Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Iberia – part 2: The Visigothic Kingdom

Originally published in Slingshot issue 286, Jan/Feb 2013 / the magazine of the Society of Ancients

Visigothic kings Chindaswinth (d. 653), Recceswinth (d. 672 ) and Egica (d. 702 AD)

The Tolosanian Kingdom and the Visigothic Conquest of Hispania

In 439 AD the Tolosanian Kingdom, with Toulouse as its capital city, became an independent state and the first Germanic Kingdom on Roman soil.  By 456 AD, as allies of the Roman emperor Avitus, the Goths had conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula under Theoderic II (r. 453-66 AD).  What the contemporary Hispanian bishop Hydatius described in his chronicle as an invasion, was in reality a campaign against the Sueves, directly prompted by Ravenna.  In the same year, Theoderic began the conquest of additional territory in both Gaul and Hispania on his own authority.  In 466 AD he was murdered by his brother and successor Euric, who no longer wanted to operate within a Roman context.  Three years later, Euric (r. 466-84) expanded the Tolosanian Kingdom north to the Loire.

When in 471 AD Italy was in a state of all-out civil war between different factions, the Ostrogoths rebelled against Ravenna. At the same time, the Visigothic king Euric adopted a strategy of pressure on the Romans for control over new territories in Gaul, arguing that the Franks and Burgundians were becoming increasingly hostile to the Visigoths.  No longer able to deal with the strain building from different sides, the Romans undertook nothing when Euric conquered the Auvergne in 474 AD, adding the Provence and Arelate (Arles) one year later.

With the deposition of the last Roman boy-emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus (nicknamed Augustulus, “little Augustus”) by Odoacer in 476 AD, Euric’s generals rapidly overran the remaining parts of north-eastern Hispania that were still administered directly by Rome.  The fragile alliance between the empire and the Visigoths had now finally come to an end and Euric established an independent kingdom in Gaul and northern Hispania.

Tolosanian Kingdom around 500 AD
By about 480 AD the Visigothic kingdom extended from the valleys of the Loire and the Rhône to the Pyrenees and also encompassed the Iberian Peninsula, except for Gallaetia, which remained in the hands of the Sueves.

When Euric died in 484 AD of natural causes, the greatly enlarged kingdom was taken over by his son Alaric II (r. 484-507 AD). Alaric kept the royal court in Tolosa and married the daughter of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, who had made himself king of Italy in 493 AD, after brutally murdering Odoacer and many of his followers.  Despite the conquest of much of Hispania, southern Gaul remained the primary area of Visigothic occupation, with Tolosa as its administrative centre and principal royal residence.

Violent royal successions would remain typical for the Visigothic Kingdom. Unlike the Franks, the Visigoths would prove unable to establish stable royal dynasties.  Sedition and civil war would almost be the order of the day.  To avert these disorders the Iberian Church Councils of the seventh century tried to regulate the succession in accordance with the elective principle.  In their anxiety to preserve stable government, the councils were prepared to acknowledge anyone who gained the throne, even if by questionable means.

Enter the Franks

In 498/9 AD the ambitious young Frankish king Clovis converted to the Catholic faith, which brought him the support of neighbouring Christians as well as that of the influential clergy.  In addition, it allowed him to undertake crusades to Christianize his new territories and to expunge Arianism, the Christian persuasion embraced by the Goths which was considered a heresy by the Catholic clergy.

Predictably, it did not take long before Clovis began to challenge Visigothic control in Gaul. While diplomatic efforts were made by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic to contain the Franks and dissolve their alliance with the Burgundians, Clovis’ political ally the Byzantine Emperor Anastasios attacked Theoderic’s realm in the east. This action was most likely arranged to prevent Theoderic from providing support to his Arian brethren in the West.

When in the spring of 507 AD war broke out between Clovis and Alaric II, the Frankish army crossed the river Loire towards Poitiers, where the Franks met with their Burgundian allies (Burgundy would not be annexed by the Franks until 534 AD). The Visigothic army marched to the north to cut them off in the hope that Ostrogothic reinforcements would arrive in time.

The battle took place on the plain of Vouillé (Campus Vogladensis), about 20 km from Poitiers. Clovis had 40,000 men in his army, of whom 10,000 were cavalry. Without their Ostrogothic allies, the Visigothic army had fewer soldiers. Mainly composed of cavalry, the Gothic army lacked the battle-experience of the Franks. Though the Goths tried to ride down the enemy infantry, the shield-wall of the numerous Frankish foot soldiers managed to withstand the Gothic cavalry charges and the Franks were not fooled by the enemy’s feigned retreats.

