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Vandals |
The case of the vanishing Vandals

Vandals is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 270, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Arian Vandals raged into North Africa and unleashed fury on its Christians, but left little historic legacy–except a universal word for wanton destruction

Vandals - The case of the vanishing Vandals

Vandals - The case of the vanishing Vandals
In an illustration of the 455 event, the Vandals of North Africa conquer Rome. History, however, offers no evidence of battles such as the one pictured. The city’s riches were simply handed over in return for the safety of its citizens.

The Vandals were terrorists. They outclassed even the Huns in terms of damage, and rivaled the Saxons in their savagery toward Roman civilization. First in Gaul, then Spain and North Africa, this Germanic tribe wrought unprecedented havoc, and finally in 455, their seaborne warriors conquered Rome itself. Yet after that triumph, the Vandals vanished as a people within a century. Today, their name is no more than a word in most Western languages, a word meaning pointless, vicious destruction.

Like other Germanic peoples, the Vandals adopted the Arian faith during the fourth century while living beyond the Roman frontiers. Their war bands, very brave and persistent in attack, consisted mainly of unarmored infantry wielding light spears and leather-sheathed wicker shields. Only the better-off tribesmen could afford swords, armor and horses. In 406 they burst through the Roman frontier, along with other tribes, and for three years, looted and burned their way through Gaul.

At the hands of the Franks, however, the Vandals suffered a major defeat. Uniting behind their king, Gunderic, they therefore crossed the Pyrenees into Spain, where they found another civilization, prostrate and virtually defenseless. Wanton destruction ensued. In Spain, they acquired ports and ships, and soon their galleys were roaming the western Mediterranean.

Gunderic was succeeded by his half brother Gaiseric, the crippled son of an unknown concubine and reputedly a man of exceptional cunning. In 429, Gaiseric crossed the nine-mile Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa. His host is estimated to have numbered eighty thousand, with a fifth to a quarter being fighting men. Here they found a bonanza: the gleaming cities and lush fields of Roman Africa, not yet ravaged by any invader. The Vandals fell upon Africa with their accustomed savagery.

The resident Roman count was Boniface, accused at the imperial court of intriguing to use his six provinces in a bid to seize the imperial crown, and of inviting Gaiseric into the region as a potential ally. If this is so, Boniface made a terrible error. The Vandals first seized land near Tingi (Tangier), then quickly conquered all of Mauritania, creating terror with their indiscriminate slaughter. Boniface retreated to the strongly fortified town of Hippo.

Behind its walls, the renowned bishop Augustine prayed for relief. Three months into the siege, he died. Hippo held out for eleven more months, hoping for relief from a Byzantine fleet. The fleet did reach Carthage, but it brought no relief for Hippo. The Romans ceded the city to Gaiseric without a fight, in exchange for keeping Carthage. But the Vandals later captured that city anyway, along with much of the fleet.

Settling down, Vandal leaders carved out huge estates. Gaiseric is said to have taken his Arian faith very seriously, and to have loathed the orthodox Christian church. He therefore sought to impose Arianism on his conquered subjects by maiming, decapitating, branding or hanging any who did not comply. The major churches were seized for Arian use. Christian priests were enslaved, and made to carry loads usually reserved for camels. Bishops were burned alive for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of hidden church treasures.

The brutality extended to all ages and all classes. Victor of Vita, a priest, tells of children being held by the feet upside down “and cut . . . in two from their bottoms to the tops of their heads.” When stone houses did not burn easily, Victor writes, “[Vandals] smashed the roofs to pieces and leveled the beautiful walls to the ground, so that the former beauty of the towns cannot be deduced from what they look like now. And there are very many cities with few or no inhabitants, for after these events, the ones that survive lie desolate.

“Some had their mouths forced open with poles and stakes, and disgusting filth was put in their jaws so that they would tell the truth about their money. They tortured others by twisting cords around their foreheads and shins until they snapped.”

Some Vandal women were so impressed by the fortitude of persecuted Christians as to consider conversion. When Gaiseric heard this, he stationed torturers outside his victims’ remaining churches. According to Victor: “When they saw a woman or man who looked like one of their race going there, they were straightaway to thrust tooth-edged stakes at that person’s head and gather all the hair in them. Pulling tightly, they took off all the skin from a person’s head, as well as the hair. Some people, when this happened, immediately lost their eyes, while others died from the pain. After this punishment, the women, their heads stripped of skin, were paraded through the street, with heralds going before them, so that the whole town could see.”

Now Carthage, destroyed as a Phoenician city almost six centuries earlier, again posed a deadly threat to Rome. The Vandal navy prowled the Mediterranean, harassing and robbing coastal towns almost at will. Rome, meanwhile, was in chaos, its ruling families enmeshed in murderous intrigues over power. When Gaiseric’s fleet appeared off Ostia in 455, Romans clogged the gates in abject panic to escape. Furious citizens recognized the emperor Maximus among the refugees and stoned him to death. His reign had lasted seventy days.

No armed defense was even attempted. Instead, Pope Leo I met Gaiseric with an appeal: Take what you want, but do not burn or torture. For two weeks, the invaders plundered palaces, churches and mansions. Among their prizes were the empress Licinia and her two daughters. Gaiseric married one daughter, named Eudocia, to his son Huneric, and eventually freed the other two imperial women. The union of Huneric and Eudocia produced a son, Hilderic, the next to the last king of the Vandals. In 472, Eudocia escaped from her husband, and sought refuge in Jerusalem, where she passed the remainder of her life.

Gaiseric died in 477. He never did succeed in breaking the spirit of North Africa’s catholic Christians. Under his successors, religious persecution recurred sporadically until 534, when an eastern army under Belisarius reconquered North Africa. Gelimer, the last Vandal king, was paraded as a captive through Byzantium, and then settled in luxury on a government estate in Galatia. He was even offered the high status of patrician but refused, because he would not deny his Arian heritage. In due course the Vandals were absorbed into the North African population, and as a people entirely disappear from history.

This is the end of the Vandals category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 270, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Vandals from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at