I’ve always been fascinated by discovering the origins of the language we use today. I’m reading the excellent Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire and a story early on in the book regarding the long fall of the Roman Empire caught my attention for its connection to the modern term “vandalism.”
The story goes like this. In 455BC (or BCE if that’s what you prefer) Rome had just narrowly avoided being ransacked by the Mongol horde when Atilla the Hun died in his sleep while camped with his army not far from the gates. The city celebrated in typical Roman fashion — with a coup: The Emperor Valentinian III was deposed and killed by a usurper named Petronius Maximus. Petronius then immediately married the widowed empress and cancelled the betrothal of Valentinian’s daughter to the heir of an allied North African king named Genseric.
Thus antagonized, a letter from the empress requesting aid was all the excuse Genseric needed to set sail with an army from (an apparently rebuilt and unsalted) Carthage, cross the Mediterranean Sea and lay siege to Rome. When word reached the city that Genseric’s army was on the move, Petronius and the Senate fled, leaving the city without a leader to mount a defense. This left the Pope as the only real authority remaining in the city.
Pope Leo I was a singularly brave and persuasive figure – less than 10 years before, Leo had walked into the camp of the fearsome Atilla the Hun and persuaded him to withdraw from the city and leave it unmolested. Once again, the aging Pope had to leave the city and walk into the camp of a hostile invading army in order to beg for the mercy of a conquering general on behalf of the citizens of Rome. What must have been going through his mind…
Pope Leo was, once again, successful, extracting a promise from Genseric to keep murder and mayhem to a minimum in exchange for the surrender of the city. Genseric’s army spent 14 days systematically looting the city, but violence was indeed kept to minimum. News of the event was, nevertheless, greeted with horror as it spread throughout the known world. The horror was so deep that the name of Genseric’s people — the Vandals — survives today as a synonym for senseless property destruction: vandalism.
That the Vandals got pinned with this bad rep is surprising to me. After all, Rome had been sacked twice before by this point in its history, once by the Gauls in 387BC and again by the Visigoths in 410AD. The Visigoth sack of 410 was, by all accounts, much more violent (the looters reportedly broke into and defiled the tomb of Augustus), so why aren’t we talking today about visigothism? Perhaps it was precisely because so few people were killed during the Vandal sacking — more people were left alive afterward to survey the damage and repeat the story — that it became infused with such a mystique.
As an epilogue – the word vandalism is the only real Vandal claim to fame that endures today. As a people they were almost completely extinguished from history in 534AD when their North African kingdom was invaded and conquered by the Byzantines during Justinian’s reconquest of the Western Roman Empire. As they say, revenge is sweetest when cold.