The Gothic rex Totila: Theoderic Reborn or Barbarian Belisarius?




Today’s blog assesses the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius’ depiction of the Gothic king Totila. This artical was picked up by last year. It examines how Procopius used his portrayal of the fluctuating personality of the Gothic leader as a means to discuss the role that men’s virtues and vices played in determining events on the field of battle. It has been excerpted and adapted from a longer paper discussing the role that the concepts of manliness, courage and virtue played in the Gothic Wars.

Since I have been blogging on Jonathan Arnold’s new book on Theoderic, I thought it offers some relevance to the conversation. Procopius’ idealised vision of Totila is interesting, since the Goth seems to display both sides of courage and , at times, “Roman” self-control and Greek sophrosune. I do believe that the Goths were seen as at least semi-Roman by writers like Procopius.




  1. From “Victory” to Quagmire

The Byzantine general Belisarius’ victory over the Gothic king Vitigis (ruled 536-40) seems to have represented the original terminus for Procopius’ Gothic Wars.[1] The narrative drives to what looks like a logical climax, with Vitigis’ defeat and Belisarius’ triumphal return to Constantinople. The theme of a “manly” and “heroic” Roman army defeating a worthy Gothic foe would have made a suitable ending to the Wars. Events on the ground seemed to have interfered with Procopius’ well laid out didactic tale. The year 540 marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite their defeat, the Goths refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In 541, the Gothic nobility appointed Totila (ruled 541-552) as king. Totila, a relative of the Visigothic king Theudis (ruled 526-548), revitalised the Gothic army’s fighting spirit. In a series of swift campaigns, he recaptured almost all of Italy. Procopius now had to deal with a resurgent Goth nation and the recall of his idol, Belisarius. How did the historian explain such a reversal of fortune? Without a doubt, the mercurial nature of tyche and the power of God to determine events play a greater role in books seven and eight than they did in books five and six.[2] I would suggest, however, that Procopius once again blamed Roman failure primarily in the familiar moralising terms. Procopius did not attribute the Roman defeats after 540 on the whims of fate or a lack of courage, nor did he suggest that they resulted from strategic failures. Instead, he treated these losses as arising from moral failures on the part of the Byzantine military high command and the imperial administration.[3] We must take Procopius at his word when he explained that the “insatiable” greed of certain members of the Byzantine high command in Italy and within the Byzantine treasury[4]—not the caprice of fortune—represented the primary reason “the entire fabric of Roman power was utterly destroyed in a short space of time”.[5] Once more, in Procopius’ mind, the “rightful” rulers of Italy would be the side that juxtaposed martial capabilities with a policy of restraint and justice towards the Italians. The tide of battle shifts to the Goths’ favour as the Byzantine generals and administration succumbed to jealousy, greed, bickering, and injustice.[6]


  1. The Restrained and Courageous Barbarian King

Totila is the undisputed hero of book seven of Procopius’ Gothic Wars.[7]As Belisarius’ and the Byzantine’s fortunes decline, Totila’s and the Goths’ fortunes improve. Totila, in this part of the Gothic Wars, encapsulates nearly all of the leadership qualities and virtues found in the Procopius’ encomium on Belisarius at the opening of book seven.[8] Procopius certainly had much to say in this section about Totila’s mastery of numerous political and martial virtues. Like many of his royal predecessors, Totila was formidable in battle.[9] Similar to Theoderic, Totila was also “energetic” [δραστήριον] and “wise” [ξυνέσεως].[10] Totila, however, exhibited some “civilised” qualities not typical in a barbarian king—even Theoderic. Procopius at various times in the narrative described Totila as “restrained” [σωφροσύνη], “humane”, [φιλανθρπίαν] “gentle [πρᾷόν], and “just” [δίκαιος].

