The Vandals' 'traditional' reputation: a colored steel engraving of the Sack of Rome (455) by Heinrich Leutemann (1824–1904), c 1860–80

The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe that entered the late Roman Empire during the 5th century. The Goth Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths and regent of the Visigoths, was allied by marriage with the Vandals as well as with the Burgundians and the Franks under Clovis I.

The Vandals are perhaps best known for their sack of Rome in 455. Although they were not notably more destructive than others, the high regard in which later European cultures came to hold ancient Rome led to the association of the name of the tribe with persons who cause senseless destruction, particularly in diminution of aesthetic appeal or destruction of objects that were completed with great effort.

Origins and early history

The Germanic tribes in the mid-1st century AD. The Vandals/Lugii are depicted in green, in the area of modern Poland.
"Hands of God", symbol of the early ethnic religions of the Slavs and Germanic Vandals.

Some archaeologists and historians identify the Vandals with the Przeworsk culture, and controversy surrounds potential connections between the Vandals and another, possibly an admixture of Slavic and Germanic tribes[1], the Lugii (Lygier, Lugier or Lygians), which is referred to as inhabiting the area by Roman writers. Some academics believe that either Lugii was an earlier name of the Vandals, or the Vandals were part of the Lugian federation, which was composed of Germanic and Slavic tribes. Jordanes refers to Vandals as Gothic (East Germanic) speakers, and name etymologies support the notion of Vandalic being near related to Gothic. However, the bearers of the Przeworsk culture (possibly the Lugii) had the custom of cremation[2], which is characteristic to Slavic tribes and no Germanic tribes practised, and the remains of the Przeworsk culture is mainly traced in the areas which were marshes, where Slavic people know well how to live, when Romans mentioned the Lugii tribe.

Similarities of names have led to appointing homelands for the Vandals in Norway (Hallingdal), Sweden (Vendel), or Denmark (Vendsyssel). The Vandals are assumed to have crossed the Baltic into what is today Poland somewhere in the 2nd century BC, and to have settled in Silesia from around 120 BC. This tradition supports the identification of the Vandals with the Przeworsk culture, since the Gothic Wielbark culture seems to have replaced a branch of that culture.

Naturally, all the above leads to an assumption that what we now call Vandals emerged out of the cultural confederation of Slavic tribes and East Germanic tribes.

Some Medieval authors used the ethnonym "Vandals" applying it to Slavic peoples: Wends, Lusatians or Poles.[3][4][5]

Introduction into the Roman Empire

Simplified map of the various incursions into the Roman Empire, showing the Vandals' migrations (in blue) from Germany through Dacia, Gaul, Iberia, and into North Africa, and their raids throughout the Mediterranean, including the eventual sack of Rome in 455.

The Vandals were divided in two tribal groups, the Silingi and the Hasdingi. At the time of the Marcomannic Wars (166–180) the Silingi lived in an area recorded by Tacitus as Magna Germania. In the 2nd century, the Hasdingi, led by the kings Raus and Rapt (or Rhaus and Raptus)[citation needed] moved south, and first attacked the Romans in the lower Danube area. In about 271 the Roman Emperor Aurelian was obliged to protect the middle course of the Danube against them. They made peace and settled in western Dacia and Pannonia.

According to Jordanes' Getica, the Hasdingi came into conflict with the Goths around the time of Constantine the Great. At the time, the Vandals were living in lands later inhabited by the Gepids, where they were surrounded "on the east [by] the Goths, on the west [by] the Marcomanni, on the north [by] the Hermanduri and on the south [by] the Hister (Danube)." The Vandals were attacked by the Gothic king Geberic, and their king Visimar was killed. The Vandals then migrated to Pannonia, where after Constantine the Great (about 330) granted them lands on the right bank of the Danube, they lived for the next sixty years.

In 400 or 401, possibly because of attacks by the Huns, the Vandals, under king Godigisel, along with their allies (the Sarmatian Alans and Germanic Suebians) moved westwards into Roman territory. Some of the Silingi joined them later. Around this time, the Hasdingi had already been christianized. During the Emperor Valens's reign (364–78) the Vandals accepted, much like the Goths earlier, Arianism, a belief that was in opposition to that of Nicene orthodoxy of the Roman Empire. Yet there were also some scattered orthodox Vandals, among whom was the famous magister militum Stilicho, the chief minister of the Emperor Honorius.

In Gaul

In 406 the Vandals advanced from Pannonia travelling west along the Danube without much difficulty, but when they reached the Rhine, they met resistance from the Franks, who populated and controlled Romanized regions in northern Gaul. Twenty thousand Vandals, including Godigisel himself, died in the resulting battle, but then with the help of the Alans they managed to defeat the Franks, and on December 31, 406 the Vandals crossed the frozen Rhine to invade Gaul, which they devastated terribly. Under Godigisel's son Gunderic, the Vandals plundered their way westward and southward through Aquitaine.

In Iberia

On October 13 409 they crossed the Pyrenees into the Iberian peninsula. There, the Hasdingi received land from the Romans, as foederati, in Gallaecia (Northwest) and the Silingi in Hispania Baetica (South), while the Alans got lands in Lusitania (West) and the region around Carthago Nova. The Suebi also controlled part of Gallaecia. The Visigoths, who invaded Iberia before receiving lands in Septimania (Southern France), crushed the Alans in 426, killing the western Alan king Attaces. The remainder of his people subsequently appealed to the Vandal king Gunderic to accept the Alan crown. Later Vandal kings in North Africa styled themselves Rex Wandalorum et Alanorum ("King of the Vandals and Alans").

The Vandals may have given their name to the region of Andalusia, which according to one of several theories of its etymology which would be the source of Al-Andalus — the Arabic name of Iberian Peninsula), in the south of present day Spain, where they settled before pushing on to North Africa - though this theory is increasingly disputed (see Al-Andalus: Older proposals).

The Vandal Kingdom in North Africa


File:Europe 526.jpg
The Vandal kingdom, along with the other Germanic kingdoms in the West, ca. 526

The Vandal conquest of North Africa is considered as a strategic move. The Vandals took North Africa as a base for raiding the Mediterranean Sea, much like the Vikings.[6] They settled mainly in the lands corresponding to modern Tunisia and northeastern Algeria.[7] It was under the reign of king Geiseric (Genseric, Gaiseric), Gunderic's half brother, when Vandals started building a Vandal fleet, to plunder the Mediterranean.

In 429, political maneuvering in Rome was to change the landscape forever. Rome was ruled by the boy emperor Valentinian III (who rose to power at the age of 8), and his mother Galla Placidia. However, the Roman General Flavius Aëtius, in vying for power, convinced Galla Placidia that her General Boniface was plotting to kill her and her son to claim the throne for himself. As proof, he implored her to write him a letter asking him to come to Rome and she would see that Boniface would refuse. At the same time Aëtius sent Boniface a letter stating that he should disregard letters from Rome asking him to return for they were plotting to kill him. When Boniface saw the letter from Rome, and believed there was a plot to kill him, he enlisted the help of the Vandal King Geiseric. He promised the Vandals land in North Africa in exchange for their help. However, once it was known that the whole thing was a plot, and Boniface was once again in Rome's favour, it was too late to turn back the Vandal invasion.

Geiseric crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with the entire tribe of 80,000 and moved east, pillaging and looting as they drove more and more refugees toward the walled city of Hippo Regius. Geiseric realized that they wouldn't be able to take the city in a direct assault, so began a months long siege on the walls of Hippo Regius. Inside Saint Augustine and his priests prayed for relief from the Arian invaders, knowing full well that the fall of the city would spell conversion or death for many Christians. On 28 August 430, three months into the siege, St. Augustine died, perhaps from hunger or stress, as the wheat fields outside the city lay dormant and unharvested. After 14 months, hunger and the inevitable diseases were ravaging both the city inhabitants and the Vandals outside the city walls.

Peace was made between the Romans, who in 435 granted them some territory in Northern Africa, but it was broken by Geiseric, who in 439 took Carthage and made it his capital. The Vandals took and plundered the city without a fight, entering the city while most of the inhabitants were attending the races at the hippodrome. Geiseric then built the Kingdom of the Vandals and Alans into a powerful state with the capital at Saldae; he conquered Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands.

Sack of Rome

Main article: Sack of Rome (455)

During the next thirty-five years, with a large fleet, Geiseric looted the coasts of the Eastern and Western Empires. After Attila the Hun's death, however, the Romans could afford to turn their attention back to the Vandals, who were in control of some of the richest lands of their former empire.

In an effort to bring the Vandals into the fold of the Empire, Valentinian III offered his daughter's hand in marriage to Geiseric's son. Before this "treaty" could be carried out, however, politics again played a crucial part in the blunders of Rome. Petronius Maximus, the usurper, killed Valentinian III in an effort to control the Empire. Diplomacy between the two factions broke down, and in 455 with a letter from the Empress Licinia Eudoxia, begging Geiseric's son to rescue her, the Vandals took Rome, along with the Empress Licinia Eudoxia and her daughters Eudocia and Placidia.

The chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine[8] offers the only fifth-century report that on 2 June 455, Pope Leo the Great received Geiseric and implored him to abstain from murder and destruction by fire, and to be satisfied with pillage. Whether the pope's influence saved Rome is, however, questioned. The Vandals departed with countless valuables, including the spoils of the Temple in Jerusalem booty brought to Rome by Titus.


