The Vascones

Mithridátēs is the name given to the kings of several kingdoms in the ancient world.  It does get confusing when you run across people named Mithridátēs I of Pontus, who was also Mithridátēs III of Cius, whose descendants included both Mithridátēs II and Mithridátēs III of Pontus.  The first of these men from Pontus (ancient Persia) reigned between 281 – 266 B.C.

The Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo (64 B.C. – A.D. 24) was born in the region of Pontus, now located in the historic region of Cappadocia, central Turkey, at a time when Rome transitioned from a Republic into an Empire.  His family was politically affluent during the reign of Mithridátēs VI (during the so-called Mithridatic Wars), with his grandfather having had the distinction of turning several fortresses over to the Romans.  As a reward for his treachery, the family received a grant of Roman citizenship and, I presume, a nice apartment under an assumed name on the south side of the City of Seven Hills.  

Strabo was one of the first educated men to write of Northern Spain, the section encompassing the Spanish Basque, in the old kingdom of Navarre, and from there westward through the massively beautiful cities of Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Ponferrada, and Santiago.

Of course, by the time Greeks and Romans began to speak of these people, the Basque, they had already occupied their region of Spain and France under other names: Vascones, Calagurriis, Berones, and Celtiberians.  The Romans labeled these areas as Vasconum Agrum (the agricultural regions of Northern Spain) and Vasconum Saltus (the Bay of Biscay).

Historians label the third and fourth centuries A.D. as the “Late Basquisation,” — a period of political unrest and instability caused by the Germanic invasions.  Written records about this period and territory are scarce, so we know very little about the Vascones during the time of Rome’s expansion in Gaul and Hispania.  It is certain that the Romans gave these people a wide birth except to keep open main roads through the Pyrenees Mountains — and may have found it cheaper to pay these ancients a toll rather than to tie up several legions in wars that couldn’t be won.  From later stories written by John of Biclaro (A.D. 540 – 621), we understand that the Vascones (Basques) would not be trifled with by anyone, no matter who they were.  Gregory of Tours (A.D. 538 – 594) also notes the presence of “Wascones” in Aquitaine in A.D. 587.  Historians surmise that today’s Basque, the descendants of the earlier Vascones people, moved into the Pyrenees from both Pamplona and Aquitaine, where they could better defend one another from foreign encroachments.

Until the seventh century, the Basques governed themselves through loose confederations, which in all likelihood drove their willingness to come to an arrangement with the Romans after the second century — something on par with “don’t mess with us, and we won’t mess with you.”  After the seventh century, the Basques established their first political structure under the Merovingian Franks — calling it the Duchy of Vasconia.  Eventually, this duchy became Gascony.

During Charlemagne’s effort to re-incorporate Vasconia into Francia, he found that the Basques were more than obdurate — they were outright dangerous.  When the Carolingians failed to take Zaragoza, Charlemagne made the fateful decision to punish the Basques by sacking Pamplona.  As the Carolingian Army made its way home over the mountains adjacent to Roncesvalles, the Basques attacked and destroyed half of it.  The Franks, of course, referred to this encounter as Vascones perfidy — but it wasn’t the Basque who sacked Charlemagne’s capital city.

The Battle of Roncesvalles was recounted orally until the eleventh century when it was written down as The Song of Roland.  Note: Le chanson de geste is the oldest surviving major work of French literature.  Click here to listen to a modern professor sing the first lines of The Song of Roland in Old French.  If you prefer hearing the song in English, click here for Michael Kelly’s rendition. Let me add here that I have walked this path twice and it is not an area in which I would want to fight for my life.

The lands of the Vascones remained turbulent into the ninth century as first Saracens and then Carolingians fought to control the mountain passes.  A Second Battle of Roncesvalles occurred in A.D. 824 when a combined Basque-Saracen army defeated the Carolingian Army under the Holy Roman Emperor Lothar I.  The result of this battle was the creation of the Kingdom of Pamplona under a Basque king.  Note, the various spellings for the same location are: Roncevaux (French), Roncesvalles (Spanish), and Orreaga (Basque).

El Cid

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar died 924 years ago.  He was not Basque, but he might have been.  It was only an accident of birth — a condition that plagues us all.  There are only a few men to continue to live in the hearts and minds of modern people — Sr. de Vivar is one of them.  I have been to his burial site.  In physical stature, he was not a large man — but he was substantial in courage, determination, and in his refusal to knuckle under to those who sought to conquer and subjugate what would become España.  And he may be the only man to lead a charge into battle after he was already dead.  We know him today as El Cid (1043 – 1099).  He opposed all interlopers, whether Christian or Muslims — and earned the respect of every foe.

In Arabic, he was Al-Sīd (the Lord).  To the early Spanish, he was El Campeador (The Valiant), born in Vivar, a small village near the city of Burgos — where he is buried in La Catedral de Santa María de Burgos — one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain.  As head of his loyal knights, Rodrigo Diaz dominated the Levant, a name used to refer to the eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula, on the Spanish Mediterranean coast.  It was El Cid who reclaimed the Taifa (kingdom or principality) of Valencia from Arab control during the Reconquista period.  After his death, El Cid’s wife, Jimena Diaz, ruled until the Moors reconquered the city in 1102.

In his life of only 56 years, Rodrigo Diaz served as a knight-commander in both Christian and Muslim armies — respected and revered by both because of his personal strength, his valor, his sense of justice, and his pious nature.  Today, the Spanish people recall El Cid in an epic poem titled El Cantar de Mio Cid.  He was the ideal knight.

There is a general belief about his family, although it remains uncertain because of a lack of written records.  He is believed to be the grandfather of Garcia Ramirez de Pamplona, a king of Navarre, the first-born son of Rodrigo’s daughter, Cristina Rodriguez of Pamplona.  In one of the few documents that record his history, a Latin text bearing his signature read, “I Rodrigo, together with my wife, affirm that which was written above.”

In his life, Spanish authorities recognized Sr. Diaz as Campeador (which carries two meanings: Teacher in the Field and Master of the Battlefield).  Arabic writing acknowledges similar honorifics (Al-Qanbitur), noting also that Diaz was not the first knight to earn the title El Cid (The Lord).  It was a respectful title earned through service to the king or high prince of the Taifa of Zaragoza between 1081 – 1086.  Some historians argue that he did not earn the title until after his conquest of Valencia in 1094 and, as a title, does not appear in writing until 1147.

As with many Spanish heroes, Rodrigo Diaz was born to a family of minor nobility.  As such, he was brought up at the court of Ferdinand the Great (Also Ferdinand I of León) (1015 – 1065) where he served Ferdinand’s son Sancho II of León and Castile.  During his service, he became commander and royal standard bearer when Sancho became king in 1065.  Rodrigo Diaz led the military campaigns against Sancho’s brothers, Alfonso VI of León, and Garcia II of Galicia, as well as the Muslim princes of Al-Andalus.  Rodrigo was notable for his military prowess whose expertise expanded the Crown of Castile.

When assassins murdered Sancho in 1072, Rodrigo suddenly found himself in a difficult situation.  Since Sancho was childless, the throne passed to his brother Alfonso VI, whom El Cid had helped remove from power.  Accordingly, he was demoted, kept under scrutiny, and finally exiled in 1081.  With loss of rank and prestige, Diaz sold his talents to whomever could afford them, which in early Spain, meant the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, whom Diaz defended from their traditional enemy, the rulers of Aragon.

Men serving in exile have time to think about their future, plan for it, and act on it.  In exile, Rodrigo regained his martial reputation as a strategist and combat leader.  Employed against Saracens and their Christian allies, El Cid was always successful in battle — including his forays against King Sancho Ramirez of Aragon.  When an army of Almoravids (Berber Muslims) inflicted devastating losses on Alfonso, the king reconsidered the worthiness of the finest field commander in Al-Andalusia and made peace with him.

El Cid was soon fighting for Alfonso, but not exclusively.  Rodrigo Diaz had set his sights on Valencia, and while in Alfonso’s employ, he maintained political relations with the Hudid Dynasty of Zaragoza and other Muslim princes who opposed the Almoravids.

