The Vandals: were they vandals?

Did these people deserve the modern use of their name? Possibly not.  Students are interested when they hear the Vandals mentioned and want to know their story. But to inquire what these people did—or often, what happened to them—is to come up against a vagueness and lack of information that remind the inquirer why this period has been called the Dark Ages.

Gibbon is tantalisingly brief about the Vandals: perhaps when he read Procopius, the only real literary source, he felt he was in muddy waters. A brief glance at Procopius’s text may confirm those suspicions.

Recent books on this period tend to be long on theories and short on facts, and material on the internet is laced with misinformation. But when one strips away the obvious nonsense, what comes over seems to be as follows.

First, the Vandals remained a tribe. They had no connection or affinity with races like the Huns, who were from the far east of Europe with a liberal admixture of Asiatic heritage, an unknown religion, and a swarthy non-European aspect. By contrast, the Vandals seem to have originated in the far north of Europe, possibly Scandinavia: their appearance was north European, fair and pale-skinned; their religion was Christian; their language was possibly Slavic; and they never multiplied to be more than 150,000.

They were victims more than persecutors during much of their short-lived ascendancy. Having moved southwards from Poland in search of a better living, they found themselves fleeing from aggressive nations, particularly the Huns, who were invading Europe from the East. Eventually they crossed the Pyrenees and  began to settle in the Iberian Peninsula. But here too they were being squeezed out by the much more numerous Visigoths. And so in 429, under their enterprising King Gaiseric, the whole Vandal tribe were taken across the straits of Gibraltar into Africa, where they took over  the badly organised Roman province, probably in search of nothing more than a place of permanent residence where they could prosper and be secure. And so began the Kingdom of the Vandals, with Carthage as its capital, soon to be recognised with a treaty by the Romans, who did not have the power to dislodge them.

This Kingdom of the Vandals, short-lived though it was to be, consisted of the broad coastal strip of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, in those days green and fertile and a rich supplier of grain to Rome itself. And there the Vandals prospered and also diversified, learning the skills of seamanship and also piracy, which led them to conquer Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands, and also to range free around the coasts of the Mediterranean, raiding, kidnapping and slave dealing.

But their king Gaiseric’s growing taste for conquest led him to attempt unsuccessfully the capture of Palermo, and he was starting to be a major nuisance to the Romans. Then in 455 he decided to take his fleet and attempt the sack of Rome. This was not an act of conquest. Partly he wanted to kidnap (or rescue) Eudocia, who had been betrothed to his son as part of the treaty, and whose father, the emperor Valentian, had just been murdered. But also the purpose was loot. The Vandals sailed up the Tiber, occupied Rome for two weeks and removed huge amounts of treasure, including even Titus’s spoils from the Temple at Jerusalem.

The Vandals went on prospering in Africa, and it took another 79 years of conflict before the Romans, or rather (on their behalf) Justinian, emperor at Byzantium, got rid of them.

The man who actually did it, in 534, was Belisarius—one of the great generals of history, and one to rank with Caesar and Pompey. But he has been short-changed: the accounts are a mixture of history, legend and folktale.