Leovigild, restorer and unifier

This is episode 15 called Leovigild, restorer and unifier, and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The solution of Liuva to save the Visigothic Kingdom and the importance of that decision
  • Leovigild’s successful campaign against the Byzantine province of Spania
  • The first campaign against self-governed areas in Baetica
  • Visigothic campaign in the north to conquer the buffer zone between the Suebi and themselves and the short campaign against the Suebi
  • The conquest of the last self-governed region of southern Spain, Orospeda
  • Leovigild’s legal, administrative and territorial reforms to strengthen the Visigothic state and unify the Goths and Hispano-Romans to rule over a more homogenous society
  • The background of the rebellion of his son Hermenegild
  • Why Hermenegild’s rebellion wasn’t a religious nor an ethnic war
  • The attempts of Leovigild to solve the religious issue by imposing religious unity with a national, reformed, and more Catholic version of Arianism
  • How Hermenegild’s rebellion failed
  • The last conquest of Leovigild: the annexation of the Kingdom of the Suebi
  • How the economy of Visigothic Spain was
  • Reflection on the importance and true legacy of Leovigild’s reign


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 15 called Leovigild, restorer and unifier. In this episode you will learn about the ambitious conquests of King Leovigild and the economy of Visigothic Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the election of Liuva as King of the Visigoths. Before being elected king, Liuva was the Duke of Septimania that protected the region more prone to Frankish attacks. He took the throne in a moment of weakness for the Visigoths, the Frankish and Eastern Roman conquests had left the Visigothic state in a state of decomposition, not to mention to numerous revolts and civil wars. The situation was very bad for the Visigoths, and the Franks took advantage of that by putting the key city of Arles under siege in 569. The Franks successfully took Arles, and because of that Liuva had to take a desperate and tough decision: he associated the throne to his brother Leovigild, named him co-ruler and heir and gave him full powers to govern Hispania. Liuva was kind of a Jon Snow type of leader, he was a military man above anything, a man of action that put on his shoulders the mission to personally defend Septimania from Frankish attacks. In addition to that, Leovigild married the widow of King Athanagild, Goiswintha, a political move that could be interpreted as a way to get the support of the old noble faction that had supported Athanagild.

In 569 it may not have looked this way because Visigothic rule was under serious threat, but the decision of Liuva to name Leovigild co-ruler and heir became extremely important for the consolidation and expansion of the Visigothic state. It’s truly a landmark in the history of Spain, because after that the history of the Iberian Peninsula can be followed and learned in a much more unitary way. When the reign of Leovigild started, the kingdom was surrounded by enemies: the north wasn’t under Visigothic control, in the west the Suebi still had their independent kingdom with some support from the Franks and Eastern Romans, beyond the Pyrenees the Frankish kingdoms were constantly making incursions in Septimania and Hispania, and in the south there were the Eastern Romans and the powerful Hispano-Roman nobility that was de facto independent. Therefore, Leovigild thought that the best way to ensure the survival of the Visigothic Kingdom was to take the offensive and launch a series of military campaigns against the enemies of the Crown. By doing so, Leovigild could not only rule more territories, but strengthen the power of the royal dynasty as well. Leovigild needed to be bold, he needed to not give them a break, so the Visigoths campaigned yearly for 7 years, from 570 to 577.

leovigild portray

The first campaign was against the Byzantines that had set up the province of Spania in southern Spain. We don’t know if Leovigild wanted to expel them altogether from Spain, but if that was the case he failed. We must understand this in a more global context, because the Lombards were conquering Italian territories from the Eastern Roman Empire too. In any case the priority was to push the Romans towards the coast as much as possible, because the rich Guadalquivir Valley needed to be under Visigothic control. To piss the Romans as much as he could, Leovigild tried to divide Spania in two parts by conquering Málaga, but the Visigoths failed to take the city. Nonetheless, the Visigoths did manage to conquer Baza, a key city of the province of Granada. The conquest of Baza was important, as it left much of the inland territory of Spania vulnerable to conquest. Then the Visigoths headed towards the westernmost area under Byzantine control, in the modern province of Cádiz, as Imperial control threatened Visigothic control over the Guadalquivir Valley. Leovigild managed to conquer the key fortified city of Medina Sidonia thanks to the treason of the Imperial governor of the city, and then he was able to take Cádiz. That ended the Visigothic campaign against the Eastern Romans, that left them only with the control of the Gibraltar Strait and the coast of southern and southeastern Spain.

