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Roman rule was almost at an end. The masters from Rome were, for the most part, effective and organised rulers of Iberia. Could the new Visigoth rulers measure up to their standards? The answer was a spectacular 'no'.
The Coming of the Visigoths
History is a fickle beast. Study the history of any country and you'll find there are ebbs and flows; passages of time where everything happened at once, and others where decades or centuries passed in which very little happened.
Of course, this is not entirely accurate. History is often based on historical and archaeological records. If a civilisation were to build, write and make very little, it would leave little for later historians to piece together. Huge swathes of time could pass as eventfully as ever, but without any artefacts to serve as a record it might appear as if little occurred.
The Visigoths, or, more simply, the Goths1, left little evidence of their presence. Barbarians swept into Iberia in 409 AD, taking advantage of a weakened Rome to battle their way into new lands. These disparate tribes swiftly conquered Spain, Portugal and France. The most powerful tribe of all - the Visigoths - tore into Rome, sacking it in 410. The Roman Empire was at an end.
Rome's last attempt to retain some kind of order was to initiate pacts with the barbarians. Its pact with the Visigoths allowed them huge swathes of territory across southern France and Spain, while keeping Rome's heartland intact. The Visigoths were more powerful than other military forces of the era and created a buffer zone to keep the Vandals and Franks at bay. For a while, it worked. But Roman generals across the remnants of the empire were making a bid for power and local disputes became common. Rome was also forced to pay mercenary armies that would often revolt if they did not receive land in return for their swords.
It is generally accepted that 476 marks the end of the western Roman Empire, although in outlying regions it may have collapsed a little before that. The Visigoths rushed over the Pyrenees to fill the power vacuum, and after the Franks took the Visigoths' land in France it became their country.
The new conquerors of Spain made little impact on the country. They were in awe of Roman achievements, which were well beyond their own technology. The Goths had smiths and potters, but no artisans or musicians. Furthermore, there were too few of them - 200,000 to a native population of 5 million - to make a significant cultural impact. They seemed quite happy to leave the population be; they wrote their laws in Latin, kept the Roman civil and legal structures, used Roman coins, and even carved their gravestones in Latin.
Although there are few historical documents from the Goths' time in Spain, there is enough to make you wish there were more. It is hard to imagine a more eventful succession than that of the Gothic rulers. There were 34 of them altogether; of these, only 15 died of natural causes. Fratricide and infanticide were common. Three kings reigned in a week in 415. Four kings in a row were murdered between 531 and 555. One of these was Theudigisel, a notorious womaniser who was killed at dinner by the blades of two dozen vengeful husbands. If monarchies were like this in the modern age, entertainment value alone would ensure there were far fewer republics in the world.
The Gothic era was marked by religious tensions. The Hispanics believed in the Holy Trinity, which the Goths denied. One (unnamed) king ordered that manure be poured over his Frankish wife's head on her way to church on her wedding day because she believed in the Trinity.
The Jews who had arrived after being displaced by the Romans were more of an issue for the Goths; the Jews were not trusted and frequently accused of conspiracies. St Isidore, although probably a Byzantine, was the most famous Gothic chronicler and the first person in Western Europe to write an anti-Jewish treatise. His king, Sisebut, forced all Jews to convert or leave. The Jews probably numbered more than the Goths themselves and were understandably irate at this. Some left; others bade their time and ultimately had their revenge2.
The Goths left little in the way of legacies. In three centuries, they built nothing that would last and, archaeologically, there is almost nothing to say the Goths were ever there. Perhaps their greatest achievement was more ideological than physical in nature - for their occupation was the first attempt at creating a single, independent state in Iberia. The idea of Spain as a political entity was born. Furthermore, they were the first people to recognise that, for the country as a whole to work, they had to merge the barbaric interior with the more cultured coastal areas. For the first time, the capital of the country was an inland site - Toletum, now known as Toledo.
And what of the Carthaginians who were there before? Their allies, the Byzantines, did make an attempt to re-conquer in the mid-5th century. They carved out a brief empire around the southern coast and called it Spania. By 625, it was overtaken by the Visigoths again, and is nothing more than an interesting footnote to Spain's history. Like the Visigoths, they left little to remind us of their presence, but their invasion from north Africa was a foretelling of what was to come.
