Tag Archives: Procopius

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.


That whinging Belisarios : Some Serious and not so Serious Thoughts on Prokopios Wars 7.12. 1-10


The mid-sixth century historian Prokopios records in book 7 of his Gothic War a purported letter by the commander of the Italian campaign, Belisarios, to the emperor Justinian in 545 decrying the poor state of his army and, indeed the entire state of the reconquest. (Whether this is an actual letter or merely a literary creation is a totally different question and difficult to answer with any certainty. Though it does seem to reflect some of the realities on the ground at the time, the complaints seem to be exaggerated.) The campaign to retake Italy from the Goths that had begun so promisingly in 536, culminating with the marching of the downtrodden Gothic king and his ‘defeated’ Goths down the streets of Constantinople in 540, by 545 had bogged down so badly at the hands of a revitalised Gothic nation ruled by a dynamic leader Totila, that it looked as though Justinian might have to give up on his dream of retaking Italy. Although the situation for the Eastern Romans in Italy had improved somewhat in 550-551, when Prokopios first published this part of Wars, we can tell by the ending of book seven that the historian had become somewhat disillusioned with the stalled campaign. A viewpoint that I have argued previously shifted markedly in book eight that was published in 553 or 554, a year or two after the Byzantine eunuch general Narses crushed Gothic resistance and slew Totila 552 and his successor Teias in 552 or 553.

The melancholy tone conveyed in this letter has been seen by many scholars as a “true” reflection of Prokopios’ attitudes toward the general and the entire reconquest.  It echoes somewhat the negative view found in Secret History towards Belisarios’ efforts during this part of the Gothic campaign. I agree that it allowed Prokopios to comment at what in book 7 was the apex of Totila’s reign and the low point of the Eastern Romans’ fortunes, a situation that changes slowly at the close of book 7 and improves dramatically in book 8. I will suggest in today’s blog, however, that it serves more of a literary purpose for Prokopios and one needs to careful to believe that it represents either an accurate view either of the campaign or of Prokopios’ ‘true’ feelings. This may be the bud for new article, certainly I had hoped to have included a longer reference to it in my earlier article on  notions of courage and manliness in Gothic Wars, since it does seem to show the Eastern Romans as a bit unmanly, dispirited and afraid of the revitalised Goths under Totila. Due to space limitations, instead, I only added a footnote and showed how  as book seven progressed Prokopios described the Eastern Romans as becoming gradually more courageous, and under the well-supplied and monetarily supported Narses, manlier and more courageous than the Goths. All of these factors led ultimately to the Eastern Romans’ triumph.

Well let’s get to it. Here is an updated translation of the letter by Anthony Kaldellis. I will add some of my comments serious and not so serious off the top of my head no less in bold:

(3) We have arrived in Italy, most mighty emperor, without men, horses, arms, or money, and no man, I think, would ever be able to carry on a war without plentiful supply of these things (okay this opening sounds like an exaggeration, no horses or arms? And where’s the flattery? Even I know you have to wait to add the kicker when addressing your boss). For though we did travel most diligently through Thrace and Illyria, Thrace, and Illyria, the soldiers we gathered are small and pitiful band, without a single weapon in their hands, and all together unpractised in fighting (hmm, if I was Justinian I might ask why “your” bad recruiting Belisarios is now my fault).

(5)Meanwhile, we see that the men who were left in Italy are both insufficient in number and in abject terror of the enemy, their spirit humbled by the defeats suffered at their hands. These are not men who happened to escape by chance from their enemies, but they abandoned their horses and flung their weapons on the ground. (This part is interesting because before this speech it is largely a lack of pay, poor generalship and/or bickering amongst the Roman officer corps, not the ground soldiers’ fear of the Goths or their lack of courage that in Prokopios’ telling has caused the situation in Italy to deteriorate. In ancient military guidebooks it is the general who is primarily responsible for his men’s courage and  fighting spirit, so this seems to be a dig at Belisarios. Indeed, soon after this better leadership and the growth of a less virtuous Totila the Eastern Roman soldiers show great courage against the Goths to recapture Rome and gradually turn the tide against the Goths. So I believe this may be a reflection of “Belisarios’ shortcomings at the time, as much as a criticism of Justinian’s neglect.)

(6)As for revenue, ($) it is impossible for us to extract any money from Italy as it has been occupied by the Goths (duhh!! Well that’s why I sent you there, might say Justinian. On the more serious side, P who praised B for not exploiting the locals in the Vandalic Wars, criticizes B in Secret History for extorting the locals along the same lines of the hated and greed former Gothic rex Theodahad; so perhaps another criticism of B. The Italians in P’s telling are increasingly squeezed by both sides as the war dragged on).

(7) Consequently, we have fallen behind in the payments to the soldiers and find ourselves unable to impose our orders upon them; for the debt has taken away our right to command. (Okay, as my mother would say, you’re calling because you need some money. Why not just ask straight away. Still if you were a really good general your men would fight for the spoils you should be earning, thinketh the getting angry emperor. Indeed, in Wars 3.16 Procopius explains to his soldiers about to land in Vandalic North Africa that if they are “brave men, andres agathous” they should be able to get all the spoils they need from their enemy. So the reader may be expected to recall this change in Belsisarius).

(8) This too you must know as well, my master (about time), that the majority of those serving in the army have deserted to the enemy. (Okay, this is getting worse, and moreover is this a threat?…maybe thinks the now suspicious emperor….where is that eunuch Narses cell-phone number Theodora? Though we know a number of Eastern Romans did desert to the Gothic side, once more Belisarios is exaggerating and surely would not have told his boss that most of his men had quit for the more enlightened leadership of Totila).

(9)If it sufficed merely to send Belisarios to Italy, then you have made the best plan possible, for the war, for I am already here in Italy. (Okay, I think I have read over this part in previous readings. It really makes B look like a bit of big-headed jerk, I am starting to suspect this letter might be pro-Justinian! See what happens when you pay attention to detail…only half kidding. I am least beginning to sympathise with the emperor). But if you want me to overcome your foes in the war, it is necessary to make other provisions as well (“should you not be saying our foes”, thinks an even more suspicious Justinian. On your second point, should not have sending “super” Belisarios been enough to defeat the Goths?)


(10) For I think that no man can be a general without men to support him. It is therefore imperative that my spearmen and guardsmen (mostly Goths, what if they desert as well?) be sent to me, beside them a large force of Huns and other barbarians is needed, to whom money must be given immediately.

