Spain: History for Young Readers - Frederick Ober

A Kingdom of the Goths

Except for an invasion of the Franks, about 256 A.D., the peace of Spain was unbroken for nearly four hundred years. But in the time of the Roman Emperor Honorius, the empire having been greatly weakened by repeated attacks of the northern barbarians, as well as by the sloth and effeminacy of its own citizens, her distant provinces soon began to experience dissensions and invasions. The death of Stilicho, the trusted adviser of Honorius and commander of his forces, removed the only obstacle to Alaric's advance upon Rome, and the city yielded to his persistent attacks. And the same year that Rome first felt the rude barbarian's terrible hand upon her, was also that, if we may believe the chronicles, in which a host of Suevi, Alani, and Vandals poured over the Pyrenees, and swept across defenceless Spain.

Roman civilization and influence were felt mainly on the coast and in southern Spain in the north and west lived the semi-barbarous tribes we have already noted, who were now but loosely held together by the disintegrating bonds of Rome. Hispania's conquerors could do nothing to help her, for was not Rome herself at the mercy of the Goths, and compelled to pay an enormous ransom, after enduring humiliating siege and capitulation? It came about, however, that the successor of Alaric, Ataulpha, or Atawulf, made captive lovely Placidia, sister of Honorius, whom he married and carried away into Aquitania. Honorius made the best of the matter and granted to Atawulf all southern Gaul and Roman Spain, on condition that he would expel the Suevi and Alani, and hold the province tributary to his empire. He accomplished his task, so far as southern Gaul was concerned, and then went over the mountains and established his court at Barcelona, which had been successively a Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Roman city, and was now held by the Visigoths.

Though Atawulf seems to have been a faithful ally of Rome, and in her name held his new kingdom of Hispania-Gothia, as he called it, yet Honorius sent an army against him under Constantius, who, according to report, was in love with Placidia before she was carried off and married by the Goth. Atawulf was basely assassinated by a creature of his court, and Constantius made truce with his successor, on condition that he should be given possession of Placidia. It was a cheap purchase of peace, the Goths concluded, and so the Roman general retired with the widow of Atawulf as his only captive, and married in Rome her who became the mother of the future emperor Valentinian.

Sigric, successor to Atawulf, had murdered the five children of the latter and compelled his wife to walk barefoot through the streets of Barcelona, one historian tells us; yet he lived but a month to enjoy his ill-gotten throne, and was followed by the real founder of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain, the warrior Walia, whose reign lasted four years, when he died, and was succeeded by Theodoric.

Walia had reconquered the greater part of Spain for Rome, and was allowed to recover the territory of southern Gaul, where he established his kingdom of Toulouse, and whither his successor also went to hold court. Theodoric continued the conquests of his predecessor, but committed the unpardonable sin, in the eyes of Rome, of keeping his acquisition for himself and the Visigothic kingdom. In the year 428 the Vandals and Suevi, under the renowned Genseric, defeated an allied army of Goths and Romans, for a long time ravaged all southern Spain, and then went over into Africa. Some say that the present name of Andalusia, applied to the south of Spain, which in Roman times was called Boetica, was derived from the Vandal occupation—Vandalusia, or the land of the Vandals.

The greatest event of Theodoric's reign occurred in the year of his death, 451 A.D., when the Visigoths, assisted by the allied armies of Rome and the Franks, defeated Attila the Hun, that famed "Scourge of God," who had thus far led his horde of "beasts on two legs" out of the east and the north, to the ravage of the south.

Theodoric was killed on the field of battle, and the crown fell to a son, Theodoric II, after him to another son, Euric, or Evaric, who defied the waning power of Rome, and finally threw it off and brought the peninsula under the sole supremacy of the Visigoths.

Under Alaric II, who became king upon the death of Euric, the Visigoths lost nearly all their possessions north of the Pyrenees, and became more particularly a Spanish people. Their capital was established at Toledo, that ancient and interesting city on the Tagus, and, as compared with the other invaders, they were cultured and polished. At the same time they were more virile than the Romans, hence had been able to expel the latter and subdue the former. They were not, however, sufficiently civilized to hold sacred human life, and especially they secured a reputation as regicides, so many kings of theirs were murdered. During the three hundred years of their dominion in Spain they had thirty-three kings ruling over them, many of whom fell by the assassin's knife.

By sword and good right arm, the Visigothic kings generally won their thrones, but the time came when they were dominated by the Church. To show how this came about, we must look back to the .time when, a menace to Rome and a terror to all southern Europe, the barbarous Goths descended from their northern fastnesses. They were pagans then, enemies of the true faith, until between the years 340 and 380 they were converted to Christianity by one Ulfilas, who invented an alphabet for them and translated much of the New Testament into Gothic. This was about the middle of the fourth century; but even when Alaric was thundering at the gates of Rome, it is said that the Goths held more seriously the tenets of their faith and were of purer morals than those from whom they had received their new religion.

