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

An Arab-Berber army from North Africa secures a foothold on the Iberian peninsula.

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So here’s the thing: we don’t actually know if the Battle of Guadalete took place on July 19, 711. It’s sort of a best guess. 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 that seems good enough for our purposes.

The problem, as you’ve probably already guessed, is that the sources for this battle—indeed, for the entire Islamic conquest of Iberia—are so spotty and/or sketchy that it’s not clear when or even where most of its alleged events took place. It seems pretty clear that they did take place, at least in some form. 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 somewhere, at some time, and that the Visigoths lost badly. But beyond the fact that it happened, and how it worked out, we know very little.

One other thing we don’t know for certain is when the Arab-Berber army actually invaded Iberia. Historians tend to put that event around April 27, 711, but that date is even less reliable than the July 19 date because major events like invasions tend to happen over a period of time, whereas battles happen at some definite point. I’ve written elsewhere about the general course of the invasion, but there are a few things worth highlighting here.

For one thing, we can talk about the role of North African politics and economics in influencing the early Muslims’ decision to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. The Arab armies that conquered North Africa found themselves drastically outnumbered by the Berbers, or Amazigh if you prefer, 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, as one of the “People of the Book,” were expected to pay the jizya, an additional tax that Muslims were not required to pay, and pagans were to be given a choice between conversion and the sword.

Of course, rules are made to be broken, and when the people you’re supposed to exploit and/or threaten both surround and greatly outnumber you, that’s as good a time as any to look the other way. So the jizya was only haphazardly applied and conversions to the emerging Islamic faith were spotty at first. But 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 Iberia meant crossing the water, that was preferable to attempting to push south through the Sahara.

We can also talk about the role Visigothic politics played in the invasion. 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 seems to have been technically elective but in practice often functioned as hereditary, so a king would usually pass the kingship to his son, but that son did need 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 intervened 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 also 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 is more likely an attempt to justify the conquest after the fact, that the Muslims invaded Hispania at the behest of Count Julian of Ceuta, the last remaining Christian governor in North Africa. Ceuta is on the African 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. 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). We simply don’t know.

Julian 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 either that a villainous Roderic had raped the poor girl (Muslim sources) or that Julian’s villainous daughter nefariously 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 an army, led by Tariq ibn 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 (I know, what a shock) about Tariq. He was an Arab. Or maybe a Berber. Or (unlikely but possibly) an Iranian. He was a slave of the overall Muslim commander in the west, Musa ibn Nusayr (d. 716). Or maybe 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.

When it comes to the Battle of Guadalete, apart from not having a great handle on when or where it happened, we also don’t really know how many fighters were involved. Some sources have Tariq at the head of 200,000 men against Roderic’s 100,000. Those sources might as well have gone with 200,000,000 and 100,000,000 because that would’ve been only slightly less absurd. Tariq’s army was probably somewhere in the 7000-12,000 range and was most likely outnumbered, maybe by a factor of two or even three to one.

Regardless of numbers, the one thing that seems clear in this whole morass is that the invading army defeated Roderic and his defenders, and Roderic himself died in the process. 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 Roderic “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. We also don’t know very much about the battle itself or why it went the way it did, though a good guess seems to be that the far more mobile, cavalry-oriented Arab-Berber forces simply outmaneuvered the more stationary and compact Visigothic army with a series of quick attacks and misdirections.

After Guadalete, Tariq was able to move on and take the Visigothic capital, Toledo. Musa, his superior, seems to have decided to step in at this point before his subordinate had a chance to get too successful, because in 712 he arrived in Hispania with “reinforcements” and, gosh, to take over the whole expedition. Musa himself would later be similarly bigfooted by 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. As unlikely as it sounds for such a relatively insignificant place, little Asturias would go on to form the geographic base for the “Reconquista” and the eventual reimposition of Christian control over Iberia.