Monday, 15 April 2013

Agathias, Procopius, Belisarius, and Bessas

For this post I'm being a bit lazy - I'm copying and pasting some work I've done on Procopius and Agathias.  I've been thinking a bit more about the Agathias project, largely because I seem to be all over the place at the moment.  One day I want to go one way, the other another.  I seem to be back here with Agathias this afternoon and evening.  In part this is the result of some thinking about doing a book about historiography in late antiquity - something that goes beyond Rohrbacher (chronologically) and Treadgold (less positivistic).  Right now that seems a crazy idea.   Rather, I'm thinking I should shift some of the ideas for that sort of project to Agathias:  it could be an historical and historiographical study.  As regards the latter, however, his themes would be important for what we have to say about the former.  

In turn, this has me thinking that I could frame the book on the theme of “Agathias and the Decline and Fall of Justinian”.  Agathias is critical of Justinian.  Agathias himself deals with a small segment of Justinian’s reign (550s).  It happens to be part of the negative half of his reign, when things were going less than smoothly.  What role did Agathias play, if any, in the sense that the second half of Justinian’s rule was bad, both for the emperor and everyone else involved?  Maybe it’s none, and he’s just reflecting what everyone is thinking, though some years after the fact.  Anyway, this is something that might be worth considering, and before I get into any grand study of war in the age of Justinian.

Getting to the excerpt, here I explore one way that Agathias seems to be responding to the work of his esteemed predecessor, Procopius, standard practice in ancient historiography, of course.  

Agathias names Procopius no less than eight times in his History.  In his first reference Agathias notes that, “most of the events during the time of Justinian were written down with precision afterwards by the rhetor Procopius of Caesarea” (Agathias pr. 22).  More praise comes in books two and four.[1]  On the other hand, it is not all positive, for a few chapters later praise surrounds hidden criticism (Agathias 4.26.4-6), with more to follow (Agathias 4.28.3, 4.30.5).  

Agathias was, in all likelihood, intimately familiar with Procopius.  In some places he engages with Procopius quite explicitly, though in other cases he is much more subtle.  In Procopius’ description of the Battle of Archaeopolis there are interesting episodes involving rampaging elephants.  Agathias follows a similar motif in his description of the Siege of Onoguris:  he replicates, expand upon, and conflates these individual Procopian elephant episodes into one in his own History.  So, Agathias concentrates on one lone elephant, while Procopius describes two.  Yet, the context of the scenes in Procopius and Agathias are prolonged sieges in Lazica, they do not mark a significant point in the narrative in and of themselves, though they do follow an important stage, and they come in the context of a charge on the part of one side.  Agathias’ description runs as follows: 
…he struck the elephant that was bearing down on him ferociously with his spear and drove home the point, so that it was left dangling.  The elephant found the blow unbearable [ὁ δὲ πρός τε τὴν πληγὴν] and since it was brandishing the spear before its eye it was horrified and so leapt backwards, and, whirling round [κραδαινομένου ἐκταραττόμενος ὑπεξήγετο] his trunk like an uncoiling spring, struck many of the Persians and sent them headlong, now stretching it out as long as it could go, and emitting a harsh and wild noise [τραχύν τινα καὶ ἄγριον ἦχον ἀφίει].  Suddenly he shook off those seated on his back [τοὺς ὕπερθεν ἑστῶτας ἀποσεισάμενος], and having hurled them to the earth, he trampled them to death.  Then he struck fear into the whole mob of Persians, the horses reared up [᾿αναχαιτίζων] when he approached them, and cut through and shredded whatever he came across with his tusks.  The scene was filled with lamentation and confusion” (3.27.1-3). 
The Procopian passages in question are: 
Then it happened that one of the elephants because it was struck [πληγέντα], as some say, or because it suddenly became much distressed [ἢ ἀπὸ ταὐτομάτου ξυνταραχθέντα], wheeled round [περιστρέφεσθαί] in disorder and reared up, throwing off those mounted on its back [καὶ ἀναχαιτίζειν, καὶ τοὺς μὲν ἐπιβάτας ῥίπτειν] and broke up the line of the others” (Wars 8.14.32); “one of the elephants, mounted by a great crowd of the most warlike men among the Persians, came quite close to the fortifications such that it was likely that, in a short while, it would overpower those defending themselves from on top of the tower there, since a great number of missiles were falling from above, and take the city.  For it seemed that it was some sort of machine, even a helepolis.  But the Romans, having hung a young pig from the tower, escaped this danger.  For, as is to be expected while it was suspended there, the porker let loose some cry, and having been grieved by this [κραυγμὸν γὰρ τινα...ἠφὶει, ὃνπερ ὁ ἐλέφας ἀχθόμενος ἀνεχαίτιζε] the elephant reared up and started to step back little by little and withdrew to the rear [κατἀ βραχὺ ἀναποδίζων ὀπίσω ἐχώρει]” (Wars 8.14.35-37). 

Although Agathias’ episode is much more detailed, as we would expect given the later historian’s proclivities, there are, unsurprisingly, more than a few points of contact between the two respective texts, which I have highlighted.  Agathias, then, was not only continuing the work of his esteemed predecessor, but also engaging with him. 

This episode with the elephant was not the only spot where engage with Procopius. Another important instance where Agathias engages with Procopius comes in the former’s description of the Siege of Constantinople in 559, for it is here that Agathias draws parallels between the Thracian generals Belisarius and Bessas.  Agathias seeks to denigrate Bessas and celebrate Belisarius by evoking the former’s performance in Petra while describing the latter’s performance in Constantinople.

By the time Agathias’ account began, Belisarius’ military career had seemed to be at an end.  Then the Kutrigurs attacked the capital, and he made something of a spectacular return; when the Kutrigurs made their inroads in 559 Constantinople, at least in the mind of Agathias, found itself in a desperate situation.[2]  The capital was in a state of panic and Justinian ordered Belisarius to step up in the city’s hour of need (Agathias 5.15.7).  Agathias describes Belisarius’ donning of his armour (θώρακά…ἀναδησάμενος) and notes the vigour it then fills him with.[3]  At Petra Procopius had described Bessas’ donning of his armour (αὐτὸς τεθωρακισμένος) before the attempt on that city (Procop. Wars 8.11.39); Procopius had not done this – described the dressing of a general before combat – in quite the same way for any other battle or siege.[4] 

Both men, Bessas and Belisarius, are marked out for their old age,[5] and both are forced to address the relative morale of their men.  In the case of Bessas, Procopius only alludes to his speech (Procop. Wars 8.11.40), while in the case of Belisarius Agathias provides the speech which, in his case, was meant not so much to embolden them as to temper their exuberance (Agathias 5.16.7), a fitting idea given Procopius’ characterization of Belisarius throughout the Wars (Procop. Wars 1.18.16).  Indeed, Agathias displays his rhetorical mettle in the speech by providing just the sorts of points that we might expect Belisarius to make in such a situation (and in turn we are reminded of Thucydides’ methodological statements about his speeches),[6]  at least on the basis of a thorough reading of the Wars.[7]  Belisarius here is able to temper his troops (Agathias 5.19.1), something he had not been able to do at Callinicum. 

