Friday, 17 October 2014

Procopius' Use of Autopsy

When the issues of veracity and reliability in ancient historians surface in the scholarly literature, discussion regularly turns to three ways that an ancient historian gathered (invariably) his information:  autopsy, oral accounts, and written sources.  Autopsy is usually, but not always, the highest ranking of the lot.  

Although seemingly straightforward, autopsy has different meanings.  There is the careful examination of a corpse - this is not what is meant in these cases, obviously.  It can mean the personal observation or experience of a thing (or what have).  But it can also mean the critical examination of something (subject, work).  So, it should be clear that the autopsy referred to by scholars could fall into either of those second two categories; and, it should be clear why the lack of clarity might be a cause of concern.  When the word opsis is used, it's easy to see what the person has in mind.  But in others it's less so.  With that said, most modern scholars usually have the former in mind:  personal observation and experience (there is a significant discussion of it in Marincola's 1997 book that I must have read a decade or so ago, but which is a bit hazy in my mind at present).

In both cases, it can be hard to work out which one an ancient historian is employing.  If it's the former, sometimes ancient historians will make comments in the first person or otherwise which imply that they had seen something which makes it easy enough to determine.  If it's the latter it's a bit trickier, but sometimes historians will make a comment about something they've read or seen and what they think about it.  They'll even make comments, rarely, about competing accounts.  The one historian who seems to be explicitly engaged in a fair amount of autopsy of both kinds of Herodotus, and his impact has been significant.

I've already made some comments in an earlier post - and will do so in more final versions of all this - about Procopius' own experiences, which in turn hinted at autopsy in the Wars (I've left out the Buildings and Secret History, though my first impressions that is that with the SH much of the information is purportedly autopsy, and that it is harder to say with the Build.).  Procopius does hint at the role of autopsy in his own account, as one (ancient historian) should, in the preface.  He says he's well suited to the task, writing the wars of Justinian:  "Furthermore he had assurance that he was especially competent to write the history of these events, if for no other reason, because it fell to his lot, when appointed advisor to the general Belisarius, to be an eye-witness to practically all the events to be described" (1.1.3).  So, pretty explicit stuff.

As I said the character Procopius acts on occasion in the Wars, though given his position in Belisarius' army and what he's said in the preface, there has been little doubt that he did see a great deal of what he describes.  Even for Procopius himself, then, autopsy ranks highly - following in the vein of Herodotus and Thucydides, amongst others.  Now, this second large project, well, like most of my other work, deals with military stuff, and so that includes battles, sieges, campaigns, and the like. But we know, and have known for some time, that these things are hard to describe in part because of the mass chaos that ensues, especially in combat.  This might not apply quite so much with respect to campaigns (marching, supply gathering, etc.), but still things might not have been as straightforward as they appear.

One question/issue that springs to mind with all of this is:  where would Procopius have been when all the action was going on?  If he was the advisor/secretary to Belisarius, then he was invariably engaged in all sorts of important tasks, and would have been in a position (here, more metaphorically - not physically but vis-a-vis his relationship to Belisarius) to acquire good information.  When it came to witnessing things, what then?  If we accept that one of Procopius' duties was to write up battle reports - and some think he was at least responsible for sending the letters that sometimes pop up in the Gothic Wars - is he much more likely to have been in a position to see things with his own eyes - engage in this autopsy?  In a battle then, if we assume a Hellenistic or Odyssean general is assumed we he be seated on a horse at the back of the Roman side beholding all that transpired before him?  In this case it would matter a great deal if the topography of the site enabled such a vantage point.  It would be easier, too, to wittiness combat in a siege if he was on the defensive side, like Rome in 537/538.  One could easily imagine a Procopius on the walls looking down on the Goths with appropriate record-keeping materials observing all that transpires.

Yet, those sorts of positions, at the back of a battle or at the walls of a city during a siege, aren't the safest of places in the best of times.  If he had been in those positions from the get-go, and if he was simply a writer with little combat experience or ability, it is something of a surprise that he was able to survive all of the engagements that he described.  Is this reasonable?  Well, yes:  not all war reporters are killed in war zones.  Procopius could have survived all such instances.  With that said, it is not more reasonable to assume that he wasn't close by watching, but rather safely ensconced in the camp or within the city walls when skirmishes were breaking out?  How much autopsy then went into his battle descriptions?  Perhaps not a whole lot.  Even so, it would be difficult for anyone to describe any of these battles or sieges, whether simply a participant relaying activities to friends or family, or a general or member of staff reporting the results to the higher ups. This also raises questions about what might actually have been in the battle reports that might have been made.  Could there have been any expectation that there would be any real detail in these?  Or would they be the bare bones, the most relevant of details (as many have surmised) instead?

On the other hand, does this then take things too far into post-modern territory?  In other words, can we recover nothing?  I don't think so.  There's just a number of interesting questions that pop up in these sorts of discussions.

More to come...

No comments:

Post a Comment