Posted by: ken98 | June 9, 2011

Africa at War: Vandals Crushed, Empire Restored, and Gibbon Apoplectic

Day 636 – Ken here (Th)(6-9-2011)
(DEF II, v.4 Ch.41 pp.620-630)(pages read: 1680)

The Story
Justininian-Vandal War-Debates
  • Both East and West Romans had sent very costly fleets before 7 decades earlier (Eastern Rome’s Leo’s Armada headed by Basiliscus in 468 and Western Rome’s Majorian’s sabotaged fleet preparations in 460
  • – this in response to the Sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 – ALL TOTAL FAILURES – Could No one rid the empire of the Vandals? They seemed to lead a charmed life
  • Procopius tediously lists all the arguments against war – the usual ones: expensive, outcome uncertain, likely to result in a backfire and an attack on Constantinople itself
  • Proc says supposedly a fanatical bishop prophesied victory to the “Catholic” Justinian over the “Heretic” Arian Vandals – not the 1st time the religion card trumped all – that’s why the Franks converted pretty quickly to Catholicism once they took over Roman Gaul – altho the fanatical bishop sounds to me like a plant by Justinian – but that’s just me
  • Justinian gets Eastern Africa (Tripoli) to go over to the empire again (go in rebellion), and gets Sardinia to rebel – causing Gelimer to have to go UP TO SARDINIA and reconquer the island – leaving Just. (as he’d planned) free(r) rein back home around Carthage – opening up 2 fronts

    The Famous General Belisarius – his Character and Persian Campaigns (529-532)
  • We come to the General Belisarius – subject of Romance and much myth-making in the Middle Ages and onwards – although it is due to his SECRETARY the Famous Historian Procopius – of whom we have been talking for days and days – that we know so much about Belisarius – both good and bad – Remember Procopius’s Histories and his scandalously negative “Secret Histories” or “Anecdotes” in which he airs all the dirty linen – real or imaginary – he can get his cultured Attic Greek literary hands on
  • Bel. born a Thracian peasant – near the same country Justinian is orig from (Just. being peasant-stock also)
  • Bel. joins Just. personal guards before Just. is emperor, rises with Just.
  • In 1st 5 yrs of Just. reign, Bel. given campaigns in Dara (saving city), in Syria (fighting Persian raiding, pillaging) – ably led, successful, (fights Persians to standstill and a treaty) and leads to
  • Chosen for reconquest of Africa, with help of beautiful wife Antonina (sometime friend/foe of Empress Theodora, and per Proc. daught. of charioteer, wild, scheming, able – in short a good noble Byzantine wife for Bel. – altho a handful to take care of apparently)

    Justinian and Belisarius – Preparations for the Vandal War in Africa
  • Belisarius arms the flower of the invading force – his own personal guard of 400 Heruli barbarians + 600 Huns – WE HAVE PRIVATE ARMIES AGAIN – a sign we have CROSSED OVER A THRESHOLD and ARE IN ANOTHER KIND OF ROME – we havent really had private armies since The Triumvirate and Augustus took over the Republic around 30 BCE – 550 or so years ago
  • 5000 horse, 10,000 foot, and archer/cavalry, 500 transports, 20,000 sailors about 100,000 tons of ship (quite a lot for Late Roman times – the biggest aircraft carriers nowadays (Supercarriers) weigh in at a displacement of about 100,000 tons – in Gibbon’s day a large ship would be 2-3,000 tons – the largest byz’s were probly 500 tons – per Gibbon – avg about 200 tons, thus 500 ships x 200 tons gives 100,000 tons)

