episodes

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

The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi

This is episode 12 called The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The situation of Hispania and Italy after the Vandals had left Hispania for North Africa
  • How weak the foundations of the Kingdom of the Suebi under King Hermeric were
  • The peak of the bagaudae groups in Gaul and Hispania and the expansion of the Vandal Kingdom
  • The ambitious Suebic campaign of King Rechila to conquer Lusitania and Baetica
  • How the Suebic control actually worked in those provinces
  • The progressive emotional disconnection between the Hispano-Romans and the Western Roman Empire as Valentinian’s III expeditions failed
  • The firsts of King Rechiar: first Catholic Germanic king and the issue of coins
  • Why the Visigoths and the Suebi briefly sealed an alliance
  • How the threat of the Huns ended their alliance
  • How King Rechiar took advantage of the weakness of the Empire to invade Hispania Carthaginensis and Tarraconensis
  • How the Visigoths decisively crushed the Suebi in 456 and caused the disintegration of the kingdom

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 12 called The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi. In this episode you will learn the rise of the Kingdom of the Suebi under King Rechila and Rechiar and their sudden disintegration in 456. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

a bit inaccurate map of europe in 450 showing the hunnic empire

With the Vandals leaving Hispania for Africa, the Suebi were the only barbarians in the Iberian Peninsula. The context was perfect for their moment of prominence. The Roman Empire regained control over Hispania Carthaginensis, Lusitania and Baetica, at least nominally. Truth is that the Empire had less and less actual control over Hispania, and instead the Hispano-Roman elites from the nobility and clergy ruled the Roman Spanish territories very autonomously.

We ignore many aspects of the Suebi. We don’t know if at the time of the crossing of the Suebi in 409 they were a consolidated hereditary monarchy, or they still had an elective system to choose their warrior king. Another question is whether the Suebi had only one king or more at first. Heremigarius for instance is mentioned leading the Suebi against the rearguard of Genseric while the Vandals were leaving Hispania. We don’t know if he was a general who served Hermeric, or if Hermeric and Heremigarius were contemporary rival chiefs of the Suebi. I think it’s safe to say that Heremigarius was either a general of Hermeric or a chief of a smaller independent gang. We also don’t know if they mainly occupied fortified cities to raid later the countryside or if many of the Suebi became peasants. We have literary sources that say that they were the Barbarian peoples that embraced more quickly a sedentary lifestyle, but that wouldn’t explain their continuous raids. If we consider their raids and their estimated population, we can assume that most of the Suebi lived in strategic fortified cities. With that said, let’s continue talking about Roman politics.

In the court of Ravenna, the ambitious Flavius Aetius conspired against the commander-in-chief of the Roman Army and right-hand of Valentinian III. He had him and his family executed and for some time he competed against another general named Bonifacius for political supremacy. Aetius made a name for himself campaigning in the frontier of the Danube and Gaul against the Visigoths to keep them in check. Then Aetius fought Bonifacius, managing to kill him, and with the help of the Huns he was able to become the most influential man of the Western Roman Empire, eclipsing the yet regent Galla Placidia.

Let’s focus for a while on what was happening in Hispania. In 430 the Suebi, led by the old King Hermeric, raided the central region of modern Galicia that had yet to be subdued. However, Hermeric failed to subdue those towns thanks to their fortifications, and seeing how some of the Suebi were killed or captured he was forced to reestablish peace.  The failure of those raids demonstrate that the Suebi still didn’t have a solid foundation. The process of settling down in Gallaecia was slow and full of setbacks for them, since much of the local population was reluctant to their presence. And that’s not weird, since the Suebi spent their first years causing all kind of problems to the locals, like stealing or taking hostages. This was a very unstable period for Gallaecia; the Suebi negotiated peace agreements with the local elites, but those agreements were constantly broken and reestablished. What’s remarkable here is that negotiations were exclusively local, there’s no single mention of agreements with Imperial authorities. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the Empire had abandoned the poor and peripheral provinces to focus their scare resources in the most important provinces.

To denounce those raids and to get rid of the Suebi, the bishop Hydatius led a delegation in 430 to meet Flavius Aetius in Gaul and ask for military assistance. Hydatius returned to Gallaecia not with an army, but with a representative of Aetius named Censorius to negotiate peace with the Suebi. There’s a detail during the journey of Hydatius that I find outstanding. The bishop found a Visigoth going to Hispania with “hidden motives”, and now we enter the ground of speculation. This Visigoth could have been a random renegade that had his own objectives, but he could also have been a scout serving Theodoric I to gain knowledge about Hispania. After this parenthesis, let’s go back to the peace negotiations with the Suebi. The union of local interests and imperial representatives probably scared a bit King Hermeric, so he released captives and both parties reached a peace agreement. The Suebi wanted the legal recognition of their status as federates in Gallaecia, but they didn’t get it, so clearly that peace was not going to last.

In the decade of the 430s Flavius Aetius was focused on fighting several groups, starting with the bagaudae that became more and more problematic in modern France. The general also fought the Burgundians and Visigoths, since those Barbarian federates were conquering Roman territories for themselves. Hispania was pretty much left alone and the same can be said about the African provinces. The Vandals, who fled to the wealthy provinces of Roman Africa, conquered Carthage in 439 and from there they conquered with their powerful navy the Mediterranean islands of Balearic Islands, Sardinia and Corsica. Through their harbors of Carthage and the islands I have mentioned, the Vandals attacked the Roman coasts and trade and travels through sea were no longer safe. I know it’s no surprise, but with this the stability of the Roman Empire was seriously threatened. The situation was so serious that in 442 Valentinian III was forced to sign a treaty of peace with Genseric that recognized the independence of the Vandal Kingdom, while the Empire recovered for a few years the Western provinces of Africa.

Back to the Suebi, Hermeric, ill and old, abdicated in 438 in favor of his son Rechila. Apparently, the Suebi didn’t have an elective monarchy but a hereditary one, or at least at that time the power of the ruling dynasty was consolidated enough to skip any election. While Hermeric was a kind of prudent and diplomatic king for the Barbarian standards, his son Rechila was much more belligerent and ambitious. In his first year of reign Rechila broke peace with the Romans and started an ambitious campaign to raid and conquer the provinces of Lusitania and Baetica. Lusitania was abandoned by the Imperial government and Baetica was famous for its wealth, the move was bold but if Rechila managed to conquer those provinces the Suebi would be in a much stronger position. It was the perfect timing, since the Vandals had left the Iberian Peninsula and the Imperial government was fighting in other fronts.

map rechila conquests

Before starting the campaign, Rechila secured the rearguard by making peace with the peoples of northern modern Galicia. After that he marched south and in Baetica Rechila defeated an army led by a man named Andevotus. It’s unclear whether Andevotus was leading a private army hired by the local aristocracy or he was leading an Imperial expedition of Valentinian III. In any case this army served the Hispano-Roman interests but failed and the Suebi captured a large treasure of gold and silver. We don’t know many details of this campaign, but in 440 the Suebi conquered the capital of Lusitania, Mérida, and then in 441 Seville, the most important city of Hispania and capital of Hispania Baetica. The Empire was powerless in this situation with so many open fronts, and the Romans first tried a diplomatic solution sending the ambassador Censorius again to Hispania. Nonetheless, Rechila was very aggressive towards the Romans and he took the diplomat as hostage for many years.

With those conquests, the Suebi quickly managed to take part of Carthaginensis too, even though their control over all those provinces was quite weak. Remember, we are talking about an army of 10,000 soldiers at most, so their control wasn’t direct and permanent. Maybe they established permanent garrisons in the strategic cities of Mérida and Seville and from there they periodically raided the countryside, but it’s all speculation since we don’t have primary sources talking about this. Between 441 and 446 Valentinian III sent three expeditions to combat the bagaudae bandits in Hispania Tarraconensis and to fight the Suebi in the south, but all were unsuccessful. There’s a significant thing to note about those expeditions, and it’s that the local Hispano-Roman population was getting tired of the harsh taxation that the Romans and Visigothic federates put on them. I say it’s significant because the locals felt more and more disconnected with the Roman Empire, an empire that was falling apart and that was harder and harder to maintain. That phenomenon was occurring all over the Western Roman Empire, and it clearly emerged in Hispania around the middle of the 5th century.

In the 440s the Roman Empire was still focused on suppressing the bagaudae in Gaul and Hispania, since that challenged the Roman landowner interests even more than the Barbarians did. In those years of enmity between the Visigoths of Theodoric I and the Roman Empire, Theodoric and Genseric made an alliance sealed with a marriage between a son of Genseric and a daughter of Theodoric.  The problem came when that son got ambitious and decided that he should marry a daughter of Valentinian III. So he then accused the daughter of Theodoric of trying to murder him and had her ears and nose cut off. His father of course felt deeply offended and the Visigoths were from then on always enemies of the Vandals. Theodoric wasn’t a friend of the Suebi either, but when he saw that the relationship between the Vandal Kingdom and the Roman Empire was improving, the King of the Visigoths thought that it wasn’t a bad idea to make an alliance with the Suebi.

The next thing we know thanks to the chronicle of Hydatius is that Rechila died in Mérida in 448. He was succeeded by his Catholic son Rechiar, something that caused some opposition within the Suebi nobility. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he became the first Catholic Germanic king of Europe, predating that of Clovis of the Franks by 50 years. It’s possible that his conversion before reaching the throne was a political move to earn the sympathy of the Hispano-Roman population, but in any case his conversion didn’t translate into a massive conversion of the Suebi to Catholicism.

statue king rechiar

King Rechiar continued the aggressive expansion of his father by first making raids in Hispania Baetica and then heading north the following year to raid Vasconia, the land of the Basques. Rechiar didn’t only travel to northern Spain to raid, he had a much more important mission: after crossing the Pyrenees, he went to Toulouse and married a daughter of the King of the Visigoths. Yes, Theodoric and Rechiar successfully sealed an alliance. The Catholic Rechiar married an Arian princess, but it didn’t matter since as I’ve said the conversion of Rechiar was only personal. A political alliance solidified with a marriage may seem strong, but history continuously proves that that’s not the case. The same tragic fate would occur with the alliance between Visigoths and Suebi, for the misfortune of the Suebi.

While King Rechiar was in Gaul with the Visigoths, Censorius, the Roman ambassador who was taken as hostage in 440, was executed by a nobleman named Aioulf whose origins are pretty obscure. Nonetheless, this Aioulf would soon appear again in the history of the Suebi, but more on that later. Something that would explain the execution of Censorius after so many years under captivity could precisely be the alliance with the Visigoths, since the Visigoths weren’t in good terms with the Romans in those years. As you can see, alliances were continuously made, broken and remade in the chaotic 5th century. Don’t judge them, it was a matter of survival.

Rechiar, in his way back to Hispania after a happy wedding, met with Basilius, the leader of the most powerful bagaudae of the Ebro Valley. Together they sacked the regions of Lérida and Zaragoza, obtained a great booty and captured many slaves. It’s interesting to see how the Suebi, that tried to consolidate a kingdom, made an alliance with a group of rebels that were against any kind of authority. We don’t know if King Rechiar wanted to conquer Hispania Tarraconensis and expel the Imperial Roman authorities from Hispania, but if he wanted that he failed in his objective.

Nonetheless, a geopolitical turmoil changed everything. The threat of the Huns was becoming more real than ever, as Attila the Hun was determined to invade Gaul. If the Huns accomplished that, it would affect both the Barbarians living in Gaul and the Western Roman Empire. The long-standing enemies Aetius and Theodoric knew that if they wanted their states to survive, they needed to put aside their differences and form a coalition against the Huns. For some reason the Suebi didn’t participate in the coalition, maybe because the Suebi had their power base in Hispania and not Gaul, but in any case that supposed the end of the brief Visigothic and Suebic alliance. The Romans, Visigoths, Burgundians, Saxons and many others fought together against the Huns and their vassals in the pivotal Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. The coalition decisively won, even though the winning side had significant casualties like the  old King of the Visigoths Theodoric I. He was succeeded by his son Thorismund, but he didn’t last long, as his brother Theodoric II was envious and decided to conspire to assassinate him.

With the withdrawal of the Huns from Gaul the Western Roman Empire could breathe a little again, so Valentinian III focused again his attention to Hispania. The Roman Emperor sent a delegation, we don’t know if only diplomatic or also military, to negotiate peace with the Suebi. We know that the Suebi returned Hispania Carthaginensis and Hispania Baetica up to the Gibraltar Strait to the Romans, while Rechiar still held the important cities of Mérida and Seville under his control. More importantly, Valentinian recognized the independence of the Kingdom of the Suebi with their control over Gallaecia, Lusitania and Western Baetica. That was a cause of celebration and King Rechiar issued his own coins with his name written down. That is a very remarkable fact, because until that moment no other Barbarian king had done that to say to the world that his kingdom was independent from the Roman Empire.

On another note, the Huns then attempted to attack Italy, however after suffering from diseases and hunger they were forced to withdraw from there too. Attila died in 453 and Hunnic power disintegrated, and because of that Emperor Valentinian III felt confident enough to assassinate the general that had dominated him for two decades, Flavius Aetius. But karma stroke Valentinian back and he was assassinated by followers of Aetius the following year. His death and the death of Aetius were the end of an era, because from then on, a series of short-lived reigns succeeded the house of Theodosius and only rarely did the Imperial authorities tried to restore the old order outside Italy.

Petornius Maximus, successor of Valentinian III, didn’t have much time to mess things up, but he did. He cancelled the marriage between a daughter of Valentinian and a son of Genseric, and that infuriated the Vandals who used all their naval power to attack and sack Rome itself in 455. Then the Gallo-Roman Avitus took power, and Rechiar took advantage of the weakness of the Empire to break the agreements he had made with Valentinian III. The Suebi invaded Hispania Carthaginensis, and the Roman Empire, supported by the Visigoths of Theodoric II, responded by sending another delegation to make an ultimatum to the Suebi to withdraw from Carthaginensis and respect the treaty they had signed. But King Rechiar was kind of a player, a man that wanted to risk everything to fulfill his ambitions, and he did so. The Suebi doubled their bet by attacking Hispania Tarraconensis too, but this time the answer from Ravenna and Toulouse was overwhelming.

Emperor Avitus ordered Theodoric II to enter to Hispania and defeat the Suebi. The Visigoths entered Hispania nominally under Roman authorization, but they actually acted on their own. Theodoric II himself commanded an army of Visigoths, Franks and Burgundians in 456 to crush the Suebi. The Suebi, with an army of 10,000 soldiers or so, were overwhelmed. On 5 October 456 the Visigoths decisively defeated the Suebi under King Rechiar in the Battle of Órbigo, close to the mining city of Astorga. Many Suebi perished in the battle, others were captured and others ran away. King Rechiar was wounded but he was able to escape to Lusitania. He was captured there and executed in December. The capital of the Suebi, Braga, was sacked and their churches were burned. Of course, that affected the Suebi, but also the Hispano-Roman population. Hydatius in his chronicle feels frustrated and furious about the barbarous actions of the Visigoths, who acted in the name of the civilized power that represented Rome. Maybe then Hydatius realized that Rome was destined to fall. The Visigoths moved from Gallaecia to Lusitania and Baetica, taking Mérida that wasn’t sacked thanks to a negotiation with the local religious authorities. Theodoric II established permanent Visigothic garrisons and settlements, expanding the Visigothic Kingdom in Hispania and ending de facto the Imperial presence in Spanish soil, even in Hispania Tarraconensis. Only the expedition of Majorian a few years later briefly restored direct Imperial control over a part of Hispania.

visigothic conquest hispania

That campaign supposed the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Suebi that had dominated Hispania the previous decade. The quick rise and fall of the Suebi shows how weak their power actually was, and in the end, numbers were the decisive factor. Theoretically Gallaecia became subdued to Roman rule again, but the victory of Theodoric II actually created a state of anarchy, uncertainty and civil war in the province. The organized Kingdom of the Suebi disappeared for a while, but bands of Suebi appeared and caused violent attacks that hadn’t been seen in the region for more than a decade.

The question now is, where were the Suebi now that central power had disintegrated? On one hand we have the Suebi remnants of Hispania Baetica, a territory that wasn’t completely reconquered by the Visigoths under Roman service until 459. Imperial or more precisely Visigothic efforts focused on that region because of its important strategic value and the fear that the Vandals may reconquer it. On the other hand, Gallaecia, the central base of their power, was in a power vacuum that needed to be filled. In this context Aioulf, the executioner of Censorius, reappeared. Theodoric II had appointed Aioulf to serve as vassal to rule the Suebi from Mérida, as the Visigoths attempted to integrate the Suebi survivors in their kingdom. Aioulf had his own plans though, he wanted to become King of the Suebi and he rebelled against the Visigoths. As I will explain now, Aioulf seized the opportunity because the Visigoths had left Hispania, but Theodoric II sent an army to execute him and that’s what they did without major problems.