My final few comments are slightly more scholarly and aimed at those who assume that Justinian dominated an oppressive regime where criticisms needed to be opaque or garbed in double-entendres. From what Prokopios tells us, the first part of Wars was widely read throughout the Empire, so many leading figures would have read openly what we can see above was a pretty open criticism of a reigning emperor’s faults as a commander in chief. As Averil Cameron has explained such criticisms were expected in classicising histories (Procopius, 150). As Catherine Ware explains (“The Severitas of Constantine:Imperial Virtues in PanegyriciLatini 7(6) and 6(7)*”) as part of their education, students were given moral exercises taken from ancient history, the “student had to argue both sides of a question and tease out all the moral complexities and contradictions that might be involved.” Procopius does something similar throughout Wars.

So we need to be careful to suppose that they fully reflect a negative attitude towards the emperor or Belisarios. In these types of histories, failures were generally the result of moral failures of those at the top. This explains why in Secret History, Justinian and Belisarios’ faults and problems in the political realm are blamed on their failures in their “private realm”, and primarily an inability to control their wives. We can see from the publication of the letter above, that Justinian ‘allowed’ Procopius to criticize the emperor and what the historian saw as the emperor’s neglect of the Italian campaign as a primary reason for its bogging down in the mid-forties. Of course as Maria Kouroumali posits, the Italian campaign was only one of many fronts (and a minor one at that) that the emperor’s troops were engaged with at the time. Justinian was only one of many famous Byzantines who faced severe criticism on Procopius’ pages. I am reminded of modern sportsmen who are the villain when their team loses, but the hero when they win. These bipolar views can shift dramatically from game to game and day to day. A similar thing happens in Wars, where P’s view on Belsiarios can shift quickly from positive to negative determined largely on his victories of defeats.

The same is true of Justinian. Nothing needs to be hidden, the campaign was floundering because the Eastern Roman soldiers were not only demoralised from the long line of defeats at the hands of Totila and his Goths, but let down by their leaders, both Belisarios and Justinian. Despite Bell, Heather, Bjornlie and Kaldellis’ (to name a few) recent arguments, Justinian’s Empire had little in common with repressive states like Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Secret History was most likely composed around the same times the first part of Wars was composed, so is also reflective of this low-point in Justinian’s campaign. Indeed, Henning Borm has suggested intriguingly that it was composed purely because Prokopios feared a coup was imminent around 550-552 and wanted to distance himself from Belisarios and Justinian, to whom Borm argues, Prokopios was still closely linked. Though I have serious doubts about Borm’s thesis, he is right to point out that scholars like Kaldellis place far too much emphasis on its views as ‘true’ reflections of Procopius’ attitudes. So too has the idea of Justinian’s regime as a particularly oppressive regime has been overdone in recent scholarship. Justinian’s ability to repress has been exaggerated. The emperor walked a fine line when dealing with very powerful rivals within the Roman elite. Moreover, the abundance of sources composed during his reign that could criticize a ruling emperor shows a more open and tolerant regime than some have recently argued for. The fact that so many sources survive from his reign should make us question such a view. Moreover, as Geoffrey Greatrex has recently argued, Justinian’s predecessors and successors could be disparaged for displaying very similar traits and activities.

This type of moralising was expected in great works of history. Belisarios’, in fact, was somewhat exaggerating the dire straits of the campaign, because the Romans fortunes in Italy improved somewhat after 546 and Totila’s situation declined somewhat. So my initial impression is that this letter does serve as the bridge to the improving, though by no means ideal, military situation to come at the close of book 7 where the Romans position Italy improves somewhat compared to the low ebb found in the letter above. Obviously some of what I have written above is tongue and check, but I think it provides some insights on how one must tackle such passages. One cannot take Prokopios’ attitudes or purpose for granted. Only by untying the Gordian knot that is Wars can one begin to uncover some truths. While I may not have achieved that here today. Further exploration of the passages shortly after this letter may provide some resolution. Certainly this is an important section for one dealing with the issue of the Roman army’s courage and/or manliness, since this is one of the few episodes that portrays them as unmanly cowards in the face of a superior Gothic foe. I am pretty sure that this is not P’s own view since he spends most of the remainder of Gothic War describing the manliness and courage of the  Roman soldiers when led properly. But I will keep an open mind. Well that it for today.

Procopius’ Digression on Aeneas’ Ship in Rome

This aint no Vietnam: Procopius on the Romans’ “Victory” in the Gothic Wars




In the History of the Wars, the mid-sixth century historian Procopius provided a memorable description of the Byzantine Empire’s battles against the Persians in the East and the reconquest of the lost Western Provinces of the Roman Empire against the Vandals in North Africa and the Goths in Italy. Procopius is arguably the most important writer to survive from Late Antiquity. Procopius has received much needed attention in the past thirty years. To borrow the words of Geoffrey Greatrex, the “twenty-first century has seen a renaissance in Procopian studies.”

For younger academics Procopius offers fertile ground for further exploration. Few of even the basic issues surrounding Procopius and his writings have been settled. Among these many controversies are Procopius’ views towards Justinian’s military campaigns. Anthony Kaldellis (and a crew of loyal disciples) has argued in a series of learned studies that Procopius was a pacifist who had turned against Justinian and his military campaigns at an early stage of the Wars. He senses an undertone of discontent throughout Procopius’ account. Others, like Averil Cameron and Brent Shaw, are more inclined to believe that as the war dragged on Procopius became more and more disenchanted with his former boss Belisarius, and the campaign that gradually destroyed Italy. It is easy to sense in many of these modern writings the influence of the gradual public disenchantment in both the United States and Europe with, first the Vietnam War, and then with the second Iraq war under the “oppressive” and staunchly religious non-soldier George W. Bush. Yet I would suggest that such views are a bit anachronistic. Following Conor Whately I am more inclined to believe that Procopius’ views shifted in terms of how the campaign was going. According to Procopius, great men made history, and a leader’s heroic or shameful conduct often determined the prosperity or poverty of the Eastern Roman Empire. So when things went wrong, Procopius tended to blame the moral failings of men like Belisarius. I see the Gothic Wars as having a largely pro-Roman and slightly anti-Goth opening, anti-Roman and slightly pro-Goth middle, and a pro-Roman ending, with respect to the Goths.

