Monday, 27 June 2016

Iberia - part 1: Spain before the arrival of the Visigoths

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 282, May 2012 / the magazine of the Society of Ancients

Lady of Elche (nr. Alicante), 4th C. BC
“The Iberus, a river enriched by its commerce, takes its rise in the country of the Cantabri, not far from the town of Juliobriga and flows a distance of 450 miles; 260 of which, from the town of Varia namely, it is available for the purposes of navigation.  From this river the name of Iberia has been given by the Greeks to the whole of Spain” (Natural History by Pliny the Elder, Chapter 4.3.: Of Nearer Spain). 

Permanently inhabitable during the last ice ages and rich in natural resources, the Iberian Peninsula has been one of the longest settled regions in Europe.  Originally inhabited by ancient peoples such as the Vascones, from which the modern-day Basques descend, tribes with possibly eastern origins entered Iberia from North Africa and spread along the Mediterranean coast.  They brought along with them the knowledge of agriculture, working stone, metallurgy and mining.

Los Millares, the first copper tools  
Around 3400 BC copper tools appeared on the Peninsula and along with them the evidence of copper mining and smelting. The most important archaeological site for this period is the area around Almería on the southeast coast of the Peninsula, where the Los Millares civilisation formed one of the first urban societies of Western Europe.  This civilisation developed between 3200 and 2800 BC, peaked between 2800 and 2450 BC and ended around 2250 BC, when the town of Los Millares was abandoned for unknown reasons.  In most of the Copper Age sites fortifications and carefully constructed stone tombs have been found.  

Outside the settlement of Los Millares, around 80 megalithic tombs with corbelled roofs are still visible.  The striking architectural similarities the Los Millares tombs and the Minoan-Mycenaean tholoi-graves have led archaeologists to suggest that there is a connection between these civilisations.  The Los Millares civilisation eventually covered an area of about 20,000 square kilometres along the southeastern coast, possibly including the lands to the west around the Rio Tinto mines and the modern city of Huelva on the southern Atlantic coast. 

Model of the Los Millares settlement

The El Algar civilisation 
After an unexplained time gap of 650 years, it was succeeded by the El Argar culture, which originated in the same region at around 1800 BC. El Argar had its heyday between 1700 and 1500 BC, with fortified towns using concentric rings of defensive stone walls, large cemeteries, bronze weapons and copper and silver jewellery, before also this civilisation suddenly disappeared around 1400 BC.  According to scientists of the University of Murcia, its demise was probably caused by a poor management of natural resources: overpopulation, intensive mining and constant deforestation would have contributed to an ecological disaster in a region that was already prone to drought.

The Thera eruption 
Interestingly enough, the disappearance of the El Argar culture coincides with the catastrophic eruption of the marine volcano of Thera (modern Santorini) in about 1425 BC.  Formerly dated at around 1630 BC, this much later date of the eruption has now been corroborated by a sensational find by the archaeologist Manfred Bietak.  During excavations in Tel El Daba’a (ancient Avaris), Bietak  found volcanic material from the Minoan eruption of the Santorini volcano in a layer dated to the reign of Tuthmosis III, who ruled from 1479 to 1425 BC.

The volcanic explosion must have triggered an enormous tsunami that probably destroyed the entire Minoan fleet.  The devastating impact of this natural disaster would have made it relatively easy for the Mycenaeans to conquer Crete and subdue the surviving Minoans.  Sir Arthur Evans, who dated the great fire in the Palace of Knossos in 1420 BC, thus unknowingly connected the Mycenaean conquest with the Thera disaster.  After their conquest of Crete, the Mycenaeans assumed control of the western maritime trade networks of metals from the west.  My personal conjecture, for which, I hasten to add, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever, is that the Mycenaeans may also have aided in the decline of the El Argar civilisation in order to acquire unlimited access to the rich metal resources in southern Iberia.

The final blow for the El Argar region might have been the raids by the enigmatic group of Sea Peoples, who were also in part responsible for the collapse of the major empires in the Mediterranean and Near East around 1200 BC, that of the Mycenaeans included.

