Posts Tagged ‘Vandals’

A Real Milestone in History

Posted in General, On This Day on September 13th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 13th: 533:  King Gelimer Picks a Bad Time to Lose His Mind


Battles do require a name.  History prefers a more specific nomenclature than “Was Grant Drunk Again?” or “Those English Archers Are Really Good, Part I.”  Geography usually obliges with some form of identification: the nearest town, the bordering river or, on this day in 533, a signpost.  Today is the anniversary of the battle of “Ten Miles From Carthage.”  It sounds more dignified in Latin, “Ad Decimum”, although neither of the armies spoke that language.  One army took orders in Greek, the other in a German dialect, but the signposts of North Africa were in Latin. 


North Africa had been part of the Roman Empire for almost six centuries, the consequence of losing all those Punic Wars.  In the early fifth century, however, the territory had been acquired by a group of entrepreneurs known as the Vandals.   They had first migrated from Spain where they had been among the first German tourists to loot Roman Iberia. Unfortunately for the Vandals, the Visigoths also heard about Hispania and migrated there, too. Preferring to be the sole barbarians on the peninsula, the Visigoths began wiping out the Vandals. Half of the tribe was gone when the Roman governor of North Africa saved the Vandals. He was rebelling against the Emperor and needed mercenaries, so he transported the tribe to North Africa.Ironically, the Roman governor called off his rebellion, but the Vandals didn’t. They soon occupied the territory extending from Libya to Morocco. (Yes, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was actually the second German invasion there, and the less successful of the two.) 


Their rule in North Africa was relatively benign. They restored the stability and prosperity that the disintegrating Roman Empire had failed to maintain. The Vandals’ most conspicuous failing was religious intolerance. Like many of the Germanic tribes, they were Christians but did not subscribe to the theological convolutions of the Nicene Creed. To the Germanic mind, God was Odin and Jesus was Thor. However, while the Goths were tolerate of the more sophisticated interpretations of Christianity, the Vandals were not. They persecuted the Church–and earned their ever-lasting infamy. (More savage tribes such as the Franks and the especially barbaric Angles and Saxons eventually converted to the Nicene Creed and received a baptism in history’s whitewash.)

The Vandal kingdom in North Africa lasted until 534. To the Vandals’ surprise, the Byzantine army had stopped cowering behind city walls and now was on the attack, intent on restoring the lost western half of the Roman Empire.  The Emperor Justinian had meticulously planned the campaign, using a superior army and insidious–dare I say “Byzantine”– diplomacy to overthrow the barbarian kingdoms.  He would use the Ostrogoths against the Vandals, the Franks against the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths against the Franks, and the Visigoths were always fighting among themselves.  (Justinian apparently did not consider Britain worth reconquering; otherwise he would have pitted the Angles against the Saxons.)  The Emperor’s Grand Scheme did not quite work because no one could rely on the Franks–and how little has changed–but it proved successful in North Africa.

To distract the Vandals and divide their forces, the Byzantines subsidized a rebellion on the northern-most possession of the kingdom, the island of Sardinia.  With the Vandals’ fleet and sizable portion of their army conveniently distant, the Byzantine fleet sailed from the friendly ports of Ostrogoth-ruled Sicily and disembarked a 15,000 man army in North Africa in 533.  Having forgotten Roman corruption, and not yet acquainted with Byzantine bureaucracy, the North Africans welcomed the imperial forces as liberators.  The troops’ usual inclination to pillage was checked by a commander of remarkable rectitude:  Belisarius.  The young general had demonstrated some ability in fighting the Persians, but he had especially impressed the Emperor by massacring rioters in Constantinople.   Now he was to defeat an army of 30,000 and overthrow the Vandals’ kingdom.    

Marching to Carthage, the capital of North Africa, the Byzantines were ten ten miles from the city when they found the Vandal army in the way.  The Vandals’ King Gelimer had an excellent plan for the battle; he would outflank and envelop the invaders.  Of course, such manuevers do require some coordination; otherwise you are simply fragmenting your forces in front of the enemy.  Guess what happened.  The Vandal troops that were so supposed to block the Byzantines arrived in installments, and that is how the Byzantines slaughtered them.  Among the casualties was Gelimer’s brother.  Then the Vandals’ flank attack began–but without any support from the no longer living vanguard or the yet- to-arrive main force under Gelimer.  Worse, they ran into Belisarius’  Hun mercenaries–who did not believe in taking prisoners. 

Gelimer finally showed up on the battlefield and his fresh, larger force seemed to be gaining the advantage over the Byzantines; but then the king  found the body of his brother and had an emotional collapse.  In the midst of a battle, he insisted on his brother’s burial.   This was definitely the wrong time for Vandal sensitivity.  Belisarius did not wait for all five stages of Gelimer’s grief to rally the Byzantines and counterattack.   The disoriented Gelimer even led his retreating troops in the wrong direction, not back to Carthage but into the desert.  The gates of Carthage were opened to the Byzantines, and Belisarius would enjoy a dinner that had been prepared for Gelimer. 

The refugee king did attempt to rally his forces but never quite succeeded in reviving his sanity.  For a man who had killed his cousin for the throne, Gelimer really was too sentimental for the job.  He was finally captured in 535 and presented as a trophy to the Emperor Justinian.  Gelimer sang dirges to himself and had an inexplicable,  disconcerting laugh.  He was allowed to live the rest of  his fragile life in a peaceful retreat.    Belisarius was on his way to Italy, and in a few years he would be presenting another but reasonably sane king to Justinian.

As for the Vandals, they evidently made some impression on the natives of North Africa. The blond hair and a possible tendency to goosestep would seem conspicuous. Almost two centuries later, when those North Africans conquered Spain, they remembered that the Vandals had come from there.  So the Moors referred to this realm as “Andalusia”.

How To Achieve Infamy

Posted in On This Day on January 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 25th:

GensericIf “Only the good die young,” that would explain Genseric’s long life. He died this day in 477 at the age of 87 or so. We are not quite sure of his actual birthday; being the illegitimate son of a chieftain of a minor barbarian tribe, who noticed? His departure was more conspicuous. After all, by that time he was the King of North Africa, the terror of what was left of the Roman world, and the scourge of the Church. Even today, his legacy lingers. Through his deeds, his tribe is remembered as a felony: Vandal.

Genseric’s career would make a suitable case study for any MBA program. If anyone deserved to be named Entrepreneur of the Fifth Century, it certainly was him. Of course, the early fifth century was a great time to be a barbarian. The Rhine River was all the defense that the Roman Empire had in the West, and it was hardly impassable. (The Germanic tribes waded into the Empire or–to use the Latin pronunciation– in-vade.)

Most of the tribes were competing with one another as to who would loot Gaul. The Vandals, led by Genseric and his annoyingly legitimate half-brother Gunderic, decided to avoid the mob and a losing battle by moving on to Iberia. They were among the first German tourists there. Unfortunately for the Vandals, the Visigoths also heard about Hispania and migrated there, too. Preferring to be the sole barbarians on the peninsula, the Visigoths began wiping out the Vandals. Half of the tribe was gone, Gunderic was dead, and Genseric was now the king of this sorry remnant; in 429, however, the Roman governor of North Africa saved the Vandals. The governor was rebelling against the Emperor and needed mercenaries, so he transported the entire tribe to North Africa.

Ironically, the Roman governor called off his rebellion, but the Vandals didn’t. Genseric liked North Africa; in those days the land was fertile and had not become yet an extension of the Sahara. Prosperous provinces but with meager defenses–what more could Genseric ask! Within ten years, the Vandals occupied the territory extending from Libya to Morocco. (Yes, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was actually the second German invasion there, and the less successful of the two.) Carthage, the capital of Roman North Africa surrendered without a fight; the Vandals occupied the city while most of the populace was at the chariot races.

