Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Thirty Years of Decay

Wamba is the last great man, and his victories the last brilliant exploits, that appear in Gothic history. His fiery energy had for a moment seemed to inspire the state with new life; but the decay of national spirit had gone too far to be arrested. The Visigoths had exchanged their old free constitution for a despotism controlled by bigoted prelates: the poorer freemen had almost all sunk into slavery, and had naturally lost their interest in the welfare of the kingdom; the nobles, corrupted by long peace and fancied security, were sunk in idleness and vice. Henceforward our story tells only of "ruin and the breaking up of laws," which went on unchecked till the day when the kingdom was crushed like a hollow shell in the hands of the Saracen invader.

The accession of Erwig to the throne was not only illegal because he had not been regularly chosen; it was also a breach of the law which provided that the king should always be of pure Gothic blood. His mother, indeed, was a Gothic princess, a cousin of King Kindaswinth; but his father was a Greek of Persian origin, named Artabazes, who had been banished from Constantinople, and had found a home in Spain, Erwig seems to have had all the cunning and the love of intrigue with which the Greeks were so often charged. He had, however, but little courage or force of character, and throughout his reign was little more than a puppet in the hands of his chief counselor, the fierce and unscrupulous Julian (afterwards called Saint Julian) the Archbishop of Toledo. This archbishop was one of the most remarkable figures of his time. It is to him that we owe our knowledge of the history of Wamba's campaign against Paul; and his book on this subject is perhaps the most brilliant literary work of the seventh century. Its savage exultation over the fallen foe, more befitting a warrior than a churchman, is in accord with all that we know of the writer's character. After having in this book extolled Wamba to the skies as a pattern of a hero and a Christian, he quarreled with him, and he is supposed to have been the chief inspirer of the conspiracy against him. Himself of Jewish origin, he was the most cruel persecutor of the Jews, and the tyrant of both Church and people.

To prevent any reaction in favour of Wamba, Erwig and Julian caused the council of bishops and nobles to publish again the law which disqualified from high office in the State all who had ever worn a monastic dress. The words in which this decree was expressed are significant indeed. "There are some persons who, having been clothed in the garments of penitence when in peril, of death, and having afterwards recovered have the audacity to claim that their vow is not binding, because it was taken by them in a state of unconsciousness. Let all such reflect that children are baptised without their will or knowledge, yet no man can renounce his baptism without incurring eternal damnation. As it is with baptism, so it is with the monastic vow; and we declare that all who violate it are worthy of the severest punishment, and are incapable of holding any civil dignity." It would have been more honest if the fathers had simply declared that Wamba had forfeited the throne.

Erwig's acts as a lawgiver consisted chiefly in undoing what Wamba had done to strengthen the tottering state. The penalties imposed on those who shirked military service were relaxed; the clergy were no longer required to take their part in the defence of the kingdom; those who had been guilty of rebellion in former reigns were restored to their forfeited dignities and estates; and all the arrears of taxes owing at the end of Erwig's first year were cancelled. The unfortunate Jews, whose misery had been in some small degree lightened in Wamba's reign, were now persecuted more fiercely than ever at the instigation of an archbishop sprung of their own race.

In order to prevent any rebellion on behalf of Wamba's family, Erwig appointed as his successor the late king's nephew, Egica, and gave him his daughter in marriage, making him take an oath that when he came to the throne he would protect his mother-in-law and all the royal family in the possession of all their property. In the year 687 the land was desolated by a great famine, which Erwig's guilty conscience regarded as God's vengeance for his crimes. He took to his bed, and soon afterwards retired to a monastery, where he died in November of the same year.

One of the first acts of Egica after he was anointed king was to call a council of bishops and nobles for the settlement of questions relating to the government. When the council was assembled the king presented himself in the chamber, and kneeling on the floor, implored the prayers of the bishops on his behalf. He then retired after handing to the president a document in which was stated a question of conscience which he desired the fathers to resolve.

The question proposed was the following: "When I married King Erwig's daughter he compelled me to swear that I would always protect his widow and children in the enjoyment of their possessions. But when I was anointed king I took an oath to exercise equal justice towards all my subjects. It is impossible for me to keep both these oaths, for much of the wealth that Erwig left behind him was gained by extortion. In order to secure his throne Erwig reduced many nobles to slavery, and seized their property. They or their heirs now demand restitution. My coronation oath commands me to grant their just claims; the oath I took to Erwig forbids. I pray you, reverend fathers, to tell me what my duty is to do."

The bishops had not much difficulty in deciding. The promise made to the nation, they said, out-weighed all merely private engagements. They added, very ingeniously, that as Erwig by appointing Egica his successor, had been the cause of his taking the second oath, he had thereby released him from his former obligations inconsistent with it. In this way Egica succeeded in defeating his predecessor's carefully devised schemes for the interests of his family.

