On October 19, 439 A.D., an army of Vandals and Alans, led
by their king Geiseric, entered Carthage, one of the greatest cities of the
whole Roman Empire and the second city of the Western Empire. Within three years, Gaiseric consolidated a
North African Vandal kingdom, encompassing the former Roman provinces of Africa
Proconsularis, Byzacena, and Tripolitania, that was to survive for nearly a
century. The loss of North Africa was a severe blow
to the beleaguered Western Empire. Not
only was Rome's main grain supply cut off, but the Vandal fleet based at
Carthage soon controlled the western Mediterranean. The Vandals took Rome itself in 455 and plundered it for two
weeks. In fact, the Vandal kingdom was to outlast
the Western Roman Empire: the last
emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476. When the army sent by the Eastern Roman
Emperor Justinian retook Carthage in 533, barbarian kingdoms controlled all of
the former territory of the Western Empire.
The consequences of the Vandal conquest of North Africa on
the Roman Empire as a whole are fairly clear: it contributed to the political
fragmentation of the western half of the Empire that led to its disappearance
by the end of the fifth century. But
"the fall of Rome" had more than just political significance. It also marked, in some sense, the end of
the classical world and the beginning of medieval Europe. One component of this change was the decline
of the city as an economic and social center.
The contrast between an expansive Roman city of the second century A.D.,
complete with baths, theaters, triumphal arches, aqueducts, and porticoes, and
a tiny medieval city of the tenth century, huddled within its fortifications,
is stark. For Carthage, the end result
was especially catastrophic: it was
essentially deserted by the early eighth century.
The question remains, however: what was the reason for this decline? For the classical world in general, numerous factors have been
explored, among them the shift of production from cities to rural estates, the
transfer of power from city governments to the imperial bureaucracy, and the
impoverishment of the city aristocracy.
One factor which is more often asserted than examined is the role of
barbarians as a major cause of urban decay.
Since the West was completely under barbarian rule by the fifth century,
and cities throughout the West shrank and disappeared over the next few
centuries, it is tempting to connect the two.
By their very nature, barbarians were apparently hostile to the urban
civilization built up by the Romans. As
Hans Delbrück said of the Goths,
would it have been conceivable that these Germanic warriors, who considered it
more honorable to achieve their gains by bloodshed than by work, would have
left untouched the fine things of the world all about them, toward which they
had but to stretch out their hands?
Contemporary observers expresssed
similar views. In a proclamation of
534, Justinian celebrated his restoration of Africa's freedom from the Vandals,
"who were at once enemies of souls and bodies." The more sophisticated version of this view
is that the barbarians, coming from a non-urban culture, were either
uninterested or unable to maintain the level of urban development in the cities
that they conquered.
Did barbarian conquest, then, deal the death-blow to
classical urban civilization? More
specifically, was the Vandal conquest of Carthage a major factor in its
disappearance two and a half centuries later?
Carthage, in fact, is remarkably well-suited for an examination of this
question. Unlike other Western regions,
barbarian rule in North Africa had a clear-cut beginning with the Vandal
capture of Carthage in 439. Spain,
Gaul, and even Italy came under barbarian domination piecemeal and with a great
deal of ambiguity as to the true power relationship between the barbarians and
the imperial government. By contrast,
439 marks a decisive date for the end of Roman power in North Africa. The first Vandal king, Geiseric, often chose
to ally himself with one faction or another in Italy or Constantinople, but he
made little pretense of subordination to Roman authority.
At the other end, the Vandal defeat by the Byzantine general
Belisarius in 533 marks an equally decisive end to their influence in North
Africa. The Justinianic reconquest,
which succeeded in bringing Italy, North Africa, and part of Spain under
Byzantine control by the mid-sixth century, was stable only in Africa. Italy and Spain became constantly shifting
battlegrounds between the Byzantines and the neighboring barbarian states; the
last Byzantine stronghold in Spain was lost in 629, although they retained a
foothold in Italy until the mid-eighth century. North Africa, by contrast, returned to its normal pattern of
sporadic fighting with the Berber tribesmen of the interior, and by the early
seventh century Carthage was a bastion of "comparative strength and
stability" in the Byzantine empire.
This clearly-defined period provides a unique opportunity
for a "before" and "after" assessment of the effects of a
long, uninterrupted period of barbarian rule.
This paper will examine the changes in urban life that did, or did not,
result from the imposition of Vandal rule on one of the great cities of the
classical world. The main areas I will
look at are: civic life; religion;
and trade and the economy.
