Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Western Roman empire began unraveling after the Emperor Honorius withdrew the legions from Britain in 410. This process continued unabated throughout the fifth century, until the final fall of the empire in 476. But out of its ruins several barbarian kingdoms composed of amalgamations of various Germanic tribes gradually came into existence.

     One of the most powerful was the Vandal kingdom founded on the ruins of the Roman province of North Africa.

     Now North Africa, being since its subjection in the third century BC the bread-basket of Rome, was a highly Romanized and Christianized province, as is proved by the numerous archaeological remains that survive to this day. Moreover, it gave birth to some of the most influential writers of Western Christendom, such as Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage and St. Augustine of Hippo. At the same time, it was the birthplace of the most stubborn, violent and long-lasting schismatic movement in the Early Church, the Donatists. It was therefore perhaps no surprise that shortly after the death of St. Augustine in 430, North Africa became the object of the wrath of God. In 439, after eight years of war, the capital, Carthage, fell to the Vandals, the most anti-Roman and anti-Christian of all the barbarian tribes, under their king, Genseric, whose navies controlled the whole of the western Mediterranean. St. Quodvultdeus, Metropolitan of Carthage, and many of his flock, were exiled to the Neapolitan coastline, where Quodvultdeus died in about 450. Genseric was a rigorous Arian (he apostasized from Orthodoxy in his youth); he banished Orthodox priests who refused to perform the Arian services and even sacked Rome herself in 455.[1] In 484 his son Hunneric, not without some irony, used a Roman law of 412 directed against the Donatists to embark on a savage persecution against the Orthodox Christians.   

      The North African bishops under St. Eugenius, Archbishop of Carthage, boldly confessed the Orthodox faith against the Arian Hunneric. Thus he and his bishops wrote: "We are enjoined by a royal command to provide an account of the Catholic Faith which we hold. So we are setting out to indicate briefly the things which we believe and proclaim, aware of our lack of ability but supported by Divine Assistance. We recognize, then, that the first thing we must do is give an explanation of the Unity of the Substance of the Father and the Son, which the Greeks call 'Homoousion'. Therefore: we acknowledge the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the Unity of the Divine Nature in such a way that we can say with a faithful confession that the Father Subsists as a Distinct Person, and the Son Equally Exists in His Own Person, and that the Holy Spirit retains the Distinctiveness of His Own Person, not asserting that the Father is the same as the Son, nor confessing that the Son is the same as the Father or the Holy Spirit, nor understanding the Holy Spirit in such a way that He is the Father or the Son; but we believe the Unbegotten Father, and the Son Begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit Proceeding from the Father, to be of One Substance and Essence, because the Unbegotten Father and the Begotten Son and the Holy Spirit Who Proceeds, have One Divine Nature in Common; nevertheless, there are Three Distinct Persons." 

     The famous Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon, overcoming his usul scepticism, relates how, in 484, at the command of King Hunneric, “four hundred and sixty-six Orthodox bishops assembled at Carthage; but when they were admitted into the hall of audience, they had the mortification of beholding the Arian Cyrila exalted on the patriarchal throne. The disputants were separated, after the mutual and ordinary reproaches of noise and silence, of delay and precipitation, of military force and popular clamour. One martyr and one confessor were selected among the Catholic bishops; twenty-eight escaped by flight, and eighty-eight by conformity; forty-six were sent into Corsica to cut timber for the royal navy; and three hundred and two were banished to the different part of Africa, exposed to the insults of their enemies, and carefully deprived of all the comforts of life. The hardship of ten years’ exile must have reduced their numbers and if they had complied with the law of Thrasimund, which prohibited any episcopal consecrations, the Orthodox Church of Africa must have expired with the lives of it actual members. They disobeyed; and their disobedience was punished by a second exile of two hundred and twenty bishops into Sardinia, where they languished fifteen years, till the accession of the gracious Hilderic. The two islands were judiciously chosen by the malice of their Arian tyrants. Seneca, from his own experience, has deplored and exaggerated the miserable state of Corsica, and the plenty of Sardinia was overbalance by the unwholesome quality of the air.

    “The zeal of Genseric and his successors for the conversion of the Catholics [Orthodox] must have rendered them still more jealous to guard the purity of the Vandal faith. Before the churches were finally shut, it was a crime to appear in a barbarian dress; and those who presumed to neglect the royal mandate were rudely dragged backwards by their long hair. The palatine officers, who refused to profess the religion of their prince, were ignominiously stripped of their honours and employment; banished to Sardinia and Sicily; or condemned to the servile labours of slaves and peasants in the fields of Utica. In the districts which had been peculiarly allotted to the Vandals, the exercise of the Catholic worship was more strictly prohibited; and severe penalties were denounced against the guilt both of the missionary and the proselyte. By these arts the faith of the barbarians was preserved, and their zeal was inflamed; and whenever their cavalry took the field, it was the favourite amusement of the march to defile the churches and to insult the clergy of the adverse faction.

