visigothic kingdom

Tyranny and Peace

This is episode 18 called Tyranny and Peace and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The steps that Chindasuinth followed to consolidate his power and prevent rebellions, which include executions and forced exiles
  • How Chindasuinth used the Spanish clergy to support the administration and how he played the nobility and clergy against each other
  • The codification of the most important Visigothic legal code, the Visigothic Code of Recceswinth
  • The uneasy succession of Recceswinth and how the rebellion of Froia marked his reign as he had to adopt a conciliatory policy, as opposed to the tyrannical policies of his father
  • How the succession was future monarchs was established to ensure the continuity of the ruling noble faction, not dynasty
  • The increasing social polarization and political division
  • Why the Visigothic Kingdom didn’t face external threats during the 7th century
  • The powers of the Spanish clergy and the collaboration between the Church and the state
  • The role of monasteries in Christianizing the most marginal areas of the Iberian Peninsula, that would later become bastions of resistance to Islam
  • The relationship between the Spanish Church and Rome during the Visigothic period
  • The legacy of the Visigoths in Spain, from intellectual to political and religious aspects
  • Reflection on why a long-lasting powerful state was impossible to establish in the Early Middle Ages

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 18 called Tyranny and Peace. In this episode you will learn about the tyrannical reign of the old Chindasuinth, the peaceful reign of his son Recceswinth, some aspects of the powerful Spanish Church, and the legacy of the Visigoths in Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

In the last episode titled Changing dynasties I talked about the rebellion of Chindasuinth that led to the overthrown of King Tulga, and in The Verdict I already mentioned that Chindasuinth took bold measures to limit aristocratic and ecclesiastical power. Without a doubt, the reigns of Leovigild and Chindasuinth defined the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo. Those kings represented the ideal of a centralized and caesaropapist state of the Late Antiquity. However, that brings up the question of why that ideal was challenged over and over again. The paradox is that the political structure of the Visigothic Kingdom was sustained by a landowner class of large estates. Those landowners formed noble factions through relationships of dependency and fidelity that were constantly fighting to achieve the hegemony that royal power represented. It’s quite easy to see the contradiction of having a quasi-feudal society while attempting to establish a strong and centralized state. In the long run, if there were no changes in the economic and social relationships, failure was granted for such an attempt to consolidate royal power.

Chindasuinth ascended the throne being 79 years-old, and he had a turbulent past of participating in several failed conspiracies. Needless to say, he understood the internal problems of the Visigothic Kingdom and he knew how noble factions and conspiracies were formed. I mean, that’s precisely what he did to usurp the throne. Chindasuinth exploited the structural political weaknesses of the realm to conquer royal power, but as he was now king, he had to fix those weaknesses to prevent rebellions against his rule. Therefore, Chindasuinth followed four steps for dummies to achieve his aims.

The first step was the execution and forced exile of hundreds of nobles and the confiscation of their properties. Second, Chindasuinth closed ties with a noble faction that supported him in exchange of several concessions and privileges. The third step consisted in enriching himself and his family with new estates, and the fourth and last step was about fusing even more secular and religious power.

Let’s go more into detail with each step. Chindasuinth executed 200 first-rank nobles and 500 of lesser standing, while many more went into exile in Frankish or Basque territory either to avoid being sentenced to death or charged for conspiring against the King. The confiscation of properties was the norm against those executed or exiled. Actually, not only their properties, but their widows and daughters were redistributed amongst the king’s supporters. It was certainly a major redistribution of political power and wealth, and even though it was a tyrannical and very harsh act, it produced a period of stability. Later on, Chindasuinth summoned the bishops of the kingdom in the Seventh Council of Toledo in 646, where the law against treason added excommunication on those who conspired against the King, and it extended the punishment to the clergy too. The bishops for sure feared Chindasuinth. Most of those labelled as traitors faced execution, but they could accept “royal benevolence” and be blinded instead. Chindasuinth sure was a nice guy.

As for the second step of creating a loyal noble faction, it’s something rather simple and common in world history: making your supporters wealthier or moving them up in terms of social status. Chindasuinth forced the marriage of the widows and daughters of those who were executed or exiled with his supporters, to restructure the alliances and kinship ties. More interestingly, he gave certain rights to royal slaves that occupied important positions in the administration of the state, such as giving them the right to testify, mainly to use them against their former masters. A truly clever policy once again.

The third step was about amassing estates for the royal family, something essential to make his position more secure. It wasn’t difficult to own more estates, since he just made some of those estates he had confiscated his own. And the fourth step, that consisted in increasing his power over religious affairs, was materialized by making the word of a king equal to that of God. Disobedience was therefore sacrilege. And he managed to do that without increasing anti-Jewish policies, what an achievement!

To control more firmly the nobility and clergy on a provincial level, the King played them against each other. He allowed bishops to inspect the judicial sentences of the secular administration, which allowed him to control more closely the clergy as he used them as royal administrators. Even though Chindasuinth was a great benefactor of the Church, he had many enemies in the clergy. It’s not surprising, since they didn’t like the interference of royal power in ecclesiastical affairs nor how Chindasuinth removed some of their privileges. Nonetheless, he had collaborators, for instance the prominent bishop of Zaragoza, Braulio of Zaragoza. Braulio of Zaragoza, along other bishops, advised Chindasuinth to associate Recceswinth to the Visigothic throne. There are some possible explanations, maybe their supporters feared that the old Chindasuinth could die soon and with him everything they had obtained in exchange of their loyalty. Another explanation could be that there was an increasing opposition within the nobility and clergy, and Chindasuinth’s supporters needed to ensure the continuity of the regime, to again preserve their wealth. In the end, it’s all about money and power. Anyway, Recceswinth was made co-ruler in 649, and Recceswinth started his sole reign when his father died in 653.

visigothic code

Before he died, Chindasuinth commissioned a new codification of laws for the kingdom. In 654 the codification was finished and Recceswinth promulgated what became known as the Visigothic Code. In episode 15 titled Leovigild, restorer and unifier, I mentioned that King Leovigild not only essentially unified Hispania under Visigothic rule, he attempted to unify religiously and legally the Hispano-Roman and Gothic population. Apparently, the lost Code of Leovigild eliminated most legal differences between Goths and natives, but not all. On the contrary, the Visigothic Code of Recceswinth was applied equally to both groups that at this point presented no differences. The subjects of the kingdom stopped being Roman or Gothic, instead they became Spanish. The Visigothic Code combined elements of Roman, Catholic and Germanic customary laws, and it included laws that dealt with legal procedures, crimes, marriage and divorce, succession, financial transactions, and Jews. It was the most important legal code of the Visigothic Kingdom, as it outlived the kingdom and it was still used by the Mozarab population, that is, by the Christians under Muslim rule, until the 13th century. King Ferdinand III adopted the Visigothic Code almost entirely to apply it in certain towns, and it was used in parts of Spain as late as in the 19th century.

