When last we met the Goths, they had just sacked the city of Rome in 410 CE, the act for which this barbarian people is both famous and infamous. They were, after all, the first group in 800 years to pillage the Eternal City, and that kind of action is going to leave a mark in the history books. The history of this particular army of Goths—and it was just one group among many, since most of the ethnic group was still under the rule of the Huns beyond the Danube—didn’t end there, though.
This army of Goths, later to be known as the Visigoths, would soon found a new political unit of their own. As the political structures of the Roman Empire in the west crumbled, what replaced its centralized administration over the course of the fifth and sixth centuries were a series of new kingdoms, the barbarian, or successor kingdoms. The Franks took northern Gaul; the Vandals established themselves in north Africa; the Sueves helped themselves to northwestern Spain; the Anglo-Saxons and Romano-British warlords carved up Britain; the Burgundians were settled along the Rhone River in France; and the Ostrogoths eventually displaced another group to found a kingdom in Italy.
The Visigoths, these same folks who sacked Rome, were the first. Starting from the city of Toulouse in southwest Gaul, their reach eventually grew to encompass the entire region stretching from central France to southern Spain.
When this Visigothic Kingdom first came into being in 418 or 419, though, it wasn’t a kingdom just yet. After sacking Rome, the Goths had vacillated between fighting against and then for the imperial authorities, and after carving a swathe through the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves in Spain, were granted a settlement in southwestern Gaul. At that point, though, nobody knew that this settlement would grow into a kingdom; it was probably intended to be temporary, a short-term billeting of an allied army that could then be redeployed as necessary.
That’s not what happened. The Visigoths showed an increasingly independent streak under the leadership of increasingly powerful kings, eventually turning their temporary settlement into the seeds of a full-blown kingdom. This kingdom-in-the-making formed a potent power bloc within the chaotic politics of the fifth century, alternately working for and against the imperial court amid the confusion of drastic shifts in the political order.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and I just finished my PhD on the end of the Roman Empire. I always wished that more professional historians tried to talk to the general public, so that’s why I’m doing this podcast on the fall of Rome.
This week’s episode of the show focuses on the rise of this Visigothic Kingdom. It wasn’t a given that a wandering army—a heterogeneous group that included the descendants of migrant Goths, escaped slaves, runaway peasants, and professional soldiers of other backgrounds—would forge itself into a military aristocracy that controlled a genuine successor state in southwestern Gaul. How did this happen, and what did it mean for the people who lived through these events?
If that sounds interesting to you, give the episode a listen.
- Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568
- Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths
- Peter Heather, The Goths
- Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides