fall of the western roman empire

Good bye, Roman Empire!

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

Show notes

  • 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

Script

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.

Majorian conquests

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.

Map Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse at their peak of power

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.

alaric ii

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.

frankish conquests 481-814

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 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

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

First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans

This is episode 10 called First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Why the Migration Period started in the first place
  • Who the Alans, Vandals and Suebi were: their origins, characteristics and how many were they
  • What consequences had the withdraw of Imperial troops from Britannia, Gaul and Germania: the usurpation of Constantine III and execution of Stilicho
  • Why Constantine III attacked Hispania before attempting to attack Italy
  • About the usurpation of Gerontius and Maximus of Hispania, and why the Vandals, Suebi and Alans didn’t enter the Iberian Peninsula as invaders
  • How the Vandals, Suebi and Alans parceled out Hispania
  • How the Hispano-Romans received the immigrants, positive views like that of Orosius or negative like that of Hydatius, and why the barbarians weren’t that barbarian
  • How the usurpers Constantine III, and Gerontius-Maximus were defeated
  • How historiography has treated the Suebi and why most views are wrong
  • Reflections on the importance of how we label events while telling history

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 10 called First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans. In this episode you will learn what happened in the Western Roman Empire between 395 and 411 and who were the Vandals, Suebi and Alans who entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

The Barbarian Invasions of the Iberian Peninsula are part of the larger Migration Period, a period that began in the 4th century and that was the major cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. We already saw the first migrations during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and those were not caused by an external military threat but by climatic, demographic and economic factors. To sum it up, those barbarians wanted fertile lands to settle, and entire families migrated into the lands of the Romans in relatively peaceful and negotiated ways. It was then when the Roman army started a process of barbarization, while at the same time those barbarians were learning and adopting some Roman costumes.

But then the arrival of a mysterious and nomadic group of peoples known as the Huns caused a heavy escalation of the migrations during the 4th and 5th centuries. The Huns probably came from Mongolia and Central Asia, and they expanded westwards destroying and razzing everything in their path. The Huns, with the devastation they caused, provoked a domino effect because they pushed Germanic, Iranian and Slavic peoples into the territories of the Roman Empire. Now all those peoples migrating were not people who wanted to live better, they were people that just wanted to live. The barbarians, in fact, thought they could be safer from the Hunnic threat moving into the Roman provinces, and to achieve that they followed the trend that emerged centuries before of forming large military confederacies. This story may sound familiar to you because in Game of Thrones the White Walkers, aka the Huns, forced the Wildings of beyond the wall to unite under a common leadership and pushed them into the lands of the Seven Kingdoms, aka the Roman Empire.

In the 31st of December 406 an alliance of Vandals, Suebi and Alans crossed the Rhine and started ravaging Gaul. In Gaul they fought the Franks, who were at the time allies of the Romans, and in the Battle of Mainz the Vandal king was killed but the Alans came to save the situation and won. In general, barbarians met with little organized resistance and were successful pillaging in the defenseless Gaul. A few years after crossing the Rhine, most of them crossed the Pyrenees in Autumn of 409, but we will see that later.

map barbarian invasions and the kingdoms established afterwards

Now what you may be wondering is who were the Vandals, Alans and Suebi. Fair question, let’s start with the Alans. The Alans may be the most enigmatic peoples that crossed the Pyrenees in 409, as the literary and archeological sources are almost inexistent. That isn’t surprising considering that they were in theory the smallest group and that they soon were absorbed by the Vandals, as we will see in the next episode. What we do know is that the Alans were a confederacy of Iranian steppe peoples original from above the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspian Seas. As a steppe confederacy, the Alans weren’t inclined to adopt agriculture and settle in a region, instead their main activities were livestock breeding, grazing, hunting and of course pillaging. The Alans, due to their nomadic nature, were the most warlike and bellicose group. In fact, the greatest honor for an Alan man was to die on the battlefield, and the most valued trophy was the hair of the enemy, that served as ornament to the horse of the winner. The greatest contemporary historian of the Visigothic Kingdom, Saint Isidore of Seville, said that the Alans “feel tired and depressed when they have no horse”. As steppe horsemen, the Alans excelled in the use of bows and heavy cavalry, and they influenced the German peoples in the importance of those elements. To finish their portrait, the Alans elected their leader according to his military skills and the archetypical characteristics of a hero. The Alans that crossed the Rhine in 406 eventually split with some remaining in Gaul under King Goar. The other group penetrated the Iberian Peninsula under King Respendial, and historian E. A. Thompson estimated that around 30.000 Alans, soldiers and families included, could have entered Hispania.