In both sieges, Constantinople and Petra, the significance of the events is stressed,[8] though Agathias goes one step further by comparing the actions of the Roman soldiers at Constantinople with the Spartans at Thermopylae (Agathias 5.19.1-2).[9]  Once the action begins, however, the two sieges are in fact quite different.  In the case of Constantinople the Romans emerge victorious thanks to the clever planning of Belisarius.  He and his men led the Kutrigurs into a narrow place where he had stationed a few hundred soldiers and a number of civilians with missiles and noise makers to deceive the barbarians about their true numbers.[10]  As with other battles of Agathias, the melee is quite vivid, with the senses of sight and sound appealed to by the historian.[11]  On the other hand, Petra was filled with the desperate attempts of Bessas and his men to force an ascent of the city’s walls.  There were several mishaps before Bessas eventually found a way to secure his entry into the city.  At the end of the siege of Constantinople Belisarius’ attack leads to the death of a good number of the enemy soldiers, and to some atypical behaviour on the part of the Kutrigurs.[12]  Though it took much longer to get there the Romans managed to capture, kill, or injure a good number of the Persians at Petra as well (Procop. Wars 8.11.63).

The fighting exhibited in the two sieges is quite different.  This does not, however, call into question the conscious parallels drawn by Agathias for he wanted his audience to compare the performance of Bessas – that other well-known Thracian commander of the age of Justinian – at that previous siege at Petra with Belisarius’ performance at the siege of Constantinople in his History.  Agathias, like Procopius, was no fan of Bessas, at least if his comments at 3.2.3-7 are anything to go by; moreover, like Procopius he gives that appraisal based on Bessas’ performance, for at an earlier stage of the text he had described him as one of the best generals (στρατηγοὺς ἐπέστησε τοὺς ἀρίστους) (Agathias 2.18.8), and one with a tremendous amount of experience (Agathias 2.18.8).[13] 

We should not be surprised by this appraisal. Agathias puts great stock in the importance of the individual, as well as the truth, as he makes clear in his preface (Agathias pr. 16-20).[14]  In the end, then, in this comparison between Bessas and Belisarius it is the latter who comes off much the superior general, and this the result of the general’s own performance.

[1] Agathias 2.19; 4.15.
[2] This is particularly true if we are to believe Agathias’ disparaging remarks about the state of the Roman defences and military (Agathias 5.14.1-4), which echo those made by Procopius in the Secret History about that same group (Procop. SH 24).  These parallels (and some others) suggest that Agathias is likely to have read the polemical text himself.
[3] Agathias 15.8.8.
[4] Note, however, the description of Totila’s armour in his last battle against Narses (Procop. Wars 8.31.18).
[5] Bessas – Procop. Wars 8.11.40; Belisarius – Agathias 5.16.1.
[6] cf. the famous pronouncements of Thucydides on these matters at 1.22.
[7] Compare, for example, Procopius’ comments about Belisarius’ actions at 1.18.16 (τότε ον παντας Βελισάριος ργντας π τος πολεμίους ρν) with Belisarius’ comments in Agathias at 5.17.2 (λλ’ ρν ν μν πολ τ περφρονον κα θρασυνόμενον); and Belisarius’ comments at Wars 1.14.25 (κα τ πλθος τν πολεμίων, μάλιστα δεδίττονται, μς περφρονεν ξιον) with Belisarius’ comments at History 5.17.4 (καίτοι κκενο σκοπεσθαι χρεών, ς ε κα πολλ τς μετέρας νδρείας ττώμενοι τύχοιεν, λλ τ πλήθει κρατοσι).
[8] Procop. Wars 8.11.41, Agathias 5.15.9.
[9] The Spartan stand at Thermopylae is found in Herodotus (Hdt. 7.198-239), the author who cast the biggest shadow over book eight of Procopius’ Wars.
[10] See the discussion of Archaeopolis above.
[11] At 5.19.7 we get shouting and confusion; we get the encircling of the foe at 5.19.8; the tremendous din of the troops at 5.19.9; and clouds of dust, again at 5.19.9.
[12] Number of deaths:  Agathias 5.19.10; atypical behaviour:  Agathias 5.19.12.
[13] Βέσσας τε γρ κα Μαρτνος κα Βούζης γετο, νδρες ν τος μάλιστα γεγενημένοι κα πολέμους συχνος γωνισάμενοι.
[14] Cf. Whately 2008:  247

No comments:

Post a Comment