The main Visigothic force quickly withdraw from Hispania when Theodoric II knew about the death of his friend and ally Emperor Avitus. The Germanic general Ricimer and the Roman Majorian led the conspiracy to remove him from power and kill him. However, in a few months there was an interregnum and because of that the Visigothic King wanted to have a saying of who should be the next Emperor. After all, someone like Avitus had been very beneficial for the interests of the Visigoths, if he could enthrone a friend like him it would be perfect for his interests. Unfortunately for the Visigoths, that didn’t happen, as we will see in the next episode.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to highlight how numbers matter, as the Suebi are a perfect example of that. Based on their population, the Suebi never had the capacity to firmly control all Hispania. Yes, they could establish some garrisons in strategic cities to make raids from there, but they couldn’t have a consolidated control with a territory as large as the Iberian Peninsula. If the Suebi could have their brief golden age is only because there were no other Barbarian groups around to oppose them, when the Visigoths showed up the result was obvious beforehand. The around 10,000 Suebic warriors had no shot against the Visigoths, who had the largest army in Western Roman soil. Even the Visigoths spent decades trying to put all Hispania under their direct control, so yeah sometimes a boring variable like population is decisive to decide the tie. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode the Western Roman Empire will finally disappear, and I will talk about the late 5th century of Hispania. 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

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

HISTORIA MUNDIAL DE ESPAÑA. Multiple authors

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

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

Barbarians against Barbarians

This is episode 11 called Barbarians against Barbarians and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The origins of the Visigoths and the Hunnic threat
  • The turbulent and complicated relationship between Visigoths and Romans
  • How the Visigoths first entered Hispania under Ataulf
  • The rule of Wallia and his campaign under Roman service that destroyed the Alans and Silingi Vandals of Hispania
  • What territories Honorius gave to the Visigoths in Gaul and why he gave those territories (spoiler: to suppress the bagaudae)
  • How the Imperial army assissted the Suebi against the Vandals of Gunderic to prevent them from becoming the dominant force in Hispania
  • Yet another crisis with the failed campaign of Castinus in Hispania and the death of Honorius, the usurpation of Joannes and the rise of Flavius Aetius
  • The period of hegemony of the Vandals in Hispania before leaving Hispania for North Africa in 429
  • Reflections about the Imperial strategy of playing barbarians off against each other

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 11 called Barbarians against Barbarians. In this episode you will learn how the Visigoths first entered Hispania, and the history of the Vandals, Suebi, Alans and Romans from 411 to 430. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

In times of chaos, realpolitiks or politics based on pragmatism are indispensable in order to survive. Today’s enemies can be your friends tomorrow, and this is exactly what happened with the relationship between Romans and Visigoths. The same Visigoths that had sacked Rome in 410 in a few years were fighting the Vandals and Alans of Hispania in the name of the Romans. But before I tell that story, let me first introduce you the Visigoths.

The Visigoths were in fact a branch of the larger group that is the Goths. The origins of the Goths are a bit unclear, the traditional theory is that they moved from modern Sweden to modern Poland, but truth is that they may had been already living in modern East Germany and Poland. What we know is that they migrated to the Pontic steppe in the north of the Black Sea, where they interacted with Eurasian nomads like the Scythians and learned their cavalry-based military tactics. The importance of the cavalry in contrast to the infantry for the Goths changed their social and political structures, and because of that the nobility and patron-client relationships were more important for the Visigoths than for, say, the Suebi. Anyway, the migration to the Pontic steppe caused disarray though, and the Goths indirectly caused the Marcomannic Wars in the 2nd century between Germanic tribes and Rome. The Goths were defeated during the Gothic Wars of the 3rd century and that caused the division of the Goths. There’s scholarly debate on the identification of the Visigoths with the Thervingi that settled in the Danubian plains west of the Dniester River. What’s clear is that this group became close to the Roman Empire and converted to Arian Christianity. The other group were the Greuthungi that are usually identified with the Ostrogoths. This group settled in modern Ukraine and established contacts with the Huns.

gothic migration map

The Huns appeared in the second half of the 4th century, overrunning the Alans and subduing and incorporating many Goths into their ranks. The proto-Ostrogoths disappeared as an independent confederacy until Hunnic power disintegrated in the 450s, while the Visigoths crossed the Danube in 376. The Visigoths served Theodosius in his civil wars, but upon his death they ravaged Greece under King Alaric I of the Balt dynasty. Then the Visigoths moved to the western Balkans and northern Italy, until war broke out against the Western Roman Empire of Honorius following the execution of Stilicho and massacre of many Germanic families. The Visigoths looted Italy as much as they could, but Alaric dreamed of leaving Italy to settle in the breadbasket of the Western Roman Empire, North Africa. Nonetheless, a storm destroyed the ships of the Visigoths and King Alaric died soon after that. The dream was put on pause.

His brother-in-law Ataulf was elected unanimously to succeed him. He abandoned the idea of going to Africa and instead decided to head towards Gaul, as Honorius’ general Constantius was pressing him in Italy. But remember, in 411 a new usurper named Jovinus was proclaimed Western Roman Emperor by the Gallic-Roman aristocracy, Alans of Gaul and Burgundians. Ataulf contacted Jovinus and opened negotiations to support him under apparent good faith. However, the Visigoths came across Sarus, the right-hand of Stilicho who also supported now Jovinus. Ataulf captured and executed him, and that infuriated Jovinus. The usurper Jovinus then named his brother Sebastianus co-emperor, and as he did so without consulting Ataulf hostilities between the two started. The King of the Visigoths proceeded to negotiate an alliance with Honorius. The pact was this, the Visigoths would crush the rebellion in Gaul and give him back his sister Galla Placidia, and in turn Honorius promised them a land to settle to and food supplies. Jovinus’ troops were defeated and Sebastianus and Jovinus were executed in 413, and then the Visigoths established themselves in Gallia Narbonensis, taking the cities of Narbonne and Toulouse.

Nonetheless, problems appeared again. The provincial governor of Africa proclaimed himself Western Roman Emperor in 412, and he interrupted the supply of grain to Rome that was necessary to feed Italy. The rebellion was crushed in 413, but because of that Honorius couldn’t supply the Visigoths as he promised. To make things worse he granted the status of federate to the Burgundians in the Rhône Valley while the Visigoths still hadn’t been officially assigned a land to settle. The Visigoths were running out of supplies, so they confronted Imperial Roman troops again and relations between Romans and Visigoths broke again.

But even in this time of war between Romans and Visigoths, love between a Visigoth and a Roman could happen. Chronicles tell us that as early as 411 Galla Placidia and Ataulf fell in love. Yes, the hostage fell in love with her captor. And that love was officially confirmed with their marriage in 414. Their union was sealed in a Roman-style ceremony, to show the Romanity of the Gothic barbarians. That was an important step for the ambitions of Ataulf, as he became related to the imperial family and a son of that marriage could be one day Western Roman Emperor. According to contemporary historian Orosius, and take this with a grain of salt, Ataulf declared on the weeding: “at first I wanted to erase the Roman name and convert all Roman territory into a Gothic empire: I longed for Romania to become Gothia, and Ataulf to be what Caesar Augustus had been. But long experience has taught me that the ungoverned wildness of the Goths will never submit to laws, and that without law a state is not a state. Therefore I have more prudently chosen the different glory of reviving the Roman name with Gothic vigour, and I hope to be acknowledged by posterity as the initiator of a Roman restoration, since it’s impossible for me to alter the character of this Empire.”

wedding ataulf galla placidia

I’m sure Honorius would have cried if he had heard those words in the mouth of Ataulf, but he didn’t and instead demanded again the return of her sister. Ataulf responded by proclaiming a man named Priscus Attalus Western Roman Emperor, as his brother Alaric had done before to put more pressure on Honorius. But this time Honorius had the capable general Constantius leading the military, and Constantius decided to start a naval blockade of the Mediterranean ports of Gaul and to cut the supply lines of the Visigoths by land too. The Visigoths were put in a corner. Ataulf had to take a dramatic decision as discontentment was growing, and he decided to move the confederacy to Hispania Tarraconensis, the only Spanish province that was still under Roman control. From his part, Honorius captured the usurper Priscus Attalus and had him exiled to the Aeolian Islands until his death.

In Hispania Tarraconensis, with the court in Barcelona, the first and only son born from the love of Ataulf and Galla Placidia died soon afterwards. The dream to create an imperial Romano-Visigothic linage died as well. Ataulf initiated contacts to improve again the relationship with Rome, but an anti-Roman faction flourished. The anti-Roman faction thought that Ataulf was becoming too Roman, and they wanted to remain Goths. The conspiracy was led by several Visigothic nobles and people close to Sarus, who had been killed by Ataulf years before. The conspiracy was successful, and King Ataulf of the Visigoths was assassinated in Barcelona in the summer of 415, by a general that wanted to avenge the death of Sarus. A brother of Sarus, Sigeric, was illegally proclaimed King of the Visigoths. The first thing the usurper Sigeric did was to brutally slay the six children of Ataulf from the marriage he had before marrying Galla Placidia. Furthermore, Galla Placidia was publicly humiliated, as Sigeric exhibited her in the streets of Barcelona, forcing her to walk on foot several miles among other captives, because yes, that’s how you treat a Roman princess! Wallia, brother of Ataulf, was enraged and sorrowful. Ataulf may have been a bit unpopular due to the recent setbacks, but this Sigeric was brutal and inhumane and most of the Visigoths had enough. After just a week of the assassination of Ataulf, Sigeric was assassinated and the anti-Roman faction was disbanded. Wallia was elected King of the Visigoths and the Balt dynasty continued to lead the Visigothic peoples. His election, as we will soon see, was determinant for the history of the other barbarians of Hispania.

The first thing Wallia tried to do was to recover the dream of Alaric of settling his peoples in North Africa. So Wallia ordered the construction of ships, but again a storm ended that dream, this time forever for the Visigoths. His subjects were hungry, and he had only one option left. Wallia was forced to sign a treaty of federation with Honorius in 416. The treaty established that the Visigoths had the mission to expel the barbarians that had entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409. In addition to that, they had to return Ataulf’s widow Galla Placidia, because yeah this poor woman was used as bargaining chip all the time. The strong general of Honorius, Constantius, married her, even though Galla Placidia didn’t want to. On his part, Honorius would give them large quantities of grain. It’s weird because the Vandals, Suebi and Alans of Hispania offered to serve Honorius, but for some reason he refused to accept their services. Maybe he wanted to wait until they killed each other to attack when the moment was right. The strategy to play barbarians against barbarians was his best possible choice anyway, so better to use the Visigoths to kill the other barbarians and weaken them all. It was a win-win situation for the Roman Empire whatever was the outcome.

campaign wallia 418 hispania

From Barcelona Wallia started a campaign against the other barbarians that occupied Hispania, starting with the Alans and Silingi Vandals. The reason behind attacking them is that they were controlling the wealthy provinces of Baetica, Lusitania and Carthaginensis. We have very few details about this critical war, but the Goths caused a bloodbath of barbarian blood in Hispania. The attack must had been very effective since the Alans and Silingi Vandals quickly withdrew to the Strait of Gibraltar in early 418. There Wallia crushed them, and the King of the Alans Attaces was killed while the King of the Silingi Vandals was captured and sent to Emperor Honorius. The Alans, the smallest yet the most powerful group to have entered Hispania in 409, suddenly disappeared as an independent force. The survivors of the massacre headed north and joined King Gunderic of the Hasdingi Vandals. Gunderic adopted the title of King of the Vandals and Alans and he became the leader of the most powerful army of Hispania.

Honorius called the Visigoths back before decisively defeating the Hasdingi Vandals and Suebi. Only Hispania Gallaecia remained in the hands of barbarians, as well as northern Spain that was neither under barbarian nor Roman control. Instead the Cantabrians and Basques lived there independently and in poverty. This time Honorius assigned the Visigoths a land to settle to because they proved themselves useful for the empire. The Visigoths were rewarded with the right to settle in Aquitania Secunda and the proximities of Novempopulania and Narbonensis Prima. That constituted a large region of western and southern modern France that included cities like Poitiers, Bordeaux and Toulouse, that became the capital of the Visigoths. For the moment, the Visigoths didn’t have access to the Mediterranean Sea, but they soon would since they will take advantage of the weakness of the Western Roman Empire. This treaty with Honorius started the phase known as the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, but the Visigoths will eventually return to Spain. Keep in mind that they numbered between 150,000 and 200,000 souls, so they had much more potential compared to the Vandals, not even to mention the Suebi that were less than 35,000.

From the Roman point of view, it made sense to settle the Visigoths in modern south-western France, since they could suppress rebellions and attacks in Gaul, Italy and Hispania. The Imperial government was worried about the expansion of the bagaudae, the revolutionary large-scale bandit groups that were formed by people who could no longer sustain themselves. The bagaudae is a phenomenon I talked about when I spoke about the Crisis of the Third Century, but it actually became more problematic in the 5th century. Northern Gaul was plagued of bandits ever since the Franks invaded the region, and it was only a matter of decades before bagaudae became important again in Spain. But I’m getting ahead of myself, for the moment the Imperial government wanted the Visigoths below the Loire River to prevent the expansion of the bagaudae in southern Gaul, where there were more important economic interests. This time the Visigoths didn’t receive grain or gold, instead they were given two thirds of the agricultural lands available to farm.

However, Visigothic King Wallia couldn’t enjoy the result of his victories, because he died soon after arriving in Toulouse. Wallia was succeeded by King Theodoric I, a king that would last long until he was killed in the landmark Battle of the Catalaunian Plains against the Huns in 451. It’s not clear whether he was an illegitimate son or a son-in-law of King Alaric I, but in any case he belonged to the Balt dynasty. With the Visigoths in Gaul, let’s focus on the affairs of Hispania.

The Vandals needed more territories now that they had enlarged their population, and Honorius was waiting calmly for the unavoidable clash between the Suebi and the Vandals. The Vandals started raiding Suebi territory and blocking their neighbors in 419. As the Suebi were a smaller group and the Imperial strategy was to prevent a barbarian group to become powerful enough to control all Hispania, the Romans sided with the Suebi. A general named Asterius was sent to Hispania Gallaecia to aid the Suebi and to capture the usurper Maximus, who was protected by the Vandals and declared himself emperor again. The result of this tactical Roman and Suebi alliance was the Battle of the Nervasos Mountains in an undetermined location around modern Galicia and Leon. The Suebi under King Hermeric were surrounded by the Vandals, but the Romans prevented this battle to become a disaster for the Suebi, and the Vandals were forced to retreat to Braga, the future capital of the Suebi.

However, the problems for the Vandals didn’t end there, because the Romans had yet another surprise for the Vandals. Another Roman army intercepted them, and the two Roman armies attacked the Vandals from both sides and the Vandals were defeated. Gunderic decided to move his peoples to Hispania Baetica, where they started building a fleet to gain naval dominance and to sack cities. More than a defeat, the Vandals gained much moving to the wealthy province of Baetica and it was a crucial step for the future of the Vandals. On the other hand, the usurper Maximus was presumably captured by Asterius in 420, and he was sent to Ravenna and executed in 422. Overall, we can say that Asterius’ campaign was a success, but the next Roman campaign was a complete disaster.

The glimmer of hope of the recent military successes of the Western Roman Empire against usurpers and barbarians motivated Emperor Honorius to name co-Emperor his military strongman, Constantius. However, the joy wouldn’t last, since Constantius III died seven months after his coronation. The loss of Constantius generated internal tensions, and Honorius had to name a new commander-in-chief of the Western Roman Army quickly. General Castinus was that man, and he led an expedition in 422 with the objective to eliminate the Vandals from Hispania. He was supported by Visigothic federates of King Theodoric I and by another Roman army led by a man named Bonifacius, a protégé of Galla Placidia. The expedition started as badly as it ended, Bonifacius’ army didn’t show up because both Castinus and Bonifacius wanted to be the favorite of Honorius. Bonifacius then fled to Central North Africa, where he gained control of the wealthy province that was the breadbasket of Italy. This Bonifacius would soon after that become very important in Roman civil wars and in fighting the Vandals when they moved to North Africa. Going back to the campaign of 422, Castinus had some initial success, but then Castinus and the Vandals met in open battlefield to decide the tie. What the Romans didn’t expect is that the Visigoths would abandon them before the battle. The Roman army of Castinus was crushed in Baetica, forcing him to withdraw to Hispania Tarraconensis. The defeat was an almost definitive blow against the Imperial interests in Hispania, and for the Vandals the victory ensured a period of hegemony in Hispania that allowed them to build the pillars for the later pirate kingdom of North Africa.

A new crisis started in the politics of the Western Roman Empire, first due to this failed campaign and then due to the death of Honorius in 423. In the interregnum a man named Joannes was proclaimed emperor in Rome, and his control over the nominal territories of the Western Roman Empire was very limited and weak. He didn’t control Gaul, he didn’t control the North African provinces, he barely controlled a portion of Hispania, and he didn’t have the recognition of the Eastern Roman Emperor to give him legitimacy. Instead, Theodosius II, who was Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at the time, recognized the 5-year-old son of Galla Placidia, Valentinian III, as Western Roman Emperor. Before the Eastern Roman Army attacked, Joannes sent a young and promising general to seek the help of the Huns. The man was Flavius Aetius, and he brought a Hunnic army with him to Italy, but too late. The Eastern Roman Army had already won and executed Joannes, however Aetius negotiated with the regent Galla Placidia and both parties achieved a favorable agreement. The Huns who accompanied Aetius were paid and left Italy and Aetius became general of the Roman Army in Gaul. There Aetius successfully fought the Franks, as well as the Visigoths under Theodoric I. He was able to recapture the important city of Arles in southern Gaul, and after plotting the assassination of the supreme general of the Roman Army, he gained a great deal of influence during the regency of Galla Placidia that only increased after Emperor Valentinian III was 18-years-old.

Meanwhile, the empire was so weak that they couldn’t stop the rising naval hegemony of the Vandals, that didn’t only ravage the coasts of the empire but that threatened the key maritime supply routes of the empire. It was during the 420s that the Vandals had their period of hegemony in the Iberian Peninsula, they raided cities like Carthago Nova or Seville and they even made their first incursions in North Africa. Gunderic and his Vandals put Seville under siege again in 428 and Gunderic died in uncertain circumstances. His half-brother Genseric was elected King of the Vandals and the Alans, and you may know him because Genseric was the man that turned the Vandals in a major Mediterranean power that rivaled the Western Roman Empire.

As I mentioned before, during the 420s the Vandals under Gunderic built a major fleet, already with the goal to move his peoples to North Africa and establish a kingdom with a powerful navy. The reasons to leave Hispania could have been to avoid more attacks from other barbarians, to make Roman attacks more difficult, and to seize fertile provinces for themselves. Genseric executed the plan in 429, the Suebi tried to take advantage of the situation and attacked the Vandals in their rearguard, but Genseric defeated them and he was able to successfully move his 80,000 people to North Africa. 80,000 for God sake, that is insane for the standards of Late Antiquity! This truly great logistical achievement would have been impossible without the collaboration of the Hispano-Roman population that was interested in letting them go far away. There’s also another very important reason, the governor of Africa Bonifacius was confronted with the Imperial government, and that conflict allowed the Vandals to migrate with little serious opposition. The Vandals quickly conquered the Roman territories of modern Morocco, Algeria, and eventually Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and Tunis, with the capital in Carthage. That deprived the Western Roman Empire of their breadbasket, and the Vandal posts in Mediterranean islands allowed them to raid the Roman coasts and sack Rome in 455. With the Visigoths still in Gaul and the Vandals in North Africa, the only barbarians left in Hispania were the Suebi, and due to this power vacuum a brief period of apogee for their kingdom soon followed.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the Imperial strategy of playing barbarians off against each other, to avoid coalitions like the alliance of the Vandals, Suebi and Alans to cross the Rhine and then the Pyrenees. Imagine what could have happen if the Visigoths, instead of fighting the Vandals and Alans, had formed a coalition to distribute among themselves Hispania and southern Gaul. But the Romans successfully exploited their differences and either let them fight for land without letting any become the single dominant force, like it happened with the conflict between Vandals and the Suebi, or promising food or lands to fight another barbarian group, like the Romans did with the Visigoths. In the short-term this strategy was the best since the Empire didn’t have economical or human resources to achieve more, but in the long-run this strategy only delayed the unavoidable. If Romans didn’t love civil wars and plots as much as they did, the Western Roman Empire could have survived in some form, but since their institutions weren’t effective to prevent usurpations and internal struggles, the empire was doomed. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode I will focus on the brief golden age of the Kingdom of the Suebi, from 430 to 456. 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

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

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

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

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

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

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

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

First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

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

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

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

map barbarian invasions and the kingdoms established afterwards

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

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

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

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

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

alaric i entering rome

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

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

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

hispania map 411 barbarian invasions alans vandals suebi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

how the suebi vandals alans are still seen in spain

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

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

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

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

Sources

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

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

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

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

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

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

Hispania: Dominate and Expansion of Christianity

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

map roman empire crisis of the third century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diocletian reform hispania

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

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

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

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

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

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

ambroise barring theodosius from milan cathedral

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

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

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

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

aqueduct of segovia

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

theater of merida

temple of diana merida

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

mosaic roman villa la olmeda

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

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

tower of hercules a corunna

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

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

Sources

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

LATE ROMAN SPAIN AND ITS CITIES. Michael Kulikowski

https://memoriasdeuntambor.com/hispania-romana

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

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

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

Hispania: Principate and Romanization

This is episode 8 called Hispania: Principate and Romanization and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • What does Romanization mean
  • What aspects Romanization involved
  • Which were the key elements or causes for the Romanization of Hispania
  • The internal elements that explain this process of acculturation
  • Which were the different phases of Romanization and why wasn’t the process geographically homogenous
  • Which were the key economic sectors of Hispania during the Principate
  • A discussion on the importance of the policies of colonization of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus, as well as the Edict of Latinization of Vespasian
  • Why did Vespasian issue the Edict of Latinization and what consequences did that have
  • The reign of two Hispano-Roman Emperors: Trajan and Hadrian
  • The decadence of the Roman Empire with the Antonine Plague under the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus
  • The Severan dynasty and how the Crisis of the Third Century started

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 8, called Hispania: Principate and Romanization. In this episode you will learn the political and economic history of Roman Spain up to the Crisis of the Third Century, as well as the process of Romanization. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

Okay, some of you may wonder what Romanization means. Romanization was the process of acculturation of the populations incorporated into the Roman Republic and later Empire. Nonetheless, Romanization was not a deliberate or conscious policy that attempted to eradicate indigenous cultures, and it was not a totally one-sided thing. It was a spontaneous and gradual phenomenon that resulted from the interaction and integration of Roman and native cultures. Cultures change and the Roman culture prior to the Second Punic War is different from the one of, say, the 1st century AD. In Hispania, Roman and indigenous elements blended together and formed the Hispano-Roman culture. Of course the Roman elements predominated, but characteristics of indigenous cultures remained or adapted to look Roman. This syncretism is exactly the same that happened later when Spain colonized America. Yes, Spanish culture predominated, but indigenous elements prevailed as well and new regional cultures emerged from the fusion of Spanish and native cultures.

But what aspects did Romanization cover? Language, religion, customs, material culture and technology, law and urbanism. Let’s start with language. Latin became the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, it was first adopted by the upper classes of Hispania to communicate with both the Roman administration and other tribes. Many natives of the elite sent their kids to Rome to learn the language and to get to know influential people. As you can see, it was in their best interest to adopt Latin. The poor didn’t receive a formal education, yet the language eventually spread from the top to the bottom of the society. By the late 1st century AD all native languages, except from Ancient Basque, had disappeared.

capitoline triad

Another important aspect of Romanization is religion. As you may remember, in Pre-Roman Spain there were many religions, and foreign religions had already influenced the natives before the Romans came. I’m talking about the Phoenician and Greek deities, that could and were easily adapted to those of Rome. As many of you know, Rome essentially changed the names of Greek deities and made them as their own. Yes, they were not very original. Iberians quickly embraced Roman religion during the Late Republic and Early Principate, although that didn’t exclude the possibility of believing in other deities. The most important deities were those of the Capitoline Triad, that is Jupiter, the god of gods; Juno, the goddess that protected the empire; and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. On the other hand, Iberians quickly adopted imperial cult, as I mentioned in the episode about the Pre-Roman peoples of Iberia Iberians had this social institution called devotio that connected strongly the patron and client, and imperial cult was just an evolution of that. Even when Augustus was still alive, the Spanish cities of Tarragona and Mérida built altars and later temples in his honor. Oriental beliefs, like Syrian, Egyptian, Phoenician or Persian gods had their followers in Hispania too, while Christianity didn’t expand into Hispania until the 3rd century. But we will see the history of Christianity in Hispania in the next episode.

The natives adopted Roman customs as well. They adopted Roman clothes and names, again starting from the elites to then expand to lower social classes; they abandoned the practice of human sacrifice; people started going to bathhouses to clean themselves and socialize; and Spanish people started attending the famous Roman spectacles. Spectacles were financed by the rich landowner class to please the masses, similar to modern sports like soccer or basketball. Greek and Latin plays spread Greco-Roman culture, but violent “games” like gladiator battles or elephants vs rhinos had a more important role spreading Romanization. I mean, just look at Mortal Kombat, that’s the real Roman legacy!

The process of Romanization also meant the adoption of Roman material culture, tastes and technology. The more economically integrated Hispania became to the Roman Empire, the more Spanish people adopted Roman currency, units of measure, taste for wine and olive oil, advanced farming technologies or Greek-styled techniques to build sculptures. The process of accepting Roman laws and judiciary system wasn’t easy, it took time and it wasn’t implemented immediately in all of Hispania. To illustrate this with an example, during the Late Republican period provincial governors started organizing assemblies in multiple locations during the winter to deliver justice within and between tribes. That created a stronger relationship of dependency towards Rome.

About the Romanization in terms of urbanism, the Romans founded the cities of Córdoba, Tarragona, Valencia, Palma de Mallorca, Pamplona, Seville, Mérida, Zaragoza, Barcelona… Rome, especially under Caesar and Augustus, founded many cities above native settlements following the Roman urbanist standards. It’s notorious though that some exclusively native towns eventually imitated Roman urbanism to look more Roman and improve their prestige.

Those were the aspects that involved the process of Romanization. But which were the key elements for this process? The first key element is the constant presence of Roman and Latin soldiers. There were between 20 and 25k soldiers permanently stationed in Hispania until the late 1st century, and if there was a campaign led by the consul you can double or triple these numbers. Many military camps later became permanent urban settlements, like it happened with León, Tarragona or the Roman neighborhood of Emporion. The importance of the soldiers in the Romanization process was not so much during their service, but after soldiers ended their military duties. Most received or were able to buy a land and farm it, and the majority married native women. The army’s role to Romanize Spain was twofold, Roman and Italic soldiers settled in Spain and Iberian and Celtic soldiers learned Latin and Roman costumes when they joined the army. Natives weren’t accepted as core soldiers for Rome overnight, during most of the Republican period natives served as temporary auxiliaries and fought using their weapons and tactics. But later they progressively integrated into the Roman army, as Italic soldiers started to serve in the legions and someone had to fill the vacuum left by the permanent Italic auxiliaries. Even before the Principate, there was already a legion entirely made up by Iberians. When native Iberians, Celts or Celtiberians returned to their towns, they returned knowing Latin and Roman costumes and they, in turn, Romanized their communities.

Hispania was to the Romans what America was to the Spaniards, a land of opportunities perfect to colonize. The fertile lands of the Guadalquivir and Ebro Valleys, the mines of Andalusia, Cartagena or the north, or the commercial opportunities attracted peasants, merchants, slavers and prostitutes alike. Why Romans and Italics migrated from their homeland? Since the 2nd century BC middle classes and free peasants became poorer due to the rise of patricians who bought lands and worked them with slaves. It was the increasing social inequality and poverty in Italy that encouraged Latin colonization in Hispania. Colonization was opposed by the Senate, but the army founded some colonies with both Roman citizens and Italic colonists, and later Caesar and Augustus promoted colonization with civil population too.

via augusta

The army not only had the task to expand the empire and suffocate revolts, they also did public works like the building of roads or bridges that were so important to integrate the empire. Roman roads were key for Romanization and to maintain the empire. Without them, armies would have had difficulties to move, trade would have been more restricted to the coastline, and Roman culture wouldn’t have expanded as much as it did through the inner regions of the empire. The Julio-Claudian dynasty finished the construction of the most important roads of Hispania, the Via Augusta that connected the coastline from the Pyrenees to Cádiz, and the Via de la Plata that connected Mérida in modern Extremadura with the mines of the north.

We have seen the key elements from the Roman side, but there must be internal elements that explained the acculturation of the natives, because not all conquerors leave a lasting legacy. This is an issue I have already talked about in previous episodes, but local elites faced a dilemma with the arrival of the Romans: they could either collaborate or oppose them. The elites needed to evaluate what was better for their interests. The smart native leaders understood that it was better to be friends with Rome instead of enemies. The smart ones survived and preserved or even improved their position of power within their community, the fools who opposed Rome perished. Soon the elites learned Latin and Roman customs and adopted an external Roman look. Eventually that gave them privileges, as they were rewarded with Latin or even Roman citizenship.

Okay, I’ve covered the aspects and causes of Romanization, now I want to take the perspective of the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula to imagine how they reacted to the arrival of the Romans. Let’s start with the Greek colonists, who were the first inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula to ask for Roman protection. Imagine you are a merchant who is an influential political leader in Emporion, the Greek commercial city located in modern Catalonia. News arrive that Hannibal desires to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula. You know that if Carthage succeeds, your Greek countrymen will be driven out by Carthaginian merchants. At the same time, you know that Rome is an emerging power. From your perspective, Rome is the lesser evil, as Romans are closer to the Greek world. In addition to that the native Iberians control the plain while the Greek colony is pressed to the sea, so perhaps if Emporion shows unequivocal loyalty to Rome you and all your colleagues may be able to expand and stop feeling threatened by the natives you trade with. So you talk to your community and all of you decide to offer Emporion as the landing base for the Romans, and the Republic accepts the proposal.

emporion roman and greek city

After the Second Punic War Emporion flourished as a powerful city with expanded borders. Rome rewarded your city with the plains of the natives, tax exemptions and a monopoly for the production of bricks in Hispania. In your lifetime, Emporion grows economically and it’s clear that the decision to show a pro-Roman position was the right one. Yet, your grandson saw Emporion losing importance. The Romans established a military camp that soon became permanent. From this outpost the Roman town emerged, and waves of Roman and Italic immigrants arrived. They soon outnumbered the Greeks and the city lost its Greek identity, while at the same time Tarragona became the most economically powerful city of Hispania Citerior. A similar process happened in Cádiz, the most important Phoenician and Turdetani city of Hispania. The city had long been a friend of Carthage, but when they saw clearly who was going to win, they switched sides and made a treaty of friendship with Rome. In less than a century the city lost its identity and was Romanized, which isn’t surprising as Cádiz and the region of the Turdetani was the most urbanized of the Iberian Peninsula.

If we take the perspective of the Iberians, they only wanted to be left alone, to not be enslaved and to not have their lands devastated. But they soon realized that the Romans weren’t altruistic liberators, they were just other conquerors. The Celts and Celtiberians only had an economic interest in the war, the ones who served wanted to earn some money while maintaining their independence. They were left alone, for the moment.

I say that because during the first phase of Roman conquest, that’s between the Second Punic War and the Second Celtiberian War, the Republic had strong control over the Mediterranean coastline, but many inner regions were not controlled at all. The area above the Guadiana river and the region of the Celtiberians was out of Roman control. Rome could exert limited actual power over the territory conquered. Romans relied on pacts with the native elites, they constantly had to deal with rebellions and raids, and they could only recruit native auxiliaries on an irregular basis. A very illustrative example of the limited power the Romans had is seen in something as important as taxation. We can’t imagine a modern state that doesn’t directly tax its inhabitants, but that’s what happened during Republican Rome. The Republic leased the right of taxing to equites, for a previously set sum of money. In doing so, the Roman state avoided any risk of non-payment while the equites had all the incentives to do whatever was needed to cover their expenses and make money. Key cities like Emporion, Sagunto, Cádiz or the few Latin colonies founded during this period were exempted to pay taxes for their loyalty or status. Therefore, the tax burden fell on the native and less-urbanized communities, no doubt why Iberians started general uprisings against Roman rule. Roman and Italic colonizers started the Romanization in the areas that were more economically important, the Guadalquivir and Ebro Valleys, as well as the mineral-rich Cartagena, but again, the extend of the Romanization was quite limited.

In the second phase of Roman conquest, between the Numantine War and the Sertorian War, the Roman Republic had the Tagus River, in Central Spain, as the frontier of their Spanish possessions. With the defeat of the Sertorian supporters, Rome forced many native communities to use Roman currency and forced their relocation to plains to control more effectively the territory and prevent revolts. Those policies were adopted to pacify the conquered lands, but that in fact accelerated the process of Romanization. At this phase some tribes like the ones of modern Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, and even some Vascones had their tribal unity substituted by local ties in urban areas. The Celtiberians still resisted Roman practices and their basic social institution, the gens, persisted. Latin was adopted to speak with the Roman ruling class and to speak with distant tribes, but to speak with others of their community they still spoke their language, and their laws were still the tribal ones.

The third phase and the pivotal point in the Romanization of Hispania was marked by the policies of Caesar, Augustus and his successors. Caesar granted, for the first time, the rank of municipium to entire cities, something that granted Latin citizenship. Caesar started the most ambitious policy of colonization yet, as Caesar saw in Hispania the perfect land to solve the social chaos and economic misery of the Italic peasants. Rome had been present in Spain for more than a century, there were fertile lands in the Mediterranean side of the Peninsula, it was relatively near Italy and during the civil war Hispania Ulterior was loyal to Pompey, so it was necessary to make the province loyal to him. All the conditions were aligned to take a step further to integrate Hispania.

roman and latin colonies

Caesar’s colonization policy was very successful, and his successor Augustus kept it and expanded it. But Augustus not only continued the policy of colonization and extension of Latin citizenship. If Caesar could conquer Gaul, he needed to complete the conquest of Hispania once and for all, submitting the sparsely populated northern regions of Asturias and Cantabria that raided from time to time their neighbors who were under Roman protection. The greatness of Augustus in Hispania didn’t only come from that conquest, he also started ambitious public works to transform Spain into a new Italy.

