Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.38

Michael Edward Stewart, The Soldier's Life: Martial Virtues and Manly Romanitas in the Early Byzantine Empire. Romanitas, 1.   Leeds:  Kismet Press, 2016.  Pp. xviii, 385.  ISBN 9780995671720.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Denis Sullivan, (University of Maryland)

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The author's core argument is that in the Byzantine East "from the fourth to the seventh centuries, conceptualizations of the soldier's life and the ideal of manly life were often the same" (p. 8). He argues in Chapter 1, "Introduction," against what he sees as the reigning view that Christian concepts of "extreme ascetic virtues and pacifism had superseded militarism and courage as the dominant component of hegemonic masculine ideology" (p. 8). Chapter 2, "The Study of Men as a Gender," cites Foucault's view that "masculine ideology formed the core of Greek and Roman morality" as central to the approach of this book. Stewart notes the difficulty of getting beyond the stylized images of "men" found in literary sources, but contends that the latter provide "a 'public' view of ideal manly conduct," while "the private world of early Byzantine men remains mostly hidden" (p. 24). He concludes with a discussion of Mathew Kuefler's The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity as the "springboard" for his own work, seeking to see if Kuefler's contention of the rise of a new Christian ideology of masculinity in the West in the fourth and fifth centuries can be applied in the East.

Chapter 3, "Vita Militaris: The Soldier's Life," asserts that Christians and non-Christians alike admired the distinguishing characteristics of the Roman soldier: "physical and spiritual strength, bodily perfection, courage, prudence, discipline, self- mastery, unselfishness, and camaraderie" (p. 45, no source for the list is provided). The author sees a prevailing scholarly view of a demilitarization of the Roman citizenry and barbarization of the army in the second and particularly third centuries, but argues that this is overstated and that barbarization actually declined in the subsequent centuries, citing "the most recent statistical analysis"1 for "less than a third" of non-Romans in command positions in the fourth-fifth centuries, and less than 20% in the army as a whole after the fifth century (p. 51); also, military service remained respected and emperors' relatives and loyal subjects held military command positions. Stewart likewise argues that "links between masculinity, military virtues, and the emperor's divine right to rule" formed a significant part of imperial imagery (p. 61). He disputes Kuefler's claim that late Roman men saw barbarians as "manlier than the Romans," noting that the late Roman armies "continued to hold a distinct advantage in direct confrontations with their foes" (p. 88).

Chapter 4, "The Manly Emperor: Conceptualizations of Manliness, Courage, and Ideal Leadership at the Opening of the Fifth Century," examines the seeming paradox of supposedly increasing demilitarization of Roman leadership and contemporary images of martial prowess disseminated by fifth-century Roman emperors. The author finds secular historians of the period attributing the disaster of Adrianople to failure of manliness, while ecclesiastical historians attributed it to a failure to follow correct Christian belief. He explores the secular historians Ammianus and Eunapius, noting in Ammianus' narrative an initial warning of the dangers of the "effeminate life" which is attributed to many members of the upper class, making recovery from such a defeat much more difficult than in the Roman past. Yet Stewart finds in recent scholarship a rejection of the sweeping view expressed by Ammianus and suggests that while the historian had significant resentment against specific individuals, his expressed sentiments were due more to "traditional perceptions" of Roman manliness, and that he otherwise "provides his reader with a largely positive view" (p. 105) of Roman elites and emperors. The author finds in Eunapius' negative perceptions of imperial leadership, with its conciliatory and, in Stewart's view, "realistic" foreign policy, "prejudicial gendered rhetoric" and reliance on "older military realities" (p. 105). The one emperor who was portrayed as the exception is Julian. Arguing against the view that the positive attitude of Ammianus and Eunapius toward Julian was the result of pagan prejudice, Stewart finds that their portraits of Julian contain little about his religious policies, but rather focus on Julian's philosophically based self-control and military prowess. On this reading, these idealized portraits of Julian served as a corrective to a "subsequent series of feeble, unwarlike and unmanly emperors" (p. 129).

In chapter 5, "The Wars Most Peaceful: Militarism, Piety, and Constructions of Christian Manliness in the Theodosian Age," the author asserts that while modern scholarship finds that early Christian intellectuals "cleverly inverted dominant Greco-Roman masculinities," these studies overstate "the impact as well as the innovative nature of Christian masculine ideology of the era" (pp. 134-135). He contends that in the fifth century, warfare and martial courage in battle continued to be an essential aspect of masculinity. The "masculinity" of the disciplined self-denial of ascetics such as St. Antony is seen as similar to the approaches taken by the demilitarized Roman aristocracy. But such self-denial was, Stewart argues, not as widely accepted and practiced among Christian men of the period as some scholars suggest. The security of the empire still required and evoked even from Christian theologians a respect for martial virtues.

Chapter 6, "Representations of Power and Imperial Manliness in the Age of Theodosius II," explores Byzantine gender ideology in the portrayals of Theodosius II in secular and in ecclesiastical historians. Stewart disputes scholars’ finding of a shift from military prowess to conventional Christian qualities, notably piety, in representations of emperors. He counters that religious zeal was already a factor cited to explain Roman military success by the time of Cicero, that piety was already an aspect of imperial propaganda by the time of Constantius II, and that one cannot rely on the analysis of the causes of military success adumbrated by ecclesiastical historians. Noting the period of "child emperors" (367-455) and allowing some move away from imperial martial virtues, he still contends that Theodosius II presented himself as "the face of Roman victory" (p. 180) via equestrian statues, a declaration of victory over the Persians, a military campaign against a western usurper on which he personally accompanied the army as far as Thessalonica, and a reign marked by constant (defensive) warfare. Stewart suggests that the loss of much secular literature of the fifth century and the pietistic view of the ecclesiastical authors allowed later critics to use gendered rhetoric to explain the failures of the fifth century.

