1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Spanish History - Spain under the West Goths

(Part 19)


Spain under the West Goths

The West-Gothic or Visigothic kingdom in Spain, founded by Walia, lasted for nearly three centuries, from 418 to 711, when it fell before the Arab or Saracen invasion. Toulouse was its headquarters; here was held the court of the West-Gothic kings, while Toledo became the centre of administration for Spain. The relations of the West-Goths with Rome varied from time to time: sometimes they were her friendly allies, sometimes, nominally at least, her dependants; sometimes they rose in revolt and were her open enemies.

Walia. Walia, after his victories in Spain, professed to restore the country as once more a Roman province to the rule of the emperor Honorius, and again we hear of the oppressions of imperial officers and functionaries, which seem to have been even more intolerable to the Spaniards than the strifes and wars of Vandals, Alani, and Suevi. Nor were these troubles finally ended; Walia had by no means thoroughly consolidated his conquests; and the West-Gothic kingdom in Spain cannot be said to have been firmly established till the 6th century. In northern Spain, in Galicia more especially, the Vandals and Suevi still had settlements, and were quarrelsome neighbours. In 428 they routed an allied army of Romans and Goths, and overran the southern districts, plundering some of the chief cities on the coast before they quitted the country for Africa under their king, the famous and savage Genseric. The Suevi yet remained, but at the solicitation of the Romanized Spanish provincials of the southern cities, who felt themselves threatened with utter extinction by these barbarians, Rome offered its intervention, which was effectually carried out by the king of the West-Goths, Theodoric II., grandson of Alaric.

Theodoric. Crossing the Pyrenees in 456 as Rome's representative and ally, Theodoric crushed the Suevi by a decisive victory in the north-west of Spain, near Astorga. It would seem that from this time the Suevic power was confined within the limits of Galicia, which became in fact a mere dependency of the West-Gothic kingdom. Theodoric's victories, so far from strengthening Rome's hold on Spain, greatly weakened it; and this was what he himself really intended. He did not even make a pretence of restoring the country to the imperial rule.

Euric. His brother and successor Euric [308-1] (466-485) persistently defied the empire, completing Theodoric's work, and establishing by further successes in Spain, carried into its remotest western districts, the West-Gothic kingdom in that country in full and avowed independence. Euric was something more than a successful warrior: he aspired to be a legislator, and he had the "customs of the Goths" recorded in writing and embodied in a code. The work was continued by his successor Alaric II. in the beginning of the 6th century, under the superintendence of civil and ecclesiastical lawyers, and it was based mainly on what was known as the Theodosian code (see BREVIARIUM ALARICANUM). The result was that a thoroughly Roman character was impressed on the West-Gothic legislation, and that Roman institutions, ideas, and manners long survived in Spain. With the conversion of the West-Goths from Arianism to the orthodox faith in the latter part of the 6th century, under their king Recared (586-589), came in new influences and a great accession of power to the ecclesiastics. Recared was the first Catholic king of Spain. With the zeal of a convert he set himself to root out Arianism, burning Arian books of theology and frightening his Arian bishops into the profession of the Catholic belief. He seems to have been thoroughly successful, and richly endowed churches and monasteries grew up in every part of Spain. Pope Gregory the Great acknowledged the good work of Recared by a gift of sacred relics.

The Jews in Spain. Unhappily the seeds of bigotry and religious intolerance had been sown, and with the beginning of the 7th century came a savage persecution of the Jews, multitudes of whom had long been settled in Spain and had thriven, as elsewhere, by trade and industry. The Jew up to this time seems to have found in Spain a particularly safe and comfortable home. Now, at the instance of a West-Gothic king, he was so cruelly [308-2] oppressed and persecuted that even the Catholic clergy interposed to some extent on his behalf. A decree for the expulsion of the entire Jewish community was promulgated on one occasion with the sanction of the council of Toledo; but the Jew still held his ground in Spain and prospered and grew rich, and his presence in the country contributed to the rapid spread of Arab conquest in the next century.