This campaign not only served to remove any serious threat from the Byzantines, but to allow Leovigild to fight the rebel nobility of Baetica and to prevent the Byzantine to support them. Leovigild lost no time and attacked Córdoba and several fortified towns and castles of the region. The Visigoths managed to conquer them all, although apparently massacring the farmers that had been armed by the local aristocracy. That was a word of warning to the rest of the autonomous aristocracy of Hispania: the Visigoths will eventually come and conquer them, the decision to prevent a bloodshed was up to them. In early 573 Liuva died, leaving the Visigothic throne solely to his brother. The situation didn’t change much, but now Leovigild had more responsibilities since he had to worry about the Franks too.

In 573 the target of the campaign changed completely, as it moved to the northwest. The Visigoths may not have had another choice, because the Suebic King Miro decided to attack the Ruccones. The Ruccones were an obscure group of autonomous peoples that lived between the Astures and Cantabri in northern Spain. Apparently, the Ruccones lived in the mountains and survived by raiding the peoples that lived in the plains of the north. The Visigoths had a problem with that, because King Miro was attacking an area that was just too close to the Tierra de Campos, an area with many Visigothic settlements. Apart from that, the Visigoths needed to keep the Suebi in check to reaffirm their position of hegemony in Hispania, and they had a good pretext to subdue the autonomous peoples of the north. Leovigild first attacked the region of Sabaria, between modern Zamora and Braganza, and then he conquered Cantabria, a territory that hadn’t had any kind of central authority for more than a century. The Visigoths set up some permanent outposts, but Leovigild dismissed the possibility of completely subjugating the Atlantic side of the Cantabrian Mountains. The real strategic objective was to stabilize communications between the Ebro Valley and the northern part of the Meseta.

In 575 the Visigoths conquered some bordering territories between the Suebi and their kingdom, because hostilities between the two caused the proliferation of local independent leaders. Then Leovigild launched an expedition against Suebic territory, but it quickly ended as King Miro sued for peace. It seems that Miro offered some kind of subordination, especially in terms of foreign policy, but of course he would still betray the Visigoths if he had the chance. For some reason Leovigild accepted that, maybe because the troops needed some rest, maybe because he couldn’t launch a large-scale campaign to destroy the Suebi, but who knows. In 577 the tireless King of the Visigoths launched a new campaign, this time against the independent aristocracy of Orospeda, a marginalized region like Sabaria that bordered the Imperial province of Spania, above the region of modern Murcia. After conquering Orospeda he had to return briefly to put down a peasant revolt. It was then when Leovigild established a defensive system of bordering fortified towns along the border of Spania, just as the Byzantines themselves had done before.

After 7 years of continuous campaigns in different regions of Hispania, there was one year of peace. Leovigild had managed to consolidate and strengthen the Visigothic Kingdom, as now the Visigoths had less enemies compared to the precarious situation at the start of his reign. His bloody campaigns were certainly effective. Leovigild took back some territories and incorporated marginalized areas that had been out of Visigothic control, but also rich regions like the Guadalquivir Valley. I’ve only talked about his military achievements for the moment, but a good king needs to do more than that. During those years he issued legal reforms and he reorganized the state. His vision was clear, Leovigild wanted to build a strong centralized state, similar to the Eastern Roman Empire of Justinian. To achieve that purpose, he strengthened royal power by adopting measures to reduce the power of the nobility and by making the Visigothic monarchy elective but hereditary within the royal family, just as it used to happen with the Balti dynasty. He named his sons Reccared and Hermenegild heirs, but not with the same powers of the ruling king as it had happened when Liuva associated Leovigild to the throne. Leovigild also emulated Roman Emperors by issuing his own coins and by giving a strong symbolic power to the position of king, using distinct ceremonies and clothing. He also founded a new city, Reccopolis in honor to his son Reccared, which was yet another prerogative of Roman Emperors.

