theodoric ii

Good bye, Roman Empire!

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

Show notes

  • Who were Ricimer and Majorian, leaders of the coup d’état against Emperor Avitus
  • The situation of Hispania, especially in Gallaecia that was divided between two factions of Suebi
  • The very delicate situation of the Western Roman Empire when Emperor Majorian took power in 457
  • The impressive achievements and conquests of Majorian, against the Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians and Suebi
  • What went wrong in 460 that ended the dream of the restoration of the Western Roman Empire
  • How the Visigoths under Theodoric II and Euric conquered much of Hispania
  • How the Kingdom of the Suebi was restored under King Remismund, as a vassal state of the Visigoths, and why we don’t have information about the Suebi for the next 80 years
  • The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the peak of Visigothic power
  • The consolidation of the Visigothic state with the promulgation of the Code of Euric and Breviary of Alaric and the division of Goths and Romans by law
  • Where did the Visigoths settle in Hispania and how they distributed its lands
  • The Frankish expansionism under Clovis I and the decisive Battle of Vouillé of 507, that supposed the end of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, the death of Alaric II, the weakening of the Balti dynasty and the end of Visigothic supremacy
  • A reflection on the importance of not overextending

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 13 called Good bye, Roman Empire! In this episode you will hear the story of the last days of the Western Roman Empire and how the Visigoths finally conquered much of Hispania for themselves. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Suebi and the death of Emperor Avitus. Let’s take a look of what was happening in Italy first and then in Hispania. The conspirators that overthrew Avitus were the Germanic general Ricimer and the Roman general Majorian. Ricimer was not just a random Germanic general under Roman service, he was the son of Rechila and the son of a daughter of the King of the Visigoths Wallia. After the death of Wallia the Visigoths broke relations with the Suebi and because of that, as a loser of these kinds of struggles among Barbarians, Ricimer joined the Romans. Majorian, on the other hand, belonged to an aristocratic Roman family and he had made a name for himself in different wars. The thing is that Ricimer and Majorian were friends, they both had influential positions and they had the support of the discontented Italian aristocracy to get rid of the Gallo-Roman Avitus. Ricimer and Majorian forced Avitus to abdicate and after a few weeks they killed him. The Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I decided not to appoint a Western Emperor because he wanted to rule alone with Ricimer acting as viceroy, but after a few months the Roman Army proclaimed Majorian Western Roman Emperor. Ricimer could not become Emperor himself because of his barbarian origins, but he expected to make Majorian a puppet emperor since he was the one controlling the army. Both the Eastern Emperor and the Visigoths initially refused to recognize him as Augustus as they considered him a usurper, but by the end of the year 457 Leo I recognized him, given that there was no other possible alternative.

Now let’s look at the chaotic situation of Hispania. In the north, the less Romanized region of Hispania, the Astures, Cantabri and Vascones continued to live without any kind of central authority. Gallaecia, as I mentioned in the previous episode, was in a state of chaos and anarchy after the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Suebi. The remnants of the Suebi continued to live there, and the region became split between two factions after the assassination of Aioulf. One faction had its base in southern Gallaecia and part of Lusitania, while the other faction had its base in northern Gallaecia. What both groups had in common is that they barely had a permanent base and instead spent their time moving around raiding and pillaging. They sometimes competed to unify the Suebi under one rule, but in general they acted independently to survive. Hispania Tarraconensis was controlled by the local Hispano-Roman aristocracy, while Hispania Carthaginensis and part of Baetica was under the influence of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse.

When Emperor Majorian took power, the Western Roman Empire consisted of Italy and a portion of Gaul. But even that was at risk, because the Vandals of Genseric were attacking Italy and the Gallo-Roman aristocracy refused to recognize Majorian. Instead the Gallo-Roman aristocracy allowed the Visigoths and Burgundians to conquer what was left of Imperial Gaul. Therefore, the urgent priority of Majorian was the defense of Italy and then the reconquest of south-eastern Gaul. Majorian himself led his troops against the Vandals that were sacking the region of Campania in southern Italy. He crushed the Vandals and expelled them from Italy. That victory earned him prestige as a capable emperor, a true hero that appeared in the moment of greatest need. I really admire these kinds of strongmen that appear in the adversity, like Almanzor for the Caliphate of Cordoba or Napoleon for the French Republic. But these kinds of powerful leaders earn the enmity of other envious people, as it happened with his old friend Ricimer. Remember, Ricimer had the ambition to be the de facto ruler of the Western Roman Empire, and he didn’t expect Majorian to be such a magnificent emperor. He didn’t like to be eclipsed, so Ricimer distanced himself from Majorian and slowly started working on weakening the position of his old friend.

Majorian conquests

While Majorian was focused on the affairs of Italy, Theodoric II boldly expanded the Kingdom of the Visigoths both in Gaul and Hispania, conquering Hispania Baetica, including the important city of Seville with the support of the local nobility. The Roman Emperor now controlled firmly Italy, but to launch an expedition to reconquer much of Gaul the Emperor needed to recruit more troops among the Barbarians, including Ostrogoths, Burgundians and Suebi. Majorian also started rebuilding the navy to confront the Vandals, but with only a defensive capacity for the moment.

