10. King of Africa

The Vandals Part II

408 to 439 CE

The Vandals, along with their allies, the Alans and Suevi, ravage Spain before moving into Africa.  There, under the leadership of their king Gaiseric, they will achieve something no other Barbarian tribe has yet accomplished.

The city sits at the west end of the bay, looking out over its deep harbor toward the rising sun. Ringed around with mountains, it nestles between smaller hills. A theater was built into one of those hills, one of the largest in africa. From the upper seats you can look out across the city to the basilica church of Saint Steven, where the famous bishop works diligently on great works of holy scholarship. The city is a proud one, not as large or important perhaps as Carthage, but just as ancient, and with an important role to play in the life of the empire. The forum, with its colonnades on three sides and fine statues, are all the evidence you need to confirm this. Or the great walls, raised hundreds of years ago against the barbarians of the desert. Or the great villas in the hills and fields beyond, where grain, grapes, dates and olives are grown in vast quantities, to be brought down here to the harbor and shipped onward to feed the empire. Hippo Regius is a proud city, a colorful city, a rich city.

At least, it was before.

These barbarians were unlike the ones that had come before. They seemed to know something about the taking of cities, and there were so many of them. They came out of the west, and all that could be seen in that direction now was smoke of the towns and villages they had pillaged as they’d approached. Hippo Regius was not cut off – for there was still the harbor – but any attempt to leave by land would lead to inevitable capture and probably slavery, or worse. The bishop had stayed behind, unlike many of his colleagues in other towns, and chosen to share the burdens of the siege with his flock. They had already respected him, and now they loved him even more. He was quite old, though, and it was rumored that he was dying. The atmosphere in the city was becoming tense, food was expensive and everyone who could leave had left. The siege, as sieges do, soon settled into a kind of bored anxiety, where any kind of change, for good or ill, would have been welcomed.

This is episode ten: King of Africa.

Directing the siege, occasionally to be seen by the sentries on the walls, was the Vandals’ king, who was called Gaiseric. He was most often seen riding on horseback, but everyone knew that he walked with a pronounced limp from some injury in his youth. Now forty years old, he could be easily picked out even from a distance by the air of authority that surrounded him, and the hardness of his character was clearly visible in his face. Gaiseric had brought his people across the whole western expanse of Roman Africa, the legions and garrisons of four provinces had been unable to stop them. The rumor in Hippo was that the governor had invited him and his army to assist him in his machinations against the powers in Italy, but whether that was true or not, they were clearly out of his control now.

The idea that the vandals had been invited by the count of Africa, whose name was Bonifacius, is now generally regarded as unlikely. We’ll get to him and his convoluted relationship with Ravenna, and especially Aetius in good time, but first I want to talk about Gaiseric, because the story of his life will tell the later story of the Vandals. Their transformation from one of many tribes into the first barbarian kingdom in the west is due in large part to the canny leadership and hard nosed diplomacy.

So where did he come from?

Gaiseric – and you’ll also see it as Genseric, same guy – was born somewhere in the Hasding Vandal lands in what is now western Hungary, about 390. He was the illegitimate son of the Hasding King Godigisel and a slave woman, who may have been a Roman captive, but his obvious talents quickly overshadowed the circumstances of his birth. I can’t say anything at all about his early life of upbringing, except that he would have been about 10 years old when the Vandals started their great migration into and across the Roman empire. Through that time Gaiseric would have presumably been in the retinue of his royal father, but the hardships of the road could not fail to leave their mark on his developing character. Last time I mentioned the battle in 406 between the Vandals and Franks, where Godigisel was killed, at which point Gaiseric would have been 16. His elder brother Gunderic took over leadership of the Vandals, and led the invasion into Gaul, and from there into Spain.

The situation in Spain was chaotic and confused. Revolts nested within each other like Russian dolls, meaning legitimate Roman authority was hard to come by. Constantine III, I hope you remember, had used the collapse of the Rhine frontier to abandon his posting in Britain and sail to Gaul to restore order. His troops hailed him Augustus on the way, and it was clear from his actions that securing that position took top billing over the barbarian invasion. Not that he didn’t fight the invader, it was just that when the choice was between fighting barbarians and moving to secure centers of imperial power, it was easy to know which way Constantine would turn. Constantine sent his son, Constans, and one of his generals, Gerontius, to extend his control to Hispania. Once they were in the country though, Constans’ troops made little effort to secure the passes through the Pyrenees, and the Vandals and Alans pushed through, away from a Gaul that was becoming too hot and into the pleasanter, previously unmolested arms of Hispania.

