Changing dynasties

This is episode 17 called Changing dynasties and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • What was the ideal of good government in 7th century Christian Europe
  • The early internal problems of Sisebut due to eclipses
  • Sisebut’s campaign against Byzantine’s Spania, and why he decided not to completely expel them from Spain
  • The start of a trend under Sisebut: anti-Jewish policies, fake conversions and the problem of crypto-Jews
  • The passive role of the Church in the forced conversions of Sisebut
  • Suintila’s successful campaigns against the Vascones and his success in ejecting the Byzantines from the Iberian Peninsula, which meant that Suintila became the first king of all Spain
  • The failed attempts of Suintila to centralize and his overthrown led by Sisenand
  • What was a agreed in the Fourth Council of Toledo to limit royal power while securing more strongly the position of the king
  • The reigns of Chintila and Tulga where the position of the king was very weak, and an explanation of why was that the case
  • The successful rebellion of 79-year-old Chindasuinth against Tulga
  • Intellectual achievements of 7th century Visigothic Spain and why was Spain the intellectual and cultural center of Western Europe in that period
  • Reflection on why 7th century Visigothic kings failed to centralize unlike Leovigild and Reccared


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 17 called Changing dynasties. In this episode you will learn about a period of turbulence for the Visigothic monarchy, with some ups and downs, as well as the intellectual life of Visigothic Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with Sisebut becoming King of the Visigothic Kingdom. Few people in Spain know him, but Sisebut was actually an important king, because he promulgated pro-Catholic and anti-Jewish policies that defined the Visigothic Kingdom of the 7th century. Many historians consider Sisebut the most learned king of the history of the realm, and he was one of the most pious ones too. Because of his literary education, he was familiar with the concepts of good government of 7th century Europe. Those ideas came from the Eastern Roman Empire, so centralizing and caesaropapist policies were considered the ideal, as well as the idea of the Christian ruler having the duty to suppress sin and having high moral standards. For example, Christians disapproved performing arts, and Sisebut sent a letter to the metropolitan of Tarraconensis to reprehend him because that metropolitan liked performing arts, so we can see how Sisebut applied the ideal of caesaropapism. He was a close friend and patron of Isidore of Seville, who under his reign wrote his main works.

In 612, the first year of Sisebut’s reign, there were two eclipses. As you can imagine, in an era of ignorance and superstitions, the common people interpreted that as a bad sign from heaven. The year before there had been yet another two eclipses, so you can imagine that people were anxious. In a more global context, the Persians of the Sasanian Empire were invading the Eastern Roman Empire in a very devastating war, so certain scholars and clergymen said that the Apocalypse was going to happen soon. To make things worse for Sisebut, the pagans of northern Spain, heretics and nobles who opposed Sisebut took advantage of that and cause social unrest. To solve this issue and to, you know, avoid being overthrown or assassinated, Sisebut asked Isidore of Seville to write a text to explain, in a rational way, why the eclipses were happening. When Isidore finished the text, the learned king Sisebut replied Isidore and wrote his own explanation to those phenomena, using theories of the Greco-Roman tradition.

de res natura astronomic treatise

It’s impressive how Sisebut wrote that astronomic treatise while he was personally leading an expedition against the Cantabri and Vascones. They were not the only ones causing problems, as the Visigoths had to campaign against the Astures and Ruccones. The future king Suintila was the guy in charge of the campaign against the Ruccones, but I will talk about him later.

In addition to fighting the always trouble-making peoples of the north, Sisebut campaigned against the remnants of the Byzantine province of Spania in 614 and 615. As I said before, the Eastern Roman Empire was in a very weak situation, because the future emperor Heraclius revolted while the Sasanians were invading, so they didn’t care about what was happening in such a peripheral and strategically unimportant province like Spania. That’s why the Visigoths needed to seize the opportunity to expel them. During this campaign the Visigoths conquered most of Spania, including Ceuta and the second major city of the province, Málaga. Surprisingly, Sisebut accepted peace negotiations with the governor of Spania, even though he could have easily crushed them then. The letters that Sisebut and the governor exchanged luckily survive to this day, and we know that the governor agreed to recognize the territorial gains of the Visigoths and hand over the hostages they had captured in exchange for peace. But why Sisebut accepted this deal instead of demanding an unconditional surrender? The more likely explanation and according to the writings of Isidore of Seville, Sisebut heard about the unstoppable advance of the Zoroastrian Sasanians and how they conquered the sacred city of Jerusalem. Then, in an act of piety and mercifulness, he accepted to stop the bloodshed of more Christians. With that, Spania only consisted of the area that surrounded the stronghold of Cartagena and the Balearic Islands.

