18. All or Nothing: The Battle of Cape Bon

461 to 468 CE

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss…

-Rudyard Kipling, If

The East and West combine forces in one great push to take Africa backs from the Vandals and make everything all better.


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

Last time, we talked about the consequences of Ricimer’s betrayal of Majorian and appointment of the puppet Libius Severus. Essentially, Ricimer chose to throw away all the good work Majorian had done stitching the empire back together in return for personal power over Italy. On paper, Ravenna still could claim dominion over northern Gaul, Illyria, and Spain, but only Italy really remained.  Southern Gaul had been divided up between the Burgundians and Visigoths, those same Visigoths were steadily extending their control over Spain, Illyria and Northern Gaul were ruled by Romans, but both those Romans had rejected Libius Severus and operated as semi-independent warlords. And of course Gaiseric the Vandal still sat in Africa, by now the elder statesman of the Roman world, and his pirates made regular visits to the Italian coasts to remind them of his presence and power.

(Real quick digression, much is made of the decline of the city of Rome in importance in the later century of the empire. And while it’s true that Milan became the main administrative capital in the 4th century, and that Ravenna was used as a safe haven after the Visigoths invaded, Rome itself remained by far the most populated city in the west, and after 450, emperors began to spend more time back in the eternal city. The senate still met there, and after all, three imperial princesses now have been captured in Rome by Visigoths or vandals. So I will use Ravenna and Rome interchangeably as metonymies for the western roman state. End not actually that brief digression.)

With Majorian as emperor, Ricimer had been able to ignore the east’s objections to his rule, as he could still draw on the resources of Gaul, Hispania, and Illyria.  But with the general rejection of Libius Severus, Ricimer’s security position became much more difficult.  All things considered, I can’t imagine that Ricimer foresaw just how unpopular his choice of puppet would be. It’s hard to imagine him choosing Severus if he had foreseen the intensity of the opposition.

With only the revenues of Italy available, it wasn’t possible to maintain garrisons capable of deterring the Vandals.  Though he kept up the appearance of unconcerned distance from Constantinople, as time went on it became increasingly clear that that relationship would eventually need to be repaired. It also became clear as time went on that Libius Severus was an impediment to that repair.  It’s really quite frustrating that we know so little about Severus.  The objections to his elevation were so consistent, sustained, and out-of-proportion, it makes me wonder if there was more going on there than the sources tell us. Was there more to the eastern court’s objections than just his lack of family connection to the throne? It’s impossible to even guess, we have so little to go on.  Severus’ main interest seems to have been religion, and while that could be a heated subject, there doesn’t seem to have been much that was innovative or controversial about his particular beliefs. 

If the objection was purely about dynastic legitimacy, then the eastern court didn’t really have the moral authority to be so high and mighty about it.

We’ve gotten away from talking much about the eastern empire since the death of Attila, since there’s been so much going on in the west, so I’ll try to bring us up to date there as quickly as possible.

The last emperor we talked about in the east was Marcian, who had secured the throne by marrying Theodosius II’s sister Pulcheria and thereby inserting himself into the Theodosian dynasty.  The Theodosians had been ruling both halves of the empire for seventy years by then, and for all their faults, they had the legitimacy thing sewn up. Just as in the west, though, a barbarian general worked in the background to do most of the heavy policy lifting.  We’ve talked about Aspar here and there before.  He was an Alan by descent, and by the time Marcian died in 457, had been one of the great powers behind the throne for twenty-five years.  In Constantinople there were always multiple figures working to influence policy behind the scenes, so Aspar never achieved the kind of single dominance that had become the norm in the west. But his power grew steadily after Pulcheria died, and by the time Marcian followed her, Aspar was in a position to name his successor.  There were no Theodosian children or cousins available, and the slate was relatively clean.  It’s possible that the eastern senate offered the throne to Aspar, or to his son, but he was too canny for that.  He knew the people of the city wouldn’t tolerate him as emperor. 

