Vandals and Visigoths

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© Bob Denton 2014


The Rhine froze over in 406 and this permitted the Germanic tribes to cross it. The Vandals would keep migrating ever westward, the Franks were content to settle in the north of today’s France and the Low Countries, the Burgundians moved to the south-west and the Visigoths to the south-east. The Romans ‘permitted’ these moves. While there was some Romanzation of the tribes the Roman decline did not halt as a result of their ‘permission’.

With the assistance of the Alans, the Vandals moved first in to today’s France. But by 409 these tribes had continued their westward migration across the Pyrenees and spread through the Iberian Peninsula.

One of the Vandal groups, the Hasdingi and the Suevi people settled in Galicia, Spain. The Suevi, or Swabians, established their capital as Bracara Augusta, today’s Braga, Portugal. As a tribe they were strong agriculturalists who first brought the quadrangular plough to the peninsula. Later arrivals, the Silingi Vandals, based themselves in the South and the Alans settled in to Lusitania (southern Portugal).

To the east the Vandals sacked Rome in 410 CE, occupying it for three days of looting and burning. Though, at that time, the capital itself had been moved away from Rome to Ravenna.

The Vandals were driven from the peninsula by the Visigoths, urged on by the Romans, but the Vandal story was far from over, in North Africa they soon defeated the Roman forces that remained there, and established themselves in old Carthage (Tunis).

The Vandal King Geiseric then set about unifying the Vandals and Alans that had settled there. Jointly they spread their rule around the western Mediterranean, taking over Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic islands. These were then used as bases to assail and eventually to sack the city of Rome again in 455.


The Tervingi, or forest people, were just one of those Germanic peoples living beyond the limes. At some stage they became known as the Visigoths, meaning western Goths, there were also Ostrogoths or eastern Goths; but Visi in Gothic can alternatively mean ‘good’.

Originally based in Poland they migrated southward towards the Carpathian mountains, today’s Romania. They then settled as farmers and traders living along the northern banks of the Danube down towards its delta. The Romans faced them from the other bank.

The ‘calming influence’ of the Roman limes had settled life along the borders. As a result many of the Germanic tribes adopted the Roman way of life and their customs. The Visigoths did this and even converted to the Christian faith. In their case it was an Arian form of Christianity, the version taught by Arius from Alexandria that separated the entities of God and Jesus into distinct beings and not two separate parts of a unified Trinity. This was pretty sensitive stuff in the late 3rd and most of the 4th century CE.

This relative peace was shattered by the expansionism of the Huns in the late 4th century as they pressed westwards from their original base to the east of the Volga. This migration pressured the Vandals and other Germanic tribes and they in turn moved further west, away from the Huns.

The Visigoths appealed to the Roman emperor Valens, asking for shelter from the Huns by being permitted to cross the Danube, where they would settle along the south bank and live under the control of the Roman Empire.

Valens proved keen to help, because he had his own agenda to recruit them in to the Roman army. He permitted 200,000 Visigoths to cross the Danube and the Visigoths became mercenaries for the Romans; fighting the Huns on their behalf. This role firmly established, it was quite a natural step for them later to be applied by the Romans into the Iberian Peninsula against other Germanic tribes, like the Vandals, that had by then expanded that far west.

A famine in the Visigoth homeland unsettled these arrangements and the Visigoths began to attack Romans. They had varied success, in 378 Valens himself led Roman reinforcements against them, but he and his 15,000 men were defeated at the Battle of Adrianople (in the European part of Turkey). His adversary was the Visigoth King Alaric I with a similar number of men. Only a third of the Roman army managed to escape, Valens and a number of other leaders in the Roman eastern army were lost.

The newly appointed Emperor soon agreed a peace with the Visigoths in 382. However when some 30,000 ‘barbarians’ and their families serving the Roman army were executed, Alaric I once again rallied the Visigoths against the Roman Empire.

Given the progressive decline of the Romans’ control of their empire, the Visigoths found themselves being drawn ever westward fighting in the service of the Romans. By 415 the Visigoths under Ataulf had already established a presence in the peninsula by defeating the Alans.

As a reward the Visigoths were granted the right to settle lands around the area of today’s Toulouse from 418. Supported by remnant Roman forces, it was they that in 429 succeeded in driving the Vandals out of Iberia, across to North Africa.

Visigoth King Euric set about uniting the various Visigoth factions and with this new strength negotiated with the Romans for their territories in Aquitania and southern France to be granted a full independence in 476 CE.

The Visigoths adopted the Roman laws and approaches and presented themselves as the natural successors to Rome, not its conquerors. However the Visigoth realm soon came under pressure from the Franks who claimed that the Visigoth Arian Christian beliefs were heretical.

Visigoth King Alaric II was killed in 507 at the battle of Vouillé. His infant son, Amalaric, was also killed before he could assume power and the succession was then contested by two leaders, Athanagild and Agila.

In 554 Athanagild appealed for the Byzantine Empire (the eastern Roman Empire) to intervene and settle this dynastic feud. They helped to kill Agila and freed the way for Athanagild to be crowned. Athanagild soon moved the Visigoth capital in to the Iberian Peninsula, first to Barcelona, then later Toledo; it was from here some that just 300,000 Visigoths would rule some 4m Iberians.

But the (western) Roman emperor, Justinian, had hatched a plan that might eventually help the Romans to reclaim the peninsula. He arranged that the Byzantines stayed on to occupy Granada, plus the old Roman province of Hispania Baetica centred on Córdoba. They secured the area calling it Spania.

By 585 Visigoth King Liuvigild had seized Galicia from the Suevi, then managed to subdue the Cantabrians and the Basques in the North. He then turned his attention to ridding the peninsula of the Byzantines; it took him until the 7th century to complete this. Their control of Iberia was then wrested away by the Moors.

Forward to 2 – France in the First Millennium – Back to Romans
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014