The Visigothic Kingdom


Original Visigothic Pillar

that used to support the old altar in the church at Rennes-le-Château (Languedoc-Roussillon, Fr.)

It can now be found in the museum there and is shown here. (Photo Andrew Gough)




1. The Ruler and the The Court

2. The Empire

3. The State

A. The Administration

B. The Army

C. The Church


Back to Spain   




The Visigothic kingdom was a Western European power from the fifth to eighth century, one of the successor states to the Western Roman Empire, originally created by the settlement of the Visigoths under their own king in Aquitaine (southern Gaul) by the Roman government and then extended by conquest over all of the Iberian peninsula.


From 407 to 409 the Vandals, with the allied Alans and Germanic tribes like the Suevi, swept into the Iberian peninsula. In response to this invasion of Roman Hispania, Honorius, the emperor in the West, enlisted the aid of the Visigoths to regain control of the territory. In 418, Honorius rewarded his Visigothic federates by giving them land in Gallia Aquitania on which to settle. This was probably done under hospitalitas, the rules for billeting army soldiers. The settlement formed the nucleus of the future Visigothic kingdom that would eventually expand across the Pyrenees and onto the Iberian peninsula.

The Visigoths’ second great king, Euric, unified the various quarreling factions among 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 Roman Empire. The kingdom maintained independence from the Byzantine Empire, the attempts of which to re-establish Roman authority in Iberia (Spania) failed.

The Visigoths also became the dominant power in the Iberian Peninsula, quickly crushing the Alans and forcing the Vandals into north Africa. By 500, the Visigothic Kingdom, centred at Toulouse, controlled Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis and most of Hispania with the exception of the Suevic kingdom in the northwest and small areas controlled by the Basques.

In 507, the Franks under Clovis I defeated the Visigoths in the Vouillé and wrested control of Aquitaine. King Alaric II was killed in battle.

In or around 589, the Visigoths, under Reccared I, formerly Arian Christians, converted to the Nicene faith. In their kingdom, the century that followed was dominated by the by the most extensive secular legislation in Western Europe, the Liber Iudiciorum, promulgated by king Chindasuinth (642-653) which formed the basis for Spanish law throughout the Middle Ages.His co-regent and successor held the important Council of Toledo (653).

In 711 or 712 the Visigoths, including their king and many of their leading men, were killed in the Battle of Guadalete by a force of invading Arabs and Berbers. The kingdom quickly collapsed thereafter for unexplained reasons. Gothic identity survived the fall of the kingdom, however, especially in the Kingdom of Asturias and the Spanish Mark, but the “Visigoths” as a nation disappeared.




1. The Ruler



In Roman times the de jure ruler of Hispania was the Roman emperor in so far as he was the sovereign of the Roman Empire. After the Visigothic king Euric (466-484) had been granted full independence by the Roman government in 475, the de jure sovereign of Hispania was this Visigothic king and his successors. The king was elected, and had to be a Goth. He ruled with the advice of a “senate”, comprised of the bishops and lay magnates. The Visigothic kings, as the Roman Emperors before, were represented by their images, that is to say, a portrait of the ruler with the insignia of his power. This image was printed generally on coins but also on the royal seals and could be displayed as a statue or on a relief.

An early example of such a Visigothic image is the signet-ring of king Alaric II, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It shows the king in armoury surrounded by the legend ALARICUS  REX  GOTHORUM. 


A remarkable portrait of a Visigothic king is in the Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas in Burgos. The dating of this church proves to be especially complicated by a restoration in the ninth or tenth century.  Furthermore, a later re-building incorporated the original apse and transept, preserving only some of its reliefs in situ. As one of the reliefs seems to refer to the conversion of the Visigothic king to the Niceaean creed in 586 (see below) the reliefs may be ascribed to the post-arian era, that is to say between 586 and 714. The first of the reliefs shows a Visigothic king, maybe Leovigild (568-586), the last Arian king of Spain.


