How Did the Activities of the Ancient Vandals Lead to the Creation of the Modern Term ‘Vandalism’

Modern Depiction of Gaiseric Leading the Sack of Rome in AD 455

Today, most people are familiar with the term “vandalism” and its meaning. Generally speaking, vandalism usually refers to wanton acts of mayhem and destruction, usually directed toward property and those who engage in such acts are termed “vandals.” A historical examination of the term reveals that its history is much more interesting and important than some broken windows or graffiti; it originated with the name of a Germanic tribe that wrought destruction across Europe and North Africa in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

For a brief period in world history, the Vandals were one of the most important peoples in late antiquity as they established kingdoms in Spain and North Africa and threatened the very existence of Rome, even going so far as to sack the city in AD 455. Despite only being around for a short period historically speaking, the Vandals deeply influenced the psyche of Europe, which ultimately resulted in their name being forever associated with acts of craven property destruction.

The Great Migrations

Like most peoples of the ancient world, the origins of the Vandals are a bit obscure, but they were part of a larger movement of peoples in Europe that began in the third and fourth centuries AD and lasted well into the ninth century. The migrations – often referred to by scholars as the “Great Migrations” – were led by several different tribes of Germanic origins with colorful names such as the Goths, Franks, and of course the Vandals. There were also a number of Asiatic tribes – the Huns and Avars being the two most prominent – that also took part in the migrations, each tribe pushing against each other to create a domino effect of wandering war bands across Europe. [1]

The ancestors of the Vandals are believed to have originated in Scandinavia before migrating south to the Black Sea region by the third and fourth centuries AD. [2] The Vandals’ ancestors, who were at that time still a disparate pack of various Germanic peoples, then moved west where they became the historical Vandal people.

The Vandals were actually a coalition of two Germanic tribes that were named for their ruling dynasties: the Hasdings and Silings. The two tribes worked together as they ravaged their way through Gaul and into Spain, but the two groups retained their distinct royal houses until the Siling royal house was eliminated, which forced the survivors to join Hasding Vandals in AD 418. [3] But before the Hasding and Siling Vandals combined their royal lines, they subjected much of western Europe to several years of terror and destruction.

Let the Vandalism Begin!

The year 406 proved to be a watershed period for the Vandals and Europe. It was in that year that the two Vandal tribes – along with another Germanic tribe known as the Sueves and a non-Germanic tribe called the Alans – crossed the Rhine River and moved into Gaul, which was the ancient name for France. Once in Gaul, the Vandals immediately began to earn their name. According to the sixth century AD Church historian, Gregory of Tours, the Vandals laid waste to the land, sparing no man, woman, or child.[4] Gaul was subjected to the capricious violence of the Vandals for about three years until they and their allies left in AD 409.

Although the Vandals lived up their name in Gaul, they were unable to truly wrest control of the country away from the Romans. Due to a combination of the Vandals’ atrocities and the benefits of Roman citizenship, the people of Gaul resisted the Vandals who saw greener pastures south of the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain. Once in Spain, the Vandals divided their forces with the Silings taking the province of Baetcia in the south while the Hasdings under King Gunderic (ruled AD 407-428) took control of the northwestern province of Gallacia. By AD 411 the Vandals and their allies had subjected all of Spain to their rule and were begrudgingly legitimized by the Romans, who gave them the coveted status of a federated people.[5] Vandal rule in Spain would prove to be tenuous and ephemeral: the Romans did not want to give up the lucrative province so easily and the Vandal royal house was full of back-stabbing Machiavellians.

The crowning achievement of Gunderic’s rule was the permanent consolidation of the Hasding and Siling Vandals into one royal house in AD 418. Ten years after the unification, Gunderic died and the Vandal kingship passed on to his brother, Gaiseric (ruled AD 428-477). The details of Gunderic’s death and Gaiseric’s ascension to the kingship are murky; many modern scholars believe that Gaiseric not only killed his brother to become king but also murdered Gunderic’s entire family in order to quell any possible rival claim to the throne.[6] The seemingly unstable political situation in the Vandal royal house led the Romans to rescind their federated status, which and them with annihilation. Once more the Vandals were forced to search for a new home.

