Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Agathias, a Herodotus for the Age of Justinian

I've been slowly working my way through Agathias, reading the text, in translation I admit (though with the accompanying Greek text), much closer than I ever have before.  Some of it I'd already gone through before, but this time I'm trying to soak it all in, so to speak, partially keeping my open for certain things, like evidence of combat motivation (for a paper) and military communities (again for a paper), but while also keeping my eyes open to interesting features.  I've found more than a few, and as I near the end there are a few things stand out.  I'd planned to discuss a few of them here, but the others, the careful crafting of his historian persona, his abundant (in comparison to Procopius) methodological statements, his interest in the personal or intimate anecdotes, and his interest in the sensory and the emotional will have to wait for another day, because I'm tired.  So here, a couple of observations on his Herodotean proclivities.

For one, Agathias is, in many respects, far more Herodotean than I had appreciated before.  Some time ago Averil Cameron went carefully through a set of supposed correspondences identified by Franke and highlighted some of the glaring problems.  Much of what she said all that time ago makes a lot of sense.  Some years later, Whitby (nb - former supervisor) highlighted, if briefly, Agathias' love of digressions.  While I take Cameron's point, it's worth highlighting those digressions.  While they might seem weird and unnecessary - Agathias has been criticized for spending too much time on things that matter too little - I think they do offer him a means of engaging more fully with his audience.  He wants to show us what he knows, though more on that personal aspect in a second.  It also gives him a chance to display his learning, while also adhering to the grand classical historical tradition.  Digressions were important, and this was one of their distinctive features that he chose to pay attention to, in part because he knew what his strengths were. 

Now the very fact that his longest of digressions concerns the Persians should be a red flag:  he has Herodotus on his mind.  Yes, it's also relevant.  The most recent Persian war was drawing to a close, and the historian who professed to be succeeding, Procopius, had devoted considerable attention to them.  But the most obvious ancient historian, for any late antique or Byzantine historian to my eyes, when Persians are the subject is Herodotus.  That doesn't necessarily mean that he needed to flood his Persian-themed discussions with Herodotean-borrowings.  In fact, it would be difficult, given Herodotus wrote in Ionian Greek and Agathias favoured the Atticizing Greek of Procopius and their predecessors.  While there likely are a host of particular episodes in Herodotus that are paralleled in Agathias, I'm not so sure it has to be so exact. 

There's one last Herodotean characteristic, a smaller one, admittedly, that I want to draw attention to.  Agathias regularly presents two explanations or theories in his digressions.  So, something along the lines of, some think this is the case, others think this is the case.  Quite often, and possibly in the latter half in particular - though I'd have to check, it might just be my memory - Agathias will also finish a digression or extended discussion with something along the lines of, let the reader decide for him or herself how she feels.  To me, that screams of Herodotus, more so than anything else.  It'll do with some fleshing out, however.

So, his Herodotean-leanings deserve additional attention.  Plus, it has me rethinking what I said about his Thucydidean-borrowings in a chapter that'll be out next year.  Basically, I said he was less successful, by some margin, at the Thucydidean-style history than Procopius.  While this hasn't changed my mind, I would, on further thought, have made greater emphasis on the possibility - lo likelihood - that this was ok, because that wasn't what he had in mind:  Agathias didn't want to be a modern-day Thucydides, for Procopius had already done that.  Indeed, he spends lots of time commending Procopius for what he's already done, and stressing what he'll do differently.  Rather, Agathias, I'm starting to think, was much more interested in being a modern-day Herodotus.  

No comments:

Post a Comment