The Vandals Part I
c. 200 BCE to 408 CE
I introduce the Vandals with a cold. The Vandals don’t have a cold, I have a cold. So, sorry about that.
The Vandals rose up next door to the Goths, with whom they would have a complicated relationship. This episode tracks their early migration into Gaul and then Spain, and talks a little bit about what their home life would have been like. There’s also a bonus tribe, as we sketch a bit about the Alans.
And as promised, I learned to pronounce “Przeworsk”
Report on the Archaeology of the Przeworsk Culture in Hungary
Sketches of various Przeworsk artifacts
Article on with Maps and pictures
Some photographs of Wielbark Artifacts for comparison
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod (incomptech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Hello and welcome to the Dark Ages Podcast
This is episode nine: The Vandals Part o
Look, I tried to come up with an interesting and engaging title, but nothing jumped out at me for this one, Okay? I’ll do better next time. Besides, The Vandals, Part One is simple, straightforward, easy to remember.
Last time I promised to explain why there were Germans in North Africa, and what they had to do with Atilla the Huns relations with the Romans. And I will… eventually. This episode is going to be introducing the Vandals: the specific group of Germans who would eventually end up in Africa, and describe the roundabout route they took to get there. This shouldn’t take as long as it did for the Goths, because so much of the groundwork had already been laid. Going back to talk Vandals also gives me a chance to talk about some aspects of Germanic life that I missed in those episodes about the Goths. So the first part will be the narrative, the second some interesting facts or theories or educated guesses about life in north-central Europe 1800 years ago. Should be fun. It may end up being a collection of digressions, but at least they’ll be interesting digressions.
I also have a small correction which is probably silly to worry about, but it’s been bugging me. Waaaay back in episode 1, I mentioned a battle between Romans and Goths under the leadership of Cniva, at a place that I called “Bare-oh-ee”, in my defense, that’s what it looks like to an English speaker. But it turns out that it is in fact pronounced “Veria ” because it’s Greek and my first guess about Greek words is never right. Anyway, small thing but I felt the need to mention it. Still not sure about the pronunciation of Cniva, though.
Moving on to get along.
We are not talking about the Huns today. Or about the staggering arrogance displayed by the Romans when they decided to ignore that treaty they’d signed after getting totally waxed by Atilla. Well, maybe we will be a little bit, we’ll see. What we are talking about today is a tribe that has been popping up here and there at the edges of the story since the beginning. It’s time to bring the Vandals fully out on the stage.
So, back in the time machine again, to head backward. Ready?
The Vandals don’t have a great single ancient historian in their corner. There is no Vandal Jordanes, making an effort to transmit the ancestral tale of his people. So in terms of origins and early events, we have to depend on Roman sources which are not necessarily sympathetic or accurate, and archeology, which is vague and hard to interpret. What that means is that just about every statement I make in the next few minutes should start with “it seems that”, and end with “but we can’t know for sure”.
It is clear that the Vandals and Goths were neighbors from the beginning. Both spoke Germanic languages, and the few surviving snippets of Vandalic make it appear to be very similar to Gothic. You may remember from way back that the Goths probably originated in Sweden and crossed over to the Pomeranian shore of the Baltic Sea. The Vandals are believed to have arisen just next door, along the shores on either side of the Kattgatt, the strait that separates modern denmark from Norway and Sweden. Place names are frequently used for this kind of historical reconstruction, and we find clusters of names possibly related to the Goths in southeast sweden, and similar clusters relate to the Vandals in southwestern sweden, southern norway, and the northernmost tip of the Jutland peninsula. This kind of linguistic evidence though is very difficult to interpret and subject to loads of academic debate, so we’re not going to wade any further into that today, but it gives us a starting place – an Urheimat, to use an antiquated and slightly loaded word.
At some time in the second century BCE, for reasons unknown, the Vandals began to move from those Scandinavian homelands southward into the interior of Germany. They settled in the lands between the Elbe and Vistula rivers, and along the Oder.
