Monthly Archives: March 2014

Rome’ s Masculine Imperium


The ancient Romans admired the characteristics that they believed allowed them to establish hegemony over their rivals. It comes as little surprise then that the hyper-masculine qualities of the Roman soldier became the hyper-masculine standard by which many Roman men measured their own manliness. Indeed, like many cultures that rose to prominence primarily through military aggression, images of the soldier’s life and the ideal manly life were often the same. Perusing the literary and visual sources from any period of Roman history draws attention to the importance of this connection, as well as an acceptance of the idea of a common Roman military ethos by which all citizens could bask in the glory of its armies. 

In the early years of the fifth century, a Roman or non-Roman man spending any time in one of the many major or minor cities scattered throughout the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire, would have quite literally found himself surrounded by visual reminders of what one modern scholar calls Rome’s masculine imperium.[i] Across its vast expanse, a remarkable homogeneity of material culture bound the state’s disparate cities.[ii] A zealous militarism certainly represented a common theme in any city’s expression of its Romanitas.[iii] Strolling along the colonnaded streets, or wandering through any of the many public areas that helped to define these population centres, one would have been constantly confronted by the Romans’ adulation of their military legacy as well as their continuing admiration of their soldiers’ martial virtues. One sixth-century source tells us that the city of Rome alone had 3,785 bronze statues of emperors and famous military commanders.[iv] If only on a subconscious level, the marble and bronze statuary of bellicose-looking Roman emperors and other famous military heroes—living and dead—that adorned the cities, would have spoken clearly to both literates and illiterates about the integral relationship between the well-being of the local community and the militarism of its central leadership.[v]

In the Empire’s larger population centres, this message took on even more blatant forms. Funded by the substantial wealth of the imperial family and the upper crust of the aristocracy, magnificent state monuments designed to express current ideologies decorated the Empire’s larger cities.[vi] A variety of artistic mediums expressed the idea found in one sixth-century Eastern Roman historian that for Rome “to triumph forever over our enemies is our birthright and ancestral privilege.”[vii] Intricately carved marble reliefs on exterior walls, columns, and other memorials spoke to this faith by providing the onlooker with a continuous pictorial narrative of Roman victories over “barbarian” enemies.[viii]A visitor to Constantinople in the first two decades of the fifth century would have witnessed the construction of the magnificent column of the reigning Emperor Arcadius (ruled 395-408). Modelled on the column of the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117), in thirteen windings the monument depicted naval and terrestrial military scenes that showed the decidedly non-martial emperor “leading” his army to victory over the Goths at the opening of the fifth century (plate 8).[ix]

Mosaics and paintings often complemented these sculpted forms, as the one in Milan described to us by the fifth-century Eastern Roman historian Priscus, showing Roman emperors “sitting upon golden thrones surrounded by dead barbarians at their feet.”[x] We see in fact from other ancient sources that commissioning these visual monuments for public consumption served as one of the first steps an emperor took after a military triumph.[xi] Such visual displays of Rome’s martial prowess served a larger political purpose. In Constantinople, foreign embassies on their way to an audience with the Roman emperor were led purposefully along a rout dominated by such martial iconography; imagery that none too subtly highlighted to the envoys Rome’s martial and, indeed, masculine supremacy.[xii]

Even the coins that one carried on their person to perform the simplest of transactions spoke to the Romans’ sense of superiority over their foes, and served as well as a means of demonstrating the integral link between the manly valour of the emperor and his soldiers in the establishment and maintenance of this dominion. On the obverse of a coin, for instance, a fearsome headshot of the emperor often in military garb served as a customary design, while on the reverse, a favourite motif in the Later Empire was the representation of the emperor or his soldiers armed to the hilt standing over cowering barbarian captives with captions like: “The glory of the Romans [Gloria Romano rum]”, or “The return of happy times [Fel Temp Reparatio].”[xiii] Behind all of this imagery, we can observe a long-held conviction held by many Greek and Roman intellectuals that history represented a process whereby the manly conquered the unmanly (plate 3 & 5).[xiv]   

Such assertions represent more than the anachronistic whims of modern scholars interested in uncovering ancient masculinities. Another Eastern Roman historian, writing in the early years of the fifth century, informs us that imperial image-makers created these art forms with the express intent of impressing upon their visual audience the “manliness of the emperor and the might of his soldiers [ἀνδρεíαν μὲν γὰρ βασιλέως ἢ ῥώμην στρατιωτῶν].”[xv]

 In a centralised governmental system like that found in the Later Roman Empire, imperial propaganda provided the emperors and their backers with a powerful tool to publicise their authority and manipulate popular opinion across the expanse of Empire.[xvi] The classically educated elites, who represented an essential audience for these media campaigns, would have understood the social significance of the ideology, and in particular, the militaristic symbolism intrinsic to these art forms. Though living in increasingly independent halves of the Empire, these men, to borrow the words of Jacqueline Long, identified “with the name of Rome and Roman traditions completely.”[xvii] Raised in educational systems based on a steady diet of classical Latin authors, such as Sallust, Seneca the younger, and Vergil in the West and Greek authors like Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the East, the literate classes in both halves of the Empire remained intimately aware of the time-honoured idealisation of the military ethic as an essential aspect of both masculine ideology and Rome’s right to imperium.[xviii]



[i] Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 135.


[ii] Jones, Later Roman Empire, 1015; see also, Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of a Christian Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 77-78.


[iii] For the centrality of military success to the ideology of the fifth-century Christian Roman Empire, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 41-42.


[iv] Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, Chronicle (trans. Robert R. Phoenix and Cornelia B. Horn, TTH 55 [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011]) 10.16.


[v] For a recent study on the use and meaning of sculpture in the city of Rome, see Joseph Geiger, The First Hall of Fame: A Study of the Statues in the Forum Augustum. Mnemosyne Supplementa 295.   (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008). On the prevalence of imperial statues in promoting the military function of the Emperor as the leader of the army, Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art From the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. 54-57. For the illiteracy of the majority of the Late Roman population, see Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 351.


[vi]Heather, Fall of the Roman Empire, 38-39.


[vii]Agathias, Agathiae Myrinaei Historiarum (ed. Rudolf Keydell [Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1967] trans.  Joseph D. Frendo [New York: de Gruyter, 1975]) 2.12.2.


[viii] Glenys Davies, “Greek and Roman Sculpture”, in The Oxford Companion to Classical History, ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 651-52.


[ix]Such projects were immense undertakings. The column of Arcadius begun in 401 was only completed in 421. For an excellent account of these columns from the second to the fifth century, see Martin Beckmann,  The Column of Marcus Aurelius: The Genesis & Meaning of a Roman Imperial Monument (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).


[x] Priscus, frag. 22.3 (ed. and trans. R.C. Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus, vol. 2 [Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1983]). Cf. Procopius, Buildings 1.10.10-20.


[xi]Herodian, BH 3.9.12.


[xii] For these visual power displays by the Romans and Sasanian Persians as an essential aspect of the two states power relationship see, Mathew Canepa, Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship Between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 130-141.


[xiii] An excellent introduction and catalogue of imperial coinage issued from 27 BCE to 498 CE is found in David van Meter, Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins: A Complete Guide to the History, Types and Values of Roman Imperial Coinage (Utica, N.Y.: Laurion Press, 1991).


[xiv]Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 49.


[xv] Eunapius, frag. 68. I have changed the translator Blockley’s “courage” for ἀνδρείον to “manliness.”


[xvi] Peter Heather and David Moncur, Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius, TTH36(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 35-37.


[xvii] JacQueline Long, Claudian’s ‘In Eutropium’ Or, How, When and Why to Slander a Eunuch (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 217. 


[xviii] For the familiarity of the Byzantine elites with these classical sources, see Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 1-2, 68-9.  As Treadgold points out (Byzantine Historians, 372-75) we have more surviving Byzantine manuscripts of Thucydides’ history (97)—a good guide to ancient popularity—than the most popular early Byzantine classicising historian, Procopius’ Wars (54), or Greek versions of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (24).



Some Reasons Why Modern Historians tend to Demonize the Emperor Justinian



The emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) has received a great deal bad press in the past two decades. Where the older historiographical tradition mostly praised him for his reconquest of the lost provinces in the West, law code, and his example as an engaged Christian emperor, revisionist scholars have lately condemned him as a megalomaniac Christian despot. One example should suffice.  Peter Heather (Restoration, 203) has recently described him as an “autocratic bastard of the worst kind.” Heather goes so far as to compare Justinian to the twentieth century’s most infamous murders Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. Even the sixth-century Byzantine writer, Procopius who composed his Secret History in attempt to undermine the reigning emperor, might be surprised that such a negative description of an emperor who was largely successful in his own life time has largely taken hold in modern scholarship .

It has been a long hard slog for Procopius in his attempt to chip away at Justinian’s legacy. Certainly for most of the Christian Middle Ages, Justinian was idealised as a model Christian emperor who deftly mastered his role as a secular and religious leader. We find that when Carolingian intellectuals looked for ancient leaders to emulate, they generally looked back to Constantine and Justinian as the prime examples of “model”’ Roman leaders. The twelfth-century historian Otto of Freising portrait is typical of the view of Justinian in the middle ages.  When describing Justinian, he lauded: “This most zealous and Christian monarch resurrected his domain, as it were, from the dead. The state, which in large part had been overthrown and among other valiant deeds triumphed gloriously.” He then praised Justinian for his law codes, his church building, pursuit of Orthodoxy, and many victories over the “barbarians.” This is the legacy of Justinian that Procopius seemed to have feared.

So what has changed? Obviously for those of who live in the liberal democracies of the modern world, Justinian can seem as a bit of a religious nut and a megalomaniac. We have a fear of leaders who want to build states around their views of orthodoxy. Justinian certainly sought to crack down on those he considered as heretics and pagans. But to compare him to Stalin and Hitler is foolish and unfair. Taking the Secret History at face value can be dangerous for those seeking the truth about Justinian or indeed sixth-century Byzantium. I would suggest that the notion that Justinian’s reconquest pushed sixth-century Byzantium and Italy over the edge has been taken a bit too far by those who know of the disasters to come in the seventh century. Certainly Justinian did not set out to slaughter large numbers of his own peoples. Indeed, the population losses argued for by some historians have been convincingly rebutted by those who suggest that the Empire was in a pretty decent state when Justinian died in 565. So too does our modern fear of religious fundamentalism play a part in the vilification of Justinian, who seemed to truly believe that he was God’s vehicle on earth. In an age of increasing “toleration”, Justinian’s harsh views on intellectuals, homosexuals, and religious dissidents do not play too well. Certainly uncomfortable comparisons can be made between Justinian’s Rome and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

To survive in sixth-century Byzantium was not an easy task. Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow in 532. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise. Well that’s it for now. In my next blog I will look at Justinian’s legacy in the Byzantine writers that came after Procopius.



Did the Majority of Romans in North Africa get Along with the Vandals?



Today’s blog deals with one of my favourite “barbarian” peoples from Roman history, the Vandals.

The Vandals who exploded into Roman history in the fifth century have long had a bad reputation. As most know, the very word Vandalism derives from the Vandal king Gaiseric’s sack of Rome in 455. Certainly if the sources are to be believed the Vandals seemed to treat the native populations of their conquest far more harshly than other barbarian groups such as the Goths in Italy and the Franks in Gaul.

The Vandals, a “Germanic” people, looking for more prosperous lands, successfully invaded North Africa from their territories in Spain in 429 . The Romans signed a treaty acknowledging the Vandals’ control of Numidia and Mauretania.  Recognizing the Romans’ weakness, the Vandalic king, Gunderic, violated the accord, and seized the wealth of Carthage and the Provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena in 439. The Roman Empire had little choice but to concede the loss of North Africa, and in 442 the Romans signed another treaty with the Vandals.  For the Romans, Carthage and the rich African Provinces had long served as the major supplier of grain and oil. Accordingly, when the Vandals forced the forfeiture of North Africa, they damaged both the Empire’s military prestige and its economic well-being.

Part of the reason for the Empire’s inability to deal with the Vandals’ invasion was the emergence of the threat of Hunnic invasions in the Balkans. The Huns were the dominant power in the Eastern Pontic region, threatening the borders of the Roman Empire. Instead of confronting these ferocious warriors, Roman Emperors like Theodosius II (ruled 408-50) often used the great wealth of the Empire to pay off the Huns with annual tributes. These “gifts” continued into the sixth century. Many Romans were uncomfortable with these payoffs. Indeed, Procopius lamented that they had begun “the enslavement of the Roman Empire.”

The Hunnic Empire crumbled after the death of its famous leader Attila in 453 CE. Nevertheless, the political situation in the Western Roman Empire continued to deteriorate. In North Africa, Gaiseric persisted in interfering in Italian politics. Still, it is important to note that Gaiseric may not have wanted so much to destroy the Roman Empire as to find a place for himself and his people within it. He arranged for his son Huneric’s betrothal to the Western Roman emperor Valentinian III’s daughter, Eudocia. After Valentinian’s assassination in 455, however, a usurper, Petronius Maximus, married his son to Valentinian’s daughter. Insulted and angry, Gaiseric sacked Rome that same year. Recognizing the danger that they faced from their African neighbor, and freed from the Hunnic threat, the Romans in 468 sent a large expeditionary force against the Vandals. Despite the impressive size of this army, the campaign ended in failure. These defeats severely challenged the Romans’ sense of military superiority over the “barbarian” peoples.

In History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor of Vita provided a description of the fifth-century Catholic North Africans suffering at the hands of their new Arian Vandal rulers.

Historians have suggested several reasons for Victor’s history. C. Coutois argues that Victor composed his account in an attempt to convince his fellow orthodox Christians in Constantinople to launch an attack to overthrow Vandalic rule (The Vandals’ persecution of the Catholics was the pretext given for the Justinian’s successful invasion of North Africa in the sixth century).15 While this theory seems plausible, the text gives little evidence to back up this argument.

William Fahey suggests that Victor composed his history as a way to explain to the local population why God had allowed the Arian Vandals to triumph over the Catholic North Africans. He asserts that Victor’s work provided the local population with an explanation for their torment. He points out that the local population having been defeated on the battlefield, through martyrdom and loyalty to their faith could still achieve a “spiritual” triumph over the barbarian heretics. Fahey argues that Victor used militaristic language, labeling the loyal Catholic people the “crack troops of God’s army.”16  Suffering was rationalized in two ways. First, it provided the means by which the defeated Catholics could attain a heroic victory, and second, it served as a repayment to Christ for men’s sinfulness.17

While an explanation for the Catholic’s suffering is an important theme in Victor’s work,  a close reading of the text reveals that Victor’s primary aim appears to have been to prevent act of accommodation between the Catholic North Africans and the Arian Vandals.  Evidence of this aim is found throughout the work. In one instance of this motif, Victor presented a struggle between those who want to just get a long with the new Arian rulers and his heroes, the Catholic martyrs whose refusal to accept the Arian doctrine leads to their persecution. While Victor depicted Vandalic Africa as a land of horrific persecution, the text indicates that many Catholics appeared to ally themselves to the new rulers.

It was this accommodation that horrified Victor. He warned Catholics that they needed to be on constant guard against the Arians subtle attacks. While, for loyal Catholics, the Vandals’ cruelty was easily overcome, their seeming kindness presented a more difficult challenge: “Following the death of Gaiseric, his eldest son, Huneric, succeeded his father. In accordance with the subtlety of barbarians, at the beginning of his reign he acted in quite a mild and moderate fashion.” Victor stressed that religious loyalty took precedence over family allegiance. Victor described how the Vandals tried to use men’s love of wealth and of family to convince them to abandon their Catholic faith. Saturus, a man described by Victor as “a shining member of the Church of Christ” whom “often reproved the Arians for their perversity,” was warned by the Vandals that if he did not become an Arian he would “lose his house, wealth, and all of his slaves and children.” And as a final dishonor “his wife would be given in marriage to a camel driver.” Saturus’ wife, described by Victor as another Eve, begged her husband to surrender to the Vandals’ demands, “Take pity on me, sweetest, and on yourself as well; take pity on the children we share, whom you see here. Those whom descent from our stock has made renowned should not be allowed to become slaves.” Victor declared, however, that Saturus refused to give in, because he “was no Adam who would touch the alluring fruit of the forbidden tree.”

This theme is repeated throughout Victor’s work. Men and women who refuse to live and cooperate in the new “Arian” North Africa were presented as heroic, while those whom cooperate were cast as villains. When Victor’s work is seen in this context, it suggests that there may have been a considerable amount of accommodation between the Vandals and the native North African population.

His final passage shows Victor’s belief in the importance of religious loyalty:

To show that he was a man of religion, he [Gaiseric] decreed that the Manichean heretics were to be sought out with painstaking care. He had many of these people burned, and he sold more of them for ships across the seas. He found that nearly all the Manicheans were adherents of his religion, the Arian heresy, especially its priests and deacons; so it was to that, the greater his shame, the more he was kindled against them.

Some final thoughts: The examples of modern Iraq and Afghanistan show us how “conquered” native populations often ally themselves to new rulers, even at the expense of facing harsh criticism amongst loyalists to the old regime. It may be helpful to think of Victor as the “Taliban” representing the old regime and the “appeasers” as the natives who get along with the new regime at the expense of being seen as “traitors”. While it is true that the Vandals treated the natives more harshly than their Gothic counterparts some of, this violence may have been more limited than our sources suggest.

The Vandals like other “barbarians” of the late fifth century were far different from the fur-clad wild marauders portrayed in Classical literature and the artwork depicted above. On the contrary, many Germanic leaders had adapted themselves to Roman society and rapidly became indistinguishable from their civilian Roman neighbors. They dressed in contemporary Roman fashions and possessed magnificent villas decorated with the latest mosaic floors and furnishings.



Two King of Kings? Procopius’ Presentation of Justinian and Kosrow I

With Putin reasserting his power in Ukraine, I thought it would be a good time to talk about another powerful ruler who sought to restore a faded Empire, 


The importance of strong leadership represents a central theme in all of the sixth-century Byzantine intellectual Procopius’ works.  According to Procopius, great men made history, and a leader’s heroic or shameful conduct often determined the prosperity or poverty of the Eastern Roman Empire. This paper investigates Procopius’ description of two of the most influential men of his era: the Persian emperor Kosrow I, and the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It proposes that Procopius tended to present the two emperors as mirror images of each other. Indeed, particularly in the Secret History, the historian’s characterisation of Justinian sought to paint him as an eastern despot rather than a Roman emperor. In doing so, the historian cleverly subverted contemporary imperial propaganda that promoted the emperor as a king of kings.[1] Moreover, the essay will suggest that despite Procopius’ attempt in the Wars to create heroic secular men to compete with the ancient models found in Homer, his sixth-century Christian notions of valor created visions of ideal and non-ideal leaders that differed somewhat from those found typically in the classical literary tradition. It has been adapted from my 2003 Master’s thesis Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius.

Two Eyes of the World

Justinian held the most important and powerful position in the Eastern Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the Byzantine leader was not the only potent emperor of his era. In the sixth century CE, the Byzantine Empire faced a formidable challenge from the Persian Empire. As Procopius portrayed it, the Persian war was not only a struggle for supremacy between two powerful Empires, but also a personal contest between two emperors, Justinian and Kosrow.

Kosrow provided Procopius with an ideal villain with which to describe all the dangers of letting a “depraved” man run an Empire. Ironically, like many scoundrels, Kosrow is one of the most intriguing men in Procopius’ work. And despite Procopius’ attempts to make Belisarius seem heroic during the Persian wars, frequently, as Averil Cameron suggests, “it is Kosrow who steals the thunder.”[2] While Kosrow serves primarily as a foil to Justinian in Wars, Procopius’ negative description of the Persian leader closely resembles his account in the Secret History. of Justinian’s depravity. These parallel accounts might be taken to suggest that Procopius simplified history and failed to understand both emperors’ political motives and mindset. To the contrary, it reveals that, for Procopius, what made a “just or an “unjust” emperor was based on a universal code of morality.[3]

According to Procopius, Justinian and Kosrow shared several traits that made them despots. Each leader loved innovation and disregarded the traditions of the Empire he ruled. Early in his reign, Kosrow’s hunger for power and his determination to introduce administrative reforms alarmed the Persian aristocracy: 

Kosrow, the son of Cabades, was a man of an unruly turn of mind and strangely fond of innovations. For this reason he himself was always full of excitement and alarms, and he was an unfailing cause of similar feelings in all others. All, therefore, who were men of action among the Persians, in vexation at his administration, were proposing to establish over themselves another king from the house of Cabades.[4]


Procopius remained vague about the details of Kosrow’s “innovations.” This absence suggests either that he did not know the particulars of these changes or that he merely created the notion of Kosrow as a revolutionary as a means to compare him with his true target: Justinian. Proof of the latter theory may be seen in the similarity between this narrative and Procopius’ description of the Nika revolt.[5] The resemblance between the two accounts is striking. In each case, the aristocracy’s unease with the reforms and the megalomania of the emperor led to an attempted overthrow. Ultimately, both insurrections failed. As a consequence of their victories, the vengeful emperors lashed out against the nobles and consolidated their power. With the upper classes in both Empires humbled, Justinian and Kosrow remained unchallenged for many years. Procopius lamented that this omnipotence, in due course, brought disaster to both Empires.

The adoration of power and money served as another appalling trait common to Kosrow and Justinian. Procopius emphasized that Kosrow’s invasion of the Eastern Provinces was motivated largely by avarice and jealousy. Vexed at the Byzantines’ success in North Africa, Kosrow demanded his share of the spoils. When Justinian refused, Kosrow accused the emperor of breaking the treaty between the two powers, and he invaded the Eastern Provinces, where he proceeded to sack cities in order to extort money from the Byzantine populace.[6] Although Procopius condemned Kosrow for looting the Eastern Provinces, at least the Persian emperor had attacked a foreign enemy. In contrast, Justinian’s exploitation of the Byzantine population was a far more vile crime. The historian lamented:

Now it was laid down by ancient law that whenever a senator of any of the cities departed this life without male issue, one quarter of his estate should be given to the local Senate, while the next of kin of the deceased enjoyed all the remainder. Here too the Emperor showed his own character in its true colors. He happened to have recently published a law which reversed everything. From then on, whenever a senator died leaving no male issue, the next of kin were to share the quarter of the estate while all the rest went to the treasury and to the account of the local Senate. And yet never before in the history of mankind had Treasury or Emperor been permitted to share the property of a senator.[7]


Roman culture had a long tradition of seeing rapacity as a flaw in men and leaders. Christian writers and thinkers had developed this theme. Indeed, in many Christian histories from Late Antiquity, a king’s or emperor’s desire for material goods served as the root cause for a subsequent “evil reign.”[8]

So too did Procopius expect ideal military leaders to grant unarmed civilians mercy. Unlike Justinian, Kosrow personally led the Persian army into battle.[9] Despite Procopius’ admiration for leaders who willingly faced the dangers and challenges of battle, he condemned Kosrow for his “vicious” military campaign in the Eastern Provinces:

He saw, while the city was being captured, a comely woman and one not of lowly station being dragged by her left hand with great violence by one of the barbarians; and the child, which she had only lately weaned, she was unwilling to let go, but was dragging it with her other hand, fallen, as it was, to the ground since it was not able to keep pace with that violent running. And they say that he uttered a pretended groan . . . though he knew well that he himself was most responsible for everything.[10]


Although as emperor Justinian never led his armies into battle, Procopius still blamed him for what he considered the dire consequences of his military campaigns.[11] The historian suggested that, like Kosrow, the Byzantine emperor had also launched his reconquest in order to plunder “other people’s property.” Procopius maintained that Justinian had “insisted on making himself master of Libya and Italy for the sole purpose of destroying their inhabitants along with those already subject to him.”[12]

For Procopius, a weakness of spirit was often matched by an infirmity of the body. And he described both emperors as sickly men. Kosrow’s frail nature forced him to surround himself with physicians.[13] Similarly, Justinian nearly succumbed to the plague; only divine intervention saved him. Procopius hinted that the plague served as God’s warning that he was dissatisfied with the Eastern Romans and their Emperor. He also suggested that, like all men, the emperor was mortal, and that his temporary power paled in comparisons to God’s eternal authority.[14]

Procopius argued that while Kosrow established his superiority by leading his armies on campaigns, Justinian maintained his dominance by remaining in the capital and manipulating things behind the scenes. Justinian ruled as a secular and a religious leader. In both realms, however, Justinian faced challenges to his ascendancy. The emperor took several steps to deal with these threats and guarantee that he remained the “preeminent man” in the Byzantine Empire. While the early Byzantine successes in the North African and Italian campaigns enhanced Justinian’s vision of a “new” Roman Empire, they also created rivals draped in martial manliness who could potentially serve as competitors to the emperor. From the era of the Roman Republic, a triumphant general’s popularity amongst his soldiers and the populace presented the greatest threat to the authority of the Roman government.

The fifth and early sixth centuries had seen Roman and non-Roman soldiers playing increasingly important roles in both making and unmaking Roman emperors. Generals like Aetius and Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East were arguably the most powerful and influential politicians in the fifth century. All of these men hailed from the military aristocracy, and they often used their power and influence to control the reigning emperors, who were often little better than puppets. Indeed, many fifth-century emperors had begun their careers as relatively obscure soldiers in the armies of these generalissimos.[15]  

It should not surprise us then that the non-campaigning Justinian thought he was vulnerable to usurpation. Procopius certainly showed his readers that Justinian felt threatened by Belisarius’ military victories and his subsequent fame. His fears were not completely unjustified. After Belisarius’ defeat of Vittigis, the Gothic nobility had offered, “to declare Belisarius Emperor of the West.”[16] This threat to Justinian’s authority must have made him very suspicious of Belisarius’ motives. Even before this proposal occurred, Justinian had taken steps to check Belisarius’ growing influence. Following the Eastern Romans’ relatively easy victory over the Vandals, Belisarius had returned to Constantinople basking in glory. Rumors, though, had already reached the emperor that Belisarius sought “to set up a kingdom himself.”[17] Justinian handled the situation carefully. He realized that he had to reward his victorious general, but he also recognized the need to preserve his own prestige. In an effort to suggest the former glory of the Roman Empire, Justinian allowed Belisarius a “triumph.”

