Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.
Vandalism is derived from an ancient Germanic people known as the Vandals.
In the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire, which had split from its Eastern counterpart for the last time a century earlier, was in its death throes. Generations of economic recession, civil war and invasions by migrating ‘barbarian’ tribes had brought Rome to its knees.
The Vandals were one of many Germanic tribes in Eastern Europe that began migrating westwards in the late 4th century. The principal reason for this widespread movement of peoples was the arrival of the Huns from the east. Dozens of tribes sought to move out of the Huns’ path as they drove into Europe or to take advantage of the chaos they left in their wake.
Though the Hunnic invasion was repulsed from western Europe, the migration continued. The Empire was fatally weakened and it was easier than ever to penetrate its borders. For their part, the Vandals crossed the Rhine river (the German border of the Empire) into Roman Gaul in 406. Rather than settling in the fertile lands of what is now France, the Vandals continued their migration over the Pyrenees and into Roman Spain, where they did settle. However they were later pushed out of the Iberian peninsula. Under their king Genseric, they crossed into North Africa.
There they conquered much of Roman North Africa, including the primary city of Carthage (in the vicinity of modern Tunis). In the process of taking the city, Genseric also captured the huge Roman fleet that was stationed there (an armada numbering 800-1000 warships). His newly acquired navy allowed Genseric to project his power across the Mediterranean. He conquered Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands. According to ancient sources, the Vandals spread out across the sea like a plague, ravaging the coastline of both the eastern and western Mediterranean
So intense was Vandal naval activity during this period that the Mediterranean’s name in Old English was Wendelsæ (‘Sea of the Vandals).
In 455, Genseric made his most ambitious move yet. A large Vandal fleet landed in Italy and marched on Rome itself.
Fourteen days. That is how long the Vandals spent plundering the Eternal City. During the previous occasion the city was sacked (in 410), the Visigoths had spent ‘only’ three days in Rome. This has led some historians to assert that the Vandal sack was more thorough than the Visigothic sack.
And here we come to the origin of the word vandalism. During the Enlightenment, Ancient Rome was idealised and held up as a shining example of civilisation. It was perceived to be a cultural golden age in which all the human arts reached their pinnacle. Thus the Vandal Sack of Rome, in which many of the manifestations of this ‘culture’ (statues, temples and such) were damaged or defaced, came to be viewed as a sort of crime against civilisation, which was incorrectly believed to have ‘killed’ Rome. The Vandals themselves became inextricably associated with wanton violence, barbarity and deliberate destruction. Hence Vandalism.
This view persevered for quite a while, but modern historians tend to conclude that the Vandals were no worse than any of the many other tribes that migrated into Roman territory. There is even some archaeological evidence that suggests the Vandals actually acted as preservers of Roman ‘civilisation’ in North Africa, rather than destroyers.
So, there you have it. If you ever catch some vandals in the act, make sure you remember to call them a bunch of barbarians.