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Who Were the Vandals?

'Sack of Rome,' by Karl Briullov
'Sack of Rome,' by Karl Briullov, is a painting at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It depicts Genseric, king of the Vandals, invading the Roman capital.
Credit: Public domain.

The Vandals were a “barbarian” Germanic people who sacked Rome, battled the Huns and the Goths, and founded a kingdom in North Africa that flourished for about a century until it succumbed to an invasion force from the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 534. 

History has not been kind to the Vandals. The name “Vandal” eventually became a synonym for destruction, in part because the texts about them were written mainly by Romans and other non-Vandals. 

While the Vandals did sack Rome in A.D. 455, they spared most of the city’s inhabitants and did not burn down its buildings. “Despite the negative connotation their name now carries, the Vandals conducted themselves much better during the sack of Rome than did many other invading barbarians,” writes Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen, a former curator of the Royal Danish Arsenal Museum, in his book “A History of the Vandals” (Westholme Publishing, 2012). 

Early history

“Whereas the name ‘Vandals’ in later historical times was limited to two tribal confederations, the Hasding and Siling Vandals, in prehistory it covered a greater number of tribes under the name ‘Vandili’,” writes Jacobsen. 

Jacobsen notes that the Vandals may have originated in southern Scandinavia. He writes that the name Vandal “appears in central Sweden in the parish of Vendel, old Swedish Vaendil.” He also notes name similarities in Denmark and a possible connection to a Norwegian noble family.

Presumably, the Vandals migrated south until they came into contact with the Roman Empire. The Roman writer Cassius Dio (A.D. 155-235) tells of a group of Vandals led by two chiefs named Raüs and Raptus who made an incursion into Dacia (around modern-day Romania) and eventually made a deal with the Romans that brought them land. 

Another writer named Jordanes (who lived in the sixth century A.D.) claimed that in the fourth century the Vandals controlled a vast kingdom north of the Danube but were defeated by the Goths and sought refuge from Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Today, many scholars believe this claim is untrue and that Jordanes, seeking to make the Goths look good, made it up.

Ultimately, little is known about the early history of the Vandals. 

“From their first appearance on the Danube frontier in the second century to [their defeat of the Romans in southern Spain] in 422, the Vandals appear only fleetingly within our written sources and leave little or no mark on the archaeological record,” writes researchers Andy Merrills and Richard Miles in their book “The Vandals” (Wiley, 2014). 

Crossing the Rhine

Around A.D. 375, a people called the Huns appeared north of the Danube, driving a number of “barbarian” peoples — including the Vandals, it appears — to migrate toward the Roman Empire. 

This put a great deal of pressure on the Roman Empire, which was divided into eastern and western halves. 

“In 401, [Roman general] Stilicho, himself of Vandal origins, managed to stop the Vandals plundering migration through the province of Raetia and engaged them as federates (allies) to settle in the provinces of Vindelica and Noricum,” near the Roman frontier, writes Jacobsen. 

This arrangement soon fell apart. On Dec. 31, 406, a group of Vandals were said to have successfully crossed the Rhine River and advanced into Gaul. Although they had to fight battles against the Franks, the Vandals were able to enter into Gaul and eventually Iberia.

Roman inaction and counterattack

At first, the Vandal march into Roman territory did not attract much attention as the Western Roman Emperor Honorius had far greater problems on his hands. One of his generals had seized control of Britain and part of Gaul and styled himself as Emperor Constantine III. 

“Constantine (III’s) usurpation, and the invasion of the troops from Britain, was perceived to be a far greater threat to the stability of the empire than the activity of some barbarians to the north,” write Merrills and Miles. 

Amidst the chaos engulfing the Western Roman Empire, the Vandals made their way to Iberia. A group known as the Siling Vandals would take over the province of Baetica while another group known as the Hasding Vandals took part of Gallaecia. 

The Siling Vandals would suffer a defeat at the hands of the Visigoths in A.D. 418. This was followed by the Hasdings being pushed out of Gallaecia by a Roman army. 

After these losses the Vandal survivors, now united in part of southern Spain, fought another battle against the Romans in 422, this time emerging victorious (in part because Rome’s Visigoth allies turned against them). This victory saved the Vandals from destruction. 

Conquest of North Africa

In these difficult circumstances a new Vandal leader named Genseric or Geiseric rose to power. Under his rule, the Vandals would take over North Africa and form a kingdom of their own. 