Whatever really happened, fact is that the next highly developed indigenous civilization originated around 1000 BC, in an area 400 km west of El Argar, in the triangle formed by the modern cities of Seville, Cádiz and Huelva. This so-called Tartessian civilisation originated in the same area that would later be inhabited by the Turdetani. The exact location of the town that lent its name to this culture (Tartessos in Greek, Tarshish as mentioned in the Bible – 2 Chronicles 9:21; 1Kings 10:22 and Jonah 1:3), is still unknown.  Since the Romans called the modern Bay of Cádiz Tartessius Sinus, it must have been located somewhere close by. 
Tartessian script, 7th century BC

One theory is that Tartessos was located on an island in the estuary of the current Guadalquivir. As the riverbed shifted in the course of time, Tartessos must have eventually vanished under layers of sediment.  By the beginning of the fifth century BC, the Tartessian culture, which had eventually transformed into the Turditanian civilisation, spread along the Guadalquivir to the east coast of the Peninsula and in northerly direction, along the “Silver Road” to Extremadura and Portugal.
The Celtiberians 
In the north of the peninsula, the Celts had entered Iberia via the western Pyrenees around 900 BC. Spreading north and west along the Atlantic coast, they supported themselves primarily by the breeding of smaller livestock.  To differentiate them from the earlier inhabitants of Iberia, the latter are usually collectively referred to as Iberians.  
In the central region, the Celtic and the older Iberian cultures eventually blended with the original local peoples and later with each other, producing a composite Celtiberian culture with a warrior aristocracy at the top of their society and a free class of workers beneath them.   Iberian warriors had a high social status and they were famous for their extreme bravery and military prowess.  Due to their military qualities, as of the fifth century BC Iberian soldiers were frequently deployed in battles in Italy, Greece and especially on Sicily. 
At the bottom of the social scale were slaves, consisting of prisoners of war and individuals who had voluntarily given up their freedom in exchange for the protection of a local strongman.  Archaeological evidence indicates that women had the same social status as men.  They held important religious positions as priestesses and played a decisive role in political alliances and marriages among the aristocratic elites. 

Iberian falcata

The Celtiberians did not have large kingdoms and never formed a political or social unity.  Instead, they grouped themselves in independent cities ruled by elites and councils of elders.  Their settlements tended to be on fortified hillsides or in fortified villages on the flat lands of the southern Meseta (central plateau).  There were temporary alliances between cities in times of danger, but no long-term associations.  The relative isolation of the different groups of inhabitants is illustrated by the fact that, based on a few inscriptions found on stone and coins, the existence of at least three completely different indigenous languages has been established.  One of these, called Iberian by linguists, is definitely not an Indo-European language, but rather related to modern Basque.  Economically, the Celtiberians practised agriculture and breeding of smaller livestock, especially sheep and pigs.  Mining the metal resources in their areas gave them products to trade. 

Immigrants, Invaders and Conquerors  

The Phoenicians
Between the tenth and the ninth century BC, the Phoenicians arrived in Iberia.  Settling the entire coast from Catalonia to Portugal, they founded Gadir (Cádiz), Malaca (Málaga) and Sexs (Almuňecar), introducing the olive tree, the potter’s wheel and iron metallurgy in the process.

The expansion of the Assyrian Kingdom under Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC) triggered a strong wave of immigration from the Middle East after 730 BC.  The Assyrian conquest of this region caused many Phoenicians to move to their colonies on the Iberian Peninsula.  As a result, from the eighth century BC onwards, the Tartessian civilisation was gradually tinged by Phoenician and Greek influences.  It was in this period that the Celtiberians learned the coining of money and adopted an alphabet derived from Greek and Phoenician.

In the seventh to sixth centuries BC the Greeks from Samos and Phocaea (Foça in modern Turkey), who also founded Massalia (Marseille), established emporia on the Spanish east coast between modern-day Ampurías (Emporion) and Málaga.  In the same period, Etruscan traders and pirates paid regular visits to the Spanish east coast.  The high-quality Iberian iron weapons and tools were much sought after in the entire Mediterranean.  It is no coincidence
that from the third century BC, the Romans adopted the gladius hispaniensis from the Celtiberians.

The Carthaginians
By the end of the sixth century BC, Iberia was colonized by the Carthaginians, who settled Gadir, the Balearic Islands and Sicily.  In the fifth and fourth centuries BC a significant increase in the number of strongholds in the southeast of the peninsula can be seen, especially in the region around modern-day Valencia.

After the loss of Sicily to the Romans in the First Punic War, Hamilcar Barcas shifted his focus to Iberia and started the conquest of the Peninsula from Gadir in 237 BC.  His son-in-law and successor Hasdrubal founded Qart Hadashat (Cartagena), which would become the capital of Carthage’s overseas imperium.  The Punic capture of Saguntum in 219 BC led the Romans to start the Second Punic War a year later (218-201 BC), in which the local Celtiberian tribes would become heavily involved.

Rome rules 
At the close of the war, the Romans were in control of the Mediterranean coast of the Peninsula, but the Iberians had little inclination to letting the Romans remain.  In 197 BC a rebellion broke out, which would last for seven decades.  By 133 BC, after the long and bloody siege of Numantia, Rome was in control of most of Iberia, apart from Gallaetia in the northwest, though there would still be still uprisings in the period from 107 to 93 BC.

