Monthly Archives: February 2014

The First Byzantine Emperor? Some recent work on the Reign of Leo I (ruled 457-474)

Today’s blog takes a look at an important if underappreciated Roman emperor, Leo I. Its a “very” rough draft of chapter draft I am writing on the soldier emperors of the fifth century. This is how many historians start the creative process. We give papers at conferences that our colleagues can comment on. If the paper is good enough they may then be turned into an article and/or book chapter. What follows is at its very early stages. It is basically my notes set down in a basic order with only minimal attention paid on grammar, style and footnotes. If and when I present it as a paper I will also switch it to a more oral style.

An understanding of the reign of Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) is crucial for anyone attempting to comprehend the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, one prominent Byzantinist goes so far as to credit Leo and his successor Zeno with rescuing “Byzantium from becoming a plaything of the barbarians.” Yet as this same scholar has pointed out, the crucial reign of arguably the first Byzantine emperor has received far less attention than it deserves. This void may be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors, and Leo’s successors Anastasios and Justinian.

We may attribute some of this neglect to the paucity of sources available to scholars. Unlike the fourth and the sixth, many of the crucial events in the fifth will remain unknowable. Modern scholars have preferred to cover the reigns of the much better documented sixth-century emperors, especially Justinian. Yet other more “correctable” reasons may be provided. Modern historians have been more interested in the role that Leo’s predecessor, Marcian, played in the council of Chalcedon. I would also suggest that a recent focus on the role of women and the role of religion in the early Byzantine Empire has turned many scholars away from these soldier-emperors. The dominance of military men in the politics of the day serve as inconvenient reminders for those who suggest that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views of imperial leadership based on martial qualities. So too has a relative disdain in some academic circles for military history, biography and traditional narrative history played a part in this neglect.

Yet, even more traditional “military and political” historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines in their reconstructions of the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth century. In Peter Heather’s recent account of this period, for instance, Leo is only mentioned in passing. There have been exceptions. Important articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood, for example, have shed needed light on the internal politics and “propaganda” surrounding Leo’s regime.

Moreover, a tendency to skip over the events of the latter half of the fifth century is not just a tendency of modern scholars. Byzantine historians seemed uncomfortable creating an in-depth narrative describing an era that had led to the loss of the majority of the Empire’s Western territories. So too did the non-soldier Anastasios appear to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.

Some Current Debates

Leo’s reign is remembered primarily for four developments. First, Leo was probably the first emperor to be crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Even if we doubt that this symbolic crowning occurred (e.g. Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I), Leo’s reign certainly provides us with evidence with how important the emperor’s role as the leader of the Church had become in the fifth century. Indeed, polling the Eastern bishops on their views towards Chalcedon was one of Leo’s first official actions after he became emperor. So too does the regime offer proof of how an orthodox” emperor could use religion as a weapon to disparage and destroy his enemies both within and outside of the empire. Second, his self-assertion in the second half of his rule, and more precisely, culling of the “Germanic” faction at the Eastern court —marked by his successful assassination of his former mentor the Alan magister militum Aspar and his sons have attracted the intense interest from scholars hoping to comprehend fifth-century factional politics. Third, scholars have focused on Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468. This bungled invasion, which almost bankrupted the Empire, was the last in a series of failed attempts by both the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire to expel the Vandals from the vital lands of North Africa And finally the increasing power of the mountain people the Isaurians within his regime, that culminated with Leo’s henchman the Isaurian Tarasicodissa becoming the “Roman” emperor Zeno has also attracted recent interest.

A Barbarian Cloaked in Roman Clothing?

Leo was born ca 401 in the Balkans. Writing in the early years of Anastasios’ reign, the Isaurian Candidus (frag. 1) maintains he was from Dacia in Illyricum. While John Malalas (14.35) writing under Justinian suggest stated that he was of Bessian stock (the Bessi [Βῆσσοι or Βέσσοι]were an independent Thracian tribe).I would suggest that Candidus view is preferable, since the idea that leo was not a “true” Roman may reflect later propaganda promoted by Leo’s and Zeno’s detractors. At the time he was raised to the purple, according to Candidus, Leo was a commander of the troops in Selymbria.
Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by the Alan magister militum Aspar. Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer, a bit like Roman Dick Cheneys, largely tried to influence events behind the scenes. In establishing his role behind the scenes he was largely successful during the reign of Marcian, if obviously less so during Leo’s. Unfortunately for Aspar, Leo had an independent, and if contemporary sources are to be believed a violent streak. The relationship only gradually soured. Leo took his time before he made his move to eliminate his mentor. Only after a long campaign of bitter propaganda against his mentor the Alan and his sons were assassinated by Leo’s eunuchs in 471. Views were mixed on the justice of this move. Leo’s nickname “the butcher” was a slight used by his enemies (see e.g. the frags. of Malchus).

Not everyone disagreed with the assassination of Aspar. Writing during the reign of Justinian (527-565) Malalas (cf. the similar positive view of Leo found in the history of Malalas’ contemporary, the historian Procopius) records a letter supposedly written by Leo to his western counterpart Anthemios that sheds light on how latter Byzantines viewed this action. Leo explains that he had killed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one “who gives orders not takes them.” He suggests that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemios assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also that he should kill Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble Olybrius. Unlike, Leo, Anthemios failed to act quickly enough and Ricimer was left to his own devices, which eventually led to disaster for the Western halve of the Empire.

A former magister utiusqe militae, consul, and patrician under Marcian, Anthemios had been hand-picked by Leo as his western counterpart. As we can see from the passage above, the easterner Anthemios had landed in a difficult situation. As one recent scholar has shown, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer “as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Anthemios “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (Arnold, 153). Certainly Procopius depicts the Gothic Wars as a contest of manliness and courage between the Goths and the Romans Byzantines…. a struggle that was won ultimately by the Eastern Romans. Procopius also saw Leo’s strong stand against “barbarians” like Aspar as a positive trait in a ruler (compare his praise of the Roman general Belisarius’ execution of two Hunnic soldiers in his army).

Painting a barbarian: The struggle between Leo and Aspar

So why did not Aspar just make himself or one of his sons emperor or indeed a barbarian rex along the lines of the Ostrogoth Theoderic? A.D. Lee (Contra Wood) suggests, the likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves. So too were links to the ruling regime important. Though it seems like Stilicho they sought to align their sons to the Imperial family. Kaldellis’ idea that it took two generations into become Roman may be apt, but it does not explain why Aspar could not reign since his father was an esteemed Roman general. Moreover, I would add that they may have preferred avoiding all the other obligations that went along with the role. Certainly Constantius III, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, only reluctantly gave up his military command to become Honorius’ partner in 421. Other Scholars, however, disagree with this assessment. Jonathan Arnold points out that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem (there is evidence that Aspar was offered to become emperor of the Western half of the Empire); so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa (Zeno, though I would suggest Zeno was technically a Roman).

Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way. He suggests that Stilicho’s decision at the opening of the fifth century to name a supreme commander of the Western Roman army stood in contrast to the East where five generals served to balance each other was one important factor. So too was Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno who could protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the Assassination. Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. So too had he eliminated a Roman general, and one assumes orthodox who had famously defeated Attila. The swift retaliation against such a murder is understandable. Leo had an easier time explaining his elimination of a man he painted as a traitorous barbarian, who had tried to betray the Romans to the Persians and the Vandals. Valentinian III had a much more difficult time disparaging the Roman war hero Aetius.
The fifth century period was a real life Game of Thrones. The old vision of this era as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions has largely been overturned. The recent trend is to dismiss the older idea these men were motivated by issues of ethnicity. Hugh Elton, for instance, rejects the idea of “Germanic” and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Zeno’s reign. Roman factional politics remained the prime factor in the internal struggles that troubled the twin regimes during this period. Needing to confirm themselves as “true” Romans all three men went to great lengths to establish their credential of leaders of the state and the church. This helps to explain in Wood’s mind why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the Church.
Moreover, Leo’s attempt to paint Aspar as an unorthodox and violent “barbarian” may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his regime. Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic were not so different. Like his successor Zeno, as an obscure soldier from Thrace, Leo would have been seen by many within the Constanlopian elite as little better than a barbarian himself ( a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). Latter historians, however, liked to present the old dichotomy between Romans and barbarians. For Byzantines like Procopius, the fall of the West was due to the rise of effeminate Western Roman emperors and the elimination of men like Aetius. Procopius believed that men like Leo who took a strong stand against barbarians like the Vandals and his former mentor Aspar were the reason why the Empire lived to fight another day.