As Kaldellis complained in his 2004 study, too many historians pluck information from random in order to craft a picture either of the ancient historian’s views or of the sentiments of the age (gender studies, my earlier work included, are sometimes guilty of this tactic)……though as several critiques have noted K, does much the same in his crafting an image of Procopius as a member of staunchly anti-Justinian pagan intellectual clique within 550s Constantinople. This helps to explain why I explore in my writings a chronological and literary reading of the Wars. I think that I have shown how interlocked Procopius’ characterizations and books are.My latest project is an in-depth- analysis of Procopius presentation, where I explore in chronological order Procopius’ presentation of Narses. I will blog a bit over the next month a discussion of some of the interesting sections.

Which finally brings me to today’s main point : my idea that Procopius on the whole supported the reconquest. What follows has been excerpted from the close of my recent article in the last battle in the Wars, Narses’ victory over the Goth Teïas. It captures some of my views:

For some modern readers, the Wars end on a tragic note.[1] Procopius’ depiction of the final battle in the Wars, Mons Lactarius, was certainly sympathetic to both sides. Surprisingly, it was the defeated Gothic leader, who earned Procopius’ praise as the “ultimate man” [ὰνδρός ὰρετὴ]. After Totila’s death, the Goths’ desperate situation, explained Procopius, forced them to seek a “virtuous death [θαναττιάω άρετή]. Their “despair of the situation” was the primary reason for the Goths’ “extraordinary courage” [εὐτoλμίαν].[2] Although he praised both sides’ conduct during the struggle, Procopius saved his highest acclamation for the Gothic king, exclaiming that Teïas’ actions compared to those of “heroes of legend” [λεγομέυων ἡρώων). Meeting his end like a true hero, the Gothic leader, “easily recognised by all, stood with only a few followers at the head of the phalanx”. Teïas slew so many Romans that he needed to keep replacing his shields as they filled with enemy spears. Finally, after fighting continuously for several hours, Teïas was slain as he attempted to exchange another shield with his bodyguard.[3]

With his heroic death in battle, Teïas finally obtained the type of noble and manly demise that had eluded all of the previous Gothic kings in the Gothic Wars. This ideal death may suggest that Procopius and his Byzantine readership may not have viewed Teïas’ demise or the Goths’ defeat as heart breaking. Procopius appeared to follow traditional literary models that made it clear that defeat in battle was not shameful or tragic as long as one faced it with honour.[4] Procopius’ account clearly has a literary ring to it. It also suspiciously ties up some of the loose threads in his narrative. First, Teïas’ death in battle finally allowed Procopius to show a member of the Gothic royalty dying as Vitigis said they wished, in battle. Second, a gallant final clash featuring two worthy opponents fighting, in the words of Procopius, “with the fury of wild beasts”, made a fitting terminus for an account that strove to describe and compare the martial and the manly virtues of the Goths and the Romans. While appreciating the fighting qualities and, indeed, the manliness of the Goths, the historian had confirmed the Byzantines as the superior and the manlier side. In the end, the martial prowess of the Goths had proven inferior to the organization, leadership, weaponry, and the manly ἀνδρεία and ἀρετή of the Byzantine soldiers. Finally, though unspoken, Procopius had fulfilled his stated purpose at the outset of the Wars, which was to relate the worthiness of the martial deeds and the prowess of the contemporary Roman soldiers to his Byzantine audience. By defeating a martial and heroic foe like the Goths, Procopius had succeeded in establishing that Justinian’s soldiers were at least the equals of their ancient counterparts. One should consider Procopius’ depiction of the battle of Mons Lactarius, and indeed, the entire Gothic Wars in this context.

This is where my article ended. To close today’s blog I will include some thoughts on Procopius’ description of the aftermath of this stunning victory.

Procopius closes his history with an account describing Narses’ negotiation of a settlement with the defeated Goths. After realising, “that they are fighting the last battle”, the Goths decide to send some notables to meet with Narses to discuss final terms. Procopius has the Goths explain that they finally realised that their struggle was “against God” (pros ton theon). “For now they recognised,” Procopius continued, “the power that was arrayed against them.”

However, they refused to submit, to Justinian. They only asked that they be allowed to gather some “travelling funds”, and depart from Roman territory (Walter Goffart suggest that this passage reflect P’s hope to eject all barbarians from the Empire). Narses, relying on the common Byzantine tradition to solicit advice from their junior officers, asked his general John what he should do. John advises, “Not to risk further battle with these desperate men” but to grant them their wishes (the danger of fighting cornered enemies and/or overconfidence represent tropes throughout P’s writings).

Narses then commands the Goths “to depart Italy immediately, and to no longer wage war against the Romans.” While the two sides are discussing terms, however, a contingent of one-thousand Goths refuses to negotiate or submit and heads to the Italian city of Ticinum ( a sign that P knew that not all of the fighting was over). The rest of the Goths, however, followed the terms. Procopius closes his work with the statement, “Thus the Romans captured Cumae and all that remained.”, and the eighteenth year, as it closed, brought the end of the Gothic War, the history which Procopius has written.

To me these are hardly the words of a disillusioned author. In fact, Kaldellis to promote his view of a pacifist Procopius, relies on an earlier passage  concerning Narses’ “sack” of Rome after defeating Totila as proof of the writers’ hostile view to the final battles. Yet, as I have shown in another article, these hostile words from this passage were not aimed at Narses or the Roman army as a whole, but pointed towards the “true” culprits in Narses mind for the mistreatment of the Italians, the barbarian Herules who were the vanguard in the retaking of Rome.

Okay that is it today. In the next few days I will discuss another controversial issue, Justinian’s naming of Narses as the supreme commander of the Emperor’s armies in Italy.


Out from the chilly Gold Coast of Australia


[1] E.g., Kaldellis, Persian War, 257.


[2] Proc., Wars 8.35.20-21 (my trans.).


[3] Proc., Wars 8.35.21-30 (trans. Dewing; I have changed Dewing’s “courageous” for εὐτoλμίαν to “extraordinary boldness”).


[4] For this concept in Polybius, see A. M. Eckstein, Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. Berkeley 1995, 42-3.


Why Some Historians Distrust Procopius




The problematic nature of relying on classicising like Priscus, Procopius, and Agathias to reconstruct the culture mores of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire is an issue that divides many modern scholars. Intertextuality has become all the rage in Late Antique studies. While I see value in such scholarship, as my mentor John Moorhead reminded me such studies frequently tell us more about the cleverness of the modern scholar than the ancient author they are trying to examine. In my work I recognise the debt that the mid-sixth-century historian Procopius had to his classical models. I argue, however, that much in his work reflects sixth-century Byzantine cultural views. I summed up my views on this topic in the introduction to my 2003 MA THESIS, Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius. I wrote:

“Despite the influence and limitations of the Classical Greek models of history that Procopius followed, his writing and thinking reflected sixth-century Byzantine trends. It is vital to look back into the Classical past and forward into the Middle Ages in an attempt to achieve a better understanding of the sixth-century Byzantine mindset. Just as imperative, however, is looking at this era as its own unique historical epoch. There are no simple answers in analyzing Procopius’ complex constructions of men’s heroic conduct; nonetheless, his descriptions of heroes and villains can provide an increased understanding of Procopius and of the sixth-century Eastern Mediterranean world in which he lived.”

I ran into this debate again in my 2012 thesis review. One examiner questioned whether Procopius and other secular historians could be used to tell us about Byzantine values. Funny enough the same scholar had no problem when I used rigorist Christian sources.

The examiner maintained: There also needs to be a clearer awareness of how much of Procopius’ text and focus (and that of other writers) is deliberately ‘Thucydidean’ rather than (say) sixth-century CE

What follows is my reply:

Thucydides is only one of many ancient and early Byzantine historians upon whom Procopius had patterned his history. As I suggest on (p. 11), “Without a doubt, the classicising historians emulated some of the Greek prose and techniques of their classical models Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius”. So too did Procopius rely upon the fifth and early sixth-century secular and ecclesiastical histories of Priscus of Panium and Eustathius of Epiphania for his account.  


Procopius unquestionably adapted some of Thucydides’ narrative strategies, and in particular, his reliance on set-speeches before battles. His use of a rather limited vocabulary also emulates Thucydidean strategies, that in the words of Anthony Kaldellis (Procopius, 11-12), “enables the reader to track the distribution of key concepts and appreciate subtle connections and changes”. I note this relationship in several places. References to Thucydides’ influence on Procopius’ writings and other early Byzantine classicising histories are found at 11-13, 29, 126,177-78, and 194. So too does my study guide its reader to recent studies that examine the extent of intertextuality in Procopius and other classicising historians.

 The notion that Procopius “slavishly” followed Thucydidean models and therefore provides one with little relevant material about warfare, masculinity, and sixth-century Byzantine society in general has, however, been rejected in much of the scholarship on the Byzantine historian. As J. A. S. Evans argues, “he [Procopius] may have borrowed vocabulary from the Periclean age, but the substance belonged to the sixth century after Christ”. Another respected scholar (Kaegi, “Procopius the Military Historian”, 67) insists that, despite his borrowings from Thucydides, Procopius remains the best and most reliable Byzantine military historian. Averil Cameron (Procopius, 37), in fact, questions just how deeply Procopius knew Thucydides’ history. Procopius certainly described a far different and larger landscape than Thucydides had a thousand years earlier. Thucydides, indeed, would have found much in Procopius’ history strange. Some of Procopius’ views on ethnicity and non-Romans, his inclusion of influential women, bishops, holy men, demons, and miracles all help to mark him as an early Byzantine intellectual. 

Moreover, just because Procopius, or another early Byzantine historian, uses a “Thucydidean concept” or narrative strategy does not necessarily mean that the subsequent thoughts or descriptions do not reflect “sixth-century values”. Indeed, imagine if one rejected early Byzantine writers’ use of passages and concepts found in the Old and New Testament, and/or early Christian theologians, as “products of an earlier age”, and therefore not representative of early Byzantine values. Brought up in a culture that educated many young elites on the writings of Thucydides and other classical authors, it should not surprise that some more traditional views on manliness and unmanliness survived as well. As I suggest in my introductory chapter, “The Eastern Roman Empire had far more stable and restricted views about masculinity, or indeed, about society in general, than is typically found in the modern world, where rapidly changing cultures and technologies have created far more adaptable and varied understandings of these concepts”.

 As the most recent monograph on Procopius points out, there is a tendency in some modern scholarship to dismiss any adherence to “classical values” in the early Byzantine literature as representing mere embers of a dying age and/or not truly representative of what they see as early Byzantines values. Yet, I would propose that the “true” picture is more nuanced, and therefore more exciting and interesting.



The Gothic king Athalaric (ruled 526-534)






The Gothic king Athalaric’s (ruled 526-534) reign has often been seen as the beginning of the end for Gothic rule in Italy (e.g. McEvoy [2013: 328], Heather [2013:149-51]). In today’s blog I offer a discussion on the mid-sixth century historian Procopius’ famous digression on the disputes surrounding Athalaric’s education. Like yesterday’s blog, it has been adapted from my 2013 dissertation The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire.

For Procopius, Theoderic’s strong leadership helped to unify the Goths. So too had the king largely succeeded in maintaining the bond between Italians and Goths. The historian’s descriptions of the king’s flawed successors revealed the difficulty of maintaining this unity.

Theoderic had planned originally to have his son-in-law Eutharic succeed him. The Visigoth Eutharic was named consul in 518, and most significantly in 519 he held this office with the Eastern Emperor Justin as his colleague. Though the date is unclear, Eutharic died sometime in the early 520s. Before his own death, Theoderic had named his ten-year-old grandson Athalaric as his heir, and appointed his daughter and the boy’s mother Amalasuintha, as regent.[1] Many within the Gothic aristocracy had a difficult time accepting a dynastic succession dependent solely on the Amal line.[2] So too have some historian’s recently linked the prominent philosopher Boethius and his father-in-law Symmachus’ “treasonous plotting with Constantinople” and subsequent executions to Theoderic naming Athalaric as his heir.[3] Some historians (e.g. O’Donnell) even claim that Boethius sought to name himself Western emperor.

