episodes

Changing dynasties

This is episode 17 called Changing dynasties and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • What was the ideal of good government in 7th century Christian Europe
  • The early internal problems of Sisebut due to eclipses
  • Sisebut’s campaign against Byzantine’s Spania, and why he decided not to completely expel them from Spain
  • The start of a trend under Sisebut: anti-Jewish policies, fake conversions and the problem of crypto-Jews
  • The passive role of the Church in the forced conversions of Sisebut
  • Suintila’s successful campaigns against the Vascones and his success in ejecting the Byzantines from the Iberian Peninsula, which meant that Suintila became the first king of all Spain
  • The failed attempts of Suintila to centralize and his overthrown led by Sisenand
  • What was a agreed in the Fourth Council of Toledo to limit royal power while securing more strongly the position of the king
  • The reigns of Chintila and Tulga where the position of the king was very weak, and an explanation of why was that the case
  • The successful rebellion of 79-year-old Chindasuinth against Tulga
  • Intellectual achievements of 7th century Visigothic Spain and why was Spain the intellectual and cultural center of Western Europe in that period
  • Reflection on why 7th century Visigothic kings failed to centralize unlike Leovigild and Reccared

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 17 called Changing dynasties. In this episode you will learn about a period of turbulence for the Visigothic monarchy, with some ups and downs, as well as the intellectual life of Visigothic Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with Sisebut becoming King of the Visigothic Kingdom. Few people in Spain know him, but Sisebut was actually an important king, because he promulgated pro-Catholic and anti-Jewish policies that defined the Visigothic Kingdom of the 7th century. Many historians consider Sisebut the most learned king of the history of the realm, and he was one of the most pious ones too. Because of his literary education, he was familiar with the concepts of good government of 7th century Europe. Those ideas came from the Eastern Roman Empire, so centralizing and caesaropapist policies were considered the ideal, as well as the idea of the Christian ruler having the duty to suppress sin and having high moral standards. For example, Christians disapproved performing arts, and Sisebut sent a letter to the metropolitan of Tarraconensis to reprehend him because that metropolitan liked performing arts, so we can see how Sisebut applied the ideal of caesaropapism. He was a close friend and patron of Isidore of Seville, who under his reign wrote his main works.

In 612, the first year of Sisebut’s reign, there were two eclipses. As you can imagine, in an era of ignorance and superstitions, the common people interpreted that as a bad sign from heaven. The year before there had been yet another two eclipses, so you can imagine that people were anxious. In a more global context, the Persians of the Sasanian Empire were invading the Eastern Roman Empire in a very devastating war, so certain scholars and clergymen said that the Apocalypse was going to happen soon. To make things worse for Sisebut, the pagans of northern Spain, heretics and nobles who opposed Sisebut took advantage of that and cause social unrest. To solve this issue and to, you know, avoid being overthrown or assassinated, Sisebut asked Isidore of Seville to write a text to explain, in a rational way, why the eclipses were happening. When Isidore finished the text, the learned king Sisebut replied Isidore and wrote his own explanation to those phenomena, using theories of the Greco-Roman tradition.

de res natura astronomic treatise

It’s impressive how Sisebut wrote that astronomic treatise while he was personally leading an expedition against the Cantabri and Vascones. They were not the only ones causing problems, as the Visigoths had to campaign against the Astures and Ruccones. The future king Suintila was the guy in charge of the campaign against the Ruccones, but I will talk about him later.

In addition to fighting the always trouble-making peoples of the north, Sisebut campaigned against the remnants of the Byzantine province of Spania in 614 and 615. As I said before, the Eastern Roman Empire was in a very weak situation, because the future emperor Heraclius revolted while the Sasanians were invading, so they didn’t care about what was happening in such a peripheral and strategically unimportant province like Spania. That’s why the Visigoths needed to seize the opportunity to expel them. During this campaign the Visigoths conquered most of Spania, including Ceuta and the second major city of the province, Málaga. Surprisingly, Sisebut accepted peace negotiations with the governor of Spania, even though he could have easily crushed them then. The letters that Sisebut and the governor exchanged luckily survive to this day, and we know that the governor agreed to recognize the territorial gains of the Visigoths and hand over the hostages they had captured in exchange for peace. But why Sisebut accepted this deal instead of demanding an unconditional surrender? The more likely explanation and according to the writings of Isidore of Seville, Sisebut heard about the unstoppable advance of the Zoroastrian Sasanians and how they conquered the sacred city of Jerusalem. Then, in an act of piety and mercifulness, he accepted to stop the bloodshed of more Christians. With that, Spania only consisted of the area that surrounded the stronghold of Cartagena and the Balearic Islands.

