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 day around 20 July, so what the hell.
(We’re not even entirely sure it took place in 711. At least one source, the Chronicle of 754, puts the battle in 712 but also puts it puts it before the Muslim conquest of Toledo, which it dates to late 711. Obviously that doesn’t make any sense. So 711 is probably right.)
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 the 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. Various sources ascribe upwards of 200,000 men to the Arab-Berber 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 (who’s probably best known as the namesake of Gibraltar, jabal Tariq or “the rock of Tariq,” where his forces allegedly came ashore) and Roderic, the Visigothic king, 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. There are stories that the sons of the previous Visigothic king, Wittiza, who’d had their birthright usurped by Roderic, appealed to the Muslims in North Africa for aid, but those stories are highly problematic for several reasons. For example, Visigothic kings seem to have been elected by the nobles, so the sons of the previous king had no “birthright” to lose. And Wittiza’s sons were almost certainly too young to have organized a revolt against Roderic, as they’re alleged to have done (see below). In general these stories have the feel of fictionalized post-facto justifications for an invasion rather than actual accounts of real events. Arab-Berber forces had been raiding Iberian cities by sea since the first Muslim conquerors arrived in what is now Morocco several years earlier, so an invasion might have just been a natural escalation.
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. Whatever the reason, the Visigoths suffered a catastrophic defeat, with most of their nobility dead including Roderic, and they never recovered from it.
There are a variety of complicated explanations that later sources offer for the Visigothic defeat. Some sources claim that a group of Roderic’s men abandoned him on the battlefield out of loyalty to Wittiza and his sons, but that’s pretty well impossible to know for sure and again sounds a bit like post-facto spinning. On the other hand, when the Muslims captured the Visigothic capital, Toledo, under Tariq’s boss Musa b. Nusayr, Wittiza’s brother seems to have been installed as Roderic’s replacement, so it’s at least conceivable that he might have done something to undermine Roderic. Other sources claim that Iberian Jews went over to the invaders because they were tired of being persecuted by the Visigoths. This doesn’t appear in any relatively contemporary record, though, and smacks of anti-Jewish propaganda.
If there was a dynastic element to this whole affair then it seems likely that Roderic’s rivals expected Tariq to help them in return for some sort of payment or concession and then return to North Africa. Of course we know he didn’t do that, and eventually most of Iberia save Basque country and the relatively small Kingdom of Asturias wound up in Muslim hands. It would be over seven centuries before Iberia was entirely Christian again.
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