The Visigoths, one of the two main branches of the Goths (of which the Ostrogothi were the other), were one of the loosely-termed "Germanic peoples" that disturbed the late Roman Empire. After the "fall" of the western Roman Empire, the Visigoths continued to play a major role in western European affairs for another 250 years.
Visigoths as "Tervingi"
The naming of this people is problematic. Some time shortly after 291 Mamertinus makes a eulogy of Emperor Maximian (285-308), in which he says that Tervingi pars alia Gothorum ("Tervingi, another division of the Goths") joined with a band he calls the Taifali to attack the Vandals and Gepidae (Genethl. Max. 17, 1). "Vandals" may have been an error for "Victohali", for about 360 the historian Eutropius reports that Dacia was currently (nunc) inhabited by Taifali, Victohali and Tervingi (Eutr. Brev. 8, 2, 2)  , and about a hundred years later, the term changes to Vesi. Correspondingly, the other branch was originally called Greutungi (cf. Jordanes' Evagreotingi, i.e. Island Greotingi in Scandza), but this was soon replaced by Ostrogothi ("gleaming goths"), and from the 390s and onwards the earlier terms are only found in epic poetry. By the 5th century, the two main branches were known as Vesi and Ostrogothi whenever sources cared to specify them more than being Goths. When Cassiodorus wrote the history of the gothic peoples in the early 6th century, he interpreted Ostrogothi as "East Goths", and invented the term Visigothi to denote "West Goths". There was some logic in this invention, since the Vesi ruled the Iberian Peninsula and the Ostrogothi parts of Italy at this time. This usage has continued to this day, though since the 1970s, modern historians have started to use the contemporary terms instead of Cassiodorus' interpretations.
The Visigoths first appeared in history as a distinct people in the year 268, when they invaded the Roman Empire and swarmed over the Balkan peninsula. This invasion overran the Roman provinces of Pannonia and Illyricum and even threatened Italia itself. However, the Visigoths were defeated in battle near the modern Italy-Slovenia border that summer, and then routed in the Battle of Naissus that September. Over the next three years, they were driven back over the Danube River in a series of campaigns by the emperors Claudius II Gothicus and Aurelian. However, they maintained their hold on the Roman province of Dacia, which Aurelian evacuated in 271.
Settled in Dacia, the Visigoths adopted Arianism, a branch of Christianity that believed that Jesus was not an aspect of God in the Trinity, but a separate being created directly beneath God. This belief was in opposition to the tenets of mainstream Catholicism, which achieved a religious monopoly in the 4th and 5th century. The Iberian Visigoths adhered to Arianism until 589, when King Reccared (Recaredo) I converted his people to Catholicism. For the role of Arianism in Visigothic kingship, see the entry for Leovigild.
They remained in Dacia until 376, when one of their two leaders, Fritigern, appealed to the Roman emperor Valens to be allowed to settle with his people on the south bank of the Danube. Here, they hoped to find refuge from the Huns, who lacked the ability to cross the wide river in force. Valens permitted this, and even helped bring the Visigoths over the river. In return, Fritigern was to provide soldiers for the Roman army. Valens promised the Visigoths farming land, grain rations, and protection under the Roman armies. His major reason to quickly accept the Goths into Roman territory was, of course, to increase the size of his personal army. The selection of which of the Goths might cross the Danube was unforgiving— the weak, old, and sickly were left on the far bank to fend for themselves against the Huns. The ones that crossed were meant to have their weapons confiscated, but the Romans in charge accepted bribes to allow the Goths to retain their weapons.
However, a famine broke out in the lands settled by the Visigoths a year later, and Rome was able to supply them with neither the food they were promised nor the land - they herded the Goths into a temporary holding area, often compared to a World War II concentration camp. There was only enough grain left for the Roman garrison, and so they simply let the Visigoths starve. However, the Romans provided a grim alternative: the trade of children for dog meat. When Fritigern appealed to Valens for help, he was told that his people would find food and trade in the markets of the distant city of Marcianople . Having no alternative, the Goths trekked across the Balkan landscape in a death march, losing the sickly and old along the path. When they finally reached Marcianople 's gates, they were barred out by the city's military garrison and denied entry. Rioting ensued, which had the following consequences: a) The Visigoths were able to match Rome's military technology through their raiding, b) The Goths were able to obtain the necessary food in this manner, and they grew in number, and c) Valens, after a victorious campaign in Persia, was forced to trek directly from the Persian Wars to a battle with the Goths.
The Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378 erupted. Acting on a false message, Valens was completely unaware of the Goths' numbers. To add to the blazing August heat the Goths set the fields ablaze, and managed to box the Roman infantry in the center of the battlefield so as to only have to fight one Roman army at a time. The Roman forces were slaughtered; the Emperor Valens died during the fighting.
The new emperor, Theodosius I, made peace with Fritigern in 379, and this peace held essentially unbroken until Theodosius died in 395. In that year, the Visigoths' most famous king, Alaric I, took the throne, while Theodosius was succeeded by his incapable sons: Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west.
Over the next 15 years, occasional conflicts were broken by years of uneasy peace between Alaric and the powerful German generals who commanded the Roman armies in the east and west, wielding the real power of the empire. Finally, after the western generalissimo Stilicho was murdered by Honorius in 408 and the Roman legions massacred the families of 30,000 barbarian soldiers serving in the Roman army, Alaric declared war. With Alaric and his army at the gates of Rome, Honorius still refused to come to terms, so Alaric sacked the city on August 24, 410. While Rome was no longer the official capital of the Western Roman Empire (it had been moved to Ravenna for strategic reasons) its fall severely shook the empire's foundations.
Visigothic Kingdom in Aquitaine
In 407 to 409 the Vandals, with allied Alans and Germanic tribes like the Suevi swept into the Iberian peninsula. Subsequent to the Vandal-led invasion of Hispania, Honorius, the emperor in the West, enlisted the aid of the Visigoths in an effort to wrest control of the peninsula from the Vandals and other barbarian groups. Honorius rewarded his federates in 418, when the imperial government gave the Visigoths land in Aquitaine on which to settle, probably under hospitalitas, the rules for billeting army soldiers (Heather 1996, Sivan 1987). This settlement formed the nucleus of the future Visigothic kingdom that would eventually expand across the Pyrenees and onto the peninsula.
Political strength in a charismatic monarchy depends upon the personal character of the king. The Visigoths' second great king, Euric, unified the various quarreling factions of the Visigoths, and in 475, forced the Roman government to grant them full independence. At his death, the Visigoths were the most powerful of the successor states to the Western Empire.
At its greatest extent, before their defeat at the Battle of Vouillé 507, the Visigothic kingdom included all of the Iberian peninsula except for small areas in the north (belonging to the Basques) and in the northwest (the Suevi kingdom), plus Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis in Gaul.
Visigothic Kingdom in Iberia
The Visigoths soon became the dominant power in Iberia. They quickly crushed the Alans and by 429 they forced the Vandals from the peninsula into north Africa. By 500, the Visigoths controlled most of Iberia with the exception of the Suevi kingdom in the northwest and the Basque region. At first the Hispanic territories were governed from the Visigoth capital at Toulouse, in the south of France.
At Vouillé in 507, the Franks wrested control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths. King Alaric II, the conqueror of Hispania, lost his life, and after a temporary retreat to Narbonne, Visigoth nobles spirited his heir, the child-king Amalaric to safety across the Pyrenees. From 511–526, Visigoths and Ostrogoths were reunited under Theodoric the Great, ruling from Ravenna. The center of Visigothic rule shifted first to Barcelona, then inland and south to Toledo.
In 554, Granada and southernmost Hispania Baetica were lost to representatives of the Byzantine Empire who had been invited in to help settle a Visigothic dynastic struggle, but who stayed on, as a hoped-for spearhead to a "Reconquest" of the far west envisaged by emperor Justinian I.
