The Muslim conquest of Spain, then known as Hispania, was the furthest west of all the Arab conquests during the first century of Islamic history. The conquest, carried out in the opening stages by a small force of Berbers, was an astonishing feat of arms. The Visigothic kingdom collapsed, and Christians would not rule the entire peninsula again for 800 years. The Muslims would use the impetus gained to push further north, before facing decisive defeat at Tours.
For an understanding of how a small army could conquer a kingdom like Visigothic Hispania, we should first look at the internal picture of the country leading up to the conquest. By the 7th Century, the power of the regional nobility and the Christian Church effectively dwarfed the throne itself. The nobles had become steadily more dominant over the preceding century, resembling feudal lords. The Church became a major force following the Visigoth conversion to Nicene Christianity, and the Councils of Toledo carried as much weight, if not more, than secular law. Always present in the background was the continued struggle of elected versus hereditary succession.
Altogether the government of Visigothic Hispania was dangerously weak, despite the kingdom’s status as among the most successful of the post-Roman states. The kings exercised little practical power, and often at the mercy of factions. The great landowners ruled with virtual independence, and on the eve of the invasion the kingdom was gripped by political and religious turmoil.
The Muslims made several attacks on Hispania before the successful invasion of Tariq ibn Ziyad. The Chronicle of 754, the only Christian source on the Muslim Conquest of Hispania, records the Moors of North Africa had long raided the shores of the kingdom before the invasion. The later Chronicle of Alfonso III also notes the Muslims sent 270 ships in aid to the rebellion of Comes (a Latin title usually rendered as count) Flavius Paulus against King Wamba (672-681) in 672-73. In this case, they had been invited by Jewish shipping interests, out of fear that Wamba would persecute them. Wamba defeated this fleet, and the Moors returned to raiding. They returned in force some years later, again under Jewish invitation. Again, the Visigoths repulsed the attack, but later events would bring them back, and this time to stay.
Wittiza’s reign (694-710) has long been the subject of controversy. The king either brought joy and prosperity to the kingdom or as a moral degenerate who ruined Hispania according to competing accounts. Regardless, his death at age 25 or thereabout threw the country into an uproar. The sequence of events that follows is difficult to reconstruct.
Coin evidence reveals the possibility of two kings ruling in opposition to each other. One, Roderick, ruling in Toledo and Central Lusitania. The other, Achila II, ruling in Tarraconensis and Narbonensis, also called Septimania. Supporting evidence is found in two competing continuations of the Visigothic regnal lists, one of which records a three-year reign by a King Achila, the other a King Ruderigus. Unfortunately, these continuations are of a later providence and first come into disagreement with the reign of Erwig (680-87). The Chronicle of 754 records simply that in AD 711 “Roderick tumultuously invaded the kingdom with the encouragement of the Senate” and goes on to say he reigned one year. Senate, here, may refer to the great landowners and senior clergy. What the chronicler means by invasion is still unclear. One explanation is Roderick gained power in a palace coup with noble and clerical support, only for a full-blown civil war to erupt.
However, the Chronicle makes no mention of Achila II, or even of the death of Wittiza. Roderick may have overthrown him by violence, which accounts for the tumult the chronicler describes. The Chronicle’s description of the invasion sheds further light. It looks to suggest that the army abandoned Roderick during a battle with “Taric Abuzara” (Tariq ibn Ziyad?) resulting in his death. This was possibly part of an earlier plan by some unnamed nobles opposed to Roderick, and they either died with him or shortly after. Another passage of the Chronicle indicates that the Muslims executed several noble lords who had aided the flight of one Oppa, son of King Egica (687-702) after the fall of Toledo. Oppa was holding the city about this time.
In short, Wittiza had no recognized successor. Roderick had taken power, but his claim was contested by two separate men, with important power bases of their own. Achila was clearly the more powerful rival and controlled the northeast. Oppa, the late king’s brother, seized Toledo at one point (perhaps just before Roderick’s death), and fled before the fall of the city. Hispania was deeply divided, giving the Muslims the perfect opportunity to invade.
