The Vandals, an infamous Germanic tribe that sacked Rome

by Brian Adam (‘Gaiseric’)

It’s not known to many people today that a long time ago, the Vandal warriors, a Germanic tribe, once established a kingdom in North Africa as their base for raiding the Mediterranean Sea, much like the Vikings. Like the Goths and Attila’s Huns, the Vandals helped bring about the Roman Empire’s decline.

Who were the Vandals?

Vandal was a Germanic people belonging to the family of East Germans. The term “Vandilii” is used by Tacitus in his Germania. They settled between the Elbe and Vistula. At the time of the Marcomannic War (166-81 AD), they lived in what is now Silesia. During the 3rd century, when the Roman Empire was in crisis with many powerful enemies at their borders, the Vandals and their ally Sarmatians invaded the Roman territory along the upper Rhine river in AD 270. About AD 271 AD, the Roman Emperor Aurelian was obliged to protect the middle course of the Danube against them.

In AD 330, they were granted lands in Pannonia on the right bank of the Danube by Constantine the Great. Vandals accepted Arian Christianity during the reign of Emperor Valens in AD 360. Before this, there was mention of two branches of the Vandal Confederacy: the Siling Vandals in the northwest and the Asding Vandals in the south.

Breach of the Roman Frontier in AD 406

The kingdom of the Alans (non-Germanic descendants of the Scyths), which lay to the east side of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in south Russia, was the first of the Hun conquest driving into Europe from Central Asia. Some of the Alans escaped westward, and the rest fell under the Hun rule. The Great Ostrogothic Kingdom, which covered the area between the Baltic and Black Seas under powerful King Ermanarich, fought the Huns once they appeared in Eastern Europe and invaded their land in the 370s.The Ostrogothic cavalry was humiliated by the faster-moving Huns, whose mounted archers destroyed every force Ermanarich sent against them.


With the fall of the Ostrogothic Kingdom and the death of Ermanarich in South Russia, the related Gothic clans (later known as Visigoths) grew fearful of the Hunnic warriors and decided to appeal to Rome to grant them refuge. The Romans gave them permission to cross the river Danube into Roman territory once they had suffered defeat by the Huns. Many Goths, however, followed them into Roman territory without such permission. Other Germanic tribes, such as Gepids and Rugians, that were not under the Ostrogothic Kingdom, were also defeated and subjugated by the Huns. Worried that they would be next, the Asding Vandals began to stir.

The Crossing of the Pyrenees by Vandals

By the early fifth century, closely pursued by the Huns, the two branches of Vandals (Siling and Asding) and other Germanic tribes: Suebi (once called the Marcomanni and Quadi), Alamanns, Burgundians, and a clan of Alans (non-Germanic, displaced from the Caucasus) went on the move. There was a large number of barbarians who waited to lie across the river Rhine on one cold and frozen night in December AD 406. They surprised the Romans and breached the Frontier at Mainz.

The Roman defenses would not stop them from pouring into Gaul for months. The border had been weakened, as a year before, the Roman General Flavius Stilicho (his background was a Vandal) had been forced to collect some Roman soldiers posted along the Rhine in order to defend Rome from the Goth King Alaric and his army. With the Roman frontier breached, many hundreds of thousands of vandals settled in Gaul, and various barbarian bands roamed unchecked across large parts of Gaul for two and half years. It was the worst ravaging of Gaul than ever before.

Finally, the two branches of the Vandals (Siling and Asding), as well as the Suebi and Alans, crossed the Pyrenees into Spain after being defeated by the Franks in battle and harassed by the Goths (Visigoths). Within two years of being in Spain, the various conquering tribes divided up their spoils, apparently by lot, the Siling Vandals and Alans taking the richest area, Baetica in the south, while the Asdings and Suebi took the north – Galicia.

Gunderic, the Vandal King up to AD 428

During the late AD 410s and early 420, the Romans tried to evict the Siling Vandals and Alans from southern Spain. To this end, they employed the Visigoths to drive the Silings and Alans out, in fact, they finally succeeded in ruining them. Even though the Romans feared the Visigoths becoming too powerful, they offered to settle in southeast Gaul in AD 418. The Asding Vandals moved south to rejoin their kindred, and the joint kingdom proved strong enough to be viable, so it became a Vandal Kingdom.

Gunderic was the leader of the Vandal Kingdom since sometime in the 410s. This left the Suebi Kingdom in control of the northwest of Spain. When the Alans lost their leader, Ataces, with almost all his army in battle against Vallia, the King of the Visigoths 419 AD, the remainder of these Alans subjected themselves to Gunderic King of the Vandals in Baetica, who therefore became King of the Vandals and Alans.

At the beginning of the 420s, the Vandals won a great victory against a Romano-Gothic army led by Castinus. This helped them to further enrich themselves by raiding in Mauritania and the Balearic Islands. Many Roman ports in Spain were captured, including many of the galleys within them, and so the Vandals became the first Teutonic people to develop a Mediterranean navy.

Gaiseric, The Vandal King AD 428-477

King of the Vandals, Gunderic, died and was succeeded by his half-brother, a bastard named Gaiseric (his mother being an unknown concubine of the Vandal King). The name, of which there are various spellings (also Geiseric and Genseric), means the ‘Caesar King.’ He was a more clever and shrewd diplomat as well as a military leader (excellently trained in warfare) than any Vandal leader before or after him. He led his Vandals to repulse the imperial offensives and gave gifts to Attila the Hun for attacking the Romans and Visigoths in the 440s-50s. He was the undisputed King of the Vandals and Alans in AD 428.

Boniface’s Crisis in North Africa

In about 428 AD, Boniface (warlord), Count of North Africa, controlled six whole provinces. He suffered serious problems as a governor, among them legal disputes, Christianity (disappointing St Augustine by marrying an Arian), and bad relations with Moorish tribesmen. More so, Roman General Flavius Aetius saw Boniface as a rival. Aetius persuaded Empress Placidia, who acted as regent for her son, the future Emperor Valentinian III, that Boniface was disloyal to her and had tyrannical aspirations for himself in North Africa.

Further, she was advised to summon Boniface in order to assure his future loyalty. So, she sent word to Boniface to come to the imperial court at Ravenna to explain his failure in North Africa. Aetius secretly sent Boniface a private message advising him that Placidia was planning a plot against his life. Aetius was pleased to see his plan succeed as Boniface declined to appear at the court and was subsequently accused of treason and declared a rebel.

Placidia sent the imperial army to arrest Boniface but he managed to repulse them. Then the Vandals crossed the straits of Gibraltar, suddenly arriving in North Africa and begun to raid. Placidia decided to send her army to re-attempt arresting Boniface. Meanwhile, Aetius’ fraud was discovered by Boniface who sent his friend to see the empress to sue for peace in order to allow him to deal with the Vandal raiders.

The Invasion of Africa

Why did the Vandals come to Africa? Had it been arranged with Boniface, or was it just a normal invasion? It still remains a mystery to this day. We have two different stories below:

First, King Gaiseric was invited into Africa by a rebellious Boniface who was keen to recruit their support against the army of Empress Placidia. They were offered lands in North Africa. After Aetius’ fraud was discovered, Boniface appealed to King Gaiseric to turn home. But it was too late as King Gaiseric was fully aware that Boniface was weakened by the civil war with the empress, and so he landed in North Africa and turned against Boniface.

The other story states that King Gaiseric had suffered a severe fall from his horse, which left him permanently lame. From that point on, he experienced trouble riding, hence sought to satisfy his need for excitement and raiding by seaborne expeditions. Soon, the Vandal fleet grew too strong for the Roman navy and raided the coasts of the western Mediterranean Sea. The Vandal King Gaiseric knew that the North African provinces were the chief suppliers of grain and oil to the Empire and decided to conquer them.

The Vandal King Gaiseric landed in North Africa with over 80,000 men, including Alans, Roman-Spaniards, former slaves, and several Germanic tribesmen with their families. They seized lands from the local Berbers and some Romans near Tingi (Tangier), and from there, they overran the country and spread all over Mauritania. There was no limit to their savage atrocities and cruelties. Everything within their reach was laid waste, with looting, murders, tortures of all kinds, brigands, and countless other unspeakable crimes, without any mercy to men, women, children, priests, and ministers of god. Also, they destroyed church buildings. As the Vandals were Arians, it made the war with the Catholic Romans especially bitter. The armies of vandals defeated Boniface in battle and went on the rampage, forcing Boniface to retreat to the fortified coastal town of Hippo Regius, now Bona.

Invasion on Africa

14 Months of Resistance

All the refugees were crowded into the walled town of Hippo Regius before Gaiseric came. He realized that he was unable to capture the town in a direct assault, so he laid siege. Boniface and his people saw the Vandal siegeworks grow longer and stronger, depriving them even of their sea links. St Augustine and his priests prayed together for a hasty relief, strengthening the resolve of the citizens against the Arians. St Augustine died three months into the siege of Hippo Regius on August 28 AD, 430. Boniface was the one to be blamed for St Augustine’s death.

Desperately to be rescued by the empire, Boniface sent messengers who did break through the Vandal lines, but for months, nothing was heard from Constantinople. After 14 months, hunger and disease were ravaging the Vandals as much as the besieged inhabitants of Hippo Regius. News reached Gaiseric’s camp, and Constantinople responded by sending a powerful imperial fleet that brought an army under the leadership of Aspar and landed at Carthage, which still remained in Roman hands. Boniface joined forces with Aspar and took the field a second time against the Vandals but was completely routed.

Unable to defeat the Vandals, he called for negotiations. The King of Vandals decided to relax the siege and entered into negotiations. Gaiseric still maintained the upper hand and dictated terms. Boniface was allowed out of Hippo Regius with his bodyguard, and families were permitted to leave. Having failed to stop the Vandals, Boniface handed power to Aspar and sailed to Italy to see Empress Placida, who invested him with the office of Magister Militum. General Aetius was furious. Boniface died from a wound he received in his victorious battle against Aetius and his army in AD 432.

Improved Relations

General Aspar established better relations with Gaiseric, as Aspar was an Alan by birth, and Gaiseric’s official title was “King of the Vandals and Alans.” They exchanged gifts and ambassadors, Hippo Regius became the Vandal city while Aspar maintained imperial authority in Carthage. Gaiseric had won for his people an independent kingdom in North Africa, the first and only assault on this rich province by Germanic Barbarians.

Arians vs Catholics in North African

The Vandals treated the Catholics more harshly than other Germanic tribes. Catholic communities were dissolved, and any priests refusing to perform the Arian service were banished or enslaved for decades. It is said of vandals king Gaiseric himself that he was originally a Catholic and had changed to Arianism before coming to North Africa.

Surprise Capture of Carthage

Peace was made between the Romans and Vandals as the division of the coastline was officially acknowledged in AD 435. However, Hippo Regius was an excellent port for expeditions, all raiders paying a proportion of their booty to Gaiseric. His raiders attacked the coasts of Sicily and sacked some cities. Since Aspar returned to Constantinople in 434 AD, the Carthaginian defenses appear to have been weak.

Gaiseric, interested in Carthage’s port with its many ships and galleys anchored there, sought to make it another Vandal city. His son Huneric, who was held by the court at Ravenna as a hostage of peace, was soon released and returned home where he led his army in a surprised attack on Carthage on 19th October AD 439 (according to Hydatius, Gaiseric captured it by trickery). As Carthage fell into Gaiseric’s hand, in order to celebrate the achievement, the Vandals made 439 the first year of a new calendar.

The Vandals, an infamous Germanic tribe that sacked Rome

The Fall of Carthage to the Vandals aggrieved the western and eastern empires, as there was a large number of galleys and great shipyards in Carthage, creating the fleet of Vandals as equal to the joint navy of the two empires. That the empire ever allowed for so many galleys to be left in Carthage’s port while the Vandals were so close by must be one of the most monumental blunders of its history. For the first time in nearly 6 centuries, Carthage became the greatest danger to Rome since the Punic Wars.


In the spring of 440 AD, a vast fleet manned by Vandals and their allies (Alans, Goths, Romano-Barbarians, and Moors) set out from Carthage for Sicily, the principal supplier of oil and grain to Italy after the loss of North Africa. All the coastal towns were looted, and Palermo was besieged. Heavily laden ships returned to the court of Gaiseric. The powerful eastern imperial fleet responded by sailing into Sicilian waters in 441 AD, taking the Vandals by surprise. This was under the command of the Romano-Goth Areobindus, but a major invasion of the Balkans by the Huns and the threat of a Persian attack forced him to take his fleet back home. After this, the king of Vandals allowed his fleets to continue plundering throughout the western Mediterranean Sea.

Arrangement of a Marriage to Make Peace

There was a marriage proposal for Eudocia, daughter of the western emperor Valentinian, and Vandals King Gaiseric’s son Huneric. It was a great honor for the Barbarian leader. However, whose idea was it? It seems possible that General Aetius, who became a chief defender of the Western empire, realized the impossibility of defeating the Vandals in battle. From another point of view, it could be that Emperor Valentinian desired a powerful alliance with a barbarian force that would counter-balance the considerable power of Aetius with his Huns and Goths. Whoever’s idea it was, the political result must have seemed promising to both sides for it led to King Gaiseric’s first major political blunder.

Huneric was already married to a Visigoth princess when the imperial offer of marriage arrived. King Gaiseric decided to free his son from such prior obligations by allowing the poor Visigoth princess to be accused of trying to poison him. Her ears and nose were cut off, and she was sent back to her father Theoderic, the Visigothic King, in Toulouse, Gaul. These enraged King Theoderic, and he swore revenge, making Vandals and Visigoths enemies. But Vandals King Gaiseric sat back and enjoyed the fruits of his African estates, as there was little chance of serious conflict between his kingdom and the empire or the Visigoths.

Sack of Rome AD 455

In 454, Emperor Valentinian murdered Aetius. The following year, Valentinian was stabbed to death by Aetius’s followers. The story goes that Eudoxia, the widow of the emperor, was then forced to marry Maximus against her will. Petronius Maximus was generally believed to have been the grandson of the usurper Maximus, who had been crushed by Theodosius the Great. He had been Consul at age 38 and became Praetorian Prefect of Italy six years later. He became emperor of the West Empire after Valentinian’s death.

The widow Eudoxia knew that an appeal to Constantinople would have little chance of being answered. So, she decided to write to Gaiseric, inviting him to take possession of Rome. However, no invitation was needed, as Gaiseric’s peace treaty had been with Aetius and Valentinian. Now they were dead, and so was the treaty. Emperor Maximus, who hurried to get his son married to Eudoxia instead of Huneric, to whom she was long since promised, angered Gaiseric. The Vandal fleet had been built up for the last ten years and now awaited a major expedition.

A major Vandal fleet left Carthage for Rome. Gaiseric and his nobles expected to clash with the imperial fleet somewhere at sea. However, when they sailed along the coast of Italy, they found themselves unopposed and sighted the port of Rome, Ostia, on 31 May 455. The Romans were already terrified, sending their wives and daughters away to safety. The gates of Rome couldn’t cope with the number of people seeking to flee. Emperor Maximus had no chance to raise his army in defense of his capital and decided to ride out of Rome. Unfortunately for him, an angry Roman crowd recognized him and stoned him to death. This emperor had reigned for just 70 days. Three days after Maximus’ death, unopposed, King Gaiseric stepped ashore at Ostia.

For the fourth time in less than half a century, a barbarian stood at the gates of Rome. Fearing for the safety of Rome, Pope Leo I decided to speak with the leader of the barbarians on behalf of his city. He was met by King Gaiseric, who persuaded him not to burn and slaughter. Gaiseric decided to give certain promises: there would be no killing, no torturing to discover the location of hidden treasure, and no destruction of buildings, public or private. On these terms, the gates of Rome were wide open to him, allowing him to enter the city with no resistance.

The Vandals plundered for two weeks. While Gaiseric stayed at the Imperial palace, his men took all the treasures, statues, and Solomon’s Temple (menorab). Even part of the gilded roof of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was removed. Yet his greatest prize were Empress Eudoxia, her two daughters, Eudocia and Placidia, and Gaudentius, the son of Aetius. Everything was carted to Ostia and loaded into the waiting ships, from where he and his men departed in good order and sailed back to their stronghold in North Africa. The people of Rome and its buildings were left unharmed (if indeed this story was true).

