Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Wikiedit: Vandalust

This is what I hope to be the first of many posts about particularly amazing Wikipedia articles I have come across at 3 in the morning. For our inaugural edition (back myself), we're going to take a look at this absolutely mad page called, simply, Vandals.

You've probably heard of the Vandals. They were a Germanic tribe that kicked up a load of trouble for the late Roman Empire, winning a reputation for mayhem for which they were gloriously immortalised in the English word vandalism. In it's habitually cryptic fashion, Wikipedia nods to more recent analysis that somewhat undermines this legacy:
modern historians tend to regard the Vandals during the transitional period from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages as perpetuators, not destroyers, of Roman culture.
The page says no more than this, and never mentions the issue again. And nothing in what follows remotely hints at Vandalic "perpetuation", so take it as you will.

Here are some choice facts that you might not have known about the Vandals:

  • In the course of about 30 years, they sacked basically all of Western Europe, migrating from their temporary home in modern-day Hungary to establish a powerful kingdom in North Africa, via the very, very scenic route.
  • They accidentally killed Saint Augustine.
  • Despite originating in Sweden, their closest allies were Iranian.
  • Having rarely come anywhere near a coastline for most of their history, by far their greatest power was achieved practically overnight as a naval/pirate empire.
  • Although Christianised, they were fanatically opposed to the orthodox Catholic church.
  • Defeated as a result of a stupid blunder, their entire race vanished suddenly only a few decades after reaching its zenith.

OK, so lets start at the beginning. The Vandals came from Scandinavia. Probably. In a perfect reflection of Western historical priorities, the Wikipedia page mentions the first 500 years of known Vandal existence in a couple of sentences, and the rest of the huge mass of text deals with the roughly 200 years where they interacted with the Romans, from the 4th to 6th centuries AD. I mean, you've got to remember when you read this stuff that the Vandals were obviously far too violent and uncouth to record their own history, so the Wikipedia page is little more than a highly filtered distillation of Roman historians writing out of their arses about their invaders. With that in mind, let us continue:

By about 100AD the Vandals were living in modern day Poland, for reasons unknown. Equally inexplicably, they joined a ragtag bunch of other Germanic (seemingly a catch-all term for "non-Roman") tribes in a migration into Ukraine and then Romania about 150-180AD, taking advantage of, and maybe even taking part in, the various wars between the unrelated Macromannic confederation and the Romans. We know the Vandals also fought against the Visigoths, not for the last time, and that the first recorded Vandal king, Wisimar, a one-time lord of Transylvania, was killed by them.

OK so before the historical haze settles over all of that, let's skip forward to "around 330AD" (sorry, sorry), when Constantine the Great gave the Vandals land in Pannonia, a region in middle Europe to the northeast of Italy. Presumably letting them live there was easier than dealing with possible invasions - a Roman policy of appeasement that they were to adopt towards the Vandals for the foreseeable future despite it not working at all.

But it's around 400AD that things really kick off for the age of Vandalism, and it's all the fault of Attila. The Huns weren't just the scourge of the Romans, but also of the poor barbarian hordes wishing to pillage them. In reaction to unstoppable Hun invaders, the Vandals up and left Pannonia to flee west. But it wasn't so much a fearful escape as a crazed rampage across Germany and France. Here's were it gets weird: the Vandals were accompanied in their warpath/flight by some new allies, a tribe called the Alans.

The Alans (friends of the Dereks and the Craigs) were originally from Iran. Yes, Iran, in the middle of Asia. Having lived north of the Black Sea for a while, they had tipped up in Europe with the Huns, as part of the same migration. But now they joined the Vandals in fleeing from them; once again, God knows why.

Anyway, with the Huns in the rearview mirror, the Vandals and the Alans cheerfully plundered, burnt, raised, decimated, terrorised and butchered their way across Europe, and when they got to the Rhine, they found themselves facing an enormous army of Franks who were damned if they were going to let the same thing happen to la Belle Gaul. Wikipedia states monastically of the incredible bloodshed that followed:
Twenty thousand Vandals, including [King] Godigisel himself, died in the resulting battle, but then with the help of the Alans they managed to defeat the Franks, and on December 31, 406 the Vandals crossed the Rhine, probably while it was frozen, to invade Gaul, which they devastated terribly.
The hyperlinks provide barely any more info. Apparently the battle was an ambush, with the Vandals caught unprepared and slaughtered in droves, rescued at the last moment by the brave Alans (every single member of which was called Alan, including the women). But even through the extraordinary Wikipedia understatement filter, it's a striking scene: the huge expanse of the Rhine on an Arctic New Year's Eve, frozen solid but melting slowly as it runs red with the warm blood of innumerable bodies, the gruff Vandal King bleeding out in the arms of his saviour, Alan, screaming to the skies for a medic. Take that, Hobbit Part 3.

With Gaul devastated terribly, the Vandals and Alans decided, thanks to bizarre machinations that defy illumination, not to settle down again, but to continue their lovely walking tour over the Pyrenees and into Spain. Maybe their sojourn on the Rhine had understandably given them a hankering for some sun. Just bear in mind that they spent three whole years devastating Gaul before deciding to move on - not a long period historically, but it probably didn't feel terribly short either to the Gauls.

They arrived in Spain about 7 or 8 years after leaving Pannonia, and stayed for about 20 more years. On their arrival in 409AD, Rome again gave them land for free. But ten years later, Rome allied with the Suebi and Visigoths (two other German tribes who happened to be on their own migrations through Europe, in much the same way as a bull migrates through a china shop), to attack the Vandals and get them the heck out.