The situation in Spain was made worse when Constans returned to Gaul in 410 and Gerontius the general … you guessed it, set up a rival emperor. In this case, a local aristocrat named Maximus. Not Maximus Desmus Meridius, husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son who will have his vengeance in this life or the next, just Maximus. Gerontius then allied himself with the Vandals et al to defend himself against his former master. The combined rebel-vandal-alan-sueve army successfully fought off the army Constans sent to put down the revolt. Gerontius counter-counter attacked back into Gaul with his army and … left no one minding the store. The barbarians spent 410 and 411 ransacking the whole region, and inevitably famine, plague, and dislocation followed in their wake.

The devastation was enormous, and it was becoming clear that the Vandals had painted themselves into a corner. There was nothing left to plunder. Without stable homes, where they could grow and trade for their livelihoods, the Vandals and their allies would eventually starve, either in place or on the move. This was the basic fact that all the peoples of the migration period faced. They had spent ten years on the move. It had to end. Gunderic, though he was leader of only part of the coalition, would have had some say in the agreement that was eventually reached with Gerontius, and based on his later prowess in negotiations, it seems likely to me that the 21 year old Gaiseric would have been at least well-informed about the goings on. The agreement should sound familiar – in return for peace, and an agreement to defend the Spanish provinces as federati, the barbarians would receive the right to settle in four of those five provinces. Each constituent group of the great host would take a separate area – ten years together had not been enough to create a new shared identity. The Alans, who probably held a plurality, got Lusitania and Carthaginensis. The Siling Vandals took Baetica, which basically conforms to modern Andalucia, and the Hasding Vandals and Sueves split Gallaecia between them, which includes the modern region of Galicia plus parts of Portugal, Asturias, and Leon. 

The fortresses and towns of the regions were ordered to open their gates and receive garrisons. They would now be defended by the men they had been defended against just months earlier. The families were probably not given land of their own to farm, but were billeted on the residents and paid a fraction of the province’s revenues for their upkeep. This was pretty standard procedure for federate troops. It also explains why, even though there were probably at least 100,000 men, women and children thus settled, there is no clear archeological trace of their presence. They were there as guests, and had no time to put down the kind of roots that would be visible to us later. 

It turned out that Gerontius had sold the Vandals a pig in a poke. That’s unfair, he was probably negotiating in good faith(ish) but had wildly overestimated his chances of holding on to his position. He was also distracted, as he was still at war. He’d caught up with and killed Constans in Gaul and moved on to bottle up Constantine III in Arles. But when his troops heard that Honorius’ new competent man, Constantius, was approaching, they all abandoned Gerontius and renewed their vows of loyalty to Ravenna. Constantius is played by Michael Gambon and is not too far off from becoming co-emperor of the West. If you remember all of that, then you probably deserve some kind of certificate or something. If not, well, there it all was again.

You may also remember, or not, that the year we’re talking about here, 411, was the year after Alaric sacked Rome. You may also remember that after that signal event, Honorius made peace with Ataulf and sent him into Gaul to help deal with the several Caesars too many that had sprung up there. Before they were able to cross the Alps, though, Gerontius was attacked and killed by the troops that remained to him, apparently just for being a jerk. His puppet emperor Maximus escaped and set up a sad little court for himself in the Spanish mountains, but he was no real threat to anyone there.

With the elimination of Gerontius, Constantius moved to reassert Roman control over Spain. He was approached by the Vandals etc about reconfirming the foedus they had made with Gerontius, but Constantius wasn’t interested. His motivations aren’t known. It may have been that he already had a pet barbarian army in the form of the Visigoths and didn’t feel the need to over complicate things by allying with their rivals. It may have been that the local Spanish nobility pressured him to expel these people who had done so much damage in so little time. Or it could have been that they were simply too expensive. Given the state of the empire’s finances at that point, that seems a perfectly reasonable guess. It could have been some combination of all three. He put those Visigoths to work, as we know, helping to remove the Vandals and their allies from the picture, and possibly more importantly, from the payroll.

