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Capture and plunder of Rome by Vandals in 455 CE

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Painting by Karl Bryullov entitled Genseric sacking Rome 455
Painting by Karl Bryullov entitled Genseric sacking Rome 455. In the upper right part of the painting, a menorah carried by the Vandals from the imperial palace in Rome is visible, which in turn was used in 70 CE it was looted by the Romans from the Jerusalem Temple they destroyed.

Rome! Eternal City! The capital of the world empire and its heart even when Rome was not officially the seat of Roman emperors. Over a thousand-year history of the Roman state, i.e. from 753 BCE (the legendary year of the foundation of the city by Romulus) to 476 CE (the year considered the fall of the Western Roman Empire), the Eternal City was captured and plundered by barbarians three times.

The first time was in 390 BCE during the Gauls’ invasion of Italy. After this event, the Romans decided to build new, more powerful defensive walls of the city, which were to protect them from a similar event in the future. The walls began to be erected in 378 BCE (the so-called Servian Walls) and were soon completed. In 275 CE, Emperor Aurelian ordered the erection of a new wall surrounding the city. Construction started under Aurelian, lasted four years and was completed during the reign of the next emperor – Probus. In honour of the initiator of their construction, the new walls were called “Aurelian Walls”. These walls were a true achievement of military architecture. The years passed, and Rome, surrounded by powerful defensive walls, remained unconquered. In 410 CE, however, something extraordinary happened. Despite the mighty Aurelian Walls, the barbarian tribe of the Visigoths led by Alaric conquered Rome for the second time in its history. The conquest of Rome by Alaric was a shock to his contemporaries. It was after this event that the words Roma capta (“Rome taken”) circulated throughout the Empire repeated from mouth to mouth. And although this event should have become a serious warning to the Romans, unfortunately – it did not. Soon Rome was conquered by barbarian hordes for the third time in its history. This time in 455 CE by the Vandals led by Geyseric. But were the mighty walls of Rome really conquered? Or maybe it’s not the weakness of the walls, but the people who were supposed to man them as defenders, that is, the Romans themselves. What are the facts?

Who were the Vandals and where did they come from to the territory of the Western Roman Empire?

The Vandals are a group of East Germanic tribes that in the 3rd century BCE inhabited the present Polish lands. It is assumed that they were associated with the Przeworsk culture, so they must have lived in the following areas: Silesia, Wielkopolska, Mazowse, Podlasie and parts of Lesser Poland. At the end of the 2nd century CE, part of the Vandals (the Hasding tribe, also known as the Asdings) moved from their seats in the present Polish lands and settled on the Tisa and Danube. Their second faction, i.e. the Siling tribe, until the beginning of the so-called great migration of peoples, however, still lived in Silesia, and perhaps also in the Czech Sudetes and Lusatia. In 375 CE, the Huns broke up the eastern branch of the Goths, i.e. the Ostrogoths, located in the Black Sea steppes (this event started the great migration of peoples), the Vandals from the Hasding tribe began to leave their homes on the Tisa and Danube, moving westwards along the Western Roman Empire. During this journey, the Hasdings were also joined by most of their kinsmen from Silesia, i.e. the Silings1. When, at the beginning of the 6th century, Slavic tribes from the east began to arrive in the present Polish lands, they might still encounter some groups of Vandals (mainly Silings). However, most of the Vandals after an extraordinary odyssey will be in for 100 years… in Africa2. But more on that in a moment.

At some point in their journey along the borders of the Western Roman Empire, the Vandals made a pact with the people of Sarmatian origin – the Alans, so that on New Year’s Eve 406, near Mainz and Worms, they would jointly cross the Rhine and fall to the lands of the Western Roman Empire. Together with the Vandals and Alans, the Rhine River was also crossed by other Germanic tribes, i.e. the Suebi and the Burgundians. After crossing the Rhine, these intruders began to plunder Roman Gaul (today’s France), which lasted almost 3 years, i.e. from January 407 to October 409. In Gaul, the Burgundians, part of the Alans and the Franks, who occupied the northern part of the country. The rest of the tribes – the Vandals, the Suebi (also called the Sueves) and most of the Alans – finally crossed the Pyrenees in 409 and invaded the hitherto peaceful Iberian Peninsula. The invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 409 was successful for the barbarian visitors. Here too, on the Iberian Peninsula, the barbarian invaders decided to settle down. And here too the Vandals stayed for the next 20 years. The Iberian Peninsula itself in the following year (410) was divided by barbarian invaders in such a way that: the Vandals took over northern Gelecia (Hasdings) and Betica (Silingians), which is now called Andalusia (previously Vandalousia), southern Galecia (i.e. present-day Spanish southern Galicia and northern Portugal), the Alans settled in Lusitania and Carthaginensis (i.e. present-day southern Portugal and Spanish Castile and Murcia)3. This is how the division of the Iberian Peninsula between themselves by the Vandals, Suebi and Alans is reported by Bishop Hydatius of Galecia, known for keeping a chronicle describing the events he witnessed in those hard times for the entire Western Roman Empire and the Roman citizens living in it:

They divided up entire provinces to settle there permanently: Vandals [Hasdings – ed. author]appropriated Galecia, and the Suebi that part of it which is located on the very shore of the ocean. The Alans got Lusitania and Carthaginiensis, and the Silings got Baetica. The Spaniards, who had survived confined in cities and fortresses, surrendered and entered the service of the barbarians who ruled all the provinces.

