views updated Jun 11 2018


Type of Government

Originally a migratory people, the Visigoths began electing kings even before their history was being recorded. Fiercely independent, they kept their own counsel and turned to their own monarchs even while living in and adapting to foreign lands.


The Visigoths, along with the Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Lombards, participated in great tribal migrations across Europe in the first centuries of the Common Era. In 200 the Visigoths, or western Goths, lived on the northern shore of the Black Sea, near modern-day Romania and Moldova, across the Dniester River from their brethren, the Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths. Of Germanic, possibly Scandinavian descent, both Gothic groups are thought to have migrated south from earlier homes on the Baltic Sea, where they had been known to early Roman historians as amber merchants. The two great Gothic branches would maintain their east-west division throughout the rest of their history. Beginning in 238 Gothic invasions devastated Roman settlements in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, culminating in a wave of Gothic invasions across the Danube River in the last third of the second century. Visigothic kingdoms established just beyond the borders of the Roman Empire were in turn destroyed by an invasion of the Huns into the area in 376. Those Visigoths who did not want to be ruled by the Huns escaped into Roman territory, intent on establishing an independent kingdom of their own within the empire’s borders. After a determined struggle against the Romans (376–382), the Visigoths won the right to be ruled by their own chieftains within Roman bureaucratic rule. These chieftains, or kings, served as military commanders within the Roman army, whereas the Visigoths themselves provided increased troop strength to an army stretched thin by imperial demands. These shared military activities provided the vehicle by which Visigoths and Romans learned about and assimilated each other’s cultures.

Between 415 and 418 the Visigoths continued their westward migration and extended their realm into southern Gaul (modern France), where they established a center of rule at Toulouse in Aquitaine. Defeated there by the Franks in 507, the Visigoths withdrew to Languedoc and further south into modern-day Spain, where they founded the kingdom of Toledo. This last important Visigothic kingdom was absorbed by the Arab invasion of Spain in 711. Eventually, both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, who had earlier migrated into Italy, assimilated into the various local populations they had conquered by migration and invasion. Today, no single European ethnic group can seriously claim descent from the Goths.

Government Structure

Little is known of their earliest institutions, but the Goths are believed to have originally dwelled not in villages or cities, but on farming lands scattered across the countryside. Historians believe the men from these scattered settlements gathered regularly in open-air gatherings to administer justice and make laws. At times, the entire Gothic nation gathered to elect kings from among certain great families.

After invading Roman territory in 376, the Visigoths fought for six years for the right to an independent existence within Roman borders. Because the Romans were preoccupied elsewhere, including conflicts with the Persian army over Armenian territory, the Visigoths were able to establish a foedus (treaty) with the Romans that included their service as foederati (members of the Roman military forces) of the empire. They maintained their own ethnic and political identity while commanded by their own chieftains, who according to Roman constitutional practice had standing as kings as well as military commanders (magistri militum). This highly adaptable and responsive institution of military kingship allowed the Visigoths to live side by side with the Romans in their empire. Visigoths abandoned old Germanic tribal customs that were out of tune with Roman thought and practice and adopted a Roman model of monarchy that allowed the two cultures to blend successfully. Visigothic political structure continued to develop and refine itself through the establishment of the kingdoms of Toulouse and Toledo. Throughout their history, Visigothic kingships remained elective, at least in name, and powerful Visigothic nobles resisted attempts to limit the monarchy to a hereditary royal house.

The first Visigothic kings, including Alaric I (c. 370–410), declared and put into force written laws concerning important issues of the day, such as inheritance, private property, and loans at interest. These statutes went on to be expanded and systematically codified in documents that were exemplary for their time. The Codex Euricianus, named for the Visigothic king Euric (d. 484), was among the earliest pieces of Visigothic legislation and is believed to have been enacted in 475. Euric’s successor, Alaric II (d. 507), enacted the Breviarium Alaricianum (Breviary of Alaric) in 506 at Toulouse, declaring the Roman law in force within his Visigothic kingdom. Enacted partially to elicit greater loyalty among sometimes rebellious subjects, the breviary (a brief summary) was drawn from earlier Roman imperial codes, such as those of Theodosius II (401–450), and from the Institutiones of the Roman jurist Gaius (130–180) and other legal authorities. The laws were simplified to reflect provincial realities and needs. Visigothic kings wanted their people to recognize the Roman concept of civilitas (the rule of law), which would enable relations between the coexisting Visigothic kingdoms and the Roman Empire to be firmly established and allow everyday life to go on. The Roman writer Apollinaris Sidonius (c. 430–487) wrote, “Just as the august king within the borders of his expanded realm forced the people to submit to his arms, he now submits his arms to the yoke of the law.”

