Monday, 25 January 2016

Procopius on the Battle of Satala

Surprise, surprise, I'm not done with Procopian battles yet.  More of the historical in the sequel, however, and less of the military historiographical.

In the first book the idea was to try to discern something of Procopius' military mind, and how that fit into larger cultural and historiographical trends from his era.  Reading through these same accounts again, and in the same kind of detail, but with what I guess you could call a more balanced perspective, thanks in part to all the work I've done in between finishing the PhD and finishing the book, I'm encouraged to see that I'm still seeing that P has understood combat in the way that I surmised.  In other words, my head isn't in my hands and I'm not shouting, "Oh God, what have I done/what was I thinking?" It's tempting to say too that, in hindsight, it seems to have made a lot of sense to have tackled "Procopius on War" aspects in the order that I have.  Understanding something of his approach to describing and explaining combat should now make it easier to make sense of what he says.

I've just taken a look at the Battle of Satala (530) again, which you can find around 1.15.1ff.  For Procopius, the battle seems to hinge on the bravery of one elite Roman individual (a Florentius - 1.15.15), who charges the Persian line, at a point when no one side seems to be making much headway, and manages to seize the Persian general's standard (to strategikon shmeion) and thrust it to the ground before meeting his fate.  The Persians panic, freak out, and return to base in light of this, before heading home the next day.  And the battle ends.  For Procopius individuals, especially those in command positions, are important, and with in mind it's no surprise that things turned out the way they did.  But while this might tell us something about what Procopius and some of his peers thought about what happened and understood as important in what happened, does it tell us anything about might what have happened?

The trick, this time round, is to cut through what Procopius says, and I confess that upon looking it over it's more than a little maddening.  Still, there are some things we can pick out.  We find, for instance, the importance of numbers.  Procopius' implies that the Persians had almost twice as many soldiers as the Romans (30,000 to less than 15,000), and that they were all cavalry.  Whether these numbers are feasible or not is something that I'll have to look at later.  For the moment, while the difference does seem to be significant, it's also important to note that Procopius himself seems to imply that both sides are perhaps less than aware of some important details about each others' contingents.  Procopius (1.15.12) claims that the Persians couldn't work out how many men the Romans had - aided in part by the all the dust kicked up by the conditions, though I suspect too by the speed of the Roman advance, as well as their height advantage.  There is then a hint of the sensory here - sight, sound (implied if not stated), and perhaps too taste (we could imagine the taste of the dust on a hot summer's afternoon).  We also get some of the concerns highlighted by the authors of military manuals (Vegetius and Maurice):  conceal your numbers, especially if you're at a disadvantage.

I've been reading Decker's book on Byzantine warfare, and he implies that the Byzantine state (which includes this era) was lacking exceptional commanders, but did have some competent ones.  It's hard not to think that this might be a bit harsh, or at least that we have evidence of some better-than-competent performance is on view here, if Procopius is anything to go.  For we also read that the Roman force had been split up, with a comparatively small contingent (about 1000) sent up high onto the hills that surround Satala (and you can see them on Google Earth), while the rest moved inside the city walls.  The barbarians had moved outside the city walls when Sittas' force came down upon them from on high, as noted earlier.  He also split it in two - this allowed him to use gravity and the conditions to his advantage against a clearly superior-in-numbers foe.  It also seems to be the case that the Persians were amassed in some sort of confined space round the city walls, which meant that they were bunched up.  Indeed, if you take a look at Satala on Google Earth (best I can do without going there), the ancient city is in a little valley, with a plain, and is surrounded by hills.  In other words, it's easy to imagine this happening, especially if the Persians had as many men as Procopius claims.  So while Sittas may have had more than 1000 with him, contra Procopius, the conditions all seem to support Procopius' claims:  Persians crowded together, backed up against the city walls on one side, looking up at the hills on another side, and seeing an indeterminate number of men charging down on horseback, in the middle of a large dust cloud, and then another army charging out from the city gates.  It's easy to think that the Persians would have been terrified, as Procopius implies.

While the Persians may have had the numeric advantage, everything else so clearly favoured the Romans - spatially, they were much better off.  It's hard to work out (impossible really) what the units were at the Romans' advantage - 15,000 seems a large garrison for Satala, and one wonders when all the soldiers arrived and whether any were based there (that's something to check).  Interestingly, Procopius says all the participants on both sides were horses, which seems astonishing to me.  Either way, he also says that the battle became fierce, but even, with both sides constantly, owing to their abundant cavalry, charging and then withdrawing.  In this I'm reminded of Van Wees' suggestions about Homeric warfare, for which he drew on research on warfare in Polynesia (or, well, somewhere).  Basically, there's a lot of each side sitting back while contingents, individuals, what have going forward regularly to charge and so forth.  Not sure if the Homer/Van Wees/Polynesia (somewhere) parallel works - quite different kinds of soldiers involved (see Procopius' preface even).  It seems to imply not a lot of tactical wizardry, however, at least based on how things were going.  So maybe I'm coming round to Decker's claims (competent but not exceptional leaders - still, given they were outnumbered).

I better wrap this up - and so, this is the historical that I can deduce so far (at this early stage).  Procopius's account is short on detail, full of drama, but most certainly plausible.  This brings us back to the charge of Florentius:  is this not, then, too a plausible outcome for why the Romans won?  Given that the two sides seem to have been evenly matched based on all the other available criteria, if Florentius' charge is all that's left, might it not be the reason for the outcome?   This battle may not tell us too much about how the Romans waged war in the sixth century, but I think it does point to the veracity of Procopius' writing, which in turn would lend greater credence to those other, more detailed battles that he describes.  They'll all have to be checked independently and compared with all available evidence, but suggestive.  NOTE:  I tend not to edit these posts, so apologies for typos/moments of awkwardness. 

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