The Goths were a nomadic Germanic people who fought against Roman rule in the late 300s and early 400s A.D., helping to bring about the downfall of the Roman Empire, which had controlled much of Europe for centuries. The ascendancy of the Goths is said to have marked the beginning of the medieval period in Europe. Visigoth was the name given to the western tribes of Goths, while those in the east were referred to as Ostrogoths. Ancestors of the Visigoths mounted a successful invasion of the Roman Empire, beginning in 376, and ultimately defeated them in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D.
After forcing the Romans from much of the European continent, the Goths governed a large swath of territory, from present-day Germany to the Danube and Don rivers in Eastern Europe, and from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north.
Following their sack of Rome in 410 A.D., Visigoth influence extended from the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Portugal and Spain) all the way to Eastern Europe.
The Visigoths tribe of Goths are believed to be descendants of an earlier group of Goths called the Thervingi. The Thervingi were the Gothic tribe that first invaded the Roman Empire, in 376, and defeated the Romans at Adrianople in 378.
Following Adrianople, the Visigoths and Romans were both trading partners and warring combatants over the next decade or so. However, under the leadership of Alaric I, the first king of the Visigoths, the tribe initiated a successful invasion of Italy, which included the sacking of Rome in 410.
With their primary rivals for European power defeated, Alaric and the Visigoths established their kingdom in the region of Gaul (present-day France), initially as an outlying nation of the Roman Empire, before expanding their territory to include the areas now known as Spain and Portugal, taking these lands by force from the Suebi and Vandals, in the early 500s.
Early on, they maintained positive relations with the Romans, receiving protection from the historic empire.
However, the two groups soon fell out, and the Visigoths assumed full governance of their kingdom in 475 under King Euric. In fact, Visigoths maintained a presence on the Iberian Peninsula, ending their nomadic ways, from the mid-400s through the early 700s, when they were defeated by an invading force of African Moors.
The region was known as the Visigothic Kingdom.
The Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths, lived in the area near the Black Sea (modern-day Romania, Ukraine and Russia).
Like Goths elsewhere, the Ostrogoths made frequent incursions into Roman territory until their own territories were invaded by Huns from farther east. But after the death of Attila, the Ostrogoths were free to expand into Roman lands.
Under the leadership of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogoths successfully dominated the rulers of the Italian peninsula, expanding their territories from the Black Sea into Italy and farther west.
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But after a series of military campaigns against the Byzantine emperor Justinian and other rivals, the Ostrogoths largely faded from history.
In 643, Visigoth King Chindasuinth ordered the writing of the so-called Visigothic Code or Law of the Visigoths. These laws were later expanded under Chindasuinth’s son, Recceswinth, in 654.
Notably, the Visigothic Code applied equally to the conquering Goths and the general population of the kingdom, most of whom had Roman roots and had lived previously under Roman laws. It effectively ended the differentiation between the “gothi” and “romani” people in the eyes of the law, decreeing that all those residing within the Visigoth Kingdom were considered “hispani.”
(The term “hispani” is a precursor to the present-day term “Hispanic,” which is used to describe people of Spanish origin.)
The Visigothic Code also combined elements of Roman, Catholic and Germanic tribal law, establishing rules for marriage and the inheritance of property. Interestingly, the Code was remarkably progressive with regard to the rights of women, who were allowed to inherit property and manage assets independently, separate from their husbands and/or male relatives.
Under the Code, women could also represent themselves in legal proceedings and arrange their own marriages.
Some elements of the Visigothic Code endured long after the demise of the kingdom. Historians have found references to the Code in monastic charters drafted under the Kingdom of Galicia in the 10th century. And it’s known to have formed the basis of the laws established by the Moors following their conquering of the kingdom in the early 700s.
Under the rule of the Moors, Christians were allowed to live under their own laws, provided they didn’t conflict with those of the conquering Africans. This echoes many of the principles of the Visigothic Code.
A Catalan translation of the original Visigothic Code dates back to 1050 and is among the oldest texts in the language spoken in the region around present-day Barcelona.
Legacy of the Visigoths
Prior to their own downfall, the Visigoths created a legacy that survives to some degree today.
For example, the Visigoths, like most Gothic tribes, gradually converted from German paganism to Christianity over the course of the fifth and sixth centuries. However, they initially adopted the Arianist form of the religion, as opposed to the Nicean, or Catholic, form practiced by most of Rome.
Thus, the Romans considered the Christian Visigoths to be heretics until they finally converted to Catholicism in the seventh century. Many Catholic Churches built by the Visigoths in Spain and Portugal survive to this day, including Santa María de Melque in present-day Toledo, Spain.
The Visigoths also left their mark by establishing the Visigothic Code as a framework for the drafting of national laws.
Jordanes: The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. University of Calgary, Department of Greek, Latin and Ancient History. People.UCalgary.ca.
Heather, P. (2011). “Rome’s Greatest Enemies Gallery.” BBC.co.uk.
Compton’s Learning Company (1991). The Goths. Spanport.UCLA.edu.
Heather, P. (2015). “Visigoths and the Fall of Rome.” rjh.ub.rug.nl.
Ostrogoth. Ancient History Encyclopedia.