This is episode 17 called Changing dynasties and in this episode you will learn:
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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 Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno
EARLY MEDIEVAL SPAIN: UNITY IN DIVERSITY, 400-1000. Roger Collins
VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins
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