Now let’s focus on his religious policy, because Sisebut started a period of anti-Jewish policies that continued until the fall of the kingdom, and many Jews precisely helped the Muslims when they were conquering Visigothic Spain because of it. I said in the previous episode that there were already policies targeted against Jews with Reccared, but according to the law that Sisebut promulgated the previous law was being loosely applied. Just like Reccared, Sisebut aimed for the religious unity of the kingdom, of all its peoples, so no heresies or other religions were allowed. To achieve that, he forced the conversion of the Jews, which generated a new problem that continued until Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492: the problem of fake conversions, also known as marranos or crypto-Jews. That means that although those who stayed were forced to convert, they practiced Judaism in secret. The others that didn’t accept the forced conversion were expelled, with some moving to France and others to North Africa. The first law against Jews again banned marriage with Christians, it banned Jewish proselytism, and Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves, otherwise half their properties would be confiscated. Then there were other laws that further discriminated Jews, like for instance their offspring was forced to be baptized. Jews in Spain weren’t a particularly wealthy group, so those policies again were not about economics, but about the idea that everyone living in a Christian kingdom must be a Christian. For Sisebut, he was enforcing his role of protection against the sin, just as the ideal caesaropapist Christian ruler would do.

Strangely enough, the Church didn’t put pressure on Sisebut to force the conversion of the Jews. It was entirely Sisebut’s idea, partly because of what I have just said but also because Jews in the Eastern Roman Empire collaborated with the Sasanian invaders. Isidore of Seville, who was the most influential bishop of the kingdom, didn’t approve the idea of forcing their conversion. But although he opposed it and much of the clergy did it too, they didn’t actively oppose those policies either while Sisebut was alive. They later criticized it, but again, as those who converted had received the sacred baptism, their conversion was irreversible. We can say that the Church in this case passively accepted the forced conversion of the Jews and later accepted the done deal.

Then in 621 King Sisebut died, probably by poisoning, and he was shortly succeeded by his son Reccared II, who died after a few days, probably assassinated by the ones who assassinated his father. Then there was an interregnum of 3 months and Suintila, the general who fought the Ruccones and Byzantines, was elected King of the Visigoths. The reign of Suintila can be clearly divided in two periods, the first five years of reign stood out for his military successes while the next five years his reign overshadowed his achievements because of the internal problems of the kingdom. In his first year of reign Suintila led a campaign against the Vascones, who were again raiding the Ebro Valley. Suintila launched a large-scale operation with multiple fronts in modern Navarra. Unlike other occasions, the victory must have been overwhelming, because this time the Basque raiders accepted an unconditional surrender that never had happened before Suintila. The Vascones agreed to pay tribute and to collaborate in the construction of Olite, a new stronghold to control the Vascones. With that, Suintila built a solid defensive line to keep the Vascones in check, and he was successful in doing so because we will not hear more news of Vascones raiding the Ebro Valley for some time.

However, his most prominent achievement was the ejection of the Byzantines from the Iberian Peninsula. From 623 to 625 he campaigned against the remnants of the province of Spania. It wasn’t difficult, because the Eastern Roman Empire was very weak at the time as the war against the Sasanians continued and the Lombards and Berbers attacked their possessions in Italy and North Africa too. The provincial capital, Cartagena, fell and the Visigoths destroyed its walls. Only the Balearic Islands remained under Byzantine control, although it was almost an independent archipelago because it lacked any strategic value for the weakened Eastern Roman Empire. After the conquest of Spania, Suintila became the first king to rule over all Spain, in other words, to rule over the entire Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, the Visigoths achieved the territorial unity that they were seeking, following the idea of mater Spania. By the way, it was around this time that scholars started using Spania instead of Hispania to refer to the Iberian Peninsula, which of course is closer to the modern España or Spain. Nonetheless, even though he was theoretically ruling over all the Peninsula, don’t get tricked, the Visigoths never had a strong control over some regions of the north.

visigothic kingdom spain suintila

Despite his military achievements, Suintila was facing internal problems. According to Isidore of Seville, Suintila was a good king that was generous with the nobility, clergy and the poor. However, this is of course biased because he wrote that while Suintila was king. It seems like the military success of Suintila made him change his pro-aristocratic policies to imitate imperial policies, just as previous Visigothic kings had attempted. He made co-ruler his son Riccimir, and the nobility and clergy didn’t like that. According to the declarations of bishops in the Fourth Council of Toledo of 633, after Suintila was overthrown, Suintila’s greatest crime was the confiscation of many ecclesiastical properties. Nonetheless take that with a grain of salt, because those declarations were made a posteriori to justify a coup against Suintila. In any case, the attempts of Suintila to diminish the power of the nobility and clergy and to consolidate a dynasty were the beginning of the end of his rule, just as it had happened before with other kings.

