The Vandal Horde
Genseric was lame in one leg, so that he limped when he walked. Besides that, he had the look of a very ordinary person, so that one would be surprised to hear the remark, "There goes Genseric, one of the most cruel leaders that ever strode a horse or swung a battle-axe."
But so it was, for of all those who had ruled over the fierce tribes that had moved down from the shores of the Baltic to overrun Europe, none were fiercer in battle or more crafty in leadership than this very Genseric. His tribe had moved into Spain and after having lived there many years chose Genseric, when he was twenty-one years of age, for their king.
It is not certain how he came by his lameness, for he was in all sorts of adventures from the time he was born. He may have been thrown from a horse, because he was a fierce and daring rider, or he may have been hurt in one of the many battles in which he was engaged, for there was hardly a day when he was not riding in pursuit of some enemy or leading his savage warriors on a long pursuit of game.
Across the Mediterranean, on the coast of Africa, were the Roman provinces, governed by Boniface. Many a time Genseric had looked longingly across the waters and said, "All I need is a chance to cross this strait and lead my men against those Romans. I would like to teach them a lesson."
The emperor of Rome at this time was a mere boy, and the government's affairs were ruled by his mother, Placidia. Placidia had a bad adviser, who disliked Boniface. The man said to her one day, "Boniface, governor of Africa, is a traitor, and I have good reason to think that he intends to make war against Rome. I advise you to dismiss him and order him to come before you to answer charges that I shall make."
Now the treacherous adviser wrote to Boniface, saying, "The empress will send you a letter ordering you to come to Rome. I advise you not to do so, for she will have you put to death."
Boniface believed what was written to him and refused to return to Rome as Placidia had ordered. Naturally he was quite incensed at this treatment, which he did not deserve, and in his rage sent a messenger to Genseric, saying, "If you will lead an army across the straits of Gibraltar to Africa you will find me willing to surrender my forces into your hands."
When Genseric received this letter he was much delighted, for he longed to attack Rome and take from her some of the rich countries she had conquered as well as to despoil her of the treasures she had accumulated.
Accordingly, all over Spain among the Vandals there was much gathering of arms and horses and making ready for a great invasion of Africa. Ships were prepared, provisions were stored and Genseric rode among his tribes calling them by name and ordering them to meet him at a certain place ready to plunder the Roman provinces. His call was wild and fierce:
"Across the sea to Africa, across Africa to Italy, through Italy to Rome, and the treasure house of the world shall be ours! Each of you shall be richer than a king!"
The wild leaders responded with fierce joy, and with lust of conquest they crossed into Africa. The Roman forces retired before them and the conquest of the African coast was an easy matter.
It happened, however, that Boniface received word from Rome of the deception that had been practised on him, and assurances that Placidia intended him no harm. But it was too late. He had opened Africa to the Vandals and their march upon his provinces was irresistible. Approaching Genseric, he said, "You have conquered a large part of Africa already. I think you should be satisfied. Now retire to Spain and leave us in peace."
Genseric sternly refused. "Never shall I go back to Spain until I am master of Africa. Then I shall master Italy, and finally Rome."
Boniface replied, "Prepare, then, for battle, for I shall drive you out of these provinces."
Shortly afterwards a great battle was fought between the Romans and the Vandals in which the Romans were utterly defeated. They fled to their towns, but they were driven out into the wilderness and the towns were destroyed. Genseric burned the churches and buildings, laid waste the country, cut down all the trees and slew every inhabitant that came within reach of his men. Total destruction and death was the rule of the Vandals whenever they took a town, and so the word vandal came to mean one who cruelly and wantonly destroys valuable property.
Many years passed, and Genseric had all of Africa in his possession, for he took the city of Carthage, which he made the capital of his kingdom. Then he built great fleets and sailed over the Mediterranean, capturing the trading vessels of the Romans. He plundered the towns and murdered people, so that his name became a terror in all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean.