The conquerors divided Iberia in three provinces: Lusitania in the west, with Emerita Augusta (Mérida) as its capital, Tarraconensis in the southeast, which comprised around half the Peninsula (capital Tarraco, modern Tarragona) and Baetica (capital Corduba, modern Córdoba) in the south, which was directly ruled by the Senate in Rome.  Though Hispania never played a strategic role in the defence of the Roman Imperium, it always was an important provider of human and mineral resources. 
Iberian denarius, 2nd century BC

During the Roman Principate, Hispania saw a period of undisturbed prosperity, which would last almost 200 years.  It had become an important exporting province of minerals (esp. lead, tin, copper, iron, silver and gold), textiles, esparto grass (or alfalfa, employed for the production of baskets, hats etc.), olive oil, wine, terra sigillata.  Furthermore, Iberian horses and fish products, especially garum, a popular Roman fish sauce, the ketchup of antiquity, were much in demand. The province also produced a number of well-known emperors and political leaders, such as Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Theodosius I and Seneca, whose families all had Iberian roots.

Emperor Caracalla (211-217 AD) established the province of Gallaetia (Galicia), and when he granted Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the empire, the Romanisation of the Hispanic peoples in a legal sense was completed.  The adoption of the Roman language, manners and customs, however, was so not so easily accomplished. 

Economic decline
By the end of the second and during the third centuries AD the Roman Empire was in general decline, which also had its impact on the Iberian Peninsula.  Trade began to fall, gold and silver were steadily drained to the east, there were raids by Moorish tribes in the south, peasant revolts in Lusitania and, as of 260 AD, attacks by Frankish and Alamannic tribes.  The government responded to the economic crisis by attempting to regulate wages and prices.  Individuals were deprived of the fundamental freedom of movement and the right to change their occupations, which had deleterious effects upon life in town and in the country.

It was this stagnant economy and stratified society that was inherited by the Visigoths.  The territorial and personal tributes (capitationes terrenae and humanae), the system of tolls and the obligation to perform certain public works (munera) were part of that legacy. 

At the end of the 3rd C Diocletianus (284-305 AD) effected a final reorganisation of the provinces as part of his general attempt to reform imperial administration.  The provinces were grouped into 12 dioceses, each headed by a vicarious and divided into smaller and more easily controllable units.  The diocesis Hispaniarum was divided into five provinces: 

  • Baetica,  capital Corduba (Córdoba)
  • Carthaginensis, capital Nova Carthagena (Cartagena),
  • Gallaetia, capital Bracara (Braga)
  • Lusitania, capital Emerita Augusta (Mérida)
  • Tarraconensis, capital Tarraco (Tarragona)

To these peninsular provinces were added the Balearic Islands and North Africa (Mauritania Tingitana), whose respective capitals were Pollentia (modern Polensa on Majorca) and Tingis (Tangier).  
The old distinction between imperial and senatorial provinces had disappeared.  The vicarius Hispaniarum had general responsibility for Iberia.  Each province was administered by a praeses, rector or iudex, who had civil, but not military power. The essential unit of administration was the municipality (municipium, civitas).  Some of these were of native origin, others were new Roman foundations.  Apart from the capitals mentioned above, the principal towns included Hispalis (Seville), Toletum (Toledo), Barcino (Barcelona), Pampilona (Pamplona), Pallantia (Palencia), Legio (León) and Salmantica (Salamanca). Temples, public baths, arches and other public works gave the towns a distinctly Roman appearance.

During a new period of prosperity in the fourth century AD, the newly walled cities grew smaller, while the economic focus shifted to the fortified manors of the potentes with their private armies.  The fifth century AD started with the invasion of the Sueves, the Vandals and the Alans, who occupied parts of Iberia in 409 AD.  They would soon be followed by the Visigoths, who initiated a new period in the history of the Peninsula.

The Alans in Iberia (409 – 429 AD) 

The Alans were one of the more recent and exotic arrivals in Western Europe.  There are currently two hypotheses regarding the origins of the Alans.  The first is that they were a union of different Sarmatian populations, living on the steppes in eastern Russia towards the beginning of our era.  The second is that the Alans came to Europe from Central Asia, after having subdued the indigenous Sarmatian tribes.  Whichever thesis is correct, it is generally accepted that in Roman times the Alans in the Ponto-Caucasian steppes encompassed several Iranian-speaking peoples, of indigenous or Eastern origin.

A special feature of the Alans was, that they used extraordinarily powerful dogs for hunting and cattle handling. Examples of this ancient breed survive today as working dogs in parts of Spain, known as Alano or Dogo Canario. These dogs are the ancestors of all Molosser types, such as bulldogs, boxers, St. Bernhards, mastiffs, Rhodesian ridgebacks and Rottweilers.

