The Collapse of the Visigothic State and the Islamic Conquest

The Visigothic state which the Muslims found such an easy victim was an ethnically stratified society, with a fragmented political structure, a depressed and unbalanced rural economy, and a town life which was rudimentary at best. These Goths (who also called themselves Thervings, or [28] "People of the Woods") were a herding people who, entering the peninsula in the early sixth century, tended to settle in areas ecologically suited to their traditional economic pursuits. Thus the greatest concentration of Visigoths settled in a triangle traced by Palencia, Toledo, and Calatayud, with the densest settlement in the present province of Segovia, the Campi Goticl, or present-day Tierra de Campos. About 200,000 Goths ruled an indigenous population of about eight million Hispano-Romans as a military elite. The ethnic cleavage between German-speaking rulers and Latin-speaking subjects was heightened by religious difference; the Goths were Arian Christians who denied the divinity of Christ, while the Hispano-Roman majority was Catholic.

The separation of the two groups was supported institutionally by a dual administrative and legal system: each province had a Roman governor, who administered Roman law to the Hispano-Roman population, and Gothic officials (duke or dux at the provincial level, count, comescivitatis, at the town level), who dealt with infractions committed by Visigoths, according to German customary law, and who had some jurisdiction over Romans as well. There were invidious legal distinctions; intermarriage between Goths and Romans was forbidden until 652, when Recceswinth reformed the kingdom's administrative and legal system by abolishing Roman law and, with it, the dual system of justice. But this move, in the view of E. A. Thompson, rather than promoting the fusion of the two groups, served only to heighten ethnic tensions. By abolishing Roman law, the king had deprived the Hispano-Romans of their co-equal legal status and relegated them to second-class citizenship. Thompson's view controverts the generally accepted opinion that Recceswinth's reforms consolidated the moves toward fusion set in motion by the conversion of the Goths to Catholicism under Reccared a half century or so before.(24) In terms of the dynamics of this kind of a stratified social system, with an elite minority ruling a majority of a different ethnic group, Thompson's version is doubtless correct. The Goths, having converted, for political reasons, to the majority religion, reacted to the competition afforded by the Catholic elite and feared being engulfed by the sheer numbers of Hispano-Romans. Having done away with one of the deepest cleavages between the groups by conversion, they had to sharpen lines of socio economic differentiation, and this could not be accomplished while the Romans retained the legal safeguards of a separate administrative system. Once that system was abolished, the Romans had to play [29] according to rules set by the Gothic elite, who had the military and economic power (a system tending toward a "feudal" model). Thus, paradoxically, the religious and legal merger of the two peoples proved only fictive; the intense stratification of the society along ethnic lines was reinforced rather than diminished, to the point where distinctions between Romans ancl Goths persisted even after the Islamic conquest.(25) At the same time, the political structure of Visigothic society manifested distinct disintegrative tendencies, as the dukes tended to make their provinces increasingly autonomous units which they were able to control tightly by granting land to their own vassals in return for loyalty and military service.

Little is known of the agrarian economy of Visigothic times, except that an economic division of labor further distinguished the two peoples: the Goths were herders (their law code, the Forum ludicum -- Fuero Juzgo in Castilian -contains specifications regulating herds dating from the sixth or seventh centuries) and the Romans stereotyped them as crude and ignorant, the last people to learn writing,(26) much in the same way as Arabs were later to portray the Berbers, another herding people.

