- Barbarian people whose migration played an important role in the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. The contacts of the Visigoths (literally "west men"; also known as the West Goths or Tervingi) with the Roman Empire may have started as early as the first century, but clearly occurred in the third century when a powerful Gothic kingdom formed along the imperial frontier by the Danube River. These early contacts between the Visigoths and the Romans were often violent and foreshadowed things to come for both Romans and Goths. The Romans were able to smash the Visigothic threat in the third century, only to face a greater one in the fourth and fifth centuries. From their settlements outside the empire, the Visigoths entered the empire as a result of the advance of the Huns. Once inside the empire, the Visigoths became both its defender and attacker. They inflicted a stunning defeat on imperial armies in 378 and pillaged parts of the Eastern Empire before coming to terms with Emperor Theodosius the Great. After the emperor's death, and under the aggressive leadership of Alaric, the Visigoths moved again and sacked Rome in 410. They then moved out of Italy and eventually settled in southwestern France and Spain, where they established one of the most successful kingdoms to form out of the dissolving Western Empire. Although chased from France by the Merovingian king Clovis (r. 481-511), they remained in Spain and established a dynamic civilization that boasted, among other things, the works of the important early seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville. They also converted to Catholic Christianity from the Arian Christianity that the missionary Ulfilas had disseminated among them in the fourth century. Despite its advanced political and cultural institutions, the kingdom fell in the early eighth century when Muslim invaders conquered most of Spain. But Visigothic civilization continued to influence Christian Europe even after the kingdom's conquest by Islam.The people who came to be identified as the Visigoths are traditionally thought to have emerged in Scandinavia and then to have moved further south, where they came into contact with the Roman Empire. According to the sixth-century historian Jordanes, "from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races of a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name" (104). Historians have long accepted this tale of Gothic origins as essentially true, but recent archeological investigation has challenged this view, suggesting instead origin along the Vistula River in Poland. Although the record is uncertain, in part because the Goths were a nonliterate people and left no written records, it is possible that the Goths were involved with hostilities between Romans and barbarians in the first and second centuries. Their distance from the frontier, however, guaranteed that they were not the focus of imperial concerns. The Visigoths, however, eventually moved from their original homeland southward along the Roman frontier along the Danube and caused the Romans increasing difficulty, especially in the dark years of the third century.Votive crowns of King Reccenswith (Owen Franken/Corbis)In 238 the first Gothic attack on Roman territory occurred, which was followed by further hostilities between the two powers. Over the next several decades, Gothic attacks became an ever greater problem for the empire, and in 251 the Goths defeated a Roman army and killed Emperor Decius. In the next generation, however, Roman emperors Aurelian and Claudius were able to turn the tide, inflicting severe defeats on the Visigoths that nearly wiped them out as a people.The Visigoths then settled in the region between the Danubian border and the Black Sea and remained good neighbors to the empire for over a century. During this time, the Visigoths had much better relations with the empire. There were frequent trade contacts between the two, as a variety of goods were exchanged, including cattle, clothing, grain, slaves, and wine. It was during this period as well that the Gothic missionary bishop Ulfilas spread Arian Christianity among the Gothic people and converted some of them, despite a fierce reaction against his missionary work by Gothic leaders. Settled life also brought increasing social sophistication and wealth. New social elites emerged, including specialized armed warriors who served Gothic chieftains. The warriors, as revealed from burial sites in modern Denmark, were well armed and carried knives, spears, lances, and other specialized weaponry. Along with the warrior elite there emerged a new ruling elite, as well as a peasant class that was dedicated to farming. Indeed, agriculture became an important economic activity in this period, as did metalworking; a number of brooches worked in a