Hidatius of Galecia, Chronicle, 49

Division of the Iberian Peninsula between the Vandals (Hasdings and Silings), Suebi and Alans after the invasion of this Peninsula in 409 CE

The Western Roman Empire was going through a serious crisis in this period of history, including the most destructive and destabilizing political crisis. The Romans, not having enough military strength to drive out all the hordes of barbarian tribes that invaded the territory of their state, decided to neutralize the problem of uninvited barbarian newcomers by playing different tribes against each other according to the “divide and rule” principle. The role of a kind of hegemon among the barbarian tribes fell to the most powerful Visigoths at that time. The help they provided (led by a certain Ataulf) to the then emperor Honorius in the fight against successive usurpers to power (Jovinus, Sebastianus and Attalus) meant that relations between Rome and the Visigoths, which had been tense until now, e.g. after the sack of Rome in 410 (led by Alaric), they improved and an alliance was concluded. In 413, Ataulf even married the emperor’s half-sister, Galla Placidia, whom the previous Visigoth ruler Alaric had abducted when they conquered and plundered Rome. The Empire granted the Visigoth’s two-thirds of the Roman possessions in Gaul (Gallic Aquitaine) as allies (foederati). The possessions of the Visigoths soon began to cover the areas beyond the slopes of the Pyrenees, where they were sent by the Romans themselves, who wanted to restore their supremacy over the Iberian Peninsula occupied in 409 by the Vandals, Suebi and Alans. During the wars with the Visigoths in 416-418, one of the Vandal tribes, the Silingi, was completely shattered and disappeared from the annals of history. Most likely, the rest of this tribe joined the Hasdings (the second tribe of Vandals settled in Galecia). A similar fate befell the Alans, whose king Addaks (Attaces) died in 416 in a battle against the Visigoths. After his death, the Alans asked the then-ruler of the Vandals – Gunderic, to make him their king as well. In this way, both tribes entered into a personal union between themselves. From now on, the kings of the combined tribes will bear the title rex Vandalorum et Alanorum (“King of the Vandals and Alans”)4. This is how Bishop Hydatius of Galcia related these events in his chronicle:

All the Silings in the province of Baetica were defeated by the king of Wales [the then king of the Visigoths – ed. author]. The Alans, who ruled over the Vandals and Suebi, suffered such heavy losses at the hands of the Goths that after the death of their king Addax, those few who escaped with their lives took refuge under the protection of the king of the Hasdings, [Gunderic – ed. author]who settled in Galecia.

Hidatius of Galecia, Chronicle, 89

At the turn of 418 and 419, the Romans withdrew the Visigoths from Spain and settled them in Aquitaine in Gaul. Perhaps it was feared that the Visigoths would take the place of the barbarians they had defeated in the Iberian Peninsula, that they would grow too powerful, and then Romede facto would gain nothing from it. Then, in turn, the Vandals took advantage of the fact that the Empire abandoned the plan to regain Spain by the Visigoths and decided to occupy a large part of the Iberian Peninsula themselves. They moved from the lands they had occupied so far in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula (breaking the Suebi march that blocked them in the battle taking place – in the currently unknown – Narbasian mountains) towards the south-east, i.e. to Betica (so far occupied by their defeated kinsmen Silingi). In 422 or 423, they defeated the Roman army of magister militium Castinus, who was trying to counter the plans of the Vandals to strengthen themselves in Baetica, which had just been recaptured by the Romans (after the aforementioned defeat of the Alans). In the battle given to them by the Roman commander, the Roman army (betrayed by the Visigothic auxiliaries who refused to fight) suffered a disastrous defeat. Ancient sources say that up to 20,000 people died in the battle. the Romans. Castinus himself had to flee to Tarragona in present-day Catalonia. Soon, in 425, the Vandals undertook two important and victorious campaigns, as a result of which they took Cartagena on the Mediterranean Sea and Seville (in 428). This allowed them to develop their naval activity for the first time, plundering the Balearic Islands and coasts of Mauritania in Africa. In 428, while sacking Seville, the Vandal king Gunderic dies5. In this way, Geyseric (also called Genseric), the next ruler of the Vandals after Gunderic (being his half-brother) enters the stage of history. This is by far the most outstanding figure in the history of the Vandals, who soon weighed on the fate of the entire Western Roman Empire.

Vandals in Africa!

Among all the Roman provinces, Africa was most famous for its fertile soils and the abundant crops obtained thanks to them. African cities were by no means inferior in size and wealth to cities in Italy, and Roman Carthage itself was at that time the second largest city of the Western Roman Empire. What’s more, in the period we are interested in, it was Africa that was the largest supplier of grain for Rome, covering as much as 2/?of the city’s demand. And, perhaps most importantly, being separated by the Mediterranean Sea from the turbulent European part of the Empire, Africa was a difficult place (if at all possible) for potential invaders from the north, if they did not have a sufficient navy, which, moreover, it was not possible to create in sufficient numbers, not such an easy undertaking. At that time, the only invaders from the north could at best be the Visigoths, still strong and audacious towards the Western Roman Empire, or the possible expeditionary forces of the Romans themselves, provided that they would not be involved in some conflict elsewhere (still after all vast) state in which unrest broke out every now and then. Thus, if Africa was occupied by a potential invader, it would gain (in addition to a fertile and fertile area with developed agriculture, port cities and their infrastructure) an isolated territory, which sea waters protected against the attack of other competitors interested in this area better than even the best defensive wall. No wonder that the African part of the Western Roman Empire attracted the attention of the Vandal king – Geyseric, for whom the Iberian Peninsula, due to the possible repetition of fights with the Romans, Suebi or Visigoths, was no longer a safe haven for the people subject to him. Wanting to find a peaceful place for his subjects, Geyseric decided to leave Spain, leaving it to the Romans, Suebi or Visigoths6. His choice fell on the African coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where for some time there was a serious political crisis, negatively affecting the already very limited Roman ability to defend African territory in this region.