Before focusing exclusively on Carthage, however, it will be useful to
have a more general understanding of the nature of the Vandal kingdom in
vandal north africa
When the Vandals crossed into North Africa from Spain in
429, they arrived in a land which had remained largely isolated from the
troubles of the provinces across the Mediterranean. The main threat remained native tribesmen from the desert to the
south and the mountainous uplands, who occasionally interrupted the peace of
the Romanized coastal plains. The fertile plain around Carthage was one of
the most heavily settled, however, and well-shielded by frontier
fortifications, enough so that Carthage itself was not fortified until 423-425,
probably due to the recognition of the threat of barbarian invasions after two
failed attempts by the Visigoths in 410 and 415.
Although the emperors Honorius and Theodosius outlawed
teaching barbarians to build ships on pain of death, the Vandals succeeded in
crossing from southern Spain in 429, possibly with the assistance of the
military governor of Africa, Boniface, who had been dodging "envious
supreme commanders and conflicting claims of imperial sovereignty" since
taking over the post in 423. The Vandals slowly made their way eastward,
and from 430-434 sparred inconclusively with Roman armies under Boniface and
the eastern general Flavius Aspar, himself an Alan (one of the peoples making
up the Vandal host).. In 435 a treaty with Valentinian III was
negotiated, giving the Vandals allied status as foederati and settling them around the city of Hippo Regius, in the
western part of Africa Proconsularis, the province of Carthage. The Vandal king Geiseric soon reneged on
this deal, however, and in 439 he captured Carthage with little opposition. An attempt by the eastern emperor Leo to
retake Carthage failed, and Vandal rule in North Africa thereafter was
unchallenged by the Romans until the successful expedition of Belisarius in
After the capture of Carthage, Geiseric established the
Vandal kingdom that was to last for nearly one hundred years, based on the
reward of land to the three groups of Vandal elites: the clergy, the warriors,
and the optimates (nobility). The Arian clergy received some churches as
well as land, while the sortes Wandalorum
gave hereditary and tax-free allotments of land to the warriors and optimates, including members of the
royal Hasdingi clan. Other barbarian settlements of the fifth
century, such as the settlement of Visigoths in Aquitaine in 418, the
Burgundians in eastern Gaul in 443, and the Ostrogoths in Italy in 490, were
generally based on existing legal precedent with at least some attempt to
maintain harmony between the barbarians and the indigenous people. By contrast, land for the Vandals was
provided by arbitrary expropriations from landowners. Absentee landowners, who held vast stretches
of Africa, probably made a relatively easy target for confiscation, but the
local aristocracy certainly did not escape unscathed.
Some of the provincial Roman aristocrats fled into exile,
leaving their estates to the new Vandal overlords. Many, however, chose to stay, as shown by Vandal laws referring
to the highest classes of inlustres,
spectabiles, senatores, sacerdotales, and principales, as well as the Tablettes Albertini which shows Romans
still owning estates under Vandal rule. One example is recounted in the Life
of St. Fulgentius, born in 462.
Fulgentius's grandparents had fled to Italy when the Vandals arrived,
and their estates were divided between Geiseric and the Arian church. For some unknown reason, Geiseric's share
was restored to Fulgentius's parents, who were able to provide him with the
easygoing life of a young aristocrat. In the pattern of other barbarian
settlements of the fifth century, the Vandals did not wipe out the Roman ruling
class, but rather established themselves as the dominant element within the
existing provincial aristocracy.
For the Afro-Roman elites of the countryside, this was
almost business as usual. Despite the
good education available in Carthage, few prominent Africans took part in
imperial government during the fourth century.
In the highest positions in the North African provinces--vicars, counts,
and provincial governors--"Gauls, Pannonians, and the city aristocracy
provided the vast majority of the civil appointments while Germans gradually
became supreme in military posts." After the anarchy of the late third century,
the African upper class was generally content to live in opulent seclusion on
their estates, and took little part in public affairs. Thus for many of these aristocrats, at least
those whose estates escaped immediate confiscation in the sortes Wandalorum, life apparently went on much as before, simply
with a new group of foreigners running the provincial government.
I will now turn to a more specific look at life in Carthage
under Vandal rule. By far the most
important city in North Africa, and the cornerstone of Roman and then Vandal
rule, Carthage was also one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire before
the Vandal conquest. How did it fare as
the capital of a barbarian kingdom?
