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Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s special Halloween series about cities!  Obviously, no such effort would be complete without venturing once again into the realms of the Gothic, that ill-defined but very real concept which encompasses literature, history, culture, and architecture in exceedingly different (and yet weirdly unified) ways across a span of 1700 years.  My first inclination here was to present some famous Gothic fantasy cities—Minis Tirith, Gotham, Lankhmar, Oldtown, and Ankh-Morpork (sob) but the daunting nature of this project quickly became obvious.  Maybe we will revisit these places later (I feel like I have lived in each of them), but right now let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most successful actual extant Gothic city, which is also a place I don’t know nearly as well as those fantasy burgs: the great metropolis of Barcelona!


I have legions of friends who return from Barcelona singing its praises as the world’s greatest party city, and I remember lots of partial factoids from the 1992 Summer Olympics (which were completely amazing: Thanks Barcelona!).  Sadly, I don’t know much about the actual city which is too bad–of all of the places on Earth, Barcelona has true claim to being the most Gothic city, not just because of its Gothic quarter (the somber medieval buildings were added to and spruced up at the end of the 19th century) , its ancient Gothic cathedral (the Barcelona Cathedral, seen at the top of the post and immediately above), its new Gothic cathedral (The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Gaudi, which is immediately below), or its many other Gothic architectural wonders, but instead  because of its history.


Barcelona has two foundation myths, both of which are amazing.  According to legend it was either founded by the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s dad) or by Hercules himself as he roamed the Mediterranean world during his famous labors.  Wow!  The truth is only slightly less amazing.  The Romans first built Barcelona into a major city, but they built on top of a settlement which was already ancient.  Archaeologists have found artifacts/remains which can be dated back to 5000 years ago.


 Ancient Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

As the Roman Empire blew apart (because of climate change, cultural stagnation, and disastrous misrule by corrupt dolts), strange groups of barbaric invaders from the hinterlands marauded through what had once been the most prosperous provinces of the West. Among these tribes were Huns, Franks, Sueves, Vandals, Alans, and Burgundians (goodness help us), but perhaps the most infamous of these groups were the Visigoths, who sacked Rome itself in 410 AD.  The Visigoths warred with Rome and its allies for generations while they sought a permanent kingdom (hoping perhaps to become like the Franks, who grabbed up the most beautiful parts of France).  For a time it seemed the Visigoths had found a permanent home in what is now southern France, but the tides of War turned against them and they moved southwards.


Thus, in the beginning of the 6th century AD, Barcelona was the capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.  In 511 AD, the king of the Visigoths was a nine-year-old child named Amalaric.  Amalaric was an Arian Christian, which is to say he was a follower of the nontrinitarian Christological doctrine of Arius, not that he marched around in studded jackets throwing dumb white power fist salutes (although, frankly, he probably did that too).  He was married to Chrotilda, the daughter of Clovis I and she was a devout Catholic devoted to the trinity. The two fought ferociously about religion and Amalaric would beat Chrotilda savagely to demonstrate the superiority of his Christological doctrines.  At one pointshe even sent a towel stained with her blood to her brother Childebert I to show him the benighted state of her marriage.


Hmm…We have fallen down a bit of a Medieval history rabbit hole here in describing why Barcelona is a Gothic city.  To succinctly recap, it was the capital of the Visigoths and it has whole districts of Gothic buildings which are either Medieval, or made in faux Medieval styles.  And what about Amalaric?  In the early 530s, he fought the Ostragoth army and was defeated.  He fled back to Barcelona but was betrayed and murdered by his own men (perhaps at the command of Theudis, governor of Barcelona.  Some say you can still hear Amalaric’s ghost, angrily promulgating Arian doctrines among the midnight bubble disco parties of present-day Barcelona, but to me that sounds like something some disreputable blogger made up to get hits.



Today is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric (August 24th, 410 AD).  For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events.  Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean.  Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic.  Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed.  They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).

Artist's Conception of the Visigoths Sacking Rome

Although hardly a genocide, the event was a watershed moment for classical society. Rome, the center of thought, government, and civilization—the city that had not fallen to an outside enemy for 800 years—was unable to mount a defense against a ragged group of barbarians and vagabonds.  St. Jerome, the man of letters who held such influence over Western thought during the dark ages, wrote:” It is the end of the world, I cannot write for the tears.”  The Western portion of the Roman Empire, already reeling from centuries of civil war and widespread agricultural crisis, staggered on for a few decades before being cut apart into sundry vassalages (which constituted the seeds of modern European kingdom states).

Le Sac de Rome par les Barbares en 410 (Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890)

Frequent readers of this blog will know my interest in the concept of “gothic”.  Although the Goths certainly have their own history prior to the sack of Rome, that event enshrined “gothic” as a broader social concept.  There have been plenty of barbarian tribes, but when Alaric looted the eternal city, he ensured that the name of his people would remain infamous. A millennium later, Renaissance writers, enthralled with the glories of classical society, used the word “gothic” to describe aspects of the intervening period which seemed old-fashioned, barbaric, cruel, and unenlightened.  Vasari used the word to pejoratively describe art and architecture from before Giotto (or from outside Italy). Once “gothic” had become synonymous with “Medieval”, it then came to be associated with gloom, mystery and the grotesque.  Victorian writers, scholars, artists, and architects found reason to celebrate these qualities with spooky novels, pre-Raphaelite painting, and creepy mansions.  In the contemporary era, “gothic” can mean any of these things or it can be applied to the contemporary goth counterculture movement.  But whatever the word means, it always seems to indicate something in opposition to the Greco-Roman, whig-liberal Western norm.


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May 2022