Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Iberia Absorbs the Visigoths

Having stared at Italy now for a while—in an attempt at grasping what the phrase “Middle Ages” really means—it seems only right now to look to the west and to study Iberia. I use that word rather than Hispania, which was the Roman term, because I want to start with a truly great map of the Iberian Peninsula showing the region in pre-Roman times. The image, alas, is copyrighted, hence I can only point to it (link). It shows what is for me the bewildering variety of tribes that occupied the palce before Rome attempted to subjugate the region. After they had done so, we get the following map, taken from the time of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, which extended from 293 to 313.

The northern border of Tarraconensis roughly represents the Pyrenees, a guarding barrier, you might say. Now what happened to this realm, beginning in 409 may be summarized thus:

Vandals and Suevi, both Germanic and originating in today’s northwestern Germany and Poland had settled in the yellow region, southern France, then called Aquitania. Another tribe, which had originated in what is now Russia between the Black Sea and the Caspian, the Alani, were settled there too. Elements of these three tribal groupings crossed the Pyrenees and settled the westernhalf of Iberia: Suevi and one Vandal complement in Gallacia, the Alani in Lusitania, another Vandal element in Boetica.

The map below shows the advance of the Alani—who, coming from just north of Persia, spoke a closely related language. Their path and that of the Vandals coincide after both leave Aquitania; the Alani, after suffering defeat by the Vandals in Iberia, become one tribal stream.


The next image shows the progress of the Visigoths. They’re late-comers to Spain but destined to be the victors for a goodly spell. Note the similarity of their path to the one followed by the Alans—and their arrival in Aquitanica some years after the Alans’ departure. This is the stream in which Alaric appears as the conqueror of Rome, triggering Augustine’s City of God. By the time the Visigoths reach France, Athaulf is king. It is to him that Emperor Honorius elevates to an imperial viceroyship and asks to make order in Hispania—in exchange for ruling it in Honorius’ name.


Elements of the Visigoth do indeed enter Spain and defeat the Alani in Lusitania (418). Their success leads to further mass migrations of Iberia, but the Visigoths continue, also more or less to rule Aquitanica under Honorius’ very distant sanction. Some 90 years later (507), the increasingly powerful Frankish realm, to the north of Aquitanica, makes itself felt as a war breaks out between Franks and Visigoth. The Visigoths then lose their holdings in Gaul and move en masse across the Pyrenees to Iberia, a land they more or less control.

The result of this conquest, at its peak, around 500 AD, is shown in the map to the left. Note here that, following the Frankish invasion of Aquitanica, the Visigothic capital is moved, from Toulouse, to Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast and then to Toledo. Note further that Visigothic rule fails to overcome the Suevi who, one might say, are founding Portugal. And note above all that white region on the north coast. You might have guessed why: the Basques have their home there. They were present before any earlier invasions—say by the Celts, then the Romans, and then the Vandals et al. They were a thorn in the hide of every invader, not least the last (for a while), the Visigoths; as we shall see. Note, finally, the name of the African region in yellow. The Vandals and the Alani have been expelled from Spain (but see notes below).

Three other highlights regarding this westernmost extent of the old Roman Imperium. Theodoric the Great, having conquered Italy, became very influential with the Visigoth by marrying his daughter Theodegotho to Alaric II. In the period 511-526, his grandson Amaliric ruled the Visigoths. The second point: The last Arian king of the Visigoths, until he converted to Catholicism in 587, was Reccared. With his conversion, and that of his followers, the last vestiges of religious tension between Roman Hispanics (if I may use that word) and Visigoths disappeared. Finally, the end. In 711 the Muslims invaded Spain from Africa. The king of the Visigoths then was the Roderic, an obscure and not very popular figure. He just happened to be campaigning far to the north at the time against—well, you guessed it. The Basques. And Iberia fell under Muslim rule. Spain was still under that rule when Middle Ages ended. Herewith a timeline of major events. The blue coloration indicates the portion that falls into the Middle Ages.


Some Notes:

Barbarian Invasions. The changing coloration of maps may give the wrong impressions that invading tribes completely displaced entire local populations. Not at all. Barbarian tribes were relatively small in size. When they conquered a region, they replaced the ruling classes from power and added their own dependents to the population. When they differed in religion, e.g. the Vandals and Visigoths both being Arians, this was a handicap for them in ruling regions still thickly populated with Catholics. Vandals and Visigoths were admired—we have one Catholic bishop’s words for that—for their chastity, piety—but tensions still remained. Therefore the conversion of Reccared (not a big name in history) was very significant in Spain. The last tension between rulers and ruled vanished. You might say that under the Visigoths Iberia had two competing souls, each represented by a religion (see my last note). With Reccared converted, one soul remained.

Vandals and Alans. The maps, again, may say too much or too little. Some elements of both tribes remained in Spain—and their descendants are still there. Organized tribal elements emigrated to Africa.

Civilizations as Embodiments of an Idea. When looking at the death of one (Roman) and the birth of another (Christian) civilization, the thought occurs that civilizations, however physical in manifestation, are really something more transcending. They are a collective consciousness, a kind of soul, something that gives a body its meaning and unity. The flesh of that body are the populations that share this common soul. The bones of it are geographical structures like Iberia and Italy; its circulation are the rivers. At the more physical level, the antibodies and immune systems of such abstract structures are centrally-controlled military and police forces. While they perform effectively, governed from a single point, they protect the body. But when this protection fails, bacteria and viruses of another sort are able to invade. Of another sort? Yes. These aliens can interbreed with the cells that form the flesh of the body they invade. And once order is established, they can, therefore, be reabsorbed to form a new body when a new soul arises once more to create more permanent living societies. All those invasions? Reaching in from the Far East and the Far North? Infections. The Roman body had become disordered; the antibodies lost the battle because the center no longer held; and with that even that abstract something, the soul, began to disappear. Later, when things settled down, a new soul, already present and waiting, took over once again and created the new civilization of Christendom.
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Image credits: Diocletian’s Hispania: Wikipedia (link); Alani migrations: Wikipedia (link); Visigothic migration: Wikipedia (link); Visigothic Kingdom in 500: Wikipedia (link).

Posts in this series: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.

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