In late 458 Majorian started his campaign to reconquer Gaul, leading himself the army and leaving Ricimer in Italy. Romans and Visigoths fought against each other in the Battle of Arelate, near the key city of southern Gaul, Arles. There the Romans decisively and overwhelmingly defeated the Visigoths. Theodoric II was forced to abandon Septimania, the south-eastern region of France with cities such as Narbonne, and to sign a harsh treaty. The treaty, signed in 459, returned the Visigoths to federate status and forced them to abandon not only Septimania but the conquered territories of Hispania as well. Majorian appointed a trusted general named Aegidius to govern Gaul, while the Emperor continued his campaign against the Burgundians that were also returned to federate status. Majorian then reconciled with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy to continue his ambitious campaigns to recover the former glory of the Western Roman Empire. It seemed like his dream could become true.

His next target was Hispania, and he sent emissaries there to announce that the region had returned to Imperial control. With the help of the Visigothic federates, the Roman Empire reestablished control of Hispania Tarraconensis, Carthaginensis and Baetica. Meanwhile, the Romans also reestablished control of Illyria in the Balkans and Sicily. In Hispania the real campaign started in Lusitania and Gallaecia against the factions of the Suebi. There the Romans and Visigoths reconquered important fortified cities like Lugo or Santarem, but the operation was limited in scope, as the Empire didn’t decisively crush them. Majorian himself led a large army through Zaragoza to then go to Elche, near Valencia, where a major fleet was docked to launch an expedition to finally defeat the Vandals in Africa. Genseric was nervous and feared the seemingly unstoppable Majorian, and because of that he tried to negotiate peace with the Romans, only to be rejected. Majorian was determined to restore Roman control over the former breadbasket of the Empire. Everything was going perfect up to this point, Majorian could accomplish something much greater than Aurelian did in the 3rd century.

However, destiny decided to not give him that honor. From 460 on, everything went wrong for the Western Roman Empire. The Vandals paid some of the people in charge of the dock of Elche to destroy the large fleet that was needed to land on Africa and destroy the Vandal Kingdom. Majorian was then forced to cancel the expedition and abandon his dream of reincorporating the African provinces. He then decided to return to Italy, making a stop in Arles. Ricimer, the Germanic general left in Italy and old friend of Majorian, started plotting against the Emperor while he was bravely fighting away from Italy. Ricimer had the support of some aristocrats that weren’t happy because Majorian had forced them to pay taxes for his great ventures. Before reaching Rome, Ricimer met Majorian with a military detachment, had him arrested, beaten and tortured, and then beheaded in 461. Such a sad end for a hero and virtuous man like Majorian. The treacherous Germanic rat that was Ricimer then appointed a puppet emperor, as he had always dreamed. However, his puppet emperor was not recognized by the Eastern Roman Emperor, nor by any of the generals who served Majorian like Aegidius in Gaul, Nepotianus in Hispania or Marcellinus in Illyria and Sicily.

The dream to reestablish the Western Roman Empire died along Majorian. From then on, Ricimer ruled what was left of the Empire, which mainly consisted in Italy, and Eastern Roman puppets were appointed as well. The different Barbarian peoples seized the opportunity and conquered the Western provinces, and the native nobilities actively collaborated with the Barbarian elites. The Burgundians conquered Lyon and the Visigoths regained access to the Mediterranean Sea by conquering the region of Septimania. Meanwhile, Aegidius and Marcellinus ruled independently northern Gaul and Illyria. Aegidius stopped an attempt of the Visigoths to expand in northern Gaul in 463 with the aid of the Alans and Franks, while the Roman commander of Hispania Nepotianus was deposed by Theodoric II.

The Imperial government lost control over Hispania too, as the Visigoths cut off the land connection between Italy and Hispania and the maritime routes were controlled by the Vandals. It’s very significative how the Hispano-Roman noble Palagorius went to the court of Toulouse instead of Ravenna to ask for a military intervention of the Visigoths against the Suebi that were fighting a civil war. That shows how Imperial Roman authority was broken forever in the West.

As I have said, apart from reconquering Septimania, the Visigothic Kingdom under Theodoric II tried to expand northwards in Gaul after the death of Majorian but failed. Theodoric II negotiated peace with the Franks and the Western Roman Empire, but many Visigothic nobles thought that they had nothing to negotiate with the decadent Imperial authority. Therefore, as it had already happened among the Visigoths and it will continue to happen throughout their history, there was a conspiracy to overthrow and assassinate the king. The only alive brother of Theodoric II, Euric, succeeded in eliminating his brother in 466.

