Monthly Archives: August 2014

Turning a 3800 word review into 1200

I am a bit long winded. Yes I know surprise surprise. Editing can be a painful process when you must cull in two hours 1600 words from a 3800 word-article you had already pruned. As followers of this blog already know I have posted quite a few blogs recently on Jon Arnold’s new book Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration. What follows is the truncated version of the review that will appear in the April 2015 Medieval History Journal.

The Gothic King—or is that Western Roman emperor—Theoderic (ruled 489/93-526) has received much recent attention.  Peter Heather’s Restoration of Rome (2013) devotes several chapters to the Amal rex. Two major studies on Theoderic have also appeared by Sean Lafferty (Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic, 2013) and Jonathan Arnold (Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration, 2014).

Lafferty and Heather provide traditional visions of Theoderican Italy as a post-Roman kingdom. Their Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing.  Arnold takes Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus more seriously, maintaining that Theoderic ‘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 (p. 90).’

The introduction places the study within the context of recent work on Late Antique identity. Arnold rejects the entire concept of Ostrogothic Italy as a post-Roman kingdom, arguing for ‘a new type of accommodation model,’ one that proves that Theoderic’s Italy represented the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire.

To accomplish this daunting task, the first two chapters scrutinise the primary sources for the study: Magnus Felix Ennodius and Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. Tracing the similarities and differences between these two men, Arnold lucidly relates the lingering Romanitas of these men. The chapter closes by concluding that both men saw Theoderic and his Goths as manly saviours sent by God to resuscitate an Italy ‘denuded of its territory, stripped of its honour, and poorly governed (p. 56).’

Chapter three proposes that Italo-Romans like Cassiodorus and Ennodius saw Odovacer as a usurper, while they perceived Theoderic to be ‘a legitimate representative of imperial power in the West (p. 64).’ To prove this thesis, Arnold provides a diachronic analysis of the Eastern Emperor Zeno’s and Theoderic’s scheme to eliminate Odovacer. Theoderic ‘acting as a patrician, would thus take and defend Italy for the emperor (p. 66).’ The death of Zeno in 491 disrupted this plan. This resulted in a rift between Theoderic and the Eastern Empire (pp. 68-69). Yet gradually relations between the regimes improved. The Eastern Emperor Anastasius return of the imperial ornamenta to Theoderic in 497 symbolized Eastern acceptance of Theoderic as an imperial partner, albeit in a junior role (pp. 79-80).

Chapter four squeezes references to the ‘purple clad’ Gothic rulers for all they are worth. It rejects Procopius’ commonly accepted assertion that the rex had ‘never usurped the name of the Roman emperor (pp. 94-95). Proof that Theoderic actually utilised these ornamenta or ever wore the traditional imperial diadem, despite Arnold’s game attempts,   must remain unresolved. Even more tenuous is its use of the mosaic found in Ravenna commonly identified as Justinian, that Arnold contends originally depicted Theoderic. Though this and other images and statues may have sought to present Theoderic ‘as a princeps or even imperator,’ as firm evidence of Theoderic’s views we have moved onto even shakier ground. The chapter concludes on much firmer ground, by demonstrating that the ‘Gothic moustache’ worn by Theoderic may not have been as significant an ethnic marker as traditionally believed.

Chapters five and six rightly place much value on the martial reputation and military record of the Goths as a key factor in their acceptance as ‘new’ Romans (p. 141).’ Arnold also wisely explains (pp. 148-49) that ‘Greekness was not necessarily a burden’, recognizing that Eastern Romans could be praised by their Western counter-parts for their sophistication, paidea, and piety. The study, however, tends to rely more heavily on the negative rhetoric to drive its primary thesis.

The fact that the Goths remained the primary soldiers in Gothic Italy raises an interesting point. When describing Theoderic’s Italy, one thing that both Goths and Eastern Romans seem to agree on is that notion that the Italo-Romans lacked the manly courage and martial virtues to protect their native land. If the Goths were truly ‘new’ Romans we should see more juxtaposition. Arnold does not address adequately the notion found contemporary sources that the Goths dominated the military and continued to live mostly amongst themselves in Northern Italy.

Arnold’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 makes sense. The question that might be asked is why these men seemed to hang onto their non-Roman 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 Arnold discusses (p. 146) the Alan 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 Aspar’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 Arnold does not explore 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

Arnold focuses instead on the diverse cultural traits that peoples like the Gauls had preserved during their long tenure under Roman rule, concluding that while Italian elites had accepted peoples like the Gauls as ‘true’ Romans, during times of friction they could view them as barbarians.’ These regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could ‘retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman (pp. 122-23).’ While this conclusion is likely correct, the analogy made between Gallo-Romans and Theoderic’s Goths is flawed. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and, as Arnold recognises, were a people from a non-Roman homeland who had been conquered by the Romans and become ‘full-fledged members of Rome’s order (p. 238),’ whilst the Goths were largely unvanquished recent arrivals, who were busy carving out territories within the Empire. This is a significant difference.

My hesitance to accept his methods does not invalidate his argument that the Goths were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire in the fifth century, and could be seen as Roman by the sixth century. What seems 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.

The study ends rather abruptly; a deeper discussion of Theoderic’s controversial final years and the reigns of his Gothic successors would have provided fertile material to test his thesis. This comment, however, is less of a criticism and more an indication of the stimulating nature of the study.

In closing, Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period has been crafted by those who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. 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.


Sarah Bassett’s ‘The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople’

From the Garden into the City

[Note: This is an informal and unpublished book review that I did for a graduate course a while back. I’m re-posting it here in the hope that it will be of some use to someone.]

Bassett, Sarah, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xix + 291. Hardcover: $79, Paperback: $59. ISBN 978-0521030847.

Sarah Bassett’s The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople posits to examine the antiquities that were placed and arranged in Constantinople from the fourth to the sixth centuries. This is done in two major parts. The first half of the book is the argumentative section. Here, Bassett outlines the major programs of collection, divided into sections on Constantine, the Theodosians, the Lausos collection, as well as Justinian. Wisely choosing not to believe Eusebius’ statement that Constantine set up pagan monuments in Constantinople to be mocked, Bassett convincingly argues for a careful…

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Will this Corrupt Age Ever Stiffen Up?: Gendered Rhetoric at the opening of the Fifth Century



The Roman Empire’s embracing of its ethnic diversity was a key reason behind its success and longevity. The ability of Rome to conquer non-Roman peoples and in a relatively short period of time spit them out as “new” Romans has long been appreciated by scholars. As a heterogeneous construction, there had always been differences among the various groups and ethnicities that fell under the umbrella of the Roman Empire. Yet, the adoption of Roman cultural ideals was often enough to make each one of them  Roman. Yet, particularly in times of friction, prejudices could erupt particularly from the epicentre of Romanitas, Rome and the ancient Italian cities that had been the birthplace of Empire. Those considered as Easterners and/or barbarians could be picked out for particular scorn. Today’s blog looks at some of these tropes.

An Italian-centric phobia against (think Cato) those considered soft Easterners had had a long play in Roman civilization. Unmanly Greeks who had sexual relations with free-born Greek adolescents represented a favourite target of these writers.[1] Even after the Early Empire’s amalgamation of much of the Hellenistic world in the first and the second centuries CE, Western Romans remained sceptical of the true Roman-ness and manliness of these “easterners and/or Greeks” ( I have described this environmentally based unmanliness in my 2010 article Romans and Barbarians…available on scribed). Even after centuries of living under the umbrella of Roman rule, the “true” Romans based in the Italy and Rome, in particular, could continue to disparage men from the East as unmanly Roman wannabes.

The foundation of a second Rome in Constantinople by Constantine in the third decade of the fourth century only served only to highlight the growing prominence of the East and the Easterners at the expense of West. Through throughout the fourth and into the fifth centuries, Western Romans continued to take pride in the fact that they lived in the “true” Rome, by the fifth century they could no longer ignore the fact that the East and more painfully perhaps, Constantinople now held the upper hand. Though cooperation continued to be the norm between what in the fifth century were becoming “twin” regimes, times of friction between Eastern and Western regimes could witness outbursts of gendered propaganda that relied on traditional yet entrenched tropes.[2]

One such instance occurred at the opening of the fifth century when the henchmen surrounding the child-emperors  Arcadius and his brother the Western Emperor Honorius battled It out for supremacy. Unlike the series “usurpations” that led to a series of disastrous civil wars in the second half of the fourth century, the largely cold war between the East and West that plagued (though as recent scholarship has shown this tension was only temporary) the Empire at the opening of the fifth century was primarily a war of words. And what words they were.  Somewhat ironically it was the Greek-speaking native of Alexandria, the poet Claudian, whom the son of a Vandal Father and a Roman mother, Stilicho placed in charge of undermining his Eastern rivals like Goths Rufinus and Gildo whom Claudian rather illogically…considering the lineage of Stilicho, enjoyed the “consuls power” whilst adopting “the manners and “dress of barbarians” (Against Rufinus 2 80). Indeed, the poet spends much of his panegyrics to Stilicho showing how he had re-established the proper dominate position of the West over the East:

“No longer do her ambassadors kneel suppliant before the proud East and beg that Libya be given back to her; gone the shameful spectacle of our city a suitor to her own slaves. No, relying on her native Latin vigour, Rome under your leadership fights her own battles with Roman spirit.

Of course most of the traditionalist Romans found in the upper-crust of the Western aristocracy in Rome would have looked down at the generalissimo as little better than a barbarian himself. Unsurprisingly Claudian, in his attempts to prop up Stilicho’s regime, relied heavily on that bastion of traditional Roman manliness, martial virtus. Though Stilicho was only a marginally successful general, Claudian like any good panegyrist ignored this realty and crafted an image of Stilicho as a true soldier of Rome. “He (Stilicho) was always with the army, seldom in Rome, and then only when the young emperor’s (Honorius) anxious love summoned him thither. (On Stilicho’s Consulship I.115).”

Claudian highlighted how the “new Trajan”, Stilicho, had brought the Western Empire’s enemies to their knees. Naturally as an arch-type warrior Stilicho laughed at the “fearful shriek of the onrushing Alan, had no fears for the fierceness of the nomad Hun nor the scimitar of the Geloni, nor the Getae’s bow or Sarmatian’s club (On Stilicho’s Consulship I.110-15).

Yet the Eastern Roman Empire represented the most dangerous enemy that “aroused Mars.” Claudian rather hyperbolically proclaimed:

He (Gildo) soon learned that neither wounds made more dangerous by the poisoned arrow of Ethiopia nor thick hail of javelins nor clouds of horsemen can withstand Latin spears. The cowardly (ignavus) Nasamonian troops are scattered.( On Stilicho’s Consulship I.115).)

It was the propensity of Easterners, however, to embrace unmanly practices such as allowing eunuchs to serve in military roles and hold political offices that were usually reserved for esteemed senators that offered Claudian his most potent ammunition against his Eastern rivals. The result of this angst, his gendered invective In Eutropium (Against Eutropius) lambasting the Eastern eunuch military commander and consul, Eutropius, 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. Yet the passage below neatly captures how periods of friction could cause a rift in the sense of a common Romanitas.

“Sister shall we ever have the power to cure the East of effeminancy. Will this corrupt age never stiffen up? Nedum mollititia, nedum, germana, mederi possumus Eoae? Numquam corrupta rigescent? (In Eutropium 2 112-114 my trans.).

Though we should be careful not to exaggerate the extent of this rift in the first half of the fifth century,[3] as we will see in tomorrow’s blog as the dominate Eastern emperors attempted and often succeeded in placing their own protégés on the Western throne we see once again Western writers falling back on these old tropes that depicted the Easterners not as fellow Romans, but as unmanly Greeks.


[1] Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 135.

[2] A lucid series of essays on these debate may be found in Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly, Two Romes: Rome and Constaninople in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2012).

[3] The Eastern Emperors Theodosius II and Leo I, in particular, played a dominate and important role, at times, in Western politics.

Goths, Romans, Vandals, Italians and Greeks: Chasing Masculine Romanitas in Italy and North Africa 400-550





Part 1

As the recent work of Jonathan Arnold and Andy Merrills have shown, one striking feature of both Vandalic and Gothic identity in the fifth and sixth century sources is just how closely they follow existing notions of masculine Romanitas. As Merrills has aptly warned, however, we should careful not to simplify this process as representing the natural result of these Peoples acculturation or Romanization. The Vandals in North Africa and the Goths in Italy may have shared many values with their “Roman” subjects e.g., a love of hunting and classical literature, but they also promoted tell-tale signs of difference. The fact that the Goths and Vandals had a near monopoly of military service stood along with clothing, hairstyles, and language a points of difference. Though the civilian and military branches of the Roman government had long been separated, this marginalisation of the Roman aristocracies helped to sever these men’s link from an essential aspect of manly Romanitas. So much so, that Eastern Roman writers like Procopius depicted them as an effeminized shadow of their manly fifth-century ancestors, men like the fifth-century Western Roman generalissimos Boniface and Aetius, men whom the historian lionized as the “last of the Romans.” Yet, if these were the last of the Romans, then just who were the “true” Romans of Procopius’ day? That is the question that this and my next few blogs will focus on. They will show that what has long been described as Justinian’s mid-sixth century reconquest of Italy from the Goths and Africa from the Vandals was a battle for the minds as much as a battle on the land and sea for the lost Western provinces. Just who had the claim to “true” manly Romanitas—Goth, Vandal, Greek, or Italian—represented a common theme in gendered propaganda dispersed on all sides. So where eastern Roman writers could highlight the “primitive and barbaric” sides of the Goths and Vandals, so too could Gothic and Vandalic propaganda portray themselves as “new” Romans and deride the Eastern Romans as unmanly Greeks. I will argue below that the Italians and North Africans were often stuck in the middle, ostracised by both sides for their inability to either protect themselves or live up to the ancient martial and intellectual virtues that comprised the fluid concept of Romanitas.

An ideal masculine Late Roman man often needed to be both a philologos (lover of reason) and a philopolemos (lover of war). Existing notions of Romanitas, and in turn, ideals of Roman masculinity had long been defined by one’s mastery of numerous virtues that made-up the complicated and constantly changing standards of what we may awkwardly translate as “Romanness.” [1] This is of course not to say that all “manly” Late Roman men were Plato-reading warriors, the highest standards of masculine esteem demanded that some Romans could fight whilst some Romans could cultivate a more intellectual manly deportment. Combined, however, this bipolar masculinity contributed to an overall sense of shared Roman manliness.

In the Greco-Roman traditions most non-Roman Peoples mastered either one side or the other, not both. We may observe this selectivity when the fourth-century Emperor Julian (ruled, 361-363) praised the Germans and Celts for their “fierceness”  and their “love of freedom,” but criticized them for their “unruliness” and lack of wisdom.[2] Similarly, while he admitted that some of the Eastern barbarian peoples equalled the intellectual prowess of the Romans, he made it clear that their intrinsically “effeminate”,  “docile”, and “submissive” (χειρόθης) natures limited their ability to cultivate martial virtues, which contributed to their propensity to be ruled over by despots, or even worse, women.[3] He made it clear that only the ancient Greeks and Romans were able to combine an “unyielding” (στερεός) “warlike” nature (polemikός) with the “inclination for political life” (politikός).[4]

Of course these were all standard tropes, but they help explain some of the gendered propaganda we see in writers like Procopius, Agathias, Jordanes, Cassiodorus, and Ennodius. Indeed, though there were probably only minimal differences between say the Eastern Roman general Belisarius and a Goth like Vitigis our sources had a difficult time escaping standard constructs found in their familiar belief in real differences between Romans and barbarians. So too did an ongoing rivalry between Eastern and Western Romans during times of friction in the fourth and fifth centuries set the example for rhetoric even in the post-Roman kingdoms of North Africa and Italy (though I tend to believe that many who lived in Gothic Italy believed they continued to live in a Roman state).

Additionally, while one reads frequently on the pages of the classicising historians about the authors’ admiration of the Western barbarians for their “fine physiques,” and their “natural and fierce fighting ability,” just as often, these writers lampooned the barbarians for their dull intellects and inborn recklessness that tended to limit their effectiveness in combat.[5] Echoing ancient physiognomists who had long declared it as unmanly to adorn oneself with cosmetics, jewellery or “delicate” clothing,[6] these writers also compared barbarians to women because of their love of jewellery and other “excessive” ornamentation.”[7] Some Late Romans even perceived the barbarians’ “migratory lifeway” as a tell-tale sign of their overall unstable nature, and part of the reason why these barbarians made ideal slaves and engaged in unmanly social practices.[8]

The knack of ruling oneself by repressing one’s emotions and urges had long made up an essential component of Greek and Roman masculine identity.[9]  So it is not surprising that Later Roman writers expressed the view that Roman men had a greater potential than either women or barbarians to overcome humanity’s natural instinct to avoid danger.[10] In contrast to the controlled courage best exemplified by Roman men, in these sources, barbarians frequently display a more primeval, undisciplined, and therefore more unreliable type of bravery.[11]

This is not to say that rational courage represented an endemic Roman virtue. Andreia, like virtus, served as a universal value, available to both genders and to all peoples—Roman or non-Roman. Nonetheless, in the Roman sources, barbarian peoples who possessed virtus or andreia often lost it, as well as their freedom, when they faced the manlier Romans in battle.[12]

The instability of the fifth-century had witnessed an increase focus on martial aspects of Romanitas.[13]It is during this period that we see the rise of the military aristocracy and the dominance of generalissimos like Stilicho, Aetius, Aspar, and Ricimir to name only a few. While the intellectual side of Romanitas continued to be respected, more and more the edge of one’s sword determined one’s success in the world and one’s ‘true” manliness.

It is in this world that the first the Vandals 420s and 430s and then the Goths in the 490s carved out their own lands amidst the almost constantly feuding factions that surrounded these competing Western generalissimos.

In a world that increasingly valued military power, the Vandals and the Goths quite naturally highlighted their martial prowess, which was a very Roman thing to do indeed. Arnold 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. Arnold 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 (p. 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 (p. 141).’

I would agree with Arnold that one can easily find this familiar trope concerning the unmanly and Greek identity of Eastern Romans in both Eastern and Western writers. 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.[14] So too does Arnold explain (pp. 148-49) that ‘Greekness was not necessarily a burden….Stereotypes are always two-sided….and are easily inverted from negative to positive.’ Eastern Romans could be frequently praised by their Western counter-parts for their sophistication, paidea, and piety. Arnold seems to want to have it both ways here, while recognizing that both positive and negative characterization represented tropes during times of friction, the study tends to rely more heavily on the negative rhetoric to drive his main thesis. One could 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.[15]

Arnold is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman ‘soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty (p. 142).’ Arnold 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] I would add then 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.[19]



[1] For these two traits as essential qualities for a model Late Roman emperor to display, see, Themistius. Or. 4.54a. This belief appears linked to Plato’s depiction in the Republic of the idealised philosopher-king: Plato, Republic 521d, 525b, 543a. For the influence of the Republic on Late Roman and Byzantine intellectuals, see Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 106-117. For intellectual or Hellenistic virtues as essential components of Roman masculine self-fashioning in the Early Empire, see McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 384-389; Maud Gleason, Making Men Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 2-21.


[2] 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.


[3]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).

[4] Julian, Against the Galileans 138 B.

[5] Herodian, Basileia historia (trans. C.R. Whittaker, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969-70]) 2.9.11.

[6] Maud Gleason, “The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy of Self-Fashioning in the Second Century C.E.,” in Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, ed. David Halperin, John Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1990), 399-402.

[7] Herodian, for example, likened the Western barbarians to women for their shared love of “brooches and belts extravagantly decked out with gold and precious stones. Herodian, Basileia historia 5.2.4.


[8] Herodotus [1.105] told an anecdote whereby the Scythians who captured Ascalon in Palestine “were punished by the goddess with the infliction of what is called the “female disease”, and their decedents still suffer from it . . .The Scythians call those who suffer from it the Enaree ( men who dressed like women and performed the duties associated with women).” The acceptance of transgender groups like the Enaree continued to be seen as a tradition of barbarians like the Goths well into Late Antiquity. Men like Synesius [De regno 15] used their somewhat skewed interpretation of Herodotus’ passage for their own gendered diatribes. He wrote: “As to these Scythians [Goths], Herodotus says that they are all tainted with a feminine malady, and we ourselves see this. These are the men from whose ranks slave are recruited everywhere, and who have never owned any land. Hence the proverb “the Scythian wilderness”, for they are always fleeing their own country.”


[9] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Volume 2, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 63-65.


[10] Joseph Roisman, “The Rhetoric of Courage in the Athenian Orators,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity. (Boston: Brill, 2003), 127.


[11] For instance, while the Greek historian Polybius (c. 203–120 BC) proclaimed that the tenacity of the barbarian Gauls in battle proved that they were the equal to the Romans in courage, he later qualifies this statement by maintaining that the barbarians’ ardour tended to wane if their first frenzied onslaughts failed to overwhelm their enemies. Polybius advised his readers that civilized peoples could defeat these terrifying hordes by depending on “the resolution and the ability of men who faced the danger with intelligence and cool calculation.” Polybius, The Histories (trans. Mortimer Chambers [New York: Twayne, 1966]) 2.30-35.


[12] McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 161.


[13] Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 88-93.

[14]See e.g., M. E.Stewart, ‘Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars, Παρεκβολαι 4 (2014): 21-54.


[15] 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.’

[16] 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.


[17] 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.


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


[19] 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.


The Return: Loyality in Justinian’s Reconquest

I created this blog primarily as a way to share with myself and others some of the process behind my historical research. Getting good ideas is always hit and miss, since what interests me may not advance the field or interest the particular journal I may hope to publish a piece in. Many journals make this easier for scholars by creating a standard theme for each issue. Since these topics are pretty broad usually one can adapt their work to fit the depiction.

Since (as regular readers of this blog probably already know) I have a fondness for Open access journals run by like-minded individuals hoping to share our rather obscure work with wider-world of educated readers, I will only place my work in these type of journals….regardless of academic kudos points…..I certainly will not pay to publish any of my articles. is a particularly good example on the New world journal that I would like to support. Edited and run by the PhD students at the University of Leeds it is producing two high quality issues a year plus they support numerous panels on the “hottest early-Medieval (an oxymoron?)” topics around the world. Which in a very roundabout way brings me to my main topic: the notion of “Returns”.

This is the subject of their Aug 2015 journal next year:

Complementing the theme of the first issue of the 2015 volume, ‘migration’, the July 2015 issue of N&N will be focused on ‘Return’. As usual for N&N, the theme of the edition represents a multi-layered chain of significations and potential avenues for research. ‘Return’ can refer to the desire to reintroduce a previous situation, revive or reform past or currently existing ways of life, ideas, institutions, languages, narratives, historiographies, etc. In Early Medieval Studies and across the Humanities, in recent years, we have seen a plethora of ‘returns’, from theology and eschatology, to theories of the object and objectivity, to history itself. We welcome papers on any of these as well any other related issues, angles and interpretations. Abstracts for proposed articles should be sent by 1st February 2015, with full papers submitted by 15th March 2015.

Of course since I am currently rewriting much of my work in past fifteen-years on the mid sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, I could not help but think the “reconquest” (read Peter Heather to see why I put this in quotes) of Justinian of the “lost” Western provinces. Three colleagues I respect  have spilled much ink on differing views of this Return. John Moorhead largely sees the Italians (or is that still Western Romans) as pro-Eastern Roman during the Gothic Wars (he bases this largely on the views of elite Italo-Romans). Maria Kouroumali, rightly in my mind, sees the Italians as largely caught between the two protagonists the Romans (in modern eyes Byzantines) and the Goths. They switch loyalty in order to best survive. While they could see both Goths and Greeks as fellow Romans, they could just as easily see them as dangerous “others”. Perhaps how Kurds might see Isis or soldiers from the central government in Baghdad.  Jon Arnold, though his study on Theoderic did not cover the Gothic wars at any length, though I do not want to put words in his mouth would probably take Procopius’ account more sceptically than either K and M.

Where do I stand? At this point since it is only the germination of a potential article,  I am not so sure. Certainly their were no homogeneous Goths, Romans, or Italians. Procopius shows one thing for sure, soldiers and civilians on all three “sides” could easily switch loyalties if it benefited them. Justinian’s armies towards the end were filled with non-Romans. Though my research on Gothic Wars makes it plain that Procopius and perhaps the Byzantines themselves had an interesting view on the Italians and the legacy of the city of Rome. As I have suggested elsewhere, because of what Procopius considers their abandonment of their martial Romanitas the Italians come off in his writings as less “Roman” than the Byzantines, and one might say even the Goths.


If you are reading this Conor, this could be our co-authored piece. Not sure if I can make the deadline above, but I am willing to give it a go!

Inspirational early Byzantine Women: Part Two

Sorry I was going to post this sooner, but have been sick this week,

nothing serious. So here is the second half from my previous post commenting on  Procopius’ presentation of women in his writings:


Procopius’ Vision of Women

Some sixth-century Eastern Romans, however, appeared uncomfortable with women’s “usurpation” of traditional masculine roles. Procopius’ oeuvre reflects this reality. Throughout his writings, and particularly in the Secret History, Procopius seems ill at ease with the power wielded by women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire. This attitude probably reflected the views of his primary audience, the upper-classes of the Byzantine Empire. In the Secret History, Procopius scathingly attacked the two leading women of his day: Antonina and Theodora. Indeed, Procopius devotes the first five chapters of Secret History undermining Antonina and Theodora as “unwomanly.”[1] In contrast to ideal Roman women, who were subservient, pious, merciful, and chaste, Theodora and Antonina were, in Procopius’ view, no better than immoral prostitutes eager to subvert their proper feminine roles in Byzantine society.

According to both traditional Roman and Christian standards, if the Virgin Mary was the paradigm of the ultimate woman, non-virginal women were vulnerable to attacks on their sexual morality. Procopius illustrated the importance of a bride’s virginity: “When Saturninus had slept with his new bride and found out that she had been deflowered, he informed one of his friends that the girl he had married was nothing but damaged goods.”[2] Procopius used Theodora and Antonina’s supposed immorality as a means to discredit their involvement in the political realm. He emphasized their disreputable origins and immoral early years as a means to cast suspicion upon them. Procopius, unable to find any instances of infidelity during Theodora’s marriage to Justinian, focused instead on her reputed sordid past:

One night she went to the house of a distinguished citizen during the drinking, and, it is said, before the eyes of all the guests she stood up on the end of the couch near their feet, pulled up her dress in a most disgusting manner as she stood there and brazenly displayed her lasciviousness. And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling because Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region. Naturally, she was frequently pregnant, but by using pretty well all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce immediate abortion.[3]

Here we have many of the elements that made Procopius and many members of his audience uncomfortable with women. Procopius claimed that Theodora used her uncontrolled sexuality to corrupt an esteemed Roman citizen and, even worse, her insatiable sexual appetite promised that she would constantly be on the prowl for additional male victims. Moreover, overwhelmed by lust, she readily abandoned her nurturing role and aborted her potential offspring with mystical medical potions. As Peter Brown points out, “Procopius wrote to prove that the Empress had once been a ‘non-person.’ What had happened in public made plain that she was a girl of the lower classes: the good Christian senators of Constantinople could look on a body thus exposed with impunity.”[4] Furthermore, Procopius’ disgust with Theodora’s ability to induce abortions may reflect his anxiety with women’s role as doctors. Procopius argued that exposing her body in public had permanently damaged Theodora’s character.

Procopius also hinted that Theodora might not have been a devout Christian by insinuating that from a young age she had been obsessed with sorcerers and demons, and that she continued to have friends who were Manicheans (a religion founded by the Persian Mani [216-276]).[5] Procopius used the same tactic against Antonina, condemning her “profligate kind of life,” indicating that before she met Belisarius she had “continually been in the company of her father’s magic-mongering friends” learning “the arts essential to her trade.”[6] Procopius knew that in an increasingly devout culture, one way to curb women’s power was to suggest that instead of being dedicated Christians they were instead dangerous heretics.

Theodora seemed to recognize that, as a powerful woman with a dubious past, she was particularly vulnerable to accusations of immorality, and Procopius disclosed that she took great pains to protect her reputation. When rumors began to spread that she might have had a love affair with a servant named Areobindus she had him whipped, and he immediately “disappeared.”[7] Theodora’s reaction may be compared with Antonina’s, who, despite her husband and many others apparently knowing about her infidelity, continued to pursue her lovers. For Procopius, Antonina was a typical woman incapable of controlling her lust. In contrast, during her marriage to Justinian, Theodora maintained command over her own sexuality and willingly sacrificed her servant instead of suffering accusations of adultery. One might think that even Procopius would have grudgingly respected Theodora’s ability to overcome her “natural feminine weakness” by displaying heroic resolve and abandoning her “lover.” Nevertheless, Procopius condemned her because she acted not out of concerns over her own morality, but purely in an attempt to maintain her political position.

Procopius continued his diatribe by alleging that Theodora had abandoned her “natural” role as a mother. The historian divulged that her son from a former relationship, John, had traveled to Constantinople seeking his mother. John sought out Theodora’s attendants and as Procopius exclaimed: “They, never imagining that she would feel any differently from the generality of mankind, reported to the mother that her son John had arrived.” Theodora, though, was not a “normal” woman, and the young man vanished, never to be heard from again.[8]

Procopius condemned Antonina as well for not realizing that her adulterous behavior would reflect poorly on her children: “And remember that the sins of women do not fall on their husbands only: they do still more damage to their children whose misfortune it will almost certainly be to incur a reputation for having a natural resemblance in character to their mothers.”[9] Procopius suggested that mothers played a vital role in creating “good” Romans. In a culture in which a mother’s devotion to her family overrode all other duties, these attacks on Theodora and Antonina were particularly damning.

For Procopius, women’s submissiveness exemplified one of the fundamental Roman customs. To be seen as virtuous, women needed to separate themselves completely from their sexual nature. Within an idealized Roman marriage, a dominant husband could control a wife’s passionate character. It was the aberrant reversal of masculine and feminine roles, in both Theodora’s and Antonina’s unions, that Procopius claimed, “destroyed the greatness of Rome.”[10]

So too did Procopius make Antonina the culprit for Belisarius’ military failures. By using their sexuality to feminize men, women remained a constant threat to men’s proper position in a marriage. Procopius revealed that it was not rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ downfall, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife. Procopius, who praised Belisarius for his ability to govern even the most fearsome barbarians, condemned his superior for becoming a slave to his own lust. Like any good warrior, Belisarius did not give in without a fight and he waged a difficult campaign against her “womanly wiles.” Repeatedly, he attempted to escape his wife’s clutches and for brief moments, he was able to restore his honor by rejecting Antonina’s “tricks of magic,” and thereby he became a good man once more. Each time, however, the respite was fleeting, and Belisarius became once again Antonina’s “faithful slave, not her husband.”[11]

Procopius drew attention to how a “real” man handled disruptive women when he presented the general Constantine berating Belisarius for ignoring Antonia’s suspected adultery: “If I had been in your shoes, I should have got rid of that woman instead of the youngster [Theodosius, Antonina’s lover].” It was not the man who was to blame for the affair but the woman whom Belisarius needed to exile. Belisarius not only refused to heed Constantine’s advice, but also as Procopius related, a short time afterwards had the general executed at Antonina’s behest. These actions evoked the “bitter hostility of the Emperor and of the influential Romans one and all.”[12]

The field of battle had long represented a masculine realm in the Roman and Byzantine world.[13] Procopius deftly revealed how troubles in one’s domestic world could spill over into the public domain. Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. In Procopius’ mind Belisarius’ “abandonment of his manhood [ἀρρενωπὸν ἀπελελοίπει],” had made the general an unmanly shell of his former self:

Thinking not one worthy thought nor even remembering that he had ever been a man, but perspiring constantly, with his head swimming, trembling violently in helpless despair, tortured by servile fears, and apprehensions, which were both cowardly and unmanly [ἀνάνδροις]).[14]

Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity led him to sacrifice the most vital interests of the state to his own domestic concerns. According to Procopius, Belisarius’ obsession with Antonina led to the Byzantine setbacks in the war against the Persians. “Incapacitated by his wife’s waywardness,” Belisarius refused to travel far beyond the boundaries of the Empire, and thus failed to take the initiative against the Persians. By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only sacrificed his manliness, but at that moment, “the hand of God was unmistakably against him.”[15]


Procopius disclosed that a married couple could work for good or for evil, and he insisted that Theodora and Justinian had destroyed the Roman Empire together. Both were wicked, however, in different ways. Theodora refused to be swayed by others, and was a formidable enemy; in contrast, Justinian was easygoing and readily influenced by others. While Theodora indulged in luxuries like bathing, eating and sleeping, Justinian practiced asceticism and spent his nights wandering the hallways of the palace. Pauline Allen suggests that Procopius like many early Byzantines believed that husbands and wives complemented one another. If the partners ignored Roman or Christian ideals, they would enhance each other’s bad qualities; if they embraced these virtues, their individual natures would improve.[16]

It is important to note that Procopius may not have been a misogynist. Indeed we should be careful not to apply modern standards to judge an ancient culture such as sixth-century Byzantium. Like most conservatives, Procopius inferred that he was protecting women from attacks on their femininity. In fact, as one recent study has noted, Procopius’ positive portraits of women in his writings far outnumber his negative ones.[17] As we have seen, Procopius showed that women could play a significant part in Roman culture. The historian described his notion of the ideal “Roman” wife:

He [Justinian] was in position to take his pick of the Roman Empire and select for his bride the most nobly born woman of the world, who had enjoyed the most exclusive upbringing, and was thoroughly acquainted with the claims of modesty, and had lived in an atmosphere of chastity, and in addition was superbly beautiful and still a virgin – or, as they say firm breasted.[18]

This ideal fictitious woman represented everything that Antonina and Theodora were not: she was noble, virtuous, and properly educated. In another illustration of Procopius’ adulation of righteous Roman women, he revealed in his description of an attempted rape that not all women were harlots. An aristocratic man and his wife suffered an attack while wandering the suburbs of Constantinople. His wife, attempting to protect her husband’s life, went along willingly with her attackers. Before departing onto a boat with the men, she whispered to her husband “to have no fear.” Once in the boat, she jumped into the water and drowned. According to Procopius, this sacrifice represented the ultimate act of a noble woman: she safeguarded her own virtue, while defending her male family member. Procopius lamented, however, that during his era these virtuous women were disappearing, and, by ignoring marital traditions, almost “all women had become morally depraved.” Now, instead of shielding their husbands, women found guilty of adultery were allowed to bring a counter suit and drag their husbands into court. Procopius blamed all of these developments on Theodora’s influence.[19]

For Procopius, women’s powerful role in Byzantine politics were even more alarming than their leading position in their domestic relationships. Although Theodora led a cloistered life, Procopius provided numerous examples of her interference in Byzantine politics: appointing men to positions within the Church and state, as well as arranging political marriages.[20] It is important to note that, each time Procopius condemned Theodora’s political meddling, he had to argue that the empress had become involved in political matters for personal reasons. This commentary suggests that empresses were allowed to participate in politics as long as it was on behalf of their sons or husbands. Procopius revealed his disgust with Theodora’s conduct toward aristocratic men, and claimed that, once within her grasp these men were “turned” into animals. Referring to such an example, he wrote: “And so the poor fellow stood continuously at his manger, eating and sleeping and performing all natural functions and he resembled an ass in every particular short of braying.”[21] Procopius suggested that women’s political power over men was even more dangerous than their sexual control; by allowing this perversion, men had become little better than animals.

Even more than Theodora, Antonina typified the dynamic female, taking on essential functions within the domestic and political arenas.[22] While Theodora was largely confined to the palace, Antonina followed her husband on military campaigns and even took control of the troops.[23] As with Belisarius, it is difficult to know when Procopius developed his dislike of Antonina. That she took an active and “masculine” part in the military campaign, however, must have made her an easy target once things went wrong in the war. Procopius’ disapproval of Antonina may have increased when he began working with her during the war in Italy. Procopius described their professional relationship:

He [Procopius] collected not fewer than five hundred soldiers there, loaded a great number of ships with grain, and held them in readiness. And he was joined not long afterwards by Antonina, who immediately assisted him in making arrangements for the fleet.[24]

Sharing power with a woman may have annoyed the conservative historian.[25] However, despite his scathing attack of Antonina in the Secret History, in the Wars, the historian suggested that she could be a valuable asset on the campaign. Antonina had helped avert a disaster when the troops, while preparing their assault on Africa, had their entire water supply spoiled. Luckily, Antonia had safeguarded some extra water by hiding it in the hull of the ship.[26] Antonina may be seen as the typically protective Roman wife, looking out for her husband and for other men’s welfare—the polar opposite to how she behaves in the Secret History.

In certain instances, Procopius praised women for taking on active political roles. Antonina’s association with Theodora, and the empress’ subsequent influence on Justinian, allowed Belisarius to escape execution when the emperor thought that the general was plotting against him.[27] This case demonstrates that Theodora had the “ear of the emperor,” and could be sought out when someone needed clemency.[28] Furthermore, it shows once again that Procopius supported women when they made decisions that defended male family members. Another instance of the protective wife occurred when Theodora stiffened Justinian’s resolve during the Nika revolt, convincing him not to flee Constantinople but to remain in the capital and fight.[29] Lynda Garland regards this episode as an instance of Theodora taking on a masculine and martial role. I would agree with Averil Cameron however, that the speech is better understood as another example of the traditional “protective wife” supporting and defending male family members. All of these instances described above, however, reveal that Procopius believed that women could have influential and essential roles in Byzantine society, especially as wives and mothers. [30]

The Manly Gothic Queen

Procopius portrayed other women acting heroically. In this description of the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuintha, Procopius disclosed that sometimes a woman could transgress the “limitations” of her sex and become a hero:

Now Amalasuintha, as guardian of her child, administrated the government, and she proved to be endowed with wisdom and regard for justice in the highest degree, displaying to a great extent the masculine temper. As long as she stood at the head of government, she inflicted punishment upon no Roman in any case either by touching his person or by imposing a fine.[31]

The Wars and the Secret History portrayed Amalasuintha positively. In a statement that may have been a dig at the lowborn Theodora, Procopius described Amalasuintha as “an aristocrat and a queen.” He continued by illustrating her beauty and wit. Many of these traits, however, Procopius attributed to Amalasuintha’s “extraordinary masculine bearing.” [μεγαλοπρεπὲς καὶ διαφερόντως ἀρρενωπόν].[32]

Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha as a “manly woman” needs some explanation because it seems to go against his assertions discussed above that “masculine” women transgressed nature. Certainly, as we have seen above, the Secret History hoped to stress the disastrous consequences of allowing women to take on men’s dominate masculine roles in the political and the private arenas. A closer examination of Procopius’ description of Amalasuintha’s character reveals, however, that she fit into his and classical Greco-Roman literary visions of femininity. Despite her manly virtues, Amalasuintha’s leadership depended on men’s support, and Procopius portrayed her as a defenseless woman in need of Justinian’s protection. When her political position became too tenuous she attempted to hand “over the power of the Goths and Italians to the Emperor Justinian, in order that she herself might be saved”.[33] Although Amalasuintha ruled briefly within her own kingdom, she remained subordinate to Justinian and dependent upon men within the Gothic aristocracy for her survival.[34] Procopius indicated that only under exceptional circumstances should women take on masculine roles. He suggested that Amalasuintha faced such a situation at the outset of Athalaric’s reign when she needed to take on an active role in order to protect her family from her enemies within Gothic Italy.

