Thursday, 21 January 2016

Finding Evidence for Strategic Thinking in the Age of Justinian

Besides the aforementioned Roman military textbook, I'm also working on the follow-up to book one on Procopius.  The follow-up exists - something I've referred to in past blog posts - because of some of the troubles I had with that earlier project.  Basically, it nearly fell off the rails completely, then I attended a conference in Oxford (2014 on Procopius), which got me back on, by which point I had already made plans to go in a different direction.  The result was that the original project was rejuvenated, while the new one became a follow-up.  In a nutshell, that's why it exists.

Anyway, I happen to be on sabbatical, and so I have the time to work on these two projects, and if all goes well I'll have made considerable progress by the time the period draws to a close in July.  Like a lot of things, my enthusiasm waxes and wanes depending on my progress, but there is as much positive as negative, which is more than I can say about the hockey I've been watching most of the year (and am right now - mostly negative).

Today, and presumably for the next little while, one of the topics in that project that I'll be working is strategy, fortifications, frontiers and Procopius, in part because I've been (re-)reading Procopius' Buildings, with what could be considered a fine-tooth comb. A number of things are jumping out at me this time round, and one that I'll be devoting more attention to, and which I want to flag here, is his emphasis on defence.  In particular, my reading of Procopius' Buildings so far seems to point towards a strong emphasis on defence in east Rome, and there is a real sense that the purpose of the fortifications was both to monitor and to prevent/check incursions of Saracens and Persians.  Now, maybe this isn't all that surprising.  The Buildings is on, well, buildings, and so of course he's going to talk about fortifications, and if you're talking about fortifications it seems self-evident that you'll be talking about their defensive properties, particularly based on the character of late antique fortifications.  So, of course its defence, and scholars have argued in support of this defensive mentality for quite a while - Luttwak and defence-in-depth, Greatrex more recently on a longer-term defensive mentality. 

Now, in this book/project, the idea is to test as often and wherever possible Procopius' views/comments/descriptions/ with other evidence, whatever shape it comes in.  How do you do this, however, when your subject is strategy?  Given I'm dealing with Justinian, what I'd like is his memoirs, commentarii, or some such thing that sets his foreign policy thinking.  Of course, these things don't exist.  Now, if I'm arguing for, or better testing for whether the strategic mentality with respect to the frontiers was defend and if I'm taking as my starting point the Buildings, there's always the Wars to compare.  I could (will) take a look at all known conflicts in the east and identify who in each case is the aggressor.  If you're always been attacked, then a defensive mentality would seem likely.  On the other hand, it is presumably more than a little bit sketchy to check Procopius by means of Procopius.  In other words, it would be easy enough for him to make sure his statements in one of those works support his statements in the other. 

Thus, I'll certainly have to take a look at the other accounts we have, works like those of Count Marcellinus, Malalas, Pseudo-Joshua, Pseudo-Zachariah, and Agathias.  It would be helpful to visit all known fortifications, but of course this isn't feasible (cost, political situation, etc.), so I suspect that Google Earth and assorted published excavation reports and otherwise will become my friends.  On the other hand, a fort on its own can't say what a fort is doing, and that's where things get stickier.  I could also take a look at Justinian's legislation - does he delve into defensive concerns at any point in his massive collection of Roman law, and if he does is it the case that this reflects a defensive strategic mentality?  There's what evidence of propaganda I can find too - though would you emphasize a defensive mentality?

If I adopt the definition of strategy that I've adopted in the past (following Kagan's 2006 article), that would mean that I should look for evidence of the Roman state using its resources to pursue various foreign policy ends, and in the earlier Roman imperial situation we have all sorts of really good evidence for troop movements, dispositions, and so forth.  In late antiquity, especially after about AD 400, the situation is dire.  The Notitia Dignitatum is a fabulous piece of evidence, and recent research has emphasized the accuracy of the list as we have it for the east (based on examinations of the situations in Egypt and in the Caucasus).  Should we really expect the list as we have it to still be applicable by the time that Procopius is writing though, nearly 150 years later?  Perhaps not, or not exactly, and unfortunately we just don't have something from the sixth century that I'm aware of that provides the desired level of detail.  What are we, then, to do?  To be honest, I'm not sure yet, though I'll be getting to this issue soon enough.

If the defensive approach does turn out to the case at least with respect to the east, that makes for a nice contrast with the wars in Africa and Italy, so clearly offensively-minded, at least on the surface.  I was wondering if these could be taken as attempts of Justinian to counter criticisms that he was too defensively-minded.  If that were true, however, why not take a more offensive approach in the east rather than the west?  Also, if all anyone has known for some time was a defensive approach in the east, who would really criticize a presumed-defensive mentality? 

So, I anticipate a considerable amount of trouble with this topic, and more so than for some of the others that I have in mind.  Only time will tell, I guess, whether I can't find some sort of resolution.

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