Vandalic War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Vandalic War
partof=Justinian's wars of Reconquest

date=533– 534 AD
place=modern Tunisia
territory=Africa Province captured
result=Roman victory, destruction of the Vandal Kingdom
combatant1=Eastern Roman Empire
strength1=10,000 infantry
5,000 cavalry
strength2=ca. 30,000, mostly cavalry

The Vandalic War was a war fought in North Africa, in the areas of modern Tunisia and eastern Algeria, in 533-534, between the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Vandal Kingdom of Carthage. It was the first of Justinian the Great's wars of Reconquest of the West, and met with rapid success, as the Vandal Kingdom was destroyed, and Roman authority re-established in the whole of North Africa.


In the course of the Western Empire's troubles in the early 5th century, the tribe of the Vandals, allied with the Alans, had established themselves in the Iberian peninsula. In 429, the Vandal King Geiseric, invited by the "vicarius" of Africa, Bonifacius, crossed the straits of Gibraltar with his people into Roman North Africa. [Bury (1923), Vol. I p.246] With the local Roman forces severely weakened because of Bonifacius' revolt and subsequent death in 432, the Vandals were free to take over the province. In 439, Carthage fell, and during the next 20 years Geiseric established his rule not only over the Roman provinces of the Diocese of Africa, but also over Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, which he conquered with the aid of a powerful navy. [Bury (1923), Vol. I pp.254-258] During the next decades, the skilled Vandal fleets raided the entire Mediterranean, sacking Rome and defeating an East Roman invasion force in 468 under Basiliscus. This defeat and the Vandals' pirate activity were a sore wound for Constantinople, further exacerbated by their domestic policies. The Vandals were fanatic Arians and followed a policy of separation from and persecution of their Catholic subjects. Nonetheless, the inability of the Romans to launch a campaign against the Vandal Kingdom resulted in a period of peaceful relations, despite occasional tensions, according to the terms of the "perpetual peace" of 476. [Bury (1923), Vol. II p.125]

The situation changed however, when Justinian I, who aspired to recover the lost western provinces, ascended the imperial throne. Initially, Justinian was occupied with the Iberian War with the Persians, while in Carthage, the more tolerant and pro-Roman king Hilderic, the son of Huneric, who reigned since 523, had established close relations with the Roman Empire. This policy however aroused opposition among the Vandals, which resulted in his overthrow in 530 by his cousin, Gelimer. Justinian seized the opportunity, demanding Hilderic's restoration, with Gelimer predictably refusing to do so. Justinian now had his pretext, and with peace restored in the East in 532, he started assembling an invasion force. [Bury (1923), Vol. II p.126]

Preparations of the two rivals

Justinian selected one of his most trusted and talented generals, Belisarius, to lead the expedition, with the eunuch Solomon as his chief of staff. Belisarius took with him as his principal secretary Procopius of Caesarea, who recorded the war in two books. Procopius tells us that the memory of the 468 disaster was still strong, and that many of Justinian's ministers, including the Praetorian prefect, John the Cappadocian, were opposed to the enterprise and tried to dissuade him. [ Procopius, "BV", Vol. I, X.7-20] Only churchmen were enthusiastically in favour of the expedition against the Vandals, whom they regarded as heretics. In light of these doubts, and the Vandals' fearsome reputation as warriors, the size of the assembled expeditionary force is surprisingly small. It comprised no more than 15,000 men, of which 10,000 infantry, about half Roman and half "Foederati", and 5,000 cavalry, consisting of ca. 1,500 of Belisarius' own "bucellarii", 3,000 Roman and "foederati" cavalry, and 600 Huns and 400 Heruli horse archers. These were to be transported by a fleet of 500 transports and escorted by 92 dromons. [ Procopius, "BV", Vol. I, XI.7-16]

On the Vandal side, Gelimer faced two revolts, one in Tripolitania and one in Sardinia. Although the former was aided by Roman troops, and could provide a useful base for them on African soil, Gelimer did not react to it at all, possibly because of its remoteness. Instead, he sent the better part of his fleet, 120 ships, and 5,000 men, under his brother Tzazon, to suppress the revolt of the governor of Sardinia, a certain Godas.

