Monthly Archives: March 2015

Synesius of Cyrene: Bishop and Soldier


(ruins of Cyrene)

Well at the moment I am preparing a draft that is due in December for a monograph based on my 2012 dissertation The Soldier’s Life. The draft will entail much culling to fit in three chapters that did not appear in the original. Unfortunately my work on the fascinating Synesius may end up on the cutting room floor. So I thought I would share it here.

Let us a look now at an Eastern writer from the late fourth and early fifth century, Synesius of Cyrene ( ca. 370 –ca. 414), whose personal and public writings centred on martial metaphors as a means to comment on contemporary events and rulers.[1] A brief survey of some of the themes found in his writings will give way to a more detailed analysis of the classicising and ecclesiastical historians’ views on Late Roman men’s militarism as an essential aspect of men’s heroic conduct and masculine self-fashioning in the chapters to follow. As a Christian from the Eastern provincial elite who served both as soldier and as a local bishop, Synesius provides an ideal focus for our discussion on the continued vibrancy of classical martial virtues as an essential component of the emperor’s, and indeed every Roman man’s, masculine identity. His life also serves as a reminder that not all Christian Roman aristocrats had abandoned their civilian and military roles within the Late Roman administration.

Though largely fictitious, the following excerpt from his purported speech to the Emperor Arcadius provides us with a poignant example of how depictions of virtuous and manly emperors remained tied to the military ethos.[2] Relying upon conventional imagery regarding the unmanliness of peoples from the Eastern Mediterranean, Synesius opened his discussion on ideal leadership with an anecdote about a Persian embassy arriving at the military camp of the Emperor Carinus (ruled 283-285) to sue for peace.[3] Accustomed to the lavish and unmanly lifestyle “typical” in the Persian court, the ambassadors entered the emperor’s camp expecting to find similar pomp and ceremony. Synesius painted, however, a scene of egalitarianism typical in conventional Roman literary depictions of manly military men.[4] He wrote:

A tunic in purple was lying in the grass, and for repast, he had a soup of yesterday’s peas, and in some bits of salted pork that had grown old in the service. Now when he saw them [the Persians], according to the story, he did not spring up, nor did he change anything; but he called out to these men from the very spot and said he knew that they had come to see him, for he was Carinus; and he bade them tell the young king [Barham II] that very day, that unless he conducted himself wisely, he might expect the whole of their forest and plain would be in a single month barer than the head of Carinus. And as he spoke, they say he took off his cap and showed his head, which was no more hairy than the helmet lying at his side. And he gave them leave if they were hungry to attack the stew-pot with him, but if not in need, he ordered them to depart at once. Now it is said that when the messages were reported to the rank and file and to the leader of the enemy, namely all that had been seen and heard, at once—as might be expected—shuddering and fear fell upon everyone at the thought of fighting men like these, whose very king was neither ashamed of being king nor being bald, and who offering them a stew-pot, invited them to share a meal. And their braggart king arrived in terror and was ready to yield in everything, he of the tiara and robes, to one in a simple woollen tunic and cap.[5]

It was probably no accident that in an address to an emperor he later denigrates for being unwarlike and “living the life of a jellyfish”, Synesius promoted the conventional lifestyle of an archetypical Roman warrior-emperor shunning the luxurious life of the imperial court for the rigors of the soldier’s life. Persian despotism and the unmanliness of Barham II appear to parallel the conditions he found in the court of Arcadius.[6] Synesius’ audience would have been immediately struck by the stark contrast of the ascetic manliness of Carinus with the current rulers’ abandonment of the martial life for the “softer” and more unmanly lifestyle of the palace.

This spoken and unspoken criticism of the existing regime leads the reader to the most memorable part of the speech, where Synesius recommended the removal of all barbarians from high office and the army. Synesius relied heavily upon gendered metaphors tightly bound to traditional manly martial virtues to condemn the demilitarisation of the Romans from all levels of society. Once again, Synesius’ own words are worth quoting in full:

The same organization holds good for the State as in the family; the male element must defend and the female occupy itself with the care of the household within. How then can you endure that the male element should be foreign? Is it not disgraceful that the empire richest in men should yield the crown of glory in war to aliens? For my own part, however may victories such men might win for us, I should be ashamed of the aid so received. This very thing, ‘well I know, I do opine’ (for it is obvious to any sensible man) that when the male and female of which we speak do not happen to be brother and sister, or in any other way related, the armed portion of them will need but a slight excuse to demand mastery of the civilians, and then the unwarlike will be pitted against those inured to the shock of arms. Before matters have come to this pass, one to which they are now tending, we should recover courage worthy of Romans, and accustom ourselves to winning our own victories, admitting no fellowship with these foreigners, but disowning their participation in any rank. But first let all be excluded from magistracies and kept away from the privileges of the council who are ashamed of all that has been sacred to the Romans from olden times, and has been so esteemed.[7]

We can sense in the passage above, the author’s conviction that Roman males’ time-honoured role as soldiers had led to the state’s dominion over only foreigners, and by abandoning their role as soldiers Roman men threatened the survival of the state. These sentiments seemed to represent more than just traditional rhetoric to Synesius. We know in fact that when “barbarians” invaded Synesius’ own lands in 406, he responded by recruiting and leading his own soldiers into battle.[8]

So too may Synesius’ insistence on the nexus between political rule and masculine virtues represent a contemporary conservative reaction against the increasing independent authority of Theodosian women within Arcadius’ court, particularly the empress Aelia Eudoxia .[9] Indeed, as Liz James and others have shown, the early Byzantine period had witnessed an increase in the empresses’ political influence. Christianity played a part in this change. At the beginning of each emperor’s reign, elaborate court rituals were performed that emphasised the link between the dual power of the imperial couple. Since these ceremonies portrayed the emperor as God’s representative on earth, it was natural for his partner to attain an aura of authority as well.[10]

Some of Synesius’ concern over the “independent” political power of women appears connected to older gendered rhetoric that sought to limit feminine power. Greco-Roman literature had a long tradition of criticising influential women for over-stepping the boundaries of “accepted” feminine political roles. Yet it is important to emphasise that women from the upper classes had long played a role in Roman politics.[11] Even though Roman and early Byzantine societies were patriarchal and dominated by men, aristocratic women in these periods could influence their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons as wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. Ideal mothers often served as guides seeking to protect and further the ambitions of their male relatives, and this influence continued even when the boys reached maturity. In contrast to fathers or other male relatives who could become potential political rivals, mothers and sisters could be depended on to support their sons or brothers’ political goals. Their political duties remained, however, highly regulated. The system permitted women to hold significant power, but it tended to exclude them from overtly participating in society to promote their personal aspirations. In fact, if she spoke out on her own behalf she risked being condemned as egotistical, licentious, greedy, and unwomanly.[12] Given this paradigm, it should come as no surprise that empresses like Eudoxia and Theodora remained vulnerable to criticisms from “traditionalists” like Synesius and Procopius. Indeed, despite the significant roles that women from all social classes played in the early Byzantine world, the strict gender hierarchy of men over women proved persistent. Men’s domination of the political hierarchy of the Eastern and Western Churches serves as a timely reminder of the “ceiling” placed upon women in the Late Antiquity.

In the next part of his address, Synesius depended upon traditional Roman rhetorical prejudice that suggested that, like other marginalised groups such as women and slaves, foreigners remained best suited for submissive roles in both the public and private realms of Roman society. Synesius, below, relates the age-old Roman belief in intimate connection between notions of proper masculine conduct and Roman men’s right to dominion:

For my part, I wonder at many other things, but not least at this our absurd conduct. All this is in the face that every house, however humble, has a Scythian [Goths] for a slave. The butler, the cook, the water-carrier, all are Scythians, and as to retinue, the slaves who bend under the burden of the low couches on their shoulders that their masters may recline in the streets, these are all Scythians also; for it has been proved of old that theirs is the most useful race, and the fittest to serve the Romans. But that these fair-haired men who arrange their locks like the Euboeans should be slaves in private to the same men whom they govern in public, this is strange, perhaps the most incredible of the spectacle, and I know not what sort of a thing the so-called riddle may be, if this is not one.[13]

Like many within the predominantly conservative nobility of the day, Synesius made it clear that Roman imperium depended upon its men’s ability to assert their authority in the public and the private arenas. We see further evidence of this conviction when Synesius concluded this part of his harangue by asserting that Roman men’s “strong arm” and “their will” had earned them the right to “govern all men with whom they come in contact”. It is probable that from Synesius’ vantage point, by treating these “barbarians” on near equal terms with the “god-like” Romans of the senatorial classes, Theodosius I and his heirs had upset the natural hierarchal order whereby women were inferior to men, slaves to freeborn, the low-born to the nobility, and non-Romans to Romans.[14]

As one specialist on the period has noted, Synesius’ impractical suggestion to eliminate all barbarians from the army and political office probably represents more “emotive rhetoric” than a “serious political suggestion”.[15] When read along with Synesius’ personal letters where he praised the courage and manliness of those Romans like himself who took up arms to defend their lands from barbarian raiders, while condemning those who refused to fight as cowardly and unmanly (including his own brother), it points to the continued relevance of martial virtues as an essential part of conceptualisations of heroic Roman manliness.[16]

Moreover, while his address was probably never delivered in front of Arcadius,[17] it neatly sums up the attitudes of many elite Roman men frustrated with a political situation whereby select generalissimos and eunuch advisors had increasingly monopolised access to the imperial family and, for some, represented the true power behind the feeble and “effeminate” sons of Theodosius I.[18]

As we will see in the chapters to come, this negative attitude towards “unwarlike” emperors and their closest advisors is common in the literary sources from the Later and the early Byzantine Empire. Part of this disdain seems to reflect the upper classes’ frustration at being cut off progressively from access to the emperor’s confidence and political power. One recent study on ancient Roman masculinity even claims that the “minor political role” that the men from the aristocracy had in the Later Empire played an essential part in the reshaping of these men’s masculine identity, and the creation of a “new” Christian masculine ideal.[19]

Though one should remain sceptical of such sweeping generalisations, without a doubt, many Late Roman authors, who largely hailed from the aristocracy and bureaucracy, appeared uncomfortable with the growing autocracy of the Later Empire.[20] This stance is not startling, considering that the classical texts that made up much of the foundation of these men’s early education stressed the importance of free will for men seeking to achieve “true” manliness.[21] These established ideals preached that “manly freedom and nobility” depended upon a man’s propensity to challenge and reject despotic rule.[22] The Eastern Roman historians in their works adhered to the traditional Hellenistic distrust of despotism, and tended to link servility to effeminacy.[23] With these thoughts in mind, let us conclude this chapter by briefly examining how the growing dominance of the emperor and his supporters influenced the masculine identity of those within the ruling hierarchy, as well as the Roman nobility, who as we have seen were playing less significant roles within the military and administrative branches of the Later Roman government.

[1] For a detailed study on Synesius, see Denis Roques, Synésius de Cyrène et la Cyrénaique du Bas-Empire (Paris: Presses du CNRS, 1987).

[2] The political and social circumstances surrounding this address are reconstructed by Cameron, Barbarians and Politics, esp.103-142. Cf., however, the overly revisionist views of Wolfgang Hagl, Arcadius Apis Imperator: Synesios von Kyrene und sein Beitrag zum Herrscherideal der Spätantike. (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997).

[3] For the depiction of peoples from the Eastern Mediterranean as unmanly in the Classical tradition, Sarah E. Harrell, “Marvelous Andreia: Politics, Geography, and Ethnicity in Herodotus’ Histories”, in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 47.

[4] For the linking of the austere life of the soldier with codes of ideal Roman masculine conduct, see McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 4-50, Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 62-80, Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 42-3.

[5] Synesius, On Kingship 12.

[6] Synesius, On Kingship 14. For similar contemporary Roman perceptions of Arcadius, see Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), 50.

[7] Synesius, On Kingship 14.

[8] Synesius, “Letter 132”, (ed. and French trans. Antonio Garzya and Denis Roques, Synésius de Cyrène, Correspondence [Paris: Les Belles Lettres 3 vols. 2000]; English trans. Augustine Fitzgerald [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926]).

[9] Cf. Eunapius, frag. 72, Socrates, HE 16.5. Eudoxia was the daughter of Flavius Bauto, a Romanised Frank who served as magister militum in the Western Roman army during the 380s.

[10] Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 164-5. The actual authority wielded by these “Theodosian women” has attracted some debate. Holum (Theodosian Empresses) sees a great deal of influence, whilst, R.W. Burgess suggests that women from the Theodosian imperial family had far less authority and/or influence over internal and external politics. See R.W. Burgess, “The Accession of Marcian in the Light of the Chalcedonian Apologetic and Monophysite Polemic”, Byzantion 86/7 (1993/4): 47-48.

[11] For this authority in the early Roman period, see Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

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

[13] Synesius, On Kingship 15. The comparison to the Euboeans is probably a reference to Synesius’ literary model the second-century sophist Dio Chrysostom’s (Discourse 7, the Euboean 151-52) condemnation of pederastic behaviour because it “humiliated future leaders”.

[14] For the prevalence of this anxiety amongst the nobility during the reigns of Theodosius I and his heirs, see Williams and Friell, Empire at Bay, 34-35.

[15] Cameron and Long, Barbarians and Politics, 136.

[16] See, e.g. Synesius, Letters, esp. 94,104, 113 130,132. Synesius condemned those like his brother who fled these raids in what he saw as a cowardly and unmanly panic. He was also highly critical of certain commanders of the Roman military, and somewhat scornful of the supposed military might of both the allied and enemy “barbarians”.

[17] Contra Jones (Later Roman Empire, 1037). Alan Cameron (Barbarians and Politics, 128) rejects the idea that this speech was ever given in front of Arcadius.

[18] See, e.g. Eunapius, frag. 62, 65.

[19] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 49-69.

[20] P. Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, 137.

[21] E.g., Herodotus, Histories 7.107, Plato, Republic 579a.

[22] Kaldellis, Procopius, 142.

[23] For the use of these topoi in Eunapius: Sacks, “Eunapius’ History”, 63; and for Procopius, see Kaldellis, Procopius, 145.

The First Byzantine Emperor? Leo I, Aspar and Challenges of Power and Romanitas in Fifth-century Byzantium


Okay its a bit long for a blog, but for those interested I have added the final draft version of my article from Porphyra that began last year as a series of blogs, on the Emperor Leo I.

An understanding of the reign of Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) is crucial for anyone attempting to comprehend the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, one prominent Byzantinist goes so far as to credit Leo and his successor Zeno with rescuing ‘Byzantium from becoming a plaything of the barbarians.’[1] Yet as this same scholar has pointed out, the crucial reign of arguably the first Byzantine emperor has received far less attention than it deserves.[2] For instance, the recent guide to Late Antiquity makes no mention of this important emperor, whilst the bishop of Rome, Leo I (440-461), garners two pages.[3] This void may also be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors,[4]and Leo’s successors.[5]

We may attribute some of this neglect to the paucity of sources available to scholars. Unlike the fourth and the sixth, many of the crucial events in the fifth century will remain unknowable. As cited above, many modern scholars have preferred to cover the reigns of the much better documented sixth-century emperors, especially Justinian. Yet one may provide other more ‘correctable’ reasons. One recent biographer submits plausibly that the older scholarly view of Leo as a ‘puppet’ emperor has led many to ignore or dismiss his role in his reign.[6] I would also propose that a recent focus on the role of women and the role of religion in the early Byzantine Empire has turned many scholars away from these soldier-emperors. In the past few years attention has turned to the role that these emperors played in the Christological debates that rocked the fifth-century Church. Modern historians, for example, have been more interested in the role that Leo’s predecessor, Marcian, played in the council of Chalcedon. For some social historians, the dominance of military men in the politics of the day serve as inconvenient reminders for those who would argue that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views of imperial leadership based on martial qualities. [7] So too has a relative disdain in some academic circles for military history, biography and traditional narrative history played a part in this neglect.

Nonetheless, when reconstructing the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth century even more traditional ‘military and political’ historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines. Peter Heather’s recent account of this period, for instance, only mentions Leo in passing.[8] There have been exceptions. Significant articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood have shed recently needed light on the internal politics and ‘propaganda’ surrounding Leo’s regime.[9] Additionally, one can only hope that Gereon Siebigs expands on his massive two-volume study on Leo, which at this point covers only the first three years of Leo’s reign.

Moreover, a penchant to skip over the events of the latter half of the fifth century is not just a tendency of modern scholars. Byzantine historians seemed uncomfortable preserving narratives describing an era that had led to the loss of the majority of the Empire’s Western territories.[10] The non-soldier Anastasios also appeared to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.[11]

This paper first summarises and then addresses some of the issues raised in the recent scholarship. It seeks to place Leo’s military regime within the context of Byzantine historiography. More precisely, it provides a brief diachronic overview of his reign, and shows that Leo deserves further attention from scholars, particularly those interested in the relationships among Roman and non-Roman political players. Certainly Leo’s regime provides important clues for historians trying to understand how and why soldiers like Leo and his rival Aspar dominated and shaped mid fifth-century Byzantine politics.

Some Current Debates

Modern historians primarily remember Leo’s reign for three developments. First, Leo was probably the first emperor to be crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Even if one doubts that this symbolic crowning occurred,[12] Leo’s reign provides one with evidence with how important the emperor’s role as the leader of the Church had become in the fifth century. Indeed, polling the Eastern bishops on their views towards Chalcedon and supressing an uprising by the council’s detractors in Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem represented some of Leo’s first official actions after he became emperor.[13] Second, his self-assertion in the second half of his rule, and more precisely, his culling of the ‘Germanic’ faction at the Eastern court —marked by his successful assassination of his former mentor the Alan Aspar and his replacement by the Isaurian Tarasicodissa (the future Emperor Zeno)—have attracted attention. Third, scholars have long been fascinated by Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468. This bungled invasion, which almost bankrupted the Empire, was the last in a series of failed fifth-century attempts by the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire to expel the Vandals from the vital lands of North Africa.[14]


A Barbarian Cloaked in Roman Clothing?

Leo was born ca 401 in the Balkans.[15] The Balkans had long served as one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Late Roman army.[16] Although we know next to nothing about Leo’s life before he ascended the throne, it seems that he was picked more for his loyalty than for any major military achievements. Indeed, Leo was serving as an undistinguished commander of the troops in Selymbria (modern Silivri in Istanbul district) at the time of his ascension.[17]

Marcian had died on 27 January 457. Ten days later at the Campus Martius in Constantinople, Leo was proclaimed emperor in front of a mixed audience of senators, imperial regiments (scholai), key members of the military, and most symbolically, Anatolios, the archbishop of Constantinople. Despite the chants of the audience insisting that each faction ‘demanded Leo as emperor,’ one suspects that most within the audience had little knowledge about the man who was about to don the imperial diadem. When the crowd chanted in unison, ‘Leo augoustos may you always be victorious! He who has chosen you, may he guard you!’[18] Some within the throng might be forgiven for thinking that this protector was not the Christian saviour of the next line of the chant, but the Alan magister militum Flavius Ardabur Aspar, the driving force behind Leo’s unexpected crowning.[19]


(Missorium of Aspar, 434)[20]


Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar.[21] Aspar had a long if rather chequered military career spanning five decades. With his father, Ardabur (consul 427), he had served in Theodosius II’s short-lived and indecisive war (421-22) against the Persians. Having earned a reputation for martial prowess in the Persian campaign, in 424/25, the father/son duo represented two of the three commanders that the Emperor Theodosius II sent to Italy to overthrow the western usurper John. After the capture of his father at sea, Aspar boldly rescued him and detained John by stealthily overwhelming the usurper and his supporters in the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[22] Shortly after, Aspar defeated a force of Huns led by the seminal Western Roman generalissimo Aetius.[23] In 431 Aspar teamed up with another Western Roman generalissimo Boniface in a failed attempt to expel the Vandals from North Africa. From 431-435 he had remained in the West commanding the Eastern forces garrisoned there. This service saw Aspar named consul by the Western Emperor Valentinian III in 434. 441 found Aspar negotiating a treaty with the Huns. Two years later, however, Aspar and his army suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Attila. The fifth-century historian Priscus tells us that by 449, Aspar’s star was on the wane. [24] Indeed, Aspar was probably one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[25] It seems, however, that by the time of Theodosius II’s death in 450, Aspar had regained the emperor’s good graces, and the sixth-century chronicler John Malalas maintained that Aspar was present when the dying emperor supposedly proclaimed that Marcian— a soldier who had served under Aspar—should be named his successor.[26]

Though scholars continue to debate how significant a role Aspar played in Marcian’s ascension, it seems clear that in the early years of Leo’s reign he wielded a great deal of power, and in fact may be seen as a shadow emperor.[27] Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his Western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer largely tried to influence events behind the scenes. In establishing his influential role he was successful during the reign of Marcian, if obviously less so during Leo’s. Unfortunately for Aspar, Leo had an independent, and if contemporary sources are to be believed, a violent streak.[28]

