Renan Frighetto

The Nature of Power in the Hispano-Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo: the Practical and the Political-Institutional Perspectives[1](pdf)

(*En Portugués aquíEn Español aquí; En français ici)


The Hispano-Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo (of the sixth and seventh centuries) is considered by historians to have been a Romano-barbarian monarchy that, more or less, preserved the political and institutional elements of the former Roman imperial polity. However, scholars should remember that certain theoretical conceptions – such as that which placed the rex gothorum as the true primus super pares within the sociopolitical environment of the Hispano-Visigothic kingdom – are not consistently reflective of the practical attitudes described in our manuscripts and reveal an intense dispute between segments of the aristocracy and the crown. In this essay, I will analyze how this dichotomy serves as a starting point for illustrating how Hispano-Visigothic institutions existed de facto, how their action was limited by the difficult coexistence between various aristocratic groups, and how this friction facilitated the weakness of Hispano-Visigothic royal power.


                            “Unde et potestas, quod pateat illi quaqua velit, et nemo intercludat, nullus obsistere valeat.”

-Isidore of Seville, Etymologies X.208.


The word ‘power’ continues to fascinate historians. Philologically, it is associated directly with the Greek term arché and the latin potestas, having a translation too wide and generic because power can be found throughout social spheres, whether military, political, juridical, social, ideological, economic, cultural or religious. Maybe that is why, by its multifaceted nature, we have in power the leitmotiv of several branches of research, which includes history itself as well as the many other disciplines of the humanities. To analyze power in its broad sense would be a scholarly task that would greatly exceed the space of this article. Instead, here I seek to analyze power in relation to concepts that I develop in my investigations of the Pars Occidentalis of the Imperial Roman world (classical and late antique), namely, authority, legitimacy, fidelity and visual signs of power such as the unctio.

Power always found an echo in auctoritas. According to the classical Roman tradition, as exemplified by Cicero, auctoritas had its base of support in the main republican assembly – the senatus[2] – the true defender of the traditio of the ancestors.[3] According to Claude Nicolet, that “ancestral tradition” derived from the concept of the “oligarchic man” in which “the old age of a person or custom is valued, the fact of having ancestors (ancestors as political subjects) creates a favorable preliminary judgment: the de facto inheritance (of law also for the patriciate) is, therefore, decisive.”[4] Following this evaluation and connecting it with the proposal by Moses Finley that “the choice of those who rule and the way they rule is determined by the structure of society being analyzed,”[5] it is up to us to question who would be represented in the Roman senate. The classical Roman sources refer to the members of the Roman senate as senatores, patricii, potentes, boni, terms that denote a political superiority over the rest of the body of citizenship, but it also indicates a social and cultural supremacy countersigned by the “ancestral tradition,” defined by the Romans as the mos maiorum.[6] Power would thus be based on the conservation of the Roman republican political system and its respect more for the auctoritas of the senate than for the mores maiorum of ancestors, legitimate heirs of the total Roman political structure read solely in its historical context.[7]

It is correct to assume that there were certain institutional mechanisms that monitored the political stability of the Roman ordo res publicae in cases of exception. Whether during episodes involving the Gracchi, surrounding the ascension of Sulla, the slave riots led by Spartacus, the Catiline conspiracy and the consolidation of the power of Caesar after the victory over the sons of Pompey in Munda in 45 bc, the prerogative of the Imperium extra ordinem was present. As Cicero shows, the Imperia were granted by the Senate and by the people to the consuls in case of threat to the internal order of the res publica.[8] According to María José Hidalgo de la Vega, such prerogative would derive from the senate through the promulgation of a senatus consultum ultimus which granted to the consul powers of exception with the theoretical intention of institutional order.[9] The concession of such extraordinary power was limited to six months,[10] an exception being made for the Dictaturas of Sulla and Caesar. These cases should be analyzed within the context of the elimination of political rivals within the Roman republic, although both Sulla and Caesar received authorization by the Senate.[11] In other words, this verifies that in both cases, especially in that of Caesar, the exercise of the magistracy was directly related to the concentration of political and military powers in the hands of leaders of factions who wanted the unity of ‘power’. In this way, the Dictatura, here already defined as Imperia extra ordinem, ceased to be a magistracy for institutional defense and became, instead, a strong connotation of personal power.

