Narses (c. 480-574) began his career as a eunuch who served the emperors of Constantinople as an imperial guardsman and agent. He piqued the interest of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) by quelling riots and unrest in Constantinople and Alexandria, and his successes there propelled him to a higher role in the imperial military. In 538, Narses was sent to Italy to work with the great general, Belisarius, in the empire’s fight against the Ostrogoths. Unfortunately, the two became rivals and the war effort was negatively impacted. As a result, Narses was recalled from Italy in 539, and he spent the next decade of his career taking on tasks and commands outside of the Italian Peninsula. In 551, however, Narses obtained a second chance at an Italian campaign. He delivered a critical blow early to his foes in Italy, killing the Ostrogoth king, Totila, in the year 552. Over the next few years, Narses was able to recover Italy for Justinian. The emperor repaid his general for this accomplishment by leaving Narses in charge of military and civil matters in Italy for well over a decade. Narses was not removed from his command in Italy until Justinian’s successor, Justin II (r. 565-578), relieved the general of his command in 567.
Ironically, it was the very next year, in 568, when Italy was invaded by King Alboin and the Lombards, who deprived the emperors of Constantinople much of their recently re-conquered land. With such uncanny timing, rumors abounded even in the 6th century that Narses had invited the Lombards to make their invasion. Despite these rumors being unfounded and not supported by most historians, it did not help poor Narses with his reputation in his own day—for whatever reason, the accomplished eunuch apparently just came across to the public as a corrupt schemer. This negative perception evidently led to the formation of an interesting legend. According to a peculiar folktale, it was said that during Narses’ time as the ultimate authority in Italy, he amassed a great hoard of treasure, which he kept to himself by secretly burying it at an undisclosed location. This odd story was recorded by the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (lived approximately 720-799):
“Narses the patrician of Italy, since he had a great dwelling in a certain city of Italy, came to the above-mentioned city with many treasures, and there in his dwelling he secretly dug a great cistern in which he deposited many thousand centenaria of gold and silver. And when all who knew of the matter had been killed, he entrusted these to the care of one old man only, exacting from him an oath” (History of the Lombards, III.12).
Before anyone grabs a shovel and attempts to locate Narses’ buried treasure, it should be noted that this hoard of gold and silver has supposedly already been found and spent. As the story goes, the single old man with knowledge of the treasure happened to outlive Narses, who died in 574. The nameless old man, now that the eunuch general was dead, reportedly revealed the existence of Narses’ treasure hoard to an important man named Tiberius Constantinus, who was co-ruler of Constantinople with the ailing Emperor Justin II from 574 until the emperor’s death in 578. According to the legend, Tiberius Constantinus heeded the old man’s story and successfully found Narses’ buried treasure. The discovered money was speedily spent—by the time Justin II died and Tiberius Constantinus assumed the role of sole emperor (r. 578-582), every single piece of wealth from the cistern had reportedly been funneled away by Tiberius to unnamed charity projects.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Emperor Justinian and Members of His Court, early 20th century reproduction (original dated 6th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.