An examination of Procopius’ depiction of the Amazons from book eight of the Gothic Wars adds further insight into his attitudes towards Amalasuintha’s or any women’s ability to take on what he considered “masculine” responsibilities. He made it clear that the Amazons were not “a race of women endowed with the qualities of men”, but the remnants of a people whose men had been destroyed in war. Fear of their people’s annihilation, not a reversal of human nature, had forced these women to embrace “manly valour [ἀρρενωπὸν]”, by arming themselves and performing “a deed of the utmost courage [ἄριστα ἔργα ἀνδρεῖα]”. According to Procopius, although women like the Amazons and Amalasuintha could put on temporarily a “masculine nature” and perform heroic deeds, it went against the natural order. Sheer necessity compelled both the Amazons and Amalasuintha to take on masculine roles. In the case of the Amazons, the death of all of their male soldiers drove them to take up arms to face their enemies. Similarly, after the death of Theoderic, a lack of suitable male heirs forced Amalasuintha to fill the void and take on a leading role in protecting her son and the Italian people from the barbarous elements in the Gothic leadership. For Procopius, this reversal of gender roles had its limits. While Amalasuintha and the Amazons could for a time display manly valour and emulate the excellence of men, without the support of real men, they all were fated to die young.[35]

This reliance on ancient Greek literary conceptions of “manly women” helps to explain why Procopius depicted Amalasuintha’s taking on a masculine role positively, whilst he attacked Theodora and Antonina in Secret History for doing the same thing by stepping outside their gender constraints.[36]It seems likely that, in Procopius’ mind, as a “barbarian”, Amalasuintha could more easily break established gender roles.[37] Indeed, in the classical tradition “manly women” represented largely a foreign phenomenon. Moreover, manly women ruled typically in places where men were unmanly.[38] Procopius’ depiction of Amalasuintha was probably based on these traditional precedents, and as such, Procopius used her manliness as a means to, on the one hand, praise the Gothic queen and, on the other, to comment on the character defects of her male rivals to the Gothic throne, and in particular, her royal colleague after Athalaric’s death, the Gothic king Theodahad (ruled 534-536), whom Procopius described in Gothic Wars as “unmanly by nature.”[39]

Procopius indicated in his writings many of the problems within the Byzantine Empire could be explained by the rapid social and political changes that had occurred during Justinian’s reign. One of these developments was women’s increasing influence. Procopius suggested that the power wielded by Antonina and Theodora was dangerous for Eastern Roman men’s welfare and manly identity. Although Procopius often followed classical Roman constructions of women’s behavior, he also followed the ambiguous Christian notion of women as both Eve and Mary. Women, in Procopius’ mind, were admirable when they were obedient, aristocratic, maternal, chaste and thus feminine. Yet the historian also demonstrated that femininity was symbolized by women’s “wild lust”. This made him extremely suspicious of active women, whom he tended to portray as appalling wives and mothers, concerned only with their own political and sexual satisfaction. Procopius assumed that strong women needed strong men to put them in their place. He hinted, however, that he lived in an age where many men had become flawed, and had abandoned their masculinity. In a changing world where men’s and women’s roles were being redefined, powerful women and “femininity” therefore represented a threat to men’s natural dominant role in society. Although Procopius indicated that, under extraordinary circumstances, women could take on leading functions and act heroically, he indicated that the majority of the time they should be subservient to men. Procopius’ writings reveal that despite the puissance of women like Theodora and Antonina, at its core, the sixth-century Byzantine Empire remained an androcentric culture.

In closing, Procopius’ writings aptly illustrate the close partnership of history and literature in Late Antiquity. While it is impossible to know if these often contradictory characterizations of women and femininity truly represent Procopius’ personal sentiments, they do provide his modern readers with evidence of the various principles that made up early Byzantine constructions of feminine virtue and vice. Moreover, though Procopius often provided cartoon-like depictions of Amalasuintha, Antonina, and Theodora, these portraits can provide the modern reader with insight into these dynamic women who helped shape the age of Justinian.












[1] James, Empresses, 16-7.


[2] Procopius, Secret History 17.36.


[3] Procopius, Secret History 9.17-19. Evans asserts that as an actress, Theodora may have prostituted herself before she married Justinian. He suggests that while “the stories Procopius relate about Theodora’s early life in his Secret History may be only half true they are representative of the gossip that floated through the streets of the capital.” Evans, Empress Theodora, 15. Brubaker (“Sex, Lies,” 100) is more skeptical, seeing Procopius’ account as largely a rhetorical trope.

[4] Brown, Body and Society, 320.


[5]Procopius, Secret History 22.25-26.


[6] Procopius, Secret History 1.12.


[7] Procopius, Secret History 16.5-18.



[8] Procopius, Secret History 17.17-23. There is no evidence that John was Theodora’s son. Evans (Empress Theodora, 16) suggests that he was an imposter, given that Theodora had previously recognized an illegitimate daughter.


[9] Procopius, Secret History 2.10.


[10] Procopius, Secret History 6.1-17.


[11] Procopius, Secret History 4.29-30.


[12] Procopius, Secret History 1.24-30.


[13] Myles Mc Donnell, Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


[14]Procopius, Secret History 4.22-26

[15]Procopius, Secret History 4.42.


[16]Allen, “Contemporary Portrayals”, 98.


[17] Warren Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 215.


[18] Procopius, Secret History 10.2-3.


[19]Procopius, Secret History 7.37-38, 17.17.


[20] Procopius, Secret History 17.32.


[21]Procopius, Secret History 3.10.


[22] The sixth-century Liber Pontificalis (60.8) corroborates Procopius’ portrayal of both Antonia’s dominate role within her marriage and her confidence in political matters.


[23] Brubaker argues (“Gender and Society,”) that Theodora is largely absent from Wars because Procopius— following Roman and Byzantine constructs— expected men to dominate the public arena. Yet, while this assessment it is likely correct, it does not explain her “absence” from Wars. I would point out that because most of the narrative deals with warfare and occurs on the fringes of the Empire, Justinian also plays a relatively minor role in Wars. So too, as I discus below, did Amalasuintha play an important part in the opening of the Gothic Wars. In fact, before her death in 548, Theodora features in several important scenes of Wars: e.g., 1.24.33; 1.25.22-30; 4.9.13; 7.31.14.


[24] Procopius, Wars 6.4.19-20.


[25] Of course this conclusion depends on whether the views found in the Secret History accurately reflect Procopius’ “real” sentiments.


[26] Procopius, Wars 3.13.24.


[27] Procopius, Secret History 4.18-19.


[28] Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” 61.


[29] Procopius, Wars 1.24.32-9.


[30] Garland, Byzantine Empresses, 32-33; Cameron, Procopius, 65


[31] Procopius, Wars 5.2.3-4.


[32]Procopius, Secret History 16.1.


[33] Procopius, Wars 5.3.13.


[34] A. Daniel Frankforter, “Amalasuntha, Procopius and a Woman’s Place”, JWH 8 (1996): 42.


[35] Procopius, Wars 8.3.1-7.


[36] Averil Cameron (Procopius, 199-200), in particular, criticises Procopius for this seeming inconsistency.


[37] For a similar gendered presentation of Amalasuintha in Cassiodorus’ Variae, as well as a full discussion of the historical context of the gendered relationship between Amalasuintha and Theodahad, see Cristina La Rocca, “Consors regni: a problem of gender? The consortium between Amalasuntha and Theodahad in 534,” in Studies in the earlier Middle Ages in Honour of Pauline Stafford (London, 2012), 127-143.


[38] Sarah E. Harrell, “Marvelous Andreia: Politics, Geography, and Ethnicity in Herodotus’ Histories,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Boston: Brill, 2003), 83.


[39] Procopius, Wars 5.9.1

Inspirational Roman and Byzantine Women





This week’s blog is a bit of a cheat since it is an excerpt from an article I am preparing for publication. It has been sent off and received a good response. It was mostly written in 2002 for my 2003 MA thesis on Procopius. Having picked it up after not reading it for over ten years I realised it might be worthy of publication, so I gave it a good update and refresh. Luckily the writing style was better than I would have thought…so I left much of it as is.

One thing I noted as I gave it an edit is how many of the modern sources I consulted are written by women. This should not surprise since primarily women write about ancient women; why this should be so is not so clear. I am certainly just a interested in reading about battles as I am in consulting the latest book on the role of women in Byzantium. In contrast much of what I read about “regular” Roman and Byzantine history is written by men…with some notable exceptions of course,   wink wink Maria…Of course I was raised by my mother and three dynamic women cut from much the same cloth as Antonina, Theodora and Amalasuintha! So enjoy the first half…

The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius is arguably the most important writer to survive from Late Antiquity. Procopius has received much needed attention in the past thirty-five years. Much of this work has been the by-product of the upsurge of research focusing on the role of women in the early Byzantine Empire. Procopius’ views on gender—particularly in the Secret History—have received particular attention. [1]

Yet as specialists on the ancient historian have recognized, uncovering Procopius’ “true” views is problematic.[2] Undoubtedly, without careful analysis, Procopius’ three works: the Buildings, the Secret History, and the Wars, may appear either to have different authors, or to be the work of one severely schizophrenic individual. In Buildings, Procopius extolled Justinian as God’s messenger on earth, leading the Empire back to glory. In contrast, in the Secret History Justinian appeared as the “Lord of the Demons,” driving Byzantium to disaster.[3] The Wars took the middle ground, incorporating negative and positive descriptions of the emperor. Some of these discrepancies, however, partly reflect the nature and the limitations of the historical models that Procopius followed. The Wars was a work of secular history that focused on great men and great battles. The Secret History followed the literary genre of psogos (invective) and komodia (satire), while the Buildings followed the restrictions of “the most artificial of all classical genres to modern taste, that of panegyric.”[4]        

These oft-times paradoxical characterizations make it difficult for modern scholars to understand Procopius’ attitudes towards the key players in his accounts.[5] Moreover, his reliance on genre and classical tropes may mean that Procopius’ accounts do not reflect early Byzantine conditions or people as they actually were.[6]

Keeping the difficulties discussed above in mind, this paper considers Procopius’ concept of “good” and “defective” women. While it analyzes Procopius’ descriptions of a wide range of women, it focuses on three of the most influential aristocratic women of his age: Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora; the Byzantine general Belisarius’ wife, Antonina; and the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuintha. It argues that, despite Procopius’ distrust of women who acted outside what he considered the normal realm of female behavior, he revealed that women, at times, could abandon what he held to be their naturally subservient role and act heroically.[7]


Rhetoric versus Reality

As Leslie Brubaker has argued, Procopius’ construction of feminine virtues closely followed classical Roman and Christian precepts. Particularly in the Secret History, Theodora represents “everything a late Roman should not be.”[8] Brubaker, in fact, questions whether Procopius tells us anything about the “real” Theodora. She goes so far as to claim that the Secret History “is useless as a source of history about “what really happened.” [9] Peter Heather too warns that Procopius’ portrait of the individuals in the Secret History may have had no bearing on his true beliefs. Heather goes so far as to posit that Procopius in this work aimed primarily to create a comical view of Theodora, Justinian, Belisarius and Antonina. The ancient audience was not supposed to be shocked by these characterizations, but amused.[10] Though I doubt aspects of both assertions above, they serve as another timely reminder of the difficulties facing the modern interpreter attempting to uncover the “truths” in Procopius’ writings.

Certainly challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real women” from the “constructed” one. Kate Cooper has shown convincingly that Roman writers often crafted literary descriptions of women as a means to describe men’s characters. She suggests, for instance, that in Plutarch’s works, men’s inability to control their passion for women frequently threatened social stability. The conflict between “the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress” represented a common theme in Roman and Byzantine literature. Moreover, Cooper suggests that the influence of the enlightenment and the modern “conception of individual autonomy” has hindered scholars’ attempts to comprehend the experience of Roman men and women. She stresses that “the notion of a private sphere divested of public significance would have seemed impossible (and undesirable) to the ancient mind. The domus [household], along with its aspect of family and dynasty, was the primary unit of cultural identity, political significance, and economic production.” [11]   

This conflict presents a real problem for anyone hoping to interpret Procopius’ writings, particularly the Secret History. I would agree, however, with Cooper’s further contention, however, that an understanding of these rhetorical constructions helps provide a more detailed “picture of how ancient woman understood themselves.”[12] Other scholars agree with this view. For instance, using a wide-range of sixth-century sources describing the Empress Theodora, Clive Foss has shown that they shared many similarities with Procopius characterization.[13] So, I would suggest that by examining Procopius’ writings we may get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the “real” Amalasuintha, Antonina, and Theodora.


Classical and Christian Constructs of Ideal Women

To comprehend Procopius’ philosophy about women it is first necessary to return to an earlier era. Roman women had long held a paradoxical position in Roman society. In Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family, Judith P. Hallett describes Roman women’s role during the era of the Republic. These portrayals are valuable despite the distance in time because they are strikingly similar to Procopius’ traditional concepts of ideal “Roman” women. Rome was a patriarchal society dominated by men, yet through longstanding tradition, women from upper-class families could be held in high esteem and exercise considerable political power. Although aristocratic Roman women could influence their husbands and fathers as wives and daughters, it was in their role as mothers and sisters that they asserted the most civic clout. Nonetheless, this political function remained highly regulated and mostly limited to maternal or sisterly roles as the protectors and the teachers of male family members. Ideal mothers often served as guides seeking to protect and further the ambitions of their male relatives, and this influence continued even when the boys reached maturity.[14]

In contrast to fathers or other male relatives who could become potential political rivals, mothers and sisters could be depended on to support their sons’ or brothers’ political goals. A woman’s authority, however, was limited, and if she spoke out on her own behalf, she risked being condemned as egotistical, licentious, and greedy. Women’s peripheral position in Roman society allowed them to serve as mediators for male members of their family in a very turbulent and competitive culture. This system permitted women to hold significant power, but it excluded them from overtly participating in society to promote their personal aspirations. Any woman who took on too dominant a role risked being labeled as non-womanly and non-Roman.[15]

In sixth-century Byzantium, the construction of the ideal woman continued to reflect this ambiguity. Furthermore, with the growth of Christianity two additional stereotypical images of women emerged: the first was that of the Virgin Mary, who combined virginity with motherhood, and could be sought out for motherly protection and mercy; and the second was that of Eve, who represented the sexual side of women. For many Christians, Eve was a natural temptress like all women, responsible for original sin and mankind’s subsequent fall from grace.[16]

Christian intellectuals had long struggled with the question of whether ideal Christians could be married. As chastity came to be seen as the supreme act of the idealised Christian, even married Christians accepted that they were inferior to their brothers and sisters who vowed themselves to celibacy.[17] Some members of the Church did attempt to promote the family and marriage as a basic unit of society, and the idea of the Virgin Mary as the ultimate mother figure.[18]But by the sixth century, the Christian ideal of celibacy increasingly clashed with the promotion of marriage and its legitimization of sexual relations in marriage as an indispensable means of creating more “Roman” citizens.

More and more, Christian constructions of ideal women revealed that to be considered heroic women needed to sever their traditional ties of loyalty to their families. An example of this view may be seen in the late fifth-century work of Victor of Vita. In his History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor suggested that the ideal women married Christ, and not mortal men. He described a young woman, Maxima, attempting to explain to her suitor, Martinianus, why she had rejected his marriage proposal: “O brother Martinianus, I have dedicated the limbs of my body to Christ and as there is a heavenly and true being to whom I am already betrothed, I cannot enter a human marriage.”[19] Victor argued that ideal women maintain loyalty, not to their families, but to their faith:

There was a married woman, Victoria, who conformed to her name. While she was being tortured by being left hanging for a good while in the sight of the common people, she was addressed in the following terms by her husband, already a lost man, in the presence of their children: ‘Why are you suffering, wife? If you hold me in disdain, at least have mercy on the little ones to whom you gave birth. . . . Where are the covenants of married love? Where are the bonds of that relationship which written documents once brought about between us, in accordance with the law which pertains to respectable folk?

Victor seemed satisfied that Victoria ignored both her husband’s pleas and the “wailing of her children,” and willingly deserted her family in order to die for her faith.[20] Although Victor had political reasons for emphasizing the importance of religious loyalty over familial ties, his account accurately reflects the Church’s attempts to break the strong ties of Roman kinship.

Most women’s lives from the upper-crust of society remained highly restricted. Following Roman custom, upper-class Byzantine women tended to be segregated from all men other than immediate members of their family. Ironically, this isolation created opportunities. Women were required to perform jobs usually reserved for men: serving as attendants in public baths for women and as medical practitioners who would not be sullied by interacting with women’s bodily functions. Additionally, women from the lower classes could earn a living and a certain amount of independence by performing as actresses, mimes, and dancers. Rigorist Christians, however, looked upon these activities with suspicion and frequently condemned these women as little better than prostitutes.

Moreover, according to Judith Herrin, medical practitioners often lacked medical expertise, and relied on superstitious practices “such as the wearing of amulets or incantation of magic spells in order to obtain supernatural assistance.” This dependence on “magic” made these women particularly susceptible to accusations of “anti-Christian beliefs and heretical ritual.” The use of magic must have appealed to Roman women, who typically were expected to play a subservient role in Roman society. The use of spells and magic allowed them to compel others to comply with their wishes, and increasingly their sexuality could also be used as a type of “magic” to achieve similar goals. Nevertheless, women who used magic or their sexual charms risked being looked upon with suspicion.[21] Fritz Graf argues: “Women, marginalized and excluded from the society of men,” were considered dangerous. They were often accused of practicing veneficiis et cantionibus (sorcery and incantation). The accusation of magic served two purposes: first, it revealed the danger “that women’s love constitutes for the autonomy of the men,” and finally it provided a means “to excuse social faults,” such as “mad love felt by men.”[22]

Late Antiquity also witnessed an increase in the empress’ political authority. At the beginning of each emperor’s reign, elaborate court rituals were performed that emphasized the link between the dual power of the imperial couple.[23] Since these ceremonies portrayed the emperor as God’s representative on earth, it was natural for his partner to attain as well an aura of authority. The more powerful the emperor, the more powerful the empress, indeed in Justinian’s reign, the emperor’s dominant position was matched only by the Empress Theodora’s influence. While Justinian served as a mediator between the spiritual and secular realm, his wife acted as the intermediary “between the public world of men and the private world of women.” In Justinian’s world, all the different members of Byzantine society, officials, soldiers, priests, and women had a place in the earthly and divine hierarchy.[24] Despite the limitations imposed on women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire, they had a more prominent position than in Western Europe at the same time. In Justinian and Theodora, Robert Browning suggests, “if a civilization can be judged by the way it treated women . . . the age of Justinian and Theodora deserves to be rated high.”[25]

1See e.g., Judith Herrin, “In Search of Byzantine Women: Three Avenues of Approach”, in Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. Averil Cameron, and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983),167-89, Pauline Allen, “Contemporary Portrayals of the Byzantine Empress Theodora (A.D. 527-548)”, in Stereotypes of Women in Power: Historical Perspectives and Revisionist Views, ed. Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon, and Pauline Allen (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 93-103; Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womenhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 (London; Routledge, 1999); Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001); Leslie Brubaker, “Sex, Lies, and Texuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-century Byzantium”, in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 83-101; Harmut Ziche, “Abusing Theodora: Sexual and Political Discourse in Procopius,” Βυζαντιακὰ 30 (2012-13): 311-322.


2 See e.g. Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century ((London: Duckworth, 1985); Anthony Kaldellis Procopius of Caesarea (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2004); Dariusz Brodka, Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2004); Henning Börm, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike (Stuttgart, 2008).  


3Procopius, Buildings 1.1.16, Procopius, The Secret History (trans. G.A. Williamson [London: Penguin Books, 1966, reprint 1981]) 30.34. Largely because of its highly sexualized language and lurid portraits of the leading figures of sixth-century Byzantine culture, the Secret History has proved particularly popular on modern University campuses.


4Cameron stresses (Procopius 25, 60) that seeing the Secret History simply as an exaggerated satire does not give “justice to its complexity and its earnestness, and should not be used to obscure the substantial portion of the work that is devoted to detailed political accusation.” Greatrex goes further (“Procopius the Outsider,” BMGS 18 [1994]: 101-114), maintaining that the Secret History is not a separate genre from Wars, but was made up of material that Procopius hoped to insert into Wars if the emperor predeceased him. Opposing these views, Henning Börm (Procopius and his Predecessors, and the Genesis of the Anecdota, forthcoming) has proposed recently that the hasty composition of the Secret History indicates that it was produced because Procopius feared a coup was inevitable, and he wanted to disassociate himself from Justinian’s inner circle. Therefore, the views portrayed in this work are merely an attempt by Procopius to ingratiate himself to the “new” regime, and therefore not reflective of his “true” views at all. I see the points of view expressed by Procopius in the Secret History as exaggerated, yet sincere. and representative of the historian’s pessimistic mindset towards Justinian’s floundering Gothic campaign when he probably composed (550-552) the diatribe.


5 For a thorough discussion of Procopian scholarship in the past twenty years, see Geoffrey Greatrex, “Recent work on Procopius and the Composition of Wars VIII”, BMGS 27 (2003): 45-67; “Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship,Histos 8 (2014): 76-121.


[6]Anthony Kaldellis, “The Study of Women and Children Methodological Challenges and New Directions,” in P. Stephenson, ed., The Byzantine World (London: Routledge, 2010), 61-71; Henning Börm, “Procopius, his Predecessors, and the genesis of the Anecdota,” (forthcoming).


[7] Such inversions play an important literary role throughout Procopius’ writings, see Michael Edward Stewart, “Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars,” Parekbolai 4 (2014): 21-54.


[8] Brubaker, “Sex, Lies,” 87, 100-101.


[9] Leslie Brubaker, “The Age of Justinian: Gender and Society,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 432.


[10] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (London: Macmillan, 2013), 111-116.


[11] Cooper, Virgin and the Bride, 11-14.


[12] Cooper, Virgin and the Bride, 11-13.


[13] Clive Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” Byzantion 72 (2002): 141-76.


[14] Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 49-52, 232.


[15] Mary R. Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” in Images of Women in Late Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 59.


[16] Herrin, “Byzantine Women,” 167.


[17] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 148, 299.


[18] From the seventh-century, icons of the Theotokos were used to protect the Empire’s cities and its armies. According to some texts during a siege of Constantinople in 626 the Virgin Mary acted as the ultimate “protective mother,” indeed, she was even seen partaking in the battle. For a slightly different take on this development, see Anthony Kaldellis, “The Military use of the Icon of the Theotokos and its Morale Logic in the Historians of the Ninth-Twelfth Centuries,” Estudios byzantinos 1 (2013): 56-75.


[19] Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, (trans. John Moorhead [Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1992]), 1.31.


[20] Victor of Vita, 3.26.


[21] Alice-Mary Talbot, “Women,” in The Byzantines, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo, trans. Thomas Dunlap, Teresa Lavander Fagan, and Charles Lambert (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1997), 177-8.


[22] Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, trans. Franklin Philip (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 189-90.


[23] James, Empresses, 164.


[24] Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1995), 180-2.


[25] Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (New York: Praeger, 1971), 257.