Familiar quotations – “Like the Vandals”

Our language has adopted many quotations and sayings from its Latin origins and some are even related to the tribes in Travian. If for example people are “acting like Vandals”, this is related to a specific historic event: the Vandals’ incursion into Rome in 455 AD.

In around 400 AD, this Teutonic tribe left their area of settlement (located in what is known today as Silesia) and moved west. Together with the Suebi and the Alanes, the Vandals crossed the Rhine in 406 and moved further west into the Iberian peninsula. At that time, the Roman Empire was already divided into the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. During their advance, the three Teutonic tribes benefited greatly from the internal fragmentation of Western Rome, which was plagued by civil war.

The Alanes, Suebi and Vandals could therefore gain a foothold in Spain and found their own empires, some of which lasted well into the 6th century. The conquest of Carthage marked the heyday of the Vandals’ migration: Genseric, who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa with 15,000 soldiers and their families in 429, cunningly conquered the magnificent metropolis that, until then, had been under the control of Rome.

What a shock for the proud Romans – Carthage, the rich city with its strategic location on the Mediterranean coast, center of commerce and important supplier of grain, was conquered by a barbaric horde from the north! And it gets worse: the Vandals settled down in Carthage and founded a kingdom in the former Roman province of Africa that was to survive for another hundred years.

What about Western Rome?
In Western Rome, the leaders were lucky to achieve a tentative peace agreement in 435, since the empire had neither the power nor the resources to reconquer the lost province: the Vandals under Genseric were officially given a number of territories in northern Africa. An official peace treaty was agreed in 442 – which essentially marks the point Western Rome began to accept the barbaric conquerors from Germania as equals.

The Vandals seemed to be quite happy with this result. In any case, they focused on the administration of the conquered territories without further expansion. Chroniclers have reported that they imitated the lifestyle of the Roman upper class, which they succeeded, in their new homeland. Hence Western Rome saw its borders secured.

They were wrong. When the emperor Valentinian was assassinated in Rome in 455, Genseric seized the opportunity and raided the city on 2nd June, when he arrived on the Tiber with a large fleet. The Vandals caused havoc in Rome for a fortnight, as they looted, killed and plundered palaces and churches. Unlike some Teutonic tribes before them, their aim was not total destruction: anything that looked to be of value was taken, even the statues from public places.

What has Voltaire to do with all this?
This raid left such a distinctive trace in history that 1,200 years later the Frenchman Voltaire coined the term “vandalism” as an expression of barbarism. Today the word stands for senseless destruction – which historically isn’t quite correct, as the Vandals did indeed identify valuable objects and took them instead of just senselessly destroying them.

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