Monthly Archives: July 2015

AMBROSE: A Bad-ASS Roman Bishop?


Okay, I am back after an epic three-week trip around the world. I spent three days a IMC Leeds giving a paper and meeting some truly cool historians…yes I used the oxymoronic term ‘cool’. The sessions on generalship were very stimulating and it looks like a monograph may be produced, I also found out while in England that my paper on ‘The Soldier’s Life’ had been accepted in publication. I only needed to spend endless hours converting the footnotes and adding quite a bit of Greek text. Having not seen the article for six months I also did a bit of rewriting and further differentiating it from my book chapter that will be based on similar material, which brings me at last to today’s topic: Ambrose. This section is an excerpt of a new draft…so once again forgive any glaring typos and errors. I will continue polishing, but please comment or add suggestions if you wish.


In the Later Roman Empire the bishop represented Christianity’s involvement in, and responsibility to, the secular world. A bishop’s power was heavily dependent on his moral superiority. As an exemplar of supreme Christian conduct, it was natural that a bishop’s lifestyle would be compared to that of the holy men. Consequently, although many bishops were married when elected, the Church’s hierarchy frowned on subsequent sexual relationships, often preferring virginal candidates.[1] In addition to his ‘ascetic authority’, a bishop frequently wielded a great deal of ‘pragmatic authority’.[2] As one finds with the example of the rather reluctant bishop, Synesius, bishops in the Later Empire were often chosen because they hailed from the educated landowning elite, and therefore could be expected to use their social position and wealth to administer and look after their communities’ well-being.[3]

The episcopate offered Roman men other benefits. Their roles as spiritual and civic leaders at times provided bishops in the larger sees with direct access to the emperor and his inner-circle—a place of power and decision making that was increasingly out of reach for even the most esteemed members of the Roman upper classes. [4] In the court-dominated world of the early Byzantine Empire, where political influence represented a highly valued commodity, this close contact with the imperial court allowed some bishops to become patronage brokers with considerable influence. Even though the majority of bishops in the smaller bishoprics scattered throughout the Empire could never hope to gain such intimate contact with imperial authorities, even these men from the Empire’s backwaters could expect to send a missive on rather minor affairs direct to the eyes of the emperor or his consistory.[5] Therefore, while bishops remained largely subordinate to the emperor and his officials, as defenders of the local peace, advocates for their community’s poor, sponsors of regional building projects, and protectors of the holy relics, many Late Roman bishops became powerful men in their own right.[6]

Evidence for the episcopate’s growing power, as well as the need for some bishops to highlight their moral authority over secular rivals is found in Bishop Ambrose’s famous dispute with the Emperor Valentinian II (ruled 383-392) and his mother the Empress Justina (ca. 340-ca. 390).[7] This confrontation, as well as his disputes with Theodosius I, were well publicised in Western and Eastern sources of the period.[8] In his clash with the Western court, the Nicene Ambrose went to great lengths in his public writings to describe how his Christian faith had furnished him with the ‘tools’ to deny an imperial order to abandon his basilica to the Homoian imperial court in the first half of 386.[9] Ambrose portrayed himself as a victim of imperial aggression. When the bishop and his supporters—who were guarding the basilica—found themselves surrounded by Valentinian II’s soldiers, Ambrose declared, ‘If force is used, resistance I know nothing about. When I face arms, soldiers, Goths, even tears are my weapons; for such are the defences of a bishop’. Similar to the early Christian martyrs, his ‘weakness’, however, was in actuality based on his superior courage. ‘Neither weapons nor do barbarians’, Ambrose continued, ‘inspire fear in man who is not afraid of death, who is not held back by the inclinations of the flesh’.[10] Though adorned with Christian values, behind some of Ambrose’s prose is ancient Greco-Roman masculine rhetoric extolling the unselfish manliness of men who treated their own deaths with scorn by standing up to ‘tyrants’ for the good of others, or for their own ‘righteous’ convictions.[11]

The Church historian Rufinus portrayed the clash between Ambrose and the imperial family in gendered and martial terms. Emphasising empress Justina’s role, while deemphasising the child-emperor Valentinian II’s part in the dispute, he wrote:

In this war she assailed Ambrose, the wall of the church and its stoutest tower, harassing him with threats, terrors, and every kind of attack as she sought a first opening into the church she wanted to conquer. But while she fought armed with the spirit of Jezebel, Ambrose stood firm, filled with the power and grace of Elijah.[12]

The Milanese bishop, Rufinus continued, had sought to ‘ward off the empress’s fury’ not with ‘hand or weapon, but with fasts and unceasing vigils’.[13]

It is also probably no coincidence that in the midst of this dispute, Ambrose ‘discovered’ the relics of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius.[14] Here he took a less passive stance, describing in a letter to his sister, these dead saints’ metaphorical ‘martial’ qualities:

Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus, that in the holy martyrs you have raised for us such an effective guardian spirits, at a time when your Church needs greater defenders. Let everybody take note what kind of champions I seek: champions who have the power to defend, but do not practise aggression. This kind of champion I have acquired for you, my holy people: champions to benefit everybody and harm no one. Such are the ‘defenders’ to whom I pay court, such the soldiers whom I maintain, that is, not soldiers of the world, but soldiers of Christ.[15]

Whereas the emperor and his soldiers ruled in the secular world, Ambrose implied here that he and the ‘soldiers of Christ’ held sway in the spiritual one. Contemporaries of Ambrose once again presented the dispute in gendered terms. In reference to Ambrose’s ‘triumph’ over the empress Justina, Augustine of Hippo declared that the discovery of the martyrs had allowed the Milanese bishop ‘to thwart a feminine fury, but also a royal one’ [ad cohercendam rabiem femineam, sed regiam].[16]

It is true that Ambrose constructed an image of the dispute that he wished to convey. Yet, passages like those discussed above—whether they are completely accurate or not—provide us with lucid examples of how these classically trained orators created, what one modern academic describes as a ‘Christian discourse’ that could be wielded to promote the moral as well as the episcopate’s political authority.[17] By adopting the Hellenic tradition of parrhesia (freedom of speech) that had formally granted the politically non-aligned philosopher the ability at times to speak ‘truthfully’ to the emperor, bishops like Ambrose in the West and John Chrysostom in the East helped to establish the episcopate ‘as the arbitrator of imperial mercy’.[18] Ambrose explained his vision of this role for bishops in a letter to Theodosius I, ‘It is not the part of an emperor to deny freedom of speech, so it is not that of a bishop to refrain from saying what he thinks’.[19] With Ambrose we have moved into a different Roman world. As Peter Brown comments, ‘We forget that this was the very first time a Latin bishop had raised his voice in such a tone when dealing directly with an emperor and that these certainties were first enunciated in situations where Ambrose was far from certain of success’.

Though exaggerated for rhetorical effect, this sentiment on the part of Ambrose reflected the real power that bishops and holy men had throughout the Byzantine period to be listened to respectfully by the emperor and his representatives.[20] In a culture where a man’s masculine identity was often intimately connected to his public authority, bishops could therefore feel and be seen by others as powerful and, at times, manly men.[21]

Of course the case of Ambrose standing up to the imperial regimes of Valentinian II and Theodosius I and emerging largely triumphant was exceptional, and possible primarily because of the Milanese bishop’s mastery of contemporary Northern Italian politics. So too was Ambrose fortunate to have in the instance of Theodosius I, an emperor who realised the opportunities in employing such Christian rhetoric as a political tool to help him manipulate public opinion. As Neil McLynn has convincingly argued, Theodosius’ celebrated ordo poenitentium (public penance) in Milan at the behest of Ambrose in 391 for a massacre of citizens in the previous year in Thessalonica, does not represent an instance of an emperor bowing down to an increasingly puissant Christian Church, as argued in the older historiography, but is better understood as a mutually orchestrated political gesture that helped to transform ‘the catastrophe into a public relations triumph for the emperor’.[22] When Theodosius died on 17 January 395 in his cathedral in Milan Ambrose gave the funeral address in front of an audience that included his two sons—the eighteen-year old, and now Eastern emperor, Arcadius, and the eleven-year old Honorius, the new Western emperor . More significantly the Church was filled with military men who had only a few months earlier been fighting opposite sides in a civil war between Theodosius and the Western “usurper” Eugenius (392-940, a conflict that had seen the usurper killed and the Eastern forces victorious. Combining classical and Christian forms, Ambrose beseeched a Western audience, both civilian and military, to throw their support behind Theodosius’ young sons:

An emperor of such greatness, then, has withdrawn from us. But he has not wholly withdrawn: for he has left us his children, in whom we can both see and embrace him.Their age should not trouble us! The loyal support of his soldiers makes the emperor’s age fully grown.For age is fully grown when strength is. This is reciprocal. For the faith (fides) of the emperor produces strength in his soldiers.[23]

As Meghan McEvoy explains, ‘Ambrose’s words should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric: he was making a real plea for military support which was not yet assured’.[24] For our purposes, the sentiments expressed in the passage above reveal how Christian leaders like Ambrose could move deftly between the spiritual and the material realms. A bishop who we saw earlier was guiding mystical armies was now seeking to convince real soldiers to throw their support behind the sons of an emperor whom many had only recently seen as an enemy.

