Wednesday, 16 July 2014

What Makes a Good Ancient/LateAntique/Medieval Military Historian?

How do you determine whether an ancient/late antique/medieval historian was a good one?  What criteria should one use?  Is there even such a thing as a good one?  Heck, is it anachronistic to even consider ancient (etc.) historians if this was only part of what many of them did?

The reason I ask is that this has something to do with a project of mine looming on the horizon, and one I should be able to really get into within the next month or two.  In this "year of Procopius", as I'm calling the next 12-14 months or so, one of the most significant things is an evaluation of Procopius as a military historian, something which hasn't attracted too much attention, or at least too much sustained, detailed attention.  Sure, many have used him for late antique military matters, and so included some comments about his worth and the like, and there's even been a few essays, but nothing book length.  Given that this is what I've set out to do (and plans and a possible/probable publisher are in place) I should really determine what that is.

I have already given the issue some thought.  Another project, on Procopius and battle, is, I hope, nearing completion.  That study is much more of a cultural reading of his approach to combat - I'm less interested there, at least explicitly, with whether or how we can use him for the realien of late antique military history - which is what this other project tackles.  So, I do have a plan, or a tentative one, for how this ought to go.  I'll include all three works, Wars, Secret History, and Buildings - they each have valuable evidence to offer, and to provide a full evaluation it would only make sense to cover all three.  I've also been leaning towards dividing the project into at least three principal sections.  One of the problems I'm having is I'm wondering this working plan is anachronistic - am I being guilty of the sorts of things that I'm saying we shouldn't do in this other project on combat?

The three sections I have in mind are:  first, on strategy, which some would say is anachronistic for the pre-modern world, others wouldn't; the second, on operations, certainly mentioned and important - and some could argue even stressed, but a modern classification no less; and the third on tactics, the stuff at the battle level, where there would be some overlap with the previous project.  I plan on rectifying the overlap problem by focusing in this new one more squarely on:  "how can and should we use Procopius for military matters".  Anyway, is this how I should be evaluating him, using our own terms?  To some degree this is unavoidable - I am writing in English, after all .  But if I shouldn't, then how should I do this?  I guess you could look at the various ways that the ancients thought that war was won and lost, and we do, fortunately, have a good amount of evidence for this.  I could then compare this with what Procopius has to say.  Does he cover the same things?  Would ancient readers approve of how he describes and explains war - and matters such as the role of God, Justinian, generalship, and whatever else?

Of course, maybe it need not be one or the other.  There could be a first half that sets out Procopius' art of war (tentative title, I should add, is Procopius' Art of War), and which could cover all those issues that he does, from fortifications, siege engines, and technology, to disadvantaged frontier soldiers, multiethnic Roman armies, and questionable paying off of barbarian peoples.  All those issues could fit under the broader category of war.  Then, the second half could discuss how we use this.  First, from a late antique operations standpoint, second, from a strategic standpoint, and third, from a tactical standpoint.  If you do that, though, it would probably make sense to work in the former into the latter.  Perhaps, then, it's not as problematic as I sometimes think it is.

Ultimately, the more I think about something, the more I doubt what had originally seemed so sensible.  It's entirely plausible that I'll eventually go full circle and return right back to the original plan.  But, plenty of time to work this out yet.

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