Meanwhile, the triple alliance was fragmenting. It had always been a fairly loose arrangement, with splinter groups going away to pursue their own agendas, and coming back or not. One chieftain of the Alans, called Goar, is noted as having made a separate peace with the Romans all the way back in Gaul. But now the Suevi en masse separated from the coalition and made their own arrangements. Smaller groups of Alans and Vandals did the same, or set off on their own, which was probably suicidal, but people dont always make great dicisions under pressure. The inverse was also true, some splinter groups of Goths, unhappy with their kings Wallia or Theodoric, for whatever reason, joined the remaining Vandals and Alans. There was also as ever the influx of disaffected peasants and escaped slaves that made their way into the barbarian bands as well. 

The Vandals and Alans that remained though, were becoming more tightly bound, as reflected by king Gunderic’s assumption of the title King of the Vandals and Alans. Exactly when or how this was proclaimed isn’t recorded, but it was probably some time after 418, as continuous military setbacks against the combined roman and Visigothic forces eliminated tribal leaders. The Silings in Baetica were almost destroyed by that date, and the Alans had lost their latest king and were under severe pressure. Gunderic’s consolidation was probably a recognition of wartime necessity. Like the Goths, the Vandals-Alan partnership was recognizing the need for a unified military structure under a single commander, a king. This new kingship was analogous to the transformation the Visigoths had undergone a decade earlier under Alaric. The pressures of constant migration and perpetual war was changing the diffuse tribes into unified armies. Note that I don’t call them nations, not yet. But we’re on the way. Armies need generals, and the Romans had shown that a general, to be truly effective, needed imperium – power over life and death and unquestionable authority. Combined with the tribal chiefs’ roles of religious leader and arbiter of disputes, the foundations of medieval kingship were being laid, and would find their first full expression under Gaiseric. At about the same time that Gunderic assumed the dual throne, the name Hasding began to be used for his royal dynasty, rather than the whole tribe.

In 418 the Vandals and Alans were apparently sufficiently humbled that Constantius felt comfortable withdrawing his Visigoths from Spain and gifting them the lands of Aquitaine, around Toulouse and Bordeaux that we talked about in episode five. Estimates place the total number remaining to Gunderic between 70 and 80 thousand, with an effective military strength of 15 to 20 thousand. I’ve been thinking that I need to give some time to the numbers of people we’re talking about, because between the sources and modern scholarship, it’s all over the shop, but I’ll save that for a later episode, just know that that’s coming. Point being, while an army of 15,000 is certainly not nothing, Constantius clearly felt confident that local forces could handle Gunderic from 418 onwards.

In the initial confusion after the Visigoths withdrew, conflict broke out between Gunderic’s force and the Suevi settled in the northwest. We don’t know who started it or why, maybe someone was settling some old score, or the Suevi had been egged on by Roman influence. Either way, the two groups, which had been marching together for 18 years at this point, met in pitched battle. The Suevi were defeated and forced back into the mountains of Asturias. The sources tell us that this was the first pitched open field battle that the vandals had won in their whole time on the move. I’m going to pause for a moment to let that sink in. In all this time, nearly two decades, ranging across the whole width and breadth of western europe, the Vandals had not until now won a battle where two armies lined up and faced each other. Yet they still had penetrated into the very heart of the Roman world. Arguably further than the Visigoths had, since the Julian passes into Italy make it more vulnerable to attack than Spain. That fact right there, that a force could push that far without winning a set piece battle, really drives home to me the weakness of the western empire in this moment of history.

After the defeat of the Suevi, there seems to have been two or three years of relative peace in Spain. Gunderic’s moment of glory didn’t last long, though. Pressure from Rome and simple logistical necessity drove the Vandals back into Baetica, where they were besieged themselves. They seemed on the edge of destruction themselves, but in 422 the new governor, whose name was Castinus, but it won’t be on the test, pushed for battle against his desperate enemy, rather than letting them starve. Any military commanders out there listening, one of the strongest lessons of history is this: never let your ego get in the way of a slam dunk. The Vandals defeated the Roman and Visigothic troops that they faced – the Visigoths supposedly betraying their commander in the course of the engagement. I’ve gotten into the habit of rejecting out of hand most stories of barbarian treachery in mid battle – it sounds like the excuses you hear out of some soccer players after a tough loss. There is a story that the Vandals carried a bible before them into battle as a kind of battle standard, and it’s not unreasonable to guess that if that is true, the victory may have strengthened the Vandal’s commitment to their Arian Christianity.

