Spanish Empire—Romans and Visigoths

300 B.C. to 750
Phoenician Colonies to Moorish Conquest

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Romans and Visigoths

Phoenicians in Spain—From Biblical times, many of the coastal cities of Spain were under the influence of Phoenician traders. Phoenicia controlled trade throughout the Mediterranean not by ruling over colonies, but by wielding influence through gold and intermarriage with the ruling classes of strategic cities. Over centuries its network of ports and trading partners extended all over the Mediterranean and as far as the British Isles. Spain contained several important Phoenician trading centers, most notably Cadiz, and the nearby Tartessos region in the southwest is thought to have been the wealthy mining region of 'Tarshish' from the Bible.

By the fourth century B.C., the Phoenician capital of Tyre was destroyed and the Greeks rose as trading rivals in the east but Carthage continued to wield great influence in the Western Mediterranean. It was not until the Punic Wars, a centuries long conflict with Rome, that the Phoenicians lost their colonies in Spain as well as their home port in Africa. At the beginning of the conflict the coastal regions of Hispania were controlled Carthage and it was from Spain that Hannibal marched across the Alps into Italy.

When Rome finally vanquished the city of Carthage she inherited the Phoenician trading ports in Spain but it took many years to subdue the entire Peninsula. And when the last stronghold of the great Canaanite nation fell it is not unlikely that many of its people fled to Spain and surrounding areas, intending to blend in with the native peoples. For example there is evidence that some of the Sephardic Jews of Spain, who played such an important role in the later history of the Peninsula, were descended from Carthaginian exiles.

Roman Conquest of Hispania—Rome supposedly drove Carthage out of Spain and took control of the region during the Second Punic War, yet at the time the ports that Rome controlled consisted of only a fraction of the Iberian Peninsula. The first conflicts with the interior tribes began by the 2nd century B.C., but it took several generations to subdue most of the Peninsula and some regions held out for over a century.

It is difficult to make broad generalizations regarding the course of the conflict, partly because it lasted for decades, and partly because the country was very diverse in terms of both geography and ethnicity. The coastal cities were populated by relatively civilized peoples, including Carthaginians, Greeks, Turdetani, and Celt-Iberian but the inland regions were populated by autonomous peoples. The Roman generals included both admirable leaders such as Scipio Africanus and Sertorius and treacherous butchers, such as Lucullus. Some regions submitted peacefully to Roman rule, while others held out for generations and in some cases, most famously that of Numantia, they annihilated themselves rather than submit.

The conquest of Hispania was a contentious project that played a large role in the political problems of Italy during the late Republican age. Once Spain was finally 'pacified', however, it became thoroughly Romanized, and for much of the Imperial era was one of the most prosperous regions of the empire. It played an important role during the age of the Caesars and produced a number of famous Romans, including Trajan, Hadrian , Seneca, Martial and others.

Visigoth Spain—By the fifth century the Roman Empire had broken up into fiefdoms controlled by foederati, mainly from Germanic nations. Various tribes including the Suevi, Alans, Franks, Visigoths, and Vandals claimed sovereignty of Spanish territories, but eventually the Visigoths emerged as the dominant regional power. The Visigoth kingdom settled first in southern France, but eventually moved their capital to Toledo in central Spain.

The Visigoths kings reigned in Spain for 300 years, from the early 400's to 711. Instead of a strictly hereditary monarchy, however, their kings were elected from among the nobles. This method produced a few notable leaders including Good King Wamba and Recared, but generally weakened the power of the monarchy. Contentious elections resulted in a number of damaging civil wars and Roderic, the last king of the Visigoths assumed the throne during such a period of internal conflict and the resulting divisions resulted in the collapse of the Visigoth kingdom at the hands of the Moorish invaders.

