The Manliness of War in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “The Soldier’s Life: Early Byzantine Masculinity and the Manliness of War“, by Michael Ed. Stewart, 2016.

Leo_I      Leo I

In the era of the Republic, the nobility had served as both political and military leaders. To be considered as “real” men, even the most affluent members of Roman society had needed to prove their virility on the battlefield. Provincial governors until the third century CE were typically men from the aristocracy who functioned as both civilian administrators and garrison commanders. It is no coincidence then that in this era a Roman man’s identity remained tightly entwined with the notion that precarious manhood was best demonstrated and won on the battlefield.

According to one ancient Roman historian (Polybius, Histories 6.52), this egalitarian martial ethic represented the determining factor in their defeat of rivals more dependent on mercenaries such as the Carthaginians.

This association of its elites’ manliness with the establishment and maintenance of Rome’s imperium helps us to appreciate why Roman intellectuals, like the Stoic Seneca (ca. 4 BCE–65 CE), argued that there was no virtue or manliness if an enemy were lacking.

By the second and the third centuries, however, Roman men’s military roles were being redefined. What scholars call the crisis of the third century played a part in this transformation. The twofold threats of external invasions and crippling civil wars ignited by rival claimants to the purple, challenged the Empire’s military capabilities and created the necessity for reform. Establishing control over the frequently rebellious Roman forces represented a key step in quashing this chaos. Those in power entrusted the states’ defence to a professional army of mixed descent that fought its battles mostly on the Empire’s outer fringes. The imperial authorities also sought to curtail the threat presented by mutinous regional military commanders.

The Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305), carved the provinces into smaller more manageable administrative units and increased the number of imperial leaders, first to two then to four. In a further effort to curb the threat of usurpation and create a more effective fighting force, the “senatorial amateurs”, who had often used their military commissions merely as an obligatory step in their political careers, were no longer required to fulfil their military duties. Sometime during Diocletian’s reign, serving in the army became hereditary, and the sons of soldiers and veterans were obligated to follow their fathers’ example. Though not strictly enforced, a law from 364 (Codex Theodosianus 15.15) forbade all Roman civilians the use of weapons.

Even though men from the upper classes continued to serve as officers and provide a vital reserve of civil and military leadership upon whom the government could call in time of crisis, many wealthy aristocrats chose instead to pursue comfortable lives in one of the Empire’s major cities or on their provincial estates. In the fourth century, “elite” citizens’ roles in the military decreased even further, and to meet its recruitment needs the army, at times, depended on the enrolment of foreign troops.

While it is notoriously difficult to determine with any certainty either the size of the Late Roman/Early Byzantine army or the percentage of Romans serving compared to non-Romans –particularly within the non-officer corps– the foreign component was never as high as some historians suggest. The majority of soldiers throughout the Byzantine period were “Roman”.

Estimates vary on the Late Roman and Early Byzantine armies’ exact numbers. Recent suggestions for approximately 500,000 as the total for the combined forces of the fourth-century army and 300,000 for the sixth-century Byzantine forces—including frontier troops, fleet, and the field army—seem reasonable (Whitby, “Emperors and Armies”, W. Treadgold, “Byzantium and Its Army”). Whatever the exact tallies, we are dealing with a significant number of eligible Romans serving in the military. The non-Roman element in the Eastern Roman army in positions of command held steady at less than a third during the fourth and the fifth centuries. After the fifth century, the foreign component of the Byzantine army declined to perhaps a fifth of the overall total. This shift was due to a combination of legislative efforts to monitor recruitment and financial reforms undertaken during the reign of Anastasius I, which made military service much more attractive. Indeed, conscription which had been prevalent in the fourth century, by the close of the fifth century had been abandoned.

The reigning Early Byzantine emperor’s relatives frequently served as high-ranking military commanders. These positions were not always just symbolic. For instance, the future Emperor Basiliscus (ruled 475/6), the Empress Aelia Verina’s brother, led the failed campaign against the Vandals in 468. Three of the Emperor Anastasius I’s (ruled 491-518) nephews—Hypatius, Pompey, and Probus—held important military commands during the first quarter of the sixth century. One need not be a member of the imperial family to strive for a career in the military. We find, in fact, a growing number of men from elite Eastern Roman families serving in the armed forces. These men could not always count on their pedigree to land top commands. Even imperial family members were expected to serve and succeed as junior officers before taking on the highest ranks in the military. This militarization of Byzantium’s ruling elites only accelerated in the latter half of the sixth century.

