The Vandals were a relatively new power in the Mediterranean when they sacked Rome in 455 CE. Having only recently established a kingdom based around the city of Carthage in North Africa, they were in desperate need of security and legitimacy. Ancient Rome was experiencing a period of great instability as it was wracked by war and economic collapse. Some stability, it seemed, had been secured by an alliance between the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III and the Vandal King Gaiseric. However, when The usurper Petronius Maximus murdered Valentinian, the Vandals were presented with an opportunity that they could not pass up.
Prelude to the Sack of Rome: The Vandals in North Africa
The Sack of Rome was carried out by the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa. Originally, the Vandals were a Germanic people living north of the Danube in modern Poland. Around 400 CE, pressure from the Huns forced the Vandals to migrate westwards. In 405 CE, the Vandals along with several other Germanic tribes, crossed the frozen Rhine River into Gaul, which they ravaged for several years. Eventually, the Vandals made their way into Iberia, where they settled. However, continued attacks by Rome and its allies forced the Vandals to move elsewhere so that in 429 CE, they crossed from Iberia into North Africa.
Rome’s military commander in North Africa was soundly beaten by the Vandals, who then moved to besiege the city of Hippo Regius. St. Augustine led the defense of this city, but unfortunately for the Romans, he died shortly after that. When a Roman relief force was defeated, the Romans sued for peace and gave up Hippo Regius and the provinces of Mauretania and Numidia. By 439 CE the Vandals were strong enough to break their treaty with the Roman and seize the province of Africa Proconsularis along with the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and Corsica. Their capital was established at Carthage. Unable to deal with the Vandals and preoccupied with matters in Gaul, the Roman Emperor Valentinian III sued for peace, officially recognizing the Vandal kingdom, ceding the provinces of Byzacena and Tripolitania, and agreeing to an exchange of hostages.
In 446 CE, the Romans sought to gain the compliance of the Vandal Kingdom through a marriage alliance. The plan was to have Eudocia, daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, marry Huneric, the Vandal King Gaiseric’s son. However, Huneric was already married to a Visigothic princess, and the Romans were facing down the armies of Attila the Hun. As such, the plan was not carried forward. Rome survived these tribulations largely thanks to the efforts of the great Roman general Flavius Aetius. When the danger finally passed following the death of Atilla, Valentinian had Aetius executed for fear of his power and influence.
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Valentinian III was already viewed as a weak and fickle ruler, so the execution of the talented and popular Aetius was not well received. A year later, in 455 CE, he was assassinated by two of Aetius’ followers. They were encouraged and assisted by the Roman general Petronius Maximus, an enemy of both Aetius and Valentinian. Maximus greatly envied Aetius’ power and influence, while Valentinian had deceived and raped Maximus’ wife, Lucina, several years earlier. It was Maximus who poisoned Valentinian’s mind against Aetius in the hope of gaining Aetius’ titles and position. When Valentinian denied this request, Maximus moved to have him assassinated. With Aetius and now Valentinian dead, Maximus declared himself emperor.
Damsels in Distress
To make his usurpation more palatable and legitimize his rule, Petronius Maximus married Licinia Eudoxia, Valentinian’s widow, and had his son Pallidus marry Eudocia. Eudoxia was very unhappy with this arrangement, having been forced to marry Maximus within a few days of Valentinian’s murder, and sought out allies. Valentinian had died before naming an official heir, and several other potential claimants disputed Maximus’ rule. However, Eudoxia is not known to have sought Roman aid; instead, she directed her pleas to Gaiseric and the Vandals. By turning to the Vandals instead of another Roman, it is likely that Eudoxia was hoping to preserve her own power and avoid having the throne slip away. It is also possible that Eudoxia drew inspiration from her sister-in-law Justa Grata Honoria who had offered her hand and a dowry of half the empire to Attila the Hun to avoid an unwanted marriage.
The murder of Valentinian and the usurpation of Maximus had also dealt a serious blow to Gaiseric’s ambitions. As a result, he was probably elated to receive Eudoxia’s message. Gaiseric declared that by breaking off the betrothal between Huneric and Eudoxia, and then marrying her to Pallidus, Maximus had broken the peace treaty between Rome and the Vandals. No longer bound by the treaty and with their honor tarnished, the Vandals sailed for Rome to defeat Maximus and rescue Huneric’s bride and her family.
When news of the Vandal landing reached Rome, Maximus panicked. He lacked the support of the army, and his generals were still far off trying to gain aid from the Visigoths. Maximus decided that defending Rome would be impossible, so he attempted to flee. In the confusion, he became separated from his bodyguard and was stoned to death by a Roman mob that flung his body into the Tiber. His son Pallidus was probably executed a short time later. Rome was now both defenseless, leaderless, and at the mercy of Gaiseric and his Vandals. At this point, the sack of Rome might have assumed a very different character if not for the bravery and persuasive diplomacy of Pope Leo I.
