Genseric was tight lipped but passionate. He set himself almost impossible objectives and used every tactic available to him to achieve them. It is worth bearing in mind right from the start just how unlikely his career was. The Vandals were not a big tribe and before Genseric they would not have been considered a particularly prominent one. They had ended up in the empire rather more as refugees than as conquerors. Even inside the empire they were not exactly the most successful of invaders. At one point they had been so low on luck that they suffered a famine. So they were very much the poor relations of the Goths. At the point they enter our story they were in southern Spain where they were getting on rather badly with the neighbouring tribes.
Nonetheless Genseric clearly had ambition, and when invited by the Roman general Boniface in Carthage to lend a hand in an internal dispute, he took Boniface’s invitation as an opportunity to seize the largest and most fertile Roman province. The grain from Africa fed Rome and its army. This was a huge strategic opportunity for anyone hostile to the empire – though in the case of the recently hungry Vandals the idea of simply getting hold of a regular supply of food might have been just as powerful a motivator.
The Vandals assembled their forces and set about getting a fleet together. They had to fight a battle with their enemies the Seuvi which held them up a while. While this was going on the situation changes to in Africa. Boniface realised he had been stitched up by Aetius. He now tried to undo his invitation to the Vandals.
Genseric found himself all dressed up but with nowhere to plunder. He had little to lose. His Vandals were a relatively puny group that were near the bottom of the pecking order in Spain. The entire tribe including women and children and some Alan allies only amounted to some 80,000 – hardly enough to take on an empire with a population in the millions. He resolved to proceed anyway and find what allies he could as he went along. The tribesmen from the other side of the border were amenable. But more useful were the breakaway Christian group the Donatists. They were continuing their long standing argument with the church hierarchy which dated back to the time of the emperor Decius. A recent crackdown had stirred up the bad feeling again. Once again Christian disunity would weaken the empire. To add another strand to the problem the Vandals were Arian Christians, so they had their own unrelated problem with the Catholics.
Genseric found himself at the head of an alliance of desperate Vandals, disgruntled sectaries and desert nomads. It must have been a nightmare of a management challenge, but Genseric proved himself up to the job. His management style was savagery and it proved effective. The Vandals have of course become synonymous with mindless destruction. The phrase ‘synonymous with’ is often a cliché, but this one has made it to the dictionary.
There is no doubt that Genseric was a violent and ruthless man even by the standard of a violent and ruthless age. But much of the destruction of church property in this early stage in his career was probably down to his Donatist allies for whom this was the first opportunity they had had to take revenge on their Catholic persecutors.
The internal problems of the empire gave Genseric the chance he need to get established in Africa. But it was far from easy going even with his enemies in disarray. The Vandals laid siege to Hippo and confronted with city walls they quickly became bogged down. The city could be supplied from the sea as the Vandals did not have a fleet, so the Vandals were stuck. St Augustine was famously the bishop of Hippo and was in the city during the siege. In fact he died thirteen months into it.
He was probably not too concerned about the Vandals as he lay on his death bed. They were the ones who were beginning to starve. It looked like their audacious bid for power was going to end in failure.
Boniface and some troops from the Eastern empire arrived intending to put an end to the Vandal problem. But in a pitched battle the barbarians won and won convincingly. Losses were so high that there was plenty of spare space in the transport ships to evacuate civilians from Hippo to Rome. It was a humiliating reverse.
Rather surprisingly Boniface got a reasonable reception from Placidia on his return to Rome. He was even given a medal. Placidia was now siding with Boniface in his struggle with Aetius. This personal grudge had now turned into a public problem with Aetius marching into Italy with his army. Boniface rose to the challenge and a full scale battle ensued. Boniface won the battle but lost his life. One account has it that he was killed by Aetius himself which sounds a bit unlikely. Another odd detail is that he offered his wife to the victor.
Mrs Boniface never got to get to know her former husband’s nemesis. Aetius was exiled for his bad behaviour and fled to stay with the Huns. So the Romans lost the abilities and expertise of their best two generals in a single battle. Meanwhile Genseric continued to improve his position in Africa. He occupied Hippo. He wasn’t simply an ignorant barbarian though and was quite capable of using diplomacy when it suited him. He negotiated a peace treaty with Valentinian, involving a pledge of marriage between his son and the daughter of Valentinian. He even handed his son over as a hostage. Genseric wasn’t mellowing – his position was in truth not a particularly strong one. The religious controversy between the Donatists and the Catholics might have helped him in conquering Africa, but it was a problem to him once he had seized it. His solution was to impose Arianism. He was prepared to tolerate Catholics but he made sure all his officers were Arian. He also had to watch his back from rivals inside the royal family. Genseric had been born out of wedlock. Being a bastard wasn’t a great thing to be even for a barbarian king. But most interestingly in view of later developments, he was also at a severe disadvantage because the Roman’s sea power meant they were able to attack him anywhere forcing him to spread his defences. Genseric might have been a violent, religiously intolerant, dishonest and scheming bastard. But he was no fool and he was learning on the job.
He was also quite capable of biding his time. The great prize in Africa was the city of Carthage. This had once been the centre of an empire that for size and sophistication was a rival to that of Rome. And this rivalry wasn’t just metaphorical. Rome could not stand a rival leading the Romans to completely destroy the place. But its advantageous position had enabled it to rise again and to become one of the major cities of the empire. In the fifth century it was probably either the fourth or the fifth largest city in the Roman world and certainly the largest in Africa by a very long mark. It had to be the objective of an ambitious conqueror, but it was simply too large to be taken by a direct assault. But 8 years after capturing Hippo, Genseric’s Vandals captured Carthage. How they did it hasn’t been recorded. One story is that all the inhabitants were enjoying a particularly good show at the Hippodrome. This is completely nonsensical of course, even avid sports fans can be distracted if an army of Vandals shows up. But it must have been some kind of subterfuge because Genseric also got hold of a fleet in the process. This was to make all the difference. But for now, he was able to send his wealthy new subjects in Carthage the most outrageous tax bill in history. He demanded 100% of their wealth.