The North African Invasion of Justinian

Gaiseric sacking Rome in 455 by Mathiasrex

Under King Gaiseric, the Vandals had a fearsome reputation as pirates and undisputed masters of the Western Mediterranean. Even when Justinian ascended the throne in 527, the Byzantines still feared the Vandals. Fresh in their minds were the sack of Rome in 455 and the failed Byzantine invasion in 468, over 50 years ago. But despite the objections of his officials, Justinian still pressed ahead with his invasion of North Africa. How did this highly risky venture turn out? What did Justinian do to ensure its success?

North Africa and the Vandals

As the Western Roman Empire slowly disintegrated, North Africa came under the control of the Vandals. The Vandals were a barbarian tribe who fled west due to the coming of the Huns. After destroying a large portion of Gaul, they finally settled in Spain in 409. For twenty years, the Vandals remained contentedly in Spain until the ascension of Gaiseric in 428. A dynamic man, Gaiseric believed that the Vandals were destined for something greater. Under his energetic leadership, the Vandals invaded North Africa with their fleet and drove out the Romans. The loss of this wealthy province hit the Western Roman Empire hard. Over the following years, Carthage, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands fell until Gaiseric was the undisputed master of the Western Mediterranean.

Having established his empire, Gaiseric went on to raid the entire Mediterranean with his powerful fleet. In 455, he managed to sack Rome itself. Then, in 468, he defeated an attempted invasion by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. With no one capable of stopping him, Gaiseric continued his lucrative sea raiding activities. But these were not the only galling activities of Gaiseric. As the Vandals were Arian Christians, Gaiseric persecuted the Catholics within his empire, enriching his treasury in the process. This did not sit well with the Byzantines in Constantinople, yet they were powerless to stop them. Instead a peace treaty signed by both empires around 474 held until the age of Justinian.

NE 500AD by Thomas Lessman

The ambition of Justinian

Although Justinian ascended the throne in 527, the ongoing Persian war he inherited kept him occupied for the moment. More importantly, the Vandal king Hilderic was pro-Roman; Justinian had no excuse to attack them. But things changed in 530 when Hilderic lost his throne due to his unpopular pro-Roman policies. As expected, the new Vandal king Gelimer refused Justinian’s demand to restore Hilderic to the throne. This gave Justinian the pretext he was looking for to invade North Africa. Now all he needed was an opportunity. Happily for Justinian, the Byzantines and the Persians declared a truce at the end of 531. As the negotiations continued over the peace treaty, Justinian began preparations for the reconquest of North Africa.

But before preparations could begin, Justinian faced strong opposition from his officials. Firstly, they feared the martial reputation of the Vandals. Secondly, the defeated invasion of 468 was still fresh in their minds, adding to the enemy’s aura of invincibility. However, the vision of a bishop which foresaw divine intervention in this expedition convinced Justinian to press on. For the expedition, he placed his trusted general Belisarius in charge of 10,000 infantrymen and 5,000 cavalry. Additionally, he gave Belisarius the authority to act on his behalf. This was a prudent measure because the delay in seeking Justinian’s approval could jeopardize the expedition. In 533, the preparations were finally complete and the army set sail for Northern Africa.

To further increase the success of his invasion, Justinian negotiated with Gothic Sicily to allow Belisarius to resupply at their ports. Leaving nothing to chance, Justinian also distracted Gelimer by inciting a revolt in Sardinia. Apparently, God was indeed on the side of the Byzantines as foretold. Gelimer took the bait and sent the bulk of his Vandal army under his brother Tzazo to suppress the rebels. When news of this reached Belisarius in Sicily, he launched his fleet immediately to exploit the situation.

The Battle of Ad Decimum

The invaders landed at Caput Vada. From this point, Belisarius marched his troops towards their target; Carthage, capital of the Vandals. Along the way, Belisarius maintained strict discipline amongst his troops so that they would not disrupt the lives of the natives. Due to this, the natives proved to be welcoming to the Byzantines.

