The Visigoths: Kingdom & Kings

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

The Visigoths were an early Germanic group who, in the 5th century CE, sacked the city of Rome. In this lesson, find out more about what this Visigothic Kingdom was like and who ruled it.

The Visigoths

Just like the saying ''Rome wasn't built in a day,'' Rome also didn't fall in a day, but the Visigoths had a lot to do with it, particularly in sacking the city in the 5th century CE. So, who were these people who brought about destruction to such a major empire? The Visigoths' name means ''Western Goths,'' a name given to them by a Roman writer. As their name implies, they were a branch of the Goths, an early Germanic people who settled around the Black Sea and inhabited the western-most area of the land starting in the 3rd century CE.

If you know anything about Eurasian history, you know that the Huns, a ruthless group of Eurasian warriors, were terrorizing the area at this time. The Visigoths, afraid that the Huns would wipe them out, sought refuge with the Romans, who controlled such a massive empire that they could provide protection. Having guests can be stressful - for the host and the guest - and the Visigoths started to feel this pressure as the Romans began to mistreat them. So, like any good guests would do, the Visigoths rebelled and fought back against the Romans. At the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE, they killed the Roman Emperor Valens, who had previously welcomed them into the empire.

Map of the migration of the Visigoths across Eurasia
Map of the migration of the Visigoths across Eurasia

Establishment of the Visigothic Kingdom

The death of Valens was one of the turning points in the Visigoths' relationship with the Romans, leading to the establishment of their own kingdom. When Valens died, Theodosius I took over Rome and tried to unite the Romans and Visigoths under one commonality: Christianity. Both the Visigoths and Romans were Christians, just of different varieties. The Romans were Nicene Christians, meaning they believed in the Nicene Creed, which simply put, stated that God the Father and Jesus Christ were equals - this became the common belief of the Roman Catholic Church. The Visigoths, on the other hand, were Arian Christians, which simply put, meant they believed that God the Father was actually pre-existent to and, therefore, more powerful than Jesus.

While the Visigoths and Romans were relatively peaceful under Theodosius I's reign, his death spurred the Visigoths to choose their own ruler. Alaric I became the first true Visigoth king and, at first, tried to unite the two peoples like Theodosius I had done by integrating Roman customs into the Visigoth traditions. However, Alaric I was very much a warrior; in 410 CE, under his rule, the Visigoths sacked Rome!

Depiction of the sacking of Rome in 410 CE
Depiction of the sacking of Rome in 410 BCE

Expansion of the Kingdom

After Alaric I's death, Athaulf took over ruling the Visigoths. While he was king, the Visigoths conquered Gaul, which is now most of Western Europe and parts of Britain. They established the kingdom of Toulouse in the area of France, even setting up their capital here. Wallia was chosen as king after Athaulf's death. He expanded the kingdom even more, though he also gave some land to Rome in an effort to keep the peace. However, Wallia persecuted the Nicene Christians during his reign.

Euric, one of the following kings, also expanded the Visigoth kingdom immensely, adding on areas in Spain. Euric pushed the boundaries on the relationship between the Visigoths and Romans, but he did establish a law code that gave rights to Roman and Visigoth citizens alike under his rule. Though the Visigothic Kingdom was expanded quite a bit, it still struggled with enemy forces, meaning the Visigoths' rule wouldn't last long!

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