Civic life in vandal carthage
In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Carthage was
rivalled only by Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria for the amenities of
civilized life. It possessed an Odeon,
Theater, Circus, and Amphitheater for public entertainment, as well as
elaborate baths. In education it was "second only to
Rome as a centre for Latin studies." For spiritual needs there were numerous
churches and baptistries, reflecting the long and fervent tradition of
Christianity in Africa. Carthage was also full of public monuments,
including an elaborate island in its harbor and the Via Caelestis, "a
grand avenue nearly two miles long, adorned with mosaic-inlaid pavement and
lined with columns, walls and pagan temples."
The responsibility for the maintenance of all of this
traditionally fell to the city council of Carthage, the curia, made up of curiales,
theoretically the wealthiest citizens of the city. By the early fifth century, however, this system was in serious
trouble, despite strenuous efforts by the imperial government to maintain it. In the first and second centuries, cities
relied on four main sources of revenue: rents on civic lands; interest on money endowments; local dues and taxes; and required contributions of city
councillors and magistrates. The next
two hundred years saw these seriously eroded.
During the third century, massive inflation wiped out the value of
cities' money endowments; Constantine and Constantius II confiscated city taxes
and lands to obtain revenue for the imperial government in the early fourth
century (one-third of these were later restored to help cities maintain their
At the same time as the financial burden of serving on the curia was increasing, the resources of
the curiales as a class was going
down. One serious problem was the
leakage of the richest members into the imperial aristocracy as more and more
posts carried senatorial rank and thus exemption from curial obligations. Since this exemption was hereditary, entire
families passed out of the curial class permanently. The imperial government attempted to prevent curiales from taking these prestigious offices, but this only made
the problem worse as the curia then
became a dead end for anyone with hopes of social advancement. By the end of the fourth century, the
predicament of the curiales had
become so desperate that they began to flee to positions lower in society,
usually placing themselves "under the patronage of some landowner powerful
enough to prevent their being dragged back to the curia."
Despite its efforts to compel the curiales to fulfill their obligations, the imperial government was
forced to assume more and more of the councils' traditional
responsibilities. By the early fifth
century, it was common for the provincial governors, rather than the city
councils, to build and repair public buildings.
It is not clear how far this general picture applied to
Carthage on the eve of the Vandal conquest.
North Africa seems to have retained a comparatively robust urban
civilization throughout the fourth century. A survey of inscriptions recording
construction and repair of non-military public works for all of Africa
Proconsularis shows a fairly constant level of work throughout the fourth
century and into the fifth, broken only by an impressive surge from 363-383,
attributed by B. H. Warmington to a temporary change in imperial policy toward curiales. This question is best answered by looking
at the archaeological evidence for the entire Vandal period.
Ancient Carthage had two harbors, a rectangular commercial
harbor and a circular military harbor, both dating back to the Punic era. The circular harbor had an island in the
middle of it connected to the mainland by a causeway and bridge. By the second century, the island was
covered by a monumental complex containing an entrance arch, a colonnade
ringing the island, a temple, and an octagonal structure (perhaps a victory
monument). During the third to fifth
centuries, the monumental unity of the island was lost as the "formerly
decorative quayside colonnade was converted into a series of small functional
buildings" and other structures were added.
The evidence for the Vandal period is more limited,
"because the early Byzantine levelling destroyed all levels of this date,
leaving as evidence only residual finds in later levels and intrusions beneath
the ground." Nevertheless, some information has been
gleaned. Robbing, the removal of stone
for other purposes, took place in this complex from the mid-fifth century
onwards, and pits were dug at various places.
All the old Roman structures on the island were completely obliterated
by the beginning of the sixth century. While this may indicate a breakdown in city
maintenance under the Vandals, the complex may already have gone out of use
before the Vandal period, since the temple never appears to have been converted
to Christian use.
The circular harbor itself apparently was neglected or
unused during at least part of the Vandal period. A large quantity of pottery was dumped into the harbor c.
500-525, and the Byzantines undertook a massive redevelopment in the mid-sixth
century, extending the quay walls of both the island (covering over the pottery
dump) and the mainland into the harbor. The rectangular harbor also shows some signs
of disuse in the early sixth century, although here the evidence is currently
based on the excavation of a single warehouse.
This large warehouse was built c. 400 alongside a wide paved area
surrounding the commercial harbor, and apparently functioned as a single large
complex until about 650 A.D. Sometime
in the fifth century it may have been temporarily abandoned, as evidenced by a
garbage pit cut through its floor, which was plastered over early in the
Byzantine period. The wider implications of this neglect are
unclear. Literary evidence indicates
that the Vandals did base their fleet at Carthage, but they may have used the
rectangular harbor for both military and commercial purposes, or may even have
developed an alternate harbor, as yet undiscovered.