More or less at the same time when Geyseric was developing the idea of crossing over to the lands of Roman Africa, her count, a certain Boniface, was wondering how to get out of the difficult political situation in which he found himself. Here in Ravenna (then the seat of the Roman emperors) an ambitious and talented Roman commander Aetius Flavius (appealing for the position of commander-in-chief of both types of armies in the West, Latin comes et magister utriusque militiae) and competing for the palm of precedence with an equally talented leader as Boniface, plotted an intrigue against him. He questioned Boniface’s loyalty to Empress Galla Placidia, who ruled the Western Roman Empire on behalf of her minor son, Valentinian III. At the same time, Aetius Flavius warned Boniface by letter against the empress, who, according to him, intended to depose him in Africa and then kill him. Therefore, when in 427, under the influence of these schemes, the empress summoned Boniface to the court in Ravenna, he, fearing for his own life, of course, refused to appear. This resulted in the Western Roman Empire declaring war on him and declaring him a public enemy, consequently sending the Roman army against him in 428, under the command of Sigisvult, newly appointed in place of Boniface. In this situation, Boniface allegedly called on the Vandals for help in fighting the punitive expedition sent against him, which was supposed to lead to his deposition and imprisonment. When the schemes of Aetius Flavius came to light in Ravenna, the empress realized her mistake and abandoned further military actions against Boniface. Then the latter was to inform Geyseric that his military help would no longer be necessary. It was supposedly too late – the whole tribe, numbering about 80 thousand people embarked on ships and sailed to Africa in 429. Another version of the reasons for leaving the Iberian Peninsula by the Vandals says that simply during numerous pirate expeditions they themselves established that the African provinces are fertile and rich, and due to the weakness of the Empire’s fleet The Romanum will be able to attack and capture them without any problems. Geyseric was probably well versed in the military capabilities of the Romans in Africa if only due to the fact that since the occupation of the Balearic Islands in 425, his ships sailing off the coast of Africa reported on the condition, deployment and size of the Roman army in this territory. What’s more, Geyseric’s decision to cross to Africa was certainly facilitated by the civil war taking place at that time in the African part of the Roman Empire, which (irrespective of the actual reasons for its outbreak) was actually aimed at replacing Boniface in the position of Africa. Be that as it may, in 429 – the Vandals, in a bold and still amazing action, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and the whole tribe of 80 thousand. people found themselves in sunny Roman Africa7.

Migration direction of the Vandals (by Hasding and Siling tribe) from present-day Polish lands (which they settled in the 3rd century BCE) through Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula to Africa, where they founded their state in today’s Tunisia and eastern Algeria. The Hasding tribe is marked in yellow, and the Siling tribe is marked in red, which was destroyed on the Iberian Peninsula by the Visigoths in the years 416-418 CE (at the instigation of the Romans).

After landing in Africa, the Vandals quickly moved eastwards through what is now Morocco and northern Algeria. In their procession, plundering and murdering (Cyrta resisted the attacks) they reached and then besieged the city of Hippo Regius, which they captured after 14 months of the siege (the bishop of Hippo Regius was Saint Augustine – he died in the 3rd month of the siege). After the arrival at the beginning of 432 to the aid of the Romans attacked in Africa by the troops of the Eastern Roman Empire under the command of a certain Aspar, a specific status quo prevailed in the theatre of warfare. The Romans still lacked enough troops to recapture Hippo Regius and drive the Vandals out of Africa, and the Vandals, exhausted by the siege, lacked the will to continue the fight, especially since Carthage, well-fortified and reinforced with reinforcements from the Eastern Roman Empire, was already beyond their military capabilities. So negotiations began. However, the official conclusion of peace took place only in 435. As a result, the Vandals became allies of the Western Roman Empire (so-called foederati). They were to keep Numidia and Mauretania and withdraw from the rest of the conquered lands. They were also supposed to pay tribute to the Western Roman Empire (it was about formally maintaining grain supplies to Rome, which as a result of the war significantly decreased in 430 and 431) and, if necessary, support Rome with their troops. The concluded peace was to guarantee that Geyseric would hand over his son Huneric to the emperor as a hostage (whom the emperor soon graciously released as a sign of “great friendship”). Four years later, in 439, taking advantage of the Empire’s involvement in the war against the Visigoths (fought in Gaul), Geyseric again attacked the Romans in Africa and suddenly captured Roman Carthage, the port of which was the majority of the fleet of the Western Roman Empire. It should be mentioned that the capture of Carthage by the Vandals was an extremely shocking and extremely unfavourable event for the Romans. It meant depriving the Western Roman Empire of one of the richest provinces responsible for supplying Rome and resulted in the creation of a barbaric state on the northern shores of the Mediterranean almost 600 years after the end of the Punic Wars, which, contrary to official declarations, was by no means a socius et amicus populi Romani (i.e. “an ally and friend of the Roman people”). Finally, the capture of Carthage allowed the Vandals to significantly increase their own naval forces, making them at this historical moment the rulers of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Greece. This circumstance, in turn, seriously hindered contacts between the two parts of the Empire, becoming a kind of prelude to further fateful events for the Eternal City8. With the capture of Carthage by the Vandals, a drama began for the Western Roman Empire, the finale of which will take place in Rome itself in a few years.

The geyser at the gates of Rome – the background of the events that led to it

After taking Carthage – Geyseric moved his residence to it, making it the capital of the Vandal state he was creating. In the first place, the repressions of the victorious Vandals affected the Roman nobles, who were faced with a choice: emigration and, of course, confiscation of the abandoned goods, or remaining and the status of the colonies in their own estates (i.e. the status of enslaved peasants assigned to the land they were supposed to cultivate for the new Vandal lords). Although the Vandals were Christians, according to the Arian doctrine, which was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325, they immediately expelled the Catholic clergy, who, on Geyseric’s order, were placed on old worn-out and mostly unserviceable boats and floated out to sea. Thanks to favourable winds and good weather, they managed to reach Italy safely – which was considered a miracle. Of course, the Catholic churches were handed over to the Arians. In 440, Geyseric decided to attack Sicily. In Sicily, however, the Romans resisted. This fact and the news that the Eastern Roman Empire had sent a large fleet to help their Western counterparts, on board which a greater number of troops were sailing towards Sicily, meant that in 441 the Vandals withdrew from Sicily before Eastern Roman help could arrive. Fearing the actions of the combined Roman forces against himself, Geyseric proposed peace to Rome. The Western Roman Empire was losing suzerainty over more and more territories at that time. Unable to fight the barbarians in all parts of the state at the same time, Rome accepted the offer of the Vandal king. In 442, peace was concluded, as a result of which the king of the Vandals expanded his possessions in relation to the peace of 435. He received all Byzycena, Proconsular Africa (with Carthage as the capital), as well as part of Numidia (with Hippo Regius) and part of Mauretania Tingitańska (identified as the so-called Abaritania, although historians do not agree here) in order to control the Strait of Gibraltar. The created state thus covered the areas of today’s Tunisia and eastern Algeria. The provisions of the peace also obliged the Vandals to deliver grain to Rome every year9.

