Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Agathias on War

It may seem all too predictable, especially given the trajectories of Cameron and Kaldellis, but for a long time I've considered dabbling much deeper into the world of Agathias. As little as there has been written on Procopius, even less has been written on Agathias, and a good part of that, for obvious reasons, has been devoted to his poetic proclivities. What is more, though this is, to some degree, par for the course, opinions of his capabilities vary widely, and there have been no sustained and extensive treatments of his value as an historian.  Kaldellis did write a handful of papers that focused on Agathias the historian, and Cameron wrote her monograph on Agathias more generally, but there's nothing substantial (in terms of size at least - not quality) out there on Agathias as an historian, and certainly nothing focused on his military credentials.

And yet, despite his legal background and poetic leanings, Agathias devoted a lengthy, or at least significant, and detailed history to military matters, a fact which he himself professed early in his text.  He self-consciously followed in the footsteps of Procopius, at times seeking to distance himself from Procopius' perceived failings, at others subtly agreeing and/or engaging with Procopius' military leanings.  Some see Agathias' discussion of military matters as excellent (Syvanne); others as sub-par (Wheeler).  And yet, if no one has undertaken a sustained analysis, how can we know, and how should we use him, if at all?

It's hard to underscore his importance, whether real or potential.  Like Xenophon in his Hellenica to Thucydides in his History, Agathias picks up exactly where Procopius left off in book 8.  And yet, unlike Procopius, his narrative is concentrated on only a few years, though important ones for Justinian's empire.  Agathias' History is undoubtedly shorter than Procopius' Wars - and the fact that current editions and translations don't exist in comparable texts makes my attempts to eyeball the differences between them questionable at best, there's no getting round the potential benefits of that level of detail. 

As I go through the History for other reasons, and start thinking I should devote more energy to the military character of his writing than I have (my interest in Procopius waxes and wanes several times over the course of a day), there have been a number of things that have jumped out at me.  For instance, he seems to engage with Procopius regularly, often indirectly, at least when one focuses on the military angle.  This is, I think, worth drawing attention too, especially since he's less overt in these instances than he is when it comes to the Persians, for instance. 

In addition, we know that Agathias lacked Procopius' experience with war, and so his sources for military matters would inevitably have differed in significant ways.  This would seem to cast doubt on his usefulness on military matters, though so many people who write about war these days who consider themselves experts, at least of a sort, have had no such experiences themselves, myself included.  Thus, it's not out of the realm of possibility for an educated and intelligent writer like Agathias to track down all the necessary materials to craft a believable work of military historiography.  Indeed, with this in mind, another topic that I'd have to explore would be Agathias' engagement with wider military thinking, both that evinced in the surviving military manuals, but also in the wider world.  It has struck me that Agathias' accounts have seemed far more sensible and satisfactory than I had expected and been led to believe - or even remember.  Admittedly, the last time I read him in this much detail my interest was focused almost squarely on combat. 

Anyway, much to consider.  While a thorough analysis may reveal that he doesn't deserve to be classed with Procopius, it might well be that he deserves more credit than he often gets, at least, again, in the realm of military matters.  Indeed, as I've noted before, if nothing else he seems to be one of the best writers of the experience of combat, a not unimportant subject in the wider category of military history.

No comments:

Post a Comment