I like to think there was a meeting among high-level imperial officers around this time that went something like:

"Right, moving on, next on the agenda is Spain. How are they getting on over there?"
"Oh, Spain's being terrorised by Vandals."
"Beg pardon?"
"What, the Vandals who were giving us a damn headache in Romania and who we let live in Hungary?"
"Those're the ones."
"What the blazes are they doing in Spain?"
"They've been there for 10 years."
"10 years?!"
"Yes, we rather thought the Huns were more of a priority. We don't have any spare armies to deal with them."
"Well are there any other barbarian tribes from the other side of the continent who we can conveniently ally with to get rid of them?"
"Yeah, there's a couple actually."

The Vandals beat the coalition, but not before a massive army of Alans was completely wiped out, causing the survivors to finally join the Vandals more officially. Vandal kings subsequently called themselves "King of the Vandals and the First Men". Whoops, sorry, I meant, "King of the Vandals and Alans". So close. But still - how insane is it that the ancient Iranian Alans finally met their demise fighting Germans in Spain?!?!

Despite basically winning the war against Rome/Suebi/Visigoths, the Vandals left Spain anyway ("I mean, it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there"), whereupon it was promptly colonised by the Visigoths, who were the ones who lost it to the Moors much later. There was another casualty of the war, however: the Vandal king Gunderic, who was succeeded by the greatest of the half-a-dozen Vandal Kings we know of: Genseric. (By the way, Genseric was succeeded by Huneric, one of several examples of the awesome real-life Vandal tradition of naming people like they do in Lord of the Rings).

Fortunately we do actually know why the Vandals left Spain, at least probably: they were invited by the Count of Africa. That's right, North Africa was (kind of) ruled by a Count, named Bonifacius, a rebel Roman general. Although they came ostensibly to help Bonifacius conquer more of Africa, what actually happened was that the Vandals immediately attacked and besieged him in a town in modern-day Algeria that rejoiced in the name of Hippo Regius ("King's Hippo"). Also trapped inside Hippo, as it were, while the Vandals lurked outside, was a certain Augustine, not yet canonised, who found the siege all to much and promptly died "perhaps from starvation or stress", as Wikipedia puts it. One of the two. Turns out Augustine was actually from Hippo, hence being there when the Vandals attacked. Who the heck knew?!

So it was that the Vandals, the Germanic tribe from Sweden, came to establish an empire in North freaking Africa. Genseric captured both Hippo Regius and Carthage, his new capital, from which he swiftly built a vast fleet and suddenly found himself naval ruler of the Mediterranean. I guess he did look and have a name like a Viking, so maybe maritime raiding was in the blood all along. Vandal ships became some of the worst privateers that Rome ever faced, pillaging and conquering the islands and coasts to such an extent that the Mediterranean is actually called Wendelsæ in old English. Bear in mind that Genseric, the new African-Scandinavian pirate warlord, scourge of the Romans, was born in 389AD, and could certainly remember sedentary times in Pannonia before anyone had ever heard of the Huns.

Speaking of which, Atilla still hadn't gone away, and the Romans were so preoccupied by him in more conventional parts of their empire that they basically let the Vandals get on with it, even signing a peace treaty by which the Emperor Valentinian III's daughter would marry Huneric, the Vandal heir. ("What's all this about pirates from North Africa?"/"Oh, it's the Vandals again"/"What?!!!") In 455, Valentinian was usurped by the conniving Petronius Maximus, who was never bothered by dementors; he seized the dead Emperor's daughter to marry to his own son. Miffed at this insult, Genseric went to have a little world with his daughter-in-law's dad's deposer, accompanied by a "personal bodyguard", as it were, and casually wandered into the city, the centre of world power, and stripped it of all its riches. Petronius fled and was lynched by a mob outside the gates, his last words "I immediately regret this decision".

After Atilla finally died, Rome did try a little harder to get its own back on Genseric, but he "soundly defeated" their assaults (Wikipedia loves the phrase "soundly defeated"). For example:
In 468 the Western and Eastern Roman empires launched an enormous expedition against the Vandals under the command of Basiliscus, which reportedly was composed of a 100,000 soldiers and 1,000 ships. The Vandals soundly defeated the invaders at the Battle of Cap Bon, capturing the Western fleet, and destroying the Eastern through the use of fire ships.
The link reveals the sheer extent of this episode. The armada against the Vandals was one of the most huge and expensive in Roman history, and it was dramatically burnt to ash by a surprise attack made in the middle of peace negotiations. Even Wikipedia uses the word "enormous", a frantic outpouring of emotive prose by its standards. Genseric was left alone again, having completely outmanoeuvred the greatest military force in history, adding insult to injury after having literally sacked Rome. He consolidated his kingdom and died peacefully in 477, after almost 90 years of wanton destruction across the entire continent.

About 50 years later the Vandals were caught unprepared by a Byzantine attack when they'd foolishly sent most of their army to quash a small rebellion in Sardinia. With North Africa once again a Roman province, the Vandals basically slapped each other on the back, told each other that it had been fun, and went their separate ways. One of the most remarkable political powers of the late Roman era just suddenly dissolved into nothing on the edge of the mighty Sahara. Imagine if their Scandinavian ancestors could have seen it. Then imagine if they could have seen me, 1,500 years later, spraying my drink across my laptop screen as I read the words "which they devastated terribly".

John Wallis is the author of Human Not Human Enough, including this bit in italics at the end. If you have any suggestions for future Wikipedia pages to review, please send them to the comments under the facebook link where you almost certainly found this post. Thanks!