erwig

Visigothic Twilight

This is episode 19 called Visigothic Twilight and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The succession of Recceswinth and the rebellion of Paul against Wamba
  • The social problems that late 7th century Visigothic Kingdom was facing
  • The coup of Erwig and Julian of Toledo to disqualify Wamba as king
  • Why Julian of Toledo supported the coup and his fervent antisemitism
  • The weakness of Erwig and the backstabbing of his successor Egica
  • The ruthless rule of Egica and his brutal antisemitic policies
  • The weak rule of Egica’s son Wittiza and the famines and plagues of his rule
  • The coup of Roderic (Rodrigo in Spanish), and the emergence of the pretenders Agila II in northeastern Spain and Oppas, leaving the Visigothic Kingdom divided right before the Muslim conquest
  • Final thoughts on the key political features of the Visigothic Kingdom

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 19 called Visigothic Twilight. In this episode you will learn about the last years of the Visigothic Kingdom, from the reign of Wamba to the succession of King Wittiza, right before the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

On the same day Recceswinth died in September 672, a noble named Wamba was elected king. This Wamba had been a courtier in the court of Recceswinth since his early reign, so it’s obvious that he was part of the noble faction loyal to Chindasuinth’s family. Wamba initially opposed his own election arguing that he was too old, but he was forced to take the crown anyway. However, Wamba demanded to be crowned and anointed in Toledo, to make the succession as legitimate as possible. That didn’t prevent revolts though, as the kingdom was in a fragile state.

Wamba first led an expedition against the Vascones, but when he arrived in modern La Rioja, he heard news of a noble rebellion in the edges of Septimania. This may not have been an attempt to usurp the throne, but rather a plot to hand Septimania over the Franks. King Wamba immediately sent part of his army to suppress the rebellion, although as we will see it would have been smarter to have led that army himself. Instead, that army was led by Paul, someone that Wamba trusted, as he had also appointed him Duke of Narbonensis. Paul had been a man of the inner circle of the court of Recceswinth too, but it seems that he was disappointed with the election of Wamba, since, as soon as he left Wamba fighting the Vascones, Paul started a conspiracy against the King too. Paul obtained the backing of the Duke of Tarraconensis and the rebels of Septimania to support his claim on the Visigothic throne. Actually, it seems like Paul attempted to be recognized as king of the eastern half of the kingdom, while accepting the rule of Wamba in the western half, but this unrealistic offer was refused by Wamba and his supporters. Cowabunga it is!

In a week Wamba pacified the Vascones and he marched towards Tarraconensis. Apparently, the royal army quickly conquered the strongholds of Barcelona and Girona, and then Wamba divided his army in three columns to regain control of the Pyrenees and Septimania. The ground offensive was combined with a naval blockade and Wamba successfully conquered town after town. The properties of Paul and the other leaders of the rebellion were confiscated, and they were sent into exile.

Even though Wamba had put down the rebellion, it was quite revealing of the weakness of central power and the increasing desire of autonomy of the local elites. Another issue that worried the King was that it was increasingly difficult to recruits troops. Much like before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the local population didn’t seem compromised with the defense of the kingdom from both internal and external threats. The nobility wanted more autonomy, while the peasantry was living in very poor conditions and many ran away from the land of their lord. Wamba promulgated a law that forced everyone near an attack to participate in the defense of the realm. Those who didn’t honor their duty could face the confiscation of their property and the loss of their right to testify. We don’t know to what extent this law was enforced, but it seems that confiscations were quite numerous. Wamba also appointed several people of humble origin in key administrative positions, and he took measures to limit the excessive growth of ecclesiastical assets. So, to summarize, Wamba was the kind of king that took measures to strengthen royal power.

