14. More Serpent than Dove

The Vandals Part III

439 to 455 CE

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be therefore as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Matthew, 10:16

Gaiseric weathers Roman attempts to recover the African provinces, and begins to set his house in order. Marriage deals are made and broken, and an ancient version of gunboat diplomacy is used by the new king. Meanwhile, jealousy and paranoia lead to big changes in the Roman government, and the consequences are severe. The Vandals play their most famous role in Roman history in this episode.

“And Gaiseric, after conquering both Boniface and Aspar in battle, displayed a foresight worth recounting, whereby he made his good fortune most thoroughly secure.” – Procopius, the Vandalic Wars

“He was a man of deep thought and few words, holding luxury in disdain, furious in his anger, greedy for gain, shrewd in winning over barbarians and skilled in sowing the seeds of dissension to arouse enmity… He reigned for a long time, receiving authority, as they say, from God himself.” – Jordanes, Origo

Hello and welcome to the Dark Ages Podcast. This is episode 14: More Serpent than Dove.

Gaiseric the Lame is everything today. I’ve already talked about his leadership of the Vandals and Alans out of Spain and into North Africa. I’ve talked about how they fought their way across eight-hundred miles to reach the rich province of Africa Proconsularis. I gushed about Gaiseric’s maneuvering to reach a deal with the Roman authorities, and his bold leap to capture Carthage and take that authority for himself. Today I’m going to talk about how he ordered his kingdom so that it would remain secure, how he carved out a place for his people in the community of the Mediterranean, and how he made sure that the Romans would respect his power. Spoilers, Gaiseric will survive the western empire, and his kingdom will survive him. 

Guys, I might have a thing for the Vandals, you may have noticed. I can’t quite put my finger on it, maybe it’s just the sheer length of their journey, or the many different environments they had to adapt to in just a single generation’s time, but I stan the Vandals so very hard. Am I using that terminology correctly, fellow children? Should I stop? Yes, I should, so I will, and I’ll get on with it.

After Carthage fell in 439, surely the whole weight of Rome would come crashing down on the African coast. You would think, wouldn’t you? But no. Aetius and the rest of the crowd were too wrapped up with Visigoths and bagaudae in Gaul to deal with the new catastrophe. Remember when I talked about the new reality that the people running the empire had to make choices now, and prioritize issues, and the Vandals at the moment, had to be put on the back burner. That sounds like an indictment of the Roman leadership, and it is a little bit. But if you think of the empire as a large modern corporation, any of you in a corporate job could tell us how hard it can be to implement a shift in strategy or focus. And that’s now with modern communications and transport. Imagine having to extract a modern army from heavy engagement and redeploy them to an entirely new theater, I’m sure there are vets in the audience. Even in the most well oiled machine of a military, there are ample opportunities for inefficiencies and charlie-foxtrots. Now imagine doing it in a world where information travels no faster than a fast horse and if an army manages to move twenty miles in a day, that’s an extraordinarily good day. The logistical challenge of extraction from Gaul for redeployment in Africa meant that nothing could be done by the court of Valentinian III when Carthage fell, and so Gaiseric had some freedom of action.

He used that freedom to outfit invasions of Sicily, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands. Sicily was another breadbasket of the empire, and one uncomfortably close to Rome and Ravenna. Gaiseric was making a point, and it was as clear as day: I have already taken control of a major strategic resource, that being food, and I am perfectly capable of messing with that resource further. Rome had shrunk since Alaric’s sacking, but was still home to somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million people. Half a million angry Romans was not a headache that the central government needed to add to their list of headaches. No Germanic leader had ever held this kind of leverage before.

Theodosius II did try to help solve the problem the old fashioned way in 441. He dispatched a huge number of ships to reverse Vandal gains, but the expedition had five different commanders, and squabbling among them meant the campaign never made it past Sicily. The stripping of troops from the east for this adventure also emboldened Attila and prompted his attacks on Margus and other cities in Moesia. Honestly, I’m starting to think that the egos of military commanders might be the greatest threat to civilizations across human history. Anyway, before long Theodosius was dead, replaced by Marcian, who would prove curiously uninterested in actions against the Vandals.

