Wednesday, 16 July 2014

What Makes a Good Ancient(etc.) Military History Part 3: Procopius' Art of War

As I was saying about more time...

There were a number of ways to describe war in the sixth century and Procopius simply opted with the most tried and true of approaches.  Indeed, one of the greatest aspects of the sixth century is the many ways available to describe both the more recent and the more distant past - and the number of different aspects of those pasts that were described.  It was no longer simply war and politics.  Nevertheless, that's what I'm interested here.

So, however we might characterize Procopius' way of war, it's also worth asking whose it is?  Is it his alone?  Those of the wider sixth century in general?  This is important, for it has some bearing on the evaluation of his worth as a military historian (or war reporter).  There are other historians who described some of the same events that he did, such as Malalas, John Lydus, and Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite.  Many consider Malalas to represent the official view, though he's not terribly interested in the minutiae of sixth century warfare, with few exceptions - and many (though not me) would argue that what we have is little more than mishmash of other sources.  John Lydus' history is lost, though that he was apparently commissioned to write a history of sorts of Justinian's war/wars is worth noting.  Pseudo-Joshua was writing a bit earlier, and his worldview is not quite that of the classicizing Procopius:  it makes for a refreshing comparative.  With that said, a cursory glances suggests that his worldview is more likely that of the Romano-Persian borderlands than that of the core of the empire in Constantinople and environs.

Still, that doesn't help us with Procopius.  If his views are idiosyncratic - those of him alone - then it would be more than a little misleading to characterize his approach to warfare as the "Byzantine Way of War", the "Late Roman Way of War", "the East Roman Way of War", or what have you.

Whosever views we think Procopius presents, it's also true that he makes for a complex case because of the quantity of his surviving work, and the sheer variety of what he does include.  On the one hand, he presents a host of rulers, from Persian shahs to Roman emperors.  The central emperor, Justinian, features occasionally, at least explicitly, in the Wars, though has a much more central role in the Buildings and Secret History.  Plus, from a military perspective (though from other perspectives too), the image of Justinian that he presents is obtuse, at least if we use all three texts - and I think we should.  In the SH we have an emperor whose foreign policy decisions undermined the security of the state, thanks in part to his willingness to use what seem to be less than desirable means of achieving his desired ends - i.e., he pays of barbarians and under-funds the very soldiery on whose safety the empire depends.  In the Buildings, the emperor's construction work led, amongst other things, to what could be called an unprecedented level of security of the empire and its citizenry.  Indeed, the emperor of that panegyrical text is - or at this point in my research seems to be - very much a defensively-minded one, which would seem to mesh with how some characterize the general Byzantine strategic mentality.  In the Wars, in sharp contrast to his adversaries, Justinian doesn't campaign in person, and the warfare that's described is a mixture of the defensive against Persia, though the Romans do attack on occasion;, the offensive (how else ought we characterize the wars in Africa and Italy than as wars of aggression?; and asymmetric, if we go back to Africa and the unrest that arose after the initial lightning-quick conquest.  We also get some insight, particularly in the build-up to the African invasion, of the foreign policy decision making at the court of Justinian.

Even the combat described is varied - Persian combat is in many ways unlike Vandal combat, which is also in many ways unlike Gothic combat.  And, all this is to say nothing about the little-mentioned Balkan combat that he all but excludes.  Sure, cavalry is described, and there are some well-known discussions of horse archers, but infantry features too, there is plenty of siege warfare, and let's not forget the asymmetric combat.  Some Romans (or East Romans or Byzantines if you prefer) demonstrate predilections for what some call the western way of war - direct assaults on the enemy.  Other Romans prefer what some call the eastern approach - fight at last resort.  Indeed, in some ways this is the problem of Byzantine history in general - in the minds of many it lands somewhere between east and west:  more eastern than western to medievalists, and perhaps more western than eastern to orientalists.

Anyway, if there's any point yet it's simply that there's much to consider.

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