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