In the melee that followed, the Frankish troops killed King Alaric II. The death of their king caused the Visigoths to disband and large numbers were massacred by the Franks (And when the Goths had fled as was their custom, king Clovis won the victory by God's aid.”- Historia Francorum, II:37).
Theoderic the Great, Francesco Gnecchi collection

From Book II:38 of the Historia Francorum it appears that Emperor Anastasios was very pleased with the outcome of the battle and Gregory mentions that the emperor appointed Clovis to consul, though he probably confuses this with that of the honorary title of patricius.
With Alaric killed, the Franks took southern Gaul, occupying Bordeaux, Tolosa and other cities, while their Burgundian allies entered Septimania.  With the Franks as the new masters of most of Gaul, the Visigoths moved to Hispania in great numbers.  The Gothic newcomers settled in relatively dense numbers in the sparsely populated upper regions of the central Meseta, between the rivers Tajo and Ebro, from Soria along the Duero River to the Campos Góticos (“Gothic Fields”), and especially in the triangle formed by the towns of Palencia, Toledo and Calatayud, also penetrating the provinces of Tarraconensis and Baetica.  
A year later, Theoderic the Great (r. 511- 26 AD) drove the invaders out of Septimania and thus re-created a corridor between Gothic Hispania and Italy. After his rescue operation, Theoderic was elected regent of what was left of the Visigothic Kingdom, while Septimania would remain the sole Visigothic enclave in Gaul up to the Muslim conquest in 711 AD. The Visigoths transferred their political centre from Toulouse to Narbonne.  This involuntary shift of capital city made Septimania the new heartland of the Visigothic nation, which they referred to as Gothia.

Until Theoderic’s death in 526 AD, the kingdom remained an Ostrogothic dependency, ruled by Ostrogothic governors.  Not long after Theoderic’s death, hostilities between the Franks and the Visigoths were resumed.  At first Amalaric (r. 523- 531 AD), by marrying Clovis’ daughter Chlotilde, established friendly relations with his northern neighbours, but his ill treatment of his Frankish wife and his attempts to force the Catholic Chlotilde to accept Arianism caused the Franks to renew their attacks.  Amalaric was expelled from Narbonne and fled to Barcino (Barcelona), where he was murdered in 531 AD. Subsequently, the Franks laid waste to Tarraconensis, seized Pamplona and besieged Zaragoza in 542 AD, but their hope of extending their dominion south of the Pyrenees was not to be fulfilled. Visigoth forces, led by their general and later king Theudegisel, were able to block their egress and the Franks were eventually forced to buy their way out.

Visigothic Society

The Population of Iberia
Though the Visigoths would dominate the political structure of the Peninsula for nearly three centuries, they were never more than a very small minority of the total population. Estimates concerning the actual size of the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman populations vary greatly.  Collins is of the opinion that at the time of the invasion, the Visigoths probably numbered around 30,000 people and may never have exceeded 100,000 people in all, whereas the Hispano-Roman population almost certainly exceeded a million inhabitants.

O’Callaghan assumes far higher numbers and states that there must have been 200,000 to 300,000 Visigoths and six to nine million Hispano-Romans, while Kennedy estimates the total number of Iberians at the time of the Visigothic invasion at around four million: “(…) we can picture a very empty landscape, where settlements were few, far between, poor and primitive.  Agricultural resources were in many cases neglected or underexploited (…) (Kennedy p. 2).

Gothic Identity
Visigothic fibula
Whereas under Alaric intermarriage between Romans and, according to Roman Law, ”barbarians” was still forbidden, King Liuvigild (d. 586 AD) abrogated this law in an attempt to unify the Peninsula and its people. His son Reccared (d. 601 AD) resolved the last major differences between the indigenous population and the Gothic minority by the general conversion to Catholicism in 589 AD.

As there was no longer any need to preserve separate Gothic and Hispano-Roman identities, the Germanic language, clothing and probably the last remnants of the hereditary culture of the Migration Period were subsequently definitively abandoned.

There are good reasons to assume that by the later seventh century a common ethnic identity had developed. One simple indicator of the final Gothic integration and even “Gothicisation” of the indigenous population is the extraordinary prevalence of originally Gothic names in the copious documentation of the centuries following the Arab conquest in both north and south.  The majority of Christians in Iberia after 711 AD had names of Gothic origin, several of which, such as Alfonso or Rodrigo, have survived to the present.  By the seventh century, the word Gothic refers to both gens and patria and has not much to do anymore with ethnic identity.

The Nobility
Visigothic society was broadly divided into two groups, the free and the unfree, of whom the former were the majority. Free men of talent could be admitted to noble rank, but by the late seventh century, the aristocracy as a whole was basically a hereditary class, constituted by Visigothic lords and survivors of the Roman senatorial class, sometimes with the titles dux (duke) or comes (count). They typically were owners of large, often underexploited estates cultivated by semi-free peasants (coloni), and also maintained their own companies of armed men (buccellarii, sagiones), who had taken an oath of allegiance and who were privately compensated.

