Justinian’s African War of 533 AD: The Byzantine Recapture of Carthage

Justinian’s Reconquest of the Roman West began in Northern Africa. After almost a century of Vandal rule, Carthage, the largest city in Africa, fell into Byzantine hands in 533 CE.

Jul 2, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
featured byzantine carthage
Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I with General Belisarius on his right, 6th century AD, via Opera di Religione Della Diocesi di Ravenna; with the archaeological site of ancient Carthage, photo by Ludmila Pilecka, via Africaotr


One of the greatest achievements of emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE) was the Reconquest of the Roman West. After more than half a century of barbarian rule, the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) armies restored control over territories that once belonged to the Western Roman Empire: Northern Africa, Italy, and Spain. The success of the ambitious campaign would be impossible without Belisarius, probably one of the most brilliant generals in history. Under his command, the imperial expeditionary forces landed in Vandal-controlled Northern Africa. In less than a year, the Byzantine Empire restored control over the region and its capital: Carthage. The reconquest of Carthage in 533 CE led to the collapse of the Vandal Kingdom. With Africa reincorporated into the Empire, Justinian could move to the next phase of his grandiose plan – the reconquest of Italy and restoring imperial control over the entire Mediterranean.


Political Turbulence in Vandal Carthage

Mosaic from Bor-Djedid near the site of Carthage showing a Vandal aristocrat and a fortified city, late 5th – early 6th century CE, The British Museum, London


The fall of Carthage and Northern Africa to the Vandals in 439 CE, was a death blow to the Western Roman Empire. Without the breadbasket of the Roman West, the Empire could not feed and pay its armies and was left at the mercy of the emerging barbarian kingdoms. For the Vandals, the occupation of Africa was a huge boon. A century after their arrival into the imperial territory, this barbarian tribe controlled one of the most important regions of the ancient Mediterranean. The Vandal Kingdom would soon become one of the most powerful barbarian realms. Its large army and fleet and robust economy made it a direct competitor to the heir of Rome – The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire


The court in Constantinople continued to regard the Vandals as little more than barbarians, but the reality was more complex. While they retained their “barbarian” identity, the Vandal aristocracy, and the Vandal kings, adopted Roman culture. The Vandals continued to promote arts and sponsor lavish public projects in Africa. They spoke Latin and closely cooperated with local Roman elites. The elaborate mosaics still evoke the splendor and power of the Romanized Vandal Kingdom. However, the Vandals had one big issue, which would eventually contribute to their demise.


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Gold Tremissis of Emperor Justinian I, 527-602 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Vandals converted to Christianity already in the fourth century. However, their form of Christianity – Arianism – was markedly different from the one professed by the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) or even their own subjects. The religious tensions undermined the stability of the Vandal state. The attempts to normalize the situation have failed. When king Hilderic attempted to pass the edict of toleration, he was deposed in the palace coup led by his cousin Gelimer.  

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The newly crowned Gelimer reinstated Arianism as the only permitted form of Christianity. Unsurprisingly, this caused quite a stir in Constantinople. Unfortunately, it also served as a perfect pretext for Constantinople to get involved in Vandal affairs. For decades, the emperors tolerated the upstart African kingdom. However, the limited resources, and the focus on the Eastern frontier, did not allow for an offensive campaign. After signing the peace with Sassanid Persia, emperor Justinian could finally put the plan in motion. The dream of the reconquest of the former Roman territories was to become a reality.


Belisarius in Command

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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I with General Belisarius on his right, 6th century AD, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, via Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna


The emperor left nothing to chance. Justinian appointed a young general, Belisarius, to lead the war effort. A victor of the Persian campaign, Flavius Belisarius was a rising star in the imperial military. The general also played a crucial role in suppressing the Nika revolt, saving Justinian’s throne. Besides his military skills, Belisarius had two more advantages, which would prove essential in Africa. As a good Latin speaker, he could easily communicate with the local population. Belisarius was amicable to the locals and knew how to keep his army at the leash. Those qualities made Belisarius an ideal choice for leading the reconquest.


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Bust of Belisarius by Jean-Baptiste Stouf, 1785-1791, via The Paul J. Getty Museum


According to historian Procopius, who acted as Belisarius’ personal secretary, the imperial army consisted of around sixteen thousand men, among them five thousand cavalrymen. While relatively small in number, Belisarius’ troops were well trained and disciplined. The small but experienced striking force departed Constantinople in June 533. Three months later, the armada reached the shores of Africa. 