The fortification of this notion of personal power in the Republican world should be understood as a result of the gradual exhaustion of the political institutions created a priori for the exercise of power over a limited territorial space, such as the classical ciuitas.[12] The diffusion of the Roman hegemony over the entire Mediterranean, especially by the third century bc, elicited the inability of the republican institutions of the Urbs to sustainably exercise cultural and political power across disparate areas. However, it is interesting that those institutions of the res publica, as well as of the uirtutes bound to the formation and performance of the classical Roman polity, kept itself alive even after the transition of the republican system to the imperial.[13] The imperium was an extension of the res publica; from the victory of Octavius over Marcus Antonius (31 bc) to the end of the Antonine dynasty in ad 192, the princeps, the first citizen, maintained the same basic functions, while the ciuitas and its institutions remained the pillar of the political system. Certainly, there was an emblematic variation from the res publica to the imperium: the concentration of the decisive powers into the hands of a single citizen, the princeps. But this passage of an oligarchic/aristocratic political system to a monarchical one was a consequence of the gradual fortification of personal powers, a process which began in the second century bc.

Moreover, the extension and consolidation of the Roman hegemon in the Mediterranean promoted and projected, decisively, the consul as an authentic hero, from the military point of view, before the Roman legionary forces.[14] Holder of the imperium, the power of military approval associated with the consular magistracy and which was incorporated as a honorific title by Pompey,[15] the victorious consul in some military campaigns received several privileges by the senate, to which he also belonged; among these were the authorization to enter Rome in triumph, bearing the lauri and dressed as Jupiter.[16] Graced by the goddess of victory, the consul was seen by supporters and legionaries as an extraordinary being; he utilized this image to fortify his political power. The consul’s promises to distribute lands between his legionaries, observed since Scipio Aemilianus, reinforced his personal power. This dynamic is evident from the second and first centuries bc, during which influential Hellenistic monarchies deeply penetrated Roman political thought, through figures like Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Lepidus, Marcus Antonius and Octavius. All of them concentrated powers in monastic style and fought for the supremacy of power in the Roman world. Octavius was the culmination of a process of confrontations and civil wars during which the position of consul was empowered vis-à-vis the authentic princeps.

Representing now the totality of Roman political institutions, and the formal replacement of the res publica, the Imperium’s foundation of power lay in the aclamatio imperii, in other words, the acclamation of the legions in the recognition of the power of the Imperator.[17] In this is evident the personification of power through the charisma of the emperor and his position as conductor of the legions to victory against internal or external inimicus hostes. As Manuel Rodríguez Gervás observes later in the fourth century, in the case of Constantine, the emperor would never exert his power de facto without military acclamation.[18] On the other hand, this praxis of military aclamatio would, paradoxically, have been a hindrance to the exercise of imperial power since military leaders could use the acclamation of its legionaries to control and replace an emperor. Complementing this problem for the emperor, his political rivals could build alliances with individual military leaders and work with them to formally usurp him. This became a prevalent condition from the time of the Antonines and proliferated throughout late antiquity.

The usurpations and tyrannical actions of late antiquity are fairly well described in sources like the Historia Augusta, the imperial panegyric of the fourth century, as well as the chronicles and histories of Christian authors between the fifth and eighth centuries. In them, we observe the dialectic between the supposed legitimate power of the imperator/rex versus that of his defeated rival who is pejoratively presented as usurpator or tyrannus. This dichotomous antagonism – between legitimate and fraudulent power – was meant to elevate the authority of the former while turning the latter into a symbolic other.[19] The personification of power was so deeply entrenched that it transcended these dichotomous dynamics: both the legitimate leader and the usurper were models of personal power whose ultimate virtue depended on the political and military force they had at their respective disposal.

Complementing the imperator/usurpator dichotomy as method for determining legitimate power was the related concept of fidelity. Fidelitas became attached to legitimacy by Christian authors from the fourth century and remained a central feature of political and social thought throughout late antiquity and the middle ages. This was because fidelitas was tied to God, as expressed in the dogma of first Ecumenical Council (of Nicaea in 325) which states that potestatum regni is sustained by God against the praesumptione tyrannica.[20] This theoretical construction of royal power was used by Nicene (Catholic) Christians to defend sovereigns loyal to orthodoxy and refute those that were not. The legitimate ruler by this definition, as an heir of the classical Greek and Roman traditions, also brought humanitatis, or ‘civilization’, to his kingdom. Hence the notion in late antiquity of Christianitas as the heir of classical Humanitas, and so of genuine power. In theory, this meant that all the faithful could benefit from divine goodness, hence the proliferation of martyrial oratories in rural properties belonging to royal patrimony or to nobilitas and the donations to them, all meant to subvert and consolidate power.[21]

