The Visigoths (UK: /ˈvɪzɪˌɡɒθs/; US: /ˈvɪzɪˌɡɑːθs/, Latin: Visigothi, Wisigothi, Vesi, Visi, Wesi, or Wisi) were branches of the nomadic tribes of Germanic peoples referred to collectively as the Goths. These tribes flourished and spread during the late Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or the Migration Period. The Visigoths emerged from earlier Gothic groups (possibly the Thervingi) who had invaded the Roman Empire beginning in 376 and had defeated the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Relations between the Romans and the Visigoths were variable, alternately warring with one another and making treaties when convenient. The Visigoths invaded Italy under Alaric I and sacked Rome in 410. After the Visigoths sacked Rome, they began settling down, first in southern Gaul and eventually in Spain and Portugal, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD.
The Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul as foederati of the Romans – a relationship established in 418. However, they soon fell out with their Roman hosts (for reasons that are now obscure) and established their own kingdom with its capital at Toulouse. They next extended their authority into Hispania at the expense of the Suebi and Vandals. In 507, however, their rule in Gaul was ended by the Franks under Clovis I, who defeated them in the Battle of Vouillé. After that, the Visigoth kingdom was limited to Hispania, and they never again held territory north of the Pyrenees other than Septimania. A small, elite group of Visigoths came to dominate the governance of that region at the expense of those who had previously ruled there, particularly in the Byzantine province of Spania and the Kingdom of the Suebi.
In or around 589, the Visigoths under Reccared I converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity, gradually adopting the culture of their Hispano-Roman subjects. Their legal code, the Visigothic Code (completed in 654) abolished the longstanding practice of applying different laws for Romans and Visigoths. Once legal distinctions were no longer being made between Romani and Gothi, they became known collectively as Hispani. In the century that followed, the region was dominated by the Councils of Toledo and the episcopacy. (Little else is known about the Visigoths' history during the 7th century, since records are relatively sparse.) In 711 or 712, a force of invading Arabs and Berbers defeated the Visigoths in the Battle of Guadalete. Their king and many members of their governing elite were killed, and their kingdom rapidly collapsed. Gothic identity survived, however, especially in Marca Hispanica and the Kingdom of Asturias, which had been founded by the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius of Asturias after his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Covadonga.
During their governance of the Kingdom of Hispania, the Visigoths built several churches that survive. They also left many artifacts, which have been discovered in increasing numbers by archaeologists in recent times. The Treasure of Guarrazar of votive crowns and crosses is the most spectacular. They founded the only new cities in western Europe from the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire until the rise of the Carolingian dynasty. Many Visigothic names are still in use in modern Spanish and Portuguese. Their most notable legacy, however, was the Visigothic Code, which served, among other things, as the basis for court procedure in most of Christian Iberia until the Late Middle Ages, centuries after the demise of the kingdom.
Nomenclature: Vesi, Ostrogothi, Tervingi, Greuthungi
Contemporaneous references to the Gothic tribes use the terms "Vesi" (Latin for Visigoths), "Ostrogothi", "Thervingi", and "Greuthungi." Most scholars have concluded that the terms "Vesi" and "Tervingi" were both used to refer to one particular tribe, while the terms "Ostrogothi" and "Greuthungi" were used to refer to another. Herwig Wolfram points out that while primary sources occasionally list all four names (as in, for example, Gruthungi, Austrogothi, Tervingi, Visi), whenever they mention two different tribes, they always refer either to "the Vesi and the Ostrogothi" or to "the Tervingi and the Greuthungi", and they never pair them up in any other combination. This conclusion is supported by Jordanes, who identified the Visigoth (Vesi) kings from Alaric I to Alaric II as the heirs of the 4th century Tervingian king Athanaric, and the Ostrogoth kings from Theoderic the Great to Theodahad as the heirs of the Greuthungi king Ermanaric. In addition, the Notitia Dignitatum equates the Vesi with the Tervingi in a reference to the years 388–391.
The earliest sources for each of the four names are roughly contemporaneous. The first recorded reference to "the Tervingi" is in a eulogy of the emperor Maximian (285–305), delivered in or shortly after 291 (perhaps at Trier on 20 April 292) and traditionally ascribed to Claudius Mamertinus. It says that the "Tervingi, another division of the Goths" (Tervingi pars alia Gothorum), joined with the Taifali to attack the Vandals and Gepidae. (The term "Vandals" may have been a mistaken reference to the "Victohali", since around 360 the historian Eutropius reports that Dacia was currently inhabited by Taifali, Victohali, and Tervingi.) The first recorded reference to "the Greuthungi" is by Ammianus Marcellinus, writing no earlier than 392 and perhaps later than 395, recounting the words of a Tervingian chieftain who is attested as early as 376. The first known use of the term "Ostrogoths" is in a document dated September 392 from Milan. (Claudian mentions that they, together with the Gruthungi, inhabit Phrygia.)
Gutthiuda, the country of Visigoths
Wolfram notes that "Vesi" and "Ostrogothi" were terms each tribe used to boastfully describe itself and argues that "Tervingi" and "Greuthungi" were geographical identifiers each tribe used to describe the other. This would explain why the latter terms dropped out of use shortly after 400, when the Goths were displaced by the Hunnic invasions. As an example of this geographical naming practice, Wolfram cites an account by Zosimus of a group of people living north of the Danube who called themselves "the Scythians" but were called "the Greutungi" by members of a different tribe living north of the Ister. Wolfram believes that the people Zosimus describes were those Tervingi who had remained behind after the Hunnic conquest. For the most part, all of the terms discriminating between different Gothic tribes gradually disappeared after they moved into the Roman Empire. The last indication that the Goths whose king reigned at Toulouse thought of themselves as "Vesi" is found in a panegyric on Avitus by Sidonius Apollinaris dated 1 January 456.
Most recent scholars (notably Peter Heather) have concluded that Visigothic group identity emerged only within the Roman Empire. Roger Collins believes that the Visigothic identity emerged from the Gothic War of 376–382 when a collection of Tervingi, Greuthungi, and other "barbarian" contingents banded together in multiethnic foederati (Wolfram's "federate armies") under Alaric I in the eastern Balkans, since they had become a multiethnic group and could no longer claim to be exclusively Tervingian.
The term "Visigoth" was an invention of the 6th century. Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theoderic the Great, invented the term "Visigothi" to match that of "Ostrogothi", terms he thought of as signifying "western Goths" and "eastern Goths" respectively. The western–eastern division was a simplification (and a literary device) of 6th century historians; political realities were more complex. Further, Cassiodorus used the term "Goths" to refer only to the Ostrogoths, whom he served, and reserved the geographical term "Visigoths" for the Gallo-Spanish Goths. This usage, however, was adopted by the Visigoths themselves in their communications with the Byzantine Empire and was still in use in the 7th century.
Other names for other Gothic divisions abounded. A "Germanic" Byzantine or Italian author referred to one of the two peoples as the Valagothi, meaning "Roman Goths", and in 469 the Visigoths were called the "Alaric Goths".
Etymology of Tervingi and Vesi/Visigothi
The name Tervingi may mean "forest people". This is supported by evidence that geographic descriptors were commonly used to distinguish people living north of the Black Sea both before and after Gothic settlement there, by evidence of forest-related names among the Tervingi, and by the lack of evidence for an earlier date for the name pair Tervingi–Greuthungi than the late 3rd century. That the name Tervingi has pre-Pontic, possibly Scandinavian, origins still has support today.
The Visigoths are called Wesi or Wisi by Trebellius Pollio, Claudian, and Sidonius Apollinaris. The word is Gothic for "good", implying the "good or worthy people", related to Gothic iusiza "better" and a reflex of Indo-European *wesu "good", akin to Welsh gwiw "excellent", Greek eus "good", Sanskrit vásu-ş "id.". Jordanes relates the tribe's name to a river, though this is most likely a folk etymology or legend like his similar story about the Greuthung name. The name Visigothi is an invention of Cassiodorus, who combined Visi and Gothi under the misapprehension that it meant "west Goths".
The Visigoths or 'western Goths' as connoted by Cassiodorus emerged from the Gothic tribes, most likely a derivative name for the Gutones, a people believed to have their origins in Scandinavia and who migrated southeastwards into eastern Europe. Such understanding of their origins is largely the result of Gothic traditions and their true genesis as a people is as equally obscure as those of the Franks and Alamanni. The Visigoths spoke an eastern Germanic language which by the 4th century AD was distinct. Eventually the Gothic language died as a result of contact with other European people during the Middle Ages.