Roman weakness helped him accomplish this. In 429, the Western Roman Empire was ruled by a child named Valentinian III, who depended on his mother, Galla Placidia, for advice. A Roman general named Aetius had her ear and conspired against the governor of North Africa, a powerful rival named Bonifacius. This resulted in Bonifacius finding himself an enemy of the Western Roman Empire. 

Some sources indicate that Bonifacius actually invited the Vandals into North Africa to fight on his behalf against the Romans. Whether this is true or not is unknown, but the Vandals scarcely needed an invitation. North Africa, at this time, was a wealthy area that provided Rome with much of its grain. 

The Vandals advanced quickly into North Africa turning against Bonifacius (if they were ever on his side to begin with) and laid siege to the city of Hippo Regius in 430. Among the city's residents was the Christian bishop, Augustine, the philosopher, theologian and eventual saint, who died three months into the siege. The Vandals took the city after 14 months and made it their first capital.

Despite the arrival of Roman reinforcements the Vandals could not be stopped. In 435, the Romans made a peace treaty in which much of North Africa was ceded to the Vandals. In 439, the Vandals broke the treaty, captured the city of Carthage and moved their capital there, and advanced into Sicily. 

As the Vandals took over North Africa, they persecuted members of the Catholic clergy. The Vandals followed a type of Christianity known as “Arianism,” which the Romans considered to be heretical.  

“Arianism was the teaching of the priest Arius (250-336), who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early fourth century. His main belief was that the Son, Jesus, had been created by his father, God. God was therefore unbegotten and had always existed, and so was superior to the Son. The Holy Spirit had been created by Jesus under the auspices of the Father, and so was subservient to them both,” writes Jacobsen. The Catholic belief (the trinity) is somewhat different, holding that god is present in the father, son and Holy Spirit, making them one and equal. 

While this difference may seem small by modern standards, it was something that set the Vandals apart from the Romans, leading to the Vandals persecuting Roman clergy and the Romans condemning the Vandals as heretics. 

Sack of Rome

At its height, the Vandal Kingdom encompassed an area of North Africa along the Mediterranean coast in modern-day Tunisia and Algeria, as well as the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Mallorca, Malta and Ibiza. With the Vandals in control of Rome’s grain supply, the Western Roman Empire was essentially doomed. 

The Vandal king Genseric had become so powerful by A.D. 455 that his son, Huneric, was set to marry a Roman princess named Eudocia. When the now grown-up Valentinian III was murdered in that year, and Eudocia was pledged to another man, the enraged Genseric moved his force toward Rome. 

The Romans were powerless to stop him. According to one tradition, the Romans didn’t even bother to send out an army but instead sent Pope Leo I out to reason with Genseric. Whether this really happened is unknown but, in any event, the Vandals were allowed to enter Rome and plunder it unopposed, so long as they avoided killing the inhabitants and burning down the city. 

“For fourteen days, the Vandals slowly and leisurely plunder the city of its wealth. Everything was taken down from the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, and the churches were emptied of their collected treasures,” writes Jacobsen. 

“Despite the great indignity of the sack of Rome, it appears that Genseric was true to his word and did not destroy the buildings. Also, we hear nothing of any killings.” However, Genseric was said to have brought some of the Romans back to North Africa as slaves. 

Vandal decline

The sacking of Rome would represent the high point of Vandal fortunes. Genseric died in 477. “For almost fifty years, he had ruled the Vandals and taken them from a wandering tribe of little significance to masters of a great kingdom in the rich provinces of Roman North Africa,” writes Jacobsen. 

Genseric’s successors faced economic problems, quarrels over succession (Vandal rules stipulated that the eldest male in the family should be king) and conflicts with the Byzantine Empire, a successor state to the Roman Empire that was based at Constantinople. 

Various remedies were attempted. A Vandal ruler named Thrasamund (died 523) forged an alliance through marriage with the Ostrogoths (who controlled Italy). Another Vandal ruler named Hilderic (died 533) tried to improve relations with the Byzantine Empire but was forced out in a revolt. 

After Hilderic’s death, the Byzantines launched a successful invasion and the last Vandal king, a man named Gelimer, found himself a captive in Constantinople.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I treated Gelimer with respect and offered to make him a high ranking nobleman if Gelimer would forgo his Arian Christian beliefs and convert to the Catholic form of Christianity.  

“Refusing the rank of patrician, for which he would have had to abjure his Arian faith, Gelimer was nevertheless invited by Justinian to retire to an estate in Greece — rather a subdued end for the last of the Vandal kings,” write Merrills and Miles. 

— Owen Jarus

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