Gradually, El Cid increased his control over Valencia, even to the extent of subjugating The Islamist Yahya al Qadir, who paid him tribute.  When the Almoravids instigated an uprising that resulted in the death of al Qadir, Diego laid siege to the city.  When Valencia collapsed in 1094, El Cid established an independent principality on the Mediterranean coast of Iberia.  As a ruling prince, Diego was popular with both Christians and Muslims alike. 

His final years were spent fighting against the Almoravid, defeating them in 1094 and continued warring with them until his death in 1099.  His only son and heir died fighting the Almoravids in 1097, so when he died his wife Jimena Diaz succeeded him as ruler of Valencia.  She was forced to surrender to the Almoravids in 1102.

The Posthumous Victory

After Diego’s death, but still during the troubling times imposed upon Valencia by the Almoravids, Jimena ordered his body exhumed, wrapped in linen, fitted with armor, and set upon his horse for one last charge.  It was Jimena’s ploy to bolster the flagging morale of his troops.  There are several variations of this story, as one might imagine.

In one of these, El Cid led his knights in a thundering charge against the Almoravids.  The war was already lost, but a final battle won.  Christians and Islamists told the tale for hundreds of years — which is probably the reason we know of it today.  Historians believe the Jimena began telling this story after she vacated Valencia for the protection of Alfonso in Burgos.  What prompted the telling was that when Jimena entered Burgos, her dead husband was still strapped to his horse riding next to her.

The resting place of El Cid and his wife is in the center of the Cathedral of our Lady of Burgos, in Castilla y Leon — photograph shown at upper right.  Burgos is located along the Path of St. James, which I have walked twice.  It extends from St. Jean Pied de Port to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, Galicia.  My 32nd great-grandfather is buried in the Cathedral de Santiago.  His name was William X of Aquitaine.  His daughter was named Eleanor.  William isn’t the most important person buried in the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, however.

James the Great

He is known today as James, son of Zebedee, also, Saint James the Great, Saint James the Greater, Saint James the Elder, Saint Jacob, and Santiago.  We believe he was born in Galilee.  He was one of the first of the apostles of Jesus of Nazareth and the first martyred for his Christian beliefs.  Santiago is the patron saint of Spain.  His sarcophagus is made of solid gold.

James is styled “the Great” to distinguish him from James the Younger.  He was the brother of John the Apostle.  According to the New Testament, James was working with his brother John near the seashore when Jesus called the brothers to follow him.  He was put to death by King Herod Agrippa in A.D. 44.

Today, Santiago is part of a Catholic tradition.  People believe what they choose.  I can only say that being in near proximity to Santiago’s burial site was a tremendous experience for me, personally.  A symbol adopted by those making the pilgrimage is a scallop shell, known as the Shell of St. James.  It is a metaphor, indicating that there are many pathways to Santiago de Compostela.

In 2016, at a small ruin outside Puenta La Reina, I met an archeologist, who showed me what remained of an Abby.  Inside were the remains of a Church; scientists were investigating the areas beneath the flooring to discover the presence of human remains.  He said there were several suspects and the excavation team were awaiting the arrival of a team of technicians from Madrid with ground radar equipment.  I was fascinated.

Along one wall, behind what had been wall-to-ceiling shelving, was a crude painting, which the archeologist explained as follows:  The faded light blue coloring depicted the environment in which people live.  Stick figures painted in yellow also faded over time and approached a doorway, through which they passed into another world, becoming seashells.  The archeologist said that the Abbey was likely from the 11th century, a time when most people were ignorant and certainly illiterate.  He hypothesized that the Christians who ran the Abby used the wall painting to explain the concept of life after death.  This event was only one of several amazing experiences on the Camino de Santiago.  I treasure my seashell as a symbol of two most-remarkable journeys — which would never have begun were it not for Paul Webb Chapman, my dearest friend.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

1 Response to The Vascones

  1. Andy says:

    A difficult time in history to follow. You made it some easier. In particular, I enjoyed the section on El Cid, one of the few characters of this time that I’d heard of.



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