Features of West-Gothic rule. Among the most conspicuous features of the West-Gothic kingdom in Spain we may note elective [308-3] monarchy, the great and indeed overshadowing power of the church, an aristocracy which had in its hands a very large part of the administration, a uniform code of laws for all Spaniards, with both a distinctly Roman and ecclesiastical impress on it. The church on the whole seems to have been the guiding spirit, and the Spanish bishops and clergy were held in high esteem for their learning and virtue. It was they who mainly inspired the legislation of the great national councils of Toledo, which to the West-Goths of Spain were what the Witenagemot was to our Saxon ancestors. The church was the centre round which the whole of society moved. In this fact we see foreshadowed much of the future of Spanish history, the supremacy of ecclesiastics, the extraordinary powers of the Inquisition. It had from the first its evil side in tendencies to bigotry and persecution, but it was it the same time the means of giving Spain laws very far above the average ideas of a barbarous people,—laws indeed which in many respects were rational, humane, enlightened, often combining the wisdom of old Rome with the kindly spirit of Christianity. The West-Gothic code recognized the equality of all men in the eye of the law; such barbarisms as the assessment of a man's value according to his rank and position, or judicial combat or trial by ordeal, find no place in it. It had certainly great merits; its weakness seems to have been in leaving too much scope on one side to the king, on the other to the clergy. Between the royal and the ecclesiastical powers individual freedom was liable to disappear. There was a danger, too, of human thought and speculation being wholly absorbed into theology. In anything like general literature Spain seems to have been decidedly poor during this period, while among her neighbours in the south of Gaul Greek philosophy was a fashionable study, testifying to the presence of considerable intellectual activity. Spain under its West-Gothic kings and its Catholic clergy may have been a fairly well governed country, but long before the end came there must have been languor and decay amongst its people. After the conquest of Africa by Belisarius for the emperor Justinian, it seemed possible that the country might be once again annexed to the empire as a province; and an unsuccessful candidate for the throne,—which, it will be remembered, was elective,—went so far as to conclude a treaty of alliance, and actually to cede to the troops of the empire several towns on the Mediterranean coast.

Decline and fall of the West-Gothic power. That a Gothic king should condescend to ask support from such a quarter, and allow himself to be spoken of as in any sense the empire's vassal, marks a very decided decline in the old independent spirit of the nation. We may certainly assume that repeated disputes as to the royal succession had undermined its power for resistance, and the numerous and not very well affected Jewish colony in their midst must have been a permanent source of danger. By the end of the 7th century northern Africa to the Straits of Gibraltar had passed wholly under Saracenic dominion. The struggle had been long and hard, and the West-Gothic kings, who had recovered the towns on the southern coasts, and even made some small conquests on the African shores, had done something to prolong it; but in 710 a little band of Saracens landed unopposed at Gibraltar, returned in safety, and urged their brethren at once to cross the straits and take possession of the country. In the following year (711) Tarik, at the head of about 5000 Saracen volunteers, entered Spain. A great Gothic army under Roderick, "the last of the Goths," was routed in the neighbourhood of Xeres on the Guadalete, and the Arab or Saracenic conquest of Spain, with the exception of the mountainous districts of the north, was accomplished with amazing ease and rapidity. Anything like a vigorous national resistance seems to have been too much for the Spaniards, enervated as they were by long familiarity with Roman civilization. [309-1] W. J. B.


308-1 Euric is said to have been assassinated by his brother Theodoric.

308-2 Ninety thousand Jews were compelled to receive baptism (Gibbon's Decline and Fall, ch. 37).

308-3 Limited, however, to pure Gothic blood.

309-1 For the West-Gothic kingdom in Spain, Gibbon's Decline and Fall should be consulted, chapters 31, 36, 37, 38, 41, 51. In note 122 (ch 38) he remarks on the obscurity of the subject, Spain having had during this period no chronicler like Bede for the Saxons or Gregory of Tours for the Franks. As to the West-Gothic laws, there is a good deal of easily accessible information in Guizot's History of Civilization, lectures 3, 6, 10, 11. Compare ROMAN LAW, vol. xx. p. 712, and SALIC LAW, vol. xxi. p. 216, section (11).

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