Germanic Tribes: The Goths

Figure 1.--The Visigoths, one of the two min Gothic groups, were a Germanic tribe. When the Roman first came in contact with them, they were living in the delta of the Danube River. They had been pushed west by attacks from the Huns. Their most famous leader was Alaric I. We are unsure who did this illustration or how accurate it is.

The Goths are often referred to as two different branches--the Ostergoths or Eastern Goths and the Visagoths or Western Goths. Both were driven west by the Huns who emerged from the Steppe. This put pressure on the declining Roman Empire trying to keep the German tribes east of the Rhine and noth of the Danube.The Ostergoths were conquered by the Huns and thus fought with them as allies. The Ostrogoths, after the death of the Hun Attila the Hun and after plundering the Balkans managed to conquer Italy, and Gothic king Theodoric (Diederik) became Roman emperor. The Visagoths resisted the Huns, at times fighting in alliance with the Romans. At other times the Visagoths fought Rome. Their king Alaric fought the Roman armies which, of all people, were commanded by a Vandal named Stilicho. Many Vandals served under Alaric as well. It was Alaric who eventually sacked Rome signalling the fall of the Western Empire.


Very little is known about the origins of the Huns until they come in contact with Rome in the late 4th century. The Huns were the first mounted Asian warriors to move east and threaten Europe. They appeared on war horses out of the trackless Asian steppes. Their first European victim were the Alans (a people living between the Volga and the Don) and then moved further West. The Huns were a major force in driving the Germanic tribes west into the saftey of the Roman Empire, butv in the process destroying the Western Empire. The Huns moved east north of the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths. Then they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire. This led defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople (378 AD). The Huns settled along the Danube, particularly in the Hungarian Plain. For nearly 50 years they both served the Romans as allies as well as wared with them. The Eastern Emperor, beginning in the 420s, paid an annual tribute to them. When the more ambitious Attila succeded as as King of the Huns he adopted a more aggressive policy.


The Ostergoths were conquered by the Huns and thus fought with them as allies. The Ostrogoths, after the death of the Hun leader Attila and after plundering the Balkans managed to conquer Italy, and Gothic king Theodoric (Diederik) became Roman emperor. Eastern Emperor Justinian would first conquer the Vandals in North Africa and then wage a more protracted campaigns against the Goths in Italy (6th century).


The Visigoths, commonly known as just the Goths, were an eastern Germanic tribe. They are first noted by the Romans as living in the Danube delta area (modern Romania/Ukraine). They were driven west and south by the Huns. The Visagoths resisted the Huns and, unlike the Ostergoiths, were not conquered by them. At times fighting in alliance with the Romans. At other times the Visagoths fought Rome. Emperor Theodosius negotiated a treaty making the Visigoths the first independent barbarian nation within the Roman Empire (382 AD). Alaric I led the Visigoths as part of the Roman army fought the Huns (384). Theodosius spilt the empire between his sons Honorius and Acradius. This was the brginning of the divide between the Eastern and Western Empires. The Visigoths upon the death of Theodosius, ended their alliance with Rome (395). The first great Visagothic leader, King Alaric. fought the Roman armies which, of all people, were commanded by a Vandal in the service of Rome--Flavius Stilicho. Many Vandals subsequently served under Alaric as well. Alaric invaded Italy (401). A Roman army commanded by Stilicho defeated him and the Visigoths were compeled to withdraw from the Italiam peninsula. Despite his first defeat, Alaric organized a second invasion. Again he was defeated, but this time Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a substantial ransome to withdraw. After Stilicho's death an anti-barbarian party rose to power in Rome. They demanded the death of the families of the Germanic tribesmen serving in the Roman army. The tribal soldiers then understandably switch sides and joined Alaric, substantially increasing his military strength. Some histirians describe Alaric as wanting a compromiose peace. Emperor Honorius leading the anti-Barbarian party, refused to make any concessions. Alaric attacked Rome a third time. The Senate finally payed another substantial endowment to Alaric. Honorius refused to neoitiate. Alaric moved on Rome and surrounded the city (409). Honorius managed to break the blockade. He appointed Attalus as western emperor. Alaric quickly deposed Attalus and renewed a seige. Finally his allies withon the city opened the gates for Alaric. He and his men sacked Rome which essentialled sinaled the fall of the Western Empire, although it continued on in an enfeabled state. They seized anyrthing that appealed to them and burned many buildings. Alaric died soon after. The Visigoths moved northward into southern Gaul. This eventually with the fall of the Romn Empire led to conflict between the Franks in northern Gaul and Visagoths in southern Gaul.

