The Vandals were a group of German pirates who were originally from the Baltic area. They ravaged Gaul and Spain and settled along both the northern and southern Mediterranean coast in Spain and North Africa. They were known for looting churches and trashing art objects. They were so notorious they gave birth to the term “vandals.

The Roman provinces in North Africa was taken between A.D. 429-39 by local tribes and Vandals who had migrated there from Europe. The Vandals established their capital in Carthage, built a fleet of ships and attacked the Roman territory and harassed Roman shipping in the Mediterranean between 439-534 from positions in northern Africa.

The Vandals who had fought under Radagaisus had, upon the death of that leader, retreated into Spain, and had finally crossed over into Africa, where they had erected a kingdom under their chief Genseric. They captured the Roman city of Carthage and made it their capital; and they soon obtained control of the western Mediterranean. On the pretext of settling a quarrel at Rome, Genseric landed his army at the port of Ostia, took possession of the city of Rome, and for fourteen days made it the subject of pillage (A.D. 455). By this act of Genseric, the city lost its treasures and many of its works of art, and the word “vandalism” came to be a term of odious meaning. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

In the A.D. 5th century, Spain was invaded by the Vandal, Suevi and Alan tribes, who carved up the Iberian peninsula with the Vandals claiming the largest chunk. Later the Vandals were displaced by a Visagoth a branch of the Goths, the first Teutonic people to be Christianized. Originally from Scandinavia, the Goths migrated from Sweden across the Baltic Sea, through what is now Russia and the Ukraine to the Black Sea. From there they migrated into the Balkans and divided into two groups the Otsrogoths (East Goths) and Visagoths (West Goths).

In 401, the Visigoths entered northern Italy. The western emperor, Honorius, fled his capital in Milan for Ravenna in 410, the same year Rome was invaded. The Visigoths were a sub-group of the Goths from southern France and Spain. They marauded their way their way through the eastern and western Roman empire between 376 and 418, following a route that began in present-day Romania and followed the coast of the Mediterranean to what is now France.

Before their division the Goths were allowed by the Romans to settle within the borders of the Roman Empire. They rose against the Romans and killed the Roman emperor Valentinian in battle. His successor was Theodosius, a Spaniard and the last ruler of undivided Rome. He sued for peace and allowed the Visagoths to move into Spain and drive out the Vandals. The Germanic Visagoths, many of them perhaps with blonde hair and blue eyes, established an empire in Spain that lasted for around 300 years.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Vandals Settle in Spain and Make a Deal with Romans


Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “Now the Vandals, dwelling about the Maeotic Lake [the Sea of Azov], since they were pressed by hunger, moved to the country of the Germans, who are now called Franks, and the river Rhine, associating with themselves the Alans, a Gothic people [actually, they were one of the Indo-Iranian peoples]. Then from there, under the leadership of Godigisclus, they moved and settled in Hispania, which is the first land of the Roman Empire on the side of the ocean [406-07 CE]. At that time Honorius made an agreement with Godigisclus that they should settle there on condition that it should not be to the detriment of the country. But there was a law among the Romans, that if any persons should fail to keep their property in their own possession, and if, meanwhile, a time amounting to thirty years should pass, that these persons should thenceforth not be entitled to proceed against those who had forced them out, but they were excluded by demurrer from access to the court; and in view of this he established a law that whatever time should be spent by the Vandals in the Roman domain should not be spent by the Vandals in the Roman domain should not by any means be counted toward this thirty-year demurrer. And Honorius himself, when the West had been driven by him to this pass, died of disease [August 27, 423 CE]. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

“Now before this, as it happened, the royal power had been shared by Honorius with Constantius, the husband of Placidia [Galla Placidia], the sister of Arcadius and himself; but he lived to exercise the power only a few days, and then, becoming seriously ill, he died [421 CE] while Honorius was still living, having never succeeded in saying or in doing anything worth recounting; for the time was not sufficient during which he lived in possession of the royal power. Now a son of this Constantius, Valentinian, a child just weaned, was being reared in the palace of Theodosius, but the members of the imperial court in Rome chose one of the soldiers there, John by name, as emperor. This man was both gentle and well-endowed with sagacity and thoroughly capable of valorous deeds. At any rate he held the tyranny five years [actually he only ruled eighteen months] and directed it with moderation, and he neither gave ear to slanderers nor did he do any unjust murder, willingly at least, nor did he set his hand to robbing men of money; but he did not prove able to do anything at all against the barbarians, since his relations with Byzantium were hostile. Against this John, Theodosius, the son of Arcadius [Theodosius II, reigned 408-450 CE], sent a great army and Aspar and Ardaburius, the son of Aspar, as generals, and wrested from him the tyranny and gave over the royal power to Valentinian, who was still a child [Valentinian III, reigned 423-455 CE].

“And Valentinian took John alive, and he brought him out in the hippodrome of Aquileia with one of his hands cut off and caused him to ride in state on an ass, and then after he had suffered much ill treatment from the stage-performers there, both in word and in deed, he put him to death. Thus Valentinian took over the power of the West. But Placidia, his mother, had reared this emperor and educated him in an altogether effeminate manner, and in consequence he was filled with wickedness from childhood. For he associated mostly with sorcerers and those who busy themselves with the stars, and, being an extraordinarily zealous pursuer of love affairs with other men's wives, he conducted himself in a most indecent manner, although he was married to a woman of exceptional beauty. And not only was this true, but he also failed to recover for the empire anything of what had been wrested from it before, and he both lost Libya in addition to the territory previously lost and was himself destroyed. And when he perished, it fell to the lot of his wife and children to become captives. Now the disaster in Libya came about as follows.

Vandals Advance Into North Africa as Roman Generals Fight Among Themselves

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “There were two Roman generals, Aetius and Bonifacius, especially valiant men and in experience of many wars inferior to none of that time at least. These two came to be at variance in regard to matters of state, but they attained to such a degree of high-mindedness and excellence in every respect that if one should call either of them "the last of the Romans" he would not err, so true was it that all the excellent qualities of the Romans were summed up in these two men. One of these, Bonifacius, was appointed by Placidia general of all Libya. Now, this was not in accord with the wishes of Aetius, but he by no means disclosed the fact that it did not please him. For their hostility had not as yet come to light, but was concealed behind the countenance of each. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

Groups living north of the Roman Empire in AD 280

“But when Bonifacius had got out of the way, Aetius slandered him to Placidia, saying that he was setting up a tyranny and had robbed her and the emperor of all Libya, and he said that it was very easy for her to find out the truth; for if she should summon Bonifacius to Rome, he would never come. And when the woman heard this, Aetius seemed to her to speak well and she acted accordingly. But Aetius, anticipating her, wrote to Bonifacius secretly that the mother of the emperor was plotting against him and wished to put him out of the way. And he predicted to him that there would be convincing proof of the plot; for he would be summoned very shortly for no reason at all. Such was the announcement of the letter. And Bonifacius did not disregard the message, for as soon as those arrived who were summoning him to the emperor, he refused to give heed to the emperor and his mother, disclosing to no one the warning of Aetius. So when Placidia heard this, she thought that Aetius was exceedingly well-disposed towards the emperor's cause and took under consideration the question of Bonifacius.

“But Bonifacius, since it did not seem to him that he was able to array himself against the emperor, and since if he returned to Rome there was clearly no safety for him, began to lay plans so that, if possible, he might have a defensive alliance with the Vandals, who, as previously stated, had established themselves in Hispania not far from Libya. There Godigliscus had died and the royal power had fallen to his sons, Gontharis, who was born to him from his wedded wife, and Gaiseric, of illegitimate birth. But the former was still a child and not of very energetic temper, while Gaiseric had been excellently trained in warfare, and was the cleverest of all men. Bonifacius accordingly sent to Hispania those who were his own most intimate friends and gained the adherence of each of the sons of Godigisclus on terms of complete equality, it being agreed that each one of the three, holding a third part of Libya, should rule over his own subjects; but if a foe should come against any one of them to make war, that they should in common ward off the aggressors. On the basis of this agreement the Vandals crossed the strait at Gades [modern Cadíz] and came into Libya, and the Visigoths in later times settled in Hispania.