After that disappointment, Valentinian was forced to recognize the Vandal kingdom by treaty in 442. In return for confirmation of his control over the provinces of Proconsularis, Byzacena, Numidia, and Mauritania Sitifensis, Gaiseric agreed to Sicily and the other islands, and keep the grain trade going. He agreed to pay tribute and sent his son Huneric to Italy as a hostage, but in all practical respects the Vandals and Alans had created a new and independent kingdom out of the Empire’s underbelly. The Romans perhaps believed they could make this into a client kingdom, as they once had the rulers of Mauritania back in the early days of empire. But times had changed, and Gaiseric wasn’t about to allow himself to become anyone’s client. At last he could begin to create this new entity.

So how do you make a kingdom? It’s all very well to call yourself king, and wear a crown and ride the best horse. You probably have followers, an army that is willing to fight for you, and will go where you lead. I certainly hope so, because as the old saying goes, a leader with no followers is just a guy taking a walk. But that’s being a king, there are dozens of them roaming around Europe at the moment. It’s not the same as having a kingdom. Clearly you’ll have to settle down somewhere. But anywhere you settle will have people already there, who already have leaders, who might even like their leaders. How do you convince them that the place they live is now your kingdom?

Gaiseric started by rewarding his followers. When the source of your power is the army, first and foremost you have to keep the army on your side. Roman emperors since Caesar had understood this, often to the detriment of the rest of the empire. Gaiseric granted land to his commanders. Not a right of billeting or a portion of tax revenue like a foedus, direct title and ownership of estates. Most of those estates were previously owned by Romans, which might have been awkward if Gaiseric had any interest in Roman opinion on the matter. Fortunately he didn’t. Gaiseric essentially scraped off the top layer of African society and replaced them with his own people. Since that layer pretty much did all the writing, the howl of outrage that rings through the sources makes the whole thing seem apocalyptic. Procopius wrote: “All who happened to be men of note or conspicuous for their wealth he handed over as slaves, together with their wealth and money, to his sons… And he robbed the rest of their estates which were both very numerous and excellent, and distributed them among the nation of the Vandals … it fell to those that had formerly possessed these lands to be in extreme poverty…”

The sources say that many of these estate owners were reduced to slavery, but the fact is that a lot of these people had deep knowledge of how these estates operated, busting them down to work in the fields would be a huge waste, so they probably continued on as overseers and other administrators.

But Gaiseric, above all else, had to make Africa productive again. Essentially he needed to undo the damage that his armies had wrought when they came in, and redirect that produce and tax revenue into his own government, rather than Ravenna. The lands he gave to his followers were called by later writers “The Vandal Allotments” and unfortunately we have no detailed account of their extent. They seem to have been concentrated around Carthage and the other rich cities of Proconsularis. They came with the condition that the grandees would provide military service whenever Gaiseric called for it. That saved him the enormous cost of maintaining an army at his own expense, the very thing that was hobbling the Romans in the west. Now what does that sound like? That’s right, it sounds like feudalism. But the allotments still left vast swathes of territories operated by people who called themselves Romans. 

At an absolute maximum, the Vandals never made up more than 10% of the population, and at this early stage, much less than that. A wholesale replacement was not only impossible, it wasn’t desirable. Someone had to do all the work on those estates, transport the produce, build and sail the ships. The vandals, like just about all the Germanic peoples, did not want to destroy the empire. They wanted what the empire had, a functional government and an economy that produced wealth on a scale unimaginable in a tribal setting. Gaiseric and others had come to the conclusion that there was no way for them to directly participate in these advantages without an unacceptable surrender of independence, so new states would have to be set up. But why reinvent the wheel, especially when there were so many officials in the middle ranks of society who were well educated and more than competent in running the administrative machinery? So life for the middle part of the Roman bureaucracy was possibly a bit scary for a while, but eventually they simply got used to reporting to new bosses.

For the majority of the population – the slaves, the peasants, the artisans – life probably changed very little. Some historians suggest that from a taxation standpoint, vandal rule may have been preferable to many. The most noticeable difference was probably on the borders, where the garrisons were no longer manned, and Moorish raiders became more active and bold as the Gaiseric focused on the core parts of the provinces.

