Wednesday, 16 July 2014

What Makes a Good Ancient/Late Antique/Medieval Historian Part 2

More time means more thinking.

So, one of the issues, or at least a matter that has been raised about Procopius - and you could argue widely accepted - is his status as a topnotch reporter, but less so a top historian (Cameron 1985, essentially).  As noted, my focus is on military history in particular, and so for me I've framed this particular dichotomy, one which the book will address, is whether Procopius is a topnotch war reported or a top notch military historian - or various shades of grey.  

The thinking, so far as I understand it, is that if he's simply a top reporter, then his account is more valuable for what it describes than how he explains what he describes.  Thucydides, famously, not only provides one of the most vivid accounts of war from any age, but one of the most penetrating historical analyses as well - and, it is probably fair to say that Procopius doesn't quite hit that mark.  But does he only describe?  I'm convinced that, at least with respect to combat, he doesn't.  In fact, there are all sorts of explanations that he includes in the bulk of his descriptions, and even in those brief notices.  But, to my mind it stands to reason that if he explains combat, both implicitly and explicitly, then he probably explains a lot more, even if the analysis itself isn't as penetrating as we might like it to be.  That might mean that he has recourse to the divine and morality, which might not be what we'd like (though that in itself is interesting from a cultural perspective), but I do believe it's there - though if it's not, I'll note that too.

Procopius certainly presents a wide variety of the experiences of war, and even some of those of the lower echelons of society, even if they are sometimes little more than vague references and compilations of cliches, dare I say.  Indeed, there's no doubt in my mind that his coverage is extensive.  Procopius provides information on the planning for war, at both the highest levels and in the field.  He discusses some of the logistics of war, both directly and indirectly, from his manifold descriptions of fortifications in the buildings and the food problems experienced on the voyage to Africa, to the attempts of Belisarius himself to recruit men before heading back to Italy for the second time.  There are also all those anecdotes - like his own (Procopius') foray into Sicily and the coast of Italy during the Gothic War.  

One issue that could pose some problems is the lack of closure. Though parts of the Wars end in what are to my mind more reasonable places than most have assumed, in all cases, save maybe Africa to some degree or other, the wars hadn't finished by the time he'd finished.  Indeed, even after he'd penned book 8 it wasn't all over.  Yet, the same was true for Thucydides, or Polybius for that matter, and yet that hasn't stopped scholars from praising them.  

So, more to come...

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