Justinian’s Eunuch-General Solomon

 

Narses gets all the press but Solomon was another of Justinian’s eunuch generals. This is a little piece I am working on at the moment…so enjoy…

The magister militum and two-time praetorian prefect Africae (534-6, 539-44) Solomon (c. 480-90-544) 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 at the battle of Taginae (Busto Gallorum) and versus the Franks and Alamanni in 554 at the battle of Casilunus that helped to secure the Emperor Justinian I’s (ruled 527-565) retaking of Italy from the Goths after an arduous nineteen-year struggle. Perhaps as result of the successful precedents set by Solomon and Narses, the number of eunuch-generals in Byzantium rose in subsequent centuries.[1]

We first hear of Solomon serving under Belisarius.  The Monophysite Chronicle of Pseudo- Zachariah records:

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. It is likely by 527 Solomon was already an experienced soldier. Belisarius probably chose Solomon for his previous experience as a secretary and  soldier who knew the politics and main players in and about the dangerous Eastern border with Persia.[2]

We do not hear much about Solomon’s service in the Persian campaigns, but he had obviously gained Belisarius’ trust, and the Vandal war in 533 found him 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). The sixth-century historian of Justinian’s military campaigns in the East and the West, Procopius, memorably introduced Solomon as one of two commanders of Belisarius’ foederarti[3]: 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’. [4] Though differentiated from other eunuchs in this passage, Byzantines like Procopius placed accidental eunuchs in the same category of man-made castrates and ‘born eunuchs’—those individuals who either had undescended testes, or were born without them’.[5]

Solomon’s status as a eunuch did nothing to inhibit his rapid advancement within the East Roman army. When Belisarius headed to Sicily to organise his impending invasion of southern Italy, he named Solomon as the supreme commander (praetorian prefect) of North Africa, a role that combined military and political leadership.[6] The command of this newly reconquered region points to the faith both Belisarius and the emperor Justinian placed in Solomon’s capabilities.[7] Solomon indeed represents the rare individual in Wars whom Belisarius, Procopius, and Justinian trusted and admired.[8] That Belisarius’ assessor Procopius knew and seemingly had a close relationship with Solomon, helps to explain why in Wars, Solomon comes off more as a genuine human-being.[9] Certainly, Procopius’ depicted Solomon’s trials and tribulations during his two tenures in North Africa in a highly sympathetic light. Though far from perfect, Solomon is loyal, intelligent, restrained, innovative, and courageous. In fact, Solomon has been described “as the most highly praised person in Vandal War.”[10]

Although, it is not within this paper’s scope to provide a detailed account of Procopius’ portrait of Solomon, a few anecdotes from Wars concerning his career should offer evidence that both Romans and non-Romans in North Africa seemed to have cared little about Solomon’s status as eunuch. After his introduction, Procopius only rarely mentions Solomon’s eunuchism.[11] Instead, Procopius cast him as an idealised battle-hardened leader, a man’s man. Unquestionably, Solomon’s selfless courage and adroit generalship are on display throughout the narrative.[12] For just one example of several in Wars, at the battle of Mammes in 534, when directing his cavalry against the Berbers, Solomon astutely observing the panic of his men’s horses because of the Berbers’ use of camels, leapt of his horse, and ordering his men to do the same, formed a fulcum of 500 men and won the day by slaughtering the camels that were protecting the enemy camp.[13]

Even Solomon’s setbacks were largely explained away by Procopius. Solomon’s failure during his first command in North Africa, according to Procopius, resulted from his fierce loyalty to Justinian and his policies. Following an imperial edict Solomon refused to permit the Roman soldiers who had taken Vandal wives to inherit these women’s lands. Moreover, adhering to Justinian’s religious policies for the newly conquered province, he would not allow the 1,000 Arians in his army to practice their religion. Solomon’s devotion to Justinian nearly got him killed. Whipped up by the Vandal clergy and the soldier’s Vandal wives, Solomon narrowly escaped a plot by a group of these men to assassinate him on Easter Sunday (23 March) 536, fleeing along with Procopius to Sicily, where the pair then sought Belisarius’ assistance to put down the revolt.[14] For the next three years, North Africa would be wracked by internal and external rebellion.

After his return to Africa in 539, Procopius presented Solomon as a leader who had learned from his previous mistakes. He wrote: “Solomon sailed to Carthage and, having rid himself of Stotzas (the rebel Byzantine general) he ruled with moderation and setting the army in order. . . .Libya became powerful under his rule. [15] In a series of swift campaigns, Solomon stamped out the rebellion’s remnants and drove the Berbers from Numidia. As many idealised generals before him, Solomon treated his defeated enemies Roman and non-Roman with respect. Procopius described the aftermath of Solomon’s sage policies: “As a result of this all the Libyans who were subjects of the Romans, coming to enjoy secure peace and finding the rule of Solomon wise and very moderate, no longer had any thought of war in their minds, and seemed the most fortunate of all men.”[16]

As occurs regularly in Wars, through a combination of bad fortune and men’s propensity to moral depravity, the good times did not last. Justinian, probably out of good will towards Solomon, in 544, assigned the eunuch’s nephews Sergius and Cyrus to key commands in North Africa. Such nepotism was common in the early Byzantine army, [17] but Procopius, perhaps seeking to shift blame away from his hero Solomon, lamented, “And this man (Sergius) became the chief cause of great ruin to the people of Libya.” In these few words, Procopius emphasised the vital role that men’s virtues played in determining the fate of Justinian’s reconquest. According to Wars, the dux Tripolitaniae Sergius’ unjust murder of eighty of Berber envoys leads to a dangerous uprising and the defection of most of Solomon’s key Berber allies.

The subsequent uprising by the Berbers enraged by their heinous treatment at the hands of Sergius leads ultimately to Solomon’s downfall. Defections by Solomon’s Berber allies swings the balance of power back into the favour of the rebels. Solomon’s death, as described by Procopius, is heroic and tragic in the best Roman literary fashion.[18] Abandoned by the majority of his Roman and non-Roman soldiers, and overwhelmed by the Berber’s superior numbers, Solomon and his loyal bodyguards at the battle of Cillium in Byzancena make a hasty retreat. On the cusp of escaping danger, Solomon’s horse stumbles in a ravine, throwing its rider to the ground. Injured and unable to remount, Solomon is cut down while making a heroic last-stand.  A suiting end for a man Procopius revered throughout Wars as an idealised Roman soldier.[19]

What should attract our interest, however, is the vocabulary that Procopius wields in Secret History and Wars to describe Sergius in the aftermath of his uncle’s death. Out of loyalty to Solomon and respect for the eunuch’s heroic death, Justinian named Sergius as Solomon’s successor.[20] Procopius attributed Sergius’ subsequent failures in North Africa on his ‘unmanly, [ἄνανδρος] ‘soft’ [μαλθακòς] and ‘effeminate nature’ [γνáθους φυσων], gendered epithets that critics had long deployed to undermine eunuchs in positions of authority.[21] Whether consciously or not, Procopius inverts the old-trope of the unmanly eunuch undermining the rule of a noble Roman. While, the eunuch Solomon died nobly in battle, the non-eunuch Sergius’ deceit and unmanliness in his two short years as magister militum Africae nearly destroyed everything his uncle had achieved for the restored province.[22] Having served under Belisarius and Solomon, one suspects that few men could have met the historian’s expectations.  Therefore, the more pessimistic vision of Vandalic North Africa found at the close of book four of Wars, may not reflect Procopius’ general disillusionment with Justinian’s North African reconquest as a whole, as suggested by one recent scholar, but should perhaps be better seen as a symptom of the historian’s anguish over the loss of a man, Solomon, he respected equally as a leader, man, and probable friend.[23]

[1] For a select prosopography of eunuchs in Byzantine civilisation, see Tougher, 2008, 133-71.

[2] Moving up from the position of notarius (secretary, scribe) occurred rather frequently in the Early Byzantine Empire. Indeed, two sixth-century emperors, Tiberius II (ruled 574-582) and Maurice (ruled 582-602) had begun their careers as notarius. So to, in the fifth century, had the primicerius notarium (chief secretary of the Western court) John, had seized the throne (20 November 423).

[3]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 (Wars 3.11.3-5.), by the sixth century the φοιδερᾶτοι consisted of Romans and non-Romans.

[4] Procopius, Wars (trans. Kaldellis):  ‘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.

[5]Tougher, 2008, 31

[6] Procopius, Wars 4.8.23

[7] Conant, 2012, 204-205: Conant posits reasonably that Justinian and Solomon probably had a close relationship.

[8] E.g., Procopius, Wars 3.29.19, 4.8, 4.22.11

[9] Procopius, Wars

[10] Kaldellis, 2004, 189.

[11] Procopius, Wars 4.12.28, where Procopius describes a Berber prophecy where ‘their nation would be destroyed by a beardless man [ὡς ἄρα τὸγένος αὐτοῖς προς ἀνδρὸς ἀγνείου ὀλεῖται].

[12] Whately, 2016, 138.

[13] Procopius, Wars 4.11.47-56.

[14] Procopius, Wars 4.14.30-37. That Procopius was one of only six individuals who escaped with Solomon, points to the pair’s close relationship. In Secret History (18.9-13), Procopius harshly criticised Justinian’s policies against Arians and native landowners. He was, however, clearly hostile to the rebels. Cf. Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 535, which predates the rebellion by one year.

[15] Procopius, Wars 4.21.28.

[16] Procopius, Wars 4.20.33. Cf. Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 540.

[17] It is just as likely that Solomon pushed for these appointments, since early Byzantine magister militum frequently appointed their own subordinate officers, see Conant, 2012,

[18] For a discussion of these idealised deaths in battle in Greco-Roman literature, see Eckstein, 1995, 42-43.

[19] Procopius Wars 4.21-22.1. Cf. Victor of Tonnena, Chron.  s.a. 543 (11, 201); Marcellinus, Chron. s.a. 541.3; Corippus, Iohannis 3.417-41.

[20] It was common practice in the early Byzantine army for magister militum to appoint close relatives as their successors, see Conant, 2012, 227-229.

[21] Procopius, Secret History 4.32-3, Wars 4.22.2: οἱ δὲ στρατιῶται, ὅτι δὲ ἄναδρός τε καὶ μαλθακòς παντάπασιν ἦν. For Procopius’ terminology to describe ‘good’ and ‘bad’ generals and political leaders, see Stewart, 2013, 200-207.

[22] Procopius (Secret History criticised Sergius’ successor in North Africa, the blue-blooded Easter senator Areobindus, with similar gendered language.

[23] Kaldellis, 2016, 15.

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