The Visigoths


Visigoth describes a group of Germanic people who eventually settled in the southern and western sections of Gaul and Hispania.  The term Germanic refers to historical groups of people that once occupied Central Europe and Scandinavia from antiquity to the early Middle Ages and, specifically, to those who spoke Germanic Languages.  There is no universal agreement about these people or who we might relate them to today.  We refer to these people as Germanic because that is what the Romans named them.  Another word for Germanic was Gothic.

Anthropologists accept that there were two main branches of Goths: those who originated north of the Danube River in the East (Ostrogoth) and those who may have developed in Scandinavia in Western Europe (Visigoth).  The word Goth may once have been Gutones.

No one called them Visigoths or Ostrogoths in their day.  They were simply Goths until the Roman historian Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus referred to Visigoth to make a distinction from Ostrogoth.  The first time we hear of the word Visigoth is when Cassiodorus wrote of their defeat by Clovis I in A.D. 507.

Human Migration

People today often wonder why our planet has seen so much conflict.  The answer is that people (generally) do not get along.  If nations aren’t squabbling, then neighbors are.  We designed our law enforcement mechanism to keep humans from bashing one another with a mace or broad sword.  Human discord is simply an unhappy fact of life and something all of us must work to improve.  With that thought, what happens when large numbers of people move from one area to another?

The problem of human migration, apparent in Europe and North America, is that whenever large numbers of people migrate to other areas, they collide with human groups who already live there.  This means that people begin competing for access to limited (and essential) resources to survive: water and food sources.  The result of such collisions is lethal conflict.  Landowners, suddenly faced with foreigners encroaching upon their traditional lands and desperate to protect their rights, tend to seek out alliances with others to form defensive armies.  Human migration has always been one cause of human conflict.

Conflict with Rome

In A.D. 376, people known as Goths, led by a man named Alavivus, asked the Romans for their permission to settle in the Eastern Roman Empire.  They asked permission because they had been pushed out of their traditional lands (north of the Danube River) into present-day Bulgaria by the Huns.  Rome’s emperor Valentinian, thinking that these people would be useful to Rome as farmers and soldiers (when needed), permitted them to settle as allies (a client state).  Once the Goths crossed the Danube, however, Roman double-dealing caused the Goths to revolt against Rome.  Defying Rome was no light undertaking.  It was a desperate situation that motivated the Visigoths to defeat the legions of the Eastern Empire.  Eventually, the Romans did manage to push the Goths back across the Danube.  Still, the situation with the Huns had not changed, and the Goths would not forget Roman dishonesty, which made further conflict inevitable.

The Battle of Adrianople in 378 was an important moment in time because not only did the barbarians slaughter the Romans as if they were just out of boot camp, but they also killed the emperor Valens.  In Rome’s long history, emperors were a dime a dozen, but when Valens died, many of Rome’s most accomplished fighting men perished with him.  It was not only a blow to Rome’s prestige but also to the confidence of the Roman Army.  This unheard-of defeat was also a shock to the citizens of Rome.

Yet, despite their victory over Rome, the Visigoths remained confined to a small, impoverished province of the empire, and Rome scurried to form yet another army to march against them.  Battles raged for three years without a substantial victory by either side.  Finally, in A.D. 382, the Romans and Visigoths negotiated a treaty that made the Visigoths the first “client state” allowed to settle within the empire’s borders.  But the treaty also required that the Visigoths raise troops for the Roman army in exchange for arable land and freedom, as citizens, within Rome’s legal structure.  The Roman-Visigoth settlement had far-reaching consequences: the end of Rome within three generations.  In the mind of Roman historian and soldier Ammianus Marcellinus, Rome ended with the Battle of Adrianople — it is when he ended his history of the Roman Empire.

Alaric I

Rome’s new emperor, Theodosius I, made peace with the Visigoths — an arrangement that Rome maintained until the death of Theodosius in A.D. 395.  In that year, the Visigoths’ famous king, Alaric, signaled his interest in becoming an emperor of Rome.  A crisis over the question of Imperial control soon developed.

Stilicho was a prominent military commander who would become (for a time) the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire.  Although part Vandal, he was raised in Rome and trained to become a high-ranking Roman general.  To help him along the way, he married the niece of Theodosius, Serena.