Now let’s focus on his religious policy, because Sisebut started a period of anti-Jewish policies that continued until the fall of the kingdom, and many Jews precisely helped the Muslims when they were conquering Visigothic Spain because of it. I said in the previous episode that there were already policies targeted against Jews with Reccared, but according to the law that Sisebut promulgated the previous law was being loosely applied. Just like Reccared, Sisebut aimed for the religious unity of the kingdom, of all its peoples, so no heresies or other religions were allowed. To achieve that, he forced the conversion of the Jews, which generated a new problem that continued until Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492: the problem of fake conversions, also known as marranos or crypto-Jews. That means that although those who stayed were forced to convert, they practiced Judaism in secret. The others that didn’t accept the forced conversion were expelled, with some moving to France and others to North Africa. The first law against Jews again banned marriage with Christians, it banned Jewish proselytism, and Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves, otherwise half their properties would be confiscated. Then there were other laws that further discriminated Jews, like for instance their offspring was forced to be baptized. Jews in Spain weren’t a particularly wealthy group, so those policies again were not about economics, but about the idea that everyone living in a Christian kingdom must be a Christian. For Sisebut, he was enforcing his role of protection against the sin, just as the ideal caesaropapist Christian ruler would do.

Strangely enough, the Church didn’t put pressure on Sisebut to force the conversion of the Jews. It was entirely Sisebut’s idea, partly because of what I have just said but also because Jews in the Eastern Roman Empire collaborated with the Sasanian invaders. Isidore of Seville, who was the most influential bishop of the kingdom, didn’t approve the idea of forcing their conversion. But although he opposed it and much of the clergy did it too, they didn’t actively oppose those policies either while Sisebut was alive. They later criticized it, but again, as those who converted had received the sacred baptism, their conversion was irreversible. We can say that the Church in this case passively accepted the forced conversion of the Jews and later accepted the done deal.

Then in 621 King Sisebut died, probably by poisoning, and he was shortly succeeded by his son Reccared II, who died after a few days, probably assassinated by the ones who assassinated his father. Then there was an interregnum of 3 months and Suintila, the general who fought the Ruccones and Byzantines, was elected King of the Visigoths. The reign of Suintila can be clearly divided in two periods, the first five years of reign stood out for his military successes while the next five years his reign overshadowed his achievements because of the internal problems of the kingdom. In his first year of reign Suintila led a campaign against the Vascones, who were again raiding the Ebro Valley. Suintila launched a large-scale operation with multiple fronts in modern Navarra. Unlike other occasions, the victory must have been overwhelming, because this time the Basque raiders accepted an unconditional surrender that never had happened before Suintila. The Vascones agreed to pay tribute and to collaborate in the construction of Olite, a new stronghold to control the Vascones. With that, Suintila built a solid defensive line to keep the Vascones in check, and he was successful in doing so because we will not hear more news of Vascones raiding the Ebro Valley for some time.

However, his most prominent achievement was the ejection of the Byzantines from the Iberian Peninsula. From 623 to 625 he campaigned against the remnants of the province of Spania. It wasn’t difficult, because the Eastern Roman Empire was very weak at the time as the war against the Sasanians continued and the Lombards and Berbers attacked their possessions in Italy and North Africa too. The provincial capital, Cartagena, fell and the Visigoths destroyed its walls. Only the Balearic Islands remained under Byzantine control, although it was almost an independent archipelago because it lacked any strategic value for the weakened Eastern Roman Empire. After the conquest of Spania, Suintila became the first king to rule over all Spain, in other words, to rule over the entire Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, the Visigoths achieved the territorial unity that they were seeking, following the idea of mater Spania. By the way, it was around this time that scholars started using Spania instead of Hispania to refer to the Iberian Peninsula, which of course is closer to the modern España or Spain. Nonetheless, even though he was theoretically ruling over all the Peninsula, don’t get tricked, the Visigoths never had a strong control over some regions of the north.