Meanwhile news of Belisarius’ approach reached the ears of Gelimer. He immediately executed Hilderic and made plans to face Belisarius. Deciding to oppose Belisarius before he reached Carthage; Gelimer assembled the remainder of his forces and marched out of the city. But as Gelimer had only 11,000 men, he knew he was at a disadvantage. So he tried to encircle and destroy Belisarius’s forces by leveraging on his familiarity of the terrain. The armies clashed on September 13, 533 at the Battle of Ad Decimum. Although things did not go as planned, Gelimer still managed to gain the upper hand in battle. But just as he was about to defeat Belisarius, he learnt that his brother had fallen during the fight. Overcome with grief, Gelimer took the time to bury his brother instead of pressing the attack that would surely have destroyed the Byzantines. Meanwhile, Belisarius seized the opportunity to regroup his scattered troops and counterattacked with ferocity. The Byzantines routed the Vandal army; snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The defeat of Gelimer left Carthage completely undefended. The next day, Belisarius marched his troops into the city unopposed. Again he gave strict orders to his troops to leave the people alone. Because of Belisarius’ refusal to sack Carthage, he won the people over to Byzantine rule. But this was no time to rest on his laurels; Gelimer still roamed at large. Immediately, Belisarius began the restoration of the city’s walls which were in poor condition.

The Battle of Tricamarum

Meanwhile, Gelimer regrouped at Bulla Regia in Numidia; hundred miles west of Carthage. He sent an urgent message to Tzazo in Sardinia, asking him to return at once with the army. While awaiting his brother’s arrival, the resourceful Gelimer took steps to weaken the Byzantines before the next battle. Firstly, he sent his agents to win over some of Belisarius’ Hunnic mercenaries. Not only would this weaken Belisarius’ military might, it would also demoralize his troops by causing dissension. Next, he pitted the local tribes against the Byzantines by offering a reward for every head they brought him. When Tzazo arrived in early December, Gelimer and his army set out for Carthage. Along the way, they destroyed the aqueduct that supplied Carthage with water.

Belisarius was not idle either. In the twelve weeks since he occupied Carthage, he had completed the restoration of the walls. Belisarius was also aware that his Hunnic mercenaries were now of doubtful loyalty due to Gelimer’s agents. Upon learning of Gelimer’s approach, he decided to take the initiative. This time, in a reversal of roles, Belisarius marched out of Carthage to face Gelimer. The armies clashed at Tricamarum on December 15. Although Belisarius found himself severely outnumbered, his cavalry managed kill Tzazo on the third charge, disheartening Gelimer and winning the day. The Vandal retreat became a complete rout. Without anyone left to oppose him, Belisarius went on to occupy the Vandal cities one by one. As for Gelimer, after hiding in Numida for a few months, he finally surrendered in March 534. This marked the end of Vandal rule in North Africa.

The triumph of Justinian and Belisarius

In the summer of 534, Belisarius returned to Constantinople. He brought with him the treasures of the Vandals and captives; most notably their former king Gelimer. This was a grand occasion for Justinian as his gamble had paid off richly. The conquest of North Africa greatly enhanced his prestige and silenced all his critics. Meanwhile Belisarius was now the hero of the Byzantine Empire. Fittingly, Justinian gave Belisarius a triumph; a public celebration, for his victory. But during the triumph, both Belisarius and Gelimer had to prostrate themselves before Justinian and Theodora, leaving no doubt about who was in charge. As for Gelimer, Justinian gave him vast estates in Galatia to retire to. There the Vandal king died of old age.

Integration of North Africa into the Byzantine Empire

Finally, there was the administrative matter of incorporating North Africa into the Byzantine Empire. Justinian set to work immediately by creating the legislation for its administration. Then he appointed a Praetorian Prefect and a salaried staff to oversee the running of North Africa. But North Africa was not fully pacified when Belisarius left. For years, the Byzantines faced difficulties in subduing the native tribes. But by 540, North Africa came firmly under Byzantine rule.

Reflections of the Vizier

Justinian had attempted the impossible and succeeded. With North Africa under his control, his prestige was at an all time high. He also had at his side, the perfect instrument to carry out his military conquests; Belisarius. Emboldened by his success, Justinian could now turn his attention to Italy and expect little objections from his officials.

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Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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