Private bands like these were like the typical Germanic comitatus.  According to Tacitus in his Germania  this was a company of warriors who freely pledged loyalty to a renowned chieftain in return for glory, booty, protection and maintenance.  They did not only greatly increase the power and prestige of the nobility, and would prove to be a disturbing element in society and a threat to royal authority.

In spite of laws against the integration of Romans and Visigoths, the fusion of Visigothic and Roman ruling classes through intermarriage and other social and political relationships had probably already begun with the first settlement of the Visigoths in the Peninsula.  Nevertheless, for political reasons as well as to compensate the small proportion of Goths in the Iberian population, Visigothic Iberia shows the continuing predominance of the Germanic aristocracy.
Visigothic golden cross
The seniores Gothorum, magnates living in more or less closed societies, or the “very prosperous Gothic people” mentioned by Isidore of Seville at the beginning of the seventh century, progressively assumed politico-military power. In all, there were perhaps only some 500 families of primates, who with their protégés, their free and unfree domestic servants and their faithful followers, formed the truly solid part of the Visigothic army, to which the provincial levies hardly added anything of value.

Through their stewards and other agents, the noble lords maintained order and exercised civil and sometimes criminal jurisdiction over the villagers living on their estates.

The Fourth Council of Toledo (633 AD) determined that the nobility acted as electors of the king. Nobles could not be tortured or subjected to corporal punishment, except in cases of extreme gravity. At the same time, they were subject to heavier fines than those imposed on simple freemen, and frequently their properties were confiscated.  King Wamba (d. 680 AD) declared that nobles lost all their capital and estates before they were banished from the kingdom for failure to answer the royal summons of war, while Egica (d. 702 AD) enacted the same penalty for refusal to take the public oath of allegiance to the king.

All freemen of Roman and Gothic origin (ingenui, minores or inferiores) could sue in court, but they were subjected more often to torture and corporal punishment than the nobility.  Among the rural population, free proprietors, both Roman possessores and Gothic hospites, were the most prominent group.  Difficult economic and political circumstances, however, caused many of them to surrender their property to great lords and to become tenants in return for protection.

In theory tenant farmers (coloni) remained freemen, but as the relationship tended to be for life, it ultimately often became hereditary, since coloni they could not leave the land, nor be expelled from it. Coloni also had to pay poll tax to their lords. The law required coloni to marry persons of the same social condition.  If a colonus married a woman from another estate, the children were divided between the two lords, which in the end made his condition not much different from that of a slave.

As under Roman law, slaves (servi or mancipii) were totally lacking in liberty and possessed neither rights nor obligations. If slaves wanted to marry they needed the consent of their patrons. Children of slaves and of mixed unions between freemen and slaves were also slaves.  However, there are numerous misconceptions about slavery among the Goths and Germanic tribes in general. Contrary to Roman custom, under Germanic law slaves had to be taken care of by their masters, whereas free men had to fend for themselves, so that in certain cases slaves had a better life than free men.

Another important difference with Roman law was that the slaves of a Visigothic household were not killed when the master died to make sure that they would not rebel.  This did not only mean that slaves were considered too expensive to be killed, it also reflects that Germanic law was based on a different mind-set than Roman law.  Whereas under Roman law a human life was generally not considered particularly valuable, Germanic law knew the concept of wergeld, which regulated the fines for killing of another person in great detail. The following are a few examples of fines recorded in later Carolingian law:

Fine for someone who killed a
  • Frank: 200 solidi
  • royal retainer: 600 solidi
  • young freewoman: 200 solidi
  • pregnant woman: 600 solidi
Normally, punishments for slaves, regulatedby the Lex Visigothorum VI, 5.12, ascribed to King Chindaswinth (d. 653 AD), were prison and beatings.  Masters should not kill their slaves without due process of law, so the power of the masters on their slaves was curtailed.  An interesting detail is that if a master had incited a slave to kill someone, the slave would get the “normal dishonourable punishment”, such as decalvatio (shorn head), 200 lashes etc., whereas his master would get the death penalty.  The Church also owned slaves, but it tried to mitigate the harshness of slavery and to encourage manumission.

An owner could free his slaves by an oral act in the presence of witnesses, by a written charter, or by a will. The juridical condition of a freedman (libertus) was intermediate to that of a freeman and a slave. Corporal punishments were more severe and fines were higher than those imposed on a man born free, and a freedman could not testify against a freeman. He could not marry his former owner, and if he married a slave, his children would be slaves.