“But in Rome the friends of Bonifacius, remembering the character of the man and considering how strange his action was, were greatly astonished to think that Bonifacius was setting up a tyranny, and some of them at the order of Placidia went to Carthage. There they met Bonifacius and saw the letter of Aetius, and after hearing the whole story they returned to Rome as quickly as they could and reported to Placidia how Bonifacius stood in relation to her. And though the woman was dumbfounded, she did nothing unpleasant to Aetius nor did she upbraid him for what he had done to the emperor's house, for he himself wielded great power and the affairs of the empire were already in an evil plight; but she disclosed to the friends of Bonifacius the advice Aetius had given, and, offering oaths and pledges of safety, entreated them to persuade the man, if they could, to return to his fatherland and not to permit the empire of the Romans to lie under the hand of barbarians.

Vandal migrations

Vandals Defeat Romans and Claim North Africa

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “And when Bonifacius heard this, he repented of his act and of his agreement with the barbarians, and he besought them incessantly, promising them everything, to remove from Libya. But since they did not receive his words with favor, but considered that they were being insulted, he was compelled to fight with them, and being defeated in battle, he retired to Hippo Regius [modern Bona], a strong city in the portion of Numidia that is on the sea. There the Vandals made camp under the leadership of Gaiseric and began a siege; for Gontharis had already died. And they say that he perished at the hand of his brother. The Vandals, however, do not agree with those who make this statement, but say that Gontharis was captured in battle by Germans in Hispania and impaled, and that Gaiseric was already sole ruler when he led the Vandals into Libya. This, indeed, I have heard from the Vandals, stated in this way. But after much time had passed by, since they were unable to secure Hippo Regius either by force or by surrender, and since at the same time they were being pressed by hunger, they raised the siege. And a little later Bonifacius and the Romans in Libya, since a numerous army had come from both Rome and Byzantium and Aspar with them as general, decided to renew the struggle, and a fierce battle was fought in which they were badly beaten by the enemy, and they made haste to flee as each one could. And Aspar betook himself homeward, and Bonifacius, coming before Placidia, acquitted himself of the suspicion, showing that it had arisen against him for no true cause. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

“So the Vandals, having wrested Libya from the Romans in this way, made it their own. And those of the enemy whom they took alive they reduced to slavery and held under guard. Among these happened to be Marcian, who later upon the death of Theodosius assumed the imperial power. At that time, however, Gaiseric commanded that the captives be brought into the king's courtyard, in order that it might be possible for him, by looking at them, to know what master each of them might serve without degradation. And when they were gathered under the open sky, about midday, the season being summer, they were distressed by the sun and sat down. And somewhere or other among them Marcian, quite neglected, was sleeping. Then an eagle flew over him spreading out his wings, as they say, and always remaining in the same place in the air he cast a shadow over Marcian alone. And Gaiseric, upon seeing from the upper storey what was happening, since he was an exceedingly discerning person, suspected that the thing was a divine manifestation, and summoning the man enquired of him who he might be. And he replied that he was a confidential adviser of Aspar; such a person the Romans call a "domesticus" in their own tongue. And when Gaiseric heard this and considered first the meaning of the bird's action, and then remembered how great power Aspar exercised in Byzantium, it became evident to him that the man was being led to royal power. He therefore by no means deemed it right to kill him, reasoning that, if he should remove him from the world, it would be very clear that the thing which the bird had done was nothing (for he would not honor with his shadow a king who was about to die straightaway), and he felt, too, that he would be killing him for no good cause; and if, on the other hand, it was fated that in later times the man should become king, it would never be within his power to inflict death upon him; for that which has been decided upon by God could never be prevented by a man's decision. But he bound Marcian by oaths that, if it should be in his power, he would never take up arms against the Vandals at least. Thus, then, Marcian was released and came to Byzantium, and when at a later time Theodosius died he received the empire. And in all other respects he proved himself a good emperor [reigned 450-457 CE], but he paid no attention at all to affairs in Libya. But this happened in later times.

