“Vanity Of Vanities, All Is Vanity”


Gelimer lived from about 480 to 550 A.D. and was the ruler of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa for four years from 530 to 534.  The emperor Justinian aspired to restore Roman control over the region, and to this end sent his general Belisarius to expel the barbarian trespassers.  This he did.  Gelimer was also captured for good measure, and transported back to Byzantium as a prize of war.

It was a Roman custom of the republic and early empire to allow victorious generals, back from their campaigns, to stage a “triumph” in the capital.  This was essentially a mixture of parade and public procession where the victor would show the public the prizes of war, exotic animals, captured prisoners, and any other curiosities that might stimulate the fancy of a public hungry for spectacle.  Such triumphs had passed out of fashion with the advent of a strong, centralized imperial authority.  Emperors were not overly enthusiastic about seeing their generals lauded for things they themselves wanted credit for.


So for whatever reason, Justinian decided to break with precedent and award Belisarius a triumph.  According to the historian Procopius (Wars IV.9), about six hundred years had passed since the last time a triumph had been staged in the capital.  It was an unprecedented event.  (In point of fact, the last non-imperial triumph, according to historian Anthony Kaldellis, was in 19 B.C. when Lucius Cornelius Balbus was granted one for his crushing of the Garamantes in Africa).

Belisarius did not conduct the triumph in the traditional manner.  Rather than ride in a carriage, he went on foot from his own house to the hippodrome; once inside he proceeded to approach the imperial reviewing stand to salute the emperor.  About the spoils on display in the triumph, Procopius tells us:

There was booty, including whatever is set apart by custom for imperial service, thrones of gold and carriages in which it is customary for the emperor’s wife to ride, and much jewelry made of precious stones, golden drinking cups, and all other things that serve for the imperial table.  There was also silver weighing many thousands of talents and all the royal treasure that was worth an extremely great sum…Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, the son of Vespasian, together with certain others, had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem.[1]

Procopius tells us that when these treasures were put on display, a prominent Jew who had access to some imperial officials protested that the antiquities should be housed in Byzantium; their rightful place, he insisted, was in some appropriate facility in Jerusalem, the place from where they had been taken.  Justinian was an extremely religious man–even by the standards of the day–and began to be concerned that the presence of the ancient Hebrew relics under his roof might subject him to some sort of divine curse.  So he sent the treasures to Jerusalem under the care of some Christian legates.


Slaves were also paraded in the triumph.  Gelimer himself, the deposed and defeated king, was among them; in those days, the defeated were made to taste the full bitterness of their condition by passing symbolically under the yoke (sub iugum).  Gelimer and his retinue of slaves were brought into the hippodrome and made to circle the giant stadium before the roaring crowd.  We may only speculate as to what thoughts were passing through his mind.

Did he reflect on the transitory nature of earthly power and riches?  Did he ruminate on the fickleness of Fortune, that had raised him up from nothing to be king of all the Vandals and Alans, only to hurl him back down to his presently abject condition?  Did he take solace, perhaps, in the knowledge that those who cheered his downfall today might see themselves so judged by Fortune tomorrow?

We do not know.  What we do know is that as he grimly circled the hippodrome, he paused before the box of the emperor and empress, high upon the reviewing stand.  Justinian sat on an elevated seat with officials and spectators on either side.

“He neither wept nor cried out,” says Procopius, “but repeated again and again these words from Biblical scripture, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity.'”[2]

Most of the things we are convinced are so important will, in time, recede into the mists of irrelevance.  Those who spend their lives, and their efforts, preoccupied with the minutiae of triviality will wake up one day to find themselves old and tired.  And that which they once thought was so vital, is now revealed to be a cruel mirage.



[1]  Trans. by Anthony Kaldellis, from Wars IV.9.

[2]  This is also a quote from Ecclesiastes 1.1-2.


Read more about this and related topics in Pantheon.