For its heavy fighting, the Early Byzantine armies relied heavily on conscripts from the traditional recruiting grounds found in the Eastern Empire’s rural and upland areas. Military service continued to offer citizens from more humble backgrounds an attractive career opportunity. Many of the Empire’s best generals had risen through the ranks. By the 430s, Roman generals had become fully integrated into Roman society in both halves of the Empire. Threats from these charismatic military men draped in manly martial virtues represented one of the greatest threats to any reigning fifth-century emperors’ autonomy.

Maurice_Solidus      Maurice

Some urbanised elites perceived these citizen soldiers to be little better than barbarians and saw them as potential threats to the “civilised” parts of the Empire. Late Roman writers frequently criticised Roman soldiers for their troublesome behaviour, particularly when the military interacted with Roman civilians.

From the reign of Arcadius (ruled 395-408) emperors had ceased to lead the army into battle personally. Nevertheless, emperors without military backgrounds represented the exception not the rule throughout the Early Byzantine period. In the East, Marcian (ruled 450-457), Leo I (ruled 457-474), Zeno (ruled 474-5, 476-91), Basiliscus, Justin I (ruled 518-27), Tiberius II (ruled 574-82), Maurice (ruled 582-602), and Phocas (ruled 602-10) had all begun their careers as soldiers. The famous non-campaigning Justinian I had also begun his career as a soldier.

A number of men from the Late Roman upper classes undoubtedly cultivated a more genteel lifestyle than their war-like ancestors from the Republic did. With the Empire’s defence firmly in the hands of a mostly effective regular army, the men of the fourth and fifth-century landowning classes often appeared, in the words of A. H. M. Jones, “blissfully unaware of the dangers that threatened the Empire”.

From at least the first century CE, public displays of martial courage as a primary means of attaining a masculine identity had been complimented by alternative strategies of manliness based on non-martial pursuits. During the Principate’s early years, Stoic and Christian intellectuals had popularised codes of masculinity centred on self-control and a mastery over one’s passions such as anger and lust. To be seen as a “true” man, one did not necessarily need to prove his courage and manliness in times of war, but could earn a masculine identity through private and public displays of selfcontrol, endurance, and courage by fighting internalised “battles” with his body and emotions.

The Emperor as an Exemplar of Martial Manliness

The idea of the emperor as the embodiment of Roman martial prowess and idealised manliness in the Later Empire was ubiquitous. The relationship between masculinity, military virtues, and the emperors’ divine right to rule were never far beneath the surface of this imagery. By concentrating notions of heroic masculinity into the figure of the emperor, imperial ideology fashioned a portrait of the ideal emperor as a model of “true” manliness for all aspiring men to emulate. This paradigm reflected the increasing domination of state ideology by the imperial family and its direct supporters, and it helps to highlight the Later Roman emperors’ growing autocratic power. Though far from a move towards the “Oriental despotism” argued for in the older historiographical tradition, the reigns of Diocletian and his successors witnessed the growth of a more elaborate court ceremonial, along with an increased promotion of the emperor in literary and visual portrayals as an authority reliant predominantly upon divine assistance (at first that of pagan divinities, and then the Christian God) for his clout.

The lives of the emperors serve as the focal point in many of the written sources that have come down to us from the Later Empire. A wide range of literary genres, including history, poetry, panegyric, biography, invective, and satire, employed the lives of past and present emperors as didactic tools for their audiences. “Good” emperors, such as Trajan (ruled 97-117) and Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), served as prime examples of virtue and masculinity, while “bad” emperors like Nero (ruled 54-68) and Domitian (81-96), illustrated the Greco-Roman belief in the connection between vice and unmanliness. We find in the texts at our disposal that the deeply rooted Hellenic virtues of courage in battle, justice in politics and calm majesty in the face of defeat helped to define notions of ideal rulership.


