The Re-Conquest of Africa (AD 533)

by Gary Julian

The Re-Conquest of Africa (AD 533)

It is as if there is a “code of silence” among Historians in general, and Military Historians in particular, on the career of Count Belisarius of the Eastern Roman Empire. In military operations lasting for decades he would out wit, out fight and out maneuver far more numerous opponents ranging from barbarian armies of Goths, Vandals and Avars to the civilized forces of the Persian Empire. In the process he saved his Emperor, his nation and conquered vast territories. In this article I will concentrate on what must rank as one of the greatest military operations of all time: the re-conquest of Africa in 533 A.D.

A Total Disaster

The few historians who bother with the campaign at all simply summarize it in a couple paragraphs or dismiss it entirely as an “easy” victory without considering the facts. Any true student of military history knows that these “easy” victories are often the result of incredible planning, logistics, generalship, and sometimes a little luck. Even with everything going for you, a single minor mistake can wipe out your entire army.

That type of mistake occurred in 467 A.D. when the Eastern Emperor Leo I and Western Emperor Anthemius sent an invasion force to drive out the Vandals and re-conquer Africa. A huge army and fleet of over 1,100 ships was assembled. Manned by perhaps 70,000 soldiers and sailors they sailed westward taking the island of Sardinia from the Vandals. With Sardinia as a base the army then disembarked near Carthage.

Unfortunately, the fleet was under the command of Basiliscus, the brother of Leo’s wife. Military ability and being the Emperor’s brother-in-law do not always go hand in hand. Basiliscus crowded the ships of the fleet into the harbor until there was almost no room for maneuver and to top it off placed an inadequate guard. The Vandal King waited for nightfall and sent fire ships floating into the fleet. In no time at all there was a holocaust with only a small number Imperial ships escaping the deathtrap. Basiliscus sought refuge in a church while his troops died. The fiasco is supposed to have cost the Empire 65 tons of gold and left the treasury bankrupt for years. After this disaster, Leo abandoned the Western Empire to its fate.

The “Fall” of the Roman Empire

There is no argument that part of the Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D. The popular picture that most historians paint that the Empire totally fell would have been news to Emperor Zeno, the Senate and the Roman Army in Constantinople. Looking at a map shows about one half the Empire still standing strong against an endless stream of barbarian invaders coming from all directions.

Still, the old Roman Empire and the Legions were truly gone. By the time Emperor Justinian assumed the throne in 527 the Roman Legion had not been an effective fighting force for many decades. The armies of the Eastern Roman Empire held to the “old” traditions in many ways: a highly trained officer corps, medical units and engineers. Mostly they acted as a defensive force. The infantry, being of mixed quality, was used more to hold ground or man fortresses against invaders.

The strike force of the Eastern Romans was the cavalry. They had adopted the metal stirrups invented by the Huns. This made the cavalry an effective shock force that could charge pell-mell with no fear of falling off. They also adopted from the Persians the “Cataphract.” This was a horse and rider fully encased in armor. The cataphracts were skilled archers. They made initial assaults from a distance with their armor making them almost invulnerable to enemy fire. When the enemy fell into disorder the horsemen could close in for the kill. The Vandals and Goths could not copy this method of warfare. The cataphract was much more than just a horse, a bow and some armor. It took long years of training for a man to be able to control his horse with his knees while aiming his bow in any direction at full gallop. Under a skilled general like Belisarius the far more numerous Germanic armies were defeated time and again.

Rome in Egypt by Nick Gindraux
rome in egypt by nick gindraux

Background to Invasion

The Emperor Justinian was determined to drive out the barbarian invaders holding the western provinces of the Roman Empire. The obstacles were enormous and after the disastrous fiasco of 467, and he needed someone to successfully lead the army in this new invasion. A young general from Thrace named Belisarius had just made a name for himself on the Eastern Front by defeating a Persian army nearly twice his size. Justinian felt he had found his man.

