was, with Belisarius
Flavius Belisarius was a general of the Byzantine Empire. He was instrumental to Emperor Justinian's ambitious project of reconquering much of the Mediterranean territory of the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost less than a century previously....
, one of the great general
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....
s in the service of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I
Justinian I ; , ; 483– 13 or 14 November 565), commonly known as Justinian the Great, was Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565. During his reign, Justinian sought to revive the Empire's greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the classical Roman Empire.One of the most important figures of...
during the "Reconquest" that took place during Justinian's reign.
Narses was a Romanized Armenian
Armenian people or Armenians are a nation and ethnic group native to the Armenian Highland.The largest concentration is in Armenia having a nearly-homogeneous population with 97.9% or 3,145,354 being ethnic Armenian....
from the noble Kamsarakan
Kamsarakan was an Armenian noble family that was an offshoot of the Karen-Pahlav Clan, one of the seven great houses of Parthia of Persian Arsacid origin.Most of their lands were acquired by the Bagratuni during the last quarter of the eight century....
family, which claimed descent from the royal Arsacid
The Arsacid dynasty or Arshakuni dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Armenia from 54 AD to 428 AD. Formerly a branch of the Iranian Parthian Arsacids, they became a distinctly Armenian dynasty. Arsacid Kings reigned intermittently throughout the chaotic years following the fall of the Artaxiad Dynasty...
dynasty. He spent most of his life as an important eunuch
A eunuch is a person born male most commonly castrated, typically early enough in his life for this change to have major hormonal consequences...
in the palace of the emperors in Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...
Narses was of Persarmenian descent. His first mention in a a primary source is by Procopius
Procopius of Caesarea was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History...
in CE 530. The year of Narses' birth is unknown; historians have given dates including 478, 479 and 480. The year of his death is also unknown, with dates given between 566 and 574, making him eighty-six to ninety-six years old at his death. His family and lineage is also completely unknown, with many different stories told about his origins and how he became a eunuch.
Agathias or Agathias Scholasticus , of Myrina , an Aeolian city in western Asia Minor , was a Greek poet and the principal historian of part of the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian I between 552 and 558....
Scholasticus of Myrina described him thus: “He was a man of sound mind, and clever at adapting himself to the times. He was not versed in literature nor practiced in oratory, [but] made for it by the fertility of his wits,” and as “small and of a lean habit, but stronger and more high-spirited than would have been believed.”
Narses was reported to be a very pious man with a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. Evagrius Scholasticus
Evagrius Scholasticus was a Syrian scholar and intellectual living in the 6th century AD, and an aide to the patriarch Gregory of Antioch. His surviving work, Ecclesiastical History, comprises a six-volume collection concerning the Church's history from the First Council of Ephesus to Maurice’s...
in Ecclesiatica Historia reported that she would tell him the proper time to attack, and Narses would never engage in battle without her consent. Narses also was reported to be very generous to the poor and very zealous when it came to restoring churches. He was so devoted to prayers and vigils that “he obtained victory more by the supplications he poured forth to God, than by arms of war. Before accepting supreme command of the army, Narses built a church and monastery in Cappadocia, intent upon going there upon his retirement.
How or when Narses arrived in Constantinople, or how he found a footing in the officium of the Grand Chamberlain, remains unknown. The first time he was mentioned by Procopius in CE 530, Narses was the Emperor Justinian’s steward. He was a high treasurer, who dealt with the emperor’s finances and payments from the imperial treasury. Narses rose through the ranks and even became the commander of the eunuch bodyguard for Emperor and eventually became the Grand Chamberlain and the Master of Soldiery, a rank equivalent to a Praetorian Prefect .
