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Sicilian Peoples: The Vandals and Goths
by L. Mendola and V. Salerno

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Some Terms
A.D. - Anno Domini. After the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also C.E. for "common" era.
B.C. - Before the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also B.C.E., before the "common" era.
Barbarians - Roman term for most foreigners.
Byzantine - Pertaining to Byzantium. Relating to medieval successor of the Eastern Roman Empire until 15th century.
Constantinople - Later name for Byzantium.
Goths - Germanic tribe of central and eastern Europe, divided into Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
Longobards - Tribe of Baltic origin that settled in northern Italy (Lombardy).
Romans - Citizens of the extended Roman Empire.
Vandals - Migratory Germanic tribe originally from Scandinavia.


Golden statuette of a 'barbarian' of central Europe.They cannot be said to have influenced Sicily to the extent of the Greeks or Romans, but the Vandals and Goths (specifically the Ostrogoths) controlled the island for a brief interlude which ushered in the Middle Ages. Most historians date the Middle Ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire, circa AD (CE) 476, until the fall of Constantinople (Byzantium) in 1453 or, more generally, from AD 500 until 1500. Little visible evidence of the Vandals or Goths remains, but they may have intermarried with Sicilians to some extent. In Sicily their legacy is essentially a question of a purely historical record of an important transitional period.

The Vandals descended from Germanic tribes present in central Europe in the earliest days of the Roman Empire. Some of these tribes had migrated from Scandinavian areas sometime after 1000 BC (BCE). They were warlike and largely illiterate. Many of the tribes were migratory by nature, staying in particular regions long enough to hunt and farm but leaving few lasting monuments or settlements. By 100 BC, a number of tribes had migrated southward to the Rhine and Danube rivers, then the northern frontiers of the Roman Empire. The Romans called the expansive foreign region north of the rivers Germania, for the Germani, one of the wandering tribes. Others were the Franks, Saxons, Cimbri, Longobards and Goths. By AD 350, the Goths had become identified as two distinct populations, the Ostrogoths ("East Goths" of the Black Sea area) and the Visigoths ("West Goths" of the Lower Danube who later occupied Spain).

The Romans usually ignored these peoples, but in AD (CE) 9, they lost a decisive battle against the tribes in the Teutoburg Forest. In response, the Romans constructed a wall between the two great rivers to protect this part of the Empire from "Barbarians," a tactic which worked in Scotland a century later when Hadrian's Wall was built to keep out the Picts. The term "Barbarian" (barbarus) derived from a Greek word descriptive of bearded foreigners (barbaros meaning "bearded"). The Romans used the term in describing peoples beyond the Empire's borders, particularly those not belonging to one of the great civilizations --namely Roman, Greek or (later) Christian.

The remote geographic origins of many Germanic tribes are not known precisely, but we have general indications. The Vandals, who probably originated as an identifiable people in what is now southern Scandinavia, settled in Silesia and Galicia by AD 100. By 400, they had begun to migrate westward in response to the threat of the Huns (a nomadic Asiatic people related to the Mongols). In 406 they crossed the Rhine and raided Gaul (France). In 409 they entered Spain. These were their first serious incursions into the Roman Empire. They do not seem to have been any more violent or destructive than other Germanic tribes, but "vandal" has come to refer to anybody who destroys valuable property, said to be "vandalized."

Having invaded France and Spain, the Vandals emerged as an important power in western Europe. The Roman Empire was falling apart. Rome itself was sacked by Visigoths under Alaric in 410. The Goths, like the Vandals, were a Germanic people originally from Scandinavia (or possibly the Baltics) but they had settled in Poland and parts of what is now Russia; they had likewise been pushed from their homeland by the invading Huns. In AD 376, the Romans permitted the Visigoths to settle south of the Danube, effectively constituting a foreign state within the Empire.

Though little noted during the long Roman period except by historians and traders, foreign peoples had always existed on the fringes of the Roman Empire. The Scythians and Sarmatians, for example, successively inhabited the region north of the Red Sea (now Ukraine). Roman peoples (from Dacia), who for a time controlled Crimea and other parts of the northern coast, sometimes traded with such communities. The Huns were the first Asiatic people to undertake a large invasion of western Europe, making their way into Italy. Later (after 550), the Asiatic Avars and Khazars pushed westward into Russia, followed by the Mongols.

