Detail of the votive crown of Reccesuinth from the Treasure of Guarrazar, hanging in Madrid. The hanging letters spell [R]ECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET [King R. offers this]. [1]
The eagles represented on these fibulae from the 6th century were a popular symbol among the Goths. Similar fibulae have been found in Visigothic graves in Spain. [2] ( Walters Art Museum)

The Visigoths ( UK: /ˈvɪzɪˌɡɒθs/; US: /ˈvɪzɪˌɡɑːθs/, Latin: Visigothi, Wisigothi, Vesi, Visi, Wesi, or Wisi) were the western branches of the nomadic tribes of Germanic peoples referred to collectively as the Goths. [3] These tribes flourished and spread during the late Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or the Migration Period. The Visigoths emerged from earlier Gothic groups (possibly the Thervingi) [4] who had invaded the Roman Empire beginning in 376 and had defeated the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Relations between the Romans and the Visigoths were variable, alternately warring with one another and making treaties when convenient. [3] The Visigoths invaded Italy under Alaric I and sacked Rome in 410. After the Visigoths sacked Rome, they began settling down, first in southern Gaul and eventually in Spain and Portugal, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD. [5]

The Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul as foederati of the Romans – a relationship established in 418. However, they soon fell out with their Roman hosts (for reasons that are now obscure) and established their own kingdom with its capital at Toulouse. They next extended their authority into Hispania at the expense of the Suebi and Vandals. In 507, however, their rule in Gaul was ended by the Franks under Clovis I, who defeated them in the Battle of Vouillé. After that, the Visigoth kingdom was limited to Hispania, and they never again held territory north of the Pyrenees other than Septimania. A small, elite group of Visigoths came to dominate the governance of that region at the expense of those who had previously ruled there, particularly in the Byzantine province of Spania and the Kingdom of the Suebi.

In or around 589, the Visigoths under Reccared I converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity, gradually adopting the culture of their Hispano-Roman subjects. [6] Their legal code, the Visigothic Code (completed in 654) abolished the longstanding practice of applying different laws for Romans and Visigoths. Once legal distinctions were no longer being made between Romani and Gothi, they became known collectively as Hispani. In the century that followed, the region was dominated by the Councils of Toledo and the episcopacy. (Little else is known about the Visigoths' history during the 7th century, since records are relatively sparse.) In 711 or 712, a force of invading African Moors defeated the Visigoths in the Battle of Guadalete. Their king and many members of their governing elite were killed, and their kingdom rapidly collapsed. Gothic identity survived, however, especially in Marca Hispanica and the Kingdom of Asturias, which had been founded by the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius of Asturias after his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Covadonga.

During their governance of the Kingdom of Hispania, the Visigoths built several churches that survive. They also left many artifacts, which have been discovered in increasing numbers by archaeologists in recent times. The Treasure of Guarrazar of votive crowns and crosses is the most spectacular. They founded the only new cities in western Europe from the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire until the rise of the Carolingian dynasty. Many Visigothic names are still in use in modern Spanish and Portuguese. Their most notable legacy, however, was the Visigothic Code, which served, among other things, as the basis for court procedure in most of Christian Iberia until the Late Middle Ages, centuries after the demise of the kingdom.

Nomenclature: Vesi, Ostrogothi, Tervingi, Greuthungi

Contemporaneous references to the Gothic tribes use the terms "Vesi" (Latin for Visigoths), " Ostrogothi", " Thervingi", and " Greuthungi." Most scholars have concluded that the terms "Vesi" and "Tervingi" were both used to refer to one particular tribe, while the terms "Ostrogothi" and "Greuthungi" were used to refer to another. Herwig Wolfram points out that while primary sources occasionally list all four names (as in, for example, Gruthungi, Austrogothi, Tervingi, Visi), [7] whenever they mention two different tribes, they always refer either to "the Vesi and the Ostrogothi" or to "the Tervingi and the Greuthungi", and they never pair them up in any other combination. [8] This conclusion is supported by Jordanes, [9] who identified the Visigoth (Vesi) kings from Alaric I to Alaric II as the heirs of the 4th century Tervingian king Athanaric, and the Ostrogoth kings from Theoderic the Great to Theodahad as the heirs of the Greuthungi king Ermanaric. In addition, the Notitia Dignitatum equates the Vesi with the Tervingi in a reference to the years 388–391. [7]

The earliest sources for each of the four names are roughly contemporaneous. The first recorded reference to "the Tervingi" is in a eulogy of the emperor Maximian (285–305), delivered in or shortly after 291 (perhaps at Trier on 20 April 292) [10] and traditionally ascribed to Claudius Mamertinus. [11] It says that the "Tervingi, another division of the Goths" (Tervingi pars alia Gothorum), joined with the Taifali to attack the Vandals and Gepidae. (The term "Vandals" may have been a mistaken reference to the " Victohali", since around 360 the historian Eutropius reports that Dacia was currently inhabited by Taifali, Victohali, and Tervingi.) [12] The first recorded reference to "the Greuthungi" is by Ammianus Marcellinus, writing no earlier than 392 and perhaps later than 395, recounting the words of a Tervingian chieftain who is attested as early as 376. [7] The first known use of the term "Ostrogoths" is in a document dated September 392 from Milan. [7] ( Claudian mentions that they, together with the Gruthungi, inhabit Phrygia.) [13]

Gutthiuda, [14] the country of Visigoths

Wolfram notes that "Vesi" and "Ostrogothi" were terms each tribe used to boastfully describe itself and argues that "Tervingi" and "Greuthungi" were geographical identifiers each tribe used to describe the other. [8] This would explain why the latter terms dropped out of use shortly after 400, when the Goths were displaced by the Hunnic invasions. [7] As an example of this geographical naming practice, Wolfram cites an account by Zosimus of a group of people living north of the Danube who called themselves "the Scythians" but were called "the Greutungi" by members of a different tribe living north of the Ister. [15] Wolfram believes that the people Zosimus describes were those Tervingi who had remained behind after the Hunnic conquest. [15] For the most part, all of the terms discriminating between different Gothic tribes gradually disappeared after they moved into the Roman Empire. [8] The last indication that the Goths whose king reigned at Toulouse thought of themselves as "Vesi" is found in a panegyric on Avitus by Sidonius Apollinaris dated 1 January 456. [8]

Most recent scholars (notably Peter Heather) have concluded that Visigothic group identity emerged only within the Roman Empire. [16] Roger Collins believes that the Visigothic identity emerged from the Gothic War of 376–382 when a collection of Tervingi, Greuthungi, and other "barbarian" contingents banded together in multiethnic foederati (Wolfram's "federate armies") under Alaric I in the eastern Balkans, since they had become a multiethnic group and could no longer claim to be exclusively Tervingian. [17]

The term "Visigoth" was an invention of the 6th century. Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theoderic the Great, invented the term "Visigothi" to match that of "Ostrogothi", terms he thought of as signifying "western Goths" and "eastern Goths" respectively. [8] The western–eastern division was a simplification (and a literary device) of 6th century historians; political realities were more complex. [18] Further, Cassiodorus used the term "Goths" to refer only to the Ostrogoths, whom he served, and reserved the geographical term "Visigoths" for the Gallo-Spanish Goths. This usage, however, was adopted by the Visigoths themselves in their communications with the Byzantine Empire and was still in use in the 7th century. [18]

Other names for other Gothic divisions abounded. A "Germanic" Byzantine or Italian author referred to one of the two peoples as the Valagothi, meaning "Roman Goths", and in 469 the Visigoths were called the "Alaric Goths". [18]