Long struggles between the neighboring Vandili and Lugii people with the Goths may have contributed to their earlier exodus into mainland Europe. The vast majority of them settled between the Oder and Vistula rivers until overpopulation (according to Gothic legends) forced them to move south and east, where they settled just north of the Black Sea in Ukraine. Unfortunately this legend is not supported by archaeological evidence so its validity is disputable. Historian Malcolm Todd contends that while this large en masse migration is possible, the movement of Gothic peoples south-east was more likely the result of warrior bands moving closer to the wealth of the Ukraine and the cities of the Black Sea coast. Perhaps what is most notable about the Gothic people in this regard was that by the middle of the 3rd century AD, they were "the most formidable military power beyond the lower Danube frontier."
Contact with Rome
Throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, there were numerous conflicts and exchanges of varying types between the Goths and their neighbors. In AD 238 the Goths invaded across the Danube into the Roman province of Moesia, pillaging and exacting payment through hostage taking. During that same year consequent the war with the Persians in AD 238, Goths also appear in the Roman armies of Gordian III. When subsidies to the Goths were stopped, the Goths organized and in AD 250 joined a major barbarian invasion led by the Germanic king, Kniva. Success on the battlefield against the Romans inspired additional invasions into the northern Balkans and deeper into Asia Minor. Starting in approximately AD 255, the Goths added a new dimension to their attacks by taking to the sea and invading harbors which brought them into conflict with the Greeks as well. When the city of Pityus fell to the Goths in 256, the Goths were further emboldened. Sometime between AD 266-267 the Goths raided Greece but when they attempted to move into the Bosporus straits to attack Byzantium, they were repulsed. Along with other Germanic tribes, they attacked further into Asia Minor, assaulting Crete and Cyprus on the way; shortly thereafter, they pillaged Troy and the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Throughout the reign of emperor Constantine I, the Visigoths continued to conduct raids on Roman territory south of the Danube River. By AD 332, relations between the Goths and Romans were stabilized by a treaty but this was not to last.
War with Rome (376–382)
The Goths remained in Dacia until 376, when one of their 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. Valens permitted this, as he saw in them "a splendid recruiting ground for his army." However, a famine broke out and Rome was unwilling to supply them with either the food they were promised or the land. Generally, the Goths were abused by the Romans who began exchanging food for slaves from among the Goths. Open revolt ensued leading to 6 years of plundering and destruction throughout the Balkans, the death of a Roman Emperor and the destruction of an entire Roman army.
The Battle of Adrianople in 378 was the decisive moment of the war. The Roman forces were slaughtered and the Emperor Valens was killed during the fighting. Precisely how Valens fell remains uncertain but Gothic legend tells of how the emperor was taken to a farmhouse which was set on fire above his head, a tale made more popular by its symbolic representation of a heretical emperor receiving hell's torment. Many of Rome's leading officers and some of their most elite fighting men died during the battle which struck a major blow to Roman prestige and the Empire's military capabilities. Adrianople shocked the Roman world and eventually forced the Romans to negotiate with and settle the tribe within the empire's boundaries, a development with far reaching consequences for the eventual fall of Rome. Fourth-century Roman soldier and historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, ended his chronology of Roman history with this battle.
Despite the severe consequences for Rome, Adrianople was not nearly as productive overall for the Visigoths and their gains were short-lived. Still confined to a small and relatively impoverished province of the Empire, another Roman army was being gathered against them, an army which also had amid its ranks, other disaffected Goths. Intense campaigns against the Visigoths followed their victory at Adrianople for upwards of three years. Approach routes across the Danube provinces were effectively sealed off by concerted Roman efforts and while there was no decisive victory to claim, it was essentially a Roman triumph ending in a treaty in AD 382. The treaty struck with the Goths was to be the first foedus on imperial Roman soil. It required these semi-autonomous Germanic tribes to raise troops for the Roman army in exchange for arable land and freedom from Roman legal structures within the Empire.
Reign of Alaric I
The new emperor, Theodosius I, made peace with the rebels, and this peace held essentially unbroken until Theodosius died in 395. In that year, the Visigoths' most famous king, Alaric I, took the throne. Theodosius was succeeded by his incapable sons: Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west. In AD 397, Alaric was named commander of the eastern Illyrician prefecture by Arcadius.
