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Review of Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Here is a draft of a recent review I have written: enjoy!

This illuminating collection of essays surveys ‘visual media in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (p. 5),’ from a variety of methodological angles and scholarly disciplines.

Larry Hurtado’s opening chapter reconsiders second and third-century Christians’ fondness for allegory and symbol. Birthed within the pagan Roman cultural system, early Christian symbols, such as the chi-ro and iota-chi, were adopted and adapted from earlier pre-Christian usage. The author concludes, that by utilising signs and emblems familiar to believers and non-believers, Christians could construct a community based on a unique, yet recognisable symbolic universe.

The fourth-century poems by Optatian—composed during the reign of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (r. 306-337)—serve as a pivot for chapter two’s look at the intimate connection between representational art and written texts. Optatian’s fondness for chi-ro emblems offered a newly converted Empire a symbol with a range of cosmological representations—Christian and non-Christian. Constantine indeed wielded christograms primarily as representations of imperial and military power. Yet, foreshadowing a more devout Christian Roman world to come, the authors observe a shift in Optatian’s later poems (according to some scholars, misattributed to Optatian) where the chi-ro functions to signify Christ’s, rather than the emperor’s, omnipotence.

Brent Brenk turns to the images found in the Notitia dignitatum, a unique Late Roman document, which provides an invaluable outline of the early fifth-century Roman administrative system. While some bemoan the text’s lack of focus on the individuals who operated within this organisation, as Brenk explains, ‘The document wanted to eternalize the institutions of the late Roman state, not its staff and servants (p.122).’

In an early Christian world, where the barriers between heaven and earth were more porous than today, David Ganz demonstrates that texts were more than just human ideas recorded with ink on parchment. Indeed, letters, words, and colours could act for their devout readers as conduits to the spiritual realm.

James Crow turns his eye to the use of graphic signs on late Roman megastructures, such as walls, bridges, gates, and aqueducts. While the use of Christian symbols on this infrastructure broadcast triumphal imperial and Christian ideologies, some symbols were positioned in places of structural weakness well outside of human eyesight. Therefore, as in the case of Constantinople’s main aqueduct, these hidden symbols of Christian power ensured ‘divine protection to the city’s vital lifeline (p. 165).’

Ine Jacobs stresses that we should not read cross ‘graffiti’, which adorns many pagan monuments and statues left over from late antiquity, as signs of Christian vandalism and intolerance, but as practical defensive devices. Feeling threatened by menacing spiritual forces, late antique Christians etched their symbols as protection against these pagan objects, which they believed were imbued with hostile spirits.

Following Jacobs’ pathway, Henry Maguire explains that late antique designs and decorative patterns displayed on a wide range of objects, which to the modern eye seem to be merely ornamental, instead offered their ancient owners’ articles ‘invested with supernatural powers (p 223).’

Caroline Goodson narrows her focus to Christian symbols found on mass-produced oil lamps. While some specialised lamps were designed for use by Christian elites in ceremonies, the bulk of lamps adorned with christograms were purchased by members of the regular population interested in being part of a wider pious community.

Christopher Eger scrutinises objects bearing Christian symbols with more specific links to imperial power: amulets, clothing, swords, cross-bows, and belts. Since these official badges of rank were worn by high-ranking members of the bureaucracy and military, one is not surprised to learn that they offered a reminder to their ancient audience that these individuals served under the auspices of Divine and imperial authority. Yet, the author offers a caveat, concluding that competing symbols, without specific Christian significance, remained a powerful alternative throughout Late Antiquity.

Unsurprisingly, it was during the reign of the monk-like emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-50) that we see the first use of Christian imperial monograms on Roman coinage. Ildar Garipzanov supposes that some may find it more surprising that this trend continued during the reigns of the line of soldier-emperors who followed the Theodosians. However, as Garipzanov explains, appropriating these powerful Christian symbols offered these mostly unpolished soldiers-emperors a means to accentuate their civilized Christian Romanitas.

The final chapter by Anna Muthesius inspects a wide-range of Hellenistic, imperial, and Christian images and motifs on Byzantine silks from the sixth to the eleventh centuries. Luxury items eagerly sought out by elites from inside and outside of Byzantium, silks offered a perfect medium to broadcast Byzantium’s long history and sense of cultural superiority. In an empire that cherished its Hellenistic, Roman, and Christian heritage, it should not surprise that a mixture of Christian and non-Christian images and symbolic metaphors spoke to this historic memory.

To close, as each chapter in this cohesive study reveals so vividly, to understand graphic signs in late antiquity and the early middle ages, one must first grasp the mentalities beneath.



Review of Motions of Late Antiquity: Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society in Honour of Peter Brown

Once again, I must apologise for my lack of recent posting. To keep everyone updated, it looks as though I will finally get to publish my book on Procopius. Since the contract has not been signed, I cannot reveal the publisher yet, but the tentative title is Masculinity, Identity & Power-Politics in the Age of Justinian: A study of Procopius. The editor, who approached me initially was very happy with my fingers crossed I will start on the draft next month. I am also preparing a proposal for an edited handbook for Routledge on Gender and Identity in Byzantium…once again nothing finalised, but the editor approached me about this one as well and I have two very good co-editors in mind so stay tuned on that front. To prepare myself for this project I have been immersing myself in recent work on Late Antiquity and Byzantium…I am constantly amazed about how many bright scholars there are in our field.  What follows is a draft of one of three reviews I am writing at the moment. I was working under a strict-word limit so forgive me for the lack of depth…I already had to cull 200 words.

It has been nearly fifty years since the publication of Peter Brown’s trailblazing, The World of Late Antiquity (1971). It is fair to say that this work—which emphasized cultural germination in a period (200-800) long remembered for decay—played an essential part in establishing Late Antiquity as its own unique historical epoch.

Yet, Late Antiquity has experienced some recent growing pains. Detractors have countered Brown’s more optimistic vision of the break-up of the Western Roman Empire. Establishing clear spatial and temporal boundaries for the field also continues to spark debate.

Into this disputed arena arrives a second festschrift for Brown. Based on a conference held at Princeton to honour Brown in 20ll, the seventeen essays in this volume offers readers keen insights into an assortment of regions, time-periods, and methodological approaches.

Following an Introduction by the editors, which does an excellent job recounting Brown and his disciples’ numerous contributions to the field,  the opening chapters respond to some of the criticisms discussed above. Ian Wood suggests that late antique scholars should focus less on the ‘creation’ of modern Europe, and take a global approach by turning their attentions Eastward to developments in Byzantium, Persia and the Muslim world.

Leaning heavily upon Brown’s Through the Eye of the Needle, Walter Pohl downplays the economic and political ramifications of ‘Rome’s fall’. He posits instead that economic decline and social transformation in the West is better explained by shifting attitudes amongst Romans and non-Romans Christians towards wealth. In the post-imperial West, money flowed away from the secular elites and into the coffers of a Church, more interested in salvation than trade. I was left wondering, if this was true, then what about the Byzantine East? I also question how heavily the secular elites in Western Europe followed these rigorist Christian tenets on wealth.

As one would expect in a volume dedicated to Brown, a number of chapters deal with late antique religious practices.

Philippa Townsend uses Brown’s, The Body and Society, as a pivot to question the standard contention that the Manichaean’s cosmological dualism was matched by their ‘social dualism’.

Utilizing the fifth-century Life of Hypatius by Callinicus as a window into late antique views on class, Jaclyn Maxwell examines the author’s attitudes towards a wide social spectrum of guests who visited his rural monastery. Callinicus, Maxwell concludes, did not favour either rich or poor, but judged the guests as distinct individuals.

Daniel Schwartz uncovers a similarly even- handed approach in his source, the metrical homily, On the Fall of Idols, by Jacob of Sarug (c. 451-521). Schwartz concludes, that Jacob preferred a ‘persuasive and moral approaches to Christianization”, rather than the violent approach frequently condoned by more rigorist Christians.

Volker Menz, however, focuses on the much more violent Vita of the mid-fifth century presbyter and Miaphysite, Barsuma. As a member of a threatened sect, the Miaphysites, the author of the life was far less interested in presenting Barusma as a converter of ‘Jews, pagans, and Samaritans, but as someone who purified the Holy Land by eliminating his enemies (p. 244).’

Reflecting the recent revolution in Syriac studies and Middle Eastern Christianity, David Michelson resituates the late fifth-century Roman monophysite Philoxenos of Mabbug within an older tradition of Cappadocian theologians.

Ariel López applies modern knowledge about the Nile’s seasonal currents and flooding patterns to shine light on core “truths” concerning voyages, famine and premature death to be found in late antique Egyptian hagiography.

Michael Maas turns to the complicated rivalry between two late antique agrarian empires, Byzantium and Persia. Rather than highlight discord, Maas examines instead potential collaborations in the fifth and sixth centuries. Bucking standard consensus, he takes seriously the mid-sixth Byzantine historian Procopius claim that on his deathbed the Roman emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408) had asked the Persian emperor Yazdgrid I (r. 399-420) to act as guardian for his young son, Theodosius II (r. 408-450).

Several chapters examine the shadowy rise of post-imperial worlds in the East and the West. Drawing on a letter by the Gaul Sidonius Apollinaris (476) and a later inscription from a little-known bishop, Zeno of Mérida (483), Damián Fernandez highlights how these authors’ portraits of the Visigothic king Euric (c. 440-478) offer insights into these authors’ attitudes towards the Eurican monarchy, but just as importantly explain how Euric and his backers saw themselves in a post-Roman Iberia.

Philip Rousseau, posits that while Gregory of Tours lived in a ‘new’ age, his thought-world and moral compass—both as a historian and as a bishop—remained firmly rooted in the ‘ancient practices and edifices’ of a vanishing Roman world.

Following Brown’s call to break down boundaries between West and East, Stefan Elders argues provocatively and convincingly  that Amanda’s of Maastricht’ missionary activity in the Frankish kingdom and beyond in the 620s and 630s must be understood from the wider vantage of late antique politics at a time when the Merovingian and Byzantine courts allied. Pointing out the similarities between Amandus’ forced baptisms with East Roman imperial tradition, Elders suggests that Amandus worked under the auspices of the Merovingian king Dagobert, rather than the papacy in Rome as is commonly supposed. This was my favourite chapter in the book.

Shifting to the late antique Muslim East, Jack Tannous’s chapter on the Life of Simeon of the Olives (c. 750) highlights the difficulties of uncovering accurate details about Christians living under Muslim rule when our sources are few and flawed.

Yannis Papadogiannakis, on the other hand, sees in the seventh-century erotapokriseis by Anastasius of Sinai a day-to-day guidebook for Christians living under Muslim rule.

Janet Nelson chapter concludes the study by revisiting the contested notion of a Carolingian renaissance through the historiographical lens of law.

Overall, the disparate approaches found in this study reveal the fresh perspectives that late antique scholars can offer. Yet, their somewhat disjointed vision of the age also points to some continuing challenges.

As many of the contributors to this volume comment, Peter Brown is a uniquely gifted linguist, writer, and historian. Some of Late Antiquity’s current malaise may indeed be attributed to the difficulty for the new guard to match Brown’s brilliance as both a synthesizer and story-teller.

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).


Justin I: Dumb Uncle or Byzantine Trump?



Inspired by the work of David Parnell on the complex social webs among Justinian’s generals, I am thinking of examining the social networks among generals during the reigns of Anastasios and Justin I. I have done a great deal of work on Leo I, Zeno, and Justinian… so this new work is only natural. The general Vitalian who rose up against the emperor Anastasios and for a while wielded power during the emperor Justin’s reign before being assassinated by a power-faction led by the future emperor Justinian is of particular interest to me. Indeed, one of the interesting things about these assassinated generals is that when they were purged it did not mean their social networks were culled. This explains why Vitalian’s and the Alan generalissimo Aspar’s (assassinated by Leo I) relatives continued to hold key military command in the Byzantine army long after the regime that killed them had disappeared. To explore these connections and explain the complex power-relationships in early Byzantium I will need to answer a number of questions. But first, I will need to do a great deal of research on the reigns of Anastasios and Justin I. I am familiar with these emperors and their periods, but the old consensus about a dullard Justin manipulated by his nephew Justinian has recently been challenged convincingly…so I am going to start digging into the primary sources again and form my own opinions, which brings me to Justin I.


The long-neglected reign of the Emperor Justin (ruled 517-527) has  received some much-needed attention in the past decade. Since the days of mid-sixth century historian Procopius, Justin has mostly been dismissed by historians as a dullard puppet of his ambitious adopted reletive, the future emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565). This paradigm has begun to shift. Far from an illiterate peasant, Justin has been portrayed as another in a long-line of Thracian generals who deftly manipulated contemporary religious and political disputes in the reign of Anastasios to their advantage.[1] Moreover, important articles by Brian Croke and Charles Pazdernik have convincingly shown that Justin’s relationship with Justinian was far more complex and, indeed, rocky than previous scholarship has recognised.[2] Far from being controlled from the beginning by his adopted son, Justin only gradually granted Justinian the power and offices that would lead to him becoming the most powerful Late Antique  Byzantine ruler. Indeed, Justinian’s close involvement with the circus factions almost led to his downfall. Certainly, as Croke points out, scholars have relied far too heavily upon Procopius scurrilous Anecdota for their portrait of Justin and the puissance of Justinian in the early 520s. One can only hope that one of these writers takes on the challenge of writing a new monograph on Justin.


So, as I did with Leo I, I will begin to blog on this research..hopefully it will lead to another published article.


[1] Geoffrey Greatrex, “Justin and the Arians” ;“The Early Years of Justin I’s Reign in the Sources,” Electrum 12 (2007): 99-113.

[2] Brian Croke, “Justinian under Justin: Reconfiguring a Reign,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 100. 1 (2007):13-56; Charles Pazdernik, “The Quaestor Proclus,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 55.1 (2015): 221-49.

Headed to the “Zoo

Ï am headed to give a paper in Kalamazoo next May. Jon Arnold was kind enough to invite me to his session on barbarians and barbarian kingdoms. I am also just finishing up with the final proofs of my forthcoming book The Soldier’s Life, which really look great. The editor has done a fine job, particularly with the images.Once this is finished, a project which lasted 15 years will be done and dusted. This should give me time to start on the Procopius book.

I am also busy with 220 or so students…December can not come soon enough. What follows is an abstract (draft) for my paper, enjoy!


The Fine Line between Fear and Courage in Book III of Procopius’s Vandalic Wars


Fear plays a vital if subtle role in the Wars of the mid sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius. Book III, describing the East Roman’s attempts to wrest North Africa from the Vandals, particularly relies upon the Greek concept of fear as a narrative tool. Several important articles have recently stressed Procopius’ heavy emphasis on the Romans’ foreboding when the Emperor Justinian announced that he was readying to confront the Vandals. According to Wars, Justinian’s magistrates and generals acutely feared a repeat of the disastrous naval campaign in 468 against the Vandals under the Emperor Leo I, which had seen the Roman navy destroyed by Vandal fire-ships and East Rome nearly bankrupted. Only the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, however, had the nerve to warn the emperor about the “folly” of his venture. Following John’s advice, Justinian relented and abandoned temporally his plan for war. Only when a visiting bishop advised the emperor that God had visited him in a dream and commanded the bishop to remind Justinian that God would too fight on his side “and make him master of Libya”, was the emperor’s confidence in the invasion restored.

The papers mentioned above, have used this and subsequent episodes in book III of Wars, which accentuate  Belisarius and Procopius’ concerns for the prospects of the impending campaign, to suggest that not only was the historian not the general’s apologist, but, indeed, sought to paint Belisarius and the East Roman army in a hostile light. For these revisionists, it offers further proof that Procopius was against Justinian’s reconquest from the beginning. This paper will refute all of these claims. It will suggest that the views discussed above simplify not only the role that fear plays in Procopius and other early Byzantine writers, but misunderstand the complex early Byzantine concept of fear. Far from a negative trait, fear represented an essential aspect of sound generalship and soldiering in Wars. Procopius, in fact, echoes notions found in Aristotle and early Byzantine military manuals that demonstrate that fear when properly controlled represented an essential quality for good generals and manly soldiers to possess. Indeed, in Wars courageous and manly men—both Roman and non-Roman—were often those who followed Aristotle’s famous adage that andreios men feared neither too much nor too little.



Climate, Plague, and the End of the Middle Ages

Okay, that title sounds a bit dramatic. At the moment I am teaching the medieval and early Modern World. Since it is outside of my specialty I am writing a short introduction to each lecture. I hate reading things out in lecture, but I am using this as a tool. I have not edited this too much or used any citations.

Introduction to Lecture 2


The fourteenth century was a watershed period in European and Medieval History. Although it is difficult to draw a sharp line between the Medieval and the early Modern worlds, events in the 1300s would play a key part in this transition. Though few would have guessed it in 1300, the coming century would witness disasters and challenges that many contemporaries would compare with the Biblical Days of Noah and the flood. In fact, in the aftermath of multiple famines and waves of devastating plague that culled perhaps half of Europe’s population, devout medieval people cannot be blamed for believing that the end of days foretold in the New Testament was at hand.

In large part to famine and disease, Europe’s 300 years of dramatic demographic growth from 1000-1300 came not only to a screeching halt, but careened into a tailspin that would not see the population return to its previous levels until, at least, the 17th century.

As we can see by this slide (5), the population between Sicily and Scandinavia and Russia and Ireland had increased significantly from around 40 million in the eleventh century to around 75 million in the fourteenth century. This population growth was matched by an emergent and increasingly confident Europe on the world stage. Next to China, the globe’s economic heartland in this period centred on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Despite rapid gains, in comparison to the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate, Europe remained an economic and cultural backwater. The magnificent Christian-Byzantine city of Constantinople and the Muslim Caliphate’s capital in Baghdad, were at least ten-times larger and far more monetarily and culturally richer than the pride of Europe…Paris.  Despite this economic and demographic disparity, a deft blend of religious conviction teetering on fanaticism and martial capabilities and military innovations acquired warring amongst themselves, had allowed the Europeans to create a powerful war-machine that took a largely divided Muslim world by surprise. This led to a relatively united Western Christendom under the banner of the Pope in Rome recapturing Jerusalem in 1099 after nearly 500 years of Muslim rule. Though increasingly bickering amongst  themselves, the Western Crusaders had managed in a few short years to carve out a series of kingdoms in the Biblical— and more recently Muslim and Byzantine—heartlands in the Levant. Though subsequent crusades would never match the success of the first, the crusader’s triumphs, though ephemeral have had long-lasting impacts that continue to resonate.

Slide 7


More lasting were the Christians gradual absorption of Muslim Spain. Though largely a local movement, outside crusaders had played a role in the successful Christian Reconquista that culminated with the unification of the formerly independent Christian Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1469 and the defeat of the Emirate of Granada in 1492.

Slide 8

We know some of the reasons behind the sharp rise in population and, as a result, Western Christendom’s wealth and power. Advancements in agricultural techniques, technology, urbanisation, wealth through the growth of medieval trade and commerce, and a warmer climate all contributed to expansion.

In England, the population increased over these three centuries from about 2 to 5 million

In France, from 6 to 14 million

In Germany, the estimates are from 4 to 11 million

By modern standards, Europe in 1300 was not overpopulated at all. But it was fully populated in relation to the existing technology and patterns of soil exploitation. That is, there were more people than the soil could care for – over-stretched resources. Like medieval Donald Trumps, one finds contemporary authors continually complaining about over-population…..those damn Frisians and Venetians they are eating all of our grain!

Indeed, population increased rapidly in rural areas especially, and the subsequent overpopulation in the countryside generated a steady stream of migration from these rural areas to the emerging cities that had begun sprouting up since the new millennium. In the twelfth-century half of most city’s or town’s population came from somewhere else.

Slide 9

Though filthy, crowded, fire-prone and dangerous, these urban areas offered an escape from the power of the local lord and church…and for some a chance to find a craft or skill that could lead to service in one the many guilds that was changing the social and economic structure of northern and southern Europe in the High Middle Ages. Indeed, most major towns had severed feudal obligations to secular and ecclesiastical lords alike. In these urban areas techniques had improved to create taller buildings…though mostly windowless and cramped these residences contained fewer people than the typical filled to the brim rural housing of the age. Moreover, from the 11th century larger settlements had taken the first steps to improve fire safety and sanitation. London established public latrines by 1100. After 1212, London required that roofs be made of tile rather than highly flammable thatch and straw. Despite these advances, fertility rates remained much lower in these urban areas than the countryside.

Slide. 10

The city in the High Middle Age was like a castle on a grander scale. As we can see in this slide of medieval Genoa most urban areas in Western Europe were highly fortified. Particularly in the Italian city-states, wealthier families constructed great towers which dominated the skyline. Like castles in the country side, these medieval skyscrapers both protected the urban elites interests and advertised their wealth and position in hierarchal local society. As John Cots posits, while beautiful to look at, these towers “testify to the relative weakness of public authority in some urban areas” in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages.


These growing populations in the cities and country-side in Western Christendom of course needed to be fed. By the dawn of the fourteenth century, technological advance, however, often failed to keep pace with increasing demands for food. In an attempt to grow more food, fields were frequently over-exploited and yields fell. Consequently, the price of grain in the first half of the 14th century skyrocketed. As we see in Hatcher’s book, this caused a real problem for the majority of the population who was dirt poor. Moreover, for those new migrants to the towns and cities things could be even worse, since most produced no food of their own, so were particularly vulnerable to shortages and famine.


As we can see in this slide, Western Europe’s population declined sharply after 1300. Famine in the early decades. contributed perhaps to a 10% decline, whilst as we discussed above, in the middle of the century, plague culled a further 30 to 50%.

Slide 11

An important factor to consider here is the climate. As we can see here, the years from 1000 to 1250 had been unusually warm. Indeed, grapes are reported being grown in Southern England.

Agriculture is always subject to climatic conditions, and a gradual change in the environment directly influenced levels of agrarian production. Even small drops of temperature can lead to shorter growing seasons and thus smaller yields. Of course, climatic condition occurred only gradually, as we recognise today with the modern issue of Global Warming. But one thing is for sure: The climate played a major part in the mischief 70 or 80 years before the Black Death.

Slide 12

Climatologists have described the period from the early 14th to the late 19th centuries, as the Little Ice Age. According to recent research, volcanic eruptions just before the year 1300 triggered the expansion of Arctic sea ice, setting off a chain reaction that lowered temperatures worldwide. Europe bore the brunt of its ill effects, experiencing harsh and fickle weather for several centuries.

Intense cold led to advances of polar and Alpine glaciers; high rainfall caused a rise in the Caspian Sea. Wheat, vine, and cereals were crippled and virtually extinguished in places like Iceland, England, and Denmark. Greenland, which had been settled by the Norsemen in the late tenth century had to be abandoned by the 15th. This colder and wetter weather led to a number of disastrous harvests, particularly in England, where famine was reported in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, and 1311.

But the great calamity struck between 1315-1317, when a great famine struck Western Europe. In 1316, when the harvest seriously failed, and almost every country in Europe lost the whole of their harvest

After a reported 150 days of straight rain, followed by draught, we can understand why this might have happened. Just as many today live pay check to pay check. In the fourteenth century people lived harvest to harvest…..there were no tinned foods or Woolworths!

Consequently, in the winter, many people died of starvation and from diseases commonly afflicting a starving population. These conditions would have serious consequences for the generation that grew up in the shadow of famine. In fact, as we will discuss in greater detail in a future lecture, some modern scientists conclude that this frailty may help to explain, in part, the plagues’ devastating effect on an already weakened population.


Let us now look at how the people we find in Hatcher’s book survived in this period.


A Cry Against Anti Intellectualism.


Toffs and Toughs - The photo that illustrates the class divide in pre-war Britain, 1937 July 9th, 1937 ‘Toffs and Toughs’ Harrow School Boys beside local working class (credit: Rare Historical Photos)

I live in a house divided. But that house is an entire incredulous country. Outside of London there are no hordes of rampaging leavers, or glorified celebration parties. Instead there is only fear, quiet terror and disbelief – on all sides. Those who we think should be celebrating instead woke to the news that the pound had dropped lower than in living memory, that Scotland seeks a second referendum which will see it leave the United Kingdom, and that the promise to end freedom of movement and immigration was a lie. We live in a country of ruins, shattered by an elite political class that sought to undermine and stigmatise education, encourage division, and vilify external forces for internal problems. It was a simple game of smoke and mirrors, a magic trick carried…

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