Ancient History & Civilisation

The Reconquest of the West: Africa

In 530 an upheaval occurred in the Vandal kingdom when Gelimer usurped the authority of the elderly king Hilderic. The latter had established friendly ties with Constantinople precisely as a precaution against this eventuality, and after concluding his first truce with Khusro in spring 531, Justinian, despite opposition from his advisors, his generals, and the soldiers themselves, who had had no time to recover from the eastern campaigns, switched his attention to Africa.101 His decision to intervene, which was encouraged by rebellions against the Vandals in Libya and Sardinia (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.10.21–34), demonstrated the aggressive self-confidence that was his hallmark.

The main expeditionary force to Africa, under the command of Belisarius, consisted of 10,000 infantry and 5,000 horsemen, and included substantial numbers of foederati. Barbarian allies comprised 400 Heruli and 600 mounted Massagetic archers (Huns). The force embarked on a fleet of 500 transports (capacity 3,000–50,000 medimini) manned by 30,000 Ionian, Egyptian, and Cilician sailors, as well as 92 warships, crewed by 2,000 oarsmen from Constantinople itself (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.11.1–16). The scale of the expedition was large, but the planners will have been mindful of the unsuccessful attempt on the Vandals in 468. Gelimer meanwhile, startlingly oblivious of the impending invasion, sent a force of 5,000 men and 120 ships under the command of his brother Tzazon to recover Sardinia (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.11.22–24).

The main force left the harbors of Byzantium in early spring 533, accompanied by Procopius himself. Crucial support in Sicily depended on an agreement that Justinian had made with the Ostrogothic queen Amalasuntha, Theoderic's daughter (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.14.5–6). The anecdotal allusions of Procopius' account reveal the logistic and diplomatic preparations which supported this major imperial enterprise. Procopius describes how he himself, acting as an intelligence officer, had gathered information from a contact in Syracuse that Gelimer was still unaware of the impending attack (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.14.10–13).

It is likely that the original aim of the expedition had simply been to overthrow Gelimer and reinstate Hilderic. But the news that the Vandals were preoccupied by the revolts in Sardinia and Libya and wholly unprepared to resist, encouraged greater ambitions. At an early stage it became apparent that the reconquest of Africa was possible. The expedition established a bridgehead in Africa, won the support of the local population, and defeated a Vandal force in the field ten miles from Carthage. The city's fortifications were in disrepair, and the inhabitants in any case welcomed the Roman army. While the Vandals that remained sought sanctuary in the Arian churches of the city, Belisarius occupied the royal palace on the Byrsa, where he and his entourage dined, it is said, on the feast that had been prepared the previous day for Gelimer (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 3.21.17–25). Gelimer, who fled to take refuge in a mountain stronghold, was compelled by hunger to surrender after a three-month blockade in spring 534 (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.5–7).

In Constantinople accusations were made against Belisarius that he aimed to become king of Africa, but these dissolved in the euphoria of Justinian's triumph. The emperor took pains to ensure that credit for the recovery of Africa fell only to himself.102 The spoils of war included even the treasures from the Jerusalem temple, which had been taken by Titus to Rome in 70 and by the Vandal Gaiseric to Carthage in 455. Both Belisarius and Gelimer did obeisance to Justinian and Theodora in the hippodrome. Procopius records that Gelimer was minded to quote the Book of Ecclesiastes from Hebrew scripture: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” He was consigned to an estate in Galatia. The children of Hilderic, the last legitimate king, and the descendants of Valentinian III, whose daughter Eudocia had married Huneric, were also rewarded with pensions. On January 1, 535, Belisarius became consul and celebrated by disbursing huge cash handouts to the people of Constantinople derived from the Vandal spoils (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.9).

However, the triumphant conclusion to this first phase of the African war, was followed by complexity, confusion, and ambiguities. Belisarius was replaced by a new generalissimo, Solomon.103 Lightning campaigns against the Vandals were replaced by prolonged warfare between the occupying force and the local Moorish (Berber) population. Taxation, which was imposed according to new and more stringent schedules by the conquerors, provoked predictable resistance from the inhabitants of the Roman cities (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.8.25). During the course of 535 Solomon defeated the Moors in two major battles in Byzacium, inflicting massive losses on the men and enslaving the women and children (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.11–13).

In the late summer of 535 Justinian also broadened the front of his attack on the Roman West. Belisarius was sent to Sicily, which was to be the springboard for the reconquest of Italy. Belisarius overwintered in Syracuse; Solomon in Carthage. It was at this time that disasters were portended by a remarkable occlusion of the sun, which lasted for more than a year (see pp. 413–5). Between 536 and 539 there was a series of major rebellions among the occupying forces in Africa, led by the dissident Roman commanders Stotzas and Maximus. Many of the barbarian troops fighting on the Roman side sympathized with the Arian Christianity of the Vandals. Some of them married Vandal women and laid claim to their landholdings, rather than relinquish these to imperial ownership. The Moorish population was not slow to take advantage of Roman disunity. Order was with difficulty restored by sending a new commander from Constantinople, Justinian's nephew Germanus, and by the return of Solomon to the region in 539. Ominously Procopius remarks that under Solomon “Africa became a powerful source of revenue and in other respects prosperous.” Taxes, this implies, were rigorously collected (see pp. 383 and 471). Solomon's military objective was to subdue the Moors who controlled the highlands of Mount Aurasius (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.19–20.30). Further west Mauretania Caesarea remained in Moorish hands except for its capital Caesarea (Cherchel), which was only accessible to the Romans by sea (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.2.30–33; see further pp. 419–20).

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