The Men Who Sacked Rome: Who Were the Vandals?

The Vandals, a nomadic Germanic tribe, established a powerful kingdom in North Africa in the fifth century CE. Despite their achievements, the Vandals are best known for their infamous Sack of Rome.

Jun 1, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

the vandals who sacked rome


The Vandals, a nomadic Germanic tribe, established a powerful kingdom in North Africa. Despite their infamous reputation due to the sack of Rome in 455 CE, which gave rise to the term “vandalism,” they were more than mere looters and destroyers. After wresting control of North Africa from the Western Roman Empire, the Vandals created a prosperous state. They successfully repelled multiple imperial attempts to reconquer the region, becoming a major power in the Western Mediterranean. However, the Vandal Sack of Rome forever sealed their reputation. The Vandals outlived the Roman West but fell to the Justinian’s reconquest, which erased the Vandal Kingdom from the map in the mid-6th century.  


The Vandals’ Homeland Was Northern Europe

Drawing depicting the Vandals on the move, unknown author
Drawing depicting the Vandals on the move, unknown author


Like many Germanic tribes, the Vandals originally resided in Northern Europe. Divided into two ethnic groups – the Hasdingi and Silingi – the Vandals gradually migrated westward, eventually coming into contact with the Roman Empire during the late second and early third centuries CE. During the reign of Constantine the Great, the Vandals received official imperial permission to settle within the Roman territory, in the province of Pannonia. However, this peaceful coexistence ended when the Vandals, fleeing from the Huns, crossed the Rhine River in force, wreaking havoc in Roman Gaul.


The Vandals were among several “barbarian” groups that crossed the frozen Rhine on that fateful New Year’s Eve in 406/407 CE. Yet, they would profoundly impact the future of the Roman West and play a significant role in its eventual downfall.


They Conquered Roman North Africa

remains of western empire majorian ricimer
The map depicting the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa and remnants of the Roman West in the late fifth century


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Ironically, the Vandal’s success was partly due to the assistance of several powerful Roman military men vying for power in the twilight years of the Roman West. Constantine III, the emperor usurper, briefly contained the Vandals in northern Gaul, planning to use them in his civil war with the western emperor Honorius. However, the revolt of Constantine’s second-in-command, Gerontius, allowed the Vandals to move south and, in 409 CE, enter Spain practically unopposed. Twenty years later, the “barbarians” crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and landed on the shores of Roman-controlled northern Africa.


According to historian Procopius, another powerful Roman – general Bonifacius – invited the Vandals to Africa, planning to use the Germanic warriors to gain power in the Roman West. His plan, however, backfired, and the Vandals, led by their king Gaiseric, defeated the Roman army and, by 439, established their own kingdom. 


They Created a Powerful Vandal Kingdom

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


In 439 CE, Gaiseric conquered Carthage and made it the capital of the Vandal Kingdom. The fall of Carthage along with all of North Africa, sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire. Suddenly, a powerful rival was in possession of a vast and super-rich territory, second only to Egypt as a “breadbasket” of the Empire. The control of the African ports and Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia allowed the Vandals to directly challenge the Roman navy in the Western Mediterranean, making imperial attempts to recover the lost territory difficult, if not impossible. 


Without fertile lands and wealth of North Africa, the Western Roman Empire fell into decline while the Vandals prospered. The Vandals blended local Roman political, economic, and social structures with their own, with a Germanic elite ruling with the help of a local Roman administration. They continued the Roman way of life, building opulent villas adorned with lavish mosaics and frescos. 


The Vandals Sacked Rome

sack of rome vandals
The Vandals sack Rome in 455 CE, unknown author


The Vandals ruled over one of the most powerful realms of the late antiquity. They were highly sophisticated rulers who enjoyed the benefits of the Roman civilization. However, one pivotal event would forever change their perception in the annals of history and turn those Romanized “barbarians” into savages, with the Vandal name becoming a synonym for senseless destruction –the Sack of Rome in 455 CE


Under Gaiseric’s leadership, the Vandals entered the ancient city and plundered it for two weeks. While the event was less destructive than the earlier sack by the Visigoths in 410, it tarnished the Vandal name for posterity. The term “vandalism” was coined in 1794 to describe the destruction of artwork during the French Revolution. The rest is history.


The Vandal Kingdom Was Destroyed in Justinian Reconquista

eastern roman empire map belisarius conquests
The Eastern Roman Empire (incorporating the Vandal Kingdom) at the death of emperor Justinian I, 565 CE


The Sack of Rome further destabilized the already weakened Western Roman Empire, which collapsed two decades later. However, the wealthy Vandal Kingdom remained the fixation of the emperors in Constantinople. All the Romans needed was a cause for an attack. Finally, in the 530s, Justinian got what he wanted when the Arian faction deposed king Hilderic, who was sympathetic to the Catholics. Seizing the opportunity, Justinian dispatched his general Belisarius, at the head of a small expeditionary force.


Belisarius landed in Africa in 533 CE and, in a lightning campaign – Vandalic War – defeated the Gelimer at Ad Decimum and took Carthage. Then, in 534, Belisarius dealt a decisive blow to the Vandal army at Battle of Tricamarum, with the last Vandal king surrendering to the Romans. The Vandals, who had ruled over North Africa and the Western Mediterranean for a century, were defeated, and North Africa was Roman once again.

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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.