The end of the reign of Wamba is quite confusing. One source tells us that Wamba started feeling ill in 680 and asked to be tonsured, which disqualified him as a monarch. He signed a document making Erwig his successor and asked the powerful bishop of Toledo, Julian of Toledo, to anoint Erwig as soon as possible. However, another source claims that it was all a palace coup led by Erwig and Julian of Toledo. They apparently administered a narcotic to Wamba and they tonsured him while he was drugged. By the time Wamba recovered, he had no choice but to accept that he could no longer be a king. Since Wamba didn’t want to be the king since the beginning, it was probably okay for him to live the rest of his days without fearing for his life. The story of the conspiracy seems more plausible, as that would explain why Erwig was anointed so quickly.

julian of toledo

Julian of Toledo supported the coup because Wamba had created a new see in Toledo to curb the authority of the metropolitan. Wamba had given the Praetorian Church of Saint Peter and Paul to the new bishop, which is very significant because in that church Wamba himself had been anointed and it was the church from where kings departed for war. Of course, that bishopric was immediately eliminated once Wamba was removed from power. But who was this bishop of Toledo? Julian of Toledo was like a second Isidore of Seville in terms of influence in both the politics of the Visigothic Kingdom and within the Spanish Church, and he was a very prolific writer too. Julian of Toledo descended from a family of Jewish conversos, but he was fervently anti-Jewish. He advocated for harsher measures against Jews, and the late Visigothic kings listened to his antisemitic rhetoric that was not so different to that of Hitler. King Erwig for instance called for the “root extirpation of the Jewish plague”, while his successor Egica called for the “enslavement of all Jews”. Julian of Toledo justified the antisemitic policies comparing Jews to a disease, saying that a good Christian king should remove them before they spread the disease. Truly Nazi levels of antisemitism.

But let’s talk about Erwig and his reign. Erwig was the cousin of Recceswinth, and his father was an Armenian or Persian Christian that fled to the Visigothic Kingdom after the Muslim conquest of his birthplace. Upon his rise to the Visigothic throne, Erwig summoned the bishops of the realm in the Twelfth Council of Toledo and rapidly issued a revision of the Visigothic Code of Recceswinth. Among the new laws there were 28 directed against Jews, which included forced conversions as King Sisebut had attempted in the early 7th century, but there were more extreme measures. Some of these include the obligation of Jewish conversos to show up every Saturday in the presence of a clergyman or a civil officer, or the mutilation of the genitals of those who circumcised or were circumcised after the law was promulgated. Ouch. As Erwig was worried that those laws wouldn’t be enforced, he threatened with fines the bishops and judges who didn’t implement them. Aside from those laws, Erwig made concessions to the clergy and nobility, for instance eliminating the laws of Chindasuinth that banned violence against slaves. That certainly didn’t help restoring social order and calming the common people. Social tensions were very serious, especially because there was a succession of bad harvests that caused widespread famines. By the way, according to a chronicle written later, the Umayyad Caliphate already sent scouts to the coasts of Spain, a prelude of their conquest two decades later. That might be the reason why the Visigoths started paying more attention to the Strait of Gibraltar and militarizing Ceuta, the key North African stronghold of the Strait.

During the reign of Erwig there was an unusual amount of Councils of Toledo, so the Twelfth Council of Toledo was followed by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Councils of Toledo. In the Thirteenth the properties of the rebels of 672 were restored to the original owners, which suggests that Erwig wanted to reconcile with that part of the nobility, maybe in an attempt to end the constant conflicts between noble factions. Those councils also show concerns for the lives of the royal family and its supporters, as in the reigns of Chintila and Tulga. Erwig might have felt deceived, because he was concerned for his life and that of his inner circle even though he had diminished substantially royal power. Not only had he returned confiscated properties, Erwig also banned the use of violence to force the confession of treason, and he ended the practice of employing serfs in administrative positions.

What Erwig didn’t expect was that the real threat to his family came from his own ranks. In 687 Erwig was dying, so he proclaimed a provincial duke named Egica his successor. Soon after his election, King Egica summoned the bishops of the realm in the Fifteenth Council of Toledo. There Julian of Toledo defended his view on a theological issue that caused tensions between the Spanish Church and the Pope, but more importantly for us Egica wanted to reverse the canon of previous councils that protected the family and properties of former kings. Before naming Egica his successor, King Erwig forced Egica to take two oaths. One was that he wouldn’t harm Erwig’s children after Egica married his daughter, and the other oath was to be a just king. Egica claimed that the two oaths were contradictory, given that Erwig apparently confiscated some properties in an illegitimate way to hand them to his children. The bishops freed him from his first oath and allowed him to repudiate his wife, who was the daughter of Erwig, while also depriving her family from their unjustly acquired properties. Nonetheless, the council didn’t allow Egica to do everything that he pleased to maintain the cohesion of the ruling noble faction. In any case, you sure have noticed that any law to protect the family and supporters of a former king always came to naught.

