Battle of Tricameron

Date 553
Location Near Carthage (close to present-day Tunis), North Africa
Opponents (* winner) *Byzantine Empire Vandals
Commander Belisarius Gelimer
Approx. # Troops 5,000 (mostly cavalry) 50,000 (mostly cavalry)
Importance The Byzantine Empire regains control of North Africa

Vandal and Alan Warriors

Artist conception of Vandal and Alan warriors in North Africa.



The Battle of Tricameron, 533.

(a) Phase I: Gelimer’s Vandal cavalry advance from their fortified camp (1) and encounter a force of Byzantine horse under Count John dispersed while preparing their midday meal (2). Inexplicably, Gelimer allows Count John’s forces to form for battle unhindered. Count John orders his troops to mount and sends a messenger to Belisarius in the main Byzantine camp requesting reinforcements (3).

(b) Phase II: Count John deploys his outnumbered force into three divisions, a move mirrored by Gelimer, who orders his brother Tzazon to take command of the Vandal centre. Gelimer orders his troops to stow their bows and use their swords in preparation for the impending clash.

(c) Phase III: Count John opens the battle by charging across the brook separating the two forces (1). The Vandals rebuff the attackers who retreat to their starting point (2). The Byzantines regroup and prepare to launch another assault. Belisarius approaches the battlefield with a contingent of cavalry (3), having left the Byzantine infantry to follow as quickly as they can.

(d) Phase IV: Gathering additional reinforcements, Count John launches a third attack (1). Tzazon is killed in the mêlée (2) and the Vandal centre begins to give way (3).

(e) Phase V: Arriving at the scene of the action, Belisarius orders the two remaining divisions into the fray (1). The Vandal formation collapses from the centre and they flee to the relative safety of their fortified camp (2), closely pursued by the Hunnic cavalry (3). Belisarius orders a halt to the pursuit, not wishing to assault the Vandal position until the Byzantine infantry (4) arrives.

(f) Phase VI: As the Byzantines begin to encircle the camp (1), Gelimer panics and abandons his position (2). The Vandal cavalry follow suit (3), and the Byzantines enter the camp and begin to plunder, losing any semblance of cohesion. Fortunately for Belisarius, the collapse of the Vandal forces protects his now disorganized army from counter-attack.

The Battle of Tricameron during the Vandal War of 533-534 led to the forces of the Byzantine Empire regaining control of North Africa. The battle also positioned them to launch an invasion of Italy. In 527 Justinian became ruler of the Byzantine Empire. The most illustrious of all the emperors in the Eastern Roman Empire, Justinian was a great lawgiver, builder, and administrator and a devout Christian. His chief foreign policy goals were to recover the lands of the Western Roman Empire from their Germanic conquerors and to reestablish imperial unity in the person of the Eastern Roman Empire emperor. His motto became “one empire, one law, one church.”

Justinian became emperor during the First Persian War (524-532). At first the Persians made advances in Mesopotamia, but the later years of the war saw Byzantine victories under the young Thracian general Belisarius (505-563). After rising to command the Byzantine armies in the East, in 530 Belisarius and 25,000 men defeated 40,000 Persians at Dara. He was defeated by a vastly superior Persian army at Callinicum the next year, however. Withdrawing to islands in the Euphrates River, Belisarius won laurels for his skillful defense; the Persians withdrew and concluded peace in 532.

Belisarius was then given command of an expeditionary force to North Africa. The Vandals there had overthrown King Hilderic, who had been friendly with Constantinople. The hostile Gelimer replaced Hilderic. Justinian held that the Germanic kings were his vassals, and he demanded the reinstatement of Hilderic. When this was refused, Justinian concluded an alliance with the Ostrogoths to forestall them coming to the aid of the Vandals and sent Belisarius to North Africa.

In September 533 Belisarius, supported by a fleet of 500 transports and 92 warships, landed at Cape Vada with 15,000 men (10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry). The invasion took the Vandals by surprise, and Belisarius immediately moved against the Vandal capital of Carthage. The Vandals were handicapped by the fact that Gelimer had sent his brother Tzazon (Zano) and 7,000 men to crush a revolt in Sardinia. On September 13 at Ad Decimum, the 10th mile marker from Carthage, Gelimer and a Vandal force attempted an ambush, which Belisarius defeated. Two days later the Byzantine forces occupied Carthage without resistance.

With the hasty recall of Tzazon and his men from Sardinia, Gelimer put together about 50,000 troops, mostly cavalry, and advanced on Carthage. Belisarius moved out of the city to meet him. Leading with his cavalry, Belisarius came on Gelimer’s forces on the opposite side of a shallow stream. Realizing that Gelimer was not fully prepared for battle, Belisarius chose not to wait for his infantry and instead immediately ordered an attack, although he was outnumbered nearly 10 to 1. Three times the Byzantines advanced, but each time they were repulsed.

The death of Tzazon in the fighting led to a Vandal collapse. Gelimer fell back on his fortified camp, but the Byzantine infantry had now arrived. Although casualties had been light, with only about 50 Byzantine soldiers and 800 Vandals killed, Gelimer decided to withdraw. Seeing their king in flight, the remainder of the Vandals quickly followed. The Byzantines then fell on the Vandal camp and looted it. Had Gelimer been able to regroup his forces and attack at this time, undoubtedly the far more numerous Vandals would have triumphed.

All Vandal resistance ended with Gelimer’s surrender in March 534. In addition to the Vandal territory of North Africa, Justinian secured the former Vandal possessions of Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. In 534, jealous of Belisarius’s success, Justinian recalled him to Constantinople. Belisarius left behind a small force under Solomon to complete the subjugation of not only the Vandals but also the Moors and Numidians. The Moors were not anxious to pass under Byzantine control, and it was 539 before resistance was at an end. Byzantine authority had now been reestablished over almost all of North Africa. The Byzantines held North Africa until the Saracen invasion a century and a half later.


Barker, John. Justinian and the Later Roman Empire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 4. Edited by J. B. Bury. London: Methuen, 1909.

Treadgold, Warren. Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.


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