Who Were the Visigoths?

395 BC Visigoth King Alaric
395 BC Visigoth King Alaric. Getty Images/Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock

The Visigoths were a Germanic group considered to have separated from other Goths around the fourth century, when they moved from Dacia (now in Romania) into the Roman Empire. Over time they moved further west, into and down Italy, then to Spain -- where many settled -- and back east again into Gaul (now France). The Spanish kingdom remained until the early eighth century when they were conquered by Muslim invaders.

East-German Immigrant Origins

The Visigoths origins were with the Theruingi, a group comprised of several peoples -- Slavs, Germans, Sarmatians, and others -- under the recently acquired leadership of Gothic Germans. They came to historical prominence when they moved, along with the Greuthungi, from Dacia, across the Danube, and into the Roman Empire, possibly because of pressure from Huns attacking westwards. There may have been approximately 200,000 of them. The Theruingi were “allowed” into the empire and settled in return for military service, but rebelled against Roman strictures, thanks to the greed and mistreatment of local Roman commanders, and began plundering the Balkans.

In 378 CE they met and defeated the Roman Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople, killing him in the process. In 382 the next Emperor, Theodosius, tried a different tactic, settling them in the Balkans as federates and tasking them with the defense of the frontier. Theodosius also used the Goths in his armies on campaign elsewhere. During this period they converted to Arian Christianity.

The Visigoths' Rise

At the end of the fourth century a confederation of Theruingi and Greuthungi, plus their subject people, led by Alaric became known as the Visigoths (although they may only have considered themselves Goths) and began moving again, first to Greece and then into Italy, which they raided on numerous occasions. Alaric played off rival sides of the Empire, a tactic which included plundering, in order to secure a title for himself and regular supplies of food and cash for his people (who had no land of their own). In 410 they even sacked Rome. They decided to try for Africa, but Alaric died before they could move.

Alaric’s successor, Ataulphus, then led them west, where they settled in Spain and part of Gaul. Shortly after they were asked back east by the future emperor Constantius III, who settled them as federates in Aquitania Secunda, now in France. During this period, Theodoric, who we now regard as their first proper king emerged, who ruled until he was killed at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451.

The Kingdom of the Visigoths

In 475, Theodoric’s son and successor, Euric, declared the Visigoths independent of Rome. Under him, the Visigoths codified their laws, in Latin, and saw their Gallic lands to their widest extent. However, the Visigoths came under pressure from the growing Frankish kingdom and in 507 Euric’s successor, Alaric II, was defeated and killed at the Battle of Poitiers by Clovis. Consequently, the Visigoths lost all of their Gallic lands bar a thin southern strip called Septimania.

Their remaining kingdom was much of Spain, with a capital at Toledo. Holding together the Iberian Peninsula under one central government has been called a remarkable achievement given the diverse nature of the region. This was helped by the conversion in the sixth century of the royal family and leading bishops to Catholic Christianity. There were splits and rebel forces, including a Byzantine region of Spain, but they were overcome.

Defeat and End of the Kingdom

In the early eighth century, Spain came under pressure from Umayyad Muslim forces, which defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Guadalete and within a decade had captured much of the Iberian peninsula. Some fled to the Frankish lands, some remained settled and others found the northern Spanish kingdom of Asturias, but the Visigoths as a nation ended. The end of the Visigothic kingdom was once blamed on them being decadent, easily collapsing once they were attacked, but this theory is now rejected and historians still search for the answer to this day.

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Wilde, Robert. "Who Were the Visigoths?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-visigoths-1221623. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Who Were the Visigoths? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-visigoths-1221623 Wilde, Robert. "Who Were the Visigoths?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-visigoths-1221623 (accessed June 1, 2023).