Monthly Archives: July 2014

Bibs, Bobs and Some Thoughts on Kaldellis

Sorry I have been off-line for a bit. My old Toshiba bit the dust last week, so I have just been trying to rescue my old files and have upgraded to a much better lap top. This has included upgrading to office 2013. This blog is a brief rundown on some of my current projects and a few thoughts on the plethora of recent publictations and growing influence of the Byzantine scholar Anthony Kaldellis.

Ten days ago posted one of my favourite recent papers: italy/?

I enjoy and respect that web site so am happy that they keep utilising my work: four so far this year. This paper, which is an updated version of a paper I first wrote as a grad student in 2002, has proven to be very popular with 1400 shares and 600 downloads in two days. Once again it is not something I will send off to any journal, but it still has found an audience, which is satisfying. I am distraught that I had about ten of these other papers that I could have updated, but ended up getting thrown out when we moved to Australia in 2004.

I also had a more serious paper come out in June on the Greek concept of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars:

As minor side projects, I have also been sending off some of my book reviews to various journals. Three of these should be out early in 2015. I have put a great deal of work into to two of these since they are in my field. Luckily all three were books I enjoyed immensely, though as followers of this blog already know, I have a tendency to find the soft underbelly of even the best studies.

If you are a scholar just starting out, I would recommend saving your more critical reviews for when you are more established. I made the mistake of publishing a critical review as a grad student that I regret to this day….though I stand by my original assessment.

August will see me finishing my paper: Breaking Down Barriers: Eunuchs in Italy, 400-620 that I am preparing for the AABS conference in November. I will hold off sharing any of this until after the conference. I am also getting ready to write something significant on Justinian’s reconquest and the notion of “return”. I will blog some of it here. It will concentrate how both sides in the Gothic Wars reacted to Justinian’s presentation of this campaign as the return of the “true” Romans, whilst the Goths and their backers promoted the notion of the Eastern Romans as Greeks and Theoderic’s martial Goths as “true” Romans. It compliments an excellent unpublished paper by the noted Theoderican scholar Jon Arnold that dealt with the topic of manly Goths and unmanly Romans.

A book project on construction of gender in Procopius’ Wars is also in the works. I will continue my exploration in this blog of Procopius’ characterisation of Narses for two other articles that should be ready sometime in 2015 as well. So too am I hoping to rework an old paper on notions of Christian heroes in Procopius. Here is a rough version of the project. It was written primarily in 2002 before Kaldellis’ work questioning that Procopius was a Christian came out:

Finally a trimmed down version of my most popular paper on will be published sometime next year either as an article or a book chapter.

I will also be reading Anthony Kaldellis’ 2013 book on Byzantine Ethnography and bounce some ideas off his provocative thesis. Not sure if I will be brave enough to review it. Slight digression: I could probably write an entire blog on Kaldellis’ abundant recent work in the field. In short my views on him are mixed; Kaldellis loves the big idea and like myself often takes a macro view of Late Roman and Byzantine history. I enjoyed his books on Hellenism and the Parthenon, but disliked his work on Procopius, and find his views in various books and articles on Justinian, Procopius, Christianity, causation, and in particular tyche unconvincing, and sometimes strange (a view shared by other scholars). He is one of those historians whom irks as he stimulates. His mastery of the vast array of Late Roman and Byzantine literature is unquestioned. So too has he provoked needed debate in a generally stodgy field. Still he is more popular amongst generalists than specialists. Primarily I think is so because he frequently simplifies in order to drive his big ideas. He also tends to misrepresent or simplify other scholars’ positions e.g.  most modern Byzantine scholars recognise that the Byzantines saw themselves as Romans. He also crossed the line from critical to rude in his book on Procopius, something that he has refrained thankfully from doing in his most recent monographs (I received an interesting email from Averil Cameron on this topic in 2004).

In closing, most everything Kaldellis publishes is lucid, stimulating and elegantly written. Indeed, I am amazed that one academic can produce so many important works on a wide array of subjects and time-periods.   However, one must be careful to not always take his conclusions as doctrine.


Theoderic: Barbarian Rex or Roman Emperor?



This is an update on a draft of a  review I have recently written on Jon Arnold’s fascinating  book on the Theoderic.


The Gothic King—or is that Western Roman emperor—Theoderic (ruled 489/93-526) has recently received a great deal of scholarly attention. In The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders, Peter Heather devotes several chapters to the Amal rex.  Cambridge University Press has published two major studies on Theoderic in the past year alone: Sean Lafferty’s Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic the Great: A study of the Edictum Theoderici (2013) and Jonathan Arnold’s Theoderic and the Roman Restoration. Though all three of these works have done much to advance Theoderican studies their bipolar presentations of Theoderic will probably leave graduate students assigned these works confused.

On the one hand, Lafferty and Heather provide their readers with traditional visions of Theoderican Italy as one of several post-Roman worlds. Their Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing. On the other hand, Jonathan Arnold is more inclined to take Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus at face value. Arnold (90) goes so far to say “Theoderic’s reign…constituted much more than simply that of a king along the same lines as Odovacer or other ‘barbarian’ kings of the West. He was a princeps Romanus, or Roman emperor, acknowledged as such by his own subjects and presented as such, though in a deferential and conciliatory manner, to the East.” The “glorious” opening decades of Theoderic’s rule were nothing less than the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire.[i]

Arnold opens his study by placing his work within the context of the vast array of studies that have appeared in past fifty years devoted to Late Antique identity. After providing a succinct summery of the competing schools of thought on this controversial topic, A posits that his work will take a slightly different path. In his mind the primary mistake made by many of the studies he discusses is their often bi-polar presentation of non-Romans and Romans, and more importantly the entire idea of Ostrogothic Italy as a post-Roman kingdom. While recognising that his study is not primarily focused on the debate discussed above, A explains that he hopes to provide “a new type of accommodation model,” one that presents Theoderic’s or Ostrogothic Italy as not the successor, but the continuation of the Western Roman Empire. Indeed, he seeks to place Theoderic and his Goths firmly within a Roman context.

To accomplish this daunting task, A opens with two chapters (one and two) dedicated to the primary Italo-Roman sources for his study: Magnus Felix Ennodius and Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. Tracing both similarities and differences between these two men—living in what has usually been seen by scholars as a post-Roman world—A lucidly relates the defining civilised Romanitas of these men, as well as the thoroughly Romanised Italian landscape in which they dwelled. While these men lived in an Italy devastated by both the struggles of the “last” Western Roman emperors, and the four-year struggle (489-493) between Theoderic and Odovacer— the “barbarian” commonly seen to have overthrown the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus in 476—in A’s mind, Cassiodorus and Ennodius saw Theoderic and his Goths as saviours sent by God to resuscitate Italy and restore the honour of an Empire “denuded of its territory, stripped of its honour, and poorly governed (56).”

Chapter three sets out to differentiate the “constitutional context” of Theoderic from his predecessor Odovacer. A makes it clear that Italo-Romans like Cassiodorus and Ennodius saw Odovacer as a usurper, whilst they perceived Theoderic to be “a legitimate representative of imperial power in the West (64).”[ii] To prove this point, he traces the close relationship between the eastern Emperor Zeno and Theoderic, and provides an in-depth discussion of their shared plan for Theoderic to overthrow Odovacer. According to A, Theoderic “acting as a patrician, would thus defend Italy for the emperor (66)”. The death of Zeno in 491 upset this scheme. Indeed, the short-lived alliance between Theoderic and Odovacer, in A’s mind “may have been only a clever ruse” that “hindered ongoing attempts (by Theoderic) to secure a royal title (68-9).” Yet during the reign of eastern Emperor Anastasius (ruled 491-518) relations between the competing regimes improved. The return in 497 of the imperial ornamenta, last utilised in the West by Romulus Augustus, to Theoderic symbolized, in A’s telling, a sure sign of Eastern acceptance of Theoderic as an imperial partner, albeit in a junior role (79-80).

Chapter four in many ways is the most vital for A’s revisionist thesis. A opens by squeezing references to the “purple clad” Gothic rulers for all they are worth. He unsurprisingly rejects as anachronistic and prejudicial Procopius’ commonly accepted assertion that the rex had “never usurped the name of the Roman emperor”. A argues instead that Procopius had probably made this “mistake” on purpose(94-5), once again pointing out that Theoderic had been give the imperial ornaments. Proof that Theoderic actually utilised these symbols of imperial rule remains more elusive. The issue of whether Theoderic ever wore the traditional imperial diadem, despite A’s game attempts, also must remain controversial and unresolved. Even more tenuous is A’s use of the mosaic found in Ravenna commonly identified as Justinian, that A and others like Heather believe originally probably depicted Theoderic. Though this and other images and statues may have sought to present Theoderic “as a triumphant Roman ruler, a princeps or even imperator”, as firm evidence of Theoderic’s views we have moved onto even shakier ground.[iii] A, however, concludes the chapter on much firmer ground, by convincingly demonstrating that the “Gothic moustache” worn by Theoderic and Theodahad may not have been as significant an ethnic marker as traditionally believed.[iv]


In chapters five and six A rightly places much value on the martial reputation and military record of the Goths as a key factor in their acceptance as “new” Romans in the enfeebled West. He writes: “what separated the Goths from these (other Romanised peoples) was the fact that they remained proudly, perhaps even defiantly, unconquered by Rome”. Instead of being ruled by unmanly Greek emperors from the East like Anthemius (ruled 467-72), the effeminized fifth-century Italo-Romans had been both rescued and reinvigorated by the manly Goths, cast by men like Ennodius and Cassiodorus as “new” Romans draped in traditional Roman martial virtues. A explains, “Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Easterners like the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (153). “Goths and Gothicness”, he continues, “represented martialism, the old Roman virtue of virtus (the very source of the term virtue), which meant “manliness” or “courage.” Virtus was an ideal that the Romans had seemingly lost, becoming overly effeminate (perhaps even overly Greek), yet which until recently had been most Roman indeed”. 


I would agree with A that one can easily find this familiar trope concerning the unmanly and Greek identity of Eastern Romans in both Eastern and Western writers. A makes it clear that this view of enervated Greeks and Western Romans are not his own views, but the ones found in the Italo-Roman sources. This realty helps one understand why the mid sixth-century Byzantine writer Procopius spent much of his Gothic Wars trying to rebut this gendered propaganda. So too does A explain (148-49) that “Greekness was not necessarily a burden.” “Stereotypes are always two-sided,” he continues, “and are easily inverted from negative to positive.” Eastern Roman could be frequently praised by their Western counter-parts for their sophistication, paidea, and piety. A seems to want to have it both ways here, while recognizing that both positive and negative charectorization represented tradition tropes during times of friction, He tends to rely more heavily on the negative rhetoric to drive forward his main thesis. I would go further and argue that the majority of Italo-Romans did not really see Easterners like Anthemius as unmanly, only that they thought that men like Ricimer and Theoderic might want to hear such traditional tropes. Moreover, as Procopius’ showed his readers throughout the Wars,the Italo-Romans often had mixed loyalties.[v]

In chapters 5 and 6 Arnold expands on his idea found in chapters 1-4 that Theoderic “had literally become a new Augustus”. A is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman “soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty (142).” A discusses how Romanitas had long consisted of a combination of martial and intellectual virtues. The Goth’s imperial virtues were not based solely on Theoderic’s ability to garb himself in martial virtues, but by his ability to demonstrate that during his service in the East he had mastered the more civilised qualities of an idealised Roman from the upper-classes.