Well that is it for now. The second half of the paper will explore how Leo avoided taking blame in his disastrous failed attempt to kick the Vandals out of North Africa. So too will it examine the portrait of Leo crafted in the fifth and sixth century sources like the Saint’s Life of Daniel the Stylite, the chronicle of John Malalas, the history of Procopius, and, finally the ecclesiastical history of Evagrius.

Romans and Barbarians: Procopius’ depiction of Belisarius and Totila



In the Gothic Wars, the seminal sixth-century historian Procopius described the Eastern Romans attempt to take back the lost province of Italy. Indeed, the Roman Belisarius and the Gothic King Totila are two of the primary and most interesting characters in the historian’s epic the Wars. Whilst Belisarius is also one of the main figures in Procopius’ Secret History, albeit in a negative characterization. Historians continue to debate about how much we can learn about the real Belisarius or Totila from these portraits. Certainly, many of their traits adhere to traditional tropes. I will suggest in today’s blog that despite these limitations we can learn what traits Procopius and his audience saw as virtues of ideal generals, and indeed, men.

Many of Procopius’ descriptions of Totila’s and Belisarius’ positive and negative characteristics seemed patterned on similar ideals found in the works of Homer. Like Achilles and Priam, Totila and Belisarius, as portrayed by Procopius, were supreme warriors. In Procopius’ account of the Byzantine Empire’s battle against its foreign enemies, Belisarius displayed traits typical of the famous Roman generals of the past. Like these great men, Belisarius earned his troops’ respect on the battlefield by refusing to sit back in safety and force his troops to fight a battle he would not face himself: “Then Belisarius, though he was safe before, would no longer keep the general’s post, but began to fight in the front ranks like a soldier.” Like Achilles, Belisarius was the most important man in battle: “They saw Belisarius fighting in the front ranks, knowing well that, if he should fall, the cause of the Romans would be ruined instantly.” The enemy also recognized Belisarius’ worth, and “every man among them who laid any claim to honor” attempted to kill the Byzantine commander. Belisarius, however, showed astonishing fighting skills and killed every enemy “who encountered him.” 2

           Ideal military leaders never feared death. Indeed, for them even the possibility of failure seemed impossible. Procopius depicted the Ostrogothic general Totila as a mythical superhuman leader. Like any idol, Totila’s superior valor and impressive fighting abilities set him apart from the average man. As with the Eastern Roman emperors, Totila accentuated his supremacy by wearing extravagant outfits: “The armor in which he was clad was abundantly plated with gold and ample adornments which hung from his cheek-plates as well from his helmet and spear were not only of purple [the color of the Roman emperors] but in other respects befitting a king, marvelous in their abundance.” In between the two armies, Totila performed a “dance” upon his horse and “hurled his javelin into the air and caught it as it quivered above him, then passed it rapidly from hand to hand, shifting it with consummate skill.”3 Totila’s overwhelming confidence and presence helped reassure his nervous troops and intimidate the Romans. Procopius respected Totila for his ability to fight and govern his people.

Although Procopius insisted that ideal leaders fight heroically, he also expected them to maintain command of their emotions. For generals, part of this self-restraint entailed knowing when to make a retreat to avoid a defeat:

Belisarius purposefully refused to allow the army to make any longer march because he did not wish to come to an engagement with the enemy. . . . And because of this all secretly mocked him, both officers and soldiers, but not a man reproached him to his face.4


Procopius made it clear that often there was a fine line between rationality and cowardice. Indeed in Classical Greek may be used as both a positive or negative term.  It describes either courage or rashness. Procopius used it in both senses. He explained that the Byzantines’ setbacks at the hands of the Persians had resulted, in part, from a lack of discipline and presumption by Belisarius’ underlings. The soldiers and officers refused to heed Belisarius’ advice and they insulted Belisarius to his face by accusing him of softness that had destroyed their fighting zeal. Procopius argued that Belisarius mistakenly gave into their insults, and against his better judgment reassured his troops, “that now he was of good courage and would go against the enemy with a better hope.”5 The Eastern Roman army went on to suffer a devastating defeat at the hands of the Persians. It is impossible to know whether Procopius’ account is accurate. While its primary purpose seems to be an attempt to exonerate Belisarius from blame in a terrible defeat, it also indicates that even at this early stage of his history, Procopius may have detected flaws in Belisarius’ ability to lead men. Throughout his works Procopius insisted that a good general did not care what his men thought of him, but rather based his decisions purely on what advantages could be gained for his forces and the Byzantine Empire.

Internal bickering also undermined the Ostrogoths’ war effort. At the beginning of Totila’s reign, when he guided his armies to easy victories over the Eastern Romans, the Ostrogoths praised him as “an unvanquished and invincible leader.” However, after he suffered his first setbacks they quickly turned against him and “inveighed against him, unmindful of what they had recently said about him, and going contrary to these declarations without the least hesitation.” Procopius declared that this was a common trait for all people and inevitable because of the faults of human nature.6 He implied that men were fickle and earthly glory temporary.

An ideal general maintained strict control over his troops.7 Procopius stressed that when the Byzantine forces moved through North Africa, Belisarius made it a point to restrain his troops’ bloodlust. The poverty of the Roman soldiers, however, made this an extremely difficult task:

For the soldiers, being extremely poor men, upon becoming all of a sudden masters of very great wealth and of women both young and extremely comely, were no longer able to restrain their minds or to find any satiety in the things they had, but were so intoxicated, drenched as they were by their present good fortunes, that each one wished to take everything back with them to Carthage. . . . For neither did fear of the enemy nor their respect for Belisarius occur to them, nor indeed anything else at all except their desire for spoils.8


To defeat the Vandals, Belisarius needed to assert his authority over these disruptive soldiers. Attaining a victory on the battlefield served as only one way to conquer an enemy. Belisarius explained to his soldiers that the Vandals had once been foreign invaders; therefore, if they treated the local population well they might be able coax them over to the Byzantine side. Under Belisarius’ strict discipline the Byzantine troops refrained from harassing the North Africans, and according to Procopius this restraint played a major role in the Empire’s triumph.

In contrast, Procopius partially blamed Belisarius’ and the Eastern Roman army’s struggles in the latter stages of the Italian campaign on the general’s abandonment of this policy. Procopius explained that in Italy, Belisarius “devoted himself heart and soul to the pursuit of wealth. . . . In fact, he plundered indiscriminately nearly all the Italians who lived at Ravenna or in Sicily and anyone else he could reach, pretending that he was making them pay the penalty of their misdeeds.” This course of action did not merely alienate the native population, but it also caused the Byzantine commander Herodian to switch sides and join Totila’s forces.9

Unlike many Classical historians, Procopius insisted that a good general needed to shield captured enemy soldiers from maltreatment. During the early stages of the Italian campaign, Belisarius received Procopius’ praise for protecting his Ostrogothic captives from acts of violence and “holding them in no less honor than his own soldiers.”10 Confidence and command were essential traits for any great leader. And Procopius attributed part of the Ostrogoths’ success over the Byzantine army to Totila’s ability to maintain discipline over his subordinates. Procopius applauded Totila for his efforts to treat his captives well and indicated that by doing so he had won over many Byzantine soldiers to his cause.11

Guarding women’s virtue served as another essential obligation for military commanders, yet even for the best leaders this often proved difficult. In the Wars, Procopius reported that Belisarius and Totila felt compelled to protect captive women from their soldiers’ lust. As in any era, a sixth-century army often celebrated a victory by engaging in an orgy of rape against the vanquished enemy’s women. Although Belisarius’ iron will succeeded in keeping his soldiers from pillaging Italian farmers’ grain or picking ripe fruit off their trees, he had a more difficult time controlling their lechery.12 As we saw in chapter one, Procopius lauded Belisarius for his ability to remain faithful to his wife and refrain from having sex with his female Gothic captives. Procopius’ need to draw attention to Belisarius’ sexual restraint suggests, however, that most Byzantine soldiers followed no such moral code. Procopius illustrated that many Eastern Roman soldiers had taken Vandalic women as their wives during the North African campaign. Procopius indicated that these unions led to mixed loyalties for the Byzantine soldiers. In an aside he illustrated this danger when he described how the Vandalic wives had urged their Byzantine husbands to disobey Belisarius’ direct orders and seize their own land in North Africa.13

The fearsome Totila had more success subduing his troops’ rampant sexual urges. When the Ostrogothic army sacked Rome, Totila felt obligated to protect Rome’s aristocratic women from sexual violence:

Now the Goths, on their part, were eager to put Rusticiana [wife of the famous scholar Boethius] to death, bringing against her the charge that after bribing the commanders of the Roman army, she had destroyed the statues of Theoderic, her motive in doing so having been to avenge the murder not only of her father Symmachus, but also of her husband Boethius. But Totila would not permit her to suffer any harm, but he guarded both her and all the Roman women from insult, although the Goths were extremely eager to have intercourse with them. Consequently not one of them had the ill fortune to suffer personal insult, whether married, unwed, or widow, and Totila won great renown for moderation from this course.14


Although Totila had political motives for sparing these influential Roman women, Procopius emphasized that his primary aim was to protect them from the Ostrogothic soldiers’ sexual advances. When an Italian aristocrat accused one of Totila’s bodyguards of violating his virgin daughter, the Ostrogothic king imprisoned the soldier. The Ostrogothic nobility became alarmed and requested that Totila release the soldier and dismiss the charges, since the assailant was “an active fellow and a good warrior.” Totila, however, refused, declaring that what they called kindness in reality was lawlessness:  “the act of committing a sin and that of preventing the punishment of those who have committed sin, are in my judgment on the same plane.”15 This example illustrates the importance of Christian values to Procopius’ construction of ideal leaders. While it had long been Roman generals’ duty to maintain discipline over their soldiers, it is apparent in this story that by the sixth century, even a barbarian commander needed to display moderation and regulate his troops’ moral conduct.