In terms of administrative and territorial reforms, Leovigild emulated yet again the Eastern Roman Empire by dividing the territory in provinces governed by both military and civil officers. Furthermore, to unify the diverse peoples that lived under Visigothic rule he lifted the ban of mixed marriages between the Gothic and Hispano-Roman population and he unified the legal code to be applied to both populations. That was a very important step to consolidate the Visigothic Kingdom as an independent and Spanish-based monarchy.

However, his efforts to strengthen the ruling dynasty caused serious tensions. In 579 Hermenegild, eldest son of Leovigild and co-heir of the kingdom, married a twelve-year-old Catholic Frankish princess, Ingund, daughter of the King Sigebert of Austrasia. Ingund was also the granddaughter of Goiswintha, the Queen of the Visigothic Kingdom, so the alliance between the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasia and Visigothic Spain looked quite solid. Queen Goiswintha received her granddaughter warmly at first, but things deteriorated quickly. The Queen tried to force the conversion of Ingund to Arianism, but the twelve-year-old princess refused it firmly. Because of that Goiswintha lost her temper and beat her granddaughter up herself. Goiswintha was an Arian fanatic, and it was very painful for her to see how his daughter and mother of Ingund had to convert to Catholicism when she married, as well as the tragic death by strangulation of another daughter at the orders of her Frankish husband. You know, these details are important to understand the motives behind her overreaction. Anyway, the situation within the Court of Toledo was so delicate that Leovigild decided to send Hermenegild and Ingund to Seville to rule Baetica and southern Lusitania. He had no other choice, otherwise the conflict could escalate and cause the end of the alliance between Frankish Austrasia and the Visigothic Kingdom, as well as internal problems. Baetica was a region of great strategic importance, only a few years before the nobility had fought the Visigoths and Baetica bordered Byzantine’s Spania as well, so seeing how Leovigild entrusted Hermenegild with this province we must guess that Leovigild had no doubts of his son’s loyalty. However, Leovigild would regret this decision.

Seville was the most populated and rich city of 6th century Hispania, and Seville had a strong Catholic and Hispano-Roman nobility. Much of the Catholic clergy from Africa had fled from persecutions to southern Spain. Apart from that, the bishop of Seville was Leander, brother of scholar Isidore of Seville who later wrote an important work on the history of the Goths, Vandals and Suebi. The family of Leander and Isidore of Seville had fled from Cartagena following the Byzantine conquest of the city, but they were still a wealthy and powerful family. The influence of his wife Ingund, Leander of Seville and the Catholic nobility and clergy of Baetica were critical for the conversion of Hermenegild to Catholicism. Hermenegild didn’t want to challenge his father without enough support, so he first contacted and made an alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire and the Suebi of King Miro to support his cause. After getting their support, Hermenegild proclaimed himself king in 580 and justified his rebellion saying that he was being persecuted for religious reasons. This was nonsense, since the Visigoths, although Arians, didn’t interfere in the affairs of the Catholic Church, their conflict with the Catholic clergy only happened due to political reasons, not religious. But, you know, Hermenegild couldn’t say that he just rebelled because he wanted more political power. The nobles and Catholic clergy that supported his cause did it to oppose the centralizing policies of Leovigild that reduced the power of the local aristocracy.

