Byzantine Reconquest of the West Continues
December 15th, 2009 by Siggurdsson
Nice retirement plan for the loser... After the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476, western Europe splintered into a plethora of minor barbarian kingdoms. Fortunately, the East Roman Empire (more often referred to as the Byzantine Empire) continued the legacy of the Caesars in the eastern Mediterranean region. With their capital in Constantinople, the Byzantines continued to nurture the Roman civilization. Before long, the Byzantine emperors began toying with the idea of reacquiring the lost lands of the western Mediterranean. These dreams were given legs in the 530’s, thanks to a “regime change” in a rival north African kingdom. One of the barbarian kingdoms that contributed to the disintegration of the western Roman world was the Vandals. This Germanic people was one of several tribal groups – including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Suevi, Heruls and others – that migrated into Gaul (modern France) from central and eastern Europe in the early fifth century AD. The Vandals’ sack of Rome in 455 became legendary; it also supplied the word “vandalism” to our language for the ruthless destruction of anything beautiful or venerable. Eventually, the Vandals moved their people and flocks through southern France, Spain and northern Africa. As a result of their movement and war-like spirit, they created a kingdom that encompassed what is today Morocco, the northern coasts of Algeria and western Libya, the Balearic Islands, Corsica and Sardinia, with their capital in the rebuilt city of Carthage. This area was one of the breadbaskets of the old Roman Empire, so was prime real estate. Although the Vandals had converted to Christianity during their time in the West, their brand (known as Arianism) was not quite the same as the Byzantines. When Gelimer became ruler of the Vandal kingdom in 530 by deposing his brother, he began to persecute Catholic Christians. Because of these persecutions, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I declared war on the Vandals in 533, sending an army under the command of his most trusted general Belisarius. After easily landing his forces in North Africa (thanks to the Vandal fleet being preoccupied with a revolt in Sardinia), Belisarius defeated Gelimer’s forces at the battle of Ad Decimum in September, 533 which allowed him to occupy Carthage. However, Gelimer fled to the nearby city of Bulla Regius and continued to oppose the Byzantines. King Gelimer sent a message to his brother Tzazo – who commanded the Vandal forces in Sardinia – and pleaded for his help. Tzazo responded immediately, bringing needed reinforcements in early December. In addition, Gelimer offered bounties to local Berber tribesmen for the head of every Byzantine they could kill; he further offered bribes to the Hun mercenaries in Belisarius’ army, who had been crucial to the Byzantine victory at Ad Decimum. King Gelimer then ordered his army to march on Carthage to dislodge the Byzantines. Belisarius, preoccupied with completing repairs to the defenses of Carthage, learned of the attempts to turn his Hun allies, and realized he could no longer depend upon them. However, he did meet with their leaders, making promises to them, including allowing them to keep any booty they collected, as well as promising the Huns they would be allowed to return to their homeland when the conquest of the Vandals was complete. When he heard of the approaching Vandal force – which had also destroyed the aqueduct which supplied Carthage with fresh water – Belisarius gathered his army and marched to meet the enemy. The two forces met at the town of Tricamarum, about 20 miles west of Carthage, where the Vandal host was camped. The Byzantine force consisted of about 10,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry. The infantry were likely about half Byzantine and half foederatii (barbarians living within the Byzantine Empire, not yet granted full citizenship, but sworn to serve the emperor). The cavalry were comprised of: 500 of the better armed and armored bucellarii, (Latin for “biscuit-eaters”), who were Belisarius’ personal bodyguard; 3500 light horsemen, probably half Byzantine and half foederatii; his Hunnic horsemen, who numbered between 500 and 600 men; and 400 Heruli horse archers. Usual Byzantine military doctrine used the cavalry to deliver the main blow to the enemy, with the infantry used as supporting troops. The Vandal force numbered some 50,000 effectives, probably a mixture of Vandal heavy noble cavalry, Berber light horse, lightly armored Vandal spearmen, and some mixed Vandal/Berber skirmishers (bowmen, javelineers, and slingers). When the Vandal camp was sighted, Belisarius ordered camp made for the night. The next day, December 15, the Vandals left their camp to attack the Byzantines (apparently having received intelligence from scouts or spies). Arriving at their enemy’s camp at lunchtime, the Vandals launched their attack. The Byzantine cavalry, though taken by surprise, quickly organized themselves and charged the Vandals, leaving the infantry to get their own act together. The Byzantine cavalry was thrown back twice, but reformed and charged the enemy each time. During the third Byzantine cavalry attack, General Tzazo was killed. The Vandal force fled back to their camp, with the Byzantine cavalry and the wavering Huns (who *now* knew on which side their bread was buttered) in hot pursuit, stripping the bodies of the dead as they went. By late afternoon, Belisarius and his infantry had organized themselves. Belisarius then led his infantry out and attacked the Vandal stockade. King Gelimer, seeing the Byzantine force approaching, completely lost his nerve, jumped on his horse and fled the scene. His retreat was so unexpected that no one saw him leave. When the rest of the Vandal army realized it was leaderless, the entire force – including women and children – routed from the field, leaving the army’s wounded and its treasury behind in the camp. The Byzantines pursued the refugees into the night, killing or capturing many of the routing enemy. Vandal casualties were listed as 3000 killed or captured; Byzantine casualties were not recorded but were likely less than a few hundred. Gelimer fled to a fortress in the nearby hills, besieged by Byzantine forces for several months before he finally surrendered to Belisarius in March, 534. The victorious Belisarius brought back to Constantinople not only Gelimer as a captive and a large amount of gold and war booty, but also Roman imperial regalia looted from Rome in 455; he also recovered the menorah of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, itself looted by the Roman general (and later emperor) Titus in 70 AD. For his remarkably swift victory over the Vandals, Belisarius was granted the last public triumph for a successful military commander by the Emperor Justinian. To show his merciful side, Justinian did not execute Gelimer, but rather gave him an estate in Galatia (modern central Turkey) to live the remainder of his life.
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