That whinging Belisarios : Some Serious and not so Serious Thoughts on Prokopios Wars 7.12. 1-10


The mid-sixth century historian Prokopios records in book 7 of his Gothic War a purported letter by the commander of the Italian campaign, Belisarios, to the emperor Justinian in 545 decrying the poor state of his army and, indeed the entire state of the reconquest. (Whether this is an actual letter or merely a literary creation is a totally different question and difficult to answer with any certainty. Though it does seem to reflect some of the realities on the ground at the time, the complaints seem to be exaggerated.) The campaign to retake Italy from the Goths that had begun so promisingly in 536, culminating with the marching of the downtrodden Gothic king and his ‘defeated’ Goths down the streets of Constantinople in 540, by 545 had bogged down so badly at the hands of a revitalised Gothic nation ruled by a dynamic leader Totila, that it looked as though Justinian might have to give up on his dream of retaking Italy. Although the situation for the Eastern Romans in Italy had improved somewhat in 550-551, when Prokopios first published this part of Wars, we can tell by the ending of book seven that the historian had become somewhat disillusioned with the stalled campaign. A viewpoint that I have argued previously shifted markedly in book eight that was published in 553 or 554, a year or two after the Byzantine eunuch general Narses crushed Gothic resistance and slew Totila 552 and his successor Teias in 552 or 553.

The melancholy tone conveyed in this letter has been seen by many scholars as a “true” reflection of Prokopios’ attitudes toward the general and the entire reconquest.  It echoes somewhat the negative view found in Secret History towards Belisarios’ efforts during this part of the Gothic campaign. I agree that it allowed Prokopios to comment at what in book 7 was the apex of Totila’s reign and the low point of the Eastern Romans’ fortunes, a situation that changes slowly at the close of book 7 and improves dramatically in book 8. I will suggest in today’s blog, however, that it serves more of a literary purpose for Prokopios and one needs to careful to believe that it represents either an accurate view either of the campaign or of Prokopios’ ‘true’ feelings. This may be the bud for new article, certainly I had hoped to have included a longer reference to it in my earlier article on  notions of courage and manliness in Gothic Wars, since it does seem to show the Eastern Romans as a bit unmanly, dispirited and afraid of the revitalised Goths under Totila. Due to space limitations, instead, I only added a footnote and showed how  as book seven progressed Prokopios described the Eastern Romans as becoming gradually more courageous, and under the well-supplied and monetarily supported Narses, manlier and more courageous than the Goths. All of these factors led ultimately to the Eastern Romans’ triumph.

Well let’s get to it. Here is an updated translation of the letter by Anthony Kaldellis. I will add some of my comments serious and not so serious off the top of my head no less in bold:

(3) We have arrived in Italy, most mighty emperor, without men, horses, arms, or money, and no man, I think, would ever be able to carry on a war without plentiful supply of these things (okay this opening sounds like an exaggeration, no horses or arms? And where’s the flattery? Even I know you have to wait to add the kicker when addressing your boss). For though we did travel most diligently through Thrace and Illyria, Thrace, and Illyria, the soldiers we gathered are small and pitiful band, without a single weapon in their hands, and all together unpractised in fighting (hmm, if I was Justinian I might ask why “your” bad recruiting Belisarios is now my fault).

(5)Meanwhile, we see that the men who were left in Italy are both insufficient in number and in abject terror of the enemy, their spirit humbled by the defeats suffered at their hands. These are not men who happened to escape by chance from their enemies, but they abandoned their horses and flung their weapons on the ground. (This part is interesting because before this speech it is largely a lack of pay, poor generalship and/or bickering amongst the Roman officer corps, not the ground soldiers’ fear of the Goths or their lack of courage that in Prokopios’ telling has caused the situation in Italy to deteriorate. In ancient military guidebooks it is the general who is primarily responsible for his men’s courage and  fighting spirit, so this seems to be a dig at Belisarios. Indeed, soon after this better leadership and the growth of a less virtuous Totila the Eastern Roman soldiers show great courage against the Goths to recapture Rome and gradually turn the tide against the Goths. So I believe this may be a reflection of “Belisarios’ shortcomings at the time, as much as a criticism of Justinian’s neglect.)

(6)As for revenue, ($) it is impossible for us to extract any money from Italy as it has been occupied by the Goths (duhh!! Well that’s why I sent you there, might say Justinian. On the more serious side, P who praised B for not exploiting the locals in the Vandalic Wars, criticizes B in Secret History for extorting the locals along the same lines of the hated and greed former Gothic rex Theodahad; so perhaps another criticism of B. The Italians in P’s telling are increasingly squeezed by both sides as the war dragged on).

(7) Consequently, we have fallen behind in the payments to the soldiers and find ourselves unable to impose our orders upon them; for the debt has taken away our right to command. (Okay, as my mother would say, you’re calling because you need some money. Why not just ask straight away. Still if you were a really good general your men would fight for the spoils you should be earning, thinketh the getting angry emperor. Indeed, in Wars 3.16 Procopius explains to his soldiers about to land in Vandalic North Africa that if they are “brave men, andres agathous” they should be able to get all the spoils they need from their enemy. So the reader may be expected to recall this change in Belsisarius).

