The fine lines between rashness, fear and courage in Procopius’ Vandalic War 3.10



(ruins of Leptis, city that Belisarius and his army marched through shortly after landing in North Africa September 533)

There is an interesting section in the mid-sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius’ account of the intense debate surrounding Justinian’s decision in the summer of 532 to attempt to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa where the historian highlights the Eastern Romans’ trepidation to launch the invasion. Like many modern military campaigns most of the emperor’s advisors were refighting (ultimately wrongly) a previous war. In this case the failed attempt by the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I and the Western emperor Anthemios’  to take back North Africa in 468 that nearly bankrupted the Eastern regime.

Though I disagree with almost all of his conclusions concerning Procopius’ Vandalic War[1], Anthony Kaldellis is correct that the historians detailed description of Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468 “functions in many ways as a parallel to the later expedition of Belisarius”.[2]

When the emperor informed his magistrates of his plan, they indeed reminded the emperor of the failed expedition, reciting how many soldiers had been lost and how the treasury had been nearly bankrupted. The treasurer John was the most panicked, since he was going to need to find the funds to pay for the campaign. Quick sidenote: Justinian may have been thinking of all the new tax revenue to be found if he was successful. Indeed, the loss of tax revenue and grain supplies after the fall of the North Africa led to the gradual decline of the Western army since emperors like Valentinian III had less and less money to pay and feed their troops.

Even more interesting, especially for those who believe that Procopius served as the spokesman for the general Belisarius, was the terror and dread of the prospective commanders of the campaign, a group that would have most certainly included Belisarius. Kaldellis (Procopius 177) in particular uses this passage as evidence for his larger claim (rejecting current consensus) that Procopius was not the general’s apologist, but sought to paint Belisarius and the Roman army in a bad light. Indeed, he posits (wrongly in my mind) that sheer “luck” represented the primary factor in the Romans ultimate vanquishing of the Vandals.

At first glance the idea that Procopius sought to depict Belisarius and the other Romans as cowardly and merely “lucky” may seem possible. Yet like much in Procopius the “truth” is a bit more complicated. The generals’ fear of being defeated at sea before they even landed in North Africa was logical since both the fleets of the western Emperor Majorian in 460 and the emperor Leo I in 468 had been destroyed by the Vandals’ fire-ships. Their fear if they succeeded in gaining a foothold in North Africa recalled the failed campaigns of Roman generals like Aspar and Boniface in the early 430s to dislodge the Vandals. Such caution may not have been seen by Procopius as a sign of cowardice, but of good generalship.  In Wars what some deemed to be cowardly behaviour, in Procopius’ telling  actually represented the actions of a andrieos (manly, courageous) man and served as a sign of excellent generalship (for just two instance of many, see e.g, Wars 5.11.12-22; 5.19.1) .

Indeed, Greek philosophers like Aristotle  had considered ἀνδρεία as “the attributes of a man whose actions demonstrate a moderate negotiation between ‘boldness’ [θάρσος] and ‘fear’ [φόβος]”. As Karen Bassi puts it, “the andreios man neither fears too much or too little”. A man’s capacity to maintain this precarious balance depended largely upon his ability to suppress his natural urges to either launch a rash attack or turn tail in a cowardly retreat. These distinctions regularly separated the manly from the unmanly. 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. Therefore, it is not surprising that Roman writers like Procopius articulated the view that Roman men had a greater potential than either women or barbarians to overcome humanity’s natural instinct to avoid danger. 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.

Context and sequence matter. So far from being a sign of Procopius being critical of Belisarius 3.10 may instead of been a positive assessment of a general recognising the dangers he faced, but going ahead anyway, an act of a manly man.

It is also interesting that in Leo’s campaign the Eastern Romans were brimming with confidence, whilst the Vandal King was portrayed as almost paralysed by fear. Procopius wrote:

He (Basiliskos) would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without their even thinking of resistance; so overcome was Gaiseric with awe of Leo as an invincible emperor when the report was brought to him that Sardinia and Tripolis had been captured, and he saw the fleet of Basiliskos to be such as the Romans were said never to have had before. But, as it was, the general’s hesitation, whether caused by cowardice or treachery, prevented this success.

Note the difference. Now the situation is reversed but the side whose courage is modified by a fair share of fear ultimately emerged victorious. Victory in the case of Leo’s campaign was thwarted largely by the cowardice of Basiliskos, whilst Gelimer’s failings and tyche let the Romans avoid what could have been a devastating defeat if the Vandalic rex had taken the “proper” action.

Fear indeed plays a positive role in the opening of Vandalic war. In a set-speech to his men deciding the army’s best course of action Belisarius points to his soldiers’ fear of the dangers of the sea” as a reason to disembark quickly, rather than sail to Carthage. Indeed, the general…and one thinks perhaps Procopius too, see the soldiers’ fears of the dangers of staying at sea as rational. Belisarius has learned his lesson from the previous war that saw Basiliskos’ navy the Roman infantry destroyed at sea. The vanguard of the fifth-century attack had indeed landed relatively unopposed on the African mainland and quickly move unopposed on Carthage. Fear thus leads to a proper decision that ends up leading to the Vandals being “surprised”, a key factor in both Thucydides (2.61.3 0 and Procopius in determining a victor.

Once the soldiers come ashore, in Procopius’ telling, it is the great enthusiasm of the Roman soldiers’ driven by their fear (phobos) that allows them to dig like madmen and make a “miraculous” discovery of water.

Gradually the Roman soldiers’ fear dissipates, and one expects Procopius’ as well (a common relief soldiers experience when they realise the enemy are not “supermen”). The Vandals of the pre-invasion Romans, were, indeed a bogeyman with little basis in reality. Instead of invincible warriors, Procopius and the other Romans are surprised to find a people effeminized by their adulation of Roman luxury (Wars 4.6. 5-8). As other historians’ have noted, Procopius relies on an old trope here. The old barbarians serve as warriors and can be softened by civilization barb. We see it presented in a slightly different way again in Gothic war, though I as I have argued in a recent article, Procopius presentation of the trope is much more nuanced than many have argued. I suspect the same may apply here….so more areas open for exploration.

“Fear” undoubtedly plays a large narrative role in Vandalic War, far more than in the more “heroic” Gothic War. Having not given a thorough exploration of this theme previously I am now intrigued to look at how Procopius weaves this concept through the entire narrative.  New article? We shall see.

[1] In a forthcoming article I reject three of his primary claims: first that tyche reigns supreme in Vandalic War; second, that Procopius did not support the campaign; third, that he does not provide a favourable portrait of Belisarius.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (2004), 179.


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