Monthly Archives: June 2014

This aint no Vietnam: Procopius on the Romans’ “Victory” in the Gothic Wars




In the History of the Wars, the mid-sixth century historian Procopius provided a memorable description of the Byzantine Empire’s battles against the Persians in the East and the reconquest of the lost Western Provinces of the Roman Empire against the Vandals in North Africa and the Goths in Italy. Procopius is arguably the most important writer to survive from Late Antiquity. Procopius has received much needed attention in the past thirty years. To borrow the words of Geoffrey Greatrex, the “twenty-first century has seen a renaissance in Procopian studies.”

For younger academics Procopius offers fertile ground for further exploration. Few of even the basic issues surrounding Procopius and his writings have been settled. Among these many controversies are Procopius’ views towards Justinian’s military campaigns. Anthony Kaldellis (and a crew of loyal disciples) has argued in a series of learned studies that Procopius was a pacifist who had turned against Justinian and his military campaigns at an early stage of the Wars. He senses an undertone of discontent throughout Procopius’ account. Others, like Averil Cameron and Brent Shaw, are more inclined to believe that as the war dragged on Procopius became more and more disenchanted with his former boss Belisarius, and the campaign that gradually destroyed Italy. It is easy to sense in many of these modern writings the influence of the gradual public disenchantment in both the United States and Europe with, first the Vietnam War, and then with the second Iraq war under the “oppressive” and staunchly religious non-soldier George W. Bush. Yet I would suggest that such views are a bit anachronistic. Following Conor Whately I am more inclined to believe that Procopius’ views shifted in terms of how the campaign was going. According to Procopius, great men made history, and a leader’s heroic or shameful conduct often determined the prosperity or poverty of the Eastern Roman Empire. So when things went wrong, Procopius tended to blame the moral failings of men like Belisarius. I see the Gothic Wars as having a largely pro-Roman and slightly anti-Goth opening, anti-Roman and slightly pro-Goth middle, and a pro-Roman ending, with respect to the Goths.

As Kaldellis complained in his 2004 study, too many historians pluck information from random in order to craft a picture either of the ancient historian’s views or of the sentiments of the age (gender studies, my earlier work included, are sometimes guilty of this tactic)……though as several critiques have noted K, does much the same in his crafting an image of Procopius as a member of staunchly anti-Justinian pagan intellectual clique within 550s Constantinople. This helps to explain why I explore in my writings a chronological and literary reading of the Wars. I think that I have shown how interlocked Procopius’ characterizations and books are.My latest project is an in-depth- analysis of Procopius presentation, where I explore in chronological order Procopius’ presentation of Narses. I will blog a bit over the next month a discussion of some of the interesting sections.

Which finally brings me to today’s main point : my idea that Procopius on the whole supported the reconquest. What follows has been excerpted from the close of my recent article in the last battle in the Wars, Narses’ victory over the Goth Teïas. It captures some of my views:

For some modern readers, the Wars end on a tragic note.[1] Procopius’ depiction of the final battle in the Wars, Mons Lactarius, was certainly sympathetic to both sides. Surprisingly, it was the defeated Gothic leader, who earned Procopius’ praise as the “ultimate man” [ὰνδρός ὰρετὴ]. After Totila’s death, the Goths’ desperate situation, explained Procopius, forced them to seek a “virtuous death [θαναττιάω άρετή]. Their “despair of the situation” was the primary reason for the Goths’ “extraordinary courage” [εὐτoλμίαν].[2] Although he praised both sides’ conduct during the struggle, Procopius saved his highest acclamation for the Gothic king, exclaiming that Teïas’ actions compared to those of “heroes of legend” [λεγομέυων ἡρώων). Meeting his end like a true hero, the Gothic leader, “easily recognised by all, stood with only a few followers at the head of the phalanx”. Teïas slew so many Romans that he needed to keep replacing his shields as they filled with enemy spears. Finally, after fighting continuously for several hours, Teïas was slain as he attempted to exchange another shield with his bodyguard.[3]

With his heroic death in battle, Teïas finally obtained the type of noble and manly demise that had eluded all of the previous Gothic kings in the Gothic Wars. This ideal death may suggest that Procopius and his Byzantine readership may not have viewed Teïas’ demise or the Goths’ defeat as heart breaking. Procopius appeared to follow traditional literary models that made it clear that defeat in battle was not shameful or tragic as long as one faced it with honour.[4] Procopius’ account clearly has a literary ring to it. It also suspiciously ties up some of the loose threads in his narrative. First, Teïas’ death in battle finally allowed Procopius to show a member of the Gothic royalty dying as Vitigis said they wished, in battle. Second, a gallant final clash featuring two worthy opponents fighting, in the words of Procopius, “with the fury of wild beasts”, made a fitting terminus for an account that strove to describe and compare the martial and the manly virtues of the Goths and the Romans. While appreciating the fighting qualities and, indeed, the manliness of the Goths, the historian had confirmed the Byzantines as the superior and the manlier side. In the end, the martial prowess of the Goths had proven inferior to the organization, leadership, weaponry, and the manly ἀνδρεία and ἀρετή of the Byzantine soldiers. Finally, though unspoken, Procopius had fulfilled his stated purpose at the outset of the Wars, which was to relate the worthiness of the martial deeds and the prowess of the contemporary Roman soldiers to his Byzantine audience. By defeating a martial and heroic foe like the Goths, Procopius had succeeded in establishing that Justinian’s soldiers were at least the equals of their ancient counterparts. One should consider Procopius’ depiction of the battle of Mons Lactarius, and indeed, the entire Gothic Wars in this context.

This is where my article ended. To close today’s blog I will include some thoughts on Procopius’ description of the aftermath of this stunning victory.

Procopius closes his history with an account describing Narses’ negotiation of a settlement with the defeated Goths. After realising, “that they are fighting the last battle”, the Goths decide to send some notables to meet with Narses to discuss final terms. Procopius has the Goths explain that they finally realised that their struggle was “against God” (pros ton theon). “For now they recognised,” Procopius continued, “the power that was arrayed against them.”

However, they refused to submit, to Justinian. They only asked that they be allowed to gather some “travelling funds”, and depart from Roman territory (Walter Goffart suggest that this passage reflect P’s hope to eject all barbarians from the Empire). Narses, relying on the common Byzantine tradition to solicit advice from their junior officers, asked his general John what he should do. John advises, “Not to risk further battle with these desperate men” but to grant them their wishes (the danger of fighting cornered enemies and/or overconfidence represent tropes throughout P’s writings).

Narses then commands the Goths “to depart Italy immediately, and to no longer wage war against the Romans.” While the two sides are discussing terms, however, a contingent of one-thousand Goths refuses to negotiate or submit and heads to the Italian city of Ticinum ( a sign that P knew that not all of the fighting was over). The rest of the Goths, however, followed the terms. Procopius closes his work with the statement, “Thus the Romans captured Cumae and all that remained.”, and the eighteenth year, as it closed, brought the end of the Gothic War, the history which Procopius has written.

To me these are hardly the words of a disillusioned author. In fact, Kaldellis to promote his view of a pacifist Procopius, relies on an earlier passage  concerning Narses’ “sack” of Rome after defeating Totila as proof of the writers’ hostile view to the final battles. Yet, as I have shown in another article, these hostile words from this passage were not aimed at Narses or the Roman army as a whole, but pointed towards the “true” culprits in Narses mind for the mistreatment of the Italians, the barbarian Herules who were the vanguard in the retaking of Rome.

Okay that is it today. In the next few days I will discuss another controversial issue, Justinian’s naming of Narses as the supreme commander of the Emperor’s armies in Italy.


Out from the chilly Gold Coast of Australia


[1] E.g., Kaldellis, Persian War, 257.


[2] Proc., Wars 8.35.20-21 (my trans.).


[3] Proc., Wars 8.35.21-30 (trans. Dewing; I have changed Dewing’s “courageous” for εὐτoλμίαν to “extraordinary boldness”).


[4] For this concept in Polybius, see A. M. Eckstein, Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. Berkeley 1995, 42-3.



The joys and perils of fluid papers.




(just put some glasses on him and thats me)

Like many writers I am usually working on numerous projects at the same time. At the moment I have about twenty projects, large and small, some of which I post on my site: I generally separate these into formal and non-formal projects. An academic project is aimed at a narrow scholarly audience and has usually been vetted by numerous other scholars before I let anyone see it. It is very much a team project. This one on the Greek concept of andreia (manliness, courage) in Procopius’ Gothic Wars is the culmination of research that began in 2002: So much work and redrafts went into this project that it took on a life of its own. A shorter version was sent to another journal. Though rejected the peer reviewer had many constructive suggestions, that led to this larger article. This one was edited by the journal and only after it was published did I notice a few minor typos from the editorial process. Since it is no longer was mine there is little I can do about it now. Since they are minor most people will never notice them anyway, but it still bugs me.


Other projects are more for fun and more quickly written. This one: that appeared today on was written largely on a whim about six months ago and forgotten about. This paper’s genesis arose from a chapter in my 2003 Ma thesis, but I updated in order it to interact with some of the current scholarship. I have been fine-tuning off and on, but never expected anyone else to be interested. Now that I have given it a quick re-read I realise that this paper is aimed at a broader audience and could only be published in an academic journal if I did some serious work on it. The best thing about publishing this way is that I still own it, and was quickly able to fix a few things once I realised that about 500 people were going to read my casual musings. Moreover, what is exciting about pieces like these is that I had no idea that it would be picked up so it was just a pleasant surprise, much in contrast to the nervous three-to six month wait for articles. It is fun to write for different audiences, which takes me to this blog which is very informal and written largely for cathartic purpose…… though surprisingly I have been able to use some blogs as springboards for more serious projects. I am not sure what all this means, only that if one puts their work out there and sticks at it, it will find an audience if it is worthy. Whether this is an academic audience or just a high-school kid interested in medieval history does not really matter to me. I think that one of the most important jobs of an academic is to share their passions on certain topics with the largest audience as possible, if we do not we become more marginalised, and our most important work goes largely unnoticed.



Publish or Perish

Publish or Perish: the dreaded motto of modern academia. Averil Cameron made a funny observation on twitter the other day about how things had changed since she finished her PHD. She commented that her advisors in 1960s Oxford told her that now that she had landed her first academic job, she could take it easy and stop publishing. My chair John Moorhead made a similar observation when he told me that when he first arrived in 1975 at Queensland University here in Brisbane he was one of the few scholars in the department who actually had a DPhil, let alone published work. Of course there are some departments in the world where scholars continue this tradition, but competition is making the unpublished scholar the auk of the modern world.

