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Gaiseric › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 13 December 2014
Gaiseric (Genseric, Geiseric), Vandal King (DALIBRI)
Gaiseric (reigned 428-478 CE, also known as Genseric and Geiseric) was the greatest king of the Vandals who remained undefeated from the time he took the throne until his death. He was probably born in 389 CE near Lake Balaton (present day Hungary), though this is uncertain. Ancient sources report that he was the illegitimate son of the Vandal king Godigisel who raised him as the equal of his legitimate sons. He was known for his cunning and brilliant military tactics that defeated the armies of Rome in every engagement. He became king of the Vandals in Spain upon the death of his half-brother Gunderic and led his people to North Africa, where he established a Vandal kingdom -- so powerful it effectively controlled the Mediterranean Sea from 439-533 CE, seizing ships and plundering coastal towns and villages. After his death, the kingdom passed to his son who ruled poorly, as did his other successors, until Gelimer, the last of the Vandal kings, was defeated by the Roman general Belisarius in 533 CE, and the Vandals ceased to exist as a cohesive political and cultural entity.


The Vandals migrated from Scandinavia to the region now known as Poland sometime around 130 BCE and then migrated further south, coming into contact with the Roman Empire. By c. 166 CE they were alternately allied to, or antagonists of, Rome and by 270 CE were actively hostile to the empire. The Hunnic invasions of the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE forced many so-called "barbarian tribes" from their traditional homelands across the borders into Roman territory, seeking safety. The Vandals were denied entrance but, in the winter of 406 CE, they crossed the frozen Rhine River and invaded Gaul. From Gaul they spread to Hispania (modern day Spain), where they came into conflict with the Visigoths already living there.Further complicating the Vandals' situation was the presence of Romans in Hispania, and so they found themselves fighting against two enemies on separate fronts. Under the leadership of Gunderic, the Vandals were able to keep both enemies at bay and took control of the coastal cities with many of the most important ports. Still, the Vandals were constantly threatened with attacks either by the Romans or the Visigoths. While Gunderic was a capable leader, claiming kingship over the Vandals and the Alans (and so possessed of a fairly large army), there was nothing he could do to conquer and hold Hispania as a whole.Gunderic died in 428 CE and was succeeded by the 39-year-old Gaiseric who recognized he needed to find a solution to his people's problem by leaving Spain and establishing a Vandal kingdom elsewhere.



The problem, of course, was where to go, but this was resolved for him by his Roman enemies. While the Vandals were fighting off the Visigoths, the Roman Empire was suffering its usual problems with court intrigue. The emperor in the west was Valentinian III, who was only a child, and actual power lay with his mother, Galla Placidia, and the general Flavius Aetius.Romans generally favored either Aetius or Galla, and the two were almost constantly at work trying to devise plans to thwart the hopes of the other. In c. 428 CE, Aetius devised a scheme whereby a rival of his, Boniface (who ruled in North Africa), was charged with treason against Valentinian III and Galla Placidia. Aetius requested that Galla send for Boniface to come from North Africa and answer the charges while, at the same time, sending word to Boniface that Galla was planning to execute him when he arrived. When Boniface sent word to Galla that he would not come, Aetius declared this was proof of his treason.
At this point, the ancient historian Procopius claims, Boniface invited the Vandals of Spain to North Africa as allies against a Roman invasion. Boniface, as Galla would soon recognize, was innocent of the charges and, as he controlled six provinces in North Africa and the military might to defend them, would have had no need for an agreement with the Vandals. Still, as Aetius and Galla were formidable enemies, Boniface could have sent the invitation to Gaiseric in order to muster as many men as he could. Another account of the Vandals' invasion of North Africa suggests that Gaiseric had been injured in a fall from a horse and was lame and so decided to henceforth wage war by sea which led him to invade in order to establish a naval base at Carthage. Historians have argued for and against both of these claims and continue to do so. Most likely, Gaiseric simply wanted a homeland for his people that was rich in resources and free of Visigoths and so took advantage of the confused situation of the Romans and invaded when he felt Boniface could do nothing about it (or he simply accepted Boniface's invitation with a plan in mind to take the province). North Africa was the major grain supplier for the Roman Empire and, if Gaiseric controlled it, he would be able to effectively negotiate with the Romans to his advantage.
Whatever his reasons, Gaiseric led 80,000 of his people from Spain to North Africa in 429 CE. Historians continue to debate whether the number was 80,000 or 20,000, but the historian Goffart (citing others) writes, "That Geiseric led 80,000 Vandals and associated peoples from Spain to Africa in 429 has been called the one piece of certain information we have about the size of barbarian groups in the age of the invasions. The certainty arises from its being vouched for by apparently independent informants, one Latin, the other Greek " (231). Once in Africa, if the claim that Boniface invited him is accepted, he turned on his host and led his forces against the imperial army. He took the city of Hippo (where St. Augustine, who died at this time, was bishop) after a siege of fourteen months and overran the territories of present day Morocco and Algeria.
Gaiseric took hundreds of Roman prisoners captive, many of them high-profile citizens, but treated them well and offered them freedom if they would swear never to take up arms against the Vandals again. Many of them accepted his offer and, among them, was a Roman officer named Marcian who would later become emperor and would honor his oath. Valentinian III, meanwhile, had no choice but to recognize Gaiseric's victories and abandon the North African provinces except for Carthage.Gaiseric steadily built up his power base, conquering other cities and, in 439 CE, he took Carthage. He then continued on with a string of victories, conquering cities until he was master of North Africa and the Vandals had their own homeland, much to the dismay of Rome. Historian Roger Collins writes, "The determination to regain Africa dominated western imperial policy for the next fifteen years" (90). The Romans would be unsuccessful in this, however, until after Gaiseric's death.


