Of the origins of the eastern Germanic Vandals, little is known. The term 'Vandilii' is used by Tacitus in his Germania, completed in AD 98 and seems to have been a general term applied to Eastern Germans.
They burst on to the stage of European history in dramatic fashion in AD 406 when, together with the Alans, the Suebi, the Alamanni and the Burgundians, they crossed the ice-bound Rhine into the Roman Empire. Two branches of the Vandal confederacy are mentioned; the Silings and the Asdings.
For the next two-and-a-half years, these various barbarian bands roamed unchecked across large parts of Gaul, in an orgy of devastation so vivid, that their name has remained synonymous with wanton destruction ever since. In 409 they crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and within two years we find the various conquering tribes dividing up their spoils, apparently by lot; While the Siling Vandals took the richest area, Baetica in the south, the Asdings, in company with the Suebi, had to make do with Galicia.
Attempts were made by the Romans to evict the Silings from southern Spain; this, after all, contained such important cities as Cordoba and Cadiz. Wallia and his Visigoths were sponsored to drive out the Vandals but in c.420, the Asdings moved south to rejoin their kindred, and the joint kingdom proved strong enough to be viable. In fact, the Vandals seem to have been content to plunder rather than to rule and they raided as far afield as Mauretania and the Balearic Islands. Only when they had exhausted even the riches of southern Spain did they move on, no doubt to hearty sighs of relief from the native population.
The Vandals were invited into Africa by a rebellious Roman warlord, Bonifatius, who was keen to recruit their support. Two brothers, Guntheric and Gaiseric, responded by organising an expedition which proved to be the largest ever sea-borne movement of a barbarian peoples. Guntheric died before the plans came to fruition but in Gaiseric the Vandals were left with a leader of immense ability - one of the ablest of all barbarian leaders.
So it was that in 428, some 80,000 Vandals and Alans, of whom probably 20,000 were combatants, landed near Tangier. There was little opposition and within two years, only Carthage and a couple of other cities were still holding out. By this time, the Vandals had been joined by a number of Spaniards and Moors, and a land which had known nothing but peace and prosperity for centuries was given over to plunder and massacre.
Carthage finally fell in 439, giving the Vandals a major naval base from which to raid the Western Mediterranean. This they did with their customary ferocity, culminating in the sack of Rome itself in 455.
But in the end, the Vandals amounted to nothing more than raiders and plunderers. Unlike the Goths and the Franks, they proved unable to put down roots and enjoy the fruits of the lands they had conquered. When, in 533, Justinian sent Belisarius to invade the Vandal Kingdom, the great general destroyed it utterly. It left barely a trace behind.
"Vanity of vanities," Gelimer, the last King of the Vandals is said to have murmured, as he grovelled at Justinian's feet, "all is vanity."
See also: Gaiseric
Mark Furnival, 1998
This page was last updated on 10 August, 2002