The next most obvious choice was an aristocrat named Anthemius.  Married to Marcian’s daughter, he had a long pedigree with multiple emperors contributing to his gene pool, had an impressive military record, and was wealthy and popular.  That made him absolutely unacceptable to Aspar.  Anthemius would be too independent for the general’s purposes.  Aspar couldn’t be emperor, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to rule like an emperor.  So Anthemius was out.

Ultimately, Aspar picked a relatively low-ranking officer from his own army, Leo the Thracian, and maneuvered him into the top spot.  Leo was a good and smart officer, but had no power base of his own, which was perfect as far as Aspar was concerned.  But Leo I – also known as Leo the Great – would turn out to be even smarter than Aspar gave him credit for.

It was Leo who officially objected to Libius Severus and refused to recognize him.  So you can see where I’m coming from when I say that the eastern court didn’t have much moral authority behind their objections.

Morally sound or not, opposition to Severus remained as a constant feature of East-west relations. As the vandals battered the ports and shipping, his value as Ricimer’s puppet steadily declined. 

Libius Severus died in 467. He was probably in his late 40s, and had not really ruled the Roman Empire for four years. Ricimer did not mourn him. And while there is no real evidence that the general has Severus poisoned, I am not the first person to raise the possibility. 

So it’s time for a new emperor right? Right Ricimer?

Well, there’s no need to be hasty. These things take time. Decisions have to percolate, you know.

And really, did there need to be an emperor in the west, just to rule Italy? I mean sure, we’ll get the rest back eventually, but at the moment it’s not exactly a two man job, is it? Why not let Ricimer just run it, like he has been doing for 5 years. Just give him an appropriate title. King Ricimer has a nice ring to it.

But it wasn’t time for that quite yet. The only way Ricimer would get the title of rex was if Leo granted, and Leo was absolutely not going to do that. And Ricimer knew it.

Even so, more than a year went by before any move was made to replace Libius Severus.

Presumably that year was occupied with diplomatic back and forth. Leo, probably with Aspar’s input, thought he had come up with the perfect man for the job: Anthemius. 

All the things that made Anthemius a potential rival in the East made him a perfect candidate in the west. Military experience, apparent personal charisma, and an imperial lineage. Those were also all reasons for Ricimer to object to him. So the back and forth continued. 

Meanwhile, in Carthage, Gaiseric had his own ideas. He reasoned that the last legitimate emperor had been Valentinian III, and while he hadn’t had any sons, that doesn’t mean that he had no heirs. His two daughters were clearly the rightful inheritors of the Roman legacy… or at least their husbands were. Enter Olybrius, a Roman senator who was married to one of those daughters, Placidia. Gaiseric pushed hard for Olybrius to take the western prize. 

Now I’m sure you’re waving your arms at me, saying now hang on one gosh darned minute mister history man: Gaiseric is a barbarian king who frankly stole his kingdom. Why does he get an opinion? And come to think of it, why does he care?

Well, mister or ms history listener person, I will deal with the second question first. Gaiseric was pushing for the husband of Valentinian’s daughter because Valentinian’s other daughter, Eudocia, was married to Gaiseric’s son. Remember that the Vandals had captured the two princesses and their mother during the sack of Rome in 455, and they had stayed in Carthage for seven years before Placidia and her mother were ransomed by Leo and returned to Constantinople.  Eudocia stayed behind with her husband. So Olybrius was effectively a part of the vandal king’s family. Regardless of the merits of Gaiseric’s argument, his motivations were purely self-serving.

As for the first question, why did he get an opinion, well, that was because he had a big and scary navy. Which as the British will tell you, gives one the right to an opinion about all manner of things.

Marcian and Aspar had made a separate peace with Gaiseric, but to put pressure on the emperor to favor his candidate in the west, Gaiseric broke that agreement and sent raids against eastern territories, especially in Greece and Epirus. In some defense of Gaiseric, he probably did not view this as breaking the treaty. Germanic leaders viewed treaties as contracts between individual rulers, not between states. When Marcian died, the treaty was void.

