stilicho

First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

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

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

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

map barbarian invasions and the kingdoms established afterwards

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

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

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

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

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

alaric i entering rome

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

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

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

hispania map 411 barbarian invasions alans vandals suebi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

how the suebi vandals alans are still seen in spain

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

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

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

The barbarian invasions are the kind of topic that history textbooks spend little time on. Hopefully I will explain with enough detail the history of this period and give a fair treatment to the Vandals, Alans, Suebi and Visigoths. In episode 11 I will tell the story of how the Visigoths entered Hispania serving the interests of the Western Roman Empire and how they fought against the Vandals and Alans. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

EL REINO DE LOS SUEVOS. Pablo de la Cruz Díaz Martínez

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

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

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

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