They Came From North Africa
The close proximity of north Africa, just a stone's heave over the Straits of Gibraltar, meant the threat of piracy and - worse - invasion always loomed large over Iberia, like the Rock of Gibraltar itself. Several civilisations had ruled the coast of north Africa over the centuries, but, rather like in Spain, none had ever controlled the interior. The mountains were ruled by Berber tribes, and even when Islamic Arab armies swept along the Mediterranean coast in the early 7th century the Berbers resisted.
The new Arabic rulers of the coast were at a crossroads, looking eagerly to conquer the new lands north in Iberia while wanting to subjugate the interior of their own country. In 675 they made an attempt to invade Iberia, but didn't even manage to get off their ships. For nearly four decades they would concentrate on conquering their hinterlands. But the event had a profound effect on the Visigoths. The last days of their rule would be spent in fear of the Moors.
The root of the word Moor is the Latin word mauri, which was used by the Romans to describe the inhabitants of what is modern-day Morocco in about the 2 BC. As such, the term was never tied to a particular tribe or race. To save confusion, we will use the word here in its modern sense: to describe any north Africans who came to inhabit Iberia.
There was still time for one last Gothic comedy. The panicking King Wamba called up priests to the army to prepare for a full-scale Moorish invasion, but the newly armed priests threw their lot in with a group of revolutionary nobles. In what must be one of the most bizarre coups of all time, Wamba was drugged and dressed as a monk. The rebels also shaved his head, because to the Visigoths long hair was a symbol of sovereignty. The embarrassed king stood aside for the rebel leader Ervigius. Then, when Ervigius' grandson Witiza died, a brief civil war of succession put King Roderick on the throne in 710 in place of Witiza's son, Achila. It was an inauspicious year for the Visigoths.
Later that year, the Moorish general Musa sent a reconnaissance party of 400 Moors to the site of modern Tarifa3. It returned with information and plunder - including, apparently, 'women of great beauty'. Musa still had his doubts about launching an invasion, though. His commanders were unwilling to cross the sea, being far happier in the desert.
No one is sure exactly why the Moors eventually chose to invade. Perhaps the most evocative and often repeated reason is the tale of Florinda, a young Byzantine beauty at the royal court. King Roderick was overcome with desire for her and secretly watched her bathe in the river Tajo until he could bear it no more - an old Spanish ballad records that 'love, with beating wings, inflamed him'. And inflamed he was; probably a little too inflamed for his poor young victim, although most sources politely record that he merely 'seduced' her. Florinda's father, Julian, the governor of Septum (modern Cueta), heard of the crime and promised to send Roderick hunting hawks of a type he had never dreamed of. The hawks would be Moorish hoards.
Another story holds that the followers of the ousted Achila invited the Moors to invade, presuming they would march in, knock Roderick off his perch, take some plunder and leave the Visigoths to it. Either way, the Moors would prove they were not the sort of people you wanted to be invaded by if you had any pretensions to power.
Musa ordered Tariq, the Moorish governor of Tangier, to mount another reconnaissance mission, this time with 10,000 troops. Tariq perhaps guessed more of the potential that lay in wait than his king. As they set off in April 711 he made a speech to his men:
You must know how the Grecian maidens, as handsome as houris, their necks glittering with innumerable pearls and jewels, their bodies clothed with tunics of costly silks and sprinkled with gold, are awaiting your arrival, reclining on soft coaches in the sumptuous palaces of crowned lords and princes.
They landed at jabal-tariq - 'Tariq's Rock', now bastardised to Gibraltar - and Roderick's men rushed from Toledo to engage them. The armies met and conducted a hugely confusing battle in July, with Achila's followers pitching in with the Moors and a large number of Roderick's troops changing loyalties halfway through after guessing the result. Roderick's army was annihilated.
Of the king himself, who could not be found at the end of the battle, two stories are told. One says only his horse was found, adorned with precious stones and pearls, and one silver boot. The other deliciously records that he escaped and was rescued by an old hermit; on his deathbed he confessed his sins and was absolved of them on condition that he spend his last living moments entwined with a snake. According to this tale, his dying words were 'now he is gnawing me in the part where I most sinned'.
With Roderick's 'part' went the last of the Gothic rulers of Spain.