He then took the task of reorganizing the provinces. Augustus expanded Hispania Citerior and changed its name to Hispania Tarraconensis, and he also divided the province of Hispania Ulterior in two, the imperial province of Lusitania and the senatorial province of Baetica in Andalusia. Senatorial provinces were provinces that were controlled by the Senate instead of the Emperor, with little chances of rebellion and no legions stationed. You can imagine that Baetica was very Romanized at this point, as the newborn Roman Empire considered Baetica a core territory. The province was the richest region of Hispania, with its mineral resources and fertile lands for agriculture. But that’s not the only reason Baetica was the most Romanized region along the coasts of Hispania Citerior, I mean, remember, who inhabited those lands? The Iberians. And the Iberians, due to their location, had already interacted with other advanced civilizations, namely Greeks and Phoenicians. Their social structures and institutions were similar to those of Italy, only less advanced. That’s why the process of Romanization was easier in southern and eastern Spain.

On the other hand, Central Spain experienced a slower process of Romanization. How and to what extend were the peoples of Central Spain integrated into the Roman Empire? Roads, villas and urbanism were important elements to Romanize Central Spain. Villas were luxurious country houses built by landowners to control their states and show their wealth, and in heavily rural environments like Central Spain villas were the expression of Roman culture. Urbanism in Central Spain was a middle ground between the large cities of southern and eastern Spain and the sparsely populated northern regions. That’s why Central Spain took more time to Romanize, but it ended up Romanized anyway. A good indicator of how Romanized it was is that by the 1st century AD Central Spain could be demilitarized.

The other area is Northern Spain, that received little Roman cultural influence during the entire lifetime of the Roman Empire. Some Roman legions were stationed to protect the mines, but in most of those areas Romans only showed up every now and then. Because of that ancient tribal structures, native languages and local laws survived well into the Principate.

Before we get into the political history of Hispania during the Principate, I want to discuss the economy of Hispania of this era. The most outstanding sectors of the Hispano-Roman economy of the Principate were agriculture, mining and salting. Hispania was not anymore the breadbasket of Rome like Egypt, nor the wealthiest region of the empire. Yet Hispania presented opportunities to farm new lands and the greatest source of mineral wealth of the Roman Empire, with the far Britannia as the only province comparable in mineral resources. Hispania exported cereals, but also olive oil and wines that had an excellent reputation over the empire. Olive oil production was so important that in Rome they built the artificial Monte Testaccio with a height of 35 meters. They built it using a huge number of broken amphoras that mostly came from Baetica, modern-day Andalusia. In fact, the Romans were the ones who introduced olive trees and grapes on a large scale. While Baetica greatly increased olive oil and wine production, that meant that there was less land used to produce grain. Central Spain probably had the role of growing cereals for the rest of Hispania, as the dry Meseta it’s ideal for that. Grain must have been transported through roads or rivers to later be shipped by sea. Among the changes the Romans introduced in the Spanish agriculture, they made clearer distinctions between common and private lands and introduced new farming tools and more efficient agricultural techniques. All that allowed to have, to some extent, a market-oriented rural economy.

economy hispania industries

The second industry I mentioned was mining, and you may remember that Rome found very attractive the mineral wealth of the Iberian Peninsula. The mines of Cartagena, Andalusia and later northern Spain became very important for the empire. The mines of Baetica lost importance in the late 2nd century, as the mines of Britannia were easier to exploit and were very rich, but the mines of the north maintained their importance even in the Late Roman Empire. Mines were initially owned and exploited by the state, but later Rome leased mines to Roman businessmen. The exploitation of mines required skilled workers and the foundation of colonies, so we can say that mining was a pillar for the Romanization of Spain too.

The third outstanding industry I mentioned was salting, that involved the extraction of salt and fishing to later commercialize salted fish. Cartagena, Cádiz and other cities of southern Spain and Lusitania became famous for this activity. In addition to salted fish, Spanish salting factories produced a very popular sauce in Italy and Greece, garum. This may sound very disgusting, but this sauce was made from fermented fish intestines. There are only two reasons someone would consume salted fermented fish intestines, to use it as an aphrodisiac or as a medicine, and garum was used for both. To end this economic talk, I wanted to add that hunting, horse breeding and the manufacture of textiles and pottery were important industries as well.

Now let’s make an overview to the political evolution of the Roman Empire from the Julio-Claudian dynasty to the Severan dynasty. I’ve already talked about how Caesar and Augustus of the Julio-Claudian dynasty boosted the economic development, Roman colonization and integration of Hispania into the empire. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the Flavian dynasty took the Roman throne in 69 AD. Emperor Vespasian issued the Edict of Latinization that gave not the Roman but the Latin citizenship to all the free Hispano-Romans, including the inhabitants of central and northern Spain that weren’t very Romanized. That was the definitive step for the integration of Hispania into the Roman Empire. This was the largest extend of rights given by Rome since the Republic gave Roman citizenship to all the freemen of Italy. But why did Vespasian take a measure of this magnitude? There are several reasons that explain the Edict of Latinization. One is purely political, Hispania helped Vespasian to reach his position, but the other was that Hispania was enough Romanized to at least give Latin citizenship, which was inferior to the Roman in theory but not so much in practice at this point. To mention another factor, as Italy grew wealthier, less Romans wanted to serve in the legions, and giving Latin citizenship to Hispano-Romans facilitated and encouraged recruitment.

Vespasian wanted to accomplish several objectives in Hispania: to reduce the size of the army in Hispania and relocate the legions to more problematic regions; to use more extensively Spanish manpower; to promote the mines of the north and the region of Lusitania; and to promote municipalities. By giving Hispano-Romans a more active role in the administration of the Roman Empire, Vespasian hoped he could purge the Senate and legions of disloyal Romans. It was during his reign that the administration of Hispania became civilian instead of military.

Because of the Edict of Latinization of Vespasian, a powerful faction of senators from Hispania emerged and that very same faction would soon promote, in the early 2nd century, two Hispano-Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian. Trajan became the first emperor born outside Italy and is considered to have equaled or even surpassed Augustus. He embraced the stoic ideals of the also Hispano-Roman Seneca to govern: austerity, kindness, self-demand, meritocracy, respect and tolerance without renouncing to authority and determination, and impassivity against adversity. That’s why he was called Optimus Princeps, which means best first citizen. He implemented social welfare policies, promoted an extensive public works program over all the empire and expanded the empire to its maximum extend with the conquest of Dacia and his campaigns in Mesopotamia.

trajan

Trajan favored Hispano-Romans in both administrative positions and the army, and that was criticized by some sectors of the Roman oligarchy. During Trajan’s rule recruitment in the wealthy Hispania Baetica diminished as it happened in Italy, while many auxiliaries came from the poorer north. To end the talk about him, it’s remarkable how Hispania benefited from his public works program. Trajan ordered the expansion of cities, the building of bridges and amphitheaters and the reparation and extension of Roman roads, with special attention to the neglected region of Lusitania.

His successor, Hadrian, adopted a policy of consolidating the gains and establishing defensible borders, as it’s exemplified by Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia, but also by the withdrawal of Roman troops from the recently conquered Mesopotamia. Hadrian continued the policies of social welfare and public works of his predecessor. The Hispano-Roman Emperor travelled throughout the Roman Empire to know the problems the empire had and to solve them. For instance, he gathered in Tarragona an assembly with representatives from all Hispania and asked them to contribute with an important number of soldiers to solve the problems in Britannia and Mauritania. His proposal was met with fierce resistance at first, but Hadrian and the representatives reached an agreement at last. Hadrian relied heavily at first on Hispano-Romans for key administrative positions and to fill the ranks of the army, but that changed as years went by. Overall the governments of Trajan and Hadrian are remembered for their prosperity, justice and relative peace.

Hadrian was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, who had a reign marked by peace. Antoninus proved to be a very good administrator, as he left the office with a huge surplus in the treasury. He also expanded access to drinking water and built Roman roads in Gaul, modern-day France. Nonetheless, the empire started showing signals of stagnation under him, and Antoninus Pius barely did anything in Hispania, although that may be reasonable since previous emperors had dedicated enough attention to the region. The reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus represented the end of the Pax Romana and the start of the slow decadence of the Roman Empire. The Antonine Plague desolated the empire, killing as much as 20 to 30% of the population, and to make things worse the Roman Empire suffered raids from Germanic tribes in the northern frontier and Berber tribes from North Africa in Hispania. The economy of Hispania resented from plagues and raids, but also from heavy taxes and levies. The population of Hispania is estimated to have been around 6 or 7 million people before the Antonine Plague, equal to that of the Italian Peninsula. But after that, population declined to around 5 million, and the population of Hispania remained more or less constant up to the Renaissance. Yep, more than ten centuries after the plague.

With Commodus the Antonine dynasty ended, and the Severan dynasty eventually seized power at the end of the 2nd century. The Severans sowed the seeds for an economic crisis, they exponentially increased the salaries of the soldiers, but since the state couldn’t pay for that they decided to devaluate the Roman currency. Eventually that generated high inflation, distrust in the Roman monetary system and in general an economic mess. Hispania specifically suffered more since landowners started spending more capital in North Africa. Regarding the military, the recruitment of Hispano-Romans massively decreased from the rule of Septimius Severus onwards, as it had happened with Italians.

The infamous Caracalla then conceded Roman citizenship to all the free peoples of the Roman Empire, not as an act of altruism but to tax more and to have more available manpower for the army. That didn’t affect much Hispania, as many already had Roman citizenship and every free Hispano-Roman had the very similar Latin citizenship. With that law Roman citizenship stopped being something to be proud of, because everyone had it, and for the ones who hadn’t they saw how they had to pay more taxes now, so they weren’t happy either. Severus Alexander became the last of the Severan dynasty, his reign was relatively peaceful, although with the rising Sassanid Empire and Germanic tribes threatening Roman power. What was worse and fatal for Severus Alexander was the breakdown of military discipline and continuous conspirations within the army. He was eventually assassinated by mutineers in Germania in 235, ending the Principate and beginning the Crisis of the Third Century that almost collapsed the Roman Empire.

THE VERDICT: I’m sure many of you had already heard about Romanization before, but it’s not an exceptional cultural phenomenon at all. There are actually many historical and current phenomenon of cultural assimilation that end with -zation. Hispanicization, Anglicization, Russification, even fucking Uzbekization and this is not a meme. But this is what happens with cultures, they can be transmitted in a more peaceful way, sometimes cultures can be imposed, but what’s common is that states try to expand their borders, their wealth and of course their culture. The desire to grow, expand and possess are the essence of human nature, and that’s how empires rise. And with that, The Verdict ends.

Many things to learn from this episode, right? What Romanization was and how it happened, which were the key industries of the economy of Hispania, how did Roman politics evolved and how that affected Spain… I hope you understood everything and learned things you didn’t know. If something wasn’t clear, relisten the episode or go to thehistoryofspain.com to read the script and see the images. In the website there’s also a list of books about the history of Spain and you can subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

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

THE ROMANIZATION OF CENTRAL SPAIN: COMPLEXITY, DIVERSITY AND CHANGE IN A PROVINCIAL HINTERLAND. Leonard A. Curchin

https://memoriasdeuntambor.com/hispania-romana

https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanizaci%C3%B3n_de_Hispania

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

https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/GERI/article/viewFile/GERI9393110271A/14512

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

Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance

This is episode 7 called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Why Rome took so much time conquering Hispania
  • What interests did Rome have in the Iberian Peninsula
  • What happened in the Iberian Revolt of 197-195 BC and why did Iberians revolt multiple times
  • What happened in the First and Second Celtiberian Wars
  • Which were the two major wars that were the turning point in the Roman conquest of Hispania: the pacification of Lusitania with the defeat of Viriathus and the Numantine War
  • The internal tensions in Italy and the causes of the fall of the Roman Republic
  • Why did Sertorius fled for Hispania
  • A brief talk about the civil wars that ended the Republican system
  • Why and how did Augustus completed the conquest of Hispania with the Cantabrian Wars in northern Spain
  • Reflections on the importance of the devotio

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 7, called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance. In this episode you will learn that the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was a long and arduous process that involved different rebellions and wars. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the Romans winning the Second Punic War and Rome becoming the most powerful state of the Mediterranean. But the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was a process that spanned two centuries, being by far the region that took them the longest to conquer. Why was that the case? Well, first of all Rome didn’t even control the entire Italian Peninsula when the Second Punic War started, in the south there were Greek colonies and Italian cities that betrayed Rome when the city showed weakness during the war, and in the north the Gauls threatened the Roman borders. Then you have to consider the size of the Iberian Peninsula, if you look at a map of Europe it may not seem that way, but the Iberian Peninsula doubles the size of the Italian Peninsula! The last reason is that, as you know if you listened to episode 5, the Iberian Peninsula was extremely politically divided.

phases roman conquest of hispania

I answered the question of why, but that brings up another question. What interests did Rome have in the Iberian Peninsula? Truth is, the Roman Republic didn’t show any special interest of conquest before the Second Punic War. Yes, they made alliances with the Greek city-states of Iberia, but the Romans didn’t even actively seek those alliances, the Greek city-states were the ones that asked for Roman aid because they were afraid of Carthage. Therefore, Rome only became interested in Hispania because Carthage used it as a power base to attack Rome. With Hispania in Roman hands, Rome deprived Carthage from a fundamental base to recruit troops and extract natural resources. The Carthaginians weren’t a threat now that the Romans had part of Hispania, but the Romans realized that the Iberian Peninsula could be exploited not only for geostrategic reasons, but also economic.

As Rome didn’t plan the annexation of the Carthaginian possessions of Spain, there were constitutional irregularities and hesitations at first. Even the command of Scipio Africanus in Hispania was irregular, but who would dare to speak up against the hero of Rome? What Hispania needed was a strong leadership, and that was made very clear when a revolt in modern Catalonia started during the Second Punic War. Scipio Africanus rightly stated that continuous military presence was needed, and he established permanent garrisons at Tarragona, Cartagena and Cádiz.

To better administer the newly conquered territory, Scipio Africanus divided Hispania in two provinces, Hispania Citerior or Nearer Spain with the capital in Tarragona, and Hispania Ulterior or Farther Spain with its capital in Córdoba. Roman administration was almost non-existent in the first decades, as they were mainly interested in the natural resources and economic exploitation through trade and taxes that the Peninsula could offer. Rome relied heavily on pacts with the natives and continuous military presence to keep Hispania in their hands. However, this control soon showed its weaknesses.

A new war started in Greece, a territory more important at the time that Rome wanted to control. Because of that and because the Second Punic War was over, the Republic decided to reduce the Roman legions in Hispania from 4 to 2. But the reduction of Roman military presence in Hispania proved fatal. The first proconsuls were changed every two years and lacked experience and interest to know the local population. That led to abuses of power, and soon the Iberians had enough. In 197 BC the peoples of the two Spanish provinces revolted simultaneously against the new power that conquered them. The uprising was general and massive, and with less than 20,000 Roman soldiers to face it, the praetor of Hispania Citerior was killed, and his army crushed.

Things didn’t look good for the Romans during 197 and 196 BC, but that year they won their war against Macedonia and the Senate was now able to focus its attention on what was happening in the West. Cato the Elder was sent to Hispania in 195 BC to solve the situation. For those who don’t know him, Cato the Elder was a traditionalist Roman who opposed the Greek ideas, and he represented the new landowner class that was ruthlessly exploiting the agricultural lands with slaves, something that would cause a social crisis during the last century of the Roman Republic. The situation was critical, so a total of between 50,000 and 70,000 Roman troops were gathered to put down the revolt. Cato entered the Iberian Peninsula through Emporion. There he achieved a major victory over the coalition of tribes, and because of that some tribes of the Ebro surrendered, gave hostages and freed the Roman prisoners of war. Then the praetors of Hispania Ulterior asked the urgent help of Cato the Elder and he used diplomacy to convince the Celtiberian mercenaries to not help the Turdetani of Ulterior in their revolt. The Iberian people were pacified at least, but Cato still had some time to send his army in unexplored Celtiberian territory to show the power of Rome.

cato the elder bust

A new revolt started in modern Catalonia, but he quickly put it down before leaving for Rome. There Cato the Elder received a triumph, as he had single-handedly finished the Iberian revolt and brought with him the greatest amount of gold and silver seen up to that moment. Cato is glorified in Roman historiography, and it’s not strange, since the path he opened was the one used in the future of Roman imperialism: Rome would use its military power to conquer new territories and systematically and brutally repress any resistance.

You may remember from episode 5 that Lusitanians and Vettones, as well as other natives of the interior and northern parts of Spain, were poor and had very unequal societies, something that encouraged brigandage. That’s a problem that the Romans faced early after their initial conquest, with constant attacks over the Guadalquivir and Ebro Valleys. Between 194 and 179 BC Roman legions pacified the conquered territories and made incursions into the Meseta and the homeland of the Celtiberians. Rome captured Toledo and advanced northwards along the Ebro Valley, making for the first time direct contact with the Vascones.

