Justinian’s “Decision” to invade Vandalic North Africa



The previous blog provided a brief overview of the events that both shaped Justinian’s rise to power and the political and military events that allowed him to turn his and his army’s eyes West and invade Vandalic North Africa 533.Today’s blog looks at the “dramatics” around the final planning of the invasion as narrated, and indeed embellished, by Procopius

One slightly off topic aside  before getting to the core of our discussion. The fact that Justinian “only” sent 18,000 men to take North Africa should serve as a reminder that for Justinian and his court these western campaigns represented a relatively minor theatre of war. Certainly it paled in comparison to the massive three-pronged attack launched by the Eastern Emperor Leo I and the Western Emperor Anthemios in 468. Justinian was a cautious man and it seems he had learned from his predecessor’s previous defeats…certainly this was the party line passed down in Procopius’ Vandalic Wars. Indeed, as Anthony Kaldellis has pointed out, the failed fifth-century campaigns (there were three major attempts to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa) serve as the major backdrop and didactic tool for Procopius’ entire account. With some minor adjustments (see my forthcoming article on “Notions of Return in Procopius”), I would agree with Maria Kouroumali that the African and Italian campaigns were largely a sideshow for Justinian who had his mind firmly in the capital and towards his primary enemy Persia. Okay onwards to today’s primary discussion.

The passage I will discuss is the section 3.10 of Vandalic Wars where Justinian and his envoys discuss the emperor’s plan to invade Africa. As with many episodes in his history, Procopius crafts a literary construct whereby the emperor and his advisors discuss the “pros” and primarily the “cons” of the decision. As Kaldellis (the Wars of Justinian, 166-67) points out, Procopius here relies on his classical models Herodotus (7.10) and Thucydides (1.68.) for the parameters of his discussion.

According to the historian, having cleared up his domestic situation and having signed his treaty with the Persians, the emperor was ready to make a move on Africa. Far from the despot found in Secret History, in this episode, the emperor not only listens to his advisors, but indeed, initially at least, acquiesces to their demands. His magistrates immediately related the disaster of Leo’s failed invasion. A failure that the historian had just related to his reader. Though interestingly, in the historian’s telling, Leo’s campaign had started successfully and had only been undermined by the cowardice of one man, its leader Basiliskos (the future emperor). So the lesson learned may have been that appoint a good and loyal general like Belisarius and you could win.

Moreover, these men were primarily concerned with the cost of the campaign, which might explain why Belisarius went with a rather small force. Certainly contemporaries like John Lydus (On Powers 3.43-4.) continued to complain about the long-term economic cost of Leo’s failure.

More interestingly, Procopius then describes the utter terror of the generals who supposed they might be put in charge of the campaign. A group that would have included Belisarius. Is this a sign as Kaldellis supposes of Procopius denigrating Belisarius? I think not. It is more likely the same type of ‘good’ terror that the Vandal Gaiseric had experience when first facing the invading Byzantines in 468. A fear that ultimately allowed him to come up with a winning strategy. As another military historian has shown, caution functioned as the primary characteristic of any successful Byzantine commander. We find the late sixth-century military manual, Maurice’s Strategikon, for instance explaining, that “The best leader is one who does not willingly engage in a hazardous and highly uncertain battle and refrains from emulating those who carry out operations recklessly and are admired for their brilliant success…”(8.2.56). In ancient Greek the concept of manliness and courage, andreia, was defined as the middle ground between “rashness (thrasos) and fear (phobos). Most Byzantine sources from the period tell a similar tale. Thus rather than a sign of Procopius’ hostility towards the invasion, as suggested by Kaldellis, the more plausible explanation is that this debate  allowed Procopius to show Belisarios and the Byzantines both facing and overcoming their phobos.

The generals’ fear of sea warfare was matched by their fear of a large, and in their minds, an invincible foe the Vandals. A fear that Procopius himself was later surprised to find was misplaced. Think of the fear in 1991 many had of Sadaam Hussein’s ultimately toothless army. So I would argue Procopius is recording the real sense of fear that existed in the Byzantine camp, not just creating a literary debate.

The treasurer John the Cappadocian provides the longest counter argument speaking and foreshadowing some of the suffering and disasters to come. Indeed, Procopius tells his reader (implausibly I believe) that John’s oration had convinced the emperor to change his mind. Only when a bishop told the emperor of a vision he had where God would grant him victory over the persecuting Arian Vandals did the Emperor finally go ahead with the assault.

Did such a debate occur? Maybe a council or something of the sort, but one thinks that Justinian had already made up his mind and did not need an unknown bishop’s vision to convince him. Indeed, I believe that Justinian played a more prominent role in military planning than Procopius or most modern historians give him credit for, but that’s for another blog. So we can discount perhaps much of this account as accurately reflecting the actual decision-making.  Other writers make it clear that a number of “Romans” within Vandalic North Africa had been coaxing Justinian to use his ‘new’ religious powers to overthrow a king they could depict as a persecuting usurper.  Indeed, it is fascinating just how much the Byzantines needed to justify to the locals their return to power. It was certainly not a case of saying, “Hey we are back,  so now bow down to Justinian”. Much explaining and coercing needed to be conducted.


A passage from the early stages of the campaign, provides us with insight into the historian’s “true” feelings.

Before he set sail from Sicily with Belisarius Procopius described his own trepidation before heading into the unknown to Africa/ He wrote: After this the general Belisarius and Antonina, his wife, set sail. And there was with them also Procopius, who wrote this history; now previously he had been exceedingly terrified (κατορρωδήσας) at the danger, but later he had seen a vision in his sleep which caused him to take courage (θαρσῆσαι) and made him eager to go on the expedition. Procopius thus provides a valuable perspective to just how tenuous the Byzantines claims to North Africa were in 533.

Moreover, despite the hardships and challenges to come, (and his jaded portrait in Anecdota) I believe Procopius sought to remember the campaign as a “good” thing. An event marked by both Procopius’ and the Byzantine soldiers’ trepidation and excitement.

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