Ancient History & Civilisation

The Visigoths

In 416 the Visigothic king Vallia sent Galla Placidia, the widow of his predecessor Athaulph, back to her brother the emperor Honorius. In return in 418 the Romans concluded a treaty with him, which handed over to the Goths the province of Aquitania Secunda, the valley of the Garonne. Vallia was succeeded in 418 by Theoderic I, who expanded Gothic control west towards Provence and the Rhone valley.23

Aetius, supreme commander in the western empire, relying largely on Hunnish forces, was successful during the later 430s in containing Theoderic's ambitions and protecting the administrative centers of Arles and Narbonne, but Rome suffered two serious setbacks which restricted its ability to impose its authority in Gaul. One was the fall of Carthage to the Vandals in 439, which led both the eastern and western emperors to look to the defenses of Rome, Italy, and Constantinople against the real threat of Vandal sea-power. The Romans now had to come to terms with the economic stranglehold over the empire, which was implicit in Vandal control of African grain exports and tax revenues. The other was the growing power of Attila's Huns, who withdrew cooperation from Rome, and for a decade virtually held Ravenna and Constantinople to ransom by a combination of threats of war and demands for tribute.24 As Valentinian put it in a letter to Theoderic I, “the Huns do not overthrow nations by means of war, where there is an equal chance, but assail them by treachery, which is a greater cause for anxiety” (Jordanes, Get. XXXVI, 188, trans. Mierow). The Roman population of southern Gaul had to look to its own defense.

In 451 the Huns switched the focus of their attention from Constantinople to the West, and invaded Gaul with a force that also included the Amal-led branch of the Ostrogoths, under Valamir, Thiudomer, and Vidimer, and the Gepids under Ardaric (Jordanes, Get. XXXVIII, 199). A group of Alans resident at Orleans and led by Sangiban promised to hand the city to Attila. Metz, the largest city of northern Gaul, was stormed and burned on May 7, leaving only the Oratory of St Stephen unscathed (Greg. Tur., Hist.2.6). The Huns had reached Orleans before they were confronted with a determined coalition led by Aetius. His allies included all the Germanic groups in Gaul: Saxons, Burgundians, Franks, as well as Armoricans from Brittany, Riparians from the Rhineland settlements, and Olibriones, former Roman soldiers (Jordanes, Get. XXXVI, 191). Attila withdrew as far as the Champagne country. A territorial skirmish between Franks and Alans preceded the main battle, which claimed enormous casualties, including the Visigothic king Theoderic himself. The Huns were driven to take refuge in their wagon laager, but confusion and division prevented their enemies from securing an outright victory. Aetius persuaded Theoderic's son Thorismund not to avenge his father's death in the aftermath of the battle, advising him to return to Toulouse and secure his kingdom before his position was usurped by his brothers, who had not joined him on the campaign. Aetius' alleged motive was to prevent the Goths from destroying the Huns completely and then challenging Roman power. He was also mindful that his own power rested largely on the Hunnish forces that he had been able to command throughout his career.25

Aetius' advice to the Visigoths was prophetic. Thorismund was murdered in 453 and succeeded by his younger brother Theoderic II, who began to show the ambition that Aetius had feared. In 455, as the western empire had been shaken by the Vandal capture of Rome, the Visigoths promoted the Gallic aristocrat Avitus, an erstwhile tutor of Theoderic II, who had been praetorian prefect of Gaul in 439 and had helped persuade the Visigoths to resist Attila in 451, to succeed the short-lived Petronius Maximus as emperor.26The Visigoths then received his authority to attack the Suevi in Spain. In 456 Theoderic defeated his brother-in-law, the Suevic king Rechiar, at the battle of the river Orbigo, and his followers took control of southeastern Spain. The Visigothic position in Spain was strengthened after the fall of Majorian, and extended to include Narbonne in 461, but they were confined on their northern border by the independent Roman kingdom of Aegidius (Greg. Tur., Hist. 2.9, 11, 12).

