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7-08-2015, 20:36

The vandal war

On 19 May 530, the Vandal king Hilderic was deposed by another member of the royal family, Gelimer. Hilderic had enjoyed close relations with Justinian, who was therefore presented with an excellent opportunity to declare war on the Vandals. The deposition of the emperor’s ally was, however, merely a pretext for intervention. According to the African writer Victor of Tunnuna, Justinian’s decision to invade was prompted by the vision of a martyred African bishop, while a passage in the Codex Iustinianus of 534 – which may well have been written by the emperor himself – is eloquent as to the persecution of catholics by the Vandals. It describes their sufferings in language reminiscent of the account written by the African Victor of Vita in the 480s. We have no reason to doubt that Justinian’s invasion, like so many of his activities early in his reign, was motivated by religion rather than by any ideology of imperial renewal.13 We are told that the plan to invade Africa was opposed by his advisers. But the imperial will was not to be trifled with, especially when a bishop reported a vision in which success was promised. In 532 a peace was concluded with Persia, enabling resources to be directed towards thewest. Justinian prepared a force which put to sea at about the summer solstice in 533 under the command of Belisarius, a general who had recently risen to prominence in campaigning against the Persians and in putting down a rebellion in Constantinople. The religious nature of the enterprise was highlighted as the patriarch prayed over Belisarius’ ship and placed on one of the vessels a soldier who had recently been baptised. We can follow the Vandal war in some detail, through the eyewitness account of Belisarius’ legal assistant, Procopius. The arrival of the Byzantine forces in Africa occurred in excellent circumstances: Gelimer, unaware of their approach, had sent part of his forces to Sardinia. The invaders landed unopposed south of Carthage at Caput Vada, whence they proceeded towards the capital. They kept close to the shore for some distance before they turned inland and marched to Decimum, some fifteen kilometres outside Carthage. Here Gelimer met them, but after a short encounter he fled, and two days later, on 15 September 533, the Roman army marched into Carthage. Belisarius dined on food that had been prepared for Gelimer, while his soldiers, behaving with remarkable restraint, are said to have bought food in the market. Gelimer summoned forces from Sardinia, but at the battle of Tricamarium, thirty kilometres outside Carthage, the Vandal army was again turned to flight, and Gelimer took up residence among the Berbers on a mountain where he consoled himself by composing sad verses before surrendering. Having quickly gained control of Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and Septem, a fort adjacent to the Straits of Gibraltar, Belisarius returned to Constantinople with booty which included the treasures of the Jews that Titus had taken from Jerusalem to Rome in the first century and which the Vandals in turn had taken to Africa in 455. The victorious general paraded through the streets of Constantinople in triumph, and both he and Gelimer performed proskyn¯esis before Justinian. The defeated king was provided with estates in Galatia in Asia Minor, and Belisarius went on to hold a consulship in 535; the largesse he distributed included spoils won on this campaign. Justinian saw to the making of gold plates that depicted the history of his triumphs and legislated for the return of property the Vandals had taken from its rightful owners. In a matter of months the kingdom of the Vandals that had seemed so strong had collapsed, and Africa found itself governed by a praetorian prefect appointed by the emperor.We have no reason to doubt that its inhabitants approved of these developments. Nevertheless, there was still fighting to be done. The nomadic Berbers had been pressing increasingly on the Vandal kingdom, and they were to pose a major problem to Byzantine Africa, for their practice of lightly armed and mobile combat made them difficult opponents. A series of fortifications was quickly erected to deal with them, of which the impressive ruins at Thamugadi still stand, with walls averaging 2.5 metres in thickness and rising to over fifteen metres in height (see figs. 7a and 7b). Archaeological and literary evidence both indicate that, contrary to Justinian’s expectation, the Byzantines never succeeded in occupying all the territory held inRoman times, but the number and extent of the defences they erected makes it clear they planned to stay in Africa. There were also internal troubles, for many of Belisarius’ soldiers married Vandal women, only to see the property they hoped to gain through their wives threatened by Justinian’s legislation for the return of property held by Vandals. They mutinied in 535, and more seriously in 544, after the magister militum and praetorian prefect Solomon had been killed fighting the Berbers. But the ringleader of the rebels was murdered in 546 and towards the end of that year a new general, the energetic John Troglitas, arrived. An expedition led by him in the spring of 548 was crowned with success, and Africa knew peace.