The death of Attila was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most of the courts of Europe. It must have been like having a troublesome neighbour finally move away. But in Carthage there was one man who was sad to see him go. His alliance with Attila had been Genseric’s trump card which had prevented the long overdue reassertion of the empire’s authority over the fertile strip of northern Africa that the Vandals and their Alan allies had wrested from them.
The fall of Attila promoted Genseric to the empire’s number one enemy. But Genseric was nothing if not resourceful. He realised that it would be almost impossible to dislodge him from his newly acquired kingdom if he controlled the sea, and so he built up a formidable navy. Carthage would, as it had during the early years of the Roman republic, dominate the seas. The defensive logic was certainly clear – but the strategy would be implemented in a distinctly Vandal way. In other words, piracy. Soon anyone near a coast had to handle the risk of barbarians turning up to take their stuff.
Decisive leadership on one side of the Mediterranean was matched by paralysis on the other side. Maximus had come to the throne by the far from constitutional method of killing Valentinian for messing with his wife. Although Maximus was something of an imperial insider he was clearly a bit short of legitimacy. He wasn’t recognised by the Byzantine Empire and he didn’t have the contacts with allies that had become necessary. He sent the trusty Avitus to talk to the Visigoths.
To bolster his position at Rome he married the wife of the man he had just had killed, Eudocia. His own wife had conveniently died. The daughter of the Eudoxia had been promised to Huneric, the son of Genseric. Maximus cancelled this, signalling the end of a rather precarious peace deal with the Vandals.
It was certainly time to do something about the Vandals. But doing something about them really required some preparation, particularly naval preparation. All Maximus succeeded in doing was giving Genseric a pretext to attack. This was made even worse when Eudocia asked Genseric to help rescue her from her husband.
Never one to miss a mischief making opportunity Genseric set out for Rome with a fleet. The Romans panicked and many fled the city. Maximus himself kept his calm and waited for the arrival of the Vandals. I am reminded of the old joke, that if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, there is a good chance you have misunderstood the situation. Indeed Maximus had complained to a friend that he did not enjoy the role of emperor at all. His background was a very comfortable one indeed. He came from the hugely wealthy Anician family and had enjoyed a steady income. His position had enabled him to buy political position and power, and he had occupied many of the prestigious positions open to a member of the Roman elite. It does indeed sound like a good life, and you have to wonder why he gave it all up to become an emperor. It seems he wondered himself. I wonder if his indifference to the threat was down to simply not understanding it. His guards certainly did. They scarpered. This left Maximus vulnerable to the political opinions of the masses. They were not impressed, and when he left the palace he was stoned to death by an angry crowd.
The only thing worse than a useless emperor is no emperor. As the Vandals arrived and docked unopposed in the Tiber, they found that not the slightest preparations had been made to resist them. The only authority left in the city, Leo the 10th, sent an embassy. He had after all already got experience in barbarian placating. A promise of relatively good behaviour was extracted from Genseric. It wasn’t much, but it was something. And the bravery of Leo in staying with his flock during the crisis at least deserves credit. Eudoxia also visited her supposed benefactor, only to find herself robbed of her jewels and taken prisoner along with her daughters. Of all the treasures that Genseric could have looted this was the one that had the potential to do the most harm to the empire. He was in possession of the last royal descendant of Theodosius the Great – the biggest conferrer of legitimacy available.
But Genseric did not have to choose which bit of the bounty to take. He had the run of the city. The gates were simply opened and the Vandals walked in. Alaric and his Goths had at least been resisted when they sacked Rome. The Vandals also had no fear of a counterattack, and so could take all the time they wanted. And they had a fleet of ships with which to carry away the loot – the Goths could only take what they could carry. The Vandal sack lasted 14 days and was carried out with a combination of cruelty and thoroughness. One of the first targets was the Pantheon which contained not only many of the remaining treasures of paganism but also the loot from the temple of Jerusalem that had been triumphantly placed there by Titus four hundred years before. Sadly the boat carrying this particular section of the booty sank. Imagine how those astonishing artefacts would be valued today had they not been lost. Needless to say all the gold and silver was taken. But so was the copper and brass. Basically anything of value was parcelled up and carried off to Carthage.
Included in the things of value category were any inhabitants who looked like they would be of value as slaves. The handling of human traffic is an art that the Vandals hadn’t perfected and many of them were sick by the time they arrived. The Bishop of Carthage matched the humanitarian activities of Leo by selling church property to relieve the distress of the captive Romans. In the days before mass media the existence of a humanitarian crisis was something that only the people nearby would have been aware of. It was also something that would have been greeted with a shrug of the shoulders by the people of the time. But this level of disruption must have killed huge numbers of people simply by its effect on food production and distribution. There would have been huge numbers of displaced people and divided families as well. None of these stories of individual tragedy have made it into the history books and they are easy to lose sight of in a narrative that focuses on the decision makers at the top of the tree.
But there was no relief for the reputation of Rome. The empire had let its capital be taken without even a fight. It was a shameful episode. That it even took place was bad enough. But the revenge that would have pursued Genseric to the grave in a former time was simply not forthcoming. The empire was never to recover from this blow.
Next time we’ll look at a few of the last holders of the title of Roman Emperor. These are routinely swept past by standard histories, but for me the succession of men who struggled to keep the show on the road in the face of enormous odds holds a sort of fascination. Was there in fact anything they could have done? I am afraid it will involve a lot of names, most of which don’t last long. I’ll do what I can to make it as easy to follow as possible.