BMCR 2015.07.09

Les Vandales et l’Empire romain (édité par Michel-Yves Perrin). Civilisations et cultures

, Les Vandales et l'Empire romain (édité par Michel-Yves Perrin). Civilisations et cultures. Arles: Éditions Errance, 2014. 302. ISBN 9782877724357. €35.00 (pb).


This posthumous, long-awaited synthesis by the great French historian Yves Modéran is challenging to assess. On the one hand, given the unfortunate circumstances of his passing away at such a young age, one can only applaud the publication of his manuscript, edited by Michel-Yves Perrin, even if Modéran did leave it unfinished in 2010. On the other hand, the result is an unfinished work: six complete chapters and one third of the seventh out of the planned twelve chapters (the projected plan is included on p. 13), and one that could evidently not take into account important work published in 2010 and in the intervening years before publication in 2014.1 The omission of the cultural and religious chapters, moreover, make the finished product exclusively political and military, which gives it a very traditional tone. This is nevertheless a significant book that exhibits the meticulous analysis of primary sources Modéran had accustomed us to expect from his work. Combined with his previous works on the Vandals and the Moors, it completes a lifetime’s achievement of important research on late antique North Africa.

Chapter one covers the origins of the Vandals. Modéran argues that the Vandals were of “Celto-Germanic” origins, that Romans associated their name with populations beyond the Jutland and Eastern Germany, but that they had lost importance by Tacitus’ time. The Asding Vandals had their first diplomatic contacts with Rome around 170, an agreement for military cooperation outside the Roman frontiers, which lasted until the 230s. In the 270s, following their invasion of a province south of the Danube, the Asdings obtained peace from Aurelian, who used them as federates in the Roman army for the first time. At some point c. 150-300, the Silings separated from the Asdings to establish themselves north of Raetia. Constantine gave the status of incolae to a small group of the Silings that he established in Pannonia Inferior in 335 to revive abandoned lands. Unlike other Germanic groups who were hostile to Rome, Modéran concludes that the Vandals were generally peaceful during the first four centuries of the Common Era.

In the second chapter, Modéran analyzes the Vandals’ participation in what older scholarship portrayed as “the Rhine invasion” of 406/7, and presents very mild support for the new dating of the Rhine crossing to 31 December 405. This chapter is essentially a dialogue with Walter Goffart’s Barbarian Tides.2 It thus defends the traditional “domino theory” of Edward Gibbon, rejoined by Peter Heather in the last decades, which explains the desire of Germanic people to penetrate Roman territory through their fear of the Huns. For him, then, the migration of the Vandals and other groups was a consequence of the movement that the Huns started in 375. Against a “second Hunnic wave” that would have led to the 406 crossing of the Rhine, Modéran sees a more generalized crisis in barbaricum in the years 375-405. Following Procopius, he believes that hunger led to the migration, and despite Goffart’s ridicule, Modéran reasserts the “invasion train” metaphor, with an eastern “locomotive” (Asdings and Alans) and western cars (Silings and Suevi), with the Alans as the dominant group. This “train” went west in order to avoid Alaric’s Goths (probably in Pannonia 402-406), Radagaisus (in northern Italy in December 405), or Stilicho’s triumphant army (December 406). The coalition followed the Danube, and Modéran postulates that the Silings were instrumental in showing the way in the empire. Against recent interpretations presenting this as an invasion by a small military group, Modéran asserts the primacy of texts mentioning women and children.

The Vandal presence in Gaul and Spain is the topic of chapter three. Vandals likely headed south rapidly, but suffered setbacks. Modéran sees the origins of the vilification of the Vandals in these years, particularly as a result of a letter of Jerome claiming that Vandals had killed thousands in a Mayence church. In a fascinating section, perhaps the most original of the whole work, Modéran shows that later medieval sources attributed unknown destructions and martyrs to the Vandals from the seventh century onward (72-5). About the partitioning of Spain among the Alans, Suevi, and Vandals, Modéran argues against the interpretation of ‘sorte’ as ‘by lot’ (81-2), and instead follows Goffart’s view that the Alans were the most powerful group, which explains why they received half of the territory. The war between these groups and the Goths in the years 416-420 brought a dilution of the Alans, Silings, and Suevi, who eventually joined the Asdings. This created the need for a new form of group identity, which Modéran claims they found in the “Arianism” imported by Visigothic missionaries to the Asding kingdom c. 414-418. He thus thinks that Geiseric’s conversion followed that of his people. This provocative suggestion can only make us lament the absence of the chapter dedicated to Vandal religion (planned as chapter ten).

In chapter four, Modéran analyzes the Vandal invasion of Africa. For him, Victor of Vita’s number of 80,000 people, including women and children, is “probably the only reliable number we have for a “barbarian invasion”” (96). Modéran explains the legend of Boniface’s treachery (he allegedly invited the Vandals into Africa) as a reflection of the wider crisis that gripped the area from 427 to 429. He argues that Boniface probably hired Vandal federates in his fight against Ravenna, but once Galla Placidia had established peace, Geiseric crossed into Africa and his fellow Vandals joined their king in besieging Hippo. Reasserting the traditional interpretation of the Notitia Dignitatum as a reliable document produced in 401, Modéran argues that the African army of 20,000 at the beginning of the fifth century had weakened steadily over the next two decades. He sees a turning point in the 413 battle of Utriculum, when Heraclian, count of Africa, attempted to take Ravenna with his army but suffered a resounding defeat. Modéran argues that the Vandals attempted to take Carthage early, made incursions into Byzacena and south-east Proconsularis, but were repelled by Aspar’s army (118), which led to the treaty of Hippo that turned them into federates in 435. Hence everyone’s surprise when Geiseric took Carthage four years later. What was a catastrophe for the empire (loss of important revenues and food supply, notably) was a great success for Geiseric, “the birth act of the Vandal state, probably the first truly independent Germanic kingdom established within a Roman province” according to Modéran (119). The city resisted, which led to violence and destruction. He mainly doubts Victor of Vita’s exaggerations, but asserts that one characteristic of the Vandal invasion was its violence against the Catholic establishment.