Over the next 15 years, an uneasy peace was broken by occasional conflicts between Alaric and the powerful Germanic generals who commanded the Roman armies in the east and west, wielding the real power of the empire. Finally, after the western general Stilicho was executed by Honorius in 408 and the Roman legions massacred the families of 30,000 barbarian soldiers serving in the Roman army, Alaric declared war. After two defeats in Northern Italy and a siege of Rome ended by a negotiated pay-off, Alaric was cheated by another Roman faction. He resolved to cut the city off by capturing its port. On August 24, 410, however, Alaric's troops entered Rome through the Salarian Gate, to plunder its riches in the sack of Rome. 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. Material resources in hand after taking the western Empire’s capital, Alaric and the Visigoths extracted as much as they could from Italy and then made their way into northern Africa. Unfortunately, Alaric died before reaching Africa and was succeeded by his wife’s brother Ataulf.
The Visigothic Kingdom was a Western European power in the 5th to 7th centuries, created in Gaul when the Romans lost their control of the western half of their empire. In response to the invasion of Roman Hispania of 409 by the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, Honorius, the emperor in the West, enlisted the aid of the Visigoths to regain control of the territory. In 418, Honorius rewarded his Visigothic federates by giving them land in Gallia Aquitania on which to settle. This was probably done under hospitalitas, the rules for billeting army soldiers. The settlement formed the nucleus of the future Visigothic kingdom that would eventually expand across the Pyrenees and onto the Iberian peninsula. That Visigothic settlement proved paramount to Europe's future as had it not been for the Visigothic warriors who fought side-by-side with the Roman troops under general Flavius Aetius, it quite probable that Attila the Hun would have seized control of Gaul and not the Romans.
The Visigoths' second great king, Euric, unified the various quarreling factions among 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 Roman Empire and were at the very heights of their power.
At this point, the Visigoths were also the dominant power in the Iberian Peninsula, quickly crushing the Alans and forcing the Vandals into north Africa. By 500, the Visigothic Kingdom, centred at Toulouse, controlled Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis and most of Hispania with the exception of the Suevic kingdom in the northwest and small areas controlled by the Basques and Cantabrians. However, in 507, the Franks under Clovis I defeated the Visigoths in the Vouillé and wrested control of Aquitaine. King Alaric II was killed in battle.
After Alaric's death, Visigothic nobles spirited his heir, the child-king Amalaric, first to Narbonne, which was the last Gothic outpost in Gaul, and further across the Pyrenees into Hispania. The center of Visigothic rule shifted first to Barcelona, then inland and south to Toledo. From 511 to 526, the Visigoths were ruled by Theoderic the Great of the Ostrogoths as de jure regent for the young Amalaric.
In 554, Granada and southernmost Hispania Baetica were lost to representatives of the Byzantine Empire (to form the province of Spania) 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 last Arian Visigothic king, Liuvigild, conquered most of the northern regions (Cantabria) in 574, the Suevic kingdom in 585, and regained part of the southern areas lost to the Byzantines, which King Suintila reconquered completely in 624. The kingdom survived until 711, when King Roderic (Rodrigo) was killed while opposing an invasion from the south by the Umayyad Muslims in the Battle of Guadalete on July 19. This marked the beginning of the Muslim conquest of Hispania in which most of the peninsula came under Islamic rule by 718.
A Visigothic nobleman, Pelayo, is credited with beginning the Christian Reconquista of Iberia in 718, when he defeated the Umayyads in battle and established the Kingdom of Asturias in the northern part of the peninsula. Other Visigoths who refused 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. In the early years of the Emirate of Córdoba, a group of Visigoths who remained under Muslim dominance constituted the personal bodyguard of the Emir, the Al-Haras.
During their long reign in Spain, the Visigoths were responsible for the only new cities founded in Western Europe between the 5th and 8th centuries. It is certain (through contemporary Spanish accounts) that they founded four: Reccopolis, Victoriacum (modern Vitoria-Gasteiz, though perhaps Iruña-Veleia), Luceo, and Olite. There is also a possible fifth city ascribed to them by a later Arabic source: Baiyara (perhaps modern Montoro). All of these cities were founded for military purposes and three of them in celebration of victory. Oddly enough, despite that the Visigoths reigned in Spain for upwards of 250 years, there are almost no recognizable remnants of the Gothic language borrowed into Spanish.
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.
One of the greatest contributions of the Visigoths to family law was their protection of the property rights of married women, which was continued by Spanish law and ultimately evolved into the community property system now in force in part of the United States.