Much stronger evidence exists for the neglect of the city
wall under Vandal rule. Excavations of
a number of different sections of the wall indicate that it was indeed built
around 425, with an 18m-wide ditch running along the outside in some
places. By the early sixth century,
this ditch had either silted up or been filled up with garbage, and a new ditch
was cut sometime after this. The archaeological evidence thus fully
supports Procopius's description of the neglected state of Carthage's defenses
and their repair by Belisarius in 533.
Other public buildings seem to have gone out of use during
the Vandal period. A massive judiciary
basilica in heart of the city, the third largest in the Roman world when it was
built in the second century, suffered destruction and collapse from about 450
until it was rebuilt as a fortress in the early Byzantine period. Near the northern edge of the city, a
luxurious bathhouse, presumably already ruinous, was demolished sometime in the
sixth century to make way for new construction and the widening of a road.
The streets and sewer systems also show evidence of neglect
during the Vandal period, but the evidence must be used with caution. Major repairs of both during the early
Byzantine period suggest lack of previous maintenance. In addition, excavation sites in all areas
of the city, both residential and commercial, show that the expansion of
buildings onto streets and sidewalks became widespread during the fifth
century. At least one site, however,
provides evidence that such encroachment may have started prior to the Vandal
conquest. It is not clear, therefore,
whether this represents a breakdown in city administration, or simply a
decision by the city to allow some encroachment, at least onto the
sidewalk. This trend continued unabated
throughout the sixth century, with some of the major Byzantine reconstructions
covering over sidewalks and other former public areas.
Other evidence of public construction under the Vandals is
even more ambiguous. The grand Via
Caelestis, demolished by Geiseric according to Victor of Vita, was already
ruinous and neglected in the early fifth century, possibly due to its connection
with pagan worship. Victor also says that the Theater and the
Odeon were demolished by the Vandals; archaeology has provided partial
confirmation of this, showing a new building on the site of the old Theater by
the beginning of the sixth century. Again, however, both of these had long been
attacked by Christian leaders as immoral, so it is not clear whether "the
closure of the theatre and odeon . . . tell[s] more about Christianity or
municipal life under the Vandals." On the other hand, the aqueduct which
supplied the city with water apparently remained functioning until it was
deliberately cut by the Vandals after Carthage fell to Belisarius in 533.
Aside from the Theater and Odeon, public entertainment
provided an important continuity with the Roman past. Spectacles in the Amphitheater continued to be popular throughout
the Vandal period, although the gladiatorial games which were still being held
in Augustine's day may have been ended by the Vandals. Poems from the Latin Anthology, a collection of poems by Luxorius and other
authors from Vandal Carthage, indicate that chariot racing in the Circus was
still going on in the early sixth century, although perhaps on a reduced scale. Excavation confirms that the Circus survived
in use as a circus into the sixth century but not into the seventh. The circus remained very popular under the
Vandals, with the Green, Blue, Red, and White factions retaining fanatical
followings. The sponsorship of these
games is unknown, probably paid for by the Roman and Vandal elites, but it was
apparently quite lavish. Luxorius
writes of a painting and a marble fountain for horses to drink from which
adorned the Circus stables.
The Latin Anthology
also provides evidence that Carthage retained a large educational
establishment, although this cannot be verified through archaeology. Luxorius mentions a grammaticus, a professor of medicine, a philosopher, and a lawyer
in his poems. The schools of Carthage
are also mentioned by Florentius, a contemporary of Luxorius.
RELIGION in vandal carthage
Religion was another important part of urban life in
Carthage. By the time of the Vandal
conquest, Christianity had largely replaced pagan worship. After the conversion of Constantine in 312,
Christians gradually took stronger and stronger measures against paganism. By the last decades of the fourth century,
"petitions for the demolition of individual temples or their conversion into
churches were favourably received" by the imperial government. Open warfare between pagans and Christians
in these years attests to the still far-from-complete victory of
Christianity. Paganism was finally
officially outlawed in 391, when Theodosius closed all temples and prohibited
sacrifice. This was not yet the end of
paganism, however: "the law was
not very efficiently enforced--there were too many pagans or sympathisers with
paganism in high places for that--and the cult continued overtly in some places
for several generations, and secretly for some centuries."
Christianity in North Africa had been molded by the severe
persecution begun by Diocletian in 303.
