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King of the Vandals and Alans
Reign427 – 477
Bornc. 389
Near Lake Balaton, Pannonia Prima, Western Roman Empire
Died25 January 477 (aged 87)
Carthage, Vandal Kingdom

Gaiseric (c. 389 – 25 January 477),[1] also known as Geiseric or Genseric (Latin: Gaisericus, Geisericus; reconstructed Vandalic: *Gaisarīx[a]) was king of the Vandals and Alans from 428 to 477. He ruled over a kingdom and played a key role in the decline of the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century.

The murder of Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who had betrothed his daughter to Gaiseric's son Huneric, led the Vandal king to invade Italy. The invasion culminated in his most famous exploit, the capture and plundering of Rome in June 455. Gaiseric repulsed two major attempts by both halves of the Roman Empire to reclaim North Africa, inflicting devastating defeats on the forces of Majorian in 460 and Basiliscus in 468. As a result, the Romans abandoned their campaign against the Vandals and concluded peace with Gaiseric. Gaiseric died in Carthage in 477 and was succeeded by his son, Huneric. Through his nearly fifty years of rule, Gaiseric raised a relatively inconsequential Germanic tribe to the status of a major Mediterranean power.

A 16th century perception of the Vandals, illustrated in the manuscript "Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel". Painted by Lucas d'Heere in the 2nd half of the 16th century. Preserved in the Ghent University Library.[2]

Path to kingship[edit]

After his father's death in a battle against the Franks during the Crossing of the Rhine, Gaiseric became the second most powerful man among the Vandals, after the newly appointed king, his half-brother Gunderic. His status as a noble of the king's family occurred before his more formal accession to the kingship.[3] Jordanes described Gaiseric in the following manner:

Gaiseric...was a man of moderate height and lame in consequence of a fall from his horse. He was a man of deep thought and few words, holding luxury in disdain, furious in his anger, greedy for gain, shrewd in winning over the barbarians and skilled in sowing the seeds of dissension to arouse enmity.[4]

Gunderic's death in 428 paved the way for Gaiseric's ascension to king of the Vandals; his rise to power was accompanied by continued hostilities against competing powers begun by his brother.[5] He likewise sought ways of increasing the power and wealth of his people (Vandals and some Alans), who then resided in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica in southern Hispania. The Vandals had suffered greatly from attacks from the more numerous Visigothic federates, and not long after taking power, Gaiseric decided to leave Hispania to his rivals. In fact, he seems to have started building a Vandal fleet for a potential exodus even before he became king. Before he could make his move to Africa, Gaiseric was attacked by a large force of Suebi under the command of Heremigarius, who had managed to take Lusitania. However, this Suebic army was later defeated during the Battle of Mérida (428) and its leader drowned in the Guadiana River while trying to flee.[6]


After defending the aforementioned Suebian attack at Mérida, Gaiseric led most of his people—possibly as many as 80,000 persons to Northern Africa in 428/429; some scholars claim that this figure represents an exaggeration and the number was probably closer to 20,000.[7][b] Whatever the true numbers, there are indications that the Vandals under Gaiseric may have been invited by the Roman governor Bonifacius, who wished to use the military strength of the Vandals in his struggle against the imperial government under the Roman general, Aetius.[10]

Crossing at the Straits of Gibraltar, Gaiseric led not only his Vandal brethren and army, but was likely accompanied by a contingent of Alans and Goths.[11] Once there, he won many battles over the weak and divided Roman defenders and quickly overran the territory now comprising modern Morocco and northern Algeria. His Vandal army defeated the Bonifatius' army in the battle of Calama[12] and laid siege to the city of Hippo Regius (where Augustine had recently been bishop and who died during the siege),[13] taking it after 14 months of bitter fighting. Gaiseric and his forces then began subduing the interior of Numidia.[14] A peace between Gaiseric and the Roman Emperor Valentinian III was concluded in 435,[15] and in return for recognizing Gaiseric as king of the lands he had conquered, the Vandals would desist from further attacks on Carthage, pay a tribute to the Empire, and Gaiseric's son Huneric was sent—as a hostage—to Rome.[16] Gaiseric's treaty with the Romans also included Vandal retention of Mauretania and part of Numidia as foederati (allies under special treaty) of Rome.[17]