Euric quickly defeated other pretenders and independent chieftains, and unified the Visigoths. After that, he launched expeditions both in Gaul and Hispania, capturing for the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse Hispania Baetica and Carthaginensis. The conquest of Mérida was especially important to control most of Hispania using the old Roman roads. On the other hand, it wasn’t until 472 that the Visigoths conquered with little to no opposition Hispania Tarraconensis, I mean even the last imperial representative in Spain, the dux Hispaniarum Vicentius, collaborated with the Visigoths. Euric also captured a few key cities of northern Spain, but the Visigoths didn’t firmly control that region. Actually, the Visigoths had weak control over other areas like the coast of Hispania Baetica, but the consolidation of Visigothic power in Hispania would be the work of other monarchs. Although his reign started with a sin, Euric was smart enough to integrate the Gallo-Roman and Hispano-Roman aristocracy in military and administrative positions. That was a very important step to consolidate the position of the Visigothic Kingdom, because you can’t rule forever a territory with the enmity of the local powers.

In Gallaecia, the Suebic king Remismund won the civil war and reunified the Suebi, although to achieve that he had to make the Kingdom of the Suebi a vassal state of the Visigoths. Apart from the political and military supremacy of the Visigoths over the Suebi, the Suebi abandoned their paganism and converted to Arian Christianity in 466. Nonetheless, it’s not like Remismund liked being a vassal of the Visigoths. Remismund attempted to get rid of their influence by sealing alliances with the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and by getting the support of the Galician and Lusitanian nobility. Remismund successfully occupied Lisbon and other towns with the collaboration of the locals, and we can interpret that as a change in the attitude of the local nobility towards the Suebi. Unfortunately, the chronicle of Hydatius abruptly ends in 469 with his death, and we have an obscure period of around 80 years that we virtually know nothing about. I hate when that happens, because we can only guess what was happening. However, we can conclude that the provincial nobility accepted the rule of the Suebi to preserve their privileges and avoid the centralism of a more powerful kingdom like the Visigothic Kingdom.

Going back to the Visigoths, in 472 the de facto ruler of the Western Roman Empire, Ricimer, died. That opened an opportunity for the different Barbarian powers to take what was left of the Empire in the West. Euric for instance conquered the region of Provence in south-eastern Gaul. Meanwhile, the Barbarian mercenaries rebelled and the East Germanic leader Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus and proclaimed himself King of Italy in 476. That’s the conventional date of the end of the Western Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages, and from that point until this very day Europe and North Africa remained divided in multiple rival states. I won’t even dedicate a The Verdict about the fall of the Western Roman Empire, because only Majorian showed greatness in his ambition to restore the Empire and after that the Empire had little to do with Spain.

Map Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse at their peak of power

So moving on, I want to highlight that Hispania for Euric was a reserved area for future Visigothic expansion, but the core of the kingdom was still in Gaul, modern France. Nonetheless, the disintegration of Roman power and the pressure of the Franks in the north encouraged the Visigothic conquests of Hispania. The Visigoths reached their maximum expansion then, with their natural borders in the Loire and Rhone rivers, and the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse became the most powerful state in the West. King Euric was more ambitious than that, as he wanted to expand towards Italy and to crush the Franks, but he failed to achieve those things.

The last thing I wanted to talk about the reign of Euric is his administrative and religious policy. His most important administrative work was the Code of Euric, the first written collection of any Germanic laws, as the Germans had always been governed by unwritten costumes. It’s noteworthy that the Code of Euric was only applied to the Visigoths, not the Gallo or Hispano-Roman population. The Goths and Roman subjects were clearly divided by law, I mean among other things the Goths were forbidden to marry and have children with the local population. That division eventually disappeared, but that’s decades ahead. On the other hand, Euric was sometimes viewed as an anti-Catholic, but that wouldn’t be fair, because he didn’t want religious conflicts. What Euric wanted is that the powerful Catholic clergy from Gaul and Hispania submitted to the Visigoths, but some opposed them, and they were purged for political reasons, not religious.

alaric ii

In 484 King Euric died and he was succeeded by his son Alaric II. Alaric II has been treated quite unfairly until recently, because of the disastrous Battle of Vouillé in 507 that I will talk about later. Nonetheless, his policies were similar to those of his father, and sometimes even better. Alaric worked to consolidate Visigothic power in Hispania, as the line between direct Visigothic control and influence must have been very thin, especially in the most marginalized areas of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to that, Alaric II focused his efforts on strengthening royal authority and integrating the Gallo and Hispano-Roman aristocracy and clergy into the Visigothic state. With those objectives in mind, we can understand the promulgation of the Breviary of Alaric and his relaxed policy towards the Catholic clergy.

Let’s start with the Breviary of Alaric, that was a very complete collection of Roman laws compiled and approved in 506 with the collaboration of the clergy and aristocracy. The laws from the Breviary of Alaric were the ones applied to the non-Visigothic population, and it’s remarkable how the Visigoths continued the Roman tradition and tried to present themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire in the West. With the Breviary of Alaric, the Visigothic Kingdom recognized that Roman laws were fundamental for the constitution of the kingdom, while at the same time the promulgation of laws represented the full sovereignty of the Visigoths.