Life at Home

According to one book, Gaiseric’s position among his own people was unassailable. His overwhelming success encouraged autocratic power. As did a conspiracy among some Vandal lords, which was bloodily suppressed. In response, Gaiseric favored a government in which officials replaced the old tribal aristocracy with his patronage and not their birthright. This allowed Gaiseric to employ the talents of Romans and non-Vandals. Later, he passed a law in which succession to his throne was restricted to the royal family and not subject to the ancient Germanic custom of election. Such was his authority that Gaiseric’s will was accepted with little struggle.

According to Procopius in the same book, Gaiseric organized his warriors into 80 companies commanded by captains called chiliarchs, which means leaders of 1,000. Most of them were Vandals and Alans, but increasingly, as time passed and many of them retired to the good life, some black Moorish tribesmen filled in. They were used as seaborne raiding parties while the Vandals waited in the galleys for the spoils to be brought up. The Moorish kingdoms gave Gaiseric few problems, “Gaiseric arms my own flesh against me,” Sidonius wrote a poem, “I am being cruelly torn under his authority by the prowess of my own.”

Each year after the sacking of Rome, the Vandals and allies continued to return to Sicily and the coasts of southern Italy for more plunder. A new emperor Avitus, unable to stop them from doing this, appealed to Constantinople for help but would not trust General Aspar, as his old relations with Gaiseric, as an Alan and an Arian. He instead decided to call General Ricimer, half Suevian – half Goth, for help. Ricimer had a couple of successes against the Vandal fleets but still proved unable to end the Vandal raids.

Majorian’s North African Expedition

Majorian was born early in the fifth century. His grandfather had served Emperor Theodosius I as ‘Master of Soldiers,’ and his father had been treasurer to Aetius. He was an officer to Aetius but later was dismissed by Aetius due to his wife’s dislike of him. He became emperor of the Western Empire in April 457. First, he suffered conflicts with his rival Romans and the Goths in Gaul. After he gained control of the situation, he felt able to deal with the Vandals, who still raided the western Mediterranean from their stronghold in North Africa.

First, he drove the Vandal raiding force out of Campania in Italy, circa AD 459. Then, he organized the building of a great fleet and the recruiting of a mighty army. In France, he obtained recognition from the Visigoths and Burgundians, many of whom joined the Suevi, Huns, Alans, and other barbarians forming his army. In AD 460, he marched the army to Carthago Nova (Cartagena) in Spain.

Realizing the imperial army and fleet were too strong for the Vandals, Gaiseric gained information on Majorian’s movements. He suggested a treaty, but Emperor Majorian refused. Gaiseric decided to instruct his Moorish warriors to lay waste to Mauretania and poison the wells in order to hinder the Roman army’s advance. Majorian’s fleet was being prepared to lead an offensive, but the Vandals captured them in their port by surprise. With both advances on land and sea devastated, Marjorian was forced into peace talks and into recognizing Gaiseric as king of North Africa and confirming his mastery over the western Mediterranean.

The Vandals, an infamous Germanic tribe that sacked Rome

With the expedition a failure, Ricimer, the head of the military, was furious and saw his emperor dealing with Gaiseric as shameful. And so Ricimer, who had nominated Marjorian as western Emperor, now turned against him. Marjorian was captured in the mutiny (likely being set up by Ricimer). He was to end his reign in AD 461, either by illness or murder.

Raids continue

The accession of a new western emperor in AD 461 gave the Vandals king Gaiseric the excuse to break all previous treaties and resume his raiding of Sicily and Italy. The Vandals planned their attacks well, ensuring there were never any Roman troops or navies present. Meanwhile, the Romans could not possibly be everywhere at the same time. Every year, the Vandals grew ever more daring and ever more rapacious. Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands all fell into Gaiseric’s hands.

Great Expedition of 468

In 468, Emperor Leo decided to end the Vandal raiding by launching an expedition to crush them. It was the most expensive expedition ever in history. Thought it was a failure and brought about the end of the Western Roman Empire 8 years later.


By AD 467, Gaiseric and his raiders went too far. It might not have been his fault, but the greedy actions of a rogue Vandal pirate. A raid on southern Greece violated the territory of the Eastern Empire. Eastern emperor Leo was outraged. He decided to join forces with the Western empire against the Vandals by nominating Anthemius as the Western emperor. First, Anthemius had to ally himself with Ricimer by marrying his daughter Alypia to him. He also made himself popular in Rome as he brought about the end of the hostilities between the Eastern and Western empires.

Spending on Expedition

Poor emperor Leo had to pour 65,000 pounds of gold and 700 pounds of silver into the equipment of over 1,100 ships and 100,000 soldiers and sailors. He had collected a fleet of ships from the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. It was the greatest fleet ever sent against the Vandals, enough to destroy the Vandal Kingdom and capture Gaiseric, and it brought Leo near bankruptcy.


Regarding who should be at the head of the expedition, Leo was persuaded by his wife and General Aspar to put General Basiliscus in charge, the brother of Leo’s wife. In AD 468, the fleet sailed from Constantinople into the Mediterranean Sea and was joined by the Italian fleet under Marcellinus. Ricimer was angered that the western emperor Anthemius had chosen Marcellinus as the commander of the western fleet, for he was Ricimer’s foremost enemy. General Heracleius of the Eastern Army obtained auxiliaries in Egypt and then sailed for Tripoli, where he would disembark and march by land to Carthage.

