Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Fall of the Visigoths

Every one has heard of "Roderic, the last of the Goths;" but of the real history of this famous king we know scarcely anything for certain. The romantic story of which he is the hero is the invention of chroniclers who lived many centuries after his death. But we ought not to pass over in silence a story which Scott and Southey in England, and many a poet in other lands, have taken as the theme of their song.

According to this legend, Roderic was the son of Theudefrid, a grandson of King Kindaswinth, and one of the many victims of Witica's tyranny. The cruel king had put out his eyes, and thrown him into prison, where he died. To revenge his father's fate, Roderic raised a rebellion, seized the person of Witica, and having first blinded him, put him to death. Roderic was then crowned king; but Witica's two sons bided their time to avenge their father and to attempt to regain their inheritance.

Their opportunity might have been long in coming if Roderic had not made a more powerful enemy in Count Julian, who in the late king's reign had distinguished himself by a brave defence of Ceuta, the one Gothic fortress in Africa that had not fallen into the hands of the Saracens. Julian, although a kinsman of Witica's, had quietly accepted Roderic's usurpation, and had continued to fight bravely and successfully against the Moors. But when he heard that the new king had dishonoured his daughter, the beautiful Florinda, he resolved to revenge his own wrongs by the betrayal of his country. He sought an interview with the Mohammedan chief, Musa, and counseled him to undertake the conquest of Spain. The success of the undertaking, he said, only too truly, was certain, for the Goths as well as the Spaniards hated the usurper, and would desert his standards when the conflict came.

Musa needed little persuasion. A body of twelve thousand men, led by a Berber chief named Tarik, and accompanied by Julian and the Goths who followed him in his treason, set sail from the African coast, and landed at the place since called "the mountain of Tarik" (Jebel Tarik, Gibraltar).

The Gothic governor of the southern province, Theudemer, was taken by surprise, and wrote to Roderic for aid. The king, who was then fighting the rebellious Basques in the Pyrenees, broke up his camp, and hastened southwards, summoning his army from all parts of the country to meet him at Cordova. A hundred thousand men—so runs the story—assembled under his banner; but among this great host there were few who were loyal to his crown. The Gothic nobles who had reluctantly submitted to his rule now said among themselves, "Why should we risk our lives in the defence of the usurper? The Moors are only in quest of plunder; when Roderic is beaten they will go home with their booty, and then we can give the throne to whom we will." But Roderic thought that now the country was threatened by an infidel foe his rivals would lay aside their selfish aims, and unite against the common danger. In this confidence he entrusted the command of the two wings of his army to the sons of Witica.

The great battle took place near Xcres de la Frontera, ten miles north of Cadiz, beside the river Chrysus, now called the, Guadalete. Roderic appeared on the field clothed in a purple robe and wearing a jeweled crown. His chariot of ivory was drawn by eight milk-white steeds. It was not until after several days' fighting that the sons of Witica offered their aid to the enemy: Tarik agreed to their conditions, and the battle ended, on July 26, 711, in the utter rout of Roderic's supporters. As to the fate of Roderic himself there are three different stories. Some say that he was slain by Tarik's own hand; others that he was drowned in attempting to cross the river, and that long afterwards his, golden shoes, and his horse Orelio, were found in the mud of the stream. The third legend is like that which was afterwards told of Harold of England how the defeated and wounded king escaped from the battle-field, and lived for many years in a hermitage under a feigned name, devoting himself to prayer and to self-mortification in atonement for his sins. It is this last version that Southey has used in his poem of "Roderick, the Last of the Goths."

Such is the story of Roderic, as it is told by Spanish and Arabic Writers of the thirteenth and later centuries. Perhaps it may contain fragments of true history here and there; but what we really know of Roderic's reign is little more than this, that his defeat on the Guadalete was the end of the Gothic kingdom of Spain. Almost unresisted, the conquerors spread over the land, taking possession of city after city, until "the green flag of the Prophet waved from the towers of the royal palace of Toledo."