Though the quality of some of this work can be disputed, one is expected to publish at least one peer-reviewed article per year. This might help explain the numerous articles that have appeared in the past ten years dredging up old debates over the specific dates of Procopius’ publications. Reviews of recent scholarship on a particle topic or author are another easy pathway publication. While these articles have a small yet dedicated audience one suspects that ease of publication, as much as furthering scholarship plays an important factor in their creation.

So too can one protect oneself by writing so narrowly on an arcane topic that few can dispute its validity or worth. With the burst of peer-reviewed journal focusing on narrower topics and smaller audiences one can avoid the criticism one faces when seeking to publish in an old school journal. Sometimes it is a matter of luck if one gets a peer-reviewer in a bad mood. For instance, one reviewer of an article of mine that is soon to be published in a diferent but repected journal, made inane comments on my piece that made me question if he had even read my piece. Though my immediate reaction was to compose an angry response to the editor, I took a deep breath. Rather than get upset, I thanked the journal for its time and quickly resubmitted it to another journal (okay I thanked the one reviewer for his constructive observations, while ignoring the other’s very strange observations: hmmmm eunuchs were never seen in a gendered manner by Byzantines…). The internet at least has given scholars this flexibility. So too has the open nature of sites like and research gate allowed one to at least get some feedback on one’s work before submission. If 500 people download your work, you at least know you are on the right track. So too has the unsolicited encouragement of esteemed scholars on a piece helped me revive my spirit to rework and resubmit a formerly rejected piece.

Sometimes it is just a matter of tweaking the title. I found that eliminating the word “masculinity” or removing the term “manliness” from the abstract immediately increased interest. This is not to say that peer review has no worth. Some of my best articles were rejected at first. But thanks to the sage suggestions of the reviewers, I was able to improve the article. Admittedly, I remain somewhat combative on certain issues, and stubbornly will reword a disputed point and/or back my argument with a wide array of evidence.

It takes a lot of gumption to pick oneself up after a hostile rejection. A friend of mine was two years down the path of publishing a book through an esteemed press, when one new reviewer put a halt to the project after a draft had been approved. Though some of his comments were valid, the vitriolic and personal nature of many of his comments seemed unnecessary. My friend was rightly devastated, and this is a scholar with dozens of publications; imagine the reaction of a novice scholar.

So I keep plugging away. My goal is to always have at least one book or article away in some part of the world getting reviewed. Though the punch in the gut one feels when a piece is rejected still stings, the thrill of the unexpected yes keeps me going. To quote Conan “What does not kill you makes you stronger.”

Some thoughts on the fourth-century monk Anthony and the rise of heroic monastacism




To compliment yesterday’s blog on the seminal Christian historian Eusebius, I have added a piece on the rise of Christian heroes in the fourth-century Roman Empire.


Life of Anthony

Despite the continuing allure of the martyrs, by the fifth century this form of sacrifice had largely become outmoded.[1] There were several reasons for this change. When the Empire became a Christian one, two things occurred: first, the opportunities for a glorious death declined; second, because Christians joined the establishment, many of them found it unnecessary to treat the Roman government as an adversary. As Christianity’s role in the Roman government grew, it also became essential for the Church to control individuals who acted outside the established hierarchy, even charismatic heroes such as the martyrs.[2]  Even before the decline of the martyr, some Christians had adopted a new form of valour. In third and fourth-century Egypt and Syria, an elite cadre became Christian heroes by pushing the limits of abstinence. Following New Testament examples of Jesus, who “escaped to the desert to pray in solitude”,[3] devout Christians like the Egyptian Anthony had set out alone from the cities of the Empire and into the deserts, determined to separate themselves from the physical world’s corruption.[4] Struggling against temptation, they battled to purify their bodies against the “demon of fornication” and fears of starvation.[5] By persevering, these individuals became heroic models for the segment of devoted Christians who proclaimed that supreme men practiced sexual abstinence, restricted their diet, and treated possessions, rank, and power with indifference.[6]

To some extent, the rise of the extreme ascetic was connected to concerns on the part of some Christians about the growing influence of the Roman secular authorities in fourth-century religious matters, as well as a rejection by these same intellectuals of the increased effect of “aristocratic status culture” on Late Roman Christianity.  Part of the appeal of the Christian ideal of heroism appears connected to its more inclusive nature.  Though the majority of these extreme ascetics hailed from the upper-classes, some came from the peasantry, and as we have noted, at times, either gender.[7] This differed from classical Greco-Roman and Germanic cultures that focused on men, emphasized a hero’s lineage, and tended to look down on men of humble origins. Despite the fact that Late Roman Christians from the upper classes rarely spoke of “universal salvation or egalitarian spirituality”, Christian writers from the less privileged classes often preached a less restricted theology. [8]  These theologians rebelled against the traditional Roman attitude that a man’s lineage and political accomplishments determined his nobilitas (distinction). They claimed that nobilitas served as a universal virtue and should be open to all men, regardless of their social class. To emphasize their scorn for the Roman social order, these Christians gained acclaim by rejecting their family ancestry and joining Christ’s family, thereby creating their own “aristocracy”.[9]Although most Christians could never hope to attain the strict perfection demanded by this new principle of heroism, by interacting with holy men or appealing to male and female saints they could gain a glimpse of God’s flawlessness.[10]

 The seminal work describing the innovative Christian heroes was the Life of Anthony composed by the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (the probable author) around 357.[1] Written in simple Greek prose,[2] it set out, and largely succeeded, in promoting the devotion and the heroism of Anthony as an exemplar of the “extreme” ascetic life.[3]  As Peter Brown puts it, “Anthony was the hero of the Panerémos, of the Deep Desert, the Outer Space of the ascetic world”.[4]  The influence of this work for attracting potential converts to monasticism, and as a literary model for later hagiographers is clear. [5] Yet, like ecclesiastical history, its ancient readership included Christians and non-Christians.[6] Though a detailed analysis of this important text remains outside of this study’s scope, the metaphorical martial themes found in its opening chapters, as well as the influence this life has had on some modern academics’ conceptualization of a “new Christian masculine ideal” deserves some comment.[7]

Athanasius opened his account with a brief summary of the saint’s early life. He emphasized the boy’s noble upbringing, his love of solitude, and a predilection to avoid the study of secular literature (a sure sign in Christian literature of the time that the future Saint had the “innate” traits necessary to take on the rigours of the ascetic like).[8] When Anthony was eighteen or twenty (Athanasius is uncertain of his exact age) his parents died.  As a result, Anthony inherited the responsibility of running the family estate and the care of his younger sister.  Athanasius explained that one day Anthony wandered into a Church and heard the Gospel’s message that: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven”.[9] Anthony immediately set about to obey Mathew’s memorandum. In a theme that remained controversial for even committed Christians of the time, Anthony “rejected” the classical notions of patriarchal responsibility by suggesting that a real Christian man needed to abandon his biological family in order to take on a patriarchal role in the eternal Christian family.[10] Nevertheless, for all of his detachment from worldly affairs and bonds of kinship, the author makes it clear that Anthony looked after his sister by giving her some of her belongings and “protected” her by sending her to a convent.

Having sorted out his obligations in the secular world, Anthony set out to sever ties with his old world by taking on the challenges of the extreme ascetic life; according to Athanasius, God was “training the athlete”.[11] Complete abandonment of his corporeal frailty, however, remained difficult for an “untrained athlete” such as Anthony. Early on in his “conditioning”, Anthony acted like a typical apprentice; he lingered near to his village and only observed the activities and personalities of the different Holy Men. He strove to master each of the disparate virtues exhibited by these men. Yet, akin to Polybius’ description of Scipio Africanus’ adolescence, though innately superior, Anthony (1.4) still felt compelled to be morally superior to the boys of his own age. The traditional path to Roman manliness was filled with this sort of competition amongst young men attempting to match the deeds and the manly virtues of their ancestors.[12] Thus, Christian asceticism as portrayed by Athanasius, may have offered an alternative avenue to traditional Roman manliness that might have appealed to young aristocratic men, steeped in classical traditions, yet hesitant or unwilling to match the codes of masculinity and/ or the martial prowess of their ancestors.

Though endowed with some innate courage and ascetic qualities, like other young Roman men seeking “true” manliness, Anthony needed to hone these traits through constant self-discipline and tests of his courage in combat. For Anthony, the desert represented the ideal place to test one’s resolve and to fight invisible foes. This belief had a long history in Jewish and Christian theology.  The desert represented a spiritual place for Jews, Christians, and even pagans of Anthony’s era. In the Christo-Judaic traditions the desert was the domain of good and evil spirits; a place where the select might encounter God, but the majority would face “demons, death, and pollution”.[13]  During the early stages of his regime, Anthony had only enough strength to enter the tombs located on the cusp of the desert. As Claudia Rapp notes, even this step would have taken considerable courage considering the ancient concern associated with such crypts as places of religious impurity and death.[14]

Inside the burial chambers, the temptations of his old secular life represented the first obstacle that Anthony had to overcome. Unaware of Anthony’s “unique” strength at this early age, the Devil tempted the young man with visions of the “softness and the pleasure” of his former life. Seeking to undermine Anthony’s emergent self-discipline, the devil reminded his opponent about his duties to his sister and his family, the joys ofmoney,” love of glory” [φιλοδοξίαν], the “luxurious life” [ἡδονήν], and finally “the difficulty of virtue” [τό τραχύ τῆςἀρετή, 1.5]. The author assured his readers that Anthony was “not thrown for a fall,” but this” sturdy contestant” resisted temptation even in the face of the Devil’s deceitful whispering. We have seen this motif before. Though this incident was surely meant to emulate the Devil’s temptation of Christ during his forty-day fast in the Judean desert, [15] the reader of this dissertation is immediately reminded of examples found in its previous chapters that show how Roman writers connected the love of the soft life and luxury to unmanliness and the austere and the virtuous path with the manly life. Anthony’s courage and one might assume his manliness, allowed him to stand up to Satan.Though only a creature of flesh, Anthony confronted the Devil, as well as hordes of demons, with “good courage” (καταθαῤῥήσας, 1.6). Athanasius shortly after reminded his audience that the Devil and the demons could only triumph over the cowardly (1.13).  In a culture where the dichotomy between courage and cowardice was often a gendered one, it seems likely that Athanasius’ early Byzantine readers would have seen the courage displayed by Anthony in the face of supernatural attacks as evidence of his manliness.[16]

The martial metaphors come fast and furious at this point in the text. “Combat” (ἄθλησις) and “struggle” (ἀγώνισμα) against a multitude of demonic threats drives the narrative.[17]   Despite his biographer’s reassurances that the Saviour’s “work in Anthony” helped him with his struggles [1.7], throughout much of this section, Anthony seemingly relied on his own courage and self-mastery to beat back a constant barrage of demonic attacks. In fact, the only assistance he received was from some of his friends in the “real” world who sought to soothe his “wounds” and provided him with the meagre sustenance required to face his adversaries [1.6-10]. In a life famously bereft of miracles, God intervened with a ray of divine light to drive off a horde of demons only after Anthony had proven his worthiness in combat.[18] In Athanasius’ telling, Anthony appeared somewhat exasperated, when God finally got involved, indeed, he demanded to know why the Saviour had not shown up sooner. God explained to Anthony, that he had always been watching over him, but that he wanted to see Anthony’s courage under fire.  Like the young Roman soldier who first needed to be blooded in battle to gain his comrades’ and his commander’s respect, Anthony had to prove his qualities in spiritual warfare before he was able to break down some of the barriers between heaven and earth. As a harbinger of Anthony’s future fame, God explained that he would spread news of his name “everywhere” [πανταχοῦ].  Anthony immediately discovered that he had attained even more “power” [δύναμις]. With such hyperbole, one is reminded, less of the ideal of the humble Christian, and more of the victorious Roman general or emperor publicizing a triumph.