In this context of some discontentment among the nobility and clergy, a group of nobles conspired against the King and started a rebellion in 631, with a power base in the peripheral region of Septimania. Apparently, there weren’t enough nobles willing to overthrow Suintila, partly because Suintila had the sympathy of the common people and not all the nobles were hostile. That’s why the leader of the conspiracy, the Duke of Septimania Sisenand, sent a delegation to the Court of Neustria of King Dagobert I to secure Frankish military assistance. Sisenand offered in exchange a very symbolic treasure of the Visigoths, a plate of gold that general Aetius gave to Thorismund back in 451. After hearing about such a powerful force, many indecisive nobles joined the rebellion and many nobles deserted from the side of Suintila, including his own brother. When the rebels arrived at Zaragoza, the army of Suintila surrendered without fighting and the King was overthrown and arrested. The Visigothic nobility then proclaimed Sisenand king in 631 and we can interpret that as a victory of the privileged powers over the royal power and the common people.

King Sisenand summoned a national council to legitimize his rebellion and strengthen his position, an important event since the last one was called in 589. However, it wouldn’t be until 633 that the Fourth Council of Toledo could be held. Why? Well, from two coins we know that there was a rebellion in the province of Baetica to overthrow Sisenand. The recent victories of Suintila in southern Spain probably made Suintila gain powerful allies there, and that network of loyalties wasn’t broken by the overthrown of Suintila. It was only after the rebellion was suppressed that Sisenand could convoke the council.

fourth council of toledo

On December 633 the Fourth Council of Toledo was held under the presidency of Isidore of Seville, and with the assistance of all the bishops of the kingdom. The council dealt with a wide range of topics, from strictly ecclesiastical issues to political issues of the Visigothic Kingdom. For the nobility it was also the perfect chance to finally define the nature of the Visigothic monarchy. Among the 75 canons of the Fourth Council of Toledo, it was stated that upon the death of the king all the bishops and upper nobility had to reach an agreement to elect a successor. After the election, all the subjects needed to take an oath pledging their loyalty to the king for the stability and prosperity of the realm. Thus, the position of the king was made sacred because the king was also anointed in imitation to the anointing of biblical kings. Following the theories of Isidore of Seville, kings had a sacred role, but a king didn’t have a superior position to that of the Church nor the capacity to sentence a noble without the consent of other nobles. If the king turned into a tyrant, the Church could excommunicate him, and a coup would be justified. In theory all those details would make aristocratic revolts more difficult, but as we will see that didn’t prevent revolts from happening.

Nonetheless, the Fourth Council of Toledo also imposed some restrictions to prevent the participation of the clergy in possible revolts. That included prohibitions such as taking arms against the king, negotiating with foreign powers to overthrow the king, or receiving and sending secret messages outside of the kingdom. Another political issue discussed in the council consisted in decide what to do with the deposed King Suintila. The council and Sisenand agreed to declare Suintila a tyrant for all his alleged crimes and he and his family were sent into exile, although with all their properties confiscated.

Among other issues discussed in the council, the clergy was exempted from all taxes and the liturgy of the Spanish Church was unified throughout the kingdom. That was especially relevant because it created what is known as the Hispanic Rite, also known as Mozarabic Rite, because it was still widely used until the 11th century in the Muslim territories of Spain. A canon excluded the king from appointing bishops, and another canon required bishops to establish seminaries in their cities, to extend the study of Greek, Hebrew, liberal arts, medicine and law. The council also agreed to consolidate the ownership of slaves by the Church and to held annual councils in each province. Finally, there were also some new anti-Jewish policies, because yeah it seems that there weren’t enough already, and those basically made punishments more severe. Bishops recognized that the forced conversions of Sisebut were unfair and that they failed, but they still added new laws to discriminate Jews, like forbidding them to hold a public office.

King Sisenand died pacifically in 636, as he assumed the throne by making important concessions to the nobility and clergy that weakened royal power. His successor was Chintila, a king whose reign lasted 3 years. What we know about his reign is that there were several conspiracies and attempts of rebellion, because he summoned the bishops of the kingdom in a new council to confirm their loyalty. Only 22 bishops attended the Fifth Council of Toledo, a council that included many canons to reinforce the sacred protection of the king. The rulings of the Fourth Council were reiterated and were remembered throughout the kingdom, and the council forbade the confiscation of the properties of the previous king and his supporters. From that council it’s clear that Chintila was worried about the loyalty of his subjects and his own life. It’s seems like around that time the Visigoths were having a hard time collecting taxes and that the state of the economy reached its lowest point of the Middle Ages.  Add to that the persecution of Jews and you have the ingredients for a revolt. We don’t have details about the possible revolts that occurred then, but it seems like the Visigoths lost a certain degree of control over Gallaecia, Septimania and northern Spain.

Then in 638 King Chintila convoked the Sixth Council of Toledo, this time with more success than the previous one, since he was able to gather 48 bishops. This council again reiterated that the properties of the previous king couldn’t be confiscated if he had owned those properties before assuming the throne, and the bishops agreed to praise the benevolence of Chintila, as he supposedly pardoned several rebels. From those two councils we can say something interesting that may not be so obvious, but it seems like the economic balance among the nobility was an extremely important issue. Nobles feared confiscations and an increase in the wealth of the king, while kings feared conspiracies that could led to confiscations and death.

