This is episode 11 called Barbarians against Barbarians and in this episode you will learn:
- 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
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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
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