Vandal Alan kingdom

“At that time Gaiseric, after conquering Aspar and Bonifacius in battle, displayed a foresight worth recounting, whereby he made his good fortune most thoroughly secure. For fearing lest, if once again an army should come against him from both Rome and Byzantium, the Vandals might not be able to use the same strength and enjoy the same fortune (since human affairs are wont to be overturned by Heaven and to fail by reason of the weakness of men's bodies), he was not lifted up by the good fortune he had enjoyed, but rather became moderate because of what he feared, and so he made a treaty with the Emperor Valentinian providing that each year he should pay to the emperor tribute from Libya, and he delivered over one of his sons, Huneric, as a hostage to make this agreement binding. So Gaiseric both showed himself a brave man in the battle and guarded the victory as securely as possible, and, since the friendship between the two people increased greatly, he received back his son Huneric. And at Rome Placidia had died before this time, and after her, Valentinian, her son, also died, having no male offspring, but two daughters had been born to him from Eudoxia, the child of Theodosius. And I shall now relate in what manner Valentinian died.

“There was a certain Maximus [Petronius Maximus, reigned 455 CE], a Roman senator, of the house of that Maximus [Emperor in Gaul, Britain, and Spain 383-388] who, while usurping the imperial power, was overthrown by the elder Theodosius [Theodosius I] and put to death, and on whose account also the Romans celebrate the annual festival named from the defeat of Maximus. This younger Maximus was married to a woman discreet in her ways and exceedingly famous for her beauty. For this reason a desire came over Valentinian to have her to wife. And since it was impossible, much as he wished it, to meet her, he plotted an unholy deed and carried it to fulfillment. For he summoned Maximus to the palace and sat down with him to a game of draughts, and a certain sum was set as a penalty for the loser; and the emperor won in this game, and receiving Maximus' ring as a pledge for the agreed amount, he sent it to his house, instructing the messenger to tell the wife of Maximus that her husband bade her come as quickly as possible to the palace to salute the queen Eudoxia. And she, judging by the ring that the message was from Maximus, entered her litter and was conveyed to the emperor's court. And she was received by those who had been assigned this service by the emperor, and led into a certain room far removed from the women's apartments, where Valentinian met her and raped her, much against her will. And she, after the outrage, went to her husband's house weeping and feeling the deepest possible grief because of her misfortune, and she cast many curses upon Maximus as having provided the cause for what had been done.

“Maximus, accordingly, became exceedingly aggrieved at that which had come to pass, and straightway entered into a conspiracy against the emperor; but when he saw that Aetius was exceedingly powerful, for he had recently conquered Attila [Source: the Battle of Chalôns in 451 CE], who had invaded the Roman domain with a great army of Massagetae [i.e., Huns] and the other Scythians, the thought occurred to him that Aetius would be in the way of his undertaking. And upon considering this matter, it seemed to him that it was the first, paying no heed to the fact that the whole hope of the Romans centered in him. And since the eunuchs who were in attendance upon the emperor were well-disposed toward him, he persuaded the emperor by their devices that Aetius was setting on foot a revolution. And Valentinian, judging by nothing else than the power and valor of Aetius that the report was true, put the man to death [September 21, 454 CE]. Whereupon a certain Roman made himself famous by a saying which he uttered. For when the emperor enquired of him whether he had done well in putting Aetius to death, he replied saying that, as to this matter, he was not able to know whether he had done well or perhaps otherwise, but one thing he understood exceedingly well, that he had cut off his own right hand with the other.

Vandal Invasion of Rome

Gaiseric, the Vandals leader

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “Later on Maximus slew the emperor with no trouble and secured the tyranny [455 CE], and he married Eudoxia by force. For the wife to whom he had been wedded had died not long before. And on one occasion in private he made the statement to Eudoxia that it was all for the sake of her love that he had carried out all that he had done. And since she felt a repulsion for Maximus even before that time, and had been desirous of exacting vengeance from him for the wrong done Valentinian, his words made her swell with rage still more against him, and led her on to carry out her plot, since she had heard Maximus say that on account of her the misfortune had befallen her husband. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