Equally important was the religious policy of Alaric II towards the Catholic hierarchy, since the clergy was even more powerful than the nobility in many regions. Alaric II used a carrot and stick approach to reward those loyal to the Visigothic Kingdom and exile those who were conspiring with the Franks or Burgundians. Among other things, Alaric eliminated the subordination of the Gallic and Spanish churches in relation to Rome, something that the influential bishop of Arles Caesarius desired. More importantly, Alaric II summoned the bishops of his kingdom in Agde to celebrate a council in 506 presided by Caesarius of Arles. That is indicative of how fundamental the Catholic churches were to support the Visigothic monarchy. The Spanish bishops didn’t attend the council, but a new one was planned to be held in Toulouse the following year. As we will soon see, that council couldn’t be held due to a tragic political event.

The tragic political event I’m talking about is related to the Franks. Since the death of King Euric, the Franks emerged as a powerful Barbarian kingdom that expanded from modern Belgium to northern modern France. Clovis I managed to unite the Frankish tribes and he conquered the Domain of Soissons, the rump Roman state founded by Aegidius after the assassination of Majorian. The threat of the Franks became more and more clear, and in the 480s and 490s Visigoths and Franks met in battle multiple times. The Franks failed in their intervention in the Burgundian Civil War of 500 and 501, and because of that the victorious King of the Burgundians sealed an alliance with Alaric. At around the same time the alliance of the Visigoths of Alaric II and the Ostrgoths of Theodoric the Great was strengthened with a marriage too, and that was a very important alliance since the Ostrogoths had conquered Italy after their victory over Odoacer, the same that ended the Western Roman Empire.

Before I continue talking about the Franks, I want to focus the attention on what was happening in Spanish soil. Our only source of information is the Chronicle of Zaragoza, that informs us that there were two unsuccessful revolts against the Visigoths in Hispania Tarraconensis between 496 and 506. What’s more important is the increasing migration and settlement of Visigoths in Hispania. Some Visigoths settled in the Ebro Valley, La Rioja and around Toledo, but most of them settled in the region that is known as Tierra de Campos. This area comprises the modern provinces of Palencia, León, Zamora and Valladolid, in the northern area of the Meseta, below the Douro river. It’s a vast and dry region ideal to cultivate cereals, and it was an area with few inhabitants and little urban development. The Visigoths settled in central Spain, around rivers and important roads to control more easily the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and to avoid putting more demographic pressure in Hispania Baetica and Tarraconensis. Apart from those settlements, it’s important to remember that before those the Visigoths had already established garrisons and small colonies of Visigoths in key strategic cities like Mérida, Seville or Astorga, as well as in Lusitania to keep the Suebi in check. About how those lands were distributed among the Visigoths, it’s likely that the Visigoths occupied abandoned Hispano-Roman and Imperial states.

Okay, with that said, let’s go back to the conflict between Visigoths and Franks. Clovis I, the King of the Franks, restarted hostilities against the Visigoths in 507, this time decisively. Although Alaric II tried his best to integrate the Catholic hierarchy into the power structure of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, many Catholics were unhappy about being ruled by the Arian Visigoths that often abused the local population. Clovis I, who had converted to Catholicism in the 490s, saw the opportunity of waging a war of liberation, instead of invasion, against the Visigothic possessions of Gaul. To prove that it was a war of liberation, Clovis banned his troops to raid and pillage. The religious factor was overemphasized by the Frankish clergy as a variable that contributed to the victory of the Franks, but it was a factor, nonetheless. The Burgundians switched sides and joined the Franks, while the father-in-law of Alaric II, Theodoric the Great, was busy dealing with an attack of the Byzantines.

frankish conquests 481-814

Knowing that at least for a while he wouldn’t receive any help, Alaric II decided to meet the Franks in the Battle of Vouillé. The Battle of Vouillé occurred near Poitiers and there the Franks decisively defeated the Visigoths. Visigoths and Franks fought hand-by-hand, the Visigoths were less prepared since they hadn’t had a serious battle in years, but they were resisting. The crucial moment happened when Clovis presumably killed Alaric, because that provoked the rout of many Visigoths who were massacred in the chaos of the stampede. Imagine the confusion of this situation, the leaderless Visigoths didn’t know how to react. Seizing the opportunity, Clovis marched south conquering Bordeaux and the capital of the kingdom, Toulouse, with much of the royal treasure included.