Muslim sources corroborate this view. Ibn Abd al-Hakam, the first Muslim to record the invasion, and from whom all other Muslim sources stem, tells the story of Count Julian of Ceuta. Julian exchanged letters with Tariq ibn Ziyad and offered to ferry the joint Arab-Berber army across the straights to Hispania. He was willing to do so because Roderick had gotten his daughter pregnant, and had since set himself among the king’s enemies. While the story of Julian is complete nonsense and has no support anywhere else, it does support the basic idea that Hispania was divided.
Tariq ibn Ziyad was a Berber (Mauri, Moor) Muslim, who held command at the fortress of Tangiers on the behalf of his former master, Musa ibn Nusayr. Musa, a man of humble origins, had become the governor of North Africa in 704 thanks to the support of Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan, governor of Egypt and brother of Caliph Abd al-Malik. Once in power Musa had charted an independent course, completed the conquest of North Africa by 708, and laid firm foundations for Arab administration.
Through Tariq, Musa was kept aware of events in the Visigothic Kingdom. It seems likely that he struck a deal with one of Roderick’s opponents in the civil war, perhaps something similar to the intervention on behalf Count Paulus in Wamba’s time. Musa’s son Marwan launched a probing raid on the coast of Lusitania, and when they came back with a favorable report, the go-ahead for a larger operation was given to Tariq. This was undoubtedly welcome news. Most of his soldiers, recent converts to Islam, had gone without pay for years. Their loyalty was dubious, and Tariq needed some new source of revenue and spoils to appease them. Hispania seemed perfect.
By April-May, 711 the invasion force was ready. Traditional accounts claim some 12,000 for the invaders, and later historians have tried to explain this as having come in waves, with the first numbering 7,000. More probably the Muslims numbered only 1,750. Arabs formed a minority. On landing in Hispania, Tariq, who probably planned this out as a raid, let his men loose across the southern part of the peninsula. The following events are unclear, but what is known is that Roderick confronted the raiders at some point, traditionally identified as the river Guadalete, was abandoned by his men, and killed. The death of Roderick changed everything.
As Roderick’s rivals probably perished with him or soon after (see above), the Muslims saw their chance to take advantage of the chaos to claim the region as their own. The Chronicle of 754 says that Toledo fell to Muslim arms about the same time as Roderick’s death. Cordova, another major Visigoth city, also fell. The Muslims then killed much of the remaining prominent nobles, likely including Oppa (see above). This served the interests of the invaders by leaving the Visigoths effectively leaderless, the remaining regional lords lacking the means to engage the Muslims. These events occurred in either late 711 or early 712.
Tariq’s startling success brought the attention of Musa. By the beginning of the campaign season of 712, the governor of Ifriqiya (North Africa) had entered the Iberian Peninsula with a larger army than that of Tariq’s. While there are no reliable numbers for this force, we do that Musa brought along elite troops and the leaders of the Arab tribes in his province. Musa and Tariq linked at Toledo and divided operations between them. Tariq likely headed towards the Ebro valley, where Achila II held sway while Musa focused on consolidation in the south. He first conquered Medina Sidonia, then Carmona. The jewel of his campaign was Seville, one of the largest cities on the peninsula, and they all fell with minimal force. Resistance finally stiffened with the siege of Merida, which held out until the end of June, 713. Meanwhile Musa and Tariq met up again at Toledo, to discuss dividing the spoils. However, Musa demanded that all prizes be handed over to him, and Tariq complied. Shortly after he set up his headquarters at Cordova, separate of Musa. This was done to show his discontent with his superior’s high-handedness. Tensions between Arab and Berber, already high, would pose a problem in the Islamic West for centuries.
About this time, Musa had sent his son, Abd al-Aziz, out to deal with a rebellion in Seville, and from there advanced to Murcia. A Visigothic enclave, Murcia was ruled by a man known as Count Theodemir. Rather than conquer, Abd al-Aziz instead negotiated with Theodemir, granting the Visigoths local autonomy in return for tribute and ensuring their regional security. Such a deal is not surprising because of contemporary Muslim practice elsewhere. The land was called Tudmir by the Arabs in its ruler’s honor. The following year, 714, Musa moved north into the Ebro personally and captured Zaragoza before going to siege Lerida and making progress towards Barcelona and Narbonne. As this coincides with the end date of Achila II’s reign, he was likely killed during these events. A man named Ardo succeeded Achila, and continued the resistance.
However, now events in faraway Syria (a much larger area than the modern day state of that name) brought the conquest to a halt. In 715, as Musa and Tariq were campaigning in the northern mountains of Iberia word came from the east that Caliph al-Walid was dead. Much like his father before him, al-Walid had been tolerant of Musa ibn Nusayr’s independence; in fact the Caliph had supported the venture in Hispania. However, his brother and successor, Sulayman, had no such tolerance. A desire to deal with all he considered political rivals, coupled with the well-known Umayyad fear of successful generals, resulted in the recall and disgrace of Musa, Tariq, and several other prominent military leaders. Sulayman nevertheless did respect the political arrangement left by Musa in the new province of al-Andalus and Ifriqiya, leaving his sons in power. Abd al-Aziz took over in Hispania.
His tenure is mainly cloudy; supposedly making inroads into both modern Portugal and Catalonia. Administratively it is assumed that either Abd al-Aziz or his father had started the minting of gold coins from mobile army mints. Military settlement, the usual model followed by Muslim armies post-conquest, was also abandoned about this time. Instead, they intermingled with the population, the Arabs settling in Cordova, Toledo, Seville, and Zaragoza while the Berbers settled on the Meseta.
Abd al-Aziz would fall in 716 amid controversy surrounding the practice of the Arab nobility marrying wealthy Visigoth women. His cousin succeeded him, who was in turn deposed after only a few months. His successor, al-Hurr ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Thaqafi, led the first Islamic forays into Southern Gaul (France), opening the possibility of even further conquests. In 717 he led a reconnaissance expedition into Septimania and from there up into Gaul, hoping to take advantage of Frankish disunity and made several follow-up trips. Disaffection from the Umayyads with his military progress, as well as widespread internal problems between Arabs and Berbers, led to al-Hurr’s sack in 718.
Al-Hurr’s tenure also oversaw the beginnings of what would become the Christian Reconquista. During this time, an increasing number of Visigoths and other Christians had begun to flee Muslim rule into the southern valleys of the Pyrenees and the region of Asturias in the Picos de Europa. In the latter case, the area was ruled by one Pelagius, a man of uncertain though wealthy background. Pelagius welcomed these refugees, and the Muslims could do little to stop him. Roman civilization had never fully penetrated there, Visigothic authority had only been nominal. Marking the terrain was a mixture of rugged peaks and rivers that overflowed during periods of heavy rainfall. Muslim rule was present in Asturias, but it was never firm or stable. Pelagius continued to send tribute to the capital of Cordova according to the terms of the treaty until 718 when he raised the standard of revolt for reasons unclear. It is likely that, before his revolt, Pelagius was offered similar terms to those offered Theodemir. Peter of Cantabria, ruler of the western Basques and fellow refugee, soon joined him, and two together adopted a defensive posture while the Muslim conquest of the rest of Hispania wrapped up.
In Cordova, a new governor was named, al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani. As a leader, al-Samh proved to be of a different quality than his immediate predecessors, and his ambition and drive powered a full-scale invasion of Septimania. Coin evidence corroborates the traditional Muslim account of the fall of Narbonne, and all coins of Ardo, the last King of the Visigoths, stop after 721. All residual resistance was handled by treaty or force of arms over the following years. With a firm base behind him, al-Samh pushed north, into Aquitaine with the intent of capturing the capital of Toulouse and the Garrone River valley. However, he was defeated by Odo the Great, Duke of Aquitaine, on June 9th, 721 in a massive pincer attack. The governor died at Narbonne from mortal wounds suffered in battle. Anbasa ibn Sulaim al-Kalbi succeeded al-Samh, who moved to keep up the appearance of military strength with large raids. He did so to avoid either Odo or his northern rival, the powerful Frankish Mayor of the Palace Charles, from striking south.