Unlike their agrarian beginnings, Visigothic kingdoms within the empire were now made up of cities, where Roman administration functioned only up to the level of curiales (town council members). Visigoths participated in a centralized tax structure to finance the administration of these cities. For example, within the kingdom of Toulouse two-thirds of Roman tax revenues became tax exempt sortes Gothicae to the Visigothic federates. The remaining “third of the Romans” went to pay for the maintenance and administration of Roman cities.

Political Parties and Factions

From among the great families who provided kings for the early Goths on the Black Sea, there emerged two significant clans: the Amalings, whose descendants would go on to rule the Ostrogoths, and the Balthings, ancestors of the royal line of the Visigoths.

Major Events

In 350 the Gothic bishop Ulfilas (c. 311–c. 382) and his assistants began translation of the Bible into a Gothic language, which would increase the opportunity for Christian mission among the Goths and other Germanic peoples. A mass conversion of Goths to the form of Christianity known as Arianism followed in the 370s, making them the first Germanic peoples to convert to Christianity. Rejection of paganism in favor of Christianity removed a key obstacle to Visigothic integration into the Roman world. In 589 the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo in Spain officially rejected Arianism and converted to Catholicism.

Alaric I, the best known of Visigothic kings, was a leader of the Visigothic troops serving the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347–395) in 394. After Theodosius’s death in 395, the Visigoths rebelled by renouncing their allegiance to Rome and proclaiming Alaric their king. He and his troops sacked Greek cities and later invaded Italy, where in 410 he captured Rome. Until his death, he remained a political force for Rome to deal with, securing a position as prefect of the province of Illyricum and joining forces with the western Roman emperor Flavius Honorius (384–423), as he planned war with his rivals in the eastern provinces.


The final defeat of the Visigoths during the Arab invasion of Spain in the 700s merged their story with that of Spain. The Visigoth and Ostrogoth traditions receded, leaving behind no intact nation-state or widely used language. Even though no single nation can claim descent from them, over the years many have tried to lay claim to their traditions. Even today, a crown in the Swedish royal coat of arms refers to Gothic kings. The French, in the years before their revolution (1789), recalled and admired the Gothic practice of electing their kings.

Bradley, Henry. The Story of the Goths: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion in Spain. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.


views updated May 21 2018


An east Germanic tribe, part of the Gothic peoples who migrated in the first century b.c. from southern Sweden (Gotland) to the mouth of the Vistula and at the end of the second century a.d. to the Black Sea coast of southern Russia. They split in the mid-third century into Ostrogoths and Visigoths.

The Visigoths expanded their territory north of the Danube to the west (Dacia). After thrusts to the Bithynian Black Sea coast (258), Ephesus (262), and Cappadocia (c. 264), the Visigoths launched a largescale expedition against Greece that ended (269) in an annihilating defeat for them near Naissus. They did not risk substantial inroads on the territories of the Roman Empire until Constantine's clash with Licinius offered them an opportunity of invading in the direction of Moesia and Thrace. Emperor constantine i made them foederati of the Roman Empire in 332 and bound them to defense of the Danube frontier for annual subsidies.

Christianity was first brought to the Goths by Christians taken as prisoners from Cappadocia and by the native populace of the Crimean Peninsula and Dacia. Bishop Theophilus of Gothia took part in the Council of Nicaea I (325), but the key figure was ulfilas, consecrated bishop of the Goths by eusebius of nicomedia in Constantinople (probably 341); Ulfilas was a Homoiousian Arian. Upon the outbreak of a persecution of the Christians in 348 among the Danubean Goths, Ulfilas and the majority of his fellow believers fled; they were settled (most probably 348 or 349) by constantius ii near Nicopolis (Lower Moesia). While Athanaric was implementing a bloody persecution of Christians. (c. 370), his rival Fritigern became a convert to Arian Christianity in order to win the Roman Emperor valens to his side.