Anthony was thirty-five years old at this time, the prime of most men’s lives in this period. Athanasius revealed to his readers that Anthony eagerly set out for the most difficult final challenge. In his final transformation, Anthony headed deep into the heart of desert, a place where Satan and the demons were at their most powerful. In another martial metaphor, Anthony entered an abandoned fortress to begin what the author described a twenty-year battle against his demonic foes. These the author did not describe, preferring instead to take up the narrative when Anthony emerged victorious amongst a crowd of admirers. His description of Anthony presented a vision of a man who had taken the first steps towards the world of spiritual perfection:

When they beheld him, they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, it was neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but was as they had known him prior to his withdrawal. The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not restricted by grief, nor affected by either laughter or dejection. Moreover, when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.[19]


Though it is clear that Athanasius sought in the passage above to paint a portrait of an individual who had taken his first steps towards incorporeity, its similarity with traditional Roman secular portraits of ideal manly deportment is striking.[20]  The heavy focus on the physiognomy and the apatheia of Anthony in the passage follows conventions found in classical biography and Stoic teachings. [21]  In fact, the depiction mirrors, in some ways, Ammianus’ famous account of Constantius II’s adventus into Rome in 357.[22]

At its core, the story is one of transformation.  The early chapters relate the time-honoured Roman account of a young adolescent male on the cusp of manhood, and the choices he must make to become an ideal citizen and a manly Roman man. Of course, what makes it special is the Christian twist on this conventional theme. Instead of becoming a productive member of civic society once his metamorphosis is complete, Anthony sought to reject it.[23] Just as in Eusebius’ profile of the emperor Constantine I, Athanasius both followed and subverted the classical forms of biography.[24] Whereas the ancient generals, political leaders, and emperors in traditional biography had often demonstrated their manliness and worth in war, Anthony must validate his merit in spiritual warfare.

Conflict, albeit of a spiritual and a metaphorical type, is rife in the early part of the life where Anthony has to prove his worth. Athanasius portrayed a world where Anthony vied for supremacy with false Hellenic deities and the Devil.  In the words of Claudia Rapp, “Anthony’s progressive withdrawal into the desert amounted to nothing less than a territorial battle with the demons”.[25]According to Athanasius, the demons whom Anthony confronted in the tombs outside his hometown and deep in the desert represented fallen angels who had tricked the Greek oracles into worshipping them as Hellenic deities [1.22, 33].[26]   It seems likely then, that for Athanasius, Anthony’s numerous victories over these demons—spurred on by God’s spirit within him—symbolised the Christians’ triumph over the pagans and their “false” pantheon of gods.[27] Anthony’s role as a prototypical soldier of Christ dominates the early part of the biography.[28]  In fact, Anthony faced many of same choices and challenges that a young Roman recruit would have confronted upon joining the Eastern Roman army, the abandonment of one’s city and family to an often distant outpost at the fringes of Empire, rigorous drilling to hone’s one’s battle skills, and courage under the guidance of a commander that served as a conduit to courage and virtue. Even the desert offered a familiar terrain for battles involving the traditional Eastern Roman rival, the Persians, deep in the deserts of modern day Turkey and Iraq.

The Life of Anthony demonstrates again that Christian theologians often sought ways to associate their Christian heroes with more traditional aspects of Roman masculine ideology.  Though this Life must at its core be seen as a work of Christian literature based on Biblical allusions and mimesis,[29] it also adhered to some of the basic tenets of biography and traditional codes of masculinity based on one’s self-mastery, courage in the face of danger, and the need to prove these skills in combat. In a culture that had long associated courage in warfare to manliness and cowardice in battle to unmanliness, we can understand why proving one’s bravery in even metaphorical struggles remained a fundamental aspect in the creation of any early Byzantine hero.   It is probably not too much to suppose that the ability of these Late Roman and early Byzantine writers to adopt and at the same time adapt these traditional codes was critical in gaining support from the classically educated elites in the fourth and the fifth centuries.

 The extreme ascetic life exemplified by Egyptian monks like Anthony , as well as the  more city-linked asceticism popularised in the Syrian and Mesopotamian forms proved attractive for a segment of devoted Christians in the  latter half of the fourth and the fifth-century—particularly in the Eastern half of the Empire. Though the movement was probably never as popular as some modern studies would have us believe, even Christians, like Augustine, who practiced a more moderate form of asceticism, felt attracted to its allure.[30] One finds that the early Byzantine historians—Christian and even some secular— thought that their audiences would be interested in the deeds of these holy heroes.[31]  One observes a good example of this admiration in the fifth-century Church historians. Sozomen populated his ecclesiastical history with a multitude of often-obscure holy men. In a remark that suggests that these holy men may have been seen as masculine as well as religious role models, Sozomen described Anthony as “prudent and manly” [].[32]The holy man’s martial qualities in his spiritual battles also attracted notice. Another fifth-century Church historian, Socrates of Constantinople, who assumed that most of his readers were familiar with Athanasius’ account, ignored most of Anthony’s ascetic traits, as well as his later deeds as the leader of his monastic community, but still found space in his truncated account to praise the saint for his combat with demons, and his ability to overcome their “wily modes of warfare”.[33]

Anthony’s spiritual battles certainly became a focal point for latter hagiographers to emulate in their writings. The author of life of a popular fifth-century pillar saint,  Daniel the Stylite, revealed that early in his “career” the holy man fought demons in order to emulate “the model of asceticism” Anthony.[34] Instead of fighting his battles against demons deep within the desert, however, Daniel took his fight to a church within a city[35]. The author wrote:

On reaching the porch of the church, just as a brave soldier strips himself for battle before venturing against a host of barbarians, so he, too, entered the church reciting the words spoken by the prophet, David, in the Psalms: ‘The Lord is my light and my saviour, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?’ (ps. 27:1) and the rest. And holding the invincible weapon of the Cross, he went round into each corner of the church making genuflections and prayers.


Like the barbarian enemies that afflicted the empire, however, the demons plaguing the church refused to go down without a fight. They threw stones at him and threatened to take his life. As long as the “athlete of Christ” Daniel kept awake and focussed on reciting his prayers, the demons had no way to harm him.[36] Whereas the trumpet blast of the Roman army struck fear in the Empire’s foes, here the power of prayer enfeebled the enemy.

The examples above, and others like it from hagiographical accounts from the period, attest to the attraction for some early Byzantine Christian intellectuals in representing the holy man as an exemplar of virtuous Christian behaviour, and at times courageous and manly men as well. Part of this appeal may have been the independent authority that often allowed these individuals to act outside of the restrictions of either the State or the religious establishment. These men often show up in secular and Church histories as heroic men of great power and influence who stand up to secular and ecclesiastical authority, and even to the enemies of the Empire.[37]

Before taking leave of Anthony, we must discuss one last issue. Some recent scholarship suggests that there was a more sinister side to the influence wielded by these “independent” holy men. The rise of a less tolerant, and what one recent academic describes as a “militant piety”, has been traced to the Late Roman ascetic movement and in particular to the religious authority given to these men by their admirers. Thomas Sizgorich has argued that the metaphorical battles found in the early Byzantine Christian literature all too often turned into acts of violence in the “real” world. In fact, Sizgorich declares that a willingness to “suffer on God’s behalf” in search of religious perfection was matched by the proclivity by some “zealots” to commit acts of violence against members of their own society that they deemed to be “pagans” or “heretics”.[38] Though, one must be careful not to overstate, either the severity these “pogroms”, or the central role that these extreme ascetics played in the factional violence that occasionally flared up in this period,[39] unquestionably this era witnessed the increased intensity of doctrinal disputes amongst rival Christian sects and a heavy focus on confronting those individuals or groups considered as unorthodox or pagan.[40] We do know that some members of the clergy saw these independent holy men as a threat, or at least as individuals who needed to be brought more fully under the Church’s control. One way local bishops accomplished this aim was by seeking to prevent ascetics from wandering from place to place by recommending communal prayer and fasting.[41]

In addition, it is important to emphasise, that despite the fact that “independent” holy men continued to play an important role in the early Byzantine Empire, when compared to the clergy within the Empire’s cities, their actual political authority and influence over theological debates were limited.[42] Indeed, by the close of fourth century, we find Christian theologians more and more emphasising the heroic virtues of the clergy living within the cities.[43]  The fifth-century bishop and ecclesiastical historian Theodoret of Cyrrhus stressed that living a virtuous life amongst the temptations of the Empire’s cities represented a more difficult than starving alone in the desert.[44]


[1]Martyr stories continued to be produced involving men and woman facing persecutions outside of the Roman Empire, particularly in the Persian Empire, see, e.g., Theodoret, HE 5.38.


[2] Stuart George Hall, “The Organization of the Church,” in The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14 Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A.D. 425-600, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 731.


[3] Luke 5:16.


[4]Many of these men and women it seems, however, had first entered the desert not to practice an ascetic lifestyle, but to escape persecution. James Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 16. Moreover, completely abandoning one’s secular obligations, however, proved difficult for even for the most dedicated ascetic. Christian holy men’s newfound notoriety often made it difficult for them to labour alone. We see from the example of Antony, for instance, that people travelled long distances to seek out the holy heroes for advice or to engage in religious deliberation. Over time, some of these visitors became permanent disciples, and religious communities emerged around these charismatic leaders. The isolated monk had always been the exception rather than the rule. Far from living a solitary life unconcerned with secular affairs, most monks participated in local politics and followed a coenobitic lifestyle. By the fifth century, the Eastern Provinces of the Empire had developed organized monastic communities often based on military discipline.