Image of a Visigothic king

on a relief from the church of Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas. The sovereignty of the king is symbolized by the two angels who personalize the phrase “by the Grace of God (Heaven)”.


In his time,  Byzantine ceremonial was introduced in the court. To the gothic royal insignia, the sword and the standard, were added a throne, a crown, a sceptre and the purple mantle of the Roman Emperors.

Crowns can be seen on a coin of king Chindasvinth (642-653) and his co-regent Reccesvinth (649-672). The development of the crown was broken off in Spain by the conquest of the Iberian peninsula by the Omayyads in 714.


Gold triens of the Visigotic king  Chindasvinth (642-653) Ø 19 mm. L.:  CHINDASVINTUS R(E)X

 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)


A. The Court


At the end of the sixth century the Visigothic court was styled in a Byzantine way. Officials of the court were responsable for the execution of the royal private and public policy. The main public officials were the comes notariorum (royal secretary), comes thesaurorum (aerarii custos, Treasurer) and the comes patrimonii (master of the private purse). The main private officials were the comes spathariorum (dux militium regis (commander of the royal guard)), comes scanciarum (steward), comes stabuli (master of the stables / connétable) and the comes cubiculi (great chamberlain).

Of these officials we do not have a list of insignia as is the Notitia Dignitatum for the officials of the Late Roman Empire. Nevertheless we have this harness pendant, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which shows two lions confronted reguardant. This may have been the insignia of the comes stabuli as in later times such lions were the emblem of a megas dux and a maximus ammiratus, offices that have evoluated from the Roman office of  Magister Æquitum. A very fine example of such lions is on the socalled Sicilian Coronation Mantle.

For the time being there is, alas, no evidence whatsoever that confirms this hypothesis.


Harness Pendant with Confronted Beasts, 500–600

Visigothic, Brass, leaded; 8.9 Î 7.6 cm MMA  (1990.52) Above the heads of the beasts is the loop through which a harness strap could be passed.


2. The Empire



Sun-relief in the Church of Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas.

The legend reads: (h)OC EXIGVVM EXIGVA OFF(ert) DO(mina) FLAMMOLA VOTUM D(eo) (This small vow/vowed gift the unworthy (exigua) lady Flammola offers to God).


From times immemorial the common symbol of any empire was the sun. The idea was developed in Mesopotamia and in Egypt in the third millennium B.C. and was continued in the successive empires all over the world. The symbol of the Roman Empire seems to have been a golden sun radiant, sometimes also a golden disc. The sun-symbol most of the time was displayed as a halo behind the head of the imperial princes. Only in a very few cases, as on a mosaic in the San Vitale in Ravenna from the middle of the sixth century A.D., the symbol was displayed in an achievement, the supporters being two angels. In this relief in the aforementioned church of  Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas, the sun is personalized as a men’s bust with a halo radiant behind his head, with the word SOL as an explanation. The supporting angels make it: The God-given (Visigothic) Empire.


3. The State


Moon-relief in the Church of Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas.


The third relief from the Church of Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas is of the personification of the moon in a clipeus, supported by two angels. The idea of the moon or crescent as a symbol of the state, or the statal complex of the administrative, military and religious powers, was developed in Hellenistic times in the Near East and was adopted by the Sassanians and the Romans in the first centuries A.D.. 

The only known crescent supported by two angels is on a relief above the great iwan (niche) in Taq-i Bustan (north of Kirmanshah, Luristan, Iran) from the time of  Khusraw II (590-628) and contemporary with our relief.

The moon is always, in all empires over the world, female and consequently always associated with the empress or wife of the ruler. Our relief is in line with this tradition. The two supporting angels make it: The God-given (Visigothic) State. 

In the symbolism of the Visigothic State there is a clear distinction between the symbols of the administration, the armed forces and the church. These are all of a Christian Roman signature.