I recognise that when dealing with Roman emperors, few later bishops would have the inclination, the courage, or most importantly, the opportunity, to emulate Ambrose’s example.[25] The Eastern emperors, in particular, ‘left little scope for independent initiatives by bishops’.[26] We should therefore modify Mathew Kuefler’s claim that Ambrose’s ‘stands’ against the emperors represented a ‘new manliness’ in action. Kuefler overestimates Ambrose’s and other late Roman bishops’ ability to make Roman emperors ‘submit to them’.[27] I would agree with Kuefler, however, that Ambrose’s example, though extreme, sheds some light on the growing authority of bishops, and the need by some Christian authors to represent them as manly role models. Ambrose’s supposed deeds stimulated the imaginations of those fifth-century theologians who sought to curtail the emperor’s dominant role within the Church.[28] Though largely fictionalized, later audiences embraced the notion that ‘a prince’s impiety should be met by spiritual warfare.’ This topos would have a long run in Western civilisation.[29]

Much of this literature presented confrontational bishops like Ambrose as idealised Christians and as manly men. Sozomen, for instance, remembered Ambrose for the ‘manly [ἀνδρείως] and very holy way he represented his office’.[30] For Sozomen, bishops need not make as dramatic a stand as Ambrose against the emperor to be seen as paradigms of Christian courage and manliness. Sozomen made it a point in his history to praise emperors who ‘never imposed any commands on priests’, and praised bishops, who ‘manfully [ἀνδρείως] resisted the emperor’ when he interfered in what the historian saw as the Church’s affairs.[31]

Consequently, for a ruling elite that valued its social standing, by the fifth century holding an ecclesiastical office finally began to offer a pathway to not only religious fulfilment, but to worldly and masculine prestige as well.[32] Reflecting on this development, Kuefler goes so far to claim: ‘It was as bishops, then, that men of the later Roman aristocracy rescued their political identities and their social superiority and found a new means to achieve manliness’.[33] Even though we should remain cautious in making such extravagant claims as the preceding one, Robert Markus was surely correct when he concluded that the union of the holy men of the desert and the clerical authority in the cities altered ‘the spiritual landscape of Late Antiquity’.[34]

[1] Philip Rousseau, ‘Bishops’, in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, ed. G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press / The Belknap Press, 1999), 342.

[2] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 23-55, 100-55.

[3] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 17-18.

[4] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 260.

[5] Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 60-2.

[6] Brown, Power and Persuasion, 138-41.

[7] The best introduction to Ambrose and his world remains Neil Mclynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Valentinian II had become emperor in the aftermath of the Emperor Gratian’s death fighting the usurper Magnus Maximus (383-88). Whilst recognising Valentinian II in his struggle against Magnus Maximus, Theodosius I at first left his Western counterpart to try and sort out his own affairs; indeed, the Eastern emperor had his own troubles trying to help his half of the Empire recover after disastrous defeat at the hands of the Goths in 378. Theodosius perceived Valentinian II to be more of a nuisance than a threat or rival. Ultimately marginalised to the point of despair, Valentinian killed himself, rather than take the bullying of his barbarian henchman Arbogast.

[8] Some Greek sources include, Sozomen, HE 7.13, 7.25, 8.4, Theodoret, HE 4.6, 5.17-18.

[9] As J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz notes (Ambrose of Milan, 130), it would have been difficult for the embattled Valentinian II to evict a Nicene bishop without provoking the Nicene Eastern Emperor Theodosius I.

[10] Ambrose, Ep. 75. 7, trans. J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches, (trans., TTH 43 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), 146.

[11] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 142.

[12] Rufinus, HE 11.15, trans. Philip Amidon, The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia, books 10 and 11 (Oxford: Oxford University, 1997). Rufinus had spent many years in the Eastern half of the Empire and founded a monastery in Jerusalem. He translated many Greek works into Latin, including Eusebius’ ecclesiastical history.

[13] Rufinus, HE 11.16.

[14] For the dates of these letters and a historical summary of the dispute, see Liebeschuetz, Political Letters, 124-35.

[15] Ambrose, Ep. 77.10.

[16] Augustine, Confessions 9.7.16, quoted and trans. in Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 135.

[17] Cameron, Rhetoric of Empire, 139.

[18] Brown, Power and Persuasion, 65-6, 111-13.

[19] Ambrose, Ep. 74.2.

[20] Liebeschuetz, Ambrose and John, 268.

[21] For public authority and political virtues as an essential aspect of Roman masculine ideology, see Montstserrat, ‘Reading Gender’, 153-82, Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 19-69, Harlow,’ Clothes Maketh the Man’, 44.

[22] McLynn, Ambrose, 323.

[23] Ambrose, De obitu Theodosii 5, ed. O. Faller CSEL 73: 39-401, trans. J. H. W. G Liebeschuetz, Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches

[24] McEvoy, Child-Emperor Rule, 146.

[25] For the similarities and dissimilarites between Ambrose’s and John’s stands against the imperial family, see Liebeschuetz, Ambrose and John, 5. The mutually beneficial aspects of Theodosius I’ and Ambrose’s interactions, and the revisionist notion that Theodosius and Ambrose were not particulary close confidantes is covered in McLynn, Ambrose, 315-30.

[26] Liebeschuetz, Ambrose and John, 266.

[27] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 130.

[28] Theodoret (HE 5.17) went to great lengths to make Ambrose’s dispute against Theodosius I even more dramatic and confrontational.

[29] Buc, Holy War, 24.

[30] Sozomen, HE 6.24.6 (my trans.).