As heirs to Rome, Theodosius left two sons.  In the East, a mentally incompetent lad named Arcadius (who survived to the age of 31 years), and in the West, the underaged Honorius (died aged 37).  In Rome, the Senate appointed Stilicho as Regent on behalf of the underage Honorius.  By this time, most of Rome’s generals were former barbarians who viewed political events as opportunities for themselves.  Their loyalty regularly shifted to whomever they thought would advance their position within the empire.

In A.D. 397, Arcadius named Alaric military commander of the Illyrian prefecture in the Eastern Empire.  For fifteen years, the two empires maintained a tenuous peace occasionally interrupted by conflicts between Alaric and the powerful Germanic generals who commanded Rome’s armies (both east and west).  Despite his extraordinary record in combat, Stilicho’s personality was harsh and unrelenting — and much resented by the young Honorius.  In A.D. 408, Honorius had Stilicho executed and ordered the slaughter of thousands of barbarian soldiers.  These were men who historians assure us were desperately trying to assimilate Roman culture.  It is also likely that they were executed because they were untrustworthy.  Whatever the reason, Honorius’ actions provided Alaric with an excuse to march on Rome.

After two failures to achieve military victory in Northern Italy, Alaric conducted a siege of Rome — one that initially ended in negotiations.  Unfortunately, the negotiation failed to produce a desirable result, which led Alaric to the decision to sack Rome — which he did on 24 August A.D. 410.  While the sacking did take place, it did not have a long-term effect.  By then, Rome was no longer the de facto capital of Rome.  From A.D. 370 – 402, the capital of Rome was Milan.  And, in A.D. 402, Rome’s capital was again moved to Ravenna.

Emperor Honorius visited Rome often, and after he died in A.D. 423, Roman emperors tended to reside there — but the ability of a barbarian/Roman commander to sack the city at will severely shook the empire’s confidence.  In any case, loaded with booty, the Visigoths decided to vacate Rome and relocate elsewhere.  Alaric died before the move took place; his wife’s brother, Athaulf (A.D. 370 – 415), replaced him.

The Visigoth Kingdom

The Visigoth Kingdom (5th – 8th Century) was a Western European power first created in Gaul when Rome lost control of its western territories and later relocated to Hispania until A.D. 711.  For a brief period, the Visigoths were the strongest kingdom in Western Europe.  From A.D. 408 – 410, Athaulf caused so much damage to Rome that it lost ten percent of its economic output.  So effective were the Visigoths in helping Honorius defeat barbarian enemies that in A.D. 418, the emperor granted to King Sigeric (Athaulf’s successor) all the land in Aquitania as a reward for expelling the Vandals.  The reward allowed the Visigoths to expand further into Hispania.

This period was turbulent for the Visigoth hierarchy, however.  In quick succession, assassins murdered Athaulf.  His replacement, Sigeric, murdered Athaulf’s children by his first wife and debased Athaulf’s second wife and her children.  In turn, Sigeric was murdered within a few days, replaced by Wallha.  After a three-year reign, Wallha was, in turn, replaced as king by Alaric’s son-in-law, Theodoric I (r. A.D. 418 – 451).

The Visigoth’s second “great” king was Euric (A.D. 420 – 484), the second son of Theodoric I, who ruled after murdering his brother, Theodoric II, in A.D. 466.  Euric unified quarreling factions and concluded a treaty with Rome’s last emperor, Julius Nepos.  This treaty (disputed by some) finally recognized the Visigoth Kingdom of Euric as an independent nation.  While diplomats were busy making their arrangements, Euric’s capture of southern Gaul gave him access to the Mediterranean Sea.  It may have been this feat that made him, in the eyes of some historians, the greatest king since Alaric.  At Euric’s death, the Visigoths were at the height of their power and influence in Europe.  His son, Alaric II, adopted Roman administrative and bureaucratic structures, including tax codes and legal systems.

By A.D. 500, the Visigoths were the dominant power in Hispania, whose capital was Toulouse, with control of Aquitania and Gallia (apart from the Basque regions in present-day northern Spain).  The Visigoths’ influence was significant to lead one to the conclusion that the future of Europe depended on the Visigoths.  Clovis I of the Franks changed that perception, seizing Aquitaine and killing Alaric II.  The situation might have been worse had it not been for the Ostrogoth king in Italy, Theodoric, who pushed Clovis out of Visigoth territory.

In any case, the de facto king of southern Europe was Theodoric the Great — a man sufficiently diplomatic to cause the Visigoths to imagine they were still in charge of their destiny.  Theodoric the Great had no interest in being loved; he had designs on Gaul for himself, and the Visigoths were wise to withdraw their capital to Barcelona (and then later to Toledo).  Theodoric controlled the Visigoths from A.D. 511 – 526.  Only Theodoric’s death in A.D. 526 allowed the Visigoths to restore their royal line through Amalaric, Alaric II’s son and the grandson of Theodoric.  Amalaric ruled independently for five years until assassinated in A.D. 531.  Another Ostrogoth named Theudis ruled the Visigoths for seventeen years.

For the next 180 years, the kingdom of Visigoths stumbled from one monarchy to another.  They continued to maintain ties with Rome — which is to say, the Eastern Roman Empire, but this kingdom, as with many before it and since, began to unravel with time.  It began to collapse much quicker in A.D. 710 when King Witiza died, leaving his two young sons as his heirs.  A faction of Visigoth nobles opposed to the Witizans drove the dead king’s widow and her children out of Toledo, electing in their place a man named Roderick, who served as a duke and military commander of one of Hispania’s provinces.

Roderick wasn’t in office long when the Basques revolted, refusing to acknowledge his authority in Hispania.  Meanwhile, those supporting Witiza’s heirs contacted North African Muslims, and they dispatched a raiding party to investigate possibilities in Hispania.  The arrival of Muslims under Tariq ibn Ziyad prompted Roderick to lead a military force south to meet these raiders and chastise them.  At the Guadalete River near Arcos de la Frontera (near Jerez) on 23 July A.D. 711, Tariq destroyed Roderick’s force, killed King Roderick, and marched toward Toledo.  As a result, most Hispania capitulated, and the cherry on that glob of ice cream was that Roderick’s widow, Egilo, ended up marrying the son of an Arab military commander.

Less than a century after the invention of Islam as a significant religious contender, an army of Arabs and Imazighen (Berbers) serving the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus landed in the Iberian Peninsula.  Within seven years, most of Hispania was under Muslim rule — so much of it that the Muslims re-named it Al-Andalus.  One of its military leaders was an Emir named Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi.

Abd al-Rahman was an Arab from the Ghafiq tribe who relocated to Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania.  There, he became acquainted with Musa ibn Nasayr, a governor of Al-Andalus.

He participated with them in the Battle of Toulouse, where King Odo of Aquitaine defeated them.  Afterward, Umayyad officials appointed him to command Eastern Al-Andalus and later as overall military commander (wali) governing Al-Andalus.

In A.D. 730, Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik learned of a rebellion, where Uthman ibn Naissa, the governor of Catalunya, had concluded a secret alliance with King Odo and sent al-Rahman to arrest him.  The uprising ended when Ibn-Naissa suddenly stopped breathing.  Subsequently, al-Rahman assembled an army at Pamplona intending to chastise King Odo of Aquitaine and destroy and pillage the riches in Gaul — which is precisely what al-Rahman did.  Odo, with his army destroyed and few nobles remaining alive fled to Charles Martel of the Franks for his assistance.


After A.D. 711, the complexion of Hispania would change forever.  Islamist armies destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom, killed its King, whom no one gave much support, and put to the sword many of the Visigoth nobles (presumably) for their refusal to surrender to the will of Allah.  From that point forward, for the next 781 years, the Visigoths were bred out of existence to form a new category of people: part Arab, part Celt, and part German.  The mix became more complex after A.D. 1492.

Next week, the Merovingians evolve —

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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2 Responses to The Visigoths

  1. Andy says:

    Enjoyed this historical account. Studied the Visigoths decades ago and found their accomplishments fascinating. I’d all but forgotten them until read this essay.

    Well done.



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