The Reconquest of Africa – Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 41 Part 1

Reconquest of Africa

One of the problems of reading history is that we get a very distorted view of it. We are looking at the past down the wrong end of a telescope. A good example is the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. This seems like a very ephemeral kind of thing from our point of view. In fact the Vandal Kingdom lasted for over 50 years and it must have seemed pretty well established to people living in it. It was possible to have been born in it and to have lived to a pretty mature age without knowing any different.

There isn’t really any good reason why the Vandal Kingdom should not have lasted centuries. Indeed it could have become an equivalent to France in North Africa. The origins of France can be traced back to about the same time and similar circumstances after all. But the situation in Africa had changed from the days when the artful and determined Genseric took on the disorganised and languorous Western Roman Empire. Now it was the Vandal Kingdom that was in the hands of a cosseted youth who had never had to struggle. The Byzantine Empire on the other hand was run by Justinian, a wiley peasant with something to prove.

Although the Vandal Kingdom did have plenty of resources and was a completely viable state, inevitably the larger well established Byzantine Empire had more staying power in the event of a war. So when Justinian decided it was time to re-establish Roman influence in North Africa, there really wasn’t any doubt of the final outcome.

But that didn’t mean that an expedition against Africa was withoutdanger. As one of the King’s councillors, one John of Cappadocia pointed out, the Byzantine army would be operating at a distance of 140 days travel from Constantinople. A siege of a city as significant of Carthage would always be something of a risk. If things went wrong then the first that Justinian would know about it could be the arrival of a barbarian army to take advantage of the now depleted Roman Empire. And organising such as expedition was no minor undertaking. The resources needed and the Taxes that would have to be raised would be significant even for a power as great as Byzantium.

Justinian hesitated before committing himself. But the overall political situation was particularly beneficial to Justinian’s project. The church was behind it, and so apparently was God. An Eastern Bishop had had a vision of a successful outcome to the war.

The divine interest in Africa was probably down to the fact that the Vandals were Arian and therefore heretical Christians. This had been the cause of some trouble in the reign of Genseric who enthusiastically persecuted the Catholic majority. But his less bloodthirsty descendants had been much more tolerant. Indeed the vandal Royal Family had become highly civilized. The last king of Vandal Africa, Hilderic ,had been on very good personal terms with Justinian himself. But the throne had rather predictably be been usurped by someone more aggressive, Gelimer. The persecution of the Catholics had resumed. This gave justinian both an excellent a pretext for invasion and a realistic prospect of support from the indigenous population.

A taste of the disunity in the Vandal Kingdom was served up by the rebellion of Sicily from the Vandals and back to the Romans. One of John of Cappadocia objections to the military project was the necessity of capturing Sicily as part of the overall campaign. This had just been delivered to Justinian on a plate.

And there was one further factor which probably propelled Justinian towards war. He had just contracted a peace treaty with the Persian Empire. This left him with spare troops on his hands. Justinian was probably not a student of Roman history but no doubt had the nouse to realise that leaving an army with time on his hands was not the smartest move.

This was particularly the case when the army had a very charismatic leader to hand. This was the famous Belisarius. Belisarius came from a humble background but his talent had led to rapid promotion. His military genius was evident early on despite the fact that his initial fame rested on a defeat rather than a victory. In a pitched battle with the Persians at Dara he succeeded in extricating a force from a hopeless position against a much larger army.

It was shortly after this battle that Belisarius was back in Constantinople helping Justinian to quell the Nika Revolt. Belisarius appears to have been on good personal terms with Justinian. And his wife was on good terms with Theodora. Belisarius was not the most senior general available, so it was something of a coup to be given the job in the first place. None of the other generals have been very enthusiastic about the mission. Nonetheless they were probably peeved not to get the job. One surprise addition to the staff was John of Cappadocia who despite his scepticism ended up with a plum job in logistics. He would take full advantage of this by adulterating the bread to line his own pocket.

The Byzantine way of war was highly sophisticated and took considerable preparations. The force must have looked very impressive in the harbour of Constantinople prior to its departure. However it was a risky enterprise. This was demonstrated by a number of the setbacks that they suffered on the journey to Africa. Bad weather and problems with provisions soon became evident. Belisarius showed his adaptability by changing the plan. Rather than a direct assault on Carthage itself as originally envisaged, he opted to land at a distance from it to avoid a contested landing.

He was careful to ensure all the supplies his troops needed were paid for. This was to become a characteristic feature of the campaign which was taking place in former Roman territory. The support of the local populace was absolutely crucial.

Fortunately for him his opponent was clearly not a general in the same league as himself. In fact he managed to do nearly everything to ensure the success of the mission of Belisarius. For example one of his first actions during the campaign was to execute the legitimate king. This enabled the invaders to pose as the legitimate avengers of the previous monarch. It also avoid the uncomfortable situation that would have arisen had they succeeded in rescuing him from the dungeon in which he had been held. After all if you’re fighting a war to protect somebody’s rights it is a bit awkward if you have no intention of respecting those rights. Hilderic dead at the hands of Gelimer fitted perfectly into the political objectives of the Byzantines.

Belisarius’ weakness was being a long way from home. He could only fight for as long as he could supply his army. Support from the local population was therefore essential. Luckily after years of oppression of the Catholics by the Arians this support was forthcoming. But it was also possible to alienate them, and large armies are prone to annoy people who have to put up with them. This is still true today, and was even more so in an age where only limited supplies could be carried. Belisarius insisted on his troops paying a fair price for all the supplies they took.

