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The Visigoths ("West Goths" as opposed to "East Goths", Ostrogoth ) were a Germanic group that entered the late Roman Empire; they were the Western branch of the Gothic people. After the "fall" of the western Roman Empire, the Visigoths continued to play a major role in western European affairs for another 250 years.

While settled in the former Roman province of Dacia during the third century, the Visigoths adopted Arianism, a branch of Christianity that believed that Jesus Christ was not God, but a separate being created directly beneath God. This belief was in opposition to the belief of the main Christian group in the Roman Empire, which later grew into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Visigoths adhered to Arianism until 589, when King Reccaredo (Ricardo) I converted his people to Catholicism.

The Visigoths first appeared in history as a distinct people in the year 268, when they invaded the Roman Empire and swarmed over the Balkan peninsula. This invasion overran the Roman provinces of Pannonia and Illyricum and even threatened Italia itself. However, the Visigoths were defeated in battle near the modern Italy-Slovenia border that summer, and then routed in the Battle of Naissus that September. Over the next three years, they were driven back over the Danube River in a series of campaigns by the emperors Claudius II Gothicus and Aurelian. However, they maintained their hold on Dacia, which Aurelian evacuated in 271.

There they remained until 376, when one of their two leaders, Fritigern, appealed to the Roman emperor Valens to be allowed to settle with his people on the south bank of the Danube. Here, they hoped to find refuge from the Huns, who lacked the ability to cross the wide river in force. Valens permitted this, and even helped bring the Visigoths over the river. In return, Fritigern was to provide soldiers for the Roman army.

However, a famine broke out in the lands settled by the Visigoths a year later, and they were treated cruelly by the Roman governors in their territories. When Valens didn't respond to Fritigern's appeals for help, Fritigern led his people into battle, and a war ensued that ended in the Battle of Adrianople (378) on August 9, 378. Fritigern emerged victorious, recognized as king by his people, and the Visigoths were masters of the Balkans.

The new emperor, Theodosius I (Valens died at Adrianople), made peace with Fritigern in 379, and this peace held essentially unbroken until Theodosius died in 395. In that year, the Visigoths' most famous king, Alaric, took the throne, while Theodosius was succeeded by his incapable sons: Arcadius in the east and Honorius in the west.

Over the next 15 years, occasional conflicts were broken by years of uneasy peace between Alaric and the powerful German generals who commanded the Roman armies in the east and west, wielding the real power of the empire. Finally, after the western generalissimo Stilicho was murdered by Honorius in 408 and the Roman legions massacred the families of 30,000 barbarian soldiers serving in the Roman army, Alaric declared war. With Alaric and his army at the gates of Rome, Honorius still refused to come to terms, so Alaric sacked the city on August 24, 410.

After peace was secured a few years later, Honorius granted the Visigoths lands in the Aquitaine area of modern France, and they later expanded into Spain as well. At first, they shared Spain with the Vandals and Alans, but soon crushed the latter and made life so difficult for the Vandals that they moved on to Africa in search of easier conquests.

The Visigoths' second great king, Euric (466-484), unified the various quarreling factions of the Visigoths, and in 475, forced the Roman government to grant them full independence. At his death, the Visigoths were the most powerful of the successor states to the western empire.

At its greatest extent, before the year 507, the Visigothic kingdom included all of the Iberian peninsula except for small areas in the north (belonging to the Basques) and in the northeast (the Suevi kingdom), plus Aquitaine. In 507, the Franks wrested control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths, and in 554, Granada and Andalusia were lost to the "Reconquest" of the west by the Byzantine Empire's emperor Justinian I.

The Visigoths conquered the Suevi kingdom in 584 and regained the southern areas lost to the Byzantines in 624. Their kingdom survived until 711, when King Roderic (Rodrigo) was killed while opposing an invasion from the south by the Omayyad Muslims. Most of Spain soon came under Islamic rule.

A Visigothic nobleman, Pelayo, is credited with beginning the Christian Reconquista of Spain in 718, when he defeated the Omayyads in battle and established the Kingdom of Asturias in the northern part of the peninsula. Other Visigoths, refusing to adopt the Muslim faith or live under their rule, fled north to the kingdom of the Franks, and Visigoths played key roles in the empire of Charlemagne a few generations later.


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