After making peace with Rome in the same year (442), the Vandals came closer to the Visigoths. Both Germanic states forcibly located themselves on the lands of the Western Roman Empire as the so-called feoderati, so both may have feared at some point Roman intervention to restore the state of affairs before their arrival. No wonder that in both barbarian kingdoms, the idea of concluding an alliance against the Romans was born, in order to jointly counteract any plans to regain supremacy by Rome in the territories occupied by both countries. The concluded alliance was sealed by the marriage of Huneric (the son of the king of the Vandals) with an unknown daughter of the Visigothic king – Theodoric I. In order to break up the concluded alliance, the Western Roman emperor, in turn, proposed to Geyseric to tighten the alliance with the Empire by marrying the king’s son Huneric with his daughter – Eudocia (called also Eudokia). The imperial proposal appealed to Gejzeryk, if only because of the fact of a kind of ennoblement, which would be the affinity of the royal family of Gejzeryk with the imperial family and thus raising the role of the barbaric state of the Vandals in Africa, which then could have even more influence on the policy of the Empire. Perhaps even in the future, this would allow the descendants of the son of Geyseric and the imperial princess to claim the imperial purple. The conclusion of the new alliance was therefore sealed with the betrothal of the children of the rulers of both countries, i.e. the Vandal prince Huneric and the empress Eudocia. The engagement took place in 445. The bride could be no more than 7 years old. Since Huneric was already an adult man, marriage had to wait according to the law until the future bride came of age. So the case had to be postponed. There was one more problem to solve – Huneric already had a wife, the daughter of the Visigothic leader, Theoderic I. Genseric solved this problem in a typical way, i.e. he accused her of trying to poison him, then ordered her nose and ears to be cut off and sent her away it to Theodoric I10.

After the betrothal of the Vandal prince Huneric and the empress Eudocia, peace reigned on the sea. Constantly conducted privateer expeditions of the Geyseric’s fleet began to bypass the coasts subordinated to the Western Roman Empire, and mercilessly began to loot the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, already controlled by the Visigoths at that time. The two strongest barbarian states plunged into hostility to the delight of Rome. What’s more, the relations between the Vandals and the Empire were so successful that in 454 the Vandal king agreed to fill the Catholic bishopric in Carthage, which had been abandoned for 15 years. The Roman policy of “divide and conquer” once again brought a positive effect to the Empire. However, this time was to be the last time in the history of the Empire. The achieved diplomatic success not only turned out to be short-lived, but ultimately – as the future was to show – it turned against the Empire with redoubled force due to the fault of the Romans themselves. In 455, the “last Roman”, i.e. the aforementioned commander-in-chief of both types of armies in the West and the hitherto defender of Rome – Flavius Aetius, dies. He was personally killed in September 454 (during an audience with him) by Emperor Valentinian III. The emperor had been envious of Aetius’ military and diplomatic successes for some time and feared his influence at the court. These fears of the emperor were further strengthened by the scheming of the imperial camarilla, unfavourable to Aetius, accusing the leader of the alleged desire to reach for the imperial purple. It was none other than Aetius who had won three years earlier (451) on the Catalaunian Fields – Attila the Hun leader and his hordes that had invaded the Western Roman Empire. It was with Aetius and in his opinion that the barbarians counted. And if at that time there was anyone on the side of the Western Roman Empire who could inspire any respect among the barbarians attacking the Empire, then this figure could only be Aetius Flavius. It seems like a paradox of history that this defender of Rome, who was unable to cope with the Scourge of God himself (Attila) and his hordes, is just being killed by the Roman emperor himself! An additional and, as it turned out, effective reinforcement of the emperor’s fears by the camarilla surrounding him about the alleged dynastic plans of this great Roman leader, contributed to the crime, which turned out to be a pebble causing an avalanche of events over which no one could control. Soon, on March 16, 455, in retaliation for the death of Aetius, his loyal soldiers kill Emperor Valentinian III on the Campus Martius in Rome during a military review conducted by him. The authority after the killed emperor is taken over by Petronius Maximus the next day after his death, who, wanting to strengthen his position by becoming acquainted with the imperial family, begins to force the emperor’s widow Licinia Eudoxia to marry him. In turn, her daughter Eudocia, Huneric’s fiancée, is married by the new emperor to his son, Palladius. The widow of Emperor Valentinian III – Licinia Eudoxia (also called Eudocia), not agreeing to such a turn of events, secretly calls for help the king of the Vandals – Geyseric. Whether such a call really took place is not entirely certain. The admirable speed with which the king gathered and embarked his army, landing with it on the coast of Italy, indicates that even if the call for help to the widowed empress actually took place, her envoys must have appeared at the court in Carthage while the king was preparing a retaliatory expedition against the new emperor. Geyseric, without a special invitation, must have been aware of how harmful the murder of Emperor Valentinian III was for him. After all, it led to the violation of the betrothal rights of his son Huneric, and thus completely thwarted his dynastic plans. Not only could he not forgive the snub made to him by the new emperor and the damage to his image, but also there was no better excuse to make up for the loss of expected profits from the affinity of his family with the imperial family and the planned majorization of the Empire. Therefore, the king decided to act quickly, i.e. before the confusion caused by the assassination of the emperor passes and before the situation in the Empire calms down and solidifies. From the formal side, the matter was facilitated by the new emperor himself. Since the signatory of the concluded peace and alliance of 442 was the late Valentinian III, and since the future marriage of the offspring of both rulers was to be an additional reinforcement of the concluded peace, Geyseric decided that the decision of the new emperor Maximus to marry the bride of the Vandal prince Huneric to his imperial son, Palladius, annihilates the concluded alliance and makes all provisions of the peace of 442 non-binding11

At the end of May 455 (so already two months after the assassination of Emperor Valentinian III) Geyseric with his army of Vandals, Alans and Moors enlisted in the service of the Moors lands on the coast of the Apennine Peninsula in Portus at the mouth of the Tiber and along via Portuensis, undisturbed by anyone, heads towards Rome. Soon he sets up camp at the gates of the Eternal City. The final act of the drama begins.