[5] For these men isolated in the desert, conquering hunger became an even more difficult task than their struggle against lust. Many Christian intellectuals alleged that Adam and Eve’s first sin had not been fornication, but their inability to resist eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. See Brown, The Body and Society, 220-21.


[6]Philip Rousseau, “Monasticism”, in The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14 Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A.D. 425-600, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 745


[7] Theresa Urbainczyk, Theodoret of Cyrrhus: The Bishop and the Holy Man (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 67-79.


[8]Salzman, Christian Aristocracy, 218.


[9] This section owes much to Salzman, Christian Aristocracy, 200-19.


[10]Peter Brown, “Holy Men”, in The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14 Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A.D. 425-600, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),781-2. While it is important to note the revolutionary aspects of the “new” Christian heroic ideal based on extreme asceticism, it is also essential to recognize its similarities and debt to Hellenic and Jewish traditions. It would be a mistake to see the rise of the holy man as a spontaneous development. From its birth, Christianity had embraced Greco-Roman and Jewish customs that promoted secluded persons or groups of men practicing a lifestyle that were similar to the later tradition of monasticism.



[1] Some scholars dispute that Athanasius composed the life, see Timothy Barnes Athanasius and Constantius, Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 240, n.64.


[2] Anthony’s biography, like much of the much of the Christian literature of the day, was composed in a far simpler prose than much of the secular literature of the time. As a result, these Christian authors reached a far broader spectrum of Late Roman literate society than their non-Christian counterparts. These Christian Lives also concentrated on and frequently praised women and the poor, members of Late Roman society much more neglected in the non-Christian literary tradition. These issues are discussed in Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 147-49.[2]


[3] The modern literature on Anthony is vast. A good starting point is Brown, Body and Society, 213-40. An excellent survey on current historiographical controversies is found in Timothy Barnes, Angel of Light or mystic initiate? The problem of the Life of Antony”,Journal of Theological Studies. 37: (1986):353-68.


[4] Brown, Body and Society, 214-15.


[5] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 110. The prescriptive and edifying nature of the work has also been explored in some depth; see Urbainczyk, Theodoret, 44-6.


[6]For this diverse audience, see Averil Cameron, “Form and Meaning; The Vita Constantini and the Vita Antonii”, in Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity Transformation of the Classical Heritage Series, 31. ed. Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 78.


[7] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 281.

[8]Samuel Rubenson, “Philosophy and Simplicity: The Problem of Classical Education in Early Christian Biography”, in Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Transformation of the Classical Heritage Series, 31. ed. Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000), 115.


[9]Mathew, 19: 21.


 [10]As Liebeschuetz’s suggests (Ambrose and John, 205-15), this rejection of the world was never expected of the majority of Christians or as absolute for this elite cadre as the rhetoric suggests.


[11] Indeed, we find like earlier sophists and New Testament authors, Athanasius comparing the difficulties of asceticism in athletic terms.  See e.g., Philostorgius, Live of the Sophists (trans. Wilmer C, Wright, LCL,[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921, reprint 2005]) 1.525. For the reputation of athletes as courageous, self-disciplined, and manly in the Greek and Roman literary tradition, see Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 175-78.


[12]Carlin A. Bartin, Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 84-7.


[13] For the nuanced and differing views of the desert in Judaic, Christian, and non-Christian spirituality, see Rapp, Holy Bishops, 109-24.


[14] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 111.

[15]Cf.: Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4: 1-13

[16] As Craig Williams argues (Roman Homosexuality, 142), in the Greco-Roman literary tradition “the oppositional pair masculine/effeminate” was often associated closely with the binarism of courage/cowardice.


[17]Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Anthony and the Letter to Marcellus (trans. Robert Gregg Mahwah N.J: Paulist Press, 1980), 1.10. (I consulted and translated some of the Greek text for section 1.5-10 found at


[18] This reluctance to intervene may be a response to pagan literary motifs where the Gods continually interfere in the lives of mortals.


[19] Athanasius, Life of Anthony 1.14.


[20] As Caroline Walker Bynum points out, Athanasius suggests here that “the body is maintained in resurrection”. An idea that was disputed by some Christian theologians of the time, see Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University, 1995), 109. For the notion of incorporeity as the “ultimate masculine achievement” for many ancient Greco-Roman writers, see Conway, Behold the Man, 16.


[21]Urbaincyzk, Theodoret, 45.


[22]Ammianus, Res gestae 16.10.


[23] In the end his rejection is only partial. Anthony in fact communicates directly with many secular leaders of the day, including the emperor.


[24] Cameron, “Form and Meaning”, 75.


[25] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 110.


[26]For the influence of “Greek” culture on Athanasius’ vision of these pagan deities and his view that the pagan god were not imaginary but demons in disguise, see Dag Oisten Endsjo, Primordial Landscapes, Incorruptible Bodies: Desert Asceticism and the Christian Appropriation of Greek Ideas on Geography Bodies, and Immortality (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008).


[27]Mathew, 19:21.


[28] It is, however, Anthony’s role as a “teacher” that plays the prominent role in the remainder of the biography. For this theme, see Philip Rousseau, “Antony as Teacher in the Greek Life”, inGreek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Transformation of the Classical Heritage Series, 31. ed. Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 89-109.


[29]Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau, “Introduction: Biography and Panegyric”, in Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Transformation of the Classical Heritage Series, 31. ed. Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000), 16-23.


[30] Augustine, Confessions (trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin [London: Penguin, 1961]), 10.43.70.


[31]See e.g., Procopius (Wars  1.7.7-8, 2.13.14-5) Geoffrey Greatrex argues, that even if these accounts of Christian ascetics comes from another source, Procopius’ use of them indicates that both he and his audience were interested in the deeds of “holy heroes”. Geoffrey Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 502-532 (Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1998), 63, 87.


[32] Sozomen, HE 1.13.


[33] Socrates, HE 1.21.


[34]Life of Daniel the Stylite (trans. Elizabeth  Dawes and Norman Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948]), 14.


[35]Daniel appeared much more at ease than Anthony with interacting with the leading secular authorities of his age. In the Life, he meets frequently with the Eastern Roman emperors providing both religious and political advice. A fragment from a contemporary secular source, Malchus (frag. 9.3), suggests that some of this political influence was real. However, I would argue against scholars like Claudia Rapp who claim (Holy Bishops, 3-6) those holy men like Daniel had “considerable” power and influence over the emperor.

[36]Life of Daniel the Stylite, 14-15.


[37]See e.g., Procopius, Wars 1.7.7-11.


[38]Sizgorich, Militant Devotion in Christianity, 3-7;


[39]The famous example of the riots by the circus factions and the violent response by the Roman army in Thessaloniki in 390 and riot of the statues 387 in Antioch should serve as reminders that outbreaks of violence were only infrequently based on religious divides alone. For the role of the circus factions in urban violence, see Alan Cameron, Circus Factions- Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).


[40] For these disputes: W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991; Timothy E. Gregory, Vox Populi: Popular Opinion and Violence in the Religious Controversies of the Fifth Century A.D. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979).


[41]Rousseau, “Monasticism”, 775.


[42]Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of Christianization of the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 72-3. Contra Rapp’s claims (Holy Bishops, 3-6) that men like Daniel had considerable power and influence over the emperor. Such claims, though supported somewhat by secular sources (see e.g. Malchus, frag 9.3), rely heavily on hagiographical accounts interested in promoting such influence.


 [43]See e.g., Ambrose, Epistula Extra Collectionem 14. 74.


[44]Urbainczyk, Theodoret, 120-21.


Some Thoughts on Eusebius and the invention of ecclesiatical history


The fourth century witnessed the birth of the genre of ecclesiastical history.[1] After Constantine’s conversion in 312, some Christian intellectuals found it necessary to find alternatives to the pagan Roman Empire’s reliance on secular history and its cadre of non-Christian heroes.[2] It is critical always to keep in mind that these early fourth-century Christian writers were attempting to persuade a still largely non-Christian governing class that needed convincing.  Michele Salzman summarises the situation: “A religion whose texts taught love for one’s neighbors and humility, with strictures on wealth and notions of equality, did not, generally speaking, appeal to aristocrats”. So, partially as a means of appeal to prospective or recent converts from the Roman upper-classes fourth-century Church leaders “fashioned the rhetoric of Christianity to make it pleasing to educated elite listeners”.[3]

We find evidence of this adaptation in Christian accounts of the martyrs. Since most Late Roman elites expected their heroes to be “unyielding and warlike”,[4] it helps to explain why idealised Christian had similar qualities— if, at times, only in a metaphorical sense. Against this background, we can understand why the seminal Church historian Eusebius (c. 260-339 CE), who essentially founded the genre of Church history, littered his writings with heroic Christians who showed his audience that through martyrdom Christians could act as gallantly and as bravely as any Roman legionnaire facing death on the battlefield.  It is of course notoriously difficult to know the popularity or to pin down the exact makeup of the readership for this type of Christian literature.[5] Though one might assume that Eusebius created his history primarily for fellow devout Christians, evidence from his introduction suggests that the bishop was addressing a more diverse group—one consisting of readers of more traditional secular history (1.1.6), potential converts, and even non-Christians critical of the genre of Church history (1.2.1).

Eusebius certainly found it important to emphasize in his account the writings of earlier Christian theologians who had sought to refute claims by those labelled the “heathens” that the Christians facing public execution were “ignoble and unmanly” [ἀγεννεις καì ανανδροι, 5.1.34.].  In fact, Christian peoples’ propensity for “piety” [ευσεβειας] and “self-mastery” [καρτερἓα βίου], in the eyes of Eusebius and his sources, contributed to their excelling in “courageous virtue” [καì ἀρετης ἀνδρεία],[6] the courage of the martyrs, he insisted, could be compared to any individuals immortalised for their ἀνδρεία “by Greeks or barbarians”. [7] Roman intellectuals had long seen one’s ability to handle pain with courage as a tell-tale sign of “true” manliness.[8]  So when Eusebius or his source emphasised the martyrs’ propensity to face dismemberment and worse with bravery typical of manly soldiers, they relied on an aspect of traditional hegemonic masculinity readilyunderstood by their Christian and non-Christian audience.[9]

In these spiritual battles, which Eusebius described as “the wars most peaceful” (5.1.4) even a woman could become a “noble athlete” [γενναιος ἀθλητῄς, 5.1.19] or behave like God’s “manliest warrior” [ὀ ἀνδρειότατος ὀπλομᾴχoς, 6.41.16].[10] Although, Eusebius followed the common discriminatory attitude of the time that perceived women as the inferior sex, in certain instances he believed that women’s zeal and faith in God could break down these gender barriers.  By suffering the same contests as men, Eusebius argued that female martyrs “showed themselves no less manly than the men”.[11]

Still, as Averil Cameron warns, there is a danger of looking for signs of “early Christian feminism” within texts composed by Late Roman elites like Eusebius that remain highly misogynistic and often demand that women “must deny their sex” or  “be like a man” to achieve sanctity.[12] As has been often times remarked, Roman intellectuals had long clashed over the idea that men and women possessed distinctive virtues. We find that particularly during the first and second centuries, many Stoic and Christian thinkers influenced by ideas of symmetry, concluded that women remained just as capable as men in cultivating essential and typically masculine virtues.  Despite these claims of gendered egalitarianism by these ancient writers, however, deeply engrained misogynistic attitudes remained difficult for these intellectuals to overcome. Recent evaluations of these supposedly more philogynist writers, have persuasively uncovered the dissonance between their idealistic philosophical claims, and the reality found in their texts.[13]

Moreover, there was nothing new or specifically Christian in Eusebius’ seeming rejection of “traditional standards of Roman masculine militarism”.  Early Christian intellectuals, like Paul, had long utilized the paradox where “weakness was strength and defeat was victory”.[14] These New Testament authors in turn followed Stoic intellectuals in the Early Empire who had embraced ἀνδρεία as a “quieter virtue” of “endurance and self-control rather than a perseverance of action”. In fact, many of these same Stoic writers maintained that a seemingly passive death could be seen as manly if undertaken for a noble or honourable cause.[15]


7Good basic surveys of the Byzantine Church historians are found in Glenn Chesnut, The First Church Historians: Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius, (Macon, Mercer University Press, 1986); Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 23-46, 121-75.


[2]Eusebius, HE 5.1.1-4.


[3] Salzman, Christian Aristocracy, 2, 201.


[4]Julian, Against the Galilaeans 116 A.


[5] The difficulty of pinpointing the size and the exact makeup of the readership of the Early Church historians is discussed by Urbainczyk, (Socrates, 64-7); she concludes that they were intended for a wider circulation than their secular counterparts.  Cameron (Procopius, 116)  and Kaldellis (Procopius, 235) suggest that Procopius had read Eusebius’ history, which gives us further evidence that not only devout Christians were interested in ecclesiastical history.


[6]Eusebius, HE 1.4.7.


[7]Eusebius, HE  8.6.1: “Παντων δὲ ὂσοι των πώποτε ἀνυμνουνται θαυμασιοι καì ἐπ ἀνδρεία βεβοημενοι ειτε παρ Έλλησιν ειτε παρα βαρβαροις”. We know too that Eusebius was familiar with these traditional models, see Eusebius, Vita Constantini 1.10.


[8]Conway, Behold the Man, 29-30.


[9]See e.g., Ammianus (Res gestae 22.10.11) where the former soldier, who could be critical of Christians, expressed admiration for the Christian martyrs’ courage.


[10]I have changed the translator Oulton’s “brave” for ἀνδρειότατος to the more literal “manliest”.


[11]Eusebius, HE  8.14.13.  Unlike, male martyrs, Eusebius often emphasized the heroism of women who sacrificed their lives in order to protect their chastity (see e.g., HE 8.14.14-18).


 [12] Averil Cameron, “Virginity as a Metaphor: Women and the Rhetoric of Christianity”, in History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History, ed. Averil Cameron (London: Duckworth, 1988), 184-92.


[13]The bibliography on this topic is vast. A good summary of the current debates and a bibliography are found in Bernadette Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), 328-332; McInermy, “Plutarch’s Manly Women”.


[14]Paul, 2nd Corinthians 12:10. For the appropriation of this ideology as well as the use of paradox in later Christian writers, see Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 208.


[15]Conway, Behold the Man, 77. For the influence of Stoic thought on Paul, see Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2000).


Write in German: Get Ignored

Sorry for my absence; I have been sick and editing proofs for an article I have written on Procopius that will be out next week. I have been very pleased with the efficiency of the journal that will be publishing it (parekbolai 4). I sent the pdf off three months ago, and last week out of the blue a beautifully formatted version of my piece arrived on my desktop. I was happy to see that it had cleared peer review with no changes. The internet age has certainly made the process easier and more enjoyable…despite the acerbic comments of some reviewers who I imagine are troll-like figures sleeping under a damp bridge.

The world of academia is in the midst of a revolution. As I have discussed in previous blogs, scholars, like musicians before them, have begun to find numerous outlets for their scholarship. Despite the strong stand from the old-guard of journals to hide this research behind paywalls, leaks are slowly eating away at the dam. Scholars tired of the long waits and limited audience found in these closed mediums, have shown a tendency to place their work in open-access journals that are still peer-reviewed, but attract a larger audience. Since scholars do not get paid for their toil, many….myself included… prefer this larger dissemination to the greater prestige offered by the old guard journals. Some have argued, that the days of sites like are numbered, yet I would suggest the opposite. As more and more top scholars turn to open-access the edifice of the old school ebbs away.

Certainly, there is a more sinister side to this development….at least for those who do not have English as their first language. Increasingly these open journals are in English. While journals in German, Spanish, and other languages continue to be published they are having a more and more difficult time disseminating this non-English scholarship to an English audience. Of course there are exceptions, so too can google translator can help for those whose German and/or Russian and French remains limited. So too do sites like translate their content. Though garbeled these translation still are easier for someone with only two years of a certain language.

Yet, as Geoffrey Greatrex has recently pointed out,  the bulk of the audience seems only too happy to just ignore the evidence published in non-English sources. As my own personal experience teaches me as well, two years of a language does not give you the ability to digest dense articles in a foreign language.  Unfortunately,  for many of these non-English scholars this reality has forced them to compose many a paper in, at times, laboured English prose.  Another consequence is the rise in dominance of scholars whose first language is English.

For example I specialize on a sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius. Many graduate students in the field of Late Antiquity would be familiar with the important works of Peter Brown, Averil Cameron, Michael Whitby, and Anthony Kaldellis, yet the equally important scholarship of Dariuz Brodka, Henning Borm, and Mischa Meier in German is left in the margins if consulted at all.


What does the future hold? I would suggest that the growing dominance of English will continue. So too will translators improve so much in the next few decades that actually learning a foreign language may become obsolete amongst the majority. Of course this means that much subtlety and nuance will be lost in translation. Any thoughts?

An Update on Leo




What follows is an update on an earlier blog I wrote on the Byzantine emperor Leo I. This and other blogs are mostly my notes for my more polished projects. So forgive any lack of eloquence and/or proof-reading. I have a much more detailed draft on the fifth-century soldier emperors as a whole in the works, but I am using this as an essential book chapter draft, so it must remain unseen for now. To sum it up, my book chapter suggests that, in contrast to the idea in some scholarly circles that fifth-century and later Byzantine emperors were taking a step away from traidtional martial virtues in favour of “christian”virtues like piety, the examples of the soldier-emperors like Majorian, Anthemios, Marcian, Leo, and Zeno reveal the opposite. I suggest that in the propaganda surrounding these emperors and their generalissimos we see a return and to the military values and the idealised visions of the soldier’s life that we find before child-emperors like Arcadius, Honorius,Theodosius II, and Valentinian III took the purple. Contrary to argument found in some recent studies, this form of rulership had an continuing influence of ideals of leadership and masculinity throughout the Byzantine epoch. This reality helps us understand why Byzantine civilisation continued to respect and idolized emperors like Alexios Komenos (1081 to 1118) who hailed from the military and…at least in their propaganda embraced the simple tastes and values of a Roman soldier.


An understanding of the reign of Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) is crucial for anyone attempting to comprehend the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, one prominent Byzantinist goes so far as to credit Leo and his successor Zeno with rescuing “Byzantium from becoming a plaything of the barbarians.”[1] Yet as this same scholar has pointed out, the crucial reign of arguably the first Byzantine emperor has received far less attention than it deserves.[2] For instance, in the recent guide to Late Antiquity there is a no mention of this important emperor, whilst the bishop of Rome, Leo I (440-461), garners two pages.[3] This void may also be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors[4], and Leo’s successors.[5]

We may attribute some of this neglect to the paucity of sources available to scholars. Unlike the fourth and the sixth, many of the crucial events in the fifth will remain unknowable. Modern scholars have preferred to cover the reigns of the much better documented sixth-century emperors, especially Justinian. Yet other more “correctable” reasons may be provided. One recent biographer suggests plausibly that the older scholarly view of Leo as a “puppet” emperor has led many to ignore or dismiss his role in his reign.[6]  I would also propose that a recent focus on the role of women and the role of religion in the early Byzantine Empire has turned many scholars away from these soldier-emperors. In the past few years attention has turned to the role that these emperors played in the Christological debates that rocked the fifth-century Church.  Modern historians, for example, have been more interested in the role that Leo’s predecessor, Marcian, played in the council of Chalcedon. For some in women’s studies, the dominance of military men in the politics of the day serve as inconvenient reminders for those who would argue that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views of imperial leadership based on martial qualities. [7] So too has a relative disdain in some academic circles for military history, biography and traditional narrative history played a part in this neglect.

Yet when reconstructing the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth centuryeven more traditional “military and political” historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines. In Peter Heather’s recent account of this period, for instance, Leo is only mentioned in passing. [8]There have been exceptions. Important articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood have shed needed light on the internal politics and “propaganda” surrounding Leo’s regime.[9] In addition, one can only hope that Gereon Siebigs expands on his massive two-volume study on Leo, which at this point covers only the first three years of Leo’s reign.

Moreover, a penchant to skip over the events of the latter half of the fifth century is not just a tendency of modern scholars. Byzantine historians seemed uncomfortable preserving narratives describing an era that had led to the loss of the majority of the Empire’s Western territories.[10]  The non-soldier Anastasios also appeared to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.[11]

This paper first summarises, and then addresses some of the issues raised in the recent scholarship. It also seeks to place Leo’s military regime within the context of Byzantine historiography. More precisely, I will suggest that these reigns serve as evidence that the early Byzantine Empire continued to embrace martial virtues as key qualities of both imperial leaders and men more generally. Certainly Leo’s military regime provides important clues for a historian trying to uncover how martial virtues shaped both ideals of leadership and masculinity. The dominance of the politics of the day by men whom draped themselves in martial manliness serve as an important reminder that Byzantine rulers like Leo I, and indeed fifth-century Eastern Roman society as a whole, continued to embrace martial virtues and representations of the soldier’s life as essential aspects of both imperial leadership, and masculine self-representation.