Dogo Alano, a race imported by the Alans

In the third and fourth centuries AD, the Alans were mainly to be found in the area of the northern Caucasus and the lower Don.  The federation of Hunnish peoples beat and incorporated the Alans of the Don, the Tanaïtes.  Some of them may have been pushed westward, following the arrival of the Huns on the fringes of the Carpathians in the 370s AD, others were driven southward into the Roman territory.

So it is that, during their exodus into the territory of the Roman Empire, a group of Hunnish-Ostrogothic and Alan warriors led by Alatheus and Saphrax, joined the Visigoths in 376 AD.

The Alan, Ostrogothic and Hunnish cavalry played a key role in the defeat of the Roman army during the Battle of Adrianople only two years later.  How the Alans who moved westwards came to be associated with the Vandals and the Sueves on the east bank of the river Rhine opposite Mainz in late 406 AD remains entirely unknown.  Leaving a trail of destruction for three years, in which towns such as Mainz, Strasbourg, Reims and Amiens and entire regions in Gallia were devastated, the Alans in Gallia divided into two groups.  One was led by Goar and remained in Gallia in the service of Rome. The other, led by Respendial and subsequently by Addac, remained bound with the Vandals and the Sueves, with whom they crossed the western Pyrenees, apparently unopposed.

In his Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans written in 417 AD, the Spanish priest Orosius suggests that the imperial soldiers in the pay of the rebel Emperor Constantine III (r. 407-411 AD) deliberately allowed the Vandals and the other tribes – an estimated 200,000 people, including around 56,000 warriors – across the Pyrenees to conceal the looting of the civilian population they themselves had been carrying out.  Whether this is true or not, the Roman government of the legitimate western emperor Honorius (r. 395-423 AD) was never able thereafter to reimpose it authority on all of the Spanish provinces.   Between 416 and 418 AD a Romano-Gothic alliance killed large numbers of Silingi Vandals and Alans, who had settled the provinces of Lusitania and Carthagenensis. The survivors of this bloodbath joined the other Vandals (Hasdingi) to build a Vandal-Alan confederation under King Guntheric.  The victorious Visigoths were ordered by their Roman superiors to withdraw to southern Gallia. 

The Vandals in Iberia (409-429 AD) 
The Vandals (Silingi and Hasdingi) invaded the Iberian Peninsula, occupying parts of the province of Gallaetia and the entire provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginensis.  The Silingi settled the province of Baetica.  It seems likely, that soon after the takeover of parts of the Peninsula, the Vandals converted to Arian Christianity and that the missionaries who converted them were Arian Goths.

The Hasdingi Vandals, swelled by the Alans and other fugitives after the Roman-Gothic campaigns of 418-418 AD, were the main beneficiaries of the premature termination of the Gothic attempt to regain Iberia for the Roman government, occupying a great part of it in the absence of further military opposition.  Not until 422 AD would another attempt be made to eliminate them.  On this occasion, an imperial army was sent from Italy under the magister militum Castinus, which was intended to cooperate with Gothic auxiliaries provided by the new king of the Visigoths, Theoderic I (r. 418-451 AD).

However, Theoderic was less interested in cooperating with the Romans than his predecessor, and whether this was connivance or not, the Gothic detachments failed to support Castinus. The magister militum was defeated by the Vandals in the province of Baetica and forced to withdraw.  The only achievement of this campaign was the capture of the usurper Maximus Tiranus, who was taken to Ravenna and executed.

With no one to stop them, the Vandals conquered Cartagena in 425 AD, and the next year, after the capture of Seville, they settled in the province of Baetica.  In 428 AD Geiserich, the new Rex Vandalorum et Alanorum, decided to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa with all his followers and their families, totalling 150,000 people in 429 AD.  Of this number, at least 40,000 must have been men of fighting age.  His decision may have been influenced by an agreement with the comes africae, Boniface, who needed auxiliary troops in his power struggle with the generals Aëtius and Felix, and with Galla Placidia, the Emperor Valentinian's mother and regent.

Apart from that, North Africa was an attractive destination:  highly urbanised, with some 600 towns whose inhabitants had grown wealthy on selling agricultural produce to Europe, the Empire’s survival was largely due to the loyalty of this province and the huge revenues it still provided.  Regions that today are barely inhabited were then the sites of thriving and prosperous mini-cities.  There are more Roman triumphal arches today in Africa than in any other Roman province, and more than two dozen theatres have been found. 
Ruins of Roman Volubilis (Walili), Morocco

When, due to constant power struggles in the Western Roman Empire, the last Roman military presence was removed in 432 AD, the Vandal invaders had free play. Geiserich conquered Carthago in 439 AD and his possession of Africa was recognized by a treaty with the empire in 442 AD.