Procopius disclosed that God took an interest in men’s actions in the world and often chose a battle’s victor on the basis of which general or army had the superior moral character. This code of conduct applied to both Eastern Romans and foreigners. In an aside, Totila contemplated the nature of God’s role in worldly affairs. The king described how the Ostrogoths had begun the war against the Byzantines “with a host of two hundred thousand most warlike soldiers,” mightily armed and funded. Yet, “five thousand Greeklings” had vanquished them. As a consequence of this defeat the Ostrogoths had lost their kingdom and were seemingly defeated. Despite this setback, under Totila’s moral guidance resurgence had been achieved: “Now it has been our fortune, though reduced to a small number, destitute of arms and in a pitiable plight and without any experience at all, to gain mastery over an enemy more than twenty thousand strong.” Totila pondered how this had occurred. A lack of courage was not to blame for their previous defeat. And the Byzantines’ seeming effeminacy and the Ostrogoths’ combat skills played only a small role in determining the war’s outcome. Instead, Totila indicated that God had chosen the winners on the basis of combatants’ moral fortitude: “The Goths in earlier times paid less heed to justice than to any other thing, and treated each other and their Roman subjects as well in an unholy manner; wherefore God was moved to take the field against them on the side of their enemies.” During the early stages of the war, under Belisarius’ virtuous leadership, God acted in the Byzantines’ favor. Yet, as the Byzantine generals succumbed to greed and bickering, and the Ostrogoths under Totila’s tutelage became more virtuous, God became hostile and switched sides. According to Procopius, it did not matter that the Ostrogoths were Arians and barbarians, for as Totila warned; God picked the winners purely on the basis of which side conducted themselves more honorably.16

Procopius revealed that it wasn’t rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ downfall, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife. Procopius, who praised Belisarius for his ability to govern even the most fearsome barbarians, condemned his superior for becoming a slave to his own lust. Like any good warrior, Belisarius did not give in without a fight and he waged a difficult campaign against her “womanly wiles.” Again and again, he attempted to escape his wife’s clutches and for brief moments he was able to restore his honor by rejecting Antonina’s “tricks of magic,” and thereby he became a good man once more. Each time, however, the respite was fleeting, and Belisarius returned once again to be Antonina’s “faithful slave not her husband.”17

Procopius drew attention to how a “real” man handled disruptive women when he presented the general Constantine berating Belisarius for ignoring Antonia’s suspected adultery: “If I had been in your shoes, I should have got rid of that woman instead of the youngster [Theodosius, Antonina’s lover].” It wasn’t the man who was to blame for the affair but the woman whom Belisarius needed to exile. Belisarius not only refused to heed Constantine’s advice, but as Procopius related, a short time afterwards had the general executed at Antonina’s behest. These actions evoked the “bitter hostility of the Emperor and of the influential Romans one and all.”18

Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity led him to sacrifice the most vital interests of the state to his own domestic concerns. According to Procopius, Belisarius’ obsession with Antonina led to the Byzantine setbacks in the war against the Persians. “Incapacitated by his wife’s waywardness,” Belisarius refused to travel far beyond the boundaries of the Empire, and thus failed to take the initiative against the Persians. By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only sacrificed his manliness, but at that moment, “the hand of God was unmistakably against him.”19

Like Belisarius, Totila appeared defective. Akin to Homer’s descriptions of Achilles’ character flaws, Procopius considered Totila’s fiery warrior-nature and short temper as the main faults in his disposition. Totila was often enslaved by his violent temper. Although Procopius provided many examples that illustrated Totila’s respect for religious leaders and the Christian populace, he indicated that Totila fought a difficult battle against his natural propensity for violence. Procopius related that Totila had become so agitated with the bishop Valentinus during an interrogation that he chopped off both of the bishop’s hands.20 In another example of his natural rashness, Totila had wanted “to raze Rome to the ground” when he was forced to abandon the city. Procopius alleged that Totila felt no compunction against “burning the finest and most noteworthy of the buildings and making Rome a sheep-pasture.”21 Only Belisarius’ heartfelt letter deterred Totila, by appealing to his vanity: Belisarius suggested that burning Rome would earn Totila eternal contempt. Rome and Totila’s cause were saved. But in the end, like Achilles, Totila was doomed to die prematurely in battle.

 Ultimately, Totila’s unbending belief in the Ostrogoths’ invincibility and his contempt for the Eastern Romans’ military prowess led to his fall. Procopius related that the general convinced of the superior fighting skills and the courage troops had armed his troops inadequately. In contrast, the Eastern Romans made use of a variety of weapons and were able to adapt to the shifting circumstances of combat. In the decisive battle the mistake proved deadly. The Eastern Roman army led by Belisarius’ successor, the eunuch general Narses, overwhelmed the Ostrogothic forces, slaying the king and most of his men.22


2 Procopius, Wars 5.18.5-12.

3 Procopius, Wars 8.31.18-9.


4 Procopius, Wars 1.18.11-2. For further discussion of this incident, Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 198-200.


5 Procopius, Wars 1.18.19-26.  Common tradition allowed Roman generals to accept and solicit advice from their commanders. Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 179-80, n. 30.


6 Procopius, Wars 7.24.29-31.


7 Evans, Procopius, 59.



8 Procopius, Wars 4.4.2-4.


9 Procopius, Secret History 5.4-7.


10 Procopius, Wars 5.10.37. For a description of Classical Roman historian’s attitudes towards enemy soldiers, see Helgeland et al., 8-20.


11 Procopius, Wars 7.5.19.


12 Procopius, Wars 7.1.9-12.



13 Procopius, Wars 4.14.8-10.


14 Procopius, Wars 7.20.28-31. This account may be compared with Polybius’ description of the Roman army’s custom of exterminating “every form of life they encountered,” (including animals) when it stormed a city. Polybius, 10.15.



15 Procopius, Wars 7.8.18. This passage shows that Procopius had no qualms in presenting Totila as a man willing to follow Roman law over his own personal concerns. This may be a veiled insult aimed at Belisarius and/or Justinian, whom he often portrayed as acting for their own personal interests and not for the good of the Byzantine Empire.

16 Procopius, Wars 5.18.40-2.


17 Procopius, Secret History 1.14., 4.30-1.


18 Procopius, Secret History 1.25-30.


19 Procopius, Secret History 2.26, 5.1.


20 Procopius, Wars 7.15.13-6.


21 Procopius, Wars 7.22.8-17. 


22 Procopius, Wars 8.32.22-30.

Taking Time.

 Like most of us my life is a constant barrage of information overload. Balancing my responsibilities at work and at home—along with creating the obligatory scholarly article and paper on Late Antiquity leaves feeling as stretched as Bilbo Baggins at the close of Return of the King (after 30 years I now understand why Bilbo and Frodo got on that boat with the elves). Recently I have added the responsibility of getting my son JD to and from school on both my work and off days. At first, I thought this new task might drive me over the edge. Fortunately, the opposite seems true.  Up at 6:30, I am greeted my son eager to head to school. This morning he was chirping letter sounds as he stuffed his backpack with a picture of a green hamburger that he thought his classmates might enjoy (composed on the back of one of my essays). My daughter Annabelle always likes to tag along, and after JD is safely in the classroom, we duck down to the local café for a blueberry muffin, espresso and “baby chino”. The two of us sit for fifteen minutes with minimal conversation, and after cleaning up the bloody remains of her muffin I drop her off, and head off to face the snarl of traffic for another hectic day at work. Though I am getting at least two hours less sleep less a night, I feel surprisingly invigorated.

