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The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe who in 429 under king Genseric entered Africa and by 439 established a kingdom which included the Roman Africa province, besides the islands of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearics. In 455, they sacked the city of Rome. Their kingdom collapsed in the Vandalic War of 533–4, in which Justinian I managed to reconquer the Africa province for the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Renaissance and Early Modern writers characterized the Vandals as barbarians, "sacking and looting" Rome. This led to the use of the term vandalism, to describe any senseless destruction, particularly the barbarian defacing of artworks. However, modern historians tend to regard the Vandals during the transitional period (from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages) as perpetuators, not destroyers, of Roman culture.
The name of the Vandals has often been connected to that of Vendel, the name of a province in Uppland, Sweden, which is also eponymous of the Vendel period of Swedish prehistory, corresponding to the late Germanic Iron Age leading up to the Viking Age. The connection would be that Vendel is the original homeland of the Vandals prior to the Migration Period, and retains their tribal name as a toponym.
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).
Some archaeologists and historians identify the Vandals with the Przeworsk culture, and controversy surrounds potential connections between the Vandals and another, possibly a mixture of Slavic and Germanic tribes, 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. The bearers of the Przeworsk culture (possibly the Lugii) had the custom of cremation. Cremation is characteristic to Baltic Prussian tribes. In Prussia both cremation and inhumation burials were found, which Germanic tribes practised. The remains of the Przeworsk culture is mainly traced in the areas which were marshes, 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.
Some Medieval authors applied the ethnonym "Vandals" to Slavic peoples: Wends, Lusatians or Poles. It was once thought that the Slovenes were the descendants of the Vandals, but this is not the view of modern scholars.
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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.
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.
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 probably more due to Stilicho being half vandal and half roman.
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. Vandals raided the Roman province of Raetia in the winter of 401/402. From this, historian Peter Heather concludes that at this time the Vandals were located in the region around the Middle and Upper Danube.
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 Rhine, probably while it was frozen, to invade Gaul, which they devastated terribly. Under Godigisel's son Gunderic, the Vandals plundered their way westward and southward through Aquitaine.
On October 13, 409 they crossed the Pyrenees into the Iberian peninsula. There, the Hasdingi received land from the Romans, as foederati, in Asturia (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 418, 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 under their new king Genseric (also known as Geiseric) crossed to Africa in 429. Although numbers are unknown and some historians debate the validity of estimates, based on Procopius' assertion that the Vandals and Alans numbered 80,000 when they moved to North Africa, Peter Heather estimates that they could have fielded an army of around 15,000–20,000. According to Procopius, the Vandals came to Africa at the request of Bonifacius, the military ruler of the region. However, it has been suggested that the Vandals migrated to Africa in search of safety; they had been attacked by a Roman army in 422 and had failed to seal a treaty with them. Advancing eastwards along the coast, the Vandals laid siege to the walled city of Hippo Regius in 430. Inside, Saint Augustine and his priests prayed for relief from the invaders, knowing full well that the fall of the city would spell conversion or death for many Roman Christians. On 28 August 430, three months into the siege, St. Augustine (who was 75 years old) died, perhaps from starvation 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. The city fell to the Vandals and King Geiseric made it the capital of the Vandal kingdom until the capture of Carthage in 439.
Peace was made between the Romans and the Vandals in 435 through a treaty giving the Vandals control of coastal Numidia. Geiseric chose to break the treaty in 439 when he invaded the province of Africa Proconsularis and laid siege to Carthage. The city was captured without a fight; the Vandals entered the city while most of the inhabitants were attending the races at the hippodrome. Genseric made it his capital, and styled himself the King of the Vandals and Alans, to denote the inclusion of the Alans of northern Africa into his alliance. Conquering Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, he built his kingdom into a powerful state. Historian Camerson suggests that the new Vandal rule may not have been unwelcomed by the population of North Africa as the previous landowners were generally unpopular.
The impression given by ancient sources such as Victor of Vita, Quodvultdeus, and Fulgentius of Ruspe was that the Vandal take-over of Carthage and North Africa led to widespread destruction. However, recent archaeological investigations have challenged this assertion. Although Carthage's Odeon was destroyed, the street pattern remained the same and some public buildings were renovated. The political centre of Carthage was the Byrsa Hill. New industrial centres emerged within towns during this period. Historian Andy Merrills uses the large amounts of African Red Slip ware discovered across the Mediterranean dating from the Vandal period of North Africa to challenge the assumption that the Vandal rule of North Africa was a time of economic instability. When the Vandals raided Sicily in 440, the Western Roman Empire was too preoccupied with war with Gaul to react. Theodosius II, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, dispatched an expedition to deal with the Vandals in 441, however it only progressed as far as Sicily. The Western Empire under Valentinian III secured peace with the Vandals in 442. Under the treaty the Vandals gained Byzacena, Tripolitania, part of Numidia, and confirmed their control of Proconsular Africa.
During the next thirty-five years, with a large fleet, Genseric 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 Genseric'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 Genseric'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 offers the only fifth-century report that on 2 June 455, Pope Leo the Great received Genseric 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. Eudoxia and her daughter Eudocia were taken to North Africa.
As a result of the Vandal sack of Rome and piracy in the Mediterranean, it became important to the Roman Empire to destroy the Vandal kingdom. Both Western (in 460) and Eastern (in 468) empires sent fleets against the Vandals. The Vandals captured the Western fleet, and destroyed the Eastern through the use of fire ships. Following up the attack, the Vandals tried to invade the Peloponnese, but were driven back by the Maniots at Kenipolis with heavy losses. In retaliation, the Vandals took 500 hostages at Zakynthos, hacked them to pieces and threw the pieces overboard on the way to Carthage.