The same council had another piece of business to dispose of. One of the theological works of their president, the Archbishop Julian, had been blamed by the pope as not quite orthodox. Julian was not the man to receive correction meekly, and at his prompting the bishops prepared a reply, defending Julian's book, and even hinting that the Holy Father must have read it carelessly. They gained their cause: the new pope withdrew his predecessor's censure.

Two years after this triumph the haughty tyrant of the Spanish Church died, and was succeeded in the archbishopric by a Goth of noble birth, named Sisebert. Before his elevation Sisebert had made a great display of austere piety, but when the object of his ambition was attained he threw off the mask, and lived an openly profane and immoral life. What seems to have shocked his contemporaries more than anything else in his conduct was that he ventured to clothe himself in the "holy robe," which was said to have been given to Saint Hildifuns by the Virgin Mary, and also to ascend the pulpit on which the Virgin had been seen to stand, and which had never since been profaned by human foot.

Archbishop Sisebert was desirous of succeeding to the same power in the state that had been enjoyed by Julian; but Egica was a man of stronger mould than Erwig, and the prelate found himself overmatched. He then formed a conspiracy, in which several of the great nobles were involved, to murder the king, his family, and several of his faithful supporters. The plot was discovered, and Sisebert was condemned—not to death, for the crimes of the clergy were always more lightly punished in Spain than those of other men, but to banishment, excommunication, and the forfeiture of all his property.

In the year 694 the Government was thrown into the wildest panic by the discovery of another plot, in which nearly all the Jews of the kingdom were supposed to be concerned. It is no wonder that they conspired. In the midst of their own miseries—though Egica had somewhat relaxed the persecuting laws—they heard from the people of their own race and faith in Africa that under the Saracen rule the Jews were protected and honoured. Who can blame them if they intrigued with their kinsmen in Africa to bring about a Saracen invasion of Spain?

The numbers and wealth of the Spanish Jews were even yet large enough to render them dangerous enemies of the kingdom; and besides those who professed Judaism there were thousands more whose families had for generations been accounted Christian, but who in secret cherished their ancestral religion, and the bitterest hatred of the Gothic oppressors. The king and the bishops, when the treason of the Jews was revealed, resolved upon nothing less than the entire uprooting of the Jewish faith. It was enacted that all the grown-up Jews should be sold as slaves to Christians, as far off as possible from their original place of abode; and the children at six years of age were to be taken from their parents, to be educated in the Christian religion, and to be married to Christians when they were old enough. The masters to whom the Jews were given were strictly forbidden ever to grant them their liberty unless they underwent baptism.

No one now will doubt the folly any more than the wickedness of these savage proposals. Of course they could not be carried out; but enough was done to make the most peaceably disposed Jew in the kingdom the deadly foe of the Gothic power. Little as we know of the history of the conflict of the Goths with the Saracens, there is proof enough that the help of the Jews contributed not a little to the victory of the invaders.

Three years after the date of this council Egica raised his son Witica to be the sharer of his throne; and in 701 he died, leaving Witica sole ruler.

Although Witica reigned nine years, we know strangely little about him. Later writers have delighted to represent him as a monster of wickedness but all that is recorded of him on good authority is greatly to his honour. He pardoned and restored to their rank and estates those whom his father had banished or degraded. There were many other wealthy persons whom Egica had compelled to sign documents, acknowledging themselves debtors to the treasury; Witica caused these papers to be publicly burnt. It seems that he tried to reform the corruptions of the Church. A writer belonging to the priestly party complains that Sindered, the Archbishop of Toledo, "inspired with a zeal for holiness, but not according to knowledge," obeyed the king's orders by continually harassing and persecuting men of high standing amongst the clergy. It is likely enough (though the statements cannot be traced back beyond the ninth century) that he encouraged the clergy to marry, and that he showed some degree of favour to the Jews at any rate, that he did not try to carry into effect the insane persecuting laws passed in his father's time. Altogether Witica seems to have made himself beloved by the people, and hated and feared by the churchmen. It is easy to understand why in later ages he was accused of all sorts of dreadful crimes. The sudden ruin of the kingdom in the first year of his successor could only be accounted for by ascribing it to divine vengeance; and Witica was supposed to have been the great sinner whose wickedness had drawn down the wrath of Heaven upon the unhappy nation.

Witica died in February, 710, leaving two sons not yet come to the age of manhood. It seems that he had named one of these boys as his successor in the kingdom, but the council of nobles and prelates set aside his wishes, and elected to the throne a certain Roderic, a Gothic noble who had held the chief command of the army.