Many causes have been suggested for the disintegration of the Roman Empire in western Europe (the Eastern Empire survived to become the medieval Byzantine Empire). In general, it was internal disorder, decadence and chaos that destroyed the Empire. In its wake, most of western Europe fell into the "Dark Ages," usually dated until the 700s --the century in which Charlemagne rose to power. But a light shone in the darkness: the Byzantine Empire, which soon spread its influence to Sicily, Venice and certain other Italian regions (opposing the Longobards in some places), continued to evolve for the better. Learning, and the flower of Christian culture, was preserved in the eastern and central Mediterranean throughout western Europe's darkest days and centuries. Constantinople was anything but dark.

In eastern Europe, the Slavic and Asiatic tribes that took the place of the emigrating Germanic ones are sometimes thought to have been more peaceful. In fact, they were just as violent as those to the west, and gradually swept southward through Russia. The Germanic tribes, however, seem to have fought more among themselves despite their shared "Proto-Nordic" heritage. Spain eventually fell to the Visigoths, but for now the Vandals ruled it as a prosperous tribal kingdom. Their best known leader was Genseric (Gaiseric), who ruled from 428 to 477. In 429, the Vandals invaded north Africa, where they annexed several Roman provinces to their kingdom, based at Carthage from 430. They soon dominated trade and transport in their part of the Mediterranean.

The Vandals and Goths were only two (of many) invading peoples arriving from the north and east of the fading Roman Empire. The Huns invaded Gaul in 451 but were repulsed by a joint Roman-Germanic army at a decisive battle near Troyes. Apart from ethnic considerations, a distinction is made between those tribes interested in settlement and those which --at least initially-- merely sought plunder. As a broad generality, it could be said that the Vandals usually seem to have been more interested in plunder and profit than in long-term colonization, while the various Goths (Ostrogoths, Visigoths) more often sought to impose a more defined social order in the lands they occupied, something they achieved in Spain. It is also true, however, that the Goths had grown closer than the Vandals to Roman society in the century before the first invasions, a development which partly explains their greater affinity with Roman culture and institutions.

The Vandals looted Rome in 455 and took control of Sicily in 468. In Sicily they found a prosperous economy and Christian culture. Rome perhaps failed to meet their expectations, for the city that the Goths and Vandals found was but a shadow of its former self. The capital had been transferred to Byzantium in 330, and the Empire split into eastern and western sections in 395. Since that year, Sicily officially had been part of the Western Roman Empire, though culturally it had a closer affinity to the Eastern Roman Empire based at Byzantium.

Odoacer, an Ostrogoth formerly in the service of Rome, deposed the last Western Roman Emperor in 476. His successor, Theodoric, conquered Sicily in 491 with little resistance from the Vandals. Theodoric's government in Sicily was essentially Roman in form.

"Every Goth wanted to be a Roman. No Roman wanted to be a Goth."

The invaders were hardly enlightened, but the Renaissance and subsequent movements may have unnecessarily maligned them in the interest of praising the Romans. Historians now recognize that many of the invasions in the declining Western Roman Empire were actually not wars but reasonably peaceful migrations which did not necessarily disturb the existing population, at least initially. In certain isolated (rural) communities the change of government may not even have been obvious for years or even decades. This appears to have been true of the Ostrogoths' migrations into Sicily and much of Italy.

The Vandal kingdom in north Africa was defeated by a Byzantine army during a bloody war in 533 and 534. In 535, the Byzantine general Belisarius conquered Sicily from the Ostrogoths and annexed it to the Byzantine Empire, a medieval state built upon the Eastern Roman Empire. Thus ended the brief "Barbarian" Germanic rule of Sicily.

They were often rough, illiterate and ungroomed, but it would be inaccurate (and unfair) to regard the foreign invaders as being wholly ignorant of Roman culture. That simply was not the case. Even the hostile Huns were politically astute. The leaders of most tribes understood the social structure and culture of the Romans, and in time some became Christianized. Their achievements cannot be compared to those of the Greeks or Romans, but the "Barbarians" were not always as barbaric as they were depicted in the past. Realistically, the societies of the "Barbarians" were rather short-lived. The Huns eventually settled in Hungary. The Visigoths became the earliest Spanish nobility, while the Franks followed the same pattern of social development in France and the Longobards did so in much of peninsular Italy. The social order had changed. The Middle Ages had arrived.

About the Authors: Luigi Mendola is the History Editor of Best of Sicily and author of several books. Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno, who contributed to this article, has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2005 Luigi Mendola