30 June 2011

the Vandals & the Franks

Published by Kenneth S. Doig

The Vandals

Nowadays the term "vandalism" means "wantonly destructive act". The term comes from the name of the East Germanic tribe that was pushed by the Huns into the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, and that finally settled in North Africa.

But were these people really so violent or barbaric to deserve to be remembered the way they are ? Many historians now believe that it was not the case.

It is true that the arrival of over a hundred thousands Vandals in Gaul caused great upheaval, as can be expected from such a large population movement inside a foreign land. This was not specific to the Vandals, but to any invaders. The Vandals did not have the choice, and pay a heavy price for escaping from the Huns. The allied Frankish and Roman armies killed one third of their population, who escaped southward. The Vandals were then attacked by the Visigoths in south-west France, and moved to Spain.

Despite being Christians, the Romans hated the Vandals more than the pagans. The reason is that the Vandals were not adept of Catholicism but Arianism, a version of Christianity ruled as heretic by Rome in 325.

Unable to remain peacefully in southern Spain (in Andalusia, which was probably named after the Vandals), King Geiseric ordered the construction of hundreds of ships and led his people across the Mediterranean to North Africa, then the breadbasket of the Western Roman Empire. The Romans were completely taken aback by this move, so that the Vandals did not meet any resistance in this prosperous, peaceful and remote part of the empire. They advanced as far as Carthage, one of the most important cities in the empire, and took the city without a fight.

Contrarily to popular beliefs, the Vandals did not destroy the cities they took, but preserved them and ruled peacefully over them. Many North Africans displeased with the corrupt Roman administration even greeted the new Vandal rule.

Geiseric gave freedom of religion to the Catholics, while insisting that the regime's elite follow Arianism. The common folk had low taxes under his reign, as most of the tax pressure was on the rich Roman families and the Catholic clergy.

It is interesting to note that the incidence of fair hair and eyes is still more common in some pockets of North Africa (e.g. at the border of Morocco and Algeria => see maps) than in southern Europe, due to Vandal settlements.

The only event that would have earned the Vandals their bad reputation is the sack of Rome in 455. The Vandals had previously signed a peace treaty with Emperor Valentinian III, who offered his daughter's hand in marriage to Geiseric's son. The assassination of Valentinian III by Petronius Maximus to usurp the throne prompted Geiseric to bring his troops to Rome to avenge his father-in-law. Although they did pillage Rome the Vandals did not destroy any building, respecting Pope Leo I's request.

The Roman Empire eventually collapsed, but the Roman Catholic Church survived and indeed prospered afterwards. As heir of the Christian Roman Empire it is not surprising that the Catholic Church rewrote history from its biased point of view, describing the Vandals as destructive barbarians. Historians are now rediscovering that the Vandalic rule in North Africa was in fact one of exemplary rule (compared to the power in Rome at the time, at least) and refinement in the arts, such as poetry.

Charlemagne & the Frankish Empire

Roland and Ronceveaux

Contrarily to idées reçues, it was not the Muslims of Spain who defeated the troops of Charlemagne at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, but the Basque people. Charlemagne had in fact been invited by the wali of Barcelona, Sulaiman Ibn Yakzan Ibn al-Arabi,, to help him fight the Emir of Cordoba. Very unusually for this time of deep religious conviction, the lord protector of Christianity was helping Muslim governor against its own Muslim prince.

The battle became famous through the Song of Roland, composed centuries later. Because of this song, there is a common misconception that Roland (who died in the battle) was the nephew of Charlemagne. This isn't true. They were not even related. Roland (or Hruoland, in fact) was the governor of Brittany.

Charlemagne's coronation

It is not known whether Charlemagne planned his coronation as Emperor of the Occident. It is more likely that Pope Leo III crowned him emperor to his own surprise, so as to make of the Frankish leader the official protector of the Church. The records mention him as "Roman Emperor", and Charlemagne was indeed seen as the heir of the Western Roman Empire by both the Catholic Church and by the Muslim world. Only the Byzantines refused to acknowledge him as such, as they saw him as a rival to their own power

1 comment:

  1. Arrianism was condemned first in Alexandria, then in Anthioch, then in Byzantium, and then in Rome.
    Also, the bishop of Rome ruled it heretical many years before 325, and in 325 Arrianism was condemned in Nicaea (Greece).

    I understand that you may hate chtistianity, but the article is just wrong.


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