Fine Line Between Fear in Courage in Book III of Procopius’s Vandalic Wars

Just got back from giving a paper in Kalamazoo Michigan. I have been very busy teaching and proofing some forthcoming articles so have neglected the blog. To remedy this I am attaching the paper given without the slide show. This is very much a work in progress and this version is missing footnotes, but enjoy anyway:

Having recently focused in a trio of articles on the mid-sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius literary approach and, and in particular his ideas on the links between masculinity, courage, and Romanitas in his Gothic Wars, when first approached me about a paper for Barbarian Kingdoms, I thought initially to apply a similar approach to Procopius’ account of the earlier campaigns in North Africa against the Vandals.

Yet, I soon discovered that, in the first book of Vandalic Wars, issues of courage and manliness take a back seat to the emotion of fear. Put more simply: the Byzantines seemed scared shitless throughout most of book III. I am certainly not the first to note this emphasis. Several scholars have drawn recent attention to Procopius’ stress on the Roman high-commands’ fears and trepidations after the Emperor Justinian announced the campaign to take North Africa from the Vandals only a year after agreeing to the Eternal Peace with the Persians. And indeed, only a year and a half after the Emperor’s near overthrow during an uprising known as the Nika Revolt. As we can see in this passage from Wars, Fear of the Vandals’ military prowess in the wake of their string of fifth-century triumphs over the Romans also played a part in this apprehension. Justinian’s magistrates and generals feared a repeat of the disastrous naval campaign in 468 against the Vandals, which had seen a formidable Roman naval force destroyed by Vandal fire-ships just off the shore of North Africa, and left the Empire finances in tatters. Yet, in Procopius telling, the Roman generals were too frightened to say anything to the emperor. Only the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian— a man generally despised by the historian—had the nerve to warn the emperor about the financial and political ramifications of his venture. Heeding John’s advice, Justinian relented, abandoning his plan.

(slide 3)

It takes a religious vision to change the devout emperor’s mind. Procopius explains that a visiting bishop had advised the emperor that God had visited him in a dream and commanded the bishop to remind Justinian that “after undertaking the task of protecting Christians in Libya from tyrants” the emperor “for no good reason had become afraid”. God would be fighting on his side “and make him master of Libya”. With his confidence restored, Justinian assembled an invasion force with Belisarios in command.

Since Procopius probably included Belisarios in this original group of hesitant generals, some have seen it as a subtle effort by the historian, even at this early stage, to cast Belisarius in a disparaging light.[1] For these revisionists, it offers further proof that Procopius was against Justinian’s campaigns in the West from the beginning, and no toady of Belisarios even at this early stage. Today I hope to refute these claims, suggesting that such views simplify the role that the multifaceted Greek concept of fear plays in Procopius and other early Byzantine writers dealing with military matters. Far from just a negative trait, for Procopius fear, in a multitude of contexts, functions as an essential aspect of sound generalship and soldiering. In taking this stance, Procopius follows closely maxims found in Byzantine military manuals, a connection which I will highlight primarily via the PowerPoint.

Let us open by making some general observations on the role of fear in Wars and in Late Antique historiography and military manuals more generally.[2]

First the bad.

In battle, fear leads to panic, which not surprisingly leads to disaster. It is little surprise then that Late Antique armies wanted to limit their own fear while, at the same time, maximise their enemies’ fear. There were numerous ways to achieve this aim. With some qualifications, armies were encouraged to shout and make noise to rattle their enemies to panic.

(slide 4)

Certain tactics and strategies such as the bait and switch tactics favoured by the Hunnic cavalry were designed to induce the maximum amount of panic and fear in their foes.

(Slide 5)

A general needed to monitor his men’s fear levels before and during battle. His role was two-fold. Depending on the army’s mood he, could either boost their courage by easing their trepidation or regulate their ardour by instilling a bit of “needed” fear.

(slide 6)

Set-speeches before battle offered a general a means to ease his soldiers’ fears.

Managing his soldiers’ fear during the din and changing fortune of battle served as another vital duty for generals.

The Wars teems with instances of generals either controlling their soldiers fear or failing to do so. To take just two examples, At the battle of Mammes in 534, the Roman general Solomon’s quick thinking to dismount during a cavalry charge when he noticed his mount and men were terrified of the Berber camels changed tactics by dismounting and therefore obtained a notable victory for the Romans. Conversely, when the Gothic King Totila turned and fled at the fateful battle of Busta Gallorum, it proved devastating to the Gothic cause, as much for the psychological fear it caused to the remaining Gothic soldiers, as for the loss of a leader.

Overconfident troops could be just as dangerous as fearful troops. In the Persian Wars when Belisarios fails to quash his men’s eagerness for battle, a defeat follows.

We also find several accounts in Wars where Belisarius purposefully frightens his men to counter their dangerous zeal. Fear too could be used as a motivational tool, as when the Vandal King Gelimer warns his men that their wives would fall captive to the Romans if they did not defeat them at the fateful battle of Tricamerum in December of 533.

(slide 7)

An ideal Roman general needed to be feared both by the enemy and his own soldiers. A general’s reputation could strike such fear in the enemy that they could be cowed before a sword was drawn. We see an example of this paradigm, at the early stages of the Vandal campaign when Procopius suggests that part of the reason the Moors failed to ally with the Vandals against the Byzantines was out of “fear” of Belisarius’ reputation. Only when Belisarios returns to Constantinople do they recover their courage and attack the Romans, which in book 4 undermines many of Belisarius’ earlier accomplishments

(slide 8)

Lastly, as Byzantine war manuals continually harp on, a general needed to “fear” all the unknowns before and during battle. This fear could either overwhelm him or spur him to victory.

(slide 9)

Indeed, motivated by “fear”, a good general sweat the details that would prove the difference in battles where the sides were evenly matched. This helps to explain why we should not see Procopius’ depiction of Belisarios’ constant fretting before and after battles, as some modern scholars do, necessarily as criticisms, indeed, the opposite is likely true.

So, we see that Procopius and Byzantine military planners could see fear as a positive or a negative. Let us now examine more closely to how fear shapes Procopios’ narrative in the first book of his Vandal War.

Seeking an explanation for the Vandals’ successes and the Romans defeats during the fifth century, The Vandal Wars’ Prologue submits that Western decay originated during the reign of the Western Emperor Honorius (ruled 395-423) and escalated during the reigns of his successor Valentinian III and the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Procopius chooses to see this decline through a moral rather than a political lens. In sharp contrast to the soldier-emperor, Theodosius I (ruled 379-396), Honorius, Theodosius II, and Valentinian’s lack of traditional military virtues meant they were incapable of intimidating barbarian peoples in typical Roman fashion.[3] Consequently, the “Gothic nations”, which for Procopius included the Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Gepids ran amok and seized their lands, and in the case of Valentinian his close family members——it also foreshadows Belisarios coming victory over the Goths where many of the Vandal soldiers end up losing their wives and families to the Romans.[4]

In Procopius versions of events, the tides begin to shift back in the Roman’s favour, with the deaths of Theodosius and Valentinian in the 450s, and the return of a series of soldier-emperors in the East and the West. Despite their military debacles, The Western Emperor Majorian and in the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I receive praise for at least standing up to the Vandals and becoming, to borrow Procopius’ own words,  “objects of phoberos “fear” to their enemies”.

Although the historian provides a muddled and inaccurate description of Majorian’s reign and  his aborted attempt to invade Vandalic North Africa in 460, he offers a much more accurate vision of Leo I’s ambitious campaign in 468. As a number of recent scholars have posited, Leo I’s shattering defeat in 468, provides the cipher for understanding the Romans’ surprising triumph in 533.[5]  The two campaigns have been described accurately as mirror images of each other.

In comparison to Belisarius’ rather modest force, Procopius describes Leo’s expedition as a large-scale affair. Combining forces from the Western and Eastern Empire, Leo and his high-command organised a three-prong operation—with his eyes on Carthage— a formerly independent Roman warlord Marcellinus took Sardinia from the Vandals.[6] Meanwhile, the commander and future emperor, Basiliscus sailed the bulk of the Roman navy just south of Carthage to Mercurium where they prepared to assault the Vandal capital; lastly, a small fleet led by the Eastern Comes rei militaris Heracleius successfully occupied the Vandal stronghold of Tripolis. Heracleius and his army then set out towards Byzacena to link up with Basiliscus’ troops when they arrived in Proconsular province.  Procopius, explained that in the face of such overwhelming strength even the formidable Vandal King Gaiseric was prepared to capitulate.[7] However, Basiliscus, either through treachery or cowardice delayed his attack on Carthage, granting Gaiseric the chance to launch his fire-ships. Even then, Procopius hints that, if Basiliscus had not abandoned his men to sail back to Constantinople, the Romans might have still won the day. The tale of Basiliscus thus serves as an internal exemplum by which to compare the actions and manly characters of the Vandalic Wars two main protagonists, Belisarios and Gelimer.

So, we can see that Procopius has already shown the reader that the fear that had gripped the capital in the summer of 533, while understandable, was largely based on the false premise of Vandalic military superiority. Consequently, while Procopius included himself amongst those stifled by fear when war was first declared; he also makes it clear that he was among the first to discover that such fears were misguided. Procopius explains that he had a dream, which made him eager to go on the campaign since it implied that the Romans would emerge triumphant. Though Anthony Kaldellis has plausibly pointed out this dream’s possible ambiguities, I believe with others that we should take it at face value. In fact, it is just one of many places where Procopios grants himself foresight that others in Wars besides Belisarios lack.

(slide 10)

It also seems significant to me that fear plays a largely positive role during the Romans’ arduous three-month journey to Vandalic North Africa, where almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Procopius provides a finely crafted tale advancing a step-by-step guide on how to transform terror into triumph.

First, Belisarios needs to harness fear to obtain control of his potentially insubordinate heterogeneous army during their nearly disastrous journey from Constantinople to Sicily.

Stalled by a lack of winds, the fleet anchors at Abydos. With discipline breaking down, shortly after making landfall Belisarius famously executes two allied Hunnic soldiers who had murdered a colleague in a drunken dispute. Rejecting the Huns pleas that Roman law did not apply to them as allies, he crucified the two Huns in plain view of his entire army. To explain Belisarios’ reasoning, Procopius has the commander deliver a speech to his army, where he declares that there can be no victory without one maintain the proper balance between courage and justice. Procopius then inserts a third factor into his narrative, noting that when the soldiers looked upon the two impaled men “an overwhelming fear washed over them” and, straight away the army’s discipline improves.

Things grow only graver for the Romans  after they set sail once more. Betrayed by the penny-pinching pratorean prefect John (whom I suspect has had a large influence on modern airline cuisine preparation), tainted water and bread leads to the spread of disease throughout the assault force. Barely staving off disaster, Belisarios and his still-terrified army manage to finally arrive to Sicily.

The foreboding ghosts of previous naval defeats at the hands of the Vandals, still looms large. Like any good Byzantine general, Belisarios frets about his lack of military intelligence concerning the Vandals military capabilities and their awareness about his impending attack.

(slide 11)

Procopius inserts himself once again into the narrative, explaining that Belisarios sent him to check the island for signs or information on enemy ambushes. Favoured once again with the gift of foresight, “fortune” (epiteekon) intervenes and Prokopios happens upon a child-hood friend involved in the shipping-business in Syracuse; the friend assures Procopius that the Vandals were completely unaware of the impending Byzantines and in fact the Vandal fleet was busy putting down an insurrection in Sardinia.

As Andy Merrills suggests, the merchant’s knowledge about the Vandalic navy’s whereabouts and the North-African regimes awareness of the impending invasion probably had to do with the regional merchant-sailing community’s connection to what we rather incorrectly describe as the Vandal navy, but probably consisted primarily of long-standing members of the North African merchant networks. Reassured that the Vandals were not expecting them, the Roman fleet prepares to depart Sicily and Belisarios, & Procopios, at least, head to North Africa with a bit more confidence.[8]


Back at sea, Belisarios mulls over an invasion strategy, which would equally surprise the Vandals and just as importantly alleviate his soldiers’ dual terror of the sea and the Vandals. As he does frequently in Wars, Procopius crafts a pair of set-speeches to cover the main issues. Following closely Basiliscus’ earlier route, the admiral Archeleus argues that since Gelimer and the Vandals were pre-occupied with other threats, the fleet should cut the head off the snake by heading straight to Carthage, where there was a safe-harbor just south of the city that could be used as a safe base, by which to swiftly capture  the Vandal’s capital.


(slide 13)

Belisarios rejects this plan primarily because of….surprise surprise… his soldiers’ terror of remaining on the ships, which he argues would cripple the campaign if a storm struck and/or the Vandal forces met them before they disembarked. As we can see once again following Byzantine military maxims, His strategy called instead for most his men land in a deserted territory 240 km south of Carthage, whilst the navy with a contingent of bowmen would shadow Belisarios for the advance North. This strategy also had the benefit of the element of surprise, splitting up potentially mutinous troops, and allowing Belisarios’ the needed time to restore his men’s courage.

(slide 14)

Belisarios prevails and the Roman soldiers hesitantly take their first steps onto Vandal territory.  Their unmolested landing, however, does little to quash their terror. Once again, however, Procopius shifts his focus to fear’s positive side. In the historian’s telling, spurred on by a combination of Belsiarios exhortations and their “fear” (τοι φόβου) of being left exposed to the enemy, the Roman soldiers’ enthusiastically make camp and while digging the trench miraculously strike water.[9] Procopius explains that at the time he had told Belisarios that it served as a further sign that God had preordained their victory. Now whether or not Procopios really believed this assertion, is an argument for another day.

Controlling his soldiers’ natural urges to indiscipline continues to be an issue and Belisarios once again must censor his soldiers’ for taking fruits from the local Libyan orchids.

After marching to the outskirts of the unwalled sea-side city of Syllectus, Belisarios attempted to coax those he describes as the local Libyans, whom Procopius describes as Romans of old, to accept a letter from Justinian which argued that the Byzantines were not making war on the Vandals by breaking the treaty signed in the previous century with Geiseric, but merely punishing the usurper Gelimer who had wrongfully overthrown the rightful Vandal rex. The locals, however, did not at this stage dare to publish emperor’s letter openly. The Libyan’s fear of Gelimer and the Vandals at this stage surpassed their fear of the strangers from Constantinople.

(slide 16)

Gelimer finally learns of Belsiarios impending arrival and after having his royal rivals murdered prepares what should have been a devastating and decisive counter-attack. The narrative that follows has been rightly described as some of the most complex and asymmetric in all of Wars. To sum up very simply, A combination of God, Fortune, Vandal missteps, and Belisarios’ sage decision to divide his army preserves the Byzantines from annihilation.

(slide 17)

Misjudging his arrival to Decimum, Gelimer’s brother Ammatta falls prey to a Roman ambush led by the general John the Armenian, which sees Ammatta and his force wiped out. At the same time, Gelimer’s nephew Gibamundus compounds the disaster. Here, Fear of the unknown turns the tide. Yet this time it works in the Romans advantage, having never seen a Hun, Gibamundus and his 2,000 men panic and are easily cut-down by the Roman allies.

The bulk of the Vandal forces, however, remained safely under Gelimer’s command. Procopius famously declares that Gelimer let an easy victory slip through his fingers when, instead of pushing his advantage and attacking Belisarios, he halted in order to mourn his slain brother.

(slide 18)

The narrative then shifts back to Belisarios, who remains ignorant of all of which had transpired above. Providing balance to the narrative, Procopius shows that the Romans fell prey to their fears, and barely escaped being routed by the Vandals who had taken the high ground.

(slide 19)

Here Belisarios saves the day once again, stepping in during the midst of their retreat, and by appealing to their honour quashes their fear and thus restores their courage.

(slide 19)

Fortune favours the brave, instead of scurrying away to fight another day (as Gelimer frequently does), Belisarius charges the Vandals raising up a large cloud of drifting dust that gave the impression of a much larger Roman force.  The Vandals who believed the fighting had finished, had dismounted and were inspecting the battlefield while Gelimer arranged his brother’s funeral rites. The Vandals wilted under the force of the Romans charge, and fled.
Procopius reported, “Now the Vandals were in flight, not to Carthage nor to Byzacium, whence they had come, but to the plain of Boulla and the road leading into Numidia.”

Book III closes with Gelimer’s other brother Tzazo upon learning in Sardinia of the Vandals defeat, hurrying back the entire Vandal fleet of 120 ships. Strangely not attacking the Byzantines in Carthage, a decision that Procopius fails to explain adequately Tzazo abandons the ships and marches overland with his army to join up with Gelimer on the plains of Bulla.

, let us close for today by jumping ahead to the conclusion of the battle of Tricamerum (15 December 533) covered in the opening of the fourth book of Wars, where after Tzazo’s death in battle, Gelimer famously fled when Belisarios attacked his line:

Gelimer realizing that Belisarius came suddenly towards him with his infantry and the rest of his army, neither saying nor ordering anything, Gelimer leapt upon his horse and fled onto the road to Numidia. And his kinsmen and a few of his servants followed him, shell-shocked (καταπεπληγμένοι ), keeping silent about what had happened.


It is surely no coincidence that in the set-speech Gelimer gives just before this battle, he appeals to his men by warning “that if they choose to be cowards” they will lose, not only their lands, but their wives to the Romans. As Peter Van Nuffelen comments in a forthcoming paper this is Gelimer’s

last speech and, virtually, his last spoken words in the Wars.[10] Indeed, the absence of their leader, and hence of orders, leads to the utter defeat of the Vandals, whereupon Gelimer continues his flight to the Papua mountain, among the Berbers.” As long as Gelimer speaks, he can exhort his soldiers and issue orders, he is capable of having an influence on the course of events. Mute, he becomes the mere play thing of others.

I agree with Peter, that Procopius’ attitude towards Gelimer, is therefore less flattering than some suggest. As we saw in the Strategikon, Idealised generals needed to control their men’s fear, be prepared for a defeat and, indeed, be lucky. Gelimer fails on all fronts. He leaves his cities without walls, fails to anticipate the Byzantines’ southern approach, and twice deserts his men when they need him most, and in another contrast to Belisarius, he never even tests his luck when things turn against him, instead he runs.  In my reading, Gelimer’s doomed exile on Mt Papua serves as a warning on how fear and the changing circumstances of battle can challenge even the bravest of men. Indeed, fear of watching his young relatives starve to death, in the end, leads to Gelimer’s decision to come down from the mountain and surrender to the Byzantines.

Were the Byzantines better fighters, lucky or blessed by God? All three factors, play a role in Procopius’ complex vision of causation. Yet, it is Belisarios who makes the real difference in 533.

As we have seen campaigns were frequently won and lost by the slimmest of margins. Belisarius’ ability to master the multifaceted aspects of “fear” discussed throughout Book 3, sows the seeds for his later victory. Though far from perfect, by neither fearing too much nor too little, Belisarios serves for Procopios in book III as an idealised andreios general and man.

Of course, as occurs regularly in Wars, through a combination of Belisarios’ recall to Constantinople, bad fortune and men’s propensity to moral depravity, the remainder of Bk IV shows the good times for the Romans in North Africa did not last. Yet, that is a story for another day or perhaps our next speaker.

[1] Ilias

[2] Whately, Battles and Generals, 157.

[3] Proc. Wars 3.2.25-26

[4] Proc. Wars 3.2.1-2. T

[5] Evans, Procopius, 63; Kaldellis, Procopius,179; Wood, ‘Becoming Roman’, 431; Whately, Battles and Generals, 131.

[6] The circumstances behind this campaign are disputed, I follow largely Merrills and Miles’ reconstruction (The Vandals, 121–23).

[7] Procopius, Wars 3.6.11.

[8] Peter Van Nuffellen

[9]For the role of miracles in Vandalic Wars, see Philip Wood, “Being Roman in Procopius’ Vandal Wars,” Byzantion

[10]  Gelimer is said to recite Eccl. 1.2 ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ (4.9.11).



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