visigothic kingdom spain suintila

Despite his military achievements, Suintila was facing internal problems. According to Isidore of Seville, Suintila was a good king that was generous with the nobility, clergy and the poor. However, this is of course biased because he wrote that while Suintila was king. It seems like the military success of Suintila made him change his pro-aristocratic policies to imitate imperial policies, just as previous Visigothic kings had attempted. He made co-ruler his son Riccimir, and the nobility and clergy didn’t like that. According to the declarations of bishops in the Fourth Council of Toledo of 633, after Suintila was overthrown, Suintila’s greatest crime was the confiscation of many ecclesiastical properties. Nonetheless take that with a grain of salt, because those declarations were made a posteriori to justify a coup against Suintila. In any case, the attempts of Suintila to diminish the power of the nobility and clergy and to consolidate a dynasty were the beginning of the end of his rule, just as it had happened before with other kings.

In this context of some discontentment among the nobility and clergy, a group of nobles conspired against the King and started a rebellion in 631, with a power base in the peripheral region of Septimania. Apparently, there weren’t enough nobles willing to overthrow Suintila, partly because Suintila had the sympathy of the common people and not all the nobles were hostile. That’s why the leader of the conspiracy, the Duke of Septimania Sisenand, sent a delegation to the Court of Neustria of King Dagobert I to secure Frankish military assistance. Sisenand offered in exchange a very symbolic treasure of the Visigoths, a plate of gold that general Aetius gave to Thorismund back in 451. After hearing about such a powerful force, many indecisive nobles joined the rebellion and many nobles deserted from the side of Suintila, including his own brother. When the rebels arrived at Zaragoza, the army of Suintila surrendered without fighting and the King was overthrown and arrested. The Visigothic nobility then proclaimed Sisenand king in 631 and we can interpret that as a victory of the privileged powers over the royal power and the common people.

King Sisenand summoned a national council to legitimize his rebellion and strengthen his position, an important event since the last one was called in 589. However, it wouldn’t be until 633 that the Fourth Council of Toledo could be held. Why? Well, from two coins we know that there was a rebellion in the province of Baetica to overthrow Sisenand. The recent victories of Suintila in southern Spain probably made Suintila gain powerful allies there, and that network of loyalties wasn’t broken by the overthrown of Suintila. It was only after the rebellion was suppressed that Sisenand could convoke the council.

fourth council of toledo

On December 633 the Fourth Council of Toledo was held under the presidency of Isidore of Seville, and with the assistance of all the bishops of the kingdom. The council dealt with a wide range of topics, from strictly ecclesiastical issues to political issues of the Visigothic Kingdom. For the nobility it was also the perfect chance to finally define the nature of the Visigothic monarchy. Among the 75 canons of the Fourth Council of Toledo, it was stated that upon the death of the king all the bishops and upper nobility had to reach an agreement to elect a successor. After the election, all the subjects needed to take an oath pledging their loyalty to the king for the stability and prosperity of the realm. Thus, the position of the king was made sacred because the king was also anointed in imitation to the anointing of biblical kings. Following the theories of Isidore of Seville, kings had a sacred role, but a king didn’t have a superior position to that of the Church nor the capacity to sentence a noble without the consent of other nobles. If the king turned into a tyrant, the Church could excommunicate him, and a coup would be justified. In theory all those details would make aristocratic revolts more difficult, but as we will see that didn’t prevent revolts from happening.

Nonetheless, the Fourth Council of Toledo also imposed some restrictions to prevent the participation of the clergy in possible revolts. That included prohibitions such as taking arms against the king, negotiating with foreign powers to overthrow the king, or receiving and sending secret messages outside of the kingdom. Another political issue discussed in the council consisted in decide what to do with the deposed King Suintila. The council and Sisenand agreed to declare Suintila a tyrant for all his alleged crimes and he and his family were sent into exile, although with all their properties confiscated.

Among other issues discussed in the council, the clergy was exempted from all taxes and the liturgy of the Spanish Church was unified throughout the kingdom. That was especially relevant because it created what is known as the Hispanic Rite, also known as Mozarabic Rite, because it was still widely used until the 11th century in the Muslim territories of Spain. A canon excluded the king from appointing bishops, and another canon required bishops to establish seminaries in their cities, to extend the study of Greek, Hebrew, liberal arts, medicine and law. The council also agreed to consolidate the ownership of slaves by the Church and to held annual councils in each province. Finally, there were also some new anti-Jewish policies, because yeah it seems that there weren’t enough already, and those basically made punishments more severe. Bishops recognized that the forced conversions of Sisebut were unfair and that they failed, but they still added new laws to discriminate Jews, like forbidding them to hold a public office.