“And as soon as day came, she sent to Carthage entreating Gaiseric to avenge Valentinian, who had been destroyed by an unholy man, in a manner unworthy both of himself and of his imperial station, and to deliver her, since she was suffering unholy treatment at the hand of the tyrant. And she impressed it upon Gaiseric that, since he was a friend and ally and so great a calamity had befallen the imperial house, it was not a holy thing to fail to become an avenger. For from Byzantium she thought no vengeance would come, since Theodosius had already departed from the world and Marcian had taken over the empire [March 17, 455 CE]. “And Gaiseric, for no other reason than that he suspected that much money would come to him, set sail for Italy with a great fleet. And going up to Rome, since no one stood in his way, he took possession of the palace. Now while Maximus was trying to flee, the Romans threw stones at him and killed him, and they cut off his head and each of his other members and divided them among themselves. But Gaiseric took Eudoxia captive, together with Eudocia and Placidia, the children of herself and Valentinian, and placing an exceedingly great amount of gold and other imperial treasure in his ships sailed to Carthage, having spared neither bronze nor anything else whatsoever in the palace. He plundered also the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and tore off half of the roof. Now this roof was of bronze of the finest quality, and since gold was laid over it exceedingly thick, it shone as a magnificent and wonderful spectacle. But of the ships with Gaiseric, one, which was bearing the statutes, was lost, they say, but with all the others the Vandals reached port in the harbor of Carthage. Gaiseric then married Eudocia to Huneric, the elder of his sons; but the other of the two women, being the wife of Olybrius, a most distinguished man in the Roman senate, he sent to Byzantium together with her mother, Eudoxia, at the request of the emperor. Now the power of the East had fallen to Leo [Leo I, reigned 457-474 CE], who had been set in this position by Aspar, since Marcian had already passed from the world.

Vandal Defense and Governance of North Africa

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “Afterwards Gaiseric devised the following scheme. He tore down the walls of all the cities in Libya except Carthage, so that neither the Libyans themselves, espousing the cause of the Romans, might have a strong base from which to begin a rebellion, nor those sent by the emperor have any ground for hoping to capture a city and by establishing a garrison in it to make trouble for the Vandals. Now at that time it seemed that he had counseled well and had ensured prosperity for the Vandals in the safest possible manner; but in later times when these cities, being without walls, were captured by Belisarius all the more easily and with less exertion, Gaiseric was then condemned to suffer much ridicule, and that which for the time he considered wise counsel turned out for him to be folly. For as fortunes change, men are always accustomed to change with them their judgments regarding what had been planned in the past. And among the Libyans all who happened to be men of note and conspicuous for their wealth he handed over as slaves, together with their estates and all their money, to his sons Huneric and Genzon. For Theodorus, the youngest son, had died already, being altogether without offspring, either male or female. And he robbed the rest of the Libyans of their estates, which were both very numerous and excellent, and distributed them among the nations of the Vandals, and as a result of this these lands have been called "Vandals' estates" up to the present time. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

“And it fell to the lot of those who had formerly possessed these lands to be in extreme poverty and to be at the same time free men; and they had the privilege of going away wheresoever they wished. And Gaiseric commanded that all the lands which he had given over to his sons and to the other Vandals should not be subject to any kind of taxation. But as much of the land as did not seem to him good he allowed to remain in the hands of the former owners, but assessed so large a sum to be paid on this land for taxes to the government that nothing whatever remained to those who retained their farms. And many of them were constantly being sent into exile or killed. For charges were brought against them of many sorts, and heavy ones too; but one charge seemed to be the greatest of all, that a man, having money of his own, was hiding it. Thus the Libyans were visited with every form of misfortune.

