Muslim Umayyad conquest of Spain

This is episode 20 called Muslim Umayyad conquest of Spain and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Introduction to a new and complex era of the history of Spain, the Medieval Spain of Muslims and Christians
  • What was Pre-Islamic Arabia like
  • A brief history of the rise of Islam, from the reveleations of the Prophet Muhammad to the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates
  • Why the conquest of Spain was the logical step to follow after the conquest of North Africa and what was the Iberian Peninsula like before their conquest
  • Introduction to the main characters of the initial conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom: Tariq ibn Ziyad and Count Julian
  • How the Muslim forces of Tariq crushed the Visigothic army of Roderic in the Battle of Guadalete, and the betrayal of the brothers of former King Wittiza, Oppas and Sisebut
  • Why the weak military system was a cause of the abrupt fall of the Visigothic Kingdom
  • How Tariq ibn Ziyad took advantage of his victory and transformed the expedition from a large-scale raid to a full-scale invasion
  • The probably brief proclamation of Oppas as King and the fall of Toledo, that eliminated the possibility of a centrally organized resistance
  • Why Musa ibn Nusayr, governor of Ifriqiya, prepared a second expedition to Spain
  • The resistance of Mérida and the Treaty of Orihuela, as an example of the numerous treaties of capitulation signed between the Muslim conquerors and the Christian nobles, priests and towns
  • The Muslim conquest of the Ebro Valley, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia under Musa and Tariq
  • What was the strategy followed to conquer the Iberian Peninsula
  • The unhappy ending of Musa and Tariq
  • How was the success of the Muslim conquest interpreted by both Muslims and Christians
  • Reflection on the common motivations that all conquests have


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 20 called Muslim Umayyad conquest of Spain. In this episode you will learn about the background of Islam and the Umayyad Caliphate, and the events of the first three years of Muslim conquest of Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

This episode has a special importance because it’s the start of a new era of the history of Spain. As we will see in this episode, the abrupt fall of the Visigothic Kingdom caused by the Muslim conquest changed the paradigm. The religious unity of Spain was broken, I mean yeah not 100% of the population of the Visigothic Kingdom was Catholic, but the great majority was. After the Muslim conquest, there were more religious issues because the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths lived in the same Iberian Peninsula. Political unity, already weak in the late Visigothic Kingdom, disappeared, and several political entities emerged in Medieval Spain. That meant that borders were permeable and territories were constantly changing hands, and political division also explains the emergence of regional cultures and languages that still exist in modern Spain and Portugal. Spain under the Romans interacted extensively with both Europe and North Africa, under the Visigoths it was more connected with the West, while Muslim Spain interacted more with North Africa. Spain as a Catholic nation, heir of Rome and the Visigoths, almost disappeared. Instead, al-Andalus as a Muslim nation, descendant of both the Latin and Arab cultures, emerged.

Medieval Spain was a long, complex and dynamic period, so both you and I will require to pay attention to detail to avoid oversimplifying this period. Medieval Spain wasn’t just about Christians fighting Muslims, several times Christians and Muslims fought among themselves and they formed alliances with their religious nemesis. Until the 11th century Muslim Spain was in a position of supremacy over the different Christian states, then between the 11th and 13th centuries the balance of power went back and forth, and after that only the Emirate of Granada remained, until its conquest in 1492 led by the Catholic Monarchs. Now, let’s start already with the background of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

While the Visigothic Kingdom was in a state of chaos and infighting, divided between the supporters of King Roderic and Agila II, the rising Muslim Umayyad Caliphate had already finished the conquest of North Africa after a series of bloody and difficult campaigns. The war machine of the Arab empire was ready for a new campaign to spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad, and to seek for riches of course. But what are the origins of Islam and the secret behind the rapid success in its spreading?