way characteristic of the Goths began appearing at this time.For much of the fourth century relations between the empire and the Goths were relatively peaceful, but efforts by the empire to extend its influence into Gothic territory strained relations. This situation was worsened by the westward movement of the Huns, who had conquered Ostrogothic territory and were increasing their pressure on the Visigoths. In 376, the pressure from the Huns was so severe that the Visigoths divided into two camps, one led by Athanaric, who had failed to prevent the Huns' advance, and a larger contingent, led by Fritigern, that petitioned Emperor Valens for entry into the empire. The Romans had welcomed barbarian peoples into the empire as foederati (federated allies) previously, but not in such great numbers. Traditionally, the number of Goths to cross into the empire in 376 was about 80,000-an overwhelming number that the local administrators could not handle. Indeed, the sheer number was only one of the difficulties that was faced by the Visigoths and the Romans. The Goths' Arianism increased tensions with the predominately Catholic Roman population, and Roman officials failed to provide the food and other materials necessary for survival that had been promised by the emperor. The Goths rose in rebellion and in 378 fought a great battle against Roman armies at Hadrianople, during which Valens was killed and the imperial force was destroyed. For the next several years the Goths had free rein in Roman territory.In 382, Emperor Theodosius the Great, who had been made eastern emperor in 379 and given command in the Gothic Wars, brought an end to the pillaging of the Goths. He forged a treaty with the Visigoths that granted them land to farm in exchange for service in the Roman military. This treaty held until Theodosius's death in 395 and proved beneficial to the emperor, who employed large numbers of Goths to put down pretenders to the throne, even though he was forced to subdue rebellious Goths on occasion. The death of Theodosius in 395, however, brought about a significant change in the relationship between the two people and the fortunes of both Romans and Visigoths.The rise of Alaric as leader of the Visigoths in the late 390s resulted in the increasing hostility of the Goths toward the Romans. Alaric himself had received a high-ranking imperial military post but nevertheless launched raids into Italy in the early fifth century; he was stopped by Emperor Honorius's chief military officer, Stilicho. But the murder of Stilicho in 408 at the emperor's order removed this impediment to Alaric's ambitions. Moreover, the emperor refused to grant Alaric further concessions or to honor previous financial obligations, which pushed the Gothic leader to launch another attack on Italy in 410. In August of that year, Alaric sacked the city of Rome-the first time the city had suffered such treatment in 800 years-plundering and pillaging it for three days. The event profoundly shocked the people of the empire and inspired St. Augustine of Hippo's writing of his great work The City of God. After sacking the city, Alaric led his followers south with the intention of invading Africa. But his efforts failed, and he died shortly thereafter, replaced by Ataulf, who led the Visigoths into Gaul.During the fifth century the Visigoths regularized their position in Gaul and eventually expanded into Spain. Ataulf's claim to rule in Gaul was uncertain, and relations with the empire took an interesting turn because of his abduction of the emperor's sister Galla Placidia, whom Ataulf married in 414. But Ataulf's death in 415 ended any possibility of one his heirs ascending the imperial throne. His successors returned his widow to the emperor and signed a treaty in 418 in which the Romans recognized Visigothic claims to reside in Gaul between Toulouse and Bordeaux. The treaty was signed by Theodoric I (r. 418-451), who was elected king in 418 and led the Visigoths during their period of settlement and expansion in Gaul. Although probably not recognized as an independent ruler, Theodoric exercised important power over his people and strove to improve its position in the empire. On the one hand, Theodoric remained a loyal ally of the Romans and often led his Visigoths in battle on behalf of the empire. They actively campaigned on behalf of the empire in Spain to prevent other barbarian peoples from conquering that region. They also participated in the great battle fought in 451 against Attila and the Huns on the Catalaunian Plains, where Roman success depended largely on the Visigoths and their king Theodoric, who died in battle. But Theodoric also sought to use any imperial crisis to his advantage and rallied his people on behalf of Galla Placidia in her struggles against the general Aëtius in the 430s. Theodoric also