Known as Leo the Great (c. 400-461 CE), his papacy was one of the most important in the history of the Catholic Church. At a time when ancient Rome was suffering from repeated famine and disaster, he worked to feed refugees in the city and relieve poverty. He was also an influential theologian. He combated the influence of various heretical groups while asserting the power of the bishopric of Rome. Furthermore, Leo was an important figure in the imperial court, who undertook several missions on behalf of the emperor. In 452 CE, when Attila the Hun invaded Italy, Leo was part of the embassy sent to negotiate with him. Now, with Gaiseric and the Vandals at the very gates of Rome, Leo once again rode out to speak on behalf of the people of Rome.
The Sack of Ancient Rome
Unlike Attila, Gaiseric was a Christian, albeit an Arian rather than Nicaean one. He was also the king of a powerful polity, not some roving barbarian general. His respect for Leo and his entreaties only went so far. So, while Leo was unable to prevent the sack of Rome, he was able to mitigate some of the damages and horrors. Following Leo’s pleas, Gaiseric agreed not to destroy Rome or murder its inhabitants provided that the gates of the city were opened, and his army faced no resistance. With the terms agreed on, the Vandals marched into the city and the sack of Rome began. Beginning around June 2nd and lasting until the 16th, the Vandal sack of ancient Rome was an incredibly thorough and comprehensive affair.
Historians today debate the extent of the damage done by the Vandals during the sack of Rome. There are some historians, both ancient and modern, who describe a relatively clean sack resulting in little lasting damage. Most, however, see the sack as far more extensive and rightfully giving rise to the term “vandalize” as a way to describe wanton destruction. The Vandals systematically removed everything of value that they could find in the city. Special attention was paid to the old pagan temples and monuments, along with the emperor’s palace and government buildings. Some churches were also looted, but the basilicas of St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John were spared, and these served as places for the people of Rome to shelter. Many were, however, carried off with the Vandals to North Africa as slaves. The most important Vandal captives were the empress Eudoxia and her daughters Eudocia and Placidia.
Eternal City Dimmed
The Vandals departed for North Africa following the sack of Rome, leaving behind them a much-diminished city. Although there was no widespread arson or destruction of buildings, much of Rome’s movable wealth and its important citizens were carried off. While Rome had long since lost its position as the capital of the Roman world, it was still an important and symbolically significant city. Therefore, the sack of Rome was a major blow to the Roman psyche while causing the city to slip further along into decline. Riches gathered from conquests spanning the Mediterranean world had been gathered in Rome for centuries. So, although the physical damage from the sack of Rome might have been relatively minor, there were still numerous visual reminders of what had occurred and what had been lost.
Gaiseric’s war with the Romans carried on for many years following the sack of Rome. The sack had shocked the Romans and severely impacted their ability to wage war against the Vandals. The government of the Western Roman Empire was effectively paralyzed for several years. Eudoxia, Eudocia, and Placidia were kept as hostages in Carthage for seven years following the sack of Rome. Their freedom was secured when the Eastern Roman emperor paid an enormous ransom in 462 CE. Eudoxia and Placidia returned to Constantinople while Eudocia remained in Carthage, having married Huneric in 460 CE. Following the birth of her son Hilderic, Eudocia withdrew over religious differences with her husband to Jerusalem, where she died in c. 474 CE. Shortly after Eudoxia died at Constantinople in 471 CE, Placidia briefly became empress of the Western Roman Empire when her husband Olybrius became emperor with Vandal support.
Legacy of the Sack of Rome
Following the Vandal sack of ancient Rome, the Western Roman Empire would carry on for another two decades. However, by this point, its decline was undeniable. Its generals and emperors made several attempts to revive their power, but these were to little avail. While the sack of Rome did not directly lead to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the resulting blow to Roman prestige along with the disruption of the Imperial government and the economic loss contributed greatly to the end of Roman authority in the west. As Roman fortunes waned, the Vandal kingdom in North Africa grew in power and influence. Several Roman invasions of North Africa were defeated, and Vandal raiders sailed across the Mediterranean. The Vandals would rule North Africa until 533 AD, when a resurgent Eastern Roman Empire destroyed it under the leadership of Justinian and his general Belisarius.
Today, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Vandal sack of Rome is linguistic. During the Renaissance and Early Modern period, there was a renewed interest in Ancient Greece and Rome. Early Modern scholars and intellectuals greatly admired these mighty civilizations of antiquity, who disparaged their “Barbarian” foes. Thus, the Vandals became destroyers of civilization. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), Henri Gregoire coined the term Vandalisme to describe the general destruction of artwork he had witnessed in France in 1794. The term spread quickly and was adopted all across Europe. Today most associate terms such as “vandal,” “vandalize,” or “vandalism” with wanton destruction of property rather than with a Germanic people of Antiquity. As such, the memory of the sack of ancient Rome remains alive and well nearly 1,500 years later.