There was a gulf in Hispania between Arian Visigoths and their Christian subjects. Among the Catholic population of the peninsula, deep splits had led to the martyrdom of the ascetic Priscillian of Avila by orthodox Catholic forces in 385, and the following generations suffered persecution as "Priscillianist" heretics were rooted out. At the very beginning of Leo I's pontificate, in the years 444-447, Turribius, the bishop of Astorga in Galicia, sent to Rome a memorandum warning that Priscillianism was by no means dead, that it numbered even bishops among its supporters, and asking the aid of the Roman See. The distance was insurmountable in the 5th century. Somewhat later, Pope Simplicius (reigned 468 - 483) appointed as papal vicar Zeno, the Catholic bishop of Seville, so that the prerogatives of the papal see could be exercised for a more tightly disciplined administration. Nevertheless Leo intervened, by forwarding a set of propositions that each bishop was required to sign: all did. As elsewhere, bishops confronted secular military lords over hegemony in the territory. But if Priscillianist bishops hesitated to be barred from their sees, a passionately concerned segment of Christian communities in Iberia were disaffected from the more orthodox hierarchy and welcomed the tolerant Arian Visigoths. The Visigoths scorned to interfere among Catholics but were interested in decorum and public order. The Arian Visigoths were also tolerant of Jews. Visigothic persecution of Jews had to wait for the conversion to Catholicism of the Visigothic king Reccared, and the same synod of Catholic bishops in 633 that usurped the Visigothic nobles' right to confirm the election of a king declared that all Jews must be baptised.
The Visigothic Code of Law (forum judicum) which had been part of aristocratic oral tradition, was set in writing in the early 7th century— and survives in two separate codices preserved at the Escorial. It goes into more detail than a modern constitution commonly does and reveals a great deal about Visigothic social structure.
The last Arian Visigothic king, Leovigild, conquered the Suevi kingdom in 584 and regained part of the southern areas lost to the Byzantines, which his heir conquered completely in 624. With the catholicization of the Visigothic kings, the Catholic bishops increased in power, until, at the synod held at Toledo in 633, they took upon themselves the nobles' right to select a king from among the royal family. The kingdom survived until 711, when King Roderic (Rodrigo) was killed while opposing an invasion from the south by the Umayyad Muslims. Most of Iberian Peninsula came under Islamic rule by 718.
A Visigothic nobleman, Pelayo, is credited with beginning the Christian Reconquista of Iberia in 718, when he defeated the Umayyads in battle and established the Kingdom of Asturias in the northern part of the peninsula. Other Visigoths, refusing to adopt the Muslim faith or live under their rule, fled north to the kingdom of the Franks, and Visigoths played key roles in the empire of Charlemagne a few generations later.
The list of Visigoth kings is quoted in Spain as an egregious example of rote memorization in school during the time of Francisco Franco's dictatorship.
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- Collins, Roger. The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1989. Reprint, 1998.
- Constable, Olivia Remie. "A Muslim-Christian Treaty: The Treaty of Tudmir (713)." In Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, ed. Olivia Remie Constable, 37-38. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
- Constable, Olivia Remie, and Jeremy duQ. Adams. "Visigothic Legislation Concerning the Jews." In Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, ed. Olivia Remie Constable, 21-23. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Glick, Thomas F. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages: Comparative Perspectives on Social and Cultural Formation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
- Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
- Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1996.
- Mathisen, Ralph W. "Barbarian Bishops and the Churches ‘in Barbaricis Gentibus’ During Late Antiquity." Speculum 72, no. 3 (1997): 664-697.
- Nirenberg, David. "The Visigothic Conversion to Catholicism." In Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, ed. Olivia Remie Constable, 12-20. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
- Rosales, Juratė. Los Godos. Barcelona, Ed. Ariel S.A., 2nd edition, 2004. (edition in Spanish)
- Sivan, Hagith. "On Foederati, Hospitalitas, and the Settlement of the Goths in A.D. 418." American Journal of Philology 108, no. 4 (1987): 759-772.
- Velázquez, Isabel. "Jural Relations as an Indicator of Syncretism: From the Law of Inheritance to the Dum Inlicita of Chindaswinth." In The Visigoths from the Migration Period to the Seventh Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, ed. Peter Heather, 225-259. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1999.
- Wolf, Kenneth Baxter, ed. and trans. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain. Vol. 9, Translated Texts for Historians. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
- Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Visigothic Law Code: text. The introduction was written in 1908, and should be read with reservations.
Kings of the Visigoths
Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:39:38