Conquest of Rome by the Vandals – a siege that never happened

When news of hordes of barbarians marching towards Rome, led by the Vandal king, reaches Rome, panic immediately breaks out in the city. The inhabitants and the authorities, instead of thinking about preparing a defence, start a mass escape. What is most shocking is the fact that the emperor Petronius Maximus himself also throws himself on the run. Recognized, however, he dies at the hands of the enraged mob, which blames him for provoking the barbarian invasion. And yet the aforementioned “Aurelian Walls” were a real miracle of defensive architecture. The city also had the necessary amount of weapons for defence, and the number of potential defenders may even outnumber the barbarian army. However, no one even for a moment thought about taking up armed resistance. No one thought of standing face-to-face with the invaders and resisting them. Well, maybe almost no one. The only brave Roman turned out to be… Pope Leo I. He had enough courage to meet the Vandal king and his hordes and ask him not to destroy the city and murder its inhabitants. What more could he have done in such a situation? Whether he aroused the admiration of the barbarian king, or whether the barbarians simply felt a certain respect for the centuries-old, once proud city, it is difficult to say unequivocally today, because history is silent on this subject. What is certain, however, is that Geyseric acceded to the request of this holy man of the providence of Rome. At that time, the Eternal City opened its doors to the invaders, who simply entered its precincts and began a methodical robbery of the wealth accumulated there. The Vandals spent two weeks plundering Rome12. Let us, however, let the ancient historians speak on this matter and let us look for a moment through their eyes at the course of events that took place in Rome at that time. This is how the events from the turn of May and June 455 were described in his chronicle by the bishop of Tunnuny (North African city), a certain Wiktor – known as Victor of Tunnuny:

(In CE 455) the emperor Valentinian was deceitfully slain on the Field of Mars in Rome by the patrician Maximus, after which Maximus assumed the imperial power, but only for 77 days. He took Valentinian’s widow (Eudoxia) as his wife, not even allowing her to grieve for her husband. Fearing the arrival of Geiseric, king of the Vandals, he allowed whoever he wished to leave the city, but before he himself could escape from Rome as he intended, he was killed, his limbs cut up, and thrown into the Tiber. Three days after the killing of Maximus, Geiseric, king of the Vandals, entered Rome, stripped the city of all its treasures in fourteen days, and took with him the wife and daughters of Valentinian, as well as many thousands of captives. Thanks to the intercession of Pope Leo, however, he refrained from arson, abuse and murder.

Victor of Tunnuna, Chronicle, “Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi”, XI, 186

And this is how the course of events was presented to us by Procopius of Caesarea – the greatest of the Byzantine historians recording the late antique history of the Roman Empire:

The geyseric set off with a great fleet to Italy only because he expected to gain great spoils. After entering Rome, because he met no resistance, he seized the imperial palace. While fleeing, the Romans stoned Maximus, cut off his head and the rest of his limbs, and divided them among themselves. Geyseric took Eudoxia captive together with Eudocia and Placidia, daughters of her and Valentinian. In addition, he loaded onto ships and carried to Carthage a large amount of gold and other imperial possessions. He did not hesitate to take even objects made of bronze or some other metal from the palace. He also plundered the temples of Jupiter Capitoline and tore off half of the roof. This roof was of the best quality bronze, and because of the thick layer of gold with which it was covered, it looked extremely splendid and worthy of great admiration. They say that one of Geyseric’s ships carrying the statues sank, with all the others the Vandals reached the port of Carthage. Eudokie Geyseric married Huneric, the elder of his sons. Placidia, the second of the daughters, who was the wife of Olybrius, the most eminent of Roman senators, he sent back to Byzantium together with his mother Eudoxia at the request of the emperor.

Procopius of Caesarea, History of Wars, III, 9, 1-5

Finally, this is how the plunder of Rome was described by Paul Deacon, a poet, chronicler and Benedictine monk from the monastery at Monte Cassino, coming from the barbarian tribe of Lombards:

After the death of Valentinian, Maximus came to power over the state in Rome, but less than two months later he was murdered by the Romans. Geyseric immediately arrived in ships from Africa at the head of a mighty army of his tribe and Moorish reinforcements. The pope in the Roman Church at that time was St. Leo. The Romans, both eminent citizens and ordinary citizens, shocked by the terrible news, fled the city. The geyseric occupied a completely defenceless city. Only the aforementioned bishop, St. Leon, whose humble request with God’s help softened the enemy to such an extent that, having everything in his power, he abstained from fire, murder and torment. Safe and free plunder, lasting fourteen days, stripped Rome of all its wealth, and many thousands of captives, depending on how one liked them according to age and skill, were sent to Carthage, among them Queen Eudoxia with her two daughters, who invited Geyseric to do so. evil work. Thus, Geyseric, as the second general, captured Rome, which Alaric had first entered forty-four years [sic], and twelve hundred and eight years since its founding.

Pawel the Deacon, Roman History, XIV, 16-17

It must be admitted that Geyserk kept his word. The Vandals limited themselves only to looting, which was not accompanied by any drastic images, which was even directly confirmed in the accounts by the above-mentioned bishops of Tunnun, Wiktor and Paul the Deacon (Procopius of Caesarea tacitly admitted this in his account, because if it had been otherwise, he would certainly have not failed to mention it admonish). It was probably the only victory of the Romans if any victory can be seen in showing mercy and not murdering the inhabitants of the Eternal City by the barbarian king.