Prior to the Middle Ages, the Visigoths, as well as other Germanic peoples, followed what is now referred to as Germanic paganism. While the Germanic peoples were slowly converted to Christianity by varying means, many elements of the pre-Christian culture and indigenous beliefs remained firmly in place after the conversion process, particularly in the more rural and distant regions.
The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals were Christianized while they were still outside the bounds of the Roman Empire; however, they converted to Arianism rather than to the Nicean ("Catholic") version followed by most Romans, who considered them heretics. The Visigothic leadership maintained its Arianism up until at least the reign of King Liuvigild.
There was a religious gulf between the Visigoths, who had for a long time adhered to Arianism, and their Catholic subjects in Hispania. The Iberian Visigoths continued to be Arians until 589. There were also deep sectarian splits among the Catholic population of the peninsula. The ascetic Priscillian of Avila was martyred by the Catholic usurper Magnus Maximus in 385, who was trying to prove his correct religious credentials against heretics, before the Visigothic period, and the persecution continued in subsequent generations as "Priscillianist" heretics were rooted out. At the very beginning of Leo I's pontificate, in the years 444–447, Turribius, bishop of Astorga in León, sent to Rome a memorandum warning that Priscillianism was by no means dead, reporting that it numbered even bishops among its supporters, and asking the aid of the Roman See. The distance was insurmountable in the 5th century. Nevertheless, 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 Iberia were disaffected from the more orthodox hierarchy and welcomed the tolerant Arian Visigoths. The Visigoths scorned to interfere among Catholics but were interested in decorum and public order.
When the Visigoths took over Spain, Jews constituted a large and very ancient proportion of the population. Many were farmers, but they worked in a wide range of occupations, and were a major component of the urbanized population of the larger towns particularly of eastern Spain. During the period in which the Visigoths adhered to Arianism, the situation of the Jews seems to have remained relatively good. Previous Roman and Byzantine law determined their status, and it already sharply discriminated against them, but royal jurisdiction was in any case quite limited: local lords and populations related to Jews as they saw fit. We read of rabbis being asked by non-Jews to bless their fields, for example. "Some Jews held ranking posts in the government or the army; others were recruited and organized for garrison service; still others continued to hold senatorial rank." In general, then, they were well respected and well treated.
However, this changed with the conversion of King Reccared to Catholicism in 589. Catholic conversion across Visigothic society reduced much of the friction between their people and the native Spanish population. One chief purpose of this conversion was to unify the realm under the Church, and one of the key complaints of the Church had long been that Jews had too much status, prosperity and influence. Local nobles relied on their Jewish and non-Jewish sectors of the population to enhance the local economy and the noble's independent power. Visigothic political structure had traditionally given extensive powers to local nobles (who even elected their kings), so the king was in many ways merely 'the first amongst equals,' and central authority was weak. The status of the Jews therefore impacted both symbolically and politically on local aristocrats. Almost immediately, therefore, King Reccared convened the first Council of Toledo to "regulate" relations between Christians and Jews. The discriminatory laws passed at this Council seem not to have been well nor universally enforced, however, as indicated by several more Councils of Toledo that were held in subsequent years that repeated these laws, and extended their stringency. These entered canon law and became legal precedents in other parts of Europe as well. The culmination of this process occurred under King Sisibut, in 613, with a decree ordering the forced conversion of all Jews in Spain. However, even this apparently achieved only partial success: similar decrees were repeated with increasing irritation and effect by later kings, as central power was consolidated. These laws either decreed the forcible baptism of the Jews or forbade circumcision, Jewish rites and observance of the Sabbath and festivals. Throughout the 7th century, Jews were flogged, executed, had their property confiscated, were subjected to ruinous taxes, forbidden to trade and, at times, dragged to the baptismal font. Many were obliged to accept Christianity but continued privately to observe the Jewish religion and practices. The decree of 613 set off a century of torment for Spanish Jewry, which was only ended by the Muslim conquest.
The political aspects of the imposition of Church power cannot be ignored in these matters. With the conversion of the Visigothic kings to Chalcedonian Christianity, the bishops increased in power, until, at the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633 AD, they took upon themselves the right that the nobles had previously had to select a king from among the royal family. This was the same synod that declared that all Jews must be baptised.
In the eighth through 11th centuries the muwallad clan of the Banū Qāsī claimed descent from the Visigothic Count Cassius.
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