During the early years of the Visigoth Empire, the ruling nobles were Arian Christians and most of the Roman-Iberian citizens were Catholics. King Recared's conversion to Catholicism, shortly after the fall of the Vandal kingdom in Africa signaled the end of Arianism as a major threat to Catholic Orthodoxy. It also, however, resulted in a worsening of Visigoth relations with the Jews, since Spanish Jews had contentious relationships with Catholics. The Third Council of Toledo in 589 A.D. proscribed the Arian heresy, but put restrictions on Jews who held Christian subjects in slavery. The discontent of Spanish Jews under the Catholic Visigoth government was in important factor in the eventual overthrow of the Visigoth kingdom.

The Moorish Conquest—Soon after the death of the prophet, the followers of Mohammed began a campaign of conquest, and within sixty years were masters of Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Egypt, and North Africa. By 710 the region of North Africa directly across from Spain was held by Musa bin Nusair, an Arab general. Several refugees from the Visigoth Civil War fled to North Africa and asked Musa to help them overthrow Roderic. He therefore sent a Moorish army under Tariq ibn Ziyad to southern Spain and a great battle was fought near the Guadalete River. The Moors won a crushing victory over Roderick, and then, probably due to treachery, were able to take most important Visigoth towns unopposed. A few towns held out against the Moors, but within a few years the invaders had taken almost all the Peninsula and were making their way into Gaul. Their advance was checked by the Franks at the battle of Tours.

The only region of the Spanish peninsula that held off the Moslem hordes was a mountainous region in the Northwest that was under the sway of the Franks. The Christian Kingdom of Asturias was founded by Pelayo, a Visigoth noble, one of a number of heroes who resisted the onslaught. There number were few, but they were protected by Mountains, and more importantly, by their Frankish allies. In this modest kingdom in Northwest Spain the Christian resistance to Moorish Spain awaited its opportunity to reclaim its lost realm.

Characters—Romans and Visigoths

Character/Date Short Biography

Roman Hispania

d. 229 BC
Carthage's most able general in first Punic War; father of Hannibal.
247–182 BC
Carthaginian general, invaded and laid waste to Italy for sixteen years.
Scipio Africanus
234–149 BC
Roman hero of second Punic War. Led armies in Spain and Africa. Defeated Hannibal at Zama.
Scipio the Younger
185–129 BC
Led the siege of Carthage during the third Punic War.
Cato (the censor)
234–149 BC
Roman censor, urged destruction of Carthage before third Punic War.
d. 179 BC
Celt-Iberian chief of the Belli tribe during conquest of Hispania. Defeated Romans at battle of Caravis.
180–139 BC
Lusitanian chief who resisted Rome during conquest of Hispania. Won many battles and incited rebellions.
122–72 BC
Led rebellion against Rome in Spain; held out for 8 years.
Second of "Five Good Emperors." Ruled with justice and integrity. Conquered Dacia.
Third of "Five Good Emperors." Talented artist and architect, good administrator.
Tutor and minister to Nero. Forced to commit suicide after falling from grace.

Visigoth Spain

Missionary bishop who translate the bible into the Gothic language and converted the Goths to Arian Christianity.
d. 410
Leader of Visigoths after death of Alaric. Led his people out of Italy and established Visigoth kingdom in Spain .
Theodoric I
d. 451
Son of Alaric, who led the Visigoth army against Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons.
d. 601
First Catholic King of the Visigoth Kingdom.
Good King Wamba
d. 687
Legendary king of the Visigoths, whose reign was peaceful and prosperous.
Isidore of Seville
Catholic Bishop who converted Visigoths, presided at Council of Toledo.

Early Moors of Spain

Tariq ibn Ziyad
d. 720
Berber general who defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Gaudalete.
Musa bin Nusair
Umayyad governor of North Africa who organized and directed the Moslem invasion of the Iberian peninsula.
~ 711
Christian wife of Visigoth king Roderick who later married son of Moorish governor
Abdul Aziz
d. 716
Son of Umayyad governor Musa. Ruled in Andalusia until murdered for marrying Exilona.
Abderrahman I
Last surviving Umayyad prince, escaped to Spain, became Emir of Cordova

Christian Resistance

d. 711
Last king of Visigoth Spain. Died at the Battle of Guadalete.
~ 711
Gothic Knight who defended Cordova after the fall of the Visigoths at Guadalete.
~ 711
Visigoth general who used a ruse in order to make peace with the Moorish conquerors.
Charles Martel
Frankish King who defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours.
Visigoth hero who survived Moorish conquest in 711 and founded the Christian kingdom of Asturias.