While Belisarius’ celebration evoked memories of former processions, officially it only served to commemorate Belisarius’ inauguration as a consul. (During the era of the Republic two men had held this office similar to that of a Prime Minister; by the sixth century, though still prestigious, the position had become symbolic and was abolished by Justinian in 541.)[18] Like every Roman emperor since Augustus, however, Justinian made sure that the triumph was granted in his own name. Justinian emphasized that Belisarius had achieved his victory through his, and therefore God’s good graces. Justinian allowed Belisarius to march the defeated Vandals and their magnificent treasures through the streets of Constantinople. However, fully aware of the importance of visual symbolism, the emperor set himself upon his throne high above everyone else. When Belisarius came before Justinian, the general fell prone to the ground to pay the emperor homage.[19]


Justinian also took steps to make himself the face of Roman victory. Contemporary literature and iconography lauded “the image of a victor emperor.[20] Besides, Procopius several other Byzantine authors composed works dedicated to promoting the emperor’s military campaigns.[21] Justinian also created public monuments like the one above to commemorate “his” military victories (importantly the statue faced East at the Byzantines most formidable enemy, the Persians). In Buildings, Procopius described a magnificent mosaic in Constantinople depicting the Empire’s victories over the Vandals and North Africa and in Italy against the Goths. The emperor and the empress Theodora represented the center-point of this visual expression of “Roman “military hegemony.

While Justinian largely succeeded in overcoming his rivals in the secular world, he had a more difficult time asserting his ascendancy in the religious domain.[22] This was particularly true in the Empire’s provincial cities, where bishops had accumulated ever increasing authority and prestige. Part of the bishops’ increased authority came through their roles as the providers of charity for the poor within the Empire. In Late Antiquity it became the duty of all Christian men to provide both financial and moral support to the poor.[23] The Christian notion of charity differed from classical forms of social welfare in that it obligated members of the clergy and aristocratic Christians to provide assistance to all people in need. In contrast, the classical form of charity had involved political relationships and to borrow the words of J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz “its recipients were . . . as a whole voters, clients and other individuals who could be expected to do a favor in return.”[24]

Procopius indicated that imperial charity was the mark of a great emperor. Following other Christian emperors, Justinian felt compelled to support charitable institutions throughout the Empire. While Procopius frequently condemned the emperor for frittering away the Empire’s treasury, he praised him for the building of philanthropic institutions.[25] Procopius considered Christian charity as one of the Byzantine emperor’s most important duties. When the bubonic plague devastated the Empire in 542 CE, Procopius showed how Justinian played a leading role in easing the Byzantine citizens’ suffering:

It fell to the lot of the emperor, as was natural, to make provision for the trouble. He therefore detailed soldiers from the palace and distributed money, commanding Theodorus to take charge of this work. . . . Theodorus, by giving out the emperor’s money and by making expenditures from his own purse, kept burying the bodies, which were not cared for.[26]


Justinian felt compelled to protect the poor. By providing this service he competed with the Christian hierarchy who had gained increasing power through their role of providing the poor with financial and social assistance.

 Justinian took great pains, as well, to stress his special role as an intermediary between his people and God. In Buildings, Procopius revealed how past Roman emperors had emphasized their special relationship with the Christian Church: “the Emperor Constantius had built this church in honor of the Apostles and in their name, decreeing that tombs for himself and for all future Emperors should be placed there.” Procopius made it clear that this relationship was more than just a symbolic one:

When the Emperor Justinian was rebuilding this shrine, the workman dug up the whole soil so that nothing unseemly should be left there; and they saw three wooden coffins lying there neglected, which revealed by inscriptions upon them that they contained the bodies of the Apostles Andrew, Luke, and Timothy.[27]


Because the emperors and the Apostles had a special relationship, it was natural that they would be buried in the same ground.  Constructing religious shrines served as a means for an emperor to accentuate his special relationship with the spiritual realm. Procopius emphasized that Justinian gave thanks to the Apostles by continuing his church building with an increased passion. Dedicating churches throughout the Empire and the newly conquered territories also served a political purpose. It not only cemented the emperor’s religious role in the minds of the Byzantine populace, but also helped established Justinian’s preeminence for his new subjects as well.

Procopius blamed many of Justinian’s faults, as was the case with Belisarius, on his marriage to an immoral woman. Instead of portraying Justinian as an “evil genius,” Procopius maintained that the emperor was a simple man: “with no more sense than a donkey, ready to follow anyone who pulls his reins.” According to Procopius, Justinian married Theodora because he was overcome by “an overwhelming passion for her”.  Procopius used the union as an example to show how far Justinian had strayed from “Roman” traditions. Even Justinian’s aunt, the empress Euphemia, whom Procopius perceived as “completely without culture,” and “of barbarian origin,” refused to accept the marriage while she lived.[28] For Procopius, the fact that a “non-Roman” would have more respect for Roman traditions than its emperor showed just how far Justinian’s lust for Theodora had kept him from looking out for the needs of the Empire.

Procopius indicated that powerful couples could be a force for good or evil in the world. Procopius’ fear of Theodora’s influence suggests that women could play powerful roles in sixth-century Byzantium. Nevertheless, in his invective against the imperial couple, Procopius also concluded that the most powerful players in the Byzantine Empire dwelled in the spiritual realm. While Procopius described both Justinian’s and Theodora’s flawed natures as resulting from their sordid characters and humble backgrounds, he had a difficult time attributing all of their “evil triumphs” to their own actions. Procopius indicated that there had to be some higher power guiding the emperor and the empress. For a Christian like Procopius, it was logical to assume that if a just emperor relied on God’s and the saints’ supernatural assistance to promote his reign, then an unjust emperor must have another mystical form of support: demons. Procopius stressed that those who thought that Justinian and Theodora had succeeded in bringing ruin to the Eastern Roman Empire by chance were mistaken, for “it was not by human but by some very different power that they wrought so much havoc.” For in fact, “a pair of blood-thirsty demons” had possessed Justinian and Theodora. This assessment made perfect theological sense to Procopius, suggesting the extent of his Christian belief. A mere mortal man and woman could never have stood up to God or the Apostles; therefore, for Procopius, the only logical explanation for their success was that the two had become “man-demons” [ἀνθρωποδαίμονες] who had thwarted God and led the Eastern Roman Empire and the “whole world” to ruin.[29]

Further evidence of Procopius’ Christian beliefs and the powerful influence of women over powerful men may be found in his description of Kosrow’s marriage to a Christian woman, Euphemia. Procopius indicated that the Persian emperor felt both intrigued and repelled by Christianity. Procopius argued that Kosrow had captured Edessa in order to refute the Christians’ claims that city could not be taken because it had divine protection. Despite Kosrow’s belief in the superiority of Zoroastrianism over Christianity, Procopius revealed that the Persian emperor’s fondness for his Christian wife played a role in his displaying restraint and “kindness to the inhabitants of Sura.”[30] Although political necessity forced Procopius to portray Kosrow as a typical villain, Procopius hints that the power of Christianity could influence even the most powerful and corrupt men.

Procopius’ description of admirable and villainous leaders presents a complex amalgamation of Christian and classical ideals. Procopius presented Justinian and Kosrow as two mighty yet defective leaders. Each was convinced of his own omnipotence and natural right to dominate others. Procopius maintained, however, that despite both emperors’ seeming supremacy, when compared to the power and magnificence of God, their authority was fairly limited. Their power was temporary, while God’s authority was eternal.




1. Presbytery mosaic of the emperor Justinian I, church of San Vitale, Ravenna Italy.

2. Kosrow I seated on his throne, Ctesiphon, Iraq.


[1] For this propaganda during Justinian’s reign, see Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual Between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 134.


[2] Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London: Routledge, 1985), 163.


[3] For an in-depth discussion of some of these parallels see now Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), esp. 119-142.

[4] Procopius, Wars 1.23.1-3.


[5] Procopius, Wars 1.24.1.


[6] Procopius, Wars 2.8.1.


[7] Procopius, Secret History 29.25


[8] E.g. Martin Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, trans. Christopher Carroll (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2000), 156.


[9] Like earlier Roman emperors, the success of the Sassanid dynasty depended upon the ability of the king to lead his armies to victory. Zeev Rubin, “The Sassanid Monarchy,” in The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 14 Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A. D. 425-600, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 659-60.


[10] Procopius, Wars 2.9.9-11.


[11] Justinian, however, began his career as a solider. He served as an elite member of the palace guards (kandidatoi) during the reign of the Emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518), and in 520, during the reign of his uncle Justin I (ruled 517-527), was named commander of the imperial troops in Constantinople (magister militum praesentalis).


[12] Procopius, Secret History 6.16.


[13] Procopius, Wars 8.10.11-3.


[14] J.A.S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 60. 

[15] Brian Croke“Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar, “Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203. Justinian’s predecessors Marcian (ruled 450-457), Leo I (ruled 457-474,) Zeno (ruled 474-5, 476-91), Basiliscus (ruled 475/6), Justin I all began their careers as humble soldiers (the exception, Anastasius ruled 491-518, served as a palace official before surprisingly being named emperor).


[16] Procopius, Wars 6.30.24-7.


[17] Procopius, Wars 4.8.6.


[18]Procopius, Secret History, 170, n. 1.



[19] Procopius, Wars 4.8.2-10.


[20] McCormick, Eternal Victory, 67.


[21] Whately, “Militarization”, 51.

[22] Most seriously, the on-going divide between supporters of the council of Chalcedon, like the emperor, and those who opposed it, like the empress Theodora, created religious division where the emperor sought unity.


[23] For these developments, see now Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).


[24] J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz: Barbarians and Bishops: Army, Church and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 187-9.


[25] Cameron, Procopius, 127.


[26] Procopius, Wars 2.23.6-10.


[27] Procopius, Buildings 1.4.20-2.



[28] Procopius, Secret History  9.28-9.

[29] Procopius, Secret History 12.14.


[30] Procopius, Wars 2.12.6-26.

Manly Military Eunuchs

Eunuchs are so “”in” at the moment. With the new season of game of Thrones about to launch, I thought that I would dedicate today’s blog to the ultimate soldier-eunuch, the sixth-century Roman general Narses.


The sixth-century Byzantine general Narses (478-573) has long earned historians’ respect.[1] This acclaim is deserved since his major victories over the Goths in 552[2] and versus the Franks and Alamanni in 554, helped to secure the Emperor Justinian I’s (ruled 527-565) reconquest of Italy.[3] So too did Narses perform admirably for twelve years in his role as prefect of Italy. Of course, it has always been important to emphasize that Narses was a eunuch. Indeed, for many modern historians, Narses’ identity as a castrate is more important for study than his military deeds and political achievements that proved ephemeral. For some, the presence of a eunuch in such an essential military role indicates a turning away from codes of generalship based on traditional martial courage and manliness.[4] This paper questions such a view. It suggests that Byzantium had a much more flexible notion of the gender status of eunuchs than some recent scholarship allows. Indeed, I will show that Narses fits into a continuing hegemony of traditional masculine values based on the supremacy of Byzantine men’s martial virtues.

Superficially, the argument that Narses’ military role represents a turning away from martial masculinity as a component of Byzantine ideology appears attractive. Certainly the Byzantine period is marked by the essential role that eunuchs played at all levels of court society.[5] Though their primary function throughout the Byzantine era continued to be service within the imperial palace, Narses was one of three eunuchs to command Byzantine armies during Justinian I’s reign.[6] Though never as high as some suppose, the number of eunuch generals only grew larger in subsequent centuries.[7]  

Moreover, in contrast to the gendered vitriol that had accompanied the eunuch Eutropius’ military command against the Huns at the close of the fourth century,[8] Narses’ and these other eunuchs’ prominent military position, as far as we know, provoked little or no hostile response.[9] This absence may surprise since the field of battle had long represented a masculine realm in the Roman and Byzantine world. Late Roman sources frequently express the idea that eunuchs could not “possess masculine military virtue.”[10] Yet, this assessment is largely absent in sixth-century Byzantine writers. One finds in the sixth-century histories of Procopius and Agathias, for instance, that Narses’ status as a castrate did little to hinder his military acumen. Agathias, in fact, seemingly took pleasure in rejecting this trope by depicting two Alamanni warriors assuming foolishly that they would best the Romans in battle because “a eunuch of the bedchamber” commanded their army.[11]

Modern scholars have used these ancient writers’ depictions of Narses as a skilled military commander as evidence of larger societal shifts. Shaun Tougher sees Procopius’ and Agathias’ flattering views of Narses as an indication of “a lessoning of hostility towards eunuchs” from the fifth century. Whilst in her recent study on eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire, Kathryn Ringrose contends that it serves as proof of a decline in the importance of andreia (the interchangeable concept of manliness or courage in ancient Greek)[12] as a quality of a sixth-century Byzantine general. She also posits that contemporaries respected Narses for displaying what she considers “good” eunuch traits such as “cleverness and deviousness.”[13] While I largely agree with Tougher’s point, the paper questions both of Ringrose’s contentions. Before tackling these questions, however, let us explore briefly some of the reasons that moderns and ancients have sometimes perceived eunuchs as a threat to masculinity.

Eunuchs and Byzantine Gender Constructs

In androcentric cultures like Rome and early Byzantium the seeming gender ambiguity of eunuchs could be troubling.[14] As Ringrose explains, “The appearance and behaviour of eunuchs represented the antithesis of appropriate male behaviour. The eunuch was scorned as shameful, neither man nor woman, a monstrosity, an outsider, and pitifully womanlike.”[15] We find this sentiment is expressed in the observation by the fourth-century panegyrist Claudius Mamertinus that eunuchs were “exiles from the society of the human race, belonging to neither one sex nor the other as a result of some congenital abnormality or physical injury.”[16] The very ease by which a man could quite literally be cut off from the “source” of his sexual identity troubled many Late Roman writers. At the opening of the fifth century the poet Claudian quipped that the knife makes “males womanish.”[17] It seemed a very simple process indeed for a man to become a non-man. As Peter Brown remarks, “The physical appearance and the reputed character of eunuchs acted as constant reminders that the male body was a fearsomely plastic thing.”[18]

So where on what Ringrose describes as the ladder of gender difference may we place Narses and other eunuchs? This issue has proved contentious. To simplify a complex debate, modifying the older paradigm that claimed that eunuchs represented a “third sex” in Byzantine culture, Ringrose contends it is better to see eunuchs as making up a third gender, “male in sex, but with a difference.”[19] Unlike classical intellectuals, Christian Byzantines, she contends, based their criterion on behaviour more than physiology.[20] Shaun Tougher is more hesitant to consider eunuchs as a third gender. He postulates, I believe rightly, that eunuchs had “a multiplicity of concurrent gender identities.” He contends that while eunuchs could be portrayed as a separate gender, a good number of Byzantine sources saw them as “simply men.” [21] Warren Treadgold goes further. He rejects the idea that Byzantines ever seriously considered eunuchs as a third gender, suggesting that their roles in the Church and the military prove that they were seen as male.[22]

Though all three of these Byzantinists’ views on the “gender” of eunuchs differ, each position helps to explain why some eunuchs like Narses were not cut off from the masculine. Castration did not necessarily mean that a eunuch could not be deemed “manly” or fight on the frontlines. Even if “they lacked full masculine status,” eunuchs stood on a higher “rung” on the gendered ladder than girls, women, boys or old men. The traditional dichotomy between virtue and vice based on a bipolar model of gender proved a popular method in describing “good” and “bad” eunuchs throughout the Byzantine era. On the one hand, when Byzantine sources praised eunuchs, they described them often as displaying typically masculine attributes. On the other hand, when eunuchs faced criticism, it was “in terms of values traditionally ascribed to women.”[23] It is only against this background that one can understand how his fellow Byzantines could perceive Narses as an andreios commander.[24] 


Narses: the Manly Eunuch

Though Procopius depicted Narses, at times, as vain, jealous, insubordinate, petty, and overly reliant on barbarian auxiliaries, the historian generally respected Narses for being a successful and resourceful commander.[25] Yet it does not appear that Procopius or Agathias took Narses’ position as a general for granted. Procopius presented Narses “as an anomalous example” of a typical eunuch.[26] When Narses arrived to Italy from Constantinople with a large army, the historian proclaimed that the eunuch was “much sharper and robust than other eunuchs [ἄλλως δὲ ὀξὺς καὶ μαλλον ἠ κατ ευνοῡχον δραστήριος].”[27] Agathias too indicated that Narses’ “courage and heroism” were unusual for a eunuch.[28]

Seen in this light, Procopius’ biographic sketch of Narses seems to represent yet another inversion of “typical” behaviours one finds throughout the Gothic Wars. Procopius’ presentation of Narses does not indicate that just any eunuch could become an able military commander, only that in certain instances, just as one can find manly women and restrained barbarians, one can find a vigorous, and indeed,  a manly eunuch.[29] These inversions were not an invention of sixth-century writers. One finds such reverses before the fifth century. Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, provided a similar account of an “atypical” eunuch a century and a half earlier when he provided a backhanded compliment to a court eunuch by suggesting, “Among the brambles roses spring up, and among the savage beasts some are tamed.”[30]

Procopius and Agathias undermine Ringrose’s contention “that neither” Procopius nor Agathias “attributes Narses’ success to courageous manliness.”[31]  Examples from both historians, in fact, demonstrate the opposite. Procopius, for instance, reported with little sense of irony that Narses’ supporters in the officer corps hoped that the eunuch would achieve his own fame through “deeds of wisdom and manliness” [ἔργα ξυνέσεώς τε καὶ ἀνδρείας]. [32] Agathias too described Narses as manly and heroic” [τὸ δὲ ἀνδρεῑον καὶ μεγαλουργὸν].[33] These characterisations serve as convincing proof that contemporaries had little problem with seeing Narses as an andreios military man. In the minds of the two historians andreia remained an important quality for military men, and, indeed all men to possess. With his remark about Narses “that true nobility of soul cannot fail to make its mark, no matter what obstacles are put in its path,” it seems clear that Agathias would have placed Narses on or near the top of his ladder of human excellence and/or gender difference.[34]

Moreover, martial virtues had never centered solely on “courage” or “physicality” alone. In the words of Agathias, “Brains and not brawn” represented the primary qualities of an effective Roman general.[35] This attitude need not surprise. Byzantine military handbooks, in fact, preferred it when military commanders avoided fighting on the front lines with their men. For example, the late sixth-century military guidebook, Maurice’s Strategikon, advised that generals should avoid battle and limit their actions to directing the formations “and adapting to the movements of the enemy.”[36] Procopius too criticized generals for risking themselves fighting on the frontline.[37] We see from passages like that above, that Procopius’ account showed that it was the combination of Narses’ “brains” with his soldiers’ “brawn” that led to the Byzantine’s final victories over the Goths. Indeed, one should not suppose that Narses did not put himself in danger during these battles or assume that the eunuch had received no military training. Despite the eunuch’s diminutive stature, Agathias describes Narses on horseback leading his men into a skirmish against the Franks.[38] Narses’ age (he was over seventy during the events depicted in book 8 of Procopius’ Wars) more than the fact that he was a former court eunuch probably represented the primary reason that Narses did not play a larger role in combat. Procopius showed the eunuch magister militum, Solomon, leading cavalry charges and fighting on the frontlines with his men.[39] So too, according to Procopius, in 541, the Empress Theodora had sent Narses—then the commander of the Emperor Justinian’s bodyguard—to assassinate the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian. Though the attack failed, Narses took the lead in the attempt.[40]  

Of course, eunuchs did not typically become military leaders because Romans and Byzantines no longer saw them differently from non-castrates. The imperial family frequently chose them because they were castrates. As Ringrose explains, “eunuchs were seen as a safer option, and often utilized when women or minor children ruled.”[41] Certainly no eunuch could hope to become emperor. This reality, however, had more to do with their “mutilation” rather than their gender. Indeed, any type of mutilation generally barred men from taking on the purple.  As God’s representative on earth the emperor needed to maintain his corporeal perfection. Though the preferred method of eliminating political rivals throughout the Byzantine period was blinding, castration and rhinokopia (cutting of the nose) all served as effective methods to incapacitate rivals.[42]       

So why did Justinian use eunuchs as military commanders? The emperor’s reasoning for doing so appears two-fold. His break with recent precedent may have been a practical decision based on the fact on that Solomon and Narses were the best qualified to lead.[43]  Fear of usurpation appears to have played a role as well. Procopius’ insinuated that Justinian’s appointment of Narses may have been a move to counter-balance Belisarius’ growing popularity and perceived threat to his rule.[44] The fifth and early sixth centuries had seen Roman and non-Roman soldiers playing increasingly important roles in both making and unmaking Roman emperors. Generals like Aetius and Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East were arguably the most powerful and influential politicians in the fifth century. All of these men hailed from the military aristocracy, and they often used their power and influence to control the reigning emperors, who were often little better than puppets. Indeed, many fifth-century emperors had begun their careers as relatively obscure soldiers in the armies of these generalissimos.[45]

It should not surprise us then that the non-campaigning Justinian thought he was vulnerable to usurpation. Procopius showed his readers that Justinian felt threatened by Belisarius’ military victories and his subsequent fame. His fears were not completely unjustified. After Belisarius’ defeat of the Gothic king Vitigis, the Gothic nobility had offered, “to declare Belisarius Emperor of the West.”[46] This threat to Justinian’s authority must have made him very suspicious of Belisarius’ motives. By appointing Narses, Justinian therefore removed the real threat that a charismatic—and corporeally intact— military man like Belisarius could present to those in the imperial leadership. Narses’ survival depended on the emperor. Dependent on the ruling imperial regime, eunuchs in positions of prominence were particularly vulnerable to execution during political crises or regime changes.[47] Ironically, however, Narses in a way did become a Western emperor, and for later Western writers…even if only anachronistically… a rival to the Eastern Emperor.[48]

Further evidence suggests that the choice of Narses to lead the campaign in Italy was unusual. Procopius explained that some Romans believed that Justinian had appointed Narses as commander because of a prophecy that a eunuch would bring about the downfall of the Goths.[49] Though Procopius discounts this explanation, his earlier comment that “the reason why this was the wish of the emperor was explicitly evident to no one in the world,” implies that Procopius felt somewhat befuddled by Justinian’s appointment of Narses as commander-in-chief of the Gothic campaign.[50] Therefore, I would agree with Averil Cameron’s contention that “it was for Procopius a galling blow that final victory in Italy was won by Narses not Belisarius.”[51]

One might ask then why does Procopius seem to celebrate Narses’ virtues at the close of the Wars?[52] It is likely that the historian admired the general who had finally “defeated” the pugnacious Goths. Indeed, even if he secretly held a grudge against the eunuch for disrupting Belisarius’ earlier military campaigns, he needed to explain how and why Narses had achieved a victory that his former superior had failed to achieve. Procopius believed in the link between one’s virtues and one’s success in the world.[53] This mindset helps to explain why the historian replaced the flawed, conniving, and less politically successful Narses found in much of book 6 of the Gothic Wars with the more virtuous and triumphant eunuch depicted in books 7 and 8.[54]

Undeniably, Narses displays many of the traits of an ideal “manly” non-eunuch early Byzantine commander. Some of Narses’ best “martial” qualities were his affability, courage, cleverness, organizational and tactical abilities, as well as his oratory skills that allowed him to incite his soldiers to perform great deeds of courage and manliness on the field of battle. Unlike Ringrose, however, I do not believe that Procopius saw Narses’ organizational skills and “cleverness” as eunuch-specific traits; they are characteristics expected of any successful general.[55] Procopius perceived Belisarius as clever, well organized, and, at times, devious.[56]


The Soldier’s Life

The key question is whether the early Byzantines understood that the use of eunuchs in the military was emblematic of a larger societal move away from the traditional idea that the battlefield represented a masculine domain. If andreia was becoming a less important cultural and/or military value, one would except to see a decrease in the number of examples of idealized military men displaying typical martial courage and manliness in this period. The evidence does not support such a view.  

Procopius and Agathias, in fact, consistently praised military men as upholding the best traditions of “Roman” manliness. For these Byzantine intellectuals, the manly deeds of courage and self-restraint performed in the theatre of war by warriors like Totila and Belisarius set a standard of masculine excellence that was difficult for their civilian counterparts to match.[57] These historians shared a view found in Ammianus  that Roman pre-eminence had been achieved because its early citizens had avoided the “life of effeminacy” [vita mollitia][58] brought on by wealth and the sedentary life and “fought in fierce wars” which allowed them to “overcome all obstacles by manliness [virtute].”[59]

We find similar sentiments when Agathias had Narses declare in a set-speech to his soldiers, “To triumph forever over our enemies is our birthright and ancestral privilege.” The historian continued by praising his soldiers’ superior physical and intellectual virtues. He declared, “It would indeed be shameful, fellow Romans, if you were to suffer the same fate as the barbarians and not to outshine them as much by your superior intelligence as you do in physical prowess.”[60] In works that focused on warfare and the deeds of soldiers, it should not shock us that, in Procopius and Agathias’ minds, a “manly man” [ἀνηρ ἀνδρεῖός] was a military man.

Sixth and seventh century Byzantine texts abound with similar emotive rhetoric associating traditional Roman codes of masculinity with idealized visions of the soldier’s life. This is not to say that the masculinity of soldiers represented the only type of heroic manliness in this period. Alternative pathways to achieving “true” manliness had long been a feature of masculine ideology in the Late Roman and the early Byzantine period. Extreme ascetics, courageous martyrs, fearless philosophers, and powerful political and Church leaders were all, at times, compared favourably to military heroes.