6 thoughts on ““Vanity Of Vanities, All Is Vanity”

  1. There was a time when Americans believed in freedom.

    The US is dying from a million cuts. Part of the reason the USA is a nanny police state now is that whenever there is a problem, the kneejerk reaction in the US is to call for a new law.

    Nanny state laws are not the best solution, however. Nanny state laws lead to more laws, higher fines, and tougher sentences. Thirty years ago, DWI laws were enacted that led to DWI checkpoints and lower DWI levels. Seatbelt laws led to backseat seatbelt laws, childseat laws, and pet seatbelt laws. Car liability insurance laws led to health insurance laws and gun liability laws. Smoking laws that banned smoking in buildings led to laws against smoking in parks and then bans against smoking in entire cities. Sex offender registration laws led to sex offender restriction laws and violent offender registration laws.

    Nanny state laws don’t make us safer, either. Nanny state laws lead people to be careless since they don’t need to have personal responsibility anymore. People don’t need to be careful crossing the street now because drunk-driving has been outlawed and driving while using a cellphone is illegal. People don’t investigate companies or carry out due diligence because businesses must have business licenses now.

    The main point of nanny state laws is not safety. The main purposes of more laws are control and revenue generation for the state.

    Another reason laws are enacted is because corporations give donations to lawmakers to stifle competition or increase sales.

    Many laws are contradictory, too. Some laws say watering lawns is required, while other laws say watering lawns is illegal.

    Many nanny state laws that aim to solve a problem can be fixed by using existing laws. If assault is already illegal, why do we need a new law that outlaws hitting umpires?

    Nanny state laws are not even necessary. If everything was legal would you steal, murder, and use crack cocaine? Aren’t there other ways to solve problems besides calling the police? Couldn’t people educate or talk to people who bother them? Couldn’t people be sued for annoying behavior? Couldn’t people just move away? Even if assault was legal, wouldn’t attackers risk being killed or injured, too? Do people have consciences? Having no laws doesn’t mean actions have no consequences.

    If there is no victim, there is no crime.

    We don’t need thousands of laws when we only need 10.

    Freedom is not just a one way street. You can only have freedom for yourself if you allow others to have it.

    Should swimming pools be banned because they are dangerous? Hammers? Bottles? Rocks? Energy drinks? Pillows?

    Control freaks might get angry when a neighbor owns three indoor cats, but what did the neighbor take from them? Why should this be illegal? Is outlawing cats something a free country should do? Doesn’t banning everything sound like the opposite of freedom?

    Instead of getting mad at people who like freedom, why don’t people realize that freedom is a two way street?

    If you allow others to paint their house purple then you can, too.

    If you allow others to own a gun then you can, too.

    If you allow others to swear then you can, too.

    If you allow others to gamble then you can, too.

    Who wants to live in a prison?

    Think. Question everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very Buddhist as well one might also say. All the world is but a mirage, one we continually mistake for reality.

    Excellent post on a sliver of history of Rome with a direct and succinct lesson – nothing, nothing, has changed. Except perhaps that Man once knew wisdom. I doubt today that any triumph, for The West or for Islam would have the defeated acknowledge the vanity of life & legacy before the victor. So maybe something has changed, a loss of wisdom, and for that, this history lesson is doubly poignant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoy your little stories like these. Like the others said, it all seems to go back to Stoicism and Buddhism. Do you have any plans to write an article comparing the two philosophies? Or can I at least request one? Would love to know your perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks much Corey. Yes, the connection between Buddhism and Stoicism is something I’ve speculated on before. I talked about it a bit in my book “Stoic Paradoxes.” It seems at least plausible that Buddhist missionaries may have arrived in the Mediterranean region or the ancient Near East, and may–just may–have influenced the philosophical thought of the time. Hard evidence is lacking. I’ve speculated also about the possible influences of Eastern philosophies (Persian and Hindu) on Neoplatonism. It’s a tantalizing subject that deserves serious study.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.