Recently our car got “keyed” in a parking lot; some vandal used a car key or other sharp object to put a long gouge into the paint. Whenever we encounter an act of vandalism, it probably occurs to all of us, “Why? What’s the fun of doing that?” After our little incident, I also found myself wondering who the original Vandals were, and what they did to have their name become synonymous with senseless acts of destruction (my mind wanders a lot).
The historical Vandals were a Germanic tribe that got chased out of their original home by the Huns, and headed west. They looted and pillaged and spray-painted their way through Gaul, made a left turn into Spain, and eventually settled in North Africa around AD 400. Apparently Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, saw the strategic value of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) as a good base for raiding the Mediterranean. There are various accounts of how the Vandals took Carthage, but the one I like has the Vandals entering the city without a fight because the Carthaginians were all at the hippodrome watching the horse races.
In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, turf wars were going on among the various gangs of Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Huns and so forth, but what they all seemed to have in common was bad intentions toward the Roman Empire. By the fifth century, the Romans weren’t doing themselves any favors, either — things sort of go sour when your emperor is eight years old (Valentinian III).
The barbarian tribes took turns sacking Rome. The Gauls got the first shot at Rome’s goodies in 387; the Visigoths were next in 410. Then, when the insurance companies had finally settled all the Roman citizens’ claims and the grandeur was restored, King Gaiseric led the Vandals into the Eternal City for fourteen days of pillage and plunder in AD 455. The Roman citizens said, “Oh, crap, not again” when the Ostrogoths rolled into town in 546. There were several more waves of extremely rude tourists that occupied Rome after that, but you get the idea.
So with all those sacks of Rome, why were the Vandals singled out to have their name sullied? According to most experts, the Vandals weren’t guilty of significantly greater atrocities than any of the other tribes who ripped the Romans a new one. It was historians a couple of centuries ago who defamed the Vandals; the verb “vandalized” first appeared in print around 1800. Maybe it was easier to say than, “Poor Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins. A scoundrel Ostrogothed their carriage.”
Some of the resentment of the Vandals may have had to do with their fierce persecution of Catholics; after all, a lot of the early note-taking was done by monks, giving them an opportunity for revisionist revenge. Perhaps the strongest connection between the Vandals of history and the property destroyers of today is due to the relatively low body count during their sack of Rome. Supposedly Pope Leo I had worked out a deal with King Gaiseric to throw open the gates of Rome in exchange for Gaiseric’s promise not to murder its inhabitants. So the sack by the Vandals was relatively violence-free, but the crimes against property — specifically, looting Rome’s treasures — were extensive. The Vandals tried to be nice guys, slaughter-wise, and the thanks they got was to have their name permanently associated with senseless destruction of property.
Why the University of Idaho chose to adopt the nickname “Vandals” for its athletic teams is anybody’s guess. And why anyone finds pleasure in defacing a temple or scrawling paint on a wall — or scratching a car — is also anybody’s guess.