Leo was having no truck with that interpretation of international law, and decided to kill multiple birds with one stone.  He sent Anthemius to Italy with an army at his back – purely as a demonstration, you understand, not an invasion, no no no – with two jobs: secure the western throne, with or without Ricimer’s approval, and turf Gaiseric and his Arian heretics out of Africa once and for all. So, no pressure.

On his way, Anthemius picked up Marcellinus from Illyria – remember, the other guy who had rebelled against Severus – and with their combined armies, arrived in Italy to see what could be worked out. 

Anthemius wasn’t actually interested in civil war though, he knew it would be counter productive to waste lives and treasure fighting other romans when the real challenge was in africa. And Ricimer, really, was in no position to deny him.  So an agreement was reached.  Ricimer would keep his post as Magister Militum, and to smooth things over, he would marry Anthemius’ daughter Alypia. Sidonius Apollinaris – who seems to be everywhere these days – was in Rome at the time of the marriage, and wrote a letter to a friend describing the city:

“As yet I have not presented myself at the bustling gates of Emperor or Court official. For my arrival coincided with the marriage of the patrician Ricimer, to whom the hand of the Emperor’s daughter was being accorded in the hope of securer times for the State. Not individuals alone, but whole classes and parties are given up to rejoicing … While I was writing these lines, scarce a theatre, market, praetorium, forum, temple, or gymnasium but echoed to the passage of the cry Thalassio!  and even at this hour the schools are closed, no business is doing, the Courts are voiceless, missions are postponed; there is a truce to intrigue, and all the serious business of life seems merged in the buffooneries of the stage. Though the bride has been given away, though the bridegroom has put off his wreath, … yet the noise of the great gathering has not died away in the palace chambers, because the bride still delays to start for her husband’s house. When this merrymaking has run out its course, you shall hear what remains to tell of my proceedings, if indeed these crowded hours of idleness to which the whole State seems now surrendered are ever to end, even when the festivities are over.” (https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/sidonius_letters_01book1.htm)

Thalassio, by the way, was a traditional exclamation that was part of Roman wedding ceremonies, pre-dating the Christian period. It’s not clear what it means, it may have been the name of an old god.

Anyway, from Apollinaris’ description, the line, “the bride delays to start for her husband’s house”, we can maybe infer that Alypia wasn’t terribly thrilled with the situation. We don’t know for sure the ages of the people involved, but Ricimer was probably in his late forties by 467, and Alypia presumably was significantly younger. So it often goes in these political marriages.

Once things in Italy were settled, Anthemius and the rest immediately got on to the second half of their mission: the reconquest of Africa. 

He reorganized his and Marcelinus’ armies, along with some western troops, and prepared ships for an invasion. It didn’t go at all well, as bad weather prevented the crossing, and the armies had to disband before anything could be accomplished.

Anthemius, Marcellinus, and Leo put their heads together and organized another invasion to leave the next year. The west could not spare any troops, but contributed financially to the operation.  Leo meanwhile, according to Procopius, “collected a fleet of ships from across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, showing great generosity to both soldiers and sailors.” Procopius tells us that there were 100,000 men mustered for this push, and more than a thousand ships. So we can be sure that there were nowhere near 100,000 men involved. But there may have been between 30 and 50,000, which is still a massive endeavor for the time.

An army though, is only as good as its commander. And for this very important mission, Leo chose … his brother in law. And we all know what they’re like.

You can’t really fault Leo though, Basiliscus – the brother in law- was another military man with connections, and Leo was hoping to bring him up to counter-balance the power of Aspar. To that end, he also allied with and promoted the interests of the Isaurians – a semi-romanized tribe of, well, bandits from the Anatolian highlands. We’ll get back to them later. I was talking about basiliscus. 