Other aspects that we know about the reign of Chintila is that he introduced new measures against the Jews to force their conversions and make sure that the Jews that converted swore to never go back to their old faith. Chintila even agreed with the clergy to ban the presence of any non-Catholic in the kingdom, an extreme measure that couldn’t be seen anywhere else in Europe. Of course, that wasn’t made completely effective, especially considering that Visigothic authority had been weak compared to other periods, but it’s still pretty revealing about the fervent antisemitism of the Visigothic nobility and clergy.

After passing away Chintila was succeeded by his son Tulga in 639. Considering how weak Chintila’s rule was, we must guess that he couldn’t associate his son to the Visigothic throne, but instead the bishops and high nobility elected his son to maintain the cohesion of the faction that supported Chintila. However, Tulga was young, he had a weak character and part of the nobility was already against him due to the hereditary nature of his succession. That was the perfect mix for a rebellion. The 79-year-old general Chindasuinth took advantage of the circumstances and led a successful rebellion. Chindasuinth was a veteran of the Leovigild campaigns and he had fought the Vascones and suppressed several rebellions, although it seems that he had also participated in a few failed conspiracies too. Chindasuinth perceived the weakness of Tulga and he decided to summon some nobles to be proclaimed king. He was proclaimed king, but all bishops decided to fulfill their oath and they didn’t support the rebellion. However, the rebels managed to overthrow Tulga in 642 and instead of killing him Chindasuinth had Tulga tonsured as a monk, something that made him ineligible to rule after that. The old Chindasuinth ruled tyrannically and he strengthened royal power, but I will leave his reign for the following episode.

Let me put political history aside and talk about the intellectual center that was 7th century Visigothic Spain. A succession of authors produced theological, liturgic and literary works that were unparalleled in the West. The most notable scholars were also leading figures in the politics of the kingdom, such as Isidore of Seville, Julian of Toledo, Ildefonsus of Toledo and Fructuosus of Braga. All their writings remained influential for centuries both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the rest of Europe. The development of the Hispanic Rite was especially outstanding, because the Visigothic Kingdom was the only realm of Western Europe with a homogenous liturgy throughout the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that the Spanish Church did an impressive work preserving old Greco-Roman texts and texts of other authors that preceded themselves. I say that because many times we hear about how great Muslim rule was in terms of preserving classic Greco-Roman works, which is true, but the Visigoths never get enough credit about it. The Spanish Church of the 7th century compiled thousands of rare books, but how did that happen? The answer is in the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantinople was the greatest city of Europe at the time and it was the most important cultural and intellectual center. But despite how great the capital of the empire was, the empire was plagued by internal division, not only politically but religiously as well. Justinian I attempted in the 6th century to resolve the Monophysite controversy, which was yet another theological issue that divided Christianity. There were several rival churches in the Eastern Roman Empire and Justinian decided to side with the Monophysites, something that only stirred up opposition. Those who opposed Justinian were imprisoned, among those the African bishop Victor of Tunnuna, who wrote a chronicle until he died in prison. A Gothic scholar travelled to Constantinople to study Latin and, somehow, he managed to get the only copy of the chronicle of Victor of Tunnuna.

That may seem anecdotical, but similar things happened with other unique and rare works. With the acquisition of those works, the scholars of the Visigothic Kingdom had the responsibility to preserve those unique works. The connection of the Spanish Church with several North African churches was especially strong, that’s why so many works of the opponents of Justinian have survived. The cultural flow was one-sided, because African clergymen decided to migrate from Africa to the Iberian Peninsula in the late 6th century. They migrated mainly due to the growing threat of Berber raids and due to the religious persecutions of Justinian, and they didn’t move to Italy for instance because the Gothic Wars and the Lombard invasion had devastated the region. The African refugees brought books and their human and intellectual capital. For instance, an African monk built the first monasteries of southern and central Spain, and several African monks had a prominent role in the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism.

All kind of texts were compiled and extended, from grammar and anti-Arian treaties, to collections of poems, to even a collection of acts of all the Spanish, Gallic and African councils compiled by Isidore of Seville. The anti-Arian treaties must have been influential during the reign of Leovigild and the role that those texts had in the conversion of the Visigoths shouldn’t be minimized. Overall, the Spanish Church was an intellectual, cultural and theological reference in the Western Europe during much of the 7th century.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the reason why Leovigild and Reccared were quite successful in centralizing the Visigothic state while his successors of the 7th century failed. I mean, Suintila for instance achieved some great military feats, like removing the Byzantines from Spain or pacifying the Vascones for a long time, but that wasn’t enough to prevent a rebellion that overthrew him. Why was that the case? As I interpret it, there might be several reasons that played a role. With Reccared, the Spanish Catholic Church gained many privileges. Reccared tried to counterweight aristocratic power with the ecclesiastical hierarchy to strengthen his own position, but that’s not what actually happened. Successive kings were generally weak, so they had to make more concessions to the nobility, clergy or both. In the first half of the 7th century, Europe experienced an economic downturn and that also created social tensions, that’s why European rulers of this period were weak too. During the period that I talked about today the nobles and especially the clergy were very powerful, while the king was just an elected noble that had his hands tied. If a king tried to strengthen royal power, he was overthrown and replaced by someone that protected the interests of the privileged. However, the old but energic Chindasuinth would take bold measures to stop that, but let’s see that in the following episode. And with that, The Verdict ends.