Very little is known about Vandal customs of law or administration, but it is clear that Vandals married and settled disputes among themselves according to their own laws, and that the administration and law of the Roman population carried on largely unchanged. The Vandals maintained themselves as the royal court and the professional army of an otherwise largely Romano-African state. Large landholders in the Vandal allotments constituted an aristocracy that functioned within separate laws and traditions from their subjects, but how was that different from any other aristocracy in history? 

If you’ve been paying attention, you may also be wondering what happened to the Alans? They certainly still considered themselves a separate group within the confederation, and Gaiseric’s title remained rex vandalorum et alani, but to outsiders the differences were becoming invisible. Roman sources referred to all the invaders as Vandals without distinction. The hierarchy seems to have been vandals, alans, goths and other splinter tribes that had attached themselves to the confederation while in Spain, followed by the local population. By the time the kingdom went to war with the Byzantines in the 530s the Alans had disappeared as a distinct population.

Like in any real-world society, though, strictly defining identity was more complicated than a handful of boxes or descriptors. Across the empire, Roman citizens had been adopting “barbarian” clothing and other signifiers for generations, and vice-versa. Emperors had issued laws banning the wearing of “german” style trousers within Rome at least three times after 350. I’ve already mentioned that Roman-style haircuts had made their way into Gothic life at around that same time, and that just about all luxury goods found in Vandal burials before the migration were of Roman manufacture. Constant trade and conflict will inevitably result in that kind of cultural bleed. But the key factor in ethnicity is self-identification. The old population of Africa continued to think of themselves as Romans, no matter how many of them wore trousers, and the Vandals continued to think of themselves as Vandals, no matter how much wine they consumed or poetry they wrote. Roman writers looked down on men who wore long barbarian hairstyles, indicating that these were a cultural marker, and trousers remained a controversial fashion statement.

By far though, the greatest differentiator of Roman from vandal was religion.

Since the end of the third century, most of the German tribes in direct contact with the Roman Empire had been Christian. But the pattern of conversion had meant that they were mostly Arian Christians. To quickly remind you what that means, the Arian creed rejected the idea that the three parts of the trinity were equal and of the same essence, which was the mainstream position. Instead, the Arians believed that Jesus the son had been created by God the father and was therefore subordinate to Him, while the two had created the Holy Spirit together and it was thus junior to both of them. As an aside, I’ve been sloppily referring to that mainstream Christian dogma as both “catholic” and “orthodox” throughout the show, and that’s because they were at this point essentially the same thing. I will probably continue to do so, at least for a while, and just to muddy the waters a little more, “Nicene” or “Chalcedonian” are also names for the creed that may come up, after the two great councils that nailed down the catechismic bedrock of the empire’s Christian principles.

Over the century and a half that had passed since then, Arianism had become part of that Germanic identity. Differing theology will gradually develop different modes of worship, even if starting from only a small deviation. Arian services were conducted in Gothic, which was apparently inteligible to most east Germanic speakers. Arianism was tied up with “Germanness”, and it appears that this was especially true for the Vandals. 

The religious environment of North Africa was already a heady mix of ideologies and popular movements before the Vandals arrived. Saint Augustine had spent his whole career sparring with Donatists and Neo-Platonist thinkers, as well as those remaining pagans who looked to frame Alaric’s sacking of Rome in terms of an empire punished for its neglect of the old gods. Afro-Romans of the time carried the weight of their faith in their names more than other groups in the empire; we hear of men named Quodvultdeus – What God Wills, or Deogratias – Thanks Be to God. Religious feelings ran high on all sides. But the Vandal response to their rise to power vis-a-vis religion is unfamiliar in the histories of the barbarian kingdoms we’ve seen so far. Gaiseric is the first such leader who actively took steps to suppress the dominant faith of his new realm. Whether this was a response to the hardships of the preceding years or some tenant that was an extension of the Vandals’ particular traditions we can only speculate.