     “The citizens who had been educated in the luxury of the Roman province were delivered, with exquisite cruelty, to the Moors of the desert. A venerable train of bishops, ninety-six persons, whose guilt is not precisely ascertained, were torn from their homes by the command of Hunneric. During the night they were confined, like a herd of cattle, amidst their own ordure: during the day they pursued their march, over the burning sands, and if they fainted under the heat and fatigue, they were goaded or dragged till they expired in the hands of their tormentors. These unhappy exiles, when they reached the Moorish huts, might excite the compassion of a people whose native humanity was neither improved by reason nor corrupted by fanaticism: but if they escaped the dangers, they were condemned to share the distress, of a savage life.

     “… Through the veil of fiction and declamation we can clearly perceive that the Catholics, more especially under the reign of Hunneric, ensured the most cruel and ignominious treatment. Respectable citizens, noble matrons, and consecrated virgins were stripped naked and raised in the air by pulleys, with a weight suspended at their feet. In this painful attitude their naked bodies were torn with scourges, or burnt in the most tender parts with red-hot plates of iron. The amputation of the ears, the nose, the tongue, and the right hand was inflicted by the Arians; and although the precise number cannot be defined, it is evident that many persons, among whom a bishop and a proconsul may be named, were entitled to the crown of martyrdom. The same honour has been ascribed to the memory of Count Sebastian, who professed the Nicene creed with unshaken constancy; and Genseric might detest as a heretic the brave and ambitious fugitive whom he dreaded as a rival.

    “A new mode of conversion, which might subdue the feeble and alarm the timorous, was employed by the Arian ministers. They imposed, by fraud or violence, the rites of baptism; and punished the apostasy of the Catholics, if they disclaimed this odious and profane ceremony, which violated the freedom of the will and the unity of the sacrament. The hostile sects had formerly allowed the validity of each other’s baptism; and the innovation, so fiercely maintained by the Vandals, can be imputed only to the example and advice of the Donatists [who rejected the validity of the True Church’s sacraments].

     “The Arian clergy surpassed in religious cruelty the king and his Vandals; but they were incapable of cultivating the spiritual vineyard which they were so desirous to possess. A patriarch might seat himself on the throne of Carthage; some bishops, in the principal cities, might usurp the place of their rivals; but the smallness of their numbers, and their ignorance of the Latin language, disqualified the barbarians for the ecclesiastical ministry of a great church; and the Africans, after the loss of their Orthodox pastors, were deprived of the public exercise of Christianity.

     “The [Roman] emperors were the natural protectors of the Homoousian {Orthodox] docrine, and the faithful people of Africa, both as Romans and as [Orthodox] Catholics, preferred their lawful sovereignty to the usurpation of the barbarian heretics. During an interval of peace and friendship Hunneric restored the cathedral of Carthage, at the intercession of Zeno, who reigned in the East, and of Placida, his daughter and relict of emperors and the sister of the queen of the Vandals. But this decent regard was of short duration, and the haughty tyrant displayed his contempt for the religion of the empire by studiously arranging the bloody images of persecution in all the principal streets through which the Roman ambassador must pass in his way to the palace. An oath was required from the bishops who were assembled at Carthage, that they would support the succession of his son Hilderic, and that they would renounce all foreign or transmarine correspondence. This engagement, consistent, as it should seem, with their moral and religious duties, was refused by the more sagacious members of the assembly. Their refusal, faintly coloured by the pretence that is unlawful for a Christian to swear, must provoke the suspicions of a jealous tyrant.

     “The historian who views this religious conflict with an impartial eye may condescend to mention one preternatural event, which will edify the devout and surprise the incredulous. Tipasa, a maritime colony of Mauritania, sixteen miles to the east of Caesarea, had been distinguished in every age by the Orthodox zeal of its inhabitants. They had braved the fury of the Donatists; they resistd or eluded the tyranny of the Arians. The town was deserted on the approach of an heretical bishop: most of the inhabitants who could procure ships passed over to the coast of Spain; and the unhappy remnant, refusing all communion with the usurper, still presumed to hold their pious, but illegal, assemblies. Their disobedience exasperated the cruelty of Hunneric. A military count was despatched from Carthage to Tipasa: he collected the Catholics in the Forum, and, in the presence of the whole province, deprived the guilty of their right hands and their tongues. But the holy confessors continued to speak without tongues; and this miracle is attested by Victor, an African bishop, who published an history of the persecution within two years after the event. ‘If any one,’ says Victor, ‘should doubt of the truth, let him repair to Constantinople, and listen to the clear and perfect language of Restitutus, the subdeacon, one of those glorious sufferers, who is now lodged in the palace of the emperor Zeno, and is respected by the devout empress.’ At Constantinople we are astonished to find a cool, a learned, and an exceptional witness, without interest, and without passion. Aeneas of Gaza, a Platonic philosopher, has accurately described his own observations on these African sufferers. ‘I saw them myself: I heard them speak: I diligently inquired by what means such and articulate voice could be formed without any organ of speech: I used my eyes to examine the report of my ears: I opened their mouth , and saw that the whole tongue had been completely torn away by the roots; an operation which the physicians generally suppose to be mortal.’ The testimony of Aeneas of Gaza might be confirmed by the superfluous evidence of the emperor Justinian, in a perpetual edict of Count Marcellinus, in his Chronicle of the times; and of pope Gregory I, who had resided at Constantinople as the minister of the Roman pontiff. They all lived within the compass of a century, and they all appeal to their personal knowledge or the public notoriety for the truth of a miracle which was repeated in several instances, displayed on the greatest theatre of the world, and submitted during a series of year to the calm examination of the senses. This supernatural gift of the African confessor, who spoke without tongues, will command the assent of those only, who already believe that their language was pure and Orthodox. But the stubborn mind of an infidel is guarded by secret, incurable suspicion; and the Arian… who has solemnly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, will not be shaken by the most plausible evidence of an Athanasian miracle.” [2]

