), the rival of Belisarius.
This celebrated general and statesman was perhaps born as early as A. D. 472.
He was of foreign descent and of quite obscure parentage; indeed, it seems that his parents sold him, or that he was made a prisoner of war when a mere boy, and his fate was that of so many other boys captured in war: he was castrated. Of his earlier life nothing is known.
He came, however, to Constantinople and was employed in the imperial household.
He was of material service to the emperor Justinian during the Νίκα
riots (532), in which the name of Belisarius likewise became conspicuous. Narses was then cubicularius or chamberlain, as Theophanes states, and it was perhaps the judicial use he made of the funds entrusted to him, by bribing over the emperor's opponents, which caused him to be appointed treasurer to his master.
In later years he was employed in several embassies, and discharged his duties to the complete satisfaction of his master, whose confidence he enjoyed in the highest degree. In 538 he was sent to Italy with reinforcements for Belisarius, who was then in the field against the Goths; but it is more than probable that he had secret instructions to thwart that great commander, and prevent him from obtaining advantages which might have rendered him dangerous to the suspicious Justinian.
The contingent commanded by Narses consisted of 5000 veterans and 2000 Herules, savage but gallant warriors, and one of his lieutenants was another Narses, the brother of Aratius, an excellent general, whom Baronius would not have confounded with the great Narses had he been aware that the second Narses fell in the battle of Anglone in 543. Narses and Belisarius effected their junction at Firmium, and soon afterwards they relieved Rimini, an exploit the honour of which was attributed to Narses, though the fact was that he tried to persuade Belisarius from venturing his army in such an expedition. Belisarius became soon aware that Narses had not only secret designs against him, but acted agreeably to Justinian's wishes; for in the council of war he never proposed any measure of importance without finding Narses of a contrary opinion, and had the mortification, moreover, to see him supported by a crowd of jealous or disaffected officers. Vexed at these unfair proceedings, Belisarius claimed absolute obedience, and produced his imperial commission in which Justinian commanded the officers of every degree to obey him implicitly; but Narses, pointing out the last words of the letter, in which it was said "that the officers should obey him in every thing compatible with the welfare of the empire," continued in his disobedience, pretending that the plans of Belisarius were dangerous to the empire. Hence arose violent quarrels, and Narses with his troops separated himself from Belisarius. About this time the Goths, or, more correctly speaking, the Franks and Burgundians, their allies, had reduced Milan to extremities, after besieging it for a considerable time ; and, anxious to save that large city, Belisarius sent orders to Joannes and Justin to hasten to its relief. They answered that they had only to obey orders emanating from Narses. Belisarius endured this insult with forbearance, and at last prevailed upon Narses to give his consent to the contemplated expedition of those two generals; but it was then too late, the Roman garrison of Milan surrendered, and that splendid city was reduced to a heap of ruins, while its inhabitants were massacred by the victors. Justinian now became afraid that the jealousy between the two commanders would lead to still greater calamities, and he consequently recalled Narses (539).
This was the first equivocal début
of a general who afterwards put an end to the Gothic dominion in Italy.
During the following twelve years the name of Narses is scarcely mentioned in the annals of the empire, but he continued nevertheless to exercise a predominant influence in the privy council of Justinian.
The world, however, was more accustomed to look upon him as a statesman than as a general, and great was consequently the surprise when, in 551, the emperor put him at the head of a formidable expedition destined to retrieve the fortune of the Roman arms in Italy, where the Goths had had the upper hand ever since the recall of Belisarins in 548.
The campaign of Narses in Italy 538, had been no proof of his military skill, and the Roman veterans revolted at fighting under a eunuch, whom the very laws of the country seemed to exclude from any command over men. Little affected by their demonstrations, and despising the ridicule which the people tried to throw upon him, Narses, availing himself of the unlimited confidence of Justinian, drained the imperial treasury, and vigorously pushed on his preparations for the ensuing campaign.
In the spring of 552 every thing was ready, However, Ancona was the only port left to the Romnans in Italy between Ravenna and Otranto; the Gothic fleet covered the sea; and it was consequently dangerous to trust the safety of 100,000 men, and the issue of the whole undertaking to the chances of the weather or a naval battle. However, the Gothic fleet was beaten and destroyed off Sinigaglia. Narses nevertheless resolved to march round the Adriatic.
This road presented no less formidable difficulties: the whole low country traversed by the Po, the Adige, &c., and their countless branches, was an impassable swamp; the bridges over the Po and the Adige had been broken down by the enemy; and the only remaining passage over the latter river, at Verona, was guarded by the gallant Teias with a strong body of veteran Goths. Narses consequently chose a middle course.
He coasted the Dalmatian shore of the Adriatic as far as the northern corner of that sea, whence his army continued by land, while the fleet took a parallel course along the shore, and wherever a river or a canal checked the progress by land, the ships conveyed timber and other materials to the spot for the speedy construction of bridges. Thus he reached Ravenna, Teias being all the while quite unable to molest him.