King Sisenand died pacifically in 636, as he assumed the throne by making important concessions to the nobility and clergy that weakened royal power. His successor was Chintila, a king whose reign lasted 3 years. What we know about his reign is that there were several conspiracies and attempts of rebellion, because he summoned the bishops of the kingdom in a new council to confirm their loyalty. Only 22 bishops attended the Fifth Council of Toledo, a council that included many canons to reinforce the sacred protection of the king. The rulings of the Fourth Council were reiterated and were remembered throughout the kingdom, and the council forbade the confiscation of the properties of the previous king and his supporters. From that council it’s clear that Chintila was worried about the loyalty of his subjects and his own life. It’s seems like around that time the Visigoths were having a hard time collecting taxes and that the state of the economy reached its lowest point of the Middle Ages.  Add to that the persecution of Jews and you have the ingredients for a revolt. We don’t have details about the possible revolts that occurred then, but it seems like the Visigoths lost a certain degree of control over Gallaecia, Septimania and northern Spain.

Then in 638 King Chintila convoked the Sixth Council of Toledo, this time with more success than the previous one, since he was able to gather 48 bishops. This council again reiterated that the properties of the previous king couldn’t be confiscated if he had owned those properties before assuming the throne, and the bishops agreed to praise the benevolence of Chintila, as he supposedly pardoned several rebels. From those two councils we can say something interesting that may not be so obvious, but it seems like the economic balance among the nobility was an extremely important issue. Nobles feared confiscations and an increase in the wealth of the king, while kings feared conspiracies that could led to confiscations and death.

Other aspects that we know about the reign of Chintila is that he introduced new measures against the Jews to force their conversions and make sure that the Jews that converted swore to never go back to their old faith. Chintila even agreed with the clergy to ban the presence of any non-Catholic in the kingdom, an extreme measure that couldn’t be seen anywhere else in Europe. Of course, that wasn’t made completely effective, especially considering that Visigothic authority had been weak compared to other periods, but it’s still pretty revealing about the fervent antisemitism of the Visigothic nobility and clergy.

After passing away Chintila was succeeded by his son Tulga in 639. Considering how weak Chintila’s rule was, we must guess that he couldn’t associate his son to the Visigothic throne, but instead the bishops and high nobility elected his son to maintain the cohesion of the faction that supported Chintila. However, Tulga was young, he had a weak character and part of the nobility was already against him due to the hereditary nature of his succession. That was the perfect mix for a rebellion. The 79-year-old general Chindasuinth took advantage of the circumstances and led a successful rebellion. Chindasuinth was a veteran of the Leovigild campaigns and he had fought the Vascones and suppressed several rebellions, although it seems that he had also participated in a few failed conspiracies too. Chindasuinth perceived the weakness of Tulga and he decided to summon some nobles to be proclaimed king. He was proclaimed king, but all bishops decided to fulfill their oath and they didn’t support the rebellion. However, the rebels managed to overthrow Tulga in 642 and instead of killing him Chindasuinth had Tulga tonsured as a monk, something that made him ineligible to rule after that. The old Chindasuinth ruled tyrannically and he strengthened royal power, but I will leave his reign for the following episode.

Let me put political history aside and talk about the intellectual center that was 7th century Visigothic Spain. A succession of authors produced theological, liturgic and literary works that were unparalleled in the West. The most notable scholars were also leading figures in the politics of the kingdom, such as Isidore of Seville, Julian of Toledo, Ildefonsus of Toledo and Fructuosus of Braga. All their writings remained influential for centuries both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the rest of Europe. The development of the Hispanic Rite was especially outstanding, because the Visigothic Kingdom was the only realm of Western Europe with a homogenous liturgy throughout the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that the Spanish Church did an impressive work preserving old Greco-Roman texts and texts of other authors that preceded themselves. I say that because many times we hear about how great Muslim rule was in terms of preserving classic Greco-Roman works, which is true, but the Visigoths never get enough credit about it. The Spanish Church of the 7th century compiled thousands of rare books, but how did that happen? The answer is in the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantinople was the greatest city of Europe at the time and it was the most important cultural and intellectual center. But despite how great the capital of the empire was, the empire was plagued by internal division, not only politically but religiously as well. Justinian I attempted in the 6th century to resolve the Monophysite controversy, which was yet another theological issue that divided Christianity. There were several rival churches in the Eastern Roman Empire and Justinian decided to side with the Monophysites, something that only stirred up opposition. Those who opposed Justinian were imprisoned, among those the African bishop Victor of Tunnuna, who wrote a chronicle until he died in prison. A Gothic scholar travelled to Constantinople to study Latin and, somehow, he managed to get the only copy of the chronicle of Victor of Tunnuna.