     The loss of such an important province as North Africa could not be looked on with indifference by the Emperor of New Rome, the ambitious and western-oriented Justinian I, especially when, in 530, the pro-Roman and pro-Orthodox King Hilderic was overthrown by the anti-Roman and anti-Orthodox Gelimer. This gave Justinian the excuse he needed, and in a short six-month campaign (533-34) his general Belisarius, supported by the local population, destroyed the Vandal kingdom and placed all the heretical assemblies under ban. As he himself put it, God “deemed it proper that the injuries of the Church should be avenged through me”.[3]

     The Vandal kingdom of North Africa could never have been considered a legitimate successor of Roman power because it was not only not Orthodox, but a persecutor of the Orthodox. Its aggression can be explained in part, as Heather writes, by the fact that it “had been carved out of the living body of a still very vital Western Empire by the Vandal conquest of Carthage in 439, whereas all the other Western successor states emerged both more slowly and more consensually, a generation or so later, as the central Roman state gradually ran out of revenues and the capacity to direct events. And since Catholicism [Orthodoxy] was unambiguously the religion of the empire, Vandal monarchs tended to be highly hostile towards it, deliberately fostering an alternate Christianity among the warriors who had put them in power.” [4]

     Nevertheless, its political philosophy of the Vandal kingdom was closely modeled on Christian monarchism. Thus in Vandal North Africa we find, as P.D. King writes, “a sovereign monarchy, Roman and Christian in its bases,” in which “there is no trace of a popular assembly, of any other constitutional curb on the exercise of the king’s will, of any area of activity exempt from royal control. As the emperor wielded authority in religious matters, calling councils, deciding which creed his subjects should follow, persecuting dissidents – for what could be more germane to the public welfare than God’s propitiation by correct worship? – so did the Arian Vandal king. Generic (d. 477) even established a permanent rule of succession, vesting the crown in his house; here he went further than any emperor chose, or dared, to do. A throne and the purple, witnessed for the 530s, will assuredly have appeared earlier, as had the diadem. The king described himself in traditional imperial nomenclature, as ‘Our Piety’ and ‘Our Clemency’, held himself to possess ‘majesty’ and was addressed in reverential language customarily employed of the emperor. Instances of imitatio imperii could easily be multiplied. Most significant, the ruler considered heavenly authority to be the source of his own. God Himself had conceded his dominions to him, said Huneric (d. 484); he held them ‘by divine favour’.

     “The Vandal picture anticipates that eventually yielded by all the [western] regna in numerous respects. But Huneric’s statements merit especial note as the vanguard of a formidable army of testimony to the currency in the kingdoms of the belief that the ruler was such by God’s fiat. At its roots lay the most fundamental of principles, that all that existed or occurred terrestrially was ultimately traceable to the celestial will, not to the intrinsic merits or unaided efforts of men… Like anything else, political power existed by God’s will; and those who wielded it occupied their positions by His favour. By Christ’s own witness (John 19.11), Pilate’s power against Him derived ‘from above’, and Paul’s statement in Romans 13.1 was unequivocal: ‘There is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God’. When orthodox bishops declared that ‘divine favour’ had ‘provided’ Theoderic (d. 526) – an Arian! – to govern Italy, or a seventh-century Frankish formula attributed elevation to kingship to ‘divine mercy’, or Ine of Wessex (d. 725) called himself king ‘mid Godes gife’, they were operating with precisely the same notion expressed in the celebrated formula ‘king by the grace of God’ which was to become part of the Carolingian royal intitulatio, for gratia, ‘grace’, meant simply ‘favour’. Indeed, already the Lombard, Agilulf (590-616), was ‘king by the grace of God’ and the Visigoth, Svinthila (621-31), brought to kingship ‘by divine grace’. Nicely illustrative of the root-concept was Boniface’s designation of Aethelbald of Mercia (d. 757) as ‘you whom not your own merits but God’s abundant mercy constituted king and prince of many’…”[5]


[1] Tim Newark, Warlords, London: Brockhampton Press, 1996, p. 323.

[2] Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, London: The Folio Society, 1788, 1986, vol. IV, pp. 111-114, 115-117.

[3] Cod. Just.; in Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome, London: Pan Books, 2013, p. 137.

[4] Heather, op. cit., p. 138.

[5] King, “The barbarian kingdoms”, in Cambridge History of Medieval Thought, c. 350 – c. 1450, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 127-128.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company