I won’t be able to record and publish the episode for the end of the month because I’m busy with exams, so the next episode on the authoritarian reign of Chindasuinth and the peaceful reign of Recceswinth will be published on July 15. Sorry about that! 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

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,, 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

Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion

This is episode 14 called Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The context and political map of Europe and North Africa after the traumatic Battle of Vouillé
  • What happened right after the Battle of Vouillé: Visigothic retreat led by Gesalic and Ostrogothic aid
  • The efforts of Theodoric the Great to unite the Goths under one rule to stop Frankish advance
  • How weak Visigothic rule was in Hispania at that time
  • How limited Theodoric’s influence was over the Visigoths due to the power of the appointed governor, Theudis
  • The fall of the Balti dynasty and the problems that that caused to the long-term stability of the Visigothic Kingdom
  • A revival of Roman power in North Africa and Italy under Justinian
  • Decreasing Visigothic control over Hispania and civil war between Agila and Athanagild
  • Byzantine conquest of southern Spain due to Justinian’s intervention in the civil war and the foundation of the province of Spania
  • The reemergence of sources on the Suebi: migrations of Romano-Britons and Suebic conversion to Catholicism
  • How the Visigothic Kingdom was definitely established in Toledo and the election of Liuva I
  • A depiction of the society of Visigothic Spain, talking about the heterogenous population and social stratification
  • A reflection on the importance of having a strong system of dynastic succession


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 14 called Ostrogothic interval and Byzantine invasion. In this episode you will learn about this period of Ostrogothic supremacy over the Visigoths and the transition from the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse to the one of Toledo. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

map of europe 526

I want to draw you a picture of the political map of Europe and North Africa to understand the global context we are in after the traumatic Battle of Vouillé. The Kingdom of the Franks was a rising power that controlled most of modern France, Clovis I governed a territory that spanned from Toulouse in southern Gaul to the Rhine Valley of West Germany. The Burgundians were in a difficult position because they were an obvious target for the Franks, as the Kingdom of the Burgundians ruled over Lyon and modern Western Switzerland. The Burgundians under King Gundobad didn’t want the Franks to conquer southern Gaul at the expense of the Visigoths, but since that already happened, they wanted to take advantage of the situation. As we will soon see, that didn’t turn out well for the Burgundians. The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, was focused on reforming itself to strengthen its position and avoid being conquered like it had happened to its Western counterpart. The Vandals were still powerful in central North Africa, but they weren’t the great threat they used to be. On the other hand, Italy and part of the Balkans were firmly under Ostrogothic control. King Theodoric proved himself to be a capable administrator and he was now the real rival of Clovis of the Franks. As we will see, Theodoric the Great soon ruled over his cousins, the Visigoths, to stop Frankish expansion.

I finished the previous episode with the pivotal Battle of Vouillé and the Frankish conquest of southern Gaul. But I have yet to explain what happened next. The nobles who survived the Battle of Vouillé elected Gesalic as their king. Gesalic was a bastard son of Alaric II, and they elected him because the legitimate son Amalaric was just 5 years old, so they were being pragmatic here. Gesalic had a very important mission on his shoulders, he had to protect what was left of the Visigothic Army to save the kingdom from utter destruction. To achieve so, Gesalic ordered the retreat of his troops to Septimania, even leaving defenseless the capital, Toulouse. Then the Burgundians intervened, defeated Gesalic and plundered Narbonne, the temporary capital of the Visigoths. Because of that Gesalic had to order a tactical retreat to Barcelona, hoping to regain strength and waiting for the much-needed aid of the Ostrogoths. The help came, but the outcome was not what Gesalic expected. King Theodoric sent a large army led by a general named Ibba to make a counteroffensive against the Franks and Burgundians. Ibba lifted the siege the Burgundians had placed in Arles and decisively defeated them. The Ostrogoths were powerful enough to reconquer Septimania for the Visigoths and even to attack the lands of the Burgundians. Well played, Gundobad.

With that the war between Visigoths and Franks ended, but Gesalic couldn’t be happy because now the Ostrogoths went after him. He was labeled as a coward and ineffective leader, and Theodoric supported the legitimate son of Alaric, Amalaric, to rule the Visigoths. Because of that, Theodoric’s general Ibba went to Barcelona and defeated and deposed Gesalic. I think that he is treated too harshly, but what he did next was definitely not cool. Gesalic took refuge in the Vandal Kingdom, then he moved back to Hispania and tried to be proclaimed again King of the Visigoths with the support of the Franks. Not cool, Gesalic. Of course he failed and was killed in 513. Historian Saint Isidore of Seville said about him that “he lost his honor first and then his life”.