The catholic church’s power structure, just like the secular one, was decapitated. Not literally. Sometimes literally, but mostly not. Churches were either closed or converted to Arian worship. Most of the leading bishops were rounded up and put on a boat back to Italy, where they would live and work in exile. Lands belonging to the catholics were seized and distributed to Arian leadership. It was certainly not a great time to be a catholic priest or Bishop in the Vandal Kingdom, and Gaiseric and his successors’ behavior toward the church is surely one of the greatest factors in the creation of the word Vandalism. But Actually…

The question of catholic persecution under Gaiseric is a bit of a tricky one. All we have to go on are catholic sources, so much like the land distribution issue, the impression we’re left with is of a large-scale rooting-out like something out of the French wars of Religion in the 16th Century. But going a little deeper, there’s reason to doubt that impression, at least for Gaiseric’s reign. I’ll leave discussions of his sons’ attitudes for a later episode.

Victor of Vita, the most passionate chronicler of the Vandals’ invasion, insists that hundreds were killed in these persecutions, that churches were burned, random lay people, women and children, were tortured and murdered for their beliefs. He suggests that the boat that carried the catholic bishops into exile was deliberately unsound in the hopes that they would be drowned on the way. All of that is an exaggeration. A large portion of the stories of Catholics executed for their beliefs are of aristocrats who managed to find a position at Gaiseric’s court who then refused to convert to Arianism, which was the king’s favorite test of loyalty. They were more political than religious in nature, is what I mean. If Gaiseric had wanted to martyr all the bishops, surely there are more effective ways than a leaky boat. In fact, if we compare sources, only two executions of purely religious motivation can be found, the burning of two priests during the last war of Vandal conquest, the one in which Carthage was taken. 

Most telling to me is to be found in the rolls of Catholic saints. There are several dozen martyrs venerated by the catholic church from the reign of Huneric, who succeeded his father and who did persecute the church in a more fanatical way. For Gaiseric himself though there are only three, and none of them are actually martyrs. Only one of them has a complete narrative attached to him, that being Saint Armogastes, who was a nobleman of the Vandal court. Gaiseric demanded his conversion, and when Armogastes refused he was tortured and stripped of his titles. But Gaiseric had no desire to create martyrs, and so put Armogastes in slavery as a cowherd, where he lived out the rest of his days in Job-like patience. Supposedly when his grave was dug at the site he pointed out, a fully built and appointed tomb was found ready for him. Miraculous tomb aside, the story to me highlights Gaiseric’s savviness more than anything. He understood the motivational power of martyrdom and did his best to avoid creating that kind of problem for himself. 

If you look at it from Gaiseric’s point of view, his actions make perfect sense. He was king, and recognized as such by the Romans, but he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that the Romans would leave things be. The last thing he needed was internal enemies. Even if he had allowed the great and the good to keep their estates, he would never have been able to trust them. Plus he had to reward his own men with something, so disenfranchising the secular lords was an obvious first step to internal security. Likewise, even without the doctrinal differences, the catholic church, while not as monolithic as it later became, was already a wealthy institution with considerable temporal power, with moral authority and a well-developed communication network added to it. It would have to be either co-opted or hobbled to prevent it from becoming a source of opposition to the king’s reign. Since doctrine made it impossible to co-opt the church, it would have to have its secular powers severely reduced. That’s the program that we see at work in the “persecution” of Gaiseric.

It seems that day-to-day worship was not obstructed by the vandals. Catholic services could be held in smaller venues or private homes, without fear that soldiers would kick the door down. Once the most powerful bishops were removed, most priests were left alone, to carry on their ministries quietly. Certainly in reduced circumstances, but not necessarily in cringing terror. Conversion to Arianism was a prerequisite for high court positions, and some mid-level administrators may have gone along to get along as well, but otherwise there does not appear to have been a concerted effort at mass conversion of the Afro-Roman population.

With his kingdom becoming more secure and productive, Gaiseric began to get to know the neighbors. You know, drop by, bring a bottle of wine, make sure that one house knows you won’t tolerate their dog doing its business in your flowerbeds, that kind of thing. Diplomacy, in other words.

As far as the empire itself was concerned, Gaiseric’s early policies were focused on keeping the Romans off balance. By capturing Carthage, the Vandals had taken possession of one of the greatest ports of the Western Med. That port was full of ships, and full of sailors who still needed employment. The transition from Roman fleet to Vandal fleet seems to have been pretty much seamless. All the seamen were the same, the officers and their motivations had changed. Gaiseric kept the grain trade going, as he had pledged in the treaty of 442, but he also outfitted ships for other duties. 

