BMCR 2021.02.49

Masculinity, identity, and power politics in the age of Justinian: a study of Procopius

, Masculinity, identity, and power politics in the age of Justinian: a study of Procopius. Social worlds of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, 4. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. Pp. 246. ISBN 9789462988231. €99,00.

This volume by Michael Edward Stewart is not just another monograph on Procopius, the renowned Byzantine historian. The author analyses the gendered discourse used by Procopius in the Wars and the Secret History in order to shed new light on Byzantine political debate at the time of Justinian’s Reconquista.

 The structure of the volume consists of an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, a bibliography, a chronology and an index. The chapters are defined by theme rather than by chronology and together they offer a guide to the gendered approaches that play a critical role in Procopius’ writings. The introduction, which is the first chapter of the first part, “Finding Procopius,” presents the battle for Rome between Belisarius, the Byzantine general, and Vitigis, the king of Goths, which began in February 537, as a contest of competing ideologies as well as a war. The author shows that Procopius used his Wars as an instrument to counter Gothic propaganda that portrayed the Goths as manly protectors of Italy and the eastern Romans as “outsiders” and unmanly Greeks (in a period when the term “Greek” had a pejorative meaning). Stewart correctly observes that writing within a culture built on triumphal masculine imagery, Procopius applied active gendering not just to individuals but also to entire peoples, which created and maintained a hierarchy between them.

Chapter 2, “Will the Real Procopius Please Stand Up,” investigates what modern scholarship knows today about Procopius, both as a person and as an author. Stewart believes that much of what we encounter in Procopius’ work is a carefully constructed façade, and without new sources of information his personality will remain an enigma. Referring to the consensus that has been reached about the basic facts concerning Procopius, the author presents at length Caesarea’s milieu and the context in which he lived. Stewart believes he was a Christian, assuming a moderate opposition against some radical recent opinions which would argue that he was a pagan. Also, the author assumes that Procopius was from the elite and suspects that he was one of those bilingual intellectuals who still existed in Byzantium at this time with a good knowledge of Latin. As secretary to Belisarius, the author says that Procopius’ duties would have included composing speeches, letters and military reports, which suggests that his material on earlier battles and speeches given by the Byzantine general on the battlefield may be more accurate than is generally believed. Since he could no longer witness the events he was describing after 542, he relied on archival documents and information given by eye-witnesses. All those facts, corroborated by other contemporary textual sources as well as recent archaeological finds and topographical studies, show that Procopius is more reliable than is usually thought. The author also sets out his position within the current debate about the dates of Procopius’ three works, and their genre and intentions. The author’s idea that a positivist approach, usually rejected by modern scholarship when approaching the Secret History, is not suitable for analysing the Wars either, is quite interesting. In a reflection on the idea of opacity that was formulated decades ago by Robert Darnton, Stewart also promises to “appreciate not only the common threads between our thought-world and that of Procopius, but also be aware of much that is alien, on concepts like ethnicity, morality, fear, courage, gender, causation, and human motivation more generally” (p. 67).

Part II, “The Contest,” begins with Chapter 3, “The Danger of the Soft Life,” a title that alludes to an article published by the author in the Journal of Late Antiquity in 2017. Here Stewart carefully analyses Procopius’ text and deciphers his narrative strategies in order to better understand not only the historian’s attitude towards manliness and unmanliness, but his “real” attitude towards Byzantines and different characters in his history. The author investigates how gender shapes Procopius’ presentation of the Goths, eastern Romans (Byzantines), and Italo-Romans during the struggle for Italy and highlights a gendered kind of propaganda, seldom emphasized by other modern scholars. Procopius explained the crisis of the western empire through the effeminacy and demilitarisation of the elites, while affirming that the eastern Romans preserved their masculinity. The gendered analysis of his text places Procopius’ view on the Justinian’s Reconquista in a different light and demonstrates that for the Byzantine historian real Romans, in possession of their ancient virtues, were neither the effeminate Italo-Romans nor the Goths, but those coming from Constantinople.