The first mention of the Vandals is in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, which makes them the earliest attested East Germanic tribe. In that work, they’re grouped together with the Burgundian, the Gutones, and a few other tribes. The Gutones, I failed to mention, are thought to be the ancestors of the Goths, though the Romans didn’t make that connection at the time. Later sources use the names Vandili and Lugi nearly interchangeably. It’s possible the Vandals were a constituent of a Confederation known as the Lugi, possibly bound together by a shared devotion to a pair of twin gods called the Elk Brothers, but all of that is extremely conjectural. The Vandals were separated into two broad tribal groups, known as the Hasdings and the Silings. Those tribal designations probably existed all the way back in their Scandinavian homelands, with the Hasdings believed to carry the name of a royal clan of Norway, and the Silings name related to the island of Zealand in denmark – Sjaelland in modern Danish. But again, these etymologies are just very educated guesses.
Their arrival in central Europe more or less coincides with the appearance of that archaeological complex I promised I’d tell you about, and I have learned to pronounce it just for the occasion: the Przeworsk (P’sheh-vosk) culture. P-R-Z-E-W-O-R-S-K, named after the town in Poland where some of the most important finds were made. That culture seems to have slightly predated the Wielbark culture of the Goths, and was gradually displaced southward by the Wielbark. As it moved, it picked up influences from the existing Celtic La Tene and Jastorf cultures, finally settling in two separate sections that maintained cultural contact with each other. The Goths also encountered and incorporated bits of the older Celtic cultures they encountered, I didn’t talk about that at the time because, well, iron age europe is complex and mysterious, yo.
It may be that the Vandals were high status members of the Lugian confederation, and that internal conflicts led to a separation with the other east german groups. Both the Goths and the Langobards – who we will be talking about later – trace important parts of their ancestral foundation stories to battles in which they threw off Vandal domination. Whether these struggles were part of the Marcomannic wars or a separate conflict isn’t clear. There’s also confusion about where the Vandals stood in relation to the Romans in those wars; Peter the Patrician records that the Hasdings allied with Marcus Aurelius against the Marcomanni, while Eutropius lists the Vandals among the tribes defeated by the philosopher-emperor. It’s possible that both were correct, and that different clans or sub-tribes of the vandals took different sides in that complex and destructive conflict. Either way, the Marcomannic wars brought the Vandals into much closer and more frequent contact with the roman empire.
After the war, the Hasding Vandals settled on either side of the northern Carpathians, and around the headwaters of the Tisza River, under roman protection, though they were bound by treaty to keep their settlements at least forty stadia from the borders of roman dacia. That’s about four and a half miles, for those of you not up on your roman surveying techniques. Which, honestly, catch up people. Be better.
The Siling vandals remained in the lands further to the north along the Vistula and Oder Rivers, concentrated in modern Moravia and Silesia.
You might be thinking – Siling Vandals, is that why it’s called Silesia? Unless you’re thinking “Where the heck is Silesia?” In which case, check the map that I will link to this episode. Probably. I hope. Sigh. Briefly, Silesia is a historical region mostly in Southwest Poland, which is today centered around the city of Wroclaw (Vratswav). But that question lets me mention another thing I should have brought up earlier – sorry, this is becoming the digression episode. If you asked a German historian, especially a 19th century one, he would say that absolutely Silesia is named for the SIling vandals. If you were to ask a Polish historian, he would say that the region is named for a river and a mountain Slesk, and that those names are derived from the old Polish word sleg which means wet or damp. The names are similar in just about all the surrounding languages, so whatever the source, it is very old. But this kind of nationally-oriented historical debate is an issue you run into from time to time when researching the early dark ages. Or the Migration Period to be more specific. The German historians of the 19th century were keen to construct a history of the Germans as a world-historical force on par with the Romans, and so tended to emphasize a heroic version of the movements of the various barbarian tribes, as well as a unity among them that clearly did not exist. Slightly later Slavic historians had similar goals, and all through central europe where the german and slavic populations have bumped up against each other, you can find these kinds of competing interpretations. I’m not qualified to weigh in on this particular issue, and it’s ultimately irrelevant to the story anyway, but this is something to be aware of . The first round of really serious historiography of the migration period took place within the romantic and nationalistic projects that all european countries were engaged in through the 19th century, and that led to some arguments ahead of the evidence. The ongoing project of today’s historians has been to correct some of those errors.