The Hispano-Romans followed the general pattern of Mediterranean agriculture: cereal grains (wheat and barley), grapes, and vegetables grown in irrigated fields in the Ebro Valley and the Eastern littoral.(27) What is clear is that the entire economy was in a state of profound disarray and agriculture was ruined as result of a series of natural disasters beginning in the seventh century. Perhaps we can accept at the root of this string of bad harvests, famine, and plague Ignacio Olague's theory of a general climatic shift in the western Mediterranean world, beginning in the third century A.D.,which had the result of making the climate drier and hotter and which reached crisis proportions in the high middle ages, forcing a greater dependence on irrigation agriculture in North Africa and Spain.(28) Medieval chronicles noted famine and plague in the reign of Erwig (680-686), when half the population was said to have perished. Plagues of locusts were reported. There can be no doubt that the constant political turmoil of late-seventh- and early-eighth-century Spain take on more poignant meaning if set against a background of worsening harvests, prolonged drought, famine, and depopulation. Moreover, it makes more intelligible the shift in the balance of peninsular agriculture, away from dry-farming and herding, towards an increased reliance on irrigated crops, during the Islamic period. Islamic society in Spain was able [30] to adjust to an arid ecology by directing the flow of economic resources into the technological adjustments required to increase irrigated acreage, whereas the Visigoths understood only a herding, forest ecology and could not adjust to any other.

If the agrarian economy was in decay, the same can be said of the urban economy and of commerce. Visigothic trade was largely in the hands of Jews, who formed a numerous minority, and foreigners. When economic recession set in, Jews were blamed and a regressive cycle of restrictive anti-Jewish legislation could only have led to more disruptions of trade. The barbarian invasions were further responsible for the physical ruin of much of the urban plant built by the Romans. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that when the Muslim invaders arrived in 711 many Hispano-Roman cities were already largely buried in subsoil.(29) In such conditions, it is not surprising that Roman municipal institutions failed to survive the Visigothic domination.

The economic regressiveness of Visigothic Spain is well illustrated by the failure of the Goths to carry on the vast mining enterprise begun by the Romans, who removed from Iberian pits a wide variety of metals, including silver, gold, iron, lead, copper, tin, and cinnabar, from which mercury is made. The relative insignificance of mining in Visigothic Spain is attested to by the winnowing of the full account given by Pliny to the meager details supplied by Isidore of Seville, who omits any mention, for example, of iron deposits in Cantabria. The most important Roman mines have lost their Latin names, generally yielding to Arabic ones -- as in Almadén and Aljustrel -- probably an indication of their quiescence during the Visigothic period and their revival by the Muslims. The Goths may have allowed their nomadic foraging instinct to direct their utilization of metal resources. In some areas mined by the Romans they probably scavenged for residual products of abandoned shafts that remained unworked, and metal for new coinage seems largely to have been provided by booty captured from enemies or from older coins fleeced from taxpayers.(30)

Thus the failure of the Visigothic state, seen in its unbalanced economy, as well as in its disjointed and incohesive social organization, was also reflected in its technological atony, which was at the core of the elite's inability to adapt to any ecology other than that with which it was originally familiar: the men of the woods never strayed too far from there. They were unable to build on the Roman base. In 483 the duke Salla repaired [31] the Roman bridge at Mérida; yet in 711 the Arabs found the bridge at Córdoba in ruins, just as Musa ibn Nusayr was said to have found the Roman-built irrigation systems in disuse.(31)

Receptiveness to technological innovation and intellectual creativity in general are linked, the former more clearly than the latter, to general economic conditions. Thus Antonio Ubieto cites the Etymologies, the encyclopedic work of Isidore of Seville, written in the early seventh century, as a typical expression of the state of culture in a depressed economy. Although Ubieto's generalization that encyclopedias are written in moments of cultural stagnation may be overdrawn, his characterization seems a valid enough observation on the Etymologies. When referring to mining, Isidore seems scarcely to understand the technologies involved.(32)

However reduced its straits and confined its visions, Visigothic culture was not, for that, totally isolated. It is tempting to see the Islamic conquest as the act which placed Iberia back into the mainstream of "world" civilization -- in Toynbee's fanciful and hyperbolic characterization, a re-trieval of the peninsula, once Punic in his view, for "Syriac society." But, as Jocelyn Hillgarth notes, Visigothic Spain had succeeded North Africa as the seat of ancient and Christian letters and in Isidore's time had many cultural and artistic links with the Byzantine East, as well as with the pre-feudal societies of Merovingian France, Ireland, and Britain.(33)

The immediate result of the Islamic conquest, however, was to intensify greatly the relations of the peninsula with the lands encompassed in the Islamic Empire and to reduce, but by no means terminate, relations with lands to the north -- or perhaps, more accurately, such relations with Christian Europe were channeled selectively. Direct commercial contacts never ceased; intellectual and artistic contacts were achieved by more subtle and circuitous means.