First we need to understand the society of the birthplace of Islam. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a sparsely populated and preliterate place with a population of Semitic origin. There were both sedentary and nomadic Arabs, but Pre-Islamic Arabian society was in any case a tribal society. That means that it was a society organized in clans, and that explains the later conflicts among the Arab elite of the Umayyad Caliphate, such as the Qays-Yaman rivalry between northern and southern Arabians. In terms of political development, there weren’t any long-lasting and relevant Arab states before Islam, as political authority was at the hands of the chiefs of the tribes. You can imagine that the lack of political organization and tribal justice led to ceaseless warfare, that’s why Arab men were skilled warriors. This is similar to the case of the Mongols, whose political anarchy, tribal society and harsh living conditions transformed them into exceptional warriors.

pre-islamic arabia

Arabia was a patriarchal society, where women had no social status of any kind and where men could marry as many women as they wanted. Alcoholism and addiction to gambling were common problems among Arab men, that’s why alcohol and gambling were later banned by Islamic laws. As the Arabs lived in a desertic environment, they were used to travel to migrate to places with better living conditions, and they were used to carry out caravan trade. Slavery was a common economic institution in Pre-Islamic Arabia, and the wealthiest and most powerful Arabs were slave traders, merchants and moneylenders. On the religious side, most Arabs were polytheist pagans who venerated various deities and spirits, although there were also some Jews and Christians, as well as a few followers of Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism. So, religiously, Pre-Islamic Arabia was as much of a mess as politically. I think these social, political and economic conditions help us understand better the characteristics of Islam.

Now let’s overview the origins and rise of Islam. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was a caravan trader and a member of a leading family of the city of Mecca in western Arabia. According to Islamic tradition, in 610 he started having revelations from God through the archangel Gabriel, who required him to preach a monotheistic religion to his fellow Arabs. While Muhammad was undertaking his mission, he had new revelations on ethical doctrines, laws and social rules that needed to be observed by his followers, the Muslims, that means ‘those who have surrendered to God and his Prophet’. Sharia, or Islamic law, touches every aspect of life, from slavery to women rights, and at the heart of the Prophet’s preaching lay the Five Pillars of Islam: there’s only one God, believers must pray five times a day at stipulated times, fast during the hours of daylight in the month of Ramadan, make pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and distribute a portion of their personal income to the poor.

Muhammad’s religious message threatened the very pillars of the tribal Arab society, because it had a universalist message of equality, as God didn’t care about race nor about the material wealth of believers. Note that the egalitarian message was only applied to the male Muslims, but it was still an improvement from the previous order. In fact, Islam condemned practices of Pre-Islamic Arabia such as female infanticide, usury, alcohol and gambling, or the exploitation of the poor and slaves. Because of his revolutionary message, which was similar to that of other prophets such as Jesus or Mani, the Prophet faced opposition soon enough. Muhammad and his followers had to move to Medina, where he solved an inter-tribal conflict. Thanks to Medina’s strategic position, Muhammad blocked the commercial trade route between Yemen in southern Arabia and the Byzantine Empire. Mecca depended on that trade, so after years of failed attempts to overrun the Muslims of Medina the tribes of Mecca surrendered and embraced Islam.

Before the death of the Prophet, Muslim forces managed to conquer the majority of the Arabian Peninsula in two years, following the conquest of Mecca. Even though he named a successor, at the death of Muhammad there was a succession problem. A group followed the successor that the Prophet had appointed, who would become the Shias, and others supported another candidate, who would become the Sunni. The Sunni assumed political power and started what became known as the Rashidun Caliphate. The crisis of leadership caused the apostasy of many recently converted tribes, but the rebellion was suppressed. The Muslim schism between Sunnis and Shias was kind of put on pause for about twenty years, and during that time the Rashidun Caliphate rapidly expanded and spread Islam. The Caliphate launched a simultaneous attack on both the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, two empires that were exhausted after years of war against each other. If the two empires hadn’t fought during almost 30 years, the most likely scenario is that Islam wouldn’t have expanded as much as it did.

rashidun caliphate

But the Arabs, united for the first time under Islam, swiftly invaded the Byzantine provinces of Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. As for the Zoroastrian Sasanian Empire, it required many bloody campaigns and repression to conquer, but the Islamic Caliphate had conquered it by the 650s. But then a civil war erupted in the Caliphate, between those who supported a cousin of Muhammad and those who supported the cousin of the previous caliph, who had been murdered. This civil war permanently divided the Muslims between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The cousin of the previous caliph, that was seen as the legitimate caliph by Sunni Muslims, won the civil war and replaced the Rashidun with the Umayyad Caliphate in 661, with the capital in Damascus.

The Umayyad Caliphate continued the rapid military expansion of Islamic forces. It’s important to note though that the rapid conquests didn’t mean that the conquered peoples massively converted to Islam. Massive conversions took decades or even centuries depending on the region, and that was the situation during both the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates. The situation of having a Muslim Arab elite ruling over a population that was predominantly non-Muslim caused more and more tensions as the caliphate expanded, and the Arab discrimination against those non-Arab Muslims also caused social tensions, because the message of the Prophet included the condemnation of racial discrimination. In terms of expansion, the Umayyad Caliphate conquered modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, Armenia, the Caucasus, North Africa, Central Asia and, of course, the Iberian Peninsula.

umayyad caliphate 750

For the history of Spain, the conquest that matters as a previous step to the conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom was that of Maghreb in North Africa. The Arabs defeated the Byzantine armies without any major setback, and they founded the city of Kairouan, which would become the capital of the province of Ifriqiya, the renamed Byzantine province of Africa. In 698 Carthage fell and was destroyed, and the Byzantine Empire lost forever all North African territories, territories that were key grain suppliers for the empire. It was a blow from which the Eastern Roman Empire never recovered.

The Byzantine armies were barely an impediment to Arab expansion, but the Berber tribes of the interior regions were a whole different thing. The Berbers of modern Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco blocked any Arab attempt to advance beyond the coasts of Tunisia, until between 703 and 708 Maghreb was conquered and the Umayyad Caliphate gained control over all the North African coast, except for Ceuta. At this point, they were very close to Spain itself and the Muslim forces were waiting for their chance to attack. By 711, the North African province of Ifriqiya was pacified enough for an expedition to be launched into Spain.

In many ways, the conquest of Spain was the logical and necessary step to follow after the conquest of North Africa. Most Umayyad soldiers served in the hope of booty and lands through more conquests, which were beneficial for both Arabs and Berbers, even though the distribution of benefits was asymmetrical. If no new opportunities of conquest appeared, the tribes and groups might fight each other and lead to the disintegration of the caliphate. Luckily, Spain offered the kind of opportunity needed to keep united and expanding the Umayyad Caliphate. For Arab and Berber standards, the Iberian Peninsula was a fertile and wealthy land. The population of Spain in the late Visigothic period has been estimated to be less than 5 million, far from the 6 or 7 million of the 5th century, as plagues and famines reduced the population of the Iberian Peninsula. We can imagine a very empty landscape, with self-sufficient small towns and large estates, and a kingdom that again had a very weak control over the poor and mountainous north, where the Asturians, Cantabrians and Basques lived. Such was the land the Muslim armies conquered.

But before that, let me address the question of how Islamicised were the conquerors of Spain. In the 630s, the Rashidun Caliphate conquered areas that were predominantly Arab or Semitic, so it was relatively easy to integrate them. The captured non-Muslims were enslaved, and slaves could only be liberated if they embraced Islam and became perpetual clients of the tribe of their previous master. If they converted, they received a share of the spoils of war, although that share was lower than that of the Arabs. That’s how the ranks of the conquerors could continue to grow, as was the case of Musa ibn Nusayr, the governor of Ifriqiya during the conquest of Spain, who was the grandson of an enslaved Syrian Arab. This system worked until the Arabs overextended so much that they became a tiny minority, and their racial discrimination against non-Arabs became unacceptable by their subjects. The overextension was already obvious when the Muslim forces started the conquest of Spain. The bulk of the invading army of Spain was Berber, an ethnic group that had just submitted to Islamic rule and that was far from being truly Islamicised and Arabicized.

The governor of Ifriqiya, Musa ibn Nusayr, appointed his Berber client Tariq ibn Ziyad to rule the Moroccan city of Tangier and to raid Spain. The first step to do so was to conquer Ceuta, a key North African city to control the Strait of Gibraltar. Ceuta was then part of the Visigothic Kingdom, and its governor was a man remembered in Spanish historiography as Don Julián. The historicity of this character has been long a matter of debate among historians. Legend says that Julian collaborated with the Muslims because the King of the Visigoths Roderic had raped his daughter. This tale of betrayal and personal revenge is almost for sure fictional, with the aim to moralize and to explain why the Visigothic Kingdom fell. But it’s very likely that Count Julian existed, I mean, collaborators with foreign invading powers aren’t something new in history. Now let me explain the part of the story that is more plausible. Tariq and Julian arranged an agreement that confirmed the authority of Julian over Ceuta, and the Muslims probably promised him new estates. In exchange, Julian provided ships, a harbor, and intelligence and logistical support. Julian had no choice but to accept this deal, I mean Ceuta would have been put under Muslim control with or without his collaboration, so from an individual point of view better to collaborate and keep his position and wealth.

With the assistance of Count Julian, Tariq sent a commander named Tarif to make a reconnaissance raid in the southern coast of Spain in 710. Maybe in Tarif’s expedition the Muslims also consolidated some alliances with the locals, using the network of contacts of Julian. After the reconnaissance raid, Tariq thought that the prospects of a successful attack were good, but he wasn’t thinking about a full-scale invasion to conquer the entire Visigothic Kingdom, as it later happened. Anyway, Tariq prepared a force of between 7,000 and 12,000 men, who were mostly Berbers, and the Muslim army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in April 711, landing at the rock that still bears the name of Tariq, Gibraltar. The invading army occupied without resistance the surrounding areas, including Algeciras and Medina Sidonia, therefore the Muslims gained control of the communications between the two shores of the strait.

News of those attacks reached King Roderic, who was then occupied fighting the Basques in the north, although it wasn’t until summer that Roderic was able to lead his army south to expel the Muslims. The army of Roderic was likely larger than that of Tariq, we are talking about maybe 20,000 men, and in mid-July the armies of Tariq and Roderic met somewhere near a river of the province of Cádiz. The battle became known as the Battle of Guadalete, and this battle marked the future of the Iberian Peninsula for the following centuries. The brothers of former king Wittiza, Oppas and Sisebut, accompanied Roderic with hidden intentions. The brothers of Wittiza had the duty to lead the flanks of the Visigothic army, maybe because Roderic wanted to reconcile with the faction that supported Wittiza. However, Oppas and Sisebut had other plans. When they had to charge against the army of Tariq, the soldiers in the flanks defected and abandoned the battlefield. King Roderic was left with only his loyal supporters, and now they had a numerical disadvantage. It’s not like Oppas and Sisebut had made an alliance with the Muslims, instead the brothers of Wittiza thought that the Muslims would defeat Roderic, raid southern Spain and then leave. What neither the Muslim nor Christian forces expected was the crushing defeat that the Visigoths suffered in the Battle of Guadalete. King Roderic himself was killed and Visigothic losses were very high. The situation was very similar to that of 507 when the Franks defeated the Visigoths in the Battle of Vouillé and killed the King of the Visigoths. The key difference was that this time the Visigoths had no ally such as the Ostrogoths to back them in this critical moment. In a single battle, the fate of the Visigothic Kingdom was sealed.

king roderic battle of guadalete

Another reason why Visigothic Spain fell quickly after the Battle of Guadalete was its military system. As in the rest of post-Roman Germanic kingdoms of Europe, there was no standing army in the Visigothic Kingdom. The nobles brought their clients and subordinates in response to royal summons, and the king rewarded them with legal concessions, new estates, or gold and silver. The weakness of this system that functioned during the Middle Ages in Europe is obvious: the bulk of the troops are loyal to their lords, not necessarily the monarchy, which is exactly what happened with the betrayal of the brothers of Wittiza. At the time military disaster meant the dispersal of the supporters of the previous king, who had to elect a new king in Toledo. The problem, as we will soon see, was that Toledo quickly fell after the Battle of Guadalete, which left the Visigothic Kingdom in chaos and eliminated the possibility of a centrally organized resistance. For those well versed in English history, this situation may remind you to that of the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The unexpectedly crushing victory of Tariq ibn Ziyad changed the objective of the expedition, from a large-scale raid to a full-scale invasion. Like other Muslim invasions, the idea to transform a raid into an invasion didn’t start as a result of the initiative of the Caliph al-Walid or even the governor Musa ibn Nusayr. It looks like it was entirely Tariq’s idea. All of Spain laid open to Muslim conquest, so, in the aftermath of the Battle of Guadalete, Tariq moved quickly to take advantage of his victory. He split his army, moving the main army under him to the capital of the kingdom, Toledo, while dispatching a smaller army to Cordoba. In Cordoba the Muslims encountered some opposition, as a group of nobles took refuge in a church and fortress where they resisted for three months. After that time, and seeing that no one was coming to help them, they surrendered and arranged agreements with the conquerors. On the other hand, Málaga, Cádiz and Granada were conquered without resistance.