The Vandal Kingdom in North Africa would continue to exist for over a hundred years, until it finally perished under Gelimer at the hands of the Byzantine general Belisarius in 533 AD.

The Sueves in Iberia (409-429 AD)

The Suebi or Sueves were a Germanic tribe first recorded as living south of the Baltic Sea by Caesar and Tacitus.  The Sueves made their way to the Rhineland, and eventually gave their name to Swabia (Schwaben) in southwestern Germany, where the locals are still called Schwaben until today. A significant group of Sueves crossed the Rhine in 406/407 into Gallia, together with Vandals and Alans.  After plundering Gallia, all three groups settled in the Peninsula in 409 AD.  Here the Sueves shared control of the Roman province of Gallaetia with the Hasdingi Vandals.  This continued until a joint Roman and Visigothic offensive was staged in 416–418 AD, which destroyed the majority of the Alans and Silingi Vandals and caused the survivors to seek the protection of the Hasdingi Vandals in Gallaetia.

Augmented by the surviving Alans and Silingi Vandals, the Hasdingi Vandals tried to lord over the Sueves.  However, managing to hold on to their kingdom, the Sueves forced the Vandals and Alans into southern Spain in the early 420s.  In 429 AD, left without barbarian rivals in Spain, the Sueves started to plunder the province of Gallaetia, which induced bishop Hydatius to travel to Gallia in 431 AD to seek help from the Roman general Aetius, but to no avail.

Under their king Rechila (r. 438-448 AD), the Sueves soon began to expand out of Gallaetia southward into Lusitania and eastward into Baetica and Carthaginensis, so that eventually, only the province of Tarraconensis remained under direct imperial control.  Among the problems faced the military commanders were outbreaks of Bagaudic activity in the middle Ebro valley, in which a number of towns seem to have been sacked. The Bagaudae (Celtic for “warriors”) were bandits, drawn from various social classes, including slaves and dispossessed small farmers.  These people were driven by the political and economic upheavals of the time into joining ever-expanding gangs of those unable to any longer support themselves from their own resources.  Having raided the province of Carthaginensis, the Suevic king Rechiar (r. 448-456) subsequently launched an attack on the province of Tarraconensis, but his ambition proved fatal, not only for himself, but also to his kingdom.

In 455 AD, after repeated Roman attempts to dislodge the Sueves had failed, the new Roman emperor Avitus, handed over the operations against the Sueves to the Visigothic king Theoderic II, who had featured together with his father Theoderic I (d. 451 AD) against Attila on the Catalaunian Fields a few years earlier.  The Visigoths defeated the Sueves at a battle on the river Orbigo near Astorga.  In the subsequent flight, Rechiar was captured and executed, and the Suevic monarchy disintegrated.

The remaining Sueves and their feuding rulers were driven back into northern Lusitania and Gallaetia, while the Visigoths took direct control of most of the rest of Hispania, other than of the coastal regions of Tarraconensis and parts of the Ebro valley.  These still remained under imperial rule.  The Suevic Kingdom survived, confined to Gallaetia and part of northern Lusitania and would be governed by kings weakened by civil war and Visigothic interference.

We know very little about the Sueves and their history from 469 to 570 AD; even the order and identity of their kings remains uncertain.  In 550 AD, more than three decades before his Visigothic counterpart, the Suevic King Chararich appears to have converted his people to the Roman Catholic Faith for good, and later kings even sponsored local councils at Braga and Lugo.  This conversion seems to have exacerbated the latent conflict with the Visigoths (still adherents of the Arian faith), and war broke out in the early 570s and again in 583 to 585 AD.  The second of these wars proved fatal for the Suevic kingdom, and it was finally conquered by the Visigothic king Liuvigild in 585 AD.

Migrations of the Visigoths around 400 AD

Who were the Visigoths?

Like other Germanic groups, the Visigoths formed an amalgamation of several related and unrelated groups, referred to as Visigothi, Greuthungi, Tervingi, Vesi or Visi by Roman historians.  The name Visigothi is an invention of Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theodoric the Great (511-526 AD).  He combined Visi and Gothi to match that of Ostrogothi, erroneously assuming that these terms meant "western Goths" and "eastern Goths", respectively.

It is generally accepted that the self-identification of the people who came to be known as the Visigoths was the product of the years following the battle of Adrianople.  In this confused period, all sorts of groups and individuals from a wide variety of tribal and linguistic backgrounds were welded together, largely through recruitment by and service under Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395 AD).  According to Jordanes’ De origine actibusque Getarum, or Getica for short , the Goths originated in Scandinavia, where names like Väster and Öster Götland (regions in southern Sweden) and Gotland (a larger island on the Swedish east coast) may still refer to the former inhabitants of this region.  Jordanes was writing in around 550 AD and any Scandinavian phase in Gothic history would have to predate the first century AD, when the Goths were already established in northern Poland.  Unfortunately, there are no archaeological materials to provide an irrefutable argument for this assumption.

