Category Archives: Late Roman/ early Byzantine History

The fine lines between rashness, fear and courage in Procopius’ Vandalic War 3.10



(ruins of Leptis, city that Belisarius and his army marched through shortly after landing in North Africa September 533)

There is an interesting section in the mid-sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius’ account of the intense debate surrounding Justinian’s decision in the summer of 532 to attempt to dislodge the Vandals from North Africa where the historian highlights the Eastern Romans’ trepidation to launch the invasion. Like many modern military campaigns most of the emperor’s advisors were refighting (ultimately wrongly) a previous war. In this case the failed attempt by the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I and the Western emperor Anthemios’  to take back North Africa in 468 that nearly bankrupted the Eastern regime.

Though I disagree with almost all of his conclusions concerning Procopius’ Vandalic War[1], Anthony Kaldellis is correct that the historians detailed description of Leo’s failed attempt to retake North Africa from the Vandals in 468 “functions in many ways as a parallel to the later expedition of Belisarius”.[2]

When the emperor informed his magistrates of his plan, they indeed reminded the emperor of the failed expedition, reciting how many soldiers had been lost and how the treasury had been nearly bankrupted. The treasurer John was the most panicked, since he was going to need to find the funds to pay for the campaign. Quick sidenote: Justinian may have been thinking of all the new tax revenue to be found if he was successful. Indeed, the loss of tax revenue and grain supplies after the fall of the North Africa led to the gradual decline of the Western army since emperors like Valentinian III had less and less money to pay and feed their troops.

Even more interesting, especially for those who believe that Procopius served as the spokesman for the general Belisarius, was the terror and dread of the prospective commanders of the campaign, a group that would have most certainly included Belisarius. Kaldellis (Procopius 177) in particular uses this passage as evidence for his larger claim (rejecting current consensus) that Procopius was not the general’s apologist, but sought to paint Belisarius and the Roman army in a bad light. Indeed, he posits (wrongly in my mind) that sheer “luck” represented the primary factor in the Romans ultimate vanquishing of the Vandals.

At first glance the idea that Procopius sought to depict Belisarius and the other Romans as cowardly and merely “lucky” may seem possible. Yet like much in Procopius the “truth” is a bit more complicated. The generals’ fear of being defeated at sea before they even landed in North Africa was logical since both the fleets of the western Emperor Majorian in 460 and the emperor Leo I in 468 had been destroyed by the Vandals’ fire-ships. Their fear if they succeeded in gaining a foothold in North Africa recalled the failed campaigns of Roman generals like Aspar and Boniface in the early 430s to dislodge the Vandals. Such caution may not have been seen by Procopius as a sign of cowardice, but of good generalship.  In Wars what some deemed to be cowardly behaviour, in Procopius’ telling  actually represented the actions of a andrieos (manly, courageous) man and served as a sign of excellent generalship (for just two instance of many, see e.g, Wars 5.11.12-22; 5.19.1) .

Indeed, Greek philosophers like Aristotle  had considered ἀνδρεία as “the attributes of a man whose actions demonstrate a moderate negotiation between ‘boldness’ [θάρσος] and ‘fear’ [φόβος]”. As Karen Bassi puts it, “the andreios man neither fears too much or too little”. 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. The knack of ruling oneself by repressing one’s emotions and urges had long made up an essential component of Greek and Roman masculine identity. Therefore, it is not surprising that Roman writers like Procopius articulated the view that Roman men had a greater potential than either women or barbarians to overcome humanity’s natural instinct to avoid danger. In contrast to the controlled courage best exemplified by Roman men, in these sources, barbarians frequently display a more primeval, undisciplined, and therefore more unreliable type of bravery.

Context and sequence matter. So far from being a sign of Procopius being critical of Belisarius 3.10 may instead of been a positive assessment of a general recognising the dangers he faced, but going ahead anyway, an act of a manly man.

It is also interesting that in Leo’s campaign the Eastern Romans were brimming with confidence, whilst the Vandal King was portrayed as almost paralysed by fear. Procopius wrote:

He (Basiliskos) would have reduced the Vandals to subjection without their even thinking of resistance; so overcome was Gaiseric with awe of Leo as an invincible emperor when the report was brought to him that Sardinia and Tripolis had been captured, and he saw the fleet of Basiliskos to be such as the Romans were said never to have had before. But, as it was, the general’s hesitation, whether caused by cowardice or treachery, prevented this success.

Note the difference. Now the situation is reversed but the side whose courage is modified by a fair share of fear ultimately emerged victorious. Victory in the case of Leo’s campaign was thwarted largely by the cowardice of Basiliskos, whilst Gelimer’s failings and tyche let the Romans avoid what could have been a devastating defeat if the Vandalic rex had taken the “proper” action.

Fear indeed plays a positive role in the opening of Vandalic war. In a set-speech to his men deciding the army’s best course of action Belisarius points to his soldiers’ fear of the dangers of the sea” as a reason to disembark quickly, rather than sail to Carthage. Indeed, the general…and one thinks perhaps Procopius too, see the soldiers’ fears of the dangers of staying at sea as rational. Belisarius has learned his lesson from the previous war that saw Basiliskos’ navy the Roman infantry destroyed at sea. The vanguard of the fifth-century attack had indeed landed relatively unopposed on the African mainland and quickly move unopposed on Carthage. Fear thus leads to a proper decision that ends up leading to the Vandals being “surprised”, a key factor in both Thucydides (2.61.3 0 and Procopius in determining a victor.