So Leo’s idea to get himself some freedom of action by promoting Basiliscus was good in theory, but he didn’t factor in his BILs absolutely principle-free form of ambition. See, Basiliscus figured that if he wanted power for himself, it would be much easier to cozy up to the already powerful Aspar than to build up influence for himself. So Leo’s plan backfired.  Most relevantly for the current subject, many suspected that Aspar was secretly in the pocket of Gaiseric, maybe not as a full on traitor, but certainly as a useful pro-Vandal voice in Constantinople.

In addition to the 1000 ships and many dozens of thousands of men, the enterprise represented a vast expenditure on the part of the Empire. Like the manpower numbers, the sources vary about the financial cost of the operation, but all agree that it was enormous.  Procopius reports 130,000 pounds of gold, with Candidus giving 65,000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver. Remember our very back of the envelope calculations of the value of the tribute paid to Attila back in the day? This expedition really was risking it all on one turn of pitch and toss.

The plan was thorough.  It was assuredly NOT to engage the Vandals in a direct naval confrontation. To soften things up, Marcellinus was sent to invade Sardinia and deny its ports to the Vandals.  A second army, commanded by a fellow named Heraclius, left Constantinople and landed east of Carthage on the Libyan coast, with Basiliscus coming down from Sicily to meet Heraclius and, presumably, catch the Vandals between hammer and anvil. 

Before going any further, I need to pause and talk a little bit about the conditions that pertained to naval warfare in late antiquity, and indeed in all history up until the development of naval cannon. Those of you who are big ancient military history buffs will no doubt have heard this a thousand times, so just zone out for a couple minutes.

The purpose-built warship of the time was called the dromon.  It was a large galley – meaning it was primarily driven by oars, though some had sails as well – and unlike the trireme that probably comes to mind when you think of ancient warships, was fully decked and did not usually have the bronze ram below the water line at the prow. Instead, a large above-water spur jutted out at the front of the ship.  The goal was the same though, maneuver to outflank or surround the enemy, and then ram them with that big spur.  That would break oars and kill the oarsmen, of course, and it would also tie the ships together, allowing you to leap across and engage the other side in hand-to-hand combat.  Because ultimately, the goal was to create a land battle on water, after accumulating as many advantages of position and so on as you could.

Naval battles had a reputation for their ferocity, since running away was impossible.  It was fight or drown.

Most of the 1000 ships supposedly gathered for the attack on Africa were not these ferocious war galleys, though.  The vast majority were commandeered merchant shipping, converted to use as troop transports.  We don’t know, because none of our sources tell us, how or indeed if these ships were modified in any way for the occasion, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that at least some of them may have been fitted with platforms for archers or the like. If these vessels found themselves engaged, their goal remained the same; get in close, board rather than be boarded. Obviously, the more coordinated and well-organized the fleet was, the better chance they had of turning conditions in their favor.

Yes, that was foreshadowing.

Heraclius encountered no real problems. He captured Tripoli quickly and then moved west along the coast, taking towns as he went. Meanwhile, Basiliscus sailed down and gathered his fleet together at a spot east of Carthage, on the northwest side of what is now called Cape Bon, or the Ras at-Taib. It’s the little finger that points out from Tunisia toward Sicily. The Romans called it the Promontorium Mercurium, the Cape of Mercury. Once in position, Basiliscus waited. What he was waiting for exactly isn’t clear.  He should have probably started landing troops? Or moving to blockade the port of Carthage? Or… something? He was probably intending to head for Utica, just down the coast from Carthage, with a harbor that, unlike the capital’s, was not protected by a chain.

Gaiseric was understandably worried about the situation, with towns falling to Heraclius one after the other and now this massive force sitting just across the bay from his capital.