With the Romans defeated, Gaiseric went about the business of ruling his kingdom. The Vandals were Arian Christians, while the Romans were Trinitarians (later known as Catholics). The historian Victor of Vita described the persecutions of Catholics under Gaiseric's reign in his History of the Persecution of the African Province (c. 484 CE). The Arian Vandals rejected the concept of the Trinity as polytheistic heresy, while the Roman Catholics condemned Arianism as a threat to the true faith. The Cambridge Ancient History describes the situation after Gaiseric was fully in control of North Africa:
Geiseric and the Vandals had regarded the African provincials, especially the Roman nobility, with considerable suspicion. Members of many leading families were exiled and had their lands expropriated. Similarly, the religious conflict between Arian Vandals and Catholic Romans was unusually savage. Many Catholic bishops and priests were subjected to internal exile, and their churches and landed endowments given to Arians instead (XIV, 125).
The Vandal king also taxed the Catholics more heavily than the Arians with special attention paid to Catholic churches. The vehemence with which Gaiseric regarded the Trinitarian Christians sprang from their antagonism toward the Vandal form of Arian Christianity which had incorporated aspects of Christianity into the old Germanic paganism of the tribe. In the elder belief structure, Odin was king of the gods and all others were below him and so, in the Vandal form of Christianity, there was only one supreme God and Jesus fulfilled the same role that Thor had previously. The concept of three equally powerful deities reigning as one God was totally unacceptable to Gaiseric, as it violated everything he believed concerning the divine.No Catholics were allowed to serve in his government, and every government official had to be a loyal Arian who believed in precisely what Gaiseric believed. These persecutions, however, did not interfere with his rule, and the Vandal Kingdom flourished.


From their port at Carthage the Vandals now launched their fleet at will and controlled the Mediterranean Sea, which formerly had been Rome's. Gaiseric's navy plundered whatever ships crossed their path and raided coastlines. Plans and attempts by the Romans to drive him and his people from North Africa came to nothing and so, in 442 CE, the Romans acknowledged the Vandal Kingdom as a legitimate political entity, and a treaty was signed between Gaiseric and Valentinian III. In 455 CE, Valentinian assassinated Aetius and was then murdered shortly afterwards by conspirators under Petronius Maximus, who then declared himself emperor. Gaiseric claimed that this nullified the treaty of 442 CE, which had been only valid between himself and Valentinian. He sailed for Italy with his fleet, landed unopposed at Ostia, and marched on Rome. The Romans recognized that their military force was inadequate to meet the Vandals and so put their trust in the diplomatic skills of Pope Leo I and sent him out to meet Gaiseric and plead for mercy.
Leo told Gaiseric he was free to plunder the city but asked him not to destroy it nor harm the inhabitants - and Gaiseric agreed.This was greatly to Gaiseric's advantage on many points but, mainly, because Italy was suffering a famine and, when he landed at Ostia, Gaiseric recognized that his army would be unable to affect a prolonged siege of the city because they would have nothing to eat and Rome's walls were formidable. His assent to Leo's request, then, was more an act of expediency and prudence than mercy. Anything of value, from personal treasures to ornaments on buildings and statues, was taken by the Vandals, but they did not destroy the city, and few people were harmed other than Petronius Maximus who was killed by a Roman mob when he tried to flee and was caught outside the walls. The Vandals looted the city and then marched back to their ships and sailed home, taking with them a number of high-profile hostages including Valentinian III's widow and her daughters. Collins writes:
The sack of Rome of 455 had the immediate effect of making the Vandal threat to Italy seem far more menacing than [other threats]. Despite the Vandals immediately returning to Africa with their loot, the whole episode brought home in a way that seems not to have been previously appreciated just how vulnerable Italy, and Rome in particular, was to sea-borne raiding (88).
Realizing they could no longer afford to tolerate the Vandals in North Africa, the Romans gathered their strength to launch an attack in c.460 CE. Hoping to win a decisive battle, they enlisted the aid of the Vandals' old enemies, the Visigoths, as allies.The fleet gathered in Spain for an invasion of North Africa but Gaiseric, who was always vigilant of Roman militarymovements, launched a pre-emptive strike and destroyed or captured most of the Roman fleet in 461 CE.
Vandal Migration