Their success was significant enough that the Vandals bought themselves another six years in Roman Spain. They sacked Cordoba and Seville, and along the way commandeered some ships and raided the Balearic Islands. I assume they brought back a couple of DJs to improve morale. They did not try to hold the cities they captured, since they sacked many of them more than once in this period, in between they were living off the land. During one of those sacks of Seville in 428, the chronicler Hydatius tells us that Gunderic “laid his hands on a church…[and] by the will of God he was seized by a demon and died.” Sometimes a description of an ancient person’s death can give us some idea what he or she died from… no such luck here. Hydatius is obviously making a point about God punishing the heretic barbarian for defiling an orthodox church, but if you really want to know how Gunderic died, Hydatius doesn’t have anything for you. 

Gunderic was immediately succeeded by Gaiseric. I feel like I’ve already gushed about Gaiseric enough at this point. So here’s some more. There is a roster of classic enemies in Roman history: Hannibal of Carthage, Vercingetorix of the Gauls, Boudicca of the Icinii, Zenobia of Palmyra, Attila, and a few others. That list is incomplete if it does not include Gaiseric the Lame. 

His succession, as far as we can tell, was uncontested. Gunderic did have sons, but they were too young to lead a warrior people under such conditions. At the time he stepped into his new position, Gaiseric would have been in his late thirties, and most of his life had been spent in continual migration and war. He took the throne at a pivotal time in the lives of his people. Since entering Spain, the Vandals had spent twenty years in nearly constant conflict. Starvation was a constant threat, and stability within the Roman empire would not be possible while the Empire was embroiled in its persistent crises of leadership and succession. Spain would be played out soon as a viable homeland, if it wasn’t already. Returning home through Gaul would not be possible. Gaiseric, as a brand-new ruler, made the decision to leave Spain and push across to Africa. Probably it was his first major decision as king.

It’s easy to look at a map, see the narrow gap of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea – eight miles at its narrowest point – and think that that couldn’t have been much of an obstacle. Let us remember that Alaric and his Visigoths were defeated in their attempts to cross to Scicily, though the Strait of Messina is only two miles wide. Strong currents in both places make the narrow water deceptively difficult to navigate, and the Germanic tribes in general had not gained an enormous familiarity with seafaring. Most ships were not large. The kind of ships that would be available to Gaiseric would probably be cargo and fishing vessels commandeered from the local population. Numbers from later naval operations tell us that ships could probably carry an average of seventy passengers each. We’ll get into the issue of population in a moment, but even a relatively small group presented obvious problems for a mass crossing. Supposing the crossing is successful, then there is the issue of supplies. The country surrounding Carthage was one of the most productive provinces of the empire, and had been for centuries. But Mauretania, the lands that faced Spain, was much poorer, more arid and mountainous. The vandals would not only have to make the crossing, but then navigate across 800 miles of hostile terrain to reach the promised land. Which they would then have to fight for.

The Vandals were by now a people accustomed to living on the move, but even so, it speaks to Gaiseric’s authority, and I have to assume charisma, that he was able to convince his nobility that such a crossing was their best option for long-term survival and success.

He did have a few external factors working in his favor, whether he knew about them or not – I think he probably did know about most of them. And to explain them, I’m going to have to take a digression back into the murky depths of imperial politics. 

In 428, Marion Cotillard, I’m sorry, Galla Placidia, was effective ruler of the western empire, as regent for her son, Valentinian III, who at this moment was about nine years old. Placidia, like any powerful ruler, male or female, had to rule through other powerful people, and in this moment there were three of them, all generals: Flavius Felix, Bonifacius, and our old friend, Flavius Aetius. Placidia, like Louis XIV or Lord Vetinari, played these three off each other, so that their focus would be on each other, rather than any threat to her power. Common tactic, difficult to get just right. 

Felix was the commander in chief of the legions in Italy, magister militum praesentalis. Aetius, you’ll remember as a hungry Michael Keaton, was magister militum per Gallias, the commander in chief of Gaul, and a man with an uncomfortably close relationship with the Huns. The third member of our triad was Bonifacius, who was comes of Africa. A Comes in this sense was the commander of a comitatensis, the mobile field armies of the empire. Bonifacius had taken the title more or less on his own initiative after refusing to work with Castinus in his ultimately doomed fight against the Vandals. After suffering one too many insults from the commander, Bonifacius sailed to Africa and essentially declared himself in charge. That move was validated as a fait accompli after Honorius died, in recognition of Bonifacius’ loyalty to little Valentinian. 