Battle on Land and Sea

Alerted by the Vandal scouts of the empire’s movements, Gaiseric decided to repulse them by using his Vandal fleets. However, Marcellinus’ western fleet succeeded in Sardinia over the Vandal fleet and took control of this island. Approximately 500 Vandal galleys confronted Basiliscus’ fleet in the Sicilian waters. This battle, too, ended with a major victory for Basiliscus, Gaiseric losing 340 galleys.

Set sea battles were rare in the 5th century and something that Vandals avoided whenever possible. The classic ram and board warfare of the ancient Mediterranean still pertained. But greater emphasis was placed on firepower, as the proliferation of cataphract-type ships suggests. A hail of archery preceded any encounter. To this was added the shot of catapults and ballistae, their stones and iron weights were intended to hole a galley. I’m not sure if there was widespread use of Greek Fire in the 5th century, a feared Byzantine weapon. Like Carthaginian General, Hannibal Barca used clay pots of snakes on both sides, using clay pots of quicklime, serpents, and scorpions to throw into enemy galley to panic them.

Heracleius landed with a considerable force in Tripoli, confronting a Vandal army along the Libyan coast. The Vandal warriors in Gaiseric’s army were all quality horsemen who fought with sword and spear when in close combat. Their Moorish allies in the center rose on camel backs, and if the fighting was to be an aggressive, skirmishing attack, they remained in the saddle.

It was advantageous to the Moors to stand in a phalanx in which they stood with spears, javelins, and shields amid the legs of their animals, enemy horsemen, unfamiliar with the sight and smell of Moorish camels, could be thrown into disorder. They marched against Heracleius, but his army, which included Hun horse archers, was little affected. Moorish javelin showers, the camel phalanx, and the powerful Vandal horsemen failed to break Heracleius’ advance. This allowed Heracleius to capture several towns and to confidently continue his march towards Carthage.

Three Roman columns close in on King Gaiseric

Gaiseric was at his palace, fearing for his own survival as well as for that of his kingdom as all the three enemy forces closed in on him. However, the Vandal scouts informed him of Basiliscus and his fleet being anchored at the Promontorium Mercurii, now Cape Bon, not far from Carthage (45 miles). It is still a mystery today that this fleet had not just sailed into the port of Carthage and taken it by surprise. But Basiliscus settled down there and showed no inclination to go further. Gaiseric called for a council of war over what the Vandals should do. Now was the time for Gaiseric’s famous cunning. He sent ambassadors to commander Basiliscus, asking for a cease-fire and promising Basiliscus great wealth. And according to some chroniclers, the latter may well have achieved this brief armistice. Basiliscus and several of the generals, preferring a bloodless victory, were only too ready to agree.

The Gaiseric Design

Gaiseric spent the five days preparing his old war galleys, filling them with brushwood and pots of oil. On the fifth day, they were ready, waiting for dark to come. When the wind rose and the moon was obscured by clouds, the old galleys were towed out. Against the black sky, the Vandals reached the Cape Bon and started to fire the galleys. Roman guards observed fire darting to and from ships. Too late, the alarm was sounded. The fire galleys sailed into the pack of imperial ships, which was too crowded, leaving no room for ships to maneuver.

The flagship where Basilsicus stayed was well away from danger. The wind drove the fire ships into the Roman fleet, throwing it into confusion. The noise of the wind and the crackling flames was mingled with the cries of the soldiers and sailors as they shouted commands to one another, using long poles to push off the fire galleys as well as each other’s galleys. The Vandal fleet was behind the advancing fire galleys. They rammed the imperial galleys and sank them. But there were some brave Romans in this struggle, including General John, who was a general under Basiliscus.

When his ship was surrounded by the Vandals and was being boarded, he stood on the deck and, turning from side to side, kept killing heaps of the enemy. Finally, once his ship was captured, he assured that much of the valuable Roman equipment had been thrown into the sea. Genzon, the son of Gaiseric, boarded John’s ship. He offered a promise of safety, but John refused to fall into the hands of dogs and threw himself into the sea wearing his armor. The galleys of the Roman fleet burned throughout the night.

By morning, Basiliscus had lost more than half his fleet that anchored off Cape Bon. The surviving galleys sailed back to Sicily, harassed all the way by Moorish pirates. Another imperial fleet under Marcellinus, who was at Sardinia, might have saved the situation. But Marcellinus was assassinated by either a Vandal agent or a plot by Ricimer. Any further expeditions against the Vandal kingdom were abandoned, and the army of Heracleius heard the bad news and decided to march back. The empire’s campaign was a complete disaster, and Gaiseric was the strong man of the Mediterranean.

General Basiliscus at St Sophia

Emperor Leo was shocked that the expedition was not successful. The public was outraged, and Basiliscus was forced to seek sanctuary in the church of St Sophia in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Leo blamed him for the failure to destroy the enemy kingdom and the loss of so many fine Roman soldiers and sailors. General Aspar was an Alan and Arian and may have secretly sided with his fellow Arian Gaiseric, who was, after all, king of the Vandals and Alans. If this was true, Aspar may have helped Gaiseric by bribing Basiliscus to betray his emperor on his expedition. However, there is no evidence.

The Vandals, an infamous Germanic tribe that sacked Rome

Gaiseric’s Old Age

The early AD 470s saw some major changes within the imperial hierarchy. Aspar was murdered by Emperor Leo. The next year, Ricimer died, and the following year, Emperor Leo died. The Vandals were still raiding the coasts of Italian and Greece as Gaiseric was angered over Aspar’s family being wiped out, revealing the special relationship they enjoyed. The new emperor, Zeno, tried to end the Vandal War by negotiating. His ambassador, Severus, met with surprising success at Carthage.

