Monday, 17 November 2014

Auxiliary Constitutions and Recruitment: some thoughts

It's become quite clear that spending too much time with one person is bound to bring some disquietude.  And, I've been spending too much time with Procopius.  So, where possible, I've taken a little break to continue work on finishing up a project on the Roman military in the Moesias.

Today I've been thinking about auxiliary constitutions (the official citizenship document in Rome) and diplomas (the copies, the ones found all across the empire), and the related matter of recruitment.  Just read a paper by Paul Holder on copies of constitutions.  He calculated that if every province with auxiliary units had men eligible for discharge every year there could have been some 4,000 men "recorded on the original bronze constitutions set up at Rome".  That's a staggering number - and as I said just an estimate.  The figures that supported his claim include:  c. 50% of serving men lasted 25 years and so were eligible for discharge; 10 men each year from a quingenary unit (about 500-man unit); 18 men from a milliary unit (about 800-1000-men); 370 units in existence during the reign of Hadrian.  A number of questions popped into my mind upon reading this (and some of this other observations).

First, if those numbers hold up, and they don't seem unreasonable to me at first glance, how many bronze constitutions might have been produced and stored in Rome each year?  Would there necessarily have been just the one constitution issued per province per year?  Would the government want a record of each soldier?  Depending on how the numbers add up, we could be dealing with a staggering number of documents kept by Rome.  Would there be some sort of file for each soldier that tracked his record throughout his career?  Would this be in Rome, or would it just be an outline, so to speak there, with the details in his respective province?  Or, would it all be kept in his province?  And yet, many soldiers moved around (or those with some initiative might), and so would a file move with him?  Perhaps these would have been on less permanent materials, and only the really important stuff, like discharge certificates, would be recorded on permanent materials.  Anyway, it might be that this is unanswerable, but I thought I'd ask anyway.

The other issue alluded to above was recruitment.  Should we expect regular recruitment, that is a consistent number of men each and every year?  Or was it always, or partly, a hodgepodge approach?  Things are happening in province X, how many men are in province X, and so let's then raise Y men to compensate.  Most likely it always did vary - we know additional units (both auxiliary and legionary) were raised at different times.  Some units were lost, some were depleted, and some additional ones were needed for major campaigns, like Trajan's war of conquest.  I guess that means we should expect some 25 years or so after the start of a major campaign that there should be an explosion, of sort, of men available for discharge.  And yet, these new units often weren't disbanded once a war ended.  A unit might move on, but they didn't get dissolved just because a war was over.  Perhaps then it's a series of steady periods of recruitment followed by giant spikes at war time (major war).

I think I might be rambling stop.  Besides, I have some diplomas to read/compare, and some more reading to do.  Thinking too about the merits of updating Watson's The Roman Soldier.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Procopius' Authority: autopsy, bias, and the truth

As I slowly work away on this book and some of these source questions, this blog might be transforming itself into a forum where I can share my thoughts about how things are progressing.  This might be a useful exercise.  I should stress, as I might have done before, that since this is a blog, I don't spend much time on the revising (it comes out after I write it).

With that in mind...

Procopius writes in the tradition of classical historians like Herodotus and Thucydides.  In fact, in many ways his work engages directly with those very historians.  One of the many parts of his Wars where this is particularly evident is the preface, where the historian is to set out his task and state his claims and argue why he (invariably) is the man for the job.  If you read Procopius' preface, it reads very much like the preface of a host of earlier classical historians.

Most of the claims that he makes serve to establish his authority, the why he's the man for the job bit. So he includes the claim, from me previous post, in which he discusses the importance of autopsy, at least from his perspective.  He was well suited to this task - describing the wars of Justinian - because he happened to become an advisor to Belisarius, the famous general and participant for most of the action, and because Procopius himself saw almost everything that he describes (1.1.3).  Autopsy stressed:  Procopius is a sensible historian.

Of course, someone could easily come along and question whether Procopius was as trustworthy as he claims to be.  It's all well and good to emphasize autopsy, and to have been an eye-witness, but readers will need to know why they can trust you and your experiences.  Questions had been raised about the value of autopsy for some time.  Luckily for modern and ancient readers alike, Procopius is no slouch.  No, he goes on to set out why exactly it is that he deserves to be believed.  He claims (1.1.4) that truth is the most relevant thing to history (well ξυγγραφῇ ), and that this is what he's writing.  So, Procopius was an eyewitness, he's written a history, and he argues that truth is the most important thing in history.

There is still room for shoddy writing, and to counter any other possible criticisms, most notably claims of bias (and Belisarius is undoubtedly the obvious target of this), Procopius then comes out (1.1.5) and says that he's gone and written everything exactly as it is (with accuracy that is) about those he knows, whether they did good things or bad things.  He even stresses that he hasn't concealed their failures.  Just after this, before he gets to his oft-discussed comparison of contemporary and Homeric archers, he comes back to the role of truth.  For he says that the events that he's about to describe are the best, at least if someone wants to base their judgements on the truth.

To take stock then:  Procopius has said I'm the best man for the job because I had a prime position to see and experience everything and was there for most things, truth is highly valued in history and if you do too you'll see that my work is the best, and I have not given any signs of bias, but rather have said everything about those concerned.  Thus, on the basis of his own criteria, if we are to evaluate Procopius' own discussion then we can see that he's up to the job.  We can afford him the kind of respect that we do Thucydides and Polybius, for instance.  Of course, conscientious modern historians don't take Procopius at his word - much more work is needed.  But, the fact that he's gone and said this often does allay some fears.

One issue that complicates things is Procopius' statements in the much debated Secret History.  There he states that he couldn't say everything that he wanted in the Wars because things were, essentially, too precarious.  He seems to imply that he feared for his safety if he was to come out and openly bash some of the key participants, and Justinian is the one he has particularly in mind.  Does this mean we should toss out the Wars?  Well, no, because we are conscientious, and he doesn't, for example, spend a whole lot of time explicitly discussing Justinian in the Wars anyway, at least relatively speaking - though he's always there, somewhere, looming in the background, so to speak.  Moreover, based on what work I've done on Procopius in the past, he does seem to be forthright about most things, and where things might have been sketchy, he simply doesn't discuss them (he's not lying, he's just being selective).

Anyway, that's essentially the setting out of the claims of Procopius himself about whether he should trust him - the basis on which discussions of autopsy are based, or how far we should believe them.  As always, more to come...

Procopius' Use of Autopsy

When the issues of veracity and reliability in ancient historians surface in the scholarly literature, discussion regularly turns to three ways that an ancient historian gathered (invariably) his information:  autopsy, oral accounts, and written sources.  Autopsy is usually, but not always, the highest ranking of the lot.  

Although seemingly straightforward, autopsy has different meanings.  There is the careful examination of a corpse - this is not what is meant in these cases, obviously.  It can mean the personal observation or experience of a thing (or what have).  But it can also mean the critical examination of something (subject, work).  So, it should be clear that the autopsy referred to by scholars could fall into either of those second two categories; and, it should be clear why the lack of clarity might be a cause of concern.  When the word opsis is used, it's easy to see what the person has in mind.  But in others it's less so.  With that said, most modern scholars usually have the former in mind:  personal observation and experience (there is a significant discussion of it in Marincola's 1997 book that I must have read a decade or so ago, but which is a bit hazy in my mind at present).

In both cases, it can be hard to work out which one an ancient historian is employing.  If it's the former, sometimes ancient historians will make comments in the first person or otherwise which imply that they had seen something which makes it easy enough to determine.  If it's the latter it's a bit trickier, but sometimes historians will make a comment about something they've read or seen and what they think about it.  They'll even make comments, rarely, about competing accounts.  The one historian who seems to be explicitly engaged in a fair amount of autopsy of both kinds of Herodotus, and his impact has been significant.

I've already made some comments in an earlier post - and will do so in more final versions of all this - about Procopius' own experiences, which in turn hinted at autopsy in the Wars (I've left out the Buildings and Secret History, though my first impressions that is that with the SH much of the information is purportedly autopsy, and that it is harder to say with the Build.).  Procopius does hint at the role of autopsy in his own account, as one (ancient historian) should, in the preface.  He says he's well suited to the task, writing the wars of Justinian:  "Furthermore he had assurance that he was especially competent to write the history of these events, if for no other reason, because it fell to his lot, when appointed advisor to the general Belisarius, to be an eye-witness to practically all the events to be described" (1.1.3).  So, pretty explicit stuff.

As I said the character Procopius acts on occasion in the Wars, though given his position in Belisarius' army and what he's said in the preface, there has been little doubt that he did see a great deal of what he describes.  Even for Procopius himself, then, autopsy ranks highly - following in the vein of Herodotus and Thucydides, amongst others.  Now, this second large project, well, like most of my other work, deals with military stuff, and so that includes battles, sieges, campaigns, and the like. But we know, and have known for some time, that these things are hard to describe in part because of the mass chaos that ensues, especially in combat.  This might not apply quite so much with respect to campaigns (marching, supply gathering, etc.), but still things might not have been as straightforward as they appear.

