Some Thoughts on Justinian’s Eunuch Commanders

 

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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.

 

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