The brother of Wittiza Oppas arrived in Toledo before Tariq, and he was probably proclaimed king, but only a few days after that happened Oppas fled Toledo along many other people. Abandoned by those who could have put up a fight, the little resistance that could still be offered wasn’t enough and Tariq conquered Toledo. The fall of Toledo, the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom, had an important psychological and political blow. Apart from north-eastern Spain that was controlled by the Visigothic pretender Agila II, the rest of the regions could only put up an isolated resistance with no coordination with other regions. In Toledo, the Muslims executed many nobles, as they were either too close to the aristocratic families that ruled the Visigothic Kingdom, or they had supported Oppas. We don’t know the fate of Oppas, but we do know that his brother Sisebut established himself in Coimbra, in modern Portugal. Sisebut wasn’t the only noble who fled to the north to live outside of al-Andalus, but we will see that within two episodes when I will talk about the start of the Reconquista.

muslim conquest of spain stages map

When word of the incredible success of his client Tariq reached Musa ibn Nusayr, he felt envious of the achievements of his subordinate and decided to send reinforcements and prepare an army that he would lead himself. It wasn’t difficult to recruit new Berber and Arab soldiers, because everyone heard about the opportunity to enrich themselves. From Kairouan Musa departed in 712 with maybe more than 10,000 men, many of which were Arabs. The objective of the expedition was to make very clear that Musa ibn Nusayr was the legitimate authority and that the conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom would be his personal achievement. I’m sure Tariq wasn’t very enthusiastic about this idea. The governor of Ifriqiya first gathered information and thoroughly planned the route that his army would follow. Then Musa landed at Algeciras and conquered the fortress of Carmona in southern Spain, which was captured with the help of native collaborators that pretended to be refugees and from within they opened the gates. Then Musa ibn Nusayr laid siege on Seville and it was conquered by force, which means that the properties of the locals weren’t to be respected. After being conquered, Seville became the capital of the new conquered lands, which was a quite logical decision, since it was the most economically powerful city of Spain and it has a navigable river, the Guadalquivir.

Then Musa divided his forces, the majority remained under the governor of Ifriqiya while a smaller army under his son Abd al-Aziz moved to the southeastern region of Murcia. In Mérida Musa faced serious resistance, as Mérida had the magnificent Roman walls and aqueduct that made its conquest difficult. For more than a year, Mérida resisted until the city capitulated in the summer of 713. The conditions of the surrender were that all the properties of the clergy and those who had fled the city were to be confiscated, while the Muslims would respect the life, property and faith of the rest of the local population. As for the son of Musa, Abd al-Aziz, he conquered the region of Murcia with the surrender of Theodemir. Theodemir was a Gothic noble who had defended a few years before the southern coast of Spain from a weird Byzantine attack. It’s said that Theodemir had to dress up women and children as soldiers to create the illusion that he could defend his estates and that it was better to negotiate without a fight. His example shows how defenseless Visigothic Spain was. Luckily for him, the trick worked and Abd al-Aziz and Theodemir signed what’s known as the Treaty of Orihuela or Treaty of Theodemir, a treaty of surrender that has been preserved. Let me quote a fragment of the treaty:

“We will not set special conditions for him or for any among his men, nor harass him, nor remove him from power. His followers will not be killed or taken prisoner, nor will they be separated from their women and children. They will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm, as long as he remains sincere and fulfills the conditions that we have set for him. He has reached a settlement concerning seven towns: Orihuela, Villena, Alicante, Mula, Bigastro, Ello, and Lorca. He will not give shelter to fugitives, nor to our enemies, nor encourage any protected person to fear us, nor conceal news of our enemies. He and his men shall pay one dinar every year, together with four measures of wheat, four measures of barley, four liquid measures of concentrated fruit juice, four liquid measures of vinegar, four of honey, and four of olive oil. Slaves must each pay half of this amount.”

Surrender agreements such as these were signed in many cities and with many Spanish nobles and priests. As you can see, the terms of the treaty are assumable, which is why many nobles and towns submitted instead of trying to resist the Muslim conquest, which would have provoked a futile bloodbath. The conditions of capitulations varied though, as in some towns the Muslims demanded captives and properties, while in others they respected the faith of the natives and the local authorities in exchange of their loyalty and tribute. A few towns were burned and destroyed, and in those cases the local population was killed, but that very rarely happened. The enslavement of the local population, particularly young women to turn into sexual slaves, the taking of hostages or plunder were much more common though, so don’t get it wrong, the conquest was far from being peaceful.

