African Vandals

Belisarius

General Belisarius

The Battle of Tricamarum ended the rule of the Vandals in North Africa, Dec 15th 533.  I have always felt sorry for the Vandals.  Originating in the Baltic Shield area of Scandanavia / Northern Germany they were shunted through Europe by pressure from other tribes.  Constantine gave them permission to move from modern day Poland southwards of the Danube to Pannonia, an area now covered by Austria /Hungary.

When the Huns began to raid the Roman empire the Vandals & Alans found themselves in an exposed position.  They shifted westwards through Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees and settled in North Western Spain.  The Visigoths followed them and pushed them further south.  They established themselves in southern Spain, giving their name to the region of Andalucia.

Then they migrated across to Africa and established a kingdom in the former territory of Carthage in modern day Tunis.  For a time they held sway in the region, extending their reach to Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Malta and the Balearic Islands.  When they sacked Rome in 455 they for all time associated their names with the act of Vandalism.  In 534, a mere 80 years later, they were wiped out by Belisarius, the famous general of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

The last king of the Vandals was given estates in modern day Turkey where he lived out his final days.  I can’t imagine it was a happy retirement, and inspired this poem.

 

Gelimer in Galatia

With iron fist I rule
this soft slave army
maintaining broad estates
that sour my stomach
which was made for coarser food.

I was raised on brutal fare,
the savage greatness of my folk
in days when we sacked Rome
and carried off her wealth
to our African kingdom.

My wet cousin, Hilderic King
I ousted with my brothers
for his milksop conversion
to Eastern Heresy
and the favour of that Roman Emperor.

Three years free I led my Vandals
before my nemesis landed
and slew my brother Ammatas
the day I executed
my cousin Hilderic, prisoner.

My last hope died on the winter sands
bathed by blood of my blood, Tzazo,
his regiment, my faithful soldiers
my city, my heart,
but not my life.

A hard, cold mountain winter
glued the ribs to our bellies
and though I refused to kneel
not once but twice
at last I bowed my head.

I marched in triumph once
before cheering Roman crowds
through Constantinople’s streets
bound in chains to celebrate
the glory of Justinian.

King without a crown,
with these fine lands, soft subjects,
suitably tamed
stripped of regal pride
I delivered the words they gave me.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”

An Irish Giant

Columbanus_at_Bobbio

Ireland is often called the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’.  The reason for this is Celtic Orthodoxy.  During the dark ages, and the 5th Century in particular, civil systems in Europe broke down.  The Roman Empire fragmented under the migrations of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Lombards etc.  The Christian Church in the West lost cohesion and direction in this period.  Heresies flourished in the vacuum of central control.

Continental reformists tried to hold it together, the most famous being St Augustine (who resolved the Faith Vs Belief dichotomy and established the “City of God” as an ideal that could withstand the loss of place) and St Benedict (who gave the best known of the Monastic rules).  Benedict died in 543 AD, the year in which St Columbanus was born.

Columbanus is the monk who most represents what people mean when they talk of the isle of saints and scholars.  Columbanus brought Celtic Orthodoxy to Europe.  The Irish Monks began a pagan conversion mission with Germanic tribes that can be argued to have persisted in one form or another until the Eastern and Western Churches met in the Baltic States in the 14th Century Northern Crusades.

The story goes like this.  Christianity came to Ireland in the early 5th Century, when Europe was in turmoil.  A strong Celtic monastic tradition was founded and the monasteries were the dominant clerical force in Ireland.  The Irish Monasteries were insulated from the turmoil in Europe, and the invasions of pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes experienced in England.  They acted as a reservoir for orthodox Christianity.  They also served as a well of education.  Nobles from all over Western Europe sent children to Irish Monasteries for an education in a safe environment.  Many of these children returned to their own lands as educated Christians.  They were a cohesive force for the development of Christian cooperation, and paved the way for the ascent of Christian kings in Europe such as Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.

Arianism was more pervasive than Catholicism in the Frankish courts when Clovis came to power.  His alignment with Catholicism was controversial and may have lost him some military support.  Ultimately it gained him allies from non-Frankish races, such as the Britons and the remaining Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

Without Clovis we would not have had a unified Frankish kingdom in the West.  Without the Franks Charles Martell could not have risen to power.  The Armies of Islam could have smashed Europe unopposed in the 8th Century.  We would never have had Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Irish Monastic Education system was the little acorn from which the Holy Roman Empire grew.

From Ireland St Columba established missions to Britain from his Monastery in Iona in Scotland, seeking to convert the pagan Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England.

At the same time St Columbanus took Irish missions to mainland Europe.   The significance of his mission might be suggested by the fact that he took 12 companions or ‘apostles’ with him.   Of these two Columbanus can be seen to have had the more significant effect on the wider stage.  In Europe he established Celtic monasteries in France and in Italy.  He challenged the emergence of heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism.  In doing so he was criticizing Papal Authority, because he questioned why the Papacy was allowing the dilution of orthodoxy.  He established an Irish monastic tradition on the European mainland which demanded a response from Rome.

Many Celtic practices differed from those in Rome.  The rule of Columbanus was stricter than the rule of Benedict.  The tonsure was visibly different, the Celtic monks shaving the front of the head and the Romans shaving the crown.  The date of Easter was calculated differently also.  All of these things brought the Irish monks on a collision course with Rome.

Columbanus, by coincidence, was born in the year Benedict died, and died on this day in the year 615AD.   Over the following decades the Papacy rebuilt its influence and Roman practices replaced those of the Irish.  It was 50 years before the clash between the Celts and Rome was fully and finally resolved by the Synod of Whitby in the Jute Kingdom of Northumbria, in England.

The legend of Ireland, as an isle of Saints and Scholars, was attributable to actions that happened largely in a period of only 50 years but had impacts over thousands of years.