Courageous and wicked women in early Byzantium

At the moment much of my work is on looking at men as a gender in Late Antiquity. What follows is a piece I wrote in 2002 about constructions of ideal an non ideal women in the seminal Byzantine historian Procopius.


The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius is arguably the most important writer to survive from Late Antiquity. Procopius has received much needed attention in the past thirty-five years. Much of this work has been the byproduct of the upsurge of research focusing on the role of women in the early Byzantine Empire. [i] Procopius’ views on gender—particularly his attitudes towards Theodora, Antonina, Belisarius, and Justinian found in the Secret History—have received particular attention.

Yet as specialists on the ancient historian have recognized, uncovering Procopius’ own views is problematic.[ii] Indeed, without careful analysis, Procopius’ three works: the Buildings, the Secret History, and the Wars, may appear either to have different authors, or to be the work of one severely schizophrenic individual. In Buildings, Procopius extolled Justinian as God’s messenger on earth, leading the Empire back to glory. In contrast, in the Secret History Justinian appeared as the “Lord of the Demons,” driving Byzantium to disaster.[iii] The Wars took the middle ground, mixing negative and positive descriptions of the emperor. Some of these discrepancies, however, merely reflect the nature and the limitations of the historical models that Procopius followed. The Wars was a work of secular history that focused on great men and great battles. The Secret History followed the literary genre of psogos (invective) and komodia (satire), while the Buildings followed the restrictions of “the most artificial of all classical genres to modern taste, that of panegyric.”[iv]        

These oft-times paradoxical characterizations make it difficult for modern scholars to understand Procopius’ attitudes towards key players in his accounts.[v] Moreover, his reliance on genre and classical tropes may mean that Procopius’ accounts do not reflect early Byzantine conditions or people as they actually were.[vi]

Keeping the difficulties discussed above in mind, this paper considers Procopius’ concept of “good” and “defective” women. While it analyzes Procopius’ descriptions of a wide range of women, it focuses on three of the most influential aristocratic women of his age: Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora; the Byzantine general Belisarius’ wife, Antonina; and the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuntha. It argues that, despite Procopius’ distrust of women who acted outside what he considered the normal realm of female behavior, he revealed that women, at times, could abandon what he held to be their naturally subservient role and become heroes.

Reality and Rhetoric

As Leslie Brubaker has argued, Procopius’ construction of feminine virtues followed Roman and Christian precepts.  Particularly in the Secret History, Theodora represents “everything a late Roman should not be.”[vii] Brubaker, in fact, questions whether Procopius tells us anything about the “real” Theodora.  Peter Heather too warns that Procopius’ portrait of the individuals in Secret History may have had no bearing on his true beliefs. Indeed, Heather suggests that the Secret History was primarily meant to create a comical view of Theodora, Justinian, Belisarius and Antonina. The ancient audience was not supposed to be shocked by these characterizations, but amused (Heather: 2013, 111-116).

Certainly challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real women” from the “constructed” one.  Kate Cooper has shown convincingly that Roman literary descriptions of women were often used as a means to describe men’s character. She suggests that in Plutarch’s writing it is men’s inability to control their passion for women that threatens social stability. The conflict between “the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress” was a common theme in Roman literature.  This conflict is a problem for one seeking to interpret Procopius’ writings, particularly Secret History. I would agree with Cooper’s further contention, however, that an understanding of these rhetorical constructions helps provide a more detailed “picture of how ancient woman understood themselves.” [viii] Indeed, by examining Procopius’ writings we get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the ‘real’ Theodora and Antonina.



Classical and Christian Constructs of Ideal Women


To comprehend Procopius’ philosophy about women it is first necessary to return to an earlier era. Roman women had long held a paradoxical position in Roman society. In Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family, Judith P. Hallett describes Roman women’s role during the era of the Republic. These portrayals are valuable despite the distance in time because they are strikingly similar to Procopius’ traditional concepts of ideal “Roman” women. Rome was a patriarchal society dominated by men, yet through longstanding tradition, women from upper-class families could be held in high esteem and exercise considerable political power. Although aristocratic Roman women could influence their husbands and fathers as wives and daughters, it was in their role as mothers and sisters that they asserted the most civic clout. Nonetheless, this political function was highly regulated and mostly limited to maternal or sisterly roles as the protectors and the teachers of male family members. Ideal mothers often served as guides seeking to protect and further the ambitions of their male relatives,  and this influence continued even when the boys reached maturity.[ix] In contrast to fathers or other male relatives who could become potential political rivals, mothers and sisters could be depended on to support their sons’ or brothers’ political goals. A woman’s authority, however, was limited, and if she spoke out on her own behalf, she risked being condemned as egotistical, licentious, and greedy. Women’s peripheral position in Roman society allowed them to serve as mediators for male members of their family in a very turbulent and competitive culture. This system permitted women to hold significant power, but it excluded them from overtly participating in society to promote their personal aspirations. Any woman who took on too dominant a role risked being labeled as non-womanly and non-Roman.[x]

In sixth-century Byzantium, the construction of the ideal woman continued to reflect this ambiguity. Furthermore, with the growth of Christianity two additional stereotypical images of women emerged: the first was that of the Virgin Mary, who combined virginity with motherhood, and could be sought out for motherly protection and mercy; and the second was that of Eve, who represented the sexual side of women. For many Christians, Eve was a natural temptress like all women, responsible for original sin and mankind’s subsequent fall from grace.[xi]

The Church had long struggled with the question of whether ideal Christians could be married. As chastity came to be seen as the supreme act of the idealised Christian, even married Christians accepted that they were inferior to their brothers and sisters who vowed themselves to celibacy.[xii] Some members of the Church did attempt to promote the family and marriage as a basic unit of society, and the idea of the Virgin Mary as the ultimate mother figure. But by the sixth century, the Christian ideal of celibacy increasingly clashed with the promotion of marriage and its legitimization of sexual relations in marriage as an indispensable means of creating more “Roman” citizens.

More and more, Christian constructions of ideal women revealed that, to be considered heroic, women needed to sever their traditional ties of loyalty to their families. An example of this view may be seen in the late fifth-century CE work of Victor of Vita. In his History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor suggested that the ideal women married Christ, and not mortal men. He described a young woman, Maxima, attempting to explain to her suitor, Martinianus, why she had rejected his marriage proposal: “O brother Martinianus, I have dedicated the limbs of my body to Christ and as there is a heavenly and true being to whom I am already betrothed, I cannot enter a human marriage.”[xiii] Victor argued that ideal women maintain loyalty, not to their families, but to their faith:

There was a married woman, Victoria, who conformed to her name. While she was being tortured by being left hanging for a good while in the sight of the common people, she was addressed in the following terms by her husband, already a lost man, in the presence of their children: ‘Why are you suffering, wife? If you hold me in disdain, at least have mercy on the little ones to whom you gave birth. . . . Where are the covenants of married love? Where are the bonds of that relationship which written documents once brought about between us, in accordance with the law which pertains to respectable folk?’


Victor seemed satisfied that Victoria ignored both her husband’s pleas and the “wailing of her children,” and willingly deserted her family in order to die for her faith.[xiv] Although Victor had political reasons for emphasizing the importance of religious loyalty over family ties, his account accurately reflects the Church’s attempts to break the strong ties of Roman kinship.

