Vandals Seize Carthage

Vandal forces seized Carthage, seriously expediting the erosion of Roman authority in the Western Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

The Vandals appear to have entered the stage of European history suddenly and with little prior attestation, aside from various legends that point to a sometime residence in the area that later became modern Poland. In the mid-fourth century c.e., the Vandals split into two groups, the Asding and the Siling. It is the Asding Vandals who participated in the events of the fifth century c.e. Driven west by the swiftly moving Huns, the Vandals crossed the Rhine River near Mainz in 406. For several years, the Vandals ravaged Gaul and at one point seemed poised to cross the English Channel and invade Britain. Instead, they crossed the Pyrenees and settled in Spain in 409. In 411, the Vandals became foederati, or official allies of the Romans. The Vandals remained in Spain for twenty years, but the Roman-Vandal peace was an uneasy one. It was broken in 416, when Rome authorized the Visigoths, under Wallia, to attack the Vandals in the name of the emperor. The Vandals suffered severely under this treatment but recovered their strength within a decade. Wallia
Valentinian III
Placidia, Galla

Under the leadership of their king, Genseric, the Vandals crossed to North Africa in 429 c.e., lured by the prospect of controlling the rich grain lands there. Conditions in Africa made an invasion an attractive prospect for the enterprising Vandals, because the local ruler, Bonifacius, had rebelled against Galla Placidia, regent for the child emperor Valentinian III. It cannot be proved that Bonifacius actually invited the Vandals as allies; nevertheless, an estimated eighty thousand Vandals arrived, of whom twenty thousand were fighting men. The Vandals found further advantages in the restlessness of the native Berbers and in the turmoil fomented by the religious discord of the Donatists, a group of schismatic Christians.

Although Genseric did not capture any of the chief cities of North Africa then, he did ravage the country and defeat Bonifacius’s troops in battle in 431 c.e. Genseric also laid siege to Hippo for fourteen months, during which time the city’s great bishop and writer, Saint Augustine, died. Finally in 435, terms of peace were concluded by which the Vandals were permitted to settle in Numidia.

In 439 c.e., Genseric threw off the Roman yoke and seized Carthage, the leading city and key to the control of North Africa and the Mediterranean. Next, a fleet was organized to operate off the Sicilian coast. In 442, despite the vigorous efforts of Flavius Aetius, the generalissimo and chief minister to Valentinian III, Rome was forced to acknowledge the independence of the Vandal kingdom.

For the next century, under Genseric and four of his successors, the Vandals ruled independently in North Africa, holding Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia as well, thus controlling the Mediterranean. In 455, when Valentinian III was assassinated, Genseric descended on Rome. The Vandals spared the buildings and monuments but otherwise plundered the city’s art treasures.

Carthage is destroyed by the Vandals.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Shortly after becoming emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in 457 c.e., Leo I sent a fleet to try to reconquer Carthage; his troops suffered a humiliating defeat, and Genseric was left in total control of the province of Africa. The Vandals continued to administer the rich, grain-producing North African territory in much the same manner as had the Romans, even using the same administrative personnel. The significant differences were to be seen in the confiscation of large landed estates (which became properties of the Vandals), in the independent stance toward the Roman emperor in Constantinople, and in the religion of the people. The Vandals were Arian Christians, and Genseric and several of his successors waged bitter persecution against the non-Arian Christians; they were largely successful in destroying orthodox Christianity and replacing it with Arianism. This attitude was different from the policies of other barbarian kingdoms, such as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, who, although adherents of Arianism themselves, were tolerant of the religions of their Catholic subjects. The Vandals’ hollow victory over Catholicism proved to be the seed of their own undoing.


Vandal control of Africa came to an end when the emperor Justinian decided to reincorporate the western portion of the old Roman Empire and to enforce orthodoxy throughout his dominions. Belisarius, Justinian’s general, defeated the Vandals at Ad Decimam and soon after captured Gelimer, the Vandal king, thus bringing Vandal rule in Africa to a close. The Vandals who survived became slaves of the Romans and disappeared as a people from history.

Although the Vandals held North Africa for more than a century, their influence was more negative than positive. They made little or no lasting cultural contribution to North Africa and left almost no records. The coming of the Vandals marked the denouement of Roman culture in North Africa, which had been among its most advanced areas. The career and writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo serve as a reminder of the achievements and potential of North African civilization, had the Roman-Christian synthesis there persisted. There were exceptions, such as the work of the poet Luxorius and the allegorist Fulgentius, that showed the spirit of Roman culture could still flourish in Vandal-occupied Africa, but a full-scale cultural revival was impossible. Justinian’s recovery of North Africa in 534 c.e. proved ephemeral, for the area was taken over by the Muslims in the seventh century, permanently destroying the economic, cultural and political unity of the Mediterranean under the Romans.

Further Reading

  • Cameron, Averil. The Later Roman Empire: A.D. 284-430. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Cameron focuses his story on the latter part of the Roman Empire, including the barbarian invasions.
  • Clover, Frank. The Late Roman West and the Vandals. Aldershot, England: Variorum, 1993. A collection of essays, ranging from general to more specialized topics, written by the late twentieth century’s leading historian of the Vandals.
  • Grant, Michael. The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld, 1990. Grant analyzes the Vandal invasion in light of the dissolution of Roman rule in the West.
  • Grant, Michael. From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century a.d.
    New York: Routledge, 1998. An examination of the history of the Roman Empire after the fall until it became the Byzantium Empire. Covers Vandals and other barbarians. Bibliography and index.
  • Isidore of Seville. History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi. Translated by Guido Donini and Gordon B. Ford. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970. A leading primary source on the Vandals.
  • O’Flynn, John M. Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1983. Good coverage of the relationship between Genseric and Flavius Aetius.

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