- One of the barbarian peoples who established successor kingdoms in the deteriorating remnants of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Although active from the early fourth century, the Vandals only established a kingdom of any consequence in the fifth century under their greatest king, Gaiseric, who carved out a kingdom of his own in North Africa. His son and other descendants preserved this kingdom into the sixth century and created one of the more powerful entities in the newly forming post-Roman Mediterranean. The Vandal kingdom ultimately fell to the armies of Justinian in the 530s, as he attempted to reunite the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire under his authority. The Vandals are perhaps best known for Gaiseric's sack of the city of Rome in 455, and have, since the eighteenth century, been associated with the term vandalism. They acquired a reputation for senseless destruction and violence that is reflected in the modern term, but one that is undeserved and inaccurate.The early history of the Vandals before their entry into the empire in the fifth century remains a bit unclear. They probably originated in the region of the Baltic Sea or in Scandinavia, and in the first century of the Common Era they moved south and divided into two groups, the Silings and the Hasdings. By the year 300, at the latest, the Vandals seem to have settled in central Europe where they gradually began to make contact with the Roman Empire and other barbarian peoples. These relationships, however, before too long became increasingly complicated, as the Vandals, like other peoples living outside the empire's frontiers, faced increasing pressure from westward-moving Huns or the peoples they displaced. The two groups of Vandals reunited and joined with other barbarian peoples, then were forced from their homeland after losing a struggle against a confederation of Goths. According to one tradition, the Vandals petitioned the emperor Constantine for admittance into the empire as a people. But this version of events is quite unlikely, even though some individual Vandals may have been settled within the empire at that time. They most likely remained somewhere in central Europe, perhaps reaching parts of modern Hungary in the course of the fourth century. As the pressure from the Huns continued to increase, the necessity of moving the tribe increased. By the late fourth and early fifth century, the Vandals had become foederati (federated allies), and had joined with the Roman military commander Stilicho against Alaric and the Goths.This connection with Stilicho, along with competition and cooperation with other barbarian peoples, led to the entry of the Vandals into the empire when they crossed the Rhine River in 406. After an initial setback following the crossing, the Vandals inflicted a crushing defeat on the Frankish allies of Rome who defended the frontier. Following this victory, the Vandals, along with their Alan allies, went from one end of Gaul to the other and caused serious devastation. Thanks to the decline in the power of the Western Empire, the Vandals, like other barbarian peoples, roamed freely in the empire. After two and a half years in Gaul, they marched into Spain, where they divided again in two and attempted to establish themselves.The period in Spain was pivotal in the history of the Vandals and witnessed the first appearance of their greatest king, Gaiseric. Before the rise of Gaiseric, however, the Vandals enjoyed a measure of success and endured serious setbacks in Spain. By 422, a confederation of Vandals and Alans had conquered southern Spain, but only after being forced south by Visigothic armies sent by Rome. Indeed, a Visigothic army marched into Spain on Rome's behalf, nearly obliterating the Siling Vandal tribe and forcing the Alans and Hasding Vandals together in 418. Forced by the pressure of the Visigoths, the Vandals moved into the south. By 428, the Vandal king Gunderic (r. 406-428) had captured the Roman cities of Cartagena and Seville. But the sack of Seville did not come without great cost, as Gunderic died while the city was being plundered by the Vandals.At the death of Gunderic, Gaiseric (c. 390-477) assumed the throne, even though Gunderic had male heirs; Gaiseric regularized this succession plan later by establishing that the oldest Hasding male of the royal family should take the throne. Gaiseric was the son of a Vandal king and an unfree woman, possibly a Roman captured in a raid. At the time of succession he was nearly forty, and had a mature son, Huneric, who may have himself been married to a Visigothic princess. Gaiseric was the greatest of the Vandal kings and one of the ablest barbarian kings of his age, equal to the more famous Attila the Hun. Indeed, Gaiseric had great vision; he created a kingdom in Africa that lasted several generations, before falling in the end to Byzantine armies led by Justinian's general Belisarius.Gaiseric's vision is best revealed by his movement into Africa, which was embroiled in great turmoil at that time. Recognizing the difficulties the imperial government faced because of the ambitions of its general Boniface, in 429 Gaiseric moved all his people, some 80,000 according to tradition, to Africa in a fleet of ships. Once there, Gaiseric moved gradually across the region and threatened Roman authority. According to one account, Boniface had invited Gaiseric to Africa to help against a Gothic army sent to suppress his revolt, but then faced a hostile Gaiseric. Whatever the cause of his movement, Gaiseric reached St. Augustine's city of Hippo in 430 and laid siege to the city that lasted fourteen months. Although the town held out against Gaiseric and the siege was lifted, Roman efforts to rescue it failed when Gaiseric defeated an army led by Boniface, who was now back in Rome's good graces. Gaiseric occupied the town after the siege and settled a treaty with the empire in 435 that recognized Vandal control over the territory. Four years later, in 439, Gaiseric violated the treaty by seizing the great capital of Carthage. He was now clearly in control of important parts of Africa, and the empire was forced to deal with that reality.Gaiseric had established his kingdom in North Africa, and he remained in control there until his death in 477, despite Roman efforts to dislodge him. It must be noted, however, that relations between Gaiseric and the empire were not always hostile. In 442 Gaiseric agreed to a treaty with the Western Empire in which his authority in Africa was recognized by the empire. And he remained on good terms with the western emperor, Valentinian III (d. 455). But when Valentinian was murdered and his daughter Eudocia, who had already been betrothed to Huneric, was forced to marry the new emperor's son, Gaiseric reacted violently. He led his fleet to Italy and sacked Rome, although at the request of Pope Leo I, known as Leo the Great, he did not massacre the population