In 468 the Vandals destroyed an enormous East Roman fleet sent against them. Following up the attack, the Vandals tried to invade the Peloponnese but were driven back by the Maniots at Kenipolis with heavy losses.[9] In retaliation, the Vandals took 500 hostages at Zakynthos, hacked them to pieces and threw the pieces overboard on the way to Carthage.[9] Nevertheless, after Geiseric was able to conclude a "perpetual peace" with Constantinople in 476, relations between the two states assumed a veneer of normality.[10]

Domestic religious tensions

Differences between the Arian Vandals and their Trinitarian subjects (including both Catholics and Donatists) was a constant source of tension in their African state. Catholic bishops were exiled or killed by Geiseric and laymen were excluded from office and frequently suffered confiscation of their property. He protected his Catholic subjects when his relations with Rome and Constantinople were friendly, as during the years 454–57, when the Catholic community at Carthage, being without a head, elected Deogratias bishop. The same was also the case during the years 476–477 when Bishop Victor of Cartenna sent him, during a period of peace, a sharp refutation of Arianism and suffered no punishment. Generally most Vandal kings, except Hilderic, persecuted Trinatarian Christians to a greater or lesser extent, banning conversion for Vandals, exiling bishops and generally making life difficult for Trinitarians.


Mediterranean in 475 AD, showing the Vandal Kingdom and its neighbors.

Geiseric, one of the most powerful personalities of the "era of the Migrations" died at a great age on 25 January 477. According to the law of succession which he had promulgated, the oldest male member of the royal house was to succeed. Thus he was succeeded by his son Huneric (477–484), who at first tolerated Catholics, owing to his fear of Constantinople, but after 482 began to persecute Manichaeans and Catholics in the most terrible manner.

Gunthamund (484496), his cousin and successor, sought internal peace with the Catholics and ceased persecution once more. Externally, the Vandal power had been declining since Geiseric's death, and Gunthamund lost large parts of Sicily to the Ostrogoths and had to withstand increasing pressure from the autochthonous Moors.

While Thrasamund (496–523), owing to his religious fanaticism, was hostile to Catholics, he contented himself with bloodless persecutions.

The turbulent end

Main article: Vandalic War

Hilderic (523530) was the Vandal king most tolerant towards the Catholic church. He granted it religious freedom; consequently Catholic synods were once more held in North Africa. However, he had little interest in war, and left it to a family member, Hoamer. When Hoamer suffered a defeat against the Moors, the Arian faction within the royal family led a revolt, raising the banner of national Arianism, and his cousin Gelimer (530533) became king. Hilderic, Hoamer and their relatives were thrown into prison. Hilderic was deposed and murdered in 533.[11]

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I reacted to this by declaring war on the Vandals. The armies of the Eastern Empire were commanded by Belisarius, who, having heard that the greatest part of the Vandal fleet was fighting an uprising in Sardinia, decided to act quickly, and landed on Tunisian soil, then marched on to Carthage. In the late summer of 533, King Gelimer met Belisarius ten miles (16 km) south of Carthage at the Battle of Ad Decimum; the Vandals were winning the battle until Gelimer's brother Ammatas and nephew Gibamund fell in battle. Gelimer then lost heart and fled. Belisarius quickly took Carthage while the surviving Vandals fought on.[12]

On December 15, 533, Gelimer and Belisarius clashed again at Tricamarum, some 20 miles (32 km) from Carthage. Again, the Vandals fought well but broke, this time when Gelimer's brother Tzazo fell in battle. Belisarius quickly advanced to Hippo, second city of the Vandal Kingdom, and in 534 Gelimer surrendered to the Roman conqueror, ending the Kingdom of the Vandals.

North Africa became a Roman province, from which the Vandals were expelled. The surviving Vandal men were enslaved or joined into the imperial service, while the captured Vandal women married Byzantine soldiers. Choicest Vandal warriors were formed into five cavalry regiments, known as Vandali Iustiniani, and stationed on the Persian frontier. Some entered the private service of Belisarius.[13] Gelimer was honourably treated and received large estates in Galatia. He was also offered the rank of a patrician but had to refuse it because he was not willing to change his Arian faith.[14]

List of kings

  1. Wisimar (? - † 335)
  2. Godigisel (359406)
  3. Gunderic (407428)
  4. Geiseric (428477)
  5. Huneric (477484)
  6. Gunthamund (484496)
  7. Thrasamund (496523)
  8. Hilderic (523530)
  9. Gelimer (530534)

Vandalic language

Main article: Vandalic language

Very little is known about the Vandalic language which was of the East Germanic linguistic branch, closely related to Gothic (known from Ulfilas's Bible translation), both completely extinct.

Vandals in present day etymology

From c. 1540, the Swedish king had been styled, Suecorum, Gothorum et Vandalorum Rex: King of the Swedes, the Goths and the Vandals. The present king, Carl XVI Gustaf dropped the title in 1973 and now styles himself simply as King of Sweden.