Finding a general was only the fist step. Justinian was responsible for defending an incredibly long border against many enemies. The main enemy at the moment was the Persian Empire. For the first five years of his reign Justinian reluctantly waged a costly and unprofitable war against the Persians. The victory by Belisarius at Dara (and a truck load of gold) helped in negotiating (or at least buying) the “Endless Peace” with the Persians. Now eastern regiments were freed up for the invasion of Africa.

Justinian’s advisors were solid in their opposition to the campaign. From a military point of view they felt it was folly to send an invasion fleet of heavy transport ships over 1,000 miles from its’ home base into enemy controlled waters, and then to land an outnumbered army (with no reinforcements available) to attack entrenched land forces. In addition the fleet could only sail in the summer calm of May to November. The autumn and winter storms would leave the army cut totally cut off. The finance ministers warned of the huge drain on the treasury and pointed out how the failed attack in 467 nearly bankrupted the nation.

John of Cappadocia warned the Emperor that their land forces were already spread very thin: “Have you dragon’s teeth to sow? Well, then, summon up twenty thousand swordsmen . . . Can they win their way past the Vandalic battle fleets? Let a miracle destroy the Vandals! What follows? Caesar, can your army master and hold a continent? . . . You undertake to besiege Carthage: by land, the distance is not less than one hundred and forty days journey; on the sea, a whole year must elapse before you can receive any intelligence from your fleet. If Africa should be reduced, it cannot be preserved without the additional conquest of Sicily and Italy. Success will impose the obligations of new labors; a single misfortune will attract the Barbarians into the heart of your exhausted empire.” Justinian’s answer was that God was on their side.

The Gathering of the Fleet

The Roman Empire was still the only world power. No other nation had the resources to assemble such a strike force. The logistics alone must have been a nightmare: 36,000 soldiers and sailors, some 6,000 horses, arms, engines, military stores, water and provisions to last for a three month voyage of over 1,000 miles.

At the harbor of Constantinople the navy brought together from Egypt, Cilicia and Ionia some 20,000 sailors and 500 transports ranging from 30 up to 500 tons. The proud galleys of old that had made the Mediterranean a Roman lake were long gone. Protecting the fleet were only 92 light brigantines. Army regiments were withdrawn from the Eastern Front courtesy of the “Endless Peace” with Persia. About 10,000 infantry from Thrace and Isauria marched to Constantinople. Another 5,000 excellent cavalry were assigned. There were two additional bodies of Allied Troops: 600 Huns and 400 Heruls, all mounted horse archers.

In supreme command of both the navy and the army was Belisarius. Justinian granted Belisarius the title of Autocrator with almost boundless power to act as if the Emperor himself were present. In June 533 the fleet was ready. The Emperor and the Patriarch went in procession down to the docks. Icons waved behind them while marching choirs sang “Rex gloriae, Domine virtutum . . . King of Glory, Lord of armed hosts . . . ” While the 600 ships were moored in front of the Imperial Palace, the Patriarch offered prayers for the success of the expedition. Most of those who witnessed the sailing felt that they would never return.

Small as the forces looked on paper this was a major effort by the Empire. Failure could do serious damage to the defense of the nation. At the very best the Eastern Roman’s army and navy numbered no more than 150,000. The hard core professional battlefield regiments was a much smaller number. The force of 36,000 committed to the invasion amounted to 24% of their armed strength. No more troops could be committed without leaving their huge borders defenseless.

Smoothing the Way

Facing the Romans would be a Vandal land force of perhaps 30,000 plus a large fleet. The Emperor recognized that diplomacy was a vital ingredient to a successful invasion. Perhaps a revolution or two would draw Vandal attention and troops from the main attack. He encourage a rising of Pro-Roman factions in Tripolitana with a small military force and successfully drove out the Vandals. Justinian urged the Vandal governor of Sardinia to rebel, which he did. There was also a dynastic quarrel among Vandals. Gelimer had deposed Hilderic as king three years before and was keeping him and a few supporters as prisoners. Justinian also used a dispute between the Goths of Italy and the Vandals to his advantage. The Goths granted the Romans permission to dock their invasion fleet in Sicily on the way to Africa.