The Jews
The Visigoths were generally intolerant of Judaism and its adherents.  After Reccared’s conversion to Catholicism, matters became even worse.  Instigated by the pope in Rome, the Visigothic kings embarked on an aggressive anti-Jewish policy that reached its climax in the seventh century.  A succession of royal ecclesiastical councils at Toledo either decreed the forcible baptism of the Jews or forbade circumcision, Jewish rites and observance of the Sabbath and festivals.  Jews were forbidden to marry Christians, to own Christian slaves, or to hold public offices in which they would have power to punish Christians. 
Ceramic tile with menorah, foto by Michelle Chaplow

The situation came to a head, when in 694 AD King Egica (r. 687-702 AD) denounced the Jews for conspiring against him. In punishment of their perfidy, Jews who obstinately refused to accept the Christian religion were reduced to slavery and their property was confiscated.

In 694 AD, in response to king Egica’s complaint that the Jews were conspiring against him and entering into treasonous contact with their brethren and with the Muslims in North Africa, the bishops supported the king’s proposal to deprive the Jews of their property and to reduce them to the status of chamber servants.  Their children were taken away to be raised by Christian families once they had reached the age of seven.  Small wonder that the Jews would welcome the Moorish invasion in 711 AD, and actively help the invaders to bring down the Visigothic Kingdom.

Farming Soldiers and Soldiering Farmers
In the beginning of the fifth century, Gothic military units received the usual treatment accorded to soldiers of the late Roman Empire in border areas.  As they were meant for the defence of the towns and to prevent a possible usurpation of the local nobility, the Gothic garrisons were originally billeted in private town houses.  Because Late Roman and Early Medieval society lived mainly by agriculture, these soldiers carried out military as much as rural tasks. In peacetime they tilled the land as all the other people in the cities did.

Some scholars assume that in this period two groups of Goths developed: a military one which lived in the cities and was paid with money, while a second group cultivated the land and defended its territory.  These soldiers lived off the incomes obtained from cultivating the land and carrying out any military duties, not necessarily under the command of the king of Tolosa.  They received the usual anona and the five-year donative in money which the emperor granted to all his soldiers.  Other Goths looked for additional income, from which they could distribute gifts among their soldiers and maintain a comitatus, by controlling the harbours and developing individual initiatives.

Though the Roman Empire was organised in cities, being an agricultural society, the real power came from the land, and it was common for the Roman aristocracy to have vast landed estates.  When the Goths arrived in Gaul and Hispania as allies of Rome in 418 AD, the ius hospitalitatis entitled them to receive such land. The normal procedure was that two thirds (tertiae) of the land went to the Roman auxiliaries, whereas the original owner retained the remaining one third. In effect, however, Gothic and Roman consortes shared land, woods and pastures equally
Visigothic church San Pedro de la Nave, Zamora, 7th century AD

Though it is usually assumed that the ius hospitalitatis primarily affected the estates of the Roman senatorial class, it is likely that largely parts of deserted lands in depopulated areas may have been involved, since by the end of the fifth century, in Hispania Roman villas had virtually all been abandoned as residential sites.  Some villas may have been used as storehouses by local agricultural communities, or as a church.  In others, the abandoned rooms were turned into places of burial.  Similar employment of deserted Roman villas can be found in several parts of Anglo-Saxon England in the same period.

From the time of Theoderic I (d. 451 AD) onwards, the Goths had not only been granted land, but had also been allotted sortes (fiscal resources).  They gradually they began to own more and more property and to control the taxation system. Not causing disruptions substantial enough for their contemporaries to realise any major change, the Goths were thus able to quietly take over the Empire’s heritage.

Like in other parts of Europe, the overall history of the Iberian city is characterised by periods of destruction and abandonment, at least of parts of the settlement, alternating with ones of rebuilding and reconstruction.  The grand private town houses of the early empire had either been broken up into smaller units, or been transformed into urban farmhouses. In many cities, evidence of the abandonment of the Roman public buildings can be found well before the end of Roman rule. Most of these served as quarries for good-quality building stones and particularly their columns and capitals were reused in the church buildings, which would be the principal construction projects of the Late-Roman and post-Roman centuries.

With the decline in the size of the population, together with the crop growing and animal husbandry taking place within the walls, the former Roman cities and their immediate surroundings became increasingly rural in character.  Smaller towns followed similar patterns and a number of significant Roman settlements disappeared completely either in the seventh or the eighth century.  In many areas, this “market-gardening within the decaying remains of the reoccupied Roman town houses”, as Collins puts it, is roughly datable to the seventh century. 
The Alcazar, Toledo

Consequently, the clear distinction between town and country disappeared and was replaced by a spectrum of settlement types.  At one end were the tiny hamlets of half a dozen or so small farmhouses and at the other the former large cities, which probably continued to serve as centres for production and distribution in the localised trade, such as ceramics and metalwork.  Industrial production was probably limited to essential items, such as arms and tools. The imperial mines, worked by slaves, were still active, producing gold, silver, copper, iron and lead for the benefit of the royal fisc.