or burn the city down. He later conquered several islands in the western Mediterranean, and in 456 he defeated a fleet sent against him by the eastern emperor. In 474 he settled a treaty with Constantinople recognizing his authority, and in 476 negotiated rights over Sicily with the western emperor, an agreement that was accepted by the emperor's successor, Odovacar. At his death on January 24, 477, Gaiseric was clearly the greatest power in the western Mediterranean. He transformed the tribal group that followed him into a settled people and was the founder of a kingdom that seemed likely to last for a long time to come.Gaiseric was succeeded by his son Huneric, who had lived a long life and was probably sixty-six at the time of succession. Little is known of Huneric's early life other than his role as hostage at the imperial court and his marriages. He was married early on, perhaps before his father took the throne, and was betrothed to Eudocia to confirm the treaty of 442. His first wife was accused of attempting to poison Gaiseric and sent back to Visigothic Spain after being mutilated. The marriage of Eudocia to the new emperor's son was an excuse for the sacking of Rome; the two were married the following year. But Huneric's aggressive Arianism alienated his wife, a devout Catholic, who left him for Jerusalem in 472. As king Huneric is perhaps known for his persecution of Catholics in his kingdom, which became quite serious in the last year of his reign. His death in 484 prevented the persecution from doing serious damage to the church in Africa.Despite the purge of family members that he had earlier carried out, Huneric was succeeded by his nephew Gunthamund (r. 484-496) rather than his own son. And it was at this point that the kingdom began to suffer from serious internal and external difficulties. Indeed, already under Huneric the attempt to keep the succession in one line of the family demonstrated the problems of Gaiseric's succession plan, according to which the oldest of the sons of the male members of the royal family was to inherit the crown. Gunthamund in his turn faced a series of difficulties. Although he did end Huneric's persecution of Catholics, Gunthamund remained a committed Arian, who made little accommodation with the Catholic church, which increasingly alienated the majority Catholic population from the ruling dynasty. He also felt increasing pressure from the native Berbers, who had formerly served Gaiseric. The Vandal king also faced a challenge from Theodoric the Great, who pushed the Vandals out of Sicily. These difficulties continued under Gunthamund's successor Thrasamund (r. 496-523), whose unrelenting Arianism further alienated the Vandals from the Roman population. He also faced the further erosion of Berber support and even threatened war with Theodoric. But good relations prevailed between the Ostrogoths and Vandals, both because of Thrasamund's earlier marriage to Theodoric's daughter and because of the Vandal's realization of Theodoric's power. Hilderic (r. 523-530), the mature son of Huneric, was the next to rule, and unlike his predecessors he took a tolerant line with the Catholics, despite his own continued Arianism. This act endeared him to the Roman population, as did his diplomatic turn toward the empire and away from the Ostrogoths. He was a personal friend of the great emperor Justinian. His diplomatic shift, however, brought him to the brink of war with Theodoric, a war prevented only by Theodoric's death, and his closeness to the empire led to a revolt, which deposed him.The final Vandal king was Gelimer (r. 530-534), who assumed the throne by a palace coup, which violated Gaiseric's succession plan and the peace treaty with the empire in existence since 474. Indeed, the deposition of Justinian's friend Hilderic angered the emperor on a personal as well as political level. In 533, Justinian sent his great general Belisarius against the Vandals. A combination of Belisarius's military brilliance and Gelimer's miscalculation and willingness to concede battle led to the rapid defeat of the Vandals by a relatively small imperial army. After a series of defeats, Gelimer capitulated in March or April of 534 and was settled in the empire away from his former kingdom. Justinian, thanks to Belisarius, was able to restore Africa to imperial control and also able to take his first step toward reuniting the empire. The Vandal kingdom, although one of the most powerful under Gaiseric, was destroyed, and the Vandal people absorbed by the empire.The Vandals had little physical impact on the African countryside, or at least left little evidence of it. They did seize land from the Roman provincials in an effort to secure their own economic base and weaken Roman power. They built little in the way of fortifications and did not establish urban bases from which they could have defended themselves against the Romans. Their lack of building fortifications may have been the result of the Vandals' pride in their navy, which was quite powerful and allowed them to control much of the western Mediterranean and sack Rome in 455. They also left little in terms of a written record of their time in Africa. Unlike other barbarian peoples, the Vandals did not compile a law code, although there was a collection of laws that reveals Roman influence. And all accounts of the Vandals were written by writers from the Eastern Empire, who generally left an unfavorable portrait.Vandal life in Africa is best captured by the Byzantine writer, the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, in his history of the Vandal wars. He noted that the Vandals spent all their time in the baths or attended the theater. They wore much gold and dressed in elaborate clothes and were entertained by dancers and mimes. Procopius notes also that they indulged in great banquets, with a wide variety of meat, fish, and other foods. They pursued a number of pleasures, including hunting. Finally, it should be noted that the Vandals were committed Arians, who persecuted the native Catholic population. But here too, their stay in Africa had little long-term impact.See alsoAlans; Alaric; Arianism; Augustine of Hippo, St.; Attila the Hun; Belisarius; Huneric; Huns; Gaiseric; Galla Placidia; Jordanes; Justinian; Law and Law Codes; Odovacar; Ostrogoths; Theodoric the Great; VisigothsBibliography♦ Bury, John B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.♦ Cameron, Averil. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, a.d. 395-600. New York: Routledge, 1993.♦ Clover, Frank M. The Late Roman West and the Vandals. London: Variorum, 1993.♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.♦ Todd, Malcolm. Everyday Life of the Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals. London and New York: G. P. Putnam's' Sons, 1972.♦ Victor of Vita. Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution. Trans. John Moorhead. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.