Vandal raiders struck at Roman towns in Sicily, Sardinia, Hispania, and the coast of Gaul. These hit-and-run affairs presaged the vikings in their tactics, landing near a town or village, often with no immediate hope of defense, taking whatever they could carry, and being back on the ships and out at sea before any local garrison had a chance to respond. These raids continued off and on all the way up into the 450s, usually aimed at reminding the Romans of the Vandal’s capacity to cause chaos, and thereby keep them in line, much the same way the Visigoths had operated on land. Alexandria is said to have prepared itself for vandal attacks, though they rarely operated in the eastern Med. They did conduct an attack on the Suevic kingdom in Galicia, which meant sailing out into the Atlantic, so it wasn’t too unreasonable for the Alexandrines to be frightened. It’s also possible that it became a habit to call all pirates “Vandals” regardless of who they actually were, and the place they occupied in the minds of some is demonstrated by a bishop named Nestorius who wrote that during this period they raided the mouths of the Ganges River in India. They didn’t, just to be clear.

Closer to home the immediate neighbors were the Moors to the south. These were Berber tribes that had lived by herding, and trading and raiding with the Romans for centuries, and with the Carthaginians before them. Based around oases at the edges of the desert, they were never so numerous as to be a real threat to the settled people of the coasts, and while relations weren’t what you’d call warm, a reasonably stable status quo had been established. As part of his efforts to prevent rebellion, Gaiseric had the walls of most of the towns of the countryside pulled down. That circumvented the possibility of rebels seizing such a town and using it as a fortified base of operations, but it also invited greater raiding activity on the part of the Moors. 

The vandal kingdom was recognized as a major player before the treaty with the Romans established it as such. Theodoric I, the king of the Visigoths, offered his daughter in marriage to Huneric sometime after 440 – but I would guess before 443 – and the girl was duly delivered to Carthage. The new-found distance between the two great Germanic tribes probably did much to blunt their former antagonism, and the military potential of an alliance between them was obvious. It didn’t last long though. Around 443 or 444, immediately after the treaty with Rome, Gaiseric accused the girl of trying to poison him, and sent her back to Aquitaine. He cut off her nose and ears first, though. Just in case you were starting to think he wasn’t such a bad guy. Thus the animosity between Vandal and Visigoth was renewed, and Gaiseric would keep finding ways to make life difficult for Theodoric for the next decade. He would take steps to prevent the Visigoths from making connections to the Suevi in northwest Hispania – that’s what that raid on Galicia had been about – and as we heard in episode twelve, would keep up a letter writing campaign to Attila to encourage hostility from that direction as well.

The poisoning story was probably just a cover, though. A new opportunity had appeared, and Gaiseric would have been a fool to ignore it. The possibility of a marriage between Valentinian’s eldest daughter Eudocia and Hunneric had been raised along with Hunneric’s transfer to Italy as a hostage. A connection to the Roman imperial family would be far more valuable than one with the Goths, so Gaiseric had taken steps to clear the way for the marriage to take place. Unnecessarily cruel steps, but steps.

Raiding stopped after about 445, and that must have been connected to Gaiseric’s desire to see that marriage happen. He softened his policies in other areas as well, allowing new catholic bishops to be installed in Hadrumentum and later in Carthage, and allowing many of the exiled bishops to return in 454.

Whether the Romans would have ultimately let the marriage go through under those conditions or not we’ll never know, because in that same year, things took a turn.

Flavius Aetius, now played by an older Spider-man era Michael Keaton, had been the most powerful man in the west for twenty years. No one in such a position is universally beloved, and Aetius had rivals a-plenty at court. He had always been able to hold them at bay, until two men, the imperial chamberlain Heraclius and another courtier named Petronius Maximus began to whisper in Valentinian III’s ear. Aetius was becoming maybe too powerful? Surely he would eventually have no further need of Valentinian. A steady stream of such whispers came Valentinian’s way, and when Aetius moved to marry his son to Valentinian’s daughter Placidia, it seemed to confirm the emperor’s suspicions. This is all very familiar from the fall of Stilicho, but the climax handily gives Aetius the medal for most amazing Roman political assassination of the late empire.

During a meeting to discuss imperial finances, Valentinian accused Aetius of attempting to seize power for himself, drew his sword, and together with Heraclius, stabbed his greatest general to death. It’s kind of an honor, really, to be struck down by the emperor personally, normally they préfèred to keep that kind of work at arm’s length. Later on, possibly seeking some validation, Valentinian observed to some among his court that he had done a good thing by removing Aetius from the picture, and someone in attendance replied “I am ignorant of your motives, but you have behaved as a man who cuts off his right hand with his left.” 

Flavius Aetius was about 62 or 63 years old, and he had been the real power in the empire, depending on who you asked, for 21 years. Many have called him “the last Roman”, a souvriquet that had also been applied to Stilicho and Aurelian. Gibbon called him the last prop holding up the edifice of the empire. Still others have quipped that if he was the last Roman, it was because he left nothing of Rome for those that followed him. I say that he was a complicated, cunning, ruthless, and often unattractive man of towering ego who was also a great general and brilliant  player of the political game. Like his greatest foe Attila, it’s hard to like him, but he will be missed.

Political chaos followed the death of Flavius Aetius. And regular chaos too. Now that the common enemy had been eliminated, the co-conspirators who had manipulated the emperor immediately dropped the prefix and began conspiring against each other. Petronius Maximus had expected to take Aetius’ place as magister militum, but was blocked by Heraclius. 

Meanwhile, Aetius had at least as many friends as he had enemies, among them a number of Hun mercenaries and clients, some of these were appointed to positions in the emperor’s bodyguard. One day he was out for archery practice with Heraclius, when they were attacked by two of these men, and killed. Some sources say that they were themselves egged on by Petronius Maximus, who had decided that magister militum was small potatoes anyway, and made a play for the big prize. Valentinian the third was thirty seven years old and had been the Augustus for an amazing thirty of those years, and never once in that time was he the most powerful man in his own court.

Valentinian had no male heirs, and Maximus leveraged his huge personal wealth and relationship with the senate to have himself declared emperor.

But Petronius Maximus’ legitimacy outside the palace was exactly equal to the square root of Jack. Outside the small circle of senatorial aristocrats and palace officials, he had no support whatsoever. Marcian, the Eastern Emperor, refused to recognize his accession. Regardless of the general uselessness of the Theodosian emperors for the last fifty years, they still were seen by both aristocracy and people as the rightful rulers of the empire. So Maximus took the perfectly logical, if a little gross, steps needed to weld himself into that dynasty. He forced Eudoxia, Valentinian’s widow, to marry him, and announced plans to marry her Daughter Eudocia to his son. 

So just to say that another way, he forced Eudoxia (with an X) to marry her husband’s usurper – who she strongly suspected was also her husband’s murderer, and he forced Eudocia (with a C) to marry his son. The Eudocia with a C that had previously been engaged to Huneric, Gaiseric’s son.

Understandably unhappy, Eudoxia sent a message to Gaiseric, telling him what had happened and asking for his help. He was happy to oblige.

There’s an obvious echo here of the story of Honoria’s appeal to Attila, and no contemporary source mentions such a message. Eudoxia was much older and wiser than Honoria and would have been aware of her sister-in-law’s foolishness just four years before, so the damsel-in-distress narrative doesn’t really hold up in this case. But Gaiseric wouldn’t have needed it anyway. He had been this close to joining the Theodosian dynasty with his own, he had wrecked his relationship with Theodoric in service of that goal. The marriage of Huneric and Eudocia wouldn’t guarantee peace between Romans and Vandals, but it would be an important step in that direction. And now this jumped up senator that he’d never heard of had torn the whole thing up by the root. 

By all appearances, the Vandal king’s wrath at this thwarting of his plans was translated into immediate action. By the end of May 455, just ten weeks after Valentinian’s death, Vandal forces had been mustered and set sail for Italy. The force was a mixed one of Vandal warriors and Moorish auxiliaries, probably transported by Roman sailors. It was a multi-pronged action, as the fleets quickly re-took Sardinia and Scicily before moving on to the Italian mainland. 

