The Goths and the Vandals were two of the Germanic groups that clashed with the Roman Empire throughout Europe and North Africa from the third to the fifth centuries A.D. Because nearly all of the surviving information about the Goths and Vandals comes from Roman sources, history has taken a largely negative view of these groups as brutish and uncivilized “barbarians” who helped bring down Rome’s great empire in Europe. Today, to “vandalize” someone else’s property means to cause damage or destruction, while “Goth” is applied to a subculture known for its dark, gloomy aesthetic. But while both the Goths and the Vandals sacked and plundered Rome (in 410 and 455 A.D., respectively), neither group left the great city in ruins or massacred its inhabitants. In fact, the Goth kingdoms founded in Gaul (modern-day France), Iberia (modern-day Spain) and Italy would adopt Catholic Christianity and other aspects of Roman culture, helping to preserve those traditions long after the Western Empire’s decline and fall.
Little is known about the origins of the Goths before the Romans encountered them; they may have come from Scandinavia, according to some sources, or from modern-day Poland. From the first Gothic invasion of Roman territory in 238, tensions ran high between the Romans and the warrior people they viewed as inferior and even subhuman. Still, many Goths served as Roman soldiers, adapting the Roman life, and the two groups traded with each other. Around 375, a new group known as the Huns appeared north of the Danube and began pushing other groups–including both the Goths and Vandals–further into Roman territory. Tensions between Goths and Romans exploded early in the fifth century, when Goth leader Alaric laid siege to Rome and sacked the city in 410. Alaric’s descendants, known as the Visigoths (western Goths), settled in Gaul and Iberia; the last Visigoth kingdom, in Spain, fell to the Moors in 711. In Italy, the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) established dominance by the end of the fifth century, but would fall to the Byzantine Empire within a few decades.
Like the Goths, the Vandals may have originated in Scandinavia before migrating south. They first breached the Roman frontier in 406, with the Roman Empire distracted by internal divisions, and began clashing with both Visigoths and Romans in Gaul and Iberia. Under the fierce warrior king Genseric, the Vandals took advantage of Roman weakness in North Africa and established their kingdom there, with its capital at Carthage, by 440. With Genseric’s forces marching on Rome in 455, the desperate Romans sent Pope Leo I to plead for mercy; in exchange for free entry, the Vandals agreed not to burn the city or massacre its citizens. After Genseric died in 477–still undefeated on the battlefield–his empire would decline amid squabbling by his descendants. Byzantine force invaded in 534 and took the last Vandal king, Gelimer, captive in Constantinople.