Prior to the Roman fleet setting sail, Justinian had secured the cooperation of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, which allowed the Roman fleet to use the harbours of Sicily. The fleet set sail from Constantinople in June, and proceeded slowly. When it arrived at Sicily, Procopius, to the Romans' great relief, found out that the main part of the Vandal fleet had sailed to Sardinia. [ Procopius, "BV", Vol. I, XIV.7-13]

The Battle of Ad Decimum

Thus the Roman fleet approached the African coast unopposed in early September, and made landfall at Caput Vada (modern Ras Kaboudia) on 9 September. From there Belisarius marched his army northwards, towards Carthage, following the coast, accompanied by the fleet. During the march, he maintained strict discipline among his men, so as not to disaffect the local population. [Bury (1923), Vol. II, pp.130-131] As the Romans advanced, Gelimer prepared to meet them. He murdered Hilderic, and summoned his forces to the south of Carthage, at the site known as "Ad Decimum" ("At the tenth (milestone)"). There he planned to ambush and encircle the Romans, using a force under his brother Ammatas to block their advance and engage them, while 2,000 men under his nephew Gibamund would attack their left flank, and Gelimer himself with the main army would attack from the rear, and completely annihilate the Roman army. In the event, the three forces failed to synchronize exactly. On September 13, Ammatas arrived early, and was killed as he attempted a reconnaissance with a small force by the Roman vanguard. Gibamund's force was intercepted by a 600-strong Hunnic cavalry unit, and was utterly destroyed. Unaware of all this, Gelimer marched up with the main army, and scattered the Roman forces at Decimum. Victory might have been his, but he came upon his dead brother's body, and apparently forgot all about the battle. This gave Belisarius the time to rally his troops and defeat the disorganized Vandals. [Bury (1923), Vol. II, pp.133-135]

Fall of Carthage and Gelimer's counterattack

Gelimer, realising his defeat, fled with the remnants of his army westwards, towards Numidia, since Carthage was both left without garrison and its walls were in a bad state. After recuperating for a day, on 15 September 533, the Roman army entered Carthage, amidst scenes of exultation by its inhabitants. On Belisarius' insistence, the victorious army remained disciplined and did not plunder the captured city. Belisarius established himself in the Vandal royal palace, and started repairing the city's walls, anticipating a counterstrike by Gelimer. Indeed the Vandal king, having fled to the town of Bulla Regia, immediately recalled his brother from Sardinia. Thus reinforced, he marched against Carthage, and started to besiege it by cutting it off from supplies. He also sent agents into the city, who even managed start negotiations with some of Belisarius' Hunnic mercenaries.

The Battle of Tricamarum and surrender of Gelimer

Fearing that the Vandals might break into the city by treachery, Belisarius resolved to force the issue. The two armies met near the Vandal camp at Tricamarum in mid-December. The Roman infantry did not arrive until late in the day, so that the battle was decided entirely by the cavalry. The Romans repeatedly charged the Vandals, and managed to kill Tzazon. As had happened at Decimum, Gelimer lost heart at this, and the Vandals were routed. Gelimer fled again to Numidia, but in March 534 he surrendered to Belisarius. Already before Gelimer's surrender, Roman forces occupied Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearics, Mauretania and the fort of Septum opposite Gibraltar.

Belisarius left Africa in the summer, accompanied the captive Gelimer and the Vandal treasure, which included many objects looted from Rome 80 years earlier, including the imperial regalia and the menorah of the Second Temple. Justinian, in a conscious echo of the glorious Roman past he sought to emulate, granted Belisarius the right to hold a triumph for his victory, the first to be granted to a private citizen since Lucius Cornelius Balbus in 19 BC and the last one, as well. During this, Gelimer, upon looking on the Emperor in his full splendour, is said to have uttered his famous remark from the Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." [Bury (1923), Vol. II, p.139] The Vandal War had ended in an unexpectedly swift and decisive Roman victory, and Justinian felt himself justified in his belief to be chosen to restore the Empire to its former glory, as is evident from the preamble of the law concerning the administrative organization of the new provinces:

The re-establishment of Roman rule in Africa

In April 534, the old Roman provincial system along with the full apparatus of Roman administration was restored, under a praetorian prefect. [ Codex Iustinianus, Book I, XXVII] During the following years, under Solomon, who combined the offices of both "magister militum" and praetorian prefect of Africa, Roman rule in Africa was strengthened, but the fighting continued against the Moorish tribes ("Mauri") of the interior. Solomon achieved significant successes against them, but his work was interrupted by a widespread military mutiny in 536. The mutiny was eventually subdued by Germanus, a cousin of Justinian, and Solomon returned in 539. He fell, however, in the Battle of Cillium in 544 against the united Moorish tribes, and Roman Africa was again in jeopardy. It would not be until 548 that the resistance of the Moorish and Berber tribes would be finally broken by the talented general John Troglita. The province entered an era of relative stability and prosperity, and was organized as a separate exarchate in 584. Eventually, under Heraclius, Africa would come to the rescue of the Empire itself, deposing the tyrant Phocas and beating back the Sassanids and the Avars.



*cite book | first=John Bagnell | last=Bury | authorlink=John Bagnell Bury | title= History of the Later Roman Empire Vols. I & II |url= | publisher=Macmillan & Co., Ltd. | year=1923
*Procopius, "De Bello Vandalico" ("BV"), Volumes &

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