Nearly 1600 years ago there was a prosperous and powerful Kingdom in North Africa, ruled by Scandinavian adventurers called the Vandals. Today, in the year 533 it came to an abrupt- and completely unexpected- end.
Just how the Vandals ended up in Africa is a curious story. Originating somewhere in Norway or Sweden (no one really knows for sure), they migrated to modern-day Poland where they were first noticed by Roman historians. In 406, under pressure from hostile tribes in their rear, they decided to look for a new homeland and entered Gaul. The Franks already living there had other ideas, however, and after a few battles the Vandals crossed the Pyrenees and settled down in Spain. Perhaps there was something in the Spanish climate that disagreed with them, because after only twenty years, the Vandals built a fleet and departed en masse for Africa, leaving nothing but their names behind (Andalusia).
The city of Carthage was the nucleus of the fabulously wealthy Roman North Africa, and the lumbering horde of Vandals made straight for it. There was little fear of retribution from Rome. The Western Empire was on knees by now- with only three decades left before it collapsed- and Constantinople was distracted by a scandal. At last the Vandals had found a suitable home and they wasted no time in expanding their power. Carthage had a superb port and their fleets were sent in every direction, subduing Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands in turn. In 455 they carried out their most daring attack, sailing up the Tiber to attack Rome itself. For two weeks they systematically stripped the city of every valuable- departing with (among a great many other things) the solid gold menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem and the Empress and her two daughters in tow. The outraged Romans pooled all their diminished resources with Constantinople and sent a massive fleet to sack Carthage, but it was led by a complete incompetent who managed to get it completely annihilated. The effort cost Rome the strength it had left and the western empire dissolved completely 8 years later. The Vandals were the only ones left standing- they had spit in the face of an empire and won.
But then came a man named Belisarius. Landing unseen off the coast of modern Tunisia, his small army met the barbarians ten miles outside of Carthage and pulled off a stunning victory. On October 15, 533 the great general made his triumphant entry into the city and officially returned it to the Roman Empire. He arrived in time- we are told- to eat the meal prepared for the Vandal king the day before, and spent the next few days hearing the grievances of wronged citizens. All in all it was a remarkably victory. North Africa was restored to Roman Empire for the better part of two centuries and the shattered Vandals disappeared from history. True, there was still work to be done. It was almost a full year before the Vandal king was safely in chains, and there were a few scattered forces to mop up, but Belisarius had done the impossible. His emperor back in Constantinople started to dream about restoring the fallen Empire in the West.
For Belisarius that dream would end in tragedy, but nothing could take away the triumph of the moment. As Procopius fittingly wrote nearly 15 centuries ago: “And it fell to the lot of Belisarius on that day to win such fame as no one of the men of his time ever won nor indeed any of the men in olden times.”