    Belisarius – Voyage of the Great Roman Armada
  • Romans are NOT sailors, so they are very very shy of the open sea -it takes a while to get to Africa
  • All of which Gibbon describes with a subdued smirk – coming from a nation of sea-faring, globe-girdling building an empire based on naval power
  • Bel. takes his wife Antonina
  • They cautiously make for Thrace (5 days), then on to far south-western corner of Greece (Methone) – where supposedly they found the infamous penny-pincher John of Cappadocia (chief minister to Justinian) had skimped on the bread which was molded and inedible – Bel. makes up for it out of his own pocket – BUYING BREAD for the ENTIRE FLEET – shows you how RICH rich really was in Late Roman times
  • Then about 400 miles to Sicily – a fearful trip for them, almost without water saved by Antonina’s (Bel. wife) forethought in packing glass bottles – all this from Procopius – a little hard to believe that it was all this disorganized
  • The Ostrogoths in Sicily are feuding with the Vandals, and allow Just.’s fleet to land and rest at Caucana, the Romans await intelligence from Africa (Proc. is sent to reconnoiter) and they find the Vandal king is in Sardinia, re-conquering the island! unsuspecting of the Roman invasion – the Romans land at Caput Vada (Cape of Shoals) – 5 days march from Carthage

    Belisarius – Landing and Battles in North Africa – Lucky, Unexpected Easy Victory
  • September 533 – Romans begin march of 10-12 days into Carthage (Vandal capital of Africa), they don’t plunder, but pay for all their supplies – Roman populace welcomes the imperial troops
  • Battle 1 – Ad Decimum – “At the Mile Marker Ten” – 10 Roman miles from Carthage – brother of Gesimer, Ammatus and nephew Gibamund try to surprise the creeping army of Bel., they are killed (LUCK) and the larger army of Vandals flees, pursued in a disorderly manner by the Romans – Romans could have been wiped out by a concerted attack on pillaging soldiers – LUCK
  • Gelimer retreats, abandons Carthage, goes to the Moors (barbarian nomads of the Libyan desert) – but orders Hilderic killed (old king that he deposed)(conveniently clearing the slate for the Romans – they dont HAVE TO re-instate Hilderic – their casus belli – reason for war, they can just take over)
  • Enter Carthage on St Cyprian’s day – which GALLS Gibbon – as he kind of despises Cyprian
  • Battle 2 – in Tricameron, 1st in fields near Bulla – brother of Gelime, Zano comes from Sardinia, meet Bel. at Tricam. Vandals supposedly outnumber Romans 10 : 1 – Zano killed, Gelimer retreats into Atlas mtns, Roman pillaging resumes of fleeing army and Vandal landowners – LUCKY that the Vandals were not able to take adv of lack of control
  • Bel. gets submission of Tripoli, Corsica, Sardinia, Majorca, Minorca and Septem (Ceuta) far to the West
  • Africa rejoins the empire – made into 7 provinces with a Praetorian Prefect, eventually an Exarch (over Italy and Africa) – 4 consular and 3 presidential governors with staffs altogether in the thousands – a TYPICAL LATE ROMAN BUREAUCRATIC set up – probably the North Africans quickly repented of the freer easier days under the Vandals –
  • Catholic Church set up with a vengeance – all Arian, Donatists suppressed
  • Gelimer in exile with barbarians asks for his famous harp, sponge, and loaf of bread – he surrenders himself to Bel. and is promised (and surprisingly enough, gets) a pension, a villa, and freedom back in the suburbs of Constantinople – a very satisfying, civilized ending to the 100 year (428-533)wild ride of German Vandals in Africa

    An etching by Hogarth - the wild parties of 18th cent. England

    An etching by Hogarth - the wild parties of 18th cent. England


    Quotable Gibbon
    A Few Moments of Somewhat Un-Enlightened, But Understandable EMOTION


    The further we go into the last 3 volumes, the more, well, ahem! drama-filled, and perhaps hormone-racing the footnotes become. Here are a select few from the last 10 pages of Gibbon.
    On The ABSURD! Length of Mediterranean Voyages
    All things naval is the proper province of any English Gentleman of the 18th century Empire, and Gibbon is no exception. Here he questions the already suspect speechifying of John of Cappadocia (who is trying to show how DIFFICULT a war in NORTH AFRICA would be to an empire centered on Constantinople way in the North. That’s all well and good, but Gibbon falls all over himself in exclaiming how idiotic his arguments are for a Mediterranean voyage and a small, Mediterranean empire – nothing like a global empire beginning to encompass the entire subcontinent of India! A little late-eighteenth century smirking ensues.