Some Current Debates

Leo’s reign is remembered primarily for three developments. First, Leo was probably the first emperor to be crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Even if one doubts that this symbolic crowning occurred (e.g. Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I), Leo’s reign certainly provides us with evidence with how important the emperor’s role as the leader of the Church had become in the fifth century. Indeed, polling the Eastern bishops on their views towards Chalcedon and supressing an uprising by the council’s detractors in Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem represented some of Leo’s first official actions after he became emperor.[12] So too does the regime offer proof of how an “orthodox” emperor could use religion as a weapon to disparage and destroy his enemies both within and outside of the empire. Second, his self-assertion in the second half of his rule, and more precisely culling of the “Germanic” faction at the Eastern court —marked by his successful assassination of his former mentor the Alan magister militum Aspar and his replacement by the Isaurian Tarasicodissa (the future emperor Zeno) have attracted intense interest recently. Third, scholars have focused on Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468. This bungled invasion, which almost bankrupted the Empire, was the last in a series of failed attempts by both the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire to expel the Vandals from the vital lands of North Africa.


A Barbarian Cloaked in Roman Clothing?

Leo was born ca 401 in the Balkans.[13] The Balkans had long served as one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Late Roman army. [14] Indeed, the careers of men like Leo serve as an apt reminder that the army continued to offer Roman citizens from more humble backgrounds an attractive career opportunity.[15]

At the time of his ascension, Leo was serving as an undistinguished commander of the troops in Selymbria (modern Silivri in Istanbul district). Marcian had died on 27 January 457. Ten days later at the Campus Martius in Constantinople, Leo was proclaimed emperor in front of a mixed audience of senators, imperial regiments (scholai), key members of the military, and most symbolically, Anatolios, the archbishop of Constantinople. Despite the chants of the audience insisting that each faction “demanded Leo as emperor,” one suspects that most within the audience had a little knowledge about the man who was about to don the imperial diadem. When they all chanted in unison, “Leo augoustos may you always be victorious! He who has chosen you, may he guard you![16] Some within the audience might be forgiven for thinking that this protector was not the Christian saviour of the next line of the chant, but the Alan magister militumFlavius Ardabur Aspar, the man behind Leo’s unexpected crowning.[17]

(Missorium of Aspar, 434)[18]


Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar.[19] Aspar had a long if rather chequered military career spanning five decades. With his father, Ardabur (consul 427), he had served in Theodosius II’s short-lived and indecisive war (421-22) against the Persians. Having earned a reputation for martial prowess in the Persian campaign, in 424/25, the father/son duo represented two of the three commanders Theodosius II sent into Italy to overthrow the western usurper John. After the capture of his father at sea, Aspar boldly rescued his father and captured John by stealthily overwhelming the usurper and his supporters in the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[20] Shortly after, Aspar defeated a force of Huns led by the seminal Western generalissimo Aetius.[21] In 431 Aspar teamed up with the western generalissimo Boniface in a failed attempt to expel the Vandals from North Africa.  From 431-435 he had remained in the West commanding the Eastern forces garrisoned there. This service saw Aspar named consul by the western emperor Valentinian III in 434.  441 found Aspar negotiating a treaty with the Huns. Two years later, however Aspar and his army suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Attila. The fifth-century historian Priscus tells us that by 449, Aspar’s star was on the wane. [22] Indeed, Aspar was probably one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[23] By the time of Theodosius II death in 450 it appears that Aspar had regained the good graces of the emperor, and the sixth-century chronicler John Malalas maintained that Aspar was present when the dying emperor supposedly proclaimed that Marcian— a soldier who had served under Aspar— should be his successor.[24]

Though scholars continue to debate how important a role Aspar played in Marcian’s ascension, it seems clear that in the early years of Leo’s reign he wielded a great deal of power, and in fact may be seen as a shadow emperor. Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer, a bit like Roman Dick Cheneys, largely tried to influence events behind the scenes.[25] In establishing his role behind the scenes he was successful during the reign of Marcian, if obviously less so during Leo’s. Unfortunately for Aspar, Leo had an independent, and if contemporary sources are to be believed a violent streak.

The relationship only soured gradually. Leo took his time before he made his move to eliminate his mentor.  Though there are hints of friction from the first years of Leo’s rule, the emperor’s creation in 460 or 461 of an elite palace guard the execubitors has been seen by most historians as the first major step to counterbalance Aspar’s authority.[26] This gathering of soldiers linked to him personally continued when in 464 Leo named his brother-in-law Basiliskos magister militum per Thracias. The emperor’s next moves were even more dangerous to Aspar’s interests. A whispering campaign initiated by the emperor and his inner-circle played upon the traditional Roman distrust of non-Romans in positions of authority. The next year Leo accused Aspar’s son Ardabur of giving away state secrets to the Persians and dismissed him from the command he had held since 453. We are lucky to have a source that provides some insight into the affair, and Aspar’s vulnerability. Written by an anonymous author sometime between 492 and 496, the Life of Daniel the Stylite (55)appears to provide an insider’s view on the incident.[27] In view of its importance in shedding some light on this affair, and indeed, the rise of Zeno,[28] and the opening salvo in the dispute between the East’s two most powerful men, it is necessary to quote it in full:

About that time a certain Zeno, an Isaurian by birth, came to the Emperor and brought with him letters written by Ardabur, who was then general of the East; in these he incited the Persians to attack the Roman State and agreed to cooperate with them. The Emperor received the man and recognizing the importance of the letters he ordered a Council to be held; when the Senate had met the Emperor produced the letters and commanded that they should be read aloud in the hearing of all the senators by Patricius, who was Master of the Offices at that time. After they had been read the Emperor said, ‘What think you?’ As they all held their peace the Emperor said to the father of Ardabur, ‘These are fine things that your son is practising against his Emperor and the Roman State’. Aspar replied, ‘You are the master and have full authority; after hearing this letter I realize that I can no longer control my son; for I often sent to him counselling and warning him not to ruin his life; and now I see he is acting contrary to my advice. Therefore do whatsoever occurs to your piety; dismiss him from his command and order him to come here and he shall make his defence’.

The Emperor took this advice; he appointed a successor to Ardabur and dismissed him from the army; then ordered him to present himself forthwith in Byzantium. In his place he gave the girdle of office to Jordanes and sent him to the East; he also appointed Zeno, Count of the Domestics.

And the Emperor went in solemn procession and led him up to the holy man and related to him all about Ardaburs’ plot and Zeno’s loyalty; others told him, too, how Jordanes had been appointed General of the East in place of Ardabur. The holy man rejoiced about Jordanes and gave him much advice in the presence of the Emperor and of all those who were with him then he dismissed them with his blessing.

Evidence from a fragment from Priscus suggests that some of Leo’s propaganda against Ardabur may have been gender-based; it explained that whilst Aspar’s son had done a good job defending Thrace from the “barbarians” in the early years of his command, eventually he had succumbed to a life of “self-indulgence and effeminate leisure.”[29] Such a sentiment concerning the dangers of the soft life for even the most martial of non-Roman, and indeed Roman commanders represents a commonplace in Roman and Byzantine literature.[30] Leo did not stop here. In 466, the emperor appointed Zeno as comes domesticorum and, in that same year, the Isaurian married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne. Attila’s son, Dengizich, invaded Thrace in 467. Leo made Zeno magister militum per Thracias and sent him to thwart the incursion.[31]

The writing must have been on the wall for Aspar. While Aspar failed in his attempt to assassinate Zeno during this campaign, the Isaurian fled to what Brian Croke describes as a semi exile for the next four years. In the spring of 467, Leo sent another potential rival, the patrician Anthemios to Italy where he was named Western emperor outside of Rome on April 12.[32] Such a move reasserting Eastern control over Western affairs provides us with evidence of Leo’s growing confidence.[33] Once Anthemios was established in Rome, Leo sent an embassy to the Vandal King Gaiseric warning him to evacuate territories he had seized in Sicily and Southern Italy. Leo also gained the support of the quasi-independent Western generalissimo Marcellinus who was placed in command of a Western army that Leo and Anthemios were gathering for a joint military campaign.[34] With his position secure in the East and Ricimer’s stranglehold on the Western government broken—at least temporarily—Leo sought to finally take back the vital provinces in North Africa from the Vandals.[35] The next year (468), Leo launched his massive assault ostensibly to punish Gaiseric for his raids on Eastern and Western Roman lands in 467 that the emperor claimed violated a treaty signed in 462.[36] In reality Leo was seeking the type of victory that would assure the long-term viability of his rule. Leo certainly would have the upper-hand over Aspar, who as noted above, had been defeated several times by the Vandals. Relying on Priscus, the mid-sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius made it clear that a glorious Roman victory was not in Aspar’s best interests.  The historian’s further suggestion, however, that the commander of the campaign Basiliskos betrayed the Byzantine cause for a bribe from Gaiseric or as a favour to Aspar appear improbable, and are probably linked to later propaganda hostile to both Aspar and the future emperor.[37] Indeed, attempting to regain the upper-hand in Western affairs, Ricimer had dealt the campaign a deadly blow by assassinating Marcellinus in Sicily.[38]

The massive logistical efforts behind the ambitious attack offer us evidence of the continuing military capabilities of the twin regimes when acting in unison. Although one should discount the figure of 100,000 ships given in one Byzantine source, clearly the attack represented an impressive display of planning and enduring martial puissance.[39] Organised as a three-pronged campaign—with his eyes on Carthage—Marcellinus took Sicily.[40] Meanwhile, Basiliskos sailed the bulk of the Roman navy to meet the Vandal naval forces, lastly, a smaller fleet, led by Eastern Comes rei militaris  Herakleios, successfully occupied the Vandal stronghold of Tripolis. Herakleios and his army set out towards Carthage in order to link up with Basiliskos’ troops when they arrived in Proconsular province. At this point, if we believe Procopius, Geiseric began to panic.[41]  The landing by Basiliskos, however, never occurred. Whether through treachery or (more likely) incompetence, Basiliskos and the Byzantine armada allowed the Vandals the time to recover from their initial shock, and the Roman fleet suffered a humiliating and devastating defeat at the hands of the Vandals and their fire-ships at Mercurium.[42]

It is interesting to note that Leo himself takes little of the blame in the accounts that survive.[43] I would suggest that this is part of the reason that fifth and sixth century emperors did not feel the need to direct campaigns in person. If the assault failed, a scapegoat could be found within the military, whilst if victory was achieved the emperor could represent himself as the face of Roman victory. Certainly the example of the Western emperor, Majorian’s (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution in August 461 at the hands of his non-Roman advisor Ricimer, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution.