Advance on Carthage and Battle of Ad Decimum

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Illustrated overview of Carthage, by Jean-Claude Golvin, via JeanClaudeGolvin.com


Instead of a direct naval attack at Carthage, the troops disembarked south of the city, at the place called Caput Vada (modern-day Chebba in Tunisia). The decision to attack Carthage by foot rather than sea was calculated. For one, the Romans had traditionally performed better on land, and the port of Carthage was heavily fortified. The failed invasion of 468 was still fresh in the imperial memory. Advancing by land, Belisarius could establish contact with the local inhabitants and present his forces as liberators, not as occupiers. The general maintained strict discipline, ordering his troops not to harm the locals. As a result, the Romans were gifted supplies and provided with intelligence.


While the Roman column marched up the coast toward Carthage, the Vandal king assembled his army. To say that the Vandals were surprised by the enemy’s sudden arrival would be an understatement. Gelimer was aware that the overthrow of Hilderic (who was on friendly terms with Justinian) would cool the relations between the Vandal Kingdom and the Byzantine Empire. He did not, however, expect the invasion. Only when Belisarius disembarked in full force had Gelimer realized the danger of his position. With the Roman forces rapidly closing, Gelimer ordered Hilderic’s execution. Then the king laid down his plan to crush the invading army. 


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Gold Vandal belt buckle, 5th century AD,  discovered near Hippo, modern-day Annaba, Algeria, via The British Museum


Gelimer’s plan was to ambush and encircle the hostile army, before it reached Carthage. Three separate forces would block Roman advance while simultaneously attacking the rear and flank.  The place chosen for an ambush was Ad Decimum (“at the tenth”), located on the coastal road 10 miles (thus the name) south of Carthage. However, the Vandal forces failed to coordinate their attacks, with two smaller armies eliminated by the Roman vanguard. Gelimer’s main force had more success, inflicting severe casualties on the Roman troops along the main road.


At this point, Gelimer could win the day. But when he discovered that his brother had been killed, the king lost the will to fight. Belisarius exploited the opportunity to regroup his forces south of Ad Decimum and launch a successful counterattack. Defeated, Gelimer and Vandal survivors fled westwards. Road to Carthage was now open. 


By nightfall the next day, Belisarius approached Carthage city walls. The gates were swung wide open, and the entire city was illuminated in celebration. Belisarius, however, fearing an ambush in the darkness, and wishing to keep his soldiers under tight control, decided to enter the city the following morning. Finally, on the 15th of September, Belisarius entered the ancient city. He was escorted to the palace of the Vandal kings and ate the dinner prepared for Gelimer’s victorious return. Almost a century after its loss, Carthage was again under imperial control.


The Reconquest of Carthage and Aftermath

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Byzantine votive or dedicatory cross, 550 AD, via The Walters Art Museum


Although he lost Carthage, Gelimer was not yet willing to surrender. Instead, the Vandal king marched on the city with the remainder of his army. His attempt, however, failed, with the defeat at Battle of Tricamarum in December 533. Gelimer escaped the battlefield but was hunted down, captured, and shipped off to Constantinople in chains to be presented in Belisarius’ triumph.

Gelimer’s defeat marked the end of Vandal rule in Northern Africa. By mid 534, Vandal Kingdom was no more. All of its territories, including the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, became part of the Byzantine Empire. The success in Africa further encouraged Justinian to continue the reconquest. By the mid 550s, Justinian extended his dominion into Italy and southern Spain. The Byzantine Empire was once again an undisputed master of the Mediterranean.


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Archaeological site of ancient Carthage, Photo by Ludmila Pilecka, Via Africaotr


While the protracted warfare and plague decimated the population of Italy and devastated its economy, the Justinianic reconquest kickstarted a golden age for Byzantine Africa.  The immense wealth of the region paid off almost immediately the war cost. Moreover, the imperial administration began an ambitious building project, further boosting the economy of the area. Carthage regained its importance as a trade hub, linked to all major cities of the Mediterranean. 


Not everything was ideal. The abolishment of Arianism and forcing of orthodoxy alienated part of the population. Hundreds of them fled and swelled the ranks of the local tribes that opposed the Byzantines in the following decades. Ironically, the religious tensions, which proved to be the Vandal undoing, would destabilize Byzantine control over Africa, eventually leading to its loss. Thus, when Arab conquerors reached Carthage in 695, they met little resistance. The local population, displeased by a religious policy and tax burden implemented by increasingly foreign Constantinople, offered little resistance to the invaders. The imperial forces retook the city two years later, but in 698, the Arabs invaded again. The heavy fighting resulted in the destruction of Carthage, while Northern Africa was lost to the Byzantine Empire, this time for good. 

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.