Saturday, November 2, 2013

Gelimer, King of the Vandals


     Back in the bad old days of the fifth century, when the western half of the Roman Empire was undergoing its awesome, awful, cataclysmic collapse due to decadence, corrupt government, the oppression and demoralization of the people, continual barbarian invasions, and the apocalyptic fervor of early Christianity, the Vandals—a Germanic tribe (and/or Slavic, depending on what book one reads)—invaded Roman territory. After hacking and pillaging their way through Gaul, they settled in Spain and set up a kingdom there, pledging nominal allegiance to the figurehead Emperor of Rome. 
     Shortly thereafter, symptomatic of the aforementioned corrupt government, one of Rome's two most competent generals, Flavius Aëtius, plotted against his rival, Count Boniface, who at the time was stationed in North Africa. He wrote to Boniface, falsely informing him that he, Boniface, had fallen into disfavor with the child emperor Valentinian III and his mother Placidia, who wanted him disgraced and dead. The gullible Boniface believed Aëtius's "friendly" message and took action by inviting a large force of Spanish Vandals to Africa to help him fight against the presumed injustice of Valentinian and his mother. The Vandals were brought across the Strait of Gibraltar by a Roman fleet. Shortly after this, Boniface learned of his deception and requested the Vandals to return to Spain, with his apologies. But the Vandals, seeing the rich, as yet unplundered provinces of Africa lying before them like a ripe peach waiting to be plucked from the tree, decided to conquer North Africa instead. The degenerate Roman legions attempted to drive them out more than once, but each attempt was a fiasco. The Vandals established a kingdom with their capital at Carthage, near modern Tunis. They quickly assembled their own navy and began ravaging the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, eventually even sacking the eternal city of Rome. (Incidentally, the general Aëtius compensated to some degree for his criminal rascality by eventually commanding the forces that defeated Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451.)
     Almost a hundred years passed, during which time the Vandals, originally from the forests of northern Europe, melted slightly in the heat of the African sun, and were further softened by wealth, luxury, and relative peace. Gelimer, a member of the royal family of the Vandals, launched a coup, imprisoned the unpopular King Hilderic, and assumed the throne of the Kingdom of the Vandals. Hilderic was an ally, however, of the ambitious Byzantine emperor Justinian "the Great," who used the incident as a convenient excuse to attack Africa.
     Enter the Byzantine general Belisarius, possibly one of the greatest military geniuses in history. With a relatively small army consisting largely of barbarian mercenaries, including some not particularly reliable Huns, he invaded Africa, defeated the Vandals, and occupied the capital city of Carthage. King Gelimer, with his young nephew and a number of retainers that he still retained, fled to Mount Papua in the Atlas Mountains, where he took refuge with a tribe of friendly Moors. The Byzantine historian Procopius, in his History of the Vandalic War (translated by H. B. Dewing), describes the plight of Gelimer as follows:
Then, indeed, it came about that Gelimer and those about him, who were nephews and cousins of his and other persons of high birth, experienced a misery which no one could describe, however eloquent he might be, in a way which would equal the facts. For of all the nations which we know that of the Vandals is the most luxurious, and that of the Moors the most hardy. For the Vandals, since the time when they gained possession of Libya [i.e., North Africa], used to indulge in baths, all of them, every day, and enjoyed a table abounding in all things, the sweetest and best that the earth and sea produce. And they wore gold very generally, and clothed themselves in the Medic garments, which now they call "seric" [i.e., silk robes], and passed their time, thus dressed, in theatres and hippodromes and in other pleasureable pursuits, and above all else in hunting. And they had dancers and mimes and all other things to hear and see which are of a musical nature or otherwise merit attention among men. And the most of them dwelt in parks, which were well supplied with water and trees; and they had great numbers of banquets, and all manner of sexual pleasures were in great vogue among them. But the Moors live in stuffy huts both in winter and in summer and at every other time, never removing from them either because of snow or the heat of the sun or any other discomfort whatever due to nature. And they sleep on the ground, the prosperous among them, if it should so happen, spreading a fleece under themselves. Moreover, it is not customary among them to change their clothing with the seasons, but they wear a thick cloak and a rough shirt at all times. And they have neither bread nor wine nor any other good thing, but they take grain, either wheat or barley, and, without boiling it or grinding it to flour or barley-meal, they eat it in a manner not a whit different from that of animals. 
     Belisarius dispatched a Herulian mercenary commander named Pharas to go and fetch King Gelimer. After a few attempts at storming the mountain passes, and losing many soldiers in the process, Pharas attempted to starve the Vandals out. Eventually, getting tired of the wait, he sent a letter to Gelimer promising him that Belisarius was a merciful and generous man, that surrender was no great disgrace, and that the Emperor in Constantinople would certainly grant him some excellent property in the East and allow him to live out his years in peace and prosperity. Then, according to Procopius,
