Monthly Archives: January 2015

Two King of Kings: Procopius’ presentation of Justinian and Kosrow I

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I had a brand new baby girl this week Charlotte Rose, so suffice to say writing has taken a back seat. I have been playing with a piece I originally wrote in 2002  on Procopius’ portrayal of the Emperor Justinian and Persian counterpart Kosrow I or Chosroes. I have a fond spot for Kosrow, which explains why I have some of his coins as well. This paper was picked up by, which convinced me it should perhaps be published in some form. Some of my views have changed slightly in the intervening years, but I have left these primarily to the footnotes. So enjoy and send me any comments since it is very much a work in progress.

The importance of strong leadership is a central theme in all of the mid sixth-century Byzantine intellectual Procopius’ works. According to Procopius, great men made history, and a leader’s heroic or shameful conduct often determined the prosperity or poverty of the Eastern Roman Empire. This paper investigates Procopius’ description of two of the most influential men of his era: the Persian Emperor Kosrow I (ruled 531-579), and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565). It proposes that Procopius tended to present the two emperors as mirror images of each other. Indeed, particularly in the Secret History, the historian sought to paint Justinian as an eastern despot rather than a Roman emperor.[1] By doing so, the historian cleverly subverted contemporary imperial propaganda that promoted the emperor as a king of kings.[2]

Justinian held the most important and powerful position in the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine leader, however, was not the only potent emperor of his era. In the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire faced a formidable challenge from the other great agrarian Empire in Late Antiquity, Persia. As Procopius portrayed it, the Persian war was not only a struggle for supremacy between two powerful Empires, but also a personal contest between two emperors, Justinian and Kosrow.[3]

Kosrow provided Procopius with an ideal villain with which to describe all the dangers of letting a “depraved” man run an Empire. Ironically, like many scoundrels, Kosrow is one of the most intriguing men in Procopius’ work. And despite Procopius’ attempts to make Belisarius seem heroic during the Persian wars, frequently, as Averil Cameron suggests, “it is Kosrow who steals the thunder.”[4] While Kosrow serves primarily as a foil to Justinian in Wars, Procopius’ negative description of the Persian leader closely resembles his account in the Secret History of Justinian’s depravity. These parallel accounts might be taken to suggest that Procopius simplified history and failed to understand both emperors’ political motives and mindset. To the contrary, it reveals that, Procopius frequently based what he considered made a “just” or an “unjust” emperor on a universal code of morality.[5]

Justinian and Kosrow, according to Procopius, shared several traits that made them despots. Each leader loved innovation and disregarded the traditions of the Empire he ruled. Early in his reign, Kosrow’s hunger for power and his determination to introduce administrative reforms alarmed the Persian aristocracy:

Kosrow, the son of Cabades, was a man of an unruly turn of mind and strangely fond of innovations. For this reason he himself was always full of excitement and alarms, and he was an unfailing cause of similar feelings in all others. All, therefore, who were men of action among the Persians, in vexation at his administration, were proposing to establish over themselves another king from the house of Cabades.[6]

Procopius remained vague about the details of Kosrow’s “innovations.” This absence suggests either that he did not know the particulars of these changes or that he merely created the notion of Kosrow as a revolutionary as a means to compare him with his true target: Justinian. Proof of the latter theory may be seen in the similarity between this narrative and Procopius’ description of the Nika revolt.[7] The resemblance between the two accounts is striking. In each case, the aristocracy’s unease with the reforms and the megalomania of the emperor led to an attempted overthrow. Ultimately, both insurrections failed. As a consequence of their victories, the vengeful emperors lashed out against the nobles and consolidated their power. With the upper classes in both Empires humbled, Justinian and Kosrow remained unchallenged for many years. Procopius lamented that this omnipotence, in due course, brought disaster to both Empires.

The adoration of power and money served as another appalling trait common to Kosrow and Justinian. Procopius emphasized that Kosrow’s invasion of the Eastern Provinces was motivated largely by avarice and jealousy. Vexed at the Byzantines’ success in North Africa, Kosrow demanded his portion of the spoils. When Justinian refused to share, Kosrow accused the emperor of breaking the treaty between the two powers signed in the spring of 532, consequently, he invaded the Eastern Provinces, where he proceeded to sack cities in order to extort money from the Byzantine populace.[8] Although Procopius condemned Kosrow for looting the Eastern Provinces, at least the Persian emperor had attacked a foreign enemy. In contrast, Justinian’s exploitation of the Byzantine population found in the Secret History was a far more vile crime. The historian lamented:

Now it was laid down by ancient law that whenever a senator of any of the cities departed this life without male issue, one quarter of his estate should be given to the local Senate, while the next of kin of the deceased enjoyed all the remainder. Here too the Emperor showed his own character in its true colors. He happened to have recently published a law which reversed everything. From then on, whenever a senator died leaving no male issue, the next of kin were to share the quarter of the estate while all the rest went to the treasury and to the account of the local Senate. And yet never before in the history of mankind had Treasury or Emperor been permitted to share the property of a senator.[9]

Roman culture had a long tradition of seeing rapacity as a flaw in men and leaders. Christian writers and thinkers had developed this theme. Indeed, in many Christian histories from Late Antiquity, a king’s or emperor’s desire for material goods served as the root cause for a subsequent “evil reign.”[10]

So too did Procopius expect ideal military leaders to grant unarmed civilians mercy. Unlike Justinian, Kosrow personally led the Persian army into battle.[11] Despite Procopius’ admiration for leaders who willingly faced the dangers and challenges of battle, he condemned Kosrow for his “vicious” military campaign in the Eastern Provinces:

He saw, while the city was being captured, a beautiful woman and one not of lowly station being dragged by her left hand with great violence by one of the barbarians; and the child, which she had only lately weaned, she was unwilling to let go, but was dragging it with her other hand, fallen, as it was, to the ground since it was not able to keep pace with that violent running. And they say that he uttered a pretended groan . . . though he knew well that he himself was most responsible for everything.[12]

Although as emperor Justinian never led his armies into battle, Procopius still in Secret History blamed him for what he described as the dire consequences of his military campaigns.[13] The historian suggested that, like Kosrow, the Byzantine emperor had also launched his reconquest in order to plunder “other people’s property.” Procopius maintained that Justinian had “insisted on making himself master of Libya and Italy for the sole purpose of destroying their inhabitants along with those already subject to him.”[14]

The Wars also describes in some detail the suffering of the native Italian population as a consequence of the Gothic wars. Yet as noted above, sorting out the historian’s “true” views is notoriously difficult. To borrow the words of Geoffrey Greatrex, “there exist several Procopii, one might say, in recent scholarship.”[15]The issue of Procopius’ attitude towards Justinian’s campaings in the West continues to divide scholars. On the one hand, Anthony Kaldellis paints him as a pacifist who had turned against the wars.[16] On the other hand, Dariuz Brodka, I believe rightly, sees Procopius as generally pro-reconquest in Wars, especially book VIII that was likely composed after Secret History during a period when military affairs in the West had taken a turn for the better.[17] Procopius’ continuer, Agathias, indeed, saw the Wars as pro-reconquest, asserting that they described how ‘Sicily, Rome, and Italy had cast off the yoke of foreign domination’.[18] This view is reflective of Justianic propaganda composed in early 550’s Constantinople.[19] One would think that writing after Justinian’s death Agathias would have mentioned it if he believed that Procopius had turned against the campaign in Italy.

Procopius, in fact, during the down years of the campaign in Italy, blamed the quagmire, in part, on the emperor’s disinterest in the campaign and subsequent refusal to either fund or man it properly.[20] Indeed, Procopius partly attributed the turnaround and defeat of the Goths in 552-553 witnessed under the adept leadership of the eunuch commander to Justinian finally taking the proper interest in “his” reconquest:

The Emperor Justinian had indeed conducted this war very negligently in the past, but he made the most notable preparation at last. For when Narses saw that he urgently desired him to lead an expedition into Italy, he displayed ambition becoming to a general, declaring that he would not obey the emperor’s command unless he could take with him battle-worthy forces. So by taking this position he obtained from the emperor money, men, and arms in quantities worthy of the Roman Empire, and he himself displayed a tireless enthusiasm and so collected an adequate army.[21]

These seem hardly the words of someone who had turned against the Italian campaign and/ or was afraid of voicing his opinion in public.

Procopius too could seeming admire Kosrow for his martial qualities. Procopius, who frequently praised Roman emperor who personally took to the battlefield, at times admired a Kosrow for taking on the dangers of the soldier’s life.

For Procopius, a weakness of spirit was often matched by an infirmity of the body. And he described both emperors as sickly men. Kosrow’s frail nature forced him to surround himself with physicians.[22] Similarly, Justinian nearly succumbed to the plague; only divine intervention saved him. Procopius hinted that the plague served as God’s warning that he was dissatisfied with the Eastern Romans and their Emperor. Such a belief followed common Christian ideology that suggested that, like all men, the emperor was mortal, and that his temporary power paled in comparisons to God’s eternal authority.[23]

Procopius argued that while Kosrow established his superiority by leading his armies on campaigns, Justinian maintained his dominance by remaining in the capital and manipulating things behind the scenes. Justinian ruled as a secular and a religious leader. In both realms, however, Justinian faced challenges to his ascendancy. The emperor took several steps to deal with these threats and guarantee that he remained the “preeminent man” in the Byzantine Empire. While the early Byzantine successes in the North African and Italian campaigns enhanced Justinian’s vision of a “new” Roman Empire, they also created rivals draped in martial manliness who could potentially serve as competitors to the emperor. From the era of the Roman Republic, a triumphant general’s popularity amongst his soldiers and the populace presented the greatest threat to the authority of the Roman government.

The fifth and early sixth centuries had seen Roman and non-Roman soldiers playing increasingly important roles in both making and unmaking Roman emperors. Generals like Aetius and Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East were arguably the most powerful and influential politicians in the fifth century. All of these men hailed from the military aristocracy, and they often used their power and influence to control the reigning emperors, who were often little better than puppets. Indeed, many fifth-century emperors had begun their careers as relatively obscure soldiers in the armies of these generalissimos.[24]

It should not surprise then that the non-campaigning Justinian may have feared his vulnerability to usurpation.[25] Procopius certainly showed his readers that Justinian felt threatened by Belisarius’ military victories and his subsequent fame.[26] His fears were not completely unjustified. After Belisarius’ defeat of Vitigis, the Gothic nobility had offered, “to declare Belisarius Emperor of the West.”[27] This threat to Justinian’s authority must have made him very suspicious of Belisarius’ motives. Even before this proposal occurred, Justinian had taken steps to check Belisarius’ growing influence. Following the Eastern Romans’ relatively easy victory over the Vandals, Belisarius had returned to Constantinople basking in glory. Rumors, though, had already reached the emperor that Belisarius sought “to set up a kingdom himself.”[28] Justinian handled the situation carefully. He realized that he had to reward his victorious general, but he also recognized the need to preserve his own prestige. In an effort to suggest the former glory of the Roman Empire, Justinian allowed Belisarius a “triumph.”

While Belisarius’ celebration evoked memories of former processions, officially it only served to commemorate Belisarius’ inauguration as a consul. (During the era of the Republic two men had held this office similar to that of a Prime Minister; by the sixth century, though still prestigious, the position had become symbolic and was abolished by Justinian in 541.)[29] Like every Roman emperor since Augustus, however, Justinian made sure that the triumph was granted in his own name. Justinian emphasized that Belisarius had achieved his victory through his, and therefore God’s good graces. Justinian allowed Belisarius to march the defeated Vandals and their magnificent treasures through the streets of Constantinople. However, fully aware of the importance of visual symbolism, the emperor set himself upon his throne high above everyone else. When Belisarius came before Justinian, the general fell prone to the ground to pay the emperor homage.[30]

(Plate 3)

Justinian also took steps to make him the face of Roman victory. Contemporary literature and iconography lauded “the image of a victor emperor.”[31] Several other Byzantine authors besides Procopius composed works dedicated to promoting the emperor’s various military expeditions.[32] Justinian also created public monuments like the one recreated above (plate 3) to commemorate “his” military victories (importantly the statue faced East at the Byzantines most formidable enemy, the Persians).[33] In Buildings (1.10.16-20) Procopius described in some detail a magnificent mosaic from Justinian’s palace in Constantinople depicting the Empire’s victories over the Vandals in North Africa and in Italy against the Goths. He wrote:

On either side is war and battle, and many cities being captured some in Italy, some in Libya: and the Emperor Justinian is winning victories through his General Belisarius, and the General is returning to the Emperor, with his whole army intact, and he gives him spoils, both kings and kingdoms and all the things that are most prized among men. In the center stand the Emperor and the Empress Theodora, both seeming to rejoice and to celebrate victories over booth the King of the Vandals and the King of the Goths, who approach them as prisoners of war to be led into bondage.[34]

Procopius closed his description of the mosaic with the opaque statement that the Eastern Senators depicted in the mosaic looked upon the Emperor reverently in the same manner of God, “because of the magnitude of his achievements.”[35]

While Justinian largely succeeded in overcoming his rivals in the secular world, he had a more difficult time asserting his ascendancy in the religious domain. Most seriously, the on-going divide between supporters of the council of Chalcedon, like the emperor, and those who opposed it, like the empress Theodora, created religious division where the emperor sought unity. This rift appears to have been particularly true in the Empire’s provincial cities, where bishops had accumulated ever increasing authority and prestige. Not coincidently these bishops often hailed from contested regions of the Empire subject to invasion by Persian armies. [36]

Part of the bishops’ increased authority came through their roles as the providers of charity for the poor within the Empire. In Late Antiquity it became the duty of all Christian men to provide both financial and moral support to the poor.[37] The Christian notion of charity differed from classical forms of social welfare in that it obligated members of the clergy and aristocratic Christians to provide assistance to all people in need. In contrast, the classical form of charity had involved political relationships, and as J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz explains, “its recipients were . . . as a whole voters, clients and other individuals who could be expected to do a favor in return.”[38]

Procopius indicated that imperial charity represented the mark of a great emperor. Following other Christian emperors, Justinian felt compelled to support charitable institutions throughout the Empire. While Procopius frequently condemned the emperor for frittering away the Empire’s treasury in Secret History, in Buildings he praised him for the building of philanthropic institutions.[39] Procopius considered Christian charity as one of the Byzantine emperor’s most important duties. When the bubonic plague devastated the Empire in 542, Procopius showed how Justinian played a leading role in easing the Byzantine citizens’ suffering:

It fell to the lot of the emperor, as was natural, to make provision for the trouble. He therefore detailed soldiers from the palace and distributed money, commanding Theodorus to take charge of this work. . . . Theodorus, by giving out the emperor’s money and by making expenditures from his own purse, kept burying the bodies, which were not cared for.[40]

This passage makes it clear that Justinian felt compelled to protect the poor. By providing this service he competed with the Christian hierarchy who had gained increasing power through their role of offering the poor financial and social assistance.

Justinian took great pains, as well, to stress his special role as an intermediary between his people and God. In Buildings, Procopius revealed how past Roman emperors had emphasized their special relationship with the Christian Church: “the Emperor Constantius had built this church in honor of the Apostles and in their name, decreeing that tombs for himself and for all future Emperors should be placed there.” Procopius made it clear that this relationship was more than just a symbolic one:

When the Emperor Justinian was rebuilding this shrine, the workman dug up the whole soil so that nothing unseemly should be left there; and they saw three wooden coffins lying there neglected, which revealed by inscriptions upon them that they contained the bodies of the Apostles Andrew, Luke, and Timothy.[41]

Because the emperors and the Apostles had a special relationship, it only seemed natural that they would be buried in the same ground. Constructing religious shrines served as another way for an emperor to accentuate his special relationship with the spiritual realm. Procopius emphasized that Justinian gave thanks to the Apostles by continuing his church building with an increased passion. Dedicating churches throughout the Empire and the newly conquered territories also served a political purpose. It not only cemented the emperor’s religious role in the minds of the Byzantine populace, but also helped established Justinian’s pre-eminence for his new subjects as well.

Justinian could also take harsh action against bishops who refused to recognize his religious hegemony. A contemporary of Procopius, John Malalas has passed down a disturbing depiction of the types of punishments the emperor could inflict upon his enemies:

In that year some of the bishops from various provinces were accused of living immorally in matters of the flesh and of homosexual practices. Amongst them was Isaiah, bishop of Rhodes, an ex-praefectus vigilum at Constantinople, and likewise the bishop from Diospolis in Thrace, named Alexander….He (the city prefect) tortured Isaiah severely and exiled him and he amputated Alexander’s genitals and paraded him around on a litter. The emperor immediately decreed that those detected in pederasty should have their genitals amputated. At that time many homosexuals were arrested and died after having their genitals amputated. From then on there was fear amongst those afflicted with homosexual lust. [42]

It is surely no coincidence that many of these victims were bishops from provinces on the Empire’s periphery. As the medieval scholar R. I. Moore has noted, persecution functions repeatedly “as a weapon in the competition for political influence, and was turned by the victors into an instrument for consolidating their power over society at large.”[43]

Procopius too reported that Justinian had “prohibited sodomy (παιδεραστεῑν) by law.” Astrologers were also on the emperor’s hit list. Procopius’ account of the punishments inflicted upon these “criminals”, indeed, appears very similar to that of Malalas, who it must be pointed out, probably wrote as a spokesman for the emperor and therefore likely supported the harsh punishments he described.[44]

Procopius proclaimed that those convicted of sodomy “had their privates removed and were paraded through the streets.” Those he convicted as astrologists, Justinian paraded through the capitol riding backwards on camels. Once again, I must point out that Procopius probably did not wish here to condemn the punishment of “true” sodomites and astrologers, or even Justinian’s right to do so, but primarily to emphasize to his readers that Justinian’s victims were actually innocent of these “crimes”. In Procopius’ telling, Justinian had instigated this purge not to penalize “true” sinners, but in order to eliminate his enemies within the Green circus faction[45] (the emperor supported the Blues) and to extort money from the rich.[46] So too may we observe that, unlike Malalas, Procopius’ victims were not primarily regional bishops, but Constantinople’s esteemed denizens.

Procopius here cleverly attacked Justinian’s legal and imperial reforms. Under the guise of a classical renewal, Justinian had during the first decades of his rule gradually increased the authority of the emperor, and curtailed the aristocracy’s and the bureaucracy’s power.[47] He claimed for the first time that the emperor represented the nomos empsychos (the living law). In the Digest, he codified Roman law and refused to allow lawyers to change these laws. It became the emperor’s duty to “resolve ambiguous juridical decisions.”[48] So by attacking Justinian for taking the law into his own hands and punishing the innocent, Procopius, as Anthony Kaldellis has argued, implied in Secret History that the emperor had pushed the Romans towards “Oriental despotism”. A “slavery” similar to the unequal relationship between the Persian Emperor Kosrow and his subjects, who were portrayed by the historian, as little better than slaves.[49]

Procopius in Secret History blamed many of Justinian’s faults, as was the case with Belisarius, on his marriage to an immoral woman. Instead of portraying Justinian as an “evil genius,” Procopius maintained that the emperor was a simple man: “with no more sense than a donkey, ready to follow anyone who pulls his reins.” According to Procopius, Justinian married Theodora because he was overcome by “an overwhelming passion for her”. Procopius used the union as an example to show how far Justinian had strayed from “Roman” traditions. Even Justinian’s aunt, the empress Euphemia, whom Procopius perceived as “completely without culture,” and “of barbarian origin,” refused to accept the marriage while she lived.[50] For Procopius, the fact that a “non-Roman” would have more respect for Roman traditions than its emperor showed just how far Justinian’s lust for Theodora had kept him from looking out for the needs of the Empire. As one recent scholar has suggested, Procopius used his diatribe against Theodora in Secret History not so much to attack the empress, but as a means to denigrate his true target, Justinian.[51]

Procopius indicated that powerful couples could be a force for good or evil in the world. Procopius’ fear of Theodora’s influence suggests that women could play powerful roles in sixth-century Byzantium. Nevertheless, in his invective against the imperial couple, Procopius also concluded that the most powerful players in the Byzantine Empire dwelled in the spiritual realm. While Procopius described both Justinian’s and Theodora’s flawed natures as resulting from their sordid characters and humble backgrounds, he had a difficult time attributing all of their “evil triumphs” to their own actions. Procopius indicated that there had to be some higher power guiding the emperor and the empress. Writing in a Christian culture, Procopius, naturally assumed that if a just emperor relied on God’s and the saints’ supernatural assistance to promote his reign, then an unjust emperor must have another mystical form of support: demons. Here Procopius deftly inverted Justinian’s propaganda. Procopius stressed that those who thought that Justinian and Theodora had succeeded in bringing ruin to the Eastern Roman Empire by chance were mistaken, for “it was not by human but by some very different power that they wrought so much havoc.” For in fact, “a pair of blood-thirsty demons” had possessed Justinian and Theodora. This assessment made perfect theological sense to Procopius, and suggests the extent of his Christian belief.[52] A mere mortal man and woman could never have stood up to God or the Apostles; therefore, for Procopius, the only logical explanation for their success was that the two had become “man-demons” [ἀνθρωποδαίμονες] who had thwarted God and led the Eastern Roman Empire and the “whole world” to ruin.[53]

Further evidence of Procopius’ Christian beliefs and the powerful influence of women over powerful men may be found in his description of Kosrow’s marriage to a Christian woman, Euphemia. Procopius indicated that the Persian emperor felt both intrigued and repelled by Christianity. Procopius argued that Kosrow had captured Edessa in order to refute the Christians’ claims that city could not be taken because it had divine protection. Despite Kosrow’s belief in the superiority of Zoroastrianism over Christianity, Procopius revealed that the Persian emperor’s fondness for his Christian wife played a role in his displaying restraint and “kindness to the inhabitants of Sura.”[54] Although political necessity forced Procopius to portray Kosrow as a typical villain, Procopius hinted that the power of Christianity could influence even the most powerful and corrupt men.

Procopius’ description of admirable and villainous leaders presents a complex amalgamation of Christian and classical ideals.[55] Procopius presented Justinian and Kosrow as two mighty yet defective leaders; each equally convinced of his own omnipotence and natural right to dominate others. While such megalomania could attract Procopius’ scorn, one also finds traces of awe and respect in his writings for these two men, who, to borrow the phrase of Mathew Canepa, represented “the two eyes of the earth.”[56]


  1. Presbytery mosaic of the Emperor Justinian I, church of San Vitale, Ravenna Italy.
  2. Kosrow I seated on his throne, Ctesiphon, Iraq.
  3. Drawing of a lost equestrian statue of Justinian in theAugustion by Nymphirios. Library of the University of Budapest

[1] I see the views expressed by Procopius in Secret History as exaggerated, yet sincere for the period when he probably composed (550-552) the work. For the corroboration of Procopius’ character portraits in Wars with other contemporary sources, see M. E. STEWART, Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars, Parekbolai 4 (2014) 21-54. H. BÖRM (Procopius, his Predecessors, and the Genesis of the Anecdota, forthcoming), believe that it is impossible to discern Procopius’ true views from this work, which he argues was hastily composed when Procopius feared that a coup was imminent, and therefore wished to disassociate himself from Justinian and Belisarius, with whom Börm contends, the historian had close ties.

[2] For this propaganda during Justinian’s reign, see M. CANEPA, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual Between Rome and Sasanian Iran, Berkeley 2009, 134. For Procopius as a relatively accurate source on the Persians, see H. BÖRM, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike, Stuttgart 2008.

[3] For Procopius’ juxtaposition of traditional negative tropes with examples displaying seeming admiration regarding the Persians, see BÖRM, Prokop und die Perser, 250. For the broader cultural exchanges between the two rival Empires during Justinian’s reign, see J. WALKER, The Limits of Late Antiquity: Philosophy between Rome in Iran, Ancient World 33 (2002) 45-69.

[4] A. CAMERON, Procopius and the Sixth Century, London 1985, 163.

[5] For a further discussion of some of these parallels see A. KALDLLIS, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, Philadelphia 2004, esp. 119-142. See too: D. BRODKA, Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes, Frankfurt 2004.

[6] PROCOPIUS, Wars 1.23.1-3. Since this paper uses primarily the older Loeb (DEWING) translation of Procopius, words in quotations will be modernized and some spellings modified.

[7] PROCOPIUS, Wars 1.24.1.

[8] PROCOPIUS, Wars 2.8.1.

[9] PROCOPIUS, Secret History 29.25

[10] E.g. M. HEINZELMANN, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, trans. Christopher Carroll, Cambridge 2000, 156.

[11] Like earlier Roman emperors, the success of the Sassanid dynasty depended upon the ability of the king to lead his armies to victory. Z. RUBIN, The Sassanid Monarchy in: The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 14 Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A. D. 425-600, ed. A. CAMERON, B. WARD-PERKINS, and M. WHITBY, Cambridge 2000, 659-60.

[12] PROCOPIUS, Wars 2.9.9-11.

[13] Justinian had, however begun his career as a solider. He served as an elite member of the palace guards (kandidatoi) during the reign of the Emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518), and in 520, during the reign of his uncle Justin I (ruled 517-527), was named commander of the imperial troops in Constantinople (magister militum praesentalis)

[14] PROCOPIUS, Secret History 6.16.

[15] G. GREATREX, Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship Histos 8 (2014) 91.


[17]STEWART, Contests, 52-53.

[18] AGATHIAS, Histories, preface 30 (trans. Frendo).

[19] JORDANES, Getica 172

[20] PROCOPIUS, Wars 7.1.33.

[21] PROCOPIUS, Wars 8.26.7-9 (trans. Kaldellis).

[22] PROCOPIUS, Wars 8.10.11-3.

[23] J.A.S. EVANS, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian, Austin 2002, 60.

[24] B. CROKE, Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar, Chirion 36 (2005) 147-203. Justinian’s predecessors Marcian (ruled 450-457), Leo I (ruled 457-474,) Zeno (ruled 474-5, 476-91), Basiliscus (ruled 475/6), Justin I had all began their careers as soldiers.

[25]Procopius too focused on Kosrow’s justified fear of usurpation and his subsequent elimination of his rivals, see Wars 1.23.1-29.

[26] Procopius’ continuer, Agathias, also pointed out (Histories 5.20.5) Justinian’s concerns about Belisarius usurping the throne. Historians continue to debate just how viable a rival Belisarius was, see e.g. H. BÖRM, Justinians Triumph und Belisars Erniedrigung Überiegungen zum Verhältnis Zwischen Reich, Chiron 43 (2013) 63-91.

[27] PROCOPIUS, Wars 6.30.24-7.

[28] PROCOPIUS, Wars 4.8.6.

[29]PROCOPIUS, Secret History, 170, n. 1.

[30] PROCOPIUS, Wars 4.8.2-10.

[31] McCORMICK, Eternal Victory, 67

[32] C. WHATELY, ‘Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD’, in: S. O’BRIEN and D. 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, 51.

[33] JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 482.

[34] PROCOPIUS, Buildings 1.10.16-20. Cf. JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 479.

[35]The importance of this martial imagery is indicated by the fact that Justinian’s mausoleum also contained a recreation of “his” conquest of the Vandals and the Goths, see CORIPPUS, In laudem Iustini Augusti minoris libri IV  I 290. Such a blatant political statement undermines somewhat the idea found in some recent studies that the Western campaigns were only of secondary importance for Justinian.

[36]See, e.g., the lucid account of Justinian’s difficulty in stamping out religious dissidents in BELL, Social Conflict, 202-10.

[37] For these developments, see now P. BROWN, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, Princeton 2012.