Totila also respected his enemy. In Procopius’ version of his first address to his downtrodden men, though not overawed, Totila recognised that the Goths faced a “contest” [τὸνἀγῶνα] for their very existence against a formidable and worthy Byzantine opponent. This speech contains little of the bravado, and none of the condescending gendered rhetoric found in earlier Gothic warriors’ set-speeches denigrating the manliness and courage of his foes. Totila explained to his men, that in order to defeat the Byzantines, the Goths would have to match their “usual spirit of manly courage” [ἀνδραγαθίζεσθα] in battle, with deeds of justice and acts of humane self-restraint in their relations with the Italians. He made it clear that earlier Gothic defeats against the Byzantines could be attributed to his predecessors’ lack of concern for justice, which caused God to turn against them.[11] He too made an effort to treat his captured foes well; a shrewd policy that Procopius showed led many Byzantine soldiers to desert to the Gothic side.[12]

This strategy proved successful. The bulk of the first half of book seven focuses on the Goths gradual retaking of Italy. Instead of providing a detailed account of the various battles and sieges that decimated the Italy over the next five years, Procopius concentrated instead on Totila’s philanthropy and deep regard for justice. Two examples should serve to demonstrate this emphasis. Shortly after Totila’s first capture of Rome in 546, Procopius reported how Totila felt obligated to protect Rome’s aristocratic women from acts of revenge and from sexual violence:

Now the Goths, on their part, were eager to put Rusticiana to death, bringing against her the charge that after bribing the commanders of the Roman army, she had destroyed the statues of Theoderic, her motive in so doing having been to avenge the murder not only of her father Symmachus, but also of her husband Boethius. But Totila would not permit her to suffer any harm, but he guarded both her and all the Roman women safe from insult, although the Goths were extremely eager to have intercourse [κοίτην] with them. Consequently not one of them had the ill fortune to suffer personal insult, whether married, unwed, or widow, and Totila won great renown for moderation [σωφροσύνη] from this course.[13]

As a modern scholar notes, Totila’s reputation for σωφροσύνη “is scarcely a virtue one would associate with a barbarian”.[14] Totila’s civilised σωφροσύνη definitely distinguishes him from typical barbarian leaders, and, I would suggest, even the manly and wise Theoderic. It is probably no coincidence that the women that Procopius chose to describe Totila protecting were none other than Boethius’ wife and Symmachus’ daughters—the two men that the historian had revealed earlier had been “unjustly” executed by Theoderic. Procopius would surely have expected his readers to remember these earlier “crimes”. Totila, as described by Procopius, thus represents a better version of Theoderic. Once again, we find Procopius deftly combining historical events with his own moralising themes to produce an edifying tale that interlocks each of his biographies of the Gothic royalty.[15]

We find further evidence that Procopius sought to differentiate Totila from a typical rough-hewn “Gothic’ king or military man in another anecdote from the same period. An unnamed Italian accused one of Totila’s bodyguards of violating his virgin daughter; the Gothic king imprisoned the soldier. This prompt punishment, in the words of Procopius, alarmed “the most notable men among the barbarians” [τῶν Βαρβάρων οἱ δοκιμώτατοι]. They requested that Totila release the soldier and dismiss the charges, since the assailant was an “active” [δραστήριος] man and “a capable warrior” [ἀγαθος τὰ πολέμια]. Totila, however, “gently and with no excitement” [πράως τε καὶ ταραχῆ οὐδεμιᾷ] refused, declaring that what they “called kindness [φιλανθρωπίαν] in reality was lawlessness [παρανομίαν]”. The Gothic king proclaimed “the act of committing a sin and that of preventing the punishment of those who have committed sin, are in my judgment on the same plane”. The nobles relented and the Goth was executed not long afterwards.[16] Procopius had no qualms in presenting Totila as a man willing to follow justice and “lawful order” over the concerns of powerful members of the Gothic hierarchy. This desire to protect the Italians from harm was a trait that Totila shared with the other Gothic ruler who appreciated Roman law, Amalasuintha. It certainly distanced him from the Gothic “hardliners”.[17]

Soon after the capture of Rome, one senses a gradual modification in Procopius’ idealised characterisation of Totila.[18] Though still capable of great deeds of moderation, the king also lashes out more frequently against the Italians and those he perceived as his enemies.[19] In Procopius’ telling, Totila’s long-line of victories over the Byzantines eroded some of his previous respect for his foes, as well. In my view, the shift prepares the reader for the re-emergence of Belisarius and the gradual revival of Byzantine fortunes to come in the second half of book seven. Once again, Procopius utilised a set-speech to mark this change. Shortly after his storming of Rome, Totila gathered all of his men for an address. The king explained to his men that at the outset of the “contest” [ἀγῶνας], the Goths had gathered a well-supplied host “of two hundred thousand most warlike soldiers….Yet, with all this in our favour, we were vanquished by five thousand Greeks [Γραικῶν], and for no good reasons were stripped of our power and everything else that was ours”. [20] “But now”, he continued, “though reduced to a small numbers” and meagrely armed, they had defeated an enemy “twenty-thousand strong”. Totila pondered how this inexplicable event had occurred. Whereas, in his previous set-speech, he had attributed success in battle to a combination of martial prowess and just behaviour, Totila now claimed that the Goths’ superiorἀρετή, numbers, and armament and supplies had played little part in their resurgence. Instead, he proclaimed that God had supported the Goths because under his rule they had paid a “greater honour to justice” than in previous times. He concluded the speech with a warning that the Goths needed to continue to act justly, “for if you change your course, God too will instantly change his favour and become hostile to you. For it is not his His wont to fight with a race of men or a particular nation, but with such as show the greater honour to justice”.[21] Immediately after giving this stark warning, however, Totila called on members of the Roman senate and, in Procopius’ words admonished them “as an angry master might be expected to say in upbraiding men who have become his slaves”. He reprimanded them for allowing “the Greeks to attack their fatherland” and forgetting the prosperity they had attained under Gothic rule”.[22]

Totila’s less conciliatory attitude, the power of God, and the whims of tyche represent only some of the elements of causation at play in this section. The reader soon learns that Belisarius with “courage” [τόλμα] and deeds of ἀρετή retook Rome from the Goths. The Byzantines then successfully defended the city from Totila’s furious counter-attack.[23] Procopius plainly rejected Totila’s assertion that ἀρετή and courage played no part in deciding events. Once again, he had rebuffed Totila’s dismissive suggestion that the Goths were better fighters than the “Greeks” were. Though the reader will have to wait until the end of book eight, Totila’s further claim, that the Goths’ small numbers and lack of armament were actually beneficial to their cause, would also be undermined. As the reader will eventually learn, the Byzantines’ superior weaponry, greater numbers, and superior ἀρετή ultimately turn out to be Totila’s undoing.[24]Moreover, by the close of book seven, and throughout much of book eight, it was the Byzantine soldiers fighting “manfully” [ἀνδρείως] and the Goths acting disgracefully and forgetting their “courage”.[25] The major turning point in the Italian war originated from Totila’s need to engage the Romans at sea, a form of combat that, Procopius believed, put the Goths at an extreme disadvantage.[26]

Despite his faults, and his deteriorating military position, Totila retained his military skills. When describing Totila’s display of martial skills before the fateful battle of Busto Gallorum, Procopius did little to hide his admiration for the bellicose king’s prowess and intimidating persona. He wrote:

He was not reluctant at all to make an exhibition to the enemy of what manner of man he was. The armor in which he was clad was abundantly plated with gold and ample adornments which hung from his cheek-plates as well from his helmet and spear were not only of purple [the colour of the Roman emperors] but in other respects befitting a king, marvellous in their abundance.

Attempting to delay the Romans while he waited for his reinforcements to arrive, Totila performed a “dance” upon his horse and “hurled his javelin into the air and caught it as it quivered above him, then passed it rapidly from hand to hand, shifting it with consummate skill”.Totila displayed many of the martial skills one would expect from a man raised for battle. Procopius remarked that Totila was “like one who has been instructed in the art of dancing from childhood”.[27] As Philip Rance aptly warns, we should not see this display as an example of Totila’s “barbarian” martial manliness. Byzantine military officers in this era were well versed in such displays.[28]

This display of fighting prowess before the battle did Totila and the Goths little good against the well-supplied and supremely confident Byzantines. The intelligent Byzantine eunuch-general Narses alertly refused to accept Totila’s ruse that he would fight in eight days hence; Narses correctly prepared his men to fight the next day.[29] The eunuch-commander made it clear to his men before battle that his side held all the tactical and strategic advantages. They had greater numbers, better equipment, and superior ἀρετή.[30] Although generals in Procopius’ set-speeches often over-stated their side’s advantages before battle, these comments by the eunuch Narses prove prescient. In the battle, the Byzantine army overwhelmed the Gothic forces, slaying the king and most of his men.[31] In Procopius’ description, tyche and/or God play little role in deciding the outcome of the actual events on the ground.[32] The immediate cause of the Goths’ defeat was, in fact, straight forward; Procopius attributed the trouncing to Totila’s “folly” in risking his men in battle when the Byzantines held all the material and tactical advantages. Moreover, Totila’s decision to forego using bows and any other weapon except spears also proved critical. In contrast, Narses’ army made use of a variety of weapons, and thus were able to adapt to the shifting circumstances of combat.

