Lingering Martial Romanitas in Byzantium


Howdy, readers! Easter break provides the rare opportunity to make a post. I have a ton of projects that I am simultaneously working on at the moment. I have just finished a clearance review of a book and  an article. Both are very good, which makes the task more pleasing. I have article coming out in the next AABS publication that is very hard work because it needs a substantial rewrite, since much of what I wrote originally on Narses has already been published. This turned out to be a good thing since a refocus on other eunuch-commanders such as Solomon and Eleutherios has made for a much more interesting and innovative piece. I may offer some bits here. What follows is very much a draft from the conclusion from my forthcoming book…so enjoy and make comments  and criticisms if you like.



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.[1] The Egyptian Theophylact published his work in the euphoric period surrounding the soldier-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.[2] The sudden disappearance after 640 of many genres of secular literature and inscriptions, as well as the Muslims’ emergence as a new religious and political rival in this period,[3] demarcate the dawning of a new age.[4] I have chosen the era of Theophylact’s history to conclude this investigation for these reasons, as well as the obvious martial aspect and gendered implications of the passage. The set-speech from which this quotation is drawn certainly touches on two of this book’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 deliberation provides the reader 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.[5] 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 conceptualizations of the Roman soldier’s life remained linked intimately to masculine ideology.[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’.[7]

We have seen such motifs before. 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 quite rightly criticised Theophylact for his heavy reliance on ‘extravagant metaphors, sententious artistry, and ornate rhetoric’.[8] Yet, as I have argued throughout this study, an exploration of these standard themes helps one to understand these early Byzantine texts and the society that produced them. Although such anecdote’s heavy reliance on standard rhetoric and stock heroes and villains may tell one very little about the combatants’ ‘real’ personalities, or the actual debates among the Roman soldiers before battle, they provide important insights into wider societal attitudes towards gender and masculinity. The episode above, for instance, relied on the traditional appeal of the manly Roman soldier and the conventional disdain for the cowardly and effeminate man.

Martial virtues and images of the soldier’s life continued to represent an essential aspect of masculinity and Romanitas 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. As was discussed in chapters 4 and 5, 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 men. Moreover, Christian historiographical concepts like providence and miracles played a role in the classicising histories of Procopius, Menander, and Theophylact.[9]

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.[10]

Scholars have long recognised how Heraclius’ wars against the Persians and Muslims neatly synthesised traditional secular and religious rhetoric.[11] This pairing is understandable since the martial and devout Heraclius was a by-product of a Byzantine world that inextricably interwove the political with the spiritual. Faced with a fight for its very survival, Heraclius’ Byzantium naturally ramped up the bombast. As Walter Kaegi suggests, Heraclius ‘was emphasizing participation and even deaths in this war as a means to heaven’. Nonetheless, we would be wise to heed Kaegi’s further warning, that Heraclius military campaigns were ‘no simple religious crusades’. They were ‘multidimensional’ conflicts ‘of which religious zeal was only one aspect’.[12] Of course, as we have observed in the previous chapters, these important developments of the seventh century had firm roots in earlier times. Unquestionably, however, the deft intermingling of spiritual and secular codes of warfare and masculinity had evolved somewhat over the years. The fifth-century Theodosian emperors lack of military experience and prowess had little place in a world where the Empire’s very survival was on the line. As we mentioned in Chapter 2, in 611 Heraclius had broken with precedent by leading the Roman army into battle against the Persians. The emperor probably had taken this step out of necessity since the Persian forces at this time were marauding freely within large swathes of Byzantine territory. In this highly charged climate, Heraclius’ propaganda naturally fell back on Old Testament and classical examples of warrior-leaders protected by God, manfully defending their religion and their lands.

The set of nine seventh-century silver plates known as the David plates (e.g., plate 15: ‘fight between David and Goliath’), which illustrate various Old Testament scenes from King David’s life, offer us visual evidence of elements of this propaganda. Modern research suggests that the scenes depicted on the plates intentionally provide direct analogies with events from Heraclius’ Persian war. Ruth Leader, for example, posits that the use of ‘imperial costumes and settings’ represent the designer’s attempts to invoke ‘a visual analogy between the kingdom of Israel and the Roman Empire’.[13] Such iconography echoed similar motifs found in Heraclian literature. As Mary Whitby explains, contemporary writers like George of Pisidia took a keen interest in depicting Heraclius as a military leader who, through a combination of God’s guidance and his own courage, wisdom, clemency, and mildness achieves ‘not only personal, but also cosmic salvation’.[14] This model of strong spiritual convictions and traditional active militaristic leadership would continue to play an essential role in imperial self-definition throughout the Byzantine period. Indeed, the majority of Byzantine emperors who followed Heraclius served as actual rather than symbolic warriors; 2/3 of these emperors had ‘led troops before or after their accession’.[15]

With East Rome in crisis, Byzantium’s enemies also wielded gendered religious rhetoric to endorse their own rights to dominion. The seventh-century Armenian historian, Sebeos has a Muslim commander accepting the surrender of parts of the Eastern Roman Empire scoff at the protective power of Christ and the cross. Recording what seems to be a genuine ultimatum from the caliph,[16] the historian wrote:

If you wish, he said, to preserve your life in safety, abandon that vain cult which you learned from childhood. Deny that Jesus and turn to the great God whom I worship the God of our father Abraham. Dismiss from your presence the multitude of your troops to their respective lands. And I shall make you a great prince in your region and send prefects. I shall make an inventory of the treasures and order them to be divided into four parts: three for me and one for you. 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?[17]

The tactic used by the Muslim commander above, of criticizing the unmanliness of Christ’s crucifixion should cause little surprise, since, as Colleen Conway states, ‘it was Jesus’ death that most called his masculine honor into question’. In fact, despite multifaceted attempts by the New Testament to portray Christ’s crucifixion as a manly act similar to examples in the Greco-Roman noble death traditions, many Christian Romans appeared reluctant to embrace these more pacifist strains of Christ’s masculinity.[18]

This sentiment helps to explain why in the first thousand years of the Church’s history the figure of the dead Christ was almost never shown. Christian tradition seemed reluctant to portray Christ as a suffering man, preferring to emphasize his divine power (e.g. plate 8).[19] As Felicity J. Harley-McGowan explains, there was ‘A fundamental hesitancy on the part of Christians to approach this particular narrative, but also an inherent lack of creativity in formulating iconography for the representation of critical episodes from that narrative, such as the Crucifixion or the Resurrection’.[20] This hesitancy was not limited to visual iconography. One finds early Byzantine writers like Eusebius largely ignoring details of the crucifixion, concentrating instead on His rebirth, and focusing on the ‘treachery’ committed by the Jews in Christ’s condemnation.[21] The same is largely true as well for the fourth and fifth century Church Fathers from both halves of the Roman Empire.[22]

We see in his history, however, Sebeos subtly addressing the Muslim commander’s denigration of Christ’s feebleness. Likely writing between 656-661, a period when internal divide within the Muslim world stalled its expansion, Sebeos went on to relate the Byzantines’ ‘glorious’ victory over an Arab naval attack on Constantinople in 654— a victory that the historian attributed to God and the ‘pious prayers’ of the Emperor Constans II (ruled 641-668). We know of course, that this respite was only temporary, and that Byzantium survived by the thinnest of margins.

Historians have long admired the Byzantines for their resilience in the face of near extinction at the hands of a seemingly relentless Muslim foe. These perilous circumstances have tended to shape opinions of the age as one of doom and gloom. James Howard-Johnston echoes the voice of modern consensus when he insists 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:

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 an army might suddenly plummet or that a whole province might submit once there was no prospect of help from field forces. There was also 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.[23]

There is definitely some truth in this view. Nonetheless, we should not place all of the ebbs and flows of Byzantine fortunes at the feet of eschatological and apocalyptic Christian belief. If apocalyptic paralysis represents the primary factor behind the Muslim’s triumphs and the Byzantines’ failures in the second half of the seventh century, it does little to explain Byzantine resilience in the same period and at the siege of Constantinople in 717-718. Surely if the majority of the Byzantines believed whole heartedly that the long-line of Arab victories and territorial conquests served as a ‘true’ sign that God had turned against them, Constantinople’s citizens and its armies would have bowed down to the inevitable. On the contrary, they innovated, resisted and survived.

As is well known, the seventh-century Byzantines’ ability to adopt political reforms and adapt ‘new’ military technologies helped them to survive the initial shock of the rapid Muslim advance. The use of the incendiary compound we call ‘Greek-fire’ represented a crucial factor in the Byzantine’s capacity to resist the Muslim naval attacks on Constantinople.[24] So too did the resettlement of Slavs during Constans II’s reign into areas of Anatolia depopulated by the Arab invasions play a part in Byzantium’s defense. Furthermore, Constan’s refinement of the basic elements of what would become by the eighth and the ninth centuries the themata (a division of Roman territory into separate military provinces, whereby a general [stratēgos] held civilian and military power) assisted in ensuring the East Romans’ long-term survival.[25] Such practical tactical and organisational innovations demonstrate that political and military leaders did not place Byzantium’s survival purely in the hands of God, but continued to seek practical solutions to the military dilemmas they faced.

A lingering sense of manly martial Romanitas offers a further explanation of Byzantine endurance in the face of extinction. As we have seen, Romans—Christian and pagan—had a long record of overcoming foreign foes in similarly dire situations. One cannot help but to suspect that a combination of a continued belief in the resilience of Roman military virtues and the practical need to survive, represent the primary factors behind Byzantium’s continued resistance and century-long battle back to relevance.

Manly Romanitas, then, helped to hold Byzantine society together.[26] Certainly one finds evidence of the power of cultural memory in later Byzantine historians. Anguishing over his contemporaries’ failure to live up to the martial masculine prowess and ideals of his Republican Roman forbearers, the eleventh-century Byzantine aristocrat and historian Michael Attaleiates encapsulates the appeal of a continuing belief in the vital connection between martial virtues, manly Romanitas, and the prosperity of the Roman State that we have explored throughout this monograph. When explaining the reasons behind his Roman forbearer’s greatness, he opined:

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.[27]

The sentiments expressed above, reveal the extent that a later Byzantine like Michael could identify with his non-Christian Roman past. Michael sees himself as one of the ‘modern Romans’ [Τοῖς δὲ νῦν Ῥωμαίοις] admiring the manly martial virtues of his pagan ‘Roman ancestors’ [οἱ πάλαι Ῥωμαῖοι].[28] A mutual admiration of the manly values found in the soldier’s life united these ancient and modern Romans. His Republican forebears may not have shared all of Michael’s Christian values, but they both embraced the manly and martial virtues that represented a fundamental facet of their shared Romanitas. An ability to tap into this Roman cultural memory represents a key factor in Byzantium’s longevity. In this process, the State was not essential. Indeed, the social bonds among aristocrats were particularly important during periods when the State’s authority waned. In these times of crisis, the ruling elites could become the voice of the social order. By conjuring a view of aristocratic power and Roman identity that stretched back to the Roman Republic, Michael thus vividly roused his fellow members of the social hierarchy. This helps us to understand why a societal value like manly martial Romanitas remained largely impervious to the tides of political and communal change.[29]

Therefore, I suspect that for many Byzantines, defeat at the hands of their enemies did little to shake the entrenched notion that ‘Roman’ greatness had been earned by the manly blood of its soldiers. The battlefield continued to provide one of the easiest places for men in Byzantine civilisation to prove not only their courage, but also to express their enduring manly Romanitas.

[1] For some possible reasons for this decline in almost all genres of Greek secular literature, see Whitby ‘Greek Historical Writing’, pp. 66-74, Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, pp. 348-9, 393-9, Croke, ‘Historiographical Audience’, pp. 34-5. On the disappearance of stone inscriptions, see M. Whittow, ‘Early Medieval Byzantium and the End of the Ancient World’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9.1 (2009), pp. 134-53.

[2] Theophylact’s career and the date of composition and publication of his history are discussed in M. Whitby, The Emperor Maurice and his Historian: Theophylact Simocatta on Persian and Balkan Warfare (Oxford, 1998), pp. 39-45.

[3] For the seventh-century conquests of Byzantine territory as primarily a Muslim, not an Arab phenomenon, see J. Howard-Johnston, Witness to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford, 2010), p. 527. On the idea that Islam’s formation and subsequent ‘militant ideology’ represented a ‘late antique’ phenomenon, see R. Hoyland, ‘Early Islam as a Late Antique Religion’, in The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, ed S. F. Johnson (Oxford, 2007), pp. 1053-77.

[4] On the transformative nature of this age for Byzantium, see J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge, 1997).

[5] Theophylact, History 2.14.6, ed C. de Boor and re-ed P. Wirth. (Stuttgart, 1972); trans. M. and M. Whitby (Oxford, 1986).

[6] Theophylact, History 2.14.1: ‘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’. I have changed the translator Whitby’s ‘hearts’ for ψυχάς to ‘souls’.

[7]Theophylact, History 3.13.4: ‘Comrades-you are my comrades both in toils and tumults because of the war-the engagement is established as a test of virtue [ἀρετῆς] and vice [κακίας], and is the arbiter of souls: for this day will either convict us of effeminate [θηλυπρεπὲς] cowardice [δειλίας], or with garlands and glorious triumphs will proclaim our manly [ἀρρενωπὸν] bravery [εὐτολμίας]’. I have changed the translator Whitby’s ‘courage’ for ἀρετῆς to ‘virtue’ and ‘cowardice’ for κακίας to ‘vice’.

[8] Whitby, introduction to Theophylact, History, p. 28. For a later Byzantine view, see Photius, Bibliotheca cod. 65.

[9] For this role in Theophylact and his sixth-century predecessor, Menander, see Whitby, ‘Greek Historical Writing’, p. 44

[10] Theophylact, History 5.4.8-9.

[11] On the increasing focus in Heraclian propaganda in the Persian war based on religious themes, see S. Alexander, ‘Heraclius, Byzantine Imperial Ideology, and the David Plates’, Speculum 52 (1977), pp. 217-37, M. Whitby, ‘Defender of the Cross: George of Pisidia on the Emperor Heraclius and his Deputies’, in The Propaganda of Power: The Role of the Panegyric in Late Antiquity, ed Mary Whitby (Leiden, 1998), esp. pp. 247-65, Y. Stoyanov, Defenders and Enemies of the True Cross, The Sasanian Conquest of Jerusalem in 614 and Byzantine Ideology of Anti-Persian Warfare (Vienna, 2011). For Byzantine attitudes towards ‘crusade’ and ‘holy war’, see J. Koder and I. Stouraitis, eds Byzantine War Ideology Between Roman Imperial Concept and Christian Religion (Budapest, 2012).

[12] Kaegi, Heraclius, p.126. Cf. Dennis, ‘Holy War’, pp 31-9.

[13] R. Leader, ‘The David Plates Revisited: Transforming the Secular in Byzantium’, The Art Bulletin 82. 3 (2000), pp. 413-14.

[14] Whitby, ‘Defender of the Cross’, p. 263.

[15] Treadgold, Byzantium and Its Army, pp. 1, 214.

[16] Howard-Johnston, Witness to a World Crisis, p. 91.

[17] Sebeos, The Armenian History of Sebeos 50 (170), trans. R. W. Thomson, TTH 31 (Liverpool, 1999).

[18] Conway, Behold the Man, p.177.

[19] The literature on the transformation from ‘triumphant’ to ‘suffering’ Christ in both literary and visual forms has attracted much interest, see e.g., C. Morris, the Discovery of the Individual (New York, 1972), C. Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era (Cambridge, 2001), R. Viladesau, The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance (Oxford, 2006). Boin (Coming Out Christian, pp. 50-53), considers some of the reasons behind early Roman-Christians’ reluctance to embrace images of the ‘crucified’ Christ.

[20]F. J. Harley-McGowan, ‘The Narration of Christ’s Passion in early Christian Art’, in AABS 16 (Melbourne, 2006), p. 223.

[21] Eusebius, HE 1.2.

[22] See, e.g. A. Bain, Four Interpretations of Biblical Crucifixion Narratives in the Latin West, c. 350-430. (PhD thesis, Queensland University, 2007).

[23] Howard-Johnston, Witness to a World Crisis, p. 473. Cf. F. M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge MA, 2010), pp. 14-17, G. J. Reinink, ‘Pseudo-Methodius: A Concept of History in Response to the Rise of Islam’, in The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, ed A. Cameron and L. Conrad (Princeton, 1992), pp. 149–87.

[24]On the current debates surrounding the development and effectiveness of this weapon, see J. Haldon, ‘“Greek fire” Revisited: Recent and Current Research’, in Byzantine Style, Religion and Civilization: In Honour of Sir Steven Runciman, ed E. Jeffreys (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 290–325.

[25] The literature on the origins and extent of the implementation of the thematic administration in the seventh century is vast. For good introductions, see R. J. Lilie, ‘Die zweihundertjährige Reform: zu den Anfängen der Themenorganisation im 7. Und 8. Jahrhundert’, BS 45 (1984), pp. 27-39, 190-201, J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 208-53.

[26] C. Leyser (‘Introduction: Making Medieval Societies’, in Making Early Medieval Societies: Conflict and Belonging in the Latin West, 300-1200 [Cambridge, 2016], pp.1-15) discusses the ways such shared convictions hold societies together during periods of political rupture.

[27] Michael Attaleiates, History 27.11, Greek text according to the edition of E. Tsolakis, Michaelis Attaliatae Historia [CFHB 50], (Athens 2011), pp. 169-170. Cf. Miguel Ataliates: Historia, ed I. Perez Martin, (Madrid 2002); trans. according to A. Kaldellis and D. Krallis, The History, DOML (Cambridge MA, 2012) : Οὐ γὰρ πρὸς ἀργύριον καὶ πλούτου ἐπίκτησιν οἱ εὐγενέστατοι Ῥωμαῖοι τὸ κατ᾽ ἐκεῖνο καιροῦ ἠγωνίζοντο, ἀλλὰ δι᾽ εὔκλειαν μόνην καὶ ἀνδρίας ἐπίδειξιν καὶ τῆς ἰδίας πατρίδος σωτηρίαν τε καὶ λαμπρότητα.

[28] For this theme in Michael’s history, see A. Kaldellis, ‘A Byzantine Argument for the Equivalence of All Religions: Michael Attaleiates on Ancient and Modern Romans’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 14. 1/2 (2007), pp. 1-22, L. Neville, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium (Cambridge 2012).

[29] For this communal stability in societies beset by political turmoil and fragmentation, see Leyser, ‘Making Early Medieval Societies’, p. 5.


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