Despite his largely successful campaign to place blame elsewhere, the defeat appears to have slowed Leo’s political momentum. Within Constantinople, Aspar appears to have regained the upper-hand or at least equilibrium. The ninth-century Byzantine chronicler, Theophanes, maintained (most likely derived from Priscus) that Leo had immediately recalled Basilsikos, Heraklios, and another commander Marsus, to Constantinople in order to counteract a plot by Aspar.[44] Though Leo seemed to have thwarted this conspiracy, Aspar kept up the pressure on the emperor. Aspar was likely behind the magister militum Anagast’ revolt against Leo I.[45]  By 470, we find Aspar powerful enough to have his son and former consul (459) Julius Patricus raised to caeser. With Leo seemingly on his back foot, Aspar then arranged to have his son married to the emperor’s daughter Leontia. Aspar’s long-held hopes to have his Romanised son succeed Leo to the purple seemed possible once more.[46]  As a result of riots in the capitol by those against an Arian taking the throne, Patricus had even agreed to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity before marrying Leo’s daughter.[47] 

Without his primary protector Zeno, Leo must have feared for his life. Perhaps Leo undertook the marriage agreement with Patricus to buy some time. Indeed, some sort of political stability appears to have returned to Constantinople by 471.[48] Leo’s eunuch-assassins seemed to have taken Aspar and his sons by surprise when they ambushed (Patricus may have survived for a time) them during a meeting of the Grand council within the imperial palace. Yet Leo’s survival was a near thing. In the aftermath of the assassination, rioting broke out in the capitol. Aspar’s supporters stormed the palace, and only with great difficulty were the execubitors able to fight them off.[49]  Further proof of just how dangerous a situation Leo found himself in before the assassination is the fact that Zeno only found it safe to return to the capital after Aspar and his colleagues had either been killed and/or fled.

Views were mixed on the justice of this move.  Distaste for the assassination is evident in many Byzantine sources.[50] Leo’s nickname “the butcher” was a slight used by his enemies (see e.g. the frags. of Malchus). Not everyone disagreed with the elimination of Aspar. Writing during the reign of Justinian (527-565) Malalas (cf. the similar positive view of Leo found in the history of Malalas’ contemporary, the historian Procopius) records a letter supposedly written by Leo to his western counterpart Anthemios[51] that sheds light on how latter Byzantines viewed this action. Leo explains that he had killed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one “who gives orders not takes them.”[52] He recommends that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemios should assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also eliminate Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble Olybrius. Unlike, Leo, Anthemios failed to act quickly enough and Ricimer was left to his own devices, which led eventually to disaster for the Western halve of the Empire. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because the Western emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, the Roman Emperor Leo I assassinated his generalissimo Aspar and purged his Germanic supporters.[53]

Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way. Stilicho’s decision at the opening of the fifth century to name a supreme commander of the Western Roman army stood in contrast to the East where five generals served to balance each other.  Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno helped to protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the assassination.[54] Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to protect him after he removed his generalissimo, Aetius’ supports quickly returned the favour.[55] So too had he eliminated a Roman general who had famously defeated Attila. The swift retaliation against such a murder is understandable. Leo had an easier time explaining his elimination of a man he painted as a traitorous barbarian.  Leo emphasized, as well, Aspar’s relatively poor record as a Roman commander. Valentinian III had a much more difficult time disparaging the Roman war hero Aetius.

Factional Politics

The fifth century was a real life Game of Thrones. The older vision of this era as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions has, however, largely been overturned. The recent trend is to dismiss the older idea these men were motivated by issues of ethnicity. Hugh Elton, for instance, rejects the idea of “Germanic” and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Zeno’s reign. Roman factional politics remained the prime factor in the internal struggles that troubled the twin regimes during this period. Needing to confirm themselves as “true” Romans all three men went to great lengths to establish their credential of leaders of the state and the church. This helps to explain why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the Church. The strict polarization between the ‘barbarian” Aspar and the “Roman” Leo is largely a creation of our sources. After five decades as a member of the upper echelons of Roman society—and in fact the senior eastern senator—Aspar, to borrow the words of Walter Goffart, “was a courtly grand seigneur.”[56]

Wood has shown how Leo’s attempt to paint Aspar as an unorthodox and violent “barbarian” may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his regime:

Leo and his allies held on to power in the teeth of such elite criticism. Their ability to do so may be found partially in their appropriation of the idea so being Roman and being Christian that was used by the Theodosian dynasty, and the creation of scapegoats, such as Aspar, against whom they could define themselves. [57]

Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic the Amal were not so different.[58] All had risen to prominence within the Roman military. Like his successor Zeno, as an obscure soldier from Thrace, Leo would have been commonly regarded by many Constanlopian elites as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). Yet I would agree with Conor Whatley that “commanders from the Balkans serving Rome, and ultimately based in Constantinople” were considered by their contemporaries as Roman.[59]  

So why did not Aspar just make himself or one of his sons emperor or indeed a barbarian rex along the lines of the Ostrogoth Theoderic?  Doug Lee (Contra Arnold and Wood) believes that the likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves.[60] So too were links to the ruling regime important. Though it seems like Stilicho they sought to align their sons to the imperial family. Kaldellis’ idea that it took two generations into become Roman may be apt, but it does not explain why Aspar could not reign since his father was an esteemed Roman general. Perhaps his experience as an emperor-maker had led Aspar to prefer to bide his time, and thus allow Patricus to take the throne with minimal dissent amongst the Eastern Roman ruling classes—dissent that indeed bubbled over during the  Isaurian Zeno’s first reign. Moreover, I would add that they may have preferred avoiding all the other obligations that went along with the role. Constantius III, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, regretted giving up the relative freedom of his military command after he became Honorius’ partner in 421.[61]Other scholars, however, disagree with this assessment. Jonathan Arnold believes that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem (there is evidence that Aspar was offered to become emperor of the Western half of the Empire)[62]; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa Zeno.[63] 

Where do I stand on these issues? I agree with the newer scholarship that sees the turmoil that beset both halves of the Empire as largely resulting from factional rather than ethnic disputes. Such strict ethnic polarisation found in writers like Priscus and Procopius seems to be in dissonance with the realities of the day. Evidence suggests that Aspar could count on support amongst both Goths and Romans within the city of Constantinople.[64]  As mentioned above, the extent that the Isaurians made up the majority of Leo’s support, and indeed palace guard, may be questioned as well. As a former commander one suspects that Leo knew the dangers of filling his ranks with Isaurians who might turn on him when push came to shove.[65]

Nonetheless, we should be careful not to dismiss all these accounts of differing levels of Roman and non-Roman identity. I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity than scholars like Arnold. While Aspar gave his eldest son the Romanised name of Julius Patricus, the two sons he expected to follow in his footsteps were given the non-Roman names Ardabur and Hermineric.[66] It seems strange that Aspar would have promoted Leo I to the purple in 457 if he was going to be seen as a barbarian. Zeno too seems to have not promoted his identity as an Isaurian who technically were considered as Romans, if by this period as tenuous and semi-barbaric (see, Lenski 2011).

Modern historians seem to make more of Leo’s and Zeno’s status as supposed barbarians than even their most ardent Byzantine opponents did. The idea that the Western senate offered to make Aspar emperor has also been disputed by some I believe rightly. Moreover, the fact that Aspar and Theoderic remained “Arians” seems important. If they wanted to be seen as Romans: Why not just convert to the “Orthodoxy” of the day? If Aspar was ready to take this step in the case of his son, then why not change as well if he truly wished to become emperor”? One answer may be provided. Indeed, such a step may have alienated Aspar from the men who were his key supporters.  Orthodoxy (i.e. Chalcedonian Christianity) was becoming a marker of Romanness in this period. Though as other Byzantinists point out in Byzantium one’s orthodoxy did not necessarily make one a Roman and/or Byzantine e.g. Serbians, Russians etcetera.

Leo’s legacy—good and bad— was defined largely by his relationship with Aspar. While his enemies depicted the slaying of Aspar and his family as the work of a “butcher”, and a sure sign of Leo’s “true” barbarian nature, later Byzantine historians, such as Procopius, admired Leo for taking a tough stand against Aspar, a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing. Certainly, Procopius sought to present Justinian’s reconquests of Vandalic North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy as both the culmination and fulfilment of Leo’s political aspirations.

Well that is it for now. The second half of the paper will examine the portrait of Leo crafted in the fifth and sixth century sources like the Saint’s Life of Daniel the Stylite, the chronicle of John Malalas,  the history of Procopius, and, finally the ecclesiastical history of  Evagrius. It will also examine Leo’s foreign policy and his role as the leader of the Orthodox Church.











[1] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1997: 847.


[2]Gereon Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I. Das oströmische Reich in den ersten drei Jahren seiner Regierung, 457 

 –460 2 vols.(Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 2010). Bury’s History and Stein’s Histoire du Bas Empire remain the most in-depth accounts. For a decent modern account, see Gerard Friell and Stephen Williams, The Rome that did not Fall: the Survival of the East in the Fifth Century (London: Routledge, 1999).


[3] G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Graber, eds., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press / The Belknap Press, 1999), 541-42.


[4] E.g., Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982). Kathryn Chew, “Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II,” Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2 (2006): 207-227; Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Hagith Sivan, Galla Placidia: the Last Roman Empress. Women in Antiquity.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011); Meaghan McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5]F. K. Haarer, Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World (Cambridge:  Francis Cairns, 2006); Mischa Meier, Anastasios I. Die Entstehung des Byzantinischen Reiches (Stuttgart, 2009). Rafal Kosinski, The Emperor Zeno: Religion and Politics (Cracow: 2010). John Moorhead, Justinian (London: Longman, 1994).

[6]Siebigs, Kaiser Leo I”, 2. Siebegs provides a substantive revision of Leo’s early years.


[7]  Mathew Kuefler (The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) for example, avoids these fifth-century military regimes in his study on Late Roman masculinity. The continuing praise of martial virtues as an essential aspect of hegemonic masculinity in the depiction of these military men in the literature of late Antiquity undermines his conclusion that non-martial “Christian” virtues had become the new ideal of masculinity in the later Empire.  Though following a more traditional narrative approach, McEvoy in her commendable study on late Roman child-emperors, largely avoid discussing the reigns of these fifth-century soldier emperors. The large number of soldier-emperors, in fact, undermines some of her more sweeping suggestions (e.g., 327) concerning the prominence of child-emperors in the Byzantine period.


[8]Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2013).


[9]Brian Croke “Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar,” Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203; “Leo I and the palace guard”, Byzantion 78 (2005): 117-151.Philip Wood “Multiple Voices in Chronicle Sources: The Reign of Leo I (457-474) in Book Fourteen of Malalas,” Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 4. No. 2 (Fall 2011): 299-314.

