ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY, September 13th 533, the Roman General Flavius Belisarius changed the history of the world by winning an unwinnable battle against the barbarian Vandals in what had once been Roman Africa, at a place known to us as AD DECIMUM, the tenth mile marker…
Humble milestones like the one pictured below marked each mile throughout the Roman highway system, spanning the 250,000 miles of roadway that once stretched from modern Scotland to Yemen. So extraordinarily durable was their construction that a number of those roads (and the bridges they crossed) are still in use today across former Roman territories in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Roman mile markers allowed the traveler to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.
In what had been Roman Africa, stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast. To put this battle into a modern geographical context, note that where Carthage once stood in the ancientworld the sprawling metropolis of Tunis, capital of Tunisia, sits today (see map below). The actual battle took place at the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile). This milestone, along with the battlefield itself has not been rediscovered by archaeologists as it lies beneath the suburbs of modern Tunis.
At that now lost tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius (pictured below) met the Vandal King Gelimer in a battle that would change the course of history.
The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations. Let’s recall which Romans sailed into battle against the Vandals – these were the Eastern Romans who had managed to avoid the fate that befell the Western Roman Empire for many reasons, not least of which was their geographical distance from the Vandals, Goths, Visigoths and other Northern Barbarians that had extinguished the Western Roman Empire in 476 with the formal abdication of the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. The Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome were undoubtedly two of the key events that made the loss of the West inevitable.
Now these Eastern Romans sailed straight towards mortal danger over 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy). If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements. If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy. See below for something of Belisarius’ battle plan at Ad Decimum.
Belisarius and his Roman knights (see an image below for the decidedly medieval looking Roman knight that was very much the product of Belisarius’ experimentation with military technology and tactics) would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold.
This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian. These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.
This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of my Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com).