The triad began to fall apart in 427, when Felix suggested that Bonifacius was attempting to set himself up as a new emperor in Africa, and convinced Placidia to recall him to Ravenna and answer the accusation. Bonifacius was no fool, and refused the summons. But that refusal, of course, was as good as a confession as far as Felix was concerned, and he sent an Italian army to Africa. But Bonifacius was a perfectly competent commander, and defeated Felix’s Army. That defeat discredited Felix, and Aetius, the sly fox, saw an opportunity. He had had a run of successes in Gaul, keeping the Visigoths in their box and defeating the Franks, and the combination of popularity for him and weakness on the part of Felix could only mean one thing: Promotion! Aetius was made a partner of Felix, and less than a year later, in 430, Felix and his wife were executed for plotting against Aetius. The tangled web we weave.

All of that meant that once again the court at Ravenna was distracted, and Gaiseric seized the moment and invaded Mauretania in 429.

That story I just told, by the way, is not universally accepted. It’s not the one you’ll find in Procopius’ history of the Vandal War, for instance. Writing 150 years after the fact, Procopius ignores Felix entirely, and suggests that Bonifacius had contracted with Gunderic to help him in his rivalry with Aetius. Specifically, to help defend him against the army sent when he’d refused to appear and answer charges of treachery. 

Saint Augustine, who probably had the closest view, tells yet a different story: according to him, the Moors, meaning the Berber tribes of the desert and Atlas mountains, took advantage of the civil unrest to mount a large invasion of Roman territory, and both Felix and Bonifacius called in barbarians for support against them. But the source is secondary and vague, so those barbarians might have been the Vandals, or they might have been Gothic troops. There are at least two other versions of the story as well, but I won’t continue to bore you with those. 

But the chances of a Roman invitation to Africa under any circumstances is unlikely, for one very obvious reason. If you were fighting a war in modern Tunisia and called in reinforcements, why would you have them land in Morocco at the furthest possible point from where you needed them? And why would you then wait for months as they fought their way across the continent to get to you, potentially losing strength the whole way? It doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m of the opinion, as a non-historian, that the decision was made by Gaiseric, possibly in consultation with Gunderic before he died, and executed on his initiative. The chaos of the Roman rivalries contributed to the decision, but not directly.

So how many people are we cramming onto these boats that can only carry seventy passengers each? Famously, in his writings on the invasion, the bishop of Carthage, Victor Vitensis tells us that Gaiseric undertook a census of his fighting men before setting out and found that he had 80,000. That is far too many, if we are counting only fighting men. But if you were Gaiseric, why would you only count fighters for an undertaking like this? He surely knew he was taking everyone, so presumably the first obvious step is to count everyone. Most of the historians I read willingly accept a total population, men, women, and children, of 80,000. Possibly Victor Vitensis simply confused his story, as it would be an easy mistake to make. Generally the rule of thumb is that in a population like the Vandals, there would be four or five noncombatants for every soldier. Which gives a range of between 13 and 16,000 as a fighting force, possibly as high as 20,000, since by this point Gaiseric would be able to muster just about every able bodied man of fighting age.

Obviously, to transport 80,000 souls would require a lot of shipping. Presumably it became the mission of Gaiseric’s army for weeks or months to range along the coast of Baetica and coerce, cajole, and threaten every crew of every vessel of sufficient size to take part in the operation. To make the crossing in one go would have required over a thousand vessels. Years later, when planning an invasion of Vandal Africa (um. spoilers) both the Eastern and Western empire would have to scour the whole mediterranean to assemble 1000 ships, so the Vandal’s crossing must have been a smaller affair, with many trips made to ferry the whole mass of them across the straits of Gibraltar. All of the people waiting would have had to concentrate in a few places in order to embark, which meant they would have to be fed. Once landed, they would have to be organized and spread out, likewise, so they could be fed. It was a logistical challenge akin to the one presented by the Goths crossing of the Danube, and remember, that project had had the infrastructure of the Roman empire behind it, and was still a nightmare. That Gaiseric was able to make this crossing happen suggests to me both that it had been in the works for some time, and that Gaiseric was a very capable organizer of men. 