I will leave for the next episode what happened next because the war was not over, but the consequences of the Battle of Vouillé still resound today. The Franks conquered most of Gaul and that defined, in very broad terms, the borders of modern France. The Pyrenees were established as a definitive natural frontier between the Visigoths and the Franks, as it happens today between France and Spain. For more than 50 years, the Visigoths suffered from unrest, as the supremacy of the Balti dynasty was in question. The Battle of Vouillé ended the dream of the Visigoths to achieve supremacy and the role of heir of Rome. That role seemed briefly left to the Ostrogoths, but for the following centuries it was obvious that the Franks constituted the most powerful Western state. Finally, the battle ended the phase known as the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse and opened a new one, the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo, a period where Hispania was the core of the kingdom.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to signal the importance of not overextending. I think one of the causes the Visigoths were crushed in Gaul is that they were overextended, just as it happened to many other kingdoms and empires like Habsburg Spain, Nazi Germany or Napoleonic France. The Visigoths had much more population than the Suebi for instance, but not as much as to dominate both Gaul and Hispania. I mean, the Ostrogoths had around the same population, 200-250k peoples, they settled in Italy and they didn’t expand much more. The Visigoths didn’t decide whether to settle in Gaul or in Hispania, but the Franks chose that for them. What’s better, to seize the opportunity even if you know that you won’t be able to hold a territory for too long, or to only advance if you can consolidate your state there? I leave the answer to you. And with that, The Verdict ends.

To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

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

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

HISTORY OF THE GOTHS. Herwing Wolfram

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

The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi

This is episode 12 called The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The situation of Hispania and Italy after the Vandals had left Hispania for North Africa
  • How weak the foundations of the Kingdom of the Suebi under King Hermeric were
  • The peak of the bagaudae groups in Gaul and Hispania and the expansion of the Vandal Kingdom
  • The ambitious Suebic campaign of King Rechila to conquer Lusitania and Baetica
  • How the Suebic control actually worked in those provinces
  • The progressive emotional disconnection between the Hispano-Romans and the Western Roman Empire as Valentinian’s III expeditions failed
  • The firsts of King Rechiar: first Catholic Germanic king and the issue of coins
  • Why the Visigoths and the Suebi briefly sealed an alliance
  • How the threat of the Huns ended their alliance
  • How King Rechiar took advantage of the weakness of the Empire to invade Hispania Carthaginensis and Tarraconensis
  • How the Visigoths decisively crushed the Suebi in 456 and caused the disintegration of the kingdom

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 12 called The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi. In this episode you will learn the rise of the Kingdom of the Suebi under King Rechila and Rechiar and their sudden disintegration in 456. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

a bit inaccurate map of europe in 450 showing the hunnic empire

With the Vandals leaving Hispania for Africa, the Suebi were the only barbarians in the Iberian Peninsula. The context was perfect for their moment of prominence. The Roman Empire regained control over Hispania Carthaginensis, Lusitania and Baetica, at least nominally. Truth is that the Empire had less and less actual control over Hispania, and instead the Hispano-Roman elites from the nobility and clergy ruled the Roman Spanish territories very autonomously.

We ignore many aspects of the Suebi. We don’t know if at the time of the crossing of the Suebi in 409 they were a consolidated hereditary monarchy, or they still had an elective system to choose their warrior king. Another question is whether the Suebi had only one king or more at first. Heremigarius for instance is mentioned leading the Suebi against the rearguard of Genseric while the Vandals were leaving Hispania. We don’t know if he was a general who served Hermeric, or if Hermeric and Heremigarius were contemporary rival chiefs of the Suebi. I think it’s safe to say that Heremigarius was either a general of Hermeric or a chief of a smaller independent gang. We also don’t know if they mainly occupied fortified cities to raid later the countryside or if many of the Suebi became peasants. We have literary sources that say that they were the Barbarian peoples that embraced more quickly a sedentary lifestyle, but that wouldn’t explain their continuous raids. If we consider their raids and their estimated population, we can assume that most of the Suebi lived in strategic fortified cities. With that said, let’s continue talking about Roman politics.

In the court of Ravenna, the ambitious Flavius Aetius conspired against the commander-in-chief of the Roman Army and right-hand of Valentinian III. He had him and his family executed and for some time he competed against another general named Bonifacius for political supremacy. Aetius made a name for himself campaigning in the frontier of the Danube and Gaul against the Visigoths to keep them in check. Then Aetius fought Bonifacius, managing to kill him, and with the help of the Huns he was able to become the most influential man of the Western Roman Empire, eclipsing the yet regent Galla Placidia.

Let’s focus for a while on what was happening in Hispania. In 430 the Suebi, led by the old King Hermeric, raided the central region of modern Galicia that had yet to be subdued. However, Hermeric failed to subdue those towns thanks to their fortifications, and seeing how some of the Suebi were killed or captured he was forced to reestablish peace.  The failure of those raids demonstrate that the Suebi still didn’t have a solid foundation. The process of settling down in Gallaecia was slow and full of setbacks for them, since much of the local population was reluctant to their presence. And that’s not weird, since the Suebi spent their first years causing all kind of problems to the locals, like stealing or taking hostages. This was a very unstable period for Gallaecia; the Suebi negotiated peace agreements with the local elites, but those agreements were constantly broken and reestablished. What’s remarkable here is that negotiations were exclusively local, there’s no single mention of agreements with Imperial authorities. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the Empire had abandoned the poor and peripheral provinces to focus their scare resources in the most important provinces.