Gelimer was far from short of resources and could easily have given the invader a much harder time than he actually did. Indeed, although the odds were on the side of the attackers there was still a good chance of a successful defence. But the Vandal campaign was mishandled from the start. For a start the Vandals split their forces with a second front in Sardinia. In fact the Vandal force under Gelimer’s brother was successful in this project, and quickly captured the island. The Vandals remained effective even after two generations in Africa. But the 5,000 troops deployed there could have been enough to tip the balance in their favour had they been available in the battle with Belisarius.

Belisarius was wary of the Vandal’s sea power and landed his army distant from Carthage in Libya. This was no doubt the right decision as a single naval engagement with his troops still on transports would have ended his hopes of victory in a day. But it meant a long march to Carthage, which had to be captured if the war was to be won. So his supply problems were maximised. Luckily the local population was sympathetic and his army’s discipline was good enough to keep it that way. It wasn’t a shoe in though. He had to make sure that the soldiers behaved themselves. The other disadvantage of a long march was that it inevitably gave the initiative to the Vandals who could choose the time and the location of their counterattack.

Luckily the Vandals did not fully take advantage of their chance, and when battle was joined their superior position and local knowledge were counteracted by the superior Roman discipline and training. The battle took place at Ad Decimum, which is ten miles from Carthage. (Gibbon interprets this that the battle’s location was a place called Ad Decimum with the name meaning ten miles distant from Carthage – which sounds logical but it is equally possible the battle was named simply after a road marker rather than a settlement.) The Vandals plan was to flank the Romans at a point on the road where the terrain enabled them to do so. The Romans had to pass through a narrow pass, and the Vandals were able to attack from three directions, including the garrison from Carthage. It was a good idea and might well have worked were it not for an effective counterattack by hun cavalry against the weakest of the three attacks. Gelimer also contributed to the disaster by being overcome by the death of his brother and failing to give orders at a crucial moment.

The Vandal forces were scattered and Gelimer fled into the desert. The best opportunity to defeat the Byzantines had been lost. This left the road to Carthage open – a stroke of luck that can hardly have featured in any plan that had been drawn up beforehand. But Carthage was a very large and well defended city. It would still have been possible for Belisarius to get bogged down in a siege, while Gelimer gathered his forces for a return to battle. But again Belisarius had good luck and was allowed into the city by the inhabitants. The Catholics celebrated, and the Vandals sought sanctuary in the churches. What didn’t happen was a sack of the city. There is much to admire in the career of Belisarius, but in some ways this great is the most impressive. A commander with enough control to prevent his soldiers taking advantage of such a great opportunity for loot is a very impressive thing. Control of Carthage gave him the initiative in the campaign as well. Crucially it also gave him control of the Vandal fleet and the best port available in the region.

With effective control of the sea the initiative was now with Belisarius. He was able to transport troops along the coast easily to capture more towns. But Gelimer was not yet defeated. He was able to rally his troops and recruit Moorish mercenaries. He also recalled his brother Zano from Sardinia. He was soon able to counterattack. The defences of Carthage had to be hastily rebuilt. Belisarius had been hard put to win his first encounter with Gelimer. The Vandal was soon able to field a stronger army and start intriguing with some of the Byzantine’s foreign troops.

The Vandals also managed to cut one of the city’s aqueducts. Belisarius acted decisively marching out to meet and defeat the enemy about thirty miles from Carthage. The Byzantine army was significantly outnumbered. But it was much better trained. The cavalry were able to charge, reform and charge again three times. This is no mean feat in the middle of a battle. The infantry were also highly effective. The Vandals had just conquered Sardinia, so were not inexperienced rookies, but even with a numerical superiority they could not best the Byzantines.

Gelimer fled yet again, this time with no chance of making a comeback. He was soon holed up deep in the desert with some Moorish tribes. But he wasn’t enjoying himself. The tribesmen had a lifestyle that was totally alien to someone who had up until recently been a king. They didn’t even have bread. The Byzantines located him and entered into negotiations. This was after agreeing to some preconditions that included sending him a few loaves. Gelimer seems to have been keen on his creature comforts.

In fact the desire for a nice life weighed heavily enough on him to finally sway him to give up his struggle in return for a pension and an estate to retire to. The sting in the tail was that the deal involved a rather public humiliation.

The reason for this was that Belisarius was awarded a triumph. This tradition had fallen into misuse due to the lack of anything much to celebrate in the way of Roman military victories, and of course there was the matter of the Romans no longer having control of Rome. But Constantinople was now well enough established to be a suitable venue. And the conquest of Africa was certainly a suitable occasion. It was a major military success and there was no doubt that that success was largely down to the ability of Belisarius. It must have been quite a show. Gelimer was paraded as one of the spoils of war. But it wasn’t a complete return to the old Roman practices. Traditionally captured enemies had been paraded and then killed. But Gelimer was pensioned off and given somewhere nice to live. This was consistent with the teachings of the Bible but also made political sense. The old Vandal army was incorporated into the empire’s.

Justinian could now claim to be the first emperor since Trajan to have actually conquered somewhere of reasonable size. Rome was back in the conquering business, even if they weren’t actually back in Rome yet.


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