Friday, 17 October 2014

Procopius' Authority: autopsy, bias, and the truth

As I slowly work away on this book and some of these source questions, this blog might be transforming itself into a forum where I can share my thoughts about how things are progressing.  This might be a useful exercise.  I should stress, as I might have done before, that since this is a blog, I don't spend much time on the revising (it comes out after I write it).

With that in mind...

Procopius writes in the tradition of classical historians like Herodotus and Thucydides.  In fact, in many ways his work engages directly with those very historians.  One of the many parts of his Wars where this is particularly evident is the preface, where the historian is to set out his task and state his claims and argue why he (invariably) is the man for the job.  If you read Procopius' preface, it reads very much like the preface of a host of earlier classical historians.

Most of the claims that he makes serve to establish his authority, the why he's the man for the job bit. So he includes the claim, from me previous post, in which he discusses the importance of autopsy, at least from his perspective.  He was well suited to this task - describing the wars of Justinian - because he happened to become an advisor to Belisarius, the famous general and participant for most of the action, and because Procopius himself saw almost everything that he describes (1.1.3).  Autopsy stressed:  Procopius is a sensible historian.

Of course, someone could easily come along and question whether Procopius was as trustworthy as he claims to be.  It's all well and good to emphasize autopsy, and to have been an eye-witness, but readers will need to know why they can trust you and your experiences.  Questions had been raised about the value of autopsy for some time.  Luckily for modern and ancient readers alike, Procopius is no slouch.  No, he goes on to set out why exactly it is that he deserves to be believed.  He claims (1.1.4) that truth is the most relevant thing to history (well ξυγγραφῇ ), and that this is what he's writing.  So, Procopius was an eyewitness, he's written a history, and he argues that truth is the most important thing in history.

There is still room for shoddy writing, and to counter any other possible criticisms, most notably claims of bias (and Belisarius is undoubtedly the obvious target of this), Procopius then comes out (1.1.5) and says that he's gone and written everything exactly as it is (with accuracy that is) about those he knows, whether they did good things or bad things.  He even stresses that he hasn't concealed their failures.  Just after this, before he gets to his oft-discussed comparison of contemporary and Homeric archers, he comes back to the role of truth.  For he says that the events that he's about to describe are the best, at least if someone wants to base their judgements on the truth.

To take stock then:  Procopius has said I'm the best man for the job because I had a prime position to see and experience everything and was there for most things, truth is highly valued in history and if you do too you'll see that my work is the best, and I have not given any signs of bias, but rather have said everything about those concerned.  Thus, on the basis of his own criteria, if we are to evaluate Procopius' own discussion then we can see that he's up to the job.  We can afford him the kind of respect that we do Thucydides and Polybius, for instance.  Of course, conscientious modern historians don't take Procopius at his word - much more work is needed.  But, the fact that he's gone and said this often does allay some fears.

One issue that complicates things is Procopius' statements in the much debated Secret History.  There he states that he couldn't say everything that he wanted in the Wars because things were, essentially, too precarious.  He seems to imply that he feared for his safety if he was to come out and openly bash some of the key participants, and Justinian is the one he has particularly in mind.  Does this mean we should toss out the Wars?  Well, no, because we are conscientious, and he doesn't, for example, spend a whole lot of time explicitly discussing Justinian in the Wars anyway, at least relatively speaking - though he's always there, somewhere, looming in the background, so to speak.  Moreover, based on what work I've done on Procopius in the past, he does seem to be forthright about most things, and where things might have been sketchy, he simply doesn't discuss them (he's not lying, he's just being selective).

Anyway, that's essentially the setting out of the claims of Procopius himself about whether he should trust him - the basis on which discussions of autopsy are based, or how far we should believe them.  As always, more to come...

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