Going back to the dynastic succession, it wasn’t unquestioned. A Gothic political refugee named Froia made an alliance with the Vascones of Aquitaine and other Gothic refugees to support him. The rebels devastated much of Tarraconensis, but they weren’t able to capture Zaragoza. Froia and his forces decided to go all-in instead of retreating to Aquitaine to regain strength. But in the end, royal power won, many of the Gothic refugees and Vascones perished in the battlefield, and Froia was executed. Recceswinth suppressed the rebellion quick enough, but he needed to close ranks and his supporters for sure asked for rewards. That may explain why Recceswinth carried out a conciliatory policy with the nobility and clergy, as opposed to the tyrannical policies of his father.

The aristocratic requests were recognized in the Eighth Council of Toledo, a council with a very high attendance rate and the first to see the participation of royal officials. The King’s supporters agreed to allow Recceswinth the choice of pardoning those who were persecuted by Chindasuinth, although they didn’t allow a complete pardon. There were other measures to somehow facilitate the return of the political refugees, and that’s essentially in what consisted the conciliatory policy of Recceswinth, protecting the interests of his loyal supporters while reconciling with those who suffered the confiscations and executions of his father.

Neither his enemies nor his supporters liked how Chindasuinth had treated confiscated property as his own. Therefore, his son was forced to accept to clearly differentiate the property of the royal family and the property of the crown. That certainly made sense in an elective monarchy, and it sure limited any pretensions of establishing a long-lasting hereditary monarchy. It’s obvious that those nobles who backed Chindasuinth in his coup and who supported the succession of Recceswinth felt that the old king had kept too many estates for himself rather than for the crown or his supporters. These nobles didn’t have the guts to protest when Chindasuinth was alive, but instead had waited cautiously until they saw the opportunity to exploit the weakness of Recceswinth’s position.

Another decision taken at the council was referred to the succession of the king. They decided that the election of a new king had to take place in the royal palace, and that the electors would be the bishops and nobles of the court. In practice, that meant that only the bishop of Toledo and the nobles of the inner circle of the previous king had the power to elect a new king. It was a way to ensure, not the continuity of the ruling dynasty, but the continuity of the ruling noble faction.

We basically have no information about the remaining years of Recceswinth, even though he reigned alone for 19 years, from 653 to 672. It’s very likely that he had to send several expeditions to keep the northern peoples in check, and it seems like there were changes in socioeconomic terms that further weakened central power. The administrative reforms of Chindasuinth may have accelerated the process, because many civil positions disappeared and were assumed by military officers. Chindasuinth may have thought that simplifying the administration and concentrating power in a few hands would help him in controlling the nobility that supported him, but in the long run the opposite may be the case.

Territorial decentralization weakened political unity, in a moment where most of the peasantry didn’t consider the protection of their lords worth the price. The society of the Visigothic Kingdom was very polarized in the late 7th century, because the landowner elite of large estates was only worried about increasing their wealth and gaining more social connections, while the peasantry lived in very poor conditions. Would you happily fight and pay taxes for someone that gave you essentially nothing in return? For sure not. Many colonus, who were almost enslaved peasants, ran away from the lands they were associated to, and it seems like the colonus had kind of a class consciousness, because many helped those fugitive colonus. And what was the genius response of the Visigothic elite? Toughening laws against those fugitives and those who took them in. The peasantry only hated their lords more and more. Like before the fall of the Roman Empire, brigandage plagued the roads of the late Visigothic Kingdom, which is an indication that at the death of King Recceswinth the realm was suffering from great insecurity and social and political instability. This internal division and weak social unity was very effectively exploited later by the Muslim invaders, as we will see in a few episodes.

On the other hand, the Visigothic Kingdom didn’t have to worry much about external enemies during most of the 7th century. The Frankish lords were constantly fighting each other; the Franks aided some Visigothic usurpers and rebels, but the Franks weren’t the existential threat that they used to be in the early 6th century. The other old enemy, the Eastern Roman Empire, went from crisis after crisis during the 7th century. The Romans first fought the Persians, then the Arabs of the Caliphate, while also having to deal with the Slavs that were settling in the Balkans, as well as social and religious internal divisions. However, the Visigothic Kingdom remained very vulnerable to external aggression, because the political and social structure of the realm was inherently weak. Kings feared that groups within the realm could conspire with foreign powers, that’s why there were both civil and ecclesiastical laws that imposed penalties on those who dared to do so.

To talk a bit about the organization of the Spanish Church, the essential thing to know is that it was divided in 6 dioceses, following the Late Roman division of provinces: Tarraconensis, Carthaginensis, Baetica, Lusitania, Galicia and Narbonensis. As the Visigoths conquered Hispania and established the capital in Toledo, Toledo was made the metropolitan capital of Carthaginensis and the bishop of Toledo was superior to the rest. The close link between ecclesiastical and secular power is what made that happen, not without some opposition within the Church. Royal power and the bishop of Toledo sometimes intervened in the election of provincial bishops, but most of the time the provincial clergy elected their bishop themselves. Bishops had the duty to monitor the local clergy, to prevent spiritual corruption and the spread of wrong beliefs.

But in the Visigothic Kingdom, after the conversion of Reccared to Catholicism, bishops heavily intervened in the secular administration of the kingdom. Bishops were judges of ecclesiastical conflicts, but they also judged acts that transgressed certain civil laws or both ecclesiastical and civil laws. Again, this brings up the question of what kind of state the Visigothic Kingdom was, but as I said in previous episodes it was not a theocracy, it was a state where secular and religious power helped and watched each other. For instance, secular authorities could judge some strictly religious offenses and fine the offenders, a fine that went to the pockets of secular authorities. So what you need to understand is that the Church and the administration cooperated, in a way that was beneficial for both parties. The clearest example of that cooperation was the Councils of Toledo, where civil and ecclesiastical authorities discussed the most important political and religious issues. Nonetheless, there were some limitations to the role of judge of bishops in civil offenses, as for instance they couldn’t sentence someone to death.

san pedro de montes monastery fructuosus of braga

Now I want to talk about the role of monasteries in this period. Ever since the reign of Leovigild, monasteries had expanded in the Iberian Peninsula, thanks to the will of many African, Greek and Spanish clergymen. Monks and hermits lived an ascetic life and sought their own spiritual salvation in isolated areas, living alone or in group. Due to their establishment in isolated areas, they spread Christianity in communities that were still pagan, for instance certain areas of Asturias and Cantabria, or in the north-western Pyrenees where the Vascones lived. We know the name of some of those Christian proselytizers, such as Aemilian or Valerius of Briezo. A very prolific founder of monasteries was Fructuosus of Braga, a Gothic hermit and bishop who founded no less than 20 monasteries, throughout Galicia, Lusitania and Baetica. But we don’t know the name of many other monks and monastic founders that ensured the Christianization of the most marginal areas of the Iberian Peninsula. The Christianization of those mountainous regions would eventually transform them from the most backward parts of the peninsula into bastions of resistance to Islam and birth places of new Christian kingdoms.

