Narses (also sometimes written Nerses) (Armenian: Նարսես; Greek: Ναρσής; 478–573) was, with Belisarius, one of the great generals in the service of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I during the Roman reconquest that took place during Justinian's reign. A Romanized Armenian, Narses spent most of his life as an important eunuch in the palace of the emperors in Constantinople.
Narses was of Armenian descent. His first mention in a primary source is by Procopius in AD 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 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 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 530 AD, 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 .
The Nika Riots
Narses had a limited involvement in the Nika riots in 532, in that he was instructed by Justinian or Theodora 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 Hypatius, the man they were about to declare emperor, was a Green, unlike Justinian, who supported the Blues. Either the money or his words were convincing, so that soon the Blues began to acclaim Justinian 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 538 probably in Ancona and consisted of roughly 7,000 soldiers. (Every army that Narses 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 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 and the city of Milan was to fall victim to the divided command. Narses was recalled to Constantinople, but not in disgrace, as he was allowed to 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, 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. In 545, Justinian sent Narses to the rulers of the Heruli, to recruit troops since he was popular among that barbarian nation.
Narses was also very active in Justinian's persecution campaigns against Paganism. Around 535, the emperor sent him to Philae in Egypt, where a temple of Isis was still active, to eradicate the cult. Narses imprisoned the priests and looted the temple. Shortly after, the local bishop Theodore converted the temple into a church.
Return to Italy
Finally in 551, Narses was 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 was appointed the new commander of the army, given supreme command and returned to Italy where twelve years previously he had been recalled. Many historians believe that Narses was put in command because of his old age, so that 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 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 subsequent 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 Byzantine 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.
There were a number of reasons that Narses' march was very slow. Totila had dispatched various troops to employ delaying tactics and the Franks were enemies of Narses' allies the Lombards, 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 this advice, Narses was able to reach Ravenna unopposed. Totila may have believed that Narses was going to come from the sea, whence all 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.
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, as his army would have been larger than that of Totila. The following battle would be Narses' ultimate victory, and would set the estimation of his military talents as 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 arrayed his troops in a “crescent shaped” formation with mostly infantry in the middle, flanked by archers. The infantry were 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, Narses possibly suspecting them of having sympathy or admiration for Totila.
On the sides of the “crescent”, foot-archers were emplaced, and this enabled them to destroy the Gothic cavalry through enfilading fire. (This disposition of the archers and their effect upon the battle is strikingly parallel to the later Battle of Agincourt.) 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 win the battle.
Totila sent wave after wave of troops, who became so disorganized by the raining arrow storm that 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 advance, fearing that Narses' horsemen would outflank them from the hill. Finally, Totila’s cavalry was pressed backwards onto their own line of infantry, Narses then charged with his own cavalry, which 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 of the Ostrogothic king. The first has Totila initially surviving the battle and fleeing the field of battle with only five of his followers. Asbad, leader of the Gepids, overtook him and drove his spear into Totila. The 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, 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 Teias, (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, 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)), 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 describes the Franks as, “Very rude and without cavalry. Their swords were worn on the left leg, and their main weapons were the throwing ax 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 number 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 Franks 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 sanctions". Many historians refer to Narses in this part of his career as an Exarch. 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. 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. Narses then retired to Naples, and while there, supposedly sent word to the Lombards inviting them to invade northern Italy. Historian Dunlap questions whether there was hostility between the empress and Narses. Paul the Deacon wrote that his body was returned to Constantinople; and John of Ephesus wrote that Narses was buried in the presence of the Emperor and Empress in a monastery founded by him.
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