By Eric Fournier
Shifting Cultural Frontiers in Late Antiquity, ed. E Watts, et al. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012)
Introduction: Midway through the first book of his History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor of Vita narrates the story of a Vandal master who deemed it appropriate to allow his two Roman slaves, Martinianus and Maxima, to marry. But Maxima was a virgin dedicated to God and she converted her husband to her ascetic lifestyle. Martinianus in tum converted his three brothers and they all fled to a nearby monastery. Incensed, the master organized a search for his slaves, who were soon found. He had them tortured, forced the spouses to consummate their union and, worse, rebaptized them. For Victor, these events were part of a persecution of Nicenes by the Vandals occurring in North Africa. In this specific instance, the Vandal master failed to realize that he was now persecuting slaves that belonged to God and no longer his own. The master afterward had the Roman slaves tortured daily to coerce them into converting to his Christian Homoean confession, but they were miraculously healed by Christ-doctor, and the Vandal master along with his children suffered death as a divine punishment. The master’s widow then gave the slaves away. They were eventually sent to the Moors, but converted them. When the Vandal king Geiseric (428-77) heard of this, he ordered the slaves to be put to death.
Through Victor’s one-sided description, one can still find elements of what the Vandals’ policy was in religious matters. It seems clear enough from the last few sections ofthis story that, to Victor, conversion to one’s form of Christianity was the main issue at stake. The fact that the master rebaptized his runaway slaves once he discovered that they were Nicene Christians illustrates this point, as does Geiseric’s reaction when he heard that the slaves had converted the Moors. The story of Count Sebastianus, a Nicene living at the court of Geiseric, also illustrates this point. Asked to convert in front of Homoean bishops, Sebastianus found a way out by using a stratagem to stymie the king: he asked for white bread and told the Vandal ruler that he would accept being rebaptized if, after having been dipped in water and baked for a second time, the bread would come out better than it was before.