The fact that the Goths remained the primary soldiers in Gothic Italy raises an interesting point.[vi] When describing Theoderic’s Italy, one thing that both Goths and Byzantines seem to agree on is that notion that the Italo-Romans lacked the manly courage and martial virtues to protect their native land.[vii] As the Goths become more attuned to Roman masculine ideals, the Italo-Romans become more effeminized. Roman aristocrats who had long been able to forego their martial roles for more intellectual forms of male self-fashioning had a more difficult time being seen as “true” men in the increasingly militarized world of the late fifth and early sixth-centuries.[viii] I would suggest that just as martial virtues were not enough to make Romans out of Goths, in writers like Procopius, intellectual virtues were no longer enough to make Romans out what he saw as enervated Italians.[ix]

Moreover, Procopius’ views of Italy and the major characters Gothic and Roman were not in as much dissonance with Western Sources as A posits (e.g 73). Procopius’ character sketches of leading figures in the Gothic leadership such as Amalasuintha, Theodahad, Athalaric, and Totila appear very similar to accounts given in the Western sources.[x] Indeed, much of what Procopius tells his readers about the Gothic Wars after 540 most likely came from his contacts within the Italian Senate.[xi]So too does there appear to be a continuing divide between Goths and Italo/Romans in the generation after Theoderic. If the Goths were truly “new” Romans more juxtaposition should be seen. A does not address adequately the notion found in Wars that the Goths continued to live mostly amongst themselves in Northern Italy and that at least some within the Gothic hierarchy after Theoderic’s death resited the inevitable decline of Gothic cultural values that resulted from them being gradually absorbed by the Italo-Romans.[xii]

Moreover, abandoning his and his peoples’ Arianism would have been an easy step in being accepted as true Romans. In the East, the Alan generalissimo Aspar— albeit grudgingly— coaxed his son convert to orthodoxy in order to marry the Emperor Leo’s daughter in 470 to be better accepted… why not Theoderic? Religious conviction seems unlikely, indeed, as one scholar on Theoderic’s reign notes, “that there was a steady flow from Arianism to Catholicism among the Ostrogoths in Italy.”[xiii] Gothic identity and the need to maintain the continuing loyalty of the Gothic warriors that truly kept him in power seems the most likely reason that this step was never taken by Theoderic.[xiv]

A’s contention that years of service by the Goths within the armies of Rome and subsequent integration into Roman society would have made it difficult for one to distinguish the fifth and sixth-century Roman from the non-Roman certainly makes sense. The question that might be asked, and in my view A never tackles satisfactorily, is why did these men in some cases seem to hang on to their Gothic and/ or Alan identities so vigorously. Was this perhaps, not a sign of non-acceptance by Romans, but a personal choice? Put more simply, why would you keep calling yourself a Goth and/or Alan, if you truly wanted to be seen as Roman?  For example, when A discusses (146) Aspar’s son Patricius’ Romanised name as an indication of the generalissimo’s hopes to integrate him more firmly into Eastern Roman society, he also mentions that the generalissimo’s two other sons had been given un-Roman names of Ardabur and Hermineric since they were expected to “follow in his footsteps” as military men.  His assumption behind these names is likely correct, but what A does not explore here, or indeed in his account of Theoderic, is why non-Romans like Aspar and Theoderic, even after years under the umbrella of Roman culture, appear to have wanted to maintain their non-Roman identity and culture.[xv] Though hinted at, A does not consider the ramifications that such dedication to their sense of Gothicness might have on his larger arguments.

A’s tactic instead, is to focus on the diverse cultural traits the individual peoples like the Gauls had preserved during their long tenure under Roman rule. In chapter five, he offers an adjustment to his previous story of a largely gentle merging between two martial peoples. Arnold writes:

The very nature of the Empire aided in the acceptability of such diversity, its existence an inevitable consequence of the assimilation process that radiated outward from the Roman core to its periphery (and back again). The Roman world was a heterogeneous composition of numerous ethnic and subethnic groups all of which had adopted various Roman cultural aspects to differing degrees and over different amounts of time thus becoming “Roman”, but with diverse manifestations that were constantly in flux (122).

He resumes by suggesting that many Romans, and by this he means Italian elites, never fully accepted peoples like the Gauls as “true” Romans and, indeed, continued to view them in some cases as barbarians.

Fine so far, his next assertion and analogy, however, is more problematic. Arnold continues, “Gallo-Roman culture was still in flux….Gallo-Roman culture was still readily identifiable to outsiders as different or even bizarre, and to some degree Gallic society really did retain certain Celtic attributes (122)”. Okay, this is true to a degree, indeed, in his writings, the fourth-century Emperor Julian described the Celts and Germans as “fierce and warlike”, but “unruly”, “easterners” like the Syrians as “intelligent and effeminate”, North Africans as “argumentative”, and Greeks and Romans as “warlike and intelligent”, all of which may seem a bit strange for some modern readers since almost all of these peoples were now Romans.[xvi] Anthony Kaldellis, I believe correctly, sees these not so much as ethnic, but as regional stereotypes: a bit like some Americans seeing southerners as a bit dim-witted.[xvii]

Arnold concludes that these regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could “retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman” (123). While I agree with this conclusion, the analogy he makes between Gauls and Goths is not apt. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and indeed, as Arnold later mentions, were a people from a non-Roman homeland who had been conquered by the Romans, whilst the Goths were recent arrivals, who had never been subjugated and were busy carving out territories within the Empire. This to me is a major difference.

The ethnic tropes discussed above are old standbys in Roman literature, but one needs to be careful to accept them as accurately reflecting contemporary views. Much opposing evidence could be gathered to prove that the Gauls were seen as primarily Roman.

