A young person I know asked recently about assassinations and their relation to simple murder. My answer was that anyone may be killed, while not just anyone may be assassinated. It requires special status—a celebrity of some kind—at the moment of destruction. This much assassination has in common with vandalism, but as for vandalism, we are confronted with the celebrity of objects, and the reciprocal celebrity of their killers.
Nowadays, an apology for the Vandals stirs us little; the hard work has been done.1 Even Gibbon, weighing the case in 1780, was ready to concede that their “destructive rage has perhaps been exaggerated by popular animosity, religious zeal, and extravagant declamation” and reminded his reader that “war in its fairest form implies a perpetual violation of humanity and justice.”2 Since then, it has been generally acknowledged that the Vandals have been associated with a peculiar class of “cultural” crime due largely to historiographic convenience; within the orthodox historiography of the late Roman period, the Goths and Huns had already been construed, while the Vandals—starting and finishing on the periphery of Europe, leaving few records behind—were ripe for adoption by those who wished to conjure a barbarian.3 This treatment crystallized, as many have noted, in the aftermath of the French Revolution when the Abbé Henri Grégoire de Blois, lamenting the excessive destruction undertaken by his fellow revolutionaries, “created the word in order to kill the thing” with his Rapports sur le Vandalisme and advocated a national policy for protection of the arts.4
To pull the Vandals out of this house of cards, to retrieve them from infamy, means that many adjacent notions must tumble. A mess. What to build in its place? Nothing? Ground Zero? A cabin? A fisherman’s shack? We will try to raise something here to fill the hollow—with foundation, planks, posts, rafters, and shingles.
The easiest errand is to exonerate the Vandals in Rome. Nomadic, exotic, accustomed to unfriendly conditions, antiurban, often itinerant, “luminous wanderers”—the Vandals were perpetual outsiders looking on as the Roman Empire fell apart. They conquered the northern African provinces between 430 and 442, capturing the Roman naval fleet nearly wholesale, and claimed Rome without strain or resistance in 455.5 It appears that the Vandal King Genseric arrived at the gates of Rome due to a broken treaty in which the Emperor Valentinian III’s daughter, Eudocia, had been formally betrothed to Genseric’s son, Huneric. (She had actually married Palladius, son of Emperor Petronius Maximus.) The fact that he was compelled, in light of Roman duplicity and peculiar promptings, to override the treaty and attack Rome may have been a disappointment. In any event, the sack of 455 was a kind of gift from the Vandals to Rome, and perhaps one more generous than it deserved from a double-crossed and victorious military rival.
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