Today in European history: the Muslims invade Hispania (711)

Map - Expansion West
The Muslim conquest of North Africa and Hispania, 7th-8th centuries

One of the perils of talking about historical events that happened centuries ago in places that, at the time at least, were far removed from the centers of civilization is that you have to rely on some potentially pretty inaccurate sources to try to date anything. So I don’t want you to fixate on April 27 as the date the Muslim armies started landing in Hispania. It was probably around this date, but we can’t really be sure to any certainty.

We’ve already sketched out the broad strokes of the Arab-Berber conquest of Hispania. However, there are some details that can be filled in about their decision to cross into Hispania in the first place. For one thing, we can talk about the role of North African politics and economics in influencing the decision to press on into Europe. The early Arab armies that conquered North Africa found themselves drastically outnumbered by the Berbers who were already there, many of whom were either Christian or still practicing a pagan religion of some sort. The rules in these cases were quite clear: Christians were expected to pay the jizya, an additional tax that Muslims were not required to pay (Muslims were required to pay zakat, a charitable donation that nevertheless functioned more or less as a tax, but it was not as burdensome as the jizya), and pagans were to be given a choice between conversion and the sword.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and when you’re surrounded and outnumbered by the people you’re meant to exploit and/or threaten, that’s as good a time as any to look the other way. Still, running North Africa took money, like everything else does, and if that money wasn’t going to come from a Christian jizya or from former pagans-turned-good taxpaying Muslims, then it had to come from continued conquest and the booty that ensued. And although going north into Hispania meant crossing the water, that was probably much preferable to those 8th century armies than attempting to push south through the Sahara.

The Visigoths had ruled almost all of Hispania since 415, when they drove out (ironically, to North Africa) the Vandals and the Alans who had already come in and wrested control of the province from Rome. The crown in Visigothic Hispania was both hereditary and elective, so a king would usually pass the kingship to his son, but that son then had to be approved by the kingdom’s leading nobles before he could take the throne. Generally the nobles went along with the hereditary succession, but occasionally they did intervene to remove a dynasty from power and bring in some new blood. That’s what seems to have happened in 710, upon the death of King Witiza. What many historians think happened is that Witiza had named his son Akhila to succeed him, but the nobles decided they preferred one of their own, a man named Roderic (about whom we know very little), so they elevated him to the throne instead. As you might expect, whenever the nobles pulled this move it usually led to conflict, and in this case Akhila and his brothers revolted. Roderic defeated them, but the archeological evidence suggests that the kingdom was divided after this, with Akhila (full disclosure, it’s not entirely certain that he was Witiza’s son) ruling a portion in the northeast.

There’s a story in the Arabic sources, which may be true but seems likely to be an attempt to justify the conquest after the fact, that the Muslims invaded Hispania at the behest of Count Julian of Ceuta, the last Christian governor of anything in North Africa. Ceuta is on the Africa side of the Strait of Gibraltar and is Spanish property today (though Julian’s Ceuta seems to have included the city of Tangier, which he lost to the Muslims in 710 and which is Moroccan today). Very little is known about Julian as well. He may have been Berber, or Germanic, or Greek, but clearly there’s no certainty about that. He was probably a dependent vassal of the Visigoths, though he may instead have been the Byzantine governor of North Africa (such as it was by this point). Either way, he had managed to hold Ceuta against the Muslims almost miraculously, which is the only thing we know for sure about him. According to the earliest Arab sources, Julian sent his daughter to study at Roderic’s court at Toledo, and she (also miraculously, no doubt) found herself pregnant with Roderic’s child. Enraged, Julian switched allegiances in 710 and implored the Muslims to invade Hispania. Later sources would embellish this already unlikely tale even further to say that Roderic had raped the girl (Muslim sources) or that she’d seduced poor Roderic (Christian sources).

Julian is said to have guided the Muslims on their earliest scouting probes into Hispania, then provided the ships that ferried a ~7000 man army, led by Tariq b. Ziyad (d. ~720), the man who gave us the name “Gibraltar” (from Jabal Tariq, “Tariq’s mountain”), across the strait. We also know very little about Tariq. We do know that he was an Arab. Or a Berber. Or an Iranian. Also we know that he was a slave of the overall Muslim commander in the west, Musa b. Nusayr (d. 716). Or that he wasn’t. These are the perils of studying 8th century history in what was not exactly the bustling center of the known world at the time. At the Battle of Guadalete, which we think did take place and probably happened in mid-July 711, Tariq’s outnumbered (unless you believe later Christian sources that put him at the head of a roughly 200,000 man army, which might as well have been 200,000,000 for all the relation that bears to a plausible number) men defeated Roderic’s forces, and Roderic himself was killed. Some sources have Roderic losing because his men, unhappy over his usurpation of the throne, abandoned him, but this is contradicted by other sources that say that Witiza was a despised king and Roderic’s enthronement was widely welcomed. It’s also debatable that he “usurped” the throne, since the Visigothic nobles did have the right to elect a new king and were not obliged to rubber stamp the departed king’s choice of heir.

After Guadalete, Tariq was able to move on and take the Visigothic capital, Toledo. Enough seems to have been enough for Musa at this point, because in 712 he arrived in Hispania with “reinforcements” and, gosh, to take over the expedition from his increasingly popular subordinate Tariq. Musa himself would later be similarly bigfooted by the Caliph al-Walid I (d. 715), who didn’t much appreciate the fact that Musa was being hailed as a conquering hero and recalled both Musa and Tariq to Damascus in 714 (where both later died). Before they left, though, they managed to complete the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, save for the tiny northern kingdom of Asturias, which would go on to form the geographic base for the eventual Christian campaign to retake the place, the so-called Reconquista.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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