The battle of Cape Bon, the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I’s failed attempt in 468 to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa, is one of the key events of the fifth century. It represents one of four failed attempts by the combined forces of the Eastern and the Western Empire to expel the Vandals from North Africa. Most of these defeats had more to do with Roman incompetence and/or extenuating political circumstance than the military capabilities of the Vandal, who in the sixth century would be quickly defeated by the Roman general Belisarius and small force of around 15,000 men. In today’s blog I will reveal some of the sources that have come down to of this important event. Later I will be writing up a short piece for an article I am working on Leo.
Unfortunately the main histories describing this event, Priscus and Candidus, have only survived in fragments. Most subsequent Byzantine accounts seem to originate from Priscus…in some cases via Eustathius.
It is interesting to note that Leo takes little of the blame in the accounts that survive. I would suggest that this is part of the reason that fifth and sixth century emperors did not feel the need to direct campaigns in person. If the assault failed, a scapegoat could be found within the military, whilst if victory was achieved the emperor could represent himself as the face of Roman victory. Certainly the example of the Western emperor, Majorian’s (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution in August 461 at the hands of his non-Roman advisor Ricimer, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution. In the mind of contemporary Byzantine sources, the fleet’s defeat was to be blamed by the “betrayal” by a few individuals at the top. We see in many of the accounts the subsequent growth of “true” Roman heroes in the face of defeat (note the different heroes found in Marcellinus, Malalas, and Procopius).
Leo seems to have instigated a propaganda campaign to keep himself from blame for the disaster…e.g. painting Aspar as afraid of the Vandals…whilst promoting Leo’s “fearlessness. It is important to remember that Leo was in the midst of an intense power struggle with his former mentor, the Alan generalissimo at the time of the defeat. A rival Leo would assassinate along with his family members in 471.
So too did Leo’s successor Zeno use the defeat as propaganda against the “usurper” Basiliskos. Perhaps blaming Basiliskos’ treachery in accepting a bribe from the Vandals comes from Priscus who wrote shortly after Zeno deposed Basiliskos as emperor, since it is strange that after such treason he could still become emperor. Modern historians (e.g. Macgeorge 58 doubts the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on B’s bad generalship). I would go further, suggesting that Basiliskos could have never become emperor if he had been the primary cause of the defeat. Indeed, the notion of B as the main culprit is surely a later invention.
Candidus: via Suda: Leo, the butcher, the emperor after Marcian, spent an enormous sum of money on the expedition against the Vandals. For the officials in charge of these matters revealed that 47, 000 pounds of gold came through the prefects, and through the count of treasuries an additional 17, 000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver, as well as monies raised through confiscations and the (western) Emperor Anthemios.
Marcellinus, patrician of the West and a pagan, brought money and military support to the Romans who were fighting the Vandals at Carthage. He was stabbed treacherously by the very persons on whose behalf he had openly come to fight (aug 468 in Sicily).
Malalas>: Leo in his time began a campaign against Geiseric, king of the Africans, fighting a tremendous sea-battle. He sent a large fleet under the command of the patrician Basiliscus, the brother of the Augusta Verina, Leo’s wife. Basiliscus accepted, however, bribes from Geiseric and betrayed the ships with the exarchs, the comites and the entire army. He with his ship…a fast vessel…was the first and the only ship to escape. All the rest of the ships, and the entire army perished, sunk at sea. Among them was Damonicus the ex-dux, who had become magister militum of the expedition, and was originally from Antioch. He fought bravely against the Africans, but was isolated and surrounded, captured)and flung into the sea fully in his armour. Basiliscus returned, defeated, to Constantinople.
Exc de Leg. Rom, 13:The Emperor Leo sent Phylarchus to Gaiseric to announce to him the sovereignty of Anthemios and to threaten war if he did not evacuate Italy and Sicily. He returned with the report that Gaiseric refused to accept the Emperor’s commands and that he was engaged in preparation for war on the ground that the treaty had been broken by the Eastern Romans. (treaty 462) (Vandal raids in East 467).
EvagriusHE 2.16: : Basiliscus, the brother of Verina, Leo’s wife, was sent as general against Gaiseric with excellently equipped forces.
Procopius: 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 great 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 Basiliskos commander-in-chief, the brother of his 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 (Note that Procopius suggest Aspar could not become emperor, some scholars dispute this point), 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 uponBasiliscus that he should spare the Vandals and Gieseric.(This is probably contempory propeganda by Leo after the defeat)
[467 A.D.] Now before this time Leo had already appointed and sent
Anthemius, as Emperor of the West, a man of the senate of great wealth
and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war.
And yet Gieseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial
power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of
Valentinian, and on account of his relationship 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 (assassinated by Valentinian III), 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 this 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 call 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 Gieseric with awe of
Leo as an invincible emperor (obviously remnents of a pro-Leo source, Geiseric was not too fearfull of the non-campainging Leo), when the report was brought to him that
Sardinia and Tripolis had 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 (Note both options are given by Procopius, most modern historians do not believe that Basiliscus too a bribe from Geiseric, instead his poor generalship is blamed e.g. MacGeorge). And Gieseric, 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 the meantime he might take counsel
and do those things which were especially desired by the emperor (a similar tactic that the Goth Totila tried and failed to use against Narses). 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 favouring wind would rise
for him during this time. And Basiliscus, either as doing a favour to
Aspar (linking the too scapegoats while exonerating the non-campaigning Leo) 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
favourable to the enemy.
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 rivalled 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. (What follows is the typical face of manly Roman-ness in the face of defeat):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 Gizeric, 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
So this war came to an end, and Heracleius departed for home; for
Marcellianus had been destroyed treacherously by one of his
fellow-officers (Ricimer seems to have been the key agent in his death).. And Basiliscus, coming to Byzantium, seated himself as
a suppliant in the sanctuary of Christ the Great God (“Sophia” the
temple is called by the men of Byzantium who consider that this
designation is especially appropriate to God), and although, by the
intercession of Verina, 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 A.D.] A perfect time to attack his scapegoat and salvage his reputation. Thus,
then, did these events take place
Jordanes, Rom, 337:
Leo sent his kinsman Basiliscus, the brother of the Empress Verina, to Africa with an army. He made frequent seaborne attacks upon Carthage, but before he conquered it, he was himself overcome by greed and sold it back to Geiseric for money.
Theophanes chron a.m. 5961
In this year the Emperor Leo fitted out a great fleet and it went against Geiseric, the ruler of the Africans. For after the death of Marcian, Geiseric had done many terrible things in the lands under Roman sovereignty, plundering, taking many prisoners and devastating the cities. As a result the emperor was roused to anger and collected from the sea of the East 1100 ships, which he filled with troops and arms an sent against Geiseric. They say that he spent one hundred and thirty thousand pounds of gold on this expedition.
As general of the force he appointed Basiliscus, the brother of the Empress Verina, who had already held the consulship and he had defeated the Skythians in Thrace. He was joined by a considerable force from the West. Engaging in frequent sea-battles with Geiseric’s force, he sent a large number of ships to the bottom, and at that point he could have taken Carthage itself. But later, having been won over by Geiseric with gifts and large sums of money, he gave in and willingly suffered defeat, as Priscan the Thracian narrates.
More to come….Plus I will add a summary of modern historian’s accounts of the battle…before providing my own take.