RODERIC, LAST OF THE GOTHS
Last night I was a King of Spain-to-day no King am I.
LOCKHART, Spanish Ballads
THE tragic and tumultuous story of the manner in which Spain was delivered into the hands of the Moors is surely a theme worthy of treatment by the highest genius. But either because it offended the national pride or otherwise failed to make an appeal to the Castilian temperament, its epic remains unwritten. Few passages in history afford such an opportunity for the delineation of the deeper human passions as the episode which resulted in the betrayal of an entire country for the gratification of a private wrong. It presents such a catastrophe as urged Æschylus to compose the moving and majestic drama of Electra. Yet it has found no more potent expression than in the dreary parchment of the latest Spanish chronicle and the pedestrian verse of Southey's Roderick, the Last of the Goths, which draws its inspiration from the pseudo history of that account. 1
Before we examine the romantic material embedded in The Chronicle of Don Roderic, with the Destruction of Spain, it will be well to trace the story of the downfall of the Gothic empire in Spain by the aid of such materials as we can trust to supply us with a more or
less accurate account of it. These are to be found in the General Chronicle of Spain and in the pages of the Moorish historians. Summarized, the facts relating to the incident are probably as follows:
From the period of the settlement of the Mohammedan I Arabs in Mauretania their fleets had frequently ravaged the coasts of Andalusia, by which name the entire Spanish peninsula was known to them. An enmity arose between Spanish Goth and Moorish Arab which was heightened not only by the difference in their religion but by the circumstance that the fortress of Ceuta in Mauretania still remained in Gothic hands. This outpost of the Gothic empire was held by the vigilance and courage of Count Julian, a leader of experience, who retained the fortress against tremendous odds.
The ruler of Spain at this period was one Don Roderic, who does not appear to have held the throne by hereditary right. Witiza, his predecessor, had slain Roderic's father, the governor of a province, and, whether to gratify his revenge or purely because of his ambitions, Roderic succeeded in having the claims of Witiza's two sons set aside and in securing the crown for himself. But the monarchy among the Goths of Spain was still elective, and it may be that Roderic had been legally placed on the throne by the suffrages of his fellow-peers. It is probable that Count Julian was a member of the unsuccessful faction headed by the royal brothers, and that, in despair of displacing Roderic by force of arms, he sought the assistance of his Moorish enemies to accomplish his downfall.
But tradition, whether rightly or otherwise, disdains to accept the circumstances of a cold political issue as an adequate reason for Count Julian's defection from
loyalty, and has a much more romantic explanation to advance for his traitorous act. Roderic, we are told, was a ruler of evil and scandalous character. He conceived a violent passion for Cava, the young and beautiful daughter of Count Julian, whom he abducted and dishonoured. Roused to fury and despair at Roderic's act, Julian instantly resolved upon a terrible revenge, and, not content with handing over the fortress which he had so long maintained against a powerful enemy, he suggested to Musa, the Moorish king or satrap, the invasion of Spain, binding himself even more closely to the infidels by accepting their religion and conforming to their customs. He impressed upon Musa the natural advantages of his native land, and laid stress upon its distracted and defenceless condition, the effeminacy and degeneracy of its warriors, and the unprotected state of its cities. Musa recognized that an opportunity offered itself to extend the Arab dominions, and sent an embassy to Walid, the Caliph, his suzerain, asking his opinion of such an enterprise. Walid encouraged him to proceed with it. But Musa, although a brave and active leader, was shrewd and cautious, and instead of launching a great armada against a country of whose defensive capacity he knew little, contented himself in the first instance by making a raid, in July AD. 710, on the Spanish coast, as if to test the fighting qualities of its defenders. The expedition consisted of only five hundred men, who, landing at Tarifa, marched some eighteen miles through Spanish territory to the castle and town of Julian. There they were joined by the disaffected adherents of that nobleman, and, meeting with no opposition, returned to Africa with an abundance of spoil.
Encouraged by the success of their preliminary enterprise, the Saracens now levied an army of five thousand men, and in the spring of 711, under the leader; ship of a certain Tank, landed upon Spanish soil at a spot which still bears the name of their commander, Gibraltar, for Gebel al Tank signifies 'the Mountain of Tank.' They speedily defeated a Spanish force under Edeco, but Roderic, now fully aroused to the danger by which his rule was threatened, summoned his vassals to the royal standard, their number, we are told, amounting to nearly one hundred thousand men. Tank had by this time been reinforced, but could muster only some twelve thousand troops of Moorish race, though these were augmented by a host of Africans and dis. affected Goths. The armies met near Cadiz, Roderic himself leading the Gothic host, resplendent in his princely robes of silk and gold embroidery, and reclining in a car drawn by white mules. The Gothic attack almost succeeded by sheer weight of numbers, and sixteen thousand of the Moorish army were slain in the first encounter. But Tank encouraged his flagging forces by pointing out to them that retreat was impossible. "The enemy is before you," he said, "the sea behind you. Whither would ye fly? Follow me, my brethren. I shall trample on you King of the Romans or perish."
But assistance for the Moors was at hand, for the two sons of Witiza, who occupied the most important posts in the Spanish army, suddenly broke away from the main body. This brought about a general panic. Roderic, mounting his fleet charger Orelia, was drowned
while attempting to swim the Guadaiquivir, leaving his diadem and robes on the bank. At the instigation of Count Julian, Tank pressed on to Toledo, which, however, held out for three months, and dispatched a force to reduce the kingdom of Granada. This was duly accomplished, and Toledo surrendered on the Moor's assurance that its inhabitants would be permitted to leave with their possessions, a promise which waj faithfully kept. The Jews, who had especially assisted the pagan invaders, were richly rewarded by them, and, indeed, formed an alliance with them which lasted until both were eventually and happily expelled from the country. From Toledo Tank spread his conquests over Castile and Leon, penetrating north as far as the town of Gijon in Asturias, where further progress was barred by the waters of the Bay of Biscay. In a few months practically the whole of Spain had become a Mohammedan province, and only a handful of Gothic warriors were able to hold out in the valleys of Asturias against the conquering Moor.
We may now leave the path of definite history for the more picturesque if also more uncertain road of romance. The chronicles recount Don Roderic's abandoned wickedness, and tell how the invasion of the Moors, instigated by Julian, broke as a thunderclap upon the unprincipled ruler. The strife with the Saracens is described, and Roderic's flight is painted in gloomy colours. But just as popular legend refused to credit the death of Arthur on that day at Camelot, or the fate of James IV of Scotland on Flodden Field, or the death of Harold at Hastings, so it refused to believe in that of Roderic. Racial sentiment refuses to admit the death of a popular leader, and have not legends been
afloat even in our own day concerning the lamented Lord Kitchener?
Tradition 2 has it, then, that as Roderic was about to plunge into the waters of the Guadalquivir a divine light burst upon him, and a secret voice adjured him to repent of his sins and live. Acting upon the advice of this inward counsellor, he divested himself of his royal insignia, and taking from the dead the garment of a humble peasant, stole from the field. All night he fled, haunted by fearful visions of the wrath to come. On all sides he beheld the dreadful consequences of his defeat. Staggering on through scenes of misery and ruin which wrung his heart, he came at length, after seven days' travel, to the monastery of Canlin, on the banks of the river Ana, near Minda. The place was deserted, but the wretched fugitive cast himself down beside the altar to await his doom in prayer, for he fully believed that sooner or later the infidels would trace him to this retreat and dispatch him. He fed the lamps with oil, only leaving the holy shrine from time to time to see if the Saracens approached. Beneath the crucifix he lay, clasping the feet of the Redeemer's image, and weeping icy tears of penitence. As he grovelled there he became aware that some one had entered the chapel, and, raising his eyes in hope of a speedy death by the scimetar of a Moorish soldier, to his surprise he beheld a monk, who gently addressed him, and explained that he had returned to the place which for threescore years and five he had called home,
trusting to die there by the hand of an infidel and thus to gain the crown of a martyr.