One question/issue that springs to mind with all of this is:  where would Procopius have been when all the action was going on?  If he was the advisor/secretary to Belisarius, then he was invariably engaged in all sorts of important tasks, and would have been in a position (here, more metaphorically - not physically but vis-a-vis his relationship to Belisarius) to acquire good information.  When it came to witnessing things, what then?  If we accept that one of Procopius' duties was to write up battle reports - and some think he was at least responsible for sending the letters that sometimes pop up in the Gothic Wars - is he much more likely to have been in a position to see things with his own eyes - engage in this autopsy?  In a battle then, if we assume a Hellenistic or Odyssean general is assumed we he be seated on a horse at the back of the Roman side beholding all that transpired before him?  In this case it would matter a great deal if the topography of the site enabled such a vantage point.  It would be easier, too, to wittiness combat in a siege if he was on the defensive side, like Rome in 537/538.  One could easily imagine a Procopius on the walls looking down on the Goths with appropriate record-keeping materials observing all that transpires.

Yet, those sorts of positions, at the back of a battle or at the walls of a city during a siege, aren't the safest of places in the best of times.  If he had been in those positions from the get-go, and if he was simply a writer with little combat experience or ability, it is something of a surprise that he was able to survive all of the engagements that he described.  Is this reasonable?  Well, yes:  not all war reporters are killed in war zones.  Procopius could have survived all such instances.  With that said, it is not more reasonable to assume that he wasn't close by watching, but rather safely ensconced in the camp or within the city walls when skirmishes were breaking out?  How much autopsy then went into his battle descriptions?  Perhaps not a whole lot.  Even so, it would be difficult for anyone to describe any of these battles or sieges, whether simply a participant relaying activities to friends or family, or a general or member of staff reporting the results to the higher ups. This also raises questions about what might actually have been in the battle reports that might have been made.  Could there have been any expectation that there would be any real detail in these?  Or would they be the bare bones, the most relevant of details (as many have surmised) instead?

On the other hand, does this then take things too far into post-modern territory?  In other words, can we recover nothing?  I don't think so.  There's just a number of interesting questions that pop up in these sorts of discussions.

More to come...

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Value of Sources and the Face of Procopian/Justinianic Warfare

Back to it.  Strike while the ember's hot and all that.

Do the references to Procopius' own actions in the sixth century contained within the Wars make a difference to whether we think he's a good historian or not, or at least whether we really ought to use his text?  It can, I guess to some degree, provide evidence of his own worth, his authority for discussing the material that he's narrating.  This was an age old authority trick by the time Procopius was writing.  If he was a participant then would seemingly provide some insight into what happened, though the problems with human memories and eye witnesses demonstrate that we shouldn't put too much stock in affairs.  What it probably is really useful for is putting him in a position to get to the materials he'd need to write what he wrote, and to see, with his own eyes, how things worked.  Too often we sort of assume, however, that he spent an ordinate amount of time making detailed and accurate notes, when we contain no such definitive evidence.

Even if we are able to get a sense of what kinds of sources he used in different situations, we still have to rank that material.  Should things he saw himself rank higher than the rest?  Than oral after that?  And then dispatches and reports?  Or should the order be switched some way?  All those references to they say cause problems of their own.  There are some examples where they might seem to referring to a particular person or persons, and others where it seems more likely that he's relying on written materials.  Often, however, the statements aren't anywhere near clear enough, and in most of the Wars, like any good classicizing historian, he tends to shy away from identifying particular authors.  There are exceptions, like Arrian, Herodotus, and Homer, but many of those come from book VIII, and it should be apparent that they have little bearing on current events.

Is this attempt to uncover his sources for particular military events all an exercise in futility?  Even if I can uncover any of it, can it really tell us what we should believe?  Probably not a whole heck of a lot - rather, we'd need comparable evidence, where it exists.

One last note:  back to the doryphoroi.  Discussion has often centred on whether Procopius was advocating an era of horse-archery at the expense of the infantry, and it's been suggested that this was partly (or largely) the result of Procopius' attachment to Belisarius.  The general himself seems to have used a lot of cavalry, so Procopius would, unsurprisingly, use it and highlight it at the expense of others.  Is this mere "bias" on the part of Procopius?  Or is he actually reflecting reality?  Rance has made a good case that he's not being exactly forthright.  What all this thinking about sources has got me thinking, however, is whether the conversation should be shifted towards private armies versus public armies, not cavalry versus infantry.  Is this the face of Procopian combat?