Fidelitas extended diversely into social and political spheres, a phenomenon that is evident in the Hispano-Visigothic sources, especially those which bind Hispano-Visigothic sovereignty to supportive nobiles. These fideles regis swore total fidelity to the king and in exchange would receive patrimonial benefits and resources. As such, assets which belonged to the royal patrimony would end up being ‘patrimonialized’ by the nobles and integrated into their own patrimony.[22] This loss of patrimonial assets by part of the royal estate could explain the fragility of the monarchy at the same time as it could attest to the growing fortification of the regional and local nobilities. This process could serve both to increase and to reduce the effective power of the sovereign, but, in either case, the determinate of power would be the personality of the monarch.[23]

Responsible for the territorial integrity of the kingdom, the Catholic king also needed to defend its spiritual unity, which was essential for the success of the first task. Parallel to this integrative action, the sovereign attempted to assume the position of God’s representative through the passing of legislation, or emendata, because, as a divine vicar, the king considered himself the head that ruled the body of Hispano-Visigothic society.[24] This construction of royal supremacy was confirmed by visual imagery, such as the crown, the scepter, the diadem, by which the king would be himself in the position of primus super pares. None of these expressed and performed symbols of power would rival that of the unctio. Used for the first time in the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo – as described by Julian of Toledo (642-690) – during the consecration of King Wamba (r. 672-680), the unction was a fundamental element in sanctifying royalty.[25] The designers of this theory of power, ecclesiastics such as Isidore of Seville and Julian of Toledo, united the sacred elements imputed to the Roman emperors of the fourth century with the precepts of the “chosen and untouched anointed” present in the Old Testament, the model monarch being King Solomon.[26] Despite the symbolism involved in anointing and the theological formulation that sought to emphasize the power of the king over the social body of the kingdom, the political and military force of the nobility made it the main grantor of legitimacy. In the words of Isidore, rex eris si recte facias, si non facias non eris.[27]

In conclusion, the constructions related to power in the republican and imperial Roman world were based on a series of uirtutes and concepts that referred to the consolidation of “ancestral power” sustained and recognized through the political institutions of the res publica – the senate and the magistracies – especially the consulate, and consolidated political power into the hands of a privileged elite. Political disputes between these groups, coupled with the results of Roman conquest around the Mediterranean, including intimate contact with monarchical ideas of the Hellenistic east, resulted in a shifted focus on the concentration of power in the individual and his immediate supporters. The personification of power in the Roman world helps explain the passage from the republican model to the imperial, the latter understood as monarchical yet also as the defense of proliferation of republican ideals.

Classical Roman uirtutes were preserved in and tied to the figure of the emperor, even after they were Christianized. They remained at the core of imperial ideology throughout late antiquity and were included in the symbolism that surrounded the power of Roman-barbarian monarchs from the fifth through seventh centuries. Sovereigns sought to reinforce their legitimacy by affirming their bond to the traditio bequeathed by the power of the Imperator and associated to the princeps christianus sacratissimus. The most significant way of doing so was through the unctio, which had the primordial function of situating the king as a primus super pares. The consul of the republican age, the princeps of the imperial age and the monarch of the late antiquity, each one in its specific context, sought the same: the effective consolidation of power in his person. In each case, the historical practice of power tended to be in juxtaposition to theoretical formulations about it, since the exertion of actual power depended upon the broad support of diverse networks and social segments, whether military, cultural or economic. In the words of Isidore: Unde est potestas, quod pateat illi quaqua velit, et nemo intercludat, nullus obstinere valeat.


[1] The author wishes to thank Professor Rodrigo Fernandes Frighetto for his translation of this study from its original Portuguese.

[2] Cic., De Leg., III,12.28. On Cicero’s treatise of laws by Cicero see the edition of Georges de Plinval, Cicéron. Traité des Lois – Édition Les Belles Lettres (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1959).

[3] Var., De Ling. Lat.,VIII, Frag. 5: “[…] Sisenna unus adsentio in senatu dicebat et eum postea multi secuti, neque tamen vincere consuetudinem potuerunt […].” For an edition see Manuel A. Marcos Casquero, Varrón. De lingua latina (Madrid: Anthropos, 1990).

[4] Claude Nicolet, “El ciudadano y el político,” in El Hombre Romano (Org. Andrea Giardina) (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1991), 64-65: “se valora la ancianidad del hombre o la costumbre, el hecho de tener ancestros (entendámonos: ancestros ya ‘políticos’) crea un juicio previo favorable: la heredad de hecho (de derecho también para el patriciado) es, pues, determinante.”

[5] Moses Finley, “Estado, Classe e Poder,” in Política no Mundo Antigo (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1985), 20.

[6] According to Maria Helena Rocha Pereira in Estudos de História da Cultura Clássica – cultura romana (Coimbra: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1982), 345: “[…] Os Romanos tinham como suporte fundamental e modelo do seu viver comum a tradição, no sentido de observância dos costumes dos antepassados, mos maiorum […]”; and Francisco Javier Andrés Santos, Instituciones e ideologías políticas durante la República y el Imperio (Madrid: Tecnos, 2015), 94-101.

[7] According to Michael Peachin in “Rome the superpower: 96 – 235,” in A Companion to the Roman Empire, ed. David Potter (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 147: “[…] Having reminded his audience that he (Augustus) restored many examples of ancestral customs, which were falling into desuetude (in Latin multa exempla maiorum exolescentia) […].”

[8] Cic., De. Leg., III.9: “Imperia, potestates, legationes, cum senatus creuerit populusue iusserit ex urbe exeunto […].”

[9] Cf. María José Hidalgo de la Vega, “Uso y abuso de la normativa constitucional en la Republica tardia: el ‘Senatus Consultum Ultimum’ y los ‘Imperia Extra Ordinem’,” in Studia Historica – Historia Antigua IV/V 1 (1986-1987): 79: “[…] Este ‘decreto último’ fue uno de los más importantes instrumentos que utilizó el Senado para declarar el estado de emergencia y suspender las garantías constitucionales de los ciudadanos […] tenía la finalidad de enfrentarse con situaciones límites de índole interna, que con los medios normales constitucionales no se podían solucionar. El ordenamiento jurídico romano contemplaba una magistratura extraordinaria, la dictadura, para hacer frente a situaciones de crisis grave en el orden interno o externo, pero esta magistratura dejó de utilizarse a finales del siglo III a.C. […].”

[10] Cic., De Leg., III.9: “[…] Ast quando duellum grauioresue discordiae ciuium escunt, oenus ne amplius sex menses, si senatus creuerit, idem iuris quod duo consules teneto, isque que sinistra dictus populi magister esto […].”

[11] Interesting is the affirmation of Jose Manuel Roldan in Historia de Roma – La Republica romana (Madrid: Cátedra, 1995), 140: “[…] Si es cierto que primero Sila y luego César se sirvieron del título de dictator para legitimar un poder alcanzado como consecuencia de un golpe de estado militar, se trata solamente de una caricatura de la antigua magistratura, con la que nada tiene en común […]”; the case of Caesar is described briefly by Plutarch in Caes., 57.1. See Emilio Crespo, Vidas Paralelas. Alejandro-Cesar; Pericles-Fabio Máximo; Alcibíades-Coriolano (Madrid: Cátedra, 1999), 237; also, Suetonius, Caes., 76. A Portuguese translation of the work of Suetonius was made by João Gaspar Simões, Suetónio. Os Doze Césares (Lisbon: Editorial Presença, 1979).

[12] According to Hidalgo de la Vega (“Uso y abuso,” 92): “[…] Uno de los factores que subyace en el uso y abuso que los romanos históricamente ejercieron con su normativa constitucional fue la progresiva política de expansión, que rompía el marco de la originaria ciudad-estado y les exigía la ampliación y la prórroga de los mandos militares […].”

[13] For a brief study of the imperial uirtutes see Manuel J. Rodriguez Gervás, Propaganda política y opinión pública en los Panegíricos latinos del Bajo Imperio (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1991), 77-109 [77]: “[…] Pero en Roma, hacia el final de la República, dichas ideas se personifican, si bien tímidamente, afianzándose, definitivamente, con la llegada del Principado […].”

[14] Cic., Philip., V.34: “[…] Quapropter, ne multa nobis cotidie decernenda[s] sint, consulibus totam rem publicam defendant prouideantque ne quid res publica detrimenti accipiat […].” For an edition see Pierre Wuilleumier, Cicéron. Discours. Tome XX – Philippiques V à XIV – Les Belles Lettre (Paris : Les Belles Lettres, 1960).

[15] Cic., Philip., V.39: “Grauis illa fortuna populi Romani, graue fatum! Pompeio enim patre, quod imperi[o] populi Romani fuit […].”