Roderic revealed his name to the father, who, deeply impressed by the tone of penitence in his voice, knelt beside him and ministered to the stricken monarch throughout the long night hours. He assured him that he must live to work out his salvation, and when morning broke the aged priest and he who yesterday had been one of the proudest kings in Christendom quitted the chapel and went on their way.
The holy father led the crownless King to a hermitage, where he gave him further ghostly counsel, enjoining him to remain in that place so long as it should please God. "As for me," he said, "on the third day from hence I shall pass out of this world, and thou shalt bury me and take my garments and remain here for the space of a year at least, that thou mayst endure hunger and cold and thirst in the love of our Lord, that He may have compassion on thee."
On the third day, as he had prophesied, the hermit expired. Deeply grieved at his death, Roderic busied himself in carrying out his last wishes, and with an oaken staff and his bare hands dug a grave for the holy man's body. When he was in the act of laying him in the ground he found a scroll in his hand covered with writing, addressed to himself, and containing advice concerning the life he should lead while an inmate of the hermitage. This Roderic reverently perused, and resolved to follow its injunctions to the letter.
But the Father of Evil was not minded that the King should proceed undisturbed in his quest for salvation, and that night appeared to him as he was in the act of committing the hermit to the grave. He came in
monkish garb, his features hooded by a great cowl, and further disguised by a beard of venerable length and silvery whiteness, supporting himself by a staff as if he were lame. Roderic took him for a friend of the dead hermit, and would have kissed his hand, but the Fiend drew back, saying: "It is not meet that a king should kiss the hand of a poor servant of God." The King, hearing his identity thus revealed, believed the Devil to be a holy man, speaking by aid of a revelation. "Alas!" he said, "I am not a king, but a miserable sinner, who had better never have been born, so much woe has visited the land through my ~
"Thou hast not so much fault as thou thinkest," replied Satan, "for the calamity of which thou speakest would have occurred in any case. It was ordained, and the fault was not thine. My words are those of a spirit created by the will of God, and not mine own." The Evil One then pretended that he had journeyed all the way from Rome to help Roderic in his distress, and hearing this the King rejoiced, and listened reverently as the Devil attempted to controvert the teaching of the dead hermit by specious arguments. But when the King requested the seeming holy man to assist him in burying the anchorite's remains he was surprised to see him turn and make off at a good speed, despite his alleged lameness.
At the hour of noon next day the Devil returned with a basket full of savoury food. But the dead hermit had enjoined Roderic to eat of nothing but the rye bread which the shepherds would bring him once a week, and obedient to this, he withstood the tempter's proffered meat and wine. The argument betwixt the King and Satan is then elaborated with medieval prolixity and
due regard to the hair-splitting, logic-chopping theology of the time. Even a medieval sense of decency might have prompted the writer to omit the King's interview with the Holy Ghost, as to which I will only say here that at the word of the Holy Spirit the foul fiend fled in the shape of a horrid devil, bristling with the insignia of hell.
But the Enemy was not yet finished with Don Roderic, for one evening at set of sun the hermit King saw one approach with a great power of armed men and every display of pomp and circumstance. As the train drew nearer, Roderic, to his amazement, beheld in its leader Count Julian, who came to him and would have kissed his hand with every sign of homage, offering himself up to the King's vengeance and justice, and freely acknowledging his treason. The seeming Julian begged him to rise up and take once more his proper place at the head of the Spanish forces, so that the infidel might be thrust out of Spain. But Roderic, suspecting another fiendish stratagem, shook his head, and requested Julian to accept the leadership of the Gothic army himself, as his vows did not permit him to engage any longer in worldly affairs. Julian turned to the great company behind him, among whom Roderic beheld many whom he had thought to have been slain in battle, and these enthusiastically seconded their leader's arguments. But when the fiendish crew saw that their pleading was without avail they withdrew to the plain below, where they formed themselves in battle array, as if awaiting the onset of an enemy. And lo! against them came a multitude of seeming pagans, so that a great and fierce
carnage followed. To the anxious eyes of the King, those who represented the Christian host seemed to put the paynim to the rout, and messengers spurred to the hermitage, announcing to him that his people had gained a glorious victory. But as the cock crowed the whole pageant of battle passed away like smoke borne before the breeze, and the King knew that he had once more withstood the wiles of the Enemy.