Timeline—Romans and Visigoths

BC YearEvent
1000 Cadiz established as trading center by Phoenicians. Over time Carthage gained control of most important ports, mines, and trading centers.
264–214 First Punic War between Roman and Carthage.
236 Hamilcar makes Spain a Carthaginian province.
218 Hannibal captures Saguntum, a Roman ally; provokes the Second Punic War.
206 Carthaginian leaders driven out of Spain. Rome form Hispania provinces.
195 Cato (the censor) puts down Turdetani Uprising and other rebellions.
154 The Lusitanians, under Celtiberian hero Viriathus defeat the Romans.
146 Carthage destroyed. Migration to Celtiberian, Roman, and Jewish regions.
139 Death of the Lusitain rebel hero Viriathus by Roman treachery.
133 Scipio the Younger destroys Numantia after costly siege.
105 Cimbrian invasion of Hispania ended by Celtiberians.
97 Celtiberians under Sertorius, rise against Rome.
71 Sertorius assassinated; Pompey reconquers Hispania for Rome.
61 Julius Caesar is governor of Hispania Citerior.
49–45 Caesarean Civil War. Important battles at Massilia, Llerda, and Munda.
22–19 Cantabrian War: Augustus Caesar wins decisive victories over northern tribes. Provinces of Tarraconensis, Baetica, and Lusitania established.

AD YearEvent
0-300 Hispania a prosperous Roman province. Produces leaders such as Trajan, Hadrian , and Seneca.
350 Ulfilas, Arian missionary, converts Goths, translates Bible to Gothic language.
409 Waves of barbarians, including Suevi, Franks, and Vandals invade Hispania.
414 Ataulfus leads Visigoths into Hispania and settles there.
415 Wallia leads the Visigoths to victory over rivals and founds Visigoth Kingdom.
451 Visigoths under Theodoric fight along side the Romans against Attila the Hun.
466 Euric improves condition of Visigoths, frames the Gothic Code.
506 Alaric II opposes Clovis, and loses Aquitaine to the Franks.
586 Recared renounces Arian Christian and embraces the Church of Rome.
589 Council of Toledo denounces Arianism, puts restrictions on Spanish Jews.
672 Good King Wamba attemps important reforms of government, but is deposed.
711 The Saracens, under Tariq ibn Ziyad, overthrow Visigoths at Battle of Guadalete.
716 Moorish governor, Musa bin Nusair, exiled and son killed for marrying a Christian.
718 Christian hero Pelayo defeats Moors at Covadonga, founds kingdom of Asturias.
721 Odo of Aquitaine drives the Moorish army out of France at the Battle of Toulouse.
732 Saracens defeated by Charles Martel at Tours; retreat across Pyrenees.
750 Umayyad Caliphate overthrown in Damascus. Most of Royal family killed.
755 Caliphate of Cordova established by Abderrahman I, last Umayyad prince.

Recommended Reading—Romans and Visigoths

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Ober - Spain: A History for Young Readers   Ancient Iberia to The Invasion from Africa (5)
Horne - Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain   Spain Under the Moors to Rulers of Spain (2)

Supplemental Recommendations

Bonner - A Child's History of Spain   From the Beginning to Abderrahman the First (6)
Abbott - The Romance of Spanish History   Early History of Spain to The Moorish Invasion (3)
Morris - Historical Tales: Spanish   The Good King Wamba to The Cave of Covadonga (9)
Florian - A History of the Moors in Spain    entire book