Between hamlets and larger cities, there were a variety of other settlements of different sizes, some of which were fortified and centred around a former theatre or amphitheatre as in Nîmes and Arles, or reoccupied hilltop fortresses of pre-Roman origin.  On the east coast, Cartagena which remained under imperial control until the 470s and which would later become the capital of the Byzantine province of Spania, stayed reasonably intact, be it with a much reduced population.  Much of Cartagena was destroyed in the first half of the seventh century, which has been linked to the Visigothic re-conquest and sack of the city around 625 AD, though there is no archaeological evidence for this.

The Toledanic Kingdom (569-711 AD)

In 568 AD Athanagild died in Toledo, which had become the civitas regia, the Visigothic capital, under his rule. Though a small and rather insignificant town at the time, Toledo had been chosen for its strategic position and particular ease of its defence, surrounded by the river Tajo at the top of a rocky hill.  Athanagild’s successor Liuva I (r. 569-72) took the unprecedented step of dividing the kingdom and giving one-half to his younger brother Liuvigild.  The latter established as a king in Toledo, where he married Athanagild’s widow Goswinth. Liuva based himself in Narbonne, probably to counter Frankish threats.

The Imposition of Unity
We are much better informed about King Liuvigild’s reign (r. 569-86 AD) than that of any of his sixth century predecessors, which is largely due to a short chronicle written by a Gothic monk and later bishop of Gerona, known from the monastery he founded as John of Biclarum.  Liuvigild is presented by Isidore of Seville (560-636 AD) as the formal renovator of the monarchy.  He was the first one to present himself to his people on the solium, or sella (throne) and dressed in special royal robes.  Beginning with Liuvigild’s reign, the Visigoths minted their own gold coins, in imitation of Byzantine coinage, with the king’s own image and inscription.
As a legislator, Liuvigild revised Euric’s code and terminated the fourth century imperial ban on intermarriage between Goths and Romans, an important step towards the ultimate assimilation of the races.  He waged a number of successful wars, involving a raid into the region of Bastitania in the southeast of the Peninsula in 570 AD and the driving off of the imperial forces from Málaga.  In 571 AD the king recovered Asinoda (modern Medina Sidonia, nr. Cádiz), apparently slaughtering its imperial garrison in the process.  The following year Córdoba was recaptured.

In 573 AD Liuvigild conquered the region of Sabaria to the northwest of Salamantica (modern Salamanca).  In the same year, he made his sons Hermenegild and Reccared his consortes regni (“partners in the kingdom”). The following year the king made an expedition into Cantabria in the north of the Peninsula, killing “the invaders of the province” (the Sueves).

In 575 AD the king terminated an independent Hispano-Roman regime in the Argenses montes, probably on the eastern fringes of the modern province of Orense
Liuvigild, gold tremissus, ca. 580 AD
, capturing the ruler Aspidius, together with his family. Although Liuvigild is recorded as taking the wealth of the region and its ruler, there is no word on massacre and mayhem. The next year, he organised a campaign against the Suevic king Miro, who rapidly made a treaty and agreed to pay tribute, even if only “for a short time”. In 577 AD the region of Orospeda (location unknown: maybe part of the Byzantine province of Spania) was entered, where towns and fortresses were captured, and very soon afterwards the “rustic rebels” (Bagaudae?) were crushed by the Visigoths, who thus made themselves master of the province.  In the course of six years, the Visigothic monarch regained large parts of the territory lost by his predecessors.  

In 578 AD he took a break from campaigning and founded the city of Recopolis (probably meaning the City of the King - “Rex-opolis”), on a small plateau in a bend of the river Tajo, about a mile from the modern village of Zorita de los Canes in the Province of Guadalajara.  Like Toledo, the city was situated at the top of a hill surrounded by the river Tajo.  With 33 hectares, however, its urban surface was six times bigger than that of Toledo.

