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The Soldier’s Life: Early Byzantine Masculinity and the Manliness of War

The Soldier’s Life: Early Byzantine Masculinity and the Manliness of War

By Michael Stewart

Byzantina Σymmeikta, Vol. 26 (2016)

The Late fifth or early sixth-century Barberini ivory (Louvre, Paris) depicting a triumphant
Roman emperor on horseback with a captive in tow. The emperor is probably Justinian, though
Zeno and Anastasios I are also possibilities. The horse rears over the female personification
of earth, whilst Winged Victory crowns the emperor. Beneath the rider, barbarians cower. On
the side panels, soldiers carry miniature victories. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: The ancient Romans admired the characteristics that they believed allowed them to establish hegemony over their rivals. It comes as little surprise then that the hyper-masculine qualities of the Roman soldier became the standard by which many Roman men measured their own worth. Indeed, like many cultures which rose to prominence primarily through military aggression, images of the soldier’s life and the ideal man’s life were often the same in Roman society. Perusing literary and visual sources from any period of Roman history draws attention to the importance of this connection to the idea of a common Roman military ethos through which all citizens could bask in their armies’ glory.

This paper maintains that the majority of Romans in the Early Byzantine Empire echoed these sentiments. Christians and non-Christians admired the attributes that they believed distinguished the typical Roman soldier from his civilian and foreign counterparts – physical and spiritual strength, courage, prudence, discipline, self-mastery, unselfishness, and camaraderie. Relying upon this paradigm, the Late fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus contended that Roman pre-eminence had been achieved because its early citizens had avoided the “life of effeminacy” [vita mollitia] brought on by wealth and the sedentary life and “fought in fierce wars” which allowed them to “overcome all obstacles by their manliness” [virtute].

Considering that few other cultures have ever sent such a large percentage of their citizens to war, this linking of Roman greatness with the special martial virtues of its men is not surprising5 . Yet, the Christian Roman/ Byzantine state of the fifth and sixth centuries had developed into an entity far different to that of the Late Republican hero, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (235–183 BC), or the Principate of Augustus (ruled 27 BCE-14 CE). One area of change had been a notable decline in the participation in warfare by the Roman upper classes, as well as an increased reliance upon non-Roman soldiers within the ranks and in the highest echelons of military command.

Click here to read this article from Byzantina Σymmeikta

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