Since he was used to buying the services of imperial agents, Gaiseric presented him with rich gifts and money, but Severus refused. “In place of such things, the reward most worthwhile for an ambassador is the redemption of prisoners”. Malchus records that Gaiseric acquiesced. “Whatever prisoners I, along with my sons, have obtained, I hand over to you. As for the rest who have been shared out among my followers, you are at liberty to buy them back from each owner, but even I would unable to compel their captors to do this against their will”.

In addition to the freedom of prisoners, Severus wanted to end the cruelty to Catholics. Gaiseric appears to have wanted to impress the rest of the Mediterranean with his tolerance and civilization. Emperor Zeno recognized the full extent of the Vandal kingdom, including all of western Africa, the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, ensuring an end to the raids on the empire.

During the long reign of Gaiseric, the western Roman empire broke up into numerous Germanic kingdoms. Many different emperors held the throne in both the West and East. He had outlived all the great warlords: Aetius, Attila, Theoderic, Ricimer, and Aspar. He witnessed the deposition of the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire. The following year, Gaiseric, in his advanced old age, died a natural death on 25th January 477, aged either 77 or 87, forty-eight years after landing in Africa.

Huneric, The Vandal King AD 477-484

His son, Huneric, succeeded Gaiseric. Huneric would not keep his great kingdom together. The Moors revolted. No one could command the respect Gaiseric had won.

Huneric had problems with the different churches, Arian and Catholic. He resolved to suppress Manichaeism at the start of his reign but backed down upon finding many Manichaeeans among the Arian clergy. At the request of emperor Zeno, Huneric, owing to his fear of Constantinople, allowed the election of a Catholic Bishop of Carthage in AD 481 named Eugenius. Eugenius was wise and popular and attracted not only Catholics but many Vandals as well, which alarmed Huneric.

Gunthamund, The Vandal King AD 484-496

Huneric died and was succeeded by his nephew Gunthamund (though he had desired his son to rule). Under his reign, the Catholics were free from molestation by the government. He also restored the Basilica of St Agileus, a Catholic.

Hilderich, The Vandal King AD 523-530

Gundthamund died and was succeeded by his brother Thrasamund, who at first sought to bring the Catholics into line with Arianism through gifts and persuasion. But as this did not work, he resorted to threats and torture. He deported 120 bishops to Sardinia. At times, though, he feared an invasion by Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic King, who now controlled Italy.

Thrasamund, The Vandal King AD 496-523

After the death of Thrasamund, a great-grandson of Gaiseric and a mildly homosexual bachelor named Hilderich became king of the Vandals. He favored the Catholics and granted religious freedom. He recalled the exiled bishops, one of whom was Fulgentius, an important leader of monastic houses, but only sixty bishops could be mustered. For the next seven years, the church underwent a process of reorganization. There was a revolution in the palace that threatened to bring back the days of persecution.

His cousin Gelimer, who raised the banner of national Arianism, opposed King Hilderich’s policy. Gelimer had won several victories against the Berbers (Moors) in the south. He was supported by most of the Vandal nobility and seized the throne for himself. Hilderich was put into a prison cell along with his few supporters; his children perhaps were granted refuge at the court of Constantinople. From prison, Hilderich appealed to Emperor Justinian for help.

Gelimer, The Vandal King AD 530-34

Eastern emperor Justinian the Great hoped to bring the Vandal Kingdom back into the imperial fold without the loss of a single Roman soldier. As King Hilderich was a Roman on his mother’s side: Princess Eudocia, daughter of Valentinian III, who had been brought back to Africa with her mother and sister after the Vandal sack of Rome. Hilderich had so far adopted Roman ways as to renounce the Arian heresy of his forefathers and embrace the orthodox faith. Gelimer finally lost patience and placed Hilderich in prison, replied to Justinian the Great’s immediate protest with a letter pointing out that “nothing was more desirable than that a monarch should mind his own business.”l

Peace with Persians

The eastern Roman empire had negotiated an end to the war with the Persians and kept the Germanic and Slavic tribes in the north in check. Emperor Justinian the Great was free to deal with Gelimer and his kingdom. Justinian the Great wanted North Africa to be reconquered from the Vandals. First, he had to find the right person – finally, he found a young General Belisarius from Thrace who had had several successes in the war with the Persians, including a victory at Dara. He could be trusted to command an expedition to North Africa.

Justinian the Great’s advisers, including John of Cappadocia, warned against launching an expedition to North Africa, fearing a repeat of Emperor Leo’s failed expedition 65 years earlier and the huge drain it represented on the imperial treasury. The invasion fleet would be sailing over 1,000 miles into Vandal waters, with no reinforcements available, when they landed in North Africa. The invasion fleet might have its supply lines cut between Belisarius and the empire.

John of Cappadocia said to Justinian, “Even if you are victorious, you will never hold Africa while Italy and Sicily are in the hands of others, while if you are defeated, your breach of a treaty will put the whole empire in jeopardy. Success, in short, will bring you no lasting gain, while failure will risk the ruin of your flourishing and well-established state.” However, an eastern bishop had informed him of a dream in which the Almighty had promised his assistance in a holy war against the Arian Vandals. Justinian responded that God was on their side.


On about Midsummer Day 533, Justinian the Great stood at the window of his palace to watch the departure of the expedition under Belisarius. They traveled in a fleet of 500 transports with support from 92 dromons (the smallest type of eastern warship, designed for lightness and speed). The fleet carried 10,000 infantry, which was collected from the eastern frontier, along with 5,000 trained cavalry, including 600 Huns and 400 Heruls (Germanic tribe), all mounted horse archers. On the flagship were his military secretary, Procopius, and his wife, Antonina.

