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.

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