Yitzhak Hen - Roman Barbarians - Out Of Africa

January 16 2018

A new chapter, a new region! This time, the focus lies on the Northern African part of the Roman Empire (or what’s left of it). A new ruler is introduced and a new perspective on the old Roman system and culture.

Out Of Africa: The Vandal Court of Thrasamund

In 429, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe crossed the Strait of Gibralta to enter North Africa. A lot of parts of Roman North Africa fall to the Vandals over the next years and in 455, the Vandals conquered Rome itself.

Hen explains how the African provinces of the Roman Empire were more stable than most other parts, how their wealth was derived from agriculture and how culturally, Roman North Africa was the most romanized place of all the empire.

Despite their name, the Vandals did not appear to have ‘vandalised’ North Africa but rather continued its Roman legacy. Writers of the time describe widespread devastation upon the Vandal’s occupation, but Hen points out that this is not supported by archaeological finds, the continuation of the Roman administration in the area post-Vandalisation or the continued stable economic landscape of the time.

The Vandals enjoyed Roman decadence. Rich clothing and food, daily baths and Roman entertainment were embraced. Unlike their Ostrogothic neighbours however, the Vandals disliked Roman Catholics and their was some prosecution for those not inclined to agree with the message of Arius.

There was no lack of intellectal curiosity however. North Africa - Carthage in particular, was full of schools for medicine, grammar, rhetoric and law; Latin was the spoken language among all North African Vandals and literary activity was not only thriving but heavily Vandal-influenced.

Hen states sagaciously: “More than 60 years after the first Vandals set foot on North African soil, this intellectual proliferation cannot be attributed to the Roman past, but to the Vandal present.”

In 496, the then-ruler Gunthamund was succeeded by his brother Thrasamund.

Thrasamund would go on to be considered the strongest Vandal king yet.

Friendly ties were held with both Byzantine emperor Anastasius I. and Ostrogothic king Theoderic. So close was Thrasamund’s friendship with Theoderic, that the former marries the latter’s sister Amalafrida in 500.

Thrasamund managed to create (and preserve) a booming North African economy, keep relative peace, create a flourishing culture and to treat the Catholics comparatively well.

A simple question emerges:

Question 6 = Why did Thrasamund embrace intellectual culture? Personal interest? To imitate the Romans? Was intellectual fostering possibly common in Vandal society?