Sack of Rome’ by Karl Briullov. (1833-1836) in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. This painting is showing the Vandal king Gaiseric sacking Rome

Va-Va-Vandal: The Life and Times of Gaiseric, the Vandal King of North Africa

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Meet one of the most important late antiquity kings you’ve never heard of: Gaiseric (a.k.a. Genseric), a Germanic kinglet who transformed his tribal affiliations into a massive realm in the 5th century AD.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, those Rome might have deemed “barbarians” in previous centuries were, in fact, more Roman in attitude than the Romans themselves. Oftentimes, warriors of Germanic or Gallic descent became important officials in the Roman military fixture. For example, Stilicho, son of a Vandal soldier, swiftly climbed the ranks after serving in the imperial bodyguard. He married into the royal family and became the magister utriusque militiae, master of both infantry and cavalry (a.k.a. the most important general in the Roman forces); in the process, he fought the likes of his own Vandals, Alans, Goths, and more.

Reconstruction of Vandal people in the Archaeological Museum of Kraków, Poland.

Reconstruction of Vandal people in the Archaeological Museum of Kraków, Poland. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Wave of Invasions

At the beginning of the 5th century, a wave of invasions from these same groups battered at the gates of Rome. Five years before Alaric the Visigoth famously sacked Rome in 410, a Gothic king named Radagaisus nearly got so far, invading much of Italy. In the next few decades, Goths, Suevi, Vandals, Alani, and the like spread their military influence, highlighted by the crossing of the Rhine in 406, a mass migration westward. One of the men who crossed the Rhine was a Vandal princeling named Godegisel, a member of the Hasding clan, who died in battle against Rome not long after.

“The Sack of Rome” in 410. By Évariste-Vital Luminais. ( Public Domain )

Luckily for Godegisel, his sons kept the mantle of kingship alive. Godegisel’s son Gunderic unified the Vandals and Alani and conquered the south of Spain by 422. But Gunderic died during the sack of Seville in 428, and his little brother Gaiseric came to power; he established the rule that the oldest male in the family, rather than a minor-age son, would take the throne. Thus, even after Gaiseric’s death, the kingship bounced around a bit from relative to relative.

The Arian Gaiseric got a bit of a bad rap from Catholic chroniclers, but in truth, he was rather an epic monarch. What did Gaiseric look like? Jordanes claimed he was a “man of moderate height and lame in consequence of a fall from his horse.” In fact, Gaiseric was a man of few words and much action. He held “luxury in disdain, [was] furious in his anger, greedy for gain, shrewd in winning over the barbarians and skilled in sowing the seeds of dissension to arouse enmity.” Very regal!

Siliqua of the Vandal King Gaiseric, circa 400 AD. ( Public Domain )

In truth, Gaiseric didn’t just concentrate his efforts on Western Europe, but on areas that were suffered from weak central organization and thus were ripe for conquest. In this case, that meant North Africa. Gaiseric and thousands of his men invaded, supposedly at the invitation of an official named Count Bonifacius who wanted help against Rome. In 429, Gaiseric went to Africa with 80,000 men and started conquering lands for Bonifacius. He then flipped on Bonifacius and seized power for himself in 430 before defeating imperial armies.

In 431, he besieged the city of Hippo, home of the famed St. Augustine, who died in that very conflict. According to ancient writer Procopius, Gaiseric tore down the walls of every city except Carthage to discourage native rebellions or imperial sieges. To top it off, Gaiseric made a treaty with the Roman authorities, then took Carthage in 439 in direct defiance of his agreement with Emperor Valentinian III. A new treaty in 442 elevated Gaiseric’s own reputation to the point that he was recognized as master of proconsular Africa, Numidia, and Byzacena (modern Tunisia).

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine. Rome, Italy. ( Public Domain )

A leader on sea and land, Gaiseric wasn’t content to stick to Africa. As master of Carthage, he had a port from which his fleets could wreak havoc on the entire Mediterranean. Gaiseric captured Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands, made headway in Sicily, seized most of Greece’s Peloponnese, made like Alaric and sacked Rome in 455 (pillaging for two straight weeks, after allegedly invading on behalf of Valentinian’s wife), and beat the imperial forces sent against him by Rome time and again (twice in the 460s alone). Between his wars, raids, and the huge taxes he levied on native nobles he let keep their land, Gaiseric got rich; he kept his men happy too by exempting Vandal-owned lands from taxation, said Procopius.

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