and the Visigothic Kingdom, as well as internal problems. Baetica was a region of great strategic importance, only a few years before the nobility had fought the Visigoths and Baetica bordered Byzantine’s Spania as well, so seeing how Leovigild entrusted Hermenegild with this province we must guess that Leovigild had no doubts of his son’s loyalty. However, Leovigild would regret this decision.

Seville was the most populated and rich city of 6th century Hispania, and Seville had a strong Catholic and Hispano-Roman nobility. Much of the Catholic clergy from Africa had fled from persecutions to southern Spain. Apart from that, the bishop of Seville was Leander, brother of scholar Isidore of Seville who later wrote an important work on the history of the Goths, Vandals and Suebi. The family of Leander and Isidore of Seville had fled from Cartagena following the Byzantine conquest of the city, but they were still a wealthy and powerful family. The influence of his wife Ingund, Leander of Seville and the Catholic nobility and clergy of Baetica were critical for the conversion of Hermenegild to Catholicism. Hermenegild didn’t want to challenge his father without enough support, so he first contacted and made an alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire and the Suebi of King Miro to support his cause. After getting their support, Hermenegild proclaimed himself king in 580 and justified his rebellion saying that he was being persecuted for religious reasons. This was nonsense, since the Visigoths, although Arians, didn’t interfere in the affairs of the Catholic Church, their conflict with the Catholic clergy only happened due to political reasons, not religious. But, you know, Hermenegild couldn’t say that he just rebelled because he wanted more political power. The nobles and Catholic clergy that supported his cause did it to oppose the centralizing policies of Leovigild that reduced the power of the local aristocracy.

So Hermenegild’s rebellion cannot be seen as a religious war between Catholics and Arians, and it cannot be seen as a war between Visigoths and Hispano-Romans either. Strangely as it may seem, Leovigild adopted a wait-and-see approach during the first two years of the rebellion. The legitimate king was prudent probably because he feared that the Catholic propaganda could work and provoke a large-scale revolt in more territories. He first needed to unite firmly his subjects to ensure their loyalty, and the religious issue needed to be solved quickly, as Hermenegild had laid out the war in religious terms. In 580 Leovigild called a synod of Arian bishops and in that council the Arian clergy adopted measures to facilitate conversions to Arianism and they also reduced the theological differences between Catholicism and Arianism to a minimum. Leovigild pretended to unify the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman population with a national religion led by the King, so it was essentially about imitating the caesaropapism of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, this policy failed and most of the Catholic clergy and population stuck to their old beliefs. Unlike some Catholic propaganda tried to make us believe, Leovigild didn’t use violent repressive methods against the Catholic population, as if he had done so Hermenegild could have succeed in his rebellion.

Nonetheless, it’s surprising how we don’t have news of conquests accomplished by Hermenegild between 580 and 582. This seems to indicate that Hermenegild had weak military support. Meanwhile, Leovigild campaigned against the Vascones that were sacking the Ebro Valley and founded a new city to control the region before going to war against his son. In 582 Leovigild conquered the capital of Lusitania, Mérida, that paved the way for the conquest of the epicenter of the rebellion, Seville. The following year Leovigild besieged Seville, and the Suebi came to aid the usurper, but they were defeated and King Miro was forced to return to Gallaecia after recognizing again the supremacy of the Visigoths. The Romans of the Imperial province of Spania didn’t honor their alliance, as they saw that the rebellion wasn’t going anywhere. They couldn’t get reinforcements as they were in trouble in Africa and Italy, and to make the decision even easier Leovigild offered a bribe to ensure their neutrality. Hermenegild then fled to Córdoba, and as the outcome of the war became clear he sent his wife Ingund and his son to Spania. Ingund probably pretended to return to Austrasia, but the Byzantines took her and his son as hostages. On her way to Constantinople, Ingund died, and his son was used to put pressure on the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasia to attack the Lombards in Italy.

Hermenegild knew that the rebellion was over. He took refuge in a church of Córdoba, as no soldier could enter to a sacred temple, but Leovigild could sent his son Reccared to negotiate a way out. Leovigild promised Hermenegild that he wouldn’t execute him, so the pretender surrendered, and the King sent him into exile in Valencia. Hermenegild was later sent to a prison of Tarragona, where he was assassinated at the orders of his own father. Don’t believe everything they promise you, even from your own father.