Then we have the Vandals, who came from Scandinavia and northern Poland. They were divided in two initially independent groups, the Silingi Vandals and the Hasdingi Vandals. The Silingi Vandals later lived north of modern Czech Republic, while the Hasdingi Vandals lived in modern Hungary and Romania. The Vandals were by far the largest barbarian group to cross the Pyrenees in 409, with around 80.000 people of whom 20.000 were warriors. Unlike the Alans who were pagan, the Vandals were Arians, not in the Nazi sense, don’t panic, but in the sense that they followed Arianism. You may be wondering what the hell is Arianism. No, it’s not a different religion, instead it’s a Christian doctrine that rejects the mainstream idea of the Trinity. The Trinity says that God is one God represented in three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Arianism defends that Jesus was not equal to God and that he was a subordinate of God. The Nicene Creed, that was the official Christian doctrine of the Roman Empire, labeled Arianism as a heresy, that’s why it was problematic since Arians had their own Church too.

On the other hand, we have the Suebi. In his chronicle of the 1st century, Roman historian Tacitus made very clear that the Suebi weren’t a group of homogenous peoples, instead they were a confederacy of many different tribes that occupied a large territory around the Elbe River. Therefore, the Suebi didn’t have a strong ethnic identity like the Vandals or the Visigoths, but many small tribes joined them precisely because they were a more open group compared to others. The Suebi who came to Spain were not many, it has been estimated that they numbered 35.000 souls. So even though we don’t have actual numbers of how many people entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409, estimations range between 100.000 and 150.000 people, of whom at most 50.000 were soldiers.

Okay, now that you know who these groups of barbarians were, let’s see what was happening in Roman politics to really understand this confusing and chaotic period. Remember, we left the previous episode in 395 with Honorius declared Emperor of the Western Roman Empire at the age of 10 and under the regency of Stilicho. Stilicho ordered the withdraw of troops from the Rhine and Britannia to protect Italy, and thanks to that concentration of forces he successfully repelled the attacks of the Visigoths, Alans, Suebi and Vandals. Despite this short-term victory, the Western Roman Empire was doomed, as Germania, Gaul and Britannia were left unprotected. Stilicho probably had no other choice as the military power of the Western Roman Empire at the time was very weak, but that decision led to his downfall.

The Gallo-Roman and Romano-British aristocracy felt abandoned by the court of Ravenna, the de facto capital of the decadent Western Roman Empire, and that sowed the seeds for rebellion. In Britannia a usurper called Constantine III declared himself Western Roman Emperor in 407. He presented himself as the savior of the Romans who were left unprotected, and he had a marketable name since people remembered Constantine the Great. Constantine moved to Gaul to fight the Germanic confederacies and Stilicho sent one of his men, Sarus, to suppress the rebellion of Constantine, although unsuccessfully. Alaric, the first King of the Visigoths, had been previously an enemy of Stilicho, but he had now forged an alliance with him to conquer the western part of the Balkans. But due to the rebellions he had to suppress, Stilicho had to put that plan on pause, and Alaric was furious and demanded a compensation.

alaric i entering rome

That put more internal pressure on Stilicho from both the Roman aristocracy and the military, part of the army mutinied, and Stilicho was captured and executed. The execution of Stilicho was followed by the widespread massacre of the wives and children of the barbarians of Italy who served the Roman army. Because of that many of the Germans under Roman service deserted and requested the help of Alaric. The King of the Visigoths then restarted hostilities with the Western Roman Empire, and remember, most of the Roman army was German so when most of them left the army the Roman army almost disappeared. It was only a matter of time before the famous sack of Rome occurred in 410.