There’s no narrative of the crossing that survives, but failure would certainly have been recorded, so the whole thing presumably went relatively smoothly. Once on the African side of the Strait, the Vandals (and the Alans, let’s not forget about them), broke into several columns and began to make their way eastward. We can assume that they were following the Roman road system, and so can guess at the routes they took. A fascinating document, called the Peutinger Tabula, survives from the 13th Century, and may be a copy of a Roman original. It is, simply put, a road map of most of Europe and some of Asia, though we might call it a schematic today. I will of course provide a link. It shows us that the Vandals would have had at least half a dozen possible routes open to them as they moved along the North African coast.

That their landing could have been uncontested seems incredible, but that seems to have been the case. The African provinces, like everywhere else, suffered from a manpower shortage, and Mauritania Tingitana, the site of the landings, was both relatively poor, and relatively distant from the home bases of the mobile field armies. Its garrison troops probably hunkered down behind their walls and hoped that the invaders would move on. 

Move on they did, and modern estimates place their eastward movement at a rate of about 4 miles per day, which for such a large group was actually pretty snappy. Sources on their march are scant to non-existent, but there must have been small skirmishes and sieges along the way. It’s probable that Gaiseric hung on to some of the ships used in the crossing to shadow his columns and ease supply issues. Cities fell with startling ease. Many were unwalled, and all of north africa suffered from the same dissatisfaction among the lower classes as the rest of the empire. On top of that, ongoing religious conflicts had weakened the unity of the whole area. North Africa had been a hotbed of Donatism, one of Saint Augustine’s perennial antagonists, as well as populist religious movements like the circumcelliones, which weakened the cohesion of the whole community. And here is where I tease a later episode about heresies in the early church. This shall be known henceforth as the episode of many promises.

Bonifacius held back his forces until the Vandals were approaching Hippo Regius. He met the Vandals in open battle near the city, but was driven back. Gaiseric left enough men to seal off the city, while the rest of his forces continued their pillaging eastward. 

I’ve talked about pillaging a lot in these ten episodes. It becomes part of the background, but every once in a while it’s worth pausing to really think about what it means. The vast majority of the victims of the barbarians were peasants, in the roman context coloni, tenant farmers who lived in villages on or near the gargantuan estates where they worked. These were not rich people, so when a Vandal foraging party arrived, there was a very real possibility that the food and goods they took were the difference between survival and death. A few sacks of grain and an amphorae of olive oil loaded on a horse, plus two dead chickens tucked into a German’s belt doesn’t sound like much, but it very well might be the last stores these people had. With very little recourse, the owner of the estate almost certainly didn’t live on it; he lived in the nearest city. He might even live as far away as Carthage or Rome. This farm and these people were nothing more than a line on a ledger. The starvation of a family translated only as a slight reduction in some faraway senator’s income. He will eventually move to try to protect his investment, but any such action will come far too late for the victims of the invasion. And all of that is just speaking in terms of material losses. It says nothing of the trauma suffered by the people who lived through it, many of whom were abused, women raped, some murdered.

All of this kind of thing has been suffered by many people across most of history, but I try very hard not to lose sight of the suffering of the individual in the broad and sometimes repetitive sweep of history. It can be too easy to do that.

Hippo Regius, where we started this episode, was a rich and important harbor on the coast of modern Algeria. The town of Annaba sits on the site today, if you bring it up on google earth, you can see the ruins of Hippo just south of the modern town, including very clearly the outline of the Basilica – its the rectangle with the semicircle at one end. The basilica church was the seat of Saint Augustine, who was [] years old at the time the city was invested, and would die before the siege was lifted. Augustine deserves his own episode, and probably will get one later. For now, I just want to note that at no time did he consider leaving his post. He urged other bishops to stay in their cities and minister to their flocks; it seems that very few did. The port of Hippo was never blockaded, he could have easily left at any time. It only adds to my respect for the man. 

Hippo withstood the siege for fourteen months. The Vandals could not bring enough men to bear on it at any one time, since their supply chain was dependent on their ability to live off the land. In July of 431, they abandoned the siege. The condition of the country by then was described by the bishop of Carthage, one Capreolus, who had to explain his compatriots’ absence from a Synod in Ephesus: “Travel is impeded by the excessive multitude of enemies and the huge devastation of the provinces everywhere which presents … one place where all the inhabitants have been killed, another where they have been driven to flight, and a wretched vista of destruction spreading out far and wide and in every direction.”

