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Four years ago Andy Merrills and Richard Miles published The Vandals, a volume of the fantastic Wiley Blackwell's Peoples of Europe series, and in this year it's been available the paperback edition. A great announcement as the hardback edition was pretty expensive for public and students. Although recently Vandals have become a scholar favourite topic as the many and remarkable papers and books show - as, e.g., for mentioning just some monographs appeared after Merrills and Miles' book as Jonathan Conant (2012) Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700, Ralf Bockmann (2013) Capital continuous. A study of Vandal Carthage and Central North Africa from an archaeological perspective or the posthumous work of the late Yves Modéran (2014) Les Vandales et l'empire romain - and although Merrills and Miles paperback volume is just a reprint and not a revised edition, it's still a most noteworthy scholarly work in many aspects.
Although the book is a collaborative enterprise, it's clear from the very preface and according to the scientific career of Andy Merrills and Richard Miles that this monograph has two distinct fathers. While Andy Merrills took responsibility for the chapters focused on politics, society and economy, Richard Miles wrote about religion, cultural life and the end of the Vandal kingdom. However, there are no signs of incoherence at all and in fact all chapters are perfectly interconnected.
The first chapter is titled "The Vandals in History" and it's a magnificent one as Merrills and Miles do a fascinating review of Vandals in historiography and memory since Antiquity till present times.
Chapter 2, "From the Danube to Africa", is about the history of the Vandals from the first mentions in the second century till the crossing to Africa and the Vandal movement eastwards until Carthage was conquered in 439. The first pages concerning the origins and former settlement beyond the Roman frontier are well explained and reasoned as most of the chapter however afterwards there are some controversial but interesting interpretations as they provide fresh air to historiography. In this way, Merrills and Miles denominate the bunch of Vandals, Alans and Sueves as "warband", "mercenaries" "army on the move" and synonymous expressions so resembling the old fashioned conception of barbarians (e.g. Lucien Musset and former historiography but without any pejorative implication) in contrast to the established view of foreign gentes who settled in the Roman Empire as migration peoples as they insist on their military nature and former relationship with the Roman Empire. However, the evidence and the historical developments of these peoples say the contrary. They were peoples who wanted to settle in Roman soil, who changed swords by ploughshares and looked for a foedus with Roman authorities in Hispania according to Orosius, peoples who were eager to take up residence in the rich territories of the Roman Empire beyond the troubled Barbaricum where they came from. They weren't soldiers on the move although the military was a fundamental and logical facet to them as to any barbarian faction that pretended to penetrate Roman borders and this militarization is well attested beyond these. However, their view of the minor transcendence of Vandals during their first stages is a right approach. On the other hand, although Merrills and Miles treatment on Hispania is an interesting one, it's seems a bit romanocentric as most of the decisions held by Vandals seemed to be influenced by Roman intervention on the Iberian Peninsula and not by their choice or by the confluence of several factor. There are many other debatable and stimulating issues in this chapter and these provide a fascinating present and future framework for scholar dialogue.
In chapter 3, "Ruling the Vandal kingdom AD 435-534", Merrills and Miles do a survey of the rule of the Vandal kings and afterwards analyze the treaties of 435 and 442 and finally examine the new structures of the new kingdom since the settlement of the Vandals (sortes vandalorum and the royal lands) to the new structures of power. The research on the settlement is brilliant and also of the different ideological strata felt at the new kingdom and the role of the military in its organisation. Likewise, their interpretation of the coup d'état of Gelimer against Hilderic because the change in the succession system of the Vandal monarchy is convincingly enough argued. Similarly the subchapter concerning the networks of power in the Vandal kingdom, the court, the personal ties and the administration is a clever one.
Chapter 4, "Identity and ethnicity in the Vandal kingdom" is focused on one of the most argued topics in Late Antiquity in the last decades because the redefinition of older terms concerning the new societies aroused. On this delicate matter, Merrills and Miles analyze the Roman identity in Africa and its bidirectional confrontation with Vandals along with the particularities of these newcomers because they weren't, as any barbarian people that settled in Roman soil, a homogeneous gens. Their approach is stimulating as they insist on the liquidness of the Vandal identity according to the establishment of the kingdom as they consider that the "Vandals" were "an unambiguosly 'North African' creation" (91). This chapter deals with the enormous difficulties to ascertain identities through sources and material record but also points out the grade of assimilation of both elites, Vandal and Roman, although this didn't mean there weren't differences and separate identities. A logic consequence of a newly dominated territory and the collision between a migrating conqueror and a conquered society.
One of the thornier issued on Merrills and Miles approach is their gender view as they emphasize Romanitas as "based upon certain notions of appropriate male behaviour" (88) and they extend this conception to the very Vandal identity to say that Vandal women weren't really Vandal but "their own ethnic status remained ambiguous" (108). The testimonies used are not conclusive and the very theoretical framework neither. It's obvious that ancient societies as Roman or Vandal were male dominated - but not only in Antiquity as further societies also were and in our time as present gender scholars imply - and the sources show this reality. The same sources that were deeply elitist and that doesn't mean that lower members of the same society didn't belong to this. If sources don't focus in Vandal women that doesn't mean there weren't Vandal women but writers weren't interested as the very authors indicate and Vandal women were Vandals as the Suava Ermengon was defined in its tombstone as Suava or Amalafrida was Ostrogothic in the sources - both examples cited in the book. More than possibly this conclusion would amaze Vandal women.
