Justinian’s Reconquest: Notions of Return in Procopius’ Gothic Wars

Justinian’s Reconquest: Notions of Return in Procopius’ Gothic Wars

By Michael Stewart

Published Online (2014)

Italy and Sardinia

Introduction: Few ‘returns’ in history have garnered as much attention as the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s (ruled 527-565) mid sixth-century ‘reconquests’ of the lost Western Provinces of the Roman Empire against the Vandals in North Africa and the Goths in Italy. Though historians continue to debate the extent of Justinian’s hopes to reintroduce a united Roman Empire, the notion of return plays a significant role in our primary source for this campaign, the Wars of the Byzantine historian Procopius.

This article does not intend to reconstruct the events behind the reconquest or uncover the Goths, Byzantines, and Italians as they really were, rather it will trace Procopius’ views of the Italians found in Wars. Though the native Italians play a relatively minor role in the Gothic Wars, the essay will suggest, that in Procopius’ mind, the Western Romans’ ‘decision’ to forego their martial roles for less martial forms of male self-fashioning in the fifth century had led, not only to the rise of the ‘barbarian’ Vandals and the Goths, but had separated the Italians from an essential component of Romanitas—masculine martial virtues. Indeed, in the increasingly militarised world of the late fifth and early sixth-centuries, it was only natural for Procopius to suppose that Italy would only become truly Roman once more when the Goths were defeated and the ‘true’ Romans from Constantinople regained Italy.

Let us begin by examining briefly the role that Procopius believed the fifth-century Western Romans had played in the Vandals and Goths’ triumphs. Procopius followed Justianic propaganda by placing primary responsibility for these losses on the unmanly (or ‘effeminate’, which amounts to the same thing) leadership of the Western Roman emperors,and what he saw as the demilitarisation of the Western Romans. Procopius explained in his Prologue to Vandalic Wars that the Western Emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455) had failed in his essential masculine role as the guardian of the State and of his family, and consequently both of his wards fell captive to the barbarians.

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