Nevertheless, although there was no murder, destruction and burning, many important Roman officials were forcibly sailed to Carthage together with Empress Eudoxia and her daughters, taken with the intention of making them hostages for ransom. In addition, many craftsmen skilled in various fields of production, highly desired by the king, were abducted. In general, the course of the plundering of Rome shows that Geyseric was not so much interested in murder and mindless destruction as in taking over the centuries-old achievements of the Romans. The achievements that the king wanted to use on the one hand to embellish his state (gold, silver, jewels, decorative vessels, including liturgical vessels from robbed churches, statues, paintings, sculptures, beautiful floors), but also, and perhaps even above all, to strengthen it (all kinds of artisans and manufacturers, and the looting of all those things that had a practical use)13.

The geyser and the treasure of King Solomon’s Temple, or what else was plundered in Rome

It is worth stopping here for a moment and recalling an event that took place almost 400 years earlier, in the days of the greatest glory of Rome and its arms. In CE 66, during the reign of Emperor Nero, a Jewish revolt broke out against Roman rule in Judea, culminating in the siege of Jerusalem in CE 70 by legions under the consul Titus Flavius (later emperor). Jerusalem under siege fell in CE 70. According to Tacitus, up to 600,000 people died in battles and slaughtered after the city was conquered. people. The city itself was destroyed, and the Temple of Jerusalem was burned and plundered by the Romans. Josephus, a Roman historian of Jewish descent, described the spoils carried in the triumph that celebrated the suppression of the Jewish revolt by Titus as follows:

The spoils were carried in no order at all, but among all the ones that stood out were those taken from the Temple of Jerusalem: a golden table weighing many talents, and a lampstand of the same gold, but of a different pattern than we are used to seeing it in everyday life. From the centre of the base grew a stem from which delicate arms formed a kind of trident; and each had a lamp of bronze at its end. There were seven of them, which underlined the great respect of the seven among the Jews. At the end of the loot, the books of Jewish law, all made of ivory and gold, were carried.

Flavius, The Jewish War, VII, 5, 5

Relief of the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting a solemn procession with trophies captured by the Romans in Jerusalem. In the central part of the procession, a menorah from the Jerusalem Temple destroyed and robbed by Roman legionaries is visible.

This candlestick is most likely the famous menorah, i.e. a seven-branched candlestick forged in gold, placed in the First Tabernacle, a portable small wooden temple covered with a tent, in which the Ark of the Covenant was also kept. According to Jewish beliefs, the menorah symbolizes the burning bush seen by Moses on Mount Sinai. The First Tabernacle, on the other hand, was built on the Sinai Peninsula by the order of Moses during the migration of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. After King Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple (the so-called First Temple or Solomon’s Temple), the Ark of the Covenant and the menorah were placed there and remained there until the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar II. After the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt and later extended and beautified by the king of Judea – Herod the Great (the so-called Second Temple or Herod’s Temple). The Ark of the Covenant, which had been lost since the Babylonian invasion, was no longer in the Second Temple. However, it still contained the gold menorah, which was in the Temple until its destruction by the Roman legions led by Titus (later emperor)14. It was not without reason that the historian Josephus Flavius drew attention to these objects. As a Jew, he was well aware that the sacrificial table, the candlestick and the books he saw carried by Roman soldiers and which he then described in his account were the greatest Jewish sacred things. This event was also recorded on the bas-relief located to this day on the Roman Arch of Titus. The relief on this Arch shows a procession with trophies won by Titus in Jerusalem, including a seven-branched candlestick (probably a menorah) and silver trumpets from the Jerusalem Temple. The menorah itself was quite well visible among the objects carried in the central part of the procession. The candlestick depicted on the bas-relief has a characteristic octagonal decorated base. The loot from the Temple of Jerusalem was ordered by Emperor Vespasian to be displayed in the imperial palace and in the Temple of Peace (Templum Pacis) built in Rome, where they were kept until… well, until when – that is the question. In order to answer this question, you need to move forward 80 years, counting to the year of the sack of Rome by Geyseric, and get acquainted with an interesting event recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea mentioned above:

After the arrival of Belisarius with Gelimer [the then king of the Vandals – ed. When he was brought to Byzantium, he was considered worthy of such marks of honour as were accorded in ancient times to Roman generals who had won great and notable victories. About 600 years have passed since no one has been honoured in this way except Titus, Trajan, and all the other emperors who have won victories by leading armies against some barbarian peoples. Presenting the spoils and prisoners of war, Belisarius led a solemn procession through the centre of the city, which the Romans call a triumph (…). The plunder included all items reserved for the service of the king: (…). There was also silver, weighing many thousands of talents, and all the royal treasure of great value, since Geyseric plundered the palace in Rome,… including the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, son of Vespasian, brought with other spoils to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. On seeing this, one of the Jews approached one of the imperial dignitaries and said: “I do not consider it expedient to bring these treasures to the palace of Byzantium. For they cannot be anywhere but where Solomon, king of the Jews, once laid them. Geyseric conquered the imperial palace of the Romans, and now the Roman army – the royal palace of the Vandals. When this was reported to the emperor, he got scared and quickly sent everything to the Christian sanctuaries in Jerusalem.

Procopius of Caesarea, History of Wars, III, 9, 1-5

The photo shows a replica of the menorah from the Jerusalem Temple destroyed and robbed by Roman legionaries. The replica is made of 45 kg of 24-carat gold. A multi-million-dollar menorah replica was placed behind bulletproof glass. You can see it in the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem.