At Fritigern's invitation, Ulfilas preached the gospel to the Visigoths north of the Danube. The Hunnic tide drove the portion of the Visigoths led by Fritigern across the Danube (376). Valens settled them as foederati on crown land (Thrace), but soon they began marching on Constantinople. In a furious battle near Adrianople, Valens was beaten and killed Aug. 9, 378. This defeat was a turning point in the fortunes of the Roman Empire.

theodosius i settled the Visigoths in Thrace and Moesia in 382, but he was unsuccessful in his efforts to bring the Visigoths to accept Niceanism after the return of the Imperial Church to Orthodoxy (381). The Visigoths, on the contrary, brought their Arian faith to the Ostrogoths, Burgundians, and Vandals, who were thus split off in religion from the orthodox population of the empire. In 395 the Visigoths left Thrace under King Alaric and crossed Macedonia and the whole of Greece. In 401 Alaric led his people to Italy, besieged Rome (408409), and took the city in August 410. The population and the churches were spared in the ensuing pillage, but the Romans suffered a severe trauma from the fall of Rome (Augustine, Civ. ).

Alaric's brother-in-law, King Athaulf (410415) led the Visigoths to Gaul and married Galla Placida. Under his brother Wallia (415418), the Visigoths were settled as foederati between the Loire and Garonne, but Theodoric I (419451) made himself independent of the Emperor. In 419 the Tolosan Kingdom of the Visigoths with its capital at Toulouse began; it attained its greatest extent under Euric (466484); Spain and Gaul to the Loire were in the hands of the Visigoths. Although Goths and native provincials were divided by difference of religious confession and by marriage, an assimilation of Roman and Germanic customs and laws (Codex Euricianus ) followed. The Visigoths were tolerant toward the Catholic population; Euric, however, made efforts to eliminate the Catholic hierarchy, that was opposed to the Arian foreign rule; so did Alaric II (485507) temporarily, because of the conspiratorial liaison between the episcopate and the Frankish King clovis who had become a Catholic. The king of the Franks attacked the Visigoths, for their alleged heretical beliefs; Alaric fell in the battle of Vouillé(507) and the Visigothic kingdom was thenceforth limited to Spain (with the exception of Galicia, ruled by the Suevi) and a coastal strip in Gaul reaching to the Rhone.

The latent tension between Catholic Romans and Arian Visigoths in the Spanish Visigoth kingdom with its capital at Toledo, was exacerbated under Agila (d. 554) into a conflict, and when the southeast coast of Spain had been reconquered for the Byzantine Empire (see justinian i, byzantine emperor), Leovigild (568586) began open warfare, exiling bishops, facilitating conversion to Arianism, and having his Catholic son Hermenegild, who was allied with Byzantium, put to death in 585.

With the acceptance of the Catholic faith by Reccared (king since 586), the end came for Arianism in Spain; and Arius was anathematized in 589 at the Synod of Toledo. The King summoned royal synods mainly in Toledo, which dealt equally with ecclesiastical and state affairs. These assemblies witness to the intimate contact between the State and the Church; the latter, despite its pronounced autonomy, maintained its contact with Rome. leander and isidore of seville were pioneers and representatives of ecclesiastical flowering and cultural advance. The fact that the Code of Recceswind (654) introduced a single law for all citizens was a proof of the total fusion of all the tribes in the Visigoth kingdom. Later the kingdom was weakened in proportion to the loss of harmony between Church and State. The Visigothic kingdom was destroyed in 711 by the Arabs in the battle of Xeres de la Fontera.

