The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

When 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!


Book inscriptions inspire travel, and make great souvenirs

I walked into the wrong bookstore in Granada, Spain last February, but I’m so glad I did. I was looking for an English-language bookstore on Calle Gracia called Metro, but instead I wound up at a different shop just a few doors down. Libreria Praga shelves mostly Spanish titles, but has a small section of used English-language books. A spine with Simon Winchester’s name caught my eye, and I was soon the owner of a used copy of The Professor and the Madman. This story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary seemed like something I’d enjoy (which I did when I read it a few months later) but I bought the book simply because of the fascinating inscription I found written in blue ink on the title page:

August 18, 2003: For darling Maggie on her one hundred and fifty-sixth birthday from him who unabashedly adores her – U. David.

Actually, there is another short word scribbled before “U. David”, probably a first name or initial, but I can’t quite make it out. But what an interesting discovery, huh? Was it an inside joke between old friends? Or did someone really live for as many years as Hong Kong was under British rule? Highly unlikely. There is surely a backstory, and one that most likely will remain untold. But for a book-lovin’ traveler, this is one of the best souvenirs around.

If you’ve come across interesting inscriptions, consider submitting them to The Book Inscription Project, a neat online effort to collect special book messages found by readers worldwide. Two recently posted travel-inspired inscriptions on the site reminded me that I have to submit my Granada discovery. Take a look at these: First, a short note to a voyager about finding his special island, inside a copy of Vonnegut’s Galapagos. Second, a Christmas gift for a nomad — a copy of On the Road, the only book that moves as incessantly as he does.

Books move and messages get carried with them, from one reader to the next. What travel treasures have you found (or left for others) inside the front cover of a book?