The Eunuch Commander Solomon: part 1

 

Today’s blog deals with one of my favourite East Roman generals, the magister militum and praetorian prefect of Africa, Solomon (c480-90-544).

By far the largest employer in the Byzantine world, the military provided a means for men from all levels of Byzantium to rise up the ladder of social advancement. Justinian’s generals certainly reflected the diverse social make-up of the sixth-century Empire. They could be the emperor’s blue-blooded relatives, eunuchs, loyal guardsmen, eighty-year old Italian Senators, and non-Romans.  Solomon was the first of three eunuchs to command Byzantine armies during Justinian’s reign. Another castrate, Scholasticus, served as commander of an army sent against the Sklavenoi in 551. While the most famous eunuch-commander of all Narses (c. 480-573) had achieved major victories over the Goths in 552 and versus the Franks and Alamanni in 554 helped to secure the Emperor Justinian I’s (ruled 527-565) retaking of Italy from the Goths after an arduous nineteen-year struggle.[i] So too did Narses perform admirably for twelve years in his role as prefect of Italy. Yet, where Narses has achieved a great deal of scholarly attention commensurate to his achievements. Solomon who died in fending of Moorish revolt at the Battle of Cillium in 544, has received only minimal notice.

Like most Roman emperors,  the emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565)  chose most of the men that would lead his armies and, at times, even those who held subordinate commands. Some of this involvement was taken in an effort to thwart the rise of potential rivals. It should not surprise us in light of the Nika revolt in 532,  that the non-campaigning Justinian thought felt paranoid about usurpation. His fears were not completely unjustified. As Peter Bell has recently argued, many elites in Constantinople perceived Justinian to be an outsider.[1] Moreover, as Henning Börm (‘Justinians Triumph und Belisars Erniedrigung Überiegungen zum Verhältnis Zwischen Reich’, Chiron 43 (2013), p. 81.) has usefully highlighted, the threat of usurpation within the capital from a blue-blood aristocrat posed a greater threat to fifth and sixth-century Eastern Roman emperors than a potential revolt from a general in the field. The threat of rebellion in Constantinople, then, helps to explains some of the emperor’s reluctance to allow potential rivals from the Roman elite to hold important military commands.

[

The emperor and his inner-circle who regulated who received these commands naturally tended to prefer men with close personal links. Seven of Justinian’s relatives served in the Byzantine high-command during and after his reign. The emperor’s cousins Marcian and Germanus were magistri militum who had military backgrounds, while the aristocrat and senator Areobindus, who was married to Justinian’s niece, served as magister militum Africae in 545, despite having no military experience to speak of.

Those magister militum who were not related to the emperor, generally had a record of faithfulness to the imperial regime. [2] For example, Justinian’s key commanders, Belisarius and Narses were likely given top commands partly because of their proven loyalty. Narses had risen to prominence under Justinian. He had first attended Justinian and Theodora as a cubicularius (chamberlain); ultimately, attaining the top post available to a court eunuch, the position of praepositus sacri cubiculi (grand chamberlain). He also acted a treasurer (a favourite position for Byzantine eunuchs) and later served as spatharius (bodyguard). So too had Narses performed coolly under pressure during an uprising in 532 known as the Nika revolt, which had seen the near overthrow of Justinian. The combination of Narses’ quick-thinking during the revolt and his close relationship with Theodora—due in part to their shared Christological position— provide the probable rational for the eunuch’s appointment in 535 to lead a Byzantine army into Alexandria to reinstate the monophysite Theodosius as patriarch.[3] Belisarius, and another prominent general Sittas, had served as body-guards for the then general Justinian during Justin I’s reign.[4] Belisarius had also proven his loyalty during the Nika revolt. With Justinian’s reign in deep peril, Belisarius had led the counterattack against the emperor’s rioting subjects that had finally quashed the insurrection.[5]

We first hear of Solomon serving under Belisarius. It is not Procopius, but the Monophysite Chronicle of Pseudo- Zachariah that provides the earliest details on Solomon. The eunuch seems to have made a good impression on both Belisarius and the Chronicle’s author:

Accompanying him (Belisarius) was Solomon, a eunuch, from the fortress of Idriphthon. He was an astute man, capable in the affairs of the world, having been a notarius to the dux Felicissimus [Felicissimo duci notarius Fureat]and having been attached to the rest of the governors, and he had become cunning through training by [tackling] problems.

Felicissimus had been dux of Mesopotamia in 505/506, so Solomon’s career in the intervening two decades remains a mystery. Though it is likely by 527,

Solomon was already an experienced soldier Belisarius must have counted on Solomon’s for his previous experience as a secretary and a soldier. Moving up from the position of notarius (secretary, scribe) occurred rather frequently in the Early Byzantine Empire. In fact, two sixth-century Byzantine emperors, Tiberius II (ruled 474-582) and Maurice ruled 582-602 had begun their rise to powers as scribes (In the West, the primicerius notarium (chief secretary of the Western court) John, had seized the throne (20 November 423). Tiberius was serving as a notarius in Constantinople when he came to the attention of the emperor Justin I. Not coincidentally, the emperor Maurice had worked as Tiberius’ (at the time commander of the imperial guard) private secretary.

We do not hear much about Solomon’s service in the Persian campaigns, but he had obviously gained Belisarius’ trust, and by the Vandal campaign in 533 Solomon was serving as Belisarius’ domesticus—the protectores domestici were an elite guard unit of the early Byzantine Army, who functioned as both body guards and staff officers.

Procopius memorably introduces Solomon as one of two commanders of Belisarius’ foederarti— In the fourth century, foederati consisted primarily of non-Roman groups who had agreed to fight on the Roman’s behalf. Yet, as Procopius explained, by the sixth century the φοιδερτοι consisted of Romans and non-Romans. Procopius notes, however, that Solomon was different than his colleague Dorotheos, the magister militum Armenia. He wrote:

 

‘This Solomon was a eunuch, but it was not by the intent of any man that his genitals had been severed: some accident imposed this lot upon him when he was a child’. [ ὁ δὲ Σολόμων οὕτος εὐνοῦχος μὲν ἦν, οὐκ ἐξ ἐπιβουλῆς δὲ ἀνθρώπου τὰ αἰδοῖα ἐτύγχανεν ἀποτμηθείς, ὰλλά τις αὐτῷ τύχη ἐν σπαργάνοις ὄντι τοῦτο ἐβράβευσε) trans. Kaldellis).

Though different than man-made castrates, these accidental eunuchs, who Shaun Tougher proposes had their testes somehow crushed in child-hood, were catagorized by Byzantines like Procopius as being in the same category of man-made castrates and ‘born eunuchs’—those individuals who either had undescended testes, or were born without them’.[6]

In the next blog we will trace Solomon’s rise and death serving Justinian in North Africa.

[1] Peter Bell, Social Conflict in the age of Justinian. Its Nature, Management, and Mediation(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 279.

[2] T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy AD554-800 (London, 1984), p. 64, D. Parnell, ‘The Origins of Justinian’s Generals’, Journal of Medieval Military History 10 (2012), p. 6. Whatley, ‘Militarization’, pp. 1-16.

[3] M. E. Stewart, ‘The Andreios Eunuch-Commander Narses: Sign of a Decoupling of martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the early Byzantine Empire?’, Cerae 2 (2015), pp. 6-10.

[4] Procopius, Wars 1.12.21.

[5] The Chronicon Paschale (s.a. 621), an early seventh-century account, described Belisarius’ ruthless counterattack, ‘The people remained mobbing outside the palace. And when this was known, the patrician Belisarius, the magister militum, came out with a multitude of Goths and cut down many [rioters] until evening’.

[6] S. Tougher, The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society (London, 2008), p. 31

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