    Inspired by such selfish motives, (for we may not suspect him of any zeal for the public good,) John of Cappadocia ventured to oppose in full council the inclinations of his master. He confessed, that a victory of such importance could not be too dearly purchased; but he represented in a grave discourse the certain difficulties and the uncertain event. “You undertake,” said the praefect, “to besiege Carthage: by land, the distance is not less than one hundred and forty days’ journey; on the sea, a whole year (4) must elapse before you can receive any intelligence from your fleet. If Africa should be reduced, it cannot be preserved without the additional conquest of Sicily and Italy. Success will impose the obligations of new labours; a single misfortune will attract the Barbarians into the heart of your exhausted empire.”

    Note 004
    A year – absurd exaggeration! The conquest of Africa may be dated A.D. 533, September 14. It is celebrated by Justinian in the preface to his Institutes, which were published November 21 of the same year. Including the voyage and return, such a computation might be truly applied to our Indian empire.

    (DEF II, vol.4, ch.41, p.621, fn.4)
    On Alcohol and the Law – Long Before MADD or DUI’s
    Before Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and stricter and stricter Driving Under the Influence (DUI) laws it was pretty incomprehensible for the average hard-drinking English Gentleman to imagine why a law would be more stringent and punishment more severe if alcohol were involved – although apparently the Ancient Greeks had come to the same conclusion as we have in the last few decades in the Western world.

    Oh, those Ancient Greeks! Throwing the book at drunks! What strange, ancient, quaint legal behavior!

    But the rising sedition was appeased by the authority and eloquence of the general: and he represented to the assembled troops the obligation of justice, the importance of discipline, the rewards of piety and virtue, and the unpardonable guilt of murder, which, in his apprehension, was aggravated rather than excused by the vice of intoxication. (11)

    Note 011
    I have read of a Greek legislator, who inflicted a double penalty on the crimes committed in a state of intoxication; but it seems agreed that this was rather a political than a moral law.

    (DEF II, vol.4, ch.41, p.626, fn.11)
    On The Size Of Boats
    Gibbon, as a citizen of a naval-based empire, knows (or would like to be known as) a man who knows his ship – he’s practically apoplectic when confronted with historians who not only don’t know anything about ships, but have little ability to add.

    The smallest of these vessels may be computed at thirty, the largest at five hundred, tons; and the fair average will supply an allowance, liberal, but not profuse, of about one hundred thousand tons, (10) for the reception of thirty-five thousand soldiers and sailors, of five thousand horses, of arms, engines, and military stores, and of a sufficient stock of water and provisions for a voyage, perhaps, of three months.

    (DEF II, vol.4, ch.41, p.625)

    and the blustering rejoinder in the juicy footnte –

    Note 010
    The text appears to allow for the largest vessels 50,000 medimni, or 3000 tons, (since the medimnus weighed 160 Roman, or 120 avoirdupois, pounds.) I have given a more rational interpretation, by supposing that the Attic style of Procopius conceals the legal and popular modius, a sixth part of the medimnus, (Hooper’s Ancient Measures, p. 152, &c.) A contrary and indeed a stranger mistake has crept into an oration of Dinarchus, (contra Demosthenem, in Reiske Orator. Graec tom iv. P. ii. p. 34.) By reducing the number of ships from 500 to 50, and translating by mines, or pounds, Cousin has generously allowed 500 tons for the whole of the Imperial fleet! Did he never think?

