The Barbarians at the Gates

Last Tuesday, in a California courtroom, a judge sentenced 23-year-old Casey Nocket to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service after Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging government property. Over the span of about a month in 2014, Ms Nocket had used indelible markers to paint large cartoonish figures on prominent rock surfaces in various national parks in California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon; she had then posted photos of her doodles to Instagram.

News accounts of Ms Nocket’s exploits invariably use terms like “vandalism” and “vandalized”. This was a characterization to which the defendant objected during the court proceedings, and I would have to agree with her: real Vandals don’t deserve such a comparison.

In 455 AD, the Vandal King Genseric led his armies against the city of Rome in retaliation for the abrogation of a treaty between his kingdom and the Western Roman Empire (consisting of little more than the city of Rome by that time; the Empire was pretty much on its last legs). The Roman Emperor Valentinian III had been assassinated by a usurper, Petronius Maximus; the latter, hated in Rome and desperate to validate his claim to the throne, had married his son to Valentinian’s daughter Eudocia, who had already been promised by formal treaty to Genseric’s son.

Genseric, whose kingdom included former Roman territories in North Africa, plus Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands, saw little reason to put up with Roman treachery. He assembled his army and marched to war.

The Vandals reached the former capital of the western world virtually unopposed. Petronius Maximus had attempted to bolt as the enemy approached, but was captured and executed by a mob of outraged Roman citizens. Bowing to the inevitable, Pope Leo I asked Genseric not to raze the city or slaughter its inhabitants, and the Vandal king agreed; in exchange, on this day, June 16, 455 AD, Leo ordered the city thrown open to the invaders.

Historians, like everyone else, tend to put their own spin on events. Procopius, a diplomat in the Byzantine court, wrote a great deal about the events of his era, and although we are indebted to him for his information, he seems to have hated just about everybody. For Procopius — the Bill O’Reilly of his day — if the facts didn’t quite do the job, he was more than willing to rely on gossip and innuendo to put meat on the bones of a juicy story.

Victor Vitensis, meanwhile, also had a dog in the race: he was an orthodox Catholic Bishop, deeply invested in the prevailing theology of the time. The Vandals, while also Christian, had been converted generations before to what had later come to be considered a grievous heresy, that of Arianism (see below)*. As is so often the case, a total heathen was more acceptable to the religious mainstream than a heretic, and the Bishop’s writings on the topic also should be taken with a grain of salt.

*The orthodox Catholic church of that time preached that all three members of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — had always existed, as equal parts of an indivisible whole, while the followers of Arius believed that although God had always existed, He had created the Son at some specific point in time — implying that the Son had not always existed and was therefore less than the Father (see the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 28).

Accounts differ as to what happened once the invaders achieved their objectives. According to Prosper of Aquitaine, who died later that same year, the Vandals exercised considerable restraint: the sack continued for fourteen days (instead of the traditional three), but was limited to treasure — art, architecture and citizenry were spared. On the other hand, the Byzantine historian and civil servant Procopius insists that one church was burned down, while Bishop Victor Vitensis wrote at great lengths about the ravages suffered by the Romans at the hands of the invaders. (See the sidebar for more about these gentlemen.)

In any event, the Vandals settled in and ruled much of the old Western Roman Empire, including Rome itself, for almost another century. Their tenure was peaceful, given the tensions of the day, with Genseric’s heirs maintaining uneasy but stable relations with both their neighbors to the north and west and with the Eastern Roman Emperor at Byzantium.

The only significant fly in the ointment was (surprise!) religion. Later Vandal kings (Genseric died twenty years after the conquest of Rome) were more heavily influenced by their faith, and conflict between the mainstream Trinitarian Catholics and their Arian rulers frequently descended into episodes of sectarian violence. In 523 AD the fervor of the Vandals had mellowed and relations with the Catholic Church had improved considerably, but after a series of military setbacks the easygoing King Hilderic and his informal co-ruler Hoamer were deposed by the rabidly anti-orthodox Gelimer, and the persecution of orthodox Catholics became a centerpiece of state policy.

In the east, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, aided by Belisarius, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, had finally consolidated control of his own territories, and decided that Gelimer’s excesses provided a pretext to abandon the peace that had prevailed since the fall of Rome. The Vandals could not match Belisarius’ genius and lost one confrontation after another, with Gelimer’s final surrender in 534 AD bringing about the end of the Vandal kingdom.


Throughout the decades of Vandal rule, Rome and its heritage were not erased or defaced by the occupiers: on the contrary, Genseric and his successors wanted to rule a kingdom modeled on the one they had overthrown, and so they worked to preserve much of what they had inherited. It was only during the centuries that followed the collapse of the Vandal kingdom that the leaders of the orthodox world — anxious to erase the stain of heresy — rewrote the story of the Vandals to construct a narrative of barbarians destroying everything in their path, like wild animals, incapable of appreciating the art, the culture, and the history around them.

We have but to look around us at our government buildings, our political institutions, our monuments, our religion, even our language, to see how inaccurate that picture is. Far from destroying the Roman culture, the Vandals helped to preserve it during one of its most vulnerable periods.


Casey Nocket — who likes to sign her work “creepytings” — was not trying to preserve or augment the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Nor did her work display any particular social import or artistic skill in and of itself. Rather, her actions seem to have been more like those of a child who smashes a vase or a lamp in order to grab the attention of the adults in the household.

“Creepytings” is fortunate to live in a time and place that views vandals (in the modern sense) with relative tolerance, and accepts the occasional abuse of our shared heritage and resources as the cost of our freedom of expression.

The real Vandals, with their deep sense of the importance of the glories that surrounded them, might have been less accommodating.

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