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  • The Sacking of Rome – June 16, 455 AD

    Zach Beasley

    The Sacking of Rome – June 16, 455 AD

    The Vandals were living in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica during the reign of King Gunderic. After Gunderic’s death in 428 AD, his half-brother, Genseric (or Gaiseric), was elected king. He wanted to greatly expand the power and influence of his people, but was suffering from numerous attacks by their neighbors, the larger Visigoth tribe. After being attacked by another neighboring tribe, the Suebi, Genseric decided to move to North Africa, even though he was victorious in this battle.


    At the time, the Roman governor of North Africa, Bonifacius, was having disputes with Aetius, an accomplished Roman general and Master of Soldiers stationed there. By 429, Genseric had moved all of his people, between 20-80,000 of them, to the new lands and taking advantage of the Roman divided forces, quickly took over modern-day Morocco and northern Algeria. His army laid siege to Hippo Regius and finally took it after 14 hard-fought months.

    Genseric continued to press his advantage as the Romans were heavily involved in campaigns against the Huns in Gaul. On October 19, 439, he took Carthage, along with the ports. He then reduced the taxes of the common folk, strengthened the navy and paid for everything by relying on the taxes on the wealthy and Catholic clergy. He made Carthage the new Vandal capital and from there took Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands. By 442, the Romans realized they need to acknowledge the Vandals and recognized them as an independent kingdom and became a Roman ally.

    The Roman emperor, Valentinian III, entered a peace agreement with Genseric and to strengthen their alliance, Valentinian betrothed his daughter, Eudocia, to Genseric’s son, Huneric. The marriage had to wait, however, as Eudocia was only 5 at the time.

    With North Africa and nearby territories under control of the Vandals as an ally, Valentianian and Aetius were able to just concentrate on the campaigns against Attila the Hun and his armies. Sometime before 449, Valentinian had to grant the title of Magister Militum to Attila the Hun to placate him after 8 years of constant raids on the Balkan provinces. In 449, Justa Grata Honoria, Valentinian’s sister, sent Attila a message asking him to rescue her from an arranged marriage the emperor was forcing on her. She offered him half of the western Roman empire in exchange.

    Attila secured peace with the eastern Roman court and invaded Gaul in 450. Genseric may have bribed him as well to also attack the Visigoths along the way. In early 451, Attila took Divodurum Mediomatricum after crossing the Rhine and into Belgic territory. Aetius responded by gathering Roman troops, Visigoths and Burgundians and repelled Attila, but allowed him and many of his troops to escape. Attila regrouped and in 452 invaded Italy itself. He sacked Aquileia and burned it to the ground. Valentinian had moved his court from Ravenna back to Rome and was there as Attila took Verona and Vicentia on the way to the Rome. Valentinian sent Pope Leo I and two senators to negotiate with Attila. When they met with Attila, the Huns were dealing with a plague, famine and news from home that Marcian, emperor in the east, was attacking their lands. Attila decided to turn around and head home but died of natural causes along the way in Pannonia in 453.

    With the Huns now finally out of the way, Valentinian decided it was time to deal with the problem of the enormous power Aetius had gathered over time. Even though he was his son through marriage to his daughter, Placidia, he murdered the unarmed Aetius with his sword, encouraged by a wealthy senator, Petronius Maximus, on September 21, 454. Maximus then convinced some of the soldiers that Valentinian was responsible for the murder of Aetius and on March 16, 455, two Scythian soldiers killed the emperor in camp and Maximus took the throne for himself.

    Maximus declared the betrothal of Genseric to Eudocia void and married Valentinian’s wife, Licinia Eudoxia. He elevated Avitus to Master of Soldiers and commanded him to go and recruit the Visigoths so he could deal with the Vandals. By May, Avitus had not yet returned with the hoped forces and news arrived that Genseric was on his way to Rome. Panic ensued and not only did Romans begin to flee, but even the personal bodyguard of Maximus and the Senate abandoned him. As Maximus left the city on his own, accounts vary but he was either stoned to death by an angry mob or killed by a soldier named Ursus on May 30.

    Three days later, Genseric arrived and Pope Leo I implored the king to not sack the city. As a compromise, since Maximus was already out of the way and the Romans opened the gates willingly, the Vandals plundered Rome of great amounts of treasure, including the gilded tiles on the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, hence the modern term “vandalism”. On June 16, 455 AD after 14 days of looting, the Vandals left, taking Licinia Eudoxia and her daughters with them, and Huneric and Eudocia finally married.


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