Eventually, the bellicose Celtiberians raised a confederate army of 35,000 men to oppose Roman expansionism, and the clash started the short First Celtiberian War. Even though this time the Celtiberians gathered an organized army of a considerable size, it wasn’t enough to stop Rome and they were continuously defeated. Tiberius Gracchus the Elder ended the war signing a series of treaties. Gracchus regulated for the first time tax collection to prevent abuse and established that the Celtiberian allies had to provide auxiliary troops and that they could not set up new fortified cities. You know, Rome was still organized as a city-state, and most expansionist actions were brought by the initiative and ambition of Roman generals. Generals administrated the territory in an authoritarian way, which allowed them to abuse the local population and that led to revolts. This continuous state of unrest in the Iberian Peninsula worried the Senate, but in this very same Senate praetors had friends and relatives that protected them. And not only praetors abused the locals, patricians and equites abused them as well. In case you didn’t know, patricians based their power on the ownership of land and equites, or knights, based their power on trade and taxation. Luckily for the Romans, the natives were very divided politically and exhausted after years of constant warfare, so most of the revolts against Roman power and abuses weren’t a threat to their interests.

After years of wars, it was time to stop expanding and focus on exploiting the two provinces of Hispania. Things were quiet for the next 30 years. Many natives started following the agrarian and urbanized lifestyle of the Romans. The Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula was on, and the presence of Italian soldiers and the arrival of settlers from Italy only accelerated the process. The Roman policy in Hispania in those peaceful decades focused on stabilizing the borders, preventing attacks from the tribes of the periphery to exploit economically the provinces. It’s paradoxical, because although the argument is defensive, you always have people that is bordering you, so by using this argument the militaristic and oligarchical Republic could expand indefinitely.

pre-numantine war map

Peace didn’t last long though. In 154 BC the Second Celtiberian War broke out, because a city of modern Aragon, Segeda, grew demographically and decided to expand their existing walls. Rome considered that Segeda was breaking the treaty arranged with Gracchus the Elder, even though that’s not what the treaty said. Why did the Roman Senate oppose that? The thing is that at the same time the Lusitanians and Vettones made an alliance to raze modern Western Andalusia, so the Romans feared a new widespread rebellion in Hispania. Before that could happen, Rome decided to declare war and fight a two-front war. Results were mixed at first, the Lusitanian coalition defeated the Romans in Hispania Ulterior and the Celtiberians effectively repelled the Romans in the first siege of Numantia. The praetor of Hispania Citerior decided to end the war, promising to return to the conditions of the previous treaty. The Celtiberians agreed, but the Senate refused to accept peace, as the Roman oligarchy wanted the total submission of the natives. Nonetheless, praetors and soldiers weren’t very happy to be sent to Hispania, as the land was famous for being dangerous. The new consul, Lucullus, was sent to Hispania to continue the war. He attacked the Celtic tribe next to the Celtiberians, a tribe that had never caused problems to Rome, that’s why Roman historiography qualifies his war as illegal and driven by greed for fame and money. And while he got nothing of that, he was never called to account for his illegal war either.

death of viriathus

The Second Celtiberian War ended then, but what about the Lusitanians and Vettones? The war there got really, really crude, as praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba, after being defeated, promised the Lusitanians peace and lands to make a living. With that proposal the Lusitanians agreed to meet Galba, but that son of a bitch ordered them to put down their weapons, surrounded the Lusitanians and massacred them. Very few survived, but among those who survived there was a man named Viriathus. In 147 BC Lusitanians attacked again but were defeated and sued for peace. But when the treaty was about to be sealed, Viriathus spoke to his people and reminded them that the word of a Roman was meaningless. The Lusitanians saw in him the leader they needed and elected Viriathus as their leader. Viriathus waged a long guerrilla war against Rome that proved extremely effective. But by 140 BC the Lusitanian peoples were exhausted and tried to make peace, a peace accepted by the praetor but not the Senate. Therefore, the war continued and in 139 BC the Roman praetor bribed three of Viriathus’ men to kill his leader while asleep. The action was considered shameful by the Senate, but the Lusitanian War soon ended after that. The pacification of Lusitania was a major step in the Roman conquest of Hispania, which allowed the Republic to advance towards Galicia. In 137 BC Rome achieved a major victory over the Galicians at the river Douro or Duero, although the Celtic region wasn’t totally conquered until the Cantabrian Wars under Emperor Augustus. With most of Galicia in their hands, many important mines of the Spanish Atlantic were now under Roman control.

But let’s go back to 143 BC. In that year Viriathus’ resistance was still strong and Celtiberians decided to rebel too. Therefore, the Third Celtiberian War, also known as the Numantine War, started. The consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus, who recently earned the title Macedonicus for his victories in Greece, was sent to Hispania with a 32,000-strong army. On paper, a large army led by a competent leader like him should have earned a quick victory over the Celtiberians, but the war was very different from the one in Greece. In Greece the consul fought cohesive states, but in Hispania tribes and chiefdoms were politically divided, so there wouldn’t be a decisive battle, but a series of battles and skirmishes. The consul attacked the region of the Vaccaei to cut the possible aid that they could bring to the Celtiberians. His successor attacked Numantia, the most important Celtiberian city that had around 10,000 inhabitants. Numantia was strategically located in a hill to control the region nearby as well as a crossing of the river Douro, in the Castilian region of modern Soria next to modern Aragon. After the Romans were repelled in Numantia, they tried to take the second most important city of the region, Termantia, but they weren’t able to do that either. Again, the new incompetent praetor had the idea to divert the river to starve the city to death, but the men who had this job were attacked by the Numantines. Things didn’t look well, as the cold winter approached, and many men caught dysentery. The end of the annual term of the praetor was approaching, so the praetor decided to make peace with the Numantines. When the new praetor arrived, the previous one denied having made peace without the consent of the Senate, therefore hostilities restarted.

roman movements meseta

The next two years were more quiet, Roman attacks on Numantia failed so again Rome attacked the poor Vaccaei. Attacking this tribe became a habit when attacking Numantia was failing. In 137 BC consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus took charge of the situation. His leadership was a disaster, he lost multiple battles against the Numantines, then false rumors reached him saying that the Cantabri and Vaccaei were coming to aid the Numantines… And how did Mancinus react? Doing what Strategy 101 teaches not to do: panic. He ordered a retreat and the Roman army ended up surrounded by the Numantines. Luckily for the Romans, the Numantines were too noble and naïve, and offered the Romans peace when it was the perfect moment to destroy their army. Every treaty had to recognize the Roman supremacy, and in this one the Numantines stipulated that they had equal rights in relation to the Romans. The Senate couldn’t recognize such a humiliating treaty, even though the common people were unhappy and exhausted at home. The Senate ordered the new consul to hand Mancinus over the Numantines completely naked and with his hands tied behind his back. The Numantines refused to let him in and Mancinus returned to Rome and lost his citizenship.

The next three consuls didn’t attack Numantia and again they attacked the surrounding areas, without much success. The Roman army was undisciplined and discontented, and Rome needed a competent man to end the campaign. The man chosen for that mission was Scipio Aemilianus, a relative of Scipio Africanus. Scipio Aemilianus had already commanded the Roman Army in the Third Punic War and destroyed Carthage, and he had also participated in campaigns in Celtiberia, therefore he was the only possible choice in 134 BC. Nonetheless, the Senate was envious of the growing popularity of Scipio Aemilianus just as it happened with Scipio Africanus, and they didn’t give him the army he needed. Volunteers could join him though, and many prominent men did so: Gaius Marius who would become a very important consul, the future king of Numidia Jugurtha, historian Polybius or satirist Gaius Lucilius. The first thing Scipio did was restore discipline by strictly enforcing rules of austerity and by organizing though exercises. Once the army had the moral renewed, the Roman army attacked the Vaccaei tribes again to then build a circuit of fortifications to surround completely Numantia. The walls were three meters high and more than 2 meters wide, and while they were building that the Numantines of course attacked, but the Romans repelled their attacks thanks to a witty system of communications. Furthermore, Scipio Aemilianus ordered to close the affluent of the Douro. All the actions had one objective: to starve Numantia to death.

siege of numantia encirclement camps

A brave warrior called Rhetogenes was able to escape and ask the towns nearby for help, but all the major cities refused out of fear. Only one town offered to help, but the elders of the village warned Scipio and he ordered the amputation of the hands of the young people of that village. Yep, the Romans were brutal. After years of constant attacks and months under siege, Numantia was starving. The majority of the Numantines killed themselves, refusing to be enslaved as the few that didn’t commit suicide were. As I talked in earlier episodes, that can be seen as an act of patriotism, but it also could be explained by the social institution that was the devotio. In any case, the heroic last stand inspired both Roman and Spanish people for generations and even Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, wrote a playwright about the siege. The destruction of Numantia in 133 BC, together with the victory over the Lusitanians, were a turning point in the Roman conquest of Hispania. Now that all the major focuses of resistance were controlled, only the few northern tribes of Spain could offer resistance.

For the next 50 years, Hispania enjoyed relative peace. There were a few rebellions here and there, problems with Lusitanian brigandage, but nothing too serious. The only notable conquest was that of the Balearic Islands in 123 BC, under the pretext of fighting the pirates that used the islands as their base. Meanwhile, the Roman Republic had many social problems and other wars to fight, like the Servile Wars, the Social War between Roman and Italic cities or the Cimbrian War against the Germanic tribes that were migrating in allied Roman territories. With the populist policies of the Gracchus brothers of giving away grain to the plebeians, Sicily and Hispania became the breadbaskets of Rome. Apart from grain and mineral resources, Hispania provided a constant flux of slaves to the slave agrarian economy of Rome. A senatorial commission was sent during this period to reorganize Hispania, because the constant warfare caused the migration of peoples and devastation of many areas. The commission had to deal with very important matters like how to redistribute lands, delimiting the borders of the Roman provinces or how to tax fairly and efficiently. We have very little information about what was happening during those 50 years, but it’s clear that there were areas, especially the most economically important, that were very Romanized at this point.

As I mentioned earlier, social tensions skyrocketed after the Numantine War in Rome, social inequality was very high, and the patricians and equites were enriching themselves while the lower and middle classes were suffering the consequences of the Roman slave economy and expansion.  The Marian reforms issued by Gaius Marius improved the military capability of the Roman Army and accelerated the process of Romanization by giving lands to retired legionaries in conquered lands. At the same time, this helped shift the loyalty of the soldiers more towards their general than towards the Roman Republic, something that would ultimately lead to the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire. The crisis of the Republic allowed someone like Sulla to march on Rome and become dictator. The political tensions were on a scale never seen before, that’s why many political leaders went into exile in Hispania. Why Hispania? Well, the Iberian Peninsula is relatively close to Italy, some parts of Hispania were very Romanized already and the provinces had enough manpower to raise an army if needed.

Quintus Sertorius was the most notable politician to flee for Hispania. He fled first to North Africa in the region of Mauritania, modern-day Morocco, as he was persecuted for being a politician of the Populares faction which favored the plebeians. His victories there earned him fame in Hispania, especially among the Lusitanians. The Lusitanians were tired of being plundered and oppressed, and they asked Sertorius to become the supreme general of their forces. Sertorius accepted, probably not because he cared about the Lusitanians, but because it was his chance to grow his power and challenge Sulla with a power base in Hispania. I highlight that because nationalists have sometimes presented Sertorius as an anti-Roman separatist, while that’s for sure not the case since he was Roman and he wanted to defeat Sulla to control Rome. As I said, for him Hispania was his power base but nothing more, just like the Peninsula was the power base used by Carthage in the Second Punic War to combat Rome.

sertorian war map

In Hispania he created a parallel political structure in imitation to that of Rome, challenging the legitimacy of the aristocratic government of Sulla. Populist politicians, victims of the dictator and Spanish oppressed natives felt that it was in their best interests to support Sertorius. Sertorius used guerrilla tactics to defeat forces larger than his, and everyone quickly noticed his great military skills. Soon he was known as the new Hannibal, and he went from victory after victory until he conquered most of Hispania Citerior. Lusitanians, Celtiberians and Iberians followed him, and Sertorius sealed their loyalty with pacts of devotio. Sulla died, but the aristocratic party remained in power by adopting some populist policies. A young and skilled Pompey assumed the mission to crush Sertorius, but it wasn’t as easy as he initially thought. The war was one of exhaustion for both sides, but after several years of war the followers of Sertorius were more exhausted than the other side and a general betrayed and assassinated Sertorius in 72 BC. Thus, the long nightmare of the Roman government ended.

Pompey put down many rebellions and pacified entire provinces of the Roman Republic. He was a caudillo that wanted to earn the admiration of both the Republic and the plebeians to gain power. But after fighting against pirates in the Mediterranean and conquering multiple areas of the Near East, the oligarchical Senate refused to recognize his victories. He was a hero, much like Scipio Africanus or Scipio Aemilianus, that’s why he was a threat to the Roman political system. What’s paradoxical here is that the opposition of his former patrons brought the ambitious Julius Caesar and Pompey together. The end of the Republic was coming. Not only Pompey had many important friends and the support of the common people and the army, he had also developed strong personal loyalties in Hispania. Nonetheless Julius Caesar was appointed propraetor of Hispania Ulterior in 62 BC, and he also created a network of loyalties by being generous to his soldiers. But going back to the point, Julius Caesar, Pompey and the richest man of Rome were the members of the so-called first triumvirate. During this period Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and Pompey became worried about the growing popularity of Caesar. Despite that, Pompey decided to stay in Rome because he took for granted his network of loyalties in Hispania. Fatal mistake.

There were too many cooks in the kitchen and only one could be the leader of the Republic. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, starting a civil war. Pompey and the Senate fled to Greece, Caesar marched to Hispania and the Pompeian legions of Hispania were defeated or switched sides. The decision of Caesar proved correct, he marched against a leaderless army before attacking a general without army. The victory of Julius Caesar benefited greatly Hispania, but more on that in the next episode. After the famous assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed a triumvirate. There was a civil war later between Octavian and Mark Antony, but that civil war didn’t affect Hispania at all since there was complete loyalty to the heir of Julius Caesar, Octavian. Octavian won the civil war, he founded the Roman Empire in 27 BC and the rest is history.

But wait there, don’t leave, because the Roman conquest of Hispania had yet to finish. The north of the Iberian Peninsula had to be conquered, and Octavian Augustus had many plans for Hispania. The conquest of the Peninsula had to be completed, if Julius Caesar conquered in less than a decade Gaul, Augustus needed to achieve something greater than Caesar. He already did something great, he incorporated a rich country like Egypt into the new-born Roman Empire. But the conquest of all Hispania would end two centuries of continuous war and problems. How great was that? In addition to that, the northern region was rich in mineral resources, that were indispensable for the exhausted finances of the empire. He had to be the one achieving that.

cantabrian wars

Much like the Lusitanians or Celtiberians earlier, the Astures and Cantabrians razzed their neighbors because they were poor. They attacked tribes under the protection of Rome and that gave Augustus the perfect pretext to start a war. The Cantabrian Wars started in 29 BC, and the war there was going to be long and complicated, because the region is mountainous and the locals had the important advantage of knowing the terrain. Since that region doesn’t have many suitable agricultural lands, it was a complicated campaign in terms of logistics. Augustus personally led the campaign in 26 BC, and more than 70k soldiers loyal to the Emperor joined him. The Cantabrians used guerrilla tactics that irritated Augustus, and he left ill the campaign. For two years Tarragona, in Hispania Citerior, became de facto the administrative capital of the empire. That widely benefited the city and to thank the Emperor it was the first city to erect a temple in his honor, starting the imperial cult. In 24 BC Augustus considered Hispania pacified and held a triumph march in Rome. Despite that, the war continued, or at least local resistance existed. In 22 BC thousands of Cantabrians were surrounded and many killed themselves while others were captured and sold into slavery. Resistance and attacks continued, and Augustus said enough is enough and decided to send Agrippa, his close friend and general, to end the resistance. Agrippa exterminated the Cantabrians in military age, and the Astures surrendered. The conquest of Hispania was completed in 19 BC. It was time to reorganize Hispania and triple down on the integration of the region into the Roman Empire.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to highlight the importance of the devotio both in the wars of native resistance and in wars side by side with Romans. Large networks of patronage explain last stands like Numantia or Calagurris, a town that was loyal to Sertorius until Pompey completely destroyed it. The massive suicides of the Cantabrians can also be explained by the devotio, probably some patrons were killed or decided that it was better to commit suicide than to be enslaved, so the devoti had to kill themselves too. Roman generals realized how useful Spanish soldiers were for that and many employed devoti as personal guards. Romans used that social institution to their benefit in other ways, by convincing a patron to swear allegiance to Rome Romans could gain hundreds of allies with little effort, and imperial cult was very strong in Hispania because of devotio. Better to have a loyal and devoted soldier than thousands that can abandon you any time. And with that, The Verdict ends.