The manner of Totila’s death, however, clearly shocked Procopius. For a historian obsessed with causation, he provided a somewhat incoherent explanation for the Gothic king’s seemingly ignoble death.[33] In Procopius’ most reliable version of the Gothic king’s demise, Totila died while escaping the frontlines. Procopius saw Totila’s conduct as a cowardly act.[34] His somewhat muddled attempts to find a palatable explanation for Totila’s cowardly behaviour encapsulates the anxieties of a man unable to understand such behaviour in a man, who, though not perfect, had always faced danger with courage. Procopius made it clear that such seismic shifts in human nature or secular events troubled him. They were only comprehensible if one saw them as acts of God, demons, or tyche. Certainly one can agree with Procopius that Totila’s end “was not worthy of his past deeds”.[35]

  1. Causation and Manly Virtues

As Warren Treadgold has pointed out, there are no “perfect” men in the Wars. I would agree with his assertion that this reality has less to do with Procopius disdain for the role that men’s virtues played in determining worldly events, and more to do with his Christian belief that all men were flawed.[36] Yet, despite his likely belief in the Christian principle of Original Sin, Procopius populated his work with heroic and manly characters seemingly drawn from the pages of classical literature as well. In a work that focused on warfare and the deeds of soldiers, it should not surprise that, in Procopius’ mind, a “manly man” [ἀνηρἀνδρεῖός] was a military man.[37] Moreover, in a history that provided a balanced view of the virtues and vices of both foreigners and Romans, one’s ethnicity did not pre-determine one’s manliness. The men who best personified the political and martial virtues esteemed by Procopius were, on the Roman side, Belisarius and Germanus, and on the barbarian side, Theoderic, Totila and, if only briefly, Teïas.

It is difficult to know with certainty if Procopius’ views on causation and the importance of individual’s martial virtues and manliness in determining secular affairs were representative of larger societal views. I would argue, however, that his history provides evidence of the continuing admiration of the soldier’s life as an exemplar of the manly life in the sixth-century Byzantine Empire. It also reveals, once again, that there was no such thing as a typical Christian in the Byzantine era. Certainly, a belief in a Christian God did not prevent many Byzantines from believing in the essential role that military men played in both determining secular events and establishing paradigms of masculinity. Indeed, for Procopius, the manly deeds of courage and self-restraint performed in the theatre of war by military men like Totila and Belisarius set a standard of masculine excellence that was difficult for their civilian counterparts to match.





[1] Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 204.


[2] Discussed in Kaldellis, Procopius, 198-204.


[3] Procopius (e.g. Wars 7.12.1-11) too notes the seeming disinterest of Justinian in the Italian campaign as a reason for the Goths’ resurgence. Modern scholarly consensus contends that for Justinian, the war in the Italy was as fairly minor theatre of war in comparison to Thrace, North Africa, and the troublesome eastern boundary with Persia. For a discussion of this point, see Whatley, “Descriptions of Battle”, 259.


[4] Procopius explained (Wars 7.1.33) that the Byzantine treasuries’ refusal to pay the soldiers in Italy was a primary reason for a decline in the Byzantine army’s fighting prowess, not a lack of courage or the superior martial virtues or tactics of Totila and his men.


[5] Procopius, Wars 7.1.24. I thus reject Kaldellis’ claim (Procopius of Caesarea, 198-200) that, in this section, the historian was seeking to reject the idea that Wars were won, not by justice, but primarily by the whims of tyche.


[6] See, e.g. Procopius, Wars 7.3.15-22.


[7] Procopius’ admiration for Totila is seen by most modern scholars to have been genuine. See, e.g. Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 190, 197, Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 198.


[8] As argued by Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 194. Amongst many other virtues, the historian described (Wars 7.1.1-21) Belisarius as “gentle” [πρᾷόν] “generous” [φιλοδωρότατος], protective of civilians’ land, sexually “restrained’ [σωφροσύνης], ‘courageous’ [εὔψυχος], “daring” [εὐτολμοτατος], and “steadfast” [ἀσφαλεῖ] in war, without being rash.