In the 470s, the Romans abandoned their policy of war against the Vandals. The Western general Ricimer reached a treaty with them, and in 476 Genseric was able to conclude a "perpetual peace" with Constantinople. Relations between the two states assumed a veneer of normality. From 477 onwards, the Vandals produced their own coinage, restricted to bronze and silver low-denomination coins. The high-denomination imperial money was retained, demonstrating in the words of Merrills "reluctance to usurp the imperial prerogative".
Although the Vandals had fended off attacks from the Romans and established hegemony over the islands of the western Mediterranean, they were less successful in their conflict with the Berbers. Situated south of the Vandal kingdom, the Berbers inflicted two major defeats on the Vandals in the period 496–530.
Differences between the Arian Vandals and their Trinitarian subjects (including both Catholics and Donatists) were a constant source of tension in their African state. Catholic bishops were exiled or killed by Genseric 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. Huneric, Genseric's successor, issued edicts against Catholics in 483 and 484 in an effort to marginalise them and make Arianism the primary religion in North Africa. Generally most Vandal kings, except Hilderic, persecuted Trinitarian Christians to a greater or lesser extent, banning conversion for Vandals, exiling bishops and generally making life difficult for Trinitarians.
According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia: "Genseric, one of the most powerful personalities of the "era of the Migrations", died on 25 January 477, at the great age of around 88 years. 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."
Gunthamund (484–496), his cousin and successor, sought internal peace with the Catholics and ceased persecution once more. Externally, the Vandal power had been declining since Genseric's death, and Gunthamund lost large parts of Sicily to the Ostrogoths and had to withstand increasing pressure from the autochthonous Moors.
Hilderic (523–530) 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 (530–533) became king. Hilderic, Hoamer and their relatives were thrown into prison. Hilderic was deposed and murdered in 533.
Byzantine Emperor Justinian I declared war, with the stated intention of restoring Hilderic to the Vandal throne. While an expedition was en route, a large part of the Vandal army and navy was led by Tzazo, Gelimer's brother, to Sardinia to deal with a rebellion. As a result, the armies of the Byzantine Empire commanded by Belisarius were able to land unopposed 10 miles (16 km) from Carthage. Gelimer quickly assembled an army, and met Belisarius 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.
On December 15, 533, Gelimer and Belisarius clashed again at the Battle of 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 Byzantine conqueror, ending the Kingdom of the Vandals.
North Africa, comprising north Tunisia and eastern Algeria in the Vandal period, became a Roman province again, from which the Vandals were expelled. Many Vandals went to Saldae (today called Béjaïa in north Algeria) where they integrated themselves with the Berbers. Many others were put into imperial service or fled to the two Gothic kingdoms (Ostrogothic Kingdom and Visigothic Kingdom). Some Vandal women married Byzantine soldiers and settled in north Algeria and Tunisia. The choicest Vandal warriors were formed into five cavalry regiments, known as Vandali Iustiniani, stationed on the Persian frontier. Some entered the private service of Belisarius. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia states that "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". In the words of historian Roger Collins: "The remaining Vandals were then shipped back to Constantinople to be absorbed into the imperial army. As a distinct ethnic unit they disappeared".
Known kings of the Vandals:
Very little is known about the Vandalic language itself, which was of the East Germanic linguistic branch. The Goths have left behind the only text corpus of the East Germanic language type: a 4th-century translation of the Gospels. All Vandals that modern historians know about were able to speak Latin, which also remained the official language of the Vandal administration (most of the staff seems to have been native African/Roman). Levels of literacy in the ancient world are uncertain, but writing was integral to administration and business. Studies of literacy in North Africa have tended to centre around the administration, which was limited to the social elite. However, the majority of the population of North Africa did not live in urban centres.
Judith George explains that "Analysis of the [Vandal] poems in their context holds up a mirror to the ways and values of the times". Very little work of the poets of Vandal North Africa survives, but what does is found in the Latin Anthology; apart from their names, little is known about the poets themselves, not even when they were writing. Their work drew on earlier Roman traditions. Modern scholars generally hold the view that the Vandals allowed the Romans in North Africa to carry on with their way of life with only occasional interference.
Since the Middle Ages, kings of Denmark were styled "King of Denmark, the Goths and the Wends", the Wends being a group of West Slavs formerly living in Mecklenburg and eastern Holstein in modern Germany. The title "King of the Wends" is translated as vandalorum rex in Latin. The title was shortened to "King of Denmark" in 1972. Starting in 1540, Swedish kings (following Denmark) were styled Suecorum, Gothorum et Vandalorum Rex ("King of the Swedes, Geats, and Wends"). Carl XVI Gustaf dropped the title in 1973 and now styles himself simply as "King of Sweden".
The modern term vandalism stems from the Vandals' reputation as the barbarian people which sacked and looted of Rome in AD 455. The Vandals were probably not any more destructive than other invaders of ancient times, but writers who idealized Rome often blamed them for its destruction. For example, English Enlightenment poet John Dryden wrote, Till Goths, and Vandals, a rude Northern race, / Did all the matchless Monuments deface. The term Vandalisme was coined in 1794 by Henri Grégoire, bishop of Blois, to describe the destruction of artwork following the French Revolution. The term was quickly adopted across Europe. This new use of the term was important in colouring the perception of the Vandals from later Late Antiquity, popularising the pre-existing idea that they were a barbaric group with a taste for destruction. Vandals and other "barbarian" groups had long been blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire by writers and historians.
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