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Review by Thomas R. Martin
The violence of the long sequence of events that brought the Vandals across the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and storming through its territories made their name a byword for raiders and desecrators inflicting wanton destruction on a society and its monuments. To the Romans, they were barbarians, a term whose meaning was, in its origins in ancient Greek thought, fundamentally value-neutral because barbarians—those who, to generalize, are not “us” and don’t share “our” notions of what makes life civilized—could be noble or base, courageous or cowardly. How the Vandals came to be so infamous is the story that Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen tells with clarity and drive.
The Vandals originated as a conglomeration of bands with diverse customs that gradually coalesced into a more or less unified group. Jacobsen straightforwardly spends little time discussing the complex anthropological issues that scholars today raise about “barbarian identities,” focusing instead on the dramatic actions and reactions of the Vandals and the Romans in the later empire. For almost two centuries, the invaders moved westward from central Europe across France to Spain, then crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa, and there assembling a fleet to attack Rome and Italy. Their impact loomed large among the consequences worked on the Roman world by the appearance of the various barbarian groups that entered imperial lands in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The presence of these non-Roman groups eventually transformed the western Roman Empire, leading to the weakening of Roman government there and what historians traditionally call the “Fall of the Roman Empire.”
The Vandals were special because they developed a strong navy that they deployed to ravage not only the western Roman Empire but also threaten the stronger eastern half. In the sixth century AD, the eastern Empire’s most famous and most ambitious emperor, Justinian, emptied his treasury to finance a series of giant expeditions to subdue the Vandals and eliminate the threats they posed to his reign’s military and economic safety. After titanic struggles, his generals succeeded in defeating the Vandals, who then vanished from the historical scene in the aftermath of their losses. The eastern Roman Empire never regained its previous strength, however, bankrupted and enervated by the effort to combat the invaders.
Jacobsen tells the story in a chronological approach with an impressive level of detail, and cites ancient sources to add color and historical depth. There is more than enough in this exciting history to hold one’s interest from beginning to end, not least the demonstration that a political state can, even with the best of intentions and the utmost effort in defending itself, be brought low by a Pyrrhic victory against a formidable foe. It is not a heartening lesson.
Hardcover Book : 384 pages
Publisher: Westholme Publishing ( May 10, 2012 )
Item #: 13-629003
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.25 x 0.96inches
Product Weight: 19.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
While this was an interesting, if sometimes tedious, book, the title should perhaps have been something more along the lines of "A History of the Late Roman Empire, With Some Appearances by the Vandals." While the author seems quite informed about the Roman Empire and the fall of same, he does not seem to have much information on the Vandals, the supposed subject of the book. The author quotes some sources but then calls them absurd or not to be believed - but does not say why. He'll come up with a theory and then that becomes the truth no matter what. He comes back to the Vandals for a paragraph or so, then it's back to the Romans again. We also learn about the Moors, but mostly as they impacted the Romans. So while this was a very interesting book about the Romans, it was rather lacking about the Vandals.