As I said, the next episode will be focused on the Romanization of Hispania and the political and economic evolution of Hispania during the Principate, the imperial period before the Crisis of the Third Century. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. VOLUMEN 1. HISPANIA ANTIGUA. Domingo Plácido

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

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

Roman Conquest of Hispania: Second Punic War

This is episode 6 called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Second Punic War and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Which were the two rising Mediterranean powers: Carthage and Rome
  • Why was Carthage interested in controlling Spain
  • How and why the Second Punic War started
  • Which was the Hannibal’s strategy to win the war
  • How did Rome almost fall
  • About the hopes of winning with the campaigns of Scipio Africanus in Spain and the decisive Battle of Illipa in 206 BC
  • How did the Second Punic War end
  • How the war affected Spain and the long-term impact of the Second Punic War for Rome and Hispania
  • Reflections about an alternative scenario where Carthage wins the war

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 6, called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Second Punic War. In this episode we abandon the Prehistory and Protohistory and start the Ancient Era. Because of that it’s going to be a very narrative and entertaining episode compared to the previous ones. You will learn the story of the Second Punic War, a war between two emerging Mediterranean powers, Carthage and Rome, and the implications that that had for Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

Two powers emerged between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, one in each side of the Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome. After the fall of the old Phoenician metropolis of Tyre, Carthage, in modern-day Tunis, assumed the leadership of the Phoenician settlements of the Western Mediterranean, and they expanded their power through both trade and military action. Rome, on the other hand, relied more on the military and land-property interests to expand themselves rather than trade and naval power. Already in 509 BC, when the Roman Republic was founded, Carthage and Rome made a treaty to determine their areas of influence. At that time, Carthage was much more powerful than Rome, the Punics had influence over the entire North African coast, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and of course the southern and levant regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile Rome didn’t even have complete control over the Italian Peninsula.

Nonetheless the weak situation of Rome changed during the course of the 4th century BC, and by the 3rd century BC Rome was a threat to Carthaginian interests. The clash of interests over Sicily resulted in the 23-years-long First Punic War that exhausted economically and demographically both powers, but the Roman Republic won. Carthage lost first Sicily and then Sardinia and Corsica as well. But even worse was that Carthage couldn’t pay its mercenary soldiers due to the economic exhaustion and the high indemnities imposed by Rome, which caused the Mercenary War that almost destroyed Carthage. Punic naval power declined as well and the Carthaginian oligarchy had to do something to make up the territorial and economic losses, so the Punic oligarchy debated about what should they do next. The landowner class wanted to renounce to any military action that could cause a new conflict with Rome, they preferred to focus their attention in controlling North Africa and maybe expand westwards to Numidia and Mauritania, modern-day Algeria and Morocco. But then you had the powerful families that had enriched themselves with maritime trade that wanted to expand overseas. The mercantile faction led by Hamilcar Barca of the Barcid family won the debate and the Carthaginian senate allowed the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

map second punic war

Therefore, in 237 BC Hamilcar Barca and his army got ashore Cádiz and started their military conquest in southern Iberia. He came along with his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair and his son Hannibal, who was at the time 9 years old. Hamilcar focused his initial campaign in conquering the territories that used to be Tartessos, with its fertile lands and still important mineral resources. There they fought the Iberians and Turdetani. The Turdetani who opposed Punic expansion hired Celtic and Celtiberian mercenaries. Carthaginian troops defeated them, killed the leaders of the confederate army and incorporated 3,000 of them into their army. Hamilcar gained control over the mines of Sierra Morena and the lands of the Guadalquivir River in a year. That allowed Hamilcar Barca to pay his army, pay part of the indemnities imposed by Rome and buy loyalties. But Carthaginian expansion eastwards proved more difficult. It took 4 years to control the area that is now Murcia and Alicante. Rome already warned Carthage in 229 BC to not advance towards the Iberian Levant because the cities of Emporion and Sagunto asked for Roman aid. Hamilcar replied saying that he was collecting the booty to pay the indemnities, and the Romans left the Carthaginians alone for some years.

Hamilcar moved his campaign to the northwest, in what’s now northeastern Andalusia, where he fought the Oretani tribes led by Orissus. Orissus apparently offered him an alliance to later betray him, as he killed Hamilcar in battle in 228 BC. His son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair succeeded him and founded the most important strategic base of the Carthaginians in Iberia, Carthago Nova in the region of Murcia. Hasdrubal preferred diplomacy rather than war, so he arranged pacts and marriages with the native elites to pacify the conquered territories. He even signed a treaty with the Roman Republic in 226 BC that delimited the boundaries of the two powers in the Iberus River, which is not clear whether it means the Ebro or the Júcar, which would make sense since the city of Sagunto that is below the Ebro asked for Roman protection. In any case, Hasdrubal was killed in 221 BC by a former slave of Celtic king Tagus, who avenged his dead master. Yeah, a truly moving story of loyalty.

Before I continue with the narrative, let me talk a bit about how the Carthaginians managed the occupied territories to fuel the war machine. The conquered regions were forced to give soldiers, hostages and slaves to the Carthaginians. Punic advanced techniques were implemented in agriculture and mining to increase production, and they also developed the shipbuilding, salting and minting industries in Cádiz and Carthago Nova. Their way to govern the conquered lands is clear: they brought their technologies with them to improve the efficiency of production and either enslaved the local populations or arranged pacts with the local elites.

At the age of 25, Hannibal Barca became the Supreme Commander of the Carthaginian Army, an army made up of professional North African, Balearic and Iberian and Celtic soldiers. Really makes you think that great commanders like Alexander or Hannibal accomplished many things while being young, while most of us haven’t done shit at that age. Anyway, he started his campaign by marching north, where he fought and defeated the Celts and Celtiberians of the Meseta. In the winter of 220 BC Hannibal was planning something no one was expecting. He planned with his brothers the invasion of Italy to revenge the Carthaginian defeat of the First Punic War.

The Second Punic War started in 218 BC, because Hannibal attacked the city of Sagunto that was somehow under the protection of Rome. The causes of the attack and the justification for the war have been a matter of controversy for centuries. The citizens of Sagunto weren’t saints, they raided territories that were under Punic control, so it’s understandable that the Carthaginians could be pissed off. The Romans declared war claiming that Carthage had violated the Ebro Treaty signed a few years before, but it’s not clear if Sagunto was included in the treaty. In any case, the siege of Sagunto lasted 8 months and the Carthaginian troops sacked the city. The city wasn’t destroyed though, as Roman sources try to make us believe. Another very interesting fact is that Rome didn’t aid their supposed allies, they only declared war on Carthage after they heard that the city had fallen and, more importantly, after they had come up with a strategic plan.

About the strategic plans that both sides came up with, we first have the Hannibal strategy that consisted in marching fast and undetected to the Roman homeland, crossing the Alps to then destroy Rome. Hannibal split the army, the majority followed him, but some soldiers needed to remain in Iberia and Carthage. The Carthaginian plan depended on speed and the surprise effect to be successful, but also on the capacity of Hannibal to provoke a revolt among the Italian cities and towns to give a final blow to Rome. On the other hand, the two Roman consuls planned to march one to Iberia through the coasts of southern France, while the other would move to Sicily to then attack Carthage itself. Here is an important detail to know about Roman politics, the senate elected each year two consuls that had the same power, and those consuls were also the supreme commanders of the Roman military. This dual system of course caused disagreements and all sorts of problems, but worse was the yearly term, especially in times of war, because that generated incentives to make stupid military moves for the sake of personal glory. More on that in a second.

hannibal crossing the alps

So, Hannibal marched from Carthago Nova northwards, first defeating the tribes of Catalonia and then crossing the Pyrenees. The Carthaginian Army took an inland route to travel through France, because they didn’t want the Romans or their Greek allies of Massalia to notice them. But the Romans did detect them, and Publius Cornelius Scipio, the consul that had to attack Carthaginian possessions in Iberia, returned to Rome to protect the Roman homeland. The Carthaginian Army was able to cross the Alps under the leadership of Hannibal, something that no one was expecting considering the difficulties of the terrain and that they crossed it when the cold winter was approaching. Take into account that Hannibal was brining thousands of men with him as well as war elephants, so it was a real accomplishment and that’s why it’s a very epic event of world military history. When the news of such an unthinkable action reached Rome, the Roman Senate panicked and the plan to invade the core North African territories of Carthage was aborted. Consul Sempronius Longus joined Scipio and they faced together Hannibal, in a desperate attempt to defeat Hannibal before they were replaced as consuls. The Battle of the Trebia River was the result of that impulsiveness, and of the 42,000 soldiers of the Roman Republic that participated in the battle, only 10,000 managed to retreat. 218 BC was a fantastic year for Hannibal, not only had he defeated the Romans but he was also making alliances with the Gauls, Celts and other people who had recently been conquered by Rome or that felt threatened because of them.

In the following year, new consuls were elected but they were also defeated, most prominently in the Battle of Lake Trasimene. This battle is one of the largest ambushes in military history, and it’s because of his creativity that Hannibal has been so praised in military history. With around 50 or 60,000 men, he killed or captured the entire Roman Army that was made up of 30,000 men. Hannibal held captive those who were Romans and released those who weren’t, to brand himself as a liberator and fighter for freedom against Rome. After the Battle of Lake Trasimene, the Romans panicked, and the Senate decided to appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator. A dictator for the Roman Republic, that is before the transition to the Roman Empire, was a man entrusted with full authority but with some limitations to avoid the end of the Republican system. Within months or a few years, the dictator abandoned that position and everything got back to normal. Fabius famously adopted the so-called Fabian strategy of avoiding pitched battles and open battles, and instead provoke skirmishes that exhausted the enemy. He was called a coward for that and some thought that he only adopted this kind of strategy because he couldn’t come up with anything better.

Due to his unpopularity, new consuls were elected in 216 BC, consuls that adopted a more aggressive approach. The Roman Republic raised an army of 86,000 soldiers to confront Hannibal, who was failing to get support from the Italian people. But all that was for nothing, because this very large army by Ancient standards was led by incompetent generals. The Battle of Cannae is the most well-known victory of the Carthaginians. Hannibal accomplished his greatest military feat, destroying most of the Roman Army with his powerful cavalry and superior tactics. Estimates of the casualties vary, ancient historians like Livy said that Rome suffered more than 60,000 casualties, while modern historians lower that number to maybe 20,000. In any case, the battle was a disaster for Rome and many feared that Rome would fell. The city was on the brink of collapse. The Roman Legions had suffered defeat after defeat, some Italian regions were devastated due to the supply needs of both the Carthaginians and Romans, their morale was very low, and Romans were so desperate that they briefly restored human sacrifice. The Greek colonies and some Italian cities of southern Italy, Macedonia in Greece and the small independent Sicilian state of Syracuse all joined Hannibal. Few believed that the Roman Republic could survive, and everyone wanted to divide the spoils of the Roman Republic.

Yet Hannibal believed that he couldn’t attack Rome yet, because he had an army of around 40,000 and Rome itself had 200,000 inhabitants and still many allied cities and towns. Hannibal offered peace, but the Roman Senate rejected it. With the alliances Hannibal made with some coastal cities, Carthage was able to send reinforcements for the first and only time. Hannibal was basically acting without the support of Carthage, he used the manpower that was left from the initial expedition plus the natives he could ally himself with. Meanwhile, the Roman Senate turned again to Quintus Fabius Maximus and elected him consul in 215 and 214 BC. His strategy may have been the right one, they thought. Even though Carthage was conquering some cities, the Romans at least defeated the Carthaginian expedition to Sardinia, an island that was important to feed Rome, and they also prevented Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, to join him, since the Romans defeated Hasdrubal in Iberia.

In 213 and 212 BC two good things happened to Rome: they allied with Syphax, a king of Numidia, and they laid siege and captured Syracuse in Sicily. The Carthaginians were losing the initiative and the momentum they used to have. There were hopes for Rome. Oh, but wait because now there is an unexpected and dramatic turn of events, Hannibal captures the largest Greek city in Italy, Tarentum. Furthermore, the Romans are being defeated in their homeland and the Roman legions located in Iberia are struggling to maintain their position in Catalonia.

Now to continue with what was happening in Spain, the old Scipios captured Sagunto and they were able to hire 20,000 Celtiberian warriors. They launched a major offensive in 211 BC and Hasdrubal and Mago, brothers of Hannibal that led the Carthaginians in Iberia, had to not only keep their position but to try to decisively defeat the Romans in the Peninsula. Remember that Carthage wasn’t sending any reinforcements to Hannibal in Italy, so to have the chance of destroying Rome Hannibal needed the armies of his brothers. The Barca brothers actually managed to crush the Roman Army of Hispania and to kill the old Scipios in the Battle of the Upper Baetis. For the time being, the remaining Roman Army had to go back to its initial position in Catalonia. Who was going to lead them now? Although they were stabilized and reinforced by a general named Gaius Claudius Nero, it was the young son of Publius Scipio the one who replaced him. He would be known as Scipio Africanus, but he hadn’t earned that nickname yet.

Scipio Africanus wanted to avenge his father, keep his legacy alive and save the Roman Republic. He raised a 31,000 strong army, marched south and captured the base of Carthaginian operations in Iberia, Carthago Nova. He slaughtered its inhabitants, its riches were sacked, and the Spanish hostages were liberated to gain more allies. Moving to Italy, the Romans were successful in securing their control over Sicily and in the Italian mainland the war was essentially in a stalemate. Meanwhile, remember that Macedonia also declared war on Rome, and the Roman Republic relied on their Greek allies to fight for them. As in Spain, the Macedonians couldn’t breakthrough and that prevented them from aiding Hannibal in Italy.

It was clear that the Romans had their composure back, while the Carthaginians were making little progress. Hasdrubal was defeated by Scipio, but he was able to cross the Pyrenees and march towards Italy to reinforce the army of his brother and decisively crush Rome. I briefly mentioned Gaius Claudius Nero earlier, but it’s in Italy where he critically participated. This consul prevented the existence of a combined Hannibal and Hasdrubal army that would have been almost impossible to defeat. He tricked the master of tricks and while the lion was distracted, Claudius Nero joined forces with another Roman general and defeated and killed Hasdrubal Barca. The Battle of the Metaurus was a turning point of the Second Punic War, as Hasdrubal was killed and Hannibal was forced to retreat to the Southern Italian region of Calabria.

With Hannibal in a weak position in Italy, the Romans decided to leave him alone, avoid a costly frontal battle and focus on the other major theatre of the war, the Iberian Peninsula. The young and smart Scipio had been forging alliances and hiring native warriors for some time, and the time for a critical action in Spain had arrived. The Iberians, Celts and Celtiberian tribes were massively defecting the Carthaginian side, and the only territories the Punics still controlled were the lands of the south. They were soon to even lose those territories as well. Scipio had a combined Italian-Spanish army of around 50,000 men when he faced and defeated an equally large Carthaginian army led by Hannibal’s brother Mago. The defeat in the Battle of Ilipa of 206 BC was catastrophic for Carthage, and it was the decisive battle that sealed the outcome of the war. Even the old Phoenician colony of Cádiz revolted against Carthage at this point. Scipio had to face an Iberian revolt led by Indibilis and Mandonius, but they were quickly put down. The Iberians had to accept their new rulers, because nothing would be like it had been before the Second Punic War started. Mago Barca attempted to recapture Carthago Nova, but he failed. Scipio didn’t wait to pay a visit to the Numidian Kings Syphax and Masinissa. Syphax used to be an ally of Rome but switched sides, but Masinissa did the reverse, giving Rome the Numidian cavalry that was so highly regarded.

But what was next? Should Rome sign a treaty in favorable conditions? Should they focus on annihilating the remaining forces of Hannibal in Italy? Or should they attack Carthage itself in North Africa? The Roman Senate had disagreements, in part because Scipio was elected consul at the age of 31 in 205 BC, and many senators, including Quintus Fabius, were envious and questioned the ambitions of Scipio. He was already very popular because he secured the former Carthaginian possessions of Hispania for Rome, but what if he campaigned in Africa and destroyed Carthage? The glory of such an action would make him extremely powerful. Therefore, the Senate decided to not give him more troops that the ones stationed in Sicily. But due to his popularity, Scipio was able to hire more men and ships that the ones Rome gave him.

Scipio get away with his desired African campaign, he landed near Carthage, put the city of Utica under siege and set on fire the camp of the Carthaginians and Numidians of Syphax, slaughtering most of the Carthaginian army with a not very honorable but effective move. Scipio Africanus then chased down another Carthaginian and Numidian army, capturing King Syphax and helping King Masinissa unite Numidia under him. The Carthaginians were very worried, and some wanted to sue for peace while others wanted Hannibal and the rest of the Carthaginian army of Italy to go back home and protect the motherland. Carthage and Rome were arranging an armistice in 203 BC and Scipio proposed moderate peace terms, but Hannibal was recalled from Italy and once he arrived the Carthaginian senators that wanted to keep the war going won popularity and peace negotiations stopped. Hannibal and Scipio fought a final battle in 202 BC, the Battle of Zama. In this battle, Rome had for the first time cavalry superiority thanks to the Numidians, and although the battle was fierce and bloody, Scipio Africanus managed to win. After the battle, Hannibal convinced the few that still wanted the war to continue to stop and negotiate peace.

The Roman Senate wanted the destruction of Carthage and the death of Hannibal and his family, but Scipio instead offered more acceptable terms. The Carthaginians were banned to raise an army without Roman permission, their naval fleet was severely limited and they would have to pay an indemnity. Carthage lost all their Spanish possessions, and the Romans were able to keep the former Carthaginian Spanish territories under their control, except for the Balearic Islands that would take a little longer to conquer.