Narses had a limited involvement in the Nika Rebellion
The Nika riots , or Nika revolt, took place over the course of a week in Constantinople in AD 532. It was the most violent riot that Constantinople had ever seen to that point, with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.-Background:The ancient Roman...
in CE 532, but was instructed by Justinian or Theodora
Theodora is a name of Greek origin, meaning "God's gift". It is the feminine form of the Greek name, Θεόδωρος meaning "God's gift" , neuter gender...
to take enough funds from the treasury, that would have been necessary to bribe leaders of the Blue Faction. Narses appealed to their party loyalty. He reminded them that the man they were about declare emperor was a Green himself. Either the money or his words were convincing, so that soon the Blues began to shout, “Justiniane Auguste, tu vincas” and turned against Hypatius and the Greens. Narses himself may or may not have been with the men that dragged Hypatius from the throne on the Imperial Stand.
Narses involvement and help in suppressing the Nika Riots suddenly found him in charge of a fairly large army that would go to Italy to help Belisarius. The army arrived in June of CE 538 probably in Ancona and consisted of roughly 7,000 soldiers. Every army that Narses had commanded was made up of very diverse peoples, drawing from many of the surrounding tribes. Procopius referred to Narses as the eunuch and keeper of the royal treasuries, and described him as “keen and more energetic than would be expected of a eunuch.” Narses met with Belisarius at Firmum where a council of war was held. The council discussed what should happen at Rimini and with the commander of troops, John. Narses commented that he had already been punished for his “insolence” and that if the Goths took Rimini then it could turn the tide of the war. Belisarius and Narses led a column of troops through inland mountainous routes to descend upon Rimini from the northwest.
John owed his thanks to Narses for convincing Belisarius, and according to Procopius, commented on the relationship between the two men. “And from that time both these men [Belisarius and Narses] began to regard each other with great suspicion.” During the autumn and winter months of CE 538-39, the Army in Italy was divided into two parties, between Belisarius and Narses. Justinian himself dispatched a letter to Belisarius, stating that “We have not sent our steward Narses to Italy in order to command the army; for we wish Belisarius alone to command the whole army in whatever manner seems to him best, and it is the duty of all of you to follow him in the interest of the state.” The division however, remained, as the city of Milan was to fall victim of the divided command. Narses was recalled to Constantinople, but not in disgrace, as he was allowed to even retain some of his barbarian guardsmen.
After being recalled, Narses seemed to have lost “none of his favour at court, [and] remained the most trusted servant and minister of the Emperor and his consort.” For the next twelve years from, 539-51, there is little historical reference to Narses and he seemed to work more behind the scenes. In 541, Narses was believed to have helped the Empress Theodora and Antonina (wife of Belisarius) with the overthrow of John the Cappadocian
A different John the Cappadocian was Patriarch from 518-520. See John of Cappadocia.John the Cappadocian,also known as Iohannis Orientalis, was a praetorian prefect of the East in the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Justinian I...
. In 545, Justinian sent Narses to the rulers of the Heruli
The Heruli were an East Germanic tribe who are famous for their naval exploits. Migrating from Northern Europe to the Black Sea in the third century They were part of the...
, to recruit troops since he was popular among that barbarian nation.
Return to Italy
Finally in 551, Narses would be sent back to Italy where he would achieve his greatest victories. Germanus (cousin of Justinian I) was appointed by Justinian to finish what Belisarius had started in the mid sixth century. However, on his way to Italy in 550, Germanus fell ill and “abruptly reached the term of life.” Narses would be appointed the new commander of the army, given supreme command and return to Italy where 12 years previously, he had been recalled. Many historians believe that Narses was put in command because of his old age, and he would never be able to rebel successfully against Justinian.
Narses greatest asset in his newfound position was to have access to the Emperor’s financial resources. With the treasury, Narses was able to amass anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 troops. Narses also seemed to be well liked by many of the soldiers of fortune, as he had treated them “especially well.” Procopius reported that Narses had built an army that in the requirement of men and arms was “worthy of the Roman Empire.” The army reflected many of Narses previous commands, in that most of the troops were barbarians.
Narses was to take more than a year to reach Italy after his appointment, as his entire army made a long march along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Totila
Totila, original name Baduila was King of the Ostrogoths from 541 to 552 AD. A skilled military and political leader, Totila reversed the tide of Gothic War, recovering by 543 almost all the territories in Italy that the Eastern Roman Empire had captured from his Kingdom in 540.A relative of...
the Ostrogothic king controlled the sea of eastern Italy and hampered supply ships that set sail for Narses’ army. John from Salona led 38 ships and Valerian sailed with 12 to meet Totila’s force and bring relief to Ancona. Procopius described the Battle of Sena Gallica
, as a naval battle that resembled a battle on land. “There were arrows discharged and fighting at close quarters with sword and spear, just as on a battle field.” The victory at Sena Gallica was overwhelming, as 36 of the 47 Gothic ships were destroyed, and Gibal a Gothic admiral was captured. Historian Archibald R. Lewis pointed out that victory could only come to Narses after Totila’s sea dominance was brought to an end.
The reason that the march that Narses was to take was very slow, was for a number of reasons. Totila dispatched various troops to deploy delaying tactics and the Franks were enemies of Narses allies the Lombards
The Lombards , also referred to as Longobards, were a Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin, who from 568 to 774 ruled a Kingdom in Italy...
, and did not allow free passage. Procopius stated that Narses was “completely bewildered,” but John was familiar with that part of Italy and advised him how to continue. Using the advise from John, Narses was able to reach Ravenna unopposed. Totila may have believed that Narses was going to come from the sea, as all of the previous invasions had come.
Battle of Taginae
On his way to seek Totila’s main army, Narses encountered a small Gothic garrison at the town of Rimini. John, who had previously been in command at Rimini when it was besieged by Gothic forces, again gave advice to Narses on how to proceed. The exact route taken was not precisely indicated by Procopius and has led to confusion on the reconstruction of the coming battles. Procopius referred to the next battle as “Busta Gallorum,” but many historians now refer to it as the Battle of Taginae
At the Battle of Taginae in June/July 552, the forces of the Byzantine Empire under Narses broke the power of the Ostrogoths in Italy, and paved the way for the temporary Byzantine reconquest of the Italian Peninsula.From as early as 549 the Emperor Justinian I had planned to dispatch a major army...
Narses sent word to Totila and gave him a chance to either surrender, or give the day in which the battle would take place. Procopius quoted Totila’s response, “At the end of eight days let us match our strength.” Narses was not fooled by this and preferred the tactical defensive upon meeting Totila. Narses would have been able to rely on defensive tactics, as his army would have been larger than that of Totila. The following battle would be Narses ultimate victory, and would place his military talents not inferior to those of Belisarius.
Narses great success at the Battle of Taginae, was to come from the disposition of his forces before the battle began. Narses formed his troops in a “crescent shaped” formation with mostly infantry in the middle, flanked by archers. The infantry was in fact dismounted barbarian cavalry, since many of the Goths thought that typical infantry was frail and would flee in the face of a charge. Some historians feel there may have been a political motivation by placing the Heruli and Lombards in the centre dismounted, possibly suspecting them of having sympathy or admiration for Totila.
On the sides to make a “crescent” shape, foot-archers were emplaced, and this enabled them to destroy the Gothic cavalry through enfilading fire. Next, Narses placed much of his cavalry on the immediate sides of the dismounted infantry. Normally the cavalry would have been behind the centre, but they were not meant to aid any of the struggling line. Instead they were used to deliver a surprise attack on the Goths when they became fully enveloped. Narses knew that Totila would take the advantage of attacking the “weak” centre, and therefore allowed Narses to completely destroy the Ostrogothic army. Procopius said that Totila had been “out-generalled by his own folly,” because Totila had instructed his troops to only engage with spears, as he thought a quick strike would have won the battle.