In a surprise move on 19 October 439, Gaiseric captured Carthage, striking a devastating blow at imperial power, taking advantage of the fact that Aetius remained preoccupied with affairs in Gaul.[17] Classical scholar Stewart Oost observed, "Thus he undoubtedly achieved what had been his purpose since he first crossed to Africa."[18] Historian Chris Wickham argues that Gaiseric's conquest of Carthage presaged Rome's later collapse.[19] The Romans were caught unaware, and Gaiseric captured a large part of the western Roman navy docked in the port of Carthage. The Catholic bishop of the city, Quodvultdeus, was exiled to Naples, since Gaiseric demanded that all his close advisors follow the Arian form of Christianity. The subsequent sermons of Quodvultdeus paint a "dark picture of the Vandal plunderers."[15]

Despite the blow to the imperial coffers caused by Gaiseric's seizure of African revenue and the corresponding grain supply, the Vandal king had no intention of depriving Italy of Africa's grain, but instead wished to sell it to the emperor for profit.[20] Meanwhile, his new status was that of Proconsularis and as such, Gaiseric made Carthage his new residence.[21] Inheriting an already economically efficient and effective state, the tax revenues from his new lands enabled the Vandal conqueror to construct a large fleet that challenged imperial control over the Mediterranean.[21] Gaiseric presided over a mixture of Vandals, Alans, Goths and Romans in Africa, relying on an ad-hoc administration under auspices of the imperial government to legitimize his rule.[22] Latin literary culture even flourished in Carthage.[23]

Gaiseric besieged Panormus (Palermo, Sicily) in 440 AD but was repulsed.[24] Hunnic invasions into the lower Danube forced Constantinople to withdraw forces from Sicily to the benefit of Gaiseric. In a 442 treaty with Rome, the Vandals were recognized as the independent rulers of Byzacena and part of Numidia.[25] In 455, Gaiseric seized the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, and Malta, and his fleet soon came to control much of the western Mediterranean. During 455, the Roman emperor Valentinian III was murdered on orders of Petronius Maximus, who usurped the throne. Petronius Maximus also married Valentinian's widow, Licinia Eudoxia, and likewise wedded the imperial couple's daughter Eudocia to his own son; the latter had formerly been promised to Gaiseric's son, Huneric, which contributed a possible casus belli that was exploited by the Vandal king.[26] Gaiseric was of the opinion that these acts voided his 442 peace treaty with Valentinian, and on 31 May, he and his men landed on Italian soil.[27]

Sack of Rome in 455[edit]

Gaiseric Sacking Rome, a painting by Karl Briullov (1833–1836).

Responding to the actions of Petronius Maximus, Gaiseric moved a large seaborne force from Carthage to Italy and sacked the city in a more thorough manner than even Alaric's Goths had carried out in 410.[28] Historian Michael Kulikowski notes that unlike Alaric, who besieged Rome as an itinerant barbarian general in "desperate straits," Gaiseric was the king of a flourishing polity and was therefore able to systematically conduct the sack.[29] More than just systematically attack Rome, Gaiseric's invasion was a devastating blow to the empire itself, so much so that historian Michael Grant claims, "Gaiseric contributed more to the collapse of the western Roman Empire than any other single man."[30]

Before Gaiseric marched upon Rome, Pope Leo I implored him not to destroy the ancient city or murder its inhabitants. Gaiseric agreed and the gates of Rome were thrown open to him and his men.[31][c] Once inside the city, the invaders plundered it thoroughly, to the extent that Procopius noted how the Vandals had even stripped the gold from the ceiling of the Jupiter Capitolinus temple—but more significant was the capture of important figures and dignitaries in the city, whose return remained a bargaining point between the Vandals and the Empire for many years to come.[33] Routine Vandal raids along the coast of Italy and the Mediterranean characterized the situation during the first years after Gaiseric's successful seizure of Rome.[34]

Petronius Maximus, who was foremost among those vying for power in the wake of Valentinian III's murder, fled rather than fight the Vandal warlord.[35][d] Although history remembers the Vandal sack of Rome as extremely brutal—making the word vandalism a term for any wantonly destructive act—in actuality, the Vandals did not wreak great destruction in the city; they did, however, take gold, silver and many other things of value. Gaiseric also took with him Empress Eudoxia and her daughters, Eudocia, and Placidia, as well as riches from the city. Across Italy, the shock of the Vandal sack of Rome and the ongoing presence of the Vandals paralyzed the imperial government.[29][e] Eudocia married Gaiseric's son Huneric after arriving in Carthage.[37] That union produced Hilderic—Gaiseric's grandson—who later played a critical role in Emperor Justinian's sixth-century conquests of north Africa.[28][f]

Later exploits and final years[edit]

Pope Leo the Great attempts to persuade Gaiseric, prince of Vandals, to abstain from sacking Rome. (miniature c. 1475)

Sometime in 460, the Emperor Majorian began collecting an invasion fleet for an assault against the Vandals.[39] Once Gaiseric received word of this initiative, he preempted the attack by sending vessels from Carthage to Carthago Nova, where the Vandal ships burned the imperial boats at their moorings, again proving himself "more than a match for the imperial establishments of both West and East."[40] Then in early 462, Gaiseric sent the empress Eudoxia with her daughters Eudocia and Placidia—captured during the sack of Rome—back to Constantinople from Carthage in an act of reconciliation with the Empire, likely intending to preserve the marriage of his son Huneric to Eudocia.[40]

While rhetorical writing from the period still distinguished between "barbarian" and Romans and the imperial state attempted to exercise control over the empire and its peripheries, the elite population in the lands controlled by the likes of the Germanic chieftains Theodoric and Gaiseric, preferred the certainties of their leadership over "the vagaries and ineptitude of the would-be imperial government in Italy."[41][g]

In 468, Gaiseric's kingdom was the target of the last concerted effort by the two-halves of the Roman Empire.[h] They wished to subdue the Vandals and end their pirate raids, so Emperor Leo sent an armada from Constantinople led by Basiliscus.[28][i] Gaiseric sent a fleet of 500 Vandal ships against the Romans, losing 340 ships in the first engagement, but succeeded in destroying 600 Roman ships in the second battle, during which fireships were employed by Gaiseric to devastating effect.[44] This catastrophic defeat of the Roman fleet by Gaiseric's forces was claimed to have cost the imperial coffers upwards of 64,000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver.[45] The Romans abandoned the campaign and Gaiseric remained master of the western Mediterranean until his death, ruling from the Strait of Gibraltar all the way to Tripolitania.[46][j][k]

Following up the Byzantine defeat, the Vandals tried to invade the Peloponnese but were driven back by the Maniots at Kenipolis with heavy losses.[47] In retaliation, the Vandals took 500 hostages at Zakynthos, hacked them to pieces, and threw the body parts overboard on the way to Carthage.[47]