(8) This too you must know as well, my master (about time), that the majority of those serving in the army have deserted to the enemy. (Okay, this is getting worse, and moreover is this a threat?…maybe thinks the now suspicious emperor….where is that eunuch Narses cell-phone number Theodora? Though we know a number of Eastern Romans did desert to the Gothic side, once more Belisarios is exaggerating and surely would not have told his boss that most of his men had quit for the more enlightened leadership of Totila).

(9)If it sufficed merely to send Belisarios to Italy, then you have made the best plan possible, for the war, for I am already here in Italy. (Okay, I think I have read over this part in previous readings. It really makes B look like a bit of big-headed jerk, I am starting to suspect this letter might be pro-Justinian! See what happens when you pay attention to detail…only half kidding. I am least beginning to sympathise with the emperor). But if you want me to overcome your foes in the war, it is necessary to make other provisions as well (“should you not be saying our foes”, thinks an even more suspicious Justinian. On your second point, should not have sending “super” Belisarios been enough to defeat the Goths?)


(10) For I think that no man can be a general without men to support him. It is therefore imperative that my spearmen and guardsmen (mostly Goths, what if they desert as well?) be sent to me, beside them a large force of Huns and other barbarians is needed, to whom money must be given immediately.

My final few comments are slightly more scholarly and aimed at those who assume that Justinian dominated an oppressive regime where criticisms needed to be opaque or garbed in double-entendres. From what Prokopios tells us, the first part of Wars was widely read throughout the Empire, so many leading figures would have read openly what we can see above was a pretty open criticism of a reigning emperor’s faults as a commander in chief. As Averil Cameron has explained such criticisms were expected in classicising histories (Procopius, 150). As Catherine Ware explains (“The Severitas of Constantine:Imperial Virtues in PanegyriciLatini 7(6) and 6(7)*”) as part of their education, students were given moral exercises taken from ancient history, the “student had to argue both sides of a question and tease out all the moral complexities and contradictions that might be involved.” Procopius does something similar throughout Wars.

So we need to be careful to suppose that they fully reflect a negative attitude towards the emperor or Belisarios. In these types of histories, failures were generally the result of moral failures of those at the top. This explains why in Secret History, Justinian and Belisarios’ faults and problems in the political realm are blamed on their failures in their “private realm”, and primarily an inability to control their wives. We can see from the publication of the letter above, that Justinian ‘allowed’ Procopius to criticize the emperor and what the historian saw as the emperor’s neglect of the Italian campaign as a primary reason for its bogging down in the mid-forties. Of course as Maria Kouroumali posits, the Italian campaign was only one of many fronts (and a minor one at that) that the emperor’s troops were engaged with at the time. Justinian was only one of many famous Byzantines who faced severe criticism on Procopius’ pages. I am reminded of modern sportsmen who are the villain when their team loses, but the hero when they win. These bipolar views can shift dramatically from game to game and day to day. A similar thing happens in Wars, where P’s view on Belsiarios can shift quickly from positive to negative determined largely on his victories of defeats.

The same is true of Justinian. Nothing needs to be hidden, the campaign was floundering because the Eastern Roman soldiers were not only demoralised from the long line of defeats at the hands of Totila and his Goths, but let down by their leaders, both Belisarios and Justinian. Despite Bell, Heather, Bjornlie and Kaldellis’ (to name a few) recent arguments, Justinian’s Empire had little in common with repressive states like Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Secret History was most likely composed around the same times the first part of Wars was composed, so is also reflective of this low-point in Justinian’s campaign. Indeed, Henning Borm has suggested intriguingly that it was composed purely because Prokopios feared a coup was imminent around 550-552 and wanted to distance himself from Belisarios and Justinian, to whom Borm argues, Prokopios was still closely linked. Though I have serious doubts about Borm’s thesis, he is right to point out that scholars like Kaldellis place far too much emphasis on its views as ‘true’ reflections of Procopius’ attitudes. So too has the idea of Justinian’s regime as a particularly oppressive regime has been overdone in recent scholarship. Justinian’s ability to repress has been exaggerated. The emperor walked a fine line when dealing with very powerful rivals within the Roman elite. Moreover, the abundance of sources composed during his reign that could criticize a ruling emperor shows a more open and tolerant regime than some have recently argued for. The fact that so many sources survive from his reign should make us question such a view. Moreover, as Geoffrey Greatrex has recently argued, Justinian’s predecessors and successors could be disparaged for displaying very similar traits and activities.

This type of moralising was expected in great works of history. Belisarios’, in fact, was somewhat exaggerating the dire straits of the campaign, because the Romans fortunes in Italy improved somewhat after 546 and Totila’s situation declined somewhat. So my initial impression is that this letter does serve as the bridge to the improving, though by no means ideal, military situation to come at the close of book 7 where the Romans position Italy improves somewhat compared to the low ebb found in the letter above. Obviously some of what I have written above is tongue and check, but I think it provides some insights on how one must tackle such passages. One cannot take Prokopios’ attitudes or purpose for granted. Only by untying the Gordian knot that is Wars can one begin to uncover some truths. While I may not have achieved that here today. Further exploration of the passages shortly after this letter may provide some resolution. Certainly this is an important section for one dealing with the issue of the Roman army’s courage and/or manliness, since this is one of the few episodes that portrays them as unmanly cowards in the face of a superior Gothic foe. I am pretty sure that this is not P’s own view since he spends most of the remainder of Gothic War describing the manliness and courage of the  Roman soldiers when led properly. But I will keep an open mind. Well that it for today.


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