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The plundering of Rome by the Vandals. Painting by Heinrich Leutemann (1824-1904)

The Vandals were a East Germanic tribe that lived in Germania Magna and on the Danish island Zealand (Danish: (Sjælland) in ancient times. The name is derived from the two-bladed sword (vandil, which means "that you can turn around") that was the distinguishing feature of the Vandal warrior.



The etymology of the name may be related to a Germanic verb *wand- "to wander" (English wend, German wandeln). The Germanic mythological figure of Aurvandil "shining wanderer; dawn wanderer, evening star", or "Shining Vandal" is reported as one of the "Germanic Dioscuri". R. Much has forwarded the theory that the tribal name Vandal reflects worship of Aurvandil or "the Dioscuri", probably involving a tradition that the Vandalic kings were descended from Aurvandil (comparable to the case of many other Germanic tribal names).

When the Vandals moved south just after year 0 AD they settled east of the river Elbe. 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) 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. Constantin I thanked them for their help by giving them places to live in Pannonia.

In the beginning of the 400th century they were forced to battle the Germanic Franks to be able to cross the river Rhine (German: Rhein). They got help by the Alanians and the Suebis and managed to break through. They continued their journeys to the south and reached the Iberian peninsula (Spain). The Vandals where now divided in two main branches; The asdings and the silingers. The later group fought the Visigoths in the year of 416 and lost. The rest of the group of silingers settled down in Andalusia (Vandalusia) in southern Spain. Under the leadership of Geiseric they crossed the strait of Gibraltar to Africa in the year of 429, where they defeated the Romans in Carthage and built a new kingdom in the region. In the year of 455 Rome was attacked and plundered by the Vandals, who were disciplined soldiers. Their skilled, but unrestrained and often incorrectly described, warfare against the Roman Empire has been the origin to the terms Vandalisation and Vandalism.

Vandalic Kingdom of Carthage

In the course of the gradual decline and dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century, the Germanic tribe of the Vandals, allied with the Alans, had established themselves in the Iberian peninsula. In 429, the Roman governor of the Diocese of Africa, Bonifacius, who had rebelled against the West Roman emperor Valentinian III (r. 425–455) and was facing an invasion by imperial troops, called upon the Vandalic King Geiseric for aid. Thus, in May 429, Geiseric crossed the straits of Gibraltar with his entire people, reportedly 80,000 in total. Geiseric's Vandals and Alans, however, had their own plans, and aimed to conquer the African provinces outright. Their possession of Mauretania Caesariensis, Mauretania Sitifensis and most of Numidia was recognized in 435 by the West Roman court. Warfare soon recommenced, and in October 439, the capital of Africa, Carthage, fell to the Vandals. In 442, another treaty exchanged the provinces hitherto held by the Vandals with the core of the African diocese, the rich provinces of Zeugitana and Byzacena. These events marked the foundation of the Vandalic Kingdom, as the Vandals made Carthage their capital and settled around it. Although the Vandals now gained control of the lucrative African grain trade with Italy, they also launched piratical expeditions that ranged as far as the Aegean Sea, which culminated in their sack of Rome itself in 455, which allegedly lasted for two weeks. Subsequently, and taking advantage of the chaos that followed Valentinian's death in 455, Geiseric regained the Mauretanias and with his fleet took over Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands. Sicily barely escaped the same fate through the presence of Ricimer.

In the process, the Vandals had survived numerous Roman attempts at a counterstrike: the eastern general Aspar had led an unsuccessful expedition in 431, an expedition assembled by the Western emperor Majorian (r. 457–461) off the coast of Spain in 460 was scattered or captured by the Vandals before it could set sail, and finally, in 468, Geiseric defeated a huge joint expedition by both western and eastern empires under Basiliscus. In the aftermath of this disaster, and following further Vandal raids against the shores of Greece, the eastern emperor Zeno (r. 474–491) concluded a "perpetual peace" with Geiseric (474/476).