Before that though very interesting things had happened in Hispania. The pressure of the army of Constantine III and the Franks forced most of the Vandals, Suebi and Alans to move to what’s now southern France. They didn’t occupy the south-western part of Gaul though, and Constantine III used that route to attempt an invasion of Hispania. You may wonder why Constantine III wanted to conquer Hispania, and the reason behind it is purely strategic. The House of Theodosius dominated the diocese, with the cousins of Honorius at the head of the family. If he neutralized them, Constantine could avoid fighting a two-front war in Hispania and Italy. Constantine’s army advanced in 408 without encountering any remarkable resistance, until the armies of Constantine and the House of Theodosius met in northern Spain and two of the four cousins of Honorius were captured. Constantine allowed his German soldiers to sack the northern Meseta and left them in charge of controlling the passage of the Pyrenees. According to Christian historian Sozomen “this decision was probably, in the long-run, the cause of the ruin of the country”. The defeat of his cousins and the threat of the Visigoths forced Honorius to declare Constantine III co-emperor in 409.

Remember that the Visigoths were attacking Italy at that time? Well, even in this moment of greatest need for unity, a new usurper appeared. Honorius and Constantine III agreed to remove Gerontius, a general of Constantine, from his post in Zaragoza. Because of that, Gerontius rebelled and declared emperor his relative Maximus. The barbarians loyal to Gerontius allowed the barbarians of the other side of the Pyrenees to cross it in 409. It was the usurper Maximus who reached an agreement with the Vandals, Suebi and Alans to allow them to settle in Hispania with the duty to join his cause to become emperor of the Western Roman Empire. So the Vandals, Alans and Suebi didn’t enter the Iberian Peninsula as invaders, but as groups of families and mercenaries at the service of Gerontius and Maximus. That reminds me of the story of the Count of Ceuta who allowed the Muslims to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and conquer the Visigothic Kingdom.

hispania map 411 barbarian invasions alans vandals suebi

Anyway, the Vandals, Alans and Suebi divided the territories of Hispania either according to their military or demographic power or in a totally random way. In 411 the most powerful group were the Alans, led by a king named Attaces, and they settled in the vast provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginiensis. The Silingi Vandals were a larger group compared to the Hasdingi Vandals, so they settled in the fertile region of Baetica, while the Hasdingi settled in the northern part of modern Galicia and Asturias. Finally, the Suebi settled in the southern part of Galicia between the Hasdingi Vandals and the Alans. Hispania Tarraconensis remained in the hands of those loyal to Gerontius as it was the region next to Gaul, where Gerontius had his most immediate interests.

Germans settled in Roman provinces partly by force and partly by legal agreements with the Roman authorities, even though those were illegitimate in Hispania. The Romans could appreciate the benefits of being under the protection of those who they called barbarians, because they didn’t have the will to serve the army. On their behalf, Germans progressively adapted to the material culture and political and religious hierarchies of the Roman provinces. Just as it happened with other invaders, pillaging wasn’t a sustainable method of survival. Instead, the invaders had to change their way of life and coexist with the natives. The Romans that accepted Germanic kings as representatives of the Roman Emperor, in a few decades saw them as legitimate rulers of their own realms.

