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© 2001 David Koeller.  All rights reserved.

The Vandals

 

The period between 406 and 572 saw the Germanic barbarians complete their migrations into the West. It is undoubtedly one of history's most hectic and confusing periods of time. As the Roman world collapsed, many tribes reached a peak of brief glory, others were destroyed in a series of little-known wars. To the Germanic people, this was considered to be the “heroic age” which was a time of adventure and great displays of power.

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The Vandals were a Germanic tribe of Jutland (now in Denmark), who migrated to the valley of the Odra (Oder) River about the 5th century BC. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD they settled along the Danube River. This is approximately when they began their conquests over Rome. Today's usage of the word "vandal" reflects the dread and hostility the tribe precipitated in other people, especially the Romans, by their looting and pillaging of the many villages they conquered.

In the 420s, much of Spain was the playground of the ferocious Vandal tribes, who had arrived there in 409 after crossing the Rhine in 406. The Vandals, under pressure from the local Romans and the expanding Visigoths, decided to move on to the rich provinces of Roman North Africa; they elected as their king a crippled son of a slave, Gaiseric. This proud, ruthless king was a gifted conspirator and a genius of political maneuver. For 50 years, Gaiseric’s web of entangling treaties foiled the plans of Roman diplomats and Germanic kings, always to the Vandals’ advantage.

In 429, Gaiseric ferried all of his people across the Strait of Gibraltar and led them east along the African coast. One by one, the gleaming Roman cities with their abundant granaries fell to the hungry Vandals. The people of Hippo were rallied to the defense of their town by their bishop, Augustine. St. Augustine died in his city during the 14-month-long Vandal siege. In the end, Hippo, too, passed into the barbarian hands. The Vandal conquest of North Africa took a decade to complete. Cleaning up operations were still going on when Gaiseric turned restlessly to a new project: he built a swift fleet and launched himself on a lucrative career of piracy in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Vandals carved out big estates and made their homes among the Romans. They left administrative chores to Roman bureaucrats. But the relations of the Arian Vandals with the Catholic inhabitants were never better than strained. Gaiseric barely managed to hold animosities in check, and under his successors prejudice erupted into violence. The Vandals persecuted the Roman majority. They martyred scores of Catholic and provided medieval hagiographers with many grim tales for their lives of the saints.

Gratuitous cruelty was only one symptom of the Vandals’ swift degeneration after Gaiseric’s reign. The warriors, seduced by the luxuries that their rich land supplied, grew weak, corrupt, and disorganized. They succumbed quickly when their kingdom was invaded by an army from the Eastern Roman Empire in 533. Soon afterward, the Vandals disappeared as a distinct people. They melted in with the highly mixed local population and tried to continue to live non-distinct lives. They left little behind but lingering bitterness, anger, and a new desire for justice.


Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.

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