There’s debate about whether to consider Theodoric the Great as regent of the Visigothic Kingdom or as king of his own right. We have contradictory ecclesiastical acts on this matter, but it seems more accurate to say that the Ostrogothic King was King of the Visigoths too. It’s obvious that Theodoric wanted to unite the Goths under his family, to have better chances against the Franks. To make the union effective, Theodoric promoted mixed marriages between the Ostrogothic and Visigothic aristocracy, but of course this policy of Ostrogothic supremacy was met with resistance. What Theodoric couldn’t expect was the death of his presumptive heir for both thrones, a man named Eutharic. His death in 522 frustrated the plans of Theodoric, and the Goths would never again be united.

The Visigothic Kingdom that Theodoric ruled was one that only controlled firmly Septimania, Hispania Tarraconensis, the Meseta of central Spain and little more, in other regions the Visigoths had influence but not a strong and effective dominance. Some Visigoths emigrated to Hispania from southern Gaul, but others chose to remain there under the rule of the Franks. What’s important to understand is that these Gothic migrations were aristocratic and military, which means that the migrations were based on patron and client relationships, they weren’t popular and disorganized.

Theodoric administered both Italy and Spain respecting the old Roman administrative apparatus, he was both king for the Goths and patricius for the Romans. We have seen multiple times and we will continue to see how those Barbarian rulers tried to legitimate their rule emulating the Roman Empire. The administration was kind of dual, because the Ostrogoths and Romans had different institutions, and Theodoric restored some Imperial institutions when he ruled over Hispania too.

Nonetheless, during much of the Ostrogothic interval, the sword-bearer of Theodoric the Great ruled the Visigothic Kingdom quite autonomously. His name was Theudis and he was the appointed governor of Hispania during the minority of Amalaric, and yeah Theudis paid the annual tribute required to the Visigoths, but he didn’t follow all the orders from Italy. Theudis had married a wealthy Hispano-Roman woman who had large estates and thousands of slaves. I guess the legal prohibition of intermixing may not have been strictly enforced, and what’s clear is that the Germanic and Hispano-Roman upper classes was starting to fuse. Anyway, Theudis used that leverage and the legitimacy of his appointment to grow his power. There was discontentment among the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman aristocracy due to the fiscal reforms of Theodoric the Great, and Theudis took advantage of that. Why didn’t Theodoric intervene, you ask? Apparently, Theodoric didn’t confront him because he feared the Franks could use that as an excuse to intervene.

Theodoric died in 526 and with him direct Ostrogothic rule died as well. The premature death of Eutharic, the opposition of much of the Visigothic aristocracy and the autonomy of Theudis left no other option but to leave the two Gothic kingdoms separate. The grandson of Theodoric succeeded him in Italy while Amalaric of the Balti dynasty could finally rule the Visigoths on his own. The Visigoths stopped paying the annual tribute to the Ostrogoths and the Ostrogoths returned the Visigothic royal treasure, but Amalaric had to cede Provence to his cousin. Amalaric then took up residence in Narbonne, in the region of Septimania, and this detail is very important, because the Visigoths still had hopes of reconquering southern Gaul.

king of the visigoths amalaric

Amalaric probably tried to get rid of Theudis and remove his influence, but he failed to achieve that. We know more about his foreign policy, as the Visigothic King tried to recover the prestige of his peoples and restore Visigothic rule over southern Gaul. Amalaric needed to defeat the Franks, and he was so determined to achieve that that he personally led his troops. Unfortunately for Amalaric, his plan didn’t work as he had planned. Childebert, Frankish King of Paris and Orleans, defeated the Visigothic Army in Septimania in 531. Amalaric was able to flee to Barcelona, with the intention to set sail from there to go to Italy and seek the help of his Ostrogothic cousin. Nonetheless he was assassinated, it’s not known if by his own men at the orders of Theudis or if by a Frankish man, but in any case, Theudis was the prime beneficiary of that murder. I say that because Theudis was then able to use his influence to get elected King of the Visigoths. That supposed the extinction of the Balti dynasty that had always ruled the Visigoths up to that point. The transmission of royal authority and legitimacy was then weakened, because the loyalty of the aristocracy towards the ruling dynasty disappeared and after that succession from father to son became always very difficult in the Visigothic Kingdom. So no, the fall of the Balti dynasty wasn’t good news for the long-term stability of the kingdom.

