Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.64

Tankred Howe, Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita. Studien zur alten Geschichte, Bd 7.   Frankfurt:  Verlag Antike, 2007.  Pp. 411.  ISBN 9783938032176.  €57.90.  

Reviewed by B. N. Wolfe, Wolfson College, University of Oxford (
Word count: 1368 words

Victor of Vita was a fifth-century orthodox bishop of Byzacena who recorded the persecution of orthodox Christians by the Arian Vandal rulers of North Africa. In his 'History of the Persecution in the Province of Africa', he details the violent measures taken during the reigns of Geiseric (AD 429-477) and his son and successor Huneric (477-484) to repress the Trinitarian (catholic, orthodox) religion of the conquered, native majority. The book under review deals first with general questions concerning this account, and then discusses tropes in Victor's treatment of the Vandals. It is thus a study of the interaction between barbarians and provincial Romans in the Migration Period.

The Vandals invaded Roman North Africa under Geiseric in 429, and although peace was made in 435, it was soon broken by Geiseric, who in 439 took Carthage. Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic islands fell to the invaders, who established one of many pirate kingdoms in North Africa's history. An important and handy enumeration of the local sources for this period is found on pp. 16-27 of the introductory chapter. One key event during the Vandals' rule, which is at the heart of the 'Historia', was the religious conference of Arian and catholic bishops held in 484. Included in the main text of the 'Historia' is the catholic confession of faith presented to King Huneric at these discussions. In all manuscripts two other documents are attached, the 'Passio beatissimorum martyrum qui apud Carthaginem passi sunt sub impio rege Hunerico (die VI. Non. Julias 484)' and a 'Notitia Provinciarum et Civitatum Africae' (enumerating the catholic bishops attendant at Huneric's rather stage-managed colloquy). These are treated together with Victor's work, but are generally supposed to be of different authorship.

In the first part of the second chapter (28-60), Howe addresses textual questions such as the composition date of the 'Historia Persecutionis', arguing for AD 488. Howe's thorough method immediately becomes clear: while he has read and cites all of the secondary literature on the subject, he is careful always to base his conclusions upon the primary sources. He gives the reader the state of research without repeating shibboleths.

Victor's biography is the subject of the latter half of Chapter 2 (61-119). Howe traces the roots of much modern literature on the subject to Jean Liron, who wrote in the 18th century, and whose ideas have been accepted, perhaps, too uncritically. On the basis of the Notitia's list of catholic bishops affected by Vandal penal measures, some have suggested that while Victor was a witness to and a participant in the key debates of 484, he was not called upon to cast a vote. Liron interprets Victor's use of the first-person plural to describe events as the reporting of an eye-witness; Howe argues that the combined witness of all catholics in Africa may be signified thereby.

Chapter Three (120-182) introduces the main themes of the book. It outlines the nomenclature with which the persecutors and the persecuted are identified. Howe condemns a simplistic parallel between confessional and political terminology: for Victor, Vandals and Arians are near synonyms, as are catholics and Romans. The Vandal king is contrasted with the Emperor, both at the head of their religious-ethnic communities.

The central argument appears in Chapters Four (183-282) and Five (283-318). The former, "The Negative Portrayal of the Persecutors", is concerned with the topoi of greed, brutality, and impetuousness with which Victor presents the Vandals. Victor, in Howe's eyes, wishes the Vandal government and Arian persecution to be understood as phenomena interlocking in a comprehensive attack on the Roman value system. "Romanitas" and "Vandalitas" as Victor uses them convey a unity of ethnic-political-cultural and religious identities (229).

February 4th, AD 484 is depicted as the pivot on which the Vandals' religious politics shifted paradigms, when the religious talks between the two parties failed, though this date is the punctuation to a more gradual shift. Howe's Huneric hoped to unify the entire Vandal realm religiously, and so to create an ideological analogy to the Roman Empire. Related to this is his attempt to secure his own dynasty, abolishing the seniority principle that had formerly governed succession among the Vandals. Huneric's aim, according to Howe, was a Vandalia in North Africa, as a rival to "Romania". One may compare this to the Visigothic king Ataulf's rejected ambitions for a Gothia that would supersede the Roman Empire in the West. Such an endeavour would indeed account for the persecution of the catholics unwilling to convert to Arianism, and is, as Howe posits, a believable political background to Victor's text.

"The Positive Portrayal of the Persecuted" is Chapter Five. Howe argues that Victor does not make a clear distinction between Vandal and Roman catholics. This deliberate confusion seems surprising at first glance, since the Vandal catholics were no doubt a good advertisement for the convincingness of Trinitarian theology, and their treatment by the Vandal government good evidence of the regime's brutality. However, Victor was following in august footsteps in making his heretics barbarians: Howe illustrates this point with St Augustine's treatment of the Donatists (who were largely Berbers). The ethnic elements are secondary and suggestive: The persecutors' negative portrayal borrows but is not uncomplicatedly derived from the traditional depiction of barbarians. Howe concludes from this that Victor exemplifies a key step in the religious re-interpretation of the word 'barbarian' to mean 'unbeliever, heretic'.

Howe's conclusions are presented in Chapters Six (319-356) and Seven (the Conclusion, 357-398), with two major points stressed. First, he argues that the relation between persecutors and persecuted was borrowed from the two cities of St Augustine. If one thinks in purely eschatological terms, then the ethnic specifications of the two groups are unimportant. However, as historical outworkings of eschatology they are noteworthy.

Second, Howe argues that Victor's work is both apologetic and parakletic: It is apologetic to the beleaguered African catholics in its presentation of the heroism of their fellows, and parakletic in calling on them to resist the attacks they face. The 'Historia' is a record of Catholic resistance, but also a historico-theological interpretation of catholic-Arian conflict. Turning once again to the wider, Imperial ecclesiastical situation at the end of the 5th century, Howe notes that the Acacian schism had paralyzed Eastern religious policy, and the council of Rome had just addressed itself to successful Arian proselytizing in North Africa. Particularly in face of this last, Victor wished to document the orthodoxy and resistance of African catholics. Howe concludes from all this that Huneric's religious policy was largely a success, and that Victor's representation testifies more to its effectiveness than to its methods.

Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita is a worthy book, valuable both for its argument and its reference potential. It is well printed, and the presentation on the page is clear, and aided by occasional text-boxes and charts. However, the chapter organization is odd to the English-speaking eye (and should be changed if the book is translated). Howe's conclusions are measured, reasonable, and well-supported by the extensive evidence he offers. Revisionist scholarship is often to be deplored when it attempts to make works of wide-ranging significance into petty, locally-concerned documents. Howe does the opposite. His Victor sought to convince his readers that becoming Arians represented not only changing their views about the structure of the Trinity, but also vandalizing their very Romanitas, and thereby abandoning all the civilized virtues of reason and law. The 'Historia' thus presented is not just a chronicle of horrors, valuable to the modern scholar only for what it accidentally reveals about day-to-day life in Late Antiquity, but is rather a powerful, subtle piece of argumentation and persuasion.

The book under review does not exhaust all the possible developments of its own interpretation, which leaves room for further work to be done. One potentially fruitful approach would be questioning the success of Victor's methods: Does equating the Vandal king with the Emperor benefit his argument overall, or is it too great a concession to Vandal propaganda? Indeed, to what extent are Victor's and the Vandal rulers' interests aligned in presenting religion and ethnicity as co-referents? For these and other such investigations, Tankred Howe's 'Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita' will be a useful starting point.

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