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The Vandal Sack of Rome (455)

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Taking advantage of a coup in Rome, which resulted in the death of Emperor Valentinian III, the King of Vandals, Genseric, left Carthage with his fleet to the capital of the Western Roman Empire. The city was captured without a fight, being without troops. Pope Leo I persuaded the vandals not to destroy the city and not to kill the inhabitants in exchange for the surrender of Rome.

The pillaging of Rome by the vandals lasted two weeks – from June 2 to June 16, 455. These events are associated with the emergence of the term “vandalism” in the late 18th century, meaning the senseless destruction of cultural values.

Background of the Raid

At the end of the 4th century, the Germanic Vandal tribe under pressure moved from their habitats in Pannonia to the west. In 406, the Vandals, in alliance with the tribes of Alans and Sueves, broke into the Roman province of Gaul, ravaged it and in 409, captured Spain.

Under pressure from the Visigoths in 429, the Vandals with the Alans crossed Gibraltar to northern Africa, where they began successful wars with the Roman governor and Byzantine troops sent to his aid. In 439, the Vandals, violating the peace treaty, seized Carthage from the Romans, which became their capital. From this year, the birth of the Kingdom of Vandals and Alans, recognized in 442 by Emperor Valentinian III under the new peace treaty, began.

The Troubles in Rome

The legitimacy of the power of new Emperor Maxim was questionable (He presumably killed the last Emperor), therefore, just a few days after his proclamation, he married Licinius Eudoxia, the widow of Valentinian III. This marriage was forced and soon his new wife turned on him, calling the king of Vandals to avenge the death of her husband. This call was heard by the king of Vandals, Genseric, who mustered his army and sailed to Rome. Like the revenge for the old Hannibal and Carthage, Rome was doomed by the old city on the north African coast.

The Seizure and Pillage of Rome

Rome learned about the expedition of Genseric in advance. A panic broke out in the city, during which the emperor Maxim, who had been in power for less than 3 months, was killed. The new Emperor did not have the strength to challenge the new enemy, and was killed by his people who did not trust him. The city was in disarray; soldiers, civilians, barbarians, all feared for their lives. There was nobody to take charge of the situation and defend the city from an attack by the Vandals.

The King of Vandals was met at the gates of the city by Pope Leo I and persuaded to spare the city from arson, and the inhabitants from torture and murder. Prosper Aquitaine, the direct witness of the fall of Rome, noted in his chronicle, “When everything was subject to his authority, the king of Vandals refrained from fire, slaughter, and executions. So, for the next fourteen days, Rome was deprived of all its wealth, and along with the queen and her children, many thousands of captives were taken to Carthage.”The ruin of Rome was different from the earlier pillage of the Gothic leader Alaric, in 410. They looted treasures from the Roman palace, captured by the Roman emperor Titus Vespasian in Jerusalem in the 1st century.

The old city of Rome for the first time was looted and the glory and fame of the old city was lost. There was nobody to stop the Vandals from pillaging and killing the old might and fame was no more, Rome had fallen to the enemy, Rome was pillaged.

Effects

Vandals divided the captives from Rome between Vandals and Moors, and other raiders. Prisoners, among whom there were many noblemen, were redeemed for money. Bishop Victor Vitensky told about the participation of the Catholic Church in their release.

The daughter of Eudoxia, Evdokia, was married to Genseric. Genseric in 477 inherited the kingdom of the Vandals and Alans, and in 523 the king of Vandals became his son from Evdokia, Hilderich. Eudoxia herself, and her other daughter Placidia, were released to Constantinople two years later.

Rome, after the forcible raid from vandals for a month, was plunged into anarchy, that marked the end of its power. In July 455, the new emperor was proclaimed military commander, a companion of Aetius and a friend of the Gothic King, Theodoric II. Treasures looted by vandals in Rome were captured by the Byzantine army in 534, after the defeat of the barbarian kingdom and transported to Constantinople.

The Vandals’ raid became the second pillage of Rome in the 5th century, in 410, it was subjected to a 3-day robbery by the Visigoths of Alaric, a result of which part of the city was burned down. However, it was the Vandals’ raid that made a deep impression on contemporaries and left a notable mark in Catholic historiography. Although there is no information about the killings by the vandals of the townspeople, unlike the capture in 410, Genseric did not become like Alaric to take churches under protection. During the Great French Revolution, the term “vandalism” arose in relation to the destruction of historical monuments. The term, despite its obvious unreliability, took root, began to denote the senseless destruction of spiritual and material cultural values and entered many languages of the world.

Sources:

  • Procopius of Caesarea. War with the Vandals
  • Victor Vitensky, The History of Persecution in the African Province
  • Jordan, “On the origin and deeds of the Gets”
  • John Bagnall Bury, “History of the Later Roman Empire
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