"The Vandal kingdom and the wider world, AD 439-534" is the title of chapter 5 that concerns with the foreign Vandal policy and is divided first into a chronological framework and afterwards a geographical one concerning the territories that became parts of the Vandal kingdom. Concerning the first section, which span is focused from 439 till the death of Genseric, the analysis is based fundamentally on a textual study of ancient sources and also of contemporary historiography. It is remarkable the analysis on Vandal piracy and diplomacy and although there are many ideas and interpretations that can be argued this in itself is a proof of its contribution to the historiographical debate. Finally the examination on the Vandal territories is a brilliant one as it examines critically not just their history but also the Vandal administration, settlement, military organisation etc. in a wider chronological span till the end of the Vandal rule.
Chapter 6, titled "The Economy of Vandal Africa" is definitively a good piece of work as Merrills and Miles put together the most recent historiographical and archaeological work on this subject and beginning from the immediate Roman past. In fact, one of the main conclusions of this chapter is the relative continuity between Vandal present and Roman past as many of the aspects linked to a kind of Vandal decadence on economy just went on former tendencies but modified by the course of events implied by the new Vandal rule. In that sense, it's fair enough interesting the economic diversification felt in many areas and properties of Africa since the Roman time and increased under the Vandals. Similarly it's attractive the view of the authors concerning both the end of the annona after the conquest of Carthage in 439 and its implications for the new Vandal kingdom, and also the role of the State on commerce from this moment onwards. However, Merrills and Miles doesn't support convincingly their theories concerning the δασμός supplied by Genseric to the Roman Empire after the treaty of the year 442, in clear opposition to Boudewijn Sirks and other scholars, or the role of the Vandal state after the year 455. In fact, it seems that the authors stand for a kind of free market economy headed by elites, producers and merchants without the involvement of the Vandal state. On the other hand, the discussion over the new markets and the adaptation of the African exports to the political context is a brilliant one although it's unnecessary to use a reference of Fulgentius of Ruspe as a proof of the vitality of commerce as the sea, navigation and commerce were usual topoi used by Christian sources and formerly by pagans writers. The subchapters dealing with fiscality, payment of the military and the Vandal monetary policy finish up a remarkable chapter that's going to be a key reference on future years.
One of the most vexed issues on the Vandal age is religion as Vandals were fervent Arians who contrasted with most of the Nicene African population. Chapter 7, "Religion and the Vandal kingdom", offers a deep insight on this subject. Although sometimes Merrills and Miles seem to be overconfident on the Pro-Nicene sources, their interpretation is a balanced one on the role of religion in the Vandal kingdom and the difficult equilibrium with the pre-existing religious background also characterised by its clashes between Nicenes, Donatists and other beliefs. Merrills and Miles indicate interestingly that while Africa Proconsularis was a territory were Nicenes clerics had huge difficulties on preaching, the situation on peripheral areas as Byzacena was better as the establishment of monasteries show although after Byzantine Reconquista show the condition of the Nicene was deplorable. The chronological approach is appropriate and the evolution of the Arians regarding their interaction with Nicenes is a fascinating concern as Vandals made use of similar legislation used in the Empire to counter orthodoxy and finally they encouraged intellectual disputes with Nicenes priests just as these did formerly against Donatists. The most captivating contribution by Miles and Merrills is the use of the concept of "rough tolerance" that originally was produced by medievalist Christopher MacEvitt to explain religious coexistence in the Crusader kingdoms. As it happened in pre-Vandal time, when Nicenes and Donatist cohabited in spite of their beliefs, the same happened between Arians and Nicenes despite the contemporary writings and even Miles and Merrills conjecture with the possibility that people from both beliefs shared the same churches. Meanwhile Vandal authorities used carrot and stick to reaffirm Arian position of privilege as it was a mean of cohesion for the very Vandals.
The analysis on chapter 8, "Cultural life under the Vandals" derives deeply from former papers by Richard Miles and deals smoothly with several subjects as literature, architecture, the continuity of institutions and, most notably, education that reflected the vitality of the Vandal kingdom and the collusion between African and Vandal elites through the appeal to inclusive matters as Punic imagery, profane literature and the maintenance of civic pride through the use of Roman African elites of the flamen perpetuus honour. In fact, as the authors point out "secular aristocracies [...] had developed a form of cultural interaction and engagement that all could share, irrespective of their religious outlook" (227). This pragmatism explains how elites were linked to each other in spite of the differences that could arise between natives and newcomers as the religious background.
Chapter 9, "Justinian and the end of the Vandal kingdom" is one of the best sections of the monograph. More than its good analysis on the end of the Vandal kingdom, it's stimulating the discussion on the Justinian dealing with the reconciliation of the African Roman elites with the new regime, who were more attached to the Vandal rule than what is apparent from pro-Byzantine sources, through the use of several instruments as the remaking of the Vandal past and the use of religion as an element of union in spite of the problems aroused on this topic.
Definitively, this book is a fascinating one that's going to be in the scholar debate on Vandal history in future generations although it's a pity there is a lack of a conclusion chapter. Likewise, there are some errors that could have been solved in this reprint as when it's written that bishop Quodvultdeus left Carthage after the Vandal conquest to go to 'Ostrogothic Italy' (183) or that Marcian instead of Leo I was Eastern emperor in 468 (122).
David Álvarez Jiménez