The Vandals, an infamous Germanic tribe that sacked Rome

Belisarius hanged two drunken Huns on the hill above Abydos for murdering one of their comrades. Disaster struck when 500 men were poisoned from the sacks of biscuits provided by John of Cappadocia, which were found to be moldy. Finally, they arrived at Sicily, once ruled by the Vandals but bought from Gaiseric by King Odoacer of Italy some 60 years ago in return for an annual subsidy (it was a total mistake for the Vandals to give this island to Odoacer).

Sicily was now controlled by the Ostrogoths, who had conquered Italy from Odoacer under their King Theodoric. The Ostrogoths were friendly with Belisarius and his army, providing a useful vantage point from which Belisarius could prepare his fleet for the final attack. Procopius was sent south to Syracuse, where he accidentally ran into an old boyhood friend, a slave who had returned only three days earlier from Carthage.

Gave Orders to Sail

Procopius took his old friend to see Belisarius to report some unbelievable news. The slave told King Gelimer that he had indeed recently sent his major expedition of over 120 ships carrying 5,000 Vandals under his brother Tzazo to put down a rising in Sardinia, a Vandal province. Gelimer still had not yet heard anything of the approaching imperial fleet. Belisarius decided to sail at once via Malta. When they reached the coast of North Africa somewhere in south of Carthage he held a council of war with his generals, if one should land the army along the coast or if one should sail directly into the port of Carthage.

It was decided to disembark the army on dry land rather than to sail into Carthage port, as they didn’t know the Vandal fleet’s location. They landed at Caput Vada, modern Ras Kaboudia in Tunisia, and found support there from people who were opposed to rule by the Vandals. The cavalry and the infantry set off to the north towards Carthage, over 140 miles, with the fleet keeping pace with them offshore. During their march, Vandal towns fell to them without a fight, as many old fortifications were razed during the reign of King Gaiseric.

The reasons for this razing of fortifications had been to deny the Romans a strong base from which to begin a rebellion and to prevent the emperor from capturing a city and establishing a stronghold from which to trouble the Vandals. Procopius wrote that would it have been a five-day journey for an unencumbered traveler, with their baggage and equipment, it took the army twice that time to march toward Carthage before meeting the Vandal army at the tenth Milestone from the capital on 14th September AD 533.

The Battle of Ad Decium (near Tenth Milestone)

Once the Roman fleet had been sighted off the coast and landed in Vandal territory, Gelimer knew himself in trouble with part of his army and fleet away in Sardinia and the Romans marching on Carthage. He needed to wait for his brother to return from Sardinia, but he had only two options: abandon Carthage or offer a battle. He ordered his cousin Hilderick, an old king who was in prison, to be killed and acted quickly, organizing his available army at home. The number of his army was much larger than that of Belisarius (over 30,000 Vandals compared to about 16,000 Romans/allies).

Gelimer chose a place at the tenth Milestone for the confrontation. He divided his main army into three groups: his brother Ammatas would attack the vanguard, his nephew Gibamund, with 2,000 men, would attack the Roman left flank via a salt plain, and he himself, with his main army, would fall upon Belisarius’ rear by far marching around the Roman left. His plans seemed to be working, but unfortunately for him, his communications let him down.

Ammatas moved too early, and Belisarius was informed about the enemy’s movement and so was allowed to wait for the advance of Ammatas with his few men. Ammatas and his men ran into the vanguard, where he was killed after he had accounted for a dozen Romans. His men saw their leader fall, lost heart, and fled toward Carthage, leaving half the force to be cut to pieces around him.

The flanking attack was no more successful. If Gibamund had moved in quickly enough to the assistance of Ammatas, the two divisions might yet have saved the day. But Gibamund, at the salt plain, met Huns and Romans who outnumbered him at a ratio of 3:1 and were killed.

Gelimer, with his main army, advanced at Belisarius’ rear. Roman and Hun’s cavalry rode to meet the Vandals. Gelimer ordered a halt and began carefully drawing up his army in the line of battle before facing the enemy cavalry. The Vandals won as the Roman and Hun cavalry were in disorder and rode back to the main force. Belisarius feared for his main force, as Gelimer would have won by riding through the Roman force and killing them before heading for Carthage.

Gelimer started well, somehow contriving to cut Belisarius and his generals off from the main army, but Gelimer got upset by noticing the dead body of his brother Ammatas, and the fight went out of him. He remained motionless, refusing to leave the spot until the corpse had been carried from the field and arrangements made for its proper burial. Belisarius saw his chance and took advantage of it, leading his main army down upon the Vandals at the right and left sides. This battle was over, and the Vandals fled westward into the deserts of Numidia as a path to Carthage was blocked by the Romans. Carthage lay open to Belisarius and his army.

Carthage opens its Gates

The day after the battle, Belisarius marched on Carthage. He ordered his army not to camp outside the city walls, suspecting a Vandal trap. Before entering the city, he ordered his army not to kill or enslave any of the people of Carthage, as they were Roman citizens under the Vandal tyranny for a century. Carthage, now in Belisarius’ hand, many citizens welcomed him and his army as they entered through the wide-open gates. Carthage became a Roman city again for the first time in nearly a century. He went straight to the palace, where he sat on the throne of the Vandal King. He set to rebuilding the fortifications of the city, and his fleet sought shelter in the lake of Tunis, five miles south of Carthage.