“The Vandals and the Alans he arranged in companies, appointing over them no less than eighty captains, whom he called "chiliarchs" [i.e., "leaders of a thousand"], making it appear that his host of fighting men in active service amounted to eighty thousand. And yet the number of the Vandals and Alans was said in former times, at least, to amount to no more than fifty thousand men. However, after that time by their natural increase among themselves and by associating other barbarians with them they came to be an exceedingly numerous people. But the names of the Alans and all the other barbarians, except the Mauretanii, were united in the name of Vandals. At that time, after the death of Valentinian, Gaiseric gained the support of the Mauretanii, and every year at the beginning of spring he made invasions into Sicily and Italy, enslaving some of the cities, razing others to the ground, and plundering everything; and when the land had become destitute of men and of money, he invaded the domain of the emperor of the East. And so he plundered Illyricum and the most of the Peloponnesus and of the rest of Greece and all the islands which lie near it. And again he went off to Sicily and Italy, and kept plundering and pillaging all places in turn. And one day when he had embarked on his ship in the harbor of Carthage, and the sails were already being spread, the pilot asked him, they say, against what men in the world he bade them go. And he in reply said: "Plainly against those with whom God is angry." Thus without any cause he kept making invasions wherever chance might lead him.

Vandals Fight Off Roman Attack on North Africa

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “And the Emperor Leo, wishing to punish the Vandals because of these things, was gathering an army against them; and they say that this army amounted to about one hundred thousand men. And he collected a fleet of ships from the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, showing real generosity to both soldiers and sailors, for he feared lest from a parsimonious policy some obstacle might arise to hinder him in his desire to carry out his punishment of the barbarians. Therefore, they say, thirteen hundred centenaria were expended by him to no purpose. But since it was not fated that the Vandals should be destroyed by this expedition, he made Basiliscus commander-in-chief, the brother of his wife Berine, a man who was extraordinarily desirous of the royal power, which he hoped would come to him without a struggle if he won the friendship of Aspar. For Aspar himself, being an adherent of the Arian faith, and having no intention of changing it for another, was unable to enter upon the imperial office, but he was easily strong enough to establish another in it, and it already seemed likely that he would plot against the Emperor Leo, who had given him offence. So they say that since Aspar was then fearful lest, if the Vandals were defeated, Leo should establish his power most securely, he repeatedly urged upon Basiliscus that he should spare the Vandals and Gaiseric. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

Vandals plundering

“Now before this time [468 CE.] Leo had already appointed and sent Anthemius as Emperor of the West [reigned 467-472 CE], a man of the senate of great wealth and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war. And yet Gaiseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian [III], and on account of his relationship [his son-in-law] well-disposed toward him, and when he failed in this he was still more angry and kept plundering the whole land of the emperor. Now there was in Dalmatia a certain Marcellianus, one of the acquaintances of Aetius and a man of repute, who, after Aetius had died in the manner told above [III.iv.27], no longer deigned to yield obedience to the emperor, but beginning a revolution and detaching all the others from allegiance, held the power of Dalmatia himself, since no one dared encounter him. But the Emperor Leo at that time won over Marcellianus by very careful wheedling, and bade him go to the island of Sardinia, which was then subject to the Vandals. And he drove out the Vandals and gained possession of it with no great difficulty. And Heracleius was sent from Byzantium to Tripolis in Libya, and after conquering the Vandals of that district in battle, he easily captured the cities, and leaving his ships there, led his army on foot toward Carthage. Such, then, was the sequence of events which formed the prelude of the war.

But Basiliscus with his whole fleet put in at a town distant from Carthage no less than two hundred and eighty stades (now it so happened that a temple of Hermes had been there from of old, from which fact the place was named Mercurium; for the Romans called Hermes "Mercurius"), and if he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset, and he would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without their even thinking of resistance; so overcome was Gaiseric with awe of Leo as an invincible emperor, when the report was brought to him that Sardinia and Tripolis and been captured, and he saw the fleet of Basiliscus to be such as the Romans were said never to have had before. But, as it was, the general's hesitation, whether caused by cowardice or treachery, prevented this success. And Gaiseric, profiting by the negligence of Basiliscus, did as follows. Arming all his subjects in the best way he could, he filled his ships, but not all, for some he kept in readiness empty, and they were the ships which sailed most swiftly. And sending envoys to Basiliscus, he begged him to defer the war for the space of five days, in order that in meantime he might take counsel A.D. do those things which were especially desired by the emperor. They say, too, that he sent also a great amount of gold without the knowledge of the army of Basiliscus and thus purchased this armistice. And he did this, thinking, as actually did happen, that a favoring wind would rise for him during this time. And Basiliscus, either as doing a favor to Asper in accordance with what he had promised, or selling the moment of opportunity for money, or perhaps thinking it the better course, did as he was requested and remained quietly in the camp, awaiting the moment favorable to the enemy.