Back to the war in Hispania, Constantine III moved some of his troops, but Gerontius repelled them. Nonetheless, not everything was going well on the side of Maximus. This wave of immigrants put more pressure to the lands of Hispania, and how were Gerontius and Maximus gonna feed the barbarian warriors and their families? The only option was to put more fiscal pressure to the Hispano-Roman population and to allow the barbarians to sack and confiscate food. The local Hispano-Roman population received the barbarians either restless or with the impression that they weren’t worse than the Roman officers. Keep in mind that most of the Roman army had been composed by Germans for some decades, so it wasn’t the first time Hispano-Romans saw them. Contemporary historian Orosius said: “there are citizens who prefer to bear liberty with poverty among the barbarians that to worry about taxes among the Romans”. A monk of Tarragona named Fronto sent a letter to Consentius, a monk of the Balearic Islands, picturing the barbarians not as bloodthirsty assassins, but as prowlers that could cause some problems but who at the same time respected trade and urban authorities.

Despite that, there are other accounts like that of Hydatius that signal that the entry of Vandals, Alans and Suebi in Hispania resulted in widespread destruction and violence. He pictured a very apocalyptic image of the arrival of the barbarians, saying: “the barbarians who had penetrated the Spains ravage the provinces in bloody fighting. The plague does, on its behalf, no fewer damage. The barbarians scattered furiously through the Spains, and the plague scourged as well, the tyrannical dictator steals and the soldiers plunder the riches and supplies stored in the cities; a hunger so frightful reigns that, forced by it, humanity devours human flesh, and even mothers kill their children and cook their bodies to feed themselves. The beasts, fond of the corpses of those killed by the sword, by hunger and by the plague, destroy even the strongest men, and feeding themselves with the limbs of the dead, they become more and more fattened for the destruction of humanity. In this way, the four plagues: iron, famine, plague and beasts, are exacerbated all over the world, and the predictions made by the Lord through the mouths of their Prophets are fulfilled.”

Truth is that things like sacking or killing people are things that the Roman Republic and Empire did in their conquests too, and that’s a very important thing to highlight because sometimes we forget how Scipio Aemilianus completely destroyed Carthage or starved Numantia to death, just to mention a specific example. We can even say that the so-called barbarians were less barbarian than the Romans in the sense of oppression, because at least they didn’t enslave entire communities like Romans did.

While Gerontius was repelling Constantine III in Hispania, Honorius had to focus on the most immediate threat, the Visigothic invasion of Italy that led to the Sack of Rome in 410 and the capture of her sister, Galla Placidia. Constantine III wasn’t lucky either. The Anglo-Saxons continued sacking Britannia as Constantine left the island defenseless, and the people who initially supported him felt like he betrayed them, and thus Britannia stopped being Roman. Constantine only had some support in Gaul and the King of the Visigoths Alaric I died, so Honorius thought that the time to defeat Constantine III had come. He named general a capable man, Constantius, who would later become Constantius III. With very few troops, the usurper Constantine III had to retreat to Gaul. What’s funny is that both Gerontius and Constantius marched against him, Gerontius first defeated Constantine, and then he besieged Orleans, the capital and residence of Constantine. But while Gerontius was besieging Orleans, Constantius, the general of Honorius, arrived. Most of Gerontius’ soldiers decided to desert to the loyalist side and Gerontius had to flee. Eventually the few supporters he had turned on him and he decided to kill himself before letting others assassinate him. Maximus of Hispania then lost the pillar of his power and took refugee among the Vandals. On his part, Constantine III was defeated by Constantius in 411 and he was executed on his way to the imperial court.

His head was presented to Honorius and usurpations stopped there, right? Of course not, because Romans loved civil wars! A Gallo-Roman senator named Jovinus started a revolt in Gaul with the support of the Burgundians, Alans of Gaul and some Gallo-Roman aristocrats. In addition to that, Ataulf, brother-in-law of Alaric, became King of the Visigoths and Honorius had to be very careful if he wanted to survive. I leave that story for episode 11, but before ending the episode I wanted to dedicate some time to the Suebi because, unlike the Vandals and Alans, the Suebi had their own independent kingdom for more than a century. In fact, the Suebi did some very important firsts. The Kingdom of the Suebi was the first German kingdom to formally declare independence from the Roman Empire and it was the first to convert to Nicene Christianity.