In spite of this major difference, Recopolis was endowed with the same architecturally monumental and royal instruments as Toledo. However, all that has been excavated up to date is a tiny part.  Hence, it is still premature to establish whether it was a palace-city, used by the king and his court either as a temporary residence or as a permanent royal seat, or if it had an urban development similar to that of other cities of Hispania.
The year 579 AD saw the start of the most dramatic episode of Liuvigild’s reign, the revolt of his elder son Hermenegild in Seville. Married to a Catholic Frankish princess, Hermenegild had been appointed Duke of Baetica and had converted to Catholicism in that year.  Summoned to Toledo, he declared himself in open rebellion and soon had the support of most (Catholic) towns in Baetica, as well as of the Byzantines and the still independent Sueves.  Liuvigild apparently did not conceive the rebellion of his son in the south as a serious threat, given the fact that he went on campaign against the Vascones in the north in 581 AD, founding another town called Victoriacum (modern Vitoria-Gasteiz) on the fringes of their territory in the process. 

The position of the King

Unlike the Franks, the Visigoths did not allow royal dynasties to develop in which heirs steadily divided the realm into equal parts.  Though this secured the geographical unity of the kingdom, it did not do much to stabilize internal politics.  The king, who in theory had an unlimited power, was in reality subjected to an enormously powerful propertied class, which no legal principle impeded from ascending to the throne.

Likewise, the king he was the head of the army, but he did not have an army of his own and had to resort to private followers. Although the nobles in their oath of allegiance to the king promised to come at his call when required, the military laws issued by the end of the seventh century by Wamba and Erwig demonstrate that this promise was not generally complied with.

In practice there was a constant power struggle between aristocratic Visigothic families, while the nobles systematically ignored their oaths of allegiance, which meant that the Peninsula was almost constantly in a state of political instability.  To ensure the allegiance of the nobles, the Visigothic kings remunerated their fideles and gardingi with grants of royal lands, sometimes in full ownership, or subject to certain conditions.  Stipendiary grants were benefices, which were gratuitous, temporal, and revocable at will.  Grants of land, whether in full ownership or in usufruct, transformed the fideles and the gardingi into rural landlords whose continued fidelity was a source of great strength to the monarchy.

As the kingdom progressed, the balance of power gradually swung in favour of the aristocracy. However, this development did not prevent kings like Chindaswinth (d. 653 AD) from inaugurating his reign with a violent killing, repression and exiling of nobility, accompanied with the usual confiscations.  Chindaswinth even stated in the prologue to Lex Visigothorum II 1.8. that the king had to take up arms more often against his own subjects than against foreign enemies.

The Development of Elective Kingship

The centrifugal power of the nobility always posed a potential threat to monarchical authority. Usurpers did not so much have the intention to break the kingdom into a number of independent fragments, as to replace the existent monarch by another of their own choice.
votive crown of Recceswinth

Though with Amalaric’s death in 531 AD, the monarchy had in theory become elective, it would take another hundred years, before the Fourth Council of Toledo would formally recognise the elective nature of the kingship. Nevertheless, the natural tendency for fathers to pass the crown to their sons would prove hard to eradicate.  The Fifth Council of Toledo in 636 AD established the requisite to belong to the Gothae gentis nobilitas (Gothic nobility) for ascent to the throne.  Though some scholars are of the opinion that this requisite does not strictly have an ethnic sense, there is no doubt that those who attained royal rank were always of Gothic origin, and certainly always from the highest nobility.

As of the second half of the seventh century, elected kings were anointed by the bishop of Toledo. Although the anointing of Wamba (672 AD) is the first recorded instance, the custom may antedate his reign.  Anointing conferred upon the king a quasi-sacerdotal character and protected his person against violence.  This practice was adopted subsequently by the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons and thus became common throughout Western Europe.


The Royal Council

Once the Visigoths settled permanently in Western Europe, the traditional assembly of freemen by which they had regulated their affairs gradually disappeared.  The dispersion of the Goths over a wide area in Gaul and Spain had made it impossible to convoke assemblies of this kind.  In the sixth century, the king relied for advice and support on a much smaller council or senatus of prominent men (seniores), mostly of Gothic origin, which disappeared due to the increase of royal power in the following century.

In the seventh century, the function of the ancient assembly and senatus passed to an organism called the aula regia, which was composed of court officials bound to the king by special ties, magnates and bishops.  The council had a consultative role, advising the king in matters of legislation, administration, war, foreign policy and sitting with him as a judicial tribunal.  The king was not obligated to follow its advice, nor to submit his decisions for its approval.

The principal officers of the royal court (officium palatinum) were in continuous residence with the king and  responsible for the day-to-day activities of the central administration.  The aula regia also included magnates who resided at court (seniores, maiores palatii) without performing specific functions and who were also known as the fideles regis.  Also in residence were the gardingi regis, who were armed retainers living in the palace, serving and protecting the king.

The fideles regis and the gardingi regis were especially bound to the king’s service by a private oath of fidelity.  Whereas the fideles regis were magnates of the royal council, some of whom held offices in the royal household, the gardingi regis were of lower rank, but still enjoying high status among the aristocracy.  Like the antrustiones of the Merovingian monarchy, they continued the tradition of the Germanic comitatus.