Now, before I move forward, I should leave Hispania and talk about important things that were happening outside. The political map of Europe and North Africa was rapidly changing again, but this time the cause was not the Barbarians but the Eastern Roman Empire. The ambitious Justinian I started his reign in 527 with a clear objective in mind: the restoration of the Roman Empire with the reconquest of the Western half. Justinian first attacked the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa with the pretext of supporting the deposed king. His general Belisarius conquered in a year the once fearsome Pirate Kingdom, including the Balearic Islands and Ceuta. Then another dynastic struggle allowed Justinian to have an excuse to intervene in Ostrogothic Italy. Italy had been peacefully reigned by the Ostrogoths, but the Gothic Wars that lasted almost 20 years devastated the region. The Romans managed to destroy the Ostrogothic Kingdom by 554 and they defeated an attempted Frankish invasion of Italy as well. What’s interesting for us is that Justinian’s campaigns changed dramatically the balance of power. The Visigoths lost their main allies, and the Barbarian kingdoms were under threat.

Let’s go back to the Visigothic Kingdom for a while. Theudis had a hard time defending the kingdom from Frankish attacks, with the Visigoths losing forever some cities of Septimania, and the Franks put Zaragoza under siege. The Visigoths repelled the Frankish invasion, but they were in a weak situation from both an internal and external perspective. Theudis used diplomacy to secure Visigothic power over the almost independent region of Baetica, because he realized the threat of a possible Byzantine intervention in Hispania. Theudis was right to fear the Romans, as we will see. In 548 the Visigothic King was killed in his palace, although it seems that it was for personal instead of political reasons. Theudis was succeeded by Theudigisel, the general that had defended Zaragoza from Frankish attacks, but he was killed after just one year. A group of nobles had conspired to assassinate him because he apparently had slept with the wives and daughters of many Visigothic nobles. That’s what happens when you are too naughty. The Gallo-Roman historian Gregory of Tours stated that “the Goths had adopted the reprehensible habit of killing out of hand any king who displeased them and replacing him on the throne by someone they preferred.”

His death was followed by more than two decades of anarchy and decreasing Visigothic control over Hispania. Agila was elected king with the wide support of the nobility, but everything went wrong quickly. The Hispano-Roman aristocracy of Córdoba started a revolt against the centralizing policies of the Visigoths, as they had been used to rule independently for decades. Agila failed miserably in his attempt to suppress the revolt, losing his son and part of the royal treasure. The royal treasure it’s especially important for the Visigoths and the rest of Germanic peoples, because it represents the tangible evidence of a shared history of a group. The defeat was humiliating, and for many Agila lost the legitimacy to govern. Because of that a noble named Athanagild declared himself king in Seville with the support of part of the Visigoths. The Visigothic Kingdom was in a state of civil war, and who is an expert in exploiting civil wars? Justinian.

It’s not clear who called the Romans, although I would say that it was probably Athanagild. In exchange of their support, Athanagild agreed to give the coastal region of southern Spain from Cádiz to Valencia to the Empire, and the imperial province of Spania was then founded. The Byzantines sent a small army in southern Spain in 552 and Athanagild and the Romans defeated Agila. In the next two years there were skirmishes, but nothing decisive. In 554 the costly Gothic War in Italy ended, so Justinian could now send a massive army in Hispania if he wanted to. Justinian sent reinforcements that landed in Cartagena and it was then when the Visigothic nobility opened their eyes. The leading aristocracy realized that the Visigothic Kingdom could face the same fate as the Ostrogothic or Vandal Kingdoms if they remained divided. The fear of a full-scale Roman invasion was so real that the supporters of Agila turned against him and assassinated him.

byzantine province of spania

We have very few news about the reign of Athanagild, but it’s clear that he attempted to repair the weakened central authority, although with little success. Athanagild recovered a few towns from the Romans, but the Byzantines established a strong defensive system to consolidate the newly formed province of Spania. We don’t know if the Visigothic and Imperial authorities signed a new treaty to clearly define the frontier, but in that case both states recognized the status quo and allowed trade and travels between the two states. The Romans couldn’t destroy the Visigothic Kingdom and reincorporate all Hispania to the Roman Empire not only because the Visigoths ended the civil war, but also because of the damage provoked by the Justinian Plague and the exhaustion of the financial and manpower reserves after years of wars. The province of Spania wasn’t very strategically important for the Empire, the Byzantines mainly wanted to control the southern coast to prevent a Visigothic invasion of North Africa, therefore there were few stationed troops and the countryside was at the mercy of Visigothic raids. The key fortified cities of Spania were Málaga and Cartagena, while we don’t know who controlled Córdoba, if the Romans, the Visigoths or the local aristocracy.

The Visigothic Kingdom had more problems than the Romans in the south. The state was essentially bankrupted and because of that Athanagild couldn’t deal with separatist revolts in other regions. The north was out of Visigothic control, and even the region of modern Zamora was autonomous. If the Visigoths couldn’t dominate regions that were not states, it’s quite safe to guess that the Kingdom of the Suebi wasn’t a vassal state anymore. From 550 to the fall of the kingdom, we have sources about the Suebi again, and among other things we know that some Romano-Britons emigrated from the British Islands to Gallaecia, we know that leprosy was quite common in the region and that the King of the Suebi at that time was Chararic. We have contradictory accounts on the Suebic conversion to Catholicism, but it seems that their conversion was quite gradual. The Frankish historian Gregory of Tours wrote that Chararic had a son that suffered from leprosy, Chararic heard about Martin of Tours through the bishop of Braga Martin of Braga, and the Suebic king promised to convert to Catholicism if his son was cured through the relics of Martin of Tours. His son was cured and because of that the Suebi converted. The conversion to Catholicism of the Suebi after other Germanic peoples like the Franks was a prelude that announced that the same would happen to the Visigoths, but we are not there yet.