King Gelimer reacted to the revolutions just as Justinian had hoped. The King dispatched his brother Zano with 5,000 soldiers and 120 galleys to re-capture Sardinia. Now there would be no Vandal fleet nearby to attack the Roman troop transports when they were at their most vulnerable and a large part of the army would be wasted on a distant island. What’s more, by making no attempt to recover Tripolitana, Gelimer ensured that if a Roman army made it to Africa they would be landing on a somewhat more friendly soil.

The Invasion

The fleet suffered thirst having been becalmed for 16 days. An additional 500 men died from disease. Finally after many weeks they were able to dock at Caucana on the southern shore of Sicily where Gothic officers had been ordered to help provision the troops. Intelligence was gathered on the Vandal’s movements. Belisarius was urged to speed the operation. The fleet set sail again, passed Malta, and finally dropped anchor 5 days south of Carthage. Before landing Belisarius had a council or war with some of his generals. They urged that they sail straight for Carthage and surprise it. Belisarius overruled this view. No one knew the exact location of the Vandal fleet. With the disaster of 467 A.D. in mind he felt is was better to get on dry land without delay.

Some three months after their departure from Constantinople the army and its’ supplies safely made it to shore. The fleet was formed into a semicircle with five soldiers stationed on each ship as a guard. The rest of the army built a camp on the sea shore “which they fortified, according to ancient discipline, with a ditch and rampart.” On the next morning Belisarius awoke to find neighboring gardens pillaged. He sharply rebuked the offenders saying: “When I first accepted the commission of subduing Africa I depended much less on the numbers, or even the bravery of my troops, than on the friendly disposition of the natives, and their immortal hatred of the Vandals. You alone can deprive me of this hope; if you continue to extort by rapine what might be purchased for a little money, such acts of violence will reconcile these implacable enemies, and unite them in a just and holy league against the invaders of their country.” A rigid discipline was enacted which soon resulted in the natives selling all supplies possible to the Romans.

Belisarius began the 10 to 12 day march to Carthage along a road that followed the coast. He sent out 3 miles ahead of the army 300 horse under John the Armenian as advance guard. The Allied contingent of 600 Huns were ordered to march the same distance to the left of the road to protect against a flank attack. The entire fleet was instructed to sail within sight of the land forces to cover the right flank. During the march a number of towns went over to the Romans without a fight.

The Battle of Ad Decimum (or Ten Mile Post)

King Gelimer of the Vandals was in a panic. A Roman army has appeared out of nowhere and was marching across North Africa. It was the last thing he had expected. He needed to protract the war as long as possible until his brother could return from Sardinia. Unfortunately the Vandals had destroyed, or allowed to decay, many of the old fortifications of the Romans leaving only two options: abandon Carthage or engage in battle on open ground. After ordering the execution of the old king being held prisoner, Gelimer came up with an excellent plan of attack. He chose to fight at the ten mile mark outside of the city. At that point the coast road turns inland and the Romans would be separated from their fleet. Gelimer ordered his brother Ammatas to hold the Romans at a defile. The King’s nephew Gibamund with 2,000 men would march across a salt plain to strike the Roman left flank. Gelimer with the main army would make a wide sweep around the Roman left and hit them in the rear. The Romans would be pinned with their backs against the Bay of Tunis out of reach of the fleet. It almost worked.

Even the best plans can go wrong. Ammatas made a serious error by showing up at his assigned position hours ahead of time with only a few men. The rest of his troops were strung out in groups of 20 to 30 men on the road from Carthage. While surveying the ground Ammatas ran into John the Armenian’s troop. Ammatas was a brave warrior and killed by his own hand 12 of John’s best men before he himself was slain. With their leader dead the Vandals fled back to Carthage sweeping along the other soldiers coming up to the front. John’s men gave chase right up to the city gates leaving a 10 mile trail of large numbers of dead Vandals. In the meantime the 600 Huns on the Roman left had reached the salt plain and came into contact with Gibamund’s 2,000 soldiers. Though outnumbered 3 to 1 the Huns smashed the Vandal force killing Gibamund.