The Basques (Vascones)

The Vascones, Basques, or Euskaldunak, in their own language, who settled the Pyrenees as well as large areas south and north of the mountains, consisted of many independent clans and were never united under one single authority.  There was one brief and never to be repeated period under the King of Navarre, Sancho Garcés III, known as the Great (1004-1035 AD), when Vasconia (Gascony) under the name of the Kingdom of Pamplona or Navarre extended from Bordeaux in France to Zamora in Spain in 1033 AD.  For the Basques themselves, however, no sense of racial, linguistic or cultural unity seems to have existed.  Due to their internal divisions and apparent looseness of social structure this did not go beyond the level of the extended family.  Moreover, the lack of a servile class in Basque society meant that all of the available manpower was of free status, which intensified the individual sense of independence.  This political divisiveness was enhanced by political separations imposed upon them from without.
Present day Basque language areas
The Vascones would prove a regular source of unrest, both for the Franks north of the Pyrenees and the Visigoths to the south.  Gregory of Tours mentions that in 581 AD the Frankish dux Bladast led an army into Vasconia, only to have the greater part it destroyed. In the same year, the Visigothic king Liuvigild launched an expedition against Vasconia, occupying parts of it and founding the town of Victoriacum.

In his Historia Gothorum of 626 AD, Isidore of Seville gives the impression that there was a need of periodic royal campaigning against the Basques, stirred by Basque raiding, with the aim of imposing firm government upon the region.  King Gundemar “ravaged the lands of the Vascones in one expedition”, which probably took place in 611 AD.  King Swinthila is also recorded as initiating his rule in 621 AD with an expedition against the Vascones, who had been attacking the province of Tarraconensis, which resulted in the foundation of the city of Olite.

Other Gothic kings also had to organise campaigns to put down Basque revolts or punish Basque raids until the arrival of the Moors.  Even the last Visigothic king Roderic (r. 710-11 AD) had to hurry from the north with his army, where he was still fighting the Basques in the area of Pamplona to meet the Muslim invaders in 711 AD.  Also during the later Arab expansion on the Peninsula, there were regular clashes between Basques and Arab armies, starting around 750 AD.  We know that in 755 the Basques were again threatening the towns of the upper Ebro, and could take on and defeat Arab forces sent against them, at least on their own terrain, utilising characteristic “hit-and-run” guerrilla tactics.  

Perhaps the most striking testimony to the Basques’ ability to inflict military humiliation on the forces of their powerful neighbours comes in their massacre of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army in the pass of Roncesvalles in the summer of 778 AD.  This was the only major defeat suffered by the Frankish ruler in the course of a long career of campaigning and conquest.

The End is Nigh

The final unhappy chapter in Visigothic history begins with the death of King Recceswinth (672 AD) and the election of his successor Wamba.  Scarcely had Wamba assumed kingship when a revolt broke out in the province of Narbonensis.  In order to suppress it, he dispatched Duke Paul, who promptly allied himself with the rebels and proclaimed himself king of the east, while referring to Wamba as king of the south, apparently proposing a division of the kingdom along the lines of that made between Liuva I and Liuvigild in 569 AD.

Wamba (r. 672-80 AD), who had been occupied with a Basque uprising, hastened through Tarraconensis to Septimania, where he easily defeated the rebels and captured Paul in 673 AD, after besieging him in the amphitheatre in Nîmes.  This is evidence to support other indications that former Roman (amphi)theatres were turned into fortresses and in some cases even densely packed fortified settlements in the early medieval centuries.  Paul was condemned to death in Toledo, but his sentence was commuted to decalvation (his head was shaved completely bald), lifelong infamy and imprisonment.

Problems raising troops
Wamba had crushed the rebellion, but had also encountered difficulties in raising troops.  As a remedy, he decreed that in the future all nobles and simple freemen, including the clergy, would be obliged to answer the summons to the royal host.  This law, re-establishing an old custom, aroused ecclesiastical opposition, as did the king’s erection of several new bishoprics.  Maybe because of this decree, Wamba’s reign ended rather abruptly in 680 AD, after a period of 17 years.  On 14 October, he suddenly lost consciousness and his courtiers assumed he was dying.  In accordance with custom, the bishop of Toledo tonsured the king and clothed him in penitential garb. 

King Wamba, statue in Madrid
When Wamba awoke from his coma, he found himself deprived of his right to rule, since the Sixth Council of Toledo had forbidden any tonsured person to wear a crown.  Renouncing the throne to Erwig, Wamba retired to a monastery, where he ended his days.

