Thursday, 1 December 2016

Procopius, War, and the Law

One of the biggest surprises of the summer was receiving a grant for a research project on more sixth-century things.  I’ve applied for all sorts of grants over the years, and generally been unsuccessful.  I’d all but dismissed my chances of getting this one until I received the shocking notice. 

The grant is, effectively, for a book that will be the follow-up to Procopius book one, and it will look more at the history side than the historiographical one.  That means Procopius is still important, but he’s one part of a whole, with the other part/s occupied by the archaeological, epigraphic, legal, and papyrological evidence.  It also entails considering, at least to some degree, the other literary evidence.  Ultimately the book will provide something of a commentary on how Procopius deals with war in the sixth century, with the discussion ranging from military organization to planning and logistics, and even how war was fought. 

The book will offer a holistic approach, and we’re fortunate in that the age of Justinian is so well documented, perhaps more so than just about every other period of the ancient or late antique worlds, at least in my opinion.  The catch is that the voluminous evidence doesn’t always cover the same affairs, and this is particularly true for military matters.  There are, for instance, some detailed reports on fortifications in Jordan and Bulgaria, but scarce reports on those same structures in our surviving literary evidence.  We have detailed descriptions of battles from Procopius and some other authors, but little in the way of surviving weaponry.  This means we can’t always compare this disparate material, and trying to make sense of all of it can be a bit of a challenge.  The danger, lo temptation, too is trying to make all the pieces fit together, when, in reality, the pieces come from different puzzles.  Still, one of the great thrills of this project is that it’s given me the opportunity to dabble into all sorts of other kinds of evidence that I’ve paid less attention to in the past. 

To this point, when I haven’t been embroiled in all sorts of other work matters, I’ve been concentrating a great deal on the other evidence.  I’ve discovered, for instance, that there is far more epigraphic evidence for military matters in the sixth century than I’d previously believed.  While we’re nowhere near the epigraphic heights of the first two centuries AD, there are a few inscriptions in Latin that either mention Justinian, a general, and assorted other commanders as well some military units.  There are even more Greek ones.  Many of these have only a tangential bearing on my project, for most of the war-related ones have more to say about war’s impact than about how it is waged, and I’m starting to think I won’t be able to get into those matters.  There’s also the Anastasius edict, which I’d only been vaguely familiar with before.  I certainly hadn’t realized what a fabulous document it is. 

In fact, I feel fortunate that there are so many wonderful research tools at our disposal now, from the two excellent epigraphic databases (for Greek and Latin), to the papyrological one, and the TLG, which does require access to a research library of some capacity or other. 

We also now have the wonderful text and translation of the Justinianic Codex, and the grant allowed me to buy a copy.  I’ve been looking at this legal material in more depth than I ever have before, and it’s forced me to come to grips with what is quite a substantial body evidence, and one that’s been scarcely applied to the military sphere, especially in the sixth century, apart from Jones.  So far it’s posing all sorts of interesting questions for me.  For one thing, there’s a staggering amount of legislation, and it seems aspiring lawyers would have had to understand, even know, just about all of it.  If Procopius himself had been a lawyer, and I think he had, this means that he too would have had to have been intimately familiar with the material.  It turns out too that assessors were tasked with knowing the law, and even providing guidance to judges who might require assistance. 

If Procopius was both a lawyer and an assessor, this in itself raises interesting questions about Procopius’ practices as an historian, but also what or who was considered an essential part of an army.  Surely Procopius wasn’t the only assessor acting in a military environment, just the only one who wrote quite so much and so well.  It also raises questions about the long reach of Justinian, and how exactly Procopius might have got the job.  Were generals assigned assessors by Justinian so that he could, in some ways, keep a check on the generals?  Maybe not directly, but indirectly.  In other words, were the generals expected to follow the letter of the law as dictated by Justinian, and were they assigned assessors to ensure that this happened? It seems unlikely, perhaps, but then quite a lot of the legislation found in the Corpus Iuris Civilis that specifically concerns military matters actually deals with what could be considered property duties and expectations of generals and the like. 

The legal material also has me wondering if it, in some way, should be considered an ideal:  this is how things should be, in Justinian’s eyes.  How often would they work that way in practice?  And for my purposes (military stuff), can Procopius provide evidence for this?  Is the law in some sense the rhetoric, and what Procopius describes the reality? 

Anyway, there’s a lot to chew on, and quite a bit more to digest, so I hope to provide more posts in the coming months.

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