Tag Archives: Vandals

The fine lines between rashness, fear and courage in Procopius’ Vandalic War 3.10



(ruins of Leptis, city that Belisarius and his army marched through shortly after landing in North Africa September 533)

There is an interesting section in the mid-sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius’ account of the intense debate surrounding Justinian’s decision in the summer of 532 to attempt to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa where the historian highlights the Eastern Romans’ trepidation to launch the invasion. Like many modern military campaigns most of the emperor’s advisors were refighting (ultimately wrongly) a previous war. In this case the failed attempt by the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I and the Western emperor Anthemios’  to take back North Africa in 468 that nearly bankrupted the Eastern regime.

Though I disagree with almost all of his conclusions concerning Procopius’ Vandalic War[1], Anthony Kaldellis is correct that the historians detailed description of Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468 “functions in many ways as a parallel to the later expedition of Belisarius”.[2]

When the emperor informed his magistrates of his plan, they indeed reminded the emperor of the failed expedition, reciting how many soldiers had been lost and how the treasury had been nearly bankrupted. The treasurer John was the most panicked, since he was going to need to find the funds to pay for the campaign. Quick sidenote: Justinian may have been thinking of all the new tax revenue to be found if he was successful. Indeed, the loss of tax revenue and grain supplies after the fall of the North Africa led to the gradual decline of the Western army since emperors like Valentinian III had less and less money to pay and feed their troops.

Even more interesting, especially for those who believe that Procopius served as the spokesman for the general Belisarius, was the terror and dread of the prospective commanders of the campaign, a group that would have most certainly included Belisarius. Kaldellis (Procopius 177) in particular uses this passage as evidence for his larger claim (rejecting current consensus) that Procopius was not the general’s apologist, but sought to paint Belisarius and the Roman army in a bad light. Indeed, he posits (wrongly in my mind) that sheer “luck” represented the primary factor in the Romans ultimate vanquishing of the Vandals.

At first glance the idea that Procopius sought to depict Belisarius and the other Romans as cowardly and merely “lucky” may seem possible. Yet like much in Procopius the “truth” is a bit more complicated. The generals’ fear of being defeated at sea before they even landed in North Africa was logical since both the fleets of the western Emperor Majorian in 460 and the emperor Leo I in 468 had been destroyed by the Vandals’ fire-ships. Their fear if they succeeded in gaining a foothold in North Africa recalled the failed campaigns of Roman generals like Aspar and Boniface in the early 430s to dislodge the Vandals. Such caution may not have been seen by Procopius as a sign of cowardice, but of good generalship.  In Wars what some deemed to be cowardly behaviour, in Procopius’ telling  actually represented the actions of a andrieos (manly, courageous) man and served as a sign of excellent generalship (for just two instance of many, see e.g, Wars 5.11.12-22; 5.19.1) .

Indeed, Greek philosophers like Aristotle  had considered ἀνδρεία as “the attributes of a man whose actions demonstrate a moderate negotiation between ‘boldness’ [θάρσος] and ‘fear’ [φόβος]”. As Karen Bassi puts it, “the andreios man neither fears too much or too little”. A man’s capacity to maintain this precarious balance depended largely upon his ability to suppress his natural urges to either launch a rash attack or turn tail in a cowardly retreat. These distinctions regularly separated the manly from the unmanly. The knack of ruling oneself by repressing one’s emotions and urges had long made up an essential component of Greek and Roman masculine identity. Therefore, it is not surprising that Roman writers like Procopius articulated the view that Roman men had a greater potential than either women or barbarians to overcome humanity’s natural instinct to avoid danger. In contrast to the controlled courage best exemplified by Roman men, in these sources, barbarians frequently display a more primeval, undisciplined, and therefore more unreliable type of bravery.

Context and sequence matter. So far from being a sign of Procopius being critical of Belisarius 3.10 may instead of been a positive assessment of a general recognising the dangers he faced, but going ahead anyway, an act of a manly man.

It is also interesting that in Leo’s campaign the Eastern Romans were brimming with confidence, whilst the Vandal King was portrayed as almost paralysed by fear. Procopius wrote:

He (Basiliskos) would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without their even thinking of resistance; so overcome was Gaiseric with awe of Leo as an invincible emperor when the report was brought to him that Sardinia and Tripolis had been captured, and he saw the fleet of Basiliskos 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 the difference. Now the situation is reversed but the side whose courage is modified by a fair share of fear ultimately emerged victorious. Victory in the case of Leo’s campaign was thwarted largely by the cowardice of Basiliskos, whilst Gelimer’s failings and tyche let the Romans avoid what could have been a devastating defeat if the Vandalic rex had taken the “proper” action.

Fear indeed plays a positive role in the opening of Vandalic war. In a set-speech to his men deciding the army’s best course of action Belisarius points to his soldiers’ fear of the dangers of the sea” as a reason to disembark quickly, rather than sail to Carthage. Indeed, the general…and one thinks perhaps Procopius too, see the soldiers’ fears of the dangers of staying at sea as rational. Belisarius has learned his lesson from the previous war that saw Basiliskos’ navy the Roman infantry destroyed at sea. The vanguard of the fifth-century attack had indeed landed relatively unopposed on the African mainland and quickly move unopposed on Carthage. Fear thus leads to a proper decision that ends up leading to the Vandals being “surprised”, a key factor in both Thucydides (2.61.3 0 and Procopius in determining a victor.

Once the soldiers come ashore, in Procopius’ telling, it is the great enthusiasm of the Roman soldiers’ driven by their fear (phobos) that allows them to dig like madmen and make a “miraculous” discovery of water.

Gradually the Roman soldiers’ fear dissipates, and one expects Procopius’ as well (a common relief soldiers experience when they realise the enemy are not “supermen”). The Vandals of the pre-invasion Romans, were, indeed a bogeyman with little basis in reality. Instead of invincible warriors, Procopius and the other Romans are surprised to find a people effeminized by their adulation of Roman luxury (Wars 4.6. 5-8). As other historians’ have noted, Procopius relies on an old trope here. The old barbarians serve as warriors and can be softened by civilization barb. We see it presented in a slightly different way again in Gothic war, though I as I have argued in a recent article, Procopius presentation of the trope is much more nuanced than many have argued. I suspect the same may apply here….so more areas open for exploration.

“Fear” undoubtedly plays a large narrative role in Vandalic War, far more than in the more “heroic” Gothic War. Having not given a thorough exploration of this theme previously I am now intrigued to look at how Procopius weaves this concept through the entire narrative.  New article? We shall see.

[1] In a forthcoming article I reject three of his primary claims: first that tyche reigns supreme in Vandalic War; second, that Procopius did not support the campaign; third, that he does not provide a favourable portrait of Belisarius.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (2004), 179.


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






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!





18 Procopius, Wars 4.6.5-8.

19 Procopius, Wars 3.10.16.


Did the Majority of Romans in North Africa get Along with the Vandals?



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.