Vandals seem not to have participated in the great Gothic invasions of the third century, and were generally quiet through the first half of the 200s. It’s possible they were dealing with their own conflicts with their gothic neighbors. We see in the archeology around this time a severe contraction of the Przeworsk culture in the east, as it is replaced by the Chernykov culture associated with the Goths. But we have to be careful not to read too much into changes like this, as a change in material culture does not necessarily mean a political change. It could be that contact between two cultures resulted in the adoption of some practices, like pottery techniques, while tribal identity remained unchanged. Think of it this way: I watch a lot of British television, and as a result have a habit of calling the part of a car that covers the engine a “bonnet”, not a “hood”. That’s an element of British culture that I have adopted, but it does not imply my transformation into anything other than the ugly american that I am. Similarly, the presence of one style of pottery rather than another does not necessarily mean that the village where it was found has recategorized itself as Gothic rather than Vandal or any other ethnicity. It may just mean that they liked those pots better. That being said, there are Roman sources that mention battles fought by the Hasdings and the Gepids against the Tervingi and the Taifali, with the Gothic side gradually gaining the upper hand over the Vandals.
In the 270s and 280s Vandal fighters took part in a few raiding expeditions into Roman territory, usually as part of coalitions with Burgundian or other tribes. Some sources list Sarmationasas their partners, which doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense geographically. It’s possible that the Romans confused the Vandal cavalry for Sarmatians, as their kit looked similar, and the Vandals used horses in war more commonly than other Germanic tribes. The inevitable defeat of those raids resulted in the expected treaties, and Vandal units began to serve in the legions. Some of them eventually rose quite high in the ranks; I think I mentioned Stilicho, played by James Purefoy, was of Vandal descent.
The world was changing around the Vandals in the fourth century. At some point Christianity made its appearance north of the Danube and spread among the Vandals, probably through Gothic contacts and perhaps active missionary work. As a result, the Vandals adopted Arianism, like their neighbors, which would lead to conflict later. Its probable, as historian Torsten Jacobsen notes, that the theological differences between the Arian faith and the Roman Orthodoxy were too subtle to be of much interest to your average Vandal warrior, but that being an Arian became part of the Germanic identity that set him apart from his Roman neighbor.
In the broader world of northern europe, a process of consolidation was underway, as the longstanding collection of small tribes coalesced into larger more powerful coalitions. The tribes on the upper Rhine became the powerful Alemannic coalition, along with the Thuringians and Bavarians, while those of the Lower Rhine became the Franks. In the north the Chauci became the Saxons, and in the far northern ancestral lands of Scandinavia arose the Jutes and the Danes appeared. All of this put pressure on the smaller population of Vandals, who were already dealing with the increasing power of the Goths to their East. But of course, none of this compared to the convulsions that arrived, riding pillion on the horses of the Huns.
Speaking of the Huns, I have another digression, and this is as good a place for it as any. You remember that huge single payment of 6,000 pounds of gold that Atilla demanded and received in 443? I said at the time that that amount of Gold would be worth about 130 million today. But that’s a terrible way of comparing the currency value. Instead, I fished around for some data on wages and currency, and here’s what i came up with:
A common soldier in the army at the time of Theodosius cost the empire about 6 solidi, or gold coins, per year. There were 72 solidi per roman pound of gold. So the lump payment made to Atilla in 443 of 6000 pounds of gold was equivalent to 432,000 solidi. Enough to pay 72,000 soldiers for a year. So that puts the scale of the thing in a whole different perspective doesn’t it?
I cobbled it together from a few different places. More than anything, that should give you a good idea of how hard it can be to compare the two wildly different economies of the late Empire and the post-industrial economy of today. Nigh-on impossible. Anyway, long story short: I did some math.
The domino effect triggered by the Huns’ defeat of the Tervingi brought new pressure on the Vandals, as well as new partners. The Alans were an Iranian people who had been pushed ahead of the Huns along with everyone else. They seem to have been everywhere in this period, and very clearly not working with a unified agenda. When the Vandals made the decision to seek refuge inside the empire, driven as much by food shortages as by fear of the invaders, a large group of Alans traveled with them. The alliance seems an odd one, given the wide ethnic and linguistic gulf between the two people, but it would last in some form or other for the next generations. Maybe they bonded over a shared love of horses.