Regarding the relationship of the Spanish Church with Rome and other foreign churches, the Spanish Church recognized the supremacy of the Pope and made efforts to align their doctrines and decisions in line with what was decided in universal councils. Despite that, it’s obvious that the Spanish Church wasn’t as close to other churches as it used to be during the Roman period. This is kind of logical, because the Western Roman Empire disintegrated into several kingdoms that were developing a kind of national or unitary consciousness. But to be more specific, a major reason is that the Eastern Roman Empire controlled Rome. As the Spanish Church became closely linked to the Visigothic monarchy, relationships with Rome became more complicated because the two states were foes. Another reason is that the Spanish Catholic Church gained strength after the conversion of the Visigoths, so it could deal with their own problems without the assistance of other churches. That doesn’t mean that the Spanish Church was an independent Church opposed to Rome, as some historians say, on the contrary it means that the Spanish Church was strongly organized, so they just needed to consult a few times Rome to solve some issues.

san juan de baños visigothic church

Lastly, I want to talk about the legacy of the Visigoths. Their contributions have often been ignored or even seen in a negative light. They left few artistic works, no substantial unique architecture, and little linguistic legacy. However, the Visigoths did leave an important legacy. As I explained in the previous episode, Muslim Spain has often been regarded as the reversers of the cultural and scientific decadence that the Visigoths brought. That’s far from being true, because under the Visigoths Spain produced great intellectual works, such as those of Saint Isidore of Seville, and the Spanish clergy preserved classical works that would have been lost otherwise. They also preserved the Roman bathing culture, just as the Muslims did later. The Visigoths also made the free Hispano-Roman and Gothic population equal in law, and under them the Spanish clergy unified the liturgy of the kingdom in what became known as the Hispanic or Mozarabic rite, that Christians preserved in Muslim-ruled territories.

More importantly, the Visigoths unified Spain politically and religiously. The idea of Spain as a distinct entity emerged then, defined by the boundaries of the Iberian Peninsula, and that political unification is exactly what the Christian Medieval kings pursued during the so-called Reconquista. With the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism, the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans shared the same religion, something that had a profound impact on the history of Spain and all Spanish countries. For instance, it meant a long relationship of close collaboration between the Church and the state, or the persecution, forced conversion or expulsion of Jews for the sake of religious unity. It was the memory of the Visigothic Kingdom, as an independent Spanish and Catholic kingdom, that was used to justify ideologically the Reconquista.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss why it was impossible to establish a strong and long-lasting royal dynasty, which is kind of a continuation of The Verdict of the previous episode. The efforts of Chindasuinth to end forever the endless internal struggles between noble factions failed, even though he had executed many important nobles. Chindasuinth ruled using fear, and no one dared to oppose him when he was alive. But as Tyrion told Daenerys in season 7 of Game of Thrones, fear is all Chindasuinth had. That made his position brittle, because many beneath him wanted to see him death. Even his faction of loyal supporters didn’t approve his disproportionate confiscations to enrich himself and his family. So, once the tyrant died, a rebellion was all what was needed to make his regime crumble. The rebellion was suppressed, but the price was the idea of establishing a strong royal power. If you think about strong monarchs of Visigothic Spain, they either used military expansion, such as Leovigild, or repression, as Chindasuinth, to strengthen the crown. Those efforts worked in the short-term, but they are not sustainable in the long-term. In the end, I think it was impossible to establish a powerful monarchy due to the very nature of the society and economy of the European kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages. Too often we look at individual kings as if their ability alone determined the outcome of a kingdom, but we overlook the circumstances that define their time. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode I will end the period of Visigothic Spain, covering their history right before the start of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. 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

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

INTRODUCCIÓN A LA HISPANIA VISIGODA. Raúl González Salinas

HISTORIA DE LA IGLESIA EN ESPAÑA. VOL. 1: LA IGLESIA EN LA ESPAÑA ROMANA Y VISIGODA. Ricardo García-Villoslada

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

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

Script

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, 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

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

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

Visigothic conversion to Catholicism

This is episode 16 called Visigothic conversion to Catholicism and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Why there was a religious conflict in Visigothic Spain between Catholics and Arians
  • Why the reformed Arianism of Leovigild didn’t work and why it was so difficult to make Catholicism the state religion of the Visigothic Kingdom
  • What King Reccared did to reduce opposition following his conversion
  • Details about the three attempts to overthrow Reccared between his personal conversion and the Third Council of Toledo and how the Visigoths repelled the Frankish invasion of Septimania
  • Reccared’s strategy to strengthen royal power using the Church
  • Third Council of Toledo: Visigoths abdjure the Arian heresy and embrace Catholicism, alliance between the Visigothic state and the Church and firsts anti-Jewish policies
  • Why Reccared’s religious policy wasn’t that different from that of Leovigild and the implications of the religious unity of Visigoths and Hispano-Romans
  • Comparison of the Medieval and modern concept of nation and how Isidore of Seville blended the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together in one nation
  • The idea of mater Spania and the breakup with the ancient historiography to develop a national narrative
  • Minor events of the reign of Reccared and the short reign of his son Liuva II
  • The reigns of Witteric and Gundemar
  • Reflection about the long-term consequences of the alliance between the Visigothic state and the Catholic Church and the unique mix of caesaropapism and theocracy that resulted from it

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 16 called Visigothic conversion to Catholicism. In this episode you will learn about the reign of Reccared that led to the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism, as well as the long-term consequences that the conversion had in the formation of Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

We left the previous episode with the death of the great King Leovigild and the succession of his loyal son Reccared. At the moment of his accession to the Visigothic throne, Reccared inherited two unsolved problems, one internal and one external. The internal problem is well known, the religious issue, while in terms of foreign affairs the war with the Frankish Kingdom of Burgundy was still going. Even though the war was going well for the Visigoths, King Guntram of Burgundy didn’t renounce to his claims over Septimania. We will see later in which way King Guntram tried to accomplish his pretensions, but let’s focus on the key issue, the conflict between Arians and Catholics.

Why that religious conflict happened in the first place, though? Truth is that the theological conflict was barely important. The theological difference is centered on the question of the equality and eternity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but do you think those things really mattered? Hell no. The Visigoths abandoned their Pagan beliefs and adopted Christian Arianism in the 4th century only because they lived next to the Eastern Roman Empire and it was the dominant theology back then. But why do you think the Visigoths didn’t adopt the resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon that gave birth to Christian Catholicism? It was not because they cared about theological differences, instead they stuck to their old beliefs because that gave them a distinct identity.

But by the mid-6th century, Visigothic unity started to crumble. Marriage between Hispano-Romans and Visigoths was a thing already, way before the ban was lifted, and that not only put their ethnic unity under threat, but their religious unity as well. Some Visigoths had already converted to Catholicism, that’s also why Leovigild proposed a national and more Catholic form of Arianism, to bring the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together, but he failed in achieving so. According to some sources, Leovigild regretted his religious policy and even converted to Catholicism before he died. While we cannot corroborate that, there are some clues that could confirm a change in his religious policy, as for instance he ended the exile of Leander of Seville. Truth is there were very few Arians in Hispania, most of them Visigoths, but it’s precisely because of that why it was so difficult to convert to Catholicism for the Visigothic Kingdom. Keep in mind that there was a strong association between the Visigothic elite and the Arian clergy, the breakup of this alliance could destabilize the Visigothic Kingdom in a very dangerous way. The political risk was very high, I mean you could have revolts, street violence between Arians and Catholics, a civil war, foreign states could take advantage and intervene, and the position and life of the king could be under threat as well. And some of the things I mentioned actually happened, so yeah it’s important to understand the complexity of that issue.