visigothic kings

After this ruthless and despicable act Egica felt secured in the throne. But there was a challenge to his rule soon enough. After the death of Julian of Toledo in 690, someone named Sisebert was appointed bishop of Toledo. This Sisebert supported the rebellion of a nobleman named Suniefred to usurp the throne and kill Egica, and for some time the rebels seized Toledo. However, the rebellion was quickly suppressed, Sisebert was excommunicated and the rest of the rebels were sold into slavery. It has been suggested that members of Erwig’s family participated in the plot, and if that was the case it was the perfect pretext to make them fall into disgrace. King Egica passed new legislation that banned the formation of alliances through oaths, except for the oath of loyalty towards the king of course. Offenders of that law faced the same sentence as traitors, although I wonder if this law was actually enforced.

Egica also used the failed revolt to secure his family in power, as he already made co-ruler his son Wittiza in late 693. The mother of Wittiza was Erwig’s daughter, so Wittiza must have been only 5 or 6 years old when he was associated to the throne. Wittiza would have been overthrown if Egica had died when his son was a minor, but luckily for him that didn’t happen. We have seen how Egica was ruthless, but he was also down-to-earth. He knew that the best way to secure the position of his family was to strengthen his economic and social bases, exactly the opposite that his predecessor Erwig did. Egica swelled the ranks of the royal army with freedmen who had been liberated by royal order. The King also used a classic of the guide of Visigothic rulers, confiscations, along executions and forced exiles. It seems like Egica really admired the rule of Chindasuinth, as he also restored the ban on the use of violence against slaves.

On another note, in 698 a Byzantine fleet attempted to raid the southeastern coast of Spain, but the Visigothic count Theodemir drove them off. The reason behind this bizarre attack is unknown, but we know that this fleet was the same that attempted to recover Carthage from the Arabs. Through this contact or through some commercial interaction a plague originated in Constantinople reached the Visigothic Kingdom, and the outbreak was so serious that Egica and Wittiza had to leave the capital for some time. All was going badly to sustain social peace, because bad harvests and famines happened almost every year, there was a very serious problem of fugitive slaves and brigandage, and the Jewish community was being persecuted on a way never seen before.

Talking about Jews, you know that all the attempts to eliminate Judaism failed. Yes, for sure they managed to truly convert some to Catholicism, but the forced conversion created a new problem, the problem of fake conversos or crypto-Jews. Despite the judicial terror, Jews kept practicing their religion and owning Christian slaves. The fact that similar laws were promulgated again and again indicates that authorities negligently enforced antisemitic laws. King Egica, determined to end with Judaism in his realm as many previous kings, adopted a carrot-and-stick  approach at first. He offered certain economic incentives to those who proved their conversion to Catholicism, while limiting the economic basis of those who didn’t. However, as those measures failed, he adopted the most brutal measures in Visigothic history to persecute Jews. In the Seventeenth Council of Toledo of 694 he accused Jews of being a fifth column that conspired with the Umayyad Caliphate to conquer the Visigothic Kingdom. Because of that he ordered the perpetual enslavement of Jews and the confiscation of all their properties. Those radical antisemitic laws were rigorously enforced in certain areas of Spain, while not so much in others. No wonder why the Jewish Spanish community welcomed the Muslims as liberators.

Then Egica died in 703 and Wittiza started his sole reign. It looks like there was an unavoidable and strange pattern in the history of the Visigothic Kingdom, a pattern were strong fathers were succeeded by weak sons. Such pattern kind of happened with Leovigild and Reccared, it happened with Chindasuinth and Recceswinth, and it happened again with Egica and Wittiza. I say that because the first thing Wittiza did was recalling those who had been exiled and returning confiscated properties. Those measures made the nobility happy, but some later chroniclers blamed Wittiza for doing so because he greatly weakened the royal treasury, which left the central power weak by the time the kingdom had to face the Muslim Umayyad forces. We don’t know much more about the reign of Wittiza, but we know that there were famines in 707 and 709 and that the plague was still widespread.

