It is generally accepted that after the Vandals, led by Geiseric (reigned 428 AD – 477 AD), captured Carthage in 439 AD they gained possession of a fleet based there and began making piratical raids throughout the Mediterranean. These were spectacularly successful and climaxed in the sack of Rome (455 AD), the conquest of Sicily, Sardinia and a fair proportion of North Africa. While these is no question that controlling Carthage and the naval yards there were vital to Vandal success, did the Vandals begin to develop these tactics before 439 AD?
Before looking at the evidence it is worth considering the sources available to us. The Vandals have not been treated well by the progress of ages. No source remains written from their point of view, and what little is said about them comes from the Roman perspective. Often the sources can be outright hostile to the Vandals and many are fragmentary, providing little in the way of detail.
The chronicler Hydatius (c.400 – c.469 AD, Bishop of Aquae Flaviae in Hispania) is of central importance to this discussion. It is generally accepted that his work is reasonably trustworthy regarding Spanish affairs. He listed events, from the Fifth century and mostly relating to Spain, in chronological order, one after the other. His entry for 425 AD is fascinating. He wrote, “The Vandals pillaged the Balearic Islands and when they had sacked Cartagena and Seville, and pillaged Spain, they invaded Mauritania.” This makes for an action packed year and the final part of the statement has been taken by some Historians to imply that the Vandals began raiding Mauritania (Western North Africa) in 425 AD.
But first we should consider, to attack the Balearic Islands and Mauritania would require ships. So it seems a reasonable assumption that the Vandals began to become acquainted with the sea back in 425 AD. However an alternative interpretation of Hydatius presents a slightly different picture and makes dating these events more difficult. In a later entry, dated to 428 AD, Hydatius tells us that Gunderic (reigned 407 – 428 AD), Geiseric's predecessor, died after his men violated the sanctity of a church in Seville. The looting of a church would doubtless only occur after the city fell so it is reasonable to assume that Seville was captured in 428 AD, not 425 AD. If we accept this then we can assume that Hydatius' statement of 425 AD related not to events in that year but was a list of everything which happened from 425 AD till the Vandals crossed to Africa and left Spain.
So does Hydatius statement concerning the invasion of Mauritania refer to Vandal raids on North Africa before 429 AD or merely to the crossing of that year? Its difficult to answer. A reasonable reconstruction of events would be that, the Vandals, having reached the Spanish coast besieged and captured Cartagena and, having obtained ships there, then pillaged the Balearic Islands. Seville may have fallen next (although Hydatius is not clear, maybe Seville fell first) and then, after the accession of Geiseric, the Vandals would have invaded Mauritania. This sequence, although tentative, seems plausible. The Vandals, as they proved at Hippo Regis, were pretty ineffective at besieging cities (it took them thirteen months to take Hippo in 431) and so it seems reasonable to assume they would be unable to capture both Cartagena and Seville in one year.
Whenever it occurred, the raid on the Balearic Islands proves that the Vandals possessed ships, at least in limited numbers, from as early as c.425 AD onwards. It is impossible to tell if these were ships they captured in Cartagena or merely ships they took possession of once they reached the Spanish coast.
It is unlikely, though, that it was the Vandals themselves who suddenly developed an affinity for sailing. The Vandal 'supergroup' was a tribe of many nationalities and peoples. Vandals (two different tribes), Alans, Goths and even Romans were all members. It is probable that locals with specialised sailing skills were recruited into the tribe. Whether this was voluntary or compulsory is unknown.
When the Vandals crossed from Spain to Africa it is likely they had their own ships. Some Historians have speculated that the local Hispanic population wanted them gone and so offered their services in this matter. This is possible and the Vandals having their own ships would not negate this theory. Once across the Vandals marched along the North African coast. A small fleet of ships would prove useful here to carry water, food and sundry supplies and injured or unfit tribesmen.
By 430 the Vandals were besieging Hippo Regis. Possidius, in his life of St. Augustine, tells us that the city was cut of by land and sea, indicating that the Vandals definitely possessed ships at this point. It seems reasonable to presume that these were the same ships they had taken from Spain.
The next reference to Vandal piratical activity comes from another chronicler named Prosper Tiro. In 437-8 AD a series of attacks were launched on various Mediterranean islands, including Sicily. Prosper describes these raiders as, 'barbarians, runaways of the foederati'. In the treaty of 435 AD the Vandals had been declared allies of Rome, or foederati, suggesting that these pirates were possibly a rogue faction who had left Vandal service and taken some ships with them. They may well, however, have been operating with the blessing of Geiseric. By 437 AD he had begun to take a more aggressive stance against the Romans and had exiled a number of prominent Romans from his territories, including Possidius. Clearly he planned already to violate the treaty he had signed in 435 AD. Unfortunately we can't know for certain. I suspect Geiseric sanctioned the attacks, although may have publicly called the raiders runaways. But this is just guesswork.
Geiseric was soon to reopen hostilities for real. In 439 AD Carthage was stormed and, as mentioned above, by 440 AD the Vandals had begun serious and large scale naval operations against the Western Roman empire. These were wide ranging and would eventually include attacks on the Atlantic seaboard and in the East against Greece and the Islands. The fall of Rome, in 455 AD, was merely the most notorious incident.
But it seems certain that the Vandals did not become salty sea-dogs overnight. Prior to 440 AD there is enough evidence in our fragmentary sources to indicate that Vandals began to become familiar with the sea and the possibilities of piracy as early as 425-8 AD and that they were developing (or recruiting) skills that would serve them well in the years to come. We should not presume that the Vandals actually possessed a major fleet or conceived of its effectiveness before the capture of Carthage. But it is probable that the fall of Cartagena and the raid on the Balearic Islands opened Geiseric's eyes to the advantages of sea power and that the later Vandal kingdom's naval strength had its roots in these events.
Reading: Primary sources on the Vandals are fragmentary and often hard to come by. For this piece I used works by Victor of Vita, Possidius, Hydatius and Prosper Tiro. Procopius also writes about the Vandals in this period and is probably easier to obtain, although I did not use him directly. Secondary sources, in English, have been notoriously bad for dealing with the Vandals for years. Many over look them or get facts wrong. Peter Heather's recent 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' gives a good account of the period.