Genseric, king of the Vandals, the illegitimate son of king Godigiselus, reigned in Spain jointly with his legitimate brother GUNDERIC, and on the death of the latter, a.d. 428, became sole sovereign. He is said to have been originally a Catholic, but early in life embraced the Arian heresy.
Before the death of Gunderic, Boniface, count of Africa, forced to seek safety in revolt, invited the Vandals to invade Africa. Genseric readily accepted, and in May 429, according to Idatius (in 427 according to Prosper), crossed into Africa with 50,000 warriors, who poured over the fertile and defenceless provinces. Carthage, Cirta, and Hippo Regius alone withstood the tide of invasion. The Vandals especially ravaged the churches, basilicas, cemeteries, and monasteries. Bishops and priests were tortured to compel them to disclose the church treasures. Victor mentions two who were burnt alive—the venerable Papinian, one of his predecessors in the see of Vita, and Mansuetus, bp. of Urci. Hippo was besieged, but through the efforts of count Boniface, who had returned to his allegiance, supported by an army of allied Goths, the Vandals were obliged by famine, after a siege of 14 months, to abandon the attempt. St. Augustine died in Aug. a.d. 430, in the 3rd month of the siege (Possidius, Life of St. Aug. in Migne, Patr. Lat. xxxii. 59). Soon afterwards Boniface, defeated with great loss, returned to Italy. Genseric concluded at Hippo, on Feb. 10, 435, a peace with Valentinian, undertaking to pay a tribute for the territories he had conquered, and to leave unmolested those still held by Valentinian, sending his son Hunneric as a hostage. In 437 Genseric began to persecute the Catholic bishops in the ceded territories, of whom Possidius Novatus and Severianus were the most illustrious, and not only took their churches from them, but banished them from their sees. Four Spaniards, Arcadius, Probus, Paschasius, and Eutychius, who were faithful servants of Genseric, but who refused at his command to embrace Arianism, were tortured and put to death. Paulillus, a younger brother of Paschasius and Eutychius, was cruelly scourged and reduced to slavery.
Genseric, after procuring the restoration of his son, took Carthage by surprise, Oct. 19, 439. The bishops and noble laity were stripped of their possessions and offered the alternative of slavery or exile. Quodvultdeus, bp. of Carthage, and a number of his clergy were compelled to embark in unseaworthy ships, but reached Naples in safety. All the churches within the walls of Carthage were handed over from the Catholics to the Arians, and also many of those outside, especially two dedicated to St. Cyprian. The Arians in this were, however, only meting out to the Catholics treatment such as they received where the latter party was the stronger. Genseric ordered funeral processions of the Catholics to be conducted in silence and sent the remainder of the clergy into exile. Some of the most distinguished clergy and laity of these provinces petitioned the king to be allowed to live in peace under the Vandals. He replied, "I have resolved to let none of your race and name escape. How then do you dare to make such a demand?" and was with difficulty restrained by the entreaties of his attendants from drowning the petitioners in the adjoining sea. The Catholics, deprived of their churches, were obliged to celebrate the divine mysteries where and as best they could. In 440 Genseric equipped a fleet, with which he ravaged Sicily and besieged Palermo. At the instigation of Maximus, the leader of the Arians in Sicily, he persecuted the Catholics, some of whom suffered martyrdom. According to Prosper, he was recalled by news of the arrival in Africa of count Sebastian, son-in-law of count Boniface, but Idatius places his arrival ten years later. Sebastian had come as a friend to take refuge at his court, but Genseric, who feared his renown as a statesman and general, tried to convert him to Arianism, that his refusal might supply a pretext for putting him to death. Sebastian evaded his demands by a dexterous reply, which Genseric was unable to answer, but some other excuse for his execution was shortly found. In a.d. 441 a new peace was concluded, by which Valentinian retained the three Mauritanias and part of Numidia, and ceded the remainder of his African dominions to Genseric, who divided the Zeugitane or proconsular province, in which was Carthage, among the Vandals and kept the rest in his own possession. Universal oppression of the natives followed. Then Genseric discovered a plot among his nobles against himself, and tortured and executed many of them. Probably from alarm at this conspiracy, he began a new and severer persecution. The Catholics were allowed no place for prayer or the ministration of the sacraments. Every allusion in a sermon to Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, or Holofernes was regarded as aimed at the king, and the preacher punished with exile. Among the bishops now banished, Victor mentions Urbanus of Girba, Crescius, a metropolitan who presided over 120 bishops, Habetdeus of Teudela, and Eustratius of Suffectum. Felix of Adrumetum was banished for receiving a foreign monk. Genseric prohibited the consecration of new bishops in place of those banished. In 454, however, he yielded to Valentinian's requests so far as to allow Deogratias to be consecrated for Carthage. The see had remained vacant since the banishment of Quodvultdeus 15 years before. In 455 Genseric, at the invitation of Eudoxia, Valentinian's widow, sailed to Italy, and took Rome without a blow. At the intercession of Leo the Great, he abstained from torturing or massacring the inhabitants and burning the city, but gave it up to systematic plunder. For 14 days and nights the work of pillage continued, the city was ransacked of its remaining treasures, and Genseric then returned unmolested to Africa, carrying much booty and many thousand captives, including the empress Eudoxia and her two daughters. The elder became the wife of his son Hunneric; the younger, with her mother, was eventually surrendered to the emperor Leo.
