By Michael Stewart
Published Online (2013)
Introduction: This essay examines the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius’ depiction of the Gothic king Totila. It scrutinises how Procopius used his portrayal of the fluctuating personality of the Gothic leader as a means to discuss the role that men’s virtues and vices played in determining events on the field of battle. It has been excerpted and adapted from a longer paper discussing the role that the concepts of manliness, courage and virtue played in the Gothic Wars.
The Byzantine general Belisarius’ victory over the Gothic king Vitigis (ruled 536-40) seems tohave represent ed the original terminus for Procopius’ Gothic Wars . The narrative drives to what looks like a logical climax, with Vitigis’ defeat and Belisarius’ triumphal return to Constantinople. The theme of a “manly” and “heroic” Roman army defeating a worthy Gothic foe would have made a suitable ending to the Wars. Events on the ground seemed to have interfered with Procopius’ well laid out didactic tale.
The year 540 marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite their defeat, the Goths refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In 541, the Gothic nobility appointed Totila (ruled 541-552) as king. Totila, a relative of the Visigothic king Theudis (ruled 526-548), revitalised the Gothic army’s fighting spirit. In a series of swift campaigns, he recaptured almost all of Italy. Procopius now had to deal with a resurgent Goth nation and the recall of his idol, Belisarius. How did the historian explain such a reversal of fortune? Without a doubt, the mercurial nature of tyche and the power of God to determine events play a greater role in books seven and eight than they did in books five and six. I would suggest, however, that Procopius once again blamed Roman failure primarily in the familiar moralising terms. Procopius did not attribute the Roman defeats after 540 on the whims of fate or a lack of courage, nor did he suggest that they resulted from strategic failures. Instead, he treated these losses as arising from moral failures on the part of the Byzantine military high command and the imperial administration. We must take Procopius at his word when he explained that the “insatiable” greed of certain members of the Byzantine high command in Italy and within the Byzantine treasury — not the caprice of fortune — represented the primary reason “the entire fabric of Roman power was utterly destroyed in a short space of time”. Once more, in Procopius’ mind, the “rightful” rulers of Italy would be the side that juxtaposed martial capabilities with a policy of restraint and justice towards the Italians. The tide of battle shifts to the Goths’ favour as the Byzantine generals and administration succumbed to jealousy, greed, bickering, and injustice.