visigoths

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

First Barbarian Invasions: Vandals, Suebi and Alans

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

Show notes

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

Script

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

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

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

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

map barbarian invasions and the kingdoms established afterwards

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

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

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

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

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

alaric i entering rome

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

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

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

hispania map 411 barbarian invasions alans vandals suebi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

how the suebi vandals alans are still seen in spain

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

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

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

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

Sources

BÁRBAROS EN HISPANIA. Daniel Gómez Aragonés

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

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

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

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

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

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