The term Catholic apparently originated here with a faction that favored
leniency toward Christians that had lapsed during the persecution. They were opposed by a purist faction that
refused to readmit lapsed Christians or to submit to clergy suspected of
collaboration with the authorities (such as turning over the Scriptures to be
burned). In 311 this became a formal split with the
election of rival bishops by each faction, one of whom gave his name to the
purist Donatist faction. While the relative strengths of the Donatist
and Catholic factions in and around Carthage remains controversial, it is clear
that Donatism was strongest among rural workers in the countryside. Donatism also contributed to a shadowy group
known as circumcelliones, apparently
migrant agricultural workers, who attacked Catholics and government officials
throughout North Africa in the fourth century.
By the early fifth century, however, both Donatists and circumcelliones had been successfully
crushed. Aurelius, bishop of Carthage,
and Augustine of Hippo Regius were the main leaders of the Catholic cause in
Africa, and dealt a decisive blow to the Donatists in 411 at a conference in
Carthage where the government chose in favor of the Catholic faction. Edicts outlawing Donatism as a heresy
followed in 412 and 414, and were apparently quite successful in stamping it
out as an organized challenge to the Catholic church. Victor of Vita, "victim and historian of the persecution of
Catholics in Africa by the Vandals, does not mention the Donatists, who might
have been thought to welcome such an event." At least a few Donatists did survive in
Carthage for some years into the Vandal rule, however. The Donatist Liber genealogus, "a book of genealogies from the Biblical and
classical past," published in Carthage in 438, portrayed Geiseric as the
Antichrist. In the two subsequent
editions, published in 455 and 463 while Geiseric ruled Carthage, this
reference to Geiseric was understandably omitted.
The fate of the Catholics under the Vandals is better
documented, and here archaeology can add to our knowledge. The Vandals were Arians, which was the
dominant Christian sect within the Empire at the time when most of the
barbarians were converted, and they viewed the by-now-orthodox (i.e. supported
by the imperial government) Catholics in Carthage with suspicion. Catholics were persecuted on and off
throughout Vandal rule of Carthage.
After taking the city in 439, the Vandals expelled Bishop Quodvultdeus
from Carthage and installed their own Arian Patriarch. According to Victor of Vita, the Vandals
seized all Catholic churches within the city walls, but left most of those outside
the walls to their Catholic congregations. Only three Catholic bishops were allowed to
sit in Carthage during the next century, Deogratius from 454-457, Eugenius from
480-484 and again for a short time in 487, and Bonifatius from 523-525.
Archaeology has provided additional, if indirect, evidence
for this persecution. Most of the
churches excavated show signs of damage and neglect during the fifth
century. The large domed "circular
monument," which appears to be some sort of church building, was built in
the second half of the fourth century, and repaired in the early fifth
century. Sometime later during the
fifth century, it was robbed and damaged, and perhaps put to some other
use. In the Byzantine period it was
repaired and renovated. This experience was paralleled in a complex
of buildings associated with a parish church, probably built around 411 for
Catholic use. In the late Vandal
period, the complex seems to have passed out of the unified control of the
clergy. Wall blocks were robbed out,
probably resulting in the collapse of some parts of the roof. Unlike the circular monument, no
reconstruction was done on this complex in the Byzantine period, and a further
roof collapse occurred in the early seventh century. The parish church associated with the complex was rebuilt by the
Byzantines, on a rather grand scale, with five aisles, mosaic-paved floors, and
a connected baptistry.
Despite intermittent Vandal persecution, the Church
apparently survived and even flourished.
The source of the Church's wealth is unknown, but it remained
considerable. The Carthage Church was
able to use its gold and silver "moveable chattels" to ransom
captives taken by Geiseric when he sacked Rome in 455. In the 480s, after 23 years without a
bishop, the Carthage Church was still supporting "more than 500
clergy." The African Catholics retained close ties
with their colleagues in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy. Two Catholic councils were held in Carthage, in 484 and 525, and
Ferrendus, deacon of Carthage and the author of the Life of Fulgentius, carried on an extensive correspondence with
Italy in the early sixth century.
So far very little evidence has surfaced regarding the
survival of paganism in Vandal Carthage.