The great coalition left their homelands about 400, and moved west. They entered Roman Pannonia and plundered across the territory. It’s unlikely they had any particular goal in mind, other than finding safety and sustenance, and their route was probably determined more by the roman road system than by any strategic considerations. The incursion moved through panonia, up the Danube through Noricum and Raetia before moving out of the empire along the east bank of the rhine. In the process the coalition had acquired new members, both from inside and outside the empire. Disaffected peasants and escaped slaves joined the migration, just as they had the Goths in Moesia, and as they shifted course northwest, the Germanic Sueves joined in as well.
Roman sources claim that the vandals were led in their migration by a king called Godegisel, but it would be a mistake to see this movement as a coordinated army, with a singular goal. It was made up of a collection of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of clans and subtribes, each with their own priorities and leadership. It would have been impractical to try to move such a huge group together anyway, the logistics of feeding a crowd of hundreds of thousands was simply out of reach. Instead, foraging parties formed from a few population units and went out looking for provisions for their families. These parties probably numbered in the hundreds, maybe the larger ones a couple thousand, thus we may hear of the Romans encountering one of these parties and defeating “The Vandals” and that victory having no effect on the movement or numbers of the larger collective. Without land to farm for themselves, the three tribes had to keep on the move – that probably more than anything else is what kept them all together, raiding in any one place could only supply them for a short time. Movement was slow nonetheless, and it took six years to complete their journey to the Rhine.
The Roman border defense system had adapted in response to the large-scale gothic raids of the previous century. Rather than trying to stop barbarians at the frontier, the border forts would alert local commanders, who would mobilize highly mobile, cavalry based field armies to meet the threat. The border forts would then prevent returning invaders from leaving Roman territory with their spoils. This worked because in general the tribes were not very talented at siege craft and would bypass the forts, since attempting to take them would be a waste of time, but by doing so they left a series of strong points in their rear. I’m sure you can see the problem here though. The strategy depended on strong and well-led field armies that were capable of responding to threats within their area of operation. There were a limited number of threats that could be handled at once, and if a commander pulled troops from one theater into another – as, say, Stilicho did to assist him both against Alaric’s and Radagaisus’ Goths and in service of his various power moves against the East, the garrison troops would be left unsupported and completely unequipped to meet incursions of any size. So it was when the combined groups of Vandals, Alans, and Sueves arrived at and crossed over the Rhine in 406. Numbered in the hundreds of thousands, there was nothing the border guards could do, and messages were sent out to the landowners of Gaul: arm yourselves, you’re going to be on your own for a bit.
In Stilicho’s defense, he had reached an agreement with the Franks of the lower rhine to assist in the border defense, and the Burgundians the upper. The Franks did fight at least one battle with the oncoming masses. That battle is actually a little bit funny, in the sense that we don’t actually know who won it. A passage in Gregory of Tours’ history of the Franks records that the Franks and Vandals fought a great battle in 406 in which thousands of Vandals were killed along with their King Godesigel, only saved from total destruction by the arrival of Alan allies. But Orosius’ history, which was written closer to the event and wasn’t sponsored by a Frankish king, records a defeat for the Franks in that year, though it appears that Godesigel was killed in the process. It’s possible that two different battles took place and the chroniclers confused or conflated them, or it could be that Gregory was happy to record Frankish victories without too much concern about accuracy. The sheer weight of numbers of the oncoming mass meant that it ultimately mattered very little.
Saint Jerome is considered a reliable source for the Vandal’s sack of Gaul. Even though he was writing in far away Jerusalem at the time, he was impressively well informed through a vast correspondence network. He mentions Mainz as the first town sacked by the Three tribes, who then fanned out across Gaul. The garrisons were completely outmatched, when there were garrisons at all, and the nobility, who had the option of simply moving, had little incentive to defend the common people of the region. So Gaul, which had been under Roman protection since the days of Julius Caesar, suffered. The common’s willingness to go over to the invaders’ side was frequently noted by contemporaries.
