In this paper, I will analyze the impact of rebellions on the construction of governmental styles in the Visigothic Kingdom. Like the Late Roman Empire, the successor kingdoms in the West witnessed rebellions aimed at overthrowing ‘legitimate’ rulers. Rebellion (successful or not) was an endemic feature of this kingdom from its inception in the fifth century until its fall in the early eighth century. Challenges to rulers opened up the opportunity to define normative expectations on the proper behavior of kings and governors. By interpreting rebellions as impious acts against the purity of the kingdom rather than as political actions against the king, the Visigothic monarchs counted on mobilizing as many lay and secular authorities as possible in defense of their legitimate rule.
Visigothic usurpations have received considerable attention from various schools of thought. Scholars have analyzed sources, of course, to determine chronologies and facts surrounding rebellions (Thompson 1969, 170-251). Historians have also used the evidence on usurpations to analyze royal normative responses to rebellions (King 1972, 41-44; Arce 2011, 147-156). Church historians have approached the same documentary evidence, looking particularly at the political nature of Visigothic councils (García Moreno 1991). Finally, rebellions in post-Roman Iberia have been studied to elucidate the ceremonial features of the Visigothic monarchy (McCormick 1986, 297-327). Indeed, Michael McCormick’s study represents a cornerstone for the purposes of this paper, as he masterfully related Byzantine ceremonials, Visigothic celebrations of victory against rebels, and the ideology of triumph.
Building on this scholarship, I intend to tackle the question of usurpation from a new perspective. I will suggest that the language that impregnated royal responses to usurpations were more than an ideological façade to assert power. Rather, it aimed at creating a particular set of behaviors among royal aids, influential lay and secular actors, and the population of the kingdom at large. Rebellions were detached from their pure political/military meaning, which characterized earlier Iberian chronicles, and were incorporated within a broader category of ‘impiety.’ In this way, rebellion became associated with other practices that conciliar and royal legislation deemed impious, such as Judaism, idolatry, and homosexuality. Coping with rebellions and those other evils was essential to the spiritual welfare of the kingdom and the salvation of its subjects. It became every person’s commitment to monitor, denounce, and eventually oppose attempts at rebellion.
In support of this argument, I will draw on various examples from historiographical, legal, ecclesiastical, and hagiographical literature, but I will pay particular attention to two sets of documents. The first one is the so-called military law of Wamba (r. 672-680). The law (LV XI.2.8), issued after the king crushed an attempt at usurpation, mandated that all the inhabitants of the kingdom should secure aid to the king in case of invasion. In the case of sedition or rebellion (referred to as ‘temptation to sin’), the law described similar duties. As Amancio Isla recently pointed out, the intention of this law was not to organize the army, but to secure loyalty from local secular and ecclesiastic leaders in the eventuality of an invasion or a rebellion (Isla 2010, 45-54). The second set of documents includes a letter from king Egica (r. 687-701) to the Sixteenth Council of Toledo (693) and the resolutions of that council, which also took place after an unsuccessful attempt at usurpation. Both texts unmistakably connected impurity (rebellions, Judaism, idolatry, homosexuality) to the welfare of the kingdom. Moreover, the council issued a series of resolutions to deal with these problems that aimed at mobilizing a large number of social actors.
Grammars of Government in Late Antiquity