Belisarius knew nothing of these two battles as he marched up the coast road. His Federate cavalry rode in advance of the main force reaching the Ad Decimum battlefield. In climbing the hills to reconnoiter they saw a cloud of dust coming from the south and then a large force of Vandal cavalry. Gelimer’s army was coming. An urgent message was sent to Belisarius for help. Gelimer had followed Belisarius at a safe distance, but the hilly nature of the terrain did not allow him to see the movements of the Romans nor the disaster to the Vandals on his left. There was a brief skirmish between the Roman Federates and the vanguard of the Vandals. The Federates fled for about a mile down the road where they met up with another 800 Romans. Seeing the Federates galloping toward them in disorder they joined the panic and rode back to the main force.

Victory was now within reach of Gelimer. The historian Procopius personally witnessed the terror of the fleeing Roman cavalry. “Had Gelimer pursued immediately,” said Procopius, “I do not think that even Belisarius would have withstood him, but our cause would have been utterly ruined, so large appeared the multitude of the Vandals and so great the fear they inspired; or if he had made straight for Carthage he would have slain easily all the men with John, and would have preserved the city and its treasurers, and would have taken our ships which had approached near, and deprived us not only of victory but of the means of escape.”

Gelimer now reached the Ad Decimum battlefield. Finding the body of his brother he became completely unmanned and expressed loud lamentations. Rather than pursue the fleeing Romans, he could only think of burying the corpse. The opportunity for victory was lost. Belisarius rallied the fleeing cavalry and administered a strong rebuke. Leaving the infantry behind at camp he rode at the head of the cavalry at full speed back to Ad Decimum. The Vandals believing the fighting was at an end had dismounted and were inspecting the battlefield while Gilmer arranged funeral rites. Belisarius charged the barbarians bringing with him a large cloud of drifting dust that gave the impression of a much larger Roman force. The Vandals fled not toward Carthage, but west to Numidia. The losses of the Vandals were heavy. The fighting finally ended at nightfall with the arrival of the Huns and John the Armenian.

Belisarius spent the night on the battlefield. The next morning the infantry arrived, and the entire army marched to Carthage. They camped outside the city walls fearing a trap. Before entering the city Belisarius exhorted the troops not to disgrace their arms. They were to remember the Vandals were tyrants and the Romans were the deliverers of the Africans who were now loyal subjects of the Emperor. The city gates were thrown wide open and the citizens gave cheerful greetings. The Roman fleet then sailed into the lake of Tunis five miles south of Carthage. Belisarius ordered most of the sailors to join the triumph to swell their numbers. The Romans marched through the city streets in close ranks prepared for a battle. Belisarius at once set to work rebuilding the fortifications of the city.

The Battle of Tricamaron

King Gelimer’s army was scattered but not destroyed. He set up camp at Bulla some four days journey from Carthage. He then wrote to his brother Zano with the horrible news that Africa was lost and urged him to return from his victorious campaign in Sardinia at once with his troops and the fleet. Intending a blockade he cut the aqueduct serving Carthage and tried to prevent provisions going to the city. He also used secret agents to undermine the loyalty of the inhabitants and the Imperial Army. Gelimer has some success with the Huns. The Huns chose to not participate in the coming battle and to rally to whoever was the victor.

Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but now reinforced by Zano the Vandals considerably outnumbered the Romans. The Vandal army with their wives, slaves and treasure marched to Tricamaron about twenty miles from Carthage and set up camp. Like Ad Decimum this was to be a battle of cavalry. Belisarius was confident in the superior merit of his troops and allowed the Barbarians to surprise him at an unseasonable hour. The Romans were instantly under arms. A rivulet covered their front. The Roman cavalry with Belisarius at their head formed the first line and the infantry the second line.