The Vandalic War was a conflict fought in North Africa (largely in modern Tunisia) between the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Vandal Kingdom of Carthage, in 533–534. It was the first of Justinian the Great's wars of reconquest of the lost Western Roman Empire, and was waged against the advice of most of his councillors. The East Romans took advantage of the Vandals' distraction with a rebellion in Sardinia and landed an army under Belisarius in central Tunisia. In two decisive engagements, the Romans defeated the Vandals, captured their king, Gelimer, and conquered their kingdom.

And there was booty—first of all, whatever articles are wont to be set apart for the royal service—thrones of gold and carriages in which it is customary for a king's consort to ride, and much jewelry made of precious stones, and golden drinking cups, and all the other things which are useful for the royal table. And there was also silver weighing many thousands of talents and all the royal treasure amounting to an exceedingly great sum, and among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, the son of Vespasian, together with certain others, had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. [...] And there were slaves in the triumph, among whom was Gelimer himself, wearing some sort of a purple garment upon his shoulders, and all his family, and as many of the Vandals as were very tall and fair of body. And when Gelimer reached the hippodrome and saw the emperor sitting upon a lofty seat and the people standing on either side and realized as he looked about in what an evil plight he was, he neither wept nor cried out, but ceased not saying over in the words of the Hebrew scripture: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." And when he came before the emperor's seat, they stripped off the purple garment, and compelled him to fall prone on the ground and do obeisance to the Emperor Justinian. This also Belisarius did, as being a suppliant of the emperor along with him.

Gelimer[1] was given an ample estate in Galatia, and would have been raised to patrician rank if he had not steadfastly refused to renounce his Arian faith. Belisarius was also named consul ordinarius for the year 535, allowing him to celebrate a second triumphal procession, being carried through the streets seated on his consular curule chair, held aloft by Vandal warriors, distributing largesse to the populace from his share of the war booty.

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


  • A. H. Merrills: Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa, Ashgate Pub Ltd (2004) ISBN 978-0754641452
  • Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen: A History of the Vandals, Westholme Publishing (2012), ISBN 978-1594161599 [2]

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  1. Gelimer (original form possibly Geilamir, 480-553), King of the Vandals and Alans (530 - 534), was the last Germanic ruler of the North African Kingdom of the Vandals. He became ruler in 530 after deposing his cousin Hilderic, who had angered the Vandal nobility by converting to Catholic Christianity, most of the Vandals at this time being fiercely devoted to Arian Christianity.
  2. The First General History in English of the Germanic People Who Sacked Rome in the Fifth Century AD and Established a Kingdom in North Africa. The fifth century AD was a time of great changes in the Mediterranean world. In the early 400s, the Roman Empire ranged from the lowlands of Scotland to the Upper Nile and from Portugal to the Caucasus. It was almost at its widest extent, and although ruled by two emperors—one in the West and one in the East—it was still a single empire. One hundred years later, Roman control of Western Europe and Western North Africa had been lost. In its place, a number of Germanic kingdoms had been established in these regions, with hundreds of thousands of Germanic and other peoples settling permanently inside the former borders of the Western Roman Empire. One of the most fascinating of these tribes of late antiquity were the Vandals, who over a period of six hundred years had migrated from the woodland regions of Scandinavia across Europe and ended in the deserts of North Africa. In A History of the Vandals, the first general account in English covering the entire story of the Vandals from their emergence to the end of their kingdom, historian Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen pieces together what we know about the Vandals, sifting fact from fiction. In the middle of the fifth century the Vandals, who professed Arianism, a form of Christianity considered heretical by the Roman emperor, created the first permanent Germanic successor state in the West and were one of the deciding factors in the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Later Christian historians described their sack of Rome in 455 and their vehement persecution of Catholics in their kingdom, accounts that were sensationalized and gave birth to the term “vandalism.” In the mid-sixth century, the Vandals and their North African kingdom were the first target of Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s ambitious plan to reconquer the lost territories of the fallen Western Empire. In less than four months, what had been considered one of the strongest Germanic kingdoms had been defeated by a small Roman army led by the general Belisarius. Despite later rebellions, this was the end of the Germanic presence in North Africa, and in many ways the end of the Arian heresy of Christianity.
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