Bessas and other sixth-century Byzantine commanders not named Belisarius or Narses



The military campaigns of the sixth-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian are remembered largely for the deeds of his generals Belisarius and Narses. This focus is to be expected since most military historians rank these two commanders high in the annals of generalship. Yet as one recent scholar (Parnell, Justinian’s generals) has pointed out, Procopius tells us about 48 other Eastern Roman generals. These commanders have attracted far-less notice. Recently, however, the career of the Goth Bessas has received some needed attention. This focus has less to do with the deeds of this rather mediocre commander than the fact that we have some pretty good sources on his career. So too has Bessas somewhat blurred ethnic identity played a part in this interest (e.g. Amory, People and Identity). My colleague Conor Whately recently gave a paper on Bessas at the Oxford conference on Procopius that he has kindly allowed me to see as it progresses. It compares P’s views on Bessas with that of Belisarius. Parnell’s article mentioned above adapted from his PHD dissertation seeks to uncover a less literary individual, which I would suggest is quite difficult, given that our main source has crafted a largely didactic tale that sometimes stretched the truth when it suited his purposes. I touched on Procopius’ presentation of Bessas in my MA thesis Between Two Worlds, but time and space constraints made it necessary to leave him out of my Procopius article that is currently being edited for publication. Conor, points out , in his article that Bessas seems to represent another of Procopius’ inversions found (e.g wise restrained barbarian kings, manly women and eunuchs) throughout Gothic Wars, a “rash” Roman general, (though  I would point out Bessas was seen by P as a Goth so this inversion may not be apt.)


What I hope to do soon is go back and have a complete look at Procopius’ and Agathias’ discussion of Bessas and a few other lesser known commanders. I will not bore anyone here with the drafts, but will post when something more substantial has been created.


By the way anyone interested in pursuing or needing a PhD topic a dissertation on Byzantine generals besides Belisarius and Narses found in Procopius, and/or Agathias would be a good one!



And last, here is my short blurb about Bessas from my MA thesis:

In the account, Procopius contrasted the noble actions of a priest with the cowardly conduct of the Eastern Roman generals. He vilified the Byzantine commanders for their avarice and refusal to relieve the city’s suffering. He indicated that while the populace of Rome was reduced to “monstrous foods unknown to the natural desires of man,” the Byzantine commander Bessas capitalized on the populace’s misery by selling bushels of grain from his personal horde at exorbitant prices.23 In contrast, he provided a description of what he considered the proper Christian response to such a calamity:

At Rome likewise, as it labored under the siege of Totila, all the necessities of life had already failed. Now there was a certain man among the priests of Rome, Pelagius by name, holding the office of deacon; he had passed a considerable time in Byzantium and had there become especially intimate with the Emperor Justinian, and it so happened that he had a short time previously arrived at Rome possessed of a great fortune. And during this siege he had bestowed a great part of his fortune upon those destitute of the necessities of life.24


With this act of philanthropy, Pelagius (consecrated Pope Pelagius I in 556 CE) gained the Roman civilians’ respect. Therefore, when they needed someone to intervene on their behalf with Totila, they chose Pelagius, and not one of the Byzantine generals. The Ostrogothic leader greeted the deacon’s embassy with civility, yet he insisted that he would grant no mercy either to the Sicilians or to the “slaves” who had escaped from his army to join the Byzantine forces. Instead of acquiescing to the formidable general’s power and menace, Pelagius stood his ground and challenged Totila by claiming that he and his men would have preferred “to have been treated with contempt and still have accomplished some of the objects for which they came, than, after hearing more courteous words to return disappointed.” The deacon finished by warning Totila that he would refer his “mission to God, who is accustomed to send retribution upon those who scorn the prayers of suppliants.”25 Procopius implied that it was Pelagius’ Christian duty to protect all men, regardless of their social status or nationality.

Pelagius’ principled behavior may be compared with Bessas’ selfish actions when the Ostrogoths finally stormed Rome. The Byzantine general took flight along with his army, forcing the remnants of the population to seek refuge in the city’s churches. Once again, Pelagius shielded the Roman citizens from Totila’s fury:

Totila for his part went to the church of the Apostle Peter to pray, but the Goths began to slay those who fell in their way. And in this manner there perished among the soldiers twenty-six, and among the people sixty. And when Totila had come to the sanctuary, Pelagius came before him carrying the Christian scriptures in his hand, and, making supplication in every manner possible, said “Spare thy own O Master.” And Totila, mocking him with a haughty indifference, said; “Now at last Pelagius, you have come to make yourself a suppliant before me.” “Yes” replied Pelagius, “at a time when God has made me your slave. Nay, spare your slaves, O Master, from now on.” And Totila received this supplication with favor and forbade the Goths thereafter to kill any Romans at all.26


This quotation illustrates how influential Christian notions of bravery had become by the sixth century CE. Procopius characterized this incident as a duel between two very different warriors. Pelagius fought as a “Christian soldier,” in a non-violent yet effective manner. The priest bowed down to Totila’s physical superiority but continued to fight as a Christian warrior, not with a sword or spear, but with humility and concern for others. As a good Christian, Totila conquered his need for revenge and, recognizing the deacon’s authority, submitted to him. Once more, Christianity’s subtle force had overcome a barbarian’s propensity for violence (βιαστής).


23 Procopius, Wars 7.17.9-10.

24 Procopius, Wars 7.16.4-6.


25 Procopius, Wars 7.16.4-20.


26 Procopius, Wars 7.20.23-5.


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