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Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)


"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Battle of Carthage

Barbarian invasions of both halves of the Roman Empire.  The Vandals
took the scenic route through much of Europe before sacking Rome itself
and setting up their own Kingdom in North Africa.

The Battle of Carthage in 468 AD was one of the great missed opportunities in history.  Victory might have prolonged or even saved the weakened Western Roman Empire.


The borders of the Roman Empire were being slammed from all sides with Barbarian Invasions for centuries on end.  Slowly the invades were breaking through and laying waste to large portions of the nation.

The Germanic tribe called the Vandals took a long tour through much of Europe before ending up in Spain.


The Roman historian Procopius recounts how General Boniface, Roman general and governor of Africa, believing there was a plot hatched by the boy emperor Valentinian the III and his mother Galla Placidia to have him killed, enlisted the help of the Vandal King Genseric. He promised the Vandals land in North Africa in exchange for their help. Boniface soon found out that he had been deceived by Roman general Flavius Aetius and was still in Rome's favor. The realization came too late for in 429 AD King Genseric crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with the Vandal tribe numbering 80,000.

The Romans made peace with the Vandals in 435 AD, granting them territory in North Africa. The Vandal King Genseric did not keep this peace for long. In 439 Carthage fell to the Vandal forces and became the capital of the Vandal Kingdom. Genseric and the Vandal army eventually conquered Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands.
CARTHAGE, NORTH AFRICA
Capital for the Romans, Byzantines and the Vandal Kingdom.  This is an older view of
the city.  Records of what the city looked like in later years are almost non-existent. 

Genseric made Carthage his capital, and styled himself the King of the Vandals and Alans, to denote the inclusion of the Alans of northern Africa into his alliance.

"So the Vandals, having wrested Libya from the Romans in this way, made it their own. And those of the enemy whom they took alive they reduced to slavery and held under guard," says Procopius.

Gaining the support of the Moors, the Vandals invaded Italy and Sicily for slaves, plunder and raised some cities to the ground.  In 455 they sacked Rome itself.  When it became harder to find slaves or money the Vandals turned to the Eastern Empire.  They plundered Illyricum and the most of the Peloponnesus and of the rest of Greece and all the islands which lie near it.  Afterwords they again went off to Sicily and Italy, and kept plundering and pillaging.

Three amphibious invasions at once

The invasion of the kingdom of the Vandals was one of the greatest military undertakings recorded in the annals of history, a combined amphibious operation with over one thousand ships and one hundred thousand soldiers.

The purpose of the operation was to punish the Vandal king Genseric for the sacking of Rome in 455, in which the former capital of the Western Roman Empire had been overwhelmed, and the Empress Licinia Eudoxia (widow of Emperor Valentinian III) and her daughters had been taken as hostages.  Also there was the need to recover the lost Roman provinces in North Africa which were used as bases for attacks on the Empire.

Eastern Roman Emperor Leo organized one
of the greatest military campaigns in the
history of the world.  It might have saved
the Roman Empire.

In 468 Eastern Emperor Leo gathered one of the greatest armies and fleets of all time for three different, massive, long distance, simultaneous amphibious operations on the two different continents of Africa and Europe.   The reported cost of the expedition was 130,000 pounds of gold and 700 pounds of silver.  The force consisted of about 100,000 soldiers and sailors.  They sailed on a fleet of 1,113 ships each with about 100 men.

The sheer scale of this operation cannot be over stated.  It was an incredible demonstration of the power of the Roman Empire even at this late stage.  The money needed was massive.  But the logistics required were staggering.

The Empire had to transport and feed a force of 100,000 in a voyage of hundreds of miles from their home bases.  But the troops had to arrive with all their weapons, horses and all the standard equipment needed for large land battles, sea battles and perhaps siege warfare on Carthage. 

The Romans needed these supplies just to get them there.  But there had to be even more supplies available or a re-supply system in place to keep these troops alive and fighting for months on end in enemy controlled territory.

No amphibious campaign on this scale had ever been done before in history.  Nothing like it was ever done again until World War II.  The major nations of the world today would find it almost impossible to duplicate everything involved in this Roman campaign.

The operation involved three different amphibious landings.  The first fleet and a 20,000 man army under General Marcellinus of Illyricum landed his troops and captured Sardina from the Vandals.  The second fleet and army was under the command of Heraclius of Edessa.  His troops landed in Tripolitania, defeated the Vandal forces and occupied the local cities.  Leaving his ships in Libya, Heraclius led his army on foot toward Carthage in support of the main invasion.

