Exploring the Origins of the Vandals, The Great Destroyers
The word vandal today may be defined as a person who deliberately destroys or damages property. Historically speaking, a Vandal was “a member of a Germanic people who lived in the area south of the Baltic Sea between the Vistula and the Oder rivers, overran Gaul, Spain, and northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, and in 455 sacked Rome.” It is said that due to this infamous ‘sacking of Rome’ in 455 AD, the word ‘vandal’ was later used to describe people who destroyed or damaged property.
The Uncertain Origins of the Vandals
Little is known about the early history of the Vandals. It has been speculated that the Vandals originated in Scandinavia (in central Sweden, there is a parish called Vendel which may be related), migrated southwards into the region of Silesia, and eventually came into contact with the Romans.
The first literary reference to this group of people by the Romans can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History . According to this writer, the Vandals, or Vandili, were one of the five groups of Germanic peoples, and consisted of several smaller tribes:
“There are five German races; the Vandili, parts of whom are the Burgundiones, the Varini, the Carini, and the Gutones.”
Other writers, such as Tacitus and Ptolemy also mentioned the Vandals, though they used the term Lugii instead. Like Pliny, however, such comments of the Vandals were made in passing only. Therefore, even from the available literary sources, there is not much that can be said about the Vandals’ early history.
Reconstruction of Vandal people in the Archaeological Museum of Kraków, Poland. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Romans and Vandals Make a Tentative Peace
The next important reference to the Vandals may be found in Cassius Dio’s Roman History . In his work, Dio mentions that during the Marcomannic Wars (166 – 180 AD), a tribe known as the Astingi (identified by some as the Vandals) entered Dacia, and offered their allegiance to the Roman Empire:
The Astingi, led by their chieftains Raüs and Raptus, came into Dacia with their entire households, hoping to secure both money and land in return for their alliance.
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Yet their offer was rejected, and after conquering the Costoboci, they began to ravage the Roman province of Dacia. Their success did not last, and after being decisively beaten by the Lacringi, the Astingi ceased their hostility against the Romans, and sent supplications to the emperor:
“As a result, the Astingi committed no further acts of hostility against the Romans, but in response to urgent supplications addressed to Marcus they received from him both money and the privilege of asking for land in case they should inflict some injury upon those who were then fighting against him.”
Emperor Marcus Aurelius showing clemency to the defeated Germanic tribes. Bas-relief from the arch of Marcus Aurelius, Rome. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )
The Vandals VS the Goths
After this episode, the Vandals disappeared into obscurity again, and only reappeared in Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths . In this 6th century AD work, the Vandals are said to have come into conflict with the Goths during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. After being defeated in battle by the Goths, the Vandals migrated into Pannonia:
“Then the remnant of the Vandals who had escaped, collecting a band of their unwarlike folk, left their ill-fated country and asked the Emperor Constantine for Pannonia. Here they made their home for about sixty years and obeyed the commands of the emperors like subjects. A long time afterward they were summoned thence by Stilicho, Master of the Soldiery, Ex-Consul and Patrician, and took possession of Gaul. Here they plundered their neighbors and had no settled place of abode.”
Modern bronze statue of the Emperor Constantine in York, England. The Vandals asked Constantine to stay in Pannonia when they escaped the Goths. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
Jordanes goes on to write about the Vandals’ journey into Gaul and Spain during the reign of Emperor Honorius (393 – 423 AD),
“Now the Vandals and the Alani, as we have said before, had been dwelling in both Pannonias by permission of the Roman Emperors. Yet fearing they would not be safe even here if the Goths should return, they crossed over into Gaul. But no long time after they had taken possession of Gaul they fled thence and shut themselves up in Spain,”