This is episode 9 called Hispania: Dominate and Expansion of Christianity and in this episode you will learn:
- 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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 ANTIGUA. TOMO II. HISPANIA ROMANA. José María Blázquez and others
LATE ROMAN SPAIN AND ITS CITIES. Michael Kulikowski
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