The Conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa

21 June 533, 1.480 years ago, Justinian’s general Belisarius embarked in Constantinople with 17.000 men to set forth on conquering the Vandal Kingdom in Northern Africa.
“In the seventh year of Justinian's reign, at about the spring equinox, the emperor commanded the general's ship to anchor off the point which is before the royal palace. Thither came also Epiphanius, the chief priest of the city, and after uttering an appropriate prayer, he put on the ships one of the soldiers who had lately been baptized and had taken the Christian name. And after this the general Belisarius and Antonina, his wife, set sail.“ (Procopius, “The Vandalic War”)

A portrait of Belisarius from the famous mosaic at St Vitale in Ravenna
(6th century)

With his hands free after concluding another “Eternal Peace” with the Sassanid Persians during the apparently endless wars between the two empires in the Middle East, Justinian, Emperor of the Romans, decided to begin his reconquest of the lost territories of the fallen Western Roman Empire.

In the beginning of the 6th century, most former Western Roman provinces now had Germanic rulers, Ostrogoths in Italy, Franks in Gaul, Visigoths in Southern France and Spain and a Vandal, King Gelimer, in Carthage, ruling over much of present-day Morocco, Algeria and parts of Mauretania. Gelimer’s ancestor Genseric had led his people from Spain (leaving the name of (V)Andalusia to the region) to Roman Africa 100 years before and established a powerful kingdom that put the fear of God into Western and Eastern Romans. Genseric’s Vandals ruled the waves of the Western Mediterranean with their ships and sacked Rome itself (hence the term Vandalism) in 455.

Karl Bryullov's (1799 - 1852) somewhat exalted imagination of Genseric's Vandals sacking Rome (1836)

In the early 530s, the Vandal rulers had established themselves comfortable enough to play their own little game of thrones. Gelimer just had deposed his cousin Hilderic who was considered Rome-friendly, giving Justinian enough of a pretext to invade, assigning one of his best generals, Belisarius, and a relatively small contingent of troops to the expedition. Lots of almost eponymous Byzantine domestic political and diplomatic infighting with semi-renegade Roman politicos and governors and Germanic princes accompanied the fleet en route until Belisarius’ landed his troops in Tunisia in August 533, bringing the Vandals to battle and defeating King Gelimer at Ad Decimum in September and Tricamarum in December, forcing his surrender in March 534. Northern Africa became a Roman Province again until the Muslims conquered it 100 years later and Gelimer was led through the streets of Constantinople in triumph, uttering his famous quote of from Ecclesiastes, 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'.

More on: