Wednesday, 23 January 2013

War, Justinian, and What Defines a Reign

I'm working on a book review, and the book itself is a collection of papers on Byzantine chronicles, with Malalas and Justinian front and centre.  There's a lot of good material in the book - by Roger Scott - and, generally, his perspective on reading chronicles is one that I am very much in agreement with, at least in part. 

One issue Scott raises regularly is what constitutes the most important events of the reign of Justinian.  Here, we part company, though Scott has given me much to ponder.  On a number of occasions Scott identifies four events which he claims are the most famous of Justinian's reign.  They include:  Justinian's codification of Roman law, the building of Hagia Sophia, the closing of Plato's academy in 529, and Justinian's recovery of the west (North Africa and Italy - with a shout-out to southern Spain).  The list makes some sense.  The first two have had a lasting impact on our world - at least if you've ever visited Istanbul or have studied law in a number of western nations.  The third and the fourth have 'romantic pedigree', the third because it represents the end (on some level) of one of the defining aspects of the Classical world, the fourth because it represented (at least in part) an attempt to regain and so re-unite a big part of the heart of the Classical world.  So, important, and certainly interesting, stuff. 

But, it's important stuff to us.  The question that Scott raises is whether these four were important - or significant - to them, that is sixth century Romans living under Justinian.  For him the answer, or at least an answer, lies in determining which works of history we ought to take as most representative of the reign, something like Malalas' Chronicle, or Procopius' Wars

Malalas devotes very little space to Justinian's reconquest, Procopius a great deal.  Which is right?  Scott would argue for the former, I'm tempted by the latter.  This split (a bit pretentious given that I don't know Scott and I'm sure he doesn't know me) is easily explained by context.  In Scott's esteemed career he's spent a great deal of time dealing with sixth century (and later) chronicles like Malalas'.  In my short career - to this point - I've spent a good deal of time thinking about Procopius.  I also fancy military history.  Which possibility (reconquest important or not), however, is more plausible?

Well, we would probably need a great deal of information to reach any sort of satisfactory resolution, and like nearly everything ancient a definitive answers seems unattainable.  With that said, a close reading of either text, the Chronicle or Wars, can only be part of that answer.  Ideally, we would like to know how much money was spent on the wars, and what portion of the state's budget they consumed.  We would like to know what sorts of resources were mustered for the two wars, both in terms of manpower and supplies.  We would like to know what people - besides two very different historians - thought about the wars, both elite and common.  Some indication of the number of references to war-things in all texts and documents from the age of Justinian would be helpful too.  I could go on. 

In other words, a balanced judgement can only be reached after we've evaluated a huge pile of evidence, and as large a pile as we can get our hands on.  That hasn't happened yet (the compiling) - though once I get rid of Procopius and Moesia I plan on tackling this next:  a comprehensive study of war in the age of Justinian that doesn't simply provide us with the dates, people, and key events of the wars of the age, but which goes deeper and evaluates their impact on a number of levels (cultural, economic, social, etc.).  That's the plan.  Stay tuned.

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