In 407, paganism remained strong enough to warrant an imperial edict
ordering "strong measures to be taken against the still flourishing pagan
temples of Africa." A strong pagan tone pervades several of the
mosaics uncovered in a wealthy residence built at about the same time,
suggesting that some upper-class resistance to Christianity still existed at
the beginning of the fifth century. But for the Vandal period itself and later,
paganism is invisible in the historical and archaeological record. Any prominent pagans who still remained in
Carthage when the Vandals arrived may have served as convenient targets for
their confiscations. In any event, the
last we hear of paganism in Carthage is in 439 when the whole city participated
in traditional sacrifices in a desperate hope to ward off the advancing
The economy of vandal carthage
Much less is known of the economy of late antique
Carthage. Most of what is known comes
from the recent excavations. One main source is the physical evidence
from the buildings themselves. The
British team has excavated a site on the north side of the circular
harbor. The city blocks facing the
harbor were divided into small units, probably combined residential and
commercial properties for lower-class families. The area remained an active commercial district until the late
seventh century, showing continuity in occupation and function throughout the
Vandal period. However, the Vandal
period does show evidence of robbing of walls and general neglect of building
upkeep. In the early sixth century a
new phase of construction began, during which the water supply was reorganized
and large new cisterns built, possibly corresponding to the interruption of the
aqueduct during the early Byzantine occupation.
Two sites near the city wall show more definitive evidence
of disuse during the Vandal period, but this may be due to the existence of the
wall and not a general sign of economic distress in Carthage. A substantial building on the southern edge
of the city seems to have been connected with farming, judging from its large
yard and an entrance onto the street wide enough for carts. The city wall was built up against its back
wall, and sometime during the later fifth century it completely collapsed or
was demolished. The excavator notes
that this site's location on the edge of the city was "marginal with
respect to the urbanization of Carthage, and so potentially a sensitive
indicator of the level of urban development within the city." However, the construction of the wall in 425
might be a more significant factor in the history of the site, as John Humphrey
On the north side of the city, again near the line of the
city wall, a Canadian team has excavated several substantial houses from c.
400, both with mosaic floors. Here also
the wall was built up against the houses, which continued to be used until the
late fifth or early sixth centuries when they collapsed or were destroyed. The construction of the wall seems again to
have played an important part in the subsequent history of the site, especially
since one of the streets running past the houses was cut off by the wall, and
became a cul-de-sac which was used as a garbage dump.
A site near the center of the city, called the House of the
Greek Charioteers due to the subject of its mosaic floors, is the
"wealthiest private house so far examined." Built in the first quarter of the fifth century, it was refloored
with mosaics several times during the Vandal period, in the second half of the
fifth century and again in the early sixth.
Around the time of the Byzantine reconquest, it appears to have been
abandoned. Several walls collapsed, and
pits were dug in its floors. It was not
reconstructed until the late sixth century, well into Byzantine rule. The Vandal-period mosaics "show
competent workmanship and in many respects are indistinguishable from earlier
geometric mosaics at Carthage," indicating that a trade in skilled mosaic work remained
This site provides the only direct archaeological evidence
of substantial building activity during the Vandal period,
although Procopius mentions baths built by Thrasamund (496-523) and a royal
audience chamber built by Hildiric (523-530). This is not to say, however, that
deterioration was otherwise universal.
The "last well-laid, firmly-bedded floors" in the
ecclesiastical complex were put down in the Vandal period. The widening of a road on the north side of
the city may also date from the late Vandal period.
Another wealthy residence, a seaside villa built in the
second century, provides some grisly evidence of the darker side of life in
Vandal Carthage, the mass graves of 30 people cut into the floors of two of the
rooms. From pottery and coins found in
the graves, they date from the late fifth or very early sixth century. The victims probably died from epidemic or
famine, as there is no disfigurement or other evidence of violence or disease,
and none were of the ages 5-20 (the age group least susceptible to plague or
Analysis of the coinage found during the excavations
provides a second main body of evidence for the economy of Vandal Carthage,
although the interpretation of this evidence remains controversial on some
points. The vast majority of coins
found during excavations are bronze, presumably coins which were "lost"
and not worth searching diligently for.
For the first 55-60 years of Vandal rule, the circulating bronze coinage
came almost exclusively from the mint of Rome, but it is unclear how much
continued to reach Carthage after the Vandal conquest. From the reign of Gunthamund (484-496) on,
the Vandals began minting their own coins, including both bronze and silver
medium-value coins, the first large-scale mint operated at Carthage since the
reign of Constantine.
Much of the coinage controversy revolves around the issue
dates of certain unsigned series of coins, and is generally irrelevant to
understanding the Carthaginian economy.
The main point of interest was put forward by Richard Reese, and is
based on his theory that excavated coins were not necessarily simply lost, but
were actually discarded when they became worthless. He notes that Vandal coin loss became "much heavier in
Justinianic levels than in Vandal levels." He further notes that Vandal bronze coinage was "not widely
distributed in areas outside the Vandal Kingdom."
