Who Were the Vandals?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Vandals were a tribe from Eastern Europe with a very bloody reputation. As they crossed Europe and Africa over the first few centuries CE, they left a trail of looted cities and enormous body counts. Historically insignificant after their defeat by Roman forces in 534 CE, the Vandals left behind little in terms of artifacts or culture, but their behavior echoes throughout history with resounding ferocity.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

The tribe was composed of two main clans, the Asding or Hasdingii and the Siling or Silingii. In about 120 BCE, a major portion of the Vandals had settled in what is now Poland, but prior to this their origins are murky. Scholars believe that they had a mixed racial background comprised of some Celtic and Baltic ancestry as well as Germanic.

For several centuries, the tribe lived in relative obscurity, despite a few skirmishes with neighboring tribes and the powerful Roman Empire. By the 4th century, the majority of tribe members had converted to a form of Christianity called Arianism. This belief system was dangerously in contrast with the more orthodox forms of Christianity, suggesting that Jesus was not God, but was created by God to help humanity.

Although possibly due to increasing attacks by another tribe, it is not truly known why the Vandals began a mass exodus westward in the early 5th century, but it is this journey that created their notoriety. As they migrated toward the Rhine River, they met and defeated the Franks, despite losing 20,000 soldiers and their king. They invaded Gaul and left the area in total ruins, pillaging and burning as they went.

Despite their uneasy and sometimes bloody relations with the Roman Empire, the tribe was granted land in return for an alliance in 409 CE. They occupied Andalusia and Galicia for several years, continuing to fight with nearby tribes. After the powerful Visigoths nearly destroyed the Alan tribe in 426, the remnants of the Alans merged with the Vandals, giving them greater power. During this period, the tribe built an enormous fleet of ships for use in plundering, and in 429 CD, the entire tribe, believed to contain more than 80000 people, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded North Africa.

The tribe besieged North African cities for several years under the command of King Geiseric, eventually establishing their own kingdom with Carthage as its capital city. In 455 CE, they accomplished their most infamous feat of violence: the sack of Rome. After this incredible raid, the Vandals consolidated their wealth and remained supremely powerful for several decades. In 533, however, after years of persistent Roman attacks, the major cities of the Vandals were captured by Rome and the Vandal King Gelimer surrendered, ending their reign permanently.

For a tribe that held considerable power during their era, the Vandals are often forgotten in the history books. Their lack of artistic culture and artifacts has left a huge gap in the historical understanding of the people and their lives. They are mostly remembered for their destructive tactics, which led to the modern term for property damage, “vandalism.”

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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This website really helped. I used it because we are learning about Rome in history class, and we needed to find out about some people who attacked Rome. This was great information!

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