Today’s blog deals with one of my favourite “barbarian” peoples from Roman history, the Vandals.
The Vandals who exploded into Roman history in the fifth century have long had a bad reputation. As most know, the very word Vandalism derives from the Vandal king Gaiseric’s sack of Rome in 455. Certainly if the sources are to be believed the Vandals seemed to treat the native populations of their conquest far more harshly than other barbarian groups such as the Goths in Italy and the Franks in Gaul.
The Vandals, a “Germanic” people, looking for more prosperous lands, successfully invaded North Africa from their territories in Spain in 429 . The Romans signed a treaty acknowledging the Vandals’ control of Numidia and Mauretania. Recognizing the Romans’ weakness, the Vandalic king, Gunderic, violated the accord, and seized the wealth of Carthage and the Provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena in 439. The Roman Empire had little choice but to concede the loss of North Africa, and in 442 the Romans signed another treaty with the Vandals. For the Romans, Carthage and the rich African Provinces had long served as the major supplier of grain and oil. Accordingly, when the Vandals forced the forfeiture of North Africa, they damaged both the Empire’s military prestige and its economic well-being.
Part of the reason for the Empire’s inability to deal with the Vandals’ invasion was the emergence of the threat of Hunnic invasions in the Balkans. The Huns were the dominant power in the Eastern Pontic region, threatening the borders of the Roman Empire. Instead of confronting these ferocious warriors, Roman Emperors like Theodosius II (ruled 408-50) often used the great wealth of the Empire to pay off the Huns with annual tributes. These “gifts” continued into the sixth century. Many Romans were uncomfortable with these payoffs. Indeed, Procopius lamented that they had begun “the enslavement of the Roman Empire.”
The Hunnic Empire crumbled after the death of its famous leader Attila in 453 CE. Nevertheless, the political situation in the Western Roman Empire continued to deteriorate. In North Africa, Gaiseric persisted in interfering in Italian politics. Still, it is important to note that Gaiseric may not have wanted so much to destroy the Roman Empire as to find a place for himself and his people within it. He arranged for his son Huneric’s betrothal to the Western Roman emperor Valentinian III’s daughter, Eudocia. After Valentinian’s assassination in 455, however, a usurper, Petronius Maximus, married his son to Valentinian’s daughter. Insulted and angry, Gaiseric sacked Rome that same year. Recognizing the danger that they faced from their African neighbor, and freed from the Hunnic threat, the Romans in 468 sent a large expeditionary force against the Vandals. Despite the impressive size of this army, the campaign ended in failure. These defeats severely challenged the Romans’ sense of military superiority over the “barbarian” peoples.
In History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor of Vita provided a description of the fifth-century Catholic North Africans suffering at the hands of their new Arian Vandal rulers.
Historians have suggested several reasons for Victor’s history. C. Coutois argues that Victor composed his account in an attempt to convince his fellow orthodox Christians in Constantinople to launch an attack to overthrow Vandalic rule (The Vandals’ persecution of the Catholics was the pretext given for the Justinian’s successful invasion of North Africa in the sixth century).15 While this theory seems plausible, the text gives little evidence to back up this argument.
William Fahey suggests that Victor composed his history as a way to explain to the local population why God had allowed the Arian Vandals to triumph over the Catholic North Africans. He asserts that Victor’s work provided the local population with an explanation for their torment. He points out that the local population having been defeated on the battlefield, through martyrdom and loyalty to their faith could still achieve a “spiritual” triumph over the barbarian heretics. Fahey argues that Victor used militaristic language, labeling the loyal Catholic people the “crack troops of God’s army.”16 Suffering was rationalized in two ways. First, it provided the means by which the defeated Catholics could attain a heroic victory, and second, it served as a repayment to Christ for men’s sinfulness.17
While an explanation for the Catholic’s suffering is an important theme in Victor’s work, a close reading of the text reveals that Victor’s primary aim appears to have been to prevent act of accommodation between the Catholic North Africans and the Arian Vandals. Evidence of this aim is found throughout the work. In one instance of this motif, Victor presented a struggle between those who want to just get a long with the new Arian rulers and his heroes, the Catholic martyrs whose refusal to accept the Arian doctrine leads to their persecution. While Victor depicted Vandalic Africa as a land of horrific persecution, the text indicates that many Catholics appeared to ally themselves to the new rulers.
It was this accommodation that horrified Victor. He warned Catholics that they needed to be on constant guard against the Arians subtle attacks. While, for loyal Catholics, the Vandals’ cruelty was easily overcome, their seeming kindness presented a more difficult challenge: “Following the death of Gaiseric, his eldest son, Huneric, succeeded his father. In accordance with the subtlety of barbarians, at the beginning of his reign he acted in quite a mild and moderate fashion.” Victor stressed that religious loyalty took precedence over family allegiance. Victor described how the Vandals tried to use men’s love of wealth and of family to convince them to abandon their Catholic faith. Saturus, a man described by Victor as “a shining member of the Church of Christ” whom “often reproved the Arians for their perversity,” was warned by the Vandals that if he did not become an Arian he would “lose his house, wealth, and all of his slaves and children.” And as a final dishonor “his wife would be given in marriage to a camel driver.” Saturus’ wife, described by Victor as another Eve, begged her husband to surrender to the Vandals’ demands, “Take pity on me, sweetest, and on yourself as well; take pity on the children we share, whom you see here. Those whom descent from our stock has made renowned should not be allowed to become slaves.” Victor declared, however, that Saturus refused to give in, because he “was no Adam who would touch the alluring fruit of the forbidden tree.”
This theme is repeated throughout Victor’s work. Men and women who refuse to live and cooperate in the new “Arian” North Africa were presented as heroic, while those whom cooperate were cast as villains. When Victor’s work is seen in this context, it suggests that there may have been a considerable amount of accommodation between the Vandals and the native North African population.
His final passage shows Victor’s belief in the importance of religious loyalty:
To show that he was a man of religion, he [Gaiseric] decreed that the Manichean heretics were to be sought out with painstaking care. He had many of these people burned, and he sold more of them for ships across the seas. He found that nearly all the Manicheans were adherents of his religion, the Arian heresy, especially its priests and deacons; so it was to that, the greater his shame, the more he was kindled against them.
Some final thoughts: The examples of modern Iraq and Afghanistan show us how “conquered” native populations often ally themselves to new rulers, even at the expense of facing harsh criticism amongst loyalists to the old regime. It may be helpful to think of Victor as the “Taliban” representing the old regime and the “appeasers” as the natives who get along with the new regime at the expense of being seen as “traitors”. While it is true that the Vandals treated the natives more harshly than their Gothic counterparts some of, this violence may have been more limited than our sources suggest.
The Vandals like other “barbarians” of the late fifth century were far different from the fur-clad wild marauders portrayed in Classical literature and the artwork depicted above. On the contrary, many Germanic leaders had adapted themselves to Roman society and rapidly became indistinguishable from their civilian Roman neighbors. They dressed in contemporary Roman fashions and possessed magnificent villas decorated with the latest mosaic floors and furnishings.