Now, since this podcast is called The History of Spain Podcast, let’s focus on the influence the Second Punic War had in the Iberian Peninsula. The conquered part of the peninsula was divided in two provinces, Hispania Citerior in the north and Hispania Ulterior In the south. The tribes that lived in what used to be Carthaginian Hispania lost their political autonomy, they had to pay taxes to the Romans and the Senate could ask for extraordinary contributions or the recruitment of auxiliary troops any time. Only Ampurias, Sagunto and Málaga maintained their status of free cities for some time as a reward for their collaboration. Nonetheless, the Romans in the initial phase of the conquest were very respectful with the local oligarchies. Rome essentially practiced exploitation colonialism, which means that with few colonists they kept the Iberian territories under their control to exploit the natural resources, manpower and trade opportunities to benefit the metropole. And how did they do that? Mainly using military force but also with the arrangement of pacts and marriages. But we will see in the next episode that the domination of Hispania wouldn’t be easy for Rome.

THE VERDICT: Okay, I know that this is alternate history stuff but, what if Carthage won the Second Punic War and destroyed Rome? The entire history of Europe would be incredibly different, I mean, the consequences of that are of such a magnitude that are almost unthinkable. Maybe more Oriental ideas would have influenced Europe, or maybe trade, instead of militarism, would have influenced more heavily European cultures. Would we even have Christianity and Islam, or Latin languages? But the survival of the Roman Republic and the conquest of the Carthaginian territories of Hispania provoked the rise of an unstoppable Roman imperialism that would eventually transform the Republic into an Empire, and change Europe, North Africa and the Near East forever. Carthage was a bit like Germany in the Second World War. They lost the first, they sought revenge and they were crushed again, this time much more decisively. In the end, I think that the chances of Carthage winning were lower than thus of Rome. The fact that it was mostly a defensive war for the Romans also created stronger loyalties, which is easy to understand because if you saw those foreign Carthaginians sacking and razing your region, would you be happy to collaborate with them? Would you see them as liberators? Carthage didn’t treat the rest of North Africans as equals and relied on a less-devoted mercenary force to combat, while Rome had more citizens and strong alliances with other Italians. That’s why Hannibal, speaking in broad terms, didn’t succeed in convincing the Italians outside Rome to join him, and that’s also why the Roman Republic could raise a new army every time they were severely defeated. And with that, The Verdict ends.

The Second Punic War supposed the unstoppable rise of one Mediterranean power, the Roman Republic, and the critical defeat of the other one, the Republic of Carthage. Never again Carthage supposed a serious threat to Rome, even though there was the Third Punic War, but that one was very asymmetrical and supposed the existential destruction of Carthage. Anyway, Rome consolidated its presence not only in Italy, but expanded or critically gained influence in Hispania, Africa and Greece. With the decline of Carthage as a trading power, Rome grew economically too, even though many parts of Italy and especially the south had been razed by the Carthaginian Army. That also brought social changes like the rise of the equites, a social class that unlike patricians could participate in trade, more and more poor common people and slaves moved to Rome, which increased social tensions, and Greek culture started influencing substantially Roman culture. Only time showed how relevant was the Second Punic War and how important would be Rome for Spain. 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 and a list of books about the history of Spain available on Amazon. 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. LA ESPAÑA ROMANA Y VISIGODA. Planeta

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. HISPANIA ANTIGUA. Domingo Plácido

“EL IMPACTO DE LA CONQUISTA DE HISPANIA EN ROMA (218-154 a.C.)”. José María Blázquez Martínez

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KydeB-faeE8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueiAqnVD3IQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a3-KsyyJR8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lf0-Yki5p40

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT_rev5VAQc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT_rev5VAQc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McT1H-NVCMQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3yIiAZgQLI

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

Second Iron Age: Iberians, Celts and other Pre-Roman peoples

This is episode 5 called Second Iron Age: Iberians, Celts and other Pre-Roman peoples and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Everything about the Pre-Indo-European Iberians: Iberian alphabets, urbanism, warfare and weapons, society and politics, traditions, religion, burial costumes and trade
  • Everything about the Indo-European Celts: Celtic economy, social institutions, warfare, religion, urbanism, cultures and society
  • The Celtiberians, who were famous for being ferocious and brave warriors
  • The ancient Basques, the Vascones
  • Reflections on the manipulation about the Basque identity and ethnicity done by Basque nationalism

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 5, called Second Iron Age: Iberians, Celts and other Pre-Roman peoples. In this episode you will learn about the native cultures that were coexisting in the Iberian Peninsula before the Roman conquest of Hispania. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

The first thing I would like to mention is that we must understand the ethnic, linguistic or other kind of differences I will mention here not in a strict sense, but in broad terms. The Pre-Roman cultures and peoples I will talk about today didn’t have states as we think of them today, they didn’t have strict borders, instead they were very fluid cultures that were, to a higher or lower degree, interconnected, and that sometimes intermixed. There were two major ethnic groups in the Iberian Peninsula before the Carthaginian and Roman invasions, the Iberians and the Celts. We also have the Celtiberians that were a mixed group, and the proto-Basques whose origins are still under investigation.

Pre-Roman Iberia

The Iberians were Pre-Indo-European peoples of the Neolithic stock that populated the Mediterranean side of the Iberian Peninsula, and their culture started around the 5th century BC. Iberian culture was a bit influenced by Phoenician and Greek cultures, as we can easily see in their artistic works. What we know as Iberians though is not a unified group of peoples, but different tribes of each area of the Spanish Mediterranean that shared similar characteristics. For instance, in the Iberian territory there were multiple languages and writing systems. We know the sounds of the characters of the Iberian scriptures, but not their meaning since archeologists haven’t found an Iberian Rosetta Stone. Apart from the Greco-Iberian alphabet that used the Ionic variant of the Greek alphabet, the rest of scripts, the Northeastern Iberian, Southeastern Iberian, Tartessian and Celtiberian scripts were semi-syllabaries, which means that their writing systems were a mix of an alphabet and a syllabary. The difference is that alphabets represent phonemes and syllabaries represent syllables to make up words. It was only between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD that the Iberian language disappeared, as well as the other paleohispanic languages, since they were all replaced by Latin.

To learn about the Iberian peoples, we need to rely more on archeology rather than literature, because all the literature about them is Greco-Roman and is biased. I mean, it’s not like the Romans or Carthaginians made an anthropological study about them before their conquests. So yeah, this episode will not be narrative, just like the previous one.

Anyway, let’s get started. Iberians usually settled and built their towns on heights to easily defend the territory, and their towns could have walls too. This kind of urbanism is called oppidum and was found all over Europe. A very interesting fact is that cities that had an influence over their region controlled the area nearby by founding small towns or building disperse houses. Cities even used sculptures that represented heroic acts to justify their expansion and influence. Their architecture and urbanism were not as advanced as the earlier Tartessian urbanism, but compared to their neighbors, the Celts, they were more urbanized and less pastoralist.

They didn’t have advanced military technology like catapults until the Second Punic War, but Iberians were known as ferocious warriors that attracted the attention of foreign powers looking for mercenaries. Iberian warfare was endemic and made between tribes, to raid and pillage. Iberians stood out for their ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and the infantry used hit-and-run tactics. Now talking about their weapons, the falcata stands out as it’s the characteristic Pre-Roman sword of the Iberian tribes. The falcata has a single-edged blade that pitches forwards towards the point, the edge being concave near the hilt, but convex near the point, and they don’t only surprise by their shape, but also by the quality of the iron. The famous Gladius Hispaniensis inspired the Roman military to adopt those swords after the Punic Wars in their Republican Army. See an image of a falcata in your podcast player, on thehistoryofspain.com or looking it up on Google. Iberian soldiers also used spears, javelins, they had both small and large shields, and Iberian horsemen were highly regarded.

iberian falcata

On another note, Iberian society was as stratified as any other urbanized society at the time, with its kings or chieftains, nobles, priests, artisans, peasants and slaves. The nobles met in councils and chieftains maintained their power through a system of vassalage and servitude. The nobility was a warrior class, as it’s evidenced by the sculptures and necropolis found that idealize aristocratic values. Iberian societies were extremely divided politically and led by caudillos, and only some united in confederacies to defend the territory from the Carthaginian and Roman invaders.

Among their customs, we find the Iberian devotio, a pact of vassalage where the devoti or clients swore to protect their caudillo or king, in exchange for protection and a higher social status. If the leader died, the devoti had to commit suicide as they also vowed to protect their leader to the gods. This social institution played a major role in some heroic last stands seen during the Roman conquest of Hispania, and it served Roman interests later because Iberians quickly embraced the cult to the emperor. The Romans had a similar institution, but their devotio was radically different, since in their case the Romans devoted to gods to guarantee a military victory in exchange for their life, while Iberians offered their life to protect a person.

ex vote iberian figurines religion

Archeologists haven’t found any big sanctuary, instead religious rites seem to have been performed domestically and in the open. Iberians didn’t like to represent their divinities like Greeks did, therefore we know very little about their religious beliefs. Nonetheless both the Greeks and Phoenicians influenced their religious practices, as some of their deities were known and worshiped. On the other hand, they used ex-vote figurines that were unique, which means that they represented a different individual each time. Iberians offered the ex-vote figurines to the gods in open air sanctuaries, usually for health issues, and animal ritual sacrifice was commonly performed as well.

About their burial methods, Iberians always incinerated the bodies of the dead, using a funeral pyre structure. In their necropolis we can observe how stratified their society was, with bigger tombs for the aristocratic families. Two good examples of their aristocratic burials are the Lady of Baza and the Lady of Elche. Both are beautiful sculptures that represented noble women, and they both had a hole in the back that contained the ashes of the women the sculptures represented. Therefore, thus sculptures functioned as funerary urns, and I encourage you to Google the precious works that are the Lady of Baza and Lady of Elche or to visit in thehistoryofspain.com the post of this episode, because I will post their images there as well as in a meta mark compatible podcast player.

Lady of Baza

Lady of Elche

On the other hand, Iberians traded extensively with other Mediterranean people, as Iberian pottery and metalwork can be found in France, Italy, Greece or North Africa. Horse breeding was important for the nobility, and the mining and metalwork activities were important in the Ebro Valley and the region of Murcia. Grain-producing agriculture was the most important economic activity though, and it was the base that sustained a demographic growth from the 5th century BC onwards. They also had livestock of small animals like sheep, goats and pigs, and again, Iberian pottery was demanded for its quality. Iberians imported luxury items, especially from the Greeks, like pottery, jewels and perfumes. It’s interesting to see how it’s almost impossible to find Athenian coins considering the amounts of Athenian pottery found in Iberia, something that indicates that trade with these items was done through intermediaries from the Greek colonies of southern Italy or France. From the 3rd century BC on, Iberians from areas near Greek or Punic colonies coined their own currency, which signals their increasing direct involvement in trade.

Focusing on a particular group of Iberians, we have the Turdetani that succeeded the Tartessians. They were Iberians, in the sense that they descend from the Neolithic settlers, but their language was quite different from those spoken by the Iberians. Instead, the Turdetani spoke a language closely related to the Tartessian language and they lived in the Guadalquivir Valley just as the Tartessians did. The Turdetani were the most urbanized and least warlike people of the Iberian Peninsula, as described by Greek geographer and historian Strabo. This is a quote from him about the Turdetani: “The Turdetanians are ranked as the wisest of the Iberians; and they make use of an alphabet, and possess records of their ancient history, poems, and laws written in verse that are six thousand years old, as they assert.” Every ancient geographer praised the wealth and fertility of the region of the Turdetani, even though they weren’t as wealthy as the Tartessians used to be. The Turdetani exported wheat, wine, oil, salt and of course they kept exporting silver, copper, gold and iron, although presumably not in the same magnitude seen with Tartessos. The era of Carthaginian and then Roman presence further developed the Guadalquivir Valley. In relation to their political organization, they seem to have been politically divided in monarchical city-states before the Carthaginians and Romans arrived. Even though they weren’t warlike, the political power was based on military power, as it happened in other Iberian societies. The Turdetani society was very unequal, with an aristocracy that lived the good life while most of the people lived in a state of servitude, working in agricultural and mining activities. That explains why Carthaginians easily used native slaves when they conquered southern Spain.

Moving on, we have the Celtic tribes of Indo-European origin that migrated to the center, north and west of the Iberian Peninsula during the first half of the 1st millennium BC and mixed with the natives that were already there. The development of those Celts was lower than that of the Iberians, primarily because they didn’t interact directly with Phoenician or Greek colonizers. Some tribes were predominantly agriculturalists, growing almost exclusively wheat, but the majority were semi-pastoralists. Something that really demonstrates how their society was is that the property of the terrain was communal, but the livestock was private. They had social institutions like the hospitium or devotio with the hospitium being a pact between equals and the devotio being a pact between unequals. Their basic social organization were the gens, which means relationships based on kinship. The gens represented a larger and more important group for the Celts than the nuclear family. We see the manifestation of this social institution in their homes, where they had big family meals and every relative slept under the same roof. That changed with the Roman conquest though, and the belonging to a city or the parentage mattered more.

ruins iberian celts town castro culture

The Celts were bellicose, therefore many served as mercenaries in foreign armies. Romans linked their belligerent society with their poverty, and they justified their conquests by saying that there was the need to pacify those barbarian and warlike peoples. We know that they shared some gods with the rest of the Celts of Europe, like Lug, the god of war, Cernunnos, the god of fertility, or Epona, goddess of horses that you may know because of Zelda.  Celts had many local deities, and they either had druids or the aristocracy performed the religious rituals. To end with the general description of the Celts, I wanted to add that their urbanization was based on the Castro culture, which means that they built walled oppida and hillforts known as ‘castros’.

In the west, Lusitanians and Vettones were the most notorious peoples. They lived in the area that is Portugal today, in addition to Extremadura and the western provinces of Castile. It’s not clear whether they were Celts with strong indigenous traits, or Pre-Celts heavily influenced by Celtic cultures. The Vettones had a differentiated culture, the culture of the verracos, which consisted in erecting monuments and sculptures portraying animals like bulls or pigs. The meaning of their symbolism isn’t clear, it could have been religious, economic or funerary. The Lusitanians lived in more fertile lands than the Vettones, therefore agriculture had a more important role, and the mining sector was relevant too. Trade, metalwork and craft activities were marginal prior to the Roman conquest though, while fishing and hunting constituted important economic activities, as well as horse-breeding. The size of one’s livestock showed the power and prestige of a person. Due to social inequalities, some of the poor lived as bandits, and brigandage wasn’t precisely a minor problem in Lusitania or Celtiberia, especially during the instability of the Roman conquest.

The northern Celts of the Iberian Peninsula were the poorest of all. They drank water or beer instead of wine, they slept on the ground, men grew long hair like women, they ate acorn and chestnuts for half a year and they didn’t use coins. That’s understandable, since they were very far from the focuses of developed and urbanized civilizations. Apart from gathering fruits, they relied mostly on ranching to feed themselves, and there are some good mines in the north so northern tribes extracted some raw materials like gold, tin or iron and sold them. The social organization and costumes of the northern Celts have been an object of study, because Latin texts said that the Cantabri and Astures had matriarchal societies. The fact that Northern Celtic women farmed, inherited land and had the power to arrange marriages for their brothers shocked the Romans.

Now let’s talk about the mix of Iberians and Celts, the Celtiberians. When I say a mix here, it’s not a genetic mix in general, but a cultural mix. The Celtiberians were Celts, aka Indo-European, but with a culture influenced by that of the Iberians. They shared the same social institutions and religion with the rest of the Celts, but their material culture was strongly influenced by that of the Iberians. Ancient sources diverge while delimiting the region of Celtiberia, but they lived around the Sistema Ibérico or Iberian System that it’s located in the eastern part of the Meseta Central. The area apparently experienced a demographic and economic growth that also provoked a higher degree of urbanization and the emergence of walled towns in Celtiberia. Celtiberians were more pastoralists than agriculturalists, a particularity that has to do with the ecological conditions of their lands. I know that I have said the same about the others, but Celtiberians were especially famous for being ferocious and brave warriors, and archeological findings suggest that as early as the 7th or 6th century BC the area that corresponds to the Celtiberians developed a warrior and stratified society. The Celtiberians played a major role in the native resistance against the Roman conquest, but we will see that in an upcoming episode.

The last natives that need to be mentioned are the proto-Basques. The ancient Basques were called Vascones, and they lived a bit more eastwards than today, occupying the Western Pyrenees as well as the eastern half of modern-day Basque Country. Those people were related to the Aquitanians that lived in southwestern France, but we know very few details about their culture and even today the Basques are an object of study because their genetic and linguistic origins are a mystery. What archeologists and ancient sources say is that their culture was influenced by the Celtic cultures, so consider all the points I mentioned about the Celts and the majority of the characteristics would apply to the Vascones.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the historic manipulation done by Basque nationalists in relation to who they are. To talk about this issue, I must first define what an ethnicity is. An ethnicity is a complex issue, because it has much to do with how we perceive first ourselves as belonging to a certain group and then how the others perceive us. The identity of an ethnicity is built around multiple factors, where each factor can be considered of different importance according to each ethnicity. As factors, we have race, language, religion, material culture, ideology, among others. The thing with the Basques is that nationalism created an image of the Basques as an ancient, isolated and distinct race, and two important problems that create nationalism are the national myth that has little to do with actual, scientific history, and the fact that nationalism presents nations as fixed groups that don’t change, which of course it’s false. People interact with each other and no human ethnicity is isolated, therefore we can’t understand cultures or nations as fixed entities. Remember this, and this applies to all nationalisms, cultures are dynamic and that’s how humanity has advanced. And with that, The Verdict ends.

