Monday, 2 March 2015

Procopius' Wars: Second Edition

At some point after writing the first seven books of his Wars, Procopius published them, and apparently to widespread acclaim.  Lo, he was so successful that he decided to write an update, of sorts, book 8.  Book 8, as Procopius readily admits, is something of an anomaly.  For him it was the organization that stood out:  he struggled finding a way to update the material of the first seven books, and must have reckoned that tacking them on to the first seven, or each war, wouldn't have worked that well.  Instead, then, he lumped it all together in one book:  8.  Once he decided on this, he did, at least at the most basic of levels, proceed to arrange it (book 8) as he'd done the first seven.  So, the first chunk of book 8 is devoted to PW matters, a wee paragraph is devoted to VW matters, and the last chunk to GW matters.  All good.

When we take a closer look, however, things are rather different.  Yes, there are lots of battles and sieges, much as there had been before - and given that it's a history of war it well should have this sort of stuff.  But, his descriptions of combat in book 8 aren't consistent, at least for the most part, with those in books 1-7.  Rather, it's more of a hodgepodge, with an especial emphasis on the factors he raises in the GW (for more on this, for the moment, see the relevant chapter here: (

There's plenty more that's different in book 8, however.  For one thing, there are far more methodological statements than we find, at least per capita, in the first seven books.  I would suggest that there are also far more "philosophy of history" statements.  Along those lines, we find a number of cases where our narrator feels the need to set the record straight:  "this or that matter has been discussed in a variety of ways by various sources, and they're generally wrong.  Here's how it really is."  That sort of thing.  We might well expect these sorts of statements to pertain, by and large, to key historical events, like battles.  And, near the end, in his description of the Battle of Busta Gallorum/Taginae, we find just such a comment, and it pertains to the various reports concerning the death of Totila.  It seems reports differed, and given the comparatively detailed account he presents first, I'm inclined to believe that it's the one he liked best.  Interesingly, however (and in Herodotean vein), he doesn't take a stand - he mentions the other version, and provides some detail, and then lets is stand for the reader to sort out, at least indirectly (as noted, I think he's pointing towards option 1).  Much more often, however, he chimes in when the matter pertains to matters of geography, less often ethnography, but quite too often mythology.  He's not unusual in this - again, this is very much a Herodotean thing.  What is unusual, however, is that Procopius himself tends not to do this in the first part of the Wars (books 1-7).

There are other unusual things.  There is far more attention on geography, again per capita, and on sensory aspects, at least from the perspective of combat.  In fact, you would be no worse off in writing a "face of battle" account of Justinianic era combat using book 8 alone than you would if you only had books 1 through 7.  There's also all that myth.  We read about Jason and Medea, Orestes, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Odysseus, Aeneas, and so forth.  The placing of his discussions of myth does make sense:  for the first of the lot, it comes in the heart of his Lazican discussion, and the setting for those myths tends to be in the lands that are the focus of that part of the war with Persia.  The same's true for the war against the Goths and Italy-based myths (Odysseus' voyages primarily).  So, all well and good, as I suggested.  But, why didn't he do the same in the first seven books?

The Procopius of book 8, then, is, for all intents and purposes, not the Procopius of books 1-7.  Why is that?  What made Procopius adopt this notably different approach, an approach that on the surface (and possibly deeper down?) is much more Herodotean than the very Thucydidean (even Polybian) first seven books?  It could be that in the absence of autopsy Procopius sought to supplement his narrative with details that he could provide given the resources at his disposal, ie the ancient/classical texts that he alludes to throughout book 8. 

But, I wonder if there isn't another possibility, one that doesn't necessarily preclude the former, though which might seem to contradict Procopius' statements at the start of book 8.  He claimed that his work was popular, and there might be something to these claims, but its appeal might not have been quite as universal as he had imagined.  In other words, some - many? - might have criticized the historian.  Reading Procopius again in full (in translation, admittedly - Kaldellis' new one) for a seminar I'm teaching, it's clear that he isn't for everyone.  Indeed, if you're not terribly interested in military history, it's hard not to read the Wars as little more than "one damned thing after another", where the thing, or things, in question is combat (and its attendant battles, sieges, and campaigns).  I hate to admit it, but even my eyes glossed over a little from time to time.  Maybe, then, there were others who lampooned Procopius for just this problem, and so to counter this - and to reach even greater renown - he sought to add extra episodes of interest, the types of scenes that would appeal to a broader audience.  What with all the myth, geography, and literary argumentation it's hard not to think that these were included for just this purpose.  Secular military history wasn't as popular in the sixth century AD as it was in the early fourth century BC.  Readers (and listners) had other options, even if Procopius was part of a grand tradition, and even if he is succeeded by Agathias, Menander, and Theophylact,  In sum, I read book 8 as a response to Procopius' critics, even if its character is to some degree conditioned by his resources.  Perhaps this pseudo-Herodotean approach might also reflect the appeals of his similarly-educated readers, those who spent years pouring over rhetorical treatises and argued over the respective merits of different figrues from myth.  Maybe they expected more of this, and told Procopius to include it in his update.

I realize that this reading is conditioned by my own circumstances - not everyone loves Procopius, and Herodotus is undoubtedly the most popular of classical historians, as evidenced by the success of Holland's recent translation.  What interests us, then, might not have interested Procopius' peers.  Still, might be worth considering - or exploring in more detail (at some unspecified point in my future, if I still have the fortitude to persevere with these Procopian projects).

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