Battle of Cap Bon (468)

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Battle of Cap Bon (468)
Part of the Germanic Wars
Cap Bon.jpg
Date 468
Location Cap Bon, Tunisia
Result Decisive Vandal victory
Vandal Kingdom Western Roman Empire
Eastern Roman Empire
Commanders and leaders
Gaiseric Basiliscus
20,000-30,000 men
Unknown, possibly 800-1,000 ships
110,000 men
1,113 ships (Cedrenus)
Casualties and losses
Unknown, but possibly 40%-60% of troops killed 70,000 men
700 ships

The Battle of Cap Bon was an engagement during a joint military expedition of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires led by Basiliscus against the Vandal capital of Carthage in 468. The invasion of the kingdom of the Vandals was one of the greatest military undertakings recorded in the annals of history, a combined amphibious operation with over one thousand ships and one hundred thousand soldiers. The purpose of the operation was to punish the Vandal king Gaiseric for the sacking of Rome in 455, in which the former capital of the Western Roman Empire had been overwhelmed, and the Empress Licinia Eudoxia (widow of Emperor Valentinian III) and her daughters had been taken as hostages.[1]


The plan was concerted between Eastern Emperor Leo, Western Emperor Anthemius, and General Marcellinus, who enjoyed independence in Illyricum. Basiliscus was ordered to sail directly to Carthage, while Marcellinus attacked and took Sardinia, and a third army, commanded by Heraclius of Edessa, landed on the Libyan coast east of Carthage, making rapid progress. It appears that the combined forces met in Sicily, whence the three fleets moved at different periods.[1]

Procopius records that Basiliscus, brother-in-law to Emperor Leo, had been selected as general by the emperor in hope he would balance the growing influence of the Alan Magister militum Aspar who sought to control Leo; however, Basiliscus sought the friendship of Aspar to further his own designs on the throne, and Aspar "repeatedly urged upon Basiliscus that he should spare the Vandals and Genseric".[2]

Ancient and modern historians provided different estimates for the number of ships and troops commanded by Basiliscus, as well as for the expenses of the expedition, although both were enormous sums. According to the text of Priscus, 100,000 ships were assembled, although modern scholars have emended this to 1100, which is closer to Cedrenus's figure of 1113 vessels.[3] The figures for the money spent on this expedition ranges from the 1300 centaria of gold reported by Priscus and Procopius (130,000 Roman pounds), to the 64,000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver by John Lydus and to 65,000 of gold and 700,000 of silver by Candidus.[4]


At the height of their power, the Vandals numbered around 80,000-90,000 men, women, and children. Around 25%-40% of the Vandal population were men of military age, so the Vandals had command of a massive land army of 20,000-30,000 soldiers. The soldiers wore iron helmets, scale mail shirts, trousers, and boots, carried oval shields, and were armed with spears, bows and arrows, daggers, axes, and long iron swords. In addition to their strong, disciplined land forces, the Vandals also had supreme command of the Imperial Roman fleet in Carthage, which numbered at around 800-1,000 ships.

Sardinia and Libya were already conquered by Marcellinus and Heraclius, when Basiliscus cast anchor off the Promontorium Mercurii, now Cap Bon, opposite Sicily, about forty miles from Carthage. Gaiseric asked Basiliscus to allow him five days to draw up conditions for a peace.[5] During the negotiations, Gaiseric gathered his ships and suddenly attacked the Roman fleet. The Vandals had filled many vessels with combustible materials. During the night, these fire ships were propelled against the unguarded and unsuspecting Roman fleet. The Byzantine commanders tried to rescue some ships from destruction, but these manoeuvres were blocked by the attack of other Vandal vessels.[1] Basiliscus fled in the heat of the battle.

One act of heroism stands forth from this naval defeat. Despite the situation, Basiliscus' lieutenant, Joannes, bravely fought the Vandal onslaught; Procopius describes him as "standing on the deck "and turning from side to side kept killing very great numbers of the enemy". Upon seeing that his ship was about to be captured, he refused to surrender to Genso, the son of Gaiseric, instead leaped overboard in heavy armor and drowned himself. His last words were that he "would never come under the hands of dogs".[6]


One half of the Roman fleet was burned, sunk, or captured, and the other half followed the fugitive Basiliscus. Though the Vandals had triumphed over the Romans, they also suffered numerous casualties among the ranks of their army. The whole expedition to recapture North Africa, Corsica, Sardinia, Mauretania, Sicily, and the Balearic islands from the Vandals had failed. Heraclius effected his retreat through the desert into Tripolitania, holding the position for two years until recalled; Marcellinus retired to Sicily, where he was reached by Basiliscus; the general was, however, assassinated, perhaps at the instigation of Ricimer, by one of his own captains; and the king of the Vandals expressed his surprise and satisfaction, that the Romans themselves would remove from the world his most formidable antagonists.[1]

After returning to Constantinople, Basiliscus hid in the church of Hagia Sophia to escape the wrath of the people and the revenge of the Emperor. By the mediation of Verina, Basiliscus obtained the Imperial pardon, and was punished merely with banishment to Heraclea Sintica, in Thrace.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d Smith, William (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Boston: C. Little and J. Brown. pp.  466. Archived from the original on 22 August 2006. Retrieved 4 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Procopius, De Bello III.6.4; translated by H.B. Dewing, Procopius (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1979), vol. 2 pp. 55f.
  3. ^ Priscus, fragment 42; translated by Colin D. Gordon, The Age of Attila: Fifth Century Byzantium and the Barbarians (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1966), p. 120f. See Gordon's note 11 on the emendation.
  4. ^ Procopius, De Bello III.6.2; translated by Dewing, Procopius, vol. 2 p. 55. Candidus, fragment 2; translated by Gordon, p. 121
  5. ^ Procopius suggests that Gaiseric supported his request for a truce with a bribe. (De Bello III.6.12-16; translated by Dewing, Procopius, vol. 2 p. 59f)
  6. ^ Procopius, De Bello III.6.22-24; translated by Dewing, Procopius, vol. 2 p. 63
  7. ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (Macmillan, 1923), vol. 1 pp. 336f