how the suebi vandals alans are still seen in spain

Nonetheless, historiography hasn’t treated them fairly. This is the ahistorical image of the Suebi that historian Modesto Lafuente projected in his widely read 30-volume work ‘General History of Spain’: “their pleasure was to exterminate and annihilate towns and to form large deserts around. Pieces of roughly hardened skin covered some parts of their bodies. They supported themselves by hunting and by the meat and meal of their cattle. All their religion consisted in sacrificing a person each year in barbarous ceremonies. The Suebi didn’t cease to be barbarians because they were Christians, nor did the peoples experience the effects of their conversion to Christianity.” This image of the 19th century is still believed by many historians and the general public. While the Visigoths could be seen as the first founders of a Spanish and Catholic state that ruled the entire Iberian Peninsula, the Suebi have been seen as a peripheric state that contributed to nothing to the glory of Spain. The Kingdom of the Suebi is considered nothing more than a footnote, and their history is generally viewed in three ways: as a backwards barbarian kingdom, with indifference or mystifying the Suebi for Galician nationalistic purposes. Or at least that was the case before Pablo de la Cruz Díaz Martínez published his book ‘El reino suevo (411-585)’, after years of deep research and analysis.

Until his work, even widely-read books like Roger Collins’ ‘Early Medieval Spain’ only dedicate six pages to the Suebi. On the other side, Galician and to a lesser extent Portuguese nationalist consider the Kingdom of the Suebi as a foundation of their nation. These nationalists overestimate the influence the Suebi had and make claims without historical data to support their position. Truth is there are few primary sources on the Suebi, and all were written by Hispano-Romans who saw their invasion as a prelude to the Apocalypse, like Hydatius, or Visigoths who ultimately crushed them. Hydatius was a bishop of modern Galicia who wrote a chronicle that is one of the most important primary sources of the period. He represented the Hispano-Roman landowner and ecclesiastical class who resented the conquest of the Suebi, and that is important to remark because his account is biased as hell. He felt like the barbarians in Roman soil provoked a general state of confusion and decadence, and for many years he prayed for the intervention of the Roman Empire to restore order. Nonetheless, he eventually lost hope and he had to adapt to the circumstances, recognizing that the Suebi founded a kingdom that was there to stay. Hydatius unironically believed that he was chronicling the world’s last days and that the Suebi were the messengers of the Apocalypse. You really wouldn’t want to keep such a pessimistic guy around you. Going back to the point, it certainly doesn’t help that the Suebi didn’t elaborate their own legal code nor had their own national historian to praise their past. The only hope to know more about them is left to archeology, but I hope I can portray them fairly in this podcast.

THE VERDICT: It’s very interesting to see how in historiography we use the expressions of the people who wrote. We call the phenomenon we talked about today Barbarian invasions, but I’m sure that from the perspective of the immigrants they were not barbarians sent by Satan himself, as some accounts portray them. We usually call successful revolts revolutions, while most of the events labeled as revolt or rebellion were unsuccessful. We refer as usurper to people who failed to establish their power, while successful usurpers are recognized and admired as founders of dynasties. The same happens to the Reconquista, the idea to expel the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula was present in the minds of many Christian Medieval kings, but it’s a term used a posteriori in the 19th century to construct a national identity. If the Christians hadn’t won and instead Spain was a Muslim country, do you think we would see the Muslims in worse terms compared to the Christians? Hell no. But history is used not only to talk about facts, but to interpret it and to construct a national myth, and linguistics play a key role to serve that purpose. And with that, The Verdict ends.

The barbarian invasions are the kind of topic that history textbooks spend little time on. Hopefully I will explain with enough detail the history of this period and give a fair treatment to the Vandals, Alans, Suebi and Visigoths. In episode 11 I will tell the story of how the Visigoths entered Hispania serving the interests of the Western Roman Empire and how they fought against the Vandals and Alans. 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 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

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

https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasiones_germ%C3%A1nicas_en_la_pen%C3%ADnsula_ib%C3%A9rica

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migration_Period

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