[10] Warren Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (New York: Macmillan Press, 2007), 102.


[11]Malchus frags. 1, 2, 3. As Treadgold points out (Byzantine Historians, 105), Malchus was probably countering, or at least providing an alternative to the work of his contemporary the Isaurian born historian Candidus, which also covered the reigns of Leo and Zeno. John Malalas’ sixth-century portrait is more nuanced, mixing negative (e.g. 14. 41, 42, 44, and positive (e.g.14.39, 45) views of Leo. Procopius (e.g. Wars 3.6.3. 11), however, provides a far more idealised “tough guy” representation of Leo. The preserver of Malchus’ fragments, the tenth-century Suda (267), also seems to hold a more favourable view of Leo, who, in the scribes telling, ruled the Empire with “effective ferocity”.


[12] Marcellinus, Chron. 458, with note by Croke, 95.

[13]Writing in the early years of Anastasios’ reign, the Isaurian Candidus (frag. 1) maintained that he was from Dacia in Illyricum. While John Malalas (14.35) writing under Justinian stated that he was of Bessian stock (the Bessi were an independent Thracian tribe). Writing shortly after Leo’s reign, Candidus should be preferred. In fact, Malalas’ contention may represent later attempts to paint Leo as a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing.


[14] Michael Whitby, “Emperors and Armies,” in Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, ed. Simon Swain and Mark Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 166. For a discussion of Balkan Military culture, see Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 277-313.


[15] A. D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity, A Social History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 82. The majority of recent scholarship on the Late Roman military has increasingly rejected the older entrenched theories surrounding the demilitarization of the Roman upper-classes and the increased barbarization of the Roman armies of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries.


[16] Following the complete depiction of Leo’s ceremony found in Constantine Porphyrogennetos, Book of Ceremonies, trans. Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall (Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2012), 410-416.


[17] Marcian’s son-in-law the future western emperor Anthemios (ruled 467-472) was probably the expected successor. The Alans were steppe nomads of Iranian decent. By the fifth century many groups had absorbed Gothic cultural ideals.


[18] FL (avius) ARDABUR ASPAR VIR INLUSTRIS COM(es) et MAG(ister) MILITUM et CONSUL  ORDINARIUS. Aspar, bearded and wearing a tunic and a toga, holds up in his right-hand the mappa, and in his left a sceptre surmounted by two small busts of Theodosius II and Valentinian III. He is flanked by his son Ardabur standing, with the inscription ARDABUR IUNOR PRETOR. His son wears a similar outfit and, also holds a mappa raised in his left hand, whilst he salutes his father with his right hand.  Above them there are two medallions containing the busts of Aspar’s father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419. For a lucid description of the historical and the archaeological background of the dish, see G. Bevan, A. Gabov, and C. Zaccagnio, “The Missorium of Ardabur Aspar: New Considerations of its Archaeological and Historical Aspects,” ArchCl  LXIII, (2012) 419-454.



[19]For Aspar’s essential role in Marcian’s ascension, I side with arguments made by Burgess (“Marcian”): though see the different views found in Chew and Walter Beers (“Faction Politics and the Transfer of Power at the Accession of Marcian”) that suggest that the empress Pulcheria was the key player. These arguments fail to convince; Burgess argues persuasively that Pulcheria’s key role in Marcian’s appointment was an invention of later Monophysite writers seeking to undermine Chalcedon.   For Aspar’s part in Leo’s rise, see Priscus frag.19 (Blockley). For the limitations of Imperial women’s power to influence political events, see now McEvoy, Child Emperor, 236.


[20] Socrates, HE 7.23; Olympiodorus, frag. 43. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates naturally focused on the miraculous aspect of Ravenna’s capture, whilst the secular minded Olympiodorus explained that the prisoner Ardabur had undermined John’s position within the city before Aspar arrived with his cavalry.   


[21] Cassiodorus, Chronica, s.a. 425; Gregory of Tours, 2.8; Philostorgius, xii.4; Prosp. s.a. 425; Chronica gallica 452, 100; Jordanes, Romana, 328.


[22] Priscus, frag. 14.85-90.


[23] Priscus, frag. 9.3. Priscus most likely composed his history during the second reign of Zeno (Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 100).


[24] John Malalas, Chronicle 14.27. Cf. Chronican Paschale, S.A. 450. We should, however, discount Malalas’ contention that Theodosius had named Marcian as his successor at this time.


[25]For a full account of Aspar’s career, see – Profile of Aspar in the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire.


[26] Treadgold, 157. Siebigs (Kaiser Leo I, 478-49), however, has convincingly shown that the opening salvos between the two occurred in the first years of Leo’s rule and were concerned with Christological issues.


[27] Caution, however, must be observed both because it post-dates Aspar’s death, and it passes down Leo’s side of the dispute.


[28] Relying on the now lost sixth-century history of Eustathius, the late sixth-century historian Evagrius (2.15) explains that this accusation by Zeno was one of the primary factors in his subsequent rise.

[29] Priscus frag. 19.

[30] See, e.g., Procopius’ contention (Wars 4.6.5-8) that the Vandals’ martial edge and manliness had been eroded gradually by their love of feasting, baths, and “sexual pleasures. For a full discussion of this trope, see Michael Edward Stewart, Between two worlds: men’s heroic conduct in the writings of Procopius. Thesis (M.A.)–San Diego State University, 2003, 54-59.

[31] For my interpretation of events I follow here: Brian Croke, The Date of the ‘Anastasian Long Wall’ in Thrace” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20 (1982): 59-78.


[32] Priscus, frag. 53.3.15-20; Marcellinus, Chron. 467.1; Theophanes, Chron. AM 5957.


[33] For the dominant role the Eastern court had played in the reign of the Western Emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455), see McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule, esp. Ch. 8. Certainly the Western generalissimo saw the move as a threat to his interests. For the propaganda campaign launched by Ricimer and his supporters to depict Anthemios as an unmanly Greekling, whilst painting the Goth Ricimer as a “true” Roman see, Arnold, Restoration, 16-20.


[34] Marcellinus, Chron. 468. Procopius asserted (Wars 3.6.5) that Leo had made Anthemios emperor primarily to help him with his campaign against the Vandals.


[35] The loss of North Africa to the Vandals in the 430s and 440s ultimately had disastrous consequences for the Western Empire and its army. A vital loss of tax revenues and corn from this region made it increasingly difficult for Valentinian III and his successors to pay, clothe, and feed his troops. For this problem, see McEvoy, Child Emperor, 264-265.


[36] Priscus, frag. 52.


[37] Procopius, Wars 3.6.1-2, 5-25. Modern historians (e.g. Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, 58) doubt the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on Basiliskos’ bad generalship. The entire campaign was also undermined by


[38] J. M. O’Flynn (Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire, 117-118, 189, n.59) suggests that in an effort to undermine Ricimer Anthemios had made Marcellinus patricius.


[39] Theophanes, AM 5961.


[40] Procopius, Wars 3.6.8.

[41] Procopius, Wars 3.6.9.


[42]Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 122-23.


[43]Leo must have instigated a propaganda campaign to keep himself from blame straight away…e.g. painting Aspar as afraid of the Vandals…whilst promoting his own “fearlessness”. The old topoi of blaming a barbarian like Aspar for betraying the Empire to a fellow barbarian had a long tradition in Roman literature. Perhaps blaming Basiliskos’ treachery in accepting a bribe from the Vandals comes later, since it is strange that after such treason he could still become emperor. In the fifth and sixth-century sources, Roman failure in the battle is not blamed on the army as a whole. In the mind of contemporary Byzantine sources, the fleet’s defeat was to be attributed to the “betrayal” by a few individuals at the top.  We see in many of the accounts the subsequent growth of “true” Roman heroes in the face of defeat (note the different heroes found in the accounts of Marcellinus, Malalas, and Procopius).


[44] Theophanes AM 5963.


[45] Priscus frag. 56.


[46] For these hopes, see Arnold, Theoderic, 159.


[47] Croke, “Dynasty”, 193.


[48] Most historians (e.g. Heather, Restoration, 22), believe that Leo at this time was protected by bands of loyal Isaurians. Croke (“Dynasty”) has, however, recently suggested that they only became a dominant force once Zeno became emperor,


[49] Malalas 371.9-372.2


[50] E.g., Malalas, Chron. 371.9372.2; Evagrius, HE 2.16.


[51]A former magister utiusqe militae, consul, and patrician under Marcian, Anthemios had been hand-picked by Leo as his western counterpart. As we can see from the passage above, the easterner Anthemios had landed in a difficult situation. As one recent scholar has shown, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer “as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Anthemios “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (Arnold, “Restoration”, 153).


[52] Wood (“Multiple Voices”) sees this passage as an instance of Malalas being ironic, maintaining that the chronicler sought to present Leo as a barbarian along the lines of Ricimer. I doubt that the rather clumsy historian Malalas was capable of such subtlety.


[53] This view for the fall of the west and the survival of the east found in writers like Procopius is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., (Treadgold, 1997, 149-155); (Heather, 2013).


[54]A.D. Lee, From Rome to Byzantium, ad 363 to 565: The Transformation of the Ancient Roman World (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2013), 98-101.


[55] Priscus, frag 30.


[56] Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Late Roman Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 276. N. 43.


[57] Wood, “Multiple Voices,” 310.


[58] For Zeno being far more of a barbarian than Aspar, see Goffart, Tides, 38. In fact having been raised in the capitol, Theoderic probably received a more thorough education than either Leo or Zeno.


[59] Conor Whately, “Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD”, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. (Oxford, 2013), 49-57.


[60] Doug Lee, “Theodosius and his Generals,” in Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, ed. Christopher Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 108.


[61] Olympiodorus, frag. 33.


[62] MGM AA 12.425. The story may be anachronistic since it dates from 501, recording a synod between Theoderic and a group of Western bishops. Supporters of it validity have argued that the Roman senate offered to make Aspar Western emperor in 450 or 457.



[63] Arnold, Theoderic, 159-60.  Cf. Moorhead, Theoderic , 8. Heather (Restoration, 21-22), however, rejects the idea that Aspar could have been emperor.


[64] Indeed, as mentioned above, Leo’s reputation as the “butcher” was propagated in “Roman” sources. Malalas’ (371) account of the riots that rocked Constantinople after Aspar’s assassination would seem to suggest that Aspar had supporters from a large segment of Constantinople’s population, Roman and non-Roman.

[65] The Life of Daniel the Stylite  (60) provides us with evidence that Leo recruitedexecubitors from the Western Roman Empire as well.


[66] Arnold, Theoderic, 159.