The whole of Africa now fell into the hands of Genseric, and also Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. His fleets yearly sailed from Carthage in the early spring, and ravaged all the Mediterranean coasts. When leaving Carthage on one of these expeditions, the helmsman asked Genseric whither he should steer. "Against those," he replied, "who have incurred the wrath of God." His object was not only to plunder, but to persecute. Spain, Italy, Dalmatia, Campania, Calabria, Apulia, Bruttium, Venetia, Lucania, Epirus, and the Peloponnese all suffered from his ravages. After the death of Deogratias, a.d. 457, Genseric did not allow any more bishops to be consecrated in the proconsular province, the peculiar domain of the Vandals, so that of the original number of 164 only three were left in Victor's time. One Proculus was sent to compel the bishops to give up all their books and the sacramental vessels. When they refused, they were seized by force and the altar-cloths made into shirts for the soldiers. St. Valerian, bp. of Abbenza, was expelled from that town. No one was allowed to receive him into their house or permit him to remain on their land, and he was long obliged to lie by the roadside. At Regia the Catholics had ventured at Easter to take possession of their church. The Arians, headed by a priest named Adduit, attacked the church, part forcing an entrance with drawn swords and part shooting arrows through the windows. The reader was killed in the pulpit by an arrow, and many worshippers slain on the altar-steps. Most of the survivors were executed by Genseric's orders. Genseric, by the advice of the Arian bishops, commanded all officials of his court to embrace Arianism. According to Victor's account, Armogast, one of the number, refused, and was tightly bound with cords, but they broke like a spider's web; and when he was hung head downwards by one foot, he seemed to sleep as peacefully as if in his bed. His persecutors, unable to overcome his resolution, were about to kill him, but were dissuaded by an Arian priest, lest he should be reverenced as a martyr. He was accordingly compelled to labour in the fields and afterwards to tend cattle near Carthage.
The emperor Majorian in 460 assembled a fleet of 300 vessels at Carthagena to recover Africa. His plans were betrayed to the Vandals, who surprised and carried off the greater part of his ships. Genseric, however, in alarm, concluded peace with Majorian. In 468 Leo collected a mighty armament of 1,113 ships, each containing 100 men (Cedrenus, 350, ed. Dindorf.), under the command of his brother-in-law Basiliscus. The main armament landed at the Hermaean promontory (Cape Bon), about 40 miles from Carthage. Genseric, by means, it was generally believed, of a large bribe, induced Basiliscus to grant a truce for five days. He used this time to man all the ships he could, and, the wind becoming favourable, attacked the Romans and sent fire-ships among their crowded vessels. Panic and confusion spread through the vast multitude, most of whom tried to fly, but a few fell fighting gallantly to the last. After this victory Genseric regained Sardinia and Tripoli, where the Roman arms had met with success, and ravaged the Mediterranean coasts more cruelly than before, till a peace was concluded between him and the emperor Zeno. Genseric, at the request of the emperor's ambassador Severus, released those prisoners who had fallen to his own or his sons' lot, and allowed him to ransom as many others as he could (Malchus, de Legationibus , 3, ed. Dindorf), and, at Leo's entreaty, allowed the churches of Carthage to be reopened and the exiled bishops and clergy to return. Soon afterwards he died, on Jan. 24, 477.
According to the description of Jornandes (de Gothorum Origine , c. 33, in Cassiodorus, i. 412, in Migne, Patr. Lat. lxix. 1274), Genseric was of moderate stature and lame from a fall from his horse. He was a man of few words, and thus better able to conceal the deep designs he had conceived. He scorned luxury, was greedy of empire, passionate, skilful in intrigue, and cruel; but it must be remembered that all our informants are writers who hated and dreaded himself and his nation both as heretics and enemies. With every allowance for Salvian's rhetoric ( de Gubernatione Dei , vii. in Migne, Patr. Lat. liii.), it must be admitted that his description of the morals of the Vandals and those of the dissolute Carthaginians show the former in a more favourable light than the latter.
Genseric's name is variously spelt Gizericus, Gaisericus, Geisericus, and Zinzirichus. The sources for the above account are the Chronicles of Prosper and Idatius (in Migne, Patr. Lat. li.); Procopius, de Bello Vandalico , i. 3–7; Isidorus, de Regibus Gothorum (Isid. Opp. vii. 130–133, in Migne, Patr. Lat. lxxxiii. 1076); and Victor Vitensis, de Persecutione Vandalica , i. (in Migne, Patr. Lat. lviii.). Gibbon, cc. xxxiii. xxxvi. and xxxvii., may also be consulted; and Ruinart's dissertation in his appendix to Victor Vitensis, and Ceillier, Histoire des auteurs sacrés , x. c. 28.