Dismemberment of the Roman Empire in the West: Sueves and Vandals in Spain – The Vandal Conquest of Africa

The prospect of a return to peace and settled life in Spain seemed more distant than in Gaul. Soon after the Visigoths had departed, war broke out between Gunderic, king of the Asding Vandals, and Hermeric, king of the Suevians. The latter were blockaded in the Nervasian mountains, but suddenly Asterius, Count of the Spains, appeared upon the scene, and his operations compelled the Vandals to abandon the blockade: at Bracara a large number were slain by the Roman forces. Then the Vandals and Alans, who now formed one nation, left Gallaecia and migrated to Baetica. On their way they met the Master of Soldiers, Castinus, who had come from Italy to restore order in the peninsula. He had a large army, including a force of Visigothic federates, but he suffered a severe defeat, partly through the perfidious conduct of his Gothic allies. The Vandals established themselves in Baetica, but it does not appear whether the recognition they had received in Gallaecia as a federate people was renewed when they took up their abode in the southern province (A.D. 422).

Iberia A.D. 409-429

We have now reached what may be considered the end of the first stage in the process of the dismemberment of the Roman Empire and the establishment of German kingdoms in the west—about the year 423, the year in which the Emperor Honorius died. At this time there were three German kingdoms in Gaul, dependent on the Empire—federate kingdoms:

(1) That of the Visigoths in south-western Gaul.

(2) That of the Burgundians towards the south-east.

(3) The older federate dependency of the Salian Franks in the north-east on the lower Rhine.

In Spain there were two:

(1) the Suevians in the north-west—Gallaecia.

(2) The Vandals, in whom the Alans had been merged, in the south, in Baetica.

Three of these five were East Germans; the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Vandals. Two were West Germans; the Salians and Sueves.

In what we may call the second period of the process of dismemberment, in which the Empire had to defend itself against the hostilities and covetousness of all these German dependencies, it was the Vandals, who had now established themselves at the western sea gate of the Mediterranean, who played the most prominent part and most seriously affected the fortunes of Rome.

Africa—far from the Rhine and Danube, across which the great East German nations had been pouring into the Roman Empire—had not yet been violated by the feet of Teutonic foes. But the frustrated plans of Alaric and Wallia were intimations that the day might be at hand when this province too would have to meet the crisis of a German invasion. The third attempt was not to fail, but it was not the Goths to whom the granaries of Africa were to fall. The Vandal people, perhaps the first of the East German peoples to cross the Baltic, was destined to find its last home and its grave in this land so distant from its cradle.

We saw how the Vandals settled in Baetica, and how King Gunderic assumed the title of “King of the Vandals and the Alans”. He conquered New Carthage and Hispalis (Seville), and made raids on the Balearic Islands and possibly on Mauretania Tingitana. He died in A.D. 428 and was succeeded by his brother Gaiseric, who had perhaps already shared the kingship with him. About the same time events in Africa opened a new and attractive prospect to the Vandals.

Suebic migrations across Europe

What happened in Italy after the death of Honorius

Constantius, the great general who was supreme in conducting the government during the second half of the reign of Honorius, was, as we saw, responsible for settling the two federate kingdoms in Gaul—Visigoths and Burgundians—and also for settling Spain. He had married the Emperor’s sister, Ataulf’s widow, Galla Placidia, and had been afterwards crowned Augustus, and elevated to be the colleague of Honorius, but had died before he had been a year on the throne (A.D. 421). When Honorius died two years later, Galla Placidia and her two infant children, a boy and a girl, were at Constantinople. The boy’s name was Valentinian, the girl’s Honoria.

Valentinian was the natural claimant to the succession, as Honorius had had no children of his own. But meanwhile in Italy a certain civil servant, named John, was proclaimed Emperor, and it was necessary for Galla Placidia, supported by the armies of her nephew Theodosius II., who was reigning at Constantinople, to fight for the throne. John was defeated and executed, after which the child Valentinian was crowned Augustus at Rome towards the end of A.D. 425. Thus it came about that for some twelve years, i.e. so long as Valentinian III. was a minor (A.D. 425-437), western Europe was governed by Galla Placidia (formerly queen of the Goths), as regent for her son.

Now during the struggle between the usurper John and Galla Placidia two military men had been prominent, and had taken opposite sides. One was Boniface, the other Aetius. Boniface had supported Placidia; while Aetius had enlisted a contingent of Huns to fight for John. The Huns arrived too late; John had already been captured; but Aetius was able to make terms with the regent and was given a command in Gaul, where he did good work in defending the south against the Goths and the north against encroachments of the Franks.

