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.


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