 Despite this relative freedom, however, most women’s lives from the upper-crust of society remained highly restricted. Following Roman custom, upper-class women tended to be segregated from all men other than immediate members of their family. Ironically, this separation created opportunities. Women were required to perform jobs usually reserved for men: serving as attendants in public baths for women and as medical practitioners who would not be sullied by interacting with women’s bodily functions. Additionally, women from the lower classes could earn a living and a certain amount of independence by performing as actresses, mimes, and dancers. The Church, however, looked upon these activities with suspicion and frequently condemned these women as little better than prostitutes. According to Judith Herrin, medical practitioners often lacked medical expertise, and relied on superstitious practices “such as the wearing of amulets or incantation of magic spells in order to obtain supernatural assistance.” This dependence on “magic” made these women particularly susceptible to accusations of “anti-Christian beliefs and heretical ritual.” The use of magic must have appealed to Roman women, who typically were expected to play a subservient role in Roman society. The use of spells and magic allowed them to compel others to comply with their wishes, and increasingly their sexuality could also be used as a type of “magic” to achieve similar goals. Nevertheless, women who used magic or their sexual charms risked being looked upon with suspicion.12

Late Antiquity also witnessed an increase in the empresses’ political authority. At the beginning of each emperor’s reign, elaborate court rituals were performed that emphasized the link between the dual power of the imperial couple.13 Since these ceremonies portrayed the emperor as God’s representative on earth, it was natural for his partner to attain as well an aura of authority. The more powerful the emperor, the more powerful the empress, indeed in Justinian’s reign, the emperor’s dominant position was matched only by the Empress Theodora’s influence. While Justinian served as a mediator between the spiritual and secular realm, his wife acted as the intermediary “between the public world of men and the private world of women.” In Justinian’s world, all the different members of Byzantine society, officials, soldiers, priests, and women had a place in the earthly and divine hierarchy.14 Despite the limitations imposed on women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire, they had a more prominent position than in Western Europe at the same time. In Justinian and Theodora, Robert Browning suggests, “if a civilization can be judged by the way it treated women . . . the age of Justinian and Theodora deserves to be rated high.”15


Procopius’ Vision of Women


Some sixth-century Eastern Romans, however, were uncomfortable with women’s “usurpation” of traditional masculine roles.  Procopius’ writing reflects this reality. Throughout his writings, and particularly in the Secret History, Procopius seems uncomfortable with the power wielded by women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire. For traditional Eastern Roman men like Procopius, Byzantine women may have represented the idea of the dangerous “other,” even more vividly than foreigners. In the Secret History, Procopius scathingly attacked the two leading women of his day: Antonina and Theodora. Procopius portrayed Antonina and Theodora as “unwomanly.”16 In contrast to ideal Roman women, who were subservient, pious, merciful, and chaste, Theodora and Antonina were, in Procopius’ view, immoral prostitutes eager to take on unnatural masculine roles.

According to both traditional Roman and Christian standards, if the Virgin Mary was the paradigm of the ultimate woman, non-virginal women were vulnerable to attacks on their sexual morality. Procopius illustrated the importance of a bride’s virginity: “When Saturninus had slept with his new bride and found out that she had been deflowered, he informed one of his friends that the girl he had married was nothing but damaged goods.”17 Procopius used Theodora and Antonina’s supposed immorality as a means to discredit their involvement in the political realm. He emphasized their disreputable origins and immoral early years as a means to cast suspicion upon them.  Procopius, unable to find any instances of infidelity during Theodora’s marriage to Justinian, focused instead on her reputed sordid past:

One night she went to the house of a distinguished citizen during the drinking, and, it is said, before the eyes of all the guests she stood up on the end of the couch near their feet, pulled up her dress in a most disgusting manner as she stood there and brazenly displayed her lasciviousness. And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling because Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region. Naturally, she was frequently pregnant, but by using pretty well all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce immediate abortion.18


Here we have some of the elements that made Procopius and many members of his audience uncomfortable with women. Procopius claimed that Theodora used her uncontrolled sexuality to corrupt an esteemed Roman citizen and, even worse, her insatiable sexual appetite promised that she would constantly be on the prowl for additional male victims. Moreover, overwhelmed by lust, she readily abandoned her nurturing role and aborted her potential offspring with mystical medical potions. Peter Brown points out that, “Procopius wrote to prove that the Empress had once been a ‘non-person.’ What had happened in public made plain that she was a girl of the lower classes: the good Christian senators of Constantinople could look on a body thus exposed with impunity.”19 Furthermore, Procopius’ disgust with Theodora’s ability to induce abortions may reflect his anxiety with women’s role as doctors. Procopius argued that exposing her body in public had permanently damaged Theodora’s character.

Procopius also hinted that Theodora might not have been a devout Christian by insinuating that from a young age she had been obsessed with sorcerers and demons, and that she continued to have friends who were Manichaeans (a religion founded by the Persian Mani [216-276]).[xv] Procopius used the same tactic against Antonina, condemning her “profligate kind of life”, indicating that before she met Belisarius she had “continually been in the company of her father’s magic-mongering friends” learning “the arts essential to her trade (SH 1.1).”20 Procopius knew that in an increasingly devout culture, one way to curb women’s power was to suggest that instead of being dedicated Christians they were dangerous heretics.

Theodora seemed to recognize that, as a powerful woman with a dubious past, she was particularly vulnerable to accusations of immorality, and Procopius disclosed that she took great pains to protect her reputation. When rumors began to spread that she might have had a love affair with a servant named Areobindus she had him whipped, and he immediately “disappeared.”19 Theodora’s reaction may be compared with Antonina’s, who, despite her husband and many others apparently knowing about her infidelity, continued to pursue her lovers.  For Procopius, Antonina was a typical woman incapable of controlling her lust .20In contrast, during her marriage to Justinian, Theodora maintained command over her own sexuality and willingly sacrificed her servant instead of suffering accusations of adultery. One might think that even Procopius would have grudgingly respected Theodora’s ability to overcome her “natural feminine weakness” by displaying heroic resolve and abandoning her “lover.” Nevertheless, Procopius condemned her because she acted not out of concerns over her own morality, but purely in an attempt to maintain her political position.

Procopius continued his diatribe by alleging that Theodora had abandoned her “natural” role as a mother. The historian divulged that her son from a former relationship, John, had traveled to Constantinople seeking his mother. John sought out Theodora’s attendants and as Procopius exclaimed: “They, never imagining that she would feel any differently from the generality of mankind, reported to the mother that her son John had arrived.” Theodora, though, was not a “normal” woman, and the young man vanished, never to be heard from again.21

Procopius condemned Antonina as well for not realizing that her adulterous behavior would reflect poorly on her children: “And remember that the sins of the women do not fall on their husbands only: they do still more damage to their children whose misfortune it will almost certainly be to incur a reputation for having a natural resemblance in character to their mothers.”22 Procopius suggested that mothers played a vital role in creating “good” Romans. In a culture in which a mother’s devotion to her family overrode all other duties, these attacks on Theodora and Antonina were particularly damning. 

For Procopius, women’s submissiveness was one of the fundamental Roman customs. To become virtuous, women needed to separate themselves completely from their sexual nature. Within a Classical Roman marriage, a dominant husband could control a wife’s passionate character. It was the aberrant reversal of masculine and feminine roles, in both Theodora’s and Antonina’s unions, that Procopius claimed, “destroyed the greatness of Rome.”23

So too did Procopius make Antonina the culprit for Belisarius’ military failures. By using their sexuality to feminize men, women remained a constant threat to men’s proper position in a marriage. Procopius revealed that it was not rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ downfall, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife. Procopius, who praised Belisarius for his ability to govern even the most fearsome barbarians, condemned his superior for becoming a slave to his own lust. Like any good warrior, Belisarius did not give in without a fight and he waged a difficult campaign against her “womanly wiles.” Repeatedly, he attempted to escape his wife’s clutches and for brief moments, he was able to restore his honor by rejecting Antonina’s “tricks of magic,” and thereby he became a good man once more. Each time, however, the respite was fleeting, and Belisarius returned once again to be Antonina’s “faithful slave not her husband.”24

Procopius drew attention to how a “real” man handled disruptive women when he presented the general Constantine berating Belisarius for ignoring Antonia’s suspected adultery: “If I had been in your shoes, I should have got rid of that woman instead of the youngster [Theodosius, Antonina’s lover].” It was not the man who was to blame for the affair but the woman whom Belisarius needed to exile. Belisarius not only refused to heed Constantine’s advice, but also as Procopius related, a short time afterwards had the general executed at Antonina’s behest. These actions evoked the “bitter hostility of the Emperor and of the influential Romans one and all.”25

Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity led him to sacrifice the most vital interests of the state to his own domestic concerns. According to Procopius, Belisarius’ obsession with Antonina led to the Byzantine setbacks in the war against the Persians. “Incapacitated by his wife’s waywardness,” Belisarius refused to travel far beyond the boundaries of the Empire, and thus failed to take the initiative against the Persians. By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only sacrificed his manliness, but at that moment, “the hand of God was unmistakably against him.”