It seems that there was a shift towards cavalry, regardless of whether Procopius was overzealous in his reporting of their actions.  But he also hints at a shift towards private armies.  OK - you could say that the abandonment of the heavy infantry that won Rome its empire is cause for concern.  But what about the failure of the state to pay for the armies to keep the empire secure?  Or make the desired conquests easier?  In some sense, then, what we see is a return to the profiteering of the late republic: soldier-generals fighting each other for power and prestige, while in the process nearly ruining the state.  In the republic's case, it was fortunate enough, depending on your perspective, to have a guy like Octavian come round and right the ship.  Without him, it's hard to imagine a Rome existing in the form that it did by the time Justinian came around.  The sixth and seventh century state, however, didn't have anyone like that.  Sure, Heraclius deserves lots of credit for what he did to prevent the ship from going down, but we all know that the empire would never again reach the geographical extent that it once did (and assuming that's the best sign of the strength of an empire - it might not be).

So, more for me to ponder.  Yes, think more about sources.  Think more about how to evaluate his worth.  Think more about he characterizes the various militaries who feature in his works.  But think too what was the most significant of those (if there is such a thing).

As always, more to come...

Procopius' Sources

For the second major Procopius project of mine, I've been investigating sources and thinking about reliability in ways that I wasn't for the first one.  It's all much more interesting than I'd considered, and I've benefitted from reading some interesting things of relevance by people like Borm, Whitby, Howard-Johnston, Kaegi, Colvin, Cameron, Greatrex, Treadgold, Parnell (excellent prosopography) and especially Sinclair (military bulletins), among others.

One of the first things that I did was evaluate, or consider, those instances where Procopius, the historical figure, intervened himself in the action, whether it was to provide advice about trumpets, get some intel from Sicily, or scope out some supply routes (and the supplies themselves) for the Romans.  He doesn't intervene too often, though when he does he evinces some knowledge and experience with military stuff.

More recently I've turned to campaign reports and bulletins, and oral sources.  I've been engaged in some TLG searches with a few choice words and phrases, and they have turned up some interesting results.  There are, for instance, far more references to specific spearmen (doryphoroi) and shield-bearers (hypaspistes) than I had appreciated before, and possibly more than there should be given their relative numbers.  I had wondered if this was, in part, due to their increased usage - and the connections with buccellarii, Procopius' experiences, and Belisarius' wealth might bear this out - in sixth century combat.  But, I've also noticed that it is invariably the spearmen who are mentioned rather than the shield bearers.  Not unusual in and of itself - all classical and classicizing (or just about) authors and theorists advocate attention be focused on the elite - though it's definitely something that's worth exploring.  I can certainly appreciate why some see these men as the ones who gave Procopius much of his information.

I should add, on the subject of oral sources I'm also taking a look at Procopius' usage of words like phasi.  Has a good pedigree, of course.  What's stuck me so far is how much he uses it in what I consider the Herodotean parts of the Wars:  books 1, 2 and 8 - the majority of usages are found there. This too might not be a coincidence, given, if I recall (off the top of my head) Herodotus' practices.

Bulletins and reports are a tougher nut to crack.  None of these survive, save a possible example in the Chronicon Paschale.  We also lack all those strength reports from the earlier empire, which seem to hint at some sort of record keeping of this sort, at least to my mind.  Having considered some battles again, and looked closely (again) at one or two, I'm finding it hard trying to decide how we would find evidence of this sort of thing, and if we did what it would mean.  Just because something's official it doesn't make it right.  It does seem entirely likely that they existed in some form, and Procopius himself might have composed some for Justinian.  If that's true, he probably did use them - maybe it was in his capacity as writer of official reports that he decided to compose the Wars?

Anyway, lots of interesting things being uncovered (to my mind), with many more to follow.  This also happens to be raising, at least in my mind, interesting questions about composition.  More to come...

Monday, 22 September 2014

Military Bulletins in Late Antiquity

Two of the major projects that I'm working on at the moment are on Procopius.  One of them, as alluded to in an earlier post, will present some sort of evaluation of Procopius as a military historian.  Or maybe as a source for war is better (2 works aren't histories).  In this project more than the other Procopius one (culture and combat in the Wars), I'll be delving into his sources, so pseudo-oldschool Quellenkritik and the like.