The Vandal Kingdom of North Africa

As Gaiseric and the Vandals were facing potential doom at the hands of the Romans and their Visigoth allies, an individual entered the scene who helped change the course of history for the Vandals, Rome, and the entire Mediterranean world of late antiquity. A Roman general named Boniface had managed to establish his own de facto kingdom in the region of what is today Tunisia. Seeing that Boniface presented a problem for the already disintegrating Roman Empire, Emperor Valentinian III (ruled AD 425-455) recalled the general to Rome. Boniface refused the order and then defeated a Roman army sent to rein him in, but when the recalcitrant general learned that the emperor was sending a Goth army, he made the historically important decision of inviting the entire Vandal nation to North Africa. Knowing that his options were severely limited in Spain, Gaiseric accepted Boniface’s offer, leading 80,000 Vandals and Alans across the Strait of Gibraltar in May 429.[7]

The alliance between Boniface and Gaiseric did not last very long. Boniface attempted to make a new deal with the Romans in order to remove the Vandals from North Africa. The result was a series of bloody battles between Boniface’s forces and the Vandals that took place from 430 until 432. Boniface was vanquished and the Vandals established hegemony over North Africa as a result. With Boniface out of the way, the Vandals were free to turn their rage on the local population, which was largely the result of religious differences. Although the Vandals professed to be Christians, they were followers of Arianism, which was a non-Trinitarian sect. According to Gregory of Tours, the Vandal King Hunneric (ruled AD 477-484) was especially brutal towards Catholics, forcing “saints to suffer many tortures, first the rack, then the flames, then the pincers and after all that death itself.”[8]

Vandalizing Rome

Vandal Coin of King Hilderic

With their empire crumbling all around them and the bulk of Roman power and culture having been transferred to Constantinople, the Romans were in no real position to challenge the upstart Vandals in North Africa and instead once more gave them federated status in AD 439. The recognition came after the Vandals conquered the ancient city of Carthage, leaving a large swath of destruction in their wake, which had by then become part and parcel of their violent activities. Finding themselves in a prime negotiating position, the Vandals were able to make the Romans sign a treaty in 442 that recognized their empire, which roughly encompassed the modern nation-states and regions of Tunisia, Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Malta, Algeria, and part of Morocco.[9]

The Vandals, though, were not a people who could not resist the thrill and financial benefits of plunder and pillage. They were compelled to vandalize more lands, but the success of their conquests meant that there were few lands left to pillage that they did not rule. In 455, Gaiseric decided to turn his sights toward the greatest prize of all – Rome. After Rome was sacked by the Goths in AD 410, it was a shell of its former glory, but still a prize for any warlord who dared to attempt a repeat performance. According to the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Gaiseric sacked Rome like the Goths before him but followed up the feat by kidnapping the entire imperial family.

"But Gizeric took Eudoxia captive, together with Eudocia and Placidia, the children of herself and Valentinian, and placing an exceedingly great amount of gold and other treasures in his ships and sailed to Carthage, having spared neither bronze nor anything else whatsoever in the palace. He plundered also the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and tore off half of the roof. Now, this roof was of bronze of the finest quality, and since gold was laid over it exceedingly think, it shone as a magnificent and wonderful spectacle. But of the ships with Gizeric, one, which was bearing the statues, was lost, they say, but with all the others the Vandals reached the port in the harbor of Carthage."[10]

For the Vandals, the sack of Rome was their high point. In less than 100 years the Vandals were obliterated by the Byzantine Empire, but the memory of their violent deeds was carried on by generations of Europeans until the modern period.

The Legacy of the Vandals in Modern Times

After the collapse of their dynasty in AD 534, knowledge of the Vandals receded into the depths of Europe’s collective psyche, only to be rekindled in the eighteenth century. It was during the eighteenth century in France – the period known today as the “Enlightenment” – when scholars, known as savants, became interested in a factual history of the ancient world. Scholars believed that by studying the ancient world, such as the fall of Rome, they could identify historical processes that were taking place in the present. Many in France’s elite circles, especially members of the Church, saw the French Revolution as bearing all the hallmarks of Rome’s decline: it was replete with degeneracy, a lack of order and civility, and most of all a propensity towards extreme acts of violence.

It was in this social and political milieu of eighteenth century France when Henri Grégoire, the Bishop of Blois, wrote a report about the effects of the French Revolution titled, Rapport sur les destructions opérées par le vandalism, et sur les moyens de le réprimer in 1794. [11] Since the Vandals did not stay in Gaul very long and was there mainly to pillage, they came to be viewed by the modern French in an extremely negative way. The term caught on quickly with ”Vandalisme” being an entry in the fifth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’académie française in 1798.[12] From eighteenth-century France, the word eventually made it into English where it became the pejorative “vandalism” that it is today, forever associating acts of property destruction with a once-great kingdom.


  1. Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p.13
  2. Bury, J. B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), p.15
  3. Bury, p.82
  4. Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. (London: Penguin Books, 1974), II.2
  5. Halsall, Guy. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 227
  6. Merrills, A. H. “The Secret of My Succession: Dynasty and Crisis in Vandal North Africa.” Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010) p. 6
  7. Bury, p. 118
  8. Gregory of Tours, II.3
  9. Merrills, p. 8
  10. Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1916), III, v. 1-5
  11. Merrills, A. H. “The Origins of ‘Vandalism.’” International Journal of Classical Tradition 16 (2009) p. 155
  12. Merrills (2009) p. 156

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