Tolosa (418-507)

Wallia, king of the Visigoths, made Tolosa (modern Toulouse) the capital of his kingdom. It thus becane the center of the great Teutonic kingdom of the Visigoths. It is someyimes referred to as the Tolouse Kingdom. The Visigoths within only 50 years expanded their domain from the Loire to Gibraltar and from the Rhone to the Atlantic, an immense territory. This included much of present day southwestern France as well as the Iberian Peninsula. It could have developed into one of the major European countries, but one very different than the Western European countries which actually developed. Clovis of the Franks defeated Alaric II (507). Toulouse thus fell to Clovis. One historian writes, "Had Alaric II foughtv off Clovis, it is entirely realistic to envisage Western Europe dominsted by a pan-Gothic hegemony, while a diminished Roman Church retreated before the double advance of Ariaism and Byzantine Orthodoxy. In which case, France may never have come into being, or may have developed somewhere else or in a different way." [Davies] Clovis did suceeed andarried away the Visagoth royal treasures to Angouleme. Under the Merovingian kings it seems to have remained the greatest city of southern Gaul, and is said to have been governed by dukes or counts dependent on one or other of the rival king,. descended from the great founder of the Frankish monarchy. And thevVisigoths became an Iberian monarchy.

Iberia (5th-7th Centuries)

The Visagoths entered Iberia (412 AD) and within 7 years established themselves as the dominant power in the Peninsula. The Visagoths established the Toulouse Kingdom, only nomally subject to the emperor in Rome (419). The Kingdom at its peak streached from Gibraltar north to the Loire River. Although Teutonic in origins, the Visigoths built on the earlier base of Latin (Roman) culture and eventually implanted Christianity. Euric ruled as king (466-84) at perhaps the peak of Visogothic power in Iberia. He codified of Roman and Gothic law. The Franks under Clovis drove the Visagoths south beyond the Pyrenees Mountains. Leovgild (569-86) finally conquered the Suevi tribes and united Romans and Visagoths into a single people. Reccared (586-601) made Roman Christianity the state religion. They ruled Iberia for three centuries until being overwealmed by Islamic Moorish invaders from North Africa (8th century).


The Vandals after crossing the Rhine did not move on Rome, but instead moved west to the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans used mercinary Visigoths to supress them. They moved south into southern reaches of the Iberiann Peninsula. Visigothic/Vandal eminty was further fuekd by relgious division. The Vandals adopted Arian Christianity hich the Catholic Visigoths attempted to supress. In the southern Iberiann Peninsula they acqyired boat building skills. Under King Gaiseric they invaded Roman-controlled North Africa, seeking both plunder abd the opportunity to establish their own independentThis removed them from Soanish and Visigothic history, but from North Africa they would play a major role in destabilizing the Western Empire.

Moorish Invasion (711-19)

A decade after smashing Byzantine power in North Africa at Carthage (698), the Arabs had not only reached the southern shores of Europe facing Gibraltar, but launched an invasion of Spain. Arab armies had defeated Byzantine armies in the East, but the Byzantines still prevented an Arab invasion of Eastern Europe. That invasion would come in the West. After the conquest of North Africa, the Arabs and their Berber Allies looked across the Strait of Gibraltar at the weak Visigoth kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula. Here a small Germanic ruling class had governed since the fall of the Roman Empire. Musa bin Nusayr, the governor of Muslim North Africa, dispatched his general, Tarik, and his largely Berber army on an expedition across the Strait (711). The defection of Count Julian in Ceuta made this possible. Tarik's army consisted of Muslims of varying origins. Accounts vary. Some sources say the Moorish army was predominately Arabs, but included Berbers, Syrians, and others). Others emphasize Berber origins. The Visigothic King , Roderick, assembeled an army to repulse the Tarik who he thought commanded a small mercinary army. Tarik landed at Gibraltar, the name of which cimes from the ArabicJebel-al Tarik. Roderick proved to be an ineffectual commander. One historian describes him as 'Weighed down by a golden crown, a heavy robe, archaic jewelry, and an ivory carriage drawn by two white mules" [Fuentes, p. 51.] The weakness of the Visigithingb kingdom was displayed in Rodericks stunning defeat at Guadalete / Río Barbate, (July 19, 711). It is believed that Roderick and much of the Visigothic nobility was killed in the battle and aftermath. Tarik swept north toward Toledo, the Visigithic capital, facing no futher strong resistance. Visigothic Spain passed into history. The Moors moved through the Visigothic Kingdom (sometimes referred to as the Toulouse Kingdom) destroying any armed resistance and over the space of only a few years almost totally dominated the Peninsula. Muslim armies then ventured across the Pyrenees and established a foothold in southwest France. A moved north was defeated at the Battle of Poitiers by a Frankish army under Charles Martel near Tours (732). While only a relatively minor military scirmish, along with avictory in the East of Byzantine Emperor Leo III ended the phase of rapid advance by Arab armies. The Moors then withdrew south of the Pyrenees. They never again seriously threatened France. Charles Martel would go on to found a powerful state, the foundation of modern France. The Moors were left in control of almost the entire Iberian Pensinsula except for a few small Christian enclaves in the rugged northhwest. The cost of coqquering the rugged moutabeous area proved not worth the effort.


Davies, Norman. Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations (2012), 848p.

Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (Houghton Mifflin: New York, 1992), 399p.


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Created: 4:39 AM 9/24/2011
Last updated: 8:57 PM 7/12/2013