Procopius saw the event he described with his own eyes, because as a long-time legal adviser and secretary to the famous Byzantine leader Belisarius, and in 533, additionally as a member of this leader’s staff, he personally took part in the expedition against the Vandals led by him. This expedition was sent by Justinian I – the then emperor of Byzantium – in order to finally subdue the state they created in Africa. So there is no reason not to believe in his reports. Two important findings emerge from this relationship. The first is that in 455 the treasures of the Jerusalem Temple were still in Rome. The second fact is that in the same year, these treasures were taken over by the vandal king Geyseric, who was plundering Rome and taking the jewels to Carthage, the capital of the country he founded in Africa. There, for nearly 80 years, the treasure from the Temple of King Solomon graced the palace of Geyseric and his successors and pleased their eyes15. There is something paradoxical in the fact that the gold menorah (an object dating back to the times of biblical Moses and the Ark of the Covenant), captured almost 400 years earlier by the Romans as booty – after a hard and bloody battle – fell without any effort into the hands of a Germanic leader who, together with his barbarian tribe only a quarter of a century earlier, he did not even have his own permanent place of residence, not to mention having his own state. Can you imagine anything more humiliating for the Romans!?

It was only after the seizure of Carthage in 533 by the Byzantine army led by Belisarius (who a year later liquidated the Vandal state in Africa by joining it to the Eastern Roman Empire) that the menorah and the other treasures of the Jerusalem Temple found their way to Constantinople, where they graced the triumphal procession of the victorious leader. From Constantinople, by the decision of Emperor Justinian I, the menorah was to go to Jerusalem again, but this time to an unspecified Christian temple.

Consequences of sacco di Roma

Historians agree that the capture and plunder of Rome by Geyseric, in contrast to the events of 408-410, ended with the conquest of the city by the Visigoths led by Alaric, which was disastrous for Roman statehood. Two fundamental aspects are emphasized here, which are particularly fraught with consequences both for the Eternal City and for the Roman state in the West. The first tragic result of the plunder of Rome is human losses, i.e. the abduction of a huge (in the thousands) number of prisoners, led by the empress and her two daughters: Eudocia and Placidia. The loss of a large population by the Eternal City, and especially all kinds of craftsmen with experience in their trade, was an irreparable loss in the short and even in the medium term and set Rome back in this field for years. It is true that Eastern Roman diplomacy, for many years putting pressure on the king of the Vandals to release the captives abducted by him, finally led to their release, but Geyseric released only those captives who were the property of the king. At that time, she was released twice widowed Empress Licinia Eudoxia with her younger daughter Placidia. The elder of the empress’s daughters, Eudocia, remained in Carthage and was married by Geyseric (according to the provisions of 445, the violation of which was the pretext for the invasion) to marry the Vandal prince Huneric. It was not until 472 that Eudocia left her husband (probably with his tacit consent) and settled in Jerusalem as a nun, under the protection of the Eastern Roman emperor16. The ladies of the imperial house, although they were freed, never saw Rome again. However, the captives who were the property (as a result of the division of the loot) of the royal warriors remained in captivity. They also never returned to their homes. The king did not want and simply could not afford to enter into conflict with the Vandal aristocracy and ordinary warriors over the release of their prisoners, as such an action could end in a rebellion of his subjects, overthrowing him, and probably in this case also his death. Thus, the fate of the remaining prisoners, often tragic, was certainly unenviable.

The second effect of the sacco di Roma (Italian “sack of Rome”) from 455 is financial and material losses. The looting of precious metals, works of art and all other valuable items from Rome, combined with the loss of tax revenues from African provinces, caused the Roman state financial and material losses that it has not recovered. An example is the fact that when the new emperor Avitus, elected in Gaul, arrived in Rome in September at the head of Visigothic reinforcements, he found the city struggling with famine. Therefore, when, due to the city’s provisioning difficulties, the emperor decided to send the Visigothic troops supporting him to Gaul, they did not want to leave without first paying them the overdue payment. However, Rome and the imperial treasury were so empty that in order to pay for the Visigothic troops and drive them away from Rome, it was necessary to melt down the bronze statues still in the Eternal City, which Geyseric could no longer load onto the ships. Until the end of its existence, the Western Roman Empire was basically subsidized by its kinsmen from the East17.

From the point of view of the impact of looting on the future of the Western Roman Empire, both events, i.e. the capture and plunder of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455, can be considered incompatible. Conquering Rome in 410, Alaric was the leader of the Visigoths, seeking a place in the Empire’s territory and in its political structures (the so-called feoderati). By entering it, he wanted to force the lingering and weakening – though still threatening – Empire to make decisions accepting this state of affairs. Geyseric invaded Rome in 455 as the ruler of a strong kingdom that had been pursuing its independent policy towards and at the expense of the Empire for some time. However, thanks to the organized looting of the Eternal City and the seizure of its resources, not only did he no longer have to reckon with its western part, but he even cleared the way for legal recognition of his position as the ruler of an independent state18. After many years of ongoing conflict, he made peace with the Eastern Roman Empire (which represented both halves of the Roman Empire at that moment in history), formally sanctioning its territorial gains and full independence.

In general, the methodical conduct of the Vandals during the robbery is perhaps even more shocking for posterity than if they simply burned Rome and murdered the population. If the invasion of the Vandals had been limited to murdering, burning, destroying and robbing the valuables of the killed inhabitants, it would not have shown the moral condition of Roman society in such a vivid way. Simply, it would then go down in history as one of the series of many unfortunate events that befell late-antique Rome and as one of the many murders that always accompanied the war and the conquest of the city by the invaders in those times. In this case, however, the posterity was confronted, on the one hand, with the barbarians who, by systematically plundering the intellectual achievements of Rome with the admirable foresight of the pro-states (to use today’s terminology), think about ensuring a better future for themselves and the created state. On the other hand, with the citizens of Rome, a city that is still the heart of a great civilization, who, expecting some barbarians to be knocking at the city gates in a moment, all they think about is to run away as far as possible from the threat that may disturb their peace and well-being. On the one hand, brave, disciplined and aware of the purpose of their arrival, hordes of barbarians, on the other, packs of Roman citizens who, fleeing in panic, did not even for a moment think about the effects of the expected loss of the achievements of entire generations of ancestors and the impact of this loss on the future of their state. Therefore, it is difficult to find a better testimony to the decline in which Roman society was immersed, and above all the elites of the late antique Western Roman Empire. If the measure of being included in a barbaric or civilized society is to take such features of a given nation as: its dutifulness, readiness to make sacrifices, attitude to the intellectual and cultural achievements of past generations, or attitude to the future of one’s own state (nation, tribe), then what is probably the most shocking invasion of the Vandals in 455 on the capital of the Western Roman Empire is the awareness that the Vandals and Romans exchanged the attributes enumerated above, which so far determined the assignment of each of these nations to one of the above-mentioned nations. types of societies. On the other hand, the observed exchange of the above-mentioned qualities in both nations, the invasion of Rome did not so much cause but only helped bring to light in their full glory.

