VIII: Waiting for the Vandals

From: 428 AD

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Waiting for the Vandals A’  in  managed to regain ground in the Rhineland and on the Channel, but the far West remained in the hands of barbarians who had settled in the Iberian Peninsula twenty years earlier . Many of these events were recorded in the chronicle of the Galician Hydatius,which covered the years –.Having spent his youth in the East, Hydatius became bishop of his native land, “Galicia, situated at the end of the world.”1 The cleric was obsessed with chronology, which he used to justify his eschatological beliefs: basing himself on an apocryphal letter sent by the apostle Thomas to Christ, he firmly believed that the end of the world would occur on  May .2 For Hydatius, the “third year of Valentinian Augustus” (i.e., ) was the rift. Before this date, the chronicler had been able to draw on other sources, but after it, he was cast out to “the pokiest part of the Roman Empire”and therefore forced to narrow his horizons dramatically (Hydatius , Preface, Chronicle, ).3 His Galicia was officially administered by the Roman Empire, but the situation was increasingly unstable. It would shortly be invaded by the Suebi or Swabians, who held the region until .They had enlarged their area of operations because of an event that had been under preparation for some years: the migration of the Vandals from Spain to Africa, which occurred during . The Vandals, descendants of one of the most ancient Germanic tribal groups (who were in turn divided into two ethnic groups: the Hasdingi and the Silingi), entered the Iberian Peninsula in October , along with the Swabians and the Iranic Alans.4 This coalition of barbarians appears to have followed a well worked-out plan to take advantage of  C H A P T E R V I I I the weakness of Roman central government and settle in new territories with the intention of colonizing them (Hydatius, ).The wars and diplomatic activity of the following years helped to confirm their position in Iberia which, around , was divided more or less into three large territories: the Tarraconensis, which remained under Roman control , Galicia, which was officially Roman but in reality territory disputed between the Swabians and the Hasdingian Vandals, and Baetica (i.e., southern Spain), which was occupied by the Silingian Vandals.5 Hydatius and other chroniclers of the time depict a dreadful scene of uninterrupted conflicts,rebellions,and invasions.However,unlike other regions, the sites and necropolises of Spain do not provide any indications of migrating peoples. Clearly, the Vandals, Alans, and Swabians assimilated the local culture in terms of physical artifacts.6 Many Christian authors of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages helped to create the well-known image of a fierce and destructive people , which is still associated with the Vandals. In reality, however, they were no more “barbarian” than the other peoples.7 Their reputation for being uncouth, ill-disciplined, and thuggish warriors is documented by this fifth-century epigram, conserved in the collection known as the Latin Anthology: With the Goths who say eils or scapia, matzia ia drincan, no one dares to produce poetry of any worth. (Latin Anthology, ) The German words in the epigram are not Gothic, but have been identified as one of the rare examples of the Vandalic language (the term “Goths” used in the epigram is synonymous with “barbarians”). The poet lists what were for him the key words in the Vandalic lifestyle: apart from the greeting eils (Heil ), the expression scapia, matzia ia drincan is of considerable interest, and appears to refer to the favorite pastimes of the barbarian soldiers:“produce”or “create”(an erotic allusion?), “eat” and “drink.”8 The year  was crucial for the Vandals as well. Their king, Gunderic , conquered the important city of Hispalis (Seville), and then died “in the clutches of a demon,” which was, according to Hydatius (), a just punishment for having profaned a local church.9 The throne then passed to his half-brother (or possibly stepbrother), Gaiseric or W A I T I N G F O R T H E V A N D A L S  Genseric, probably through a law of succession based on seniority.10 We have been left a very effective literary portrait of this great warrior, who reigned for nearly fifty years over the Vandals and the Alans: He was of medium stature, and lame because of a riding accident. Thoughtful and taciturn, he despised comforts; he was...