led numerous campaigns in southern Gaul to expand Visigothic control in that part of the empire and attacked its capital, Arles, on several occasions.Theodoric had laid the foundation for later Visigothic expansion under his sons, who succeeded him in turn after his death in 451. The increasing weakness of the Western Empire also enabled the Visigoths to increase the size of their kingdom, although it should be noted that the Visigothic kingdom was not the picture of governmental stability. Theodoric's first two successors, his sons Thorismund and Theodoric II, were assassinated in 453 and 466 respectively. His third son Euric, however, did reign for some eighteen years, and he built upon his father's legacy and Roman weakness to create a great kingdom in southern France and Spain. Breaking the long-standing agreement with the empire, Euric initiated a series of campaigns lasting from 471 to 476 in which he captured most of southern Gaul. At the same time, Euric's armies were extending Visigothic control over all of Spain, and as a result Euric created the most significant successor kingdom of the age.The kingdom, which Euric passed on to his son Alaric II when he died a natural death in 484, inherited a number of Roman institutions that both Euric and Alaric exploited effectively. A number of administrative and bureaucratic techniques were adopted by these kings for their realm, most importantly Roman tax-gathering practices. They also were influenced by Roman legal traditions. Euric issued a set of laws, possibly the Code of Euric, in 473, and Alaric issued the Breviary of Alaric in 506.These legal codes, which were influenced by Roman legal traditions and incorporated Roman laws, addressed a wide range of issues, including loans, use of charters, wills, and other matters concerning relations between Romans and Visigoths under their authority. These kings also shaped church history in their kingdom, promoting the Arian faith that the majority of the Visigoths now professed but being careful not to offend their Catholic Roman subjects by persecuting the Catholic church in their realm. Under Euric and Alaric the Visigoths enjoyed their greatest success, but also suffered a significant setback in 507 when Alaric suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Merovingian king Clovis at the Battle of Vouillé. This battle, which the sixth-century Frankish historian Gregory of Tours portrays as something of a crusade, forced the Visigoths out of most of Gaul and limited their kingdom to the lands in Spain. But despite this loss and the death of Alaric II, the Visigoths enjoyed nearly another two centuries of success in Spain.Although the defeat by Clovis was a serious one, it did not end Visigothic power even in all of Gaul. This was due in part to the Visigoths' own king, but also to support from the powerful Ostrogothic king in Italy, Theodoric the Great. Indeed, Ostrogothic armies in 508 helped push Clovis's armies out of Visigothic territory and allowed Alaric's heirs to preserve part of their former possession in Gaul. But Theodoric's support was not wholly altruistic and formed part of his plan for a greater Gothic kingdom. He extended his authority over Spain and deposed Alaric's heir in favor of a prefect who administered Spain as part of a broader province. Theodoric also transferred the Visigothic treasury to his own capital at Ravenna. This situation was bound to cause dissatisfaction among the Goths in Spain, and after Theodoric's death in 526 the Visigothic royal line was restored when Amalaric, Alaric's son, took the throne.Amalaric's rule was a short and unhappy one, which involved further military losses to the Merovingian kings and ended with his murder in 531. This abrupt end to his reign was followed by an extended political crisis in the kingdom, despite the lengthy rule of Amalaric's murderer Theudis (r. 531-548). The kingdom was plagued by internal instability brought about by the competition of the nobility for greater power and by the attempts of several nobles to usurp the throne or establish themselves as independent of the king. This situation began to change in the 560s, as the Visigothic kings gradually took back control of the kingdom, and it was Leovigild (r. 568-586) who successfully ended the turmoil and restored royal authority fully during his reign.Leovigild's reign is noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which was his restoration of royal power. For much of the first decade of his reign, Leovigild led or sent out military campaigns to suppress rebellious nobles or to conquer rival barbarian or Byzantine powers in Spain. To celebrate his triumph and signal his claims to powers similar to those of the emperors, he founded a city, which he named after his son Reccared. He also forged a marriage alliance with the