Bibliography: l. schmidt, Die Ostgermanen, v.1 of Geschichte der deutschen Stämme (2d ed. Munich 1941). Cambridge Medieval History (London-New York 191136) 1:183217, 250292. e. stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire, tr. j. r. palanque (Paris 194959) v.1. r. menÉndez pidal, ed., Historia de España, v.3 (Madrid 1940). k. f. stroheker, Eurich (Stuttgart 1937); "Leowigild," Die Welt als Geschichte 5 (1939) 446485. h. helbling, Goten und Wandalen (Zurich 1954). e. a. thompson, "The Visigoths from Fritigern to Euric," Historia 12 (1963) 105126. a. k. ziegler, Church and State in Visigothic Spain (Washington 1930). h. e. giesecke, Die Ostgermanen und der Arianismus (Berlin 1939). a. lippold, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissemscjaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 9A (1961) 512532.

[k. h. schwarte]


views updated May 14 2018


The Visigoths (Good Goths) were located in central Germany when they first came into contact with Roman traders and soldiers in the first century b.c. They were an Indo-European people who seemed to have originated in Poland and not in Scandinavia, as some ancient historians believed. Around 300 b.c. some of these people left Poland for unknown reasons and began migrating south through the Balkans. When they reached the borders of the Roman Empire, the ancestors of the Visigoths found it easier to settle down than to continue south by fighting the Romans, and there they stayed, along the Danube River on the borders of the Roman Empire. They were small farmers, growing mostly wheat and barley.

Throughout the Roman Imperial period, the ancestors of the Visigoths constantly traded with the Romans and intermittently fought with them. Both sides benefited from this exchange of goods and information. It was through this contact that the Visigoths encountered new technologies and products, such as blown drinking glasses and bottles, writing, and poured concrete. In about a.d. 300 the Visigoths converted to Christianity through the missionary work of Roman Arians. The Visigoths also taught the Romans their own military techniques, and in the fourth century a.d. many Roman soldiers on the Rhine and Danube were buried carrying Gothic weapons and wearing Gothic clothing and jewelry.

Starting in about a.d. 200, however, the situation of the Visigoths became untenable. The Huns, leaving their homeland in eastern Siberia, had migrated across Asia and were sweeping down through Europe, pushing refugees ahead of them. The Visigoths, attacked by the Huns, tried desperately to move across the Danube into the safety of the Roman Empire but found themselves trapped between two powerful opponents. Perhaps as a result, they began to develop a more formal identity and leadership. In a.d. 378 the Visigoths took advantage of Roman military mistakes to kill the Roman emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople, cross the Danube, and take over a piece of the Balkans within the empire. The Romans were unable to push the Visigoths out but refused to provide the refugees with food, seeds, or tools so that they could reestablish themselves as farmers.

A generation later, the Visigoths were still in the Balkans, struggling as refugees and growing increasingly angry. Their leader, Alaric, demanded food and supplies from the Roman emperor Honorius in Ravenna, but Honorius did nothing. In response, Alaric took his entire people and began moving toward Rome. Meeting no serious opposition, Alaric's army sacked the city of Rome in a.d. 410. The Visigoths stayed only three days, because Honorius immediately cut off food supplies to Rome. When they left, the Visigoths headed south down the Italian coast, apparently hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Africa. Most of Italy's food came from Africa, and the Visigoths thought of it as a promised land. In the toe of Italy, however, a bad storm destroyed the boats they were planning to use, and the Visigoths hesitated, having no experience with seafaring and frightened by the storm. Unexpectedly, Alaric died. Alaric's brother-in-law Ataulf (Ataulphus or Adolf) took over and led the Visigoths back up north and past the Alps into southern France.

In a.d. 409, however, the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves had invaded Spain. Honorius now invited the Visigoths to counterattack and get rid of these people in exchange for the right to settle in southern France. Ataulf accepted the contract, and the Visigoths wiped out the Alans and some of the Vandals. At this point, in a.d. 415, Honorius belatedly realized the danger that the Visigoths would cross from Spain to invade Africa; fearing that the Visigoths would cut off the food supply of Rome, and he hastily recalled them to France, leaving the remaining Vandals and Sueves in place in Spain.