What were Procopius' sources?  Well, in good Thucydidean and Polybian fashion, he had the benefit of experience, and had even seen firsthand much of the military material that he described.  While it's true that firsthand and eye-witness shouldn't be equated with the reliability of his material, it certainly helps.  So, Procopius had his own experiences and reports (in whatever form they took) to work with.  Being there, and getting to know the officers, and hypothetically even some of the men (though would a man like Procopius with, perhaps, great expectations want to mingle with the regular soldiers?), meant that he and the opportunity both then and afterwards to interview these participants. It's likely he used them too.

As scholars have long recognized, however, he also had to deal with those conflicts and military things for which he had no firsthand experience or account.  What did he use in those instances?  Well, perhaps the military dispatch/report/bulletin, that have been discussed for other authors (Malalas, Menander ProtectorTheophylact and the Chronicon Paschale) and periods (middle Byzantine).  Could he have used these?  Perhaps.  The frustrating thing with respect to these official reports, though with any of the evidence that he used, is that there is no virtually no way of proving unequivocally what he used.  Classicizing historians tend not to name their sources, and Procopius is no different.  On the other hand, for a number of reasons he seems likely to have used something.  So what about these dispatches?

Greatrex suggested that these might have been housed in facilities not only in Constantinople but also in Antioch at the HQ for the Comes Orientis.  Procopius could easily have accessed them, particularly those in Constantinople, especially if we are right to think Procopius spent the last bit (however long that might have been) of his life in the capital.  However his life might have panned out, it seems likely he could have found a way to access these if need be.

What form would these bulletins take?  Guess that depends, in part, on what the government might have wanted to make a record of and, indeed, some of the entries in late antique and early medieval chronicles are suggestive.  Essentially the basics: the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and maybe less likely the hows and whys of a campaigns.  The whys might, more often than not, be left for the historians to discuss, or the inquiries launched when things go wrong.  Would they have kept them for each and every campaign?  Would it depend on the particular emperor or even his staff?  We have hints at some possible examples of these:  Heraclius' letter from Azerbaijan reporting on military matters in 628.  Caesar's Gallic Wars might also evoke (or be indicative of?) these sorts of things - though in the latter case they would seem to be quite detailed.

More to come...

Friday, 1 August 2014

How Bad is Agathias? Experiencing War in the Sixth Century

I've been reading bits of Agathias for a chapter on women and warfare in Procopius - and really running with the thin/thick descriptions, which I had erroneously attributed to Levithan (actually found it in Petersen's massive new book on siege warfare in late antiquity, and it ultimately goes back to Geertz and anthropology).  Anyway, I'm a Procopius lover, though I've had a soft spot (as one does) for Agathias too.  I've engaged a little both with Agathias here and there, and have always had plans of doing more, but it's not quite worked out...perhaps soon.

Anyway, although Kaldellis has made some forceful arguments for the quality of Agathias' historical achievements, and though Syvanne is generally positive of some of his military accounts, many would place him low down the historian leaderboard.  For some reasons, this might very well be a fair assessment.  Given I've been looking at war, I'm wondering if it's not a little unfair.  As wonderful as Procopius is, much of his descriptions are shorn of the "face of battle" style that Kagan (2006) has attributed to Ammianus (think Amida).  Indeed, when Procopius bothers to mention women in accounts of warfare, his mentions are usually restricted to the inevitable (from an historiographical perspective - I'm not trying to downplay the horrors of these actions) enslaving of women and children.  Now, I haven't gotten to the siege of Rome yet (537ish), and my memory is a bit rusty, so there may be more there.

Nevertheless, I read Ps.-Joshua's account and, well, as I already knew, he spends a considerable amount of time on the experience of war, particularly with respect to the siege of Edessa around 504 (is it later? - not sure off the top of my head).  Good stuff, few of the classicizing topoi, and generally a vivid account of the experience of siege warfare from the perspective from those on the inside - though there's much of value in general.

Where does Agathias fit in?  Well, he's next on the list, and as I've been perusing (and really only perusing) the Histories, I've been struck by the care with which he composed his accounts of warfare. I know he's a poetic historian.  He does have a penchant for verbosity, and some of his descriptions are long-winded - reading about a coiling-elephant trunk and a stampede in the Greek was a painful (but pleasurable too) exercise.  And yes, his lack of first-hand experience has inevitably meant that he's had to fall back on topoi, stereotypes, and the like to compose his accounts.  Yet, while there is a certain consistency from account to account, there is still considerable variety, and this most superficial of readings is leaving me with the impression that his verbose and literary treatment of warfare conveys much better than Procopius does the experience of warfare.  His ekphrases, then, seem to be much more effective at brining the warfare before the eyes of me, the reader.  More needs to be done, but he's given me much to ponder.