Chapter five covers the Vandal kingdom, first from the Roman perspective, then by looking at its frontiers within Africa. An important treaty divided North Africa between the empire and the Vandals in 442. Traditionally seen as imperial acknowledgement of Vandal independence, Modéran argues that this watershed treaty needs to be seen within a wider lens and not as a dichotomous proposition of belonging to the empire or not. In practice, the easternmost provinces given to the Vandals were lost, but Modéran shows that Greek authors describe the post-442 Vandal realm as a client kingdom with traditional vocabulary. Thus for Rome, the Vandals were allies, and thus subordinate; a fiction through which the empire could situate such an embarrassing situation within a classical category. Conversely, for the Vandals, being an “ally and friend of Rome” implied that they were masters of their own domain, and thus they increasingly behaved as successors of Rome in Africa. Modéran sees three distinct periods in the Vandal interpretation of their status: 1) 442-455: they respected the treaty; 2) 455-474: they ignored the treaty, following the death of Valentinian III, for they believed that treaties were signed between individuals; and 3) the 474 treaty with Leo implicitly acknowledged Vandal independence. Unfortunately, discussion of the latter is minimal. Modéran considers the frontiers as the geographical limits to the exercise of power, and therefore argues that this is most clearly seen in the application of the Vandal religious policy. Summarizing his earlier important work on the Notitia prouinciarum et ciuitatum Africae, a list of bishops produced in the aftermath of the council of Carthage in 484, Modéran concludes that by 484 the Vandals controlled most of the six former Roman provinces upon which they had been encroaching since the treaty of 455. In the Mauretanias, the Moors were vassals of the Vandal kings until 483, but started to emancipate themselves after Huneric’s death. Consequently, the geographical extent of the Vandal kingdom under Huneric’s successors decreased steadily. Sadly, the details of this discussion are missing, since they belonged to a subsequent chapter (chapter 11) that Modéran never got around to completing.

In chapter six, Modéran analyzes the modern debate regarding whether Germanic groups appropriated land or tax revenues. He goes back to an earlier twentieth-century view that Africa did not fit within Gaupp’s original scheme, and argues forcefully, and rightfully in my view, that Geiseric had expelled owners from Proconsularis in order to settle Vandals. From a detailed analysis of Victor’s key passages (1.12-15 and 17), Modéran argues that Geiseric first arrested ‘senatores urbis’ to confiscate their possessions following the conquest of Carthage, expelled them, then reserved Proconsularis for members of his army, before expropriating land from ecclesiastical and lay owners of the province. He dismisses apparent differences in Procopius’ account by arguing that the Greek writer was more prone to generalizations while Victor ignored specific technical aspects, and concludes that the “parceling out” of Vandal soldiers in Proconsularis is well attested (167). Valentinian’s Novellae attest that these appropriations were numerous, and Modéran estimates that they affected several thousand families.

Finally, the unfinished chapter seven presents a section on Vandal “piracy” and their increasingly wide spectrum of naval expeditions in the Mediterranean. Modéran shows that, against older interpretations, Vandal naval activities continued uninterrupted even after 442, which led to the sack of Rome in 455, and eventually to the intervention of the Eastern Empire though a grand expedition in 468. It is in this context, Modéran argues in an appendix, that the Rostra Vandalica were erected to commemorate preliminary victories by Leo’s brother-in-law Basiliscus.

Despite all its strengths in reconstructing the early history of the Vandals, the religious aspects of the discussion are often problematic. Modéran exhibits a tendency to take Catholic texts at face value and ignores opposing viewpoints. Is it not possible, for instance, that Vandals targeted churches because this is where the wealth was to be found, as Clovis did later in Gaul before his conversion? That they attacked priests and bishops during the years 429-439 not for “religious” reasons, but because they acted as leaders of the resistance in their cities? Modéran asserts that Geiseric gave a religious dimension to his political and military policy, which “created a category of victims [esp. bishops] with the means to be heard” (130). But is it not possible that it was, in fact, the opposite of this, that it was these victims who created, or exaggerated, the religious aspects of this “policy”? Similarly, instead of considering the Vandal religious policy as repressive, which reproduces the Catholic viewpoint, why not emphasize the support the Vandals provided to the Arian church? These criticisms are only highlighted by an important omission from this work: the secular texts of the Anthologia Latina, which provide the necessary, and unique, alternative perspective to that of the dominant Catholic writers.

Sadly, these points only add to the regret of losing an important voice in the growing discussion on the Vandals in particular and on late antique North Africa more generally.


1. The most important one is A. Merrills and R. Miles, The Vandals (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). It nevertheless also omits important works published before 2010, esp. G. M. Berndt, Konflikt und Anpassung. Studien zu Migration und Ethnogenese der Vandalen (Husum: Matthiesen, 2007), and G. M. Berndt and R. Steinacher (edd.) Das Reich der Vandalen und seine (Vor-) Geschichten (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008).

2. W. Goffart, Barbarian Tides. The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Unfortunately, Modéran does not fully engage with the four articles published in the Journal of Late Antiquity 2.1 (2009) on this subject.