To denounce those raids and to get rid of the Suebi, the bishop Hydatius led a delegation in 430 to meet Flavius Aetius in Gaul and ask for military assistance. Hydatius returned to Gallaecia not with an army, but with a representative of Aetius named Censorius to negotiate peace with the Suebi. There’s a detail during the journey of Hydatius that I find outstanding. The bishop found a Visigoth going to Hispania with “hidden motives”, and now we enter the ground of speculation. This Visigoth could have been a random renegade that had his own objectives, but he could also have been a scout serving Theodoric I to gain knowledge about Hispania. After this parenthesis, let’s go back to the peace negotiations with the Suebi. The union of local interests and imperial representatives probably scared a bit King Hermeric, so he released captives and both parties reached a peace agreement. The Suebi wanted the legal recognition of their status as federates in Gallaecia, but they didn’t get it, so clearly that peace was not going to last.

In the decade of the 430s Flavius Aetius was focused on fighting several groups, starting with the bagaudae that became more and more problematic in modern France. The general also fought the Burgundians and Visigoths, since those Barbarian federates were conquering Roman territories for themselves. Hispania was pretty much left alone and the same can be said about the African provinces. The Vandals, who fled to the wealthy provinces of Roman Africa, conquered Carthage in 439 and from there they conquered with their powerful navy the Mediterranean islands of Balearic Islands, Sardinia and Corsica. Through their harbors of Carthage and the islands I have mentioned, the Vandals attacked the Roman coasts and trade and travels through sea were no longer safe. I know it’s no surprise, but with this the stability of the Roman Empire was seriously threatened. The situation was so serious that in 442 Valentinian III was forced to sign a treaty of peace with Genseric that recognized the independence of the Vandal Kingdom, while the Empire recovered for a few years the Western provinces of Africa.

Back to the Suebi, Hermeric, ill and old, abdicated in 438 in favor of his son Rechila. Apparently, the Suebi didn’t have an elective monarchy but a hereditary one, or at least at that time the power of the ruling dynasty was consolidated enough to skip any election. While Hermeric was a kind of prudent and diplomatic king for the Barbarian standards, his son Rechila was much more belligerent and ambitious. In his first year of reign Rechila broke peace with the Romans and started an ambitious campaign to raid and conquer the provinces of Lusitania and Baetica. Lusitania was abandoned by the Imperial government and Baetica was famous for its wealth, the move was bold but if Rechila managed to conquer those provinces the Suebi would be in a much stronger position. It was the perfect timing, since the Vandals had left the Iberian Peninsula and the Imperial government was fighting in other fronts.

map rechila conquests

Before starting the campaign, Rechila secured the rearguard by making peace with the peoples of northern modern Galicia. After that he marched south and in Baetica Rechila defeated an army led by a man named Andevotus. It’s unclear whether Andevotus was leading a private army hired by the local aristocracy or he was leading an Imperial expedition of Valentinian III. In any case this army served the Hispano-Roman interests but failed and the Suebi captured a large treasure of gold and silver. We don’t know many details of this campaign, but in 440 the Suebi conquered the capital of Lusitania, Mérida, and then in 441 Seville, the most important city of Hispania and capital of Hispania Baetica. The Empire was powerless in this situation with so many open fronts, and the Romans first tried a diplomatic solution sending the ambassador Censorius again to Hispania. Nonetheless, Rechila was very aggressive towards the Romans and he took the diplomat as hostage for many years.

With those conquests, the Suebi quickly managed to take part of Carthaginensis too, even though their control over all those provinces was quite weak. Remember, we are talking about an army of 10,000 soldiers at most, so their control wasn’t direct and permanent. Maybe they established permanent garrisons in the strategic cities of Mérida and Seville and from there they periodically raided the countryside, but it’s all speculation since we don’t have primary sources talking about this. Between 441 and 446 Valentinian III sent three expeditions to combat the bagaudae bandits in Hispania Tarraconensis and to fight the Suebi in the south, but all were unsuccessful. There’s a significant thing to note about those expeditions, and it’s that the local Hispano-Roman population was getting tired of the harsh taxation that the Romans and Visigothic federates put on them. I say it’s significant because the locals felt more and more disconnected with the Roman Empire, an empire that was falling apart and that was harder and harder to maintain. That phenomenon was occurring all over the Western Roman Empire, and it clearly emerged in Hispania around the middle of the 5th century.

In the 440s the Roman Empire was still focused on suppressing the bagaudae in Gaul and Hispania, since that challenged the Roman landowner interests even more than the Barbarians did. In those years of enmity between the Visigoths of Theodoric I and the Roman Empire, Theodoric and Genseric made an alliance sealed with a marriage between a son of Genseric and a daughter of Theodoric.  The problem came when that son got ambitious and decided that he should marry a daughter of Valentinian III. So he then accused the daughter of Theodoric of trying to murder him and had her ears and nose cut off. His father of course felt deeply offended and the Visigoths were from then on always enemies of the Vandals. Theodoric wasn’t a friend of the Suebi either, but when he saw that the relationship between the Vandal Kingdom and the Roman Empire was improving, the King of the Visigoths thought that it wasn’t a bad idea to make an alliance with the Suebi.