The majority of the army and fleet was in a third force under the expedition's commander in chief Basiliscus, the Emperor's brother-in-law, who was ordered to sail directly for Carthage.

Basiliscus' arrival at took the Vandals by surprise.  Basiliscus cast anchor off the Promontorium Mercurii, now Cap Bon, opposite Sicily, about forty miles from Carthage.

Then he hesitated.  Some claimed he was a coward.  Procopius stated,  "had (he) undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset, and he would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without their even thinking of resistance."

Genseric requested Basiliscus to allow him five days to draw up the conditions of a peace.  It was said that a large amount of gold was sent by the Vandals to Basiliscus along with the reqest for a delay. 

BATTLE OF CARTHAGE 468 AD
Actually no name was ever given to this military operation except that of
disaster.  So the Battle of Carthage is as good as any.  The Roman Navy
landed at the far end of Cape Bon on the right side of the Bay of Tunis.  The
army that had captured Libya was marching up the coast in support of the landing.

Basiliscus being a traitor or coward no longer mattered.  During the negotiations, Genseric gathered his ships and suddenly attacked the Roman fleet. The Vandals had filled many vessels with combustible materials. During the night, these fire ships were propelled against the unguarded and unsuspecting Roman fleet.

Genseric sent a fleet of 500 Vandal ships against the Romans, losing 340 ships in the first engagement, but succeeded in destroying 600 Roman ships in the second.

"Since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily spread fire wherever they struck, and were themselves readily destroyed together with those with which they came in contact. And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivaled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder. And already the Vandals too were at hand ramming and sinking the ships," wrote Procopius.
Siliqua of Genseric, King of the Vandals and Alans

The Byzantine commanders tried to rescue some ships from destruction, but these maneuvers were blocked by the attack of other Vandal vessels.

Basiliscus fled in the heat of the battle.  One half of the Roman fleet was burned, sunk, or captured, and the other half followed the fugitive Basiliscus. The whole expedition had failed.  Heraclius effected his retreat through the desert into Tripolitania, holding the position for two years until recalled; Marcellinus retired to Sicily.

After returning to Constantinople, Basiliscus hid in the church of Hagia Sophia to escape the wrath of the people and the revenge of the Emperor. Through the mediation of his sister Basiliscus obtained the Imperial pardon, and was punished merely with banishment to Heraclea Sintica, in Thrace.  Being the brother-in-law of the Emperor has its advantages.

Following up the Byzantine defeat, the Vandals tried to invade the Peloponnese but were driven back by the Maniots at Kenipolis with heavy losses.  In retaliation, the Vandals took 500 hostages at Zakynthos, hacked them to pieces, and threw the pieces over board on the way back to Carthage.

The Kingdom of the Vandals was saved and North Africa lost to the Empire.


Tremissis coin issued by Emperor Basiliscus with his likeness.  Failure
in battle did not stop the general from claiming the imperial throne.

What happend to the leaders?

GENSERIC:    During his nearly 50 years of rule, he raised a relatively insignificant Germanic tribe to the status of a major Mediterranean power.  In 474, Genseric made peace with the Eastern Roman Empire. Finally, on January 25, 477, Genseric died at Carthage.

LEO:   Having lost North Africa, Leo died of dysentery at the age of 73 in January 474.

MARCELLINUS:   Marcellinus was murdered in Sicily the same year as the defeat in Africa, possibly by the order of Ricimer, a Germanic-Roman general.

HERACLIUS:   According to the historian Malchus, he was captured by Goths while on campaign for the Emperor Zeno and then ransomed.  After his release Heraclius was on his way home and was murdered at Arcadiopolis in Thrace by some soldiers for the cruelties he had committed during his tenure.

BASILISCUS:    With his sister he fomented a popular revolt against the new Emperor Zeno forcing him to flee Constantinople and return to his Isaurian homeland.  Basiliscus then had himself made Emperor, but soon alienated almost everyone around him.  The Senate opened the gates of the city allowing the deposed Emperor Zeno to resume the throne. Basiliscus fled to sanctuary in a church, but he was betrayed and surrendered himself and his family after extracting a solemn promise from Zeno not to shed their blood. In 477 Basiliscus, his wife Aelia Zenonis and his son Marcus were sent to a fortress in Cappadocia, where Zeno had them enclosed in a dry cistern, to die from exposure.

Artist conception of Vandal and Alan warriors in North Africa.

See Procopius, "The History of the Wars"

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