Procopius disclosed that a married couple could work for good or for evil, and he insisted that Theodora and Justinian had destroyed the Roman Empire together. Both were bad, however, in different ways. Theodora refused to be swayed by others, and was a formidable enemy; in contrast, Justinian was easygoing and readily influenced by others. While Theodora indulged in luxuries like bathing, eating and sleeping, Justinian practiced asceticism and spent his nights wandering the hallways of the palace. Pauline Allen suggests that Procopius believed that husbands and wives complemented one another.  If the partners ignored Roman or Christian ideals, they would enhance each other’s bad qualities; if they embraced these virtues, their individual natures would improve.27

It is important to note that Procopius may not have hated women.  Like most conservatives, he inferred that he was protecting them from attacks on their femininity. In fact, as one recent study has noted, Procopius’ positive portraits of women far outnumber his negative ones. (Treadgold) Procopius showed that, especially within their marriages, women could play a significant part in Roman culture. The historian described his notion of the ideal “Roman” wife:

He [Justinian] was in position to take his pick of the Roman Empire and select for his bride the most nobly born woman of the world, who had enjoyed the most exclusive upbringing, and was thoroughly acquainted with the claims of modesty, and had lived in an atmosphere of chastity, and in addition was superbly beautiful and still a virgin – or as they say firm breasted. 28


This ideal fictitious woman represented everything that Antonina and Theodora were not: she was noble, virtuous, and properly educated. In another illustration of Procopius’ adulation of righteous Roman women, he revealed in his description of an attempted rape that not all women were harlots. An aristocratic man and his wife suffered an attack while wandering the suburbs of Constantinople. His wife, trying to protect her husband’s life, went along willingly with her attackers. Before departing onto a boat with the men, she whispered to her husband “to have no fear.” Once in the boat, she jumped into the water and drowned. According to Procopius, this sacrifice was the ultimate act of a noble woman: she safeguarded her own virtue, while defending her male family member.27Procopius lamented, however, that during his era these virtuous women were disappearing, and, by ignoring marital traditions, almost “all women had become morally depraved.” Now, instead of shielding their husbands, women found guilty of adultery were allowed to bring a counter suit and drag their husbands into court. Procopius blamed all of these developments on Theodora’s influence.

For Procopius, women’s powerful role in Byzantine politics was even more alarming than their leading position in their domestic relationships. Although Theodora led a cloistered life, Procopius provided numerous examples of her interference in Byzantine politics: appointing men to positions within the Church and state, as well as arranging political marriages.28 It is important to note that, each time Procopius condemned Theodora’s political meddling, he had to argue that the empress had become involved in political matters for personal reasons. This commentary suggests that empresses were allowed to participate in politics as long as it was on behalf of their sons or husbands. Procopius revealed his disgust with Theodora’s conduct toward aristocratic men, and claimed that, once within her grasp these men were “turned” into animals. Referring to such an example, he wrote: “And so the poor fellow stood continuously at his manger, eating and sleeping and performing all natural functions and he resembled an ass in every particular short of braying.”29Procopius suggested that women’s political power over men was even more dangerous than their sexual control; by allowing this perversion, men had become little better than animals.

Even more than Theodora, Antonina typified the dynamic female, taking on heroic functions. While Theodora was confined to the palace, Antonina followed her husband on military campaigns and even took control of the troops. As with Belisarius, it is difficult to know when Procopius developed his hatred of Antonina. That she took an active and “masculine” part in the military campaign, however, must have made her an easy target once things went wrong in the war.  Procopius’ disapproval of Antonina probably increased when he began working with her during the war in Italy. Procopius described their professional relationship:

He [Procopius] collected not fewer than five hundred soldiers there, loaded a great number of ships with grain, and held them in readiness. And he was joined not long afterwards by Antonina, who immediately assisted him in making arrangements for the fleet.30


 Sharing power with a woman must have annoyed the conservative historian. However, despite his scathing attack of Antonina in the Secret History, Procopius, at times in the Wars, suggested that she could be a valuable asset on the campaign. Antonina had helped avert a disaster when the troops, while preparing their assault on Africa, had their entire water supply spoiled. Luckily, Antonia had safeguarded some extra water by hiding it in the hull of the ship.31 Still, one must note that in this circumstance Antonina may be seen as the typically protective Roman wife, looking out for her husband and for other men’s welfare.

 In certain instances, Procopius praised women for taking on active political roles. Antonina’s association with Theodora, and the empress’ subsequent influence on Justinian, allowed Belisarius to escape execution when the emperor thought that the general was plotting against him.32 This case demonstrates that Theodora had the “ear of the emperor,” and could be sought out when someone needed clemency.33 Furthermore, it shows that Procopius supported women when they made decisions that defended male family members. Another instance of the protective wife occurred when Theodora stiffened Justinian’s resolve during the Nika revolt, convincing him not to flee Constantinople but to remain in the capital and fight.34 All of these instances above show that women could have influential roles, especially as wives.





The Manly Gothic Queen

 Procopius portrayed other women acting heroically. In this description of the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuntha, Procopius disclosed that sometimes a woman could transgress the “limitations” of her sex and become a hero: 

Now Amalasuntha, as guardian of her child, administrated the government, and she proved to be endowed with wisdom and regard for justice in the highest degree, displaying to a great extent the masculine temper. As long as she stood at the head of government, she inflicted punishment upon no Roman in any case either by touching his person or by imposing a fine.35


In both the Wars and the Secret History Amalasuntha was described positively. In a statement that was an obvious slight to the lowborn Theodora, Procopius described Amalasuntha as “an aristocrat and a queen.” He continued by illustrating her beauty and wit. Many of these traits, however, Procopius attributed to Amalasuntha’s “extraordinary masculine bearing.”36

Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha as a “manly woman” needs some explanation because it seems to go against his assertions elsewhere that “masculine” women transgressed nature. The first five chapters of Secret History, in fact, traced the disastrous consequences of allowing women to take on men’s dominate masculine roles in the political and the private arenas. A closer examination of Procopius’ description of Amalasuintha’s character reveals, however, that she fit into his and classical Greco-Roman literary visions of femininity. Despite her manly virtues, Amalasuintha’s leadership depended on men’s support, and Procopius portrayed her as a defenseless woman in need of Justinian’s protection. When her political position became too tenuous she attempted to hand “over the power of the Goths and Italians to the Emperor Justinian, in order that she herself might be saved”. [xvi]Although Amalasuintha ruled briefly within her own kingdom, she remained subordinate to Justinian and dependent upon men within the Gothic aristocracy for her survival.[xvii]Procopius suggested that only under exceptional circumstances should women take on masculine roles. He suggested that Amalasuintha faced such a situation at the outset of Athalaric’s reign when she needed to take on an active role in order to protect her family from her enemies within Gothic Italy.39

An examination of Procopius’ depiction of the Amazons from book eight of the Gothic Wars adds further insight into his attitudes towards Amalasuintha’s or any women’s ability to take on what he considered “masculine” responsibilities. He made it clear that the Amazons were not “a race of women endowed with the qualities of men”, but the remnants of a people whose men had been destroyed in war. Fear of their people’s annihilation, not a reversal of human nature, had forced these women to embrace “manly valour [ἀρρενωπὸν]”, by arming themselves and performing “a deed of the utmost courage [ἄριστα ἔργα ἀνδρεῖα]”.39According to Procopius, although women like the Amazons and Amalasuintha could put on temporarily a “masculine nature” and perform heroic deeds, it went against the natural order. Sheer necessity compelled both the Amazons and Amalasuintha to take on masculine roles. In the case of the Amazons, the death of all of their male soldiers drove them to take up arms to face their enemies. Similarly, after the death of Theoderic, a lack of suitable male heirs forced Amalasuintha to fill the void and take on a leading role in protecting her son and the Italian people from the barbarous elements in the Gothic leadership. For Procopius, this reversal of gender roles had its limits. While Amalasuintha and the Amazons could for a time display manly valour and emulate the excellence of men, without the support of real men, they all were fated to die young.

This reliance on ancient Greek literary conceptions of “manly women” helps to explain why Procopius depicted Amalasuintha’s taking on a masculine role positively, whilst he attacked Theodora and Antonina in Secret History for doing the same thing by stepping outside their gender constraints.40It seems likely that, in Procopius’ mind, as a “barbarian”, Amalasuintha could more easily break established gender roles. Indeed, in the classical tradition “manly women” represented largely a foreign phenomenon. In addition, manly women ruled typically in places where men were unmanly.41One may presume then that Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha was based on these traditional precedents, and as such, Procopius used her manliness as a means to, on the one hand, praise the Gothic queen and, on the other, to comment on the character defects of her male rivals to the Gothic throne, and in particular, her royal colleague after Athalaric’s death, the Gothic king Theodahad (ruled 534-536).