The next thing we know thanks to the chronicle of Hydatius is that Rechila died in Mérida in 448. He was succeeded by his Catholic son Rechiar, something that caused some opposition within the Suebi nobility. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he became the first Catholic Germanic king of Europe, predating that of Clovis of the Franks by 50 years. It’s possible that his conversion before reaching the throne was a political move to earn the sympathy of the Hispano-Roman population, but in any case his conversion didn’t translate into a massive conversion of the Suebi to Catholicism.

statue king rechiar

King Rechiar continued the aggressive expansion of his father by first making raids in Hispania Baetica and then heading north the following year to raid Vasconia, the land of the Basques. Rechiar didn’t only travel to northern Spain to raid, he had a much more important mission: after crossing the Pyrenees, he went to Toulouse and married a daughter of the King of the Visigoths. Yes, Theodoric and Rechiar successfully sealed an alliance. The Catholic Rechiar married an Arian princess, but it didn’t matter since as I’ve said the conversion of Rechiar was only personal. A political alliance solidified with a marriage may seem strong, but history continuously proves that that’s not the case. The same tragic fate would occur with the alliance between Visigoths and Suebi, for the misfortune of the Suebi.

While King Rechiar was in Gaul with the Visigoths, Censorius, the Roman ambassador who was taken as hostage in 440, was executed by a nobleman named Aioulf whose origins are pretty obscure. Nonetheless, this Aioulf would soon appear again in the history of the Suebi, but more on that later. Something that would explain the execution of Censorius after so many years under captivity could precisely be the alliance with the Visigoths, since the Visigoths weren’t in good terms with the Romans in those years. As you can see, alliances were continuously made, broken and remade in the chaotic 5th century. Don’t judge them, it was a matter of survival.

Rechiar, in his way back to Hispania after a happy wedding, met with Basilius, the leader of the most powerful bagaudae of the Ebro Valley. Together they sacked the regions of Lérida and Zaragoza, obtained a great booty and captured many slaves. It’s interesting to see how the Suebi, that tried to consolidate a kingdom, made an alliance with a group of rebels that were against any kind of authority. We don’t know if King Rechiar wanted to conquer Hispania Tarraconensis and expel the Imperial Roman authorities from Hispania, but if he wanted that he failed in his objective.

Nonetheless, a geopolitical turmoil changed everything. The threat of the Huns was becoming more real than ever, as Attila the Hun was determined to invade Gaul. If the Huns accomplished that, it would affect both the Barbarians living in Gaul and the Western Roman Empire. The long-standing enemies Aetius and Theodoric knew that if they wanted their states to survive, they needed to put aside their differences and form a coalition against the Huns. For some reason the Suebi didn’t participate in the coalition, maybe because the Suebi had their power base in Hispania and not Gaul, but in any case that supposed the end of the brief Visigothic and Suebic alliance. The Romans, Visigoths, Burgundians, Saxons and many others fought together against the Huns and their vassals in the pivotal Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. The coalition decisively won, even though the winning side had significant casualties like the  old King of the Visigoths Theodoric I. He was succeeded by his son Thorismund, but he didn’t last long, as his brother Theodoric II was envious and decided to conspire to assassinate him.

With the withdrawal of the Huns from Gaul the Western Roman Empire could breathe a little again, so Valentinian III focused again his attention to Hispania. The Roman Emperor sent a delegation, we don’t know if only diplomatic or also military, to negotiate peace with the Suebi. We know that the Suebi returned Hispania Carthaginensis and Hispania Baetica up to the Gibraltar Strait to the Romans, while Rechiar still held the important cities of Mérida and Seville under his control. More importantly, Valentinian recognized the independence of the Kingdom of the Suebi with their control over Gallaecia, Lusitania and Western Baetica. That was a cause of celebration and King Rechiar issued his own coins with his name written down. That is a very remarkable fact, because until that moment no other Barbarian king had done that to say to the world that his kingdom was independent from the Roman Empire.

On another note, the Huns then attempted to attack Italy, however after suffering from diseases and hunger they were forced to withdraw from there too. Attila died in 453 and Hunnic power disintegrated, and because of that Emperor Valentinian III felt confident enough to assassinate the general that had dominated him for two decades, Flavius Aetius. But karma stroke Valentinian back and he was assassinated by followers of Aetius the following year. His death and the death of Aetius were the end of an era, because from then on, a series of short-lived reigns succeeded the house of Theodosius and only rarely did the Imperial authorities tried to restore the old order outside Italy.