A Roman ship came one day to Carthage with a messenger from the Empress Eudoxia, the widow of the emperor of Rome. The messenger entered the palace where Genseric was holding court, and said, "Oh, king, I bear a message from the Empress Eudoxia! She and her daughter are in danger of being thrust out of her possessions and she invites you to come with an army to Rome and take the city. She and her friends will open the gates to your host."
Genseric sprang to his feet with a cry of joy. Seizing his sword, he exclaimed, "Tell your empress that I have long looked for such an invitation. My army shall be in Rome within a month."
But while Genseric accepted the invitation, it was not to protect Eudoxia or her daughters, but rather because he saw at last a chance to lead his Vandal host into rich countries.
In a short while a great fleet and a great army sailed across the Mediterranean bearing the fierce warriors of Africa to the Roman coasts. They were blood-thirsty men and their loud cries frightened the people along the shore. As they came near the mouth of the Tiber word was passed up to Rome:
"The Vandals are upon us! The Vandals are upon us!"
Maximus, who had usurped the government and was very much of a coward, made ready to flee from the city and advised the senate and people to do the same. At this the people were so enraged that they stabbed him to death and threw his body into the river. In three days Genseric and his army were before the gates of Rome. With loud cries they demanded entrance.
"Open the gates! Open the gates!" cried Genseric himself. "I demand the surrender of Rome, and if my army is opposed I shall beat down these walls and not one soul shall be left alive."
With great fear and trembling the people crowded upon the walls of the city and saw far over the plain the vast horde of Vandal troops shaking their spears and uttering angry cries. This was too much, and so the people rushed to the gates of the city and opened them, falling on their knees before Genseric, praying him not to murder them.
Now Rome was a wealthy and beautiful city and there was plenty of plunder for the Vandals. They spent fourteen days in their work of destruction. The temples and public buildings, private houses and palaces were ransacked and great quantities of gold and silver and jewels and furniture were piled in the streets and carried out beyond the walls to be transported to Africa.
Sad to relate, hundreds of beautiful and priceless works of art were destroyed. Many old statues and splendid carvings were carried away to the Vandal ships. Many of the ships, however, that conveyed the treasures of Rome to adorn the palaces of the Vandals in Africa, foundered at sea under their precious freight, and so the waves of the Mediterranean now hide priceless treasures of beauty that are lost to the world forever.
What the Vandals could not carry away they broke up or mutilated, and in this way many beautiful marble statues were broken and thrown into the marshes and even into the bed of the Tiber or were carried beyond the walls of the city and buried, to be recovered hundreds of years afterwards as examples of the wonderful art of those days.
The Vandal king put to death a number of Roman citizens and carried away thousands of them to act as servants or slaves to his own nobles in Africa. As for Eudoxia and her daughters, he took them to Carthage. One of the daughters afterwards married Genseric's eldest son.
The Vandals retired to Africa, but still continued to attack and plunder the towns along the Mediterranean coast. A few years after the capture of Rome a Roman emperor gathered an army and built a fleet to carry troops to Carthage. Before sailing with his army he wished very much to see with his own eyes what kind of people the Vandals were. He dyed his hair and disguised himself so that no one could tell that he was the emperor, and in this way he went to Carthage and asked for an audience with Genseric.
"I have come from the emperor of Rome himself, to talk about peace," said he. "The Roman army is great and powerful, and Genseric is ruler of this part of the world. Let us be friends."
Genseric talked awhile with the pretended messenger and had him royally entertained, but gave him no answer. In a short while the pretended messenger disappeared, having obtained all the information he desired. Genseric never knew who the ambassador was.
Finally the Roman fleet appeared in the bay of Carthagena, but it suffered the fate of all the Roman fleets of those days; that is to say, the Vandals sunk and burned nearly all the ships.
All the efforts of the Romans to stop the ravages of the Vandals failed. Genseric and his host held sway over Africa and a large part of Italy, and for many years lived upon the plunder of the people. Genseric lived to be an old man and it was said that during his entire life he had never yielded one foot of the land that he had once invaded, but to this day the word "vandalism" is a reproach and a stain upon the name of those who are cruel and wanton in war.