Procopius indicated that many of the problems within the Byzantine Empire could be explained by the rapid social and political changes that had occurred during Justinian’s reign. One of these developments was women’s increasing influence. Procopius suggested that the power wielded by Antonina, Theodora, and other women was dangerous for Eastern Roman men’s welfare and manly identity. Although Procopius often followed Classical Roman constructions of women’s behavior, he also followed the ambiguous Christian notion of woman as both Eves and Marys. Women were admirable when they were obedient, aristocratic, maternal, chaste and thus feminine. Yet Procopius also demonstrated that femininity was symbolized by women’s “wild lust”. This made him extremely suspicious of active women, whom he tended to portray as appalling wives and mothers, concerned only with their own political and sexual satisfaction. Procopius assumed that strong women needed strong men to put them in their place. He hinted, however, that he lived in an age where many men had become flawed, and had abandoned their masculinity. In a changing society in which men’s and women’s roles were being redefined, powerful women and “femininity” served as the dangerous “other,” and therefore represented a threat to men’s natural dominant role in society. Although Procopius indicated that, under extraordinary circumstances, women could take on leading functions and act heroically, he thought that the majority of the time they should be subservient to men.  Procopius’ writings reveal that despite the puissance of women like Theodora and Antonina, the sixth-century Byzantine Empire remained an androcentric culture at its core.







1See e.g., Judith Herrin, “In Search of Byzantine Women: Three Avenues of Approach”, in Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. Averil Cameron, and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983),167-89, Pauline Allen, “Contemporary Portrayals of the Byzantine Empress Theodora (A.D. 527-548)”, in Stereotypes of Women in Power: Historical Perspectives and Revisionist Views, ed. Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon, and Pauline Allen (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 93-103, Talbot, “Women”, 117-43, James, Empresses, Brubaker, “Gender and Society”, 427-47. Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 (London; Routledge, 1999).


2See e.g. Averil  Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century ((London: Duckworth, 1985); Anthony Kaldellis Procopius of Caesarea  (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2004).


3Procopius, Buildings 1.1.16, Procopius, The Secret History (trans. G.A. Williamson [London: Penguin Books, 1966, reprint 1981] ) 30.34. The Secret History, largely because of its highly sexualized language and lurid portraits of the leading figures of sixth-century Byzantine culture has proved particularly popular on modern college campuses.


4Cameron stresses (Procopius 25, 60), I believe correctly, that seeing the Secret History simply as an exaggerated satire does not give “justice to its complexity and its earnestness, and should not be used to obscure the substantial portion of the work that is devoted to detailed political accusation.” Greatrex goes further (“Procopius the Outsider”) maintaining that Secret History is not a separate genre from Wars, but was made up of material that Procopius hoped to insert into Wars if the emperor predeceased him.


5 So too have modern historians come to frequently opposing conclusions concerning both Procopius’ merits as a historian, and his attitudes towards the Emperor Justinian’s reconquest . Cameron (Procopius and the Sixth Century) and Kaldellis (Procopius of Caesarea) provide thorough reviews of the earlier literature, and interesting, if at times opposing, ideas on Procopius’ religion, methods, intentions, and merits as a historian.  Warren Treadgold’s (Byzantine Historians, 176-226) short study provides a good basic summary of the content of Wars as well as some interesting insights into Procopius’ creative process. For Procopius as a relatively accurate source on the Persians, see Henning Börm, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike (Stuttgart, 2008).  For other recent scholarship, see Geoffrey Greatrex, “Recent work on Procopius and the Composition of Wars VIII”, BMGS 27 (2003): 45-67. Even formerly dormant debates have been revived. Indeed, through an analysis of his “hidden messages” found in Procopius’ texts, a recent study has questioned the idea that the historian was a Christian, suggesting instead that he was at the center of a neo-Platonic revival in sixth-century Constantinople. Kaldellis (2004); Modern consensus has largely rejected Kaldellis’ claims. For an overview of the response to Kaldellis’ methodological approach to Procopius and other Early Byzantine intellectuals, see Michael Whitby, “Religious Views of Procopius and Agathias” Electrum 13 (2007): 73-93.


[vi]Anthony Kaldellis, “The Study of Women and Children Methodological Challenges and New Directions,” in P. Stephenson, ed., The Byzantine World (London: Routledge, 2010), 61-71.


33Lesile Brubaker, “Sex, Lies, and Texuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-century Byzantium”, in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 86-87, 100-101.


34Cooper, 11-13.

6Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 49-52, 232.


7Mary R. Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” in Images of Women in Late Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 59.  Kate Cooper suggests that the influence of the enlightenment and the modern “conception of individual autonomy” has hindered scholars’ attempts to comprehend the experience of Roman men and women.  She stresses that “the notion of a private sphere divested of public significance would have seemed impossible (and undesirable) to the ancient mind. The domus [household], along with its aspect of family and dynasty, was the primary unit of cultural identity, political significance, and economic production.”  Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.), 14.


8(ref to be added)


9 Brown, Body and Society, 148, 299.


10 Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, (trans. John Moorhead [Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1992]), 1.31.


11Victor of Vita, 3.26.


12Alice-Mary Talbot, “Women,” in The Byzantines, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo, trans. Thomas Dunlap, Teresa Lavander Fagan, and Charles Lambert (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1997), 177-8. Fritz Graf argues: “Women, marginalized and excluded from the society of men,” were considered dangerous. They were often accused of practicing veneficiis et cantionibus (sorcery and incantation). The accusation of magic served two purposes: first, it revealed the danger “that women’s love constitutes for the autonomy of the men,” and finally it provided a means “to excuse social faults,” such as “mad love felt by men.” Graf, 189-90.


13 Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 164.


14Elsner, 180-2.


15Browning, 257.


16James, 16-7.


17Procopius, Secret History 17.32.


18Procopius, Secret History 9.17-20. Evans asserts that as an actress, Theodora may have prostituted herself before she married Justinian. He suggests that while “the stories Procopius relate about Theodora’s early life in his Secret History may be only half true they are representative of the gossip that floated through the streets of the capital.” Evans, Empress Theodora, 15. Leslie Brubaker (Sex, lies, 100) is more skeptical seeing Procopius’ account as a largely a  rhetorical trope


19Brown, Body and Society, 320.


20E.g. Procopius, Secret History 1.40


21 Procopius, Secret History 1.41, 17.17. There is no evidence that John was Theodora’s son. Evans suggests that he was an imposter, given that Theodora had previously recognized an illegitimate daughter. Evans, Empress Theodora, 16.


22 Procopius, Secret History 2.13.


23 Procopius, Secret History 6.1-17.


24Procopius, Wars 6.4.19-20.


25 Procopius, Wars 3.13.24.


26Procopius, Secret History 4.18.


27Lefkowitz, 61.


28Procopius, Wars 1.24.32-9.


29 Procopius, Wars 5.2.3-4.


30 Procopius, Secret History 16.5.


31 Procopius, Wars 5.3.13.


32A. Daniel Frankforter, “Amalasuntha, Procopius and a Woman’s Place”,  JWH 8 (1996): 42.


Why Byzantine Emperors Get no Love

When it comes to the world of modern publishing,  Byzantine emperors receive very little love. Perhaps it is all of the infighting marked by castrations,flaying, and blinding of one’s opponents that has turned off the modern audience. Certainly, reading Byzantine accounts of these reigns could cause even the hardiest of modern readers stomach’s to churn. On second thought,  given the popularity of the HBO series, Game of Thrones, a show that revels in such torture, an abhorrence of torture probably does not represent a primary factor for this disdain.
Unrelated Side Note here: Certainly George Martin bases much of his world in a Byzantine setting, if often in a non-complimentary way. (Moreover, I would like to point out to him that castration, particularly later in life, does not necessarily remove a eunuch’s sex-drive).
More so I would suggest an increased…albeit necessary, focus on women’s history has taken the focus of men in the Byzantine world.
Indeed, there have been numerous studies on Byzantine Empresses in the past twenty years, whilst a bookshelf on recent works on Byzantine emperors remains rather bare.

While much of this work on imperial women is of high quality, they have in my mind overestimated the impact and importance of these women in comparison to their male counter-parts.So too have they underestimated the continuing androcentrism of the Byzantine Empire. These more optimistic visions of women in Byzantium have received challenges recently. Moreover, a new wave of scholars have begun to re-examine the role of the emperor in the Byzantine world. A culmination of this work will be on display at Cardiff University, 25-27 April 2014 “The Emperor in the Byzantine World”Cardiff University, 25-27 April 2014 “The Emperor in the Byzantine World. Unfortunately a piece I am preparing on perhaps the first Byzantine emperor Leo I was not ready in time for this conference, but many exciting papers will be given. I will close this short blog with a list of the papers to be given.