So off dashed a messenger to Basiliscus. And here I’ll turn over the narrative to Procopius:

“Gaiseric, profiting from the negligence of Basiliscus, did as follows. Arming all his subjects in the best ways he could, he filled his ships, but not all, for some he kept empty in readiness, for they were the ships that sailed the most swiftly. Sending envoys to Basiliscus, he begged him to defer the war for the space of five days, in order that in the meantime he might take counsel and do the things that were especially desired by the emperor. They say, too, that he sent a great amount of gold without the knowledge of the army to Basiliscus and thus purchased the armistice. And he did this thinking…that a favoring wind would rise for him during this time. And Basiliscus, either as doing a favor for Aspar in accordance to what he had promised, or selling the moment of opportunity for money, or perhaps thinking it was the better course, did as he was requested and remained quietly in the camp, awaiting the moment favorable to the enemy.”

Now I am not a military man, but I believe that this is called losing the initiative.  Or that may be in Dungeons and Dragons. Either way, it’s not what you’re supposed to do.

I have to note, that while Procopius is clearly of the opinion that Aspar was a Vandal stooge, he does allow for the possibility that Basiliscus was greedy or just incompetent, rather than traitorous. Basiliscus has been described in many ways, with the modern assessment ranging from Peter Heather, who argues that he was merely unimaginative and unlucky, and the victim of the tendency of Roman writers to write off every defeat as the result of treachery, to Mike Duncan, who characterizes him as a “jackass”.

Whether the five day truce happened is debatable, but the end result is not.

Normally the wind at that time of year blows from the east, away from the peninsula. That gave the Romans the advantage, as they would have the weather gauge in any engagement.  But then one day the wind changed, and began blowing from the west, pushing the Roman ships toward the shore.  Gaiseric had his ships ready, and leaped into action. The vandal ships appeared on the horizon, and the Roman sailors, with the wind in their faces, could see that yep, some of them were on fire, and heading right at them. Procopius again:

“The Vandals … raised their sails and taking in tow the boats which they had made ready with no men in them, sailed against the enemy. And when they came near, they set the boats on fire which they had been towing, when their sails were bellied by the wind, and let them go against the roman fleet.  And since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily spread fire wherever they struck, and were themselves readily destroyed together with those with which they came in contact. As the fire advanced the roman navy was filled with tumult, as was natural, with a great din that rivaled the noise of the wind and the rising flames…” 

Nowhere to run, flaming death bearing down on them, the sailors scrambled desperately to push or drag the burning hulks away from their own vessels.  Tightly packed as they were, the fire spread throughout the fleet. Ships behind the front line had no choice but to row or tow themselves out of the way of the wind driven flames. And behind the fire came the vandals, hardened by 30 years now of sea-borne raiding, who caught many of the fleeing ships and captured or sank them, taking the men as prisoners to be sold as slaves and taking their arms for themselves.

Procopius highlights one man’s bravery, one of Basiliscus’ lieutenants, Joannes, who fought desperately as he was surrounded by the enemy, killing many of them. He was approached by one of Gaiseric’s sons, saying he would be spared if he surrendered. Joannes spat back that he would never fall into the hands of dogs, and leapt overboard, drowning in his armor.

Procopius gives us no idea whatever of how many men or ships were lost in the battle of Cape Bon. It was, without doubt, a disaster. As much as a third of the force may have been lost, and even if it was less than that, the loss of cohesion in the fleet meant that the operation was at an end. The ships that did survive limped home.  Heraclius, hearing of the disaster, and knowing that he couldn’t complete the mission on his own, broke off his campaign and also returned to Constantinople. Meanwhile in Sardinia, Marcelinus was betrayed by one of his officers and murdered. As for Basiliscus, the commander didn’t go down with his ships, like many a commander, he slipped away to fight another day.  Or, in his case, to hide in the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople until the mob baying for his blood could be dispersed. We haven’t heard the last of him, though, so don’t consign his memory to the dustbin just yet.

The disaster in Africa was, to my mind, the last nail in the coffin, the fall of the west was inevitable.  The mission had cost so much that when Leo died four years later, the treasury was still empty, the east would not be able to help the west again, and the resources of Africa would remain in vandal hands for another hundred years.

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