A priest named Salvian wrote in The Government of God that:
“Meanwhile the poor are being robbed, the widows groan, orphans are trodden down, so that many, even those of good birth, and have enjoyed a liberal education, seek refuge with the enemy to escape death under the trials of the general persecution. They seek among the barbarians Roman mercy, since they cannot endure the barbarous mercilessness they find among the Romans.” Content aside, I imagine Salvian pushed back from his desk and took a little sip of self-congratulatory wine for that last line.
The list of cities that Jerome says fell to the invaders is simply a list of important towns in Roman Gaul: Worms, Speyer, Strasbourg, Metz, Reims, Amiens, Angouleme, Arles, Toulouse, and many others. Coin hoards found across France can be traced to this time, as families sought to hide their valuables from the pillage, and were unable to return to them, for one reason or another. Partly in response to this chaos, partly for his own advancement, a Commander in Britannia named Constantine, who you may remember from episode five, was acclaimed as emperor by his troops and set sail across the channel to put Gaul to rights. He abandoned the Britons in the process, of course, but omelets, eggs, etc. We call this man Constantine III, as he did win grudging recognition from the Government in Ravenna as he pushed the Vandals south and made new agreements with the Franks and Burgundians on the border.
You might further remember that Stilicho commissioned Alaric the Visigoth to help him against Constantine, and it was this agreement that ultimately led to Stilicho’s downfall.
With Italy distracted by its own internal problems (and Alaric) Constantine pushed to add Spain to his domains. He sent two generals to attack and defeat the legions loyal to Honorius, but they did little to cover the passes of the Pyrenees, and the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves took the opportunity to leave Gaul and move into the rich and lightly defended territories of Hispania.
The barbarians probably moved to Spain to avoid getting caught in the increasingly heated civil conflict that was breaking out in Gaul. They would have found the country easy pickings. Spain had been part of the Roman empire since Republican times, and was as far away from the volatile frontiers as it was possible to be. There were rich mineral deposits, good farmland, especially along the Ebro River, and excellent ports facing the Mediterranean. Settling here must have seemed a golden opportunity to the Vandals, and circumstances were, for the moment, in their favor.
This episode has been short on personalities, I know, but next time I’ll remedy that as I introduce the ruler who would eventually become the eminence gris of Mediterranean diplomacy: Gaiseric, King of the Vandals and Alans. But I promised at the top of this episode that I’d talk a bit about life in the Vandal’s old homelands. And lest you think that’s hardly relevant at this point, the lifestyle of the people left behind in central and northern europe changed little, even after the great migrations. So this can give us a bit more context for future events in later episodes.
Most Vandal settlements seem to have consisted of relatively isolated cluster villages, surrounded by fields that had been laboriously cut out of the woods. The Germans had adopted crop-rotation techniques by Roman times, which allowed villages to remain occupied and productive over multiple generations, as evidenced by large, long used cemeteries. The eastern tribes, including the Vandals, also controlled the lucrative trade route from the Balkan Sea to the Mediterranean known as the Amber trail. What was the major product that moved along the Amber trail, do you think? The Germans controlled the middle section of this route that brought Amber, as well as furs, timber, and human hair for wig making, from the Baltic tribes of the North down to Italy and sent the Luxury Goods of the empire back in return. Technology and culture also flowed northward along the trade routes. Roman-made goods are only found in the graves of the wealthy, though. Romanness apparently did not penetrate very deeply into Vandal society, and the vast majority got along just fine with the things they could produce themselves or trade for locally.
Local crafts included pottery – though the potters wheel wasn’t introduced until the third century. Vandal smiths were talented in both iron and bronze, with weapons production highly respected, and finely made bronze brooches a frequent find in burials. The Vandals waged war against their neighbors, but these were mostly small affairs of cattle rustling and minor border disputes, large-scale conflicts were rare. When he was fighting, the Vandal warrior was more likely to be mounted than most of his Germanic cousins, and primarily used the lance and a straight sword adapted from the Roman spatha. Bows were used primarily for hunting, and small projectiles in general don’t seem to have been a part of Vandal tactics, even much later in their history. Unlike Gothic burials, Vandals did provide weapons to their dead, so we have a good idea of their kit, especially a large number of distinctive, conical shield bosses. I’ll include links to a couple of galleries of Przeworsk artifacts in the show notes.
