Sunday, 20 January 2013

Agathias the Unloved

I've been working on a book on narrative in Procopius for some time now.  I'd like to think I'm not that far off from finishing the thing, but obstacles pop up with greater frequency than I'd like.  It has, at times, been an intensely frustrating experience, and for a host of reasons. Some recent feedback, for example, put a damper on the progress that I had made.  At present, I've put it aside, and to prevent my motivation from slipping away in its entirety I've decided to look to the future and one of the many projects that I hope to return to in the course of this career:  Agathias.  It might be something of a cliche for someone whose spent time on Procopius to turn to Agathias too - see Cameron and Kaldellis.  But, I've convinced myself that my desire to turn to Agathias has more to do with my interest in all things late antique historiographical than with any slavish career copying.  In other words, the things that draw me to Procopius exist in Agathias too, and it's probably inevitable that I would be so drawn.

Of sixth century historians Agathias falls somewhere in the middle.  He lacks the depth and descriptive force of Procopius; yet, his classicizing language and more consistently reliable narrative put him above Malalas. That is, for all intents and purposes, the communis opinio.  Unlike those other historians, however, he's also an 'esteemed' poet, having written and collated a well-known collection of poetry, the Anthology.  Of course, it's not the poetry that I'm interested in, though the poetry is inseparable from the history, as Agathias himself makes clear:  in this regard see his comments in lines 4-11 of his preface and the papers of Kaldellis.  The scope of his Histories is narrow:  he describes the some of the last few years of Justinian's reign, 552-559, though he himself was writing in the last quarter of the sixth century (probably the 580s).  As befits a classicizing history, his focus is on war and politics, and his short but detailed text is filled with standard history features such as a preface that highlights the work's importance and its place in the tradition; set-pieces like battles (Casilinum); speeches (comparatively few, in fact); and ethnographic excurses (the Persians), to name but a few.  Yet, his religious leanings are far from clear, for some see him as a Christian, others as a pagan (as problematic that term in itself is). 

There hasn't been a whole lot of work done on Agathias:  one book, at least in the last few decades (1970 - Cameron), and a host of book chapters (Brodka, Treadgold, Whitby), journal articles (Alexakis, Baldwin, Cameron, Kaldellis, Whitby), and occasional notices (Syvanne) - that list is fairly representative.  As I say, the scholarly opinion is mixed, though later Byzantine authors such as Leo the Deacon and John Kinnamos, to judge by the character of aspects of their own works, felt that his style, at least in some parts (battle, for example), could serve as model to be emulated.

What I would like to undertake is a book-length study of this little understood historian. The comparative brevity of his History might mitigate against such a project, though I think the detail therein is suggestive.

Do we need such a thing?  The limited number of scholarly treatments is, I think, as good a justification as any.  Plus, though Kaldellis - and Brodka - have made some important advances, the fact is there is the one book, and it's coming up on 45 years old.  Late antique and Byzantine historians are still poorly served, particularly in relation to their classical and western medieval cousins.  Justinian is one of the most important - or at least one of the most famous - historians of late antiquity, lo, antiquity in general, and Agathias details a significant part of the period of Justinian's decline - the last half (even two-thirds) of his reign.  All in all, then, there are good reasons for doing this.

What would I do?  That gets a bit more tricky.

I'd like to see how closely his work follows the classicizing ideal.  Is he Procopius' sloppy cousin?  In other words, like Theophylact - and to some degree Evagrius - after him, is he completely befuddled in his attempt to blend classical and Christian in his text?  Or, does he deserve more credit?  Not everyone can agree - and admittedly likely never will - on whether the classicizing style and framework was an appropriate means of describing and explaining the past in the sixth century.  Still, a detailed study might go some small way towards resolution.

How closely does he adhere to the truth?  Though this has attracted some attention - and I wouldn't want this to be an old-school positivistic analysis of all that he describes - a sustained study of the work in its entirety would be useful.  Again, getting back to the comparative brevity of the text, this fact itself might necessitate a study that discusses as many aspects of the History and Agathias the historian as possible.  Though the late antique audience had a different understanding of history from us, a good part of that understanding was adherence to the truth and so it's worth tackling.

The final aspect I want to highlight at this point is the narrative and organization of the text itself.  How is it structured?  What sort of chronological structure underlines the text?  How does Agathias characterize key individuals in the text?  Are his characterizations one-dimensional, well-rounded, or some combination of the two?  If he isn't consistent, why is that?  What role does the narrator play in the text?  How does the organization of the text affect the view of the past that it presents, if it does so at all?  Are the ways that Agathias structures the narrative tied at all to the explanations that he advocates?  Hell, what attempts are there to explain what happens?  Is the History mere reportage?  A related - and important - issue is the influence of rhetoric.  We know (or are aware of) the relationship between history and rhetoric, and that Agathias was himself a well-educated lawyer (i.e., well-versed in tools of rhetoric).  So, what impact does rhetoric play in his work?  Do ekphrases, and other aspects of ancient rhetorical theory underline his work?

Consequently, I think there's a great deal of scope there for a major study, and since I haven't come across anyone doing just that I'm happy to plow ahead.  If you're out there, however, and you're reading this, please do get in touch!

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