The relationship only soured gradually. Leo took his time before making his move to eliminate his mentor. Though there are hints of friction from the first years of Leo’s rule, the emperor’s creation in 460 or 461 of an elite palace guard the execubitors has been seen by most historians as the first major step to counterbalance Aspar’s authority.[29] This gathering of soldiers linked to him personally continued when in 464 Leo named his brother-in-law Basiliskos magister militum per Thracias. The emperor’s next moves were even more dangerous to Aspar’s interests. A whispering campaign initiated by the emperor and his inner-circle played upon the traditional Roman distrust of non-Romans in positions of authority. The next year, Leo accused Aspar’s son Ardabur of giving away state secrets to the Persians and, as a result, dismissed him from the command he had held since 453. Fortunately we have a source that provides some insight into the affair, and Aspar’s vulnerability. Composed by an anonymous author sometime between 492 and 496, the Life of Daniel the Stylite provides an insider’s view on the incident.[30] In view of its importance in shedding some light on this affair, the rise of Zeno,[31] and the escalation in the simmering dispute between the East’s two most powerful men, it is necessary to quote it in full:

About that time a certain Zeno, an Isaurian by birth, came to the Emperor and brought with him letters written by Ardabur, who was then general of the East; in these he incited the Persians to attack the Roman State and agreed to cooperate with them. The Emperor received the man and recognizing the importance of the letters he ordered a Council to be held; when the Senate had met the Emperor produced the letters and commanded that they should be read aloud in the hearing of all the senators by Patricius, who was Master of the Offices at that time. After they had been read the Emperor said, ‘What think you?’ As they all held their peace the Emperor said to the father of Ardabur, ‘These are fine things that your son is practising against his Emperor and the Roman State’. Aspar replied, ‘You are the master and have full authority; after hearing this letter I realize that I can no longer control my son; for I often sent to him counselling and warning him not to ruin his life; and now I see he is acting contrary to my advice. Therefore do whatsoever occurs to your piety; dismiss him from his command and order him to come here and he shall make his defence’.

The Emperor took this advice; he appointed a successor to Ardabur and dismissed him from the army; then ordered him to present himself forthwith in Byzantium. In his place he gave the girdle of office to Jordanes and sent him to the East; he also appointed Zeno, Count of the Domestics.

And the Emperor went in solemn procession and led him up to the holy man and related to him all about Ardaburs’ plot and Zeno’s loyalty; others told him, too, how Jordanes had been appointed General of the East in place of Ardabur. The holy man rejoiced about Jordanes and gave him much advice in the presence of the Emperor and of all those who were with him then he dismissed them with his blessing.[32]

Evidence from Priscus suggests that some of Leo’s propaganda against Ardabur may have been gender-based; it explained that whilst Aspar’s son had done a good job defending Thrace from the ‘barbarians’ in the early years of his command, eventually he had succumbed to a life of ‘self-indulgence and effeminate leisure.’[33] Such a sentiment concerning the dangers of the soft life for even the most martial of non-Roman, and indeed Roman commanders represents a commonplace in Roman and Byzantine literature.[34] Leo did not stop here. In 466, the emperor appointed Zeno as comes domesticorum and, in that same year, the Isaurian married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne. Attila’s son, Dengizich, invaded Thrace in 467. Leo made Zeno magister militum per Thracias and sent him to thwart the incursion.[35]

The writing must have been on the wall for the Aspar. Though Aspar failed in his attempt to assassinate Zeno during the Hunnic campaign, the Isaurian fled to what Brian Croke describes as a semi exile for the next four years.[36] Aspar was probably not the only prospective challenger whom the emperor had to deal with. In the spring of 467, Leo sent another potential rival, the blue-blooded patrician Anthemius to Italy where he was named Western emperor outside of Rome on April 12.[37] A former magister utriusqe militiae, consul, and patrician under Marcian, Anthemius pedigree and proven military record made him an acceptable choice, at least at first, to Western elites.[38] Indeed, the erstwhile shadow emperor Ricimer had gone along with the appointment and at the close of 467 bound himself to the Easterner by marrying Anthemius’ daughter Alycia.[39] Such a move reasserting Eastern control over Western affairs provides us with evidence of Leo’s growing confidence.[40] It also reveals that cooperation between the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire was the norm not the exception.

Once Anthemius had established himself in Rome, Leo sent an embassy to the Vandal King Gaiseric warning him to evacuate territories he had seized in Sicily and Southern Italy. Leo also gained the support of the quasi-independent Western generalissimo Marcellinus and placed him in command of an army that Leo and Anthemius were gathering for a joint military campaign.[41] With his position secure in the East, and Ricimer’s stranglehold on the Western government broken—at least temporarily—Leo sought to finally recapture the vital provinces in North Africa from the Vandals.[42] The next year (468), Leo launched his massive assault ostensibly to punish Gaiseric for his raids on Eastern and Western Roman lands in 467 that the emperor claimed violated a treaty signed in 462.[43] In reality, Leo most likely sought a game-changing victory that would assure the long-term viability of his rule. Leo certainly would have the upper-hand over Aspar, who, as noted above, had been defeated several times by the Vandals.

Relying on Priscus, the mid-sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius maintained that a glorious Roman victory was not in Aspar’s best interests. The historian’s further suggestion, however, that the commander of the campaign Basiliskos betrayed the Byzantine cause for a bribe from Gaiseric or as a favour to Aspar appear improbable, and are probably linked to later propaganda hostile to both Aspar and the future emperor.[44] Indeed, attempting to regain the upper-hand in Western affairs, Ricimer had dealt the campaign a deadly blow by assassinating Marcellinus in Sicily.[45]

The massive logistical efforts behind the ambitious attack offer evidence of the continuing military capabilities of the twin regimes when acting in unison. Although we should discount the figure of 100,000 ships given in one Byzantine source, clearly the attack represented an impressive display of logistical planning and enduring martial puissance.[46] Organised as a three-prong campaign—with his eyes on Carthage—Marcellinus took Sicily. Meanwhile, Basiliskos sailed the bulk of the Roman navy to meet the Vandal naval forces, lastly, a smaller fleet, led by Eastern Comes rei militaris Herakleios, successfully occupied the Vandal stronghold of Tripolis. Herakleios and his army then set out towards Byzacena in order to link up with Basiliskos’ troops when they arrived in Proconsular province. The landing by Basiliskos, however, never occurred. Whether through treachery or (more likely) incompetence, Basiliskos and the Byzantine armada suffered a humiliating and devastating defeat at the hands of the Vandals and their fire-ships at Mercurium.[47]

It is interesting to note that Leo takes little of the blame for the rout in the accounts that survive. I would suggest that this is part of the reason that fifth and sixth century emperors did not feel the need to direct campaigns in person. If the assault failed, a scapegoat could be found within the military, whilst if victory was achieved, the emperor could represent himself as the face of Roman victory. Surely the example of the Western Emperor Majorianus’ (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution in August 461 at the hands of his non-Roman advisor Ricimer, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution.

Despite his largely successful campaign to place blame for the failure elsewhere, the defeat slowed Leo’s political momentum. Aspar appears to have regained the upper-hand or at least equilibrium. The economic and political impact of the defeat were devastating.[48] The ninth-century Byzantine chronicler, Theophanes, maintained (most likely derived from Priscus) that Leo had immediately recalled Basilsikos, Heraklios, and another commander Marsus, to Constantinople in order to counteract a plot by Aspar.[49] Though Leo seemed to have thwarted this conspiracy, Aspar kept up the pressure on the emperor. Aspar represents the likely culprit behind the magister militum Anagast’ revolt against Leo I.[50] By 470, we find Aspar powerful enough to have his son and former consul (459) Julius Patricus raised to caeser. With Leo seemingly on his back foot, Aspar then arranged to have his son married to the emperor’s daughter Leontia. Aspar’s long-held hopes to have his Romanised son succeed Leo to the purple seemed possible once more.[51] As a result of riots in the capitol by those against an Arian taking the throne, Patricus had even agreed to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity before marrying Leo’s daughter.[52]

Without his primary protector Zeno, Leo must have feared for his life. Perhaps Leo had made the marriage pact with Patricus to buy some needed time. Indeed, some sort of political stability appears to have returned to Constantinople by 471.[53] Leo’s eunuch-assassins seemed to have taken Aspar and his sons by surprise when on August 11 of 471 they ambushed them during a meeting of the Grand council within the imperial palace (Patricus may have survived for a time). Yet Leo’s survival was a near thing. In the aftermath of the assassination, rioting broke out in the capitol. Aspar’s supporters stormed the palace, and only with great difficulty were the execubitors able to fight them off.[54] Further proof of just how dangerous a situation Leo found himself in before the assassination is the fact that Zeno only found it safe to return to the capital after Aspar and his colleagues had either been killed and/or fled.

Views were mixed on the justice of this move. Distaste for the assassination is evident in some Byzantine sources.[55] Leo’s nickname ‘the butcher’ was a slight used by his enemies.[56] Not everyone disagreed with the elimination of Aspar. Writing during the reign of Justinian (527-565) Malalas records a letter supposedly written by Leo to his western counterpart Anthemius[57] that sheds light on how latter Byzantines viewed this action. Leo explains that he had killed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one ‘who gives orders not takes them.’[58] He recommends that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemius should assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also eliminate Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble Olybrius. Unlike, Leo, Anthemius failed to act quickly enough and Ricimer was left to his own devices, which led eventually to disaster for the Western halve of the Empire. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because the Western emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, the Roman Emperor Leo I assassinated his generalissimo Aspar and purged his Germanic supporters. Similar praise of Leo and his stand against Aspar is found in Procopius, and is probably reflective of the type of anti-barbarian rhetoric that circulated during the years of Justinian’s reconquest of the ‘lost’ Western provinces.[59]Certainly Leo was the last emperor before Justinian who took a major interest in the affairs of the Western realm.[60]

Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way: Stilicho’s decision at the opening of the fifth century to name a supreme commander of the Western Roman army stood in contrast to the East where five generals served to balance each other. Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno helped to protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the assassination.[61] Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to defend him after he removed his generalissimo, Aetius’ supporters quickly returned the favour.[62] So too had he eliminated a Roman general who had famously defeated Attila. The swift retaliation against such a murder is understandable. Leo had an easier time explaining his elimination of a man he painted as a traitorous barbarian. Leo emphasized, as well, Aspar’s relatively poor record as a Roman commander. Valentinian III had a much more difficult time disparaging the Roman war hero Aetius.

Factional Politics

The fifth century was a world of rapidly changing political realities. The older vision of this era as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions has, however, largely been overturned. The recent trend is to dismiss the older idea these men were motivated by issues of ethnicity. Most current scholarship rejects the idea of ‘Germanic’ and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Zeno’s reign.[63] Roman factional politics represent the primary factor in the internal struggles that troubled the twin regimes during this period. Needing to confirm themselves as ‘true’ Romans all three men went to great lengths to establish their credentials as legitimate leaders of the state and the church. This desire helps to explain why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the ‘true’ Church. We should be careful to accept such rhetoric at face value. The strict polarization between the ‘barbarian’ Aspar and the ‘Roman’ Leo is largely a creation of our sources.

Recent scholarship has sought to penetrate beneath the context of normative cultural tropes found in the majority of our sources. After five decades as a member of the upper echelons of Roman society—and in fact the senior eastern senator—Aspar, to borrow the words of Walter Goffart, ‘was a courtly grand seigneur.’[64] Moreover, Philip Wood has deftly shown how Leo’s attempt to cast Aspar as an unorthodox and violent ‘barbarian’ may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his own ‘lowly’ origins:

Leo and his allies held on to power in the teeth of such elite criticism. Their ability to do so may be found partially in their appropriation of the idea so being Roman and being Christian that was used by the Theodosian dynasty, and the creation of scapegoats, such as Aspar, against whom they could define themselves. [65]

Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic the Amal were not so different.[66] All had risen to prominence within the Roman military. As a soldier hailing from Thrace, Leo would have been commonly regarded by many Constantinolpian elites as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). [67] As Henning Börm has usefully highlighted, the threat of usurpation within the capital from a blue-blood aristocrat for many later fifth and sixth-century Eastern Roman emperors represented a greater threat than a potential rebellion from a general in the field.[68]

This threat from the older families within the Eastern capitol may provide us a reason for why Aspar did not just make himself or one of his sons emperor or indeed a barbarian rex along the lines of the Ostrogoth Theoderic. Recent scholarship has provided several other reasons for this reluctance. Doug Lee (Contra Arnold, Wood, and Mathisen) believes that likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves.[69] Procopius made it clear that he believed that Aspar’s Arianism and barbarian lineage disqualified him from the purple.[70] I believe some modern scholars have too readily dismissed Procopius’ assessment. So too were links to the ruling regime important. Though like Stilicho, Aspar and Ricimer sought to align their sons to the imperial family. Anthony Kaldellis’ idea that it took two generations for a ‘barbarian’ to become Roman may be apt, but it does not explain why Aspar could not reign since his father was an esteemed Roman general.[71]

Other scholars, however, disagree with this assessment. Jonathan Arnold believes that Aspar was ‘Roman’ enough for a diadem (there is evidence that Aspar was offered to become emperor of the Western half of the Empire)[72]; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa Zeno.[73]

Perhaps his experience as an emperor-maker had led Aspar to prefer to bide his time, and therefore allow Patricus to take the throne with minimal dissent amongst the Eastern Roman ruling classes—dissent that indeed bubbled over during the Isaurian Zeno’s first reign. Moreover, I would add that they may have preferred avoiding all the other obligations that went along with the role. Constantius III, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, regretted giving up the relative freedom of his military command after he became Honorius’ partner in 421.[74]Acting as general also allowed men like Aspar to keep themselves involved in both the Roman and non-Roman spheres of influence. As Ralph Mathisen explains, especially in the West, the allure of the imperial office had declined markedly in the second half of the fifth century, therefore offering a partial explanation for why powerful man like Ricimer had no real interest in becoming emperor himself:

Ricimer saw emperors come and saw them go. As a patrician,

he had all the benefits of being emperor—issuing laws and coins, being cited on equal terms with the emperors, and marrying an emperor’s daughter—without any of the drawbacks—being burdened by court ceremony and being a ready target for assassination, not to mention being faced with the need to appoint a new patrician who would immediately become his own rival. Ricimer’s authority was more greatly legitimated as Patrician and Master of Soldiers, an office for which barbarian origin and Arian affiliations, far from being a possible hindrance, were virtually part of the job description.[75]

The theory cited above does not explain adequately, however, men like Aspar’s seeming reluctance, since in the East the imperial office appears to have been held in higher esteem than in the West. Moreover, as we have seen, Ricimer, like Stilicho and Aetius before him, faced the continual threat of assassination. So self-preservation does not seem a likely explanation.

I would agree that the Roman/barbarian binary may be a construct of our sources. Such strict ethnic polarisation found in writers like Priscus and Procopius seems to be in dissonance with the realities of the day. Evidence suggests that Aspar could count on support amongst both Goths and Romans within the city of Constantinople.[76] So too could a Romanised Ricimer count on the backing of native Italians against an Anthemius painted by writers like Ennodius as an unmanly Greek.[77] As I have mentioned above, the extent that the Isaurians made up the majority of Leo’s support, and indeed palace guard, may be questioned as well. Indeed contemporary sources provides us with evidence that Leo recruited execubitors from the Western Roman Empire as well.[78] One suspects that as a former commander, Leo knew the dangers of filling his ranks with Isaurians who might turn on him when push came to shove.

Nonetheless, we should be careful not to dismiss all of these accounts describing the subtleties surrounding constructions of Roman and non-Roman identity. I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity than scholars like Arnold. While Aspar gave his eldest son the Romanised name of Julius Patricus, the two sons he expected to follow in his footsteps were given the non-Roman names Ardabur and Hermineric.[79] I find it unlikely that Aspar would have promoted Leo I to the purple in 457 if he was going to be seen as a barbarian. Zeno too seems to have not promoted his identity as an Isaurian who technically were considered as Romans, if by this period as tenuous and semi-barbaric.[80]

Modern historians seem to make more of Leo’s and Zeno’s status as supposed barbarians than even their most ardent Byzantine opponents. The idea that the Western senate offered to make Aspar emperor has also been disputed by some I believe rightly. Moreover, the fact that Aspar and Theoderic remained ‘Arians’ is noteworthy. If they wanted to be seen as Romans: Why not just convert to the ‘Orthodoxy’ of the day? If Aspar was ready to take this step in the case of his son, then why not change as well if he truly wished to become emperor’? One answer may be provided. Such a step may have alienated Aspar from many of the non-Roman men who were his key supporters. Aspar may have wanted to be able to travel swiftly between Roman and non-Roman worlds.

Leo’s legacy—good and bad— for later Byzantines was defined largely by his relationship with Aspar. While his enemies depicted the slaying of Aspar and his family as the work of a ‘butcher’, and a sure sign of Leo’s ‘true’ barbarian nature, later Byzantine historians, such as Procopius, admired Leo for taking a tough stand against Aspar, a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing. Indeed, we find Procopius presenting Justinian’s sixth-century reconquests of Vandalic North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy as both the culmination and fulfilment of Leo’s political aspirations. While it remains difficult to penetrate the deeply embedded tropes found in our sources, this paper has aimed to show that a revaluation of the reign of Leo I can help us get a glimpse of the dynamic cultural changes that were reshaping Byzantium in the second half of the fifth century.















[1] W. TREADGOLD, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford 1997, p. 847.

[2] G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo I. Das oströmische Reich in den ersten drei Jahren seiner Regierung, 457–460 2 vols., Berlin/New York, 2010. For a modern account of the political background, see G. FRIELL and S. WILLIAMS, The Rome that did not Fall: the Survival of the East in the Fifth Century, London 1999.

[3] G. W. BOWERSOCK, P. BROWN, O.GRABAR, eds., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Cambridge 1999, pp. 541-42.

[4] E.g., K. HOLUM, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity, Berkeley 1982; K. CHEW, Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II, Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2/2006, pp. 207-227; F. MILLAR, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II Berkeley, 2006; H. SIVAN, Galla Placidia: the Last Roman Empress. Women in Antiquity, Oxford 2011; M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455, Oxford 2013.

[5] For only a small sample, see e.g., F. K. HAARER, Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World, Cambridge, 2006; M. MEIER, Anastasios I. Die Entstehung des Byzantinischen Reiches, Stuttgart 2009; R. KOSINSKI, The Emperor Zeno: Religion and Politics, Cracow, 2010; J. MOORHEAD, Justinian, London 1994; J.A.S. EVANS, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power, London, 1996; P. BELL, Social Conflict in the Reign of Justinian: Its Nature, management, and Mediation, Oxford 2013.

[6] G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo I…, cit., p. 2.

[7] M. KUEFLER (The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity, Chicago 2001), for example, avoids these fifth-century military regimes in his ground-breaking study on Late Roman masculinity. The continuing praise of martial virtues as an essential aspect of hegemonic masculinity in the depiction of these military men in the literature of late Antiquity undermines aspects of his primary conclusion that suggests for the majority of Romans non-martial ‘Christian’ virtues had become the new ideal of masculinity in the later Empire. Though following a more traditional narrative approach, MCEVOY in her commendable study on late Roman child-emperors, largely avoids discussing the reigns of these fifth-century soldier emperors. The large number of soldier-emperors, in fact, undermines some of her more sweeping suggestions (Child Emperor…, cit., p. 327) concerning the prominence of child-emperors in the Byzantine period.

[8]P. HEATHER, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders, London 2013.

[9]B. CROKE, Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar, Chirion 36/2005, pp. 147-203; Leo I and the Palace Guard, Byzantion 78/2005, pp. 117-151; P. WOOD, Multiple Voices in Chronicle Sources: The Reign of Leo I (457-474) in Book Fourteen of Malalas, Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 4. No. 2/ 2011, pp. 299-314.

[10] W. TREADGOLD, The Early Byzantine Historians, New York 2007, p. 102.

[11]MALCHUS frags. 1, 2, 3, translation by R.C. Blockley, Cambridge 1983. As TREADGOLD points out (Byzantine Historians…, cit., p. 105), Malchus was probably countering, or at least providing an alternative to the work of his contemporary the Isaurian born historian Candidus, which also covered the reigns of Leo and Zeno. John Malalas’ sixth-century portrait is more nuanced, mixing negative (e.g., Chronicle 14. 41, 42, 44, and positive (e.g., Chronicle 14.39, 45) views of Leo. Procopius (e.g., Wars 3.6.3-11), however, provides a far more idealised ‘tough guy’ representation of Leo. The preserver of Malchus’ fragments, the tenth-century Suda (267), also seems to hold a more favourable view of Leo, who, in the scribes telling, ruled the Empire with effective ferocity.

[12] E.g. G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo…, cit., p. 727.

[13] MARCELLINUS, Chronicle 458, with note by B. CROKE, p. 95.

[14]Though the battle itself deserves an in-depth modern analysis, Leo I’s failed attempt to wrest North Africa from the Vandals has long served as a favourite topic in scholars’ coverage of Leo I’s reign, see e.g., J.B. BURY, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian London, pp. 336; G. OSTROGORSKY, History of the Byzantine State, translated by J. Hussey, New Brunswick, 1957, pp. 57; A. MERRILLS and R. MILES, The Vandals Oxford, 2010, pp. 121-122; J. CONANT, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 Cambridge, pp. 31-32.

[15] Writing during the early years of Anastasios’ reign, the Isaurian CANDIDUS (frag. 1, translation by R.C. Blockley, Cambridge 1983) maintained that he hailed from Dacia in Illyricum. While JOHN MALALAS (Chronicle 14.35, translation by E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys, and R. Scott, Melbourne 1986) writing under Justinian stated that he was of Bessian stock (the Bessi were an independent Thracian tribe). Writing shortly after Leo’s reign, Candidus should be preferred. In fact, Malalas’ contention may represent later attempts to paint Leo as a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing.

[16] M. WHITBY, Emperors and Armies, in Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, ed. S. Swain and M. Edwards, Oxford 2004, p. 166. For a discussion of Balkan Military culture, see P. AMORY, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 Cambridge 1997, pp. 277-313.

[17] CANDIDUS, frag. 1.

[18] Following the complete depiction of Leo’s ceremony found in CONSTANTINE PORPHYROGENNETOS, Book of Ceremonies, translation by A. Moffatt and M. Tall, Canberra 2012, pp. 410-416.

[19] Marcian’s son-in-law the future Western Emperor Anthemius (ruled 467-472) had probably been the expected successor. Aspar most likely preferred the less connected and therefore less dangerous Leo. Though, writing nearly two decades later, SIDONIUS (Carmen 2 210-12, translation by W.B. Anderson, Cambridge, 1965) maintained that Anthemius did not want to become emperor at that time. Whether this assertion was true, and this is doubtful, it shows that questions of why Anthemius had not succeeded Theodosius II were still circulating in the East and West.

[20] FL (avius) ARDABUR ASPAR VIR INLUSTRIS COM (es) et MAG (ister) MILITUM et CONSUL ORDINARIUS. Aspar, bearded and wearing a tunic and a toga, holds up in his right-hand the mappa, and in his left a sceptre surmounted by two small busts of Theodosius II and Valentinian III. He is flanked by his son Ardabur standing, with the inscription ARDABUR IUNOR PRETOR. His son wears a similar outfit and also holds a mappa raised in his left hand, whilst he salutes his father with his right hand. Above them there are two medallions containing the busts of Aspar’s father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419. For a thorough description of the historical and the archaeological background of the dish, see G. BEVAN, A. GABOV, and C. ZACCAGNIO, The Missorium of Ardabur Aspar: New Considerations of its Archaeological and Historical Aspects, ArchCl LXIII/2012, pp. 419-454.

[21]For Aspar’s essential role in Marcian’s ascension, I side with arguments made by R. BURGESS (Marcian): though see the different view found in K. CHEW (Virgins and Eunuchs…, cit., pp. 207-227) that names the empress Pulcheria as the primary player behind Marcian’s accession. This opinion fail to convince; BURGESS argues persuasively that Pulcheria’s key role in Marcian’s appointment was largely an invention of later Monophysite writers seeking to undermine Chalcedon. For Aspar’s part in Leo’s rise, see Priscus frag.19. For the limitations of imperial women’s power to influence political events, see now M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor …, cit., p. 236. For a lucid discussion of the variety of ways emperors could be proclaimed even when heirs of the former emperor survived, see H. BÖRM, Born to be Emperor: The Principle of Succession and the Roman Monarchy, (forthcoming).

[22] SOCRATES, Ecclesiastical History 7.23; OLYMPIODORUS, frag. 43 translation by R.C. Blockley, Cambridge 1983. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates naturally focused on the miraculous aspect of Ravenna’s capture, whilst the secular minded Olympiodorus explained that the prisoner Ardabur had undermined John’s position within the city before Aspar arrived with his cavalry.

[23]  E.g., CASSIODORUS, Chronica, s.a. 425; PHILOSTORGIUS, Ecclesiastical History 12.4; JORDANES, Romana, 328.

[24]PRISCUS, frag. 14.85-90.

[25] PRISCUS, frag. 9.3. Priscus most likely composed his history during the second reign of Zeno. For this date, see W. TREADGOLD, Byzantine Historians…, cit., p. 100.

[26] JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 14.27. Cf. CHRONICON PASCHALE, S.A. 450. We should, however, discount Malalas’ contention that Theodosius had named Marcian as his successor at this time.

[27] G. SIEBIGS, Kaiser Leo I…, cit., 201.

[28] MALCHUS, frag. 3.

[29] W. TREADGOLD, Byzantine Historians…, cit., p. 157. G. SIEBIGS (Kaiser Leo I…, cit., pp. 478-490), however, suggests that the opening salvos between the two occurred in the first years of Leo’s rule and were concerned with Christological issues.

[30] Caution, however, must be observed, both because it post-dates Aspar’s death, and it passes down Leo’s side of the dispute.

[31] Relying on the now lost sixth-century history of Eustathius, the late sixth-century historian EVAGRIUS (Ecclesiastical History 2.15) explains that this accusation by Zeno was one of the primary factors in his subsequent rise.

[32] LIFE OF DANIEL THE STYLITE, 55 translated by E. Dawes and N. H. Baynes Three Byzantine Saints, Oxford 1948.

[33] PRISCUS, frag. 19.

[34] See, e.g., PROCOPIUS’ contention (Wars 4.6.5-8) that the Vandals’ martial edge and manliness had been eroded gradually by their love of feasting, baths, and sexual pleasures.

[35] For my interpretation of events I follow B. CROKE, The Date of the ‘Anastasian Long Wall’ in Thrace, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20/1982, pp. 59-78.

[36] Aspar was a joint-commander of the campaign against Dengizich, see PRISCUS, frag. 49.

[37] PRISCUS, frag. 53.3.15-20; MARCELLINUS, Chronicle 467.1; THEOPHANES, Chronicle. AM 5957.

[38] E.g., SIDONIUS, Carmen 2 193. Anthemius had achieved major victories over the Ostrogoths in Thrace sometime during 459-462 (SIDONIUS, Carmen 2 224-26, 232-35), and over the Huns in late 466 or early 467 (SIDONIUS, Carmen 2 236-42, 269-80).

[39]PRISCUS, frag. 64. Perhaps because of Alycia’s failure to produce an heir, by 470 the two were engaged in a battle for supremacy that only ended when Anthemius was murdered in July of 472.

[40] For the influential role the Eastern court had played in the reign of the Western Emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455), see M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor Rule…, cit., esp. Ch. 8. The Western generalissimo probably saw the move as a threat to his interests, yet was hesitant to immediately resist Leo’s meddling in Western politics.

[41] MARCELLINUS, Chronicle 468. PROCOPIUS tells us (Wars 3.6.5) that Leo had made Anthemius emperor primarily to help him with his campaign against the Vandals

[42] The loss of North Africa to the Vandals in the 430s and 440s ultimately had disastrous consequences for the Western Empire and its army. A vital loss of tax revenues and corn from this region made it increasingly difficult for Valentinian III and his successors to pay, clothe, and feed his troops. For this problem, see M. MCEVOY, Child Emperor…, cit., pp. 264-265.

[43] PRISCUS, frag. 52

[44] PROCOPIUS, Wars 3.6.1-2, 5-25. Modern historians (e.g. P. MACGEORGE, Late Roman Warlords…, cit., p. 58) doubt the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on Basiliskos’ poor generalship. Aspar may, however, been seeking to replace Leo with a more ‘malleable’ Basiliskos.

[45] J. M. O’FLYNN, Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire, Edmonton 1983, pp. 117-118, 189, suggests that in an effort to undermine Ricimer, Anthemius had made Marcellinus patricius.

[46] A point made by A. MERRILLS and R. MILES, The Vandals, p. 122 on THEOPHANES, AM 5961.

[47] Ivi, pp.122-23.

[48] JOHN LYDUS, On Powers 3.43-4.

[49] THEOPHANES, AM 5963.

[50] PRISCUS, frag. 56.

[51] For these hopes, see J. ARNOLD, Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration, Cambridge 2014, p. 159.

[52] B. CROKE, Dynasty…, cit., p. 193.

[53] Most historians (e.g. HEATHER, Roman Restoration…, cit., p. 22), believe that Leo at this time was protected by bands of loyal Isaurians. CROKE (Dynasty…, cit., pp. 188-193) has, however, recently suggested that they only became a dominant force once Zeno became emperor,

[54]JOHN MALALAS, Chronicle 14.40.

[55] EVAGRIUS, Ecclesiastical History 2.16.

[56] MALCHUS, frag 1,3. For Malchus’ criticisms of Leo, see B. BALDWIN, Malchus of Philadelphia Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 1971, pp. 89-107.

[57] As we can see from the passage above, the easterner Anthemius had landed in a difficult situation. As ARNOLD (Roman Imperial Restoration…, cit., p. 153) points out, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer ‘as a noble Roman protector’ whilst casting Anthemius ‘as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.’

[58] P. WOOD (Multiple Voices…, cit., p. 303) sees this passage as an instance of Malalas being ironic, maintaining that the chronicler sought to present Leo as a barbarian along the lines of Ricimer. I doubt that the rather clumsy historian Malalas was capable of such subtlety.

[59] PROCOPIUS, Wars 3.3-7. This view for the fall of the West and the survival of the East found in writers like Procopius and Malalas is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., W. TREADGOLD, History of Byzantium…, cit., pp. 149-155; P. HEATHER, Roman Restoration…, cit., p. 49.

[60] For Leo’s heavy interest and involvement in the Western realm and his role in the replacing of the Western Emperor Glycerius with the magister militum of Dalmatia Julius Nepos in 474, see M. MCEVOY, Between the old Rome and the new: Imperial co-operation ca. 400-500 CE, in D. DZINO and K. PARRY, eds. Byzantium, its Neighbours and it Cultures Brisbane, 2014, pp. 251-52.

[61] A.D. LEE, From Rome to Byzantium, ad 363 to 565: The Transformation of the Ancient Roman World Edinburg 2013, pp. 98-101.

[62] PRISCUS, frag 30.

[63] Full discussion in CROKE, Dynasty…, cit., pp. 147-203.

[64] W. GOFFART, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Late Roman Empire, Philadelphia 2006, p. 276. n. 43.

[65] P. WOOD, Multiple Voices…, cit., p. 310.

[66] For Zeno being far more of a barbarian than Aspar, see GOFFART, Barbarian Tides…, cit., p. 38. In fact, having been raised in the capitol, Theoderic probably received a more thorough education than either Leo or Zeno. Yet I would agree with Conor Whatley’s conclusion that ‘commanders from the Balkans serving Rome, and ultimately based in Constantinople’ were considered by their contemporaries as Roman: 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, pp. 49-57.

[67]PROCOPIUS, Secret History 6.1-3.For a similar condescending attitude towards the Emperor Anastasios amongst the upper-crust of Constantinople’s’ aristocracy, see M. MEIER, Anastasios…, cit., p. 285.

[68] H. BÖRM, Justinians Triumph und Belisars Erniedrigung Überiegungen zum Verhältnis Zwischen Reich, Chiron 43/2013, p. 81.

[69] D. LEE, ‘Theodosius and his Generals,’ in Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, ed. C. KELLY, Cambridge 2013, p. 108.

[70] PROCOPIUS, Wars 3.6.3.

[71] A. KALDELLIS, Hellenism in Byzantium: the Transformation of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Cambridge 2007, p. 77.

[72] ACTA SYNHODORUM HABITARUM ROMAE, 5.23-26. The story may be anachronistic since it dates from 501, recording a synod between Theoderic and a group of Western bishops. Indeed, it may be more reflective of Theoderic’s own aspirations to be seen as a new Western Emperor. Supporters of it validity have argued that the Roman senate offered to make Aspar Western emperor in 450 or 457

[73] J. ARNOLD, Theoderic…, cit., pp.159-60. Cf. J. MOORHEAD, Theoderic…, cit., p. 8. HEATHER (Roman Restoration…, cit., pp. 21-22), however, rejects the idea that Aspar could have been emperor.

[74] OLYMPIODORUS, frag. 33.

[75] R. MATHISEN, Ricimer’s Church in Rome: How an Arian Barbarian Prospered in a

Nicene World, in The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity, ed. A. CAIN and N. LENSKI, Burlington 2009, p. 324.

[76] Indeed, as mentioned above, Leo’s reputation as the ‘butcher’ was propagated in ‘Roman’ sources. JOHN MALALAS’ (Chronicle 14.40) account of the riots that rocked Constantinople after Aspar’s assassination would seem to suggest that Aspar had supporters from a large segment of Constantinople’s population, Roman and non-Roman.

[77] A lucid discussion of this propaganda is found in J. ARNOLD, Roman Imperial Restoration…, cit., pp. 16-20.


[79] J. ARNOLD, Roman Imperial Restoration, p. 159.

[80] N. LENSKI, Assimilation and Revolt in the Territory of Isauria, from the 1st Century BC to the 6th Century AD., Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 4/1999, pp.413-465.

Some Thoughts on the role of Holy War and Providence in Seventh-Century Byzantium



The recent rise of militant Islam, and in particular Isis, has led to an increased focus on the original confrontation between Muslims and Christian Byzantines in the seventh century. A hot topic of debate is the notion of “holy war’ in Byzantium and early Islam. Though much of this discussion in popular media is anachronistic, more serious  scholarly research too has looked at the ways seventh-century Byzantium dealt with what one scholar describes as the “Muslim War ethic’ in the face of what he sees as a more pacifist approach in Byzantium. Certainly Byzantium displayed a nuanced attitude towards the role that God played in ‘slaughtering’ His enemies. So where Heraclian and other Byzantine propaganda could promote the slaying of the Empire’s non- Christian enemies as a sure path to heaven, some Byzantine intellectuals promoted the idea that God could not sanction the ‘the destruction of human life.’  I would, however, be careful to take this pacifist stain in Byzantine thought as representing the dominant line of thinking amongst the majority of Byzantines .

Certainly much counter-evidence can be cited.  The emperor Heraclius’ (ruled 610-641) fondness for militant Christian themes in his propaganda campaign against the Persians and the Arab Muslims has long attracted scholarly attention.  Such attention is deserved. Not only was he the first Roman emperor to lead his soldiers into battle since Theodosius I at the close of the fourth century, but his two struggles against the Persians and the Muslims have been seen as representing the true close of the classical world and the beginning of the medieval Byzantine era.

Some of this Byzantine militaristic propaganda may have been instituted to refute non-Christian propaganda. As Johannes Koder and Ioannis Stouratis lucidly explain, from the fifth century, Byzantine Emperors attempts to expand or reclaim the Empire’s lost territories needed to be conducted via an ideological framework, one that promoted and combined the notion of a “just war” with the ultimate aim of restoring peace. We see such an example in the sixth-century Emperor Justinian’s reconquests of North Africa and Italy, whereby writers like Procopius go to great lengths to show that the entire campaign was undertaken on “legal” grounds to write the injustice of particular Vandalic and Gothic rulers. Though in these sources war continues to be glorious, the ultimate aim of warfare was restoring the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”). Indeed, there is very little expansionist ideology to seek out “virgin” territories to conquer. Warfare was therefore largely seen as a necessary evil, (see full discussion in “Byzantine Approaches to Warfare”, 10-15). Though as these same sources show, once a campaign began, Byzantine armies fought as savagely and mercilessly as their worst “barbarian” foes. Indeed, a devout Christian society like Byzantium could say one thing and do the opposite. For instance, no one doubts the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian’s devotion to Christian precepts, but this did not keep him from destroying his enemies or having his armies slaughter fellow Christians in his military campaigns. So too does on find the sentiment in Late Roman and later Byzantine authors that too much peace “eviscerated” Roman men (for just one example of many see Ennodius’ description of the Eastern Roman soldiery in the late fifth century, : Their minds eviscerated through too much peace ‘et evisceratas diuturna quiete mentes occasionis pabulo subiugavit’ [PanTh 12, trans. Arnold].

Such a need for justification in its war ideology did not apply generally to the Empire’s enemies. Our sources show us that Rome’s enemies were perplexed by such an approach and a Christian religion that held in high regard an individual who “passively” went to his death. We have evidence that non-Christians criticized the religion for what they perceived to be the unmanly death of its saviour (as Colleen Conway shows in Behold the Man, this was a similar view of non-Christian Romans in the first and second centuries). The seventh-century Armenian historian, Sebeos, for example, has a Muslim commander accepting the surrender of parts of the Eastern Roman Empire scoff at the protective power of Christ and the cross. The historian wrote:

‘I shall provide you with as many soldiers as you wish, and take tribute from you as much as you are able to give. But if you do not, that Jesus whom you call Christ, since he was unable to save himself from the Jews, how can he save you?’

So too did the Persian King Khusrau II use similar emotive rhetoric during a seventh-century war with the Byzantines, writing in a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610-641): “Let not your vain hope deceive you. For that Christ who was not able to save himself from the Jews- but they killed him by hanging him from a cross-how can the same save you from me?”

Such derision helps to explain why Christian missionaries made a point of emphasizing Christ’s triumph to potential converts among the warlike foreign Peoples who would have had a difficult time accepting the pacifist Christ of the New Testament. Indeed, the God of the Early Medieval Christian missionaries was often not the generally gentle saviour of the New Testament (as we see in this mosaic below, Revelation is a notable exception), but the vengeful God of the Old Testament.


So too as we discussed above, did Heraclius prefer to focus on a militant Christianity in his propaganda. Panegyrists praising his regime frequently compared Heraclius with King David or the seminal militant Christian Roman emperor Constantine I (ruled 306-337) The pacifist strains found in the New Testament certainly took a back seat to the more militant themes seen throughout the Old Testament. According  Heraclian propaganda that has come down to us, death in battle represented the easiest path to heaven for Byzantine soldiers. One Byzantine historian recounting Heraclius’ militant propaganda and enthusiastic whipping up of religious fervour during his climatic struggle with the Zoroastrian Persians wrote: “Let us revenge the rape of virgins. Having seen the mutilated members of our soldiers let us labour with our hearts. Danger is not unrequited, but the way to eternal life. Let us stand courageously, and the Lord God will help us destroy our enemies.”

Such a militaristic world had little place for the promotion of a passive saviour. As Walter Kaegi warns, however, we should not see Heraclius’ military campaigns as purely religious crusades. He points out that ‘It was Heraclius and his panegyrists, not the Patriarch or bishop, who are creating any crusade-like features and whipping up religious enthusiasm (Kaegi, Heraclius 126).’ Yet it also important to remember that in this period the emperor and most of his subjects perceived him to be the foremost Christian authority in the Empire, not the Patriarch. Moreover, as we will see at the close of today’s blog we do have evidence that bishops were involved in whipping up militaristic fervour.

The first campaign against the Persians started badly, but ultimately ended with a comprehensive victory over the Persians that few Roman emperors had ever achieved. The second war, however, led to severe defeats and the loss of important Roman territories to the Arabs. As a recent biographer has explained, however, things may not have been as bad as some historians’ insist. Historians’ view of Heraclius’ reign as an unmitigated disaster is largely anachronistic. As Walter Kagei comments (Heraclius, 314):

”Heraclius cannot have regarded his entire life and career as a total failure at the moment of his death. His Empire still stretched from the straits of Gibraltar to the edge of the Caucasus, although his armies had now evacuated Syria. After all, Byzantine armies were still resisting in Egypt and upper Mesopotamia…So however, dire the situation still looked better than it had in 610 or 612.

Things undoubtedly grew worse in the years after his death. Indeed, Byzantium survived by the thinnest of margins. This circumstance has long shaped opinions of the age as on one of doom and gloom. James Howard-Johnstone echoes the thoughts of modern consensus when he suggests that a long series of military defeats at the hands of the Muslim armies had convinced many Byzantines that the hand of God was against them. He writes:

Each successive defeat likewise impressed on Christians the plain truth that the Muslims were indeed agents of the Lord and that the end of time was approaching. No wonder then that the morale of the army might suddenly plummet or that a whole province might submit once there was no prospect of help from field forces. There was no point in continuing resistance from the cities, doomed as it was to failure and likely cost their ruling elites all their suburban villas, gardens, and orchards.”

I am unconvinced that the majority of Christians ever completely believed that God had abandoned them or that religious belief was the most important factor behind Byzantine failures or successes. Moreover, if the Byzantines truly believed that the end of days was near, then why would they think that submitting to the Arabs would allow them to keep their wealth. In fact, if they were truly as devout as some argue, the arrival of judgement day should have seen increased resistance on the part of Christians convinced they would soon be facing their maker.  

It is more likely that the majority did not really believe that the end of days was near, but merely wanted to survive. I would agree, however, with Johnston’s further contention (Witness to a World Crisis 463) that “The main dynamic behind its (Arab-Muslims) expansion and its rooting in different habits must be religious, must surely have had its origins in the preaching of the Prophet.” Johnstone also, in my mind rightly, suggest that even after years of warfare the Persian and Byzantine armies remained potent military forces (473). Yet I would caution that not all of the ebbs and flows of Byzantine fortunes can be placed at the feet of eschatological Christian belief. Romanitas as much as fervent Christianity helps to explain Byzantine resilience. Romans both Christian and pagan had a long record of overcoming foreign foes and similar dire situations. Certainly later Byzantine historians tell such a tale.

This is not to say that religious belief did not play an essential part in shaping Byzantine attitudes. As the mid sixth-century historian Agathias explained, times of crisis inevitably led to an increased religiosity of Constantinople’s citizens. The historian described the reaction after a terrible earthquake: ‘The ideals to which people constantly pay lip service but rarely put into practice were then eagerly pursued.’ A religiosity, however, that Agathias declared could wane once the crisis had passed (8.32.22-30, 5.5. 1-6). He explained that ‘All of these good deeds, for a limited time, as long as the terror was fresh on people’s minds.’

I would suggest that most soldiers left such religious debates to the theologians. Providence serves on the periphery. So where Procopius attributed victories over the Goths to Providence (Wars 8.33.1), his didactic narrative shows that the primary immediate cause of the Goths’ defeat was, in fact, straight forward; Procopius attributed the trouncing to Totila’s “folly” in risking his men in battle when the Byzantines held all the material and tactical advantages ( Wars 8.32.22-30 . To put it another way, Providence for many byzantine historians is the icing on the cake of victory.

Soldiers on the field of battle have always known that men’s deed on the day of battle played the primary factor in determining the victor and the loser. American soldiers are highly religious and inspired by a similar providential rhetoric as the ancient Byzantines and Muslims. Yet they know that the deeds of soldiers in battle represent the true determinate of a victory. I still remember my days in the US Army a sergeant telling me the “commies” did not care if God was on my side. God was not watching over me, he was. One thinks that Byzantine soldiers familiar with the arbitrary nature of all warfare knew this “truth”. Indeed, it is a common theme in classical  historians and military manuals that believe in providence but recognize the essential and overriding role that men’s deeds and fate play in determining events on the field of battle.

If religious belief was the only factor in the Muslim’s triumphs and the Byzantines’ failures in the second half of the seventh century it does little to explain the Byzantine resilience in the second half of the seventh century and at the battle of Constantinople in 717-718. No one seemed to have told these Byzantines that their God had abandoned them…. So it was time too meekly give up. Surely if it was true that Arab victories served as a sign that God had turned against the Romans, Constantinople’s citizens and it armies would have cowed down to the inevitable. Instead the opposite is true, they resisted, triumphed, and survived. One suspects that a good old belief in Roman military virtues and the need to survive, and not the whims of providence represent the primary factors behind the “Romans” continued resistance and century-long battle back to relevance.

We see this sentiment expressed in the eleventh-century Byzantine history of the soldier and aristocrat Michael Attaleiates (Histories 27.11) who praised the manly virtues of his pagan and Republican Roman ancestors when faced with foreign invaders:

For the noble Romans of that time did not strive for money and the acquisition of wealth but simply for renown, the demonstration of their manliness, and their country’s safety and splendour.”

I would suggest that similar sentiment helped Byzantines’ facedown the rampaging Arab armies in the Anatolia in the seventh century and outside the gates of Constantinople in 717-718.

And to close here is an excerpt from a draft for the final chapter of The Soldier’s Life:

Why did you assume you were addressing an assembly of women, insulting our nature as well as our race? With words you misrepresent deeds, bringing shame on the council. Did you not realize that you were pouring forth disgraceful words in the presence of men [ἀρρένων]? Or do you not see an assembly of Roman people, proud of their zeal, vigorous in arms, knowledgeable in their experience of danger and providence for future advantage?

Theophylact Simocatta, History 2.14.3 (trans. Whitby).

The excerpt above comes from what would prove to be the last Greek history composed in the grand classical style for more than three centuries. The Egyptian Theophylact published his work in the euphoric period surrounding the Emperor Heraclius’ emphatic victory over the Persians in 628—a brief interlude of triumphant calm before the sudden emergence of the Arab threat in the 630s that saw the near snuffing out of the Byzantine Empire. The sudden disappearance after 640 of many genres of secular literature, as well as the emergence of the Muslims as a new religious and political rival in this period, demarcated the dawning of a new age.

I have chosen Theophylact’s history to open this closing chapter for these reasons, as well as the obvious martial aspect and gendered implications of the excerpt. The set-speech from which this quotation is drawn certainly touches on two of my new monograph’s primary themes: the primacy of military matters and the manliness of war. In the anecdote, which describes the Roman response to an Avar invasion of Thrace in 587, the historian constructed a debate between two Roman soldiers, one a tribune, and the other a grizzled veteran. The debate provided his readers with both the standard commentary on the fine lines between courage and rashness and the familiar linking of traditional martial virtues to masculinity. The tribune suggested that it was best to avoid a direct confrontation with the Avars, whilst the veteran advocated a more aggressive approach. The older soldier appeared to win the debate with his refrain that Rome’s rise to world dominance had been due to its men’s embrace of the rigours and courageous virtues of the soldier’s life (Theophylact, History 2.14.6). His assertion from the rhetorical opening of the speech that bold action on the battlefield helped to prove that Roman soldiers’ souls were “masculine” [ἄρρενας] like their bodies serves as an important final reminder for my readers of how conceptualisations of the soldier’s life remained linked intimately to masculine ideology (Theophylact, History 2.14.6.). According to Theophylact, “courage” in battle represented a sure sign of “manliness”, whereas “cowardice’ in the face of conflict indicated that one had fallen into the realm of “effeminacy”, ‘Men of Rome, unless you would belie the name by your actions; men, that is if your souls [ψυχάς] are masculine [ἄρρενας] like your body. Even though the tribune is expert at high-flown talk and at confusing the issue, nevertheless deeds are more vigorous than words and do not tolerate empty sounds’.

Such motifs are common in Roman and Byzantine historiography. Indeed, the emotive rhetoric associating traditional Roman codes of masculinity with idealised visions of the soldier’s life is so common in the ancient Roman and the early Byzantine sources that the modern reader is tempted to skip over such bombastic speeches to get to the “relevant” parts. Ancient and modern scholars have, I think quite rightly, criticised Theophylact, in particular, for his heavy reliance on “extravagant metaphors, sententious artistry, and ornate rhetoric”. Yet, as I have suggested throughout this study, an exploration of these standard themes helps one to understand these early Byzantine texts and the society that produced them. While such anecdote’s heavy reliance on standard rhetoric and stock heroes and villains may tell one very little about the “real” personalities of the combatants, or the actual debates among the Roman soldiers before battle, they provide important insights into wider attitudes towards gender and masculinity. The episode above, for instance, relied on the traditional appeal of the manly Roman soldier and on the conventional disdain for the cowardly and effeminate man.

What I argue is that martial virtues and images of the soldier’s life continued to represent an essential aspect of hegemonic masculinity in the early Byzantine period. This is not to say that the masculinity of soldiers represented the only type of heroic manliness in this period.

I have taken this stance, in part, to balance the heavy reliance by recent studies on Roman masculinity on ancient writings created from a theological perspective. In this study, I was interested primarily in seeing how disparate ancient writers connected martial virtues to long-held codes of ideal manly conduct. It is important to note that military affairs were not a primary concern in a variety of literary genres or even in some historical writing that has come down to us from the age. Alternative pathways to achieving “true” manliness had long been a feature of masculine ideology in the Late Roman and the early Byzantine period. Extreme ascetics, courageous martyrs, fearless philosophers, and powerful political and Church leaders were all, at times, compared favourably to military heroes. Moreover, Christian historiographical concepts like providence played a role in the classicising histories of Procopius, Menander, and Theophylact.

Traditional hegemonic masculinity secured in acts of masculine brave Traditional hegemonic masculinity secured in acts of masculine bravery in warfare, however, proved resilient in the early Byzantine period. Certainly, one need not serve in the military to perceive the soldier’s life as an exemplar of the manly life. Civilian elites admired the manliness of war and the masculine deeds of the Empire’s soldiers. As Theophylact had the Bishop Domitianus of Melitene explain to a group of soldiers headed off to fight the Persians:

‘Let no one receive a scar on his back: the back is incapable of seeing victory. In the contest be united in spirit more than body, comrades in toils but not in cowardice. Let him who has not taken up the inheritance of danger be disowned. In death reach out for victory. Trophies are bought with wounds and blows. Sloth brings no glory. There is nothing sweeter than death in war, for if there is no advantage in growing old and being struck down by wasting disease, assuredly it is more appropriate for you heroes to die in the battle-line while you are young, reaping glory in your tombs.’

As a realm dominated by “real” men, the field of battle continued to provide one of the easiest places for men in the early Byzantium.

Okay that is it for now. I will keep working on this…stay tuned.


The Long Journey from Dissertation to Monograph


The challenge of transforming one’s dissertation into a readable, and perhaps even sellable monograph, is the bane of many a scholar. Once one has finally seen the “last” of their dreaded study after completion of their PhD, the last thing one wants to do is revisit something that they sweated over for years (in my case 5 1/2). We are probably our own harshest critics. Indeed, I know full well the shortcomings of my own work. The hard thing for many of us is to recognise what was and is good. Some distance is probably a good thing. Now just over two years after final approval I finally feel ready to create the book.

Certainly the window to publish these works is pretty short. In fact, when I first completed my dissertation I approached Penn Press about the possibility of a monograph. They sent a very encouraging  “rejection” . With their helpful comments in hand, I decided to work on the original work’s gaps, by publishing a few articles that addressed these issues. Moreover, I added some material that should have been in the original, but had to be left out due to space and time constraints.

With four articles under my belt, this week I approached another publisher . The initial response was encouraging, so I will begin an experiment by blogging some of the rewrites and new chapters. I am hoping to have a completed draft by the end of the year, so I plan on about one blog every two weeks. Feel free to comment, To finish the project I will need to basically create three new chapters from pretty much scratch out of the planned seven or eight. Here is an “enticing” preview, followed by  a rather Phd-like outline, with a comment on where the draft stands at the moment.

So let us begin with my trailer…..

In the early years of the fifth century, a Roman or non-Roman man spending any time in one of the many major or minor cities scattered throughout the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire, would have quite literally found himself surrounded by visual reminders of what one modern scholar calls Rome’s masculine imperium.[1] Across its vast expanse, a remarkable homogeneity of material culture bound the state’s disparate cities.[2] A zealous militarism certainly represented a common theme in any city’s expression of its Romanitas.[3] Strolling along the colonnaded streets, or wandering through any of the many public areas that helped to define these population centres, one would have been constantly confronted by the Romans’ adulation of their military legacy as well as their continuing admiration of their soldiers’ martial virtues. One sixth-century source tells us that the city of Rome alone had 3,785 bronze statues of emperors and famous military commanders.[4] If only on a subconscious level, the marble and bronze statuary of bellicose-looking Roman emperors and other famous military heroes—living and dead—that adorned the cities, would have spoken clearly to both literates and illiterates about the integral relationship between the well-being of the local community and the militarism of its central leadership.[5]

In the Empire’s larger population centres, this message took on even more blatant forms. Funded by the substantial wealth of the imperial family and the upper crust of the aristocracy, magnificent state monuments designed to express current ideologies decorated the Empire’s larger cities.[6] A variety of artistic mediums expressed the idea found in one sixth-century Eastern Roman historian that for Rome “to triumph forever over our enemies is our birthright and ancestral privilege.”[7] Intricately carved marble reliefs on exterior walls, columns, and other memorials spoke to this faith by providing the onlooker with a continuous pictorial narrative of Roman victories over “barbarian” enemies.[8]A visitor to Constantinople in the first two decades of the fifth century would have witnessed the construction of the magnificent column of the reigning Emperor Arcadius (ruled 395-408). Modelled on the column of the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117), in thirteen windings the monument depicted naval and terrestrial military scenes that showed the decidedly non-martial emperor “leading” his army to victory over the Goths at the opening of the fifth century (plate 8).[9]

Mosaics and paintings often complemented these sculpted forms, as the one in Milan described to us by the fifth-century Eastern Roman historian Priscus, showing Roman emperors “sitting upon golden thrones surrounded by dead barbarians at their feet.”[10] We see in fact from other ancient sources that commissioning these visual monuments for public consumption served as one of the first steps an emperor took after a military triumph.[11] Such visual displays of Rome’s martial prowess served a larger political purpose. In Constantinople, foreign embassies on their way to an audience with the Roman emperor were led purposefully along a rout dominated by such martial iconography; imagery that none too subtly highlighted to the envoys Rome’s martial and, indeed, masculine supremacy.[12]

Even the coins that one carried on their person to perform the simplest of transactions spoke to the Romans’ sense of superiority over their foes, and served as well as a means of demonstrating the integral link between the manly valour of the emperor and his soldiers in the establishment and maintenance of this dominion. On the obverse of a coin, for instance, a fearsome headshot of the emperor often in military garb served as a customary design, while on the reverse, a favourite motif in the Later Empire was the representation of the emperor or his soldiers armed to the hilt standing over cowering barbarian captives with captions like: “The glory of the Romans [Gloria Romano rum]”, or “The return of happy times [Fel Temp Reparatio].”[13] Behind all of this imagery, we can observe a long-held conviction held by many Greek and Roman intellectuals that history represented a process whereby the manly conquered the unmanly (plate 3 & 5).[14]

Such assertions represent more than the anachronistic whims of modern scholars interested in uncovering ancient masculinities. Another Eastern Roman historian, writing in the early years of the fifth century, informs us that imperial image-makers created these art forms with the express intent of impressing upon their visual audience the “manliness of the emperor and the might of his soldiers [ἀνδρεíαν μὲν γὰρ βασιλέως ἢ ῥώμην στρατιωτῶν].”[15]

In a centralised governmental system like that found in the Later Roman Empire, imperial propaganda provided the emperors and their backers with a powerful tool to publicise their authority and manipulate popular opinion across the expanse of Empire.[16] The classically educated elites, who represented an essential audience for these media campaigns, would have understood the social significance of the ideology, and in particular, the militaristic symbolism intrinsic to these art forms. Though living in increasingly independent halves of the Empire, these men, to borrow the words of Jacqueline Long, identified “with the name of Rome and Roman traditions completely.”[17] Raised in educational systems based on a steady diet of classical Latin authors, such as Sallust, Seneca the younger, and Vergil in the West and Greek authors like Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the East, the literate classes in both halves of the Empire remained intimately aware of the time-honoured idealisation of the military ethic as an essential aspect of both masculine ideology and Rome’s right to imperium.[18]

Hungry for more?


And the prospective outline…..

This project examines the numerous ways martial virtues and images of the soldier’s life shaped early Byzantine cultural ideals of masculinity. It contends that in many of the visual and literary sources from the fourth to the seventh centuries CE, conceptualisations of the soldier’s life and the ideal manly life were often the same. By taking this stance, the book challenges the view found in many recent studies on Late Roman and early Byzantine masculinity that suggest a Christian ideal of manliness based on extreme ascetic virtues and pacifism had superseded militarism and courage as the dominant component of hegemonic masculine ideology. Though the monograph does not reject the relevance of Christian constructions of masculinity for helping one understand early Byzantine society and its diverse representations of masculinity, it seeks to balance these modern studies’ often heavy emphasis on “rigorist” Christian sources with the more customary attitudes we find in the secular, and indeed some Christian texts, praising military virtues as an essential aspect of Byzantine manliness. The nexus between martial virtues and “true” manliness remained a powerful cultural force in the period covered in this study. Indeed, the reader of this work will find that the “manliness of war” is on display in much of the surviving early Byzantine literature, secular and Christian.

Prospective Chapter Outline

Chapter 1 investigates how modern historians formulate and use “masculinity” as a tool of historical inquiry. It provides a brief summary of the growth of gender studies in the past forty years, and explores some of the current debates surrounding “masculinity” as a legitimate means for understanding ancient cultures like Rome and Byzantium. It contends that if critics of scholarship examining ancient masculinities have been correct in pointing out the dangers of letting our modern obsession with sexuality “cloud” our view of the past, it is just as vital to point out the androcentric nature of Rome and Byzantium in comparison to many modern western cultures. While the past must always remain a “foreign country,” familiarising ourselves with these ancient masculinities can provide us not only with a better understanding of ancient Rome and Byzantium, but also offer us essential insights into our own era. (22 pages done)

Chapter 2 focuses on the continuing relevance of martial virtues in Late Roman conceptualisations and representations of heroic manliness. The chapter provides a discussion on the close link between the soldier’s life and codes of manliness from the Republic to the Early Empire. It then describes the supposed demilitarisation of the Roman upper classes and the changing ethnic makeup of the Roman army in the Later Empire. It closes by discussing how these shifts influenced representations of “true” manliness in both the ancient texts and in some modern works on Late Roman masculinity.(39 pages done, an article based on this “key” chapter is soon to be published)

Chapter 3 opens by tracing the evolution of Christian “heroes” in the fourth century. It seeks to explain some of the reasons for their growing popularity in later Christian sources from the fourth and the fifth centuries. It strives also to demonstrate why some modern studies have attributed shifts in hegemonic Roman masculine ideology to these social and political developments. The chapter examines the growing influence of holy men and bishops as a means of exploring continuity and change in early Byzantine gender ideology. It contends that while many of these influential modern studies have correctly uncovered how early Christian intellectuals both interacted and cleverly inverted dominant Greco-Roman masculinities, they have, at times, overstated the impact, as well as the innovative nature of Christian masculine ideology in this era. Moreover, despite the claims found in many of these same studies that martial virtues no longer played an essential role in shaping notions of heroic manliness in the fifth century, we will see once again, that the waging of war and the acts of masculine bravery best demonstrated by Roman soldiers in “real” battles, remained an essential aspect of hegemonic masculinity in the Theodosian age.

(35 pages done, though I will be tweeking the original)

Chapter 4 turns its focus to the seeming paradox, between the images of ideal martial manliness disseminated by the fifth-century Roman emperors and their supporters, and the reality of the increasing demilitarisation of a segment of the Roman leadership. It examines both idealised and negative views of various Eastern and Western emperors from Constantius II (ruled 337-361) to Valentinian III ruled (ruled 425-455). It seeks to understand how the declining military role of the emperor after the death of Theodosius I in 395 influenced literary representations of idealised leadership that had long depended on the intimate connections between an emperor’s courage, his manliness, and the well-being of the Empire. In particular, we look at how the fifth-century ecclesiastical and secular historians constructed images of these emperors that reflect traditional as well as “innovative” strategies of leadership and manliness. The chapter challenges the dominant modern view that supposes that these fifth-century regimes witnessed a major shift away from martial virtues as an essential component of imperial propaganda.( 30 pages.I need to rework this chapter from the original dissertation. That chapter focused heavily on the emperor Julian, this one will provide a more diachronic view of the later emperors.)

Chapter 5 moves further into the fifth century in order to consider the reigns of the fifth-century soldier-emperors Marcian, Leo, I, and Zeno. It seeks to place the militarized regimes within the context of Byzantine historiography. More precisely, the chapter concludes that these reigns serve as further evidence that the early Byzantine Empire continued to embrace martial virtues as key qualities of both imperial leaders, and men more generally. Certainly these military regimes provides important clues for historians hoping to uncover the nuanced ways martial virtues continued in the second half of the fifth century to shape ideals of leadership and manly Romanitas.(this is a new chapter. I have published an article on Leo I based on the draft).

Chapter 6 looks at the role that the traditional Roman military ethos played in the sixth century. Was the seeming increased interest in military matters and the deeds of “manly” soldiers  in much of  this literature the by-product of Justinian’s reconquests, or more a reflection of genre and/or the dearth of secular sources that come down to us from the fifth century?  In particular the chapter will show how the propaganda war between Theoderic’s Italy and the Eastern Empire was often based on traditional gendered and martial rhetoric. Indeed martial virtues represented a key aspect on any peoples claim to Romanitas. As recent scholarship has pointed out, mid-sixth century historians writing from an Eastern perspective like Jordanes and Procopius inverted Theoderican propaganda that touted the martial manliness of the Goths while belittling the Eastern Byzantines as unmanly Greeks. This chapter will show that the two sides in the battle for Italy sought to present the struggle as a contest of manliness between two peoples vying to be seen by the Italian populace as “true” martial and manly Romans. (a reworking of my original chapter five….the best chapter in my mind in the original thesis, indeed, it produced two well received articles, and served as the basis for my third on Narses)

Chapter 7 concludes the study by looking at how the increasing focus on religious ideology as an aspect of imperial propaganda during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610-641) influenced seventh-century ideals of masculinity. It explores the ways hegemonic masculine ideologies disseminated the views of an elite intent on justifying and protecting the existing political order. Of particular interest is Heraclius’ increasing use of Old Testament ideologies to promote his military campaigns. The chapter delves into these messages for hints of continuity and change in cultural codes of masculinity during this transformative era of Byzantine history. (This chapter ended up in my conclusion in the original thesis because I ran out of time. Therefore it will need a little work….my next blog perhaps?).


So there it is….