The Fine Line Between Courage and Fear in Procopius’s Vandal War

The Fine Line Between Courage and Fear in Procopius’s Vandal War

By Michael E. Stewart

Paper delivered at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (2017)

Court of Emperor Justinian; Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Introduction: The emotion of ‘fear takes center stage in the Vandal War by Procopius. I am certainly not the first to notice this emphasis. Recent scholarship has underlined Procopius’s stress on the febrile anxiety that gripped Constantinople when the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) announced his military expedition to recover the former Roman provinces of North Africa from the Vandals in the summer of 533. According to Procopius, the generals, who had just fought a series of hard-fought land campaigns against Persia, were reluctant to launch a sea-invasion of lands, which had been out of Roman hands for nearly a century:

‘Each of the generals, supposing that he himself would command the army, was in terror (κατωρρώδει) and dread (ἀπώκνει) at the greatness of the danger, if it should be necessary for him, assuming he survived the perils of the sea, to encamp in enemy land and, using his ships as a base, to engage in a war against a kingdom both large and formidable.’ 

Clearly, the memory of a botched Roman military expedition in 468 against the Vandals had left its mark. This defeat had seen a formidable Roman naval force destroyed by Vandal fire-ships just off the shores of North Africa, and had left both halves of the Empire’s pride dented and their finances in tatters. Yet, according to Procopius, the Roman generals were too frightened to speak up. Only the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, a man generally despised by the historian, had the nerve to warn the emperor about the financial and political ramifications of such a venture. Heeding John’s advice, Justinian relented, abandoning temporarily his plan.

It takes a religious vision to change the devout emperor’s mind. Procopius describes how a visiting bishop related to the emperor a dream where God commanded the bishop to remind Justinian that ‘after undertaking the task of protecting Christians in Libya from tyrants’ the emperor ‘for no good reason had become afraid (κατωρρώδησε)’. God, the bishop reassured, would be fighting on Justinian’s side ‘and make him master of Libya’. With his confidence restored, Justinian assembled his armada with Belisarius in command and his staff-secretary Procopius by his side when the Byzantine fleet set sail on 22 June 533.

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