[31] Sozomen, HE 6.21(my trans.). Sozomen here was describing an incident in 353 when the bishop of Rome Liberius, against Constantius II’s wishes, refused to condemn the Bishop Athanasius. Ammianus (Res gestae 15.7) provides the secular alternative of the incident, seeing it as an example of Christian arrogance and of a bishop prying ‘into matters outside his province’.

[32] Salzman, Christian Aristocracy, 204-05. As Salzman notes (Christian Aristocracy, 132-33), members of the aristocracy had been somewhat reluctant in the fourth century to pursue careers within the Church.

[33] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 125.

[34] R. A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 181.


Headed to IMC Leeds

Just a quick not to say I am headed to IMC Leeds. I fly to Bangkok then London for a day at Wimbledon then off by train for Leeds. I will post a bit in the coming week on the sessions that I attend. What follows is a preview of the paper I will be giving:

The Emperor Justinian’s sixth-century reconquests of the ‘lost’ Western Roman provinces in North Africa, Italy, and Spain have long attracted scholarly attention. In contrast to many other periods of Late Antique history, we are fortunate to have an array of extant sources describing these campaigns. Among these accounts, the detailed mid sixth-century history of Procopius rightfully takes centre stage. While scholars continue to debate a myriad of issues concerning Procopius and his writings, in most current estimations, Wars is seen as a work of literature, as much as an accurate historical narrative. Today, I hope to show how such an approach can provide one with insight into this illusive historian and the world he described.

Concentrating on one theatre of war, Italy, I examine how Procopius utilised the Greek concept of andreia, translated rather loosely in English as manliness and/or courage, as a quality of leadership and generalship. Admittedly in comparison with his heavy use of stock-terms and descriptions like drasterios ‘energetic’ and agathos ta polemia ‘warlike’ to describe military men, Procopius only sprinkles references to andreia in Wars. Yet despite this scarcity, andreia plays a fundamental role in Procopius’ narrative; indeed, the historian’s particular use of this masculine concept provides one with insights into the historian’s attitudes towards generalship and the campaign itself.

One of the four cardinal virtues that made up the principle term for ‘goodness’ and ideal manly behaviour in ancient Greek, ἀρετή,[1] ἀνδρεία was linked with the Hellenic idealisation of courage in battle and calm majesty in the face of defeat. A post-Homeric concept, andreia had long defined notions of ideal rulership, generalship, and manliness.[2] It should not surprise then that in a work that used Herodotus and Thucydides as role models, that issues of manly ἀρετή and the age-old belief in the gendered dichotomy between ἀνδρεία and ἀνανδρία play a significant role in Gothic Wars. As in his classical models, for Procopius andreia functions as a gendered concept that can be opposed to femininity.[3]

To better understand this connection in Gothic War, let us begin by examining the role that Procopius suggested the fifth-century Western Romans had played in the Vandals and Goths’ fifth-century triumphs. Procopius followed contemporary Justinianic and, indeed, Ostrogothic propaganda that placed primary responsibility for these losses on effeminate Western Roman emperors and an increasingly demiliterized populace.[4]

In contrast to the Western Romans, who ‘accepted’ barbarian rule and domination of the army, Procopius stressed that the Eastern Romans’ continued adherence to a martial lifestyle and control over their armed forces had allowed them to continue to utilise the barbarians as their pawns.[5] Even powerful threats like the Gothic Rex Theoderic been controlled by a sturdy Roman emperor.

Whether one chooses to accept Procopius’ versions of these complex events—and some scepticism is merited—the historian’s respect for Theoderic seems clear.[6] Looking back on his reign, Procopius portrayed it as a ‘Golden Age’.[7] Much of the historian’s esteem centred on the Gothic king and his soldiers’ martial qualities. The Goths personify active manliness. Theoderic’s adept amalgamation of wisdom and andreia’ [ξυνέσεώς τε καὶ άνδρίας] had allowed him to rule justly while at the same time protecting what Procopius saw as an effeminised Italy from barbarian invaders.

On his deathbed, necessity had compelled Theoderic to name his ten-year-old grandson Athalaric[8] as his heir, and he appointed his daughter and the boy’s mother Amalasuintha (c. 495-535), as regent.[9] Yet despite swearing oaths to Theoderic, some within the Gothic aristocracy had a difficult time accepting a dynastic succession dependent solely on the Amal line.[10] It took time, however, for this resentment to boilover.

In Wars, the confrontation began as a dispute over Athalaric’s education. Amalasuintha felt compelled to raise the boy as a Roman aristocrat.[11] She sent him to a Roman school of letters and hired three ‘prudent and refined’ [ξυνετούς τε καὶ ἐπιεικεῖς, 5.2.7] Gothic tutors to further educate the future king. Procopius illustrated how this decision created a backlash among the Gothic nobility who wanted to raise the boy in ‘the barbarian fashion’. He wrote: ‘For letters, they said, are far removed from ἀνδρίας], and the teaching of old men results for the most part in a cowardly [δειλὸν] and submissive spirit.