To go back to the story, King Reccared personally converted to Catholicism less than a year before succeeding his father. It was a very brave and significant action, but he knew that he needed to do more to bring the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together in religious terms. First he sealed an alliance with his mother-in-law, Goiswintha, who was herself an Arian fanatic. If Reccared got her on his side, he would have the support of a substantial number of Visigoths and Franks from Austrasia too. Moreover, he held meetings with Arian bishops and got as many as he could on his side. What the Arian clergy feared was the loss of patronage and status, but Reccared was probably able to guarantee them that they would maintain the same hierarchical status in the Catholic Church. In exchange, they had to convert to Catholicism, give all the properties of Arian churches to the Catholic Church and burn all the Arian books and texts. Although most of the Arian clergy agreed to that, there was obviously going to be opposition.

As a matter of fact, there were three attempts to overthrow Reccared between his conversion to Catholicism in 587 and the Third Council of Toledo in 589. All those conspiracies had in common that pretenders used the Arian faith to legitimize their revolt, although of course it was only a matter of politics. The first revolt happened already in 587, and it broke out in Mérida, the capital of the province of Lusitania. The conspiracy was led by a Gothic noble named Segga, and it had the backing of Sunna, the Arian metropolitan bishop of Lusitania, and several counts of the region too. The conspirators aimed to assassinate both the Duke of Lusitania, the Hispano-Roman Claudius, and Masona, who was the Catholic bishop of Mérida and metropolitan bishop of Lusitania. This Masona was a Visigoth that used to be an Arian bishop, but he converted to Catholicism during the rebellion of Hermenegild, and when Hermenegild was defeated Leovigild asked him to convert again to Arianism. However, Masona refused to do that, so we can see with this example how the conversion to Catholicism was irrevocable for some notorious Visigoths. The plot was uncovered though, because a young count named Witteric informed Claudius about the conspiracy. This Witteric earned the confidence of the King and Claudius and taking advantage of that he would later become king, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Duke of Lusitania Claudius acted before the conspiracy could actually unfold, and the leader of the conspiration had his hands cut off and was sent to Galicia while Sunna, the Arian bishop, was sent into exile outside the kingdom, in modern Morocco. The following year there was another conspiracy, this time the Queen Dowager Goiswintha and the Arian bishop of Toledo were involved, although according to historian Roger Collins the plot may have been made up to remove possible political opponents of the new order. Again, the Arian bishop was sent into exile while it’s not clear what happened to Goiswintha, but she died soon afterwards.

The third conspiracy was more serious, because it had the backing of King Guntram of Burgundy. Some counts of Septimania led the rebellion, with the ideological support of the Arian bishop of Narbonne, but the main threat was external. A significantly large army from Burgundy besieged Carcassonne, one of the key cities of Septimania, and King Reccared sent the loyal Duke of Lusitania there to suppress the rebellion and repel the Frankish invasion. Duke Claudius prevented the union of the two main Frankish armies and the Visigoths earned their greatest victory ever over the Franks, killing 5,000 Franks and capturing 2,000 of them. With that, Guntram had to give up his pretensions and the revolt was quickly suppressed. It’s very interesting to see how a Hispano-Roman general accomplished that, and this victory may have been seen as a divine sign that Reccared did the right thing converting the Visigoths to Catholicism and blending together even more than his father the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans.

After this victory and after having prevented or suppressed three conspiracies, King Reccared felt confident enough to call the most important council Visigothic Spain ever had, the Third Council of Toledo. On May 4 589 the Third Council of Toledo opened, with three days of prayer and fasting. Leander of Seville and Masona had organized and made all the arrangements of this council, and they assembled more than 70 episcopal sees, including 8 Arian bishops that subscribed the acts of the Third Council of Toledo. However, even though Leander of Seville was a key responsible of that council, King Reccared was the one who called and presided it. That is very significant in fact, because it notes the role of protection and vigilance that the Visigothic monarchy had over the Catholic Church of the kingdom, a role that was again copied from the model of the Eastern Roman Empire. The position of King was strengthened, as it then had a sacred role too. The idea is that the monarchy and the Church would work more closely and that would benefit the royal dynasty because the nobility would have a harder time revolting. That’s the idea, but as we will see, the 7th century would be yet again very unstable for the Visigoths.

reccared visigothic conversion to catholicism

Then on May 8 Reccared made public a declaration stating that the King and the Goths abjured the Arian heresy and embraced Catholicism, thus accepting the resolutions of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. The public declaration condemned the teachings of Arius, but there was no mention to a sensitive subject such as the religious policy of his father Leovigild or to the rebellion of his brother. Reccared then instructed the council to approve some canons to regulate the structure of the new Church, to determine the powers of the Church within the state and to reinforce ecclesiastical discipline. On the theological side, a canon confirmed the resolutions of the previous councils I mentioned, but also adding what is called the Filioque clause, that states that the Holy Spirit not only proceeds from the Father, but from the Son too. This seems like a very stupid detail, just as the theological differences between Arianism and Catholicism, but the Filioque clause caused a great deal of controversy for centuries and it was never accepted in the East. Another very important canon was one that stated the tax exemption of the clergy or the slaves of the Church, that was indeed very relevant because it granted the Church more power. The collaboration between the Visigothic state and the Church was obvious, but as the Catholic clergy gained influence in the government, Jews started being persecuted in the name of religious unity, just as it had been happening all over the Catholic kingdoms. For instance, a canon forbade Jews from marrying Christians or having Christian slaves. The persecutions and laws against Jews were still not as bad as in other countries, but they would soon be and because of that many Jews fled from Visigothic Spain to North Africa. Finally, King Reccared issued a decree giving the resolutions of national and provincial Catholic councils a force equal to that of laws, which is yet another evidence of the increasing influence of the Church.

The religious policy of Reccared may have seen as opposite to that of his father, but in the end they shared the same vision and objective: to unify and strengthen the Kingdom and its peoples. Leovigild had presented himself as the head of the national Arian Church, and Reccared was doing just the same but with the Catholic Church instead. In both cases they wanted to strengthen their legitimacy by not only ruling over secular affairs, but religious matters as well. The Visigothic conversion to Catholicism was the culmination of the process of integration of both the Goths and Hispano-Romans that King Leovigild started. The Visigoths were very Romanized at this point, they had lost the Gothic language, they wore the same clothes as the Hispano-Romans, and they had changed their burial costumes. With the conversion, a new nation was born, as contemporary scholar Isidore of Seville said in his works.

Now I want to spend some time discussing the question regarding the concept of Hispania as a nation. Previous authors from the Roman period and early Visigothic rule talked about Hispania only in a geographical sense, but Isidore of Seville was the first to refer to Hispania in a more national sense. Before I get started, let me clarify this, the concept of nation in the Middle Ages was very different from the concept of nation that was developed in the 19th century. The Medieval concept of nation was very imprecise actually, although even today there’s debate about what a nation is since it’s a very abstract concept. The modern concept of nation is defined as a community of peoples that share a common history, language, ethnicity, territory or culture. A key concept of nationalism is the principle of popular sovereignty, which means that the authority and legitimacy of a state is sustained by the consent of its people, which implies a democracy to some extent.

