Narses’ sack of Rome

After defeating the Gothic forces led by Totila, in 552, the Eastern Roman eunuch-general took Rome. This “sack” represents one of the final events in Procopius’ epic history of the emperor Justinian’s reconquest of the lost Western Provinces. Historians have been mixed on whether or not by this time Procopius had tired of the long war. Indeed, the “sack” is used as evidence that the historian had turned against the war. What follows are my thoughts on the “sack”.


The Heruls had led the Byzantine attacks on the circuit-walls of Rome. 8.23.17. The slaughter that engulfed the city after Narses’ forces breached the walls clearly upset the historian. He writes: For this victory turned out to be for the Roman senate and people a cause of far great destruction. Furthermore, upon hearing that the Byzantines had taken Rome, a number of roman senators sought to leave Campania and head to the city where they were killed by a garrison of Goths. Moreover, the 300 noble hostages first taken by Totila were killed by his successor Teïas. His lament that that for men even ‘blessings turn out for their destruction” has been seen by one specialist as a sign that Procopius believed only in tyche. Without a doubt, Procopius blames some of this misfortune to the whims of fate.

Yet should we go so far as one recent specialist to claim that this angst indicate that Procopius did not support a Byzantine victory (Kaldellis Procopius: 2004)? Clearly in Procopius’ account it was not the actions of the native Byzantines that caused most of the destruction. Procopius makes it clear that it was the “barbarians” in Narses’ army who had cut-down indiscriminately the Italo-Romans when they entered the city. Indeed, we may assume that the Heruls who had led the attack were primarily responsible. This behaviour should not surprise since throughout the Gothic Wars the historian had reserved particularly harsh rhetoric for the Herules. Indeed, Narses’ reliance on these auxiliaries represented one of Procopius’ harshest criticisms of the eunuch-commander throughout the Gothic Wars. I think that this may be a slap at Narses’ inability to control these unruly men. This flaw may be contrasted with the historian’s near constant praise throughout Wars of Belisarius’ ability to control his wilder allies such as the Huns through acts of strict discipline. Justice towards the Italo-Romans which throughout the Gothic Wars in Procopius’ mind would determine the victor in the ‘contest’ was conspicuously missing on both sides.  Such a reference would have suited Procopius’ purposes. It provided a dig at Narses, whilst not undercutting his larger accomplishments. Perhaps Procopius believed that if given the opportunity with such a large force, Belisarius would have achieved a similar result, without the disastrous repercussions for the local populace. It is in this context that we must see Procopius rather jaded view of Narses’ sack of Rome. Certainly he closes the Wars with a much more positive and optimistic depiction of the final confrontation between the Goths and Byzantines at the battle of Mons Lactarius in 553 that brings his history to a close.


  1. Gerald

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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