The flowery prose of the panegyrists publicised the “excellence” of their targeted emperor by relating to their audience the leader’s adherence to these dual themes. As one Late Roman writer tells us, panegyrists sought to mould an image of the reigning emperor in a similar way to the artist who sculpted a beautiful statue. Just as in sculpture, in this medium image was everything. Since panegyrists sought to craft an idealised image of the reigning emperor, concrete facts seldom got in the way. Like the variety of solid materials available to the sculpture, a long list of established virtues acted as the moral substance out of which an author moulded his portrait. “Courage”, in many of these representations, made up one of the foremost characteristics for an emperor to display, and according to one prominent fourth-century practitioner, the one virtue that served as a true “mark of royalty”. As an imperial virtue in the fourth and early fifth centuries, this “courage” (in Latin expressed as fortitudo or virtus, and in Greek usually as ἀνδρεία) usually refers to behaviour in battle. Courage in war differed from the “courage of spirit” (animi fortitudo) displayed by Hellenic philosophers or the “soldiers of Christ” (militia Christi) who were being popularised by the Christian and non-Christian intellectuals of the age.

This promotion of physical courage typified the conventional view that an emperor’s bravery was less metaphorical, and therefore needed to be applied in wartime to prove his ability to perform his primary role as the Roman realm’s protector.

Although more constrained by the tenets of their genre to provide their readers with accurate accounts of both men’s characters and events, the more sophisticated histories of this era tended as well to concentrate on the deeds and the emperors’ moral fibre. The classicising historians assumed that “great” men made history, and that a leader’s manly or unmanly conduct often determined the Empire’s well-being. It is therefore not surprising to find that these writers, who focused on great wars and the personalities of a few major characters as the primary shapers of events, paid so much attention to the emperor’s moral and martial qualities in their accounts.

Negative stance towards “unwarlike” emperors and their closest advisors represents a common motif in Later and the Early Byzantine sources. Part of this disdain seems to reflect the upper classes’ frustration at being cut off progressively from access to the emperor’s confidence and political power.

Many Late Roman authors, who largely hailed from the aristocracy and bureaucracy, appeared uncomfortable with the Later Empire’s growing autocracy. This outlook is not startling, considering that the classical texts that made up much of the foundation of these men’s early education stressed the importance of free will for men seeking to achieve “true” manliness. These established ideals preached that “manly freedom and nobility” depended upon a man’s propensity to challenge and reject despotic rule. The Eastern Roman historians adhered to the traditional Hellenistic distrust of despotism, and tended to link servility to effeminacy.

Phocas      Phocas

Threatened by their rivals from within the Roman aristocracy, emperors in this period increased their independent authority by taking steps to protect themselves by gathering at the higher levels of public service a cadre of relatives, foreign mercenaries, and eunuchs who frequently owed their survival to the ruling regime. As a reward for their loyalty, the emperor regularly appointed many of these “new men” into the rapidly expanded fourth-century senatorial orders in Rome and Constantinople. These measures meant that many Romans from the nobility became more isolated from intimate contact with the emperor and the upper echelons of imperial service. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, eunuchs, monks, non-Roman generals, and the emperors’ female relatives took on positions of influence held traditionally by these men. Although the uppercrust of Roman society continued to be esteemed for its noble heritage, vast wealth, and refined lifestyle, members of the leisured class became progressively more cut off from taking an active role in the administration and the day-to-day decisionmaking that shaped the Empire’s policies. Those in power increasingly assigned these important political roles to those within the imperial innercircle, men who hailed from the military and the powerful Christian Church.

By accumulating such power into his hands, the emperor, along with members of his family and the Roman army under his control, tended to monopolise military glory and martial excellence, while demilitarised members of the land owning classes focused on more intellectual forms of men’s self-fashioning. However, the upper classes’ separation from the highest levels of military service and the corridors of political power was never complete. Nevertheless, the rise of a long series of emperors in the fourth and fifth centuries who owed their elevation to military or dynastic connections, and not to their rapport with the aristocracy, helped to create an inner circle of ruling elites dependent upon their own interpersonal relationships for their positions of power. The growing dominance of these alliances also contributed to the formation in this era of what some specialists call a “separate military aristocracy”, based not so much on ethnicity or class, but on ties of loyalty and good old-fashioned martial virtues. This new hierarchy welcomed successful non Romans, who had commonly risen from within the ranks of the army.