A. The Administration




We know from the Notitia Dignitatum that in Roman times the governor of the diocese of Hispania was a vicarius in the Roman administrative hierarchy. His insignia are depicted on fol. 84 of the Munich manuscript [1]. They consist of a socalled theca which is the symbol of judicature and a table with a blue tablecloth, on which are displayed a Liber Mandatorum (book of mandates) and a Codicillus or official document of appointment, in the form of a scroll. On the Liber Mandatorum are the letters Fl[oreas] int[er] all[ectos] com[ites] ordinis P[opulusque].R[omanorum]., which would mean: Mayst thou prosper amongst the chosen counts of the Roman People. [2]

These insignia are not, of course, the symbol of the Roman Christian administration, but one of the symbols of the hierarchy of the administration, the square cross being the symbol of this administration itself. The square cross had the same symbolic value in the Visigothic empire.


The Square Cross.


The oldest known Visigothic crosses are socalled rectangular crosses consisting of a pole and a bar of unequal length, crossing each other in the middle. This kind of cross seems to be characteristic for Arianism and it is known from the empires of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians and Sueves. It is a combination of a square cross and a latin cross, thus symbolizing an administrative-clerical complex (like the celtic cross), which is in line with the circumstance that the Visigothic king ruled with a senate consisting of bishops and lay magnates.

From the kingdom of the Visigoths we have specimina from Rennes le Château in Septimania (see illustration in the head of this article) and Badajoz (Lusitania). [3] A remarkable rectangular cross is on a relief in the Church of Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas (Burgos, Taraconensis). In this case the rectangular cross is apparently exchanged for a square cross which is passed by an angel to a king. Maybe this refers to the conversion of Reccared from Arianism to Catholicism in 586.


Relief in the Church of Santa Maria Quintanilla de la Vinas (Burgos, Taraconensis).

King with a sceptre with a rectangular cross, between two angels, one of which uphelds a square cross.


Younger Visigotic crosses are square crosses or latin crosses, the square crosses symbolizing the christian administration. As such we see the square cross on a standard of king Chindasuinth (642-653) and his son Reccesuinth  (649-653) on a gold triens (third of a solidus) (see illustration above).  

Only a few examples of  Visigothic square crosses are preserved. The main and most impressive examples are the five square crosses of the 7th century socalled Treasure of Torredonjimeno, found in Jaen (Cartaginensis) in 1926.  The largest cross of  the treasure measures 13 Î 14 cm and is of gold, set with precious stones. 

This treasure may have belonged to a dux  (governor with judicial, military and economical powers)  of  the Visigothic province of Cartaginensis, or to a comes territori (administrator) of a territorium, a part of a province.


Part of the Treasure of  Torredonjimeno,

Square cross, latin cross, necklace, letters. Museo Arquelógico, Barcelona.


Visigothic golden cross, set with precious stones.  VII c.

140 Î 130 mm. Treasure of Torredonjimeno,  Museo Arquelógico, Barcelona. Inv. nr 390.


Other Visigothic square crosses are the cross above the gate of the church of San Juan de Baños (Baños de la Cerreda (Palencia)), build by king Reccesuinth and a stone cross from Caceres (Lusitania) [4]

Other Visigothic square crosses are the cross above the gate of the church of San Juan de Baños (Baños de la Cerreda (Palencia)), build by king Reccesuinth and a stone cross from Caceres (Lusitania) [5]


B. The Army


Stone relief of a Christogram between two pillars (Museo Arqueologico Nacional de Arte Romano, Merida)



The symbol of the Roman armed force had been the thunderbolt of Jupiter and, later, in the time of the Christian Roman Empire, the cypher of Jesus Christ, the christogram XP. This may have been the symbol of the Visigothic army as well, and indeed some examples of a Visigothic christogram are known from  the successive capitals of the Visigothic kingdom, Merida and Toledo.  [6]  These christograms are characterized by the stroke at the upper right side of the pole which is a reduction of the curl of the P.

In particular the stone relief from Merida with three christograms is of interest as it may have marked the entrance of the headquarters of a Visighotic force in the royal palace. The two peacocks are an indication for this because they symbolize the mandate of the king. Even, if we take into account the lion in the locket of the central christogram, this may have been the achievement of the headquarters or staff of the royal guard, which would have consisted then of three centurii, the first commanded by the comes spathariorum.  