[9] For the fear Totila’s fighting prowess evoked in the Roman soldiers, see Procopius, Wars 7.6.19.


[10] Procopius, Wars 7.2.7 (my trans.).


[11] Procopius, Wars 7.4.10-18.


[12] E.g. Procopius, Wars 7.16.19.


[13] Procopius, Wars 7.20.29-31.


[14] John Moorhead, “Totila the Revolutionary”, Historia 49 (2000): 382.


[15]Totila’s reputation for restraint in protecting the Italo-Romans from his army’s retribution when he captured Rome for the third time in 549 is discussed in the sixth-century Liber Pontificalis 61.7. Cf., however, the less positive views of Totila found in Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle 49-50 (trans. Croke), Gregory, Dialogues 2.14-15, 3.12.13.


[16] Procopius, Wars 7.8.12-25.


[17] It also seems to undermine Narses’ claim (Wars 8.30.5) shortly before the battle of Busto Gallorum that Totila had no regard for justice or Roman law.


[18] There are earlier signs of a less-controlled and more “barbaric” Totila even before the siege of Rome. Procopius related (Wars 7.15.13-16) that Totila had become so agitated with the bishop Valentinus during an interrogation that he chopped off both of the bishop’s hands.


[19] A further example of his dangerous fury is found in his desire to destroy Rome, which was only thwarted by a letter from Belisarius, see Wars 7.30.20-24. Cf. Wars 7.20.23-25.


[20] Procopius’ use of often widely discrepant troop numbers as a narrative device is discussed by Whately, “Descriptions of Battle”, 350-54.


[21] Procopius, Wars 7.21.4-12. I have changed the translator Dewing’s “Greeklings” for Γραικῶν to “Greeks”.


[22] Procopius, Wars 7.11.12-16.


[23] Procopius, Wars 7.24.1-26.


[24] Procopius, Wars 8.32.7-11.


[25] See, e.g. the acts of Byzantine ἀρετή andἀνδρεία at Wars 8.23.34 (Roman soldiers’ fighting “manfully” [ἀνδρείως]), 8.29.22-23 (Roman soldiers make “display of valour” [δήλωσινἀρετῆς] that surpasses all others), 8.32.11 (Romans and “barbarian allies” at the battle of Busto Gallorum show a common προθυμία and ἀρετῆ). 8.30.1. Whilst examples of Gothic cowardice are found at Wars 8.23.36 (Goths make a “disgraceful” [αἰσχρὰν] retreat), 8.24.3 (Goths in fear after suffering disgraceful defeat) 8.30.7 (Gothic soldiers terrified before the battle of Busto Gallorum). 8.32.19 (Gothic soldiers make a panicked retreat at Busto Gallorum).


[26] So too did Justinian’s decision to refocus on the Italian campaign after years of “neglect” contribute to the Byzantine’s resurgence, according to Procopius (Wars 8.26.7).


[27] Procopius, Wars 8.31.18-21.


[28] Philip Rance, “Narses and the Battle of Taginae (Busto Gallorum) 552: Procopius and Sixth-Century Warfare,” Historia Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 54 (2005): 451.


[29] Procopius, Wars 8.29.8-10. I have written an article on Procopius’ view of Narses as an intelligent and, indeed, a manly eunuch.


[30] Procopius, Wars 8.30.1.


[31] Cf. Procopius, Wars 7.35.2.


[32] Procopius, Wars 8.32.22-30.  Though, at the end of the battle, Procopius agreed with Narses’ attribution (Wars 8.33.1) of victory to God.


[33] For Procopius’ befuddlement at the “cowardice” [δειλίαν] of Totila, see Wars 8.32.28-30.


[34] Procopius provided two versions of Totila’s death. In the first account (Wars 8.32.22-28), Totila fled during the rout, and subsequently he was mortally wounded from behind. In the second and, according to Procopius, less credible version (Wars 8.32.33-36), Totila was struck by a missile while fighting as a common soldier.


[35] One would think that this point was equally true for his erstwhile hero, Belisarius, as well.


[36] Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 214-15.


[37] E.g. Procopius, Wars 7.40.9.


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