Some historians of late Antiquity have recently suggested that the use of eunuchs by the Byzantine army in battle serve as evidence that Byzantine civilisations was turning against the traditional Roman idea that the battlefield was a masculine realm, and in particular the role that andrea the Greek concept of courage and manliness played in defining ideal generalship. This a brief discussion of how the mid sixth- century historian Procopius used the idea that a general’s defeats could be blamed on a lack of andreia brought on by a domineering wife.
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 idealised soldiers set a standard of masculine excellence that was difficult for their civilian counterparts to match.[i] These historians shared a view found in Ammianus that Roman pre-eminence had been achieved because its early citizens had avoided the “life of softness” [vita mollitia][ii] brought on by wealth and the sedentary life and “fought in fierce wars” which allowed them to “overcome all obstacles by manliness [virtute].”[iii]
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.”[iv] 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.
Procopius in fact blamed many of Belisarius’ military defeats, not on failed military strategies, but on his belief that Belisarius had been effeminized. Procopius revealed that it wasn’t rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ downfall, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife. Procopius, who praised Belisarius for his ability to govern even the most fearsome barbarians, condemned his superior for becoming a slave to his own lust. Like any good warrior, Belisarius did not give in without a fight and he waged a difficult campaign against her “womanly wiles.” Again and again, he attempted to escape his wife’s clutches and for brief moments he was able to restore his honour by rejecting Antonina’s “tricks of magic,” and thereby he became a good man once more. Each time, however, the respite was fleeting, and Belisarius returned once again to be Antonina’s “faithful slave not her husband” (Secret History 1.14, 4.30-1).
Procopius drew attention to how a “real” man handled disruptive women when he presented the general Constantine berating Belisarius for ignoring Antonia’s suspected adultery: “If I had been in your shoes, I should have got rid of that woman instead of the youngster [Theodosius, Antonina’s lover].” It wasn’t the man who was to blame for the affair but the woman whom Belisarius needed to exile. Belisarius not only refused to heed Constantine’s advice, but as Procopius related, a short time afterwards had the general executed at Antonina’s behest.These actions evoked the “bitter hostility of the Emperor and of the influential Romans one and all” (Secret History 1.25-30).
Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity led him to sacrifice the most vital interests of the state to his own domestic concerns. According to Procopius, Belisarius’ obsession with Antonina led to the Byzantine setbacks in the war against the Persians. “Incapacitated by his wife’s waywardness” (Secret History 2.26), Belisarius refused to travel far beyond the boundaries of the Empire, and thus failed to take the initiative against the Persians.
In Procopius’ mind, Belisarius’ “abandonment of his manhood [ἀρρενωπὸν ἀπελελοίπει]”, had made him an unmanly shell of his former masculine self. The historian wrote:
Thinking not one worthy thought nor even remembering that he had ever been a man, but perspiring constantly, with his head swimming, trembling violently in helpless despair, tortured by servile fears, and apprehensions, which were both cowardly and unmanly [ἀνάνδροις] (Secret History 4.22-26).
By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only sacrificed his manliness, but at that moment, “the hand of God was unmistakably against him”(Secret History 5.1).
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.