The Visigoths were happy to settle down in southern France, establishing their capital at Tou-louse. It seems that they received tax revenues from the whole area, although it is unclear by what mechanism. By the death of King Theoderid in 451, they had established a kingdom essentially independent of Rome and even proposed their own candidate for emperor in the 450s. The Visigoths fought alongside Roman generals against Attila and the Huns in the 460s. Under King Euric (r. 466–484), they established their own laws, with separate codes for the Goths and for their Roman subjects.

After the Vandals abandoned Spain for Africa in a.d. 429, however, the Visigoths gradually expanded into the power vacuum in Spain. At the same time, the Frankish king Clovis was pushing southward from his base in northern France. In a.d. 507 Clovis defeated the Visigoths at the battle of Vouillé and killed the Visigothic king Alaric II. The Visigoths ceded southern France to Clovis and took over Spain instead, establishing their new capital at Toledo in central Spain.

With the death of Alaric, the Visigoths were left with a child king, Amalaric. Amalaric's grandfather was the powerful Theodoric the Ostrogoth, ruler of Italy. Theodoric announced that he would act as regent for his grandson, and in this way the Ostrogoths dominated Spain and the Visigoths for the rest of Theodoric's long life, until a.d. 526. Even after Theodoric died, Amalaric soon was assassinated in favor of another Ostrogothic ruler, Theudis (r. 531–548).

A civil war starting in 549 resulted in an invitation from the Visigoth Athanagild, who had usurped the kingship, to the Byzantine emperor Justinian I to send soldiers to his assistance. Athanagild won his war, but the Romans took over Cartagena and a good deal of southern Spain and could not be dislodged. Starting in the 570s Athanagild's brother Leovigild compensated for this loss by conquering the kingdom of the Sueves (roughly modern Portugal) and annexing it, and by repeated campaigns against the Basque separatists. Leovigild's son, Reccared, converted from Arianism to Catholicism, which did much to wear down the old distinctions between Hispano-Roman and Visigoth. This newfound unity found expression in increasingly severe persecution of outsiders, especially the Jews.

After Reccared's death, the seventh century saw many civil wars between factions of the aristocracy. Despite good records left by contemporary bishops, such as Isidore and Leander of Seville, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish Goths from Romans, as the two became inextricably intertwined. Despite these civil wars, by a.d. 625 the Visigoths had succeeded in expelling the Romans from Spain and had established a foothold at the port of Ceuta in Africa.

In the late 600s, however, the great Islamic conquest of the Mediterranean coast was in full swing. The Moors, recently converted to Islam, seized the port of Ceuta, attacking unexpectedly on Easter Sunday in 711. Then, in a reprise of the events of the late 500s, one of the Visigothic parties to a civil war invited the Moors to help him, and the Moors invaded Spain. They found no army that could mount any serious opposition, and by 712 Spain was firmly under Moorish control. The Visigoths, by then entirely assimilated with the Romans, retreated to the Pyrenees, from where they began the long, slow process of reconquest.

See alsoHuns (vol. 2, part 7); Ostrogoths (vol. 2, part 7).


Carr, Karen Eva. Vandals to Visigoths: Rural Settlement Patterns in Early Medieval Spain. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity,400–1000. 2d ed. New Studies in Medieval History. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1995.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Stocking, Rachel L. Bishops, Councils and Consensus in theVisigothic Kingdom 589–633. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Wolf, Kenneth Baxter, trans. and ed. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain. 2d ed. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 1999.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Karen Carr


views updated Jun 11 2018

Vis·i·goth / ˈvizəˌgä[unvoicedth]/ • n. a member of the branch of the Goths who invaded the Roman Empire between the 3rd and 5th centuries ad and ruled much of Spain until overthrown by the Moors in 711.DERIVATIVES: Vis·i·goth·ic / ˌvizəˈgä[unvoicedth]ik/ adj.


views updated May 23 2018

Visigoth a member of the branch of the Goths who invaded the Roman Empire between the 3rd and 5th centuries ad and ruled much of Spain until overthrown by the Moors in 711. The name comes from Latin Visigothus, and the first element may mean ‘west’ (as the Ostrogoths were members of the eastern branch of Goths).


views updated Jun 27 2018

Visigoths See Goths