Spanish Empire—Romans and Visigoths

250 B.C. to 711
Punic Wars in Spain to Moorish Conquest

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Romans and Visigoths

Hispania—a Roman Province—The earliest recorded history of Spain dates from the third century B.C., when the Roman Republic was engaged in the Punic Wars, a century long struggle between Rome and Carthage. The coastal regions of Hispania, which at the time were controlled mainly by Carthage, figured prominently in these wars, and when Rome succeeded in vanquishing Carthage, she inherited the Carthaginian Empire in Spain. These holdings, however, represented only a fraction of the Iberian Peninsula.

Most of the interior of Hispania was inhabited by semi-civilized Celts and Iberians. The first battles in the Roman Conquest of Hispania occurred around 210 B.C., but several regions of the interior of Hispania held out against Roman rule for nearly 200 years. By the turn of the millennium, however, Spain was solidly Roman, and for hundreds of years was one of the most important and stable provinces of the Roman Empire.

It is difficult to make broad generalizations regarding the Roman Conquest of Hispania because the country itself was highly diverse both in geography and also in the ethnic mix of the people. The coastal cities of Spain, including those on navigable rivers, were populated by relatively civilized and diverse peoples, including Carthaginians, Greeks, Turdetani, and Celt-Iberian. The inland regions were primarily Celt and Iberians but were broken up into autonomous tribes of varied ancestry. The Roman conquerors included both noble and admired leaders such as Scipio Africanus and Sertorius, who treated the natives with great consideration, and treacherous butchers, such as Lucullus and Cato (the censor). Some of the more civilized regions submitted peacefully, while others, such as the Lusitanians and Celt-Iberians, under the great native chief Viriathus, held out for years, and caused appalling casualties among the Romans. In some cases the native tribes submitted to Roman rule and in other cases, most spectacularly that of Numantia, they annihilated themselves rather than submit.

The conquest of Hispania was a difficult and highly contentious project that caused enormous political problems in Italy, and figured prominently in the decline of Republican Rome. Once Spain was finally conquered however, it became thoroughly Romanized, and therefore Christianized, and remained so even after the fall of the empire. For much of the era of the Roman Empire, Spain was one of the most stable and properous regions of the empire, and it produced many famous Romans, including Trajan, Seneca, and Martial.

Visigoth Spain—During the fifth century A.D., Spain was overrun by various tribes of Germanic Barbarians, including the Suevi, Alans, Franks, Visigoths, and Vandals. The Visigoths eventually emerged as the dominant tribe, but Spain remained relatively Romanized under their reign—the culture and language of the conquered was absorbed by the conquerors rather than vica versa. The Visigoths nobles, who were Arian Christians, eventually converted to the Roman Rite, which did much to help solidify the Catholic Church's influence in Western Europe.

The Visigothic reign in Spain lasted from the reign of Ataulfus, in 410 to the Moorish conquest under Roderic, almost exactly 300 years later. The Visigoth kings spent much of their time driving off other invaders. Led by king Theodoric, the Visigoths allied themselves with the Roman Empire in 451 in order to drive off Attila the Hun. They later contended with the Suevis for control of territory in the mountains of Cantabria, and with the Franks for territories north of the Pyrenees.

The Visigoths kings reigned in Spain for 300 years, from the early 400's to 711. Instead of a strictly hereditary monarchy, however, their kings were elected from among the nobles. This method produced a few notable leaders including Good King Wamba and Recared, but is blamed for the weakening the power of the Visigoth king, because he was beholden to factitious nobles. Contentious elections resulted in a number of damaging civil wars. Roderic, the last king of the Visigoths assumed the throne during such a period of internal conflict and the resulting division resulted in the collapse of the Visigoth kingdom at the hands of the Moorish invaders.

During the early years of the Visigoth Empire, the ruling nobles were Arian Christians and most of the Roman-Iberian citizens were Catholics. King Recared's convertion to Catholicism, shortly after the fall of the Vandal kingdom in Africa, signaled the end of Arianism as a major threat to Catholic Orthodoxy. It also, however, resulted in a worsening of Visigoth relations with the Jews, since Spanish Jews had contentious relationships with Catholics. The Third Council of Toledo in 589 A.D. proscribed the Arian heresy, but put restrictions on Jews who held power over Christian subjects. The discontent of Spanish Jews under the Catholic Visigoth government was in important factor in the eventual overthrow of the Visigoth kingdom.