What’s clear though is that the elites of Medieval Europe would have laughed if someone told them about this crazy idea, so this brings us again to the question of what a nation was for the Medieval intelligentsia. Medieval relations were fundamentally personal, because of that patron and client relations were key to maintain the unity and stability of a state. Therefore, in an era where religion and personal or kin relationships were very important, a nation was defined, at least partly, as having a common biblical ancestor. So to legitimize Visigothic rule and reinforce the idea that Visigoths and Hispano-Romans were one nation, Isidore of Seville deliberately made the Visigoths Spanish. And how he made that possible? He wrote that the Hispano-Romans and Goths descended from a common biblical ancestor, Japeth. “Seven sons of Japeth are named: Magog, from whom people think the Scythians and the Goths took their origin. Tubal, from whom came the Iberians, who are also the Spaniards, although some think that the Italians also sprang from him”. As you have heard, not only did Isidore connect genealogically the people from Hispania and the Goths, but also the Romans to make us see the Visigoths as legitimate successors of the Roman Empire, especially after their conversion to Catholicism and efforts to evangelize every inhabitant of the kingdom.

But the scholar Isidore of Seville didn’t stop there, because he also invented the idea of mater Spania, or mother Spain, and this metaphor was also used in the Middle Ages to define nations. This idea of motherland links every human being to the land where each one was born, so the people that was born in Hispania had a kind of mother-son relationship with the land, with the mater Spania. In his History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suebi, Isidore of Seville wrote his famous prologue De Laude Spaniae, or In Praise of Spain, and this prologue is very relevant because he wrote an exalted patriotic and chauvinistic poem that is the precedent of the idea of the Spanish nation.

isidore of seville

Let me read a fragment of In Praise of Spain: “Of all the lands from the west to the Indies, you, Spain, O sacred and always fortunate mother of princes and peoples, are the most beautiful. Rightly are you now the queen of all provinces, from which not only the west but also the east borrows its shining lights. You are the pride and ornament of the world. [..] Rightly did golden Rome, the head of the nations, desire you long ago. And although this same Romulean power, initially victorious, betrothed you to itself, now it is the most flourishing people of the Goths, who in their turn, after many victories all over the world, have eagerly seized you and loved you: they enjoy you up to the present time amidst royal emblems and great wealth, secure in the good fortune of empire.”

Isidore of Seville wrote a narrative history that broke with the ancient historiography that praised the Roman past and depicted the Visigoths as Barbarians. Instead, the Visigoths were depicted as the legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire in Hispania. Because of that Isidore was key in the development of the independent ideology that legitimized Visigothic role, but his work outlived the Visigothic Kingdom too because during the Reconquista Christian Kingdoms presented themselves as heirs of the Catholic Visigothic state.

Wow, I really had a hard time researching this part about the Medieval concept of nation and the ideas of Isidore of Seville, but I hope I have explained it in a comprehensive way. Let’s pick up again the narrative, the Third Council of Toledo ended, and the Visigoths converted to Catholicism, but what happened next? Truth is that after that landmark moment of Spanish history, we don’t know much about the reign of Reccared, but we have a few events. There was yet another attempt to overthrow him in 589, that time led by the Duke of Carthaginensis. However, the conspiracy would be suppressed, the associates of the Duke were executed and he himself was tortured, then had his right hand cut off, and he was displayed throughout Toledo as an example to all that “servants should not be presumptuous to their masters”. However, Reccared then had a pro-noble policy of giving them back some states that had been confiscated by his father Leovigild, so during his reign both the nobility and clergy were rewarded overall. That policy contradicted the overall policy of Reccared though, because still the majority of the laws he promulgated had the objective to centralize power and emulate the Eastern Roman Empire, just as his father had done.

In terms of foreign policy, the Visigoths fought again the Vascones and Byzantines. The Vascones continued their raids in the Ebro Valley, even though the Visigoths had pressed them to migrate to the other side of the Pyrenees. In any case the Visigoths just kept them in check, but they didn’t conquer their homeland. On the other hand, the Byzantines recovered a few lands, which isn’t that surprising considering that at that time the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire engaged in some expansionist campaigns in Africa and Italy. Unlike his father, Reccared attempted to maintain the status quo, and he asked for the mediation of Pope Gregory I to fix the borders of the province of Spania. He was in good terms with him because Reccared had founded several churches to make effective the religious unity of the kingdom and because of his anti-Jewish policies.

Moving on, Reccared died in 601 and he was succeeded by his only son, Liuva II, who was then 18 years-old. His mother wasn’t a noblewoman, and that affected his legitimacy to rule. Because of that there was a successful coup in 603, thus ending the dynasty of Leovigild. The coup was led by Witteric, the man that reported the first conspiracy against Reccared, and he had Liuva II executed. Witteric was a king with a military background, so his energic policy against the Romans of Spania shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Witteric took advantage of the internal problems that the Empire was facing, and he conquered several towns close to the Gibraltar Strait and he even occupyied a town that was very close to Cartagena, the capital of Spania. Apart from that, Witteric arranged the marriage of one of his daughters with the King of Burgundy, but the marriage was cancelled even after his daughter had already arrived there. That infuriated Witteric and he attempted to form a coalition against Burgundy, but it all came to naught. In terms of internal policy, King Witteric faced some opposition from factions of the nobility and clergy. His policy was similar to that of Leovigild or Reccared, he wanted to maintain or increase the power of the monarchy, but because of that some of the nobles that had supported him in his conspiracy turned against him. Witteric realized that his life was under threat and he tried to reconcile with that part of the nobility, but he was unsuccessful and was assassinated in 610. Isidore of Seville wrote that “He killed with a sword; he was killed with a sword”.

The nobles then proclaimed King the Duke of Narbonne, Gundemar. Under his reign the Visigoths increased the pressure on the Byzantine possessions of southern Spain and he led expeditions against the Vascones, Cantabri and Astures, that were yet again raiding the territories of the Ebro and Duero Valleys. And just like it had happened previously, these expeditions weren’t successful enough to completely dominate the peoples of the north. Unlike his predecessors, Gundemar gave up some powers of his position, such as appointing bishops. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the nobility and clergy that had put him in power were against the centralizing policies of the dynasty of Leovigild and Witteric. That allowed him to die from natural causes just 2 years after he started reigning. Sisebut succeeded him, and this Sisebut was supported by the same nobility of his predecessor, but let’s leave things here for the following episode.