Vandal Migration


For the next seven years the Vandals continued to command the Mediterranean Sea and terrorize the coastal settlements.Finally, in 468 CE, Rome decided to try again to rid North Africa of the Vandals and take back their provinces. The eastern and western halves of the empire united against the Vandals and sent the whole of their fleet against them. This campaign might have been successful except for the incompetence of the Roman general Basiliscus and the cleverness of Gaiseric. Basiliscus anchored his fleet at Cape Bon instead of driving on to take Carthage directly. Gaiseric, who already knew the invasion was coming, feigned surprise and sent Basiliscus a message asking for a five day truce so that he could prepare to negotiate a peace and surrender. Basiliscus granted him the five days and then remained in the port at Cape Bon to await the Vandal emissaries with their surrender.
Gaiseric, meanwhile, ordered all the old ships in port at Carthage to be loaded with dried brush, wood, and jars of oil. On the evening of the fifth day, while Basiliscus was still waiting for the Vandal emissaries to arrive with their surrender, Gaiseric had the old ships towed slowly toward the Roman fleet. The Vandals waited until the night was fully dark and then fired the ships and sent them toward the Roman galleys. The Roman fleet was packed closely together in the port at Cape Bon and had no room to maneuver to escape the flaming ships of the Vandals. Fire leapt from ship to ship and, as it was a windy night, the flames spread faster. Amidst the smoke and flames, the Vandal fleet emerged, rammed the Roman ships, and boarded them, killing anyone on board who resisted. When the Vandals were certain there was no fleet left worth worrying about, they withdrew; the Roman ships continued to burn throughout the night, and those ships that could still sail retreated back toward Rome with a loss of over 600 ships and countless lives. The Romans were forced to ask for peace, and the present emperor in the west, Ricimer, had to accept Gaiseric's terms, which were simply a restatement of the treaty of 442 CE allowing the Vandals to do whatever they wanted whenever they pleased.


Following this devastating Roman defeat, which had crippled the western empire, Gaiseric mounted a full-scale assault on the eastern empire as retribution. These attacks continued from c. 469 - 475 CE with more Vandal victories than defeats. The Vandals raided the territories of the eastern empire from Alexandria, Egypt up through Anatolia. When the emperor Leo I died, he was succeeded by Zeno who almost instantly opened negotiations for peace. Gaiseric, with his customary fairness, asked for no exorbitant terms; he only demanded that Rome recognize his kingdom as legitimate and leave him alone. He granted freedom of religion to the Catholics living in North Africa, agreed to keep his ships from raiding the Anatolian coastline, and freed whatever Roman prisoners he had taken. He remained the uncontested lord of the Mediterranean Sea and of North Africa until his death, by natural causes, at Carthage in 478 CE.
Gaiseric was succeeded by his son Huneric who persecuted the Catholics (Trinitarian Christians) at the expense of other, more profitable, pursuits. Unlike Gaiseric's persecutions, Huneric's were particularly intense and took time and effort away from the actual administration of the kingdom. Huneric was followed by other kings who ruled more, or less, successfully than he but who never approached the greatness of Gaiseric. The last king of the Vandals was Gelimer who was defeated by Belisarius at the Battles of Ad Decium and Tricameron in 533 CE. Gelimer fled the field and was hunted down and captured in March 534; afterwards he was brought in chains to Constantinople, where he was featured in Belisarius' triumphal parade through the streets and then released. The eastern empire regained control of North Africa, and the Vandals ceased to exist as a cultural entity. King Gaiseric defeated the Romans in almost every engagement and won more battles against Rome than any other military leader in history. He seemed to be able to guess at what the Romans would do before they even knew and consistently thwarted their plans to drive him from his kingdom. He is remembered in the present day as one of the greatest military strategists in history and the most successful ruler of the Germanic tribes of Late Antiquity.