Yet, in Procopius’ telling, the early years of Amalasuintha’s regency were a relatively peaceful and stable time for Italy.[4] Amalasuintha sought to restore harmonious relations between the Goths and the Romans by distancing herself from some of less tolerant policies of Theoderic’s final years (proof too that Procopius’ praise of Theoderic may not have been completely heart-felt). Procopius declared that she protected the Romans from the Goths’ “mad desire to wrong them” [ξυνεχώρησεν ἐςτὴνἐκείνουςἀδικίανὀργῶσιν]. Additionally, she attempted to reconcile herself to the senate by returning Symmachus’ and Boethius’ confiscated lands to their families.[5] Amalasuintha and her supporters reigned supreme, yet trouble lurked in the hearts of Gothic men spurned by the new regime.[6]

Procopius compressed the ten-year period of Athalaric’s rule into a didactic tale that appears to unfold over a much shorter time-frame.[7] According to Procopius, the struggle began as a dispute over the proper way to educate Athalaric. Amalasuintha felt compelled to raise the boy as a Roman aristocrat.[8] She sent him to a Roman school of letters and hired three “prudent and refined” [ξυνετούς τε καὶἐπιεικεῖς, 5.2.7] Gothic tutors to further educate the future king. Procopius illustrated how this decision created a backlash among some members of the Gothic nobility who wanted to raise the boy in “the barbarian fashion”. He wrote:


All the notable men among them gathered together, and coming before Amalasuintha made the charge that their king was not being educated correctly from their point of view nor to his own advantage. For letters, they said, are far removed from manliness [ἀνδρίας], and the teaching of old men results for the most part in a cowardly [δειλὸν] and submissive spirit. Therefore the man who is to show daring [τολμητήν] in any work and be great in renown ought to be freed from the timidity [φόβου] which teachers inspire and to take his training in arms. . . . ‘Therefore, O Queen’, they said, ‘have done with these tutors now, and do you give Athalaric some men of his own age to be his companions, who will pass through the period of youth with him and thus give him an impulse toward that excellence [τὴνἀρετὴν], which is in keeping with the custom of barbarians’.

The “martial” faction emphasised the “dangers” of a literary education by claiming that Theoderic had refused to allow the Goths to send their children to school; they suggested that he took this stance because he believed that a literary education would cause them “to despise sword or spear”.[9] One assumes that Procopius and his contemporary audience were aware of the illogic of this argument, since Procopius tells his audience about Theoderic’s daughter Amalasuintha’s and his nephew Theodahad’s excellent classical educations.[10] Moreover, the hardliners ultimately supported the unmanly Plato-loving Theodahad.[11] While this discrepancy and other incongruences in his history may be the result of Procopius’ heavy emphasis on rhetorical themes and disregard for the “truth”, it is also possible that he purposefully has the “martial” Goths tell a known non-truth. As we will see throughout the remainder of this essay, Procopius often utilised such inaccuracies in his set-speeches as a means of later undermining the speakers’ overall argument.

In this stylised episode, Procopius transformed an internal Gothic power struggle into a didactic debate about the proper way to educate young men. While he simplified a complex political dispute, Procopius provided his audience with the differences—real and imagined—between Roman and Gothic methods and beliefs about the best way to transform boys into manly men.[12] Each of the Gothic factions suggested that boys travelled a long and hazardous path to manhood. The two sides only differed on the best methods to overcome these obstacles. The “conservatives” preached that in order to instil courage in a young man, he needed to be surrounded by companions of a similar age and “take his training in arms”, while Amalasuintha and the Goths presumably following Roman traditions, focused on the development of a boy’s mind.[13] Despite its obvious rhetorical aspects, this episode has some historical basis. Evidence from the Gothic side supports Procopius’ characterisation of Amalasuintha as an aficionado of Roman literature. For example, in a letter to the Roman senate, Amalasuintha espoused the benefits of a Roman education by suggesting that literary learning allowed the warrior to discover “what will strengthen him with courage; the prince learns how to administer his people with equity”.[14]  In the Greco-Roman literary tradition even innate virtues like ἀνδρεία and one’s martial skills could be enhanced by a literary education.[15] Although we know very little about what constituted a “Gothic” education, we do know that officers’ children received substantial military training, and that the upper echelon of Gothic society embraced the soldier’s life.[16]

Evidence from the remainder of Athalaric’s biography appears to show that Procopius rejected the barbarians’ idea that a young man’s curriculum should involve military training alone. Procopius, in fact, responded to the barbarians’ claims about the unmanliness of a Roman education, by demonstrating how Athalaric’s exposure to the “customs of the barbarians” produced a “failed man”.Fearing her political rivals, Amalasuintha dismissed the tutors and replaced them with a group of Gothic boys who, like Athalaric, “had not yet come of age”.[17] Predictably, in Procopius’ view, this decision proved disastrous. Instead of providing Athalaric with an inclination towards manly ἀρετή, his comrades only enticed the future king “to drunkenness and to intercourse with women” [μέθην καì γυναικῶνμίξεις], qualities that in the classical tradition represented typical vices of not only barbarians, but of unmanly men as well.[18] For Procopius, Athalaric’s inability to control both his drinking and sexual appetites marked him as flawed—and ultimately—as an unmanly man.

Procopius closed his didactic tale by showing how Athalaric, having abandoned Amalasuintha and a “civilised” way of life, fell victim to this “debauched” Gothic lifestyle and died of a wasting disease brought on by the overindulgence in wine and the relentless pursuit of women.[19] Procopius highlighted the folly of permitting mere boys to educate a future king about manly ἀρετή. Torn between two worlds, Athalaric fell short of becoming either a Gothic warrior or a cultivated Roman aristocrat. I would suggest, however, that this account is less a tale about the “impossibility” of amalgamating “Roman” and “Gothic” ideals, as has been suggested by one recent study,[20] but more a way of comparing and contrasting  the martial and manly qualities of the Romans and the Goths. We shall see that each time a Goth made a claim of masculine and martial superiority, shortly after Procopius “proved” the assertion patently false. One may observe this paradigm in the case of Athalaric. Ultimately, in Procopius’ mind, it was his “barbarian” and not his “classical” education that turned Athalaric into a leader with an unmanly lack of self-control.




[1] Amalasuintha was the daughter of Theoderic’s second wife Audofleda, the sister of the Merovingian king Clovis. For a description of Eutharic, see now Arnold, Restoration, 43, 86, 215-218, 296.


[2] P. Heather, The Goths. Oxford, 1996, 250-55. For the last years of Theoderic’s reign as a turbulent period in Italo-Roman and Goth relations, see Moorhead, Totila, 216-18. For a less pessimistic vision, see Arnold, Restoration, 296-97.


[3]McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule, 327-28.


[4] Procopius tells (Wars 7.21.12) his readers that by 550 many Goths recalled the years of Theoderic’s and Athalaric’s rule fondly.


[5] Proc.,Wars 5.2.5-6.


