Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Value of Sources and the Face of Procopian/Justinianic Warfare

Back to it.  Strike while the ember's hot and all that.

Do the references to Procopius' own actions in the sixth century contained within the Wars make a difference to whether we think he's a good historian or not, or at least whether we really ought to use his text?  It can, I guess to some degree, provide evidence of his own worth, his authority for discussing the material that he's narrating.  This was an age old authority trick by the time Procopius was writing.  If he was a participant then would seemingly provide some insight into what happened, though the problems with human memories and eye witnesses demonstrate that we shouldn't put too much stock in affairs.  What it probably is really useful for is putting him in a position to get to the materials he'd need to write what he wrote, and to see, with his own eyes, how things worked.  Too often we sort of assume, however, that he spent an ordinate amount of time making detailed and accurate notes, when we contain no such definitive evidence.

Even if we are able to get a sense of what kinds of sources he used in different situations, we still have to rank that material.  Should things he saw himself rank higher than the rest?  Than oral after that?  And then dispatches and reports?  Or should the order be switched some way?  All those references to they say cause problems of their own.  There are some examples where they might seem to referring to a particular person or persons, and others where it seems more likely that he's relying on written materials.  Often, however, the statements aren't anywhere near clear enough, and in most of the Wars, like any good classicizing historian, he tends to shy away from identifying particular authors.  There are exceptions, like Arrian, Herodotus, and Homer, but many of those come from book VIII, and it should be apparent that they have little bearing on current events.

Is this attempt to uncover his sources for particular military events all an exercise in futility?  Even if I can uncover any of it, can it really tell us what we should believe?  Probably not a whole heck of a lot - rather, we'd need comparable evidence, where it exists.

One last note:  back to the doryphoroi.  Discussion has often centred on whether Procopius was advocating an era of horse-archery at the expense of the infantry, and it's been suggested that this was partly (or largely) the result of Procopius' attachment to Belisarius.  The general himself seems to have used a lot of cavalry, so Procopius would, unsurprisingly, use it and highlight it at the expense of others.  Is this mere "bias" on the part of Procopius?  Or is he actually reflecting reality?  Rance has made a good case that he's not being exactly forthright.  What all this thinking about sources has got me thinking, however, is whether the conversation should be shifted towards private armies versus public armies, not cavalry versus infantry.  Is this the face of Procopian combat?

It seems that there was a shift towards cavalry, regardless of whether Procopius was overzealous in his reporting of their actions.  But he also hints at a shift towards private armies.  OK - you could say that the abandonment of the heavy infantry that won Rome its empire is cause for concern.  But what about the failure of the state to pay for the armies to keep the empire secure?  Or make the desired conquests easier?  In some sense, then, what we see is a return to the profiteering of the late republic: soldier-generals fighting each other for power and prestige, while in the process nearly ruining the state.  In the republic's case, it was fortunate enough, depending on your perspective, to have a guy like Octavian come round and right the ship.  Without him, it's hard to imagine a Rome existing in the form that it did by the time Justinian came around.  The sixth and seventh century state, however, didn't have anyone like that.  Sure, Heraclius deserves lots of credit for what he did to prevent the ship from going down, but we all know that the empire would never again reach the geographical extent that it once did (and assuming that's the best sign of the strength of an empire - it might not be).

So, more for me to ponder.  Yes, think more about sources.  Think more about how to evaluate his worth.  Think more about he characterizes the various militaries who feature in his works.  But think too what was the most significant of those (if there is such a thing).

As always, more to come...

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