The effectiveness of the Visigoths as rulers depended on their ability to work with the great estate-owning families of Gaul and Spain. The Goths provided military security and stability, while the old provincial aristocracy maintained civil law, the institutions of the Catholic Church, and normal economic structures. Warfare fought against their neighbors on all fronts, including Saxons, Bagaudae, Burgundians, and the kingdom of Aegidius, provided the Goths with booty, while the land of Provence and Aquitaine continued to yield a level of prosperity which was reflected in the survival of important cities through the region: Bordeaux, Toulouse, St Bertrand de Comminges, Carcassonne, Narbonne, Marseilles, and Arles. The correspondence of Sidonius shows that between the 450s and the 480s the landowners of Aquitaine, Provence, and the Auvergne continued to maintain an impressively high standard of living in their rural estates.

Sidonius Apollinaris, who married the daughter of the emperor Avitus, and was to become bishop of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne in 469, is the prime witness to the society and culture of southern Gaul. His poetry includes panegyrics for leading figures of the period, while his letters reflect the artificially civilized manners of the landed gentry, based on farming and hunting, western classical culture, and Christian piety. They offer a sanitized view of the often tense relations between Goths and Romans.27 He is responsible for the fullest pen portrait of any Germanic ruler of the fifth century in a letter addressed to Avitus' son Agricola. The transparent intention is to idealize the king. “The rule of God and nature's order have adorned his personality with gifts of consummate felicity, and his character is such that not even jealousy can deny it the praise which is its due” (Sidonius, ep. 1.2.1, trans. Anderson). After an admiring page on the king's personal appearance and his careful grooming, Sidonius explained the course of a royal day: pre-dawn religious devotions with his Arian clergy (a matter, according to this Catholic observer, of form rather than conviction), a morning spent in administrative cares, inspecting the treasury and the stables.28 A short siesta is followed by games of backgammon, which provided opportunities for defeated rivals to ask for difficult favors, followed by a further round of petitions. Dinner may be accompanied by the music of stringed instruments (the Goths favored a sort of three-stringed guitar),29 or the diversion of a court jester. Armed nobles stand alongside the king, skin-clad Gothic retainers mutter among themselves behind the throne-room awnings, and marshals organize access. This remained a Germanic, not a Mediterranean court, and the palace was protected by sentries and night guards watching the treasury. Leisure and pleasure came from hunting, archery, and fine dining with weighty conversation. “You may see there the elegance of the Greeks, the generosity of the Gauls, the swiftness of Italy, public pomp, private attentiveness and kingly discipline.”30 Sidonius does his best to assimilate what he had seen of the Gothic court with his own compatriots' ideals of aristocratic country life. The king's counselors appear elsewhere in Sidonius' pages, “old in years but green in wisdom,” assembled at dawn in their greasy linen shirts, short animal skin coats, and high boots of horse-hide, laced up below the knee (Sidonius, Carm. 7, 452–7).

Theoderic was murdered by his younger brother Euric in 465. Euric's reign until 484 spanned the fall of the last Roman emperor in the West, and his robust external policies surely sprang from the realization that western emperors had had their day. As Jordanes put it,

Now Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. (Jordanes, Get. XLV, 237)

During the early 470s he defeated a force of Brittones and sought to control the Auvergne. The region resorted in the main to self-help. Sidonius appealed to Avitus, a relative of the emperor, to protect Clermont-Ferrand by interceding with the Visigoths:

The Goths time and again despise and reject their own territory of Septimania, so that they may control and occupy this little corner even though they have devastated it. But it is right for you, standing between them and the Roman state, under God's command to devise a more peaceful way, because, although they have broken through the restraints of the old boundaries and with all their courage or rather all their might are extending the boundaries of their violent occupation as far as the Rhone and the Loire, your authoritative voice by the dignity of its pronouncements will cause both sides to moderate their actions, so that our people will learn what it should deny them when it is asked, and our enemies will cease to demand what they are refused. (Sidonius, ep. 3.1.4–5)

Arles and Marseilles were captured in 476. Euric's ambitions gave a harder edge to Gothic policy vis-à-vis the Romans in Gaul. The religious conflict with Roman Christianity and the Catholic clergy intensified,31 and Sidonius himself was imprisoned in Toulouse in 475–6. This consolidation in Gaul was followed by Visigothic campaigns in Spain, including the annexation of Tarraconensis.

