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A spell under the Vandals in the period 439-533 CE

The years of decline of the Roman Empire were far removed from the peace and prosperity which were the order of the day when the Empire was at its peak and all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean bowed in submission to their Roman masters.

By the fifth century CE, the notion of a tamed Mare Nostrum had become a nostalgic concept as successive waves of barbarian invaders including Huns, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals carved gains into Roman territory, occasionally also sacking Rome, the very heart and nucleus of the Western Empire.

One of the many barbarian tribes which took advantage of the declining fortunes, weak leadership and leadership struggles affecting Rome during the 5th Century CE was that of the Vandals. The Vandals were a tribe of Nordic or Germanic origin. They started migrating south as early as the Second Century CE and it was during this time that they encountered the outer reaches of the Roman Empire somewhere on the Danube frontier. Two hundred years later in 422 CE the Vandals defeated the Romans in Spain and this is where their eventual connection with Malta commenced.

A series of gains and losses against the Romans in Spain eventually saw the Vandals under Gunderic win a decisive battle in 422 CE near Tarragona after the Romans’ Visigoth allies deserted them. Six years later, under Gunderic’s half brother Genseric, they commenced their conquest of North Africa where they formed a Kingdom which was to last almost one hundred years.

By the year 430 the Vandals had already progressed to Eastern Algeria where they besieged the Roman city of Hippo, home of St. Augustine the great Christian bishop, philosopher, theologian and eventual saint who died three months into the siege. A joint effort by Eastern and Western Roman Empire forces to stop the Vandals was repulsed and by 435 the Romans had signed a peace treaty with the Vandals ceding much of North Africa to them.

The Vandals were not satisfied with their gains and in 439 they broke the treaty and captured Carthage in modern Tunisia from which they invaded Sicily. Over the next few years the Vandals’ North African empire extended to the Central and Western Mediterranean island groups covering parts of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and Mallorca and Ibiza in the Balearic Islands. It is possible that the Maltese Islands may have at some point also formed part of their possessions although there is no documentary or archaeological evidence to support this.

The Vandal Kingdom of North Africa’s might peaked in 455 during which the Vandals sacked Rome and plundered all its riches following a failed marriage agreement between Genseric’s son Huneric and a Roman princess named Eudocia.

The Vandals pertained to a Christian sect called Arianism which was considered heretical by the Catholic Church and this led to persecutions of Catholics in territories occupied by the Vandals. Their fortunes started to decline following the death of Genseric in 477 until they were finally defeated and dispersed by the Byzantines during the reign of Emperor Justinian the First.

Very little is known about this period in Malta and the period is shorn of any archaeological or written record except for an entry by the Byzantine historian Procopius who was with the Byzantine general Belisarius when they stopped briefly in or passed by Malta while en-route to Carthage where he was to bring an end to a century of Vandal rule in North Africa and eventually re-establish Byzantine control over the Central Mediterranean.

The existing tensions in the region led to a shifting power play between Byzantines, Ostrogoths and Vandals with the possibility of Malta changing hands on multiple occasions as a result of short-term strategies and shifting alliances.

The little coin which is attached to this story is a minute bronze attributed to the fifth/sixth century Vandal Kingdom of North Africa and shows a male bust on the obverse and a symbol of Victory holding a wreath on the reverse. The coin (attribution Wroth 8) weighs 0.97g with a 12.44 mm diameter. Its rarity is 6/10 and is described as Very Fine. Azzopardi mentions five Vandal coins in the National Museum’s collection although their provenance is uncertain. Such a low denomination, crude coin would very probably have been in local circulation at times when the Vandals may have held sway during these turbulent times of constant change.

Leslie Vella

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