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The Visigoths' Imperial Ambitions

How an unlikely Visigothic city rose in Spain amid the chaotic aftermath of Rome’s final collapse

March/April 2021

Visigoths Reccopolis Church Opener

Most historians and archaeologists agree: The sixth century A.D. was not an easy time to be alive. The Western Roman Empire had collapsed in the previous century, plunging much of the continent into economic, political, and social upheaval. On top of this, the first outbreak and frequent recurrence of bubonic plague resulted in the estimated deaths of millions. Making matters even worse, a series of volcanic eruptions caused climatic changes from Britain to China, ushering in a cooling period known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Recent studies have indicated that this caused drought, crop failure, breakdown in food supply chains, and famine. Harvard University medieval historian Michael McCormick has gone so far as to characterize the period following a particularly intense volcanic eruption in A.D. 536 as one of the single worst eras in recorded human history.


One consequence of this turmoil was that, across most of Europe, many urban centers deteriorated, a process that had begun a few centuries earlier when the Roman state first started to weaken. Cities and towns, once hallmarks of the Roman world and essential instruments of the Roman administrative system, were increasingly abandoned. Masses fled to the countryside seeking survival. Western civilization was irrevocably transformed.


However, recent archaeological work in Iberia, on the periphery of the former Roman Empire, conveys a different story. It is revealing how, against this backdrop of chaos, a people emerged who succeeded in founding perhaps the strongest kingdom in the post-Roman world. These were the Visigoths, who had first arrived in Iberia in the A.D. 410s, when Roman rule was crumbling. Over the next two centuries the Visigoths unified a politically fractured landscape, bringing a semblance of stability to a region racked by centuries of violence and uncertainty. They implemented new taxation and legal systems and reestablished trade with the broader Mediterranean world. The Visigoths also did the seemingly impossible—in a largely deurbanized world, they began to build cities. Written sources suggest that the Visigoths founded at least four new urban centers, but only one of them, Reccopolis, can be identified with certainty. It was one of the crowning achievements of King Leovigild (r. A.D. 568–586), perhaps the Visigoths’ greatest ruler. Today, Reccopolis is an unlikely example of a post-Roman urban settlement that arose amid the disorder and uncertainty of sixth-century Europe. “One does not see many new towns founded during this period elsewhere in the Mediterranean,” says McCormick. “It is quite surprising.”


Visigoths Reccopolis Leovigild CoinOne Visigothic chronicler, John of Biclaro, records that Leovigild founded Reccopolis in A.D. 578 and furnished it with “splendid buildings.” Today, the remains of these buildings sit atop a plateau that rises above the banks of the Tagus River in the central Spanish province of Guadalajara. Although Reccopolis is less than a two-hour drive from Madrid, parts of this province have in recent years become some of the most desolate in all of Europe due to financial crises and a dearth of economic opportunities for its rural population. However, 1,400 years ago, the opposite process was underway. The establishment of a Visigothic settlement in the region attracted throngs of people who settled within the new town and formed satellite communities in its vicinity.




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