The Battle of Ticameron

Gelimer sought not to struggle on alone from his temporary refuge at Bulla Regia in Numidia, some hundred miles west of Carthage. He sent an urgent message to his brother Tzazo, who was still on his Sardinian expedition with his army. Victorious Tzazo received the bad news and rushed back to North Africa to reunite with the Gelimer and his forces. Gelimer settled down to reorganize and regroup his own army and called to his aid local Punic and Berber tribes. He offered them generous rewards for every Roman head that they could lay before him.

He sent his secret agents into Carthage to persuade the Huns and some citizens who were fellow Arians to transfer their allegiance to betray Belisarius. When Tzazo and his army joined Gelimer early in December AD 533, he felt strong enough once more to take the offensive. He ordered his army to ready itself to march out of Bulla toward Carthage. With the two brothers at the head of the army, the Vandal force paused on the way to demolish the great aqueduct on which the capital chiefly depended for its water supply.

Belisarius had spent the weeks since the Battle of Ad Decium strengthening the city defenses. He did not want to face a siege, and he was beginning to grow suspicious of the loyalty of the Huns and other barbarians under his command, knowing some of his armies were being approached by agents of Gelimer. He gave the order to march to meet the Vandals in battle, putting the Huns and barbarians in the rear of his force.

The battle was fought on 15th December AD 533. Belisarius placed the Roman cavalry in the first line, and the infantry formed the second line. Immediately, the Roman cavalry charged three times into the thick of the Vandals ranks: hand-to-hand fighting. In the third charge, Tzazo was cut down in front of Gelimer, who lost heart. The Vandal lines began to retreat in a rout. Gelimer fled back into Numidia, his army pell-mell after him. The battle was over, the Vandals having lost over 3,000, either killed or taken prisoner. Belisarius marched on the city of Hippo, which opened its gates to him at once.

The Vandals, an infamous Germanic tribe that sacked Rome

Gelimer was aware that his kingdom was lost but did not at first surrender. He planned instead to transport his part of Vandal’s treasure and surviving supporters to Visigothic, Spain where he would seek refuge. In Spain were some long-lost Vandal cousins, descendants of those who had remained in the south of Spain when King Gaiseric led the big migration of his people to North Africa a century earlier.

But the Romans intercepted Gelimer, who lost his treasure and fled into the mountains, sheltered by Berber tribesmen. The year after, he was found and surrounded by a Roman force under commander Pharas the Herulian, who urged him to give up. Gelimer received Emperor Justinian’s word that the Romans would treat him as a king and arrange a dignified and comfortable retirement. But he refused and asked to be sent a sponge and a loaf of bread. In the book I read, it doesn’t say whether his wishes were granted or not. In March, after a long and extremely disagreeable winter, Gelimer finally surrendered to Belisarius at Mount Papua. The Vandal Kingdom was at an end in North Africa. The Vandal provinces of Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands were returned to the Eastern Roman Empire without a fight.


After Belisarius had loaded all captured treasure and Vandal prisoners aboard his fleet, he returned to Carthage, from where he was recalled by Emperor Justinian to Constantinople as Justinian feared he might make himself king of Africa. Belisarius’ fleet carried all prisoners and treasure, as well as the chained Gelimer, back to Constantinople. The people of the great city greeted General Belisarius as he led his army and allies into the Hippodrome, followed by Gelimer, his family, and all the tallest and best-looking Vandal prisoners. Wagons carried the spoils of war, including the menorab, that sacred seven-branched candle stick, which was brought to Rome by Emperor Titus in AD 71 from the Temple of Jerusalem and which had then been taken to Carthage by King Gaiseric nearly a century ago.

Gelimer, The last King of the Vandals

Gelimer was led into the Hippodrome in chains to the cheers of Roman citizens, where he saw an emperor seated on a throne at the end of Hippodrome. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” the last King of the Vandals is said to have murmured as he groveled in the dust beside his conqueror. He refused the offer of Patrician rank for which he would have to abandon his Arian faith. He accepted Justinian’s offer of rich estates in Galatia, where he and his family were to spend their lives in safety, free to worship as they liked. Over 2,000 Vandal prisoners were less fortunate and were formed into five imperial regiments known as the Vandali Justiniani. They were marched off to the Persian front to fight for Justinian’s empire and to survive as best they could.

The surviving Vandals continued to live in North Africa under Roman rule, some escaped to Visigothic Spain.


People also ask:

1. Who are the ancient people of Vandals?

The Vandals were a Germanic people who sacked Rome and founded a kingdom in North Africa that flourished for about a century until it was conquered by the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 534.

2. Who was the first Vandal king?

The Vandal Kingdom (Latin: Regnum Vandalum) or Kingdom of the Vandals and Alans (Latin: Regnum Vandalorum et Alanorum) was a confederation of Vandals and Alans, which is one of the barbarian kingdoms established under Gaiseric, a Vandal warrior. It ruled in North Africa and the Mediterranean from 435 to 534 AD.

3. What were the Vandals most famous for?

The Vandals are probably best known today for their sacking of Rome in 455. They were a German tribe who seems to have originated right where modern Germany meets Poland. But they spread to many regions, including modern Spain and North Africa.

4. Who fought the Vandals?

During the 2nd century A.D., the Vandals began clashing with the Roman Empire. They participated in multiple wars along the Roman frontier, including the Marcommanic Wars along the Danube River, which raged from the 160s A.D. through 180.

Suggested Reading

BYZANTIUM the Early Centuries, John Julius Norwich

ISBN 01401.14475

MEDIEVAL WARLORD (green hard book with a picture of barbarian on the front cover)