[6] Herwig Wolfram claims (History of the Goths, trans. Thomas Dunlap. Berkeley 1999) that these men were Gothic hardliners who took a tough stance against Constantinople. He suggests that members of this faction, who probably included Theodahad among its members, realised by late 532/early 533 that they needed to gain control over Athalaric before he reached his majority.  It remains, of course, difficult to know how much of Procopius’ depiction is based on actual events.  Procopius revealed (Wars 5.4.12-13) that Theodahad had initiated a coup in 535 with the support of the relatives of the large numbers of Goths who had been slain by Amalasuintha and her followers.


[7] Discussed in Amory, People and Identity, 156.


[8] For further contemporary evidence of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning, see Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.


[9] Proc., Wars 5.2.11-17.


[10] The sixth-century historian John Malalas (Chronicle, 15.9) tells us that Theoderic had received an education during his years in Constantinople, a point that Procopius, with his focus on the Gothic king’s early embracing of Byzantine culture, may have been aware of. So too does Theoderic’s panegyrist Ennodius (Panegyricus dictus Theoderico 3.11) make it clear that Theoderic had received an education in Constantinople. Cf. Theophanes (AM 5977). Contra  Anon. Valesiani 12.61.


[11] I would like to thank Jonathan Arnold (pers. comm.) for highlighting this particular point for me.


[12] Of course, many young men from the Byzantine literate classes would have received military training as well. On the increasing militarization of the sixth-century ruling class, see Conor Whately, Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. Oxford, 2013, 49-57.

[13] Proc., Wars 5.2.11-17.


[14] Cass., Variae, 10.3 (trans. Barnish).


[15] J. Connolly, Like the labors of Heracles: Andreia and Paideia in Greek Culture under Rome, in:R. Rosen and I. Sluiter, eds. Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity. Boston 2003, 287, 328.


[16] Amory, People and Identity, 96. For the Goths’ military ethos, see Heather, The Goths, 322-26, M. Whitby, Armies and Society in the Later Roman World, in: A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins and Michael Whitby, eds. CAH Volume XIV. Cambridge 2000, 472.


[17] Proc., Wars 5.2.18-20.


[18] Proc., Wars 5.2.19. Athalaric’s alcoholism is hinted at in the Variae of Cassiodorus, see S.J.B. Barnish, introduction to Variae, 16. Procopius revealed that an addiction “to the disease of drunkenness” [μέθης νόσῳ] was particularly prevalent among barbarian peoples (Wars 4.4.29, 6.1.28, 7.27.5-6). This point is illustrated when Procopius praised the Herul Pharas for his energetic and serious nature, but noted sarcastically: “For aHerulian not to give himself over to treachery and drunkenness, but to strive after uprightness, is no easy matter and deserves abundant praise (Wars 4.4.29)”. The susceptibility of barbarian armies to drunkenness served as a topos in classical literature. This drunkenness made “barbarians” unreliable soldiers. For instance, Polybius (Histories 11.3) partly blamed the Carthaginians’ defeat in Spain on the Gauls’ drunken state during the battle of Metauras (207 BCE).


[19] Proc., Wars 5.4.4.


[20] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 108.


Romans and Barbarians: Procopius’ depiction of Belisarius and Totila



In the Gothic Wars, the seminal sixth-century historian Procopius described the Eastern Romans attempt to take back the lost province of Italy. Indeed, the Roman Belisarius and the Gothic King Totila are two of the primary and most interesting characters in the historian’s epic the Wars. Whilst Belisarius is also one of the main figures in Procopius’ Secret History, albeit in a negative characterization. Historians continue to debate about how much we can learn about the real Belisarius or Totila from these portraits. Certainly, many of their traits adhere to traditional tropes. I will suggest in today’s blog that despite these limitations we can learn what traits Procopius and his audience saw as virtues of ideal generals, and indeed, men.

Many of Procopius’ descriptions of Totila’s and Belisarius’ positive and negative characteristics seemed patterned on similar ideals found in the works of Homer. Like Achilles and Priam, Totila and Belisarius, as portrayed by Procopius, were supreme warriors. In Procopius’ account of the Byzantine Empire’s battle against its foreign enemies, Belisarius displayed traits typical of the famous Roman generals of the past. Like these great men, Belisarius earned his troops’ respect on the battlefield by refusing to sit back in safety and force his troops to fight a battle he would not face himself: “Then Belisarius, though he was safe before, would no longer keep the general’s post, but began to fight in the front ranks like a soldier.” Like Achilles, Belisarius was the most important man in battle: “They saw Belisarius fighting in the front ranks, knowing well that, if he should fall, the cause of the Romans would be ruined instantly.” The enemy also recognized Belisarius’ worth, and “every man among them who laid any claim to honor” attempted to kill the Byzantine commander. Belisarius, however, showed astonishing fighting skills and killed every enemy “who encountered him.” 2

           Ideal military leaders never feared death. Indeed, for them even the possibility of failure seemed impossible. Procopius depicted the Ostrogothic general Totila as a mythical superhuman leader. Like any idol, Totila’s superior valor and impressive fighting abilities set him apart from the average man. As with the Eastern Roman emperors, Totila accentuated his supremacy by wearing extravagant outfits: “The armor in which he was clad was abundantly plated with gold and ample adornments which hung from his cheek-plates as well from his helmet and spear were not only of purple [the color of the Roman emperors] but in other respects befitting a king, marvelous in their abundance.” In between the two armies, Totila performed a “dance” upon his horse and “hurled his javelin into the air and caught it as it quivered above him, then passed it rapidly from hand to hand, shifting it with consummate skill.”3 Totila’s overwhelming confidence and presence helped reassure his nervous troops and intimidate the Romans. Procopius respected Totila for his ability to fight and govern his people.

Although Procopius insisted that ideal leaders fight heroically, he also expected them to maintain command of their emotions. For generals, part of this self-restraint entailed knowing when to make a retreat to avoid a defeat:

Belisarius purposefully refused to allow the army to make any longer march because he did not wish to come to an engagement with the enemy. . . . And because of this all secretly mocked him, both officers and soldiers, but not a man reproached him to his face.4


Procopius made it clear that often there was a fine line between rationality and cowardice. Indeed in Classical Greek may be used as both a positive or negative term.  It describes either courage or rashness. Procopius used it in both senses. He explained that the Byzantines’ setbacks at the hands of the Persians had resulted, in part, from a lack of discipline and presumption by Belisarius’ underlings. The soldiers and officers refused to heed Belisarius’ advice and they insulted Belisarius to his face by accusing him of softness that had destroyed their fighting zeal. Procopius argued that Belisarius mistakenly gave into their insults, and against his better judgment reassured his troops, “that now he was of good courage and would go against the enemy with a better hope.”5 The Eastern Roman army went on to suffer a devastating defeat at the hands of the Persians. It is impossible to know whether Procopius’ account is accurate. While its primary purpose seems to be an attempt to exonerate Belisarius from blame in a terrible defeat, it also indicates that even at this early stage of his history, Procopius may have detected flaws in Belisarius’ ability to lead men. Throughout his works Procopius insisted that a good general did not care what his men thought of him, but rather based his decisions purely on what advantages could be gained for his forces and the Byzantine Empire.

