This is episode 12 called The Apogee of the Kingdom of the Suebi and in this episode you will learn:
- 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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 Podcast, 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!
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