Traditional hegemonic masculinity secured in acts of masculine bravery in warfare, however, proved resilient in the early Byzantine period.[61] According to the seventh-century Byzantine historian Theophylact, “courage” in battle represented a sure sign of “manliness”, whereas “cowardice” in the face of conflict indicated that one had fallen into the realm of “effeminacy.”[62] One need not serve in the military to perceive the soldier’s life as an exemplar of the manly life. Civilian elites admired the manliness of war and the masculine deeds of the Empire’s soldiers. As Theophylact had the Bishop Domitianus of Melitene explain to a group of soldiers headed off to fight the Persians:

Let no one receive a scar on his back: the back is incapable of seeing victory. In the contest be united in spirit more than body, comrades in toils but not in cowardice. Let him who has not taken up the inheritance of danger be disowned. In death reach out for victory. Trophies are bought with wounds and blows. Sloth brings no glory. There is nothing sweeter than death in war, for if there is no advantage in growing old and being struck down by wasting disease, assuredly it is more appropriate for you heroes to die in the battle-line while you are young, reaping glory in your tombs.[63]

The increasing use of eunuchs in positions of command from the sixth century did little to shake the idea that “Roman” greatness had been earned by the manly blood of its soldiers. As a realm dominated by “real” men, the field of battle continued to provide one of the easiest places for men in the early Byzantine period to prove not only their courage, but their manliness as well.  Procopius and Agathias created a place for Narses in this masculine world. For these historians, and one suspects their contemporary readers, Narses’ andreia and, indeed, manliness served as further evidence of the masculine supremacy of Byzantium and its men.



[1] See e.g., (Gibbon, 1784: 4.36); (Bury, 1889: 267-80). For recent praise: (Fauber, 1990: 135); (Martyn, 2007: 46-56).


[2] Scholars are not sure if Narses’ victory over the Gothic king Tëias at the battle of Busta Gallorum occurred in 552 or 553.


[3] Modern military historians, for example, have rated Narses as a better general than his rival Belisarius. See e.g., (Alexander, 2002:49-52).


[4] (Ringrose, 2003: 133). I would like to thank Michael Whitby and Lynda Garland for making this observation during my thesis examination.


[5] On the role of eunuchs in Byzantine civilization, see (Guilland, 1945, 197-238); (Hopkins, 1978); (Ringrose, 2003); (Tougher, 2008).


[6] Narses’ predecessor, Solomon (e.g. Wars 4.11.47-56), was magister militum and praetorian prefect of Africa. Scholasticus (Wars 7.40.5) was commander of an army sent against the Sklalvenoi. Procopius showed Solomon, leading his cavalry into battle. I would suggest that Solomon, in fact, offers better proof than Narses of Procopius’ acceptance of eunuchs in positions of military high command. Though, Procopius differentiated Solomon from man-made eunuchs by emphasising that his castration resulted from a childhood accident.


[7] For the increasing number of eunuch commanders in the Byzantine period, see the select prosopography of (Tougher, 2008: 133-171).


[8] Claudian (ca. 370 – 404 AD) was a native Greek-speaker from Alexandria. His gendered invective In Eutropium (About Eutropius) lambasting the eunuch military commander and consul, Eutropius, stands as one of the harshest gendered criticisms of a eunuch to survive from Late Antiquity. Of course, as a propagandist for the Western generalissimo Stilicho, Claudian was naturally a bit over the top in his denigration of a rival from a then hostile Eastern half of the Empire. It is important to point out, however, that several Eastern sources (e.g. Eunapius frag. 65. 1-7, Zosimus, 5.38-18, Marcellinus Comes, 396) criticize Eutropius with similar hostile rhetoric. For a discussion of the gendered aspects of Claudian’s vilification of Eutropius, see (Kuefler, 2001: 65-7, 69, 97-100).


[9] Contemporary and later Byzantine sources are almost unanimously respectful of Narses’ military prowess, see e.g. John Malalas, Chronicle 484, 486, Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History 4.24, John of Ephesus, Church History 3.1.39. Though mostly missing, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Menander’s account (e.g. frag. 30) may have given a less flattering portrait of Narses’ final years in Italy— none of the surviving fragments, however, suggest that this criticism was gender based.  Some later Western sources are more negative and, at times, gendered.  A section of the Liber Pontificalis (63.3), probably composed around 620, criticized Narses and the Byzantines’ rule of Italy. The author recorded an incident where a sixth-century Italian complained that it would be better “for the Romans to serve the Goths than the Greeks when the eunuch Narses is a ruler who subjects us to slavery and our most pious prince does not know it.” Cf. a similar attitude preserved in Paul the Deacon’s eighth-century History of the Lombards (2.5). Though, it is important to point out that both Western sources above recognised and described Narses’ virtues as well (Liber Pontificalis, 61.8, History of the Lombards, 2.3). Gregory of Tours sixth-century History of the Franks, whilst crediting Narses for some of his military success in Italy (4.9), exaggerates the eunuch’s difficulties against the Franks in Italy (3.32), and accuses him of murdering associates to protect his fortune (5.19).


[10](Long, 1996: 129).


[11]Agathias, Histories 1.6.8.


[12]It is important, however, that even when “courage” seems the preferred translation for ἀνδρεία that one keep the ancient conceptualization of “manliness” in mind. For this point, see (Cohen, 2003).


[13](Tougher, 2004: 82); (Ringrose, 2003: 133).


[14] For the centrality of the masculine in Rome and Byzantium, see (Williams, 1999); (Kuefler, 2001); (McDonnell, 2006); (Conway, 2008); (Stewart, 2012).


[15] (Ringrose, 2003: 12). On how the increased prevalence of eunuchs in both halves of the Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries provided writers with a means to comment on a perceived crisis of masculinity, see (Kuefler, 2001: 31-36).


[16] Claudius Mamertinus, Speech of Thanks to Julian 19.4.


[17] Claudian, In Eutropium 1.48.


[18] (Brown, 1988: 10).


[19](Wells, 2004).


[20](Ringrose, 2003: 2-23).


[21](Tougher, 2004: 82).


[22](Treadgold, 2006: 466-69).


[23](Ringrose, 2003: 19-20). Ringrose contends, controversially, that in the middle and later Byzantine periods a largely positive image of eunuchs emerges.


[24]See, e.g. Procopius, Wars 6.18.7.


[25] As Averil Cameron and Anthony Kaldellis propose (Cameron, 1985: 203, 239), (Kaldellis, 2004: 217), Procopius’ portrait of Narses appears more nuanced, and in places, less “positive” than Tougher or Ringrose indicates. For these “negative” qualities see, Wars 6.18.11, 6.18.28-29, 6.19.18., 8.23.17-20. For “positive” traits, see Wars 6.13.16, 8.26.5, 8.26.14, 8.31.22, 8.35.36.


[26](Ringrose, 2003: 132).


[27] Procopius, Wars 6.13.16-17 (my trans.). Eunuch commanders after Narses continued to face hostile gendered rhetoric. See e.g., the eleventh-century historian, John Skylitzes (A Synopsis of Byzantine History16.8 [324]) recording a Byzantine rebel commanders snide remark that facing a non-eunuch rival general, “for the first time the fight would be against a true soldier, one who knew well how to conduct military operations with courage and skill; not, as formerly, against pitiful fellows, eunuchs, fostered in the chamber and raised in the shade.”


[28] Agathias, Histories 1.16.2.


[29] For “manly women,” see Procopius, Wars 5.2.3, 8.3.7. For “wise and self-restrained barbarians,” see Wars 5.1.27-29, 7.20.31.


[30]Ammianus, Histories 16.7.4-8. For these accounts of “good” and “bad” eunuchs throughout the Late Roman and Byzantine eras, see (Tougher, 2008: esp. 26-35). Contra Ringrose, I agree with Tougher’s contention that eunuchs remained vulnerable throughout the Byzantine period to hostile rhetoric based on their membership in a marginalized group. For a modern example, one need only look at African-Americans in contemporary U.S. culture, to realise, that despite the political achievements of individuals like Barak Obama, as supposed members of a marginalized group, African American men remain the target of vitriolic rhetoric that “white” American men do not have to face.


[31](Ringrose, 2003: 133).


[32] Procopius, Wars 6.18.7. I have changed the translator Dewing’s “courage” for ἀνδρείας to “manliness.”


[33] Agathias, Histories 1.16.12 (my trans.).


[34] Agathias, Histories 1.16.2.


[35] Agathias, Histories 2.22.5. 


[36] Maurice’s Strategikon 2.16.


[37] See e.g., Procopius, Wars 5.18.5.


[38] Agathias, Histories 1.21.5. For Narses’ small, frail body, see Histories 1.16.2.


[39] Procopius, Wars 4.11.47-56.


[40] Procopius, Wars 1.25.24-30.

[41](Ringrose, 2003: 134).


[42] (Herrin, 2008: 268).


[43] Shaun Tougher points out this possibility in his paper on Narses that he kindly allowed me to see before publication. He also advised me that we have no evidence of a eunuch leading a Byzantine army after Eutropius until Solomon.


[44]See, e.g. Procopius, Wars 6.30.1-5.


[45] Justinian’s predecessors Marcian (ruled 450-457), Leo I (ruled 457-474), Zeno (ruled 474-5, 476-91), Basiliscus (ruled 475/6), Justin I (ruled 518-27) all began their careers as humble soldiers (the exception, Anastasius ruled 491-518, served as a palace official before surprisingly being named emperor).


[46] Procopius, Wars 6.30.27.


[47](Hopkins, 1978: 176-96).


[48] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards 2.5.


[49] Procopius, Wars 8.21.9-18.


[50]Procopius, Wars 8.21.7.


[51](Cameron, 2003: 203).


[52] Procopius, indeed, criticized (Wars 8.34.1-5) Narses, albeit indirectly, for his barbarian auxiliaries’ slaughter of numerous Italo-Romans after the Byzantine army retook Rome shortly after defeating Totila in 552. Contra Kaldellis (2004: 215), I do not believe that this passage reveals that the historian had turned against the reconquest, or serves as proof that tyche reigned supreme in the Gothic Wars. Procopius, in fact, criticized Narses’ dependence on the barbarian Heruls (the likely culprits) throughout the narrative (e.g., Wars 6.14.36). So too did he frequently praise Belisarius for his ability to control such excessive behaviour by his barbarian allies in his own campaigns (e.g., Wars 3.12.9) Such a reference, blaming barbarian auxiliaries and not the army as a whole, would have suited Procopius’ purpose. It criticized the massacre, whilst not undercutting Narses’ and the Byzantine army’s larger achievement.


[53](Treadgold, 2007: 223); (Stewart, 2012: esp. 138-51).


[54] I will argue in a future paper that Procopius may have hoped to serve in Narses’ regime in Italy.


[55] See e.g., the description of the fifth-century Roman generalissimo Aetius found in the fragment of the Historia of Renatus Frigeridus recorded by the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours (History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe): His (Aetius) intelligence was keen, he was full of energy, a superb horseman, a fine shot with an arrow and tireless with the lance. He was extremely able as a soldier and he was skilled in the arts of peace. There was no avarice in him and even less cupidity. He was magnanimous in his behaviour and never swayed in his judgement by the advice of unworthy counsellors. He bore adversity with great patience, was ready for any exacting enterprise, he scorned danger and was able to endure hunger, thirst and the loss of sleep.


[56] See e.g., Procopius, Wars 5.22.1-9 (Belisarius cleverly lures the Goths into battle and laughs at their “barbarian simplicity”), Wars 6.30.24-7 (Belisarius shows his devious side by going along with the Goths’ offer to make him emperor of the West).


56 Procopius, Wars 5.5.7, 5.18.29 (praise of Belisarius’ courage and fighting prowess ), 7.2.7, 7.6.19 ( espousing Totila’s martial and manly virtues); Agathias, Histories 5.16.1 (admiration of the elder Belisarius’ fighting qualities and lingering manliness).


57Ammianus, Histories 31.5.14 (my trans.); 14.6.10. I have replaced the translator Rolfe’s “valour” for virtute with “manliness.” Cf. Theophylact, History  2.14.6. 


58Agathias, Histories 2.12. 2-6.


59 See, e.g. Theophylact, History 3.13.4: “Comrades-you are my comrades both in toils and tumults because of the war-the engagement is established as a test of virtue [ἀρετῆς] and vice [κακίας], and is the arbiter of souls: for this day will either convict us of effeminate [θηλυπρεπὲς] cowardice [δειλίας], or with garlands and glorious triumphs will proclaim our manly [ἀρρενωπὸν] bravery [εὐτολμίας].” I have changed the translator Whitby’s “courage” for ἀρετῆς to “virtue” and “cowardice” for κακίας to “vice.”


60For the deft juxtaposition of classical and Christian militant themes during the reign of Heraclius (ruled 610-42), see (Alexander, 1977); (Whitby, 1998).


61 Theophylact, History 5.4.8-9.






Partial Bibliography




Agathias. Agathiae Myrinaei Historiarum libri quinque. Edited by R. Keydell. 1967.

       Berlin. Translated by J. D. Frendo. 1975. New York.

Ammianus Marcellinus. Histories. Translated by J. C. Rolfe (LCL). 1935-1939.

      Cambridge, MA.

Claudian. Claudian. Translated by M. Platnauer (LCL). 1922. Cambridge, MA.

Claudius Mamertinus. Gratiarum action suo Juliano imperatori. Edited by D. Lassandro. Turin: Pavaria, 1992. Translated by Samuel Lieu. 1986. Liverpool.

Eunapius. Universal History. Edited and Translated by R.C. Blockley. 1983. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus. Volume 2.  Liverpool.

Evagrius Scholasticus. The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus. Translated by Michael Whitby. 2000. TTH 33. Liverpool.

John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. 2010. Cambridge.

Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated by Lewis Thorpe (Penguin). 1974. London.

Liber Pontificalis. The Ancient biographies of the first ninety Roman bishops to AD 715. Translated by Raymond Davis. TTH 6. Liverpool

Marcellinus Comes. The Chronicle of Marcellinus. Edited and translated by B.

       Croke. 1995. Sydney.

Maurice. Strategikon. Edited by G. T. Dennis. 1981. Vienna

Menander Protector. History of Menander the Guardsman. Edited and translated by R. Blockley. 1985. Cambridge.

Paul the Deacon. History of the Lombards. Edited by Edward Peters, and translated by William Foulke. 1974. Philadelphia.

Procopius of Caesarea. Wars. Edited by J. Haury, Translated by H. B. Dewing (LCL). 1914-28. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.

¾¾¾¾ . Buildings. Edited by J. Haury (LCL). 1935. Cambridge, Mass.

¾¾¾¾. Secret History. Translated by H. B. Dewing (LCL). 1969. Cambridge, Mass.

Theophylact Simocatta, History. Edited by C. de Boor and re-edited by P. Wirth. 1972. Stuttgart. Translated by Michael and Mary Whitby. 1986. Oxford.

Zosimus. New History. (French Translation by Francois Paschoud 1971-89. Zosime, Histoire Nouvelle. Paris: Les Belles Lettres 3 vols), English Translation by Ron Ridley. 1986. Brisbane.





Alexander, S. (1977) Heraclius, Byzantine Imperial Ideology, and the David Plates.  Speculum 52 (217-37).

Bevin, A. (2002). How Wars are Won: The 13 Rules of War from Ancient Greece to the War on Terror. New York: Crown Publishers.

Brown, P. (1988) The Body and Society: Men Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.  

Bury, J. B. (1889). A History of the Later Roman Empire: From Arcadius to Irene, 395 to 800 (Vol. 2). London.

Cameron, A. (1985). Procopius and the Sixth Century. London: Duckworth.

Cohen, E. (2003). The High Cost of Andreia at Athens. In R. R. Sluite, Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (pp. 145-166). Boston: Brill.

Conway, C. (2008) Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fauber, L. (1991). Narses, the Hammer of the Goths: The Life and Times of Narses the Eunuch. London: St. Martins Press.

Kaldellis, A. (2004). Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kuefler, M. (2001). The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian ideology in Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Herrin, J. (2013). Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hopkins, K. (1978). Conquerors and Slaves. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guilland, R. Les eunuques dans l’ empire byzantine. Etude de titulaire et de prosopographie byzantines REB (1943): 197-238.

Long, J. (1996). Claudian’s ‘In Eutropium’ Or, How ,When and Why to Slander a Eunuch. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Martyn, John. (2007). The Eunuch Narses. In Chris Bishop, Text and Transmission in Medieval Europe. Cambridge.

McDonnell, M. (2006). Roman Manliness “Virtus” and the Roman Republic.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ringrose, K. (2003). The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stewart, M.E. (2012). The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire PhD Diss. Queensland University.

Tougher, S. (2008). The Eunuchs in Byzantine History and Society . New York: Routledge.

————(2004) Social Transformation, Gender Transformation? The Court Eunuch, 300-900. In Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith, Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900 (pp. 70-82). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Treadgold, W. (2007). The Early Byzantine Historians. New York: Macmillan Press

————The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender. International Journal of the Classical Tradition. Vol. 12, No. 3 (Winter, 2006), pp. 466-469.

Wells, C. The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.12.

Whitby, M. (1998) Defender of the Cross: George of Pisidia on the Emperor Heraclius and his Deputies.  In Mary Whitby The Propaganda of Power: The Role of the Panegyric in Late Antiquity ((pp.247-276). Leiden: Brill

Williams, C. (1999) Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.













Representations of Power and Imperial Manliness in the Reign of Theodosius II

 Today’s blog is on the Roman Emperor Theodosius II. This long-reigning emperor has received some much needed attention in  recent scholarship. What follows is a recent paper I gave on T2.


On a summer day in 450, the forty-eight year old Eastern Roman emperor, Theodosius II died of injuries sustained in a horse riding accident. Having reigned since his father Arcadius’ death in 408, many contemporary Eastern Romans had never known another ruler. Such an end represented a somewhat ironic demise for an emperor better known by most modern historians for his ineffectual rule, monkish character, and prominent role in contemporary Christological debates, than for a zest for the active life.[1] This paper looks at the various ways imperial propaganda, and in particular, some fifth-century ecclesiastical historians, promoted Theodosius II as the leader of both the Roman state and the increasingly powerful Christian Church. It will challenge the view found in much of the modern scholarship on the reign that supposes that the fifth century witnessed a major shift away from martial virtues as an essential component of imperial propaganda.








The Pious Emperor

Similar to many upper-class Romans of the time, the emperor and his family were dedicated Christians.[2] One sees evidence of this devotion in the literary and the visual sources from the reign.[3] This emphasis is certainly found in the writings of the Eastern Church historians whose literary genre flourished during the emperor’s reign.[4] One specialist on the period remarks that many of the fifth-century ecclesiastical historians’ descriptions of Theodosius II appear more characteristic of a Late Roman holy man, bishop, or monk than that of an archetypal Late Roman emperor.[5] For example, Socrates, whose generally fair and balanced account provides us with the best narrative of the reign, informs his readers that the imperial family ran the palace like a monastery. He even suggests that the emperor wore a hair-coat—typical of extreme Eastern ascetics—underneath his royal garb and dedicated his days and nights to prayer, fasting, and study of sacred texts. Seemingly reneging on an earlier promise (HE 1.1.2-3) not to cross the line from historian to panegyrist, Socrates extolled what he saw as the emperor’s “Christian” virtues:

He evinced so much prudence, that he appeared to those who conversed with him to have acquired wisdom from experience. Such was his fortitude in undergoing hardships, that he would courageously endure both heat and cold; fasting very frequently, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays; and this he did from an earnest endeavour to observe with accuracy all the prescribed forms of the Christian religion.[6]

Here we find all of the characteristics of the standard bishop or holy man.[7] Throughout his history, Socrates created an image of Theodosius II as a model leader of both the Church and the State. Theresa Urbainczyk has recently illustrated how highlighting the ascetic authority of the emperor allowed Socrates to link the “unity of the Empire and the unity of the Church”. Having the emperor conform to his vision of the attributes of an ideal bishop allowed the historian to promote to his readers the “controversial” idea that the emperor represented the dominant, and indeed, the “rightful”, leader of the Church.[8] This stance by Socrates contrasted sharply with that of his fellow Church historians, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Rufinus, who frequently supported the idea of the bishop as the primary authority in ecclesiastical affairs. Despite this rhetoric, however, the emperors maintained their dominant role as the leader of the Church throughout Late Antiquity.[9] 

        Sozomen presented a slightly more conventional portrait of Theodosius II as a quintessential Christian Roman emperor and man. In an introduction dedicated to the emperor, and most likely recited in front of the court in Constantinople, Sozomen’s account quite naturally veered from historical to unabashedly panegyric.[10] The resulting impression of Theodosius II differed little from encomiums dedicated to the emperor Augustus four and a half centuries earlier:  He was courageous, militarily successful, devoted to God, sexually restrained, philanthropic and benevolent.[11] In comparison to Socrates, who made only passing mention of the emperor’s martial qualities, Sozomen claimed that Theodosius’ days were filled with military training, physical exercise, and state affairs, while his nights were spent in study.[12]

Though men had trained the young emperor in arms, horse riding and letters, Sozomen attributed Theodosius’ Christian piety and manly deportment to the upbringing and influence of his pious sister, Pulcheria. Amalgamating the traditional “womanly aristocratic” virtue of sisterly devotion, with the newer Christian emphasis on celibacy,[13] the historian applauded the emperor’s elder sister for devoting “her virginity to God”, and helping to guide “Theodosius into piety” by showing him the wisdom of constant prayer, respect for the clergy, and honouring the church with a steady stream of  “gifts and treasure”.[14]

Although piety had always been one of the imperial virtues, Socrates and Sozomen, like other Christian sources from the period, emphasise this quality and the emperor’s other Christian qualities such as charity over the emperor’s more “traditional” virtues such as courage, wisdom, and prudence.[15] In addition, following Old Testament precedents and contemporary hagiographical motifs, the Church historians, tended to attribute the military victories of orthodox emperors to the power of piety and prayer.[16] We see evidence of this view in Sozomen’s declaration that “Piety alone suffices for the salvation of princes; and without piety, armies, a powerful empire, and every other resource, are of no avail”.[17]

        Few modern scholars have been able to resist the temptation of seeing in such depictions a moving away from traditional marital virtues such as courage or manliness toward more Christian notions of extreme asceticism and piety. Since I will spend the remainder of this essay rebutting aspects of these arguments, what follows are brief summaries, and a few initial comments and criticisms of some of their main claims. Theresa Urbainczyk’s view is typical. She writes: “The Church became aware of the incongruity of celebrating military prowess in a Christian emperor and preferred to stress more Christian qualities….The change in emphasis would have also have had imperial approval”.[18] Kenneth Holum proposes that this change in Christian imperial ideology had emerged in the reign of Theodosius II’s Grandfather, Theodosius I. He points to Christian literature surrounding Theodosius I’s victory over his Western rival, Eugenius, at the battle of Frigidus in 384 as evidence of this new ideology: “In that battle, contemporary authors stressed, the soldiers’ weapons had accomplished nothing at all. Theodosius had accomplished nothing at all. Theodosius had mastered Eugenius through piety alone, his tears and prayers”. According to Holum, in the reigns of his sons, Honorius and Arcadius, this Christian imperial dogma became more pronounced. He concludes: “The new ideology owed much to the old, but the personal qualities on which victory depended had been transformed, from strategic ability and brute military strength to the emperor’s Christian eusebeia”.[19] Peter Heather, too, points to a change in imperial ideology in the reign of Theodosius I. He argues more plausibly, however, that this emphasis on piety in the speeches of the court-propagandist, the Hellenic philosopher Themistius, represented a means to deal with changing political realities and military setbacks at the hands of the Goths in the years after Adrianople, as much as a real and permanent shift in imperial ideology.[20] I agree that this stress on the emperor’s “Christian” virtues, and the apparent rejection of the typical Roman adulation of brute force, seems to have been a response to Theodosius’ rather embarrassing failure to crush the Goths in 381, as well as the ensuing incorporation of many of these “barbarian enemies” into his armed forces. Before these defeats, Themistius had, in fact, gone to great lengths to promote Theodosius’ warlike qualities, and had expressed in typical jingoistic and militaristic rhetoric, the emperor’s need for revenge against the Goths for the setback at Adrianople.[21]

Nevertheless, there are problems with all of these approaches. First, examinations of the literary and visual sources that have survived from the reign of Constantius II (ruled 337-361) reveal that an imperial reliance on Christian virtues and imagery as an essential aspect of imperial propaganda was not a Theodosian innovation. Despite the largely negative portrait found in Ammianus, Constantius deftly balanced his military role with Christian engagement.[22] Secondly, it is surely hazardous to rely largely on Christian writers’ versions of battles like Frigidus and their visions of “pious” Roman emperors, as Holum does, as firm evidence of a cultural shift away from martial virtues as a key component of imperial ideology. Historians must take care when relying on ancient sources with a Christian rather than a historical agenda. As Alan Cameron warns, ecclesiastical history operated “on a theological rather than a historical plane”; secular wars and military victories were only of interest for the ecclesiastical authors “for the light they cast on the piety and orthodoxy of the victors”.[23] This motive helps to explain why these Christian sources emphasised the bloodless and miraculous nature of Theodosius I’s victory at Frigidus against the supposed pagan elements of Eugenius’ forces.[24] It was only natural that these Christian sources, depending on Old Testament precedents (Joshua 6.20) as well fourth-century trends in Christian hagiography and panegyric, would highlight the pivotal role that the “hand of God” played in the triumph of the “orthodox” and “pious” Theodosius, while marginalising both the numbers and the military qualities of his soldiers. Such a view probably had imperial approval. For Theodosius I and his heirs, a hard-fought contest between two rival Christian emperors heading evenly matched Roman armies of a similar religious makeup was perhaps better explained as a bloodless and providential triumph over a numerically superior Western army intent on re-establishing pagan worship.

Though I would not deny the worth—and indeed the absolute necessity—of using Christian sources in helping to reconstruct secular events in the murky late-fourth and fifth-century, some care must be taken. Certainly, to proclaim the end of the relevance of the emperor and his soldiers’ “brute military strength” as a key component of the Empire’s well-being and as a key aspect of imperial ideology on such slanted evidence, as Holum does, is hazardous. Two Late Roman sources less favourable to Theodosius I, Eunapius and the Christian historian, Philostorgius (a Church historian who opposed Theodosius I’s Christological position), portrayed Frigidus “as just another triumph of the stronger over the weaker”.[25] Therefore, the marginalising of martial virtues and the trumpeting of Christian values promoted by Late Roman Christian and imperial sources may simply represent the demands of one’s literary genre and/or a response by imperial ideology to military setbacks and civil war.