Chapter 4, “Courage, Fear, and Generalship in the Vandal War,” sheds a new and interesting light on the emotive gendered language that Procopius used not only in his Secret History but also in the narration of the victory obtained by the Byzantines over the Vandals in 533-534. The author shows how fear was used and exploited by political and military leaders and how it plays a more “rational” role than we might believe. This “rational fear” functions as an essential tool of sound generalship and helps Belisarius, portrayed by Procopius as “fearing neither too much nor too little,” to stand up as a model andreios general and man (p.124).

Chapter 5, “Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Eunuchs in a Changing World,” centres upon Procopius’ presentation of military eunuchs, which demonstrates a more positive attitude towards them within the Byzantine society of his time. Stewart insists on the transitory nature of masculinity in Byzantine society, which believed that “soft” living could cause effeminacy and that by displaying manly characteristics even individuals from innately effeminate groups such as eunuchs could ultimately achieve the respect due to the most valiant Roman soldiers. The author applies to Narses the oxymoronic formula of “manly Eunuch,” previously used by Mathew Kuefler, because his actions demonstrated that he possessed andreia, usually correlated by the Byzantines with military virtues. Another eunuch, Solomon, was allowed room in the Byzantine hyper-masculine military world, while Belisarius, the “real” man, was effeminised because of his wife’s influence. The analysis shows that Procopius has a somewhat fluid notion about gendered statuses, but that does not apply to women, who were to blame for men’s failures and who were not allowed, from his point of view, to play a role in political life.

These ideas about the negative role women played when involved in politics also appear in Chapter 6, “Killing Justinian,”which kicks off the third part of the volume, called “Chaos Encroaching.” A literary approach not unlike those already used by other modern authors to analyse the Secret History is here with great innovation applied by Stewart to the Wars. The chapter examines in detail a failed plot to assassinate Justinian in 549, emphasizing the role of the gendered rhetoric that preyed upon the general Artabanes’ preoccupation with his own military and masculine image and convinced him to participate in the plot (p. 178). The author sheds light on the “sophisticated manner by which Procopius could wield his character portraits to suit his wider literary and political aims” (p. 192).

Chapter 7, “Totila: Hero or Trope,” questions the current assumption that the Gothic king Totila was the character who elicited, perhaps, Procopius’ greatest sympathy. The author seems to believe that Procopius’ admiration for Totila was not as genuine as is presumed by modern scholars and that the Byzantine historian used his character to tell a moralising tale. Procopius’ account does not rely on personal acquaintance with the Gothic king and he portrays Totila as a model, encapsulating many qualities and virtues found in the idealised portraits of Belisarius or Germanus. Stewart says that Procopius draws different portraits of Totila in Books 7 and 8, because they were published at separate dates and in vastly different circumstances. The initial positive light could have been intended to prepare the Byzantines for a treaty with the Goths that would have provided for a partition of Italy, so Totila had to appear as a virtuous barbarian with whom the emperor could negotiate. But finally Totila remains a barbarian and his great qualities only serve to glorify the even greater merits of Narses, the eastern Roman general who defeated him. Even if the line between the Romans and those labelled as “barbarians” by Byzantine society had become more permeable in the fifth and sixth centuries, the author believes that in Procopius’ works there still existed the old stereotypes about barbarians who could fight manfully, but ultimately had to submit to the Romans’ masculine imperium. In the conclusion of the monograph, bearing the evocative title “All Quiet on the Italian Front,” Stewart ends his analysis by saying that “Procopius and his contemporary audience believed that they lived in a world where the manly conquered the unmanly” (p. 214).

There are no notable printing errors, only a few repetitions that should have been eliminated, e.g., the partial sentence “Procopius masterfully combines ‘facts’ and literary topoi to vividly supply a didactic account of the East Romans,” which appears on both p. 29 and p. 97, and “Justinian felt threatened by Belisarius’ growing popularity,” which appears twice on p. 142.

All in all, Stewart uses gendered and literary approaches to understanding Procopius’ persona, his writings, and his world, in successful ways, and this monograph will open new and interesting avenues for the analysis of Byzantine historiography.