The Visigoths in Spain & Rome

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

The Visigoths made their presence known across the Roman world and founded a kingdom. This lesson explores the Visigoths' emergence in the 3rd century CE through to their founding of medieval Spain.

Bridging the Ancient and Medieval Worlds

When you think of Spain's history, you might think of the famous Roman Empire, or perhaps of the North African Moors and their conquests. But wedged between the Roman and Islamic periods in Spanish history sits the era of the Visigoths, a Eurasian tribe that migrated into Europe, conquered Rome, and eventually blended with the Romans of Spain.

There are few visible vestiges of Spain's Visigoth past. The modern Spanish language includes only one Visigoth word, verdugo or 'executioner.' You can find some Visigoth-era jewelry, like belt-buckles and pins, in museums.

Nevertheless, the Visigoth era was the crucial link between Spain's Roman and medieval periods, laying the foundation of the Spanish culture that would ultimately spread across the Atlantic and beyond.

The Migration of the Visigoths

While the Visigoths' story ended in Spain, it began on the opposite side of the European continent in the Black Sea area. Having settled on the western side of the Black Sea, the Visigoths quickly found themselves under assault from another Eurasian tribe, the infamous Huns. With nowhere else to turn, the Visigoths requested sanctuary from the Western Roman emperor Valens who granted it in 376 CE.

However, the Roman authorities abused the newly-settled Visigoths, which led to a Visigoth uprising and the Gothic Wars (376-383 CE). The Gothic Wars were devastating to the Western Roman Empire. In the Battle of Adrianople (378 CE), Emperor Valens himself died on the battlefield and the Romans were forced to sue for peace.

The Sack of Rome

The new Eastern Roman emperor, Theodosius I, attempted to placate the Visigoths by bringing them into the fold. He gave governorships to Visigoth chieftains and Visigoths were allowed to join the Roman army.

But Theodosius' efforts at reconciliation were not to last. The Visigoths were Arians, a sect of Christianity that was heretical in the eyes of mainstream Christianity (which followed the Nicene Creed and would later come to be known as the Catholic Church).

Theodosius, a devout Nicene Christian, persecuted Arian Christians and unsuccessfully attempted to convert the Visigoths away from Arianism. Tensions between the Romans and Visigoths remained high until Theodosius' death in 395.

A depiction of Alaric taking Athens from the Eastern Roman Empire.
Alaric in Athens

After Theodosius' death, a new Visigoth king, Alaric I, emerged. Alaric, having served in the Roman military, argued that the Visigoths had not been properly compensated for their service to the empire. He renewed war against both halves of the Roman Empire, launching assaults on the Balkans and Greece and, most infamously, sacking Rome in 410 CE.

While Alaric would die shortly after the victory over Rome, his legacy would endure for centuries afterward. His military campaign was arguably the death-knell of the Western Roman Empire. But while the Western Roman Empire slipped further into decline, Alaric's Visigoths were about to found their own kingdom.

An Independent Visigoth Kingdom

After the death of Alaric I, his successor, Athaulf, led the Visigoths out of Italy and eventually settled in southern Gaul. There, Athaulf founded the independent Kingdom of Toulouse in 413 CE. His successors expanded this Kingdom further and incorporated large parts of Spain.

The Visigoths largely left Roman society untouched, with Roman laws and bureaucracy still in effect in most places. But the Visigoths remained devout Arians, leading them to persecute Nicene Christians living within the Kingdom of Toulouse.

The religious tensions among the Arian and Nicene Christians eventually came to a head. The leader of Visigoths, now Alaric II, went to war with Clovis, the king of the neighboring Frankish kingdom and champion of Nicene Christianity, in 485 CE. Alaric II died in a decisive and losing battle in 507 CE, and the Visigoth kingdom entered its final phase.

A depiction of the battle between the Visigoths and Clovis, king of the Franks.
Visigoths fighting Clovis

The End of the Visigoths

After the death of Alaric II, the Visigoth kingdom was pushed out of southern Gaul and contained within Spain, taking on a new capital in Toledo. The Visigoths converted from Arianism to Catholicism in 587 CE and, over time, Roman and Visigoth culture slowly blended together.

The fusion of the two cultures was accelerated when Muslim forces from North Africa arrived to conquer Spain in 711 CE. The Muslim armies quickly advanced, but Christian forces held their ground on several fronts.

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