Be it as it is, in any case the two or three reliefs prove that the symbol of the armed force in Visigothic Spain was the christogram borrowed from the Romans.

Drawing of a stone slab from Visigothic Spain, 6th century.

The original in the Museo Arqueologico Nacional de Arte Romano, Merida (Lusitania).

Three christograms with pending A’s and Ω’s  under vaulted structures, the central one charged with a locket with a beast (lion?) reguardant. Two peacocks as ‘supporters’.


The coin of Chindasvinth (see above) suggests that the Visigothic standard in the 7th century was a square cross on a pole, which would mean that the armed forces were considered as a part of the administration. Such a situation had occurred before in Constantinople where the command of the army had switched by and by from the Master of the Soldiers (Magister Militum) to the supposed more reliable Comes Domesticorum Peditum et Æquitum, who was a member of the court. As such the task of the armed force was more of policing than of defence. [7]


In the time of the alliance of the Visigoths with the Romans the Visigothic army consisted of legions of Roman fashion. King Liuvgildus changed its organisation, manned now by civilians and Goths. A standing army of border troops was instituted and provincial armed forces (thiufae), conscripted by dukes and counts. Reccesuinth created a standing army in his Libro Iudiciorum.

The provincial and municipal army consisted of  thiufas or milliardas, commanded by a thiufadis. A thiufas was divided in quingentenae, each divided in five centuri of ten decuri. [8]

The supervisor of the army was the comes exercitus or praepostis hostis, and was appointed by the king himself.

As the standard of the former Roman legions was an eagle-and-thunderbolt and the rank insignia of the prefectus legionis was an eagle, the rank insignia of a Visigothic comes exercitus or “leader of the host”, may have been the same. [9] A few of these rank insignia have been preserved. As there exist pairs of them, we may suppose that they were worn at both sides of the collar of the military mantle. A very famous and well documented specimen of such an eagle is in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The design of this eagle is completely different from the traditional Roman eagles which are in a more naturalistic style and generally depicted in a sitting position. On the contrary,  the Gothic eagles (as the Ostrogoths used this kind of eagles too), are more of a stylized hellenistic type and to be compared with the eagles on ancient Greek coinage. In fact, these Gothic eagles, beak upwards, wings spread and pointing downwards, were the prototypes of the eagles common in West-European heraldry after the beginning of the 12th century.


Visigothic Eagle Fibula, (Extremadura, Lusitania) 6th century

Gold over bronze, semiprecious stones, meerschaum Length: 14,4 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.Acquired by of Henry Walters, 1930 (54.421; 54.422)


With these Visigothic eagles, the story of  rank insignia of the Visigothic army is almost told. No such fibulae are found which could have been the insignia of the lower ranks, for which griffins and lions would have been appropriate. It is only in Ommayad times that such symbols occur.


C. The Church


The Latin Cross.

The catholic church maintained the ancient territorial divisions of the Roman Empire and the ecclesiastical provinces in Spain were the same as the Roman provinces before. These provinces were Septimania, Galecia, Tarraconense, Cartaginense, Lusitania and Betica. The capitals of these provinces (Narbona, Braga, Tarragona, Toledo, Mérida and Sevilla) were the  sees of  the metropolitans. The six provinces were divided in eighty-two dioceses and the same number of roman cities were episcopal sees. After 681 Toledo, since 569 the capital of the kingdom, was the see of the primate of the Visigothic church.


Part of the Treasure of Guarrazar, formerly in the Musée de Cluny, Paris.

19th century lithograph.

In the middle the crown donated by Reccesuinth with the pending letters  RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET. 


After the adoption of the nicaean creed, the symbol of the church in Spain was unmistakably the latin cross, just like in the rest of Western Europe. This can be explained from the fact that after 586 not the Visigothic king but the pope of Rome was the head of the Spanish church.