Totila sent wave after wave of troops that became so disorganized by the raining arrow storm, by the time they met the dismounted infantrymen they were completely broken. The Gothic infantry never even engaged in actual combat as they hesitated to advance far enough to actually become effective. They were kept in the rear of the advancement, fearing that Narses horsemen would outflank them on the flanking hill. Finally, Totila’s cavalry was pressed backwards onto their own line of infantry, Narses then charged with his own cavalry that had been held in reserve. The retreat quickly turned into a rout, as the Gothic cavalry rushed right over the infantry, who joined them in the withdrawal.
Totila himself was killed at this battle and Procopius gave two versions as to the fate in which the Ostrogothic king would fall. The first version has Totila surviving the battle and fleeing the field of battle with only five of his followers. Asbad, the leader of the Gepids, who drove his spear into Totila’s body, overtook him. His body was immediately taken to the village of Caprae where it was hurriedly buried. In the second version, Totila was mortally wounded in the first wave, being struck by a bowman who did not even recognize his target. The first is more widely accepted by historians, as later a Gothic woman revealed where Totila was buried and the body was exhumed and positively identified.
Narses marched to Rome after the Battle of Taginae and had to conduct a short siege of the city. Narses attacked on one side with a large contingent of archers, while John assaulted another part of the walls. From Rome, Narses would work to remove all of the remaining Ostrogothic forces from Italy. The next major move that Narses undertook was to capture the treasury of Totila that was held in Cumae. Both Procopius and Agathias wrote of the strength of the fortress at Cumae. Procopius called it, “an exceedingly strong fortress,” and Agathias declared it “very well fortified.”
As parts of the army were sent throughout the country to deal with Teia
Teia , also known as Teja, Theia, Thila, Thela, Teias, was the last Ostrogothic king in Italy.Apparently a military officer serving under Totila, Teia was chosen as successor and raised over a shield after Totila was slain in the Battle of Taginae in July 552...
s, (the son of Totila, and new Gothic king) a considerable detachment was sent to Campania to take Cumae. Teias followed the example set by Narses on his march into Italy and marched around the Imperial Army. After engaging Narses in small skirmishes for nearly two months, Teias retreated into the mountains. They maneuvered onto Mons Lactarius, where they soon faced death from starvation.
Battle of Mons Lactarius
The Goths suddenly came down the mountain in a compact phalanx, catching the army off guard who were also on foot. The reasons why the Goths attacked horseless is unknown, but the suddenness of the attack seemed to be the reason that Narses fought horseless as well. The ensuing battle was fought for two days and Procopius described the bravery of King Teias. He first introduced the battle as “a battle of great note,” and the heroism displayed by King Teias was not “inferior to any of the heroes of legend.” It may be noted that Procopius did not witness any of the battle, and only retold it from the account of others who were taken by the following actions.
Teias led the charge towards Narses and was described that every time his shield was filled with arrows, he received another from his man-at-arms. Finally when a spear struck his shield, he received another but was struck with a mortal blow. The soldier cut off his head to display to the Goths their king had died, but instead of disheartening the Goths, it reinvigorated them to fight for another day. The second day was much like the first, as the Goths charged and fought on foot, involving little to no tactics. Finally, the Goths sent some of their officers to Narses who said they would surrender if they were allowed to leave the country safely. Narses, who received more advice from John, accepted those terms of surrender. This was the end of the Ostrogothic kingdom, and what happened to the remnants remains a mystery.
After the final defeat of the Goths, the Franks
The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes first attested in the third century AD as living north and east of the Lower Rhine River. From the third to fifth centuries some Franks raided Roman territory while other Franks joined the Roman troops in Gaul. Only the Salian Franks formed a...