When Gelimer had read this letter and wept bitterly over it, he wrote in reply as follows: "I am both deeply grateful to you for the advice which you have given me and I also think it unbearable to be a slave to an enemy who wrongs me, from whom I should pray God to exact justice, if He should be propitious to me,—an enemy who, though he had never experienced any harm from me either in deeds which he suffered or in words which he heard, provided a pretext for a war which was unprovoked, and reduced me to this state of misfortune, bringing Belisarius against me from I know not where. And yet it is not at all unlikely that he also, since he is but a man, though he be emperor too, may have something befall him which he would not choose. But as for me, I am not able to write further. For my present misfortune has robbed me of my thoughts. Farewell, then, dear Pharas, and send me a lyre and one loaf of bread and a sponge, I pray you." When this reply was read by Pharas, he was at a loss for some time, being unable to understand the final words of the letter, until he who had brought the letter explained that Gelimer desired one loaf because he was eager to enjoy the sight of it and to eat it, since from the time when he went up upon Papua he had not seen a single baked loaf. A sponge also was necessary for him; for one of his eyes, becoming irritated by lack of washing, was greatly swollen. And being a skilful harpist he had composed an ode relating to his present misfortune, which he was eager to chant to the accompaniment of a lyre while he wept out his soul. When Pharas heard this, he was deeply moved, and lamenting the fortune of men, he did as was written and sent all the things which Gelimer desired of him. However he relaxed the siege not a whit, but kept watch more closely than before.
     Finally though, after a siege of around three months, Gelimer beheld a sight which was just too much to bear: Two little boys, one his royal nephew and the other a son of his hosts, were hungrily watching the lady of the hut preparing a small loaf made of crushed barley, baking it in the ashes near the fire. The boys were infested with intestinal worms, which exacerbated their hunger. Suddenly, the Vandal boy snatched up the partially cooked barley cake and stuffed it into his mouth, ashes and all; whereupon the other boy began beating him around the head, causing him to cough it back up and spit it out. Then the Moorish boy grabbed the cake and ate it himself. Gelimer had seen enough, and contacted Pharas, saying that if Belisarius gave his word that the Vandals would be treated humanely and honorably, he would surrender. He and his men were led back to Carthage; and it is said that when Gelimer was brought to see Belisarius, his new master, Gelimer burst into loud, perhaps hysterical, laughter. In Robert Graves' historical novel Count Belisarius, he has the general, who was a merciful man, take pity on Gelimer, step down from the throne on which he had been sitting, and lead the former King by the hand, as though he were a little child.
     Aside from the obvious reflection on impermanence, and how wealth, prosperity, and the status quo can not be relied upon to remain the same (and also aside from my occasional desire to write about things barely associated with Buddhism—for example I'd really like to write about Moby Dick, The Matrix, and prehistoric Indo-Europeans someday), the big question is: Why was Gelimer so totally miserable? It's true that he was living under harsh and difficult circumstances among the Moors on the mountain, but of course the Moors were living that way too, and presumably weren't nearly as miserable as old Gelimer was. Maybe they were even happier than usual at the time, as they had the interesting spectacle of a famous king living among them. Gelimer was probably even receiving the best of everything his Moorish hosts had to offer—the best food, the best hut, the best animal skin to sleep on, etc.
     Although the Moors might have had more of a genetically conditioned tolerance to the heat, rough food, dirt, etc., than did the Vandalic royalty, obviously the Vandals were so miserable mainly because of their psychological state, not their physical one. The roughness of their new surroundings was insufficient in and of itself to necessitate misery, demonstrated by the probable fact that the Moors were living in the same environment and were in all likelihood just fine about it.
     Gelimer and his retinue were in hell because he was not living in the present moment. He was taking in just enough of the present moment to compare it with an "alternative reality" that he considered better, and which he consequently desired strongly. And, of course, desire is the cause of all suffering. Furthermore, what he was desiring was rather unrealistic, so a few moments' philosophical reflection might have allowed him to see that his suffering was utterly futile. It didn't help him regain his palace in Carthage at all. But this sort of thing, usually on a smaller scale, is the cause of all misery.
     It's actually easier to be happy if one is poor—not starving or freezing, but poor. The founders of Buddhism and Christianity were in agreement on this point. If a person has little money but enough food and shelter and nevertheless appears miserable, in all likelihood it is because that person has been taught by his or her culture to be dissatisfied and ashamed of poverty. We live in a culture that drills into our heads, practically from our infancy, that the opposite of truth is true, and that desire and luxury are good, and lead to happiness. And most Western Buddhists, and many Eastern ones too nowadays, can't shake that conditioning.
     The more you have to lose, the more its loss hurts you; and, worse yet, the more you fear losing it even before you've lost anything, other than your peace of mind. Hence the value of renunciation. To have nothing of value to lose is essentially freedom, and a potential source of profound strength.
     The poor are able to be happier than the rich, despite the fact that the rich may have more fun. And those who live in the present moment, not comparing reality with how things used to be, or ought to be, or might be, live in bliss. 


Gelimer, on a Vandalic coin






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