    (DEF II, vol.4, ch.41, p.625, fn. 10)

    (500 tons is about the size of two large Byzantine ships, about 1/4 the size of a large ship of Gibbon’s day.)

    Dromon photo of model - notice the Lateen sails and the oars - these ships were built for the Mediterranean, for wind-blown, and for self-propelled movement - I guess they were used from the 500's through the 1000's and later had siphons on the front which spouted fire (the famous Greek Fire - probably some kind of naphtha - that we'll hear about later) - from the site -

    Dromon photo of model - notice the Lateen sails and the oars - these ships were built for the Mediterranean, for wind-blown, and for self-propelled movement - I guess they were used from the 500's through the 1000's and later had siphons on the front which spouted fire (the famous Greek Fire - probably some kind of naphtha - that we'll hear about later) - from the site -

    Another image of a Byzantine Dromon (Runner) ship - again from

    Another image of a Byzantine Dromon (Runner) ship - again from


    Ships – The Dromon or Runner
    The Workhorse of the Byzantine Navy


    The Dromon (Greek for runner) was probably the kind of ship used to transport the troops and supplies to and from Africa – although, in all actuality, the Roman government probably commandeered most of the commercial shipping fleet of the Eastern Mediterranean to mount the invasion of Vandal North Africa and Sicily, so it was probably a pretty motley, variegated, and non-uniform “fleet” that set sail in the bright June sunshine in 533.

    Last Word…
    Belisarius – The Beggar at the Gates
    The Never-Ending Romance of the Great East Roman General

    A Possible Life-Portrait of Belisarius - from the mosaics in the church of San Vitale Ravenna - this is the man standing immediately to the right of Justinian - is this the face of Belisarius?

    A Possible Life-Portrait of Belisarius - from the mosaics in the church of San Vitale Ravenna - this is the anonymous man standing immediately to the right of Justinian - is this the face of Belisarius?

    Antonina? An assumption - like the -picture- of Belisarius above - this is the anonymous 1st hand-maiden to the left of the Empress Theodora in the famous mosaics in the church of San Vitale Ravenna - who knows?

    Antonina, Belisarius's wife? An assumption - like the -picture- of Belisarius to the left - this is the anonymous 1st hand-maiden to the left of the Empress Theodora in the famous mosaics in the church of San Vitale Ravenna - who knows? She certainly has the robe for it - fanciest of all the maidens


    This from Wiki (here

    Legend as a blind beggar

    According to a story that gained popularity during the Middle Ages, Justinian is said to have ordered Belisarius’ eyes to be put out, and reduced him to the status of homeless beggar near the Pincian Gate of Rome, condemned to asking passers-by to “give an obolus to Belisarius” (date obolum Belisario), before pardoning him. Most modern scholars believe the story to be apocryphal, though Philip Stanhope, a 19th century British philologist who wrote Life of Belisarius — the only exhaustive biography of the great general — believed the story to be true. Based on a parsing of the available primary sources, Stanhope created an argument for the legend’s authenticity.

    Though the legend remains of dubious provenance, after the publication of Jean-François Marmontel’s novel Bélisaire (1767), this account became a popular subject for progressive painters and their patrons in the later 18th century, who saw parallels between the actions of Justinian and the repression imposed by contemporary rulers.

    For such subtexts, Marmontel’s novel received a public censure by Louis Legrand of the Sorbonne, which contemporary divines regarded as model expositions of theological knowledge and clear thinking (Catholic Encyclopedia: “Louis Legrand”). Marmontel and the painters and sculptors (a bust of Belisarius by the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Stouf is at the J. Paul Getty Museum) depicted Belisarius as a kind of secular saint, sharing the suffering of the downtrodden poor. The most famous of these paintings, by Jacques-Louis David, combines the themes of charity (the alms giver), injustice (Belisarius), and the radical reversal of power (the soldier who recognises his old commander). Others portray him being helped by the poor after his rejection by the powerful.

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