Rome finally heaved itself into action. In 432, Western and Eastern forces converged on the beleaguered provinces. The Eastern troops were led by Aspar, the part Alan general that I introduced in episode eight, where he was played by Eric Bana. By the way, for Gaiseric, I’m picturing Jerome Flynn, from Game of Thrones. Anyway, Aspar and Bonifacius attempted to decide the war in a pitched battle outside the walls of Carthage, but were again defeated by Gaiseric’s generalship and light cavalry. After the defeat, politics intervened again, and Bonifacius was forced to go to Italy and challenge Aetius’ growing power. He met Aetius in battle and defeated him, but died of his wounds that same day. Aspar took his place at the head of the Roman Government in Carthage. 

Not long after that engagement at Carthage, Gaiseric finally took Hippo and made it his capital. Some sources say it was sacked and razed, but both archeology and common sense suggest that is not the case. Why destroy a city you intend to use as your home base? The war dragged on for three more inconclusive years. Vandals robbed and enslaved the populace in the regions they controlled, and were particularly harsh toward the Orthodox clergy and local aristocrats, probably because they were the richest and most loyal supporters of the empire. 

Gaiseric had fought the Romans to a stalemate, and Ravenna was beginning to realize that. The Romans were clearly not strong enough to push the Vandal out of Africa, but for the time being, Vandals could not hope to take the lynchpin that was Carthage. Meanwhile, Gaiseric was coming to the same conclusion. His civilian population was suffering almost as much deprivation as the locals, as material for plunder and forage became scarce. Gaiseric needed to consolidate his winnings, make the land productive again, and strengthen his hold over the territories he had won. To that end, Aspar and Gaiseric concluded a treaty in February of 435. It stipulated that Carthage would remain untouched, part of the territory the Vandals had taken would pay a tribute to the Romans, and the Vandals would live as federates in the areas they already occupied. The majority settled in Numidia, along the coast near Hippo, close to their king. Aspar probably left soon after, as he was needed back in Constantinople to deal with the increasing combined threat of the Huns and the Persians. 

The demands on Roman federate troops had apparently become very lax, if the behavior of the Vandals after 435 is any indication. Gaiseric pressured Romans who joined his court to convert to Arianism, banished those that refused and confiscated their property. In 438 they conducted seaborn raids on Sicily. They may be nominally in the employ of the Roman empire, but for all practical purposes, they could do as they liked. And Gaiseric had plans to cast off even the thin cloak of subservience that had been thrown over him, with the sudden and daring capture of Carthage in 439.

The city fell on October 19 of that year, seemingly victim of Vandal surprise and a garrison weakened by trouble elsewhere in the empire. It was sacked, and frankly I’ll spare you another description of sacking. It’s predictably horrible.

Again Gaiseric targeted the church and nobility. All the church’s property was confiscated, all the priests banished. The churches themselves were all closed, several converted to Arian use. Most of the Roman nobility was expelled, which makes sense, Gaiseric would have no use for rich and powerful representatives of Rome in his new capital. 

It was a new era. After 40 years of migration, the Vandals had taken possession of one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean. Two thirds of Rome’s grain originated in North Africa. I’ll say that again. Two thirds of the grain that fed Rome came from North Africa. And now Gaiseric was the undisputed master of it. He had the mother of all bargaining chips. He also now had the wealth of the local nobility, shipyards, and sailors. At around this time he changed his title. The king of the Vandals and Alans became simply the King of Africa. He had achieved what no barbarian, Celtic, German, Arab, or any other, had, an fully independent kingdom, carved out of the Roman Empire’s soft underbelly. The Vandals started a new calendar for themselves, with the fall of Carthage at year 1. And in Ravenna and Constantinople, if you listened very carefully, you could hear the faint popping sound of powerful men’s heads exploding. 

This episode ended up being longer than I’d intended, so I’ll get through this end-of stuff as quickly as I can. Next week we’ll return to the Hungarian plain, and catch up with Atilla and his court. It will be a little bit different in form, but that’s all I’ll say for now. As always, please rate and review, if you can, wherever you listen. Check out Twitter, @darkagespod, I’m getting better at it. There is a facebook page, just search Dark Ages Podcast for that if you’re interested, I’m less good at that, and Zuckerberg is always pointing out that I don’t post enough. Last but not least there is the instagram account, also @darkagespod, where I post a relevant image or two, and sometimes an irrelevant one. Thank you all very much for listening, there’s been a big bump in traffic between the last two episodes, and it’s really gratifying to see your interest. 

Roman Provinces of West Africa

The Roman Invasion of Spain

The Peutinger Tabula



“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod (incomptech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

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