As for Boniface, who was the military commander in Africa, his conduct laid him open to the suspicion that he was aiming at a tyranny himself. It had been a notable part of his policy, since he assumed the military command in Africa, to exhibit deep devotion to the Church and to co-operate cordially with the bishops. He ingratiated himself with the famous Augustine, bishop of Hippo, and a letter of Augustine casts some welcome though dim light on the highly ambiguous behaviour of the count in these fateful years. Notwithstanding his professions of orthodox zeal, and hypocritical pretences that he longed to retire into monastic life, Boniface took as his second wife an Arian lady, and allowed his daughter to be baptised into the Arian communion. This apostasy shocked and grieved Augustine, but it was a more serious matter politically that, instead of devoting all his energies to repelling the incursions of the Moors, he was working to make his own authority absolute in Africa. So at least it seemed to the court of Ravenna, and Galla Placidia—doubtless by the advice of Felix, who had been appointed Master of Soldiers—recalled him to account for his conduct. Boniface refused to come, and placed himself in the position of an “enemy of the Republic”. An army was immediately sent against him under three commanders, all of whom were slain (A.D. 427). Then at the beginning of A.D. 428 another army was sent under the command of Sigisvult, a Goth, who seems to have been named Count of Africa and commissioned to replace the rebel. Sigisvult appears to have succeeded in seizing Hippo and Carthage, and Boniface, despairing of overcoming him by his own forces, resorted to the plan of inviting the Vandals to come to his aid.

Coin of Boniface Comes Africae (A.D. 422-431)

The Vandal Conquest of Africa

The proposal of Boniface was to divide Africa between himself and the Vandal king, for whom he doubtless destined the three Mauretanian provinces; and he undertook to furnish the means of transport. Gaiseric accepted the invitation. He fully realised the value of the possession of Africa, which had attracted the ambition of two Gothic kings. The whole nation of the Vandals and Alans embarked in May A.D. 429, and crossed over to Africa. If the united peoples numbered, as is said, 80,000, the fighting force might have been about 15,000.

Their king Gaiseric stands out among the German leaders of his time as unquestionably the ablest. He had not only the military qualities which most of them possessed, but he was also master of a political craft which was rare among the German leaders of the migrations. His ability was so exceptional that his irregular birth—his mother was a slave—did not diminish his influence and prestige. We have a description of him, which seems to come from a good source. “Of medium height, lame from a fall of his horse, he had a deep mind and was sparing of speech. Luxury he despised, but his anger was uncontrollable and he was covetous. He was far-sighted in inducing foreign peoples to act in his interests, and resourceful in sowing seeds of discord and stirring up hatred“. All that we know of his long career bears out this suggestion of astute and perfidious diplomacy.

The unhappy population of the Mauretanian regions were left unprotected to the mercies of the invaders, and, if we can trust the accounts that have come down to us, they seem to have endured horrors such as the German conquerors of this age seldom inflicted upon defenceless provinces. The Visigoths were lambs compared with the Vandal wolves. Neither age nor sex was spared, and cruel tortures were applied to force the victims to reveal suspected treasures. The bishops and clergy, the churches and sacred vessels, were not spared. We get a glimpse of the situation in the correspondence of St. Augustine. Bishops write to him to ask whether it is right to allow their flocks to flee from the approaching danger, and for themselves to abandon their sees. The invasion was a signal to other enemies, whether of Rome or of the Roman government, to join in the fray. The Moors were encouraged in their depredations, and religious heretics and sectaries, especially the Donatists, seized the opportunity to wreak vengeance on the society which oppressed them.

If Africa was to be saved, it was necessary that the Roman armies should be united, and Galla Placidia immediately took steps to regain the allegiance of Boniface. A reconciliation was effected by the good offices of a certain Darius, of illustrious rank, whom she sent to Africa, and he seems also to have concluded a truce with Gaiseric, which was, however, of but brief duration, for the Roman proposals were not accepted. Gaiseric was determined to pillage, if he could not conquer, the rich eastern provinces of Africa. He entered Numidia, defeated Boniface, and besieged him in Hippo (May to June A.D. 430). The city held out for more than a year. Then Gaiseric raised the siege (July A.D. 431). New forces were sent from Italy and Constantinople under the command of Aspar, the general of Theodosius; a battle was fought, and Aspar and Boniface were so utterly defeated that they could make no further effort to resist the invader. Hippo was taken soon afterwards, and the only important towns which held out were Carthage and Cirta.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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