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The Visigoths ( ) were one of two main branches of the Goths, an East Germanic tribe; the Ostrogoths being the other. Together these tribes were among the barbarians who disturbed the late Roman Empire during the Migration Period. The romanized Visigoths first emerged as a distinct people during the fourth century, initially in the Balkans, where they participated in several wars with Rome. A Visigothic army under Alaric I eventually moved into Italy and famously sacked Rome in 410.

Eventually the Visigoths were settled in southern Gaul as foederati of the Romans, the reasons for which are still subjects for debate among scholars. They soon fell out with their hosts and established their own kingdom with its capital at Toulousemarker. They slowly extended their authority into Hispania, displacing the Vandals and Alans. Their rule in Gaul was cut short in 507 at the Battle of Vouillé, when they were defeated by the Franks under Clovis I. Thereafter the only territory north of the Pyreneesmarker that the Visigoths held was Septimaniamarker and their kingdom was limited to Hispania, which came completely under the control of their small governing elite, at the expense of the Byzantine province of Spania and the Suebic Kingdom of Galicia.

In or around 589, the Visigoths, under Reccared I, formerly Arians, converted to the Nicene faith. In their kingdom, the century that followed was dominated by the Councils of Toledo and the episcopacy. Historical sources for the seventh century are relatively sparse. In 711 or 712 the Visigoths, including their king and many of their leading men, were killed in the Battle of Guadalete by a force of invading Arabs and Berbers. The kingdom quickly collapsed thereafter, a phenomenon which has led to much debate among scholars concerning its causes. Gothic identity survived the fall of the kingdom, however, especially in the Kingdom of Asturias and the Marca Hispanica.

Of what remains of the Visigoths in Spainmarker and Portugalmarker there are several churches and an increasing number of archaeological finds, but most notably a large number of Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance language given names and surnames. The Visigoths were the only people to found new cities in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the rise of the Carolingians. Until the Late Middle Ages, the greatest Visigothic legacy, which is no longer in use, was their law code, the Liber iudiciorum, which formed the basis for legal procedure in most of Christian Iberiamarker for centuries after their kingdom's demise.

Division of the Goths: Tervingi and Vesi

The division of the Goths is first attested in 291. The Tervingi are first attested around that date; the Greuthungi, Ostrogothi, and Vesi are all attested no earlier than 388. The first mention of the Tervingi occurs in a eulogy of the emperor Maximian (285–305), delivered in or shortly after 291 (perhaps at Triermarker on 20 April 292) and traditionally ascribed to Claudius Mamertinus, which 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 erroneous for "Victohali", for around 360 the historian Eutropius reports that Dacia was currently (nunc) inhabited by Taifali, Victohali, and Tervingi.

According to the interpretation of Herwig Wolfram, the Notitia Dignitatum equates the Vesi with the Tervingi in a reference to the years 388–391. The Greuthungi are first named by Ammianus Marcellinus, writing no earlier than 392 and perhaps later than 395, and basing his account of the words of a Tervingian chieftain who is attested as early as 376. The Ostrogoths are first named in a document dated September 392 from Milanmarker. Claudian mentions that they, together with the Gruthungi, inhabit Phrygia. According to Wolfram, the primary sources either use the terminology of Tervingi/Greuthungi or Vesi/Ostrogothi and never mix the pairs. All four names were used together on occasion, but the pairing was always preserved, as in Gruthungi, Austrogothi, Tervingi, Visi. That the Tervingi were the same people as the Vesi/Visigothi and the Greuthungi as the Ostrogothi is also supported by Jordanes. He identified the Visigothic kings from Alaric I to Alaric II as the heirs of the fourth-century Tervingian king Athanaric and the Ostrogothic kings from Theodoric the Great to Theodahad as the heirs of the Greuthungian king Ermanaric. This interpretation, the most common among scholars today, is not universal.

Herwig Wolfram concludes that the terms Tervingi and Greuthungi were geographical identifiers used by each tribe to describe the other. This terminology therefore dropped out of use after the Goths were displaced by the Hunnic invasions. In support of this, Wolfram cites Zosimus as referring to a group of "Scythians" north of the Danube who were called "Greutungi" by the barbarians north of the Ister. Wolfram concludes that this people were those Tervingi who had remained behind after the Hunnic conquest. On the other hand, he argues, the terms "Vesi" and "Ostrogothi" were used by the peoples to boastfully describe themselves.

The nomenclature of Greuthungi/Tervingi fell out of use shortly after 400. In general, the terminology of a divided Gothic people disappeared gradually after they entered the Roman Empire. The last indication that the Goths whose king reigned at Toulouse considered themselves Vesi is found in a panegyric on Avitus by Sidonius Apollinaris dated 1 January 456. The term "Visigoth", however, was an invention of the sixth century. Most recent scholars (notably Peter Heather) argue that Visigothic group identity emerged only within the Roman Empire. Roger Collins believes the Visigoths were a creation of the Gothic War of 376–382 and began as a collection of foederati (Wolfram's "federate armies") under Alaric I in the eastern Balkans, composed of largely Tervingi with Greuthungian and other barbarian contingents. They were thus multiethnic and cannot lay claim to an exclusively Tervingian heritage. Collins points out that no contemporaries directly link the Tervingi and Vesi.

Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theodoric the Great, invented the term "Visigothi" to match that of "Ostrogothi", which terms he thought of as signifying "western Goths" and "eastern Goths" respectively. The western–eastern division was a simplification (and a literary device) of sixth-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 in use in the seventh 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 third 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 words may be Gothic ones meaning "the good or noble people", similar to Gothic iusiza, "better". W. H. Stevenson remarks that the term seems to be the Germanic representative of Indo-European *wesu-s ("good"), comparing Sanskrit vásu-ş and Gaulish vesu-. While Jordanes refers to a river which gave its name to the Vesi, this is probably just legend, like his similar story about the Greuthung name. The name "Visigothi" is an invention of Cassiodorus, who combined "Visi" and "Gothi" and intended to mean "west Goths".

History

Migrations of the main column of the Visigoths


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 the food they were promised nor the land; 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 Adrianoplemarker in 378 was the decisive moment of the war. The Roman forces were slaughtered and the Emperor Valens was killed during the fighting. Adrianople shocked the Roman world and eventually forced the Romans to negotiate with and settle the barbarians within the empire's boundaries, a development with far reaching consequences for the eventual fall of Rome.

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, while Theodosius was succeeded by his incapable sons: Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west.

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 Ravennamarker for strategic reasons), its fall severely shook the empire's foundations.

Visigothic kingdom

Greatest extent of the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse, c.
500
The Visigothic Kingdom was a Western European power in the 5th to 7th centuries, created in Gaul when the Romans lost their control 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 Pyreneesmarker and onto the Iberian peninsula.

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.

The Visigoths also became the dominant power in the Iberian Peninsulamarker, quickly crushing the Alans and forcing the Vandals into north Africa. By 500, the Visigothic Kingdom, centred at Toulousemarker, 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 Narbonnemarker, which was the last Gothic outpost in Gaul, and further across the Pyrenees into Hispania. The center of Visigothic rule shifted first to Barcelonamarker, then inland and south to Toledomarker. From 511 to 526, the Visigoths were ruled by Theodoric 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.
Visigothic Hispania and its regional divisions in 700, prior to the Muslim conquest.
The last Arian Visigothic king, Liuvigild, conquered the Suevic kingdom in 585 and most of the northern regions (Cantabria) in 574 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, 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.

During their long reign in Spain, the Visigoths were responsible for the only new cities founded in Western Europe between the fifth and eighth centuries. It is certain (through contemporary Spanish accounts) that they founded four: Reccopolismarker, Victoriacum, Luceo, and Olite. There is also a possible fifth city ascribed to them by a later Arabic source: Baiyara (perhaps modern Montoromarker). All of these cities were founded for military purposes and three of them in celebration of victory.

Visigothic religion



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. For the role of Arianism in Visigothic kingship, see the entry for Liuvigild.

There were also deep sectarian splits among the Catholic population of the peninsula. The ascetic Priscillian of Avila was martyred by orthodox Catholic forces in 385, 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 Leónmarker, 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.

The Arian Visigoths were also tolerant of Jews, a tradition that lingered in post-Visigothic Septimaniamarker, exemplified by the career of Ferreol, Bishop of Uzès (died 581).

In 589, King Reccared converted his people to Catholicism. With the Catholicization of the Visigothic kings, the Catholic bishops increased in power, until, at the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633, they took upon themselves the nobles' right to select a king from among the royal family. Visigothic persecution of Jews began after the conversion to Catholicism of the Visigothic king Reccared. In 633 the same synod of Catholic bishops that usurped the Visigothic nobles' right to confirm the election of a king declared that all Jews must be baptised.

In the eighth through eleventh centuries the muwallad clan of the Banū Qāsī claimed descent from the Visigothic Count Cassius.

Visigothic culture



Law

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 Escorialmarker. It goes into more detail than a modern constitution commonly does and reveals a great deal about Visigothic social structure.

Art and architecture

Kings of the Visigoths

Terving kings

These kings and leaders, with the exception of Fritigern, and the possible exception of Alavivus, were pagans.

Balti dynasty

These kings were Arianist (followers of the theological teaching of Arius). They tended to succeed their fathers or close relatives on the throne and thus constitute a dynasty.

Non-Balti kings

The Visigothic monarchy took on a completely elective character with the fall of the Balti, but the monarchy remained Arian until Reccared converted in 587. Only a few sons succeeded their fathers to the throne in this period.

During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the list of Visigothic kings was memorised recited in Spanish public schools.

Notes

Sources

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