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Warrior Kings: Genseric the Vandal

Jule Romans has over 30 years of experience researching and writing on educational topics. She presently works in State Government.

The Vandals lived near the Baltic Sea. They were a violent tribe of barbarians who took advantage of the late times of the Roman Empire, by invading what is now central and southern Europe. One of their most remarkable kings was Genseric, who is sometimes known as Gaiseric.

Fresco depicting Genseric the Vandal, painted 1869.

Fresco depicting Genseric the Vandal, painted 1869.

Genseric, King of the Vandals

428 AD: Genseric was crowned King of the Vandals in 428. Before he became king, he was already famous for his courage and leadership ability. Like the others of his tribe, Genseric had the capacity to be vicious and intelligent in battle. He was quite ordinary in appearance, except for one of his legs, which was distorted.

Genseric and his Vandals attacked Rome in many locations, through several generations of rulers. The Vandals won every time. This was Genseric's legacy.

Genseric Gains Carthage

429-439 AD: Valentinian III was Emperor of Rome from 425 to 455 AD. In 429, Valentinian was too young to take action as a ruler. His mother Placida managed all governmental affairs. She chose governors to oversee the outlying Roman provinces.

Count Boniface was the governor of the Roman province on the Mediterranean when Genseric became King of the Vandals. Boniface had enemies in the Roman court. Placida began to think that Boniface was a traitor. This was far from the truth. Boniface was loyal to Rome and more than capable of proving it.

Boniface’s enemies were relentless. In order to strengthen his position, Count Boniface became entangled with Genseric and the Vandals. The result of this entanglement spelled the first defeat for Rome.

Boniface Makes a Deal That Goes Badly Wrong

In 429 AD, a deal was struck. Refusing to return to Rome without reinforcements, Boniface entreated Genseric to come to Africa with an army. Genseric was more than happy to oblige. He had wanted to attack Rome for a long time, and this was a good opportunity to use an alliance to gain access. Genseric crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and landed on the African coast. He then turned on his intended rival, and captured as much land as he could

The Vandals continued to march into other towns and capture them completely. As Boniface tried to send Genseric back, Genseric swore that the Vandals would remain and he himself would be master of Africa. Boniface now deeply regretted his decision to call in the Genseric and the Vandals.

Genseric Defeats Boniface and Coins a New Term

Boniface tried unsuccessfully to drive Genseric back. The Romas were defeated so badly over the course of the battles that they had to flee to Hippo, one of the few small towns the Vandals had not already seized. Genseric followed, and laid siege for over a year.When he finally captured the town, he burned all the churches, and destroyed the countryside without regard for people or property.

This type of activity became the trademark of the Vandals, eventually giving rise to the common word “vandal” which is in use today. A vandal today causes needless destruction, just as the Vandals did in history.

Genseric Dominates Africa

The African natives joined Gneseric’s army and fought against the Romans. Eventually, these new troops helped capture the city of Carthage, making it the center of the new Vandal kingdom. Genseric ruled Africa, and conquered parts of Rome.

Land conquest was not the only thing Genseric was good at. Members of Genseric’s kingdom build huge fleets of warships, captured other trading vessels, and dominated the Mediterranean. Along the coasts, towns lived in terror of Genseric’s merciless plundering.

Illuminated manuscript depicting Genseric's violent nature. Orginal circa 1475.

Illuminated manuscript depicting Genseric's violent nature. Orginal circa 1475.

Genseric Overwhelms Rome

455 AD: In Rome, politics had undergone many changes. Valentinian III grew up and married the empress Eudoxia. He ruled for several years, then was brutally murdered by Maximus, a Roman noble. Maximus immediately made himself emperor, putting Eudoxia in grave danger.

Empress Eudoxia Makes a Deal That Goes Badly Wrong

Eudoxia sent a message to Genseric, begging for his help to defeat Maximus. The day the Roman ship arrived in Carthage, a messenger came to Genseric’s court. The messenger recited a poetic and dramatic plea, that may have gone something like this:

“Great king, I bring you a message from the Empress Eudoxia. She begs your help. She and her two beautiful daughters are in danger in Rome. She wishes you to protect them against Maximus. She invites you to come with an army to Rome and take the city. She and her friends will help you as much as they can.”