(Base of a statue of Theodosius II Hebdomon Constantinople, image from


We have evidence that Theodosius II sought to present himself as the face of Roman military victory. In a similar fashion as Justinian I in the next century, Theodosius II seemed to know the importance of claiming “the credit for military successes”.[26] His religious devotion and his belief in providence certainly did not keep him from commissioning equestrian monuments of himself to commemorate “his” victories over the Persians 420/21 and the Huns 441/2.[27] In fact, it was this image of Theodosius II as the protector of the Eastern Empire and the driving force behind the “triumphs” over the Huns and Persians that served as prominent themes in Olympiodorus’ secular history and the early Byzantine ecclesiastical histories of Theodoret, Sozomen, and Evagrius.[28] So too after the death of the Western emperor Honorius in 423, did Theodosius present himself as the West’s protector.[29] Military matters represented a major area of focus for Theodosius throughout the 440s. It is clear that Theodosius hoped to wipe away the shame of losing most of North Africa in the 420s and 430s by once again taking the fight to the Vandals. A major Hunnic invasion of the Eastern Empire in 442, however, forced the Eastern emperor to recall his fleet that was, with cooperation of his junior Western counterpart Valentinian III, planning a major invasion against the Vandals in Africa.[30]

Without a doubt, military success represented an essential component to the ideology of both the state and the Church in the Christian Eastern Roman Empire of Theodosius II.[31] By his reign, it had in fact become difficult to separate the two. Though exaggerated for rhetorical effect, the famous quotation from a sermon from 428 by the newly elected bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, highlighted this intimate connection between “orthodoxy” and military success: “Give me King, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Aid me in destroying heretics, and I will assist you in vanquishing the Persians”.[32] Further evidence of this view is found in a letter from the bishop of Cyrus Theodoret to Theodosius’ general, the Alan Aspar, promising “to implore our good Lord” to guard the Empire and make it a terror to its enemies.[33]  Therefore, it should cause little surprise then that the younger Theodosius, who sought to justify and glorify his leadership of the Church and the State, would have supported the creation of ideologies that portrayed him as both a model religious and secular leader.

 The increasing juxtaposition of Church and state affairs that marked the politics of the Theodosian age is reflected in the writings of many contemporary Christian sources. In opposition to Holum’s and Urbainczyk’s conclusions about Christian writers growing tendency to marginalise militarism, a wealth of evidence is found in their writings applauding the Roman emperors’ and their soldiers’ military prowess. One example should suffice. In the following passage, the fifth-century Christian poet Prudentius celebrated the Emperor Honorius’ “Christian” Roman army’s victory over the Goths:

To lead our army and our empire we had a young warrior mighty in Christ, and his companion and father [-in-law] Stilicho, and Christ the one God of both. It was after worship at Christ’s altar and when the mark of the cross was imprinted on the brow, that the trumpets sounded. First before the dragon standards went a spear-shaft raising the crest of Christ. There the race that for thirty years had plagued Pannonia was at last wiped out and paid the penalty.[34] 

As Michael Whitby aptly points out, “It is too easily forgotten that the Christian God was chosen by Constantine as a God of Battles, and that there are plenty of exempla of heroic warriors and much smiting of enemies in the Old Testament – Gideon, Samson, David, and Maccabees”.[35] Indeed, the seminal  fifth-century Christian writer Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) used the example of David to reassure the Roman military commander Boniface that God valued the endeavours of Roman soldiers, and supported what the bishop described as just wars.[36]

This pro-martial sentiment represented a common theme in many Christian writings of the time. Sharing a view espoused by their model Eusebius, Sozomen, and Socrates made it clear in their histories that the well-being of the Church remained linked inexorably to the military successes of the Roman armies. Yet, Socrates and Sozomen included information on secular matters seemingly unlinked to Church affairs in their accounts. Socrates, in particular, knew that this inclusion set this history apart from his model Eusebius (and in some ways his contemporaries like Theodoret).[37] This gradual move away from purely Christian histories is not so strange considering that these ecclesiastical historians lived in a different age than their historiographical model. By the time these men composed their histories, the Christian Roman Empire was nearly a century and a half old; paganism was a spent force, and Christian symbolism and iconography were an important part of Roman military ideology. Whereas Eusebius’ history had been largely a tale of the Christian Church’s fight against its external enemies, and in particular the “prosecuting” pagan Roman emperors, the fifth-century ecclesiastical historians concentrated on the battle against “heretics” within, and the integral relationship between the success of the Roman armies and the success of the Church.[38] To varying degrees, these ecclesiastical historians provided details on secular and military affairs and the actions of brave soldiers, and even provided accounts of “brave” Roman citizens taking up arms against foreign invaders.[39] This inclusion was no accident. Socrates explained he included such formerly taboo topics for two primary reasons. First, and most important, as he put it, “when public affairs were in turmoil, those of the Church were in turmoil”. He continued by justifying his emphasis on the life and deeds of Roman emperors. He wrote, “I continually include the emperors in history since from the time they became Christians, the affairs of the Church have depended on them”. Last, and perhaps most revealing, he thought (or perhaps hoped) that his reading audience would tire of an endless rehashing of doctrinal disputes.[40]

Due to the loss of much of the secular literature from the fifth century, our portrait of Theodosius II derives mostly from the relatively abundant Christian sources that survive from his reign. This skewed ratio has probably tilted our view towards the “Christian” Theodosius II somewhat.[41] Priscus, one the few fifth-century secular historians besides Olympiodorus to provide us with some details on his reign—albeit in a negative fashion—says very little in the fragments that survive about the emperor’s piety, and nothing about the Christological views of the imperial regime.[42] Instead, he voiced his concerns that Theodosius’ cowardice and lack of marital virtues had caused him to prefer to pay off the Eastern Roman enemies instead of facing them in battle.[43] In what survives of his work known as Byzantine History, Priscus created a portrait of Theodosius II and his ministers as unmanly fops. Though we lack around two thirds of the text, It appears that the career diplomat had constructed the conventional binary contrast comparing the unmanly vices of Theodosius II and his generals and eunuch advisors with the more typically martial and masculine ideals displayed by the emperor Marcian’s (ruled 450-457) military background and his strong diplomatic stance against the Huns.[44]

The fact that the fifth century produced at least five other secular histories should serve as an important reminder, that in contrast to the West, historical writing continued to be a viable literary genre in the East. Judging from their fragments and their sixth-century successors, these works appear to have focussed on military affairs and the manliness of war. We are told that Candidus’ lost history focused heavily on the future emperor Basiliscus’ military “successes and failures” in Africa.[45] Malchus’ history appeared, as well, to concentrate on the military reigns of Leo I, Zeno, and Basiliscus.[46] Indeed, with the exception of Anastasius I (ruled 491-518), Theodosius II’s fifth-century successors had all begun their careers as soldiers.[47]

Secular sources continued to portray military setbacks, not as acts of Divine retribution, but primarily as failures of courage and manliness. Priscus, for instance, blamed Leo I’s failed campaign to recapture North Africa from the Vandals in 468 largely on its commander the future “usurper” Basiliscus. In Priscus’ telling, Basiliscus—either through treachery or through cowardice—failed to act decisively, and therefore allowed the noble and valiant Roman soldiers to suffer a disastrous defeat at the hands of Vandals. [48]

The disappearance of much of the secular historiography from the fifth century should always be remembered when we try to determine the extent of this era’s focus on Christian virtues or a larger societal rejection of martial virtues and traditional masculine ideologies. Indeed, imagine our view of the sixth century if the complete accounts we have from Procopius, Agathias, and Theophylact had disappeared or come down to us only in fragments like all of their fifth-century counterparts. The balance of the surviving sources is such as to give a false impression of a dramatic shift in the fifth century away from an imperial, as well as a larger societal, ideology of masculinity based, in part, on martial virtues.




[1] See especially Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), 101,130, Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 87, Kathryn Chew, “Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II,” Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2 (2006): 207-227.


[2] A discussion of the imperial family’s religious devotion is found in Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 35-36 and Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 300. For a different perspective, see Theresa Urbainczyk, Socrates of Constantinople (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 33. I would suggest that Theodosius, like his grandfather, was a sincere and devoted Christian.


[3] Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 101. Later critics of the reign tried to turn this pious reputation on its head by focusing on the sexual politics of the imperial family, see John Malalas, Chronicle 14.3-8, 14.19.


[4] The first half of the fifth century represented a fecund period of ecclesiastical history.  In the Eastern half of the Empire, no less than five Greek authors continued the Church history of Eusebius.  For some of the reasons for this abundance and popularity, see Alan Cameron, “The Empress and the Poet: Paganism and Politics at the Court of Theodosius II”, Yale Classical Studies 27 (1982): 269-70, Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 164-75.


[5] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 145.

[6] Socrates, HE 7.22.


[7] As Conor Whately (pers. comm.) has pointed out to me, an ability to endure hardships like hot and cold courageously had long been part of the rhetoric of the emperor or commander as ‘commilitones’.


[8] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 164-176.Urbainczyk contends as well (Socrates,158-9) that Socrates’ ascetic image of Theodosius II served, in part, to counter Julian’s lingering reputation as an ideal “philosopher-king”.


[9] Indeed, this reality serves as evidence on the danger of using rigorist Christian writings as evidence of “reality” in the Late Antique world. On this topic see, Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2103), 309-320.


[10] It was expected that historians would exaggerate the virtues and exploits of living emperors, See, e.g. Agathias, Histories preface, 18-20. However, I must add we do find in Eunapius and in Procopius (Wars 1.24.39, 2.28.38-44, 7.1.30) criticisms of living emperors.


[11] For the use of a similar combination of virtues in literary depictions of the emperor Augustus, see Coleen Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 65. On the “minor modifications” imposed by Christianity on these standard imperial virtues, see Lesile 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.


[12] Sozomen, HE 9.1.


[13]Michele Renee Salzman, The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 162-63.


[14] Sozomen, HE 9.1. For the traditional role that imperial women played in imperial affairs, see S. Cristo, “Some notes on the Bonifacian-Eualian schism”, Aevum 51 (1977): 165.


[15] For piety as an essential imperial virtue from the reign of Augustus, see Conway, Behold the Man, 45-6, 51, 59. For the increased focus on this virtue in the reigns of “”child-emperors” like Honorius, Theodosius II, and Valentinian III, see Meaghan McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013),43, 117, 126, 213, 277, 280, 319-21.


[16] Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 96-99.


[17] Sozomen, HE 9.1. Cf. Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992),134-35.


[18] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 146. She does, however, leave open the possibility that this emphasis was taken out of necessity since Theodosius II had no military virtues worth mentioning.


[19] Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 50-1.


[20]Peter Heather and David Moncur, Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius, TTH 36 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 261-62.


[21] Cameron, Last Pagans, 98-101.


[22] See e.g., Michael Whitby, “Images of Constantius”, in The Late Roman World and its Historian: Interpreting Ammianus Marcellinus, ed. Jan Willem Drijvers, David Hunt (New York: Routledge, 1999), 77-92.  


[23] Cameron (Last Pagans, 103-09) disputes this “pagan” revival, and contends that the wind miracle was the gradual “invention” of later Christian writers.


 [24] S. G. McCormack, “Latin Prose Panegyrics”, in Empire and Aftermath: Silver Latin II, ed. T. A. Dorey (London, 1975), 169-72.


[25] Cameron, Last Pagans, 111.  Eunapius, frag. 60.1, Philostorgius, HE 11.2.


[26] On Theodosius’ equestrian monument in Hebdomon just outside the capital, see Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 110. For the rather inconclusive outcome of these wars, yet the relative prosperity of the Eastern Empire at the close of Theodosius II’s reign, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 62-83.


[27] A.D. Lee, “The Empire at War”, in CCAG, ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 343-45.


[28] Olympiodorus, frag. 43.1-2. Theodoret, HE 5.7.4-10, Sozomen, HE 9.6.1, Evagrius, HE 1.19.  The pagan Olympiodorus’ history composed around 427 was dedicated to Theodosius II. For Olympiodorus’ possible close relationship with Theodosius II and the Empress Eudocia, see Warren Treadgold, “The Diplomatic Career and Historical Work of Olympiodorus of Thebes”, The International Historical Review 26 4 (2004): esp. 714, 723.


[29] Indeed, Theodosius may have hoped originally to have ruled as a sole Augustus. See, Mathews, Western Aristocracies, 377-81.


[30] A full discussion on Theodosius attempts to present himself as the manly protector of the  Western half of the Empire is found in McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule, 264-65.


[31] For this point, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 39.


[32] Socrates, HE 7.29.5. Socrates, in fact, used this speech to criticise Nestorius for his hardline against those the bishop considered heretics.  Socrates portrayed many of the disputes that disrupted the Church and the fourth and the fifth centuries as a waste of time.


[33] Theodoret, Letter 139 (trans. Jackson).

[34] Prudentius, c. Symmachus 2 II. 709-14, quoted in Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001),131.


[35] Michael Whitby (pers. comm.).


[36] Augustine, Letter 189. Augustine composed his City of God chiefly as a rebuttal against pagan assertions that the Christianization of the Empire had led to the barbarian invasions and the Goth Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 CE. Though he largely dismissed in this work the importance as well as the long term impact of events in the secular world, as the example above shows, his political writings frequently took a far more pragmatic stand.