Erwig tried to conciliate his subjects by pardoning those who had been punished by Wamba’s law on military service. The Twelfth Council of Toledo also condemned Wamba’s erection of new sees and declared that in future the metropolitan of Toledo, with royal consent, should have the right to name and consecrate the bishops of any diocese in the realm.  Finally, Erwig asked the Council to approve his stringent legislation (34 rulings in all!) against the Jews.

Erwig’s successor Egica rather ominously asked the Fifteenth Council of Toledo in 688 AD to release him from his oath to protect Erwig’s family.  When they did so, he set out to punish those whom he suspected of treachery in connection with Wamba’s deposition, confiscating their goods, sending them into exile, or reducing them to servitude.  

The Invasion of the Moors

Hoping to establish a hereditary monarchy in his own family, Egica associated his own son Wittiza on the throne in the same year.  Wittiza, in turn, elevated his young son Achila, to whom he entrusted Septimania and Tarraconensis.  There are no reports on the fate of Wittiza.  It is normally assumed that his reign ended with his death in 710 AD.  The circumstances that led to the Muslim invasion a year after Wittiza’s death are involved in confusion.  In later accounts on the conquest it is not always possible to separate truth from legend and the sequence of events is difficult to determine.  Although Wittiza’s son Achila was proclaimed king, his opponents in Toledo recognised the duke of Baetica, Roderic (Rodrigo), as king.  Roderic would rule for only one year and perish in the battle against the Muslims on 19 July 711.

Given these internal rivalries within the Visigothic Kingdom, it is not impossible that the Luwata Berber forces under the leadership of Tariq bin Zeyad, the governor of Tangier, invaded the Peninsula at the invitation of Roderic’s opponents, as is often suggested.  Probably in prearrangement with the enemy to take revenge for Roderic’s coup a year earlier, Wittiza’s sons Sisbert and Oppa, who commanded the wings of the Visigothic army, abandoned their king in the midst of the battle.  As a consequence, the Goths were routed and the battle ended in a crushing defeat, with the Visigoths losing more than half of their troops.  It is thought that, with the battle, Roderic also lost his life, together with many of Iberia’s greatest nobles.  However, the victors never found his body; only his white horse, a golden saddle encrusted with rubies and emeralds, and a gold mantle.

This defeat meant the end of the Gothic ruling classes in the Peninsula, who were never more than “a small military aristocracy perched on top of a large civilian subject population that, for all the best efforts of the church, did not greatly care whether they survived or not” (Collins, Visigothic Spain, p.143).

The next instalment focuses on the Moorish Conquest

Sources and Further Reading
·        Catalogue to the Exhibition “Rome and the Barbarians, the Birth of a New World”, Palazzo Grassi , Venice, 2008 (selected articles):
o   Delaplace, Christine, The Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse
o   Velásquez, Isabel and Gisela Ripoll, Visigothic Spain
o   Menghin, Wilfried, Arms and Equipment of the Germanic Aristocracy (Fifth to Seventh Centuries)
o   Velásquez, Isabel and Gisela Ripoll, Toledo-Recopolis: The City of Visigothic Spain
o   Huck, Olivier, The Laws of the Roman-Barbarians Kingdoms
o   Pérez-Prendes Muňoz-Arraco, José Manuel, Law in Visigothic Spain
o   Arslan, Ermanno, Economy, Taxation and Currency in the Roman-Barbarian Kingdoms
o   Dumézil, Bruno, The Church and the New Kingdoms
o   Ripoll, Gisela, The Sacred Architecture of Visigothic Spain
o   Picard, Christophe, The Arabs and Western Europe (Eighth to Ninth Centuries)

·        Collins, Roger, The Basques, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, New York, 1987

·        Collins, Roger, Visigothic Spain (409-711), Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, Oxford UK and Carlton, Victoria,  
         Australia, 2004

·        DESPERTA FERRO, edición especial limitada, No 1 + No 0, La caída de Roma,  Desperta Ferro Ediciones,
         SLNE, Madrid, 2011
o   La caída de Roma, Aitor Fernández Delgado
o   El sistema militar godo, Ilkka Syvänne
o   La rebellión bagauda, Pablo Romero Gabella
o   Hispania, de provicia romana a reino germánico (418-531), José Sanchez-Arcilla Bernal

·        Goetz, Hans-Werner, Europa im frühen Mittelalter 500-1050, Eugen Ulmer, Stuttgart, 2003

·        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, The Visigoths, Studies in Archeo-ethnology, Vol. 4, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1999

·        Kennedy, Hugh, Muslim Spain and Portugal, Longman, London & New York, 1996

·        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, 
         Freiburg/Würzburg, 1991

·        Rucquoi, Adeline, L’Espagne Mediévale, Société d’édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2002

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