New Views on the Vandals: Were they just a well-read Ancient Outlaw Motorcycle Gang?

 

 

 

 

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Reader’s of this blog will be aware of my fascination with the ways that foreign peoples like the Goths and Vandals adopted notions of masculine Romanitas to define themselves in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is rare to find a book that touches on these issues. Recently I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Andy Merrills’ and Richard Miles’ fascinating 2010 study  on the Vandals. Despite a few strange errors: e.g, describing the Generalissimo Boniface’s death in battle against Aetius in 432 as a murder; And a sure misprint that states that Marcian not Leo I was organizing the combined campaign against the Vandals in 468— the study has much to offer the scholar and general reading public unfamiliar with the giant strides made recently concerning these non-Roman peoples and their successor kingdoms. Indeed, this is the first major work on the Vandals since 1955.

Merrills’ learned discussion on the complex controversies surrounding how the Vandals defined themselves as a separate ethnic identity represented a highlight for me. Relying of the vast amount of work done in the past forty years  on Late Antique ethnicity he provides a narrative of fifth and sixth-century Vandalic history that is insightful, instructive, and at times original.

Merrils sees peoples like the Vandals as  a gens made up largely of mixed military elites rather than the vast groups of homogeneous migratory tribes favoured in the older historiographical tradition. Yes, he maintains, members of these men’s families may have travelled with them, but at the core they were a warrior band (a bit in my mind like modern outlaw motorcycle gangs). Though they created some localized mayhem when they entered Gaul in 406, they were certainly not a threat to the Empire. They had merely found a small niche in an early fifth-century Western Europe racked by civil wars. As M makes so clear during these early years these men were perceived as more of a pest than a threat even to the weakened Western Roman Empire.

M writes (49): “The Vandals, Alans and Suaves, were an army on the move, and presumably brought women and children along with them. It might have been a small army, and it might have been better at plundering than it was at fighting. But for the early years of the fifth century at least, the Vandals were defined primarily by their military character.”

Because of the fluidity of both Roman and Vandal identity, for M, the second stage of their existence upon entry into Spain must be looked at separately.

Using the latest archaeological research, M maintains that the destructive nature of groups like the Vandals has been exaggerated by both ancient and modern scholars. Indeed, Spain in this period remained a relatively thriving place. Their first victory over a Roman army in 422 represented the most important event in Vandal history. It was this victory that made them the Vandals that we study. Like, the Huns…or indeed a modern Biker gangs or Isis, this victory seems to have drawn more recruits, who quickly were absorbed into the confederation.

Opportunity, rather than necessity or long term planning, is seen by M as the primary factor behind the Vandals move into Africa. Victory was achieved not so much by might of arms, but due to the turmoil and rivalries that plagued the Roman armies defending North Africa.

Once they arrived in Africa in 429, men who called themselves Vandals quickly emerged as a new military aristocracy. It was only then, according to M, that it became a necessity for these men to develop a “distinct Vandal identity” (91). Though a shared history seemed to be an important aspect of crafting an ethnic identity in Late Antiquity, unlike the Goths, Lombards, and Franks, the Vandals never produced a work explaining this shared history. This does not mean, however, that they did not percieve themselves to be an ethnicity on par with peoples like the Goths.

Though the boundaries between those considered Romans and Vandals throughout this period could be blurry and fluid, M posits both natives and outsiders like Procopius could distinguish between a “Roman” and a “Vandal”. Language was one way. Vandalic, an offshoot of Gothic, could serve as ethnic marker, but as M points out after years of occupation those considered Romans could understand Vandalic, and more and more Vandals understood and indeed used Latin on an everyday basis.

So too, if we trust our sources, were certain types of weapons, clothing, and long-hairstyles a marker of Vandalic identity. Once again I reminded about how all these same things held to define and outlaw biker. Indeed, just like a banned or re-patched biker, M shows that Vandals getting kicked out of the clan had to give up their clothing and get a haircut. Of course this does not mean that a Roman could not become a Vandal and vica versa.

These definitions, however, were not steadfast, and M is rightly hesitant to see the Vandalic era as one of gradual decline, whereas  as Procopius told it, the originally virile Vandalic elite gradually succumbed to the soft side of Roman civilization. Here is a brief aside from my MA thesis on the process.

While associating with Roman culture could uplift foreign peoples, “civilized” living could also make them unmanly and cowardly. Procopius emphasized that the Eastern Romans’ easy victory over the Vandals resulted from the North Africans’ abandonment of the “hard” life of the barbarian for the “soft” life of Roman civilization:

For of all the nations which we know that of the Vandals is the most luxurious, and that of the Moors the hardiest. For the Vandals, since the time when they gained possession of Libya, used to indulge in baths, all of them, every day, and enjoyed a table abounding in all things, the sweetest and the best that the earth and sea produce. And they wore gold very generally, and clothed themselves in Medic garments, which now they call “seric” [silk] and passed their time, thus dressed, in theatres and hippodromes and in other pleasurable pursuits, and above all else in hunting. And they had dancers and mimes and all other things to hear or see which are of a musical nature or otherwise merit attention among men. And most of them dwelt in parks, which were well supplied with water and trees; and they had great number of banquets, and all manner of sexual pleasures were in great vogue among them.

Procopius, who indicated that the Eastern Romans had begun the reconquest of North Africa with a sense of trepidation, seemed surprised with the Vandals’ adoration of luxurious living.19 One is reminded of the earlier Greek tradition that portrayed barbarians as particularly vulnerable to civilization’s temptations. Now, however, it was the lure of Roman culture that threatened the valor of the Vandals. This description matches Procopius’ condemnation, in the Secret History,of Constantinople’s citizens’ growing moral depravity; his account of the Vandals may have served as a warning to his readership that a lavish lifestyle led to moral decay, and that only by following an ascetic lifestyle could men preserve their physical and spiritual well-being.

 

Historians have largely followed Procopius’ views. M rightly points out that the truth was much more nuanced.

Indeed, M’s most important point and contribution in this study is his undermining of the entire idea that the Vandals were gradually amalgamated into North African society by the process known as Romanization.

M sees the entire concept of Romanization as a simplification of a much more complicated process. M posits that while “The Vandal aristocracy of the fifth-century Africa was quite unlike anything the inhabitants of the region had ever seen before….it was still an aristocracy which had adopted more or less recognizable form”

“The most striking feature of our textual sources on Vandal identity”, he continues, “is the extent to which it was shaped by existing notions of Romanitas, and particularly by ideals of Roman masculinity. (97-98)

Okay readers of my work will know that this is a model of men’s self-fashioning that I argue for in my dissertation. Martial virtues along with more civilised intellectual virtues continued to make up a major part of Roman identity. Romanitas itself was susceptible to fluidity, and as I have suggested, more martial forms of masculinity become more prevalent from the fifth century. This is the exact opposite of what some gender scholars have argued. So perhaps this helps to explain why I like M’s conclusions so much!

M shows how Vandalic literature and art conflated classical and Vandalic military ideals; Vandalic behaviour was often very similar to Roman behaviour. Put more simply, Vandalic and Roman military elite’ behaviour was very similar long before the Vandals had ever entered North Africa. He concludes that just as the idea of a pure Vandalic identity has been rightly dismissed, so too should the concept of “Vandal Romanization” be rejected.

Another interesting point made by M is his contention that Vandalic identity as constructed in our ancient evidence seems to have been a largely masculine construct. He suggests (107):

“Definitive features of Vandalic identity were overwhelmingly masculine. ‘Vandals’ were primarily soldiers, administrators or landlords who held their land by right of male inheritance, who governed and fought on behalf of their Hasding kings and who assumed the engendered trappings of the late Roman aristocracy.

This is not say that there were no Vandal women….. only that they could easily fade away or like Procopius tells us take on another identity quite quickly.

This view, however, appears to be Vandal-specific as we do have plenty of indications of Gothic women.

 

Once again, I would add that like the modern biker gang, women remain on the periphery of the overall construct. So too do biker gangs adopt a hypermasculine identity, tattoos, strippers, and massively steroid enhanced physiques. Modern day Vandals indeed…..though we can only hope that these modern gang members take up bathing and classical literature that helped to define a North African Vandal!

 

Vale!

 

 

18 Procopius, Wars 4.6.5-8.

19 Procopius, Wars 3.10.16.

 

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