Chapter 7, "Emperors and Generals: Pathways to Power in the Age of Leo I," focuses on the militarized reign of Leo I who used "Christian martial and civilized Romanitas" to solidify his right to rule. The author suggests that force and violence were not the sole factors in the rise of martial emperors like Leo I, but also the effective use of propaganda against their enemies. Much of the chapter focuses on the relationship between Leo, self-promoting his orthodox Christianity, as opposed to his mentor and rival the Arian Aspar; Leo's creation of the exkoubitors, the elite palace guard; Leo's accusation of treason and self-indulgence against Aspar's son, and his assassination of Aspar and Aspar's son. Likewise the rivalry in the West between Ricimer and Anthemius is analyzed with the general conclusion that the rise of men such as Leo and Ricimer demonstrates the "importance of a military career" for those seeking to rise to prominence.

Chapter 8, "Contests of Manly Virtue in Procopius' Gothic Wars," promises a focus on Procopius' use of "the field of battle," specifically in Italy, to "comment on the role of courage and manliness" in determining outcomes (p. 248). Much of the chapter in fact deals with Gothic monarchs and the Byzantine military hierarchy and with policy as opposed to battle. Justinian's military campaigns are described with an emphasis on motivations, Theodoric and the Gothic leadership are seen as portrayed by Procopius as acting with "wisdom and manliness," which resulted in just treatment of their Italian subjects. Theodoric's heir Athalaric is portrayed as a debauched failure due to his education in the customs of the barbarians, and Amalasiuntha as a "womanly man," but one dependent on men's support. Her co-ruler Theodahad is unmanly "for allowing his love of learning to thwart his fighting spirit" (p. 278). His successor Vitigis, a celebrated warrior, represents a change toward a style of leadership able to take a long-term and steadfast view of a successful strategy and to strike a balance between rashness and appropriate courage. Stuart now provides specific battle analysis by describing the confrontation of Vitigis and Belisarius at Rome. Belisarius' decision to engage hand-to-hand is seen as a minimizing of his “intellectual prowess," but also as providing a demonstration of Roman martial superiority. After the retreat back to Rome and the dissension among the Italian allies, the intellectual Belisarius now saves the situation by delaying an attack of his archers until the Goth siege engines are well within range. The setback turns Vitigis into an "unmanly man," given to reckless action. The author concludes that, given his subject matter, for Procopius the "manly man" was the soldier and that ethnicity did not determine manliness.

Chapter 9, "Conclusion: Lingering Manly Romanitas in Byzantium," initially employs a passage from Theophylact's History, a debate on how to respond to the Avar invasion of Thrace in 587 (the aggressive approach wins out over the cautious one) to "show that the Roman soldier's life remained linked intimately to masculine ideology" (p. 319), while Heraclius' defeat of the Persians in 628 with the emperor personally leading the army is seen by the poet George of Pisidia as a combination "of God's guidance and his own [Heraclius'] courage." Stewart then considers the Muslim conquests and the "modern consensus" that the subsequent devastating losses convinced the Byzantines that "the hand of God was against them." While conceding some truth to this view, he argues that the resilience of the Byzantines – evidenced technologically (e.g., Greek fire), in the resettlement of Slavs in depopulated sections of Anatolia, and in the initial elements of the eventual theme system – suggests not "apocalyptic paralysis" but practical adaptation. He concludes that "a lingering sense of martial Romanitas offers a further explanation for Byzantine endurance," particularly in contrast to the West, as "the majority of the Eastern elites continued to link their Romanness to the Roman state in Constantinople" (p. 327).

The author's characterization of the “new Christianized masculinity” is fundamental to his critique of it. Certainly post-325 CE, Christianity influenced views of warfare and manliness. Whether modern scholarly discussions of it so strongly exclude the martial element is open to question. For example K. Holum is criticized (p. 175) for using Christian literature regarding the battle of Frigidus "as evidence of this new ideology." Yet Holum continues2 (uncited) with the comment, "Such interpretations of the Frigidus miracle came easily to Christian apologists . . ." This does not suggest Holum's acceptance of the view that military strength was generally considered insignificant, only that pietistic Christian authors promoted that view for their own motives. Also, the discussion of the sources of Byzantine resilience in the seventh century following the Muslim conquests, a subject of extensive research, lacks depth and nuance and the subsequent jump to the eleventh-century historian Michael Attaleiates' appeal to the manly virtues of Republican Rome leaves the claim of continuity unexplored. That said, Stewart does provide a wealth of evidence to support the view that traditional Roman military values remained an essential and important element in early Byzantium.


1.   The source citation for this is at best unclear. The closest following footnote initially cites "CJ, 12.35.17, ed. Kruger" (for Krüger, Codex Iustinianus) – although CJ does not appear in the list of abbreviations or the bibliography – followed by references to works by A. H. M. Jones (1964), P. Southern and K. Dixon (1996), and M. Whitby (1995).
2.   Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1982) 51.

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