Now, the primitive Christianity which the Goths had received from Ulfilas was silent as to the mysteries and the dogmas which had gathered around the religion of Rome during the centuries which had passed. They still held to the primitive faith taught them by Ulfilas and their Gothic Bible. In a word (without pretending to say which might have been right, or which party wrong), the Goths were Arians in their belief, while the Romans of Spain and their converts were Trinitarians. There were other minor differences between them, but so long as this radical discrepancy existed between the two religions, they were always at odds. This trouble was brought to a head in the time of King Leovigild, who reigned from A.D. 567 to 586, and who was such a rigid Arian that he finally beheaded a beloved son for becoming a convert to and publicly professing a belief in the Roman religion. This son, Hermenigild, had married a French wife who was a Roman Catholic and who had been the means of his conversion, and encouraged him to lead a revolt against his father. He received his reward in the sixteenth century, when he was canonized as a saint.

King Leovigild was succeeded by another son, Recared, who, though he had stood by and seen his brother executed for opinion's sake, and whom his father thought to be a good Arian, yet became a Catholic soon after his coronation. With the zeal peculiar to all new converts, he insisted that all his subjects should become Catholics also, and rooted out the "Arian heresy" wherever he could find it. Recared was the first Catholic king of Spain, but not the last bigot, for he lighted the fires of religious persecution, which burned so brightly and balefully through many succeeding centuries. Not content with causing all the Goths to renounce their Arianism, he—or the priests, at his suggestion—turned upon the Jews of the kingdom and threatened them with expulsion unless they also recanted.

Thus in the last years of the sixth century the Church acquired a voice in royal affairs, and the Gothic monarchy became elective and dependent very much upon the choice of the bishops.

During the next seventy years twelve kings occupied the throne, each king seated at the pleasure of the bishops, and sometimes unseated—not without violence—at their dictation. Of all the Gothic monarchs who reigned in the capital city of Toledo, perhaps none has been held in more sacred remembrance than King Wamba, who, a simple shepherd, was made a king against his will, and then, after he had acquired a liking for the throne, was deposed, also against his will, even after he had performed prodigies of valour for his country. It seems that the clerical party wanted him for king because they thought he might be a pliant instrument in their hands, like his predecessors. But Wamba had a will of his own, so a person of his court, one Ervingius by name, was persuaded to administer a cup of poison to the obstinate old man, which plunged him into a sleep so deep that his attendants thought him about to die.

Now it was a tradition of the Church that no king, no matter what his previous life had been, could receive the blessings of the future life unless he died garbed in the habit of a monk. So his servants dressed Wamba in a monk's cowl and cloak, and when he recovered his senses—for he did riot die just then—he was almost insane with rage; for according to the same unwritten law of the Church, once in the cowl, never more could one reign a king; and so poor old Wamba made the best of it, though protesting that it was a very scurvy trick, and retired to a cloister, where he passed the remainder of his days. All this occurred about the year 680, and it is averred that then began the dissensions, caused by the desire for ecclesiastical supremacy, which divided the Gothic kingdom against itself, and caused its downfall about thirty years later.

Wamba was succeeded by the usurper Ervigius, or Erwic—the same who had sent the old king to a cell—who reigned seven years, and after him came Egica and Witica, who between them carried Gothic domination up to the year 710, when the portents were strong for some unknown. disaster. Church and state had been in the main united hitherto, or since the advent of Recared but now there were signs of dissolution, and the final severance came with the elevation of King Roderick.

Around King Roderick, "the last of the Goths," cluster legends and traditions so thickly that it is difficult to separate fiction from truth. If you would know to what extent fable and fiction have enmeshed him, read Washington Irving's fascinating Legend of Don Roderick. He was a son of a brave Goth, Duke Theodifred, who was blinded and imprisoned by orders of King Witica; but he succeeded in hurling the tyrant from his throne and inflicting upon him the same punishment. He banished the sons of Witica and set himself to work reforms; but the kingdom had been so weakened by the foolish and evil deeds of his late predecessors, and he found himself so surrounded by enemies (friends and relations of the former king), that he could not save it from ruin. He was to be known to history as the last reigning sovereign before the kingdom was overthrown by that mighty Moslem host from Africa. Some Spanish chroniclers have sought to account for this overthrow by ascribing to Don Roderick a foul deed done to a daughter of a certain Count Julian, commander of the Gothic forces in Africa, and the name of fair Florinda has come down to us coupled in infamy with that of the king. But the truth probably is that, while Count Julian's defection did assist the African invasion, yet the real reason for it runs further back, to the time when the ecclesiastics began to meddle in royal affairs, and especially when their bigotry led to the expulsion of the Jews, who, settling along the North African coast, conspired with the Moors to obtain a foothold in that fair land across the straits.

The sad truth is that the Gothic reign was near its end; it was to perish from the earth, leaving few memorials of its existence save a lasting impress upon the speech of Spain, which has been called "a Gothic language handled in a Latin grammar." Another race was to occupy the land successively won by Roman and Visigoth; and to obtain a clear conception of the manner in which the conquest was effected we must review the previous century.