Characters—Romans and Visigoths

Character/Date Short Biography

Roman Hispania

d. 229 BC
Carthage's most able general in first Punic War; father of Hannibal.
247–182 BC
Carthaginian general, invaded and laid waste to Italy for sixteen years.
Cornelius Scipio
d. 211 BC
Tried to intercept Hannibal in Gaul, but was defeated at Ticino River and Trebbia.
Scipio Africanus
234–149 BC
Roman hero of second Punic War. Led armies in Spain and Africa. Defeated Hannibal at Zama.
Cato (the censor)
234–149 BC
Roman censor, urged destruction of Carthage before third Punic War.
d. 179 BC
Celt-Iberian chief of the Belli tribe during conquest of Hispania. Defeated Romans at battle of Caravis.
180–139 BC
Lusitanian chief who resisted Rome during conquest of Hispania. Won many battles and incited rebellions.
122–72 BC
Led rebellion against Rome in Spain; held out for 8 years.

Visigoth Spain

Missionary bishop who translate the bible into the Gothic language and converted the Goths to Arian Christianity.
d. 410
Leader of Visigoths after death of Alaric. Led his people out of Italy and established Visigoth kingdom in Spain .
Theodoric I
d. 451
Son of Alaric, who led the Visigoth army against Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons.
d. 601
First Catholic King of the Visigoth Kingdom.
Good King Wamba
d. 687
Legendary king of the Visigoths, whose reign was peaceful and prosperous.
d. 711
Last king of Visigoth Spain. Died at the Battle of Guadalete.
~ 711
Gothic Knight who defended Cordova after the fall of the Visigoths at Guadalete.
~ 711
Visigoth general who used a ruse in order to make peace with the Moorish conquerors.
Tariq ibn Ziyad
d. 720
Berber general who defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Gaudalete.
Isidore of Seville
Catholic Bishop who converted Visigoths, presided at Council of Toledo.

Timeline—Romans and Visigoths

BC YearEvent
1000 Cadiz founded by Phonician traders. Important ports of Spain controled by Carthage.
264–214 First Punic War between Roman and Carthage.
236 Hamilcar makes Spain a Carthaginian province.
218 Hannibal captures Saguntum, a Roman ally; provokes the Second Punic War.
206 Carthaginians driven out of Spain. Romans divide region into Hispania Citerior and Ulterior.
195 Cato (the censor) puts down Turdetani Uprising and other rebellions throughout Hispania.
154 The Lusitanians of Portugal, under Celtiberian hero Viriathus defeat the Romans.
139 Death of the Lusitain hero Viriathus by Roman treachery fails to end the rebellion.
133 Scipio the Younger destroys Numantia after costly siege; growth of Roman civilization promoted.
105 Deadly invasion of Roman Hispania from the Cimbri;—country saved by the Celt-iberi.
97 Celteberians under Sertorius, rise against Rome.
71 Sertorius assassinated; Pompey reconquers Hispania for Rome.
61 Julius Caesar is governor of Hispania Citerior.
49–45 Caesarean Civil War. Early battles at Massilia and Llerda in Spain.
45 Caesar defeats republicans at battle of Munda and becomes unrivaled master of Roman Empire.
22–19 Cantabrian War: Augustus Caesar wins decisive victories over the wild northern tribes.
19 Roman conquest of Spain complete; Divided into Tarraconensis, Baetica, and Lusitania.
AD YearEvent
350 Ulfilas, an Arian missionary, converts Goths, creates Gothic alphabet, translates Bible.
409 Waves of barbarians, including Suevi, Franks, and Vandals invade Roman Hispania.
414 Ataulfus leads the Visigoths into Hispania and settles there.
415 Wallia leads the Visigoths to victory over rival barbarians and founds the Visigoth Kingdom.
451 Visigoths under Theodoric fight along side the Romans against Attila the Hun at Chalons.
466 Euric made the country still more independent of Rome and framed the Gothic Code.
506 Alaric II opposes Clovis, and loses Aquitaine to the Franks.
586 Recared renounces Arian Christian and embraces the Church of Rome.
589 Third council of Toledo denounces Arianism and puts restrictions on Spanish Jews.
672 Good King Wamba attemps important reforms of government, but is deposed.
711 Visigoths are overwhelmed by Moors at the Battle of Guadalete.

Recommended Reading—Romans and Visigoths

Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Ober - Spain: A History for Young Readers   Ancient Iberia to A Kingdom of the Goths (4)
Horne - Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain   The Beginnings of Spain (1)
Bonner - A Child's History of Spain   From the Beginning to The Moorish Conquest (3)

Supplemental Recommendations

Abbott - The Romance of Spanish History   Early History of Spain to Roman and Gothic Spain (3)
Morris - Historical Tales: Spanish   The Good King Wamba to The Battle of Guadalete (4)

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate