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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

p241 Narses

Narses (c. 478‑573) an important officer of Justinian, in the 6th century. He was a eunuch, but we are nowhere distinctly informed that he was of servile origin. A native of Persarmenia (that portion of Armenia which was allotted to Persia by the partition of 384), he may have been prepared and educated by his parents for service in an oriental court. If the statement that he died at the age of ninety-five be correct, he was born about 478. He was probably brought young to Constantinople, and attained a footing in the officium of the grand chamberlain. He rose to be one of the three (spectabiles) "chartularii," a position implying some literary attainment, and involving the custody of the archives of the household. Hence, probably in middle life, he became "praepositus sacri cubiculi," an "illustris," and entitled along with the praetorian prefects and the generals to the highest rank at the imperial court. In this capacity, in 530, he received into the emperor's obedience another Narses, a fellow-countryman, with his two brothers, Aratius and Isaac. These Persarmenian generals, having formerly fought under the standard of Persia, now in consequence of the successes of Belisarius transferred their allegiance to the emperor Justinian, came to Constantinople, and received costly gifts from the great minister.

In 532 the insurrection known as the Nika broke out in Constantinople, when for some hours the throne of Justinian seemed doomed to overthrow. It was saved partly by the courage of his wife, Theodora, and partly by the timely prodigality of Narses, who stole out into the capital, and with large sums of money bribed the leaders of the "blue" faction, which was aforetime loyal to the emperor, to shout as of old "Justiniane Auguste tu vincas."

The African and Italian wars followed. In the fourth year of the latter war (538) the splendid successes of Belisarius had awakened both joy and fear in the heart of his master. Reinforcements were sent into Italy, and Narses was placed at their head. Belisarius understood that Narses came to serve under him like any other officer of distinguished but subordinate rank, and he received a letter from Justinian which seemed to support this conclusion. But the friends of Narses continually plied him with suggestions that he, a great officer of the household, in the secrets of the emperor, had been sent to Italy, not to serve as a subaltern, but to hold independent command and win military glory for himself. The truth probably lay between the two. Justinian could not deprive his great general of the supreme command, yet he wished to have a very powerful emissary of the court constantly at his side. He would have him watched but not hampered.

The two generals met (A.D. 538) at Fermo on the Adriatic coast. The first interference of Narses with the plans of Belisarius was beneficial. John, one of the officers highest in rank under Belisarius, had pressed on to Rimini, contrary to the instructions of his chief, leaving in his rear the difficult fortress of Osimo (Auximum) untaken. His daring march had alarmed the Goths for Ravenna, and induced them to raise the siege of Rome; but he himself was now shut up in Rimini, and on the point of being forced by famine to surrender. Belisarius and his followers were prepared to let him pay the penalty of his rashness and disobedience. But his friend Narses so insisted on the blow to the reputation of the imperial arms which would be produced by the surrender of Rimini that he carried the council of war with him, and Belisarius had to plan a brilliant march across the mountains, in conjunction with a movement by the fleet, whereby Rimini was relieved while Osimo was still untaken. When Belisarius and John met, the latter ostentatiously thanked Narses alone for his preservation.

His next use of his authority was less fortunate. Milan, which was holding out for the Romans, was also hard pressed by famine. The two generals who were sent to relieve it loitered disgracefully over their march, and, when Belisarius wished to despatch further reinforcements, the commanders of these new troops refused to stir till Narses gave them orders. Belisarius wrote to the eunuch pointing out the necessity of unity of purpose in the imperial army. At length, grudgingly, Narses gave his consent, and issued the required orders; but it was too late. Milan had been compelled by extremity of famine to surrender, and with it the whole province of Liguria fell into the hands of the enemy. This event forced Justinian to recognize the dangers of even a partially divided command, and he recalled Narses to Constantinople.

Twelve years elapsed before Narses returned to Italy. Meanwhile there had been great vicissitudes of fortune both for the Romans and the Goths. Italy, which appeared to have been won by the sword of Belisarius, had been lost again by the exactions and misgovernment of Alexander. Totila had raised up a new army, had more than kept Belisarius at bay in five difficult campaigns (544‑548) and now held nearly all the country. Belisarius, however, in this his second series of campaigns, had never been properly seconded by his master. In the spring of 552 Narses set sail from Salona on the Dalmatian coast with a large and well-appointed army. It was a Roman army only in name. Lombards, Heruli, Huns, Gepidae and even Persians followed the standard of Narses, men equal in physical strength and valour to the Goths, and inspired by the liberal pay which they received, and by the hope of plunder.

The eunuch seems to have led his army round the head of the Adriatic Gulf. By skilfully co-operating with his fleet, he was able to cross the rivers of Venetia without fighting the Gothic general Teias, who intended to dispute their passage. Having mustered all his forces at Ravenna, he marched southward. He refused to be detained before Rimini, being determined to meet the Gothic king as soon as possible with his army undiminished. The occupation of the pass of Furlo (Petra Pertusa) by the Goths prevented his marching by the Via Flaminia, but, taking a short circuit, he rejoined the great road near Cagli. A little farther on, upon the crest of the Appenines, he was met by Totila, who had advanced as far as Tadini, called by Procopius Tagina. Parleys, messages and harangues by each general followed. At length the line of battle was formed, and the Gothic army, probably greatly inferior in number to the Byzantine, was hopelessly routed (July 552), the king receiving a mortal wound as he was hurrying from the battlefield.

With Totila fell the last hopes of the Gothic kingdom of Italy. Teias, who was proclaimed his successor, protracted for a few months a desperate resistance in the rocky peninsula of Castellamare, overlooking the bay of Naples. At length want of provisions forced him into the plain, and there by the river Sarno, almost in sight of Pompeii, was fought (553) a battle which is generally named from the overlooking range of Mons Lactarius (Monte Lettere). The actual site of the battle, however, is about half a mile from the little town of Angri, and its memory is still vaguely preserved by the name Pozzo dei Goti (well of the Goths). In this battle Teias was killed. He was the last king of the Ostrogoths.

The task of Narses, however, was not yet ended. By the invitation of the Goths an army of 75,000 warlike Alamanni and Franks, the subjects of King Theudibald, crossed the Alps under the command of two Alamannic nobles, the brothers Lothair and Buccelin (553). The great strategic talents of Narses were shown even more conspicuously in this, than in his previous and more brilliant campaigns. Against the small but gallant bands of Totila and Teias he had adopted the policy of rapid marches and imperative challenges to battle. His strategy in dealing with the great host from Gaul was of the Fabian kind. He kept them as long as he could north of the Apennines, while he completed the reduction of the fortresses of Tuscany. At the approach of winter he gathered his troops into the chief cities and declined operations in the field, while the Alamannic brothers marched through Italy, killing and p242plundering. When the spring of 554 appeared, Lothaire with his part of the army insisted on marching back to Gaul, there to deposit in safety the plunder which they had reaped. In an unimportant engagement near Pesaro he was worsted by the Roman generals, and this hastened his northward march. At Ceneda in Venetia he died of a raging fever. Pestilence broke out in his army, which was so wasted as to be incapable of further operations in Italy. Meanwhile his brother Buccelin, whose army was also suffering grievously from disease, partly induced by free indulgence in the grapes of Campania, encamped at Casilinum, the site of modern Capua. Here, after a time, Narses accepted the offered battle (554). The barbarians, whose army was in the form of a wedge, pierced the Roman centre. But by a most skilful manoeuvre Narses contrived to draw his lines into a curve, so that his mounted archers on each flank could aim their arrows at the backs of the troops who formed the other side of the Alamannic wedge. They thus fell in whole ranks by the hands of unseen antagonists. Soon the Roman centre, which had been belated in its march, arrived upon the field and completed the work of destruction. Buccelin and his whole army were destroyed, though we need not accept the statement of the Greek historian (Agathias ii.9) that only five men out of the barbaric host of 30,000 escaped, and only eighty out of the Roman 18,000 perished.

The only other important military operation of Narses which is recorded — and that indistinctly — is his defeat of the Herulian king Sindbal, who had served under him at Capua, but who subsequently revolted, was defeated, taken captive and hanged by the eunuch's order (565). In the main the thirteen years after the battle of Capua (554‑567) were years of peace, and during them Narses ruled Italy from Ravenna with the title of prefect.1 He rebuilt Milan and other cities destroyed in the Gothic War; and two inscriptions on the Salarian bridge at Rome have preserved to modern times the record of repairs effected by him in the year 564.

His administration, however, was not popular. The effect of the imperial organization was to wring the last solidus out of the emaciated and fever-stricken population of Italy, and the belief of his subjects was that no small portion of their contributions remained in the eunuch's private coffers. At the close of 565 Justinian died, and a deputation of Romans waited upon his successor Justin II, representing that they found "the Greeks" harder taskmasters than the Goths, that Narses the eunuch was determined to reduce them all to slavery, and that unless he were removed they would transfer their allegiance to the barbarians. This deputation led to the recall of Narses in 567, accompanied, according to a somewhat late tradition, by an insulting message from the empress Sophia, who sent him a golden distaff, and bade him, as he was not a man, go and spin wool in the apartments of the women. "I will spin her such a hank," Narses is represented as saying, "that she shall not find the end of it in her lifetime"; and forthwith he sent messengers to the Lombards in Pannonia, bearing some of the fruits of Italy, and inviting them to enter the land which bore such goodly produce. Hence came the invasion of Alboin (568), which wrested the greater part of Italy from the empire, and changed the destinies of the peninsula.2

Narses, who had retired to Naples, was persuaded by the pope (John III) to return to Rome. He died there about 573, and his body, enclosed in a leaden coffin, was carried to Constantinople and buried there. Several years after his death the secret of the hiding-place of his vast stores of wealth is said to have been revealed by an old man to the emperor Tiberius II, for whose charities to the poor and the captives they furnished an opportune supply.

Narses was short in stature and lean in figure. His freehandedness and affability made him very popular with his soldiers. Evagrius tells us that he was very religious, and paid especial reverence to the Virgin, never engaging in battle till he conceived that she had given him the signal. Our best authorities for his life are the contemporaries Procopius and Agathias. See Gibbon, Decline and Fall, vols. IV and V, edited by J. B. Bury (1898).


The Author's Notes:

1 Gibbon's statement that Narses was "the first and most powerful of the exarchs" is more correct in substance than in form. The title of exarch does not appear to be given to Narses by any contemporary writer. He is always "Praefectus Italiae," "Patricius " or "Dux Italiae," except when he bears the style of his former offices in the imperial household, "Ex-Praepositus [Cubiculi]" or "Chartularius."

2 This celebrated story seems to be unknown to strictly contemporary authors. We find no hint of it in Agathias (who wrote between 566 and 582), in Marius (532‑596), or in Gregory of Tours (540‑594). The possibly contemporary Liber Pontificalis and Isidore of Seville (560‑636) hint at the invitation to the Lombards. Fredegarius (so‑called), who probably wrote in the middle of the 7th century, and Paul the Deacon, towards the close of the 8th, supply the saga-like details, which become more minute the farther the narrators are from the action. On the whole, the transaction, though it is too well vouched for to allow us to dismiss it as entirely fabulous, cannot take its place among the undoubted facts of history.


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