References to the Vandals

The verb vandalize is first recorded in 1800. The term "vandalism" has come to mean senseless destruction as a result of the Vandals' sack of Rome under King Geiseric in 455. Historians agree that the Vandals were no more destructive than other invaders of ancient times. [15] [16] John Dryden writes: Till Goths, and Vandals, a rude Northern race, Did all the matchless Monuments deface (1694). The word "goth" has gained architectural and other associations since Dryden's time, but "vandal" has not. During the Enlightenment, Rome was idealized, and the Goths and Vandals were disparaged.

See also

Further reading

Helmut Castritius: Die Vandalen. Etappen einer Spurensuche. Stuttgart u.a. 2007. Christian Courtois: Les Vandales et l'Afrique. Paris 1955 Pierre Courcelle: Histoire littéraire des grandes invasions germaniques. 3rd edition Paris 1964 (Collection des études Augustiniennes: Série antiquité, 19). Hans-Joachim Diesner: Vandalen. In: Paulys Realencyclopädie der class. Altertumswissenschaft (RE Suppl. X, 1965), S. 957-992. Hans-Joachim Diesner: Das Vandalenreich. Aufstieg und Untergang. Stuttgart 1966. Frank M. Clover: The Late Roman West and the Vandals. Aldershot 1993 (Collected studies series 401), ISBN 0-86078-354-5. L’Afrique vandale et byzantine. Teil 1. Turnhout 2002 (Antiquité Tardive 10), ISBN 2-503-51275-5. L’Afrique vandale et byzantine. Teil 2, Turnhout 2003 (Antiquité Tardive 11), ISBN 2-503-52262-9. Walter Pohl: Die Völkerwanderung. Eroberung und Integration. Stuttgart 2002, S. 70-86, ISBN 3-17-015566-0. Roland Steinacher: Vandalen - Rezeptions- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte. In: Hubert Cancik (Hrsg.): Der Neue Pauly, Stuttgart 2003, Band 15/3, S. 942-946, ISBN 3-476-01489-4. Yves Modéran: Les Maures et l'Afrique romaine. 4e.-7e. siècle. Rom 2003 (Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 314), ISBN 2-7283-0640-0. Die Vandalen: die Könige, die Eliten, die Krieger, die Handwerker. [Publikation zur Ausstellung "Die Vandalen"; eine Ausstellung der Maria-Curie-Sklodowska-Universität Lublin und des Landesmuseums Zamość ... ; Ausstellung im Weserrenaissance-Schloss Bevern .... Nordstemmen 2003. ISBN 3-9805898-6-2 Ludwig Schmidt: Geschichte der Wandalen. 2. Auflage, München 1942. Roland Steinacher: Wenden, Slawen, Vandalen. Eine frühmittelalterliche pseudologische Gleichsetzung und ihr Nachleben bis ins 18. Jahrhundert. In: W. Pohl (Hrsg.): Auf der Suche nach den Ursprüngen. Von der Bedeutung des frühen Mittelalters (Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 8), Wien 2004, S. 329-353.


  1. ^ Mallory & Adams "Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture
  2. ^ Mallory & Adams "Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture
  3. ^ Annales Alamannici, 795 ad
  4. ^ Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum by Adam Bremensis 1075 ad
  5. ^ Roland Steinacher under Reiner Protsch"Studien zur vandalischen Geschichte. Die Gleichsetzung der Ethnonyme Wenden, Slawen und Vandalen vom Mittelalter bis ins 18. Jahrhundert", 2002
  6. ^ Merrills, A.H. (2004). Vandals, Romans and Berbers: new perspectives on late antique North Africa. Ashgate Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 0-7546-4145-7.
  7. ^ "Vandals" (htm). Retrieved 2007-06-02.
  8. ^ Prosper's account of the event was followed by his continuator in the sixth century, Victor of Tunnuna, a great admirer of Leo quite willing to adjust a date or bend a point (Steven Muhlberger, "Prosper's Epitoma Chronicon: was there an edition of 443?" Classical Philology 81.3 (July 1986), pp 240-244).
  9. ^ a b Greenhalgh and Eliopoulos, Deep into Mani: Journey into the Southern Tip of Greece", 21
  10. ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (1923), Vol. II, p.125
  11. ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (1923), Vol. II, p.131
  12. ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (1923), Vol. II, pp.133-135
  13. ^ J. B. Bury: History of the Later Roman Empire • Vol. II Chap. XVII
  14. ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (1923), Vol. II, pp.138
  15. ^ [1]
  16. ^ [2]
  17. ^ [3]
  18. ^ [4]
  19. ^ [5]
  20. ^ [6]
  21. ^ SNL Transcripts: Steve Martin: 10/13/79: The Vandals