The Visigoths, or western Goths, were a Germanic people who began invading the Roman empire in the A.D. 300s. The movements of the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes weakened the Western Roman Empire and contributed to its eventual downfall in A.D. 476.

The Visigoths were originally part of one tribe, the Goths, that had migrated from northern Europe to the area north of the Black Sea in the A.D. 100s. By the mid-200s, the Goths had split into two groups—the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths. In A.D. 270 the Visigoths moved into the Roman province* of Dacia after attacking the region and forcing the Romans to withdraw. While in Dacia, the Visigoths adopted a lifestyle based largely on agriculture, and they developed a primitive democracy in which all adult males had a role in decision making. They also began converting to Christianity.

In A.D. 376 the Huns, a fierce barbarian people from Asia, invaded Dacia. The panic-stricken Visigoths asked and received permission from Valens, the Roman emperor, to go to the province of Thrace. Harsh rule by the Romans in that region, however, soon caused the Visigoths to revolt. In August of a.d. 378, they won a decisive victory over the Roman army at the Battle of Hadrianopolis. The Visigoths then began threatening surrounding regions.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

In A.D. 382 the emperor Theodosius made peace with the Visigoths and allowed them to settle in the area south of Dacia. In return, the Visigoths agreed to keep the Huns from invading the Roman empire. This was the first time in Roman history that an entire barbarian people was allowed to settle inside the empire under the command of its own leaders and with its own laws.

Peace between the Visigoths and Rome ended in A.D. 395, when the Visigothic leader Alaric I moved his people westward in search of a larger, more permanent home. In A.D. 408 and A.D. 409, they invaded Italy and in A.D. 410 they occupied Rome itself, the first time in 800 years that the city had fallen to a foreign enemy. From Rome, the Visigoths marched south through Italy, hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Africa. Alaric died along the way, and his successor, Ataulf, led the Visigoths back through Italy to Gaul and Spain instead.

In A.D. 418 the Romans reached an agreement with the Visigoths, allowing them to settle permanently in the region of Aquitania Secunda in southwestern Gaul. The Visigoths established a kingdom there with its capital at Tolosa (the present-day French city of Toulouse). Although still considered part of the Roman empire, the Visigothic kingdom in Gaul had its own laws and leaders. It did not control the Roman citizens of the region, however. Over time, the Romans gained an increasingly important role in the administration of the kingdom. By the late A.D. 400s, the kingdom of the Visigoths had expanded to include most of Spain. In conquering Spain, the Visigoths pushed a Germanic tribe, the Vandals, out of the region and into North Africa.

Visigothic control of Gaul lasted until A.D. 507, when the region was overrun by the Franks, another Germanic tribe. The Visigoths continued to rule Spain, however, and they moved the capital of their kingdom to the city of Toletum (the present-day Spanish city of Toledo). The Visigothic kingdom in Spain lasted until A.D. 711, when Arabs from North Africa invaded the region. The Arabs quickly conquered Spain and ended the Visigoths’ rule. (See also Migrations, Late Roman; Provinces, Roman; Rome, History of.)

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