Merovingians when his son Hermenegild married a Merovingian princess, perhaps building on the marriages of the Visigothic princesses Galswintha and Brunhilde to Merovingian kings. Moreover, Leovigild sought to establish religious uniformity in his kingdom. He promoted the Arian faith, but rather than persecuting Catholic Christians, he sought to convert them by incorporating Catholic practices into the Arian church and moderating Arian theology. His efforts were not that successful; they may even have contributed to Hermenegild's conversion to Catholic Christianity and failed revolt. The religious dilemma, however, was resolved after Leovigild's death by his son Reccared (r. 586-601), who converted to Catholic Christianity and declared it the official faith of the kingdom in 589.The church Reccared founded was extremely independent and zealous in defense of the faith. Indeed, Reccared himself aggressively promoted the new faith against elements in the kingdom that supported the traditional Arianism of the Visigoths. The church remained independent of Rome and was hostile toward the Jews, an attitude supported by royal legislation against the Jews that cost the kings vital support at the time of the Muslim invasions. On the other hand, the Visigothic church was highly sophisticated, and church and king presided over a flourishing cultural life in Spain in the late sixth and seventh centuries. The most notable contribution was that of Isidore of Seville, but Spain was also characterized by a vigorous monastic life, a high level of ecclesiastical culture, and widespread literacy in Latin (unique at a time when inhabitants of the other barbarian kingdoms were only beginning to learn the language). Remarkable too were the churches built in Visigothic Spain, with their characteristic horseshoe arches and lavish decoration.Despite the apparent strength of the Visigothic kingdom, the seventh century witnessed the beginning of the end of this dynamic realm. The monarchy continued to be successful and developed an increasingly sophisticated political theory, revealed in the first royal anointing and coronation after Old Testament models among the barbarian peoples, which took place as early as 631, or at least by the time of King Wamba (r. 672-680). But even before Wamba, Visigothic kings had taken steps to strengthen the monarchy and improve relations between barbarians and Romans. King Chindaswinth (r. 642-653) and his son and successor Recceswinth (r. 653-672) reformed Visigothic law and issued new legal codes that superseded earlier versions, eliminated all distinctions between Romans and Goths, and permitted marriage between the two peoples. Visigothic kings also eliminated the last of their rivals for control of all of Spain. They also continued, however, to pass anti-Semitic legislation, which alienated an important sector of the population. Finally, in the opening decades of the eighth century the Visigoths faced their greatest challenge-Muslim invasion from Africa. In 711, a force of Muslim Berbers led by Tarik defeated a Visigothic army led by King Roderick (r. 710-711) and killed the king. Visigothic resistance continued, but the kingdom was conquered by the Muslims by 725. Although conquered by the Muslims, the influence of the Visigothic kingdom lasted long beyond its disappearance.See alsoAëtius; Agriculture; Alaric; Arianism; Attila the Hun; Augustine of Hippo, St.; Brunhilde; Clovis; Galla Placidia; Galswintha; Gregory of Tours; Hadrianople, Battle of; Hermenegild; Huns; Isidore of Seville; Jordanes; Law and Law Codes: Leovigild; Merovingian Dynasty; Ostrogoths; Reccared I; Stilicho, Flavius; Theodoric the Great; UlfilasBibliography♦ Bonnassie, Pierre. "Society and Mentalities in Visigothic Spain." In From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, trans. Jean Birrell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 60-103.♦ Bury, John B. The Invasions of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.♦ Goffart, Walter. Barbarians and Romans a.d. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.♦ Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.♦ Isidore of Seville. History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi. Trans. Kenneth B. Wolf. 1990.♦ James, Edward, ed. Visigothic Spain: New Approaches. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.♦ Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.♦ King, Peter D. Law and Society in the Visigothic Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1972.♦ Thompson, Edward A. The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.♦ ---. The Goths in Spain. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.♦ Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.♦ ---. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.
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