The ‘martial’ faction emphasised a literary education’s danger by claiming that Theoderic had refused to allow the Goths to send their children to school because he believed that a Roman schooling would cause them ‘to despise sword or spear’.[12] One assumes that Procopius and his contemporary audience were aware of this argument’s flawed logic, since Procopius tells his audience about Amalasuintha’s and his nephew Theodahad’s excellent classical educations.[13] Indeed, it is likely that Theoderic as a youth had received an education during his time as a captive in Constantinople. Moreover, the martial faction ultimately settled on the Plato-loving non-soldier Theodahad as their leader. While these discrepancies and other incongruences in his history may be the result of Procopius’ reliance on rhetorical themes and disregard for the ‘truth’, it is also possible that he purposefully has the ‘martial’ Goths tell non-truths. Procopius often utilised such inaccuracies in his set-speeches as a means of later undermining the speakers’ overall argument.

This stylised episode transforms an internal Gothic power struggle into a didactic debate about the proper way to educate young men about manly andreia. While simplifying a complex dispute, Procopius provided his audience with the differences—real and imagined—between Roman and Gothic methods and beliefs about the best way to transform boys into manly men.[14] Each faction suggested that boys travelled a long and hazardous path to manhood. The two sides only differed on the best methods to overcome these obstacles. The ‘conservatives’ preached that in order to instil courage in a young man, he needed to be surrounded by companions of a similar age and ‘take his training in arms’, while Amalasuintha’s faction presumably following Roman traditions, focused on the development of a boy’s mind.[15] Despite its obvious rhetorical aspects, this episode has some historical basis. Evidence from the Gothic side supports Procopius’ characterisation of Amalasuintha as being devoted to Roman literature.[16] In the Greco-Roman literary tradition even innate virtues like ἀνδρεία and one’s martial skills could be enhanced by a literary education. [17]

As Joseph Roisman explains, ‘Andreia, or military courage, often in a military context, was an ethos and a performative skill that men acquired through socialization, training and education’.[18] In short, schooling offered a conduit to andreia.

Despite knowing very little about what constituted a ‘Gothic’ education, we do know that officers’ children received substantial military training, and that the upper echelon of Gothic society embraced the soldier’s life.[19] Though once again the example of Theodahad reminds us that this ideal was not universally embraced.

Procopius, indeed, rejected the barbarians’ contention that a young man’s curriculum should involve military training alone. The historian responded to the claims about the unmanliness of a Roman education, by demonstrating how Athalaric’s exposure to the ‘customs of the barbarians’ produced a ‘failed man’. Fearing her political rivals, Amalasuintha dismissed the tutors and replaced them with a group of Gothic boys who, like Athalaric, ‘had not yet come of age’.[20] Predictably, in Procopius’ view, this decision proved disastrous. Instead of providing Athalaric with an inclination towards manly ἀρετή and andreia, his comrades only enticed the future king ‘to drunkenness and to intercourse with women’ [μέθην καì γυναικῶν μίξεις]. Qualities in the classical tradition that represented typical vices of not only barbarians, but also of unmanly men.[21] Athalaric’s inability to control both his drinking and sexual appetites therefore marked him as flawed—and ultimately—as an unmanly man. Procopius closed his didactic tale by showing how Athalaric, having abandoned Amalasuintha and a ‘civilised’ way of life, fell victim to this ‘debauched’ Gothic lifestyle.[22] Procopius appears to have wanted to highlight the folly of permitting mere boys to educate a future king and military leader about manly andreia and ἀρετή. The lesson? It was his ‘barbarian’ and not his ‘Roman’ education that turned Athalaric into a leader with an unmanly lack of self-control.

So far we have explored andreia primarily as a quality of political leadership, let us skip ahead a bit in Gothic War, to see how it functioned as a quality of generalship.

Fed up with the non-soldier Theodahad’s disastrous and unmanly leadership, the Goths replaced him with the celebrated warrior Vitigis (ruled 536-540).[23] Procopius explained that the new king faced a difficult political situation. An ongoing conflict with the Franks in the north, coupled with Belisarius’ invasion in the south, meant that Vitigis needed to cope with the dangerous prospect of a two-front war (a peril that the Byzantines would soon face themselves). Having replaced the inactive and unmanly Theodahad, Vitigis emphasised in a speech to his troops that his hesitancy to confront straightaway the Byzantine forces stemmed from tactical necessity rather than any effeminate fear of war:

The success of the greatest enterprises, fellow soldiers, generally depends, not upon hasty action at critical moments, but upon careful planning…. For the title of the coward [δειλίας], fittingly applied, has saved many, while the reputation for ἀνδρείας which some men have gained at the wrong time, has afterward led them to defeat …. For a man’s ἀρετὴ is revealed by his deeds, not at their commencement, but at their end.[24]

Other scholars have noted the importance of this particular speech for understanding Procopius account of Vitigis’ reign and the Gothic Wars main themes. Like many of Wars’ set-speeches, this seemingly innocuous address allowed Procopius to foreshadow future events.[25] The speech contains two important Procopian themes concerning the links between andreia and good generalship. First, an ideal leader needed to see the larger picture, and base his military decisions, not on his own personal glory, but on what would, in the long-term, benefit his soldiers and his cause. An andreios general needed to remain steadfast—even if others labelled his strategy cowardly or effeminate.[26]

Second, Procopius commented frequently on the fine distinction between rashness and andreia.[27] In classical Greek, θράσος describes either recklessness or valour. Aristotle had considered ἀνδρεία as ‘the attributes of a man whose actions demonstrate a moderate negotiation between ‘boldness’ [θάρσος] and ‘fear’ [φόβος]’. A man’s capacity to maintain this precarious balance depended largely upon his ability to suppress his natural urges to either launch a rash attack or turn tail in a cowardly retreat. These distinctions regularly separated the manly from the unmanly in the classical literary tradition and in Procopius’ writings.

We find this theme in the historian’s depiction of Vitigis first siege of Rome in 537. Addressing Belisarius with a group of Roman senators looking on, a Gothic envoy, Albis, highlighted the two aspects of courage. ‘Rashness [θάρσος] is different from courage [ἀνδρεία]’, he proclaimed, ‘for rashness, when it takes possession of a man, brings him into danger with discredit, but bravery bestows upon him an adequate prize in a reputation for valour [ἀρετῆς]’. The Gothic diplomat suggested mockingly that if Belisarius and his men had attacked the Goths because of a belief in their ἀνδρεία, then by all means they should take the opportunity to ‘play the manly man’ [ἀνδραγαθίζεσθαι] in battle against the Goths. However, if, as the Gothic envoy believed, the Romans had been temporarily possessed by ‘rashness’ [θράσει] when they decided to make that attack then the Goths would give them the opportunity to ‘repent…the reckless undertaking’.

Procopius had Belisarius, proclaim in heroic language, ‘As long as Belisarius lives, it is impossible to relinquish the city’.[28] When the envoys returned to camp, Vitigis asked his representatives what sort of man they faced in Belisarius. The envoys replied that the Goths would never be able to make Belisarius give up the city by frightening him. With the description above, we can see how Procopius used seemingly trite rhetorical set battle pieces, repetitive vocabulary, and bombastic set-speeches to set up his reader for the combat and the ‘lessons’ to come. Once again, we find that the Gothic version of the situation given in a dramatic set-speech represented the polar opposite of the reality. In fact, we are soon to learn that the Goths are the rash side, and that Belisarius was motivated not by θάρσος, but by a justified belief in his side’s superior ἀνδρεία.

The contrast with Vitigis is instructive. Defeats on the battlefield transformed the formerly esteemed soldier into a leader reviled by his former supporters for his ‘unmanly’ [ἀνάνδρως] leadership and ‘ill fortune’ [ἀτυχῶς] by its end.[29] Andreia once again shapes Procopius’ narrative. He describes, Vitigis haranguing a pair of Goth garrisons besieged by the Eastern Roman forces ‘to endure manfully’ [φέρειν ἀνδρείως].[30] Yet, when the Gothic leader faced his own peril, he acted in a decidedly unmanly manner. Instead of resisting Belisarius’ siege, Vitigis sought a way out of his predicament by seeking a truce with the Byzantines.[31] Finally, after a series of failed negotiations between the two warring parties, Belisarius seized Vitigis and most of his entourage by feigning to accept the Gothic nobles’ offer to declare him Western emperor.[32]

Procopius concluded book six with another episode involving andreia. He provides a melancholy description of the vanquished Gothic forces marching downtrodden through the streets of Ravenna in May of 540.[33] The Gothic soldiers’ humiliation was made complete when their wives—seeing the small numbers and the Byzantine’s ordinary stature[34] —belittled their husbands for their lack of andreia’ [τὴν ἀνανδρίαν].[35]

Vitigis suffered the dual disgrace of losing both his sovereignty and freedom at the hands of his enemies; even worse, he fled into captivity without even making a final stand. His assertion at the outset of his reign that a man’s worth was revealed by his deeds, not at their beginning, but at their end, had come back to haunt the Gothic king. The Goths’ supposed martial and ‘manly’ supremacy had proven inferior to the Byzantine soldiers’ andreia.

Yet the Byzantines were certainly not immune to failures of andreia. The year 540 marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite their initial defeats, the Goths refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In Secret History probably composed around 550 to 551- Procopius partly attributed this resurgence to Belisarius’ shortcomings as a general and as a man.

According to Procopius, Belisarius’ depleted andreia plays a key role in the Romans failures. It was not rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ decline, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife.

Procopius revealed how troubles in one’s domestic world could spill over into the public domain. He emphasized that Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity had led him to sacrifice the state’s most vital interests. [i] This obsession, contributed to the Byzantine setbacks against the Persians and the Goths. [ii]

In Procopius’ telling, Belisarius’ literally “abandoned his manhood” [ἀρρενωπὸν ἀπελελοίπει]’:

Thinking not one worthy thought nor even remembering that he had ever been a man, but perspiring constantly, with his head swimming, trembling violently in helpless despair, tortured by servile fears, and apprehensions, which were both cowardly and wholly unmanly [ἀνάνδροις].[iii]

By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only drained his martial andreia, but according to Procopius, at that moment, ‘the hand of God was unmistakably against him’, and consequently, Justinian’s reconquest of Italy was in deep trouble.[iv]

Although one can debate whether or not the hostile rhetoric above represented Procopius’ ‘true’ feelings about Belisarius, it certainly provides proof concerning the role that a general’s andreia or anandreia played in determining outcomes on the field of battle. This is only one of several examples in Procopius’ writings where military failures resulted from a general’s lack of andreia. For instance, in Wars and Secret History, Procopius blamed the supreme commander of Byzantine forces in North Africa (544-5) Sergius’ failures on his ‘unmanly, [ἄνανδρος] ‘soft’ [μαλθακòς] and ‘effeminate nature’ [γνáθους φυσων].[v]

Of course, final victory over the Goths was achieved by an individual who in Procopius’ mind would have likely been immune to the charms of a woman, the eunuch-commander Narses. Narses major victories over the Goths in 552 and versus the Franks and Alamanni in 554 finally secured Justinian’s retaking of Italy.

Procopius’ and his continuer Agathias showed that it was the combination of Narses’ ‘brains’ with his soldiers’ ‘brawn’ that had led to these triumphs. Some recent scholars have argued that the rise of Narses and other eunuch commanders serves as a sign that Byzantium was turning away from andreia as a quality of idealised generalship.

Yet Procopius and Agathias both described Narses as an andreios leader.[36]It also seems significant that Procopius never depicted Narses or the two other eunuch-commanders who appear in Wars, Solomon or Scholasticus as soft, effeminate, or unmanly. Though it is always dangerous to make an argument based on omission, it is also interesting that Narses does not appear in Secret History.[vi] One would think that the eunuch’s influential role in Justinian’s army and on-going rivalry with Belisarius should have merited some comment. Like Eutropius a century and a half earlier, as a eunuch-commander Narses would have seemed to have made a perfect target for a historian so fond of gendered invective. Yet Procopius said nothing.

Admittedly, Procopius was pretty accepting of eunuchs’ roles in Byzantine civilisation. This does not mean that Narses evaded all gendered jibes. Agathias used the gendered eunuch-trope in his history, when he depicted two Alamanni warriors in a Frankish army assuming foolishly that they would best the Romans in battle because ‘a eunuch of the bedchamber’ commanded their army. So Procopius was probably aware of these gendered attitudes towards eunuchs, but chose not to use them.

I would argue that the increasing use of eunuchs in positions of command from the sixth century did little to shake the idea that ‘Roman’ greatness had been earned by the manly blood of its soldiers. As a realm dominated by ‘real’ men, the battlefield continued to provide one of the easiest places for men in the early Byzantine period to prove their andreia. This reality helps to explain why for Procopius, andreia plays an important, if subtle role as an aspect of idealised generalship.

Thank you.

[1] See, e.g. Menander, Second Treatise 373, ‘ἀρεταὶ δὲ τέσσαρές εἱσιν, ἀνδρεία, δικαιοσύνη, σωϕροσύνη, φρόνησις’. For the adoption of this Hellenic model into Roman intellectual culture, see McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 149. Cicero translated these four principle virtues into Latin as, temperantia, prudentia, iustitia, and fortitudo, Cicero, De officiis 1.5.15. Late Antique examples for the continuity of this concept include: Ammianus, Res gestae 22.4, and Ambrose, De officiis (ed. and trans. Ivor J. Davidson [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001]) 1.24.115.

[2] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 221.

[3] Harrell, ‘Marvellous Andreia’, 77.

[4] For Justinian’s attitudes towards his predecessors failures in the West, Justinian, Digest of Justinian 30.11.12, of April 535.

[5] See too Procopius’ approval (Wars 3.6.11) of the Eastern Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) for his tough stand against ‘barbarians’. Justinian’s subsequent victory over the Vandals represents the fulfilment of Leo’s failed invasion of North Africa in 468 that, according to Procopius, was undermined by the treachery within the Roman high-command (Wars 3.6.1-21).

[6] Jonathan Arnold, in particular, rejects Procopius’ version of Theoderic’s rise and rule as anachronistic, see Arnold, Roman Imperial Restoration, esp. pp. 64-9, 78-9, 94-5.

[7] Procopius, Wars 7.9.10, 7.21.12-23.

[8] Following Procopius, Wars 5.2.1; Jordanes, Romana 367. Contra Jordanes claim in Getica (304) that Athalaric was eight-years old when Theoderic died.

[9] Jordanes Getica 304, Cassiodorus,Variae 8.2-7.

[10] Peter Heather, The Goths (Oxford, 1996), 250-55

[11] For further contemporary evidence of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning, see Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.

[12] Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17.

[13] The sixth-century historian John Malalas (Chronicle, 15.9) tells us that Theoderic had received an education during his years in Constantinople, a point that Procopius, with his focus on the Gothic king’s early embracing of Byzantine culture, may have been aware of. So too does Theoderic’s panegyrist Ennodius (Panegyricus dictus Theoderico 3.11) make it clear that Theoderic had received an education in Constantinople. Cf. Theophanes(AM 5977). Contra Anon. Valesiani 12.61. Theoderic’s role in providing the women inhis family with a proper Roman education is discussed in Massimiliano Vitiello, Theodahad: A Platonic King at the Collapse of Ostrogothic Italy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 45-6.

[14] Of course, a number of young men from the Byzantine literate classes would have received military training as well.

[15] Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17

[16] Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3 (trans. Barnish). Cf. Variae 4.1, 2. For example, in a letter to the Roman senate, Amalasuintha espoused the benefits of a Roman education by suggesting that literary learning allowed the warrior to discover ‘what will strengthen him with courage; the prince learns how to administer his people with equity’

[17] Joy Connolly, ‘Like the labors of Heracles: Andreia and Paideia in Greek Culture under Rome’, in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), 287, 328.

[18] Roisman, ‘The Rhetoric of Courage in the Athenian Orators’, 127.

[19] Amory, People and Identity, 96. For the Goths’ military ethos, see Peter Heather, The Goths, 322-26, Michael Whitby, ‘Armies and Society in the Later Roman World’, in CAH Volume XIV, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Michael Whitby (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), 472.

[20] Procopius, Wars 5.2.18-20.

[21] Procopius, Wars 5.2.19.

[22] Procopius, Wars 5.4.4. October 2, 534 is the date given for Athalaric’s death by Agnellus (LPR 62) a later Italian source.

[23] Procopius, Wars 5.11.5. Vitigis had earned his military reputation with an important victory over a combined Gepid and Herul army in 530. The Goths murdered Theodahad in December 536 shortly after Vitigis’ coup. For an account of these events, see Wolfram, History of the Goths, 340-43.

[24] Procopius, Wars 5.11.12-22. This speech mirrors Vitigis’ own propaganda, e.g. Cassiodorus Varia 10.31, (trans Barnish): ‘I was chosen not in the privy chambers, but in the wild open field. I was not sought among the subtle debates of sycophants, but as the trumpets blared’ [Non enim in cubilis angustiis, sed in campis late patentibus electum me esse noveritis, nec inter blandientium delicate colloquia, sed tubis concrepantibus sum quaesitus]. The gendered aspects of this letter are discussed by La Rocca (141).

[25] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 32.

[26] The following examples demonstrate this point. Procopius illustrated (Wars 1.18.19-26) how an accusation of ‘softness’ drove Belisarius to abandon his prudence before the battle of Callinicium in April of 531

[27] Some examples include, Procopius, Wars 5.20.8, 6.23.29-30. Cf. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 2.40.3.

[28] Procopius, Wars 5.20.18.

[29] Procopius, Wars 6.30.5

[30] Procopius, Wars 6.26.13

[31] Procopius, Wars 6.28.27, 6.29.2. For Procopius a man could not act courageously or manly when he was starving. See, e.g., Wars 8.23.15-16.

[32] Procopius, Wars 6.29.18


[34] It is worth emphasising that the Byzantine army had many Goths and other ‘barbarian’ peoples fighting in in it, so this emphasis on the size discrepancy of the men in the two armies seems to be more of a rhetorical flourish by Procopius to promote his views that the Goths viewed the Byzantines as unmanly.

[35] Procopius, Wars 6.29.32-4. I changed the translator Dewing’s ‘cowardice’ for ἀνανδρίαν to ‘unmanliness’

[36]. Procopius reported with little sense of irony that Narses’ supporters in the officer corps hoped that the eunuch would achieve his own fame through ‘deeds of wisdom and manliness’ [ἔργα ξυνέσεώς τε καὶ ἀνδρείας] Agathias too described Narses as manly and heroic’ [τὸ δὲ ἀνδρεῑον καὶ μεγαλουργὸν].

[i] Procopius, Secret History 2.33.3, 2.25-7, 3.31 (trans. Williamson).

[ii] Procopius, Secret History 4.39-45. Cf. however, a more positive assessment (Wars 8.21.1-4) of Belisarius composed after Narses had defeated the Goths.

[iii] Procopius, Secret History 4.22-6, 5.32-3 (trans. Dewing).

[iv] Procopius, Secret History 4.42, 5.1-8 (trans. Dewing).

[v] Procopius, Secret History 4.32, Wars 4.22.2.

[vi] Martyn, ‘Narses’, 55, where Martyn attributes this omission to Procopius’ sincere respect for Narses.