A knows this, and he does an admirable job of warning his audience once again, but he still makes the tenuous claim. Why? I would suggest that it is because he needs to explain away evidence that is rife in fifth and sixth-century literature depicting the Goths as typical barbarians.[xviii] My hesitance to accept his methods does not mean that I do not accept his main argument that the Goths—or at least certain peoples and individuals who called themselves Goths— were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire in the fifth century, and could be seen as Roman in the sixth century. What remains less clear, however, is how much of the Goths’ Romanization was voluntary or the inevitable result of a relatively small social group being gradually absorbed by the dominant culture.[xix]

For me the study ended rather abruptly. I found myself hungering for a more in-depth discussion of Theoderic’s controversial final years, and indeed, a chapter or two on the reigns of his successors. Surely these regimes would provide fertile ground to test A’s primary thesis. This is, however, a minor quibble, and more of an indication of the stimulating nature of A’s study as a whole. One can only hope that he takes up this challenge soon.

So if you only have time to read one new book on Theoderic this year, make it Roman Restoration. I would, however, keep John Moorhead’s less sensational—but in places more sound and thorough— 1992 tome on Theoderic (Theoderic in Italy)  by my side to check and compare some of the more sweeping assertions. Heather’s chapters on Theoderic and Procopius can also provide the usually accepted alternative views to be found largely in A’s extensive footnotes. Indeed, Arnold’s footnotes are detailed and packed with interesting information that engages with much current scholarship. Here he also ably translates and interacts with the difficult Latin texts of Ennodius and other Italo-Roman sources. Therefore his interpretations remain mostly his own and are not reliant on other scholars’ viewpoints.

As R.I. Moore rightly comments, studies on a big subject are always prone to oversimplification.[xx] Every chapter in Arnold’s investigation gave me new insights—even where I disagreed. His reanalysis and fresh readings of the evidence surrounding Theoderic is thorough and engaging.  It is the best and ultimately most important of the three books reviewed above.

In closing, Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period is often crafted by both ancient and modern historians who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. As he points out both mid-sixth century historians Procopius and Jordanes offer us an Eastern viewpoint after Justinian’s reconquest had driven the Goths to near extinction. Seen from the vantage of 511 Rome, Theoderic’s regime may have offered much hope for Italo-Romans seeking to restore the military prowess and renown of ancient Rome.






[i] Other scholars have accepted that some Italo-Romans saw Theoderic as a new Western emperor, but suggest that Theoderic remained wary of taking such a step. See e.g. John Moorhead (Theoderic in Italy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 49]) who writes: “Despite the degrees to which some of his subjects were prepared to assimilate Theoderic into the category of emperor, for official purposes he remained cautious.”


[ii] A is correct when he asserts that too many historians have relied on the latter, and at times, prejudicial views found in two Eastern historians writing in early 550s Constantinople, Procopius and Jordanes.


[iii] The difficulty in making such deductions from mosaics reworked numerous times over the centuries is discussed in detail by Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 164,


[iv]Jonathan Arnold, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache,” Journal of Late Antiquity 6 (Spring, 2013): 152-83

[v] A discussion of these mixed loyalties is found in Maria Kouroumali, “The Justianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses,” in War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, 2 vols (Brill, 2013), 970-71. Cf. with John Moorhead’s assertion (Theoderic in Italy, 111) that during Justinian’s reconquest most Italo-Romans “supported the armies of the Byzantines.”

[vi] On the primary role that the Goths played within Theoderic’s armies, and a discussion of the limited participation of Italians in these forces, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 71-75.


[vii] Procopius, Wars 3.3.10-13, 7.11.12-14. Though as Arnold points out, the opposite appears to have been true. The fifth-century Western Roman Empire had become increasingly militarized. The ban on civilians carrying arms had been lifted and a good number of aristocrats had led their own private armies.


[viii] The increased militarization of Romanitas from the fourth century is discussed in Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 88-93.


[ix] For the increased militarization of sixth-century Byzantine culture as represented in writers like Procopius, see 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.


[x] E.g. the similar descriptions of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning found in Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.4; Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. Her “manliness” is extolled by both authors as well; Athalaric’s alcoholism discussed by Procopius is hinted at by Cassiodorus. The Goths’ seizures of Italian lands is discussed by Cass. Variae 8.29 and Proc. Wars 5.3.1. Totila’s restraint and “fatherly” treatment of the citizens of Rome: 7.8.12-25, and the Liber Pontificalis 61.7. In fact the entire episode found in Cassiodorus and discussed by Arnold (50-51) concerning the Western Emperor Valentinian III’s unmanly education at the hands of his mother Placida as a primary cause for the fifth-century Western Empire’s troubles is found in Procopius Wars 3.3.9-14. There are many more congruencies that could be added.


[xi] J.A.S. Evans, Procopius (New York: Twayne, 1972), 31-36.


[xii]Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. For a discussion of the creation of separate Gothic communities outside of Rome and Ravenna, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 112. On the other hand, Moorhead (84-87) also discusses the inevitable Romanization of some Goths through intermarriage primarily with wealthy Italo-Roman women.


[xiii] Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 95.


[xiv] I do recognise, however, that there did not appear to be too much friction between Arians and Catholics in Theoderic’s Italy.


[xv] Aspar’s father had served in the Roman army and Aspar was the senior senator in East Roman at the time of his assassination in 471, having served the Roman state for nearly fifty years.



[xvi] Julian, Against the Galileans (trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols.[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923, reprint 2003]) 116 A. On the Celts’ fierceness in comparison to the Romans, see Julian, Misopogon 359 B. Julian amalgamated both environmental and social reasoning for the Eastern and Southern barbarians’ propensity to have effeminate and unwarlike natures. In 138 B He maintained that all nations “who possess and are contented with despotic governments” tended to be by nature “mild” (tiqasός) and “submissive” (ceiroήqhς).  


[xvii] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, 82-84.


[xviii] For some Italo-Romans’ continuing perceptions of the Goths as barbarians in Theoderic’s Italy, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 83.


[xix] Full discussion in Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 100-104.



[xx] R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed (London: Blackwell 2007), 196

Procopius’ Digression on Aeneas’ Ship in Rome

Can’t we all Just Get Along? Procopius’ All Quiet on the Western Front Moment


Today, I discuss one of my favourite pacifist scenes from Procopius’ Wars. When I first read it fifteen-years ago I knew I had seen it in a World War I movie I saw as a kid. Though I largely see Procopius as pro-reconquest in my writings, like much in Wars, there is also much evidence that could be used to argue that Procopius was anti-war. That is what makes studying his writings in-depth so interesting.

From the beginning of the Wars, Procopius repeatedly portrayed the Vandals and Goths positively and negatively. In the first book of the Gothic War, when a fairly easy and quick reconquest still seemed possible, Procopius hinted that maybe an all-out war with the Ostrogoths was unnecessary.

In his description of Belisarius’ siege of Rome in 537/538 he told a story of cooperation between Ostrogoths and Eastern Romans that reveals a startlingly pacifist tone. Amidst the confusion of battle, a Byzantine soldier staggered blindly into a deep hole. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Roman did not dare to cry out for help, and he was unable to escape. The next day an Ostrogothic soldier fell into the pit. Instead of killing one another, the change in environment allowed the two men to set aside their differences; in order to escape they pledged to work together. A group of Ostrogothic men heard their cries for help and offered to rescue the two men. The Ostrogothic soldier explained what had happened to the other Ostrogothic men and asked them to lower a rope. Fearing for his new friend’s safety, however, he purposefully did not mention the Roman soldier’s presence. He made the Roman go up the rope first, explaining, “The Goths would never abandon their comrade, but if they should learn that merely one of the enemy was there they would take no account of him.” The Ostrogoths at first were astonished at the sight of the Eastern Roman, but, when told of the pledge, let him go back to his own side.11 This story allowed Procopius to demonstrate that, if given the opportunity, the Ostrogoths could be trusted and perhaps someday become “true” Romans.

Although there is no proof that the two historians ever met, the Gothic historian Jordanes, writing in Constantinople in 551 (a year before Narses defeated Totila) promotes a similar theme of cooperation between the Gothic peoples and the Eastern Roman Empire in his history. Of course becoming “true” Romans for both historians meant the Goths submitting to Justinian’s new-world order. As Walter Goffart and Jon Arnold have argued, Jordanes inverted Theoderican propaganda that touted the martial manliness of the Goths in comparison to the unmanly Eastern Byzantines…. frequently derided as unmanly Greeks by the Goths and their Italo-Roman supporters. As Arnold, points out this would have been the opposite theme in the history of Cassiodorus that Jordanes had utilized to compose his own account of the rise of the Goths. The marriage of the manly Eastern Roman general Germanus (the cousin of Justinian) to the royal female Goth, Matasuintha played on the traditional Roman gendered trope that effeminised even martial barbarian. As Arnold and I have discussed in our publications, there is plenty of Italo-Roman propaganda from the sixth-century depicting Theoderic’s and his Goths’ using their superior martial manliness to reinvigorate an increasingly non-martial and thus effeminized Western Roman Empire. Yet, as Arnold points out in Roman Restoration, the fifth-century Western Roman Empire had actually become more militarized: the ban on civilians bearing arms had been axed, and a great many Italian aristocrats at the close of the Western Empire had led their own bands of warriors to protect their own lands. The Goths, however, largely dominated the sixth-century army, thus excluding the Italians from a key aspect of Romanitas. As depicted by writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus, Italo-Romans increasingly had to rely on the intellectual side of their manly Romanitas (discussed by Arnold at length in Roman Restoration). Indeed, one could argue, that stripped of their martial virtues, Italians cease in Procopius’ eyes to be “true” Romans, but Italians Indeed, in the conservative historian’s mind, a state that had been defined since its founding by its dominance and mastery of martial manly virtus could only be reinvigorated by the manly Goths or the Eastern Romans.

Truth, Lies and Causation: Procopius on the Appointment of Narses as commander-in-Chief


Today, I continue my discussion about Justinian’s naming of the eunuch Narses  in 552 as supreme commander of the Eastern Roman forces preparing to retake Italy from the Goths. This material serves primarily as notes for two larger papers I am working on. As I am typing from my head once again, forgive any stilted prose or obvious errors.

Narses was a eunuch of Armenian descent born around 478-480. The first mention of him from the ancient sources comes around 530. Narses first served Justinian and Theodora as cubicularius (palace eunuch in the bedroom chamber); he, indeed, attained the top post available to a court eunuch, the position of praepositus sacri cubiculi (grand chamberlain). He also was a treasurer (a favourite position for Byzantine eunuchs) and later served in the specialised martial role available to many imperial eunuchs: spatharius (sword-bearer, bodyguard). It should always be remembered that eunuchs had played pivotal roles in two of the most infamous assassinations in the Later Empire, that of the Eastern generalissimo Aspar in 471 and the seminal Late Roman general Aetius in 454. Even as an older man, Narses obviously had some martial prowess since Procopius tells us that in 541, the Empress Theodora had sent Narses—then the commander of the Emperor Justinian’s bodyguard—to assassinate the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian. Though the attack failed, Narses took the lead in the attempt (Procopius, Wars 1.25.24-30).

Still, despite his long record of loyalty both as a palace eunuch and as a military commander, according to Procopius, Narses was somewhat of a surprising choice to take over the army that set out in 552 to expel Totila and his Goths from the Italian peninsula.

Procopius’ account seems slightly disjointed, since the historian told the story of Narses’ rise in two separate and emotionally distinct sections of his history published around two years apart.

Book VII of Gothic Wars (published around 551 or 552)  closes with a very melancholy description of events in 550. This pessimistic tone should not surprise, since Procopius had to deal with the death of his erstwhile hero, the emperor Justinian’s cousin Germanus. Writing shortly after this sudden death, Procopius on these pages seems completely discouraged with Justinian’s Gothic campaign. Moreover, in stark contrast with his balanced depictions of nearly every other character in Wars, his description of the rather mediocre general Germanus strays into pure encomium. Though there are several such examples of over-the-top praise of Germanus scattered throughout the second-half of Gothic Wars, one example should suffice. After Germanus’ unexpected death Procopius lamented:

‘Thus did Germanus suddenly pass away, a man endowed with the finest qualities and remarkable for his activity; for in war….he was a most able general, but was also resourceful and independent.’

Among his further recounting of Germanus numerous other political and military virtues Procopius praised his justice and generosity (some historians see this depiction as a not to subtle dig at Justinian, who comes off in Secret History as the antithesis of this idealised portrait of Germanus).

Procopius goes on to tell his readers that Justinian had been “deeply moved” by the death of his cousin (and probable heir). Is this sentiment sincere? It is  hard to tell. Certainly Procopius admired men and emperors who proved themselves on the battlefield (e.g. his effusive praise of Western Emperor Majorian (ruled 457-461) the last Roman emperor since Theodosius I to personally lead a military campaign…though it stalled). With no better candidates available, the emperor named Germanus’ son Justinian, and his son-in-law John as the joint commanders of the Italian army. Events in on the ground, however, made it impossible for the invasion to be launched straight-away. At the close of 551, John and the army wintered in Dalmatia, only having to abandon a planned move on Ravenna in the spring of 552 because their forces were needed to thwart a series of raids into eastern territory by the Sclaveni (a Slavic tribe).

Procopius closed the first part of Wars  on this rather depressing note. If it was a TV series it probably would have been cancelled. It is likely no coincidence that this was the same period when Procopius likely composed and published his acrimonious Secret History (though some scholars argue for a later date). Hastily composed, Secret History with its highly charged and gendered, sexual, and vitriolic portraits of the imperial couple, Justinian and Theodora, and the Eastern Roman general Belisarius and his wife Antonina, have fascinated and shocked a generations of scholars.

Modern scholars are torn on whether or not these depictions reflect Procopius’ “true” views.  Most academics believe that as the wars of reconquest dragged on Procopius grew cold towards the imperial couple and their military campaigns. Averil Cameron suggests that Procopius’ venom against his erstwhile hero, Belisarius reflected, however, merely his temporary disenchantment in the period of 551-552. In contrast, Anthony Kaldellis has posited that Procopius had turned against these leading characters and the military reconquest from an earlier point, indeed, he paints the historian as a pacifist.

Recently another school of thought has arisen. In a 2003, Juan Signes Codoner suggested that Procopius thought Germanus was about to over-throw his cousin Justinian, so the historian sought to separate himself from the “close links” he had with Justinian and Belisarius. This would help to explain the historian’s flattering portrait of Germanus. It does appear that Procopius hoped that Germanus would be taking on the purple,  though a coup, in my mind, seems unlikely. Henning Börm rightly points out in a 2014 article (“Procopius, his Predecessors, and the Genesis of the Anecdota”),  that this thesis is highly improbable, since Germanus seemed pretty loyal, and probably would not have wanted a relative to be described as the “Lord of Demons.” He instead argues intriguingly, that a coup was in the air around 550-551. The exact details are less than certain. In fact, exactly who these conspirators were, according to Börm, cannot be known. Moreover, Börm maintains that it is impossible to discern Procopius’ true views from this work, which he argues was composed not because Procopius had turned against Justinian and Belisarius, but quite the opposite, he feared retribution from this new clique, and therefore wished to disassociate himself from Justinian and Belisarius. Indeed, it is important that Procopius rise to the rank of court historian and standing as a member of upper-crust of Byzantine society was due largely to his relationship to the emperor and Belisarius. So I stand intrigued. Ultimately, however, a solution to this puzzle proves illusive.

Though intrigued by Börm’s thesis, I see the views expressed by Procopius in Secret History as exaggerated, yet sincere,  and representative of his jaded perspective from around 551-552. I prefer to believe that Procopius tended to blame defeats on moral failures, and thus when Belisarius was defeated or the campaign faced a set-back he tended to blame faults in these men’s personal lives. Certainly, 550-551 represented a down period for Justinian’s reconquest and Procopius’ didactic tale.

Events on the ground, however,  for the Byzantine’s cause took a turn for the better in 552.  Not surprisingly the Byzantine characters’ moral fibre improves whilst the Goths’ decline. This helps explain the plausible shift from the melancholy close of book 7 and the more optimistic book 8. Indeed, by 553 or 554 when his final account of the Persian and Gothic campaigns appeared, the Gothic Wars, at least from the Eastern Roman viewpoint had a happy ending.

Procopius opening to his section in his final book VIII devoted to the Gothic campaign, reflects this more positive perspective. Procopius picked up the narrative of the Gothic wars at 8.21where he left off in 551. It is perhaps no coincidence that it begins with a depiction of the man who was suspiciously missing from the close of book VII, Belisarius. The historian explained that after Germanus’ death, Justinian had decided to keep Belisarius close. He explained, that since Belisarius was General of the East, he instead preferred to name him commander of the imperial guard. This move may not have been such a slap in the face for an esteemed general since most specialists have commented that the Italian campaign represented a relatively minor theatre of war compared to others that the Empire at the time was keeping an uneasy eye on. Indeed, in comparison to Thrace, North Africa, and the troublesome Eastern boundary with Persia, the danger from the West was minimal. Moreover, by keeping Belisarius near the capital, Justinian may have hoped to have his loyal general act as his protector against any plot a rival from the aristocracy in Constantinople; the most likely source of any potential coup.

Coming only a year or two after his vitriolic portrait of Belisarius in Secret History, this passage by Procopius has confused historian seeking to uncover the historian true opinion of his former boss. Indeed, in contrast to the negative portrait of the general found in Secret History, it matches in praise Procopius encomium of Belisarius found at the opening of book VII.

The historian wrote:

And Belisarius was the first of all the Romans in dignity, although some of them had been enrolled before him among the patricians and had actually ascended to the seat of the consuls. But even so they all yielded first place to him, being ashamed in view of his achievements.

Though difficult to prove, I would suggest that this portrait is closer to reflecting Procopius’ true attitudes towards Belisarius.

So with the likely candidate in Procopius’ mind out of contention, it seemed that John and the younger Justinian would lead the campaign in early 552 since they had largely quelled the Slavic raiding parties.

Yet suddenly, in Procopius’ telling, just as the Roman army was about to set out, Justinian informed the pair to wait for Narses, whom the emperor had decided should be appointed as commander-in-chief. Evidence from Wars suggests that the choice of Narses to lead the campaign in Italy was unusual. Procopius explained that some Italo-Romans believed that Justinian had appointed Narses as commander because of a prophecy that a eunuch would bring about the downfall of the Goths.[i] Though Procopius discounts this explanation, his earlier comment that “the reason why this was the wish of the emperor was explicitly evident to no one in the world,” implies that Procopius felt somewhat befuddled by Justinian’s appointment of Narses as commander-in-chief of the Gothic campaign.[ii] Therefore, I would largely agree with Averil Cameron’s contention that “it was for Procopius a galling blow that final victory in Italy was won by Narses not Belisarius (though I would replace “galling” in this passage with “disappointing”).”[iii]

Procopius closed his discussion of Narses’ appointment with the open-ended theory on causation found throughout Wars. He argued that while prophecy may have played a crucial role in the eunuch’s appointment, so too may the emperor’s “judgment penetrating the future, or chance (tyche) ordained “the inevitable thing”.

Clearly from the passage above, one can observe the open-ended meaning found throughout Wars. On the one hand, for those who see Procopius as largely pro-reconquest (myself included) this passage and the assignment of Narses represent for Procopius ultimately was a positive development. On the other hand, for those who see a pacifist Procopius, it offers something quite different if one reads (in my mind rather deeply) between the lines.

One more thing before I go. It seems interesting to me that Narses does not appear at all in Secret History. We can see that if Procopius was writing around 552 (though 550-551 is more likely), then he may well have been aware of Narses’ appointment as commander-in-chief. If a coup was imminent, would the usurpers have allowed such a loyal servant of Justinian to continue to serve in such an important role? Moreover,  if Procopius hoped to disassociate himself from Justinian, Narses as a eunuch would have made a perfect gendered target that the historian seemed so fond of in all of his writings. Indeed, he would have made a good target even before his appointment. Maybe Procopius had hoped to be assigned to Narses’ new government in Italy. It might help to explain his changing attitude towards Narses in Wars. I will ponder this point further in some future blogs. Finally, to further validate his thesis concerning Secret History’s composition, Börm needs to deal with this lacuna.

Well that is it for now; I will be writing a bit more from sections on Narses, plus some discussions of several interesting studies and some articles on Procopius and his writings that I am reading in German and English at the moment.

Gold Coast Out

[i] Procopius, Wars 8.21.9-18.

[ii]Procopius, Wars 8.21.7.

[iii](Cameron, 2003: 203).

Some Thoughts on Justinian’s Eunuch Commanders




The sixth-century Byzantine general Narses (478-573) has long earned historians’ respect. This acclaim is deserved since his major victories over the Goths in 552 and versus the Franks and Alamanni in 554, helped to secure the Emperor Justinian I’s (ruled 527-565) reconquest of Italy. So too did Narses perform admirably for twelve years in his role as prefect of Italy. Of course, it has always been important to emphasize that Narses was a eunuch. Indeed, for many modern historians, Narses’ identity as a castrate is more important for study than his military deeds and political achievements that proved ephemeral.

Much of what we know about this seminal eunuch commander derives from the mid-sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius. In today’s, and my next blog I will look at Procopius’ description of some of the possible reasons behind Narses being named as the commander of the Byzantine army that ultimately defeated the Goths.

First, it is important to point out that Narses was not the first eunuch to lead a major military campaign. The eunuch Eutropius had led a successful campaign against the Huns at the close of the fourth century. It seems, however, that the late fourth-century Roman world was not quite ready for a eunuch to take on such a prominent military role. Claudian (ca. 370 – 404 AD) a native Greek-speaker from Alexandria based in Italy crafted a famously hostile portrait of Eutropius.  His gendered invective In Eutropium (Against Eutropius) lambasted the Eastern Romans for allowing an “unmanly” eunuch take on the hyper-masculine duties of a military commander and consul.  Indeed, In Eutropium stands as one of the harshest gendered criticisms of a eunuch to survive from Late Antiquity. Of course, as a propagandist for the Western generalissimo Stilicho, Claudian was naturally a bit over the top in his denigration of a rival from a then hostile Eastern half of the Empire. It is important to point out, however, that several Eastern sources (e.g. Eunapius frag. 65. 1-7, Zosimus, 5.38-18, Marcellinus Comes, 396) criticize Eutropius with similar hostile rhetoric. For a discussion of the gendered aspects of Claudian’s vilification of Eutropius, see (Kuefler, 2001: 65-7, 69, 97-100). (Again

Though the sources are by no means clear it seems that with the exception of the emperor Zeno’s sacellarius Paul who served as a joint-commander of a fleet sent against Illus, no eunuch served in a high military position until the reign of Justinian (ruled 527-565) in the sixth century. Narses is one of three eunuchs to guide Eastern Roman armies. Many scholars have seen this growth as a sign of a lessoning of hostility towards eunuchs in this period. Shaun Tougher sees Procopius’ and Agathias’ flattering views of Narses as an indication of “a lessoning of hostility towards eunuchs” from the fifth century. Contemporary and later Byzantine sources are almost unanimously respectful of Narses’ military prowess, see e.g. John Malalas, Chronicle 484, 486, Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History 4.24, John of Ephesus, Church History 3.1.39. Though mostly missing, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Menander’s account (e.g. frag. 30) may have given a less flattering portrait of Narses’ final years in Italy— none of the surviving fragments, however, suggest that this criticism was gender based.  Some later Western sources are more negative and, at times, gendered.  A section of the Liber Pontificalis (63.3), probably composed around 630, criticized Narses and the Byzantines’ rule of Italy. The author recorded an incident where a sixth-century Italian complained that it would be better “for the Romans to serve the Goths than the Greeks when the eunuch Narses is a ruler who subjects us to slavery and our most pious prince does not know it.” Cf. a similar attitude preserved in Paul the Deacon’s eighth-century History of the Lombards (2.5). Though, it is important to point out that both Western sources above recognised and described Narses’ virtues as well (Liber Pontificalis, 61.8, History of the Lombards, 2.3). Gregory of Tours sixth-century History of the Franks, whilst crediting Narses for some of his military success in Italy (4.9), exaggerates the eunuch’s difficulties against the Franks in Italy (3.32), and accuses him of murdering associates to protect his fortune (5.19). A more positive attitude towards Narses is found in the chronicle of Gregory’s contemporary Marius of Avenches. Most importantly this source makes no mention of Narses’ supposed invitation of the Lombards into Italy as a consequence of his poor relations with the emperor Justin II and the empress Sophia that is first mentioned in the chronicle of Isidore composed in 616. Historians have dismissed this assertion as anachronistic. Importantly for our purposes these sources painted Narses’ “betrayal” in a sympathetic light. Indeed, it is the lack of respect on the part of the empress towards Narses that drives his revenge.


Okay now back to the rise of military eunuchs in the sixth century. The eunuch Solomen who served in Justinian’s Vandalic campaign in the 530s, in fact, was only the second eunuch that we know of since Eutropius to serve as a military commander. Solomon (e.g. Wars 4.11.47-56), served as magister militum and praetorian prefect of Africa. Scholasticus (Wars 7.40.5) was commander of an army sent against the Sklalvenoi. Procopius showed Solomon, leading his cavalry into battle. I would suggest that Solomon, in fact, offers better proof than Narses of Procopius’ acceptance of eunuchs in positions of military high command. Though, Procopius differentiated Solomon from man-made eunuchs by emphasising that his castration resulted from a childhood accident.  Solomen’s successes may have paved the rode for Narses who had already proven his loyalty and political, fighting and diplomatic skills to the emperor.

Most scholars assume that Procopius had generally a positive attitude towards Narses. Certainly, as Shaun Tougher has pointed out to me, it is important that Narses does not appear in Procopius’ notorious Anecdota. If procopius was hosile towards Narses or wanted to condemn Justinian as a destroyer of Roman traditions by using an unmanly eunuch as a military commander this would have been the place. Yet we hear nothing.Though in Wars Procopius depicted Narses, at times, as vain, jealous, insubordinate, petty, and overly reliant on barbarian auxiliaries, I agree that the historian generally respected Narses for being a successful and resourceful commander.[1] Yet it does not appear that Procopius took Narses’ position as a general for granted. Procopius presented Narses “as an anomalous example” of a typical eunuch.[2] When Narses arrived to Italy from Constantinople with a large army, the historian proclaimed that the eunuch was more “keen and more energetic than would be expected of a eunuch [ἄλλως δὲ ὀξὺς καὶ μαλλον ἠ κατ ευνοῡχον δραστήριος].”[3] This attitude would seem to reject one recent assertion from a noted Byzantinist to me that despite the rhetoric eunuchs were seen as male in sex and gender even in Late Antiquity.


Well that it for today, tomorrow I will delve into Procopius’ Wars for an in-depth analysis of Procopius description of Narses being named commander of the Byzantine army after the death of the former commander, Justinian’s cousin Germanus in 550. Why might one ask is such an exploration view important? Because Procopius’ attitude towards Narses can explain much about Procopius “true” attitudes to both his former mentor the general Belisarius, and the military campaigns of Justinian as a whole.


[1] As Averil Cameron and Anthony Kaldellis propose (Cameron, 1985: 203, 239), (Kaldellis, 2004: 217), Procopius’ portrait of Narses appears more nuanced, and in places, less “positive” than Tougher or Ringrose indicates. For these “negative” qualities see, Wars 6.18.11, 6.18.28-29, 6.19.18., 8.23.17-20. For “positive” traits, see Wars 6.13.16, 8.26.5, 8.26.14, 8.31.22, 8.35.36.


[2](Ringrose, 2003: 132).


[3] Procopius, Wars 6.13.16-17 (trans. Dewing). Eunuch commanders after Narses continued to face hostile gendered rhetoric. See e.g., the eleventh-century historian, John Skylitzes (A Synopsis of Byzantine History16.8 [324]) recording a Byzantine rebel commanders snide remark that facing a non-eunuch rival general, “for the first time the fight would be against a true soldier, one who knew well how to conduct military operations with courage and skill; not, as formerly, against pitiful fellows, eunuchs, fostered in the chamber and raised in the shade.” One suspects that Narses would have faced similar gendered criticism if he had been defeated in battle by the Goths.