However, Jordanes’ assumption that the Goths and the Thracian Getae belonged to the same ethnic group is clearly incorrect.  On the other hand, an argument that does point to the Scandinavian origins of the Goths (proto-Germanic *Gutaniz), is that today the native inhabitants of Gotland still call themselves Gutar (older form: Gutans).  Their dialect, Gutamål derives from Old Gutnish and shows sufficient differences from the Old East Norse dialect to be considered a separate branch.  Its similarities with the Gothic language have led scholars such as Elias Wessén (d. 1981), a Swedish linguist and a professor of Scandinavian languages at Stockholm University, and Dietrich Hofmann (d. 1998), a German professor of Old Germanic, Nordic and Frisian Philology, to suggest that Gutamål is most closely related to Gothic.  During the Migration Period, the Goths started to wander from their lands on the Vistula in modern-day Poland through the late Roman Empire.  Between 250 and 251 AD, they crossed the Danube and made invasions into the Balkans. After a dramatic victory over the Emperor Trajan Decius in 251 AD, the Goths remained within the Roman Empire, looting and destroying for over 20 years, until expelled by the emperors Claudius II Gothicus (hence the agnomen) and Aurelian, who reigned from 268 to 270 AD and from 270 to 275 AD, respectively.

Eventually, in the late third century AD, the Goths established themselves in the area of Dacia, to the north of the river Danube.  During this period, they adopted certain Roman customs and, serving as federates of the Roman Empire, furnished troops and local leaders in return for an annual subsidy. While in Dacia, the Romanized Goths accepted conversion to the Arian version of Christianity.  During this period, they increasingly wanted to move into the Roman Empire, for a number of reasons. Like other Germanic peoples, the Goths had traded with the empire and had come to appreciate the advantages of Roman civilisation and the ecology of the Mediterranean region.  When in the fourth and the fifth centuries, along with the pressure from their own numbers, the Goths and other Germanic groups faced pressure from the invasion of the nomadic Huns, they sought permission to enter Roman territory.  This culminated in the Gothic Wars (367 - 369 AD) under Emperor Valens (r. 364-378 AD).

Across the Danube 
In 376 AD, the Goths appealed to Valens to be allowed to settle in Moesia, on the south bank of the Danube.  As Valens was currently at war with Persia and had no troops to spare for the Balkans, he had no choice but to permit them to cross the river.  Of course, his propaganda claimed that he saw the Goths as a splendid recruiting ground for the imperial army.  The emperor promised that the immigrants would be fed and that he would organise transport across the swollen Danube, which was in flood due to heavy rains, on condition that they disarmed and provided troops for his army.  Moreover, the pagans among them were to become Christians.

Slave trade 
However, the commanding Roman general in the Balkans put the Goths into holding camps, where conditions soon became intolerable, mainly due to the corrupt practices by the Roman officials.  When the Romans took advantage of the starving Goths, “devising a disgraceful traffic”, by withholding the food supplies that had supposedly been earmarked for the Goths, and forcing the refugees to provide slaves in return for dog-meat – one dog for one slave – trouble was pre-programmed.

Soon an open revolt ensued and the Goths crossed the Danube illegally under Fritigern.  Instead of becoming the backbone of the Roman army, as Valens had hoped, the Goths had turned into an avenging horde.  Valens, who could not free his army from the Persian front, quickly negotiated some help from the Western Empire, sending what mobile troops he could. 
Alaric I entering Athens
These forced the Goths back north of the Balkan mountain range now called the Stara Planina, but a pitched battle only generated bloody stalemate.  In the end, when Valens rallied an army and tried to check Gothic expansion, the Goths inflicted a defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople, killing the emperor himself on 9 August 378 AD.  In this battle, the Eastern Empire lost two-thirds of its military force, perhaps 40,000 men.

The western Roman emperor, Gratian (375-383 AD) was able to drive the Goths eastwards out of Macedonia into Thrace, where he reached an agreement with them in 382 AD, stating that they would remain in Moesia as self-governing vassals and supply the empire with troops.  For tactical reasons, the Visigoths were deliberately not integrated into Roman society in the Balkans, but kept on a military footing under a leadership of their own, to maintain their mobility and loyalty to the emperor.


Increasing the pressure

By around 392 AD the young Alaric had taken over the leadership of this confederacy.  Taking advantage of the Emperor Theodosius’ death in 395 AD and the succeeding division of the empire, he presented his following of around 20,000 troops as a mercenary army prepared to serve whichever imperial regime offered the best terms.