It is a clear reflection of the fallen empire that Euric was the first Visigothic ruler to give his name to a law code, the Codex Euricianus. Now the Goths “first acquired the institutes of law in writing; previously they were held only by custom and tradition.”32Germanic kings, not Roman emperors, had become the sovereign authority even in the field of written law.33 Euric's code was drafted in Latin and closely modeled on Roman precedent and principle, as was to be expected, but it was concerned with local issues, in particular property and land disputes. Practical application and enforcement depended on local arbitrators, who were chosen with the agreement of the disputing parties. The law itself covered the needs of Goths and Romans alike, and was evidently devised by Roman experts under Gothic supervision. One of these was probably Leo, a close advisor of Euric, who had once invited Sidonius to take up historical writing.34 Leo's role emerges in outline in a remarkable letter from Sidonius, sent to accompany the dispatch of a Latin translation of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, which Leo had requested from him:

Put aside for a little while those acclaimed speeches which you compose as the royal mouthpiece, by which the famous king himself at one moment strikes fear into the hearts of races across the sea, at another, as a victor from on high, schemes a treaty for barbarians trembling by the river Vachalis, and at another, as he constrains the people throughout the boundaries of the extended portion of his kingdom by force of arms, so he constrains armed force by laws. (Sidonius, ep. 8.3.3)

Leo, we may assume, played the role of a Themistius or a Cassiodorus for his royal employer. Euric's court was increasingly bi-cultural, as it was certainly bilingual. The king had attempted unsuccessfully to attract the services of Sidonius as a regular panegyricist;35his wife Ragnahild, however, was gratified with six flattering elegiac couplets, which were minutely inscribed on a silver drinking cup (Sidonius, ep. 4.8.4–5). Latin gained ground in court circles, and was inevitably the language of law, although German remained the language of power and political exchange. The Visigothic kings would hardly have used Latin to communicate with the other Germanic kingdoms, but even in dealing with an embassy from the western court, Euric used an interpreter.36Euric's rising cultural aspirations corresponded to his growing political influence. In a poem which was clearly written to gratify the king, Sidonius presented Euric's court as the destination of diplomatic embassies from the length and breadth of the ancient world: Saxons and Huns, Burgundians and Ostrogoths. Even the Persian king himself was prepared to offer payment – tribute – if Euric refused to send troops to help the eastern emperor.37

Euric died in 484 and was succeeded by his son Alaric II, who ruled until 507 and further strengthened the Visigothic position in Gaul. Whereas Euric had steered his people through the transition from dependent to independent Germanic kingdom, Alaric was fully on terms with the demise of Roman political authority in the West. Perhaps for that reason he seems to have been more comfortable with appropriating Roman legal institutions. The law code which was issued in his own name, the Breviarium of Alaric published in 506, was in essence a digest of Roman laws and opinions, derived from the classical jurists, which had been compiled by a consilium or committee of Roman legal experts (prudentes), in consultation with priests and provincial notables, all under the supervision of one of the king's Gothic retainers, the comes Goiaricus.38 This, as John Matthews argues, was a body of law designed not with the purpose of distinguishing between Goths and Romans, but of bringing them together under a common authority. Its Roman nature and origins are dramatically illustrated by the inclusion of Valentinian I's interpretation of a law contained in the Theodosian Code, that no Roman, male or female, should marry a barbarian wife of any race, subject to a capital penalty.39 In parallel to the integration of the two races under a single system of law and government, Alaric also sought to reconcile the majority Catholic population of his kingdom with the Arianism of the Gothic ruling class at a council concluded at Agde in September 506.40

Alaric established a crucial marriage alliance with the Ostrogoths by marrying Theodegotha, the daughter of Theoderic the Amal, probably soon after the latter replaced Odoacar as king in Italy in 493. Visigothic power in Gaul lasted until 507, when Alaric was defeated and killed at the battle of Vouillé (or Voulon), south of Poitiers, by the Franks.41

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