[16] Sal., Bell. Iugur., CXIV.3: “Sed postquam bellum in Numidia confectum et Iugurtham Romam vinctum adduci nuntiatum est, Marius consul absens factus est et ei decreta provincia Gallia; isque Kalendis Ianuaris magna gloria consul triumphavit […].” For an edition see Joaguín García Álvarez, Salustio – Guerra de Jugurta. Colección Gredos Bilingüe (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1990). Another description of the triumph is presented in Hist. Aug., Mar.Aur., XVI: “Iam in suos tanta fuit benignitate Marcus ut cum omnes propinquos cuncta honorum ornamenta contulerit, tum in filium et quidem scelestum atque impurum cito nomen Caesaris et mox sacerdotium statimque nomen imperatoris ac triumphi participationem et consulatum, quo quidem tempore sedente imperator filio ad triumphalem currum in Circo pedes cucurrit […].” For an edition see David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae I – Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[17] According to María José Hidalgo de la Vega in El intelectual, la realeza y el poder político en el Imperio Romano (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1995), 108: “[…] el poder del emperador, del basileus romano, se legitimaba por medio de fuentes diversas. Obviamente la más contundente era la del ejército; pero había otros factores, que conseguían convertir al emperador en un soberano, además de legítimo, ‘carismático’ […],” and Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (London: Duckworth, 2001), 61-66.

[18] Rodriguez Gervás, Propaganda política, 36: “la proclamación del emperador por el ejército viene condicionada por la aclamatio por la cual se consigue el poder imperial pleno y la misma legitimidad en la función de imperator que si fuera nombrado augusto por el Senado”.

[19] For further discussion on this see Maria Victoria Escribano, “Usurpación y religión en el s. IV d. de C. Paganismo, cristianismo y legitimación política,” in Cristianismo y aculturación en tiempos del Imperio Romano – Antigüedad y Cristianismo VII (Murcia: Ediciones Universidad de Murcia, 1990), esp. 250: “igualar en el ámbito nominal al usurpador con el tirano comportaba concentrar en él toda la semántica adquirida por su figura como símbolo de la alteridad política negativa respecto del poder instituido (…) representa la antítesis del buen gobierno, así ya en Cicerón, y del optimus princeps.

[20] I approach this subject in Renan Frighetto, “Da Antiguidade clássica à Idade Média: a idéia de Humanitas na Antiguidade Tardia Ocidental,” Temas Medievales 12 (2004): 147-64.

[21] See Pablo C. Díaz Martínez, Formas económicas y sociales en el monacato visigodo (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1987), esp. 46: “estas donaciones […] tendrían un soporte ideológico: la búsqueda de la intercesión divina o del apoyo de algún mártir […]. Intercesión que es buscada por gente de todo origen social, pero que sin duda era más rentable cuando era un hombre poderoso económicamente quien deseaba obtener los dones divinos.”

[22] Luis A. Garcia Moreno, “El estado protofeudal visigodo: precedente y modelo para la Europa carolingia,” in L’Europe héritière de l’Espagne wisigothique (Madrid-Paris: Casa de Velázquez, 1992), 33; and Renan Frighetto, “As limitações do poder régio no reino hispano-visigodo de Toledo (séculos VI – VII),” in Cuestiones de Historia Medieval, ed. Gerardo Rodríguez (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Selectus, 2011), 245-52.

[23] On this question see Renan Frighetto, “Legitimidade e poder da realeza hispano-visigoda, segundo a Historia Wambae de Juliano de Toledo (segundo metade do século VII),” Revista Espaço Plural XV/30 (2014): 89-116, and “Do Imperium ao regnum na Antiguidade Tardia: o exemplo do reino hispano-visigodo de Toledo (séculos VI-VII),” História (São Paulo) 35 (2016): 9-12.

[24] Lex Visigothorum II.1.4: “Quod causa ordinare oportuit negotia principum, postea populorum.” For the currently authoritative (composite) edition see Karl Zeumer, Monumenta Germanica Historica – Legum sectio I – Leges Nationum Germanicarum I (Hanover and Leipzig, 1902).

[25] On which see María Valverde Castro, Ideología, simbolismo y ejercicio del poder real en la monarquía visigoda: un proceso de cambio (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2000), esp. 204: “el expoente más representativo del carácter sacral que adquiere la monarquía visigoda en la Hispania del s.VII lo constituye el rito de la unción real. A través de esta ceremonia mayestática se sanciona, de forma práctica, la teoría político-religiosa sobre la monarquía, poniendo solemnemente de manifiesto que el rey es el elegido de Dios.”

[26] Jose Orlandis, “Biblia y realeza en la España visigodo-católica,” in Estudios de Historia Eclesiástica visigoda (Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 1998), 83.

[27] Isid., Etym., IX.3.4; for an edition see Manuel C. Diaz y Diaz, Jose Oros Reta and Manuel Marcos Casquero, San Isidoro de Sevilla. Etimologías I (Libros I-IX) (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1982), vol.



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