Once the soldiers come ashore, in Procopius’ telling, it is the great enthusiasm of the Roman soldiers’ driven by their fear (phobos) that allows them to dig like madmen and make a “miraculous” discovery of water.

Gradually the Roman soldiers’ fear dissipates, and one expects Procopius’ as well (a common relief soldiers experience when they realise the enemy are not “supermen”). The Vandals of the pre-invasion Romans, were, indeed a bogeyman with little basis in reality. Instead of invincible warriors, Procopius and the other Romans are surprised to find a people effeminized by their adulation of Roman luxury (Wars 4.6. 5-8). As other historians’ have noted, Procopius relies on an old trope here. The old barbarians serve as warriors and can be softened by civilization barb. We see it presented in a slightly different way again in Gothic war, though I as I have argued in a recent article, Procopius presentation of the trope is much more nuanced than many have argued. I suspect the same may apply here….so more areas open for exploration.

“Fear” undoubtedly plays a large narrative role in Vandalic War, far more than in the more “heroic” Gothic War. Having not given a thorough exploration of this theme previously I am now intrigued to look at how Procopius weaves this concept through the entire narrative.  New article? We shall see.

[1] In a forthcoming article I reject three of his primary claims: first that tyche reigns supreme in Vandalic War; second, that Procopius did not support the campaign; third, that he does not provide a favourable portrait of Belisarius.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (2004), 179.

Inspirational Roman and Byzantine Women





This week’s blog is a bit of a cheat since it is an excerpt from an article I am preparing for publication. It has been sent off and received a good response. It was mostly written in 2002 for my 2003 MA thesis on Procopius. Having picked it up after not reading it for over ten years I realised it might be worthy of publication, so I gave it a good update and refresh. Luckily the writing style was better than I would have thought…so I left much of it as is.

One thing I noted as I gave it an edit is how many of the modern sources I consulted are written by women. This should not surprise since primarily women write about ancient women; why this should be so is not so clear. I am certainly just a interested in reading about battles as I am in consulting the latest book on the role of women in Byzantium. In contrast much of what I read about “regular” Roman and Byzantine history is written by men…with some notable exceptions of course,   wink wink Maria…Of course I was raised by my mother and three dynamic women cut from much the same cloth as Antonina, Theodora and Amalasuintha! So enjoy the first half…

The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius is arguably the most important writer to survive from Late Antiquity. Procopius has received much needed attention in the past thirty-five years. Much of this work has been the by-product of the upsurge of research focusing on the role of women in the early Byzantine Empire. Procopius’ views on gender—particularly in the Secret History—have received particular attention. [1]

Yet as specialists on the ancient historian have recognized, uncovering Procopius’ “true” views is problematic.[2] Undoubtedly, without careful analysis, Procopius’ three works: the Buildings, the Secret History, and the Wars, may appear either to have different authors, or to be the work of one severely schizophrenic individual. In Buildings, Procopius extolled Justinian as God’s messenger on earth, leading the Empire back to glory. In contrast, in the Secret History Justinian appeared as the “Lord of the Demons,” driving Byzantium to disaster.[3] The Wars took the middle ground, incorporating negative and positive descriptions of the emperor. Some of these discrepancies, however, partly reflect the nature and the limitations of the historical models that Procopius followed. The Wars was a work of secular history that focused on great men and great battles. The Secret History followed the literary genre of psogos (invective) and komodia (satire), while the Buildings followed the restrictions of “the most artificial of all classical genres to modern taste, that of panegyric.”[4]        

These oft-times paradoxical characterizations make it difficult for modern scholars to understand Procopius’ attitudes towards the key players in his accounts.[5] Moreover, his reliance on genre and classical tropes may mean that Procopius’ accounts do not reflect early Byzantine conditions or people as they actually were.[6]

Keeping the difficulties discussed above in mind, this paper considers Procopius’ concept of “good” and “defective” women. While it analyzes Procopius’ descriptions of a wide range of women, it focuses on three of the most influential aristocratic women of his age: Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora; the Byzantine general Belisarius’ wife, Antonina; and the Ostrogothic queen, Amalasuintha. It argues that, despite Procopius’ distrust of women who acted outside what he considered the normal realm of female behavior, he revealed that women, at times, could abandon what he held to be their naturally subservient role and act heroically.[7]


Rhetoric versus Reality

As Leslie Brubaker has argued, Procopius’ construction of feminine virtues closely followed classical Roman and Christian precepts. Particularly in the Secret History, Theodora represents “everything a late Roman should not be.”[8] Brubaker, in fact, questions whether Procopius tells us anything about the “real” Theodora. She goes so far as to claim that the Secret History “is useless as a source of history about “what really happened.” [9] Peter Heather too warns that Procopius’ portrait of the individuals in the Secret History may have had no bearing on his true beliefs. Heather goes so far as to posit that Procopius in this work aimed primarily to create a comical view of Theodora, Justinian, Belisarius and Antonina. The ancient audience was not supposed to be shocked by these characterizations, but amused.[10] Though I doubt aspects of both assertions above, they serve as another timely reminder of the difficulties facing the modern interpreter attempting to uncover the “truths” in Procopius’ writings.