Vandal kingdom at its greatest extent in AD 455

“But the Vandals, as soon as the wind had arisen for them which they had been expecting during the time they lay at rest, raised their sails and, taking in tow the boats which, as has been stated above, they had made ready with no men in them, they sailed against the enemy. And when they came near, they set fire to the boats which they were towing, when their sails were bellied by the wind, and let them go against the Roman fleet. And since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily spread fire wherever they struck, and were themselves readily destroyed together with those with which they came in contact. And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivaled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder. And already the Vandals too were at hand ramming and sinking the ships, and making booty of such of the soldiers as attempted to escape, and of their arms as well. But there were also some of the Romans who proved themselves brave men in this struggle, and most of all John, who was a general under Basiliscus and who had no share whatever in his treason. For a great throng having surrounded his ship, he stood on the deck, and turning from side to side kept killing very great numbers of the enemy from there, and when he perceived that the ship was being captured, he leaped with his whole equipment of arms from the deck into the sea. And though Genzon, the son of Gaiseric, entreated him earnestly not to do this, offering pledges and holding out promises of safety, he nevertheless threw himself into the sea, uttering this one word, that John would never come under the hands of dogs.

“So this war came to an end, and Heracleius departed for home; for Marcellianus had been destroyed treacherously by one of his fellow-officers. And Basiliscus, coming to Byzantium, seated himself as a suppliant in the sanctuary of Christ the Great God, and although, by the intercession of Berine, the queen, he escaped this danger, he was not able at that time to reach the throne, the thing for the sake of which everything had been done by him. For the Emperor Leo not long afterwards destroyed both Aspar and Ardaburius in the palace, because he suspected that they were plotting against his life [471 CE]. Thus, then, did these events take place.

Vandals Fend Off Another Roman Attack as Chaos Reigns in Rome

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “Now Anthemius, the emperor of the West, died at the hand of his son-in-law Ricimer [August 11, 472 CE], and Olybrius, succeeding to the throne, a short time afterward suffered the same fate. And when Leo also had died in Byzantium [October 10, 472 CE], the imperial office was taken over by the younger Leo [Leo II], the son of Zeno and Ariadne, the daughter of Leo I, while he was still only a few days old. And his father [Zeno, reigned 474-491 CE] having been chosen as partner in the royal power, the child forthwith passed from the world. Majorinus also deserves mention, who had gained the power of the West before this time [reigned 456-461 CE]. For this Majorinus, who surpassed in every virtue all who have ever been emperors of the Romans, did not bear lightly the loss of Libya, but collected a very considerable army against the Vandals and came to Liguria, intending himself to lead the army against the enemy. For Majorinus never showed the least hesitation before any task and least of all before the dangers of war. But thinking it not inexpedient for him to investigate first the strength of the Vandals and the character of Gaiseric and to discover how the Mauretanii and the Libyans stood with regard to friendship or hostility toward the Romans, he decided to trust no eyes other than his own in such a matter. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

Vandals plundering Rome in AD 455

“Accordingly he set out as if an envoy from the emperor to Gaiseric, assuming some fictitious name. And fearing lest, by becoming known, he should himself receive some harm and at the same time prevent the success of the enterprise, he devised the following scheme. His hair, which was famous among all men as being so fair as to resemble pure gold, he anointed with some kind of dye, which was especially invented for this purpose, and so succeeded completely in changing it for the time to a dark hue. And when he came before Gaiseric, the barbarian attempted in many ways to terrify him, and, in particular, while treating him with engaging attention, as if a friend, he brought him into the house where all his weapons were stored, a numerous and exceedingly noteworthy array. Thereupon they say that the weapons shook of their own accord and gave forth a sound of no ordinary or casual sort, and then it seemed to Gaiseric that there had been an earthquake, but when he got outside and made enquiries concerning the earthquake, since no one else agreed with him, a great wonder, they say, come over him, but he was not able to comprehend the meaning of what had happened.

“So Majorinus, having accomplished the very things he wished, returned to Liguria, and, leading his army on foot, came to the Pillars of Hercules, purposing to cross over the strait at that point, and then to march by land from there against Carthage. And when Gaiseric became aware of this, and perceived he had been tricked by Majorinus in the matter of the embassy, he became alarmed and made his preparations for war. And the Romans, basing their confidence on the valor of Majorinus, already began to have fair hopes of recovering Libya for the empire. But meantime Majorinus was attacked by the disease of dysentery and died [461 CE], a man who had shown himself moderate toward his subjects, and an object of fear to his enemies.

“And another emperor, Nepos, upon taking over the empire [July 24, 474 CE], living to enjoy it only a few days, died of disease, and Glycerius after him entered into this office and suffered a similar fate [474-475 CE]. And after him Augustus [Romulus Augustulus, 475-476 CE] assumed the imperial power. There were, moreover, still other emperors in the West before this time, but though I know their names well, I shall make no mention of them whatever. For it so fell out that they lived only a short time after attaining the office, and as a result of this accomplished nothing worthy of mention. Such was the course of events in the west.

“But in Byzantium Basiliscus, being no longer able to master his passion for royal power, made an attempt to usurp the throne, and succeeded without difficulty, since Zeno, together with his wife, sought refuge in Isauria, which was his native home. And while he was maintaining his tyranny for a year and eight months he was detested by practically everyone and in particular by the soldiers of the court on account of the greatness of his avarice. And Zeno, perceiving this, collected an army and came against him. And Basiliscus sent an army under the general Harmatus in order to array himself against Zeno. But when they had made camp near one another, Harmatus surrendered his army to Zeno, on the condition that Zeno should appoint as Caesar Harmatus' son Basiliscus, who was a very young child, and leave him as successor to the throne upon his death. And Basiliscus, deserted by all, fled for refuge to the same sanctuary as formerly. And Acacius, the priest of the city, put him into the hands of Zeno, charging him with impiety and with having brought great confusion and many innovations into the Christian doctrine, having inclined toward the heresy of Eutyches. And this was so. And after Zeno had thus taken over the empire a second time, he carried out his pledge to Harmatus formally by appointing his son Basiliscus Caesar, but not long afterwards he stripped him of the office and put Harmatus to death. And he sent Basiliscus together with his children and his wife into Cappadocia in the winter season, commanding that they should be destitute of food and clothes and every kind of care. And there, being hard pressed by both cold and hunger, they took refuge in one another's arms, and embracing their loved ones, perished. And this punishment overtook Basiliscus for the policy he had pursued. These things, however, happened in later times.

Gaiseric Dies as Vandal Pillage Roman Territory

Procopius of Caesarea wrote: “But at that time Gaiseric was plundering the whole Roman domain just as much as before, if not more, circumventing his enemy by craft and driving them out of their possessions by force, as has been previously said, and he continued to do so until the emperor Zeno came to an agreement with him and an endless peace was established between them, by which it was provided that the Vandals should never in all time perform any hostile act against the Romans nor suffer such a thing at their hands. [Source: Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. c.500-after 562): Gaiseric & The Vandal Conquest of North Africa, A.D. 406 - 477, “History of the Wars,” written A.D. c. 550 CE, Book III, chapters iii-vii, from: “Procopius, History of the Wars,” 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), II.23-73]

And this peace was preserved by Zeno himself and also by his successor in the empire, Anastasius. And it remained in force until the time of the emperor Justinus. But Justinian, who was the nephew of Justinus, succeeded him in the imperial power, and it was in the reign of this Justinian that the war with which we are concerned came to pass, in the manner which will be told in the following narrative.

Vandals sacking Rome in AD 455

“Gaiseric, after living on a short time, died at an advanced age, having made a will in which he enjoined many things upon the Vandals and in particular that the royal power among them should always fall to that one who should be the first in years among all the male offspring descended from Gaiseric himself. So Gaiseric, having ruled over the Vandals thirty-nine years from the time when he captured Carthage, died, as I have said [477 CE]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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