The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

Spain, Visigoth, Visigoths, Visigothic, MéridaWhen most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!

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Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

The catacombs of Rome


“There were 500,000 people buried here,” my guide whispers.

She leads me down a dimly lit, narrow passage that seems to go on forever. To either side the rough walls are lined with small niches.

“These are where the bodies were kept. There are twenty kilometers of tunnels, and while most of the tombs are now empty, some are still unopened.”

We are in the Catacombs of Domitilla, one of the largest of a half dozen underground burial places dug out by Christians during the second and third centuries AD, when most of the Roman Empire was still pagan. My guide, a knowledgeable young Polish woman, is leading me through a warren of passageways, rooms, even subterranean churches. Incredible facts drop from her mouth every minute.

“This is the oldest of the catacombs with some of the earliest Christian paintings anywhere. There’s even a painting of the Last Supper that’s 1,800 years old.”

The frescoes are tucked away in little vaults built by wealthy families, or on the domes of small mausoleums. They show simple Christian scenes–the Good Shepard, baptism, the saints, painted in a capable but not overly talented hand.

“Since most people were pagan, the early Christians had trouble getting good artists. You can see it with the inscriptions too. They’re not done in orderly lines and clear letters like you see on monuments above ground.”

Somehow that makes me like them more, that these paintings were done by common people, not famous artists. The ones showing prayer are the most evocative because they seem to portray real individuals as they looked in life. They all take the same pose–with arms flexed outwards, palms up.

“This is how everyone prayed back then, both pagans and Christians,” my guide explains.

“Shi’ite Muslims still start their prayers in that pose,” I say.

She gives me a narrow look before leading me down another hallway. We pass a vertical shaft where we can still see small footholds cut into the side for the original builders to climb to the levels above and below us. The walls and ceiling of the tunnels are rough, with traces of the last cuts of the pick clearly visible. The stone is volcanic tufa, a rock so soft that it can be scraped with a fingernail, yet compact enough that it can support an immense amount of weight.

My guide stops in the middle of the hall and points to the wall.

“Look, this one is still buried here.”

One of the niches is sealed up with a rectangular slab. I know I’m not supposed to touch but I do anyway, pressing my hand against the cool, damp stone. Inches beyond my warm flesh lie the cold bones of one of the earliest followers of the world’s biggest religion. What I’d give to talk to him or her for just five minutes. My guide notices what I’m doing and smiles.

“Most of the bones were removed in the Middle Ages to protect them from relic hunters, but a few hundred tombs still remain unopened,” she explains.

%Gallery-102540%Sadly this slab is blank. Some have the person’s name carved on them. In some sections of the tunnel fragments of these tomb facings have been plastered onto the wall by later hands. The earliest inscriptions are in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Later ones, dating to the fourth century when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, are in Latin.

Pagan Romans cremated their dead, but Christians believed in resurrection and practiced burial so the body could rise up on Judgment Day. The Roman Empire was generally tolerant of other religions, incorporating new gods into the existing pantheon, but it looked upon monotheistic Christianity and Judaism with mistrust. While followers of Jupiter or Mithras or Ra acknowledged the existence of other gods, the monotheists dismissed all other gods as impostors or demons. Even worse, they refused to sacrifice to the deified emperors. Several emperors persecuted them, although the extent and violence of these persecutions have been exaggerated by early Christian chroniclers. The image of thousands of Christians being thrown to the lions is myth. People were sometimes killed, but more often their churches would be destroyed and property confiscated. The main victims were church leaders like bishops and early popes, some of whom are buried here; regular Christians were generally left alone. Many of the biggest catacombs were built right under the Appian Way, the main road leading into the city and lined with the tombs of wealthy pagans. While everyone knew where they were, most pagans were content to leave the Christians to their strange rituals as long as they kept out of sight and didn’t cause trouble.

Two other networks of catacombs along the Appian Way are popular with visitors. The Catacombs of San Callisto are as impressive as those of Domitilla and have several good frescoes. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano, under the church of the same name, are smaller and less well preserved, yet there’s an interesting room used for funeral banquets where early Christians carved their names or the names of their departed loved ones along with prayers. All three catacombs can be seen in a single day.

The catacombs stay at a constant 15°C (59°F), so it’s best to bring a long-sleeved shirt or light sweater. Photography is not allowed. I won’t ask how GerardM at Wikimedia Commons got the above image, or how the photographers who took the pictures of the frescoes in the attached gallery got theirs. I’ll assume they went through the red tape to get permission from Papal Commission of Archaeology. I’ve heard that if I do the same I can get a papal archaeologist to guide me through parts of the catacombs closed to regular visitors. My guide warns me I need a valid reason and lots of patience with bureaucracy. Perhaps next year I’ll be back.

“We’re nearing the end of the tour,” my guide says, “but I have one last thing to show you.”

We come to a large, empty tomb that has been converted into a display case for artifacts found by the archaeologists. Through the metal grille I see oil lamps the Christians used to find their way through the dark, shells that were pressed into the wall near a tomb to help identify the occupant, and bits of cheap glass jewelry.

In one corner are a collection of little ceramic animals, dolls, and rattles, simple toys put in front of the graves of children.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The Death of Paganism!