“The Great Emperor”: A Motif in Procopius of Caesarea’s Wars

“The Great Emperor”: A Motif in Procopius of Caesarea’s Wars

By Charles F. Pazdernik

Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 57:1 (2017)

Detail of a contemporary portrait mosaic of Justinian I in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Introduction: After his decisive victories over the Vandals and occupation of Carthage in 533 CE, Belisarius moved quickly to consolidate his position by winning the surrender of the cities of Libya and the Mediterranean islands. Imperial forces encountered serious resistance only at Lilybaeum in Ostrogothic Sicily, where Belisarius alleged that Theoderic had ceded the fortress to the Vandals, notwithstanding the fact that it was presently occupied by a Gothic garrison.

As Procopius presents the matter, Belisarius wrote a letter to the Gothic commanders there, upbraiding them for depriving him of property belonging, as he put it, to slaves (douloi) of the emperor—among whom he included, notably, Gelimer, the defeated Vandal king. Belisarius’ demand is remarkable not simply for its menacing tone—a foreshadowing of Justinian’s designs against Gothic Sicily and Italy—but also for the manner in which it adopts an avowedly despotic voice:

You are depriving us of Lilybaeum, a fortress of the Vandals, the slaves of the emperor, and are not acting justly nor in a way to benefit yourselves. You wish to bring upon your ruler, against his will and far as he is from the scene of these actions, the hostility of the great emperor, whose goodwill he has won with great effort. Yet how could you not seem to be acting contrary to established practice, if you recently allowed Gelimer to hold the fortress but have decided to withhold from the emperor, Gelimer’s master, the possessions of the slave? You, at least, good men, should not act thus … See to it, then, that you neither do us further harm nor suffer harm yourselves, nor make the great emperor an enemy to the Gothic nation, when it is your prayer that he be propitious toward you. For be well assured that, if you lay claim to this fortress, war will be upon you immediately, not for Lilybaeum alone but for all possessions you claim as yours, although not one of them belongs to you.

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