The insignia of the spanish metropolitans seem to have been a golden pectoral cross and a golden circlet or crown.[10] Such insignia have been found in Guarrazar:


Towards the close of 1858, or early in 1859, in the course of excavations at La Fuente de Guarraz, near Toledo, on the property of some private individual, a hoard of treasure of great value and interest was brought to light. No particulars of the discovery are recorded. It seems, however, that there were not found any remains of a case or casket in which the relics had been enclosed; in several parts the ornamentation had been filled with the soil in which they were found; it has, therefore, been supposed that those relics of royalty had been buried in some time of confusion without any enclosure. The spot where the crowns were found was uncultivated land, which the peasants were breaking up when the discovery was made. [11]


The treasure, originally composed of twenty-six votive crowns and gold crosses, was partitioned, with some objects going to the Musée de Cluny in Paris and the rest to the armouries of the Palacio Real in Madrid (today in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain). Subsequently most of the Treasure of Guarrazar was stolen and has disappeared.


Æ Taking into account the large number of crowns in the original treasure, and the crown clearly donated by Reccesuinth himself, the crowns can be linked to the 8th Council of Toledo in 653. Of the sixty bishops attending this council, 24 were Goths and 36 Romans (hispanics), the first number very near to the number of crowns of the treasure. In that case we can imagine the crowns suspended above the seats of the bishops, the pectoral crosses pending on their breasts. We even may assume that the most precious of these crowns, the one donated by Reccesuinth, belonged to the reigning metropolitan of Toledo, St. Eugenio II (646-657). The missing of the 34 or 36 other episcopal insignia, clearly of the Roman bishops, may be explained by the fact that these were not crowns or circlets but croziers. The crozier appeared in the sixth century but is clearly inspired by older Roman Christian examples. [12]  The Roman croziers, if they were really used during the Council of Toledo, must have been preserved in the treasuries of the different episcopal sees. [13]   



Back to Main Page



© Hubert de Vries 2008-10-30



[1]  Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, München, Clm. 10291.

[2]  Also …. PR[imi] = … of the first rank.

[3] Pilar con cruz patada-escultura visigoda-s VI1 (35832 ad Badajoz Merida Museo Nacional de arte romano)

[4] Cruz visigoda con inscripcion paleocristiana- s VII -procedente de Alconetar-Caceres (26335 ad Madrid Museo Arqueologico Nacional-coleccion).

[5] Cruz visigoda con inscripcion paleocristiana- s VII -procedente de Alconetar-Caceres (26335 ad Madrid Museo Arqueologico Nacional-coleccion).

[6] Marble slab showing a relief of a standard with a christogram between two human figures. (151308 Madrid coleccion particular. Placa Visigoda con crismon y dos figuras humanas-s VII/VIII-marmol. The picture has to be flipped horizontally!) Maybe this slab is better dated in the 6th - 7th C.

[7] The vexillum of the Comes Domesticorum Peditum et Æquitum as on the Anastasius Diptich (517) showed a square cross within a bordure. 

[8] The contemporary (from 480 ca until 660) Byzantine army consisted of legions of 5000, commanded by a merarch, fifths of a legion commanded by a chiliarch, cohorts of 500, commanded by a tribune, centurii of 100 commanded by a hecatontarch, and decurii, commanded by a decarch. The thiufadis should have been equal to a chiliarch.

[9] The insignia of the general officers the christogram within a crown of laurel. No such insignia seem to exist in the Visigothic empire after independence in 475.

[10] The generally accepted opinion is that they ‘had originally been offered to the Roman Catholic Church by the Kings of the Visigoths in the seventh century in Hispania, as a gesture of the orthodoxy of their faith and their submission to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.’

[11] Notes on an Ancient Gothic Crown..

[12] The mitre as an insignia of a Roman bishop was only introduced in the middle of the 11th century.

[13] The Goths had a privileged social position in Visigothic Spain, they did not pay taxes, they were of different religous origin (Arian) and they had their own special laws and rights. This may also explain why the insignia of the Goth and Roman bishops were so different.