Athanagild established the capital of the kingdom in Toledo before he died. Toledo is located near the center of the Iberian Peninsula, it had access to important Roman roads and it was easy to defend, so it was ideal to consolidate the weakened Visigothic monarchy in Hispania. Then Athanagild died of natural causes and the nobility had to discuss the succession. There was a long interregnum of 5 months, which leads me to think that the Visigothic nobility couldn’t agree to name a candidate. The chosen candidate was Liuva I, who was probably the Duke of Septimania. One possible interpretation of why the Visigothic nobility chose a noble from Gaul could be that Liuva was chosen precisely because he was far from the center of power that was now Toledo. Otherwise, the different noble factions could have started a new civil war that the weakened Visigothic Kingdom couldn’t bear.

hispania visigothic spain 560

I will stop the political talk here to dedicate some time to the society of the Visigothic Kingdom, and in the next episode I will talk about its economy. Keep in mind that there were probably less than 150k Visigoths living in the Iberian Peninsula, over a population of around 6 million Hispano-Romans, so we are talking about a militaristic minority that dominated a larger population. At first both populations were strictly divided, they were like two neighbors that live in the same flat but that hardly speak to each other. But after some decades coexisting and seeing that the Roman Empire wasn’t coming back any time soon, both the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman elites started to closely collaborate, to influence each other and to even marry. The laws of the Roman Empire and the Church largely influenced the Visigoths, but some Germanic customary practices and social institutions were adopted in Hispania and elsewhere in Western Europe. There were not only Hispano-Romans and Visigoths in Hispania, there were also Suebi, Cantabri, Astures and Vascones that hadn’t been completely Romanized, Bretons, Berbers, Africans, Roman Greeks and Jews. Therefore, Hispania was not an ethnically homogenous region, and it was not religiously unified either. Most of the population was Catholic, but the Visigoths were still Christian Arians, there were still some followers of Priscillianism or even some that had Pagan beliefs. These points are important to highlight because ruling over diverse groups of people wasn’t easy.

As it was happening in the rest of Europe, the societies of the Early Middle Ages were slowly transitioning to feudalism. The trends of the Late Roman Empire I talked about in the episode about Hispania in the Roman Dominate still apply to this period. To refresh your memory, we are talking about a process of ruralization, a substantial decline of trade, and a tendency to go back to subsistence agriculture. The society of Visigothic Spain was stratified in free privileged and non-privileged estates, and the colonus. The free privileged estates were the nobility and clergy, both Hispano-Roman and Visigothic. The non-privileged estates were the free peasants and urban workers that didn’t have a relationship of dependency with a landlord. And finally the majority were colonus, who were in a state of semi-slavery. This system of land tenancy started with the substitution of slaves for free peasants that worked in the lands of their previous owner, paying a rent in exchange for protection and a land to farm. The problem started when the colonus and landlord relationship degraded into a relationship of dependence because of debt, and the problem only grew when many free peasants with insufficient lands to survive had to become colonus. The colonus couldn’t abandon the land of their lord, their condition was hereditary, and they were constantly mistreated. The colonus had no rights, as for instance they couldn’t litigate against their estate owner. They were also forced to serve as soldiers if their lord ordered them to do so, as there was not something like a regular professional army in a Medieval state. You can’t find a difference from a colonus and a slave? Well, there’s a slight difference, and is that they could not be separated or sold separately from the land property. Doesn’t seem much better, right?

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I wanted to discuss the importance of having a strong system of dynastic succession. The Visigothic Kingdom had an elective system of succession, but when the Balti dynasty was still prestigious the Visigothic nobility only chose members of that prestigious dynasty. The prestige and mystical aura of the Balti ended with the Battle of Vouillé, and that’s why that dynasty eventually fell. After that, successions were always a problem for the Visigoths, and they suffered many revolts and civil wars because of that. Something similar happened to the Roman Empire, as their institutions weren’t strong enough to prevent constant usurpations and coup d’états. That’s why I think that neither an elective nor a simple primogeniture hereditary system is good for the stability of monarchies. The best system would probably be an elective system within the royal family with some kind of tests to choose the best possible successor, male or female. Nonetheless, the best way to ensure the survival of a dynasty is to prove the effectiveness of the monarch to rule, otherwise the dynasty will for sure fall. And with that, The Verdict ends.

The next episode will be quite interesting because I will talk about the important reigns of Leovigild and Reccared.  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