THE VERDICT: in today’s verdict I want to discuss a bit more why Reccared converted to Catholicism and the long-term consequences of the alliance between the Visigothic state and the Catholic Church. The thing is that the conversion wasn’t a top-down phenomenon, because even before the reign of Leovigild the Visigoths were increasingly becoming Romanized, and that included individual conversions to Catholicism. When Reccared succeeded his father, it was clear that the reformed Arianism formula wasn’t going to work and that there was no way to stop the Romanization of the Visigoths, so it was better if the kingdom just recognized that fact. Then, about the long-term consequences of the alliance, we can say that the Visigothic Kingdom evolved and became much more associated with the religious power. The Visigothic Kingdom was then transformed into a very unique form of government that couldn’t be found anywhere, at least in Europe. The state became a mix of caesaropapism and theocracy, and that’s actually contradictory because in a caesaropapist regime the king ruled over the Church while in a theocracy the Church has the secular power too. But that’s why it’s unique, because the King had some prerogatives over the Church but the Church assumed new administrative and legislative functions. The only problem was that the association with the Church didn’t make the position of the king more secure, it didn’t serve as a way to prevent the endemic noble revolts and conspiracies, and that’s definitely one of the big failures of the Visigothic Kingdom. 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

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

EL CONCILIO III DE TOLEDO. Juan Antonio Zugasti and Francisco Javier Simonet

THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY IN VISIGOTHIC SPAIN: RELIGION AND POWER IN THE HISTORIES OF ISIDORE OF SEVILLE. James P. Wood

MEDIEVAL IBERIA: READINGS FROM CHRISTIAN, MUSLIM, AND JEWISH SOURCES. Olivia Remie Constable

‘El concepto de España en la historiografía visigoda y asturiana’. Alexander Pierre Bronisch

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

Script

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

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

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

leovigild portray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

leovigild conquests visigothic spain before the death of liuvigild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fulfill my promise to talk about the reign of Reccared, but that’s because there was just so much to talk about Leovigild. I’m quite excited to talk about the Visigothic conversion to Catholicism in the next episode, so make sure you listen to that too. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes, a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

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

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

Script

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, 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

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

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

Barbarians against Barbarians

This is episode 11 called Barbarians against Barbarians and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • The origins of the Visigoths and the Hunnic threat
  • The turbulent and complicated relationship between Visigoths and Romans
  • How the Visigoths first entered Hispania under Ataulf
  • The rule of Wallia and his campaign under Roman service that destroyed the Alans and Silingi Vandals of Hispania
  • What territories Honorius gave to the Visigoths in Gaul and why he gave those territories (spoiler: to suppress the bagaudae)
  • How the Imperial army assissted the Suebi against the Vandals of Gunderic to prevent them from becoming the dominant force in Hispania
  • Yet another crisis with the failed campaign of Castinus in Hispania and the death of Honorius, the usurpation of Joannes and the rise of Flavius Aetius
  • The period of hegemony of the Vandals in Hispania before leaving Hispania for North Africa in 429
  • Reflections about the Imperial strategy of playing barbarians off against each other

Script

I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 11 called Barbarians against Barbarians. In this episode you will learn how the Visigoths first entered Hispania, and the history of the Vandals, Suebi, Alans and Romans from 411 to 430. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

In times of chaos, realpolitiks or politics based on pragmatism are indispensable in order to survive. Today’s enemies can be your friends tomorrow, and this is exactly what happened with the relationship between Romans and Visigoths. The same Visigoths that had sacked Rome in 410 in a few years were fighting the Vandals and Alans of Hispania in the name of the Romans. But before I tell that story, let me first introduce you the Visigoths.

The Visigoths were in fact a branch of the larger group that is the Goths. The origins of the Goths are a bit unclear, the traditional theory is that they moved from modern Sweden to modern Poland, but truth is that they may had been already living in modern East Germany and Poland. What we know is that they migrated to the Pontic steppe in the north of the Black Sea, where they interacted with Eurasian nomads like the Scythians and learned their cavalry-based military tactics. The importance of the cavalry in contrast to the infantry for the Goths changed their social and political structures, and because of that the nobility and patron-client relationships were more important for the Visigoths than for, say, the Suebi. Anyway, the migration to the Pontic steppe caused disarray though, and the Goths indirectly caused the Marcomannic Wars in the 2nd century between Germanic tribes and Rome. The Goths were defeated during the Gothic Wars of the 3rd century and that caused the division of the Goths. There’s scholarly debate on the identification of the Visigoths with the Thervingi that settled in the Danubian plains west of the Dniester River. What’s clear is that this group became close to the Roman Empire and converted to Arian Christianity. The other group were the Greuthungi that are usually identified with the Ostrogoths. This group settled in modern Ukraine and established contacts with the Huns.

gothic migration map

The Huns appeared in the second half of the 4th century, overrunning the Alans and subduing and incorporating many Goths into their ranks. The proto-Ostrogoths disappeared as an independent confederacy until Hunnic power disintegrated in the 450s, while the Visigoths crossed the Danube in 376. The Visigoths served Theodosius in his civil wars, but upon his death they ravaged Greece under King Alaric I of the Balt dynasty. Then the Visigoths moved to the western Balkans and northern Italy, until war broke out against the Western Roman Empire of Honorius following the execution of Stilicho and massacre of many Germanic families. The Visigoths looted Italy as much as they could, but Alaric dreamed of leaving Italy to settle in the breadbasket of the Western Roman Empire, North Africa. Nonetheless, a storm destroyed the ships of the Visigoths and King Alaric died soon after that. The dream was put on pause.

His brother-in-law Ataulf was elected unanimously to succeed him. He abandoned the idea of going to Africa and instead decided to head towards Gaul, as Honorius’ general Constantius was pressing him in Italy. But remember, in 411 a new usurper named Jovinus was proclaimed Western Roman Emperor by the Gallic-Roman aristocracy, Alans of Gaul and Burgundians. Ataulf contacted Jovinus and opened negotiations to support him under apparent good faith. However, the Visigoths came across Sarus, the right-hand of Stilicho who also supported now Jovinus. Ataulf captured and executed him, and that infuriated Jovinus. The usurper Jovinus then named his brother Sebastianus co-emperor, and as he did so without consulting Ataulf hostilities between the two started. The King of the Visigoths proceeded to negotiate an alliance with Honorius. The pact was this, the Visigoths would crush the rebellion in Gaul and give him back his sister Galla Placidia, and in turn Honorius promised them a land to settle to and food supplies. Jovinus’ troops were defeated and Sebastianus and Jovinus were executed in 413, and then the Visigoths established themselves in Gallia Narbonensis, taking the cities of Narbonne and Toulouse.

Nonetheless, problems appeared again. The provincial governor of Africa proclaimed himself Western Roman Emperor in 412, and he interrupted the supply of grain to Rome that was necessary to feed Italy. The rebellion was crushed in 413, but because of that Honorius couldn’t supply the Visigoths as he promised. To make things worse he granted the status of federate to the Burgundians in the Rhône Valley while the Visigoths still hadn’t been officially assigned a land to settle. The Visigoths were running out of supplies, so they confronted Imperial Roman troops again and relations between Romans and Visigoths broke again.