As we have seen, the Pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula were quite heterogenous. We have the pre-Indo-European Iberians and Vascones, the Celts and the Greek and Phoenician colonies that heavily influenced the natives. It wasn’t until the Roman conquest of Hispania that all those people were unified. 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 and a list of books about the history of Spain available on Amazon and you can also subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you learned something and enjoyed today’s episode, thank you for listening!

Sources

DE IBERIA A HISPANIA. Francisco Gracia Alonso

LOS PUEBLOS PRERROMANOS DE LA PENÍNSULA IBÉRICA. Manuel Salinas de Frías

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. DESDELA PREHISTORIA HASTA LA CONQUISTA ROMANA. Planeta

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. HISPANIA ANTIGUA. Domingo Plácido

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npurYRPN9Zo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8XirXeRitc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdZeIvFG-6s

https://es.slideshare.net/josecarabulense/iberos-y-celtas-en-la-pennsula-ibrica

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

First Iron Age: Tartessos, Phoenicians and Greeks

This is episode 4 called First Iron Age: Tartessos, Phoenicians and Greeks and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The emergence of Tartessos in the Guadalquivir Valley area, the literary references and the possible location of their capital
  • The importance of mineral resources for the rise of Tartessian culture, that is a confluence between native and Phoenician cultures
  • The findings of El Turuñuelo led by Sebastián Celestino and Esther Rodríguez
  • The political system and myths of Tartessos
  • A quick overview to Tartessian history, from their rise to their fall in the 5th century BC
  • Where did the Phoenicians come from, where did they build their colonies and in what did they base their power
  • The peaceful collaboration between Tartessians and Phoenicians
  • What did the Phoenicians bring to Spain
  • The fall of Phoenician power after the fall of Tyre in 573 BC
  • The Greek Phocaean colonies like Emporion or Rhodes in eastern Spain (Catalonia and Valencia)
  • How and why were the Greek colonial expeditions organized
  • The rise of Emporion

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 4, called First Iron Age: Tartessos, Phoenicians and Greeks. In this episode you will discover the fascinating and mysterious Tartessian culture, and the Iberian colonies of Phoenicians and Greeks. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

The waves of Indo-European immigrants, and later Phoenician and Greek colonists, changed the ways of living, brought new technologies, new religious beliefs and burial costumes, and many other things that changed the societies that populated the Iberian Peninsula. The Iron Age started in Iberia in 700 BC, with important regional differences.

Around the Guadalquivir Valley a new culture emerged in 1000 BC, the Tartessian culture, that lived in a very fertile land suitable for agriculture and rich in mineral resources. The Tartessos have been a matter of deep investigation because they are surrounded by mystery. I mean, some even argue that the Greek myth of Atlantis was based on the fall of the Tartessos! In the Bible the word Tarsis is mentioned multiple times, and although it could have different meanings like long distance maritime trade or a type of precious stone, Tarsis could mean the land of the Tartessos. It’s mentioned in the Old Testament that the ships of Solomon and Hiram travelled to Tarsis in the 10th century BC and that they returned loaded with gold, silver and ivory, among other things. In the Greco-Roman sources we have more confusing information about them. According to some authors Phoenicians founded the Tartessian culture, in relation to their location some said that their capital was in Cádiz while others said it was nearby, and that Tartessos was the name of the main city and not their region of influence.

The mainstream academic thought nowadays is that Tartessian culture is a confluence of native and Phoenician cultures. The most likely location of the capital of Tartessos is Huelva, in the west of Cádiz and Seville, as its red-colored river called Río Tinto contains high levels of iron and other heavy metals, and the nearby area has mines of copper, silver, gold and tin. Furthermore, the estuary of the Guadalquivir River was located more in today’s inland in the first millennium BC, and there’s a theory that locates the city of Tartessos in a delta of the river that is now underground.

What is clear is that the Tartessians were important producers of gold and silver. We not only have literary references about their mineral wealth, but also archeological evidence that confirms it. We have treasures of gold and silver that were decorated in detail, tools for extracting and working metals, beautiful religious artifacts… You should go and search it in Google Images to see how incredible their works were or visit thehistoryofspain.com where I will post some images.

tartessian treasure el carambolo

The Tartessians preferred small but dispersed towns rather than big urban concentrations. The location of Tartessian towns was based on the location of resources, like close to mines, or fertile lands, or rivers, which suggests that they had a complex and integrated economic system in the area of Western Andalusia. The lack of walls and weapons, and the easy-to-access location of towns suggests that their society was pacific and focused on trade instead of conquest.

The problem to learn more about Tartessos is that the cities that historians consider to be the most prominent of the civilization are Cádiz, Huelva and Seville. All of them are important cities of Spain so archeological research is complicated, because apart from the modern city we have the Medieval and Roman cities underground before the Tartessian cities. In fact, the majority of archeological findings of Tartessos have been found in what’s considered the Tartessian area of influence, in the interior rural region of Extremadura, along the Guadiana river. There are the spectacular rests of El Turuñuelo for instance, that is a very big and at least two-floor building that has yet to be totally excavated. The building was burned and sealed at the end of the 5th century BC, when Celtic tribes were invading the region. Archeologists led by Sebastián Celestino and Esther Rodríguez have found more than 50 sacrificed animals, half being horses, the bones of an adult man, and architecturally advanced structures, that only with 15% of the site excavated! In all Tartessian urban structures there were sanctuaries, and it’s important to mention here that sanctuaries were not only religious centers, but also commercial centers. A sanctuary was a neutral zone were merchants and customers had their interests protected by divinities. Furthermore, Tartessian altars were very unique, since those altars had the shape of a skin of bull spread out, and they could be found both at sanctuaries and homes.

el turuñuelo

Their political system was probably a confederacy of city-states ruled by several hereditary monarchies. Their religious beliefs and myths were quite complex, as advanced as those of the Greek civilization, and Tartessian mythology was influenced by Oriental ideas brought by the Phoenicians. You see, they had a pastoralist vision of the origin of humanity. The Tartessian people believed that their mythologic founder Geryon had three heads and that he had a herd of oxen. Yeah, this Geryon is the same that appears in Greek mythology, in the 10th work of Heracles aka Hercules. Later, King Gargoris founded the second dynasty and taught the Tartessians how to collect honey and trade. He was the father of Habis, a son born from an incestuous relationship of Gargoris with one of her daughters, and Gargoris tried to kill Habis but failed. Habis was breastfed by a doe until he grew up as a man. Then Habis became kind of a demigod that taught his people how to plow, he made laws to organize the society and he divided the society in social classes. Yeah, all those mythic kings resemble the Greek myths, I know.

The only historic king with literary references is Arganthonios, who reigned between the 7th and 6th century BC. Due to his longevity, he may not have been a single man but a dynasty, but who knows. Interestingly, his name, or nickname, reveals how closely linked was the silver wealth with the Tartessian civilization. According to Greek historian Herodotus, King Arganthonios offered the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Phocaeans, the opportunity to settle in Iberia. The Phocaeans refused his offer but accepted an envoy of money to build walls to prevent the attack of the Persians.

Okay, so let’s make a very quick overview of the history of Tartessos. From the 8th century BC onwards, Phoenician presence in South Iberia increased. The mineral wealth of Tartessos attracted many Phoenician colonists and those colonists influenced Tartessian politics, religion and culture. The Phoenicians brought with them new technologies, beliefs and urban planning. Tartessian trade with the rest of the known world increased, and that stimulated specialization and the stratification of their society. Tartessians quickly adopted the Phoenician religious beliefs, as well as their more advanced methodology to work with metals. But the fall of Tyre in 573 BC in the hands of the Neo-Babylonian Empire provoked a decline of Phoenician influence, while Greek and Carthaginian traders and colonists became more important. The 6th century BC is a period of instability for Tartessos, and the area started its economic and political decline at the end of that century. Tartessian culture disappeared in the 5th century BC, with the Turdetani culture succeeding Tartessos. Some researchers like archeologist Adolf Schulten defended the theory that Tartessos was destroyed by Carthage as they wanted to colonize and control the mineral riches of the region, but the causes of their fall are still uncertain. The interest for Tartessian mineral wealth fell, as Sicily and Sardinia became exporters of mineral resources, with the advantage of being closer to the wealthier Eastern Mediterranean states and the emerging Etruscans of Italy. In addition to that, geologists have recently discovered that there was an earthquake and tsunami in the area during that period, which could explain the disappearance of Tartessos and maybe the myth of Atlantis.

But from where did the Phoenicians, that I have mentioned so many times, came from? Phoenicia was the region that today Lebanon occupies, yes, in the Levant region of the Eastern Mediterranean. Imagine how important Tartessos was as a center of metal extraction and production that they came from that far! Well, because of that and because they didn’t get along with Assyria, so they were forced to make long-distance trade. The Semitic Phoenicians first founded Cádiz and they slowly built new colonies along the southern Spanish coast. Phoenicians always looked for islets or small peninsulas and settled there, as that provided a balance between easy access for trade and natural defenses. Their commercial colonies required docks and suitable lands for agriculture and ranching. Phoenicians based their influence over other civilizations like Tartessos not on military power but economic and cultural superiority.

What did the Phoenicians trade with the Tartessians? They traded wine, pottery and ivory for the metals and salt of the Tartessians. We must understand the Phoenician colonies in the context of increasing contacts and trade networks of the Mediterranean peoples, that traded from east to west and from north to south. They didn’t build that overnight, the Phoenician traders first made irregular contacts and then installed themselves in the most important cities of southern Spain before founding colonies of their own; and they didn’t build their trade networks alone, they used the help of Sardinian and Iberian Atlantic navigators that already traded in Tartessos. This is not even a Phoenician vs natives kind of story, many Tartessians actively collaborated with Phoenicians in their trade and with the construction of colonies because that benefited them as individuals. It’s in the 8th century BC, between 800 and 700 BC, that Phoenicians prioritized their interests in the coasts of North Africa and Southern Iberia.

Phoenicians brought with them the written word to Iberia, iron, coins, new weapons, new methodologies to extract and work metals and to produce clothes, the consumption of wine and the use of oil and ivory became more common, they introduced donkeys, chickens, lentils, chickpea, and of course their own costumes of urbanism, burials and religion.

After founding Cádiz, or Gadir as it was called, Phoenicians settled along the Strait of Gibraltar, and later they also expanded to the Portuguese coasts and to Mediterranean Andalusia. In Portugal Phoenician traders could buy gold and tin that was easier to find in the Atlantic than in the Mediterranean, and they exchanged their manufactured products at high prices since the journey was long and dangerous. Although their main interest was to get metals like silver or copper from Iberia, Phoenician traders diversified the products they imported during the 7th century BC. We see that by the fact that archeologists have found Phoenician products in towns with no mines nearby. Historians think that those Tartessian and Lusitanian towns probably exported salt, agricultural and livestock products, and wild resources like honey.

In the 6th century BC Phoenician traders lost their hegemony over the region of Valencia and Eastern Andalusia, and the local population learned to manufacture products with their own unique characteristics and gained more importance in trade. The Phoenician population either emigrated or integrated with the local culture, something quite different compared to the case of Western Andalusia. After the fall of Tyre, the Phoenicians lost their thalassocracy and the Phoenician colonies in the West Mediterranean had to take care of themselves. The city that emerged as the capital of the Western Phoenician world was Carthage. It’s important to note that each municipality was pretty independent from the metropolis, the Phoenician and later Punic colonies were organized as city-states. At the end of the 6th century BC Carthage and Cádiz, as well as other minor cities, made an alliance to dominate the Western Mediterranean. Phoenician presence under the protection of Carthage still continued for a very long time.

The Greeks travelled and founded colonies in the Iberian Peninsula for the same reason the Phoenicians did, to trade and to get access to more copper, silver and gold. The first Greek object found in Iberia was from the 8th century BC, a date 2 or more centuries later from that of the Phoenicians. The city-state that was more active in the colonization of Iberia was Phocaea. The Greeks called the region of Catalonia and Valencia Iberia, a concept that was of course used afterwards to refer to the entire peninsula. They founded colonies in Catalonia, like Emporion, modern-day Ampurias, or Rhodes, modern-day Rosas. Those may have been intermediate cities used both to trade with the natives close to the colonies and to trade with the Tartessos of southern Spain that were still relevant in the 6th century BC. While the Phoenicians dominated southern Spain, the Greeks dominated the poorer regions of Catalonia and Valencia. It’s important to highlight that Phoenician and Greeks weren’t like bitter enemies that monopolized those areas, Phoenician traders could go to the Greek areas of influence and the other way around too. In any case, after the fall of Phocaea due to the invasion of the Persians in 546 BC, far-away colonies like Emporion grew with an influx of refugees. As a matter of fact, I visited the archeological rests of Emporion and it’s pretty impressive, the site hasn’t been completely excavated but it was nice. Most of the remnants of Emporion were from the Roman period though, there were many Roman homes and even a wall with a dick chiseled on it.

greek phoenician and carthaginian trade routes and colonies

Myths of the 8th century BC like the story of how Hercules stole the oxen of Gerion in Iberia or how he obtained the golden apples of the Garden of the Hesperides, denote the mystical and mysterious image that Greeks had about the peninsula at the time. It was only later that Greeks traders and colonists made regular contacts with the Iberian Peninsula, since they focused more in the colonies of the Italic Peninsula. The legends told by the Phoenicians about a land wealthy in mineral resources attracted Greek traders. During the Peloponnesian War and the Greco-Persian Wars Greeks learned how to build massive navies quickly and with better durability than those of the Phoenicians. The colonial expeditions were usually organized by the Greek city-states during a time of demographic boom or in a year with a bad harvest, in order to prevent revolts and to lower the demographic pressure. Colonial expeditions were led by oikistes, which were men of aristocratic linage that represented the authority of the polis overseas. Oikistes had the power to perform the rites required to establish a colony, to choose the area to settle, to distribute the land among the colonists and to define the institutions of the new settlements.

The commerce in Greece was more private than in Phoenicia, and the political power only intervened if there was a political or economic crisis. To start commercial operations Greek traders usually obtained a financial credit to hire a crew and rent out a ship. Emporion, a Greek colony in Catalonia that literally means “market”, was not an exclusive Greek trade center, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Gauls and Iberians traded there as well, and the same happened pretty much everywhere in the Mediterranean. Around 535 BC, the Battle of Alalia took place between Greek Phocaean refugees that migrated to Corsica and Carthage and the Etruscans. The naval battle was a pyrrhic Greek victory and they had to migrate again, some went to mainland Italy, others to Massalia, modern-day Marseille, and a few to Emporion. Due to the population growth, Emporion expanded beyond the small island where the Phocaeans first settled. The colony grew enough to become a small, independent city-state of its own, as its evidenced by the fact that they started producing coins. The coins of Emporion were quickly adopted in the area of Catalonia and southern France, and the city was quite important between the 5th and 3rd century BC. After that, you know that the Roman Republic started overshadowing the Greeks.

THE VERDICT: Today’s verdict is a revindication of the Phoenician heritage, and I say that because the influence of the Phoenicians in Iberia has often been underrated. That’s because Spain is an heir of the Roman Empire, which in turn inherited the Greek culture. But following this process, the Classic Greek culture was influenced by the Phoenicians as well, not only in arts but even their alphabet is an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. Maybe it’s true that in the long term the Greeks influenced more modern-day Spain, but I find important to highlight here that during the First Iron Age Phoenicians had a much vaster influence than that of the Greeks. I don’t know if it’s because Spanish nationalism rejects our Semitic influences or because it’s cooler to say that Spain is the descendant of Greco-Roman cultures that gave birth to Western civilization. In any case, this kind of oversimplifications get on our way to know history, not mystified history, but real history. And with that, The Verdict ends.

I hope you enjoy the launch episodes, I know that the topics covered aren’t the most interesting of Spanish history but I wanted to start the history of Spain from the start. In any case, give me some feedback, I want to know if you liked it, if you think I’m boring or I don’t pronounce some things well you can also say that to me, no worries. In the next episode I will cover the cultures of the Iberians, Celts, Celtiberians and Basques, before we get into the Second Punic War that is when proper written history starts in Spain. 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 and a list of books about the history of Spain available on Amazon and you can also subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, 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. DESDE LA PREHISTORIA HASTA LA CONQUISTA ROMANA (SIGLO III a.C.). Planeta

DE IBERIA A HISPANIA. Francisco Gracia Alonso and others

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VOLUMEN 1. HISPANIA ANTIGUA. Domingo Plácido

TARTESSOS AND THE PHOENICIANS IN IBERIA. Sebastián Celestino and Carolina López-Ruiz

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KC_zV64oFI

 

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