, led by the brothers Leutharis and Buccillinus, attempted to invade the recently reconquered lands. From the Liber Pontificalis
: "They (The Franks) in like manner wasted Italy. But with the help of the Lord they too were destroyed by Narses. And all Italy rejoiced." For the next year or two, Narses crossed the countryside, reinstituting Byzantine rule and laying siege to towns that resisted. But as more and more Franks poured over the Alps, Narses regrouped in Rome, and once spring came, marched his army against them. The Franks, led by the two brothers, were pursuing separate routes, but plundering the whole time.
At the Battle of Casilinum (Battle of the Volturnus (554)
The Battle of the Volturnus, also known as the Battle of Casilinum or Battle of Capua, was fought in 554 between an army of the Eastern Roman Empire and a combined force of Franks and Alemanni...
), Narses put true heavy infantry in the centre, instead of dismounted cavalry. These were hand picked troops, “Ante-signani”, who wore long clad coats of mail that went down to their feet. Highly trained cavalry were on the flanks, armed with everything that the army carried. On the opposing side, Agathias
Agathias or Agathias Scholasticus , of Myrina , an Aeolian city in western Asia Minor , was a Greek poet and the principal historian of part of the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian I between 552 and 558....
describes the Franks as, “Very rude and without cavalry. Their swords were worn on the left leg, and their main weapons were the throwing axe and hooked javelins." The Franks attacked Narses' centre, which was initially pushed back but was reinforced by the Herulis, who slowed the attackers.
At this point Narses had the cavalry wheel in from the flanks, but without directly engaging the Franks. Instead, he had them unleash an enormous amount of arrows into the half-naked barbarians. Finally the Franks became disorganized and their tightly held formations broke down. Narses sounded a general charge that blasted their ranks, and mowed them down. The Frank were massacred and Agathias claimed that only five of them escaped from Narses that day. All three of Narses major victories can be credited to his skillful use of combined tactics involving cavalry and archers to create and exploit disorder in his enemies.
For the next twelve years, it is thought that Narses stayed in and “set about to reorganize Italy.” Justinian sent Narses a series of new decrees known as "pragmatic sanction". Many historians refer to Narses in this part of his career as an Exarch
In the Byzantine Empire, an exarch was governor with extended authority of a province at some remove from the capital Constantinople. The prevailing situation frequently involved him in military operations....
. Narses completed some restoration projects in Italy but was unable to return Rome to its former splendor; though he did repair many of the bridges into the city, and rebuilt the city walls.
The last years of Narses life are enveloped in mystery. Dealing with subsequent events, some historians believe Narses died in 567. Others assert that he died in 574. If the latter is true, and he was born in 478, then he would have been 95 at the time of death. The legend has it that Narses was recalled to Constantinople for turning the Romans under his rule into virtual slaves, thereby upsetting the new Emperor Justin II
Justin II was Byzantine Emperor from 565 to 578. He was the husband of Sophia, nephew of Justinian I and the late Empress Theodora, and was therefore a member of the Justinian Dynasty. His reign is marked by war with Persia and the loss of the greater part of Italy...
. Narses then retired to Naples, and while there, supposedly sent word to the Lombards inviting them to enter northern Italy. Historian Dunlap questions whether there was hostility between the empress and Narses. Paul the Deacon
Paul the Deacon , also known as Paulus Diaconus, Warnefred, Barnefridus and Cassinensis, , was a Benedictine monk and historian of the Lombards.-Life:...
wrote that his body was returned to Constantinople; and John of Ephesus
John of Ephesus was a leader of the non-Chalcedonian Syriac-speaking Church in the sixth century, and one of the earliest and most important of historians who wrote in Syriac.-Life:...
wrote that Narses was buried in the presence of the Emperor and Empress in a monastery founded by him .
- L. H. Fauber, Narses, Hammer of the Goths: The Life and Times of Narses the Eunuch, St Martins Pr (January 1991) ISBN 0-312-04126-8
- Philip Rance, 'Narses and the Battle of Taginae (Busta Gallorum) 552: Procopius and sixth century warfare', Historia 54 (2005), 424–472.