Houses in these villages were generally made of wood, with turf or thatched roofs, and usually two-roomed. Some of them were half-sunk construction, with the center of the house excavated about two or three feet and then lined with timbers. Similar construction would be found in Anglo-Saxon Britain four hundred years later. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The majority of the population spent most of their time growing and preparing food. Vandals and other Germans grew a mix of cereal grains, vegetables, and pulses like broad beans. Like most humans through most of history, cereals were the central pillar of the Germanic diet. Cows and pigs could be kept in the woodlands, and sheep provided wool. I feel it can be hard for modern people, who have been raised in general prosperity, to grasp how tenuous life based on subsistence agriculture was and is. A single bad harvest, or an outbreak of disease among the livestock, could mean slow starvation. To take an example from a later period, a farmer in 14th century England could expect every grain of wheat he planted to yield four grains when it was harvested. One of those grains would be held back for the next harvest, which left just 3 to feed the family and maybe if there was some left over, to sell or to trade. By comparison, a modern farmer can expect a return of 26 grains to every one planted. It took very little to disrupt food production and trigger a famine. Bad weather, fire, an outbreak of disease among the livestock, could reduce that yield from four grains to two, or gods forbid, none. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the massive dislocations that followed the arrival of the Huns was enough to stoke fears of starvation, and the resulting migrations.
Just by way of contrast, I thought I’d also give a quick sketch of the Alans, to highlight the diversity of peoples that were pushed to abandon their traditional lives by the huns’ invasion. The Alans had been one of the many pastoral tribes that occupied the steppes between the Black and Caspian seas, north of the Caucasus Mountains. They were first mentioned by Roman sources in the first century CE and frequently raided the Caucasian provinces of both the Roman and Persian Empires. They never formed a cohesive group, though they were clearly numerous, they appear just about everywhere throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. Alan tribes, like the Huns and other steppe peoples, were semi-nomadic, and lived alongside their herds of sheep, cattle, and horses in wagons covered with birch-bark. Ammianus marcelinus spent some time describing the Alans, like so:
“They drive before them their flocks and herds to their pasturage … and are especially careful of their horses…The young men think it beneath their dignity to walk …they are all trained by careful discipline of various sorts to become skilful warriors…Nearly all of the Alan men are of great stature and beauty; their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce; the lightness of their armor renders them rapid in their movements; and they are in every respect equal to the huns, only more civilized in their food and their manner of life…danger and war are a pleasure to the Alans, and among them that man is called happy who has lost his life in battle.”
Tha Alans were the only non-germanic people to make lasting settlements in Western Europe during the migration period, and archeological finds related to them have been made in France and in Spain. Some of the skulls found indicate that the Alans, like the Huns, sometimes practiced skull elongation. Yet Ammianus describes them as big and beautiful. So there goes my theory that it was the weird heads that made the Huns different from other barbarians. Scarification is still on the menu, I guess. Good thing none of this is recorded, I would sound like an idiot.
That these two peoples, Vandals and Alans, managed to hang together for as long as they did, and accomplish as much as they did, is to me, remarkable. Next episode, the Vandals reach their true potential, under their cunning, driven, cruel, and brilliant king Gaiseric, as they do what no barbarian group had yet managed: found an independent kingdom within the Roman empire.I find the Vandals the most intriguing of the tribes that we’ve covered so far, probably because their accomplishments were so remarkable, and yet we know comparatively little about them. I was only able to find one book-length work on the Vandals in English, and I’ll be frank, a lot of padding was needed to make it book length. In fact it had a lot of good stuff about the economics of late antiquity. If anyone knows of any others, feel free to drop a line. I can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook, Dark Ages Podcast, and twitter or instagram, @darkagespod. Let me know about good books you’re reading, or thoughts on the latest episode, or whatever your social media heart desires. Seriously, my need for feedback and validation is quite pathetic when witnessed in person. You could also encourage my unhealthy obsessions by rating and reviewing the show on Apple podcasts, or simply by subscribing there, or wherever you get your internet based infotainment. That’s such an awful word, isn’t it? Infotainment? I’m now rambling, so until next time, take care. Oh, and that book is called A History of the Vandals by Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen, by the way, just in case you’re interested.