Friday, 1 August 2014

How Bad is Agathias? Experiencing War in the Sixth Century

I've been reading bits of Agathias for a chapter on women and warfare in Procopius - and really running with the thin/thick descriptions, which I had erroneously attributed to Levithan (actually found it in Petersen's massive new book on siege warfare in late antiquity, and it ultimately goes back to Geertz and anthropology).  Anyway, I'm a Procopius lover, though I've had a soft spot (as one does) for Agathias too.  I've engaged a little both with Agathias here and there, and have always had plans of doing more, but it's not quite worked out...perhaps soon.

Anyway, although Kaldellis has made some forceful arguments for the quality of Agathias' historical achievements, and though Syvanne is generally positive of some of his military accounts, many would place him low down the historian leaderboard.  For some reasons, this might very well be a fair assessment.  Given I've been looking at war, I'm wondering if it's not a little unfair.  As wonderful as Procopius is, much of his descriptions are shorn of the "face of battle" style that Kagan (2006) has attributed to Ammianus (think Amida).  Indeed, when Procopius bothers to mention women in accounts of warfare, his mentions are usually restricted to the inevitable (from an historiographical perspective - I'm not trying to downplay the horrors of these actions) enslaving of women and children.  Now, I haven't gotten to the siege of Rome yet (537ish), and my memory is a bit rusty, so there may be more there.

Nevertheless, I read Ps.-Joshua's account and, well, as I already knew, he spends a considerable amount of time on the experience of war, particularly with respect to the siege of Edessa around 504 (is it later? - not sure off the top of my head).  Good stuff, few of the classicizing topoi, and generally a vivid account of the experience of siege warfare from the perspective from those on the inside - though there's much of value in general.

Where does Agathias fit in?  Well, he's next on the list, and as I've been perusing (and really only perusing) the Histories, I've been struck by the care with which he composed his accounts of warfare. I know he's a poetic historian.  He does have a penchant for verbosity, and some of his descriptions are long-winded - reading about a coiling-elephant trunk and a stampede in the Greek was a painful (but pleasurable too) exercise.  And yes, his lack of first-hand experience has inevitably meant that he's had to fall back on topoi, stereotypes, and the like to compose his accounts.  Yet, while there is a certain consistency from account to account, there is still considerable variety, and this most superficial of readings is leaving me with the impression that his verbose and literary treatment of warfare conveys much better than Procopius does the experience of warfare.  His ekphrases, then, seem to be much more effective at brining the warfare before the eyes of me, the reader.  More needs to be done, but he's given me much to ponder.

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