Dynasty: Imperial Families

Mark Humphries (Swansea University): Family, Dynasty, and the Construction of Legitimacy: The Roman Background Mike Humphreys (University of Cambridge): The Dynasty of Heraclius Mark Masterson (Victoria University of Wellington): Basil II and the Macedonian Dynasty

Imperial Literature: The Emperor as Subject and Author

John Vanderspoel (University of Calgary): Imperial Panegyric Savvas Kyriakidis (University of Johannesburg): The Emperor in Historiography – The History of John Kantakouzenos

The Imperial Court: The Emperor’s Men

Meaghan McEvoy (Goethe University, Frankfurt): The Court of Theodosius II and its Consequences Jonathan Shepard (Oxford): Emperors and Administrators in the Middle Empire Jonathan Harris (Royal Holloway, University of London): Who was who at the Court of Constantine XI (1449-1453)

Imperial Duties: The Emperor as Ruler

Bernard Stolte (University of Groningen): The Emperor and Law Michael Grünbart (University of Münster): The Emperor and the Patriarch Frank Trombley (Cardiff University): The Emperor and War

The Material Emperor: Imperial Art and Architecture

Alicia Walker (Bryn Mawr College): The Emperor in Art Eurydice Georganteli (University of Birmingham): The Emperor and Coinage Lynn Jones (Florida State University): Emperor and Palace

Public Lecture

Byzantium and Wales: Mark Redknap (National Museum Cardiff)


The Emperor in the Byzantine World

Cardiff University, 25-27 April 2014

Dynasty: Imperial Families

Mark Humphries (Swansea University): Family, Dynasty, and the Construction of Legitimacy: The Roman Background Mike Humphreys (University of Cambridge): The Dynasty of Heraclius Mark Masterson (Victoria University of Wellington): Basil II and the Macedonian Dynasty

Imperial Literature: The Emperor as Subject and Author

John Vanderspoel (University of Calgary): Imperial Panegyric Savvas Kyriakidis (University of Johannesburg): The Emperor in Historiography – The History of John Kantakouzenos

The Imperial Court: The Emperor’s Men

Meaghan McEvoy (Goethe University, Frankfurt): The Court of Theodosius II and its Consequences Jonathan Shepard (Oxford): Emperors and Administrators in the Middle Empire Jonathan Harris (Royal Holloway, University of London): Who was who at the Court of Constantine XI (1449-1453)

Imperial Duties: The Emperor as Ruler

Bernard Stolte (University of Groningen): The Emperor and Law Michael Grünbart (University of Münster): The Emperor and the Patriarch Frank Trombley (Cardiff University): The Emperor and War

The Material Emperor: Imperial Art and Architecture

Alicia Walker (Bryn Mawr College): The Emperor in Art Eurydice Georganteli (University of Birmingham): The Emperor and Coinage Lynn Jones (Florida State University): Emperor and Palace

Public Lecture

Byzantium and Wales: Mark Redknap (National Museum Cardiff)

Peas from the Same Pod? Recent thoughts on the “Romanness” of the emperors Leo I, Zeno, and the “generalissimos”, Ricimer, Aspar in the fifth century

Almost everyone has had an older relative tell them how much simpler and better things were in the “good ole days”. This adage certainly rings true for those who study Roman and/or Byzantine history in the fifth and the sixth centuries. In the old days…say twenty-five to thirty years ago…. there were still “bad” barbarians and “good” Romans.  So too could the survival of the East and the fall of the West in the fifth century be simply explained as largely the result of how differently the Romans in these twin regimes dealt with their Germanic barbarian generalissimos like Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because the Western emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, the Roman Emperor Leo I assassinated his generalissimo Aspar and purged his Germanic supporters.[1] This failure led to the rise of barbarian kingdoms in the old provinces of the West, whilst in the East, the emperors Anastasios and Justinian continued the purge, and depended on largely Roman armies to create an increasingly prosperous Eastern Empire. Such a view closely follows the accounts found in our ancient sources (e.g., John Malalas 14.45, Procopius Wars 5.1-1-23..though Procopius later describes how Justinian’s overreach and greed caused havoc in the Empire).

Yet a vanguard of scholars has turned against such a succinct explanation. Partially, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as the creation of the European Union at the close of the twentieth century, many scholars began to question the assumption that people from Late Antiquity could easily distinguish Romans from non-Romans, and/ or that barbarians like Ricimer and the Italian rex Theoderic were that different from Romans like Aetius and Justinian. Moreover, they frequently depicted the Roman Justinian as the “bad guy”, and the Goth Theoderic as the “good guy” (e.g. Moorhead, 1992; Kaldellis, 2004; Arnold, 2014). Certainly the idea that the fall of the West can be explained as a case of martial barbarians overwhelming increasingly non-martial Romans has been overturned.

Indeed, scholars have gone so far as to suggest that there was little “difference” between “Romans” like Aetius, Leo I, Zeno and their barbarian counterparts Aspar, Ricimer, and the two Theoderics. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this period is marked by the rise of military strong men both Roman and non-Roman. Just how different these generalissimos were, however, has provoked considerable debate.  These new-school scholars (e.g. Hugh Elton, Patrick Amory, Brian Croke, Philip Wood, and Jonathan Arnold to name only a few) have asked in their work what is a Roman and why can’t a Goth be one?  In his 2014 study on Theoderic, Jonathan Arnold explains that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa (Zeno).  How was Theoderic different? He believes that Theoderic held hostage in Constantinople during his youth  had acquired an Eastern Roman” outlook that helps to explain why when he gained control of the Western half of the Empire at the close of the fifth century he sought to present himself as a Roman emperor, and his Goths as new Romans. To quote Arnold from a recent personal discussion we had:   “The problem with the traditional barbarian vs. Roman paradigm is that advocates of it (like Heather) simply assume we know (and contemporaries knew) what a Roman was.  This is absurd!  Romanness was extremely complex, had a multiplicity of manifestations, varied from one region and person to the next, and was subject to change over time.”

In an interesting recent article on Leo I, Philip Wood explains that Leo I in order to affirm his own Romanness went to great lengths to paint himself as an Orthodox Roman while painting the second generation “Alan” and long serving magester militum and senior consul, Aspar, as a barbarian-Arian-heretic… itching for the chance to betray the Romans to his fellow barbarians. Wood believes that this was largely a facade created by Leo to distract attention from his own humble and “semi-barbaric” origins.

Where do I stand on the issue? I largely agree with the newer scholarship that sees the turmoil that beset both halves of the Empire as largely resulting from factional rather than ethnic disputes. Yet I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity. So too does it seems strange to me that Aspar would have promoted Leo I to the purple in 457 if he was going to be seen as a barbarian. Zeno too seems to have not promoted too much his identity as an Isaurian who technically were considered as Romans, if by this period as tenuous and semi-barbaric (see, Lenski 2011). The ideas that the Western senate offered to make Aspar emperor has also been disputed by some I believe rightly. Moreover, the fact that Aspar and Theoderic remained “Arians” seems important. If they wanted to be seen as Romans: Why not just convert to the “Orthodoxy” of the day? Certainly being an Orthodox Christian was becoming a marker of Romanness in this period. Though as others point out throughout Byzantine history one’s orthodoxy did not necessarily make one a Roman and/or Byzantine e.g. Serbians, Russians etcetera( following Kaldellis [Hellenism 2010] and others convincing argument that until the thirteenth century the people we call Greek Byzantines saw themselves as heirs of Latin-Roman Empire).

Kaldellis (Hellenism) has convincingly shown that it took two generations before one could be considered as Roman, which offers perhaps a partial explanation of why Stilicho, Ricimer, had hopes to have their sons become potential emperors rather than themselves.  Procopius maintained that Aspar could not take the throne himself. Though there did not seem to be any formal ban. Even Zeno and Leo I seemed on somewhat shaky ethnic ground, which explains the popularity of a “real”Roman emperor like Anastasios. As Wood’s suggests,  this may offer a partial reasoning for these emperors’ from the fringes of the Empire need to paint Aspar and others as unorthodox barbarians. Leo’s subsequent reputation as the butcher shows that there were at least some Byzantines against his purge of his Alan mentor.

It remains difficult to know how men like Ricimer and Aspar saw themselves. Much of the literature that survives comes from their opponents. I find myself stuck somewhere between Penny MacGeorge’s and Hugh Elton’s view on this question. I have always found Amory’s suggestion that perhaps to paint oneself as a “barbarian” both as a military leader and religious leader was the safer option in this dangerous age, an intriguing idea. “Romans” risked being seen as usurpers and/or heretics.

Even today, an individual’s notion of identity has many levels. One may rapidly shift an allegiance from one ethnic group to another. This malleability makes it difficult to understand ethnicity in the modern world, and may help to explain why historians continue to struggle to understand how early Byzantine historians like Procopius, Cassiodorus, and  Jordanes, attempted to do the same for their own peoples. Humans, indeed, seem to have an innate way of pointing out difference that frequently defies scientific or historical explanation.

[1] This older” view is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., (Treadgold, 1997, 149-155); (Heather, 2013).