But even in this time of war between Romans and Visigoths, love between a Visigoth and a Roman could happen. Chronicles tell us that as early as 411 Galla Placidia and Ataulf fell in love. Yes, the hostage fell in love with her captor. And that love was officially confirmed with their marriage in 414. Their union was sealed in a Roman-style ceremony, to show the Romanity of the Gothic barbarians. That was an important step for the ambitions of Ataulf, as he became related to the imperial family and a son of that marriage could be one day Western Roman Emperor. According to contemporary historian Orosius, and take this with a grain of salt, Ataulf declared on the weeding: “at first I wanted to erase the Roman name and convert all Roman territory into a Gothic empire: I longed for Romania to become Gothia, and Ataulf to be what Caesar Augustus had been. But long experience has taught me that the ungoverned wildness of the Goths will never submit to laws, and that without law a state is not a state. Therefore I have more prudently chosen the different glory of reviving the Roman name with Gothic vigour, and I hope to be acknowledged by posterity as the initiator of a Roman restoration, since it’s impossible for me to alter the character of this Empire.”

wedding ataulf galla placidia

I’m sure Honorius would have cried if he had heard those words in the mouth of Ataulf, but he didn’t and instead demanded again the return of her sister. Ataulf responded by proclaiming a man named Priscus Attalus Western Roman Emperor, as his brother Alaric had done before to put more pressure on Honorius. But this time Honorius had the capable general Constantius leading the military, and Constantius decided to start a naval blockade of the Mediterranean ports of Gaul and to cut the supply lines of the Visigoths by land too. The Visigoths were put in a corner. Ataulf had to take a dramatic decision as discontentment was growing, and he decided to move the confederacy to Hispania Tarraconensis, the only Spanish province that was still under Roman control. From his part, Honorius captured the usurper Priscus Attalus and had him exiled to the Aeolian Islands until his death.

In Hispania Tarraconensis, with the court in Barcelona, the first and only son born from the love of Ataulf and Galla Placidia died soon afterwards. The dream to create an imperial Romano-Visigothic linage died as well. Ataulf initiated contacts to improve again the relationship with Rome, but an anti-Roman faction flourished. The anti-Roman faction thought that Ataulf was becoming too Roman, and they wanted to remain Goths. The conspiracy was led by several Visigothic nobles and people close to Sarus, who had been killed by Ataulf years before. The conspiracy was successful, and King Ataulf of the Visigoths was assassinated in Barcelona in the summer of 415, by a general that wanted to avenge the death of Sarus. A brother of Sarus, Sigeric, was illegally proclaimed King of the Visigoths. The first thing the usurper Sigeric did was to brutally slay the six children of Ataulf from the marriage he had before marrying Galla Placidia. Furthermore, Galla Placidia was publicly humiliated, as Sigeric exhibited her in the streets of Barcelona, forcing her to walk on foot several miles among other captives, because yes, that’s how you treat a Roman princess! Wallia, brother of Ataulf, was enraged and sorrowful. Ataulf may have been a bit unpopular due to the recent setbacks, but this Sigeric was brutal and inhumane and most of the Visigoths had enough. After just a week of the assassination of Ataulf, Sigeric was assassinated and the anti-Roman faction was disbanded. Wallia was elected King of the Visigoths and the Balt dynasty continued to lead the Visigothic peoples. His election, as we will soon see, was determinant for the history of the other barbarians of Hispania.

The first thing Wallia tried to do was to recover the dream of Alaric of settling his peoples in North Africa. So Wallia ordered the construction of ships, but again a storm ended that dream, this time forever for the Visigoths. His subjects were hungry, and he had only one option left. Wallia was forced to sign a treaty of federation with Honorius in 416. The treaty established that the Visigoths had the mission to expel the barbarians that had entered the Iberian Peninsula in 409. In addition to that, they had to return Ataulf’s widow Galla Placidia, because yeah this poor woman was used as bargaining chip all the time. The strong general of Honorius, Constantius, married her, even though Galla Placidia didn’t want to. On his part, Honorius would give them large quantities of grain. It’s weird because the Vandals, Suebi and Alans of Hispania offered to serve Honorius, but for some reason he refused to accept their services. Maybe he wanted to wait until they killed each other to attack when the moment was right. The strategy to play barbarians against barbarians was his best possible choice anyway, so better to use the Visigoths to kill the other barbarians and weaken them all. It was a win-win situation for the Roman Empire whatever was the outcome.

campaign wallia 418 hispania

From Barcelona Wallia started a campaign against the other barbarians that occupied Hispania, starting with the Alans and Silingi Vandals. The reason behind attacking them is that they were controlling the wealthy provinces of Baetica, Lusitania and Carthaginensis. We have very few details about this critical war, but the Goths caused a bloodbath of barbarian blood in Hispania. The attack must had been very effective since the Alans and Silingi Vandals quickly withdrew to the Strait of Gibraltar in early 418. There Wallia crushed them, and the King of the Alans Attaces was killed while the King of the Silingi Vandals was captured and sent to Emperor Honorius. The Alans, the smallest yet the most powerful group to have entered Hispania in 409, suddenly disappeared as an independent force. The survivors of the massacre headed north and joined King Gunderic of the Hasdingi Vandals. Gunderic adopted the title of King of the Vandals and Alans and he became the leader of the most powerful army of Hispania.

Honorius called the Visigoths back before decisively defeating the Hasdingi Vandals and Suebi. Only Hispania Gallaecia remained in the hands of barbarians, as well as northern Spain that was neither under barbarian nor Roman control. Instead the Cantabrians and Basques lived there independently and in poverty. This time Honorius assigned the Visigoths a land to settle to because they proved themselves useful for the empire. The Visigoths were rewarded with the right to settle in Aquitania Secunda and the proximities of Novempopulania and Narbonensis Prima. That constituted a large region of western and southern modern France that included cities like Poitiers, Bordeaux and Toulouse, that became the capital of the Visigoths. For the moment, the Visigoths didn’t have access to the Mediterranean Sea, but they soon would since they will take advantage of the weakness of the Western Roman Empire. This treaty with Honorius started the phase known as the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse, but the Visigoths will eventually return to Spain. Keep in mind that they numbered between 150,000 and 200,000 souls, so they had much more potential compared to the Vandals, not even to mention the Suebi that were less than 35,000.

From the Roman point of view, it made sense to settle the Visigoths in modern south-western France, since they could suppress rebellions and attacks in Gaul, Italy and Hispania. The Imperial government was worried about the expansion of the bagaudae, the revolutionary large-scale bandit groups that were formed by people who could no longer sustain themselves. The bagaudae is a phenomenon I talked about when I spoke about the Crisis of the Third Century, but it actually became more problematic in the 5th century. Northern Gaul was plagued of bandits ever since the Franks invaded the region, and it was only a matter of decades before bagaudae became important again in Spain. But I’m getting ahead of myself, for the moment the Imperial government wanted the Visigoths below the Loire River to prevent the expansion of the bagaudae in southern Gaul, where there were more important economic interests. This time the Visigoths didn’t receive grain or gold, instead they were given two thirds of the agricultural lands available to farm.

However, Visigothic King Wallia couldn’t enjoy the result of his victories, because he died soon after arriving in Toulouse. Wallia was succeeded by King Theodoric I, a king that would last long until he was killed in the landmark Battle of the Catalaunian Plains against the Huns in 451. It’s not clear whether he was an illegitimate son or a son-in-law of King Alaric I, but in any case he belonged to the Balt dynasty. With the Visigoths in Gaul, let’s focus on the affairs of Hispania.