He remained nine days in that city. Thence he marched upon Rimini, and the Gothic garrison having dared to insult him, he drove them back within their walls, and slew their commander Usdrilas. Without losing time in besieging Rimini he proceeded on the Flaminian way to Rome, where king Totilas awaited him with his main army. They met in the plain of Lentaglio, between Tagina (Taginae, Tadinae) and the tombs of the Gauls: the left of the Romans was under the immediate command of Narses and Joannes, the nephew of Vitalienus, and the right was commanded by Valerianus, John Phagas, and Dagistheus. The Romans carried the day: 6000 Goths fell on the field, and king Totilas was slain in his flight: his armour was sent to Constantinople (July 552). Teias was now chosen king of the Goths. Narses reaped the fruits of his victory by receiving the keys of the strongest fortresses of the Goths in that portion of Italy. Rome was forced to surrender by Dagistheus, a distinguished general, whose name and that of his colleague Bessus are strangely connected with the chances of warfare; for it was Bessus who commanded in Rome when it was reduced by the Goths in 546, a misfortune which he afterwards retrieved by reducing Petra, the bulwark of the empire towards the Caucasus, over which Dagistheus was appointed commander; and Dagistheus having been compelled to surrender Petra again to the Persians, took in his turn his revenge by reducing Rome.
In the course of the Gothic war Rome had been five times taken and retaken: in 536 by Belisarius, in 546 by Totilas, in 547 again by Belisarius, in 549 again by Totilas, and in 552 by Narses. Narses despatched Valerian to the Po for the purpose of preventing the fugitive Goths from rallying round the headqiarters of Teias at Pavia and Verona; but Teias enlded his vigilance, and, aided by a body of Franks whose alliance he had bought, suddenly broke forth from behind his lines, and appeared in Southern Italy to avenge the death of Totilas.
But, instead of avenging it, he shared his fate on the banks of the Sarnus (Draco), a little river which flows into the bay of Naples (March, 553).
In a bloody battle, which lasted two days, the Gothic army was utterly defeated, Teias and a countless number were slain, and the rest capitulated, but were allowed to withdraw from Italy: this condition was never well observed. Narses now marched to the north, reducing one fortress after the other, and gaining the confidence of the inhabitants through his firm yet generous and faithful conduct.
He thought he had subdued Italy when he was undeceived by the appearance of a host of 75,000 Alemanni and Franks, who came down the Alps under the command of the two gallant dukes of the Alemanni, Leutharis and Buccellinus. The Roman vanguard, commanded by Fulcaris, a brave but rash Herulian, was cut to pieces in the amphitheatre of Parma, and, in spite of the efforts of Narses, the barbarians rushed down into Southern Italy. Leutharis ravaged Apulia and Calabria, and Buccellinus plundered Campania, Lucania, and Bruttium; but they were more formidable as marauders than as soldiers; they could overrun the country, but they oppressed it too much to be able to maintain themselves in it, and they consequently thought of returning to the Alps. Their ranks were thinned through losses and diseases, to which Leutharis fell a victim with his whole band, and while Buccellinus was staying near Capua, Narses came on with his veterans and slew him and his followers in a fierce battle at Casilinum, on the Vulturnus. Agathias says, that out of 30,000 men only 5000 escaped in this battle.
The power of the Goths was now irretrievably ruined, and Italy was once more a province of the Roman empire, which Justinian finally pacified and organised by his famous " Pragmatica." Narses was appointed governor of Italy, and took up his residence at Ravenna.
During many subsequent years the name of Narses is not once mentioned; but we cannot but presume that in regulating the domestic affairs of Italy he acted in a way that did credit to his genius, although we know that his conduct was far from being free from avarice. In 563 he had an opportunity of proving that he was still the old general. Vidinus, comes, caused a fierce revolt in Verona and Brescia, and was supported by some Franks and a band of Alemanni under Amingus, who made sad havoc in Upper Italy, till Narses fell upon them and crushed them at once, whereupon Verona and Brescia submitted. Sindual, a chief of the Herules, who had served Narses faithfully during many years, imitated the example of Vidinus and shared his fate; but while Narses spared the life of the comes he ordered Sindual to be hanged, so incensed was he at his want of loyalty.
These victories caused great joy in Constantinople; but the death of Justinian, which took place in the same year, and the accession of Justin, were heavy checks upon the influence of Narses at the imperial court, and finally contributed to his ruin.
The death of Justinian and the extreme age of Narses caused two movements of great importance.
