Book Review: Vandal Heaven: Reinterpreting Post-Roman North Africa


by Simon Elliott

Philadelphia: Casemate, 2024. Pp. xxiv, 200+. Illus., maps, tables, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN:1636242871

The Vandals in Africa

The aim of this book is to rehabilitate the reputation of the Vandals, a Germanic warrior people who conquered fabulously rich Roman North Africa in the 5th century AD.” (p. vii).

So begins this charming little book by a British historian and archaeologist. Considering that the word “vandalize” in English means “to intentionally damage property belonging to other people,” the reputation of the Vandals is much in need of rehab.

The only thing most people know about the Vandals is that they sacked the city of Rome (this was during the first two weeks of June, 455 AD). But after that, they do not simply disappear from history. They went on to establish a thriving kingdom that at its peak included Tunisia, coastal parts of Algeria and Libya, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. This kingdom endured until it was conquered by Belisarius, a brilliant military commander serving the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) empire in 534 AD.

The story unfolds in six chapters, followed by a brief Conclusion:

1. The Romans

2. The Barbarians

3. Vandal Origins

4. Vandal Migration

5. Vandal Conquest

6. Vandal Apocalypse

North Africa was not always an impoverished desert backwater. Centuries of climate change, aided by war, deforestation, and overgrazing, combined with a mix of colonial misrule, exploitation, and neglect by Arab, Ottoman, French, Spanish, and Italian regimes helped to create the present sad state of these lands.

The author of Vandal Heaven is a talented explainer, with a masterful command of a wide range historical sources. For example, Chapter 2 “reaches far back into the early Roman history to show how a series of painful defeats at the hands of Celtic and Germanic warrior tribes shaped Roman attitudes toward The Barbarians.”

Religion is a critical factor in this story. The Vandals were converted to the Arian form of Christianity, regarded by both Catholic and Orthodox traditions as a heresy. The Arians taught that the Son was created by the Father, and subordinate to Him, rather than being co-eternal and co-equal, an obscure point of theology that led to centuries of bitter conflict. In practice, however, Vandal rulers were generally tolerant of their Roman subjects who professed different beliefs.

The city of Carthage, utterly destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, was splendidly rebuilt by them in later centuries and became a flourishing seaport. As the capital of the Vandal kingdom, Carthage repeatedly defeated costly Roman seaborne expeditions to recapture it. The fall of Carthage to Belisarius in 534 spelled the doom of Vandal North Africa. The new Byzantine regime imposed on the region proved so unpopular with the people that Arab Muslim armies advancing from Egypt at the end of the seventh century were welcomed as liberators.

The book is enhanced by a section of 39 full-color illustrations, including many photographs of sites mentioned in the text.

Readers who lack a background in ancient history will find Vandal Heaven entirely understandable, but even specialists with a deep understanding of the subject will read it with enjoyment.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, Bohemond of Taranto, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Ancient Rome: Infographics, Byzantium and the Crusades, A Short History of the Byzantine Empire, Theoderic the Great, The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, and Battle for the Island Kingdom.




Note: Vandal Heaven is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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