[37] Socrates’ prefatory comments to open book six suggests that some of his early readers had been critical of his heavy focus on secular matters.


[38] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 150.


[39] For just a few examples, Sozomen, HE 7.4, 9.5, 9.9, Socrates (HE 5.1) provided a vivid account of the citizens of Constantinople taking up arms to defend the capital against the Goths.


[40] Socrates HE pref. 5.5. This emphasis on secular events may suggest a less devout Christian audience than one might suspect.


[41] Hence Millar’s masterful account of the reign relies heavily on the Church historians and the Acta of the Oecumenical councils held during Theodosius II’s reign.


[42] See, for example, Priscus, frag 3.1: “Theodosius, who succeeded his father Arcadius as Emperor, was unwarlike [ἀπολεμος] and lived a life of cowardice [δειλία]. He obtained peace by money, not by fighting for it.


[43] This paradigm was observed long ago by E. A. Thompson, who revealed that Priscus approved of anyone or group of peoples who took bold stands against barbarian peoples.  E.A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 189.

[44] Priscus, frag. 5.18-20.


[45]Candidus, frag. 1


[46]Malchus, frags.  Contra B. Baldwin’s claim (Dumbarton Oaks Papers
Vol. 31. (1977); 89+91-107) that Malchus’ history sought to criticize the rampant militarism of Leo and Zeno’s reigns, while critical of these reigns, far too little remains of the history remains to make such a sweeping conclusion. Indeed, if Baldwin’s thesis is true, it seems strange that Malchus would have made such an effort to portray Zeno as unwarlike and cowardly (e.g. frag 5).


[47] See, e.g. Priscus, frag. 5.15.


[48] Priscus, frag. 53. 

Vandals and Romans: the Battle of Cape Bon 468



The battle of Cape Bon, the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I’s failed attempt in 468 to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa, is one of the key events of the fifth century. It represents one of four failed attempts by the combined forces of the Eastern and the Western Empire to expel the Vandals from North Africa. Most of these defeats had more to do with Roman incompetence and/or extenuating political circumstance than the military capabilities of the Vandal, who in the sixth century would be quickly defeated by the Roman general Belisarius and small force of around 15,000 men. In today’s blog I will reveal some of the sources that have come down to of this important event. Later I will be writing up a short piece for an article I am working on Leo.

Unfortunately the main histories describing this event, Priscus and Candidus, have only survived in fragments. Most subsequent Byzantine accounts seem to originate from Priscus…in some cases via Eustathius.

It is interesting to note that Leo takes little of the blame in the accounts that survive. I would suggest that this is part of the reason that fifth and sixth century emperors did not feel the need to direct campaigns in person. If the assault failed, a scapegoat could be found within the military, whilst if victory was achieved the emperor could represent himself as the face of Roman victory.  Certainly the example of the Western emperor, Majorian’s (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution in August 461 at the hands of his non-Roman advisor Ricimer, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution. In the mind of contemporary Byzantine sources, the fleet’s defeat was to be blamed by the “betrayal” by a few individuals at the top.  We see in many of the accounts the subsequent growth of “true” Roman heroes in the face of defeat (note the different heroes found in Marcellinus, Malalas, and Procopius).

Leo seems to have instigated a propaganda campaign to keep himself from blame for the disaster…e.g. painting Aspar as afraid of the Vandals…whilst promoting Leo’s “fearlessness. It is important to remember that Leo was in the midst of an intense power struggle with his former mentor, the Alan generalissimo at the time of the defeat. A rival Leo would assassinate along with his family members in 471.

So too did Leo’s successor Zeno use the defeat as propaganda against the “usurper” Basiliskos. Perhaps blaming Basiliskos’ treachery in accepting a bribe from the Vandals comes from Priscus who wrote shortly after Zeno deposed Basiliskos as emperor, since it is strange that after such treason he could still become emperor. Modern historians (e.g. Macgeorge 58 doubts the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on B’s bad generalship). I would go further, suggesting that Basiliskos could have never become emperor if he had been the primary cause of the defeat. Indeed, the notion of B as the main culprit is surely a later invention.


Candidus: via Suda:  Leo, the butcher, the emperor after Marcian, spent an enormous sum of money on the expedition against the Vandals. For the officials in charge of these matters revealed that 47, 000 pounds of gold came through the prefects, and through the count of treasuries an additional 17, 000 pounds of gold and 700,000 pounds of silver, as well as monies raised through confiscations and the (western) Emperor Anthemios.




Marcellinus, patrician of the West and a pagan, brought money and military support to the Romans who were fighting the Vandals at Carthage. He was stabbed treacherously by the very persons on whose behalf he had openly come to fight (aug 468 in Sicily).

Malalas>: Leo in his time began a campaign against Geiseric, king of the Africans, fighting a tremendous sea-battle. He sent a large fleet under the command of the patrician Basiliscus, the brother of the Augusta Verina, Leo’s wife. Basiliscus accepted, however, bribes from Geiseric and betrayed the ships with the exarchs, the comites and the entire army. He with his ship…a fast vessel…was the first and the only ship to escape. All the rest of the ships, and the entire army perished, sunk at sea. Among them was Damonicus the ex-dux, who had become magister militum of the expedition, and was originally from Antioch. He fought bravely against the Africans, but was isolated and surrounded, captured)and flung into the sea fully in his armour. Basiliscus returned, defeated, to Constantinople.

 Exc de Leg. Rom, 13:The Emperor Leo sent Phylarchus to Gaiseric to announce to him the sovereignty of Anthemios and to threaten war if he did not evacuate Italy and Sicily. He returned with the report that Gaiseric refused to accept the Emperor’s commands and that he was engaged in preparation for war on the ground that the treaty had been broken by the Eastern Romans. (treaty 462) (Vandal raids in East 467).

EvagriusHE 2.16: : Basiliscus, the brother of Verina, Leo’s wife, was sent as general against Gaiseric with excellently equipped forces.


Procopius:  the Emperor Leo, wishing to punish the Vandals because of these things, was gathering an army against them; and they say that this army amounted to about one hundred thousand men. And he collected a fleet of ships from the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, showing great generosity to both soldiers and sailors, for he feared lest from a parsimonious policy some obstacle might arise to hinder him in his desire to carry out his punishment of the barbarians. Therefore, they say, thirteen hundred centenaria [28] were expended by him to no purpose. But since it was not fated that the Vandals should be destroyed by this expedition, he made Basiliskos commander-in-chief, the brother of his which he hoped would come to him without a struggle if he won the friendship of Aspar. For Aspar himself, being an adherent of the Arian faith, and having no intention of changing it for another, was unable to enter upon the imperial office (Note that Procopius suggest Aspar could not become emperor, some scholars dispute this point), but he was easily strong enough to establish another in it, and it already seemed likely that he would plot against the Emperor Leo, who had given him offence. So they say that since Aspar was then fearful lest, if the Vandals were defeated, Leo should establish his power most securely, he repeatedly urged uponBasiliscus that he should spare the Vandals and Gieseric.(This is probably contempory propeganda by Leo after the defeat)


[467 A.D.] Now before this time Leo had already appointed and sent

Anthemius, as Emperor of the West, a man of the senate of great wealth

and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war.

And yet Gieseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial

power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of

Valentinian, and on account of his relationship[29] well-disposed toward

him, and when he failed in this he was still more angry and kept

plundering the whole land of the emperor. Now there was in Dalmatia a

certain Marcellianus, one of the acquaintances of Aetius and a man of

repute, who, after Aetius had died in the manner told above (assassinated by Valentinian III),[30] no

longer deigned to yield obedience to the emperor, but beginning a

revolution and detaching all the others from allegiance, held the power

of Dalmatia himself, since no one dared encounter him. But the Emperor

Leo at that time won over this Marcellianus by very careful wheedling,

and bade him go to the island of Sardinia, which was then subject to the

Vandals. And he drove out the Vandals and gained possession of it with

no great difficulty. And Heracleius was sent from Byzantium to Tripolis

in Libya, and after conquering the Vandals of that district in battle,

he easily captured the cities, and leaving his ships there, led his army

on foot toward Carthage. Such, then, was the sequence of events which

formed the prelude of the war.


But Basiliscus with his whole fleet put in at a town distant from

Carthage no less than two hundred and eighty stades (now it so happened

that a temple of Hermes had been there from of old, from which fact the

place was named Mercurium; for the Romans call Hermes “Mercurius”), and

if he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had

undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the

first onset, and he would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without

their even thinking of resistance; so overcome was Gieseric with awe of

Leo as an invincible emperor (obviously remnents of a pro-Leo source, Geiseric was not too fearfull of the non-campainging Leo), when the report was brought to him that

Sardinia and Tripolis had been captured, and he saw the fleet of

Basiliscus to be such as the Romans were said never to have had before.

But, as it was, the general’s hesitation, whether caused by cowardice or

treachery, prevented this success (Note both options are given by Procopius, most modern historians do not believe that Basiliscus too a bribe from Geiseric, instead his poor generalship is blamed e.g. MacGeorge). And Gieseric, profiting by the

negligence of Basiliscus, did as follows. Arming all his subjects in the

best way he could, he filled his ships, but not all, for some he kept in

readiness empty, and they were the ships which sailed most swiftly. And

sending envoys to Basiliscus, he begged him to defer the war for the

space of five days, in order that in the meantime he might take counsel

and do those things which were especially desired by the emperor (a similar tactic that the Goth Totila tried and failed to use against Narses). They

say, too, that he sent also a great amount of gold without the knowledge

of the army of Basiliscus and thus purchased this armistice. And he did

this, thinking, as actually did happen, that a favouring wind would rise

for him during this time. And Basiliscus, either as doing a favour to

Aspar (linking the too scapegoats while exonerating the non-campaigning Leo) in accordance with what he had promised, or selling the moment of

opportunity for money, or perhaps thinking it the better course, did as

he was requested and remained quietly in the camp, awaiting the moment

favourable to the enemy.


But the Vandals, as soon as the wind had arisen for them which they had

been expecting during the time they lay at rest, raised their sails and,

taking in tow the boats which, as has been stated above, they had made

ready with no men in them, they sailed against the enemy. And when they

came near, they set fire to the boats which they were towing, when their

sails were bellied by the wind, and let them go against the Roman fleet.

And since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily

spread fire wherever they struck, and were themselves readily destroyed

together with those with which they came in contact. And as the fire

advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was

natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind

and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors

shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the

fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by

one another in complete disorder. And already the Vandals too were at

hand ramming and sinking the ships, and making booty of such of the

soldiers as attempted to escape, and of their arms as well. (What follows is the typical face of manly Roman-ness in the face of defeat):But there

were also some of the Romans who proved themselves brave men in this

struggle, and most of all John, who was a general under Basiliscus and

who had no share whatever in his treason. For a great throng having

surrounded his ship, he stood on the deck, and turning from side to side

kept killing very great numbers of the enemy from there, and when he

perceived that the ship was being captured, he leaped with his whole

equipment of arms from the deck into the sea. And though Genzon, the son

of Gizeric, entreated him earnestly not to do this, offering pledges and

holding out promises of safety, he nevertheless threw himself into the

sea, uttering this one word, that John would never come under the hands

of dogs.


So this war came to an end, and Heracleius departed for home; for

Marcellianus had been destroyed treacherously by one of his

fellow-officers (Ricimer seems to have been the key agent in his death).. And Basiliscus, coming to Byzantium, seated himself as

a suppliant in the sanctuary of Christ the Great God (“Sophia”[31] the

temple is called by the men of Byzantium who consider that this

designation is especially appropriate to God), and although, by the

intercession of Verina, the queen, he escaped this danger, he was not

able at that time to reach the throne, the thing for the sake of which

everything had been done by him. For the Emperor Leo not long

afterwards destroyed both Aspar and Ardaburius in the palace, because he

suspected that they were plotting against his life. [471 A.D.] A perfect time to attack his scapegoat and salvage his reputation. Thus,

then, did these events take place


Jordanes, Rom, 337:

Leo sent his kinsman Basiliscus, the brother of the Empress Verina, to Africa with an army. He made frequent seaborne attacks upon Carthage, but before he conquered it, he was himself overcome by greed and sold it back to Geiseric for money.



Theophanes chron a.m. 5961

In this year the Emperor Leo fitted out a great fleet and it went against Geiseric, the ruler of the Africans. For after the death of Marcian, Geiseric had done many terrible things in the lands under Roman sovereignty, plundering, taking many prisoners and devastating the cities. As a result the emperor was roused to anger and collected from the sea of the East 1100 ships, which he filled with troops and arms an sent against Geiseric. They say that he spent one hundred and thirty thousand pounds of gold on this expedition.


As general of the force he appointed Basiliscus, the brother of the Empress Verina, who had already held the consulship and he had defeated the Skythians in Thrace. He was joined by a considerable force from the West. Engaging in frequent sea-battles with Geiseric’s force, he sent a large number of ships to the bottom, and at that point he could have taken Carthage itself. But later, having been won over by Geiseric with gifts and large sums of money, he gave in and willingly suffered defeat, as Priscan the Thracian narrates.


More to come….Plus I will add a summary of modern historian’s accounts of the battle…before providing my own take.