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Corpulent Conquerors: The Ethnography of Vandal Decadence in Sidonius and Procopius

Timothy Campbell Hart

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sidonius’ Panegyric to Majorian (c. 457 CE) describes a raid by pirates from the Vandal kingdom (lns. 388-440), yet in the narrative we quickly learn that the fat Vandals remained shipside while their Mauri soldiers did the actual looting.  Only when Roman troops unexpectedly arrived, Sidonius explains, did the Vandals get involved in the fighting, only to make a cowardly showing of it.  When describing the lifestyle of these same Vandals a century later, Procopius also emphasized their decadence, explaining that the luxuries of the south had entirely enervated and emasculated the formerly-fearsome Germanic society (Wars 4.6.5-9). 

In this paper I explore the stereotypes underlying these particular descriptions of the Vandals as fat, decadent, cowards.  Looking beyond political motivations, I argue that the specific tropes employed reveal much about how fifth and sixth century Romans conceptualized the diverse tapestry of peoples and cultures of the late antique Mediterranean word.  In these passages we have clear evidence for continued entrenchment of centuries-old Greek ideas about the physiological differences between “northern” and “southern” peoples and the malignant impact climate inevitably had on groups that strayed too far from their “proper” latitudes.

A hallmark of ancient ethnographic theory, first prominently expressed in the Hippocratic treatise, Airs, Waters, Places, was the premise that the geography and climate of a people’s homeland profoundly influenced that people’s physical and moral characteristics, with an essential contrast between cold lands (north and west) and warm ones (south and east).  According to the A.W.P. – and subsequently expounded by Aristotle and others – northerners were fierce and independent, yet stupid and incompetent, while Southerners were timid, lazy, and slavish, yet also clever and sophisticated (AWP 16; Aristotle Politics 1327b).  Further, when migrating to a new homeland, populations were thought to acquire some of the characteristics of their new climate. Crucially, however, in nearly all ancient sources, this process was seen as a purely negative phenomenon causing migratory groups to retain the worst characteristics of their old home while acquiring only the negative features of their new domain (Isaac 2004, p. 108).

Most of a millennium separated Hippocrates from Sidonius and Procopius, yet the classical Greek ethno-climatological worldview remained ubiquitous and largely unmodified in the Roman era.  Galen’s critique of the A.W.P., for example, challenged certain aspects of the treatise, but never questioned its basic premise of environmental determinism (Strohmair 2004).  In our passages, the particular tropes ascribed to the Vandals further testify to the vitality of the Hippocratic model.  The power of this worldview to warp Roman perceptions of “barbarian” peoples should not be underestimated.  In the north, ethnographic blindness to population and culture change beyond the frontier contributed to the Gothic migrant crises of the 4th century (Hart 2017, chs. 4-5).  In the south, meanwhile, Romans contemplating the Vandal invasion found their traditional ideas about climate and ethnicity turned upside down.  In Sidonius’ and Procopius’ descriptions of Vandal decadence, we see attempts to shoehorn an undeniably-changed reality into the comforting framework of one of antiquity’s most enduring, yet underappreciated intellectual constructs.

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Law and Society in Late Antiquity

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