Clovis I › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 10 November 2014
Baptism of Clovis I (Pethrus)
Clovis I (or Chlodovech, 466-511 or 513 CE), king of the Franks, is considered the founding father of the Merovingian dynasty, which would continue for over 200 years. Clovis became king at the age of 15, and by the time of his death 30 years later, he had become the first king to rule over all the Frankish tribes, a firm ally of the Byzantine Empire, and a Christian king. Clovis's policies, and military brilliance, consolidated the regions of Gaul under his rule and, today, he is considered the founder of France.


Towards the end of the 5th century CE, the Roman Empire in the west was dying. Aside from its economic decline, the empire was being bombarded on all sides by a series of barbaric attacks from the Huns, the Visigoths, and the Ostrogoths. In 410 CE Rome even succumbed to a three-day siege by the Gothic king Alaric. Finally, in 476 CE, with the overthrow of Emperor Romulus Augustulus, the empire in the west fell. With the demise of Rome, many of the barbaric tribal kings carved out a portion of the old empire for themselves. One of these barbarians would conquer Gaul and establish a family dynasty that would last for over two centuries. His name was Chlodovech - known to history as Clovis I.


In 481 CE, Clovis, the founding father of the Merovingian dynasty, assumed the throne at the tender age of 15 when his father Childeric, king of a Germanic tribe known as the Salian Franks, died. The pagan king who had fought alongside the Romans against the Huns was honored in death as he had been in life: buried along with weapons, gold, jewelry, and 15 horses. The family name "Merovingian" comes from Clovis's grandfather Merovech, who had also fought alongside the Romans, dying in 456 CE. The young Frankish king had been prepared well by his father and wasted little time in establishing himself as a major force in Europe when, at the age of 20, he opposed Syagrius, the last Roman governor of Gaul.



Along with a number of allies (including his cousins Ragnachar and Chararic), Clovis fought Syagrius at the Battle of Soissons in 486 CE and soundly defeated him. To avoid capture, Syagrius fled to Toulouse, a city located in southwestern Gaul, where he hoped to find refuge with the young Visigothic king Alaric II. Clovis and his army followed Syagrius and demanded his release. Alaric, wanting no part of a war with Clovis, surrendered him. Syagrius was returned to Soissons where he was reportedly beheaded. Although Clovis and Alaric had reached their agreement and parted ways, this would not be the last time that the two would meet, nor would the next time end so amicably. By the end of the year, Clovis had taken the cities of Rouen, Reims, and Paris and, by 491 CE, he had control of the entire west. He had also, by this time, ordered the assassination of the Frankish kings Chararic and Ragnachar, formerly his allies and possibly his relatives, and taken their kingdoms for himself.
Years later, English historian Edward Gibbon would write on Clovis's early conquest of Gaul:
When he first took the field, he had neither gold and silver in his coffers, nor wine and corn in his magazines; but he imitated the example of Caesar … and purchased soldiers with the fruits of conquest. After each successful battle or expedition the spoils were accumulated in one common mass; every warrior received his proportionable share, and the royal prerogative submitted to the equal regulations of military law. The untamed spirit of the barbarians was taught to acknowledge the advantages of regular discipline.
In 495 CE Clovis further increased his supremacy in Gaul when he drove the Alemani back across the upper Rhine River.According to some sources (primarily Gregory of Tours) his later victories over the Alemani (in 496 and 506 CE) influenced his decision to convert to Christianity.


