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Visigoths in Gaul and Spain

Origin and Migration

The Goths were known as fierce warriors who were part of the tribes that migrated from their homeland in Scandia into the frontiers of the Eastern Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. The Huns later invaded the Goths in their temporary settlement and drove them out of the Black Sea region, desperate and just as hungry as they were when they left Scandia. To ensure that their people would survive, the Gothic leaders sent envoys to Emperor Valens to negotiate a treaty that would allow their people to settle in Moesia or Thrace. In exchange, they would submit to the emperor and convert to Christianity—an arrangement that suited the Emperor Valens just fine but would come to regret later. He accepted and allowed them to settle in Moesia and Dacia Ripensis. In return, the Goths helped convert their neighbors to Arianism, the Ostrogoths, and the Gepids. These events led the Visigoths to invade Gaul and Spain between 415 – 711 AD according to the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History.

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Famine and the greed of Roman officials who handled the funds derailed the treaty between the Goths and Emperor Valens. Many of the Goths went hungry or were enslaved. This situation worsened when the Roman general Lupicinus plotted to have the Goths’ leader Fritigern killed during a banquet. The plot did not succeed, but the die was cast. The Goths felt understandably betrayed. They rampaged through the city because of this slight. This was the Goths’ entry into the fragmented Roman Empire and start of the two peoples’ complicated relationship through the years of the empire’s collapse. The Goths themselves would split into two: the people who settled near the Black Sea were called Ostrogoths while those who ventured west into Gaul and Hispania were known as Visigoths.

“Map showing the migrations of the Vandals from Germany through Dacia, Gaul, Iberia, and into North Africa, and their raids throughout the Mediterranean.”

To the West: Visigoths in Gaul and Hispania

The Visigoths went on to become some of the most feared barbarians that descended into the remnants of the Western Roman Empire. As years passed and the promise of a homeland became out of their reach, the Visigoths (who were led by the great King Alaric) rampaged into Italy and sacked Rome in 410 AD. King Ataulf later succeeded Alaric upon his death and the king’s marriage to Emperor Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia gave the Visigoths a glimmer of hope that they would soon share in the empire’s land and riches (or what remained of it).

Ataulf knew that another attack into Italy seemed far-fetched for the moment, so he set his sights on conquering Gaul which was then ruled by the usurper Constantine III. Honorius sent soldiers to Gaul to assassinate Constantine III. Ataulf took advantage of the chaos in the territory to invade in 413 AD. The Visigoths seized Narbonensis from the beleaguered Roman soldiers and made the city of Toulouse their new kingdom’s capital. The Visigoths extended their territory into northern Hispania, but for Ataulf, this did not seem enough. He longed to be a part of Roman empire, so he appointed a former Roman senator named Attalus as emperor in his territory

The act angered emperor Honorius, so he sent soldiers from Ravenna to besiege the Visigoths in Gaul and kill Attalus—which the Roman soldiers did with great success the moment they arrived in Hispania. The Visigoths were back to where they started—hungry and besieged. They were unhappy with the turn of events. Ataulf was murdered in 415 AD by a resentful member of his tribe. He was succeeded by a Visigoth warrior named Wallia (Ataulf’s murderer also crowned himself as king, but he was killed by Wallia after seven days of reign). Wallia proposed a treaty to Honorius for him to leave them in peace. This was in exchange for the hostages Alaric took from Rome years before. Which included Galla Placidia and a young boy named Aetius (who later rose as one of the Western Empire’s greatest general).

Hispania: Vandals, Suebi, and the Visigoths

Honorius agreed to the truce and left the Visigoths alone to conquer Hispania. Which, by then, was ruled by the Vandals. The Vandals later left Hispania, sailed off to North Africa, and established Carthage as their own territory; they were replaced by another barbarian tribe, the Suebi, who were easily overpowered by the Visigoths during their conquest of Hispania. There they became more powerful as the rulers of the Western Roman Empire fought off other barbarians. The empire was further weakened from internal strife. By the middle of the fifth century, the Visigoths had pushed the Suebi to a small territory on the northwest corner of Hispania and claimed almost all of the peninsula for themselves. The Visigoths then had something that they yearned for many years: a homeland.

The Visigoths reached the height of their power in Gaul and Hispania during the middle of the sixth and seventh centuries. Various kings rose and fell. The Visigoths played their cards very well against the Franks and Suebi. One Spanish Visigoth princess, Brunhilda, rose to such greatness in Austrasia after she married the Frankish prince Sigebert. Her sister, the younger Galswintha, married Sigebert’s brother and ruler of Neustria, Chilperic. But Chilperic married a woman named Fredegund some time earlier. It was alleged that the couple murdered Galswintha in Neustria so they could be together again.

The death of her sister was something Queen Brunhilda never forgave, and she spent the years that followed plotting revenge against the killers of her sister. She proved to be a capable regent for her son after the death of her husband, which the Frankish noblemen and clergy took as meddling into the affairs of the state. Brunhilda had her childless brother-in-law, Guntram of Burgundy, adopt her son which consolidated his smaller territory into Austrasia after his death. Brunhilda, however, outlived her son and continued to manipulate her grandchildren until her death.

Collapse of Visigothic Rule in Hispania and Gaul

The Visigoths went on to rule for many years until the rise of a new power in the Arabian Peninsula. The combined Berber and Arab forces, as well as the succession problems that plagued the Visigoth royal house, became their downfall. While the Visigoths were busy with their succession problems, a large Muslim army crossed from the tip of what is now Morocco into the southern coast of Spain. The divided Visigoths, now ruled by Ruderic, were easily defeated by the Arabs and Berbers in the Battle of Guadalete.Almost all noblemen who joined Ruderic in battle also perished. This left the Spanish throne vacant. With almost all Visigothic noblemen gone, the Arabs and Berbers easily overran Spain. They claimed the Iberian Peninsula as their own and named it Al-Andalus.

Picture By User:MapMasterOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Heather, Peter J. The Visigoths: From the Migration Period to the Seventh Century. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999.
Riess, Frank. Narbonne and Its Territory in Late Antiquity: From the Visigoths to the Arabs. Ashgate Publishing Group, 2013.
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