So now what, peace? Nope. King Miro of the Suebi had died soon after he returned to Gallaecia. He was succeeded by his son, but the military defeat of his father and the renewal of the vassalage made him loss any kind of legitimacy. Because of that, a relative named Audeca usurped the Suebic throne, and this was the perfect pretext for Leovigild to start the conquest of the Kingdom of the Suebi, because he was the patron of King Miro’s son. But the Franks of Burgundy also took advantage of the situation to invade Septimania. The heir apparent Reccared led the Visigothic troops and repelled the offensive, and the Frankish navy sent to support the Suebi was crushed too. The Suebi had to fight all by themselves, pointlessly. The Suebi were quickly crushed, Gallaecia was devastated and the royal treasure was seized. With that, the Kingdom of the Suebi was annexed to the Visigothic Kingdom and the Suebi vanished from history as an independent group. With that, only the province of Spania remained under control of another state, while some lands of northern Spain were still only under Visigothic influence, but not direct control.

leovigild conquests visigothic spain before the death of liuvigild

Soon after this great accomplishment, King Leovigild passed away in 586, and his son Reccared succeeded him without opposition. Leovigild is considered by many the best and most effective king of Visigothic Spain, as he largely unified Hispania under his rule and made efforts to unite the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans to create a new, distinct nation. Leovigild’s reign was a turning point for the history of the Visigoths, since he managed to reverse the decline of the kingdom, a kingdom that had suffered from decades of defeats, civil wars and disintegration. Leovigild suppressed all the independent local governments and his son’s rebellion, he conquered much of Spania, repelled the attacks of the Franks and annexed the Kingdom of the Suebi. His only failure was the imposition of religious unity under a reformed, more Catholic form of Christian Arianism. But his son Reccared would solve that issue.

Let’s leave the reign of Reccared for the next episode, because as I promised in the previous episode, I want to talk about the economy of Visigothic Spain. As you sure know, in every preindustrial economy the primary sector was overwhelmingly the most important one, so let’s start with that. The Visigoths didn’t change much the crops and diets of Hispania, most of the agricultural land was dedicated to grow cereals, grapes and olives. The exploitation of land was still predominantly organized around villae, so you had the home of the landlord surrounded by dispersed modest houses of the colonus and free peasants. Don’t get it wrong though, many isolated estates disappeared, and instead there was a concentration of people in the small settlements that villae formed. The agricultural output and productivity were not great, subsistence agriculture was the rule, so surpluses were rare and demographic growth and trade were very limited because of that. Famine was a constant threat, because droughts, floods and lobster plagues commonly ruined harvests. The situation was even worse if we consider that the climate and lands of many areas of the Iberian Peninsula were not suitable for farming. Moreover, epidemics like the Plague of Justinian of the 6th century killed thousands of people, which also played a role in the poor performance of lands and the weakness of European Medieval states. And of course, wars meant devastation and looting, and that had a negative impact in the economy too.

Stockbreeding and hunting became more important in Visigothic Spain compared to the Roman period, as the Germanic diet gave more importance to the consumption of meat. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a super important increase, and the composition of the cattle didn’t change much either, pigs, cows, ox and sheep were the most common animals to breed. To finish talking about the primary sector, most mines were closed down since coins had lost much importance and there weren’t great military needs either.

Manufacturing activities, like iron foundry or goldsmithing, became even more marginal than they used to be, because of the general state of economic decadence and the economic decline of cities. As large estates gained importance, those became more economically autonomous and textile products for instance were produced there for self-consumption. Trade declined as well, and we can distinguish between international and local trade. Local trade was mostly done using the old network of Roman roads, although those roads were in decay because there wasn’t proper maintenance. Moreover, there were bandits too that only made trade more unsecure and thus expensive. Fluvial commerce was safer, but there are few waterways in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are mostly concentrated in southern Spain. The products that circulated locally were essential goods and transactions mostly occurred to supply urban centers. There was no such thing as a local, professional businessman, it was a very primitive kind of trade where producers traded directly with consumers.

On the other hand, we have international trade that had also been in decline since the 3rd century. Long-distance trade was scarce and only luxury products were traded for the upper classes of Visigothic Spain. That kind of trade was mainly carried out by Jewish and Eastern Roman merchants, and those same Oriental businessmen probably helped in the Byzantine conquest of southern Spain. The Visigothic Kingdom exported olive oil, salt and garum, however, there was a trade deficit due to the lack of manufacturing industries and luxury products to export. Foreign trade mostly occurred with North Africa and the Eastern Roman Empire, although there was also trade with Merovingian France and the British Islands.

So, the big picture of the Visigothic economy wasn’t a good one, but that was a phenomenon that was happening all over Europe and North Africa. Compared to the economy of the Roman Empire at its height, the Visigothic economy was much more rural and primitive, both domestic and foreign trade declined, manufactures also declined and mines closed down. Even agricultural output was not great, and famines, plagues and epidemies could happen anytime. It wasn’t a great period to be alive, but for most people in human history that has always been the case, hasn’t it?

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want discuss the importance of Leovigild. His campaigns demonstrate his intentions to unify Hispania under one rule, but he knew that only with military achievements he wouldn’t have a lasting legacy. His true legacy was the unification of the Goths and Hispano-Romans to create a new identity, an identity that outlived the Visigothic Kingdom itself and that was a justification for the so-called Reconquista. His reign supposed the definitive break up from the Roman past, as Hispania was not a part of the Roman Empire nor a vassal. Instead, Hispania was unique on its own way, and Leovigild’s reign was definitely a turning point for the history of Spain. And with that, The Verdict ends.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fulfill my promise to talk about the reign of Reccared, but that’s because there was just so much to talk about Leovigild. I’m quite excited to talk about the Visigothic conversion to Catholicism in the next episode, so make sure you listen to that too. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website,, 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!




VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

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