Do the facts perhaps, therefore, suggest that a small
enclosed, apparently flourishing trade pattern of the Vandal kingdom came into
contact with the great trade network of the Empire, in which . . . presumably
much higher prices obtained?
Thus, the result of the much higher
prices after the Byzantine reconquest was that Vandal bronze coins became
worthless and were discarded in large numbers.
Other coin experts strenuously challenge Reese's theory that
coins are discarded rather than lost.
Literary evidence alone casts doubt on Reese's model of an
"enclosed" Vandal economy.
Procopius mentions a large number of eastern merchants imprisoned by
Gelimer in Carthage in 533, and he seemed to have little trouble locating a
merchant on Sicily who did regular business with Carthage. In any case, analysis of the pottery sherds
found during excavation, the third body of evidence for the Carthaginian
economy, is sufficient to discount most of Reese's hypothesis on the nature of
the Vandal economy.
Carthage and the surrounding area of North Africa was a
major source for a type of fine pottery known as African Red Slip table ware
(ARS) during the fourth century. This
is probably the reason that very little imported fine table ware was found in
the excavations in the city, as "competition aimed at the source of ARS
could hardly have been worth-while," according to British pottery
specialist M.G. Fulford. Coarse pottery
was also imported to and exported from Carthage, though on a smaller scale. Long-distance trade in coarse wares is
rather unusual, because it was relatively cheap and easy to produce
locally. However, North African coarse
wares were widely distributed from the late second century into the fourth
among Carthage's nearer trading partners in the western Mediterranean, indicating
a rather high density of traffic -- "for more infrequent voyages to more
remote destinations the carriage of such low-value goods could hardly have been
worth-while." Throughout the fifth century, a small amount
(about 4%) of coarse ware continued to be imported into Carthage from outside
of North Africa, indicating a steady, and rather high, rate of trade with at
least the western Mediterranean.
During the period from about 375 to c. 425-450, ARS enjoyed
a very wide distribution throughout the Mediterranean, ranging from the Black
Sea, to the upper reaches of the Nile and the Rhine, and even to Britain. Tunisian amphorae, used for transporting
bulk commodities such as olive oil, were also widely distributed during this
period, "the last time that Tunisian pottery products had so extensive a
distribution in the Mediterranean world and beyond." Early in the fifth century, this ARS trade
went into a decline which lasted until c. 440.
This trend has previously been associated with the Vandal occupation of
North Africa, but the new pottery finds clearly indicate a process of decline
beginning well before the Vandals arrived.
Fulford sees this decline in trade as a symptom of the political and
economic dislocations which made the fifth century barbarian invasions
possible, rather than resulting directly from disruption caused by the
The Vandal conquest did have at least one effect apparent
from the pottery evidence. Beginning
sometime between 425 and 450, there was an almost 100% increase in the
proportion of Eastern Mediterranean amphorae sherds compared to local Tunisian
varieties. Pottery sherds give no
indication whether the absolute numbers of imported amphoras increased, but Fulford
interprets this as a sign of a profitable economy able to buy more imports:
The explanation of the changing ratios of local to imported
amphorae may possibly lie in the changed political circumstances of the Vandal
kingdom. It was no longer obliged to
supply Rome with the corn annona, although
the demand for it was presumably still present; instead the same commodities
could be sold . . . Thus given a political situation where the Vandals could
demand payment for their agricultural produce, it is reasonable to see that the
export of it could obtain greater wealth.
The Eastern Mediterranean amphorae proportion remained about
the same up until the Byzantine reconquest, but somewhere around 475-500 the
ARS trade began to revive in both the eastern and western Mediterranean, in
conjunction with a batch of new forms and styles of ARS. "Altogether the evidence suggests
revived prosperity and increased overseas contact," probably linked to a
general revival of Mediterranean commerce during this period. Thus neither the decline nor the revival of
the ARS trade is directly attributable to the beginning or end of the Vandal
For the city of Carthage, the Vandal occupation was largely
a non-event, at least as far as the day-to-day life of its citizens was
concerned. The Vandal conquest
undoubtedly had a catastrophic effect on many individuals: Victor of Vita
paints a horrific picture of the Vandal entry into Carthage, leading one author
to comment, "If the Vandals and Alans committed even a fraction of these
atrocities, their attack was bloody indeed," and the landowners whose estates were
confiscated in the sortes Wandalorum
also felt the immediate effects of the Vandal conquest. In a more general sense, however, most
aspects of life in Carthage continued with little interruption, and the changes
that did occur were not necessarily a result of Vandal rule. For instance, the decline and revival of the
ARS trade had nothing to do with the Vandals.