So Hermenegild’s rebellion cannot be seen as a religious war between Catholics and Arians, and it cannot be seen as a war between Visigoths and Hispano-Romans either. Strangely as it may seem, Leovigild adopted a wait-and-see approach during the first two years of the rebellion. The legitimate king was prudent probably because he feared that the Catholic propaganda could work and provoke a large-scale revolt in more territories. He first needed to unite firmly his subjects to ensure their loyalty, and the religious issue needed to be solved quickly, as Hermenegild had laid out the war in religious terms. In 580 Leovigild called a synod of Arian bishops and in that council the Arian clergy adopted measures to facilitate conversions to Arianism and they also reduced the theological differences between Catholicism and Arianism to a minimum. Leovigild pretended to unify the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman population with a national religion led by the King, so it was essentially about imitating the caesaropapism of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, this policy failed and most of the Catholic clergy and population stuck to their old beliefs. Unlike some Catholic propaganda tried to make us believe, Leovigild didn’t use violent repressive methods against the Catholic population, as if he had done so Hermenegild could have succeed in his rebellion.

Nonetheless, it’s surprising how we don’t have news of conquests accomplished by Hermenegild between 580 and 582. This seems to indicate that Hermenegild had weak military support. Meanwhile, Leovigild campaigned against the Vascones that were sacking the Ebro Valley and founded a new city to control the region before going to war against his son. In 582 Leovigild conquered the capital of Lusitania, Mérida, that paved the way for the conquest of the epicenter of the rebellion, Seville. The following year Leovigild besieged Seville, and the Suebi came to aid the usurper, but they were defeated and King Miro was forced to return to Gallaecia after recognizing again the supremacy of the Visigoths. The Romans of the Imperial province of Spania didn’t honor their alliance, as they saw that the rebellion wasn’t going anywhere. They couldn’t get reinforcements as they were in trouble in Africa and Italy, and to make the decision even easier Leovigild offered a bribe to ensure their neutrality. Hermenegild then fled to Córdoba, and as the outcome of the war became clear he sent his wife Ingund and his son to Spania. Ingund probably pretended to return to Austrasia, but the Byzantines took her and his son as hostages. On her way to Constantinople, Ingund died, and his son was used to put pressure on the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasia to attack the Lombards in Italy.

Hermenegild knew that the rebellion was over. He took refuge in a church of Córdoba, as no soldier could enter to a sacred temple, but Leovigild could sent his son Reccared to negotiate a way out. Leovigild promised Hermenegild that he wouldn’t execute him, so the pretender surrendered, and the King sent him into exile in Valencia. Hermenegild was later sent to a prison of Tarragona, where he was assassinated at the orders of his own father. Don’t believe everything they promise you, even from your own father.

So now what, peace? Nope. King Miro of the Suebi had died soon after he returned to Gallaecia. He was succeeded by his son, but the military defeat of his father and the renewal of the vassalage made him loss any kind of legitimacy. Because of that, a relative named Audeca usurped the Suebic throne, and this was the perfect pretext for Leovigild to start the conquest of the Kingdom of the Suebi, because he was the patron of King Miro’s son. But the Franks of Burgundy also took advantage of the situation to invade Septimania. The heir apparent Reccared led the Visigothic troops and repelled the offensive, and the Frankish navy sent to support the Suebi was crushed too. The Suebi had to fight all by themselves, pointlessly. The Suebi were quickly crushed, Gallaecia was devastated and the royal treasure was seized. With that, the Kingdom of the Suebi was annexed to the Visigothic Kingdom and the Suebi vanished from history as an independent group. With that, only the province of Spania remained under control of another state, while some lands of northern Spain were still only under Visigothic influence, but not direct control.

leovigild conquests visigothic spain before the death of liuvigild

Soon after this great accomplishment, King Leovigild passed away in 586, and his son Reccared succeeded him without opposition. Leovigild is considered by many the best and most effective king of Visigothic Spain, as he largely unified Hispania under his rule and made efforts to unite the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans to create a new, distinct nation. Leovigild’s reign was a turning point for the history of the Visigoths, since he managed to reverse the decline of the kingdom, a kingdom that had suffered from decades of defeats, civil wars and disintegration. Leovigild suppressed all the independent local governments and his son’s rebellion, he conquered much of Spania, repelled the attacks of the Franks and annexed the Kingdom of the Suebi. His only failure was the imposition of religious unity under a reformed, more Catholic form of Christian Arianism. But his son Reccared would solve that issue.