What is also striking about the sack of Rome in 455 is the modesty of the annalists’ descriptions of this event19. When in 410 the barbarian Visigoths led by Alaric, after the earlier twice-interrupted siege of the Eternal City, finally captured it (by trickery) and plundered it for three days, St. Jerome in one of his letters despaired asking: “What will be saved, if Rome is perishing?”. And St. Augustine of Hippo preached sermons to reassure the frightened believers in Africa who, upon learning of this event, perceived it as a sign of the approaching end of the world. In 455, after opening the gates of the city to the Vandals the Romans themselves and 14 days of organized robbery of the City of She-Wolf, no one spoke up, surprised, alarmed, or lamented as before. The words Roma capta (“Rome taken”) were not used again. As if an event of this magnitude had become commonplace in the minds of the Romans and made no greater impression on them, and as if the Romans themselves were used to successive humiliating defeats20. So, were the “Aurelian Walls”, even the largest, able to defend the Romans, since the sons of the she-wolf lost their teeth?

This story ends sadly because it cannot be otherwise. After being plundered by the Vandals, Rome declined and, compared to its former glory, turned into a shadow of itself, soon becoming almost a provincial city. After Maximus, who was torn apart by the crowd, eight more emperors wore purple, but it was only the agony of the proud and once respected nation and state. In 476, twenty-one years after the Vandals conquered and plundered Rome, the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist.

Author: Adrian Woźniak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, Zagraniczna i wewnętrzna polityka afrykańskiego państwa Wandalów, Prace Monograficzne Wyższej Szkoły Pedagogicznej w Krakowie, nr 176, Kraków 1994, s. 8-13, w:, [dostęp: 28.06.2019 r.].
  2. Zob. Marcin Szymiak, Rzym na pastwie Wandalów. Czy wiesz, że możesz być z nimi spokrewniony?, "Focus Historia" 4, 2016, w:, [dostęp: 4.06.2019 r.].
  3. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 14-21.
  4. Ibidiem, s. 22-26.
  5. Ibidiem.
  6. Ibidiem, s. 28-31.
  7. Zob. Jerzy Strzelczyk, Wandalowie i ich afrykańskie państwo, Warszawa 1992, s. 121-126; Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 28-31.
  8. Zob. Jerzy Strzelczyk, op. cit., s. 126-132; Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 28-31.
  9. Zob. Jerzy Strzelczyk, op. cit., s. 126-132; Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 28-31.
  10. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 54-56.
  11. Zob. Jerzy Strzelczyk, op. cit., s. 136-140; Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 55-61.
  12. Zob. Jerzy Strzelczyk, op. cit., s. 140-141; Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 61-62.
  13. Zob. Jerzy Strzelczyk, op. cit., s. 140-141; Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 61-64.
  14. Zob. Tomasz Horak, Menora, Portal ludzi otwartych -, w:, [dostęp: 4 czerwca 2019 r.].
  15. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 62.
  16. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 78-81; idem, Roma capta! – Uwagi na temat relacji o zdobyciu Rzymu w 410 i 455 r. w dziełach wybranych autorów późnoantyczych, "Vox Patrum" XXXVIII, 2018, t. 70, s. 335, w:, [dostęp: 28.05.2019 r.].
  17. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 78-81; Marek Wilczyński, Roma capta ! – Uwagi..., op. cit., s. 335.
  18. Zob. Marek Wilczyński, op. cit., s. 78-81; Marek Wilczyński, Roma capta ! – Uwagi..., op. cit., s. 335.
  19. Zob. Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004, s. 870-871.
  20. Ibidiem, s. 871.
  • Horak T., Menora, Portal ludzi otwartych -, w:, [dostęp: 4.06.2019 r.]
  • Józef Flawiusz, Wojna żydowska, tłum., wstęp i kom. Jan Radożycki, wyd. 2, Warszawa 1991
  • Krawczuk A., Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Paweł Diakon, Historia rzymska, Historia Longobardów, tłum., wstęp i kom. Ignacy Lewandowski, Warszawa 1995
  • Prokopiusz z Cezarei, Historia wojen, t. 1, tłum., wstęp, kom. Dariusz Brodka, Kraków 2013
  • Strzelczyk J., Wandalowie i ich afrykańskie państwo, Warszawa 1992
  • Szymiak M., Rzym na pastwie Wandalów. Czy wiesz, że możesz być z nimi spokrewniony?, "Focus Historia" 4, 2016, w:, [dostęp: 4.06.2019 r.]
  • Wilczyński M., Zagraniczna i wewnętrzna polityka afrykańskiego państwa Wandalów, Prace Monograficzne Wyższej Szkoły Pedagogicznej w Krakowie, nr 176, Kraków 1994, w:, [dostęp: 28.05.2019 r.]
  • Wilczyński M., Roma capta ! – Uwagi na temat relacji o zdobyciu Rzymu w 410 i 455 r. w dziełach wybranych autorów późnoantyczych, "Vox Patrum" XXXVIII, 2018, t. 70, s. 311-338, w:, [dostęp: 28.05.2019 r.]
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