Internal bickering also undermined the Ostrogoths’ war effort. At the beginning of Totila’s reign, when he guided his armies to easy victories over the Eastern Romans, the Ostrogoths praised him as “an unvanquished and invincible leader.” However, after he suffered his first setbacks they quickly turned against him and “inveighed against him, unmindful of what they had recently said about him, and going contrary to these declarations without the least hesitation.” Procopius declared that this was a common trait for all people and inevitable because of the faults of human nature.6 He implied that men were fickle and earthly glory temporary.

An ideal general maintained strict control over his troops.7 Procopius stressed that when the Byzantine forces moved through North Africa, Belisarius made it a point to restrain his troops’ bloodlust. The poverty of the Roman soldiers, however, made this an extremely difficult task:

For the soldiers, being extremely poor men, upon becoming all of a sudden masters of very great wealth and of women both young and extremely comely, were no longer able to restrain their minds or to find any satiety in the things they had, but were so intoxicated, drenched as they were by their present good fortunes, that each one wished to take everything back with them to Carthage. . . . For neither did fear of the enemy nor their respect for Belisarius occur to them, nor indeed anything else at all except their desire for spoils.8


To defeat the Vandals, Belisarius needed to assert his authority over these disruptive soldiers. Attaining a victory on the battlefield served as only one way to conquer an enemy. Belisarius explained to his soldiers that the Vandals had once been foreign invaders; therefore, if they treated the local population well they might be able coax them over to the Byzantine side. Under Belisarius’ strict discipline the Byzantine troops refrained from harassing the North Africans, and according to Procopius this restraint played a major role in the Empire’s triumph.

In contrast, Procopius partially blamed Belisarius’ and the Eastern Roman army’s struggles in the latter stages of the Italian campaign on the general’s abandonment of this policy. Procopius explained that in Italy, Belisarius “devoted himself heart and soul to the pursuit of wealth. . . . In fact, he plundered indiscriminately nearly all the Italians who lived at Ravenna or in Sicily and anyone else he could reach, pretending that he was making them pay the penalty of their misdeeds.” This course of action did not merely alienate the native population, but it also caused the Byzantine commander Herodian to switch sides and join Totila’s forces.9

Unlike many Classical historians, Procopius insisted that a good general needed to shield captured enemy soldiers from maltreatment. During the early stages of the Italian campaign, Belisarius received Procopius’ praise for protecting his Ostrogothic captives from acts of violence and “holding them in no less honor than his own soldiers.”10 Confidence and command were essential traits for any great leader. And Procopius attributed part of the Ostrogoths’ success over the Byzantine army to Totila’s ability to maintain discipline over his subordinates. Procopius applauded Totila for his efforts to treat his captives well and indicated that by doing so he had won over many Byzantine soldiers to his cause.11

Guarding women’s virtue served as another essential obligation for military commanders, yet even for the best leaders this often proved difficult. In the Wars, Procopius reported that Belisarius and Totila felt compelled to protect captive women from their soldiers’ lust. As in any era, a sixth-century army often celebrated a victory by engaging in an orgy of rape against the vanquished enemy’s women. Although Belisarius’ iron will succeeded in keeping his soldiers from pillaging Italian farmers’ grain or picking ripe fruit off their trees, he had a more difficult time controlling their lechery.12 As we saw in chapter one, Procopius lauded Belisarius for his ability to remain faithful to his wife and refrain from having sex with his female Gothic captives. Procopius’ need to draw attention to Belisarius’ sexual restraint suggests, however, that most Byzantine soldiers followed no such moral code. Procopius illustrated that many Eastern Roman soldiers had taken Vandalic women as their wives during the North African campaign. Procopius indicated that these unions led to mixed loyalties for the Byzantine soldiers. In an aside he illustrated this danger when he described how the Vandalic wives had urged their Byzantine husbands to disobey Belisarius’ direct orders and seize their own land in North Africa.13

The fearsome Totila had more success subduing his troops’ rampant sexual urges. When the Ostrogothic army sacked Rome, Totila felt obligated to protect Rome’s aristocratic women from sexual violence:

Now the Goths, on their part, were eager to put Rusticiana [wife of the famous scholar Boethius] to death, bringing against her the charge that after bribing the commanders of the Roman army, she had destroyed the statues of Theoderic, her motive in doing so having been to avenge the murder not only of her father Symmachus, but also of her husband Boethius. But Totila would not permit her to suffer any harm, but he guarded both her and all the Roman women from insult, although the Goths were extremely eager to have intercourse with them. Consequently not one of them had the ill fortune to suffer personal insult, whether married, unwed, or widow, and Totila won great renown for moderation from this course.14


Although Totila had political motives for sparing these influential Roman women, Procopius emphasized that his primary aim was to protect them from the Ostrogothic soldiers’ sexual advances. When an Italian aristocrat accused one of Totila’s bodyguards of violating his virgin daughter, the Ostrogothic king imprisoned the soldier. The Ostrogothic nobility became alarmed and requested that Totila release the soldier and dismiss the charges, since the assailant was “an active fellow and a good warrior.” Totila, however, refused, declaring that what they called kindness in reality was lawlessness:  “the act of committing a sin and that of preventing the punishment of those who have committed sin, are in my judgment on the same plane.”15 This example illustrates the importance of Christian values to Procopius’ construction of ideal leaders. While it had long been Roman generals’ duty to maintain discipline over their soldiers, it is apparent in this story that by the sixth century, even a barbarian commander needed to display moderation and regulate his troops’ moral conduct.