With no support among the army, Petronius Maximus made no attempt to stop the Vandals. Or even slow them down. Or anything. What he did instead was panic. On May 31 He advised the citizens of Rome to run for their lives, (don’t worry good people your emperor will be with you!) [smack] Some good citizen of the city had flung a rock or a brick, stuck the emperor in the head and killed him where he stood. The crowd took a break from fleeing to mutilate his body, drag it through the streets, and dump him in the Tiber. Petronius Maximus was in his late fifties, and had been emperor, sort of, for 75 days. The Romans who could abandoned the city. Those who could not hunkered down and feared the worst. When Gaiseric and his army arrived two days later, they found that the gates weren’t even locked.

One man who could have fled but did not was Pope Leo. He sent a message to Gaiseric before he had entered the city and asked for a meeting, which was granted. For the second time in three years, Leo hoped to dissuade a barbarian leader from destroying his ancient city. I have to wonder about Leo’s attitude toward the two men, Attila and Gaiseric, and whether it differed. Attila was a heathen, of course, but Gaiseric was a heretic, which would have been in many ways worse. A heathen, in Leo’s view, is a person who does not know the truth, and so can be pitied and if possible educated to find the true path. A heretic, like Gaiseric, is one who has heard the truth and yet willfully rejects it, making the heretic a much more dangerous and contemptible figure. But Leo had been dealing with the mighty for his entire career, and I imagine that he was more than capable of taking a pragmatic approach to this kind of thing. In his meeting with Gaiseric, he asked that the Vandal king and his army refrain from burning and murder, and confine themselves only to pillage. In return, he offered to empty the treasury of Saint Peter’s without reservation, and I imagine to pray for the king’s soul. 

Gaiseric agreed. With Petronius Maximus dead there was nothing left to achieve, politically, and the prospect of an entire city’s worth of plunder offered up without resistance would be compensation for the journey many times over. The vandals and Moors spent two weeks systematically stripping Rome of its treasures, its statuary, its food and its silks and furs. Famously they stole half of the roof of the temple of Jupiter – it was widely believed to be made of solid gold, and the vandals stopped when they discovered that it was in fact only gold plated copper. The other specific object that everyone mentions is the menorah, taken from the Temple in Jerusalem during the suppression of the Jewish revolt in 71 CE. It was loaded onto a ship and relocated to Africa. Much of the statuary that decorated the imperial palaces and temples was loaded onto a single ship, which was the only one that sank on the return voyage and it’s still out there somewhere, awaiting rediscovery. 

The weeks of the sack were no doubt nerve-wracking for the city’s residents. Some would have been old enough to remember Alaric’s assault, and told their children and grandchildren of that traumatic experience. But, though I’m sure there were plenty of incidents of Vandal warriors getting out of hand, it appears that Gaiseric was as good as his word. We hear nothing of wanton murder or torture, and archaology confirms that there was no widespread destruction of buildings. Overall, I think we have to give the Vandals high marks for their conduct during the sack, better than Alaric’s Goths. Maybe that’s why fate allowed Gaiseric to return to Carthage safely, instead of striking him down as she had Alaric.

He did not return alone. Along with all the gold, silver, marble, silk, and slaves, Gaiseric brought back even greater treasure: Eudoxia and her daughters Eudocia and Placidia. These three … um… guests, were worth more to the king than all the other plunder combined. Eudocia was married to Huneric, as had been originally planned. The other two were kept in extremely comfortable captivity, as hostages to be used by Gaiseric in his diplomatic maneuvers.

Without the Theodosians, without even a pretender emperor in Italy, the western empire was rudderless for two months, as everyone tried to figure out what to do next. The answer would come from an unexpected direction. Which we will talk about next time, as the empire tries to pull itself together again. 

Thank you for listening. If you’re enjoying the show, or if you have questions or corrections, I would love to hear it. You can contact me via the contact page at darkagespod.com, or on twitter @darkagespod. I share relevant images occasionally on instagram, also @darkagespod, and you can also search for the podcast on Facebook and follow the podcast there. I will confess that I still don’t quite understand how to use social media in this whole game, but I continue to try and learn. You can also of course rate and review the show on whatever app you use, including spotify now, where you can I believe rate individual episodes as well as the podcast as a whole.

That’s enough of that nonsense from me, until next time, take care.


Title Music:
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Title Music:
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

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