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Visigoth

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The Visigoths, originally Tervingi, or Vesi ("the noble ones"), one of the two main branches of the Goths (of which the Ostrogothi were the other), were one of the loosely-termed "Germanic peoples" that disturbed the late Roman Empire. After the "fall" of the western Roman Empire, the Visigoths continued to play a major role in western European affairs for another 250 years.

The naming of this people is problematic. From 291, sources call them Tervingi, and about a hundred years later, the term changes to Vesi. Correspondingly, the other branch was originally called Greutungi, but this was soon replaced by Ostrogothi ("gleaming goths"), and from the 390s and onwards the earlier terms are only found in epic poetry. By the 5th century, the two main branches were known as Vesi and Ostrogothi whenever sources cared to specify them more than being Goths. When Cassiodorus wrote the history of the gothic peoples in the early 6th century, he interpreted Ostrogothi as "East Goths", and invented the term Visigothi as supposedly meaning "West Goths". There was some logic in this invention, since the Vesi ruled the Iberian Peninsula and the Ostrogothi parts of Italy at this time. This usage has continued to this day, though since the 1970s, modern historians have started to use the contemporary terms instead of Cassiodorus' interpretations.

Table of contents
1 Early history
2 Visigothic Kingdom in Aquitaine
3 Visigothic kingdom in Spain
4 External links
5 Kings of the Visigoths
6 See Also

Early history

The Visigoths first appeared in history as a distinct people in the year 268, when they invaded the Roman Empire and swarmed over the Balkan peninsula. This invasion overran the Roman provinces of Pannonia and Illyricum and even threatened Italia itself. However, the Visigoths were defeated in battle near the modern Italy-Slovenia border that summer, and then routed in the Battle of Naissus that September. Over the next three years, they were driven back over the Danube River in a series of campaigns by the emperors Claudius II Gothicus and Aurelian. However, they maintained their hold on the Roman province of Dacia, which Aurelian evacuated in 271.

Settled in Dacia, the Visigoths adopted Arianism, a branch of Christianity that believed that Jesus Christ was not an aspect of God in the Trinity, but a separate being created directly beneath God. This belief was in opposition to the tenets of mainstream Catholicism, which achieved a religious monopoly in the 4th and 5th century. The Spanish Visigoths adhered to Arianism until 589, when King Reccared (Ricardo) I converted his people to Catholicism. For the role of Arianism in Visigothic kingship, see the entry for Leovigild.

They remained in Dacia until 376, when one of their two leaders, Fritigern, appealed to the Roman emperor Valens to be allowed to settle with his people on the south bank of the Danube. Here, they hoped to find refuge from the Huns, who lacked the ability to cross the wide river in force. Valens permitted this, and even helped bring the Visigoths over the river. In return, Fritigern was to provide soldiers for the Roman army. Valens promised the Visigoths farming land, grain rations, and protection under the Roman armies. His major reason to quickly accept the Goths into Roman territory is, of course, to increase the size of his personal army. The selection of which of the Goths might cross the Danube was unforgiving— the weak, old, and sickly were left on the far bank to fend for themselves against the Huns. The ones that crossed were meant to have their weapons confiscated, but the Romans in charge accepted bribes to allow the Goths to retain their weapons.

However, a famine broke out in the lands settled by the Visigoths a year later, and Rome was able to supply them with neither the land they were promised--they herded the Goths into a temporary holding area; it is often compared to a World War II concentration camp--nor the food. There was only enough grain left for the Roman garrison, and so they simply let the Visigoths starve. However, the Romans provided a grim alternative: the trade of a child for dog meat. When Fritigern appealed to Valens for help, he was told that his people would find food and trade in the markets of the distant city of Marcianople. Having no alternative, the Goths trekked across the Balkan landscape in a death march, losing the sickly and old along the path. When they finally reached Marcianople's gates, they were barred out by the city's military garrison and denied entry. Rioting ensued, which had the following consequences: 1. The Visigoths were able to match Rome's military technology through their raiding, 2. The Goths were able to obtain the necessary food in this manner, and they grew in number, and 3. Valens, after a victorious campaign in Persia, was forced to trek directly from the Persian battle to a battle with the Goths.


The Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378 erupted. Acting on a false message, Valens was completely unaware of the Goths' numbers. To add to the blazing August heat the Goths set the fields ablaze, and managed to box the Roman infantry in the center of the battlefield so as to only have to fight one Roman at a time. The Roman forces were slaughtered; the Emperor Valens died during the fighting.

The new emperor, Theodosius I (Valens had died at Adrianople), made peace with Fritigern in 379, and this peace held essentially unbroken until Theodosius died in 395. In that year, the Visigoths' most famous king, Alaric I, took the throne, while Theodosius was succeeded by his incapable sons: Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west.

