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.






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