Let’s leave the reign of Reccared for the next episode, because as I promised in the previous episode, I want to talk about the economy of Visigothic Spain. As you sure know, in every preindustrial economy the primary sector was overwhelmingly the most important one, so let’s start with that. The Visigoths didn’t change much the crops and diets of Hispania, most of the agricultural land was dedicated to grow cereals, grapes and olives. The exploitation of land was still predominantly organized around villae, so you had the home of the landlord surrounded by dispersed modest houses of the colonus and free peasants. Don’t get it wrong though, many isolated estates disappeared, and instead there was a concentration of people in the small settlements that villae formed. The agricultural output and productivity were not great, subsistence agriculture was the rule, so surpluses were rare and demographic growth and trade were very limited because of that. Famine was a constant threat, because droughts, floods and lobster plagues commonly ruined harvests. The situation was even worse if we consider that the climate and lands of many areas of the Iberian Peninsula were not suitable for farming. Moreover, epidemics like the Plague of Justinian of the 6th century killed thousands of people, which also played a role in the poor performance of lands and the weakness of European Medieval states. And of course, wars meant devastation and looting, and that had a negative impact in the economy too.

Stockbreeding and hunting became more important in Visigothic Spain compared to the Roman period, as the Germanic diet gave more importance to the consumption of meat. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a super important increase, and the composition of the cattle didn’t change much either, pigs, cows, ox and sheep were the most common animals to breed. To finish talking about the primary sector, most mines were closed down since coins had lost much importance and there weren’t great military needs either.

Manufacturing activities, like iron foundry or goldsmithing, became even more marginal than they used to be, because of the general state of economic decadence and the economic decline of cities. As large estates gained importance, those became more economically autonomous and textile products for instance were produced there for self-consumption. Trade declined as well, and we can distinguish between international and local trade. Local trade was mostly done using the old network of Roman roads, although those roads were in decay because there wasn’t proper maintenance. Moreover, there were bandits too that only made trade more unsecure and thus expensive. Fluvial commerce was safer, but there are few waterways in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are mostly concentrated in southern Spain. The products that circulated locally were essential goods and transactions mostly occurred to supply urban centers. There was no such thing as a local, professional businessman, it was a very primitive kind of trade where producers traded directly with consumers.

On the other hand, we have international trade that had also been in decline since the 3rd century. Long-distance trade was scarce and only luxury products were traded for the upper classes of Visigothic Spain. That kind of trade was mainly carried out by Jewish and Eastern Roman merchants, and those same Oriental businessmen probably helped in the Byzantine conquest of southern Spain. The Visigothic Kingdom exported olive oil, salt and garum, however, there was a trade deficit due to the lack of manufacturing industries and luxury products to export. Foreign trade mostly occurred with North Africa and the Eastern Roman Empire, although there was also trade with Merovingian France and the British Islands.

So, the big picture of the Visigothic economy wasn’t a good one, but that was a phenomenon that was happening all over Europe and North Africa. Compared to the economy of the Roman Empire at its height, the Visigothic economy was much more rural and primitive, both domestic and foreign trade declined, manufactures also declined and mines closed down. Even agricultural output was not great, and famines, plagues and epidemies could happen anytime. It wasn’t a great period to be alive, but for most people in human history that has always been the case, hasn’t it?

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want discuss the importance of Leovigild. His campaigns demonstrate his intentions to unify Hispania under one rule, but he knew that only with military achievements he wouldn’t have a lasting legacy. His true legacy was the unification of the Goths and Hispano-Romans to create a new identity, an identity that outlived the Visigothic Kingdom itself and that was a justification for the so-called Reconquista. His reign supposed the definitive break up from the Roman past, as Hispania was not a part of the Roman Empire nor a vassal. Instead, Hispania was unique on its own way, and Leovigild’s reign was definitely a turning point for the history of Spain. And with that, The Verdict ends.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fulfill my promise to talk about the reign of Reccared, but that’s because there was just so much to talk about Leovigild. I’m quite excited to talk about the Visigothic conversion to Catholicism in the next episode, so make sure you listen to that too. 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!




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