Petornius Maximus, successor of Valentinian III, didn’t have much time to mess things up, but he did. He cancelled the marriage between a daughter of Valentinian and a son of Genseric, and that infuriated the Vandals who used all their naval power to attack and sack Rome itself in 455. Then the Gallo-Roman Avitus took power, and Rechiar took advantage of the weakness of the Empire to break the agreements he had made with Valentinian III. The Suebi invaded Hispania Carthaginensis, and the Roman Empire, supported by the Visigoths of Theodoric II, responded by sending another delegation to make an ultimatum to the Suebi to withdraw from Carthaginensis and respect the treaty they had signed. But King Rechiar was kind of a player, a man that wanted to risk everything to fulfill his ambitions, and he did so. The Suebi doubled their bet by attacking Hispania Tarraconensis too, but this time the answer from Ravenna and Toulouse was overwhelming.

Emperor Avitus ordered Theodoric II to enter to Hispania and defeat the Suebi. The Visigoths entered Hispania nominally under Roman authorization, but they actually acted on their own. Theodoric II himself commanded an army of Visigoths, Franks and Burgundians in 456 to crush the Suebi. The Suebi, with an army of 10,000 soldiers or so, were overwhelmed. On 5 October 456 the Visigoths decisively defeated the Suebi under King Rechiar in the Battle of Órbigo, close to the mining city of Astorga. Many Suebi perished in the battle, others were captured and others ran away. King Rechiar was wounded but he was able to escape to Lusitania. He was captured there and executed in December. The capital of the Suebi, Braga, was sacked and their churches were burned. Of course, that affected the Suebi, but also the Hispano-Roman population. Hydatius in his chronicle feels frustrated and furious about the barbarous actions of the Visigoths, who acted in the name of the civilized power that represented Rome. Maybe then Hydatius realized that Rome was destined to fall. The Visigoths moved from Gallaecia to Lusitania and Baetica, taking Mérida that wasn’t sacked thanks to a negotiation with the local religious authorities. Theodoric II established permanent Visigothic garrisons and settlements, expanding the Visigothic Kingdom in Hispania and ending de facto the Imperial presence in Spanish soil, even in Hispania Tarraconensis. Only the expedition of Majorian a few years later briefly restored direct Imperial control over a part of Hispania.

visigothic conquest hispania

That campaign supposed the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Suebi that had dominated Hispania the previous decade. The quick rise and fall of the Suebi shows how weak their power actually was, and in the end, numbers were the decisive factor. Theoretically Gallaecia became subdued to Roman rule again, but the victory of Theodoric II actually created a state of anarchy, uncertainty and civil war in the province. The organized Kingdom of the Suebi disappeared for a while, but bands of Suebi appeared and caused violent attacks that hadn’t been seen in the region for more than a decade.

The question now is, where were the Suebi now that central power had disintegrated? On one hand we have the Suebi remnants of Hispania Baetica, a territory that wasn’t completely reconquered by the Visigoths under Roman service until 459. Imperial or more precisely Visigothic efforts focused on that region because of its important strategic value and the fear that the Vandals may reconquer it. On the other hand, Gallaecia, the central base of their power, was in a power vacuum that needed to be filled. In this context Aioulf, the executioner of Censorius, reappeared. Theodoric II had appointed Aioulf to serve as vassal to rule the Suebi from Mérida, as the Visigoths attempted to integrate the Suebi survivors in their kingdom. Aioulf had his own plans though, he wanted to become King of the Suebi and he rebelled against the Visigoths. As I will explain now, Aioulf seized the opportunity because the Visigoths had left Hispania, but Theodoric II sent an army to execute him and that’s what they did without major problems.

The main Visigothic force quickly withdraw from Hispania when Theodoric II knew about the death of his friend and ally Emperor Avitus. The Germanic general Ricimer and the Roman Majorian led the conspiracy to remove him from power and kill him. However, in a few months there was an interregnum and because of that the Visigothic King wanted to have a saying of who should be the next Emperor. After all, someone like Avitus had been very beneficial for the interests of the Visigoths, if he could enthrone a friend like him it would be perfect for his interests. Unfortunately for the Visigoths, that didn’t happen, as we will see in the next episode.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to highlight how numbers matter, as the Suebi are a perfect example of that. Based on their population, the Suebi never had the capacity to firmly control all Hispania. Yes, they could establish some garrisons in strategic cities to make raids from there, but they couldn’t have a consolidated control with a territory as large as the Iberian Peninsula. If the Suebi could have their brief golden age is only because there were no other Barbarian groups around to oppose them, when the Visigoths showed up the result was obvious beforehand. The around 10,000 Suebic warriors had no shot against the Visigoths, who had the largest army in Western Roman soil. Even the Visigoths spent decades trying to put all Hispania under their direct control, so yeah sometimes a boring variable like population is decisive to decide the tie. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode the Western Roman Empire will finally disappear, and I will talk about the late 5th century of Hispania. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

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

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

HISTORIA MUNDIAL DE ESPAÑA. Multiple authors

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

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