Now for three months the Devil refrained from tormenting Don Roderic, but at the end of that time he sent upon him a more grievous trial than any that had gone before. As he was saying his prayers at the hour of vespers, he beheld a train of cavaliers ride up to the hermitage, and when they halted and alighted there came toward him a damsel in the guise of that Cava, the daughter of Count Julian, whom he had so foully wronged. At sight of her the wretched man's heart almost ceased to beat, but ere he could speak she told him that her father had turned his sword on the Moors and had conquered them, that Eliaca, his Queen, was no more, and that a holy man had told her that she must forthwith find Don Roderic and wed with him, and that she should bring forth a son called Elbersan, who should bring the whole world under the sceptre of Spain.
When Roderic heard these words he trembled exceedingly, for greatly had he loved Cava. She ordered a pavilion to be pitched near the hermitage, and her train set out a sumptuous repast. Seeing how beautiful she was, the King shook as with a palsy. But he clasped his hands and, commending himself to God, begged to be delivered from temptation. As he made the sign of the Cross the false Cava fled shrieking, and her infernal train followed
with such a rout and noise that the whole world seemed to be falling to pieces. Once more the Holy Spirit admonished Roderic to guard against such stratagems of the Devil, and far into the day the repentant but victorious King prayed without ceasing in thanksgiving for his deliverance from the snares of hell.
The Death of Roderic
The time now came when it was appointed that the King should leave the retreat where he had passed through trials so many and so terrible, and, following a cloud appointed for his guidance, he girded up his loins and set forth on his journey. Before nightfall of the first day he came to another hermitage, where he lodged (luring the hours of darkness. After two days' journeying he came to a place unnamed, which was destined to be that of his burial. The Elder of this place told him that he must go to a fountain below the hermitage in which he had taken up his abode, and that he should there find a smooth stone. This he was instructed to raise, when he would find below it three little serpents, one having two heads. This two-headed serpent he must place in a jar and nourish secretly, so that none should know of its existence, and so hide it until it grew large enough to wind its coils three times within the jar and put its head out. Then he must place it in a tomb and lie down himself with it, naked, for such, it pleased God, should be his penance, according to a voice the Elder had heard speaking in the church of that place.
Roderic scrupulously followed the Elder's injunctions, found the reptile, and waited patiently till the two-headed serpent had waxed great within the jar. Then, in company with the Elder, he divested himself of his
raiment and sought the tomb, wherein he laid himself down. And when he had done so the Elder took a lever and laid a great stone upon the top. Having lain there three days, during which the Elder prayed and watched devoutly, the serpent raised its heads and began with one head to devour his sinful nature and with the other to eat his heart. In great torment did Roderic lie in that place. But at length the serpent broke through the web of the heart, so that incontinently the King gave up his spirit to God, Who by His holy mercy took him into His glory. And at the hour when he expired all the bells of the place rang of themselves, as if they had been rung by the hands of men.
So, in the strange spirit of medieval mysticism, ends the piteous legend of Don Roderic of Spain. Who shall unriddle the weird significance of its close, unless, like old Thomas Newton in his Notable History of the Saracens, they believe "that the serpent with two heads signifieth his sinful and gylty conscience"? Requiescas in pace, Domine Roderice!
201:1 Unless the Anseis de Carthage be excepteda romance which attributes the downfall of Spain to a son of Charlemagne, who acts as does Don Roderick. The Anseis is in French.
206:2 As enshrined in the Crónica Sarrasyna, of Pedro de Carrel, which founds on the Crónica General the Chronick of the Moor Rasis, and the Crónica Trayana, the ballads relating to Roderic are all later than this compilation.