The Vandals needed more territories now that they had enlarged their population, and Honorius was waiting calmly for the unavoidable clash between the Suebi and the Vandals. The Vandals started raiding Suebi territory and blocking their neighbors in 419. As the Suebi were a smaller group and the Imperial strategy was to prevent a barbarian group to become powerful enough to control all Hispania, the Romans sided with the Suebi. A general named Asterius was sent to Hispania Gallaecia to aid the Suebi and to capture the usurper Maximus, who was protected by the Vandals and declared himself emperor again. The result of this tactical Roman and Suebi alliance was the Battle of the Nervasos Mountains in an undetermined location around modern Galicia and Leon. The Suebi under King Hermeric were surrounded by the Vandals, but the Romans prevented this battle to become a disaster for the Suebi, and the Vandals were forced to retreat to Braga, the future capital of the Suebi.

However, the problems for the Vandals didn’t end there, because the Romans had yet another surprise for the Vandals. Another Roman army intercepted them, and the two Roman armies attacked the Vandals from both sides and the Vandals were defeated. Gunderic decided to move his peoples to Hispania Baetica, where they started building a fleet to gain naval dominance and to sack cities. More than a defeat, the Vandals gained much moving to the wealthy province of Baetica and it was a crucial step for the future of the Vandals. On the other hand, the usurper Maximus was presumably captured by Asterius in 420, and he was sent to Ravenna and executed in 422. Overall, we can say that Asterius’ campaign was a success, but the next Roman campaign was a complete disaster.

The glimmer of hope of the recent military successes of the Western Roman Empire against usurpers and barbarians motivated Emperor Honorius to name co-Emperor his military strongman, Constantius. However, the joy wouldn’t last, since Constantius III died seven months after his coronation. The loss of Constantius generated internal tensions, and Honorius had to name a new commander-in-chief of the Western Roman Army quickly. General Castinus was that man, and he led an expedition in 422 with the objective to eliminate the Vandals from Hispania. He was supported by Visigothic federates of King Theodoric I and by another Roman army led by a man named Bonifacius, a protégé of Galla Placidia. The expedition started as badly as it ended, Bonifacius’ army didn’t show up because both Castinus and Bonifacius wanted to be the favorite of Honorius. Bonifacius then fled to Central North Africa, where he gained control of the wealthy province that was the breadbasket of Italy. This Bonifacius would soon after that become very important in Roman civil wars and in fighting the Vandals when they moved to North Africa. Going back to the campaign of 422, Castinus had some initial success, but then Castinus and the Vandals met in open battlefield to decide the tie. What the Romans didn’t expect is that the Visigoths would abandon them before the battle. The Roman army of Castinus was crushed in Baetica, forcing him to withdraw to Hispania Tarraconensis. The defeat was an almost definitive blow against the Imperial interests in Hispania, and for the Vandals the victory ensured a period of hegemony in Hispania that allowed them to build the pillars for the later pirate kingdom of North Africa.

A new crisis started in the politics of the Western Roman Empire, first due to this failed campaign and then due to the death of Honorius in 423. In the interregnum a man named Joannes was proclaimed emperor in Rome, and his control over the nominal territories of the Western Roman Empire was very limited and weak. He didn’t control Gaul, he didn’t control the North African provinces, he barely controlled a portion of Hispania, and he didn’t have the recognition of the Eastern Roman Emperor to give him legitimacy. Instead, Theodosius II, who was Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at the time, recognized the 5-year-old son of Galla Placidia, Valentinian III, as Western Roman Emperor. Before the Eastern Roman Army attacked, Joannes sent a young and promising general to seek the help of the Huns. The man was Flavius Aetius, and he brought a Hunnic army with him to Italy, but too late. The Eastern Roman Army had already won and executed Joannes, however Aetius negotiated with the regent Galla Placidia and both parties achieved a favorable agreement. The Huns who accompanied Aetius were paid and left Italy and Aetius became general of the Roman Army in Gaul. There Aetius successfully fought the Franks, as well as the Visigoths under Theodoric I. He was able to recapture the important city of Arles in southern Gaul, and after plotting the assassination of the supreme general of the Roman Army, he gained a great deal of influence during the regency of Galla Placidia that only increased after Emperor Valentinian III was 18-years-old.

Meanwhile, the empire was so weak that they couldn’t stop the rising naval hegemony of the Vandals, that didn’t only ravage the coasts of the empire but that threatened the key maritime supply routes of the empire. It was during the 420s that the Vandals had their period of hegemony in the Iberian Peninsula, they raided cities like Carthago Nova or Seville and they even made their first incursions in North Africa. Gunderic and his Vandals put Seville under siege again in 428 and Gunderic died in uncertain circumstances. His half-brother Genseric was elected King of the Vandals and the Alans, and you may know him because Genseric was the man that turned the Vandals in a major Mediterranean power that rivaled the Western Roman Empire.

As I mentioned before, during the 420s the Vandals under Gunderic built a major fleet, already with the goal to move his peoples to North Africa and establish a kingdom with a powerful navy. The reasons to leave Hispania could have been to avoid more attacks from other barbarians, to make Roman attacks more difficult, and to seize fertile provinces for themselves. Genseric executed the plan in 429, the Suebi tried to take advantage of the situation and attacked the Vandals in their rearguard, but Genseric defeated them and he was able to successfully move his 80,000 people to North Africa. 80,000 for God sake, that is insane for the standards of Late Antiquity! This truly great logistical achievement would have been impossible without the collaboration of the Hispano-Roman population that was interested in letting them go far away. There’s also another very important reason, the governor of Africa Bonifacius was confronted with the Imperial government, and that conflict allowed the Vandals to migrate with little serious opposition. The Vandals quickly conquered the Roman territories of modern Morocco, Algeria, and eventually Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and Tunis, with the capital in Carthage. That deprived the Western Roman Empire of their breadbasket, and the Vandal posts in Mediterranean islands allowed them to raid the Roman coasts and sack Rome in 455. With the Visigoths still in Gaul and the Vandals in North Africa, the only barbarians left in Hispania were the Suebi, and due to this power vacuum a brief period of apogee for their kingdom soon followed.

THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the Imperial strategy of playing barbarians off against each other, to avoid coalitions like the alliance of the Vandals, Suebi and Alans to cross the Rhine and then the Pyrenees. Imagine what could have happen if the Visigoths, instead of fighting the Vandals and Alans, had formed a coalition to distribute among themselves Hispania and southern Gaul. But the Romans successfully exploited their differences and either let them fight for land without letting any become the single dominant force, like it happened with the conflict between Vandals and the Suebi, or promising food or lands to fight another barbarian group, like the Romans did with the Visigoths. In the short-term this strategy was the best since the Empire didn’t have economical or human resources to achieve more, but in the long-run this strategy only delayed the unavoidable. If Romans didn’t love civil wars and plots as much as they did, the Western Roman Empire could have survived in some form, but since their institutions weren’t effective to prevent usurpations and internal struggles, the empire was doomed. And with that, The Verdict ends.

In the next episode I will focus on the brief golden age of the Kingdom of the Suebi, from 430 to 456. 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

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/Goths

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

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