Genseric responded with happiness at this request. He accepted the invitation eagerly, and announced his intention to set out for Rome as quickly as possible. His motives were less than pure, but his enthusiasm was unmistakable. The fleet and army were prepared, and sailed across the water to the mouth or the Tiber river.

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Maximus Is Defeated by His Own People

The Emperor Maximus responded with fear. He prepared to run from the city, and advised his Senate members to flee as well. At this, the Roman people became incensed. They rose up and killed Maximus in direct rebellion against him. In the end, the people has so little respect for Maximus that they simply threw his body into the river without an ceremony, as though they were dumping garbage.

Genseric Arrives in Rome

The Vandals arrived in Rome and stormed through the gates. There was no opposition whatsoever. The marched in, taking charge of the city. Forty Five years earlier, Alaric the Visigoth had done the exact same thing. But Rome had recovered since then, with grand riches and great wealth that had been rebuilt in the intervening years.

There was still much of value for Genseric to command and take away. For fourteen days, Gneseric and his men tore apart temples, destroyed public buildings, robbed private houses, and plundered the emperor’s palace. Works of art were brutally destroyed, whild all valuable were take to the Vandals’ fleet of ships. Jewels, furniture, riches, and all manner of valuables were removed form the city and taken away by soldiers.

The Fate of Eudoxia

Genseric did not stop there. He put many Roman citizens to death. Others he carted away as slaves. The Empress Eudoxia, who had first asked for his help, was taken to Carthage along with one of her daughters. Before long, Eudoxia’s daughter was married to Gneseric’s oldest son, Hunneric.

Genseric Sacks Rome. Painted in the 19th Century by Karl Bryullov

Genseric Sacks Rome. Painted in the 19th Century by Karl Bryullov

Genseric Destroys the Roman Fleet

468 AD: Genseric and his Vandals became a terror to all of the Mediterranean people. The countries bordering the Mediterranean were not safe from attack. At least once a year, Genseric’s ships would make the rounds from Asia Minor to Spain. Cities would be plundered recklessly, with almost all valuable stolen or destroyed. Prisoners were taken to become slaves or have worse fates.

Basilicus and His Fleet

The Romans could not stop the Vandals. tried valiantly to being an end to the destruction. He created a great fleet of ships and lodged them at Constantinople. This, he hoped, would be another successful attempt to stop the lawlessness and piracy. There were over 1000 ships, with at least 100,000 men in total.

Basilicus Makes a Deal That Goes Badly Wrong

Basilicus took sail for Africa and brought his army to land near Carthage. The sight must have been impressive, because Genseric asked for five days of grace to consider the terms of agreement. Peace seemed imminent. A truce was granted.

Of course, Genseric had other plans. He was only looking for a stealthy way to defeat the Romans, and he had no interest in negotiations for a truce. He wa buying time to carry out an attack.

Attack by Night With Fire

In the middle of the night, during the time of supposed truce, Genseric took action. Genseric took his most accomplished soldiers and chose the biggest ship he owned. Genseric and his men filled the ship quietly, and mad their way toward the Roman ships. They sailed as silently as possible, weaving in between the Roman warships, towing behind them large boats filled with highly flammable materials.

The Vandals set the boats on fire, and pushed them into the sides of the Roman ships. Then, they sailed on, pushing boats of flaming debris in and among the Roman fleet. The flames spread very quickly, and the Roman fleet was on fire. Very shortly, most of the Roman fleet was destroyed by fire.

The Fate of Basilicus

Baislicus was forced to flee, saving as many ships as possible. Basilicus returned to Constantinople, and Genseric was victorious again. The Romans never again managed to stop or conquer the Vandals. The treaty that began in 442 was reinstated, allowing the Vandals to do as they pleased, in nearly every place they desired.

Mosaic depicting the Vandals' attack on Carthage. Circa 500 AD

Mosaic depicting the Vandals' attack on Carthage. Circa 500 AD

The Death of Genseric

478 AD: Genseric died of natural causes in the year 478. He had built a strong kingdom, which endured solidly for many years. The Vandals had freedom and victory.

After Genseric's death, the Vandal kingdom declined, never again reaching the pinnacle it had under his rule.

Sources

  • Haaren, J. and Poland, A.B. (1904). Famous Men of the Middle Ages. American Book Company.
  • Mark, Joshua J. (2014, December 13). Gaiseric. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved March, 2021.
  • Vander Crabben, J., Founder. (2009-2021). Gaiseric Timeline. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved March, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jule Romans

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