In 474, Gaiseric made peace with the Eastern Roman Empire through a treaty negotiated by the Constantinopolitan Senator, Severus, who was acting under Zeno's authority.[48] After enjoying just a few short years of peace, Gaiseric died at Carthage in 477, succeeded by his son Huneric, who did not have his father's enviable reputation and Vandal authority began to diminish.[49] Nonetheless, the peace established by Zeno between Vandal-controlled Carthage and Constantinople lasted until 530, when Justinian's conquests broke it.[50]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ See the following for more detail: Nicoletta Onesti, "Tracing the Language of the Vandals", 16 pages, 22 February 2015. Also see: Nicoletta Onesti, "The Language and Names of the Vandals" 2009, 3, 22 February 2015
  2. ^ This figure is drawn from Hyd., Chron. 300.28 Lem. 77; Prosper 395.1278. Cf. also Chron. Gall 452.107.[8] Historian Peter Heather suggests a figure of 50,000 people—including more than 10,000 warriors—were moved to Africa in 429.[9]
  3. ^ Nonetheless, Gaiseric's military success had long been and certainly remained dependent upon the continued support of not only his Vandal kin, but that of his allied Suebi, Alans, and Goths.[32]
  4. ^ Maximus was killed by a Roman mob outside the city, fatally struck it seems by a roof tile hurled at him and then his body torn limb for limb.[29]
  5. ^ Some of the treasures taken back to Carthage by Gaiseric included valuables acquired from the Roman sack of Jerusalem from 70 AD.[28] Additionally, Gaiseric led an incursion near Agrigento in 456 but was repulsed there and defeated by Ricimer in a naval battle off the coast of Corsica.[36]
  6. ^ Two consecutive decades' worth of conflict between the Vandals and the two Empires followed the sack of Rome, until they eventually reached peace in 476. The subsequent deaths of both the last Roman Emperor of the West (Romulus) and Gaiseric—atop the succession of inept barbarian leadership—diminished the threats to the ever more powerful Byzantine Empire.[38]
  7. ^ The rogue military commander Marcellinus—who ruled in Dalmatia—even dealt a naval defeat to Gaiseric's fleet at Sicily in 464–465, albeit acting on his own accord.[42]
  8. ^ He occupied Sicily in 468 for 8 years until the island was ceded in 476 to Odoacer except for a toehold on the far west coast, Lilybaeum, which was ceded in 491 to Theodoric.[43]
  9. ^ According to Procopius, the total invasion force consisted of 100,000 men with a fleet drawn from the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. For more on this, see: Procopius, De Bello III.6.1. Translated by H.B. Dewing, Procopius (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1979), vol. 2 p. 55.
  10. ^ See the translation of Priscus, fragment 42 and Candidus Isaurus in Gordon.
  11. ^ Numismatic evidence indicates that Gaiseric had coins minted in his likeness. See: https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/126957


  1. ^ Early 2015, p. 116.
  2. ^ Lucas de Heere,Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations.
  3. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 49–50.
  4. ^ Jordanes 1915, p. 98 [XXXIII.168].
  5. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 196.
  6. ^ Schwarcz 2004, p. 50.
  7. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 52–54.
  8. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, p. 264, fn95.
  9. ^ Heather 2012, p. 176.
  10. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 52–55.
  11. ^ Pohl 2004, p. 38.
  12. ^ Wijnendaele 2014, pp. 89–92.
  13. ^ Pohl 2004, p. 39.
  14. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 197.
  15. ^ a b Pohl 2004, p. 40.
  16. ^ Heather 2005, p. 292.
  17. ^ a b Lee 2013, p. 116.
  18. ^ Oost 1968, p. 259.
  19. ^ Wickham 2005, p. 87.
  20. ^ Kulikowski 2019, pp. 204–205.
  21. ^ a b Kulikowski 2019, p. 205.
  22. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 267.
  23. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 268.
  24. ^ Bury 1923, pp. 254.
  25. ^ Lee 2013, p. 117.
  26. ^ Lançon 2001, p. 40.
  27. ^ Bury 1923, pp. 283–290.
  28. ^ a b c d Lee 2013, p. 121.
  29. ^ a b c Kulikowski 2019, p. 215.
  30. ^ Grant 1978, p. 432.
  31. ^ Bury 1923, pp. 284–290.
  32. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 60–67.
  33. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 116–117.
  34. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, p. 118.
  35. ^ Kulikowski 2019, pp. 214–215.
  36. ^ Bury 1923, pp. 254, 327.
  37. ^ Bury 1923, pp. 287–290.
  38. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 110–111.
  39. ^ Kulikowski 2019, pp. 219–220.
  40. ^ a b Kulikowski 2019, p. 220.
  41. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 221.
  42. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 222.
  43. ^ Bury 1923, p. 410.
  44. ^ Lee 2013, pp. 121–122.
  45. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 241.
  46. ^ Gordon 1966, p. 120fn.
  47. ^ a b Greenhalgh & Eliopoulos 1986, p. 21.
  48. ^ Conant 2012, p. 32.
  49. ^ Merrills & Miles 2010, pp. 123–126.
  50. ^ Kulikowski 2019, p. 244.


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Further reading[edit]