Today in European history: the Battle of Guadalete (711)

Savvy readers will know that we’ve already covered the Battle of Guadalete in other contexts, and although nobody actually knows for sure when this decisive battle of the Muslim conquest of Iberia really took place, today is arguably the most likely candidate. Historian David Lewis, who has written on Islamic Spain among many other topics, puts Guadalete on this date, and who am I to argue with him? Hugh Kennedy writes in his Muslim Spain and Portugal that the battle “seems to have lasted for a number of days around 20 July 711,” and this is a date around 20 July, so what the hell.

The problem, as you’ve probably already guessed, is that the sources for this entire campaign are so spotty and/or sketchy that it’s not clear when or even where this battle took place. It seems pretty clear that it did take place, at least–I mean, something happened to the Visigothic kingdom in Iberia, and that something sure seems to have been a violent end at the hands of Arab-Berber forces from North Africa, so we can probably believe the sources when they say that those two sides fought a major battle and the Visigoths lost badly. But beyond the fact that it happened we know very little.

We don’t know, for example, how many fought on either side. Different sources ascribe upwards of 200,000 men to the invaders and other sources give the Visigoths as many as 100,000, but in a world where historical sources are notoriously unreliable when talking about the sizes of armies, these figures are among the most obviously false. Historical consensus seems to be that the Muslims, under Tariq b. Ziyad, numbered somewhere between 7000 and 12,000, while the Visigoths probably had in the neighborhood of two to three times that many men with them.

We also don’t know much about the principals, Tariq and Roderic, or why the Muslim forces crossed into Iberia apart from the obvious fact that they saw more land to conquer and more loot to plunder. We certainly don’t know very much about the battle or why it went the way it did, though a good guess seems to be that the far more mobile, cavalry-oriented Berber forces simply outmaneuvered the more stationary and compact Visigothic army with a series of quick attacks and misdirections. Some sources claim that a group of Roderic’s men abandoned him on the battlefield out of loyalty to the former Visigothic king, from whose sons Roderic had arguably usurped his crown, but that’s pretty well impossible to know for sure.

I don’t want to rehash all these details because they’re available to you in the link above (so go check that out), but I did want to at least note the significance of this date–or, you know, thereabouts.

Map - Expansion West
Muslim conquests in North Africa and Iberia, 7th-8th centuries; note that this map doesn’t even try to hazard a guess as to where Guadalete was fought

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