[38] J. H. W. G. LIEBESCHUETZ Barbarians and Bishops: Army, Church and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom, Oxford 1990, 187-9.

[39] CAMERON, Procopius, 127.

[40] PROCOPIUS, Wars 2.23.6-10.

[41] PROCOPIUS, Buildings 1.4.20-2

[42] JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 436 (ed. and trans. E. JEFFREYS, M. JEFFREYS, R. SCOTT et al.). Although I use the latest English translation above, one should keep in mind its problematic use of the modern concept and term ‘homosexuality’, which is anachronistic even in this Late Antique context.

[43] R. I. MOORE, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed., Oxford 2007, 138. For an in-depth and lucid account of growing intolerance found in Justinian’s reign, see now P. BELL, Social Conflict in the Reign of Justinian: Its Nature, management, and Mediation, Oxford 2013. This view has, however, been recently challenged by G. GREATREX, Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship, Histos 8 (2014) 83-87.

[44] W. TREADGOLD (Byzantine Historians, 238) suggests plausibly that Malalas had composed his history in an effort to gain political advancement.

[45] The Blues and the Greens were sporting factions and usually bitter rivals, see A. CAMERON, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium, Oxford 1976.

[46] PROCOPIUS, Secret History 11.34-41.

[47] A detailed discussion of Justinian’s efforts to curb the political power of the powerful Eastern bureaucracy is found in M.S. BJORNLIE, Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople, Cambridge 2013, 39-81.

[48] M. MAAS, John Lydus and the Roman Past, London 1992, 15.

[49]KALDELLIS, Procopius, 128-29.

[50] PROCOPIUS, Secret History 9.28-9

[51] H. ZICHE, Abusing Theodora: Sexual and Political Discourse in Procopius, Βυζαντιακὰ 30 (2012-13) 322.

[52] Following the view found in TREADGOLD, Early Byzantine Historians, 210. Cf., however, the differing view found in KALDELLIS (Procopius, 154-55), who while agreeing that Procopius here sought to invert imperial ideology depicting Justinian as an ideal Christian ruler, sees it as a sign of the historian’s anti-Christian stance.

[53] PROCOPIUS, Secret History 12.14. Historians are split on the extent of Procopius’ belief that Justinian and Theodora had really been taken over by demons: TREADGOLD (Early Byzantine Historians, 210-213) sees it as sincere, whilst BRODKA (32-39) and GREATREX (Perceptions of Procopius, 101) perceive it as more of a literary tactic whereby Procopius sought to subvert Justinian’s propaganda that promoted the emperor as God’s vehicle on earth.

[54] PROCOPIUS, Wars 2.12.6-26.

[55] KALDELLIS (Procopius) questions the idea that Procopius was a Christian. Though Kaldellis has done a great service to Procopian studies, most scholars have rejected this thesis. See e.g., M. WHITBY, Religious Views of Procopius and Agathias, Electrum 13 (2007) 73-93.

[56] CANEPA, Two Eyes, 1.

Justinian’s “Decision” to invade Vandalic North Africa



The previous blog provided a brief overview of the events that both shaped Justinian’s rise to power and the political and military events that allowed him to turn his and his army’s eyes West and invade Vandalic North Africa 533.Today’s blog looks at the “dramatics” around the final planning of the invasion as narrated, and indeed embellished, by Procopius

One slightly off topic aside  before getting to the core of our discussion. The fact that Justinian “only” sent 18,000 men to take North Africa should serve as a reminder that for Justinian and his court these western campaigns represented a relatively minor theatre of war. Certainly it paled in comparison to the massive three-pronged attack launched by the Eastern Emperor Leo I and the Western Emperor Anthemios in 468. Justinian was a cautious man and it seems he had learned from his predecessor’s previous defeats…certainly this was the party line passed down in Procopius’ Vandalic Wars. Indeed, as Anthony Kaldellis has pointed out, the failed fifth-century campaigns (there were three major attempts to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa) serve as the major backdrop and didactic tool for Procopius’ entire account. With some minor adjustments (see my forthcoming article on “Notions of Return in Procopius”), I would agree with Maria Kouroumali that the African and Italian campaigns were largely a sideshow for Justinian who had his mind firmly in the capital and towards his primary enemy Persia. Okay onwards to today’s primary discussion.

The passage I will discuss is the section 3.10 of Vandalic Wars where Justinian and his envoys discuss the emperor’s plan to invade Africa. As with many episodes in his history, Procopius crafts a literary construct whereby the emperor and his advisors discuss the “pros” and primarily the “cons” of the decision. As Kaldellis (the Wars of Justinian, 166-67) points out, Procopius here relies on his classical models Herodotus (7.10) and Thucydides (1.68.) for the parameters of his discussion.

According to the historian, having cleared up his domestic situation and having signed his treaty with the Persians, the emperor was ready to make a move on Africa. Far from the despot found in Secret History, in this episode, the emperor not only listens to his advisors, but indeed, initially at least, acquiesces to their demands. His magistrates immediately related the disaster of Leo’s failed invasion. A failure that the historian had just related to his reader. Though interestingly, in the historian’s telling, Leo’s campaign had started successfully and had only been undermined by the cowardice of one man, its leader Basiliskos (the future emperor). So the lesson learned may have been that appoint a good and loyal general like Belisarius and you could win.

Moreover, these men were primarily concerned with the cost of the campaign, which might explain why Belisarius went with a rather small force. Certainly contemporaries like John Lydus (On Powers 3.43-4.) continued to complain about the long-term economic cost of Leo’s failure.

More interestingly, Procopius then describes the utter terror of the generals who supposed they might be put in charge of the campaign. A group that would have included Belisarius. Is this a sign as Kaldellis supposes of Procopius denigrating Belisarius? I think not. It is more likely the same type of ‘good’ terror that the Vandal Gaiseric had experience when first facing the invading Byzantines in 468. A fear that ultimately allowed him to come up with a winning strategy. As another military historian has shown, caution functioned as the primary characteristic of any successful Byzantine commander. We find the late sixth-century military manual, Maurice’s Strategikon, for instance explaining, that “The best leader is one who does not willingly engage in a hazardous and highly uncertain battle and refrains from emulating those who carry out operations recklessly and are admired for their brilliant success…”(8.2.56). In ancient Greek the concept of manliness and courage, andreia, was defined as the middle ground between “rashness (thrasos) and fear (phobos). Most Byzantine sources from the period tell a similar tale. Thus rather than a sign of Procopius’ hostility towards the invasion, as suggested by Kaldellis, the more plausible explanation is that this debate  allowed Procopius to show Belisarios and the Byzantines both facing and overcoming their phobos.

The generals’ fear of sea warfare was matched by their fear of a large, and in their minds, an invincible foe the Vandals. A fear that Procopius himself was later surprised to find was misplaced. Think of the fear in 1991 many had of Sadaam Hussein’s ultimately toothless army. So I would argue Procopius is recording the real sense of fear that existed in the Byzantine camp, not just creating a literary debate.

The treasurer John the Cappadocian provides the longest counter argument speaking and foreshadowing some of the suffering and disasters to come. Indeed, Procopius tells his reader (implausibly I believe) that John’s oration had convinced the emperor to change his mind. Only when a bishop told the emperor of a vision he had where God would grant him victory over the persecuting Arian Vandals did the Emperor finally go ahead with the assault.

Did such a debate occur? Maybe a council or something of the sort, but one thinks that Justinian had already made up his mind and did not need an unknown bishop’s vision to convince him. Indeed, I believe that Justinian played a more prominent role in military planning than Procopius or most modern historians give him credit for, but that’s for another blog. So we can discount perhaps much of this account as accurately reflecting the actual decision-making.  Other writers make it clear that a number of “Romans” within Vandalic North Africa had been coaxing Justinian to use his ‘new’ religious powers to overthrow a king they could depict as a persecuting usurper.  Indeed, it is fascinating just how much the Byzantines needed to justify to the locals their return to power. It was certainly not a case of saying, “Hey we are back,  so now bow down to Justinian”. Much explaining and coercing needed to be conducted.


A passage from the early stages of the campaign, provides us with insight into the historian’s “true” feelings.

Before he set sail from Sicily with Belisarius Procopius described his own trepidation before heading into the unknown to Africa/ He wrote: After this the general Belisarius and Antonina, his wife, set sail. And there was with them also Procopius, who wrote this history; now previously he had been exceedingly terrified (κατορρωδήσας) at the danger, but later he had seen a vision in his sleep which caused him to take courage (θαρσῆσαι) and made him eager to go on the expedition. Procopius thus provides a valuable perspective to just how tenuous the Byzantines claims to North Africa were in 533.

Moreover, despite the hardships and challenges to come, (and his jaded portrait in Anecdota) I believe Procopius sought to remember the campaign as a “good” thing. An event marked by both Procopius’ and the Byzantine soldiers’ trepidation and excitement.

The Decision: Justinian and Vandalic North Africa: Part One


Few decisions in late Antiquity have received as much attention, as the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian’s move to take back the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire. As Peter Heather and others have noted, what has commonly been described as a reconquest was something more complex. Indeed I would agree that Justinian’s ‘reconquest’ resulted from opportunity, rather than a long-held plan to restore the glory of the Roman Empire.[1] Though one can debate the role of great men in shaping history, to understand the reconquest one must understand Justinian.

Justinian’s family came from the provincial Balkan town of Nis, and like the fifth-century Isaurian emperor Zeno, he had journeyed to Constantinople in the search for a position in the military. Justinian appeared to recognize that his humble origins meant that he had a tenuous hold on power. Accordingly, he took several steps to consolidate his authority. Under the guise of a Classical renewal, he gradually increased the authority of the emperor, and curtailed the aristocracy’s power. He claimed for the first time that the emperor represented the nomos empsychos (the living law). In the Digest, he codified Roman law and refused to allow lawyers to change these laws. It became the emperor’s duty to “resolve ambiguous juridical descisions.”[2]

It is with Justinian that Classical Rome fades away and a recognizable early Medieval Christian State takes its place. Although Justinian played upon many Romans’ hunger for the return of the glorious Roman past, his centralization, strict regimentation, and “Classical Roman renewal” were based on Christian concepts. Justinian perceived himself as the head of the Church and State, and he ruled as both a religious and a secular leader. No other emperor either before or after had such control over the Church. It would be a mistake to see Justinian acting out these reforms purely from political necessity. What separated Justinian from many of his predecessors was his devotion to Orthodox Christianity and his abhorrence of heresy. Like the first Christian emperor Constantine, Justinian seems to have honestly believed that he served as God’s vehicle in the secular world. Justinian thought of himself as a man who, along with his wife, the empress Theodora, served as God’s representative on earth. During the pagan era, the divinity of an emperor like Augustus isolated him from both his wife Livia and the general populace. Justinian’s role as mediator between heaven and earth brought him closer to the people and to his wife.[3] Justinian assumed that for the good of the Empire, it was his duty to impose religious and legal conformity on his subjects. Before Justinian’s ascension, pagans had been allowed to serve in the bureaucracy as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. Justinian, however, felt compelled to stamp out the last vestiges of the old faith. In 528, he commanded that all pagans had three months to be baptized. The next year he forbade the teaching of philosophy at the Academy in Athens. Pagan professors disillusioned with the Christianization of the Empire fled to the more “enlightened” court of the Persian king Chosroes.[4]

Justinian’s autocratic rule and his humble background guaranteed that there would be strong opposition to his rule among the populace, especially the nobility, many of whom remembered the reign of the emperor Anastasius I (ruled 491-518 CE) as an era of relative religious freedom and prosperity. In January of 532, the anti-Justinian faction felt strong enough to make its move. A crowd of people went to the home of Anastasius’ nephew, Probus, in an attempt to name him emperor. Probus, perhaps purposely, was not there and the group burned down his house in frustration. In an attempt to appease the opposition, Justinian removed two unpopular officials from office. The emperor’s rivals, however, took this gesture as a sign of weakness and awaited the proper opportunity to make their move. Their chance arrived when Justinian attended a race at the Hippodrome and tried to placate the angry masses by giving a conciliatory speech. Both the Blues and the Greens, sporting factions that usually were bitter rivals, shouted down the emperor, and an uprising called the Nika revolt ensued.[5] According to Procopius, the emperor attempted to abandon the capital, but Theodora stiffened the emperor’s resolve, and Justinian sent out his general Belisarius to punish the rebels. The Chronicon Paschale, an early seventh-century account, described Belisarius’ ruthless counterattack, “The people remained mobbing outside the palace. And when this was known, the patrician Belisarius, the magister militum, came out with a multitude of Goths and cut down many [rioters] until evening.”[6] Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise.

Justinian’s actions cemented his power in Constantinople, and allowed him to conduct his campaigns to restore the lost Provinces of the Western empire. However, before Justinian could turn his forces to the West, he needed to secure his Northern and Eastern borders. Even before the Nika revolt, Byzantine armies had attained several important victories in these regions. In 530, for the first time in several years, the Byzantine army gained several victories over Persian forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Empire gained further successes in the Balkans by defeating raiding Slavic and Bulgar forces. That same year, the Vandals deposed and imprisoned their king Hilderic. The Vandals replaced Hilderic with his fiery nephew and heir, Gelimer.46 Although this overthrow disturbed Justinian, for the time being he could only warn Gelimer “not to exchange the title of king for the title of tyrant.”47 The next year, the Persians and the Eastern Romans fought to a standstill in the East. However, the Persian emperor Cabades died in 531, and the new emperor, Chosroes, who needed time to consolidate his own power, in the spring of 532 agreed to a five-year truce with the Eastern Romans. With both the dangerous Balkan and Persian frontier secured, Justinian eagerly turned his eyes to the West.

Justinian used both political and religious reasons to justify his attack on the Vandals. In 533, claiming that he was protecting orthodox Christians from the dangers of an Arian usurper, the emperor prepared to send his armed forces that had fought the Persians against the Vandals. In my next blog I will look at Procopius’ depiction of this descision and the rather complicated way the historian described Justinian’s justification for the taking of Vandalic North Africa. Key to the blog will be the current debate on whether Procopius supported the venture.

[1] P. Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (London, 2013), pp. 137-153. For the notion that Procopius presented the Italian campaign as ‘a punishment of rebels’ rather than a reconquest, see R. V. Boy, ‘History of Wars: Narratives of Crises in Power Relations between Constantinople and Italy in the Sixth Century,’ in: D. Dzino and K. Parry, eds. Byzantium, its Neighbours and it Cultures (Brisbane, 2014), pp. 202-229. For an excellent discussion of the ideology behind Justinian’s Western military campaigns, see D. Brodka, ‘Prokopios von Kaisareia und Justinians Ideeder Reconquista’, Eos 86 (1999) pp. 243–255.

[2] Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman Past (London: Routledge, 1992), 15.

[3] Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art From the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 180-4.

[4] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD 200-1000. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Reprint, 1997), 122. Agathias points out that the philosophers quickly became disillusioned in Persia and returned to the Eastern Roman Empire in 531 CE. Agathias, 2.31. Evans supports Agathias’ account, Justinian, 70. Averil Cameron is more skeptical, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity (London: Routledge, 1993), 134. Justinian launched three major persecutions against pagans during his reign, in 528-9, 545-6, and 562; Maas, 67-78. The emperor sought to convert the remaining pagans both within and outside the empire, see John of Ephesus’ account in, Pseuso-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre Chronicle (known also as the chronicle of Zuqnin) Part III trans. Witold Witakowski ( Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996), 76-8.

[5] For a detailed account of the revolt, Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Hellenic Studies cxvii (1997), 60-86.

[6] For a detailed account of the revolt, Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Hellenic Studies cxvii (1997), 60-86. Meire argues that the Nika riot was not a popular rebellion. He suggests that Justinian wanted to appear weak and endangered in order to draw out his enemies into the open. Then the emperor could destroy them and reveal his uncompromising strength to the people.

46 Here I follow Procopius account in Vandalic Wars.

47 Procopius, Wars 3.9.11.

Charlie Hebdo, Barbarism, and Terrorism

A very good blog post on the dangers of rhetoric and the dangerous “other” in the ancient and the modern world….

From the Garden into the City

In describing the attacks the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris last week the term “barbaric” was invoked a number of times. Individuals like Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and Tony Abbot, the Australian prime minister all condemned the attack, which, of course, they should, despite the fact that they are politicians and really do not have any choice in the matter if they want to stand a hope of being elected again. No doubt I could cast my net wider, but I’m going to critique the use of the term “barbaric” in referring to the attacks. From its general definition, the attacks certainly fulfill the requirements of barbarism, as they were carried out with cruelty and violence.

The problem is that barbarism requires a barbarian, and a barbarian is an “other”, someone outside of the defining civilization’s willingness to understand. Roman history…

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