They were not the first “barbarian” tribe to sack Rome. The Gauls first did it in 390 B.C. over 800 years earlier. The Visigoths sacked the city in 410 A.D. an event that shocked the Roman world. Atilla’s Huns never got as far south as Rome, but they so th0roughly sacked Aquileia in 452 that the once great city was unrecognizable – (survivors sought refuge in the nearby marshy lagoon and from that defensive position eventually founded the city of Venice). But the sack of Rome earned the Vandals a spot in infamy and forever associated their name with boorish justified behavior.
It all started with imperial machinations. By the 450s the Western Roman Empire was on its last legs. North Africa was lost to the Vandals. Large parts of Southern Gaul and Spain were lost to the Visigoths. Britain had been abandoned in the aftermath of the Visgoth sack of Rome. The Emperor Valentinian III had reigned since 425 (coming to the throne at the age of 6) but not really ruled. Power initially lay in the hands of his mother Galla Placidia and later the general Flavius Aëtius. It was Aëtius who assembled and led the grand coalition that defeated Atilla’s great invasion of Gaul. But in 453 Atilla died and the Hunnic Empire dissolved into civil war. Aëtius at this point was possibly looking at the imperial succession and had his son Gaudentius betrothed to Valentinian’s younger daughter Placidia. Valentinian had no sons and his older daughter Eudocia was betrothed to Huneric the heir of the Vandal king Genseric.
Always jealous of and threatened by Aëtius, and deluded that he had the ability to rule Valentinian allowed himself to be persuaded by courtiers like Petronius Maximus that the death of Atilla removed the need of Aëtius. On 21 September, 454 the unarmed Aëtius was killed by Valentinian by his own hand. The courtier Sidonius Apollinaris is supposed to have remarked:
“I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left.”
It proved prophetic. On March 16, 455 Valentinian himself was murdered in Rome by two followers of Aëtius. The aforementioned Petronius Maximus may have been the instigator. He moved quickly and had the army proclaim him Emperor. He then sealed his doom by two acts – First, he forced Valentinian’s still greving widow Licinia Eudoxia to marry him. Second, he broke the engagement of Princess Eudocia and Huneric and married her to his own son. Appalled at being forced to marry the man who killed her husband, Eudoxia appealed to Genseric for help.
Already furious at the breaking of his son’s betrothal, the Vandal king now had the official excuse to act. By May, the news of the impending Vandal invasion reached Rome. The Eastern Empire had refused to recognize Maximus. His general Avitus (the next Emperor) had been sent to get Visigothic help and had not returned. Maximus knowing it was useless to oppose the Vandals prepared for flight and was abandoned by his own bodyguard. On May 31 Maximus was stoned to death by an angry mob as he rode out of the city. On June 2 the Vandals captured Rome and sacked it.
There is some debate as to how destructive the Vandals were. They did carry off a lot of plunder. They also took the Empress Eudoxia and her two daughters – Eudocia was married to Huneric. Eudoxia and her younger daughter Placidia were ransomed by the Eastern Empire in 461. Placidia briefly became Empress of the Western Empire in 472 when her husband Olybrius briefly reigned. Their descendants remained prominent in Constantinople until the next century into the reign of Justinian.
Eudocia became Queen of the Vandals in 477 and eventually left her Arian husband to retire in Jerusalem. Their son Hilderic was the penultimate King of the Vandals. His deposition in 530 and murder in 533 gave Justinian his excuse to reconquer North Africa and destroy the Vandal Kingdom.