Sunday, April 11, 2021


The Visigoths were an early Germanic people who, along with the Ostrogoths, constituted the two major political entities of the Goths within the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or what is known as the Migration Period. The Visigoths emerged from earlier Gothic groups, including a large group of Thervingi, who had moved into the Roman Empire beginning in 376 CE and had played a major role in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Relations between the Romans and the Visigoths were variable, alternately warring with one another and making treaties when convenient. Under their first leader, Alaric I, they invaded Italy and sacked Rome in August 410 CE. Afterwards, they began settling down, first in southern Gaul and eventually in Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries CE.

The Visigoths were never called Visigoths, only Goths, until Cassiodorus used the term, when referring to their loss against Clovis I in 507. Cassiodorus apparently invented the term based on the model of the "Ostrogoths", but using the older name of the Vesi, one of the tribal names which the 5th century poet Sidonius Apollinaris had already used when referring to the Visigoths.

The Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul as foederati to the Romans, a relationship that was 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.

In the March/April issue of Archaeology Magazine is an interesting article, "The Visigoth's Imperial Ambitions".  In it author Jason Urbanus describes excavations of the former Visigoth stronghold at Reccopolis. I was actually disturbed by the fact that the city contained none of the typically Roman civic features of a forum, bath complex, theater, circus, or arena for public entertainment even though Hispania had been a Roman province for centuries and the Visigoths were previously Roman foederati. Instead the heart of the city was an enormous palatial compound  containing structures for administration, religious activities, and luxurious dwellings for the aristocracy.  Urbanus says scholars think this layout centered primarily around the rich was an effort by the local elite to emulate portions of Constantinople. 

The surrounding urban structures underscored the city's role as a major fiscal center (they had their own mint) and industrial complex (much of it focused on importing or crafting luxury items for the wealthy) but I was dismayed by the lack of public facilities for bathing with their libraries and gymnasia, or entertainment venues.  Even Constantinople had the hippodrome and public baths! At least Reccopolis was the only city constructed by the Visigoths with an aqueduct which brought water from a few miles away.  In fact, at the time there were only five remaining functional Roman aqueducts in Iberia so the aqueduct at Reccopolis was viewed as an important symbol of power and, so the author thinks, civic pride. 

To me, though, it seemed that what I view as devolution to a feudal model focused on selfish elite with little or no sense of civic duty and their control of government and use of religion to extract wealth from the populace had already taken shape.

Image: Visigothic votive crown that was part of the so-called Guarrazar treasure.  The "treasure" consisted of several crowns (more than twenty), crosses, chalices and other objects of gold and gems in a chest.  Image courtesy of Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, Spain.

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: