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).


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