The administration of the great exarch of Italy was vigorous but oppressive; and although the Gothic war had impoverished that unhappy country to an enormous degree, he extracted the last coin from its inhabitants. Had he continued tc send a proportionate share of it into the imperial treasury, he might have continued his extortions without feeling the consequences; but it appears that he was less liberal to Justin than to Justinian, and the wealth and oriental luxuries with which he surrounded himself in' his palace at Ravenna excited the indignation of the Romans. During the life of Justinian, however, they did not complain, knowing that every attempt to shake Justinian's confidence in his great minister would have been in vain; but no sooner was he dead than a depntation of Romans waited upon his successor, exposing the extortions of Narses, and declaring that they would prefer the rude yet frank despotism of the Goths to the system of craft and avarice carried on by their present governor. Their complaints were not only listened to with attention, but were taken up by Justin as a pretext for getting rid of a man who was not his
creature, and Narses was consequently dismissed, and Longinus appointed in his stead.
He might have borne his disgrace with magnanimity but for the insulting message of the empress Sophia, who bade him leave the profession of arms to men, and resume his former occupations among the eunuchs, and spin wool with the maidens of the palace. Stung to the quick by this woman-like yet ungenerous taunt, Narses answered that " he would spin her such a thread as she would not unravel during her life." (" Narses dicitur haec responsa dedisse: Talem se eidem telam orditurum qualem ipsa, dum viveret, deponere non posset," Paul. Diacon. de Gest. Long.
2.6.) Narses retired quietly from office and took up his residence at Naples.
An opportunity for gratifying his revenge was at hand. The Longobards were meditating an invasion of Italy. a scheme of which Justin was well aware when he dismissed Narses, who was, however, the only man able to prevent such a calamity. " Full of rage," says Paulus Diaconus (l.c.
), " Narses sent messengers to the Longobards, and invited them to leave the poor fields of Pannonia and take possession of rich Italy.
At the same time he sent them all kinds of fruits and other products of Italy, in order to make them greedy and hasten their arrival." King Alboin accordingly descended from the Alps into Italy. No sooner, however, was Narses informed of it, than he repaired to Rome, and tried to soothe the emperor by a submissive letter.
The invasion of Italy, however, of which he could not but accuse himself as the cause, preyed upon his mind, and he died of grief (568). All this appears strange; his conduct seems unaccountable; and weighty doubts have been raised by competent historians against the authenticity of the tale.
But severe critics, Pagi, Muratori, Horatius Blancus, Petavius, &c., as well as the more modern Le Beau and Gibbon, are of opinion that there is no ground for disbelieving it. One might ask, why the emperor did not immediately resent his treachery ? and how Narses, after playing such a dangerous game, could venture to repair to Rome, instead of joining the Longobards ?
The fact of the Romans being disaffected to Justin and devotedly attached to Narses does not explain the mystery.
The following hypothesis might perhaps throw some light on the matter.
The ambition of Narses was not only unlimited, but it was coupled with that irritable and resentful temper which is peculiar to women and eunuchs. His deposition was sufficient to rouse the former, and the bitter taunt of the empress Sophia could not but provoke the latter.
He thus invited the Longobards, not in order that they might conquer Italy, but to compel Justin to put him once more at the head of the army, since he was the only man who could check the barbarians ; and had death not prevented him he would certainly have triumphed over his enemies, and taken ample revenge for the insults he had suffered. Such stratagems have often been invented by adventurers aspiring to power, as well as by men high in office, aiming at still greater power.
It is said that Narses attained the age of ninety-five. Gibbon doubts it, and perhaps not without reason. "Is it probable," says he, "that all his exploits were performed at fourscore ?"
It is certainly not probable; but when Blucher performed his great exploits he was past seventy, and he was as fresh in the field as a young man.
Narses was one of those rare men who are destined by Providence to rise above all others, and, according to circumstances or the particular shape of their genius, to become either the benefactors or the scourges of mankind. Of low and perhaps barbarian parentage, slave, eunuch, with the body of a boy and the voice of a woman, he made himself equal to the greatest, and was inferior to none, for his soul was that of a hero; his mind, bold and inflexible in its resolutions, was yet of that elastic kind that adapts itself to circumstances; and through the labyrinth of schemes and intrigues his talents guided him with the sale security that leads the plain warrior on the broad way of heroic action. Equal to Belisarius as a general, he was his superior as a statesman; but his virtues were less pure than those of the unfortunate hero; and in a moral point of view he stands far below his rival. (Procop. Bell. Goth.
2.13, &c., iii. iv. ; Paul. Diacon. de Gest. Long.
2.1-5; Marcellin. Chron.;
Agathias, lib. i. ii.; Zonar. vol. ii. p. 68, &c.; Cedren. p. 387; Malela, p. 83; Theoph. p. 201-206 (the index confounds the great Narses with Narses the general of Maurice and Tiberius); Evagrius, 4.24; Anastasius, Histor.
p. 62, &c.; Vita Joan.
iii. p. 43; Agnellus, Liber Pontific.