Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Bernd Hertling, Habichte über Karthago: der große Vandalen-Roman. Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2009. Pp. 463. ISBN 9783805340809. €24.90.

Reviewed by Carla Nicolaye, RWTH Aachen

In 429 the Vandals, under their king Geiseric, invaded the Roman province of Africa. After landing they moved eastward along the coast and besieged Hippo Regius in 430/1 AD. Neither the comes domesticorum et Africae Bonifatius nor the imperial troops under the command of Aspar were successful in their dealings with the Vandals. In 435 AD the emperor Valentinian III was forced to sign a treaty recognizing the Vandals' claim over territories in northern Numidia, parts of Africa Proconsularis, and Mauretania Sitifensis, also making the Vandals foederati of the Empire. In 439 AD Geiseric broke the treaty and conquered the city of Carthage, thus paving the way for the establishment of an independent Vandal kingdom on formerly Roman soil, a kingdom officially recognized by a treaty with the emperor Valentinian in 442 AD. Fortunately, this remarkable achievement not only is becoming more and more recognized within scholarly research,1 it also constitutes the historical background against which Hertling sets his historical novel and develops a narrative which is essentially told from the perspective of the main characters: Geiseric's (fictive) illegitimate son Arwid, Arwid's best friend Truchthari and the Celtic druid Ceridwen. The young Vandal prince Arwid and his friend Truchthari meet a priestess of the goddess Morrigan (Ceridwen) in Baetica shortly before the Vandals' departure for Africa. She joins them on their journey to Africa and, although wooed by both of them, it is Arwid she eventually marries. The plot is charted by historical facts and events (i.e. the siege and conquest of Hippo Regius, Huneric's betrothal to Eudoxia, treaties between Valentinian III. and Geiseric, the conquest of Carthage, the revolt of the Vandal nobility etc.) and includes excursuses on different ancient philosophical and theological beliefs like Pythagoreanism, Arianism, Donatism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Judaism and Ceridwen's Celtic religion.

Hertling's attempt to familiarize a broader audience with this fascinating and often disregarded episode of Roman history, as well as a wide range of ancient philosophies and theologies, is commendable. But, in spite of the author's academic background – Hertling studied Ancient History and Classical Archaeology – and the certainly interesting historical setting, this novel does not live up to expectations. A historical novel certainly does not claim scientific accuracy and therefore some of the novel's flaws must excused by its genre. Nevertheless, the novel leaves its reader somewhat disappointed. Although he bases himself upon Procopius, Hertling clearly is well acquainted with the Vandal conquest of Africa, and his knowledge of ancient philosophy and religion is profound. Unfortunately the author fails to transform this into a coherent or gripping plot, which is predominantly caused by the structure of the narrative. Firstly, the narrative is not chronological and jumps back and forth in history. The different story lines that are simultaneously developed lack coherence, causing the overall context and the historical events taking place to disappear into the background. Some of the philosophical excursuses are extremely long and seem forced upon the plot. In regard to language and style, the author seems to have struggled finding the right balance. Readers less skilled in Greek or Latin or North Africa's religious history during the 5th century will often be frustrated while consulting the three page glossary added to the novel; several expressions in Greek or Latin, as well as a number of technical terms, are not found there. Therefore this novel is recommendable only to readers who have at least some previous knowledge of both the historical situation and terminology. From a scholarly point of view this novel has little to offer. It mainly follows Procopius' account of events and does not offer a critical epilogue, which would have constituted an additional value and would have been quite useful to readers from outside the scholarly community.


1.   Most recently by Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (ed.), Das Königreich der Vandalen: Erben des Imperiums in Nordafrika, Mainz 2009; A. Merrills / R. Miles, The Vandals, Oxford 2010; and H. Castritius, "Barbaren im Garten 'Eden': Der Sonderweg der Vandalen in Nordafrika", Historia, 2010, 371-380.

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