Obliged to provide resources for his people and intent on  forcing the Roman Empire to recognize the Goths as players, Alaric led the Visigoths on a rampage through Thrace, Macedonia and Greece, plundering the countryside, but generally sparing the towns.  After some desultory fights with Stilicho in 397 AD, the Roman military chief in the west and himself the son of a Vandal, an agreement was reached and Alaric was nominated magister militum in Illyricum.  Nevertheless, Alaric, who still wanted a high imperial command for himself and a worthwhile homeland for his followers, invaded Italy and occupied Milan in the hopes of capturing the boy Emperor Honorius (r. 395-423 AD).

Stilicho raised the siege and pursued Alaric to Pollentia (Pollenzo, 50 km south of Turin), where he surprised the Goths on Easter Sunday 402 AD, while they were at prayer outside the city.  Although the Romans claimed the battle as a great victory, in truth Stilicho allowed Alaric to escape with his forces more or less intact and to return to Illyricum.

Estimates concerning the size of the Visigoth population vary greatly.  O’Callaghan states the Visigoths probably numbered 200,000 to 300,000 people. Phillips is of the opinion that at that point in their history the Visigoths probably did not exceed 100,000 people, including significant non-Gothic elements plus ex-slaves and ex-soldiers, who had joined the Visigoths during their campaign in Italy. Some 3,000 to 4,000 of this number would have been members of their elite and 25,000 to 30,000 warriors.  Collins, however, argues that for logistic reasons a group such as that of the Goths, almost constantly on the move in hostile territories between 392 and 419 AD, cannot have been much larger than the size of a small Roman army – an estimated 30,000 people at most.  The numbers of the Vandals, Alans and Sueves would certainly have been smaller (10,000 probably).

An uneasy peace was broken by occasional conflicts between Alaric and the powerful Germanic generals who commanded the Roman armies in the east and west, wielding the real power of the empire.  Convinced that Stilicho had imperial ambitions, Honorius had him executed in 408 AD, triggering a catastrophic anti-barbarian pogrom throughout Rome; victims were the wives and children of the barbarian auxiliaries in Stilicho’s army.  It was said that, as a result, 30,000 barbarian soldiers joined Alaric’s forces. Thousands of Goths who had been made slaves after the defeats of other groups of Goths took advantage of the general chaos and fled captivity to swell even more the numbers of Alaric’s army.

The sack of Rome

After two sieges of Rome, which both ended by a negotiated pay-off, Alaric was cheated by another Roman faction and he resolved to cut the city off by capturing its port.  Finally, on August 24, 410 AD, Alaric's troops entered Rome through the Salarian Gate, sacking it in three days. Though an event of historic significance, it is probably one of the most misrepresented moments in history.  Although Alaric allowed his men to plunder and loot, the Goths did not destroy Rome, nor did they massacre the population.  On the contrary, they took particular care to provide safe-houses for the civilian population and not to harm public buildings.

At the end of these three days, the Goths withdrew by order of their leader and took numerous prisoners away with them, including Galla Placidia, half-sister of Honorius, together with a number of other important members of the Roman elite.  While Rome was no longer the official capital of the Western Roman Empire (it had been moved to Ravenna for strategic reasons), its fall dealt a harsh psychological blow to the Romans.  On his way to southern Italy and Africa, Alaric died a few months later.

His successor and brother-in-law, Athaulf (411-415 AD), first ravaged Italy and then reached an accommodation with Honorius to settle southern Gallia, where he established strongholds at the towns of Narbonne, Tolosa (Toulouse) and Bordeaux. Italy found peace once more and Rome saw its damages restored, though it never recovered the population numbers it had before 410 AD.

The founding of the Tolosanian Kingdom in Southern Gallia (419-507 AD)

In 414 AD Athaulf persuaded Galla Placidia to marry him.  At the same time, he began probing expeditions into the north of Hispania, but was killed in a short-lived coup in 415 AD.  Subsequently, Wallia was elected king (415 - 419 AD), who tried to revive Alaric’s dream of an African homeland for his people.  Shipwrecks caused him to abandon the project, but he still needed a source of food for his people.  For a suitable supply of food, the Visigoths agreed to return Athaulf’s widow Galla Placidia to her half-brother Honorius and to drive the Alans and the Germanic tribes from Iberia in the service of Rome.

