Thursday, February 22, 2018

Narses, 6th-century eunuch general

Born about 480 CE in the eastern part of Armenia that Rome had given to Persia, Narses lived to the age of about 90, his major accomplishments all coming after the age of 70 as General-in-Chief of the Roman army. Corippus (In Laudem Iustini Augusti Minoris [In Praise of Justin II], Book III, Lines 218-230, translated by Averil Cameron) described Narses in Justin’s procession:

"In the meantime came Narses, the emperor’s sword-bearer, Narses, following on in the steps of his master, towering a head over all the lines, and made the imperial hall shine with his beauty, his hair well arranged, handsome in form and face. He was in gold all over, yet modest in dress and appearance, and pleasing for his upright ways, venerable for his virtue, brilliant, careful, watchful night and day for the rulers of the world, shining with glorious light: as the morning star, glittering in the clear sky, outdoes the silvery constellations with its golden rays and announces the coming of day with its clear flame."

David Potter explained:

"'Respectable' women were those who lived in overtly sex-free environments. The first thing Thecla had done upon becoming a Christian was to break off the marriage her mother had arranged for her. And the exceptionally powerful Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II mentioned earlier, had publicly declared her virginity: furthermore, many of her most powerful servants were eunuchs, lacking the basic male equipment – similarly, many of the men on whom Theodora would depend in later life had been castrated when they were boys. People were willing to castrate their young sons in the hope that the operation would enable them to obtain positions in the imperial service, thereby becoming far more powerful than they otherwise might. Indeed, this often happened, for, as far as we know, most of the powerful palace eunuchs came from humble backgrounds, and almost all from rural areas on the empire's frontiers, since castration was technically illegal in the empire proper. We have to assume that the parents of these boys were able to deal with the notion that, in effect, being prepared to sell their child's body was the key to his future. In the ideological world of sixth century Byzantium, respectability required chastity, and power required respectability." (Potter, pp. 40-41)

The 60-year-old Anastasius became emperor in 491 when he was named by the Empress Ariadne after her husband Emperor Zeno's death, the palace's chief chamberlain having suggested that she should choose the new emperor. Ariadne married Anastasius.

On July 9, 518, the silentiaries "informed the magister officiorum, in charge of the palace secretariat, and the count of the excubitores (a branch of the palace guard) that the emperor was dead, and they should hold a meeting in the palace forthwith." Justin, commander of the excubitores, announced the emperor's death at the meeting. Meanwhile, "the excubitores in the Hippodrome proclaimed a man called John, only to be shouted down by the Blues. Inside the palace, another guard unit, the scholarii, tried to proclaim Anastasius' nephew, Patricius. But the excubitores, who disliked Patricius, were threatening to kill him." Also, "the palace eunuchs, who controlled the imperial regalia, were refusing to release it." They released it to Justin when the crowd declared him emperor. Soon,

"a group of palace eunuchs was charged with trying to assassinate Justin. This story appears to have been invented after a pro-Chalcedonian demonstration at Hagia Sophia named them as heretics who should be eliminated. Another story, which emerged later, was that the chief eunuch, Amantius, wanted to have his bodyguard, Theocritus, made emperor, and that he had given Justin money to have the crowd acclaim his man. In another version, Justin is said to have stolen the money to bribe his own way to the throne; and,in yet another, to have handed the money over and then had himself proclaimed. All of this looks like more nasty gossip concocted well after the event in order to both explain why Amantius, who would have been in control of the imperial regalia on the morning after Anastasius died, was executed, and to denigrate Justin, whom some of the aristocracy regarded as an accidental emperor..." (Potter, pp. 70-71)

The eunuch Misael was "exiled for complicity in Amantius' alleged plot against Justin in 518," but later became a personal servant to Theodora and "one of his jobs seems to have been to keep track of books that were sent to her." Severus wrote a letter to Misael discussing Theodora's reading habits. (Potter, p. 124)

At the Nika rebellion in 532, Justinian "sent the eunuch Narses to bribe some members of the Blue faction to begin acclaiming him and Theodora" in the Hippodrome. The Blues did so, but nevertheless Justinian's army slaughtered 30,000 people in the Hippodrome. (Potter, p. 154)

In 535, Theodora ordered Narses to bring forces from Constantinople to restore Theodosius to his position in Alexandria. (Potter, p. 174)

Under Justinian, who ruled until 565, Narses fought for the sovereignty of Orthodox Catholicism over the eunuch god Osiris and the goddess Isis, and he destroyed their Alexandrian sanctuaries. Narses believed that pleasure bred effeminacy and demanded traditional Roman ascetic discipline from his troops. He became a grand chamberlain in 540. He built a church and monastery in Cappadocia where he meant to retire, but was then appointed to overthrow King Totila and the Ostragothic Kingdom in Italy, which he did in the battle of Taginae in 552. He went on to siege the Goths at Hadrian’s Mausoleum, at Mons Lactarius, and at Lucca, where he faked the beheading of hostages and “resurrected” them as a condition of the Goths’ surrender. In 554, he became administrator of the Italy he conquered, and quarried classical buildings to build and restore churches.

Justinian’s successor, Justin II, chose not to support Narses, and the old general retreated to Naples. The Empress Sophia sent him a golden distaff with an invitation to return to the palace to oversee the women’s spinning, to which Narses replied that he would spin a thread of which neither she nor her husband would be able to find the end. Pope John III personally traveled to bring Narses back to Rome, where he returned to live on the Palatine Hill, the original site of the gallae’s shrine to Attis and Cybele. (The gallae had been banished from Rome when Narses was a young man.) Towards the end of his life, he built the eunuch monastery of the Katharoi.

David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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