The Vandals held firm against repeated charges by the mailed Roman horsemen. Finally Zano and a number of brave Vandal officers were killed and the enemy lines began to break up. Gelimer and his troops retreated to their camp. The Roman infantry began to move up and the “neutral” Huns now joined in the chase. In the evening Belisarius led his infantry to attack the camp. As soon as the Roman infantry arrived Gelimer with a few attendants fled in secret into the wilds of Numedia. When the Vandals discovered their King had deserted them they dispersed looking out for their own personal safety. The Romans entered the camp without resistance and inhumanly massacred every Vandal they met and raped their wives and daughters. Under the cover of darkness the Roman Army deserted their ranks in an orgy of killing and treasure hunting. Belisarius spent a sleepless night on the field of victory worried about a counter attack under such conditions. At dawn he planted his standard on a hill and gradually restored order. A light force was dispatched to follow Gelimer who had fled to the inaccessible country of the Moors. The chase was given up and the army went into winter quarters in Carthage.

The surviving Vandals surrendered without resistance. Tripoli confirmed its voluntary allegiance. The islands of Sardinia and Corsica surrendered to a single Roman officer who carried with him the head of Zano. The islands of Majorca, Minorca and Yvica pledged allegiance. The city of Caesarea (near modern Algiers) was thirty days march from Carthage. The road by land was infested by Moors, but the Romans controlled the sea. A Roman Tribune sailed to the straights opposite Gibraltar and set up an Imperial Post which was later fortified by Justinian. The Roman Empire had expanded again to the Pillars of Hercules.

Gelimer gave orders that part of his treasure be transported to Spain where he hoped to find refuge with the Visigoths. But the Romans intercepted his flight, captured his treasure and chased him again into the Moorish hills where he shared the poverty and mud huts of the Moors. After several months Gelimer accepted Roman promises of honorable treatment and estates in Asia Minor and surrendered to Belisarius. Thus ended the Kingdom of the Vandals.

A Triumph in Constantinople

Envy soon reared its ugly head among Roman officers who passed word to the Emperor that Belisarius was planning to make himself King of Africa or perhaps even Emperor. Justinian recalled him to Constantinople. Belisarius knowing full well his innocence loaded ships with his guards, captives, and treasure. He sailed into the harbor of Constantinople before word had reached the city that he had even left Africa. His arrival sparked a public sensation.

Once assured of the Count’s loyalty Justinian proclaimed a pageant of triumph in the fashion of the Caesars of old and opened the doors of the Hippodrome to a public festival. Belisarius was honored and named Consul of the Roman Empire for that year. The public was treated to a proud procession of robed priests and a choir of monks. Following them rode all the servants of the Empire who had helped in the conquest from Praetorian to City Prefect. A roar went up from the tens of thousands of Romans in the tiers of the Hippodrome when the conqueror’s troops entered. Their iron gray figures rode in perfect ranks around the long Spina. Following them were the Allied Huns. The multitude rose as one with beating hands as Belisarius appeared. The conqueror marched in on foot in battle dress with no laurel wreath and was saluted by the Senate and the people. From that moment he was hero of the city.

After Belisarius marched the captive Gelimer and the Vandal princes in chains for the occasion. After the Vandals came carts overflowing with captured treasure of gold, rich armor, precious stones, golden thrones and the chariots of state used by the Vandal Queen. The crowd noted a wagon led by barefoot monks bearing the treasures of Jerusalem: the seven-branched candlesticks, the shewbread table and the Seat of Mercy that had been in the temple of King Solomon. The relics had been brought to Rome by Titus and looted by the Vandals. The re-captured standards of long dead Roman Legions were put on display. Justinian announced that these standards were signs that the Romans would once again rule the West. “We hope,” said Justinian “that God will grant us to regain the other lands that the ancient Romans possessed, as far as the two oceans.”

The Vandal King Gelimer was not to die to make a spectacle for these Romans. But as he was led from the Hippodrome to the villa where he would spend his years as a pensioned enemy he repeated over and over: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”