Going back to the expedition of Musa, as the siege of Mérida was taking a long time, Musa left the city before its fall to move to Toledo, to meet again with Tariq and make clear that he was the boss. As you can imagine there were tensions and disputes over the booty, but they left together Toledo after the winter and launched a joint expedition to submit the Ebro Valley, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. There they continued to occupy the administrative regional centers, such as Zaragoza, Pamplona, Leon, Astorga or Lugo. The Muslims made hundreds of nobles prisoners and captured their treasures. Many of them were refugees that had fled Toledo or their respective hometowns with the hope that the Muslim invasion would be repelled, but that didn’t happen. Those who believed that the new conquerors were there to stay could exploit that to their advantage. For instance, Count Cassius converted to Islam to preserve his lands and to become a close native collaborator of the new regime. This Count Cassius founded the Banu Qasi dynasty that became important in the Andalusian politics of the 9th and 10th centuries.

In a matter of just three years, only Septimania, Lusitania and modern Catalonia and Valencia remained out of Muslim control. The strategy followed to conquer the Visigothic Kingdom wasn’t innovative. The conquest was similar to that of Iran, although it all happened faster, on a smaller scale and with less bloodshed. The first stage of the conquest was about conquering the main cities and lines of communication, as well as the fertile lands of southern and southeastern Spain. The second stage, that happened gradually and only after the expedition of Musa and Tariq, involved the conquest of the north-east and making effective Muslim control over rural and remote areas.

However, this story didn’t have a happy ending for the main characters of the conquest. The success of Musa and Tariq drew the attention of the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid, who summoned them in Damascus. Musa and Tariq reluctantly left Spain in September 714, along captives and nobles such as Count Cassius, leaving his son Abd al-Aziz as governor of al-Andalus. Musa and Tariq were never to return to the lands they had conquered. Musa and Tariq triumphantly entered Damascus, before meeting with Caliph al-Walid who was on the point of death. A few days later al-Walid died and was succeeded by his brother Sulayman, who demanded that Musa gave him all the spoils of war. Musa refused to do so, and Sulayman stripped him of his rank and confiscated the spoils anyway. The punishment didn’t end there, but we will see in the next episode how cruel destiny was with Musa ibn Nusayr. It’s kind of what happened to Hernán Cortés, they both lead epic conquests only to be suspected later by the rulers in whose names acted. However, the fate of Musa was much more tragic than that of Cortés. As for Tariq, we virtually know nothing about what happened after he arrived in Damascus, but it’s safe to say that he didn’t have a happy ending either.

Before going to The Verdict, I think it’s interesting to see how the success of the Muslim conquest was explained by both Christians and Muslims. For Muslims, the answer was simple: God had willed it. The Christians instead had to explain why God had abandoned them. Medieval chroniclers blamed the ruling Visigoths for their immorality. According to them, they were all to blame: the desire of power and glory of Roderic, the treachery of Oppas and Sisebut, the cowardice of the bishop of Toledo who fled to Rome, and the lust of King Wittiza, who had many concubines. Therefore, for Christians the sins of the Visigoths were what made God punish them with the invasion of the infidels.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the common motivations that all conquests have. Religion has traditionally been a major reason, as it unites people and it gives warriors a higher moral cause, and this is true for both Muslims and the later fervent Christians. But religion is not a sufficient motivation, because if it was, there wouldn’t be conflicts among believers of the same faith. More mundane reasons are usually much more important. Conquerors risk their lives to enrich themselves, either through a salary, a share of booty, or new lands to settle. Conquerors also risk their lives for women, either to marry foreign women or to sexually enslave or rape them. And the other big reason is for prestige, glory and power. The deadly sins, such as lust, pride and greed, are the human factors that have shaped the world. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode I will cover the definitive conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom and the society of al-Andalus. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website,, 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!





HISTORIA DE LA ESPAÑA DE LA EDAD MEDIA. Vicente Ángel Álvarez Palenzuela

ESPAÑA 702-719: LA CONQUISTA MUSULMANA. Luis A. García Moreno




LA CONQUISTA ÁRABE, 710-797. 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

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


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,, 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