This suggests the generalization that many of the other changes which
occurred over the course of the fifth century were either independent of the
change from Roman to Vandal rule, or were simply the continuation of
At first glance, the fate of the Catholic church seems the
strongest counter-example to this hypothesis.
Catholics suffered persecution under the Vandals, and archaeology has
shown than many churches were damaged or neglected during this period, possibly
when their Catholic congregations were driven out by the Arians. On the other hand, as an institution, the
Carthage Church seems to have survived the Vandal period quite well -- it
retained its links with Catholics in other parts of the Mediterranean, and it
was wealthy enough to support over 500 clergy even after Vandal confiscations
and decades of persecution. The
Catholics also continued to dominate North African Christianity. The Donatists never regained their strength
after 411, even when the Catholic church was under attack by the Vandals, and
the Arian church never seems to have taken hold outside of the Vandals
themselves. From a longer perspective,
persecution and factional infighting were not new to North African Christianity
with the arrival of the Vandals.
Take another example, the evidence of neglect of public
construction. There is strong evidence
for a widespread neglect of such work throughout Carthage during the Vandal
period. The walls fell into disrepair,
one or both of the harbors show signs of neglect, and the streets and sewers of
the city were apparently in need of extensive repair by 533. However, when this evidence is compared with
other information on Vandal Carthage, the picture of a breakdown in city
administration is less conclusive. The
fact that the Vandals apparently managed to keep the aqueduct in repair and
functioning throughout their rule of the city is very significant in this
regard, suggesting that when the Vandals wanted to keep something in good
repair, they could. As far as the
harbors are concerned, the Vandals certainly had a harbor in use somewhere,
large enough to support a major overseas trade (in fine pottery at least) in
the early sixth century. And Procopius
says that the Carthaginians removed the chains from the harbor entrance to
allow Belisarius's fleet to enter, implying that at least one of the old
harbors was still functioning in some capacity. The neglect of the city walls was repeated
under the Byzantines, which suggests that it was inherent not in the barbarian
nature of the Vandal administration, but rather in the perceived necessity of
the walls around Carthage -- the city was not fortified at all until 425,
probably under the direct threat of invasion.
This is not to deny that fabric of Carthage decayed during
the century of Vandal rule. As has been
noted earlier, urban civilization was in the midst of a general decline during
the fifth century. Vandal Carthage was
certainly no exception this trend. The
archaeological record gives a fairly uniform picture of overall decline,
although the total amount of evidence is admittedly scanty: little or no new
construction, with deterioration and collapse more prevalent than repair. The economic revival attested to by the pottery
is not matched by a corresponding revival of urban construction.
The evidence does not support the assumption that the
Vandals contributed a new barbarian, anti-urban tendency to the process of
decline, however. While the Vandal
take-over provides an apparent surface "cause" for many changes, such
as the decline in the African pottery trade or the neglect of public property
in Carthage, the reality is much more complicated. The best case for a link between the Vandal takeover and
accelerated decline can be made for the neglect of public property, but there
is no need to go beyond already existing trends to explain this. The flight of Roman aristocrats, along with
the Vandal confiscations, would have deprived the curia of some of its wealth and membership, perhaps a significant
percentage, and no Vandals were likely to enroll themselves voluntarily into
the city council at a time when Roman curiales
were using every means possible to escape their obligations. Furthermore, imperial funds would no longer
be available to supplement the reduced resources of the curiales. Other changes can also be explained without
reference to barbarian conquest. The
destruction of the Theatre and Odeon in the fifth century, and the abandonment
of the Circus in the sixth, were more likely a victory of Christianity than a
sign of barbarian hostility to urban civilization.
After a century of Vandal rule, the city of Carthage was in
decline but still a major urban center.
A little more than a century and a half later, when conquering Arabs put
an end to Byzantine rule in North Africa, the former metropolis had declined to
such an extent that "it appear[s] to have sunk without a trace." From this broad perspective, the transition
from Roman to Vandal to Byzantine rule seems to have had little effect on
Carthage's downward slide; it could even be argued that Carthage fared better
under the barbarians than the Byzantines.
While the political fragmentation of the Mediterranean world, to which
the Vandal kingdom contributed, may have had an adverse effect on commerce and
prosperity in the long run, this should not automatically be attributed to the
barbarian invasions. In North Africa at
least, the Vandal invasion was the result of political chaos in the Western
Empire, not the cause of it. In the
same way, the Vandal conquest of Carthage was a symptom, and not the cause, of
the general distress of classical urban civilization during the fifth century.
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