After the treaty of 416 AD the Visigoths had been assigned the function of auxiliaries of the Roman army in Hispania.  In this capacity, on behalf of the Romans, Wallia successfully destroyed the Alans and the Silingi Vandals, before being withdrawn from Iberia in 419 AD.  The decision to move them north to Aquitania Secunda, Narbonensis Prima and Novempopulania was taken by Constantius, the local representative of Imperial power.  The first reason for this was to eliminate any penetration into Gallia and Italy on the part of the Sueves and the Hasdingi Vandals.  The second reason was to avoid new bids for power on the part of Roman general by stationing an army of auxiliaries in southern Gallia.  Moreover, there was a growing threat of the Bagaudae north of the Loire in these very same years.

Now the Visigothic kingdom had been officially established in Aquitania Secunda, with its capital at Tolosa, Wallia renounced sovereignty over the Spanish territories that he had conquered.

Part 2 will focus on the conquest of Iberia and the Visigothic Kingdom between 507 and 711 AD

Sources and Further Reading

  • ANCIENT WARFARE, Volume I, Issue 4, The Conquest of Spain, Karawansaray BV, Rotterdam, 2008 
  • Catalogue to the Exhibition “Rome and the Barbarians, the Birth of a New World”, Palazzo Grassi , Venice, 2008 (selected articles): 
  • Heather, Peter, The Migration of the Goths: From Scandinavia to Thrace 
    • Salamito, Jean-Marie, The Sack of Rome (410) 
    • Kazanski, Michel, The Alans 
    • Delaplace, Christine, The Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse 
    • Moderán, Yves, The Vandals in North Africa 
    • Velásquez, Isabel and Gisela Ripoli, Visigothic Spain 
    • Menghin, Wilfried, Arms and Equipment of the Germanic Aristocracy (Fifth to Seventh Centuries) 
    • Brogiolo, Gian Pietro,  Settlements on the Kingdom Territories 
    • Velásquez, Isabel and Gisela Ripoli,Toledo-Recopolis: The City of Visigothic Spain 
    • Huck, Olivier, The Laws of the Roman-Barbarians Kingdoms 
    • Pérez-Prendes Muňoz-Arraco, José Manuel, Law in Visigothic Spain 
    • Arslan, Ermanno, Economy, Taxation and Currency in the Roman-Barbarian Kingdoms 
    • Dumézil, Bruno, The Church and the New Kingdoms 
    • Ripoli, Gisela, The Sacred Architecture of Visigothic Spain 
    • Picard, Christophe, The Arabs and Western Europe (Eighth to Ninth Centuries)
  • Collins, Roger, Visigothic Spain (409-711), Blackwell Publishing, Maiden MA, 2004
  • Contamine, Philippe, War in the Middle Ages, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford 1984
  • DESPERTA FERRO, edición especial limitada, No 1 + No 0, La caída de Roma,  Desperta Ferro Ediciones, SLNE, Madrid, 2011 
    • La caída de Roma, Aitor Fernández Delgado 
    • El sistema militar godo, Ilkka Syvanne 
    • La rebellión bagauda, Pablo Romero Gabella 
    • Hispania, de provicia romana a reino germánico (418-531), José Sanchez-Arcilla Bernal
  • Grant, Michael and Ursula Vones-Liebestein, Die Welt des Frühen Mittealters (original title „Dawn of the Middle Ages“), Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Ostfildern, 2003
  • Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians, Pan Books, London, 2010
  • Heather, Peter, The Visigoths, Studies in Archeo-ethnology, Vol. 4, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1999 
  • Jones, Terry and Alan Ereira, Barbarians, an alternative Roman History, BBC Books, Ebury Publishing (Random House Group), 2007 
  • MEDIEVAL WARFARE, Volume I, Issue 3: 
    • Iván Gimenez, The Rise of the Saracens 
    • Murray Dahm, Arab Sources on the Conquest of al-Andalus 
    • Alberto Raúl Esteban Ribas, The Battle of Guadalete 
    • Kai Grundmann, The fracture, downfall and remnants of the Visigothic Kingdom 
    • David Balfour, A Turning Point for Europe and Islam 
    • Gareth Williams, Fortifications of Western Europe, 700-1100 AD
    • Karawansaray Publishers Luxembourg, 2011
  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F., A History of Medieval Spain, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1983
  • Phillips, William D. Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, A Concise History of Spain, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010
  • Ruhl, Klaus-Jörg, Spanien-PLOETZ, spanische und portugiesische Geschichte zum Nachschlagen, Ploetz, Freuburg/ Würzburg, 1991
  • Quesada Sanz, Fernando, Armas de la Antigua Iberia, de Tartesos a Numancia, La Esfera de los Libros, Madrid, 2010
  • Rucquoi, Adeline, L’Espagne Mediévale, Société d’édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2002  
  • VERNISSAGE, die Zeitschrift zur Ausstellung « Die Iberer », in Bonn (15. Mai bis 23. August 1998), VERNISSAGE Verlag GmbH & Co KG, Heidelberg, 1998

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