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.


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