The conquest of 711, staged in Morocco and carried out mainly by Berber horse cavalry under Arab command, is, for a phenomenon of such transcendence, poorly understood. Its most salient actors, half-legendary, half-real, conquered nearly the entire peninsula and subjugated its massive population in a matter of five years and without much resistance. The old legend has it that the last Visigothic king, Roderick, had forced the daughter of Count Julian, Byzantine governor of Ceuta, a casus belli which led to Julian's asking for Muslim help in coming to the aid of Roderick's domestic enemies. It was relatively common, of course, for medieval people to explain social and political phenomena whose motives [32] were incomprehensible to them by imputing events to the personal quirks of one leader or another. In any case, according to Arabic and Christian sources alike, after a small reconnoitering expedition led by Tarif in the summer of 710, a party of 7,000 Berbers under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad landed near Gibraltar (Jabal Tariq, "Tariq's mountain") on or about April 28, 711. Tariq then occupied the area around Algeciras, sent a request for 5,000 additional troops to the governor of Islamic North Africa, Musa ibn Nusayr, and proceeded along the Roman road towards Seville. Meanwhile Roderick, away in the north fighting Basque rebels, hastened southward, gathering a host of "100,000" men. The two armies did battle on the banks of the Guadalete between July 19 and 23, resulting in an Islamic victory and the rout of the Visigothic army, capped by the death of Roderick.(34)

Most of the elements of this story are unbelievable. In the past century the Dutch Islamist, R. Dozy, who believed these accounts to be as legendary as the Thousand and One Nights, noted that many of the elements in early reports of the conquest of Spain (written by writers living in Egypt) simply repeated old traditions having nothing to do with the Iberian peninsula. Later embellishments were added by Christian chroniclers, drawing upon Biblical traditions decidedly apocalyptic in character.(35)

Julian was more likely a Goth than a Byzantine governor of Ceuta, bearing a generic name, comes julianus, the count of Julia Traducta (the Roman name for Tarifa) . Tarif, it seems clear, was an eponymous name concocted to explain the origin of the town of Tarifa. Tarlq, too, seems to have been eponymous figure whose name simply meant "chief," according to Joaquin Vallve.(36)

Nor does Vallve accept the view that the crucial battle took place on the banks of the Guadalete, but places the site farther south, near the port of entry, near Gibraltar on the banks of the Guadarranque, a name which perhaps means Roderick's River (Wad al-Rinq).(37) Why did "Tariq" wait for three months in order to march northward to meet the Gothic army? His forces must have numbered substantial horse cavalry to have defeated an army many times larger. If we take the accepted number of troops and boats given by Arabic sources, it is clear that a force of 10,000 to 15,000 men could not have crossed the straits in less than three months.(38)

The conquest of Spain appears to have been a walk-through. After the first decisive battle, few more challenges of any serious dimension arose. The Muslim columns followed the Roman roads, obtaining the surrenders [33] of key towns, and in many cases leaving Jewish garrisons behind. In most cases, the Muslims demanded full submission to their authority, although in some cases pacts were made with Visigothic lords, guaranteeing them substantial autonomy. Such was the case of the arrangement made with Theodomir in the Murcian district (later called by the Arabs Tudmir, after its former leader), whose early administration therefore probably continued a pattern of local autonomy prominent in late Visigothic times.

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  • Markus
    Why did visigoths loose spain to islam?
    1 year ago

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