Procopius disclosed that God took an interest in men’s actions in the world and often chose a battle’s victor on the basis of which general or army had the superior moral character. This code of conduct applied to both Eastern Romans and foreigners. In an aside, Totila contemplated the nature of God’s role in worldly affairs. The king described how the Ostrogoths had begun the war against the Byzantines “with a host of two hundred thousand most warlike soldiers,” mightily armed and funded. Yet, “five thousand Greeklings” had vanquished them. As a consequence of this defeat the Ostrogoths had lost their kingdom and were seemingly defeated. Despite this setback, under Totila’s moral guidance resurgence had been achieved: “Now it has been our fortune, though reduced to a small number, destitute of arms and in a pitiable plight and without any experience at all, to gain mastery over an enemy more than twenty thousand strong.” Totila pondered how this had occurred. A lack of courage was not to blame for their previous defeat. And the Byzantines’ seeming effeminacy and the Ostrogoths’ combat skills played only a small role in determining the war’s outcome. Instead, Totila indicated that God had chosen the winners on the basis of combatants’ moral fortitude: “The Goths in earlier times paid less heed to justice than to any other thing, and treated each other and their Roman subjects as well in an unholy manner; wherefore God was moved to take the field against them on the side of their enemies.” During the early stages of the war, under Belisarius’ virtuous leadership, God acted in the Byzantines’ favor. Yet, as the Byzantine generals succumbed to greed and bickering, and the Ostrogoths under Totila’s tutelage became more virtuous, God became hostile and switched sides. According to Procopius, it did not matter that the Ostrogoths were Arians and barbarians, for as Totila warned; God picked the winners purely on the basis of which side conducted themselves more honorably.16

Procopius revealed that it wasn’t rival generals or insubordinate troops that brought about Belisarius’ downfall, but an even more formidable enemy: his wife. Procopius, who praised Belisarius for his ability to govern even the most fearsome barbarians, condemned his superior for becoming a slave to his own lust. Like any good warrior, Belisarius did not give in without a fight and he waged a difficult campaign against her “womanly wiles.” Again and again, he attempted to escape his wife’s clutches and for brief moments he was able to restore his honor by rejecting Antonina’s “tricks of magic,” and thereby he became a good man once more. Each time, however, the respite was fleeting, and Belisarius returned once again to be Antonina’s “faithful slave not her husband.”17

Procopius drew attention to how a “real” man handled disruptive women when he presented the general Constantine berating Belisarius for ignoring Antonia’s suspected adultery: “If I had been in your shoes, I should have got rid of that woman instead of the youngster [Theodosius, Antonina’s lover].” It wasn’t the man who was to blame for the affair but the woman whom Belisarius needed to exile. Belisarius not only refused to heed Constantine’s advice, but as Procopius related, a short time afterwards had the general executed at Antonina’s behest. These actions evoked the “bitter hostility of the Emperor and of the influential Romans one and all.”18

Procopius emphasized that once a man became enslaved to a woman he could never be a superior leader of men. Belisarius’ concern over his wife’s depravity led him to sacrifice the most vital interests of the state to his own domestic concerns. According to Procopius, Belisarius’ obsession with Antonina led to the Byzantine setbacks in the war against the Persians. “Incapacitated by his wife’s waywardness,” Belisarius refused to travel far beyond the boundaries of the Empire, and thus failed to take the initiative against the Persians. By allowing Antonina to take on the dominant role in their marriage, Belisarius not only sacrificed his manliness, but at that moment, “the hand of God was unmistakably against him.”19

Like Belisarius, Totila appeared defective. Akin to Homer’s descriptions of Achilles’ character flaws, Procopius considered Totila’s fiery warrior-nature and short temper as the main faults in his disposition. Totila was often enslaved by his violent temper. Although Procopius provided many examples that illustrated Totila’s respect for religious leaders and the Christian populace, he indicated that Totila fought a difficult battle against his natural propensity for violence. Procopius related that Totila had become so agitated with the bishop Valentinus during an interrogation that he chopped off both of the bishop’s hands.20 In another example of his natural rashness, Totila had wanted “to raze Rome to the ground” when he was forced to abandon the city. Procopius alleged that Totila felt no compunction against “burning the finest and most noteworthy of the buildings and making Rome a sheep-pasture.”21 Only Belisarius’ heartfelt letter deterred Totila, by appealing to his vanity: Belisarius suggested that burning Rome would earn Totila eternal contempt. Rome and Totila’s cause were saved. But in the end, like Achilles, Totila was doomed to die prematurely in battle.

 Ultimately, Totila’s unbending belief in the Ostrogoths’ invincibility and his contempt for the Eastern Romans’ military prowess led to his fall. Procopius related that the general convinced of the superior fighting skills and the courage troops had armed his troops inadequately. In contrast, the Eastern Romans made use of a variety of weapons and were able to adapt to the shifting circumstances of combat. In the decisive battle the mistake proved deadly. The Eastern Roman army led by Belisarius’ successor, the eunuch general Narses, overwhelmed the Ostrogothic forces, slaying the king and most of his men.22


2 Procopius, Wars 5.18.5-12.

3 Procopius, Wars 8.31.18-9.


4 Procopius, Wars 1.18.11-2. For further discussion of this incident, Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 198-200.


5 Procopius, Wars 1.18.19-26.  Common tradition allowed Roman generals to accept and solicit advice from their commanders. Greatrex, Rome and Persia at War, 179-80, n. 30.


6 Procopius, Wars 7.24.29-31.


7 Evans, Procopius, 59.



8 Procopius, Wars 4.4.2-4.


9 Procopius, Secret History 5.4-7.


10 Procopius, Wars 5.10.37. For a description of Classical Roman historian’s attitudes towards enemy soldiers, see Helgeland et al., 8-20.


11 Procopius, Wars 7.5.19.


12 Procopius, Wars 7.1.9-12.



13 Procopius, Wars 4.14.8-10.


14 Procopius, Wars 7.20.28-31. This account may be compared with Polybius’ description of the Roman army’s custom of exterminating “every form of life they encountered,” (including animals) when it stormed a city. Polybius, 10.15.



15 Procopius, Wars 7.8.18. This passage shows that Procopius had no qualms in presenting Totila as a man willing to follow Roman law over his own personal concerns. This may be a veiled insult aimed at Belisarius and/or Justinian, whom he often portrayed as acting for their own personal interests and not for the good of the Byzantine Empire.

16 Procopius, Wars 5.18.40-2.


17 Procopius, Secret History 1.14., 4.30-1.


18 Procopius, Secret History 1.25-30.


19 Procopius, Secret History 2.26, 5.1.


20 Procopius, Wars 7.15.13-6.


21 Procopius, Wars 7.22.8-17. 


22 Procopius, Wars 8.32.22-30.