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.



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