That may seem anecdotical, but similar things happened with other unique and rare works. With the acquisition of those works, the scholars of the Visigothic Kingdom had the responsibility to preserve those unique works. The connection of the Spanish Church with several North African churches was especially strong, that’s why so many works of the opponents of Justinian have survived. The cultural flow was one-sided, because African clergymen decided to migrate from Africa to the Iberian Peninsula in the late 6th century. They migrated mainly due to the growing threat of Berber raids and due to the religious persecutions of Justinian, and they didn’t move to Italy for instance because the Gothic Wars and the Lombard invasion had devastated the region. The African refugees brought books and their human and intellectual capital. For instance, an African monk built the first monasteries of southern and central Spain, and several African monks had a prominent role in the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism.

All kind of texts were compiled and extended, from grammar and anti-Arian treaties, to collections of poems, to even a collection of acts of all the Spanish, Gallic and African councils compiled by Isidore of Seville. The anti-Arian treaties must have been influential during the reign of Leovigild and the role that those texts had in the conversion of the Visigoths shouldn’t be minimized. Overall, the Spanish Church was an intellectual, cultural and theological reference in the Western Europe during much of the 7th century.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the reason why Leovigild and Reccared were quite successful in centralizing the Visigothic state while his successors of the 7th century failed. I mean, Suintila for instance achieved some great military feats, like removing the Byzantines from Spain or pacifying the Vascones for a long time, but that wasn’t enough to prevent a rebellion that overthrew him. Why was that the case? As I interpret it, there might be several reasons that played a role. With Reccared, the Spanish Catholic Church gained many privileges. Reccared tried to counterweight aristocratic power with the ecclesiastical hierarchy to strengthen his own position, but that’s not what actually happened. Successive kings were generally weak, so they had to make more concessions to the nobility, clergy or both. In the first half of the 7th century, Europe experienced an economic downturn and that also created social tensions, that’s why European rulers of this period were weak too. During the period that I talked about today the nobles and especially the clergy were very powerful, while the king was just an elected noble that had his hands tied. If a king tried to strengthen royal power, he was overthrown and replaced by someone that protected the interests of the privileged. However, the old but energic Chindasuinth would take bold measures to stop that, but let’s see that in the following episode. And with that, The Verdict ends.

I won’t be able to record and publish the episode for the end of the month because I’m busy with exams, so the next episode on the authoritarian reign of Chindasuinth and the peaceful reign of Recceswinth will be published on July 15. Sorry about that! To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

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

Visigothic conversion to Catholicism

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reccared visigothic conversion to catholicism

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

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

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

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

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

isidore of seville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

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

THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY IN VISIGOTHIC SPAIN: RELIGION AND POWER IN THE HISTORIES OF ISIDORE OF SEVILLE. James P. Wood

MEDIEVAL IBERIA: READINGS FROM CHRISTIAN, MUSLIM, AND JEWISH SOURCES. Olivia Remie Constable

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

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

Leovigild, restorer and unifier

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

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

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

leovigild portray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

leovigild conquests visigothic spain before the death of liuvigild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fulfill my promise to talk about the reign of Reccared, but that’s because there was just so much to talk about Leovigild. I’m quite excited to talk about the Visigothic conversion to Catholicism in the next episode, so make sure you listen to that too. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

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

Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

map of europe 526

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

king of the visigoths amalaric

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

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

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

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

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

byzantine province of spania

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

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

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

hispania visigothic spain 560

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

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

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

The next episode will be quite interesting because I will talk about the important reigns of Leovigild and Reccared.  To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

HISTORY OF THE GOTHS. Herwing Wolfram

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

Good bye, Roman Empire!

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

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

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

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

Majorian conquests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse at their peak of power

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

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

alaric ii

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

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

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

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

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

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

frankish conquests 481-814

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

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

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

To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

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

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

HISTORY OF THE GOTHS. Herwing Wolfram

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

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