However, the Muslims soon faced much bigger problems. Muslim tax policy in al-Andalus following the disaster at Toulouse sparked serious unrest, and Pelagius in Asturias took advantage to expand the extent of his authority. Their subsequent failure to crush him at Covadonga has morphed into a legend. The few firm known facts is that Pelagius emerged victorious in a skirmish deep in the mountains, the Muslim general was slain, and that a general mutiny by Astur soldiers in Muslim service followed. Pelagius was subsequently elected king of an independent Asturian kingdom. Following the battle other Christian kingdoms would form in the mountains of northern Spain, the Pyrenees, and the Basque Country. From these holdouts the long Reconquista began.
Meanwhile, affairs in Gaul continued to occupy the attention of the governors of al-Andalus. In 724 the Muslims under Anbasa captured the last Visigoth holdouts in Septimania at Carcassonne and Nimes, and the following year he raided as far north as Autun and the Rhone valley. Anbasa was then killed in battle in 726 and succeeded by a succession of temporary governors of little ability. In 730 the Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik intervened and appointed al-Samh’s former second-in-command, Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, as governor. Like al-Samh, Abd al-Rahman possessed the ability, the drive, and the ambition to lead.
First, affairs in Sepitmania had to be settled. Uthman ibn Naissa, a Berber general, had become the effectively independent governor of Muslim Gaul, and in 730 had negotiated a marriage alliance with Duke Odo, who was desperate for allies against Charles. The following year Uthman had become so confident in his strength that he rejected the authority of Cordova. Abd al-Rahman saw his chance and took it. He struck for Narbonne and crushed Uthman. Duke Odo, who arrived too late to save his ally, attempted to return to Toulouse. The two armies met in battle near the Garrone where the Aquitanians were so badly slaughtered the Chronicle of 754 remarked that only God knew the number of the slain.
Thus emboldened, Abd al-Rahman pressed onwards. Muslim forces besieged and took the city of Bordeaux. From there he marched north, following a deliberate policy of sack and plunder of both palaces and churches in hopes of demoralizing the population. By 732 they had reached the Loire River, plundering Christian religious centers as they went. The advance column was outpacing both the supply train and the main body of the invasion force. Abd al-Rahman was aiming to attack Tours and the Church of St. Martin, which was the most famous Christian shrine in Gaul. By this time Odo was making appeals to Charles, but the Mayor of the Palace was unwilling to hear him. He accused the Duke of Aquitaine of betraying his Christian faith but said he could gain forgiveness by submitting to the central authority, and Charles’ power. Odo did so, and the Franks moved to deal with the threat.
According to the Chronicle of 754 Charles was aware of the power of the Muslim cavalry from Odo and intended to fight Abd al-Rahman from a wooded high ground, using an infantry square. The resulting Battle of Tours, traditionally believed to have been fought over seven days in late October, has been controversial. Both the sequence of events and battle’s importance are disputed. For the moment, Charles, now known by the nickname Martel, the Hammer, had ended the immediate threat to the Frankish territories. Internal problems within al-Andalus, now reawakened following Abd al-Rahman’s death at Tours, would eventually end the threat of invasion for good in the 740s as Umayyad rule destabilized.
The famous 19th Century painting of the Battle of Tours by Charles de Steuben [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Charles Martel is mounted on the horse on the left, facing Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi on the right.
The defeat at Tours largely marked the end of large-scale military activity coming out of the impetus of the invasion of Hispania. Muslim focus now began to shift from waging war to creating a more lasting, stable administration. In this, they succeeded with mixed results, with various forms of al-Andalus persisting until 1492.