King Wittiza died in 710 or 711, being only in his mid-twenties. Wittiza was succeeded by Roderic, Rodrigo in Spanish, and this Roderic was the last Visigothic King to rule from Toledo. The succession of Wittiza was a very obscure event, so we have different interpretations of what happened. The Chronicle of 754 states that Roderic “tumultuously invaded the kingdom with the encouragement of the Senate”. Therefore, it’s clear that the succession wasn’t a regular and legitimate one, but the exact meaning of these words has long been discussed by historians. The term invaded shouldn’t be taken literally, and as for the kingdom it should be noted that regnum in Latin also referred to the royal office, so it’s safe to say that royal office is the actual translation of regnum here. And the encouragement of the Senate means that part of the nobility and possibly the clergy supported him. The conclusion is that Roderic violently seized the throne and it was probably not a discrete palace coup, so it’s very likely that King Wittiza was overthrown and assassinated. Some sources suggest that Roderic was the Duke of Baetica at the time he usurped the throne, but his origins are as obscure as his coup.

king roderic battle of guadalete

However, the usurpation of Roderic wasn’t left uncontested. The Visigothic Kingdom split into two areas governed by two different kings. Roderic controlled the southern and western part of the realm, while a man crowned as Agila II ruled Tarraconensis and Narbonensis. We don’t know the origins of King Agila II, but it’s possible that he was somehow related to Egica and Wittiza. But to make things more confusing, there was another pretender. The pretender was the son of Egica and therefore brother or brother-in-law of Wittiza. His name was Oppas and he got the support of some former supporters of Wittiza. The whole situation, certainly chaotic, is very confusing, and late sources and legends don’t help to make the story clear. What seems clear is that the situation resembled a civil war, but the truth is that none of the three sides had time to fight among themselves, because the Muslims quickly took advantage of the internal chaos of the Visigothic Kingdom to launch their unstoppable invasion.

I leave the Muslim Umayyad conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom for following episodes. With that a new era will start for the history of Spain, a period where Muslim and Christian states would fight against each other and among themselves.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I would like to just leave a few final thoughts about the Visigothic Kingdom. One of the most striking features of the kingdom was the role that no more than two dozen families played in the politics of the realm. We are talking about a handful of wealthy families that dominated the different regions of the Iberian Peninsula and formed alliances among themselves to keep the kingdom united. That was not something especially rare in Medieval Europe, but what was a particular feature of the Visigothic Kingdom was that the powerful nobility chose one of them as King but didn’t allow any monarch to establish a long-lasting dynasty. That’s why the Visigothic monarchy was elective in principle, and in fact no dynasty lasted more than 3 generations. The leading aristocratic families made sure that none of them could use the royal office to build up their own family wealth to a degree that would make them permanently superior. The maintenance of the balance of power among themselves was the key objective of their complex political system, that’s also why there was this pattern of confiscating but then restituting properties and positions. The history of the Visigothic Kingdom is the story of an oligarchy of wealthy families that dominated both secular and religious offices. An oligarchy that was infighting in one of the worst possible moments to do so, when the ambitious and unbeatable Umayyad Caliphate was ready to invade Spain. And with that, The Verdict ends.

I must confess, I didn’t expect to finish covering the Visigothic Kingdom this soon, but the lack of primary sources of this period is remarkable. However, I’m happy to have covered Visigothic Spain with this level of detail, and I’ve learned many aspects of this period that I didn’t know before researching for the episodes. I hope you have learned a lot too, without feeling bored! As you know I love to receive feedback to improve the podcast, so any comments on Twitter or through an email or review are always welcomed. I’ll work hard to keep improving the quality of the podcast, so I will plan thoroughly how I’m going to research and narrate the long and complex Medieval period that remains of the history of Span.

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

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

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