The Emperor Majorian’s Secret Embassy to the Court of the Vandal Gaiseric

The Emperor Majorian’s Secret Embassy to the Court of the Vandal Gaiseric

By Gerald E. Max

Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines, Vol. 9:1 (1982)


Introduction: In his Bellum Vandalicum, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius records how, shortly before his ill-fated campaign against the Vandals in Africa, the West Roman Emperor Majorian (457-61), alone and incognito, visited the court of the Vandal King Gaiseric in Carthage.  His aim was reportedly two-fold: first, to gather intelligence about the strength of the Vandals and the character of Gaiseric; and, second, to determine the loyalites of the neighboring Moors and Libyans.  Aware of the risks, the emperor, who “never showed the least hesitation bfore any taks and least of all before the dangers of wars,” prudently darkened his far-famed naturally golden hair, then met with Gaiseric pretending to be an envoy sent from the emperor.  Mission accomplished, he quickly returned to his troops with great hopes of conquering Libya.

Edward Gibbon, without explaining why, dismissed the embassy as “an anecdote” and “an improbable fiction,” but one “which would not have been imagined unless in the life of a hero.” More recently, Berthold Rubin called it “ein Fluchtligkeitsfehler,” a carelessness or slip of the pen. In the style and method Procopious’ model was Thucydides, but “in his fondness of degression into strange incidents,” commented James Westfall Thompson, Herodotus was clearly his model. When he wrote about Majorian’s embassy, however, who was his model? More importantly, was he recounting history or simply preserving a legend? Did he compose it originally or was it take from another source and inserted merely as a diversion from his main narrative?

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