Over the next 15 years, occasional conflicts were broken by years of uneasy peace between Alaric and the powerful German generals who commanded the Roman armies in the east and west, wielding the real power of the empire. Finally, after the western generalissimo Stilicho was murdered by Honorius in 408 and the Roman legions massacred the families of 30,000 barbarian soldiers serving in the Roman army, Alaric declared war. With Alaric and his army at the gates of Rome, Honorius still refused to come to terms, so Alaric sacked the city on August 24, 410. While Rome was no longer the official capital of the Western Roman Empire (it had been moved to Ravenna for strategic reasons) its fall severely shook the empire's foundations.

Visigothic Kingdom in Aquitaine

After peace was secured a few years later, Honorius granted the Visigoths control of Aquitaine, which connoted a larger area than the modern region of Aquitaine in France, and the Visigothic kings expanded into Spain as well. At first, they shared Spain with the Vandals and Alans, but soon crushed the latter and made life so difficult for the Vandals that they moved on to North Africa in search of easier conquests.

The Visigoths' second great king, Euric, unified the various quarreling factions of the Visigoths, and in 475, forced the Roman government to grant them full independence. At his death, the Visigoths were the most powerful of the successor states to the Western Empire.

At its greatest extent, before the Battle of Vouillé 507, the Visigothic kingdom included all of the Iberian peninsula except for small areas in the north (belonging to the Basques) and in the northwest (the Suevi kingdom), plus Aquitaine.

Visigothic kingdom in Spain

In 407 to 409 the Vandals, with allied Alans and Germanic tribes like the Suevi swept into the Iberian peninsula, and the West Goths were given a free hand by the Western emperor to operate in the peninsula. The Vandals settled in central and southern Spain: Andalucia is a Berber transformation of "land of the Vandals". The Suevi established a longer-lasting kingdom in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

In 410 Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths. As Roman rule in Spain fell apart when faced with the arrival of a multitude of barbarian settlements, these Visigoths were asked by Rome to stem the decline of Roman rule in Iberia. The Visigoth armies arrived in Spain and soon became the dominant power. By 429 they forced the Vandals from the peninsula into North Africa, and by 500 the Visigoths controlled most of Spain with the exception of the Suevi kingdom in the northwest and the ungovernable Basques. At first the Hispanic territories were governed from the Visigoth capital at Toulouse, in the south of France.

At Vouillé in 507, the Franks wrested control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths, and in 554, Granada and Andalusia were lost to representatives of the Byzantine Empire who had been invited in to help settle a Visigothic dynastic struggle, but who stayed on, as a hoped-for spearhead to a "Reconquest" of the far west envisaged by emperor Justinian I. The center of Visigothic rule shifted first to Barcelona, then inland and south to Toledo. For a time Visigoths and Ostrogoths were reunited under Theodoric the great, ruling from Ravenna.

Among the Hispanic Christians, deep splits had led to the martyrdom of the ascetic Priscillian of Avila by orthodox Catholic forces in 385, and the following generations suffered persecution as "Priscillianist" heretics were rooted out. At the very beginning of Leo I's pontificate, in the years 444-447, Turribius, the bishop of Astorga in Galicia, sent to Rome a memorandum warning that Priscillianism was by no means dead, that it numbered even bishops among its supporters, and asking the aid of the Roman See. The distance was insurmountable in the 5th century, but Leo intervened by forwarding a set of propositions that each bishop was required to sign: all did. But if Priscillianist bishops hesitated to be barred from their sees, a passionately concerned segment of Christian communities in Spain were disaffected from their hierarchy and welcomed the tolerant Arian Visigoths, who scorned to interfere among Catholics but were interested in decorum and public order. The Arian visigoths were tolerant of Jews. Visigothic persecution of Jews had to wait for the conversion to Christianity of the Visigothic king Reccared and the same synod of Catholic bishops in 633 that usurped the Visigothic nobles' right to confirm the election of a king declared that all Jews must be baptised.

The Visigothic Code of Law (forum judicum) which had been part of aristocratic oral tradition, was set in writing in the early 7th century— and survives in two separate codices preserved at the Escorial. It goes into more detail than a modern constitution commonly does and reveals a great deal about Visigothic social structure.

The last Arian Visigothic king Leovigild conquered the Suevi kingdom in 584 and regained part of the southern areas lost to the Byzantines, which his heir conquered completely in 624. With the catholicization of the Visigothic kings, the Catholic bishops increased in power, until, at the synod held at Toledo in 633, they took upon themselves the nobles' right to select a king from among the royal family. The kingdom survived until 711, when King Roderic (Rodrigo) was killed while opposing an invasion from the south by the Omayyad Muslims. Most of Spain came under Islamic rule by 718.

A Visigothic nobleman, Pelayo, is credited with beginning the Christian Reconquista of Spain in 718, when he defeated the Omayyads in battle and established the Kingdom of Asturias in the northern part of the peninsula. Other Visigoths, refusing to adopt the Muslim faith or live under their rule, fled north to the kingdom of the Franks, and Visigoths played key roles in the empire of Charlemagne a few generations later.

The list of Visigoth kings is quoted in Spain as the typical example of school during the time of Franco with rote memorization.

External links

Kings of the Visigoths

Balthi Dynasty

Later Kings

See Also