Although raised a pagan (according to some historians, he would be the last of the pagan kings), Clovis realized that a conversion to Christianity would be extremely beneficial to him if he ever hoped to secure the loyalty of all of the Frankish people. According to Gregory of Tours, his conversion came, in part, due to his marriage to the Burgundian princess Clotilde (daughter of Chilperic); her family was Arian, but she was not. According to the historian Roger Collins, however, Gregory should not be completely trusted in his account. Collins writes, "Unlike the reign of Theodoric, there is very little strictly contemporary evidence for that of Clovis" and further notes that the evidence which is available "makes it virtually certain that Clovis was a Christian by around the year 486 CE" (110). Other historians, of course, disagree with Collins and claim that Gregory's account should be considered. Even if he is viewed by some as unreliable, Gregory of Tours is one of the few sources on the reign of Clovis and his conversion to Christianity. Gregory writes:
Clovis took to wife Clotilde, daughter of the Burgundians and a Christian. The queen unceasingly urged the king to acknowledge the true God, and forsake idols. But he could not in any wise be brought until war broke out with the Alamani … The two armies were in battle and there was great slaughter. Clovis' army was near to utter destruction. He… raised his eyes to heaven, saying … If thou shalt grant me victory over these enemies… I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name.
According to Gregory, Clovis was victorious and acknowledged the Christian god through baptism. He previously resisted it strenuously, however, owing in large part to Clotilde's insistence on baptising their children. Clovis refused to have his first born son baptised and so Clotilde had the child baptised secretly; afterwards, the boy fell ill and died. When their second son was born, he, too, was secretly baptized and, like his brother, also fell ill. This time, however, Clotilde prayed to God for his recovery and, according to Gregory of Tours, he became well. Soon after this event, Clovis was victorious against the Alemani in 496 and 506 CE and attributed his victories, and his son's life, to his god. Clovis was inspired by his newly found religious zeal to wage war against the Arian Visigoths which would be some of his most successful military campaigns. This crusade would ultimately push the Visigoths back into Spain and provide greater security for the realm of the Franks.
Conquests of Clovis I

Conquests of Clovis I

His conversion, administered by the bishop of Reims, would not only ensure the loyalty of the conquered provinces but also recognition by Anastasius, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, who was as interested in the success of those who shared his brand of Christianity as he was in the downfall of those who did not.


After his conversion, and with the support of his people and the church, Clovis continued his war with the Visigoths (a struggle he faced throughout his reign), eventually meeting them at the Battle of Vouille in 507 CE at near Poitiers, a city in west-central Gaul, where he defeated and killed their king, Alaric II. The Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric (who was Alaric's ally) was prevented from helping Alaric by the Byzantine emperor Anatasius because Theodoric owed his allegiance first to the empire who had encouraged his rise to power.
Theodoric, like Alaric, was an Arian Christian, while Anastasius was a Nicean (or Trinitarian) Christian, as Clovis was.Anastasius would not, under any circumstances, allow an Arian king to support another Arian ruler against a "true Christian" such as Clovis. Even if Anastasius had not intervened, however, it is unlikely Theodoric could have joined the battle against Clovis as he was married to Clovis's sister, Audofleda, in 492 CE; a marriage Theodoric himself had sought to bind his kingdom to that of Clovis's in alliance. Theodoric was in a difficult position, however, as he had sent one of his daughters in marriage to Alaric II. His choice in remaining out of the war was finally dictated by Anastasius but, as his later actions would prove, it was hardly the choice Theodoric would have made on his own.
After defeating the Visigoths, Clovis returned to Tours, where he was met by the emperor of the east who presented the victorious king with the purple tunic of a consul. With the Visigoths defeated and his realm secure, Clovis elected to rule his united empire from Paris. Attempts to further expand his domain were hampered by Theodoric's intervention. Clovis had wanted the whole of the Aquitanian provinces which had been under Alaric II's rule but, in 508 CE, Theodoric took control of Provence and, by 511CE, had secured the former Visigothic lands for himself.
Tomb of Clovis I

Tomb of Clovis I


In November of 511 CE Clovis died (there is some disagreement over the exact year, and some historians cite 513 CE), leaving a kingdom that was a blend of both Roman and Germanic cultures: language, worship, and law. Clovis believed it important to preserve many of the old Roman traditions and, in fact, had modeled his early reign on that of Julius Caesar.Although he has been accused of slaughtering fellow Frankish kings (some even his relatives), it should be noted that this practice was hardly unusual for the time. By the time of his death, he had extended his authority from the north and west, southward to the Pyrenees. He had defeated the Alemani, Burgundians, and Visigoths; however, his passing would end the expansion of the Franks.
Upon his death, his empire was, according to tradition, divided among his four sons; the “Do-Nothing Kings” who would do little, if anything, to expand their holdings or improve the lives of the people. Clovis's name would live on through his dynasty, the Merovingians, and he is considered the founder of the modern nation of France. History would ultimately Latinize his name to Louis; a name that would live on in French royalty for centuries through 18 kings and remains popular in French culture to the present day.


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