Genseric’s next venture was piracy. The Vandals proved quite adaptive and quickly developed a fleet that terrorized the western Mediterranean. They conquered the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. What could Rome do but flatter him. In 442 the Emperor Valentinian III recognized Genseric as the King of everything he had seized; the official title was supposed to make him behave with regal decorum. Genseric would be further placated by a marriage into the imperial family. The Emperor’s three-year-old daughter was betrothed to Genseric’s oldest (and adult) son; it would be a long engagement. So for the next 13 years Genseric seemed content to administer his realm, restoring to North Africa the stability and prosperity that the disintegrating Roman Empire had failed to maintain. He did tax the patrician landowners and the Catholic clergy (who usually were one and the same) but most of the populace found Vandal rule an improvement.

And Genseric was bored! Although now was in his sixties, he definitely had not mellowed. Yet he felt constrained by his treaty with Valentinian III and the western half of the Roman Empire. True, he was free to attack the Byzantines or his old enemies the Visigoths, but they had the inconvenient capacity to defend themselves; and Genseric really did not like fair fights. However, the life expectancy of a Roman Emperor was rarely long, and Valentinian III made enemies. He was assassinated in March, 455, and two months later Genseric was at the gates of Rome, proclaiming himself the avenger of Valentinian and the protector of his family.

For all his lofty proclamations, his basic demands were “give us everything and no one will be hurt”. Two years earlier, Pope Leo I had persuaded Attila the Hun not to sack Rome; the Pope would not find Genseric to be such a softie. The Visigoths in 410 had sacked Rome, indulging in murder, rape and pillage; but they had refrained from looting churches. The Vandals lacked that sense of etiquette; of course, after the Visigoths, Rome had little left to loot except the churches. Genseric’s sack was bloodless and platonic, but his irrreverent attitude to church property would earn the Vandals their lasting infamy. The medieval monk chroniclers would not forgive the Vandals’ transgression, and their animosity became our perception: VANDALS!. Although usually left to the victor, history is always written by the literate.

Furthermore, despite his agreement with the Pope, Genseric did not strictly observe his pledge of good behavior. Apparently kidnapping was still permissible. No, Genseric was not tacky enough to seize the Pope; but he did take the widow and two daughters of the late emperor. The dowager empress was a Byzantine princess, so Constantinople would be sent the ransom note. Genseric was only offering the widow and one daughter; the other–now nubile–girl was going to marry his son. The ransom negotiations lasted six years. In that time, the Byzantines were hoping that Genseric would succumb to enemies or old age. Both were reasonable expectations but he proved equally adapt at outfoxing his foes and time itself.

In 468, the Byzantines amassed an overwhelming force to crush the Vandal kingdom. More than 1100 ships, with 100,000 soldiers, ascended on Carthage. Unfortunately, the Byzantine emperor appointed his brother-in-law the commander. Genseric offered to surrender and, while the peace terms were being negotiated, the Vandals attacked the lulled Byzantines. Half of their fleet was lost. The idiot brother-in-law returned to Constantinople where he sheltered in a church until the emperor agreed only to exile him.

And the 80 year-old Genseric would outlast another two Byzantine emperors, five Roman emperors and the Western Empire itself. But his kingdom would only survive him by 57 years; he had left his sons an empire but none of the vision or the abilities to preserve it.

The Bear Market of A.D. 455

Posted in General on September 23rd, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Transcript of Genseric’s testimony to the Roman Senate

Senators of Rome. There is no point in telling you that your glorious city has been sacked. Being King of the Vandals, I can speak with an objective perspective: Rome has nothing left to steal. But this is not the time to look for culprits. We must look to the future and restore a Rome that once again is worth looting.

So I am asking you for at least 700 billion denarii to rebuild and revitalize Rome. Believe me, I know exactly what the Vandals have done. Because this is an emergency, I will require your complete cooperation. No questions, no supervision, no appeals to the Pope. In fact, I will require his powers as well.

Some of you–on the left side of the Curia–might question a Vandal’s reliability. And that is exactly the type of question that can be divisive and unproductive. So, as I said, no questions. Some of you might think that the Vandals could lend Rome the money. Well, yes, we have had a good year–that is just a coincidence–but the upkeep of a barbarian horde can be expensive. And unless we sack Constantinople, next year’s profits will definitely be down. So, despite our sentimental attachment to this city, we Vandals will not be investing in Rome. No, you Romans have to make the effort and scrounge up your last denarii.

I just am here to spend it for you.