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Narses (also sometimes written Nerses) (478-573) was, with Belisarius, one of the great generals in the service of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I during the so-called "Reconquest" that took place during Justinian's reign.Narses was a Romanized Armenian from the noble Kamsarakan family, which claimed descent from the royal Arsacid dynasty. He spent most of his life as a relatively important eunuch in the palace of the emperors in Constantinoplemarker.


Nothing is known of Narses's youth. During the Nika Rebellion in 532 he was koubikoularios and spatharios.He was part of Justinian's plan to put down the rebellion. Narses was given a bag of gold. He took it and walked into the Hippodrome, filled with a mob that had rioted and killed hundreds of people. Narses entered the Blues' section and spoke with the leaders. He reminded them that Justinian supported them over the Greens. He reminded them that Hypatius, the man they were crowning, was a Green. Then he passed out the gold. The Blue leaders conferred among themselves and spoke to their followers. Then they suddenly exited the Hippodrome during Hypatius' coronation. The Greens were shocked. Before they could recover, Imperial troops led by Belisarius and Mundus stormed into the Hippodrome, killing the remaining rebels.

According to the historian Andreas Agnellus, Narses was present when Belisarius captured Romemarker in 536. He had been sent there by the Emperor Justinian to assist, perhaps even spy on, Belisarius. However, Narses quarreled with Belisarius and was brought back to Constantinople. This rivalry, misunderstanding, and antipathy between the two had jeopardized all military operations, leading to the recapture and devastation of Milan by the Ostrogoths.

Later, he saved Justinian from a possible assassination attempt by John of Cappadocia, the praetorian prefect. It is possible that Narses was working with the Empress Theodora, who resented John, to remove John from power.

He was 74 in 552, when the ever-suspicious Justinian recalled Belisarius from his campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italymarker and replaced him with Narses. He had served as the High Chamberlain of the Emperor Justinian. He was known to be extremely popular, especially with the lesser officials and the public. Narses was totally loyal to the Emperor, having served as a eunuch. He had helped put down the Nika Rebellion. Despite his age, he proved to be as energetic and skilled as his predecessor, though history has generally credited Belisarius with the greater ability.


Emperor Justinian appointed Narses to recruit troops from the barbarian Germans, Slavs, and Huns, whom the Byzantines regularly employed for their armies. Many doubted whether these barbarians would follow the frail old man. Justinian found out when Narses arrived at the Heruli.

To the surprise of everyone, except Narses and probably Justinian, the old eunuch chamberlain became famous with the Heruli. They thought, if the great Emperor Justinian is sending such an ancient man to form the army, then this man must be very skilled in the art of war. They followed Narses and joined his army.

The old bureaucrat soon had the chance to prove that he was, in fact, a master of war. A large army of Slavs massed on the Danube, preparing to invade the Balkans. On his horse, Narses directed his Heruli with so much dexterity that the Slavs were routed with heavy losses.

While Narses was recruiting and leading barbarians, Justinian appointed his own nephew, Germanus Justinus, the Supreme Commander of Italy. Germanus combined the armed men from his household with peasants that he recruited with his own money. However, before he was able to use his army, Germanus died in 551.

Narses was recalled by Justinian. The ancient eunuch bureaucrat was to return to Italy; this time he was the Army Commander. His army consisted of Heruli, Huns, Slavs, and Lombards, and incorporated Germanus' troops. But it did not outnumber that of the Goths in Italy.

A New War

He launched another campaign against the Ostrogoths, finally defeating their formidable King Totila at the Battle of Taginae. Totila initially launched a cavalry charge against Narses's army; however, he found the lines too heavily defended and was killed in the battle. Suffering heavy losses, his army retreated and fell into disarray; as many as 6,000 soldiers of Totila's army were killed at Taginae. Narses' army advanced towards Rome, overwhelming the Ostrogothic garrison there and then redirecting his forces south to lay siege against the town of Cumaemarker. The new leader of the Goths, Teias, retreated and took his army to Mons Lactarius. Narses besieged Teias's position there as the Ostrogoths attempted to break free from the siege. Within two days, Teias was dead and most of his army destroyed. Whatever remained of it was allowed by Narses to leave so long as they departed Italy altogether.

In 554 at the Battle of Casilinum he drove the Franks and Alamanni, who had come to help the Ostrogoths, back over the Alps. Eventually, the surviving Ostrogoths surrendered to him and Italy was restored to the empire. Narses remained in Italy as its prefect (governor) but his administration was unpopular. After Justinian's death, his nephew Justin II removed him as prefect and demanded he return to Constantinoplemarker. Narses relinquished his post, but refused to leave Italy, instead retiring to a villa near Naplesmarker.

The last years of his life are somewhat clouded in suspicion. Many sources at the time say Narses secretly encouraged the invasion of Italy by the Lombards in 568, in revenge for Justin II's taking away his position. However, this report has never been confirmed. Still, Narses, then 90, offered his services to the emperor again but was turned down. By the time Narses died, more than half of Italy had fallen into Lombard hands.


  1. Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis (translator), The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2004), p. 178
  2. Treadgold, Warren. A History of Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 1997, p. 209 ISBN 0-8047-2630-2
  3. Treadgold. Byzantine State and Society, p. 210

Further reading

  • 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

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