Famous Men of the Middle Ages/Genseric the Vandal
The Vandals were another wild and fierce tribe that came from the shores of the Baltic and invaded central and southern Europe in the later times of the Roman Empire.
In the fifth century some of these people occupied a region in the south of Spain. One of their most celebrated kings was name Genseric (Gen’-ser-ic). He became king in 427, when he was but twenty-one years of age. He was lame in one leg and looked as if he were a very ordinary person.
Like most of the Vandals, he was a cruel and cunning man, but he had great ability in many ways. He fought in battles even when a boy and was known far and wide for his bravery and skill as a leader.
About the time that Genseric became king, the governor of the Roman province in the north of Africa, on the Mediterranean coast, was a man called Count Boniface. This Count Boniface had been a good and loyal officer of Rome; but a plot was formed against him by Aëtius, the general who had fought Attila at Châlons. The Roman emperor at the time of the plot was Valentinian III. He was then too young to act as ruler, so the affairs of government were managed by his mother Placidia (Pla-cid’-i-a).
Aëtius advised Placidia to dismiss Boniface and call him home from Africa. He said the count was a traitor, and that he was going to make war against Rome. At the same time he wrote secretly to Count Boniface and told him that if he came to Rome the empress would put him to death.
Boniface believed this story, and he refused to return to Rome. He also sent a letter to Genseric, inviting him to come to Africa with an army.
Genseric was greatly delighted to receive the invitation from Boniface. He had long wanted to attack Rome and take from her some of the rich countries she had conquered, and now a good opportunity offered. So he got ready a great army of his brave Vandals, and they sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa.
They soon gained possession of that part of the African coast on which they had landed, and marched into other parts of the coast and captured towns and cities. By this time Boniface had learned all about the wicked plot of Aëtius. He now regretted having invited the Vandals to Africa and tried to induce them to return to Spain, but Genseric sternly refused.
“Never,” he said, “shall I go back to Spain until I am master of Africa.”
“Then,” cried Boniface, “I will drive you back.”
Soon afterwards there was a battle between the Romans and Vandals, and the Romans were defeated. They were also defeated in several other battles. At last they had to flee for safety to two or three towns which the Vandals had not yet taken. One of these towns was Hippo.
Genseric captured this town after a siege of thirteen months. Then he burned the churches and other buildings, and laid waste the neighboring country. This was what the Vandals did whenever they took a town, and so the word VANDAL came to mean a person who needlessly or wantonly destroys valuable property.
A great many of the natives of Africa joined the army of Genseric. They had for a long time been ill-treated by the Romans and were glad to see them defeated. Genseric continued his work of conquest until he took the city of Carthage, which he made the capital of his new kingdom in Africa.
But he was not content with conquering merely on land. He built great fleets and sailed over the Mediterranean, capturing trading vessels. For many years he plundered towns along the coasts, so that the name of Genseric became a terror to the people of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean.
One day a Roman ship came to Carthage with a messenger from the Empress Eudoxia to Genseric. Eudoxia was the widow of Valentinian III. After ruling several years, Valentinian had just been murdered by a Roman noble named Maximus, who had at once made himself emperor.
When the messenger entered the room where Genseric was, he said:
“Great king, I bring you a message from the Empress Eudoxia. She begs your help. She and her two beautiful daughters are in danger in Rome. She wishes you to protect them against Maximus. She invites you to come with an army to Rome and take the city. She and her friends will help you as much as they can.”
With a cry of joy Genseric sprang to his feet and exclaimed:
“Tell the empress that I accept her invitation. I shall set out for Rome immediately. I shall protect Eudoxia and her friends.”
Genseric then got ready a fleet and a great army, and sailed across the Mediterranean to the mouth of the Tiber. When the Emperor Maximus heard that the Vandals were coming he prepared to flee from the city, and he advised the Senate to do the same. The people were so angry at this that they put him to death and threw his body into the river.
Three days later Genseric and his army were at the gates of Rome. There was no one to oppose them, and they marched in and took possession of the city. It was only forty-five years since Alaric had been there and carried off all the valuable things he could find. But since then Rome had become again grand and wealthy, so there was plenty for Genseric and his Vandals to carry away. They spent fourteen days in the work of plunder. They sacked the temples and public buildings and private houses and the emperor’s palace, and they took off to their ships immense quantities of gold and silver and jewels and furniture, and destroyed hundreds of beautiful and priceless works of art.
The Vandal king also put to death a number of Roman citizens and carried away many more as slaves. He took Eudoxia and her daughters with him to Carthage. One of the daughters was soon afterwards married to Genseric’s eldest son, Hunneric.
Some years after the capture of Rome by Genseric, there was a Roman emperor named Majorian (Ma-jo’-ri-an). He was a good ruler and a brave man. The Vandals still continued to attack and plunder cities in Italy and other countries belonging to Rome, and Majorian resolved to punish them. So he got together a great army and built a fleet of three hundred ships to carry his troops to Carthage.
But he first marched his men across the Alps, through Gaul, and down to the seaport of Carthagena in Spain, where his fleet was stationed. He took this route because he expected to add to his forces as he went along. Before sailing with his army for Carthage he wished very much to see with his own eyes what sort of people the Vandals were and whether they were so powerful at home as was generally believed.
So he dyed his hair and disguised himself in other ways and went to Carthage, pretending that he was a messenger or ambassador from the Roman emperor, coming to talk about peace. Genseric received him with respect and entertained him hospitably, not knowing that he was the Emperor Majorian. Of course peace was not made. The emperor left Carthage after having got as much information as he could.
But Genseric did not wait for the Roman fleet to come to attack him in his capital. When he got word that it was in the Bay of Carthagena, he sailed there with a fleet of his own and in a single day burned or sank nearly all the Roman ships.
After this the Vandals became more than ever the terror of the Mediterranean and all the countries bordering upon it. Every year their ships went round the coasts from Asia Minor to Spain, attacking and plundering cities on their way and carrying off prisoners.
All the efforts of the Romans failed to put a stop to these ravages. The Emperor Leo, who ruled over the eastern division of the Empire, fitted out a great fleet at Constantinople to make another attempt to suppress the pirates. There were more than a thousand ships in this fleet and they carried a hundred thousand men. The command of the expedition was given to Basilicus (Bas-il’-i-cus), the brother of Emperor Leo’s wife.
Basilicus sailed with his ships to Africa and landed the army not far from Carthage. Genseric asked for a truce for five days to consider terms of peace, and the truce was granted. But the cunning Vandal was not thinking of peace. He only wanted time to carry out a plan he had made to destroy the Roman fleet.
One dark night, during the truce, he filled the largest of his ships with some of the bravest of his soldiers, and they sailed silently and cautiously in among the Roman ships, towing behind them large boats filled with material that would easily burn.
These boats were set on fire and floated against the Roman vessels, which also were soon on fire. The flames quickly spread, and in a very short time a great part of the Roman fleet was destroyed. Basilicus fled with as many ships as he could save, and returned to Constantinople.
This was the last attempt of the Romans to conquer the Vandals. Genseric lived to a good old age, and when he died, in 477, all the countries he had conquered during his life still remained parts of the Vandal dominions.