Spain. Visigoths and Unity: Monarchy. Religion. Law.

The Visigothic State: Unity.

The Monarchy.
One of the central principles of Visigothic political life was that of elective monarchy, whereby the king was selected by his aristocratic peers as “chief,” first among equals.

The king was chosen as the best to defend the interests of the community, and his function was essentially that of war-leader. Principles, however, often clashed with reality, and rebellions, regicide and constant dispute were the order of the day. In the two centuries of Visigothic rule in Hispania (507-711), there were twenty-six kings.

Of these five were assassinated, two died under mysterious circumstances and one was overthrown; in addition, there were numerous revolts that challenged the authority of the throne. The result was a weak political structure, further threatened by the divide between the Visigoths and the substantially larger population of Hispano-Romans. 

Unity was also thwarted for many years by social, religious and legal obstacles that underlined the differences between conquerors and conquered. For example, for a period intermarriage between the two groups was prohibited, both groups practised a different form of Christianity, and the laws of the land were based on two differing traditions –Hispano-Roman and Visigothic–  without clear authority. Even their clothes were different. As long as these distinctions existed there could be no sense of cohesion and integration. 

The first to address these fundamental problems comprehensively was Leovigild (r. 569-586), probably the most powerful Visigothic king of Hispania. On the political front, he confirmed –upon his accession– Toledo** as the Visigothic capital, and undertook campaigns throughout the peninsula to restore royal authority.

**Toledo had been chosen as capital by Athanagild (r. 551-68), Leovigild’s predecessor. Athanagild died without heirs.

Parts of a Byzantine enclave in the south east were recovered (570-71), a rebellious Córdoba was reintegrated into the kingdom (572), and the Sueves of the North West conquered (584). In 583, Leovigild ended a five-year armed rebellion led by his older son, Hermenegild**, in Baetica (south west Spain).

**Hermenegild was later exiled (to Valencia) and murdered in Tarragona in 585.  Whether Leovigild or Reccared –Hermenegild’s younger brother—were involved is unclear.

At the time of his death in 586, Leovigild had succeeded in gaining control of all the peninsula, with the exception of some Byzantine outposts in the south east, and the Basques entrenched in the Pyrenees.

To help strengthen the authority of the monarchy and endow it with aura and prestige, Leovigild also introduced royal symbols inspired by Roman or Byzantyne custom: robes, crown, throne, and coinage with his name, title and image. He even founded two cities –Victoria (or Olite) and Reccopolis– following imperial practices.

To enhance religious (and thereby social) cohesion, Leogivild revoked the law prohibiting intermarriage between Visigoths and Hispano-Romans, and sought to impose Arianism –a variant of Christianity the Visigoths brought with them to Hispania– on his subjects.

As Arians, the Visigoths did not believe in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost; for them, Christ was a great prophet. Leovigild was a committed Arian and his vision was a kingdom unified under the seal of Arian theology, with persecution prescribed for recalcitrant objectors. He exiled, imprisoned, executed opponents and confiscated lands belonging to the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, this it did not prevent his son, Hermenegild, marrying a French Catholic princess. The story then goes that she resisted enormous cruelty from her mother-in-law and so impressed Hermenegild by her faith that he converted to Catholicism  around 582. Clearly, then, the civil war between Leovigild and Hermenegild (started in 578) was not prompted by Hermenegild’s conversion, but rather by the latter’s attempt to take control of the south and set up his own capital in Seville. And his conversion may well be attributed more to the presence in his court of the eminent Catholic bishop, Leander of Seville (older brother of the famous Isidore) than to his wife’s devotion to Catholicism.  

The victory of Arianism over Catholicism was short-lived, however. When Leovigild died (586), he was succeeded by his second son Reccared (r. 586-601) who within a year converted to Catholicism under the tutelage of Bishop Leander. He further declared Catholicism to be the official faith of his kingdom, a declaration that was ratified with all pomp and ceremony at the 3rd Council of Toledo in 589.

Reccared ordered the burning of all Arian books, banned all Arians from public service and returned to the Catholic Church land confiscated by Leovigild. Predictably, given the pre-eminence granted to Arians under Leovigild, Reccared’s conversion and actions were not greeted by universal approval.

He faced a least four rebellions, instigated by recalcitrant Arian bishops and dissatisfied Visigothic nobles. Without royal support, however, the rebels’ cause quickly withered, and by 590 Catholicism was firmly entrenched as the state religion.

The declaration of Catholicism as the official faith of his kingdom, of course, assured Reccared of the support of a large clerical base that outnumbered its Arian rivals. But more important in the long run, it was a significant step in two respects:

First, by adopting Catholicism as the official religion of the realm –uniting Goths and Hispano-Romans under a common religion– Reccared  underlined the ideological unity of the country under the Catholic umbrella for the first time. Historically, then, Reccared’s was a momentous decision.

Second, it was the first step towards creating a symbiotic relationship between the Catholic Church and the State, whereby each body provided mutual support in both political as well as religious matters. Although Seville –through the powerful personalities of Leander and Isidore—was the most influential bishopric at first, in the 7th century power passed to the bishops of Toledo who consolidated their symbiotic relationship with the Crown through a series of ecclesiastical councils and the launching of certain rituals of kingship which they alone could preside over and over which they alone had authority. 

Religious unification also brought pressure to bear for legal unity. For a long time different codes had been promulgated: the Visigothic code of Euric, the Breviary of Alaric 506 (based on Roman Code of Theodosius of 438), the Code of Leovigild.  It’s not easy to determine whether these codes applied separately to Visigoths and Hispano-Romans or to both.

In 654, however, a code was promulgated by King Reccesuinth which evolved out of the preceding codes and clearly applied to both Visigoths and Hispano-Romans without distinction. Known as the Liber Iudiciorum or Lex Visigothorum, it did away with all previous codes. Divided into twelve books, it covered civil, commercial and legal procedures, and even explicitly declared the ruler to be subject to the law.  The Liber was a major accomplishment and prevailed as a legal resource in Christian Hispania into the 13th century.  

The unification of the peninsula through a common religion and a common code of laws suggests an increasing centralisation of control by the monarchy in the seventh century.

But political turbulence surrounding the throne was a perpetual plague. Indeed, conflicts arising between elective and hereditary interests were the immediate prelude to the fall of the Visigothic nation in 711.  When King Witiza died in 710, a civil war broke out over his successor.

The supporters of one claimant, Achila (son of Witiza according to some sources, 710-713), clashed with supporters of a rival claimant, Roderic.  Roderic seized control of Toledo and the south while Achila ruled the north east. It was while Roderic was campaigning against Achila and the Basques in the north that Muslim forces, led by Tariq b. Ziyad, the Muslim governor of Tangier, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and set in motion a radical turn in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. It marked the birth of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain).

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