Though the sources from this era maintained a generally hostile attitude towards the foreigners in the imperial service, it is important to remember that it usually only took a “barbarian” two generations to become “Roman”.

In contrast to the Greeks, the Romans’ multiracial Empire, along with their tradition of inclusion, had contributed to a somewhat more nuanced notion of foreigners’ “otherness”. From the era of the Republic, the growth of Rome had depended upon its soldier’s ability to conquer foreign lands and make Romans out of barbarians.

Undeniably, in the aftermath of the disastrous military defeat at Adrianople in 378, that saw the Eastern Roman field army’s near annihilation and the death of the Eastern Emperor Valens, those in power realised that the security of the state depended on the institution of a more conciliatory policy towards foreign peoples than former emperors had previously had the luxury to employ.

One finds, as well, that even conservative intellectuals in the fourth and fifth centuries supported the separation of the imperial administration’s civilian and military branches.

When properly led, the Eastern and the Western Roman armies continued to maintain a distinct advantage in direct confrontations with their foreign enemies. Ancient and modern historians have observed that, with few notable exceptions, the supposed “martial spirit” and superior manliness of the foreign barbarians proved “no match for the disciplined military face of Rome”. Indeed, the Western military’s gradual decline stemmed primarily from financial reasons, rather than an inability to match non-Romans on the field of battle. The loss of North Africa to the Vandals in the 430s and 440s ultimately had disastrous consequences for the Western Empire and its army. A vital loss of tax revenues and corn from this region made it increasingly difficult for Valentinian III’s regime to pay, clothe, and feed his troops.

Vita Militaris

Laudatory accounts of military men pervade the pages of the secular texts that survive from this age. A variety of artistic mediums expressed the idea found in the sixth-century Eastern Roman historian Agathias that for Rome “to triumph forever over our enemies is our birthright and ancestral privilege”. In the early years of the fifth century, anyone spending any time in one of the many major or minor cities scattered throughout the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire, would have been surrounded by visual reminders of what one modern scholar calls Rome’s masculine imperium.

Intricately carved marble reliefs on exterior walls, columns, and other memorials spoke to this faith by providing the onlooker with a continuous pictorial narrative of Roman victories over “barbarian” enemies. Mosaics and paintings often complemented these sculpted forms.

We see in fact from other ancient testimony that commissioning these visual monuments for public consumption served as one of the first steps an emperor took after a military triumph. Behind all of this imagery, one can observe a long-held conviction held by many Greek and Roman intellectuals that history represented a process whereby the manly conquered the unmanly.

In a centralised governmental system like that found in the Early Byzantine Empire, imperial propaganda provided the emperors and their backers with a powerful tool to publicise their authority and manipulate popular opinion across its expanse. The classically educated elites, who represented an essential audience for these media campaigns, would have understood the social significance of the ideology, and in particular, the militaristic symbolism intrinsic to these art forms. Raised in educational systems based on a steady diet of classical Latin authors, such as Sallust, Seneca the younger, and Vergil in the West and Greek authors like Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the East, the literate classes in both halves of the Empire remained intimately aware of the time-honoured idealisation of the military ethic as an essential aspect of both masculine ideology and Rome’s right to imperium.

Much of the Byzantine literature that survives from the fourth to the sixth centuries articulates long-held notions of heroism and masculinity, whereby Roman military men represented true exemplars of Roman virtue and manliness.

So while the Christianisation of the Roman Empire remains arguably the most important event in Late Antiquity, it is a mistake to conclude its establishment led to the immediate decline of traditional notions of masculinity based, in part, on martial virtues and the xenophobic belief in the right for Roman masculine dominion over non-Romans. Contrary to the arguments made by some recent studies, most Roman men in the early Byzantine Empire did not have the luxury or the desire to contemplate whether Christians fighting spiritual battles or aristocratic intellectuals were more courageous or “manlier” than actual Roman soldiers fighting in the “real” world. Despite the military challenges faced by the Eastern Roman army throughout the early Byzantine period, and the disappearance of the Western army in the fifth century, many Byzantines continued to believe in the soldiers’ superior manliness and courage.

Zeno    Zeno

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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