Certainly challenges confront the researcher attempting to separate the “real women” from the “constructed” one. Kate Cooper has shown convincingly that Roman writers often crafted literary descriptions of women as a means to describe men’s characters. She suggests, for instance, that in Plutarch’s works, men’s inability to control their passion for women frequently threatened social stability. The conflict between “the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress” represented a common theme in Roman and Byzantine literature. Moreover, Cooper suggests that the influence of the enlightenment and the modern “conception of individual autonomy” has hindered scholars’ attempts to comprehend the experience of Roman men and women. She stresses that “the notion of a private sphere divested of public significance would have seemed impossible (and undesirable) to the ancient mind. The domus [household], along with its aspect of family and dynasty, was the primary unit of cultural identity, political significance, and economic production.” [11]   

This conflict presents a real problem for anyone hoping to interpret Procopius’ writings, particularly the Secret History. I would agree, however, with Cooper’s further contention, however, that an understanding of these rhetorical constructions helps provide a more detailed “picture of how ancient woman understood themselves.”[12] Other scholars agree with this view. For instance, using a wide-range of sixth-century sources describing the Empress Theodora, Clive Foss has shown that they shared many similarities with Procopius characterization.[13] So, I would suggest that by examining Procopius’ writings we may get a glimpse beneath the cracks and see the “real” Amalasuintha, Antonina, and Theodora.


Classical and Christian Constructs of Ideal Women

To comprehend Procopius’ philosophy about women it is first necessary to return to an earlier era. Roman women had long held a paradoxical position in Roman society. In Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family, Judith P. Hallett describes Roman women’s role during the era of the Republic. These portrayals are valuable despite the distance in time because they are strikingly similar to Procopius’ traditional concepts of ideal “Roman” women. Rome was a patriarchal society dominated by men, yet through longstanding tradition, women from upper-class families could be held in high esteem and exercise considerable political power. Although aristocratic Roman women could influence their husbands and fathers as wives and daughters, it was in their role as mothers and sisters that they asserted the most civic clout. Nonetheless, this political function remained highly regulated and mostly limited to maternal or sisterly roles as the protectors and the teachers of male family members. Ideal mothers often served as guides seeking to protect and further the ambitions of their male relatives, and this influence continued even when the boys reached maturity.[14]

In contrast to fathers or other male relatives who could become potential political rivals, mothers and sisters could be depended on to support their sons’ or brothers’ political goals. A woman’s authority, however, was limited, and if she spoke out on her own behalf, she risked being condemned as egotistical, licentious, and greedy. Women’s peripheral position in Roman society allowed them to serve as mediators for male members of their family in a very turbulent and competitive culture. This system permitted women to hold significant power, but it excluded them from overtly participating in society to promote their personal aspirations. Any woman who took on too dominant a role risked being labeled as non-womanly and non-Roman.[15]

In sixth-century Byzantium, the construction of the ideal woman continued to reflect this ambiguity. Furthermore, with the growth of Christianity two additional stereotypical images of women emerged: the first was that of the Virgin Mary, who combined virginity with motherhood, and could be sought out for motherly protection and mercy; and the second was that of Eve, who represented the sexual side of women. For many Christians, Eve was a natural temptress like all women, responsible for original sin and mankind’s subsequent fall from grace.[16]

Christian intellectuals had long struggled with the question of whether ideal Christians could be married. As chastity came to be seen as the supreme act of the idealised Christian, even married Christians accepted that they were inferior to their brothers and sisters who vowed themselves to celibacy.[17] Some members of the Church did attempt to promote the family and marriage as a basic unit of society, and the idea of the Virgin Mary as the ultimate mother figure.[18]But by the sixth century, the Christian ideal of celibacy increasingly clashed with the promotion of marriage and its legitimization of sexual relations in marriage as an indispensable means of creating more “Roman” citizens.

More and more, Christian constructions of ideal women revealed that to be considered heroic women needed to sever their traditional ties of loyalty to their families. An example of this view may be seen in the late fifth-century work of Victor of Vita. In his History of the Vandal Persecution, Victor suggested that the ideal women married Christ, and not mortal men. He described a young woman, Maxima, attempting to explain to her suitor, Martinianus, why she had rejected his marriage proposal: “O brother Martinianus, I have dedicated the limbs of my body to Christ and as there is a heavenly and true being to whom I am already betrothed, I cannot enter a human marriage.”[19] Victor argued that ideal women maintain loyalty, not to their families, but to their faith:

There was a married woman, Victoria, who conformed to her name. While she was being tortured by being left hanging for a good while in the sight of the common people, she was addressed in the following terms by her husband, already a lost man, in the presence of their children: ‘Why are you suffering, wife? If you hold me in disdain, at least have mercy on the little ones to whom you gave birth. . . . Where are the covenants of married love? Where are the bonds of that relationship which written documents once brought about between us, in accordance with the law which pertains to respectable folk?

Victor seemed satisfied that Victoria ignored both her husband’s pleas and the “wailing of her children,” and willingly deserted her family in order to die for her faith.[20] Although Victor had political reasons for emphasizing the importance of religious loyalty over familial ties, his account accurately reflects the Church’s attempts to break the strong ties of Roman kinship.

Most women’s lives from the upper-crust of society remained highly restricted. Following Roman custom, upper-class Byzantine women tended to be segregated from all men other than immediate members of their family. Ironically, this isolation created opportunities. Women were required to perform jobs usually reserved for men: serving as attendants in public baths for women and as medical practitioners who would not be sullied by interacting with women’s bodily functions. Additionally, women from the lower classes could earn a living and a certain amount of independence by performing as actresses, mimes, and dancers. Rigorist Christians, however, looked upon these activities with suspicion and frequently condemned these women as little better than prostitutes.

Moreover, according to Judith Herrin, medical practitioners often lacked medical expertise, and relied on superstitious practices “such as the wearing of amulets or incantation of magic spells in order to obtain supernatural assistance.” This dependence on “magic” made these women particularly susceptible to accusations of “anti-Christian beliefs and heretical ritual.” The use of magic must have appealed to Roman women, who typically were expected to play a subservient role in Roman society. The use of spells and magic allowed them to compel others to comply with their wishes, and increasingly their sexuality could also be used as a type of “magic” to achieve similar goals. Nevertheless, women who used magic or their sexual charms risked being looked upon with suspicion.[21] Fritz Graf argues: “Women, marginalized and excluded from the society of men,” were considered dangerous. They were often accused of practicing veneficiis et cantionibus (sorcery and incantation). The accusation of magic served two purposes: first, it revealed the danger “that women’s love constitutes for the autonomy of the men,” and finally it provided a means “to excuse social faults,” such as “mad love felt by men.”[22]

Late Antiquity also witnessed an increase in the empress’ political authority. At the beginning of each emperor’s reign, elaborate court rituals were performed that emphasized the link between the dual power of the imperial couple.[23] Since these ceremonies portrayed the emperor as God’s representative on earth, it was natural for his partner to attain as well an aura of authority. The more powerful the emperor, the more powerful the empress, indeed in Justinian’s reign, the emperor’s dominant position was matched only by the Empress Theodora’s influence. While Justinian served as a mediator between the spiritual and secular realm, his wife acted as the intermediary “between the public world of men and the private world of women.” In Justinian’s world, all the different members of Byzantine society, officials, soldiers, priests, and women had a place in the earthly and divine hierarchy.[24] Despite the limitations imposed on women in the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire, they had a more prominent position than in Western Europe at the same time. In Justinian and Theodora, Robert Browning suggests, “if a civilization can be judged by the way it treated women . . . the age of Justinian and Theodora deserves to be rated high.”[25]

1See e.g., Judith Herrin, “In Search of Byzantine Women: Three Avenues of Approach”, in Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. Averil Cameron, and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983),167-89, Pauline Allen, “Contemporary Portrayals of the Byzantine Empress Theodora (A.D. 527-548)”, in Stereotypes of Women in Power: Historical Perspectives and Revisionist Views, ed. Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon, and Pauline Allen (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 93-103; Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womenhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204 (London; Routledge, 1999); Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001); Leslie Brubaker, “Sex, Lies, and Texuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-century Byzantium”, in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 83-101; Harmut Ziche, “Abusing Theodora: Sexual and Political Discourse in Procopius,” Βυζαντιακὰ 30 (2012-13): 311-322.


2 See e.g. Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century ((London: Duckworth, 1985); Anthony Kaldellis Procopius of Caesarea (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2004); Dariusz Brodka, Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2004); Henning Börm, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike (Stuttgart, 2008).  


3Procopius, Buildings 1.1.16, Procopius, The Secret History (trans. G.A. Williamson [London: Penguin Books, 1966, reprint 1981]) 30.34. Largely because of its highly sexualized language and lurid portraits of the leading figures of sixth-century Byzantine culture, the Secret History has proved particularly popular on modern University campuses.


4Cameron stresses (Procopius 25, 60) that seeing the Secret History simply as an exaggerated satire does not give “justice to its complexity and its earnestness, and should not be used to obscure the substantial portion of the work that is devoted to detailed political accusation.” Greatrex goes further (“Procopius the Outsider,” BMGS 18 [1994]: 101-114), maintaining that the Secret History is not a separate genre from Wars, but was made up of material that Procopius hoped to insert into Wars if the emperor predeceased him. Opposing these views, Henning Börm (Procopius and his Predecessors, and the Genesis of the Anecdota, forthcoming) has proposed recently that the hasty composition of the Secret History indicates that it was produced because Procopius feared a coup was inevitable, and he wanted to disassociate himself from Justinian’s inner circle. Therefore, the views portrayed in this work are merely an attempt by Procopius to ingratiate himself to the “new” regime, and therefore not reflective of his “true” views at all. I see the points of view expressed by Procopius in the Secret History as exaggerated, yet sincere. and representative of the historian’s pessimistic mindset towards Justinian’s floundering Gothic campaign when he probably composed (550-552) the diatribe.


5 For a thorough discussion of Procopian scholarship in the past twenty years, see Geoffrey Greatrex, “Recent work on Procopius and the Composition of Wars VIII”, BMGS 27 (2003): 45-67; “Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship,Histos 8 (2014): 76-121.


[6]Anthony Kaldellis, “The Study of Women and Children Methodological Challenges and New Directions,” in P. Stephenson, ed., The Byzantine World (London: Routledge, 2010), 61-71; Henning Börm, “Procopius, his Predecessors, and the genesis of the Anecdota,” (forthcoming).


[7] Such inversions play an important literary role throughout Procopius’ writings, see Michael Edward Stewart, “Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars,” Parekbolai 4 (2014): 21-54.


[8] Brubaker, “Sex, Lies,” 87, 100-101.


[9] Leslie Brubaker, “The Age of Justinian: Gender and Society,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 432.


[10] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (London: Macmillan, 2013), 111-116.


[11] Cooper, Virgin and the Bride, 11-14.


[12] Cooper, Virgin and the Bride, 11-13.


[13] Clive Foss, “The Empress Theodora,” Byzantion 72 (2002): 141-76.


[14] Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 49-52, 232.


[15] Mary R. Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” in Images of Women in Late Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 59.


[16] Herrin, “Byzantine Women,” 167.


[17] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 148, 299.


[18] From the seventh-century, icons of the Theotokos were used to protect the Empire’s cities and its armies. According to some texts during a siege of Constantinople in 626 the Virgin Mary acted as the ultimate “protective mother,” indeed, she was even seen partaking in the battle. For a slightly different take on this development, see Anthony Kaldellis, “The Military use of the Icon of the Theotokos and its Morale Logic in the Historians of the Ninth-Twelfth Centuries,” Estudios byzantinos 1 (2013): 56-75.


[19] Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, (trans. John Moorhead [Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1992]), 1.31.


[20] Victor of Vita, 3.26.


[21] Alice-Mary Talbot, “Women,” in The Byzantines, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo, trans. Thomas Dunlap, Teresa Lavander Fagan, and Charles Lambert (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1997), 177-8.


[22] Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, trans. Franklin Philip (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 189-90.


[23] James, Empresses, 164.


[24] Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1995), 180-2.


[25] Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (New York: Praeger, 1971), 257.


Procopius’ Digression on Aeneas’ Ship in Rome

A New Justinian? Putin’s Reconquest










In the past few days global media has been filled with cartoons of Vladimir Putin depicted as a modern day Adolph Hitler. Not only are such images unnecessarily provocative, they completely misrepresent the politics behind the events unfolding in the Crimea. I would suggest that caricatures of the President of Russia in the guise of the sixth-century “Roman” emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) would be far more apt. Most modern historians are rightly cautious when comparing modern societies to ancient ones. Yet interesting parallels can be made between Justinian’s sixth-century “reconquest” of the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire, with Putin’s opportunistic move into the Crimea this week.
The primary issue in both cases seems to be just who has the true claim to their state’s identity. Both the governments in Moscow and Kiev want to own the past. The idea of a Russia founded by the ninth-century Scandinavian Rus in the lands surrounding Kiev is undisputed. Politicians in Kiev and Moscow have made legitimate claims to this history. Such a notion is similar to the belief on the part of many sixth-century citizens of Rome and Constantinople that the Roman Empire had been founded 1200 years earlier along the banks of the Tiber. However, just who owned this legacy—East or West—remained an area of contention.
The dispute lies in the ownership of this mythic history. So too do the modern cities of Kiev or Moscow continue an ancient battle for pre-eminence as the “true” heirs to this ancient civilization. A similar debate captivated the intellectuals and politicians in the Later Roman Empire. The eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople that Justinian ruled from Constantinople had been a comparatively recent invention. The emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 22 May 337) had founded the city and moved the capital of the Empire to Constantinople from Rome in 330. Over the next century and a half we see in the literary record an on-going debate concerning the primacy of old Rome and the new Rome, Constantinople. By the fifth century one sees the development of what Fergus Millar has described recently as increasingly independent “twin regimes” in the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire.
Famously, this argument became mostly moot when the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown in 476. Under the inept rule of the last Western Roman emperors, non-Roman generals became the true power behind the throne. In 476, a group of rebellious soldiers proclaimed one of these strongmen, Odoacer, king. Odoacer deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus. The new king dispatched a delegation to the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno, (ruled 474-5, 476-91), informing the emperor that there was no longer the need for a separate emperor in the West. Zeno, who himself was a former Isaurian chieftain (a pastoralist people who had raided throughout the Empire’s Cappadocian and Syrian Provinces) and who had taken control of the Empire after the death of Leo I had little choice in the matter. He recognized Odoacer’s right to rule, and appointed him to the rank of patricius.
Zeno, had problems of his own only recently reclaiming his throne from a “usurper” Basiliskos” in the prior year. Yet Zeno and his backers were only biding their time to retake Italy. When he was more firmly established in power, emperor Zeno convinced Theoderic the Amal to gather his forces in Thrace and the Balkans and march into Italy to eliminate Odoacer. After a fierce struggle, Theoderic slew Odoacer and took control of Italy. Theoderic’s relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire became strained. Though technically subservient to the emperor, he was viewed as a usurper by many Romans in the East.
Yet, as with the Vandals in North Africa, it would be a mistake to see the triumph of the “barbarians” in Italy as the end of the Western Roman Empire. The barbarians of the late fifth century CE were far different from the fur-clad wild marauders portrayed in Classical literature. On the contrary, many Germanic leaders had adapted themselves to Roman society and rapidly became indistinguishable from their civilian Roman neighbours. They dressed in contemporary Roman fashions and possessed magnificent villas decorated with the latest mosaic floors and furnishings. Theoderic himself was attracted to Roman culture. Indeed, during his ten years as a hostage in Constantinople (461-71) he had received a Roman education. Subsequently, when Theoderic seized power in Italy, he did not destroy Rome, but cooperated with the Roman officials and attempted to integrate his people into Italian society. As Jonathan Arnold (Theoderic and the Imperial Restoration) has recently shown, Theoderic and his Goths were often portrayed by the Italo-Romans as new and “true” Romans. These images stood in stark contrast to their frequent presentation of the Eastern Romans as non-martial and largely effeminate Greeks.
Roman decline continued in the sixth century. The military defeats in the West, as well as the renewed Persian threat to the East, created a sense of anxiety amongst the populace. Increasingly, many Eastern Romans, rich and poor, began to search for a “Roman” ruler to lead them back to glory. They got their wish when Justinian succeeded to the throne. Justinian believed that the loss of the Western Empire resulted from the fifth-century emperors’ incompetent rule and it was his duty to reunite the lost Provinces and restore order to the Empire. Sound familiar?
Justinian’s family came from the provincial Balkan town of Nis, and like Zeno, he had journeyed to Constantinople in the search for a position in the military. Justinian recognized that his humble origins meant that he had a tenuous hold on power. Accordingly, he took several steps to consolidate his authority. Under the guise of a Classical renewal, he gradually increased the authority of the emperor, and curtailed the aristocracy’s power. He claimed for the first time that the emperor represented the nomos empsychos (the living law). In the Digest, he codified Roman law and refused to allow lawyers to change these laws. It became the emperor’s duty to “resolve ambiguous juridical decisions.”
It is with Justinian that Classical Rome fades away and a recognizable early Medieval Christian State takes its place. Although Justinian played upon many Romans’ hunger for the return of the glorious Roman past, his centralization, strict regimentation, and “Classical Roman renewal” were based on Christian concepts. Justinian perceived himself as the head of the Church and State, and he ruled as both a religious and a secular leader. No other emperor either before or after had such control over the Church. It would be a mistake to see Justinian acting out these reforms purely from political necessity. What separated Justinian from many of his predecessors was his devotion to Orthodox Christianity and his abhorrence of heresy. Like the emperor Constantine, Justinian seems to have honestly believed that he served as God’s vehicle in the secular world. Justinian thought of himself as a man who, along with his wife, the empress Theodora, served as God’s representative on earth. During the pagan era, the divinity of an emperor like Augustus isolated him from both his wife Livia and the general populace. Justinian’s role as mediator between heaven and earth brought him closer to the people and to his wife. Justinian assumed that for the good of the Empire, it was his duty to impose religious and legal conformity on his subjects. Before Justinian’s ascension, pagans had been allowed to serve in the bureaucracy as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. Justinian, however, felt compelled to stamp out the last vestiges of the old faith. In 528, he commanded that all pagans had three months to be baptized. The next year he forbade the teaching of philosophy at the Academy in Athens. Pagan professors disillusioned with the Christianization of the Empire fled to the more “enlightened” court of the Persian king Chosroes.
Justinian’s autocratic rule and his humble background guaranteed that there would be strong opposition to his rule among the populace, especially the nobility, many of whom remembered the reign of the emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518 CE) as an era of relative religious freedom and prosperity. In January of 532, the anti-Justinian faction felt strong enough to make its move. A crowd of people went to the home of Anastasios’ nephew, Probus, in an attempt to name him emperor. Probus, perhaps purposely, was not there and the group burned down his house in frustration. In an attempt to appease the opposition, Justinian removed two unpopular officials from office. The emperor’s rivals, however, took this gesture as a sign of weakness and awaited the proper opportunity to make their move. Their chance arrived when Justinian attended a race at the Hippodrome and tried to placate the angry masses by giving a conciliatory speech. Both the Blues and the Greens, sporting factions that usually were bitter rivals, shouted down the emperor, and an uprising called the Nika revolt ensued. According to Procopius, the emperor attempted to abandon the capital, but Theodora stiffened the emperor’s resolve, and Justinian sent out his general Belisarius to punish the rebels. The Chronicon Paschale, 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.” Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise.
Justinian’s actions cemented his power in Constantinople, and allowed him to conduct his campaigns to restore the lost Provinces of the Western empire. However, before Justinian could turn his forces to the West, he needed to secure his Northern and Eastern borders. Even before the Nika revolt, Byzantine armies had attained several important victories in these regions. In 530, for the first time in several years, the Byzantine army gained several victories over Persian forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Empire gained further successes in the Balkans by defeating raiding Slavic and Bulgar forces. That same year, the Vandals deposed and imprisoned their king Hilderic. The Vandals replaced Hilderic with his fiery nephew and heir, Gelimer. Although this overthrow disturbed Justinian, for the time being he could only warn Gelimer “not to exchange the title of king for the title of tyrant.” The next year, the Persians and the Eastern Romans fought to a standstill in the East. However, the Persian emperor Cabades died in 531, and the new emperor, Chosroes, who needed time to consolidate his own power, readily agreed the next year to a five-year truce with the Eastern Romans. With both the dangerous Balkan and Persian frontier secured, Justinian eagerly turned his eyes to the West.
Justinian used both political and religious reasons to justify his attack on the Vandals. In 533, claiming that he was protecting orthodox Christians from the dangers of an Arian usurper, the emperor sent Belisarius and his small army of about 18,000 men to North Africa. The landing caught the Vandals off guard. Although Gelimer attempted to block Belisarius’ march on Carthage, the Eastern Roman army soundly defeated him. He fled, leaving his forces in disarray. Belisarius captured the city, and that same year he destroyed the remnants of the Vandal army at the battle of Tricamerum. Although Gelimer escaped once more, in 534, he finally surrendered to Belisarius. Despite the seeming ease of the Byzantine victory over the Vandals, however, it would it take another fifteen years to stamp out the stubborn resistance of the local Berber tribes.
The defeat of the Vandals gave Justinian the confidence to retake Italy from the Goths. The emperor secretly negotiated with Theoderic’s daughter, Amalasuntha, (regent to her son, king Atalaric, ruled 526-534 CE), to restore Italy to Roman rule. However, when Atalaric died in 534, political considerations forced Amalasuntha to make her cousin Theodatus (ruled 534-536 CE) co-ruler. Theodatus suspected Amalasuntha’s “treason,” and he attempted to ingratiate himself with the queen’s enemies by imprisoning and then murdering her in 535.
Once again, Justinian used an “unlawful” usurpation of power by a barbarian king as a pretext for Byzantine intervention. Soon after Amalasuntha’s death, he invaded Italy and claimed the Ostrogothic kingdom for himself. Belisarius seized Sicily in 535. Exasperated with Theodatus’ inept leadership, in 536 the Ostrogoths killed him, replacing him with the general Vitigis (ruled 536-540 CE). Vitigis fared little better than Theodatus. His attempts to besiege Belisarius in Rome from 536 to 537 failed, and in 540, he surrendered Ravenna to Belisarius. Despite being sent to Constantinople in chains, Vitigis was allowed an honorable retirement in Constantinople.
Victory seemed to be within Justinian’s grasp. Yet in 540 things took a turn for the worse. Justinian’s campaigns in North Africa and Italy had severely stretched the limits of the Eastern Romans’ military power. In the same year, Chosroes, fearing Justinian’s growing power, violated the “endless peace.” Persian troops quickly overwhelmed the sparsely defended cities of Syria. Desperate to defeat the Persians, Justinian recalled Belisarius from Italy. While Belisarius had mixed success in his campaigns against the Persians, Justinian managed to sign another truce with Chosroes by agreeing to pay more tribute. Although the treaty with the Persians allowed Justinian to concentrate once more on his reconquest of Italy, ultimately, the payments reduced Byzantium’s power in the East, allowing the Persians to become the dominant power in the region.
The year 540 also marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite Belisarius’ victories, the Ostrogothic army had refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In 541, the Ostrogothic nobility appointed Totila (ruled 541-552) as king. Totila, a relative of the Visigothic king Theudis (ruled 526-548), revitalized the Gothic army’s fighting spirit. In a series of swift campaigns, he recaptured almost all of Italy. Finally, however, after a long and bitter struggle, the Byzantine general Narses defeated Totila in 552, and by 554, the Eastern Roman army had overwhelmed the remnants of the Ostrogothic forces. Victorious at last in Italy, in 555, Justinian sent an army to Spain, capturing the southeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula.
For contemporaries, it may have looked as though Justinian had succeeded in restoring the Western half of the Roman Empire. In retrospect, however, the “reconquest” was the last gasp of the ancient Roman Empire. The victories in the West had come at a steep price. The vicious wars had devastated Italy, and many Italians began to perceive the Eastern Romans as foreign invaders. The depopulation of Italy also made it increasingly difficult for the Byzantine army to protect Italy from outside invaders, and in 568 the Lombards overran Northern and Central Italy. Although the Eastern Romans managed to maintain a political presence in Italy until the eleventh century, they no longer treated it as if it were their ancient home, but simply as a frontier military Province.
Once again, sound familiar? In a similar manner to how and why the Byzantine Empire was forced through impotence to recognise Theoderic’s Italy, Russia has in the past twenty years outwardly grudgingly accepted Ukrainian independence. But one suspects, that they have been always waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. With a United States of America under Obama not likely to make more than ominous threats, Putin realizes that the perfect combination of the afterglow of a successful Olympics and the political turmoil in Ukraine have presented an unique opportunity. Similar stars aligning for Justinian, led to the idea of the reconquest of North Africa and Italy. Moreover, just as the coup in Vandalic Africa presented Justinian with the opportunity to present himself as the protector of Orthodox Christians, so too do the foolish opening acts of the new Ukrainian government to curtail the rights of “Russians” within Ukraine offer Putin an opportunity to be seen as the mighty protector of Orthodoxy. Justinian sought to present himself as a “true” Roman emperor protecting “true” Romans in recently conquered lands. So too has Putin cast himself as an ideal “new” Russian leader of both church and state.
Putin has skilfully crafted a sense of Russian identity in the post-communist world by adeptly appealing to a sense of nationhood based upon orthodoxy, autocracy and good old Czarist, and indeed Roman Imperial masculine ideals. Many within the west lampoon Putin for his outwardly and somewhat embarrassing attempts to look like a real man, whether this entails hunting without his shirt or taking a hard line on intellectuals and homosexuals. This propaganda, however, is not aimed at us in the West. Another Byzantinist, Peter Frankopan, has recently commented on the ways Putin has copied imperial ideals from the Byzantine Empire:
The Russian president and the Byzantine emperor had both begun their careers in the shadow military organizations that protected their respective regimes. As a result of this background, these rulers seem to share a trait of observing caution and depending on detailed and careful planning when they decide to act. They also know how attract the audience’s attention, whilst marginalising their potential rivals. While I do not know how events will unfold, Putin, much like Justinian, will probably play upon any perceived weakness on the part of the Ukrainians or the West and probe for further opportunities to expand his dreams of “reconquest”. Following the policies of Justinian, Putin appears to recognize the importance of appealing to the past to create a state for the future. It is also important to recognise that, just like the sixth-century Italo-Romans, many Ukrainians are probably torn on just where their loyalty should lie. In the end Justinian’s reconquest led for disaster for many Italians. Let us hope the same does not hold true for modern day Ukrainians.

Peas from the Same Pod? Recent thoughts on the “Romanness” of the emperors Leo I, Zeno, and the “generalissimos”, Ricimer, Aspar in the fifth century

Almost everyone has had an older relative tell them how much simpler and better things were in the “good ole days”. This adage certainly rings true for those who study Roman and/or Byzantine history in the fifth and the sixth centuries. In the old days…say twenty-five to thirty years ago…. there were still “bad” barbarians and “good” Romans.  So too could the survival of the East and the fall of the West in the fifth century be simply explained as largely the result of how differently the Romans in these twin regimes dealt with their Germanic barbarian generalissimos like Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because the Western emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, the Roman Emperor Leo I assassinated his generalissimo Aspar and purged his Germanic supporters.[1] This failure led to the rise of barbarian kingdoms in the old provinces of the West, whilst in the East, the emperors Anastasios and Justinian continued the purge, and depended on largely Roman armies to create an increasingly prosperous Eastern Empire. Such a view closely follows the accounts found in our ancient sources (e.g., John Malalas 14.45, Procopius Wars 5.1-1-23..though Procopius later describes how Justinian’s overreach and greed caused havoc in the Empire).

Yet a vanguard of scholars has turned against such a succinct explanation. Partially, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as the creation of the European Union at the close of the twentieth century, many scholars began to question the assumption that people from Late Antiquity could easily distinguish Romans from non-Romans, and/ or that barbarians like Ricimer and the Italian rex Theoderic were that different from Romans like Aetius and Justinian. Moreover, they frequently depicted the Roman Justinian as the “bad guy”, and the Goth Theoderic as the “good guy” (e.g. Moorhead, 1992; Kaldellis, 2004; Arnold, 2014). Certainly the idea that the fall of the West can be explained as a case of martial barbarians overwhelming increasingly non-martial Romans has been overturned.

Indeed, scholars have gone so far as to suggest that there was little “difference” between “Romans” like Aetius, Leo I, Zeno and their barbarian counterparts Aspar, Ricimer, and the two Theoderics. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this period is marked by the rise of military strong men both Roman and non-Roman. Just how different these generalissimos were, however, has provoked considerable debate.  These new-school scholars (e.g. Hugh Elton, Patrick Amory, Brian Croke, Philip Wood, and Jonathan Arnold to name only a few) have asked in their work what is a Roman and why can’t a Goth be one?  In his 2014 study on Theoderic, Jonathan Arnold explains that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa (Zeno).  How was Theoderic different? He believes that Theoderic held hostage in Constantinople during his youth  had acquired an Eastern Roman” outlook that helps to explain why when he gained control of the Western half of the Empire at the close of the fifth century he sought to present himself as a Roman emperor, and his Goths as new Romans. To quote Arnold from a recent personal discussion we had:   “The problem with the traditional barbarian vs. Roman paradigm is that advocates of it (like Heather) simply assume we know (and contemporaries knew) what a Roman was.  This is absurd!  Romanness was extremely complex, had a multiplicity of manifestations, varied from one region and person to the next, and was subject to change over time.”

In an interesting recent article on Leo I, Philip Wood explains that Leo I in order to affirm his own Romanness went to great lengths to paint himself as an Orthodox Roman while painting the second generation “Alan” and long serving magester militum and senior consul, Aspar, as a barbarian-Arian-heretic… itching for the chance to betray the Romans to his fellow barbarians. Wood believes that this was largely a facade created by Leo to distract attention from his own humble and “semi-barbaric” origins.

Where do I stand on the issue? I largely agree with the newer scholarship that sees the turmoil that beset both halves of the Empire as largely resulting from factional rather than ethnic disputes. Yet I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity. So too does it seems strange to me that Aspar would have promoted Leo I to the purple in 457 if he was going to be seen as a barbarian. Zeno too seems to have not promoted too much his identity as an Isaurian who technically were considered as Romans, if by this period as tenuous and semi-barbaric (see, Lenski 2011). The ideas that the Western senate offered to make Aspar emperor has also been disputed by some I believe rightly. Moreover, the fact that Aspar and Theoderic remained “Arians” seems important. If they wanted to be seen as Romans: Why not just convert to the “Orthodoxy” of the day? Certainly being an Orthodox Christian was becoming a marker of Romanness in this period. Though as others point out throughout Byzantine history one’s orthodoxy did not necessarily make one a Roman and/or Byzantine e.g. Serbians, Russians etcetera( following Kaldellis [Hellenism 2010] and others convincing argument that until the thirteenth century the people we call Greek Byzantines saw themselves as heirs of Latin-Roman Empire).

Kaldellis (Hellenism) has convincingly shown that it took two generations before one could be considered as Roman, which offers perhaps a partial explanation of why Stilicho, Ricimer, had hopes to have their sons become potential emperors rather than themselves.  Procopius maintained that Aspar could not take the throne himself. Though there did not seem to be any formal ban. Even Zeno and Leo I seemed on somewhat shaky ethnic ground, which explains the popularity of a “real”Roman emperor like Anastasios. As Wood’s suggests,  this may offer a partial reasoning for these emperors’ from the fringes of the Empire need to paint Aspar and others as unorthodox barbarians. Leo’s subsequent reputation as the butcher shows that there were at least some Byzantines against his purge of his Alan mentor.

It remains difficult to know how men like Ricimer and Aspar saw themselves. Much of the literature that survives comes from their opponents. I find myself stuck somewhere between Penny MacGeorge’s and Hugh Elton’s view on this question. I have always found Amory’s suggestion that perhaps to paint oneself as a “barbarian” both as a military leader and religious leader was the safer option in this dangerous age, an intriguing idea. “Romans” risked being seen as usurpers and/or heretics.

Even today, an individual’s notion of identity has many levels. One may rapidly shift an allegiance from one ethnic group to another. This malleability makes it difficult to understand ethnicity in the modern world, and may help to explain why historians continue to struggle to understand how early Byzantine historians like Procopius, Cassiodorus, and  Jordanes, attempted to do the same for their own peoples. Humans, indeed, seem to have an innate way of pointing out difference that frequently defies scientific or historical explanation.

[1] This older” view is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., (Treadgold, 1997, 149-155); (Heather, 2013).