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The Vandals in North Africa – Heirs or Precipitators of the Decline of the Romanitas?

Konrad Vössing

Notes de la rédaction

John Scheid’s page.Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

Texte intégral

Genseric Sacking Rome, Karl Briullov, ARR

1Since the publication, in 1955, of Christian Courtois’ outstanding work, researchers have paid little attention to the Vandals. During the past few decades, however, things have been changing, despite the fact that there is still no monograph on the subject available in French. Historical clichés such as the “barbarian invasions” and the “end of the antique world” have moreover revived scientific interest and have led to new approaches to the topic.

2The Vandals play an important part within this context. While historians of that period at times use the key concepts of decline and of abrupt endings, and at times those of continuity and transform­ation, some are now claiming that the Vandals should be considered not as the gravediggers of the romanitas, but rather as their “heirs”. According to these researchers, the Vandals formed an integral part of the traditional military organization, specific to the later Roman era, which was founded on groups of gentes (called the foederati). However, do these approaches do justice to the specificities of the Vandals, and are they consistent with historical sources? It is therefore worth considering this period from a new perspective, focused on the relations between Vandals and Romans and on the “barbarian” regnum Vandalorum that the conquerors of 429 AD were able to establish in Africa, at the heart of the Roman Empire, and to defend for a hundred years, in spite of all the resistance against it.

3The four lectures, in turn, presented the Vandals as invaders, as (more or less fervent) Christians of the Arian confession, as patrons of the arts, and as defenders of their kingdom.

4Two fundamental problems concerning King Genseric (428-477 AD) were highlighted. On the one hand, we wondered how the most prominent of the six Vandal kings of Africa managed not only to conquer the region, but also to settle there long enough to establish a kingdom that was consolidated and recognized by the Emperor of Constantinople. However, re­lations with the Empire also had another aspect. Contrary to a current research trend, Genseric was presented here as a king who had certainly grown up within the Empire, but who had also challenged it and even destroyed the material and political foundations of power throughout the Western empire.

5The image of Huneric as the “persecutor king” (477-484 AD), which has taken root in the minds of people since the Middle Ages, was replaced in its historical context, in conformity with the principal source, Victor of Vita’s Histoire des persécutions. What part did Arianism and the Arian Church play in the kingdom of the Vandals? Why did Huneric choose to confront the Catholic Church in 482 AD, and what were the results and consequences of this? Indeed, Huneric’s policy based on a political motivation (concretely: his son’s succession) and not on a religious one led the Vandal regnum into a dangerous impasse, by binding the destiny of the State with that of the Arian Church in Africa.

6In the currently prevailing view, in conscious or unconscious reaction to the non-historical key word “vandalism”, a cultural and scientific centre existed at the court of the Vandals from the reign of Thrasamund (496-523 AD) at the latest, and even sometimes from Huneric’s reign. As a worthy continuator and heir of the Roman Empire, the king would have played the part of a patron of the arts, like any sovereign of late Antiquity. Sources attesting another version of the facts were em­phasized. While they certainly attest that there were literary circles in Carthage, they also show that the Vandal elite and king had very little to do with them. This situation did not evolve until Hilderic’s reign (423-430 AD).

7The fall of the Vandals was closely linked to the change in polit­ical direction of Hilderic, the penultimate king of Africa, who moved away from earlier principles of autonomy and self-suf­ficiency – from a political, religious and cultural point of view –, to be closer to the Empire and to the emperor. This policy was met with strong resistance, particularly as Hilderic failed to vanquish the Moors. Gelimer’s coup d’état in 532 AD brought about the intervention of Emperor Justinian (who presented himself as Hilderic’s protector) and the invasion of Belisarius. Justinian’s short but effective campaign brought to light the military weaknesses of the Vandal kingdom, which was still basking in the glory of Genseric. It also revealed how little the Vandal’s power was entrenched in Africa, despite a hundred years of reign.

8As when one looks into a convergent mirror, the Vandal catastrophe shows the profound difficulties that Gothic kingdoms were encountering elsewhere. However, these took on a more precise and radical form with the Vandals. They would be robbed of their specificity, one could even say their “tragic” specificity, if one made them first into slightly subordinate auxiliary troops, and then “local” Romans integrated into the empire. In reality, after Belisarius’ victory and after years of hard learning, it was the Byzantines who became the heirs of Roman Africa, and in a more intense and long-lasting way than the Vandals.

• The Faculty invited Mr Konrad Vössing upon Prof. John Scheid’s proposal.

• The videos of the lectures are available at, on Prof.

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Konrad Vössing, « The Vandals in North Africa – Heirs or Precipitators of the Decline of the Romanitas? », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL :

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Konrad Vössing

Professor, Institute für Geschichtswissenschaft, University of Bonn (Germany)en48-49

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