Thursday, 19 April 2018

Scrubbing Out Procopius, or the Anti-Kaegi "Procopius the Military Historian"

It's pretty hard to escape the pull of the Procopius-black hole when it comes to the sixth-century East Roman Empire, at least if you're interested in military and political issues.  That's part of the reason why scholars like Roger Scott have devoted so much attention to the other historians like Malalas.  Scott's four pillars of the age of Justinian are:  the construction of Hagia Sophia, the codification of Roman law, the closing of Plato's Academy in Athens, and Justinian's reconquest of the west.  Although Procopius does devote considerable attention to Hagia Sophia in the Buildings, it's the reconquest that garners so much attention in the Wars.  There's no doubt that this presents a skewed view of Justinian's world.  In this post, however, I'd like to flip things around.  To what degree does Procopius' interests in war obscure other pertinent matters, and in turn cause most of us to overlook other important pieces of evidence?  Bearing all this in mind, I want to discuss six aspects of Procopius' military history:  his classicizing vocabulary, his descriptions of combat, his interest in the conquest of Africa and Italy, and his focus on Belisarius in the Wars, his account of the fortifications of the northeast frontier in the Buildings, and his account of the malaise of the empire's soldiers in the Secret History.

Let's begin with the latter, and proceed in reverse order, finishing with Belisarius.  In the Secret History Procopius' emphasizes the suffering of most of the empire's inhabitants, and the soldiers are no exception.  One particular group that Procopius complains suffered a great deal are the border troops, who got into such a sorry state that they effectively stopped being soldiers.  If we forget about Procopius' comments here, and in the other two texts for that matter, in which frontier troops feature hardly at all, and instead look at the surviving evidence we get quite a different picture, at least potentially.  We have plenty of documentary evidence for frontier soldiers in Egypt and Israel/Palestine, and to a lesser degree Jordan.  That material points to thriving frontier communities full of soldiers, who identify as such.  Most seem fully integrated into local life, and if anything the abundance of property documents, not to mention marriage certificates, point to some degree of wealth and prosperity amongst those very soldiers.  So where are they getting their money?  Have they managed to supplement their income through other means, as some has suggested was the case with the soldier from Aphrodito who also served as a boatmen?  Or is their income derived primarily if not entirely from their state income?  If we didn't have Procopius' comments, I suspect the argument would be that the frontier soldiers were flourishing, at least in the sixth-century southeast.  The legal evidence, which is full of material concerned specifically with soldiers, would reinforce these sorts of arguments.

Next we move to the forts of the northeast.  Procopius' love-in for Justinians' building programme has led to a great debate:  just how many of the fortification work we read about is really attributable to him?  Many have highlighted the work of Anastasius, for instance, though in other cases the jury is still out.  What if all we had were the surviving fortifications and a few incidental anecdotes?  Justinian's efforts would certainly be diminished, but then so too might Anastasius'.  There are plenty of forts still standing in Syria (or there were until recently), and plenty more in Jordan.  The date of some of those Jordanian forts are ambiguous, while others are more obviously fourth century in date.  Some seem to have been occupied regularly, though only some have been privy to detailed excavations.  If all we had to go on was these Jordanian (and the neighbouring Israeli/Palestinian forts) forts, we wouldn't see Justinian's reign as an age of considerable frontier work in this part of the frontier, though the comparative epigraphic and papyrological evidence would imply that many if not most of the fortifications continued to the sites of a good deal of activity.

Procopius tends to use archaic vocabulary, vocabulary better suited to the world of Thucydides, or so goes the usual complaints.  This applies to military matters too, and we get hints of this in the words he uses for divisions within the military.  Much of his terminology is vague:  the men with general X, the infantry, the horsemen, etc.  In other cases, his diction has occluded more than it has illuminated.  He likes to use the word katalologos, for instance, a word rarely used by classical or even classicizing historians, when describing groups of soldiers (units or even regiments).  Quite a few have taken this to mean that the term had a more technical meaning, and more specifically that it denoted the army's field units.  It's not an unreasonable assumption if we assume that Procopius is mostly concerned with the field unit soldiers (at the expense of frontier soldiers).  That it features in virtually no other military source for the sixth century should give us pause, however, and A H M Jones is one of the only ones to have done so.  If we didn't have Procopius' Wars narrative where he used words like  katalogos we'd probably devote more attention to the words we do occasionally find in the inscriptions and papyri.  The newly published inscription form Perge would receive a great deal of attention - and scholars would likely be obsessed with how we get from the regiments of the eastern section of the Notitia Dignitatum to the units of Maurice, with no unnecessary - even unhelpful - pauses to consider Procopius.  To some degree this might still happen, though maybe it should happen sooner.  Is it not, for example, interesting that Theophylact can talk of legions on the eastern frontier around the same time that we find the word "legion" in Egyptian papyri - and just a few decades after that Anastasian inscription detailing the structure (it seems) of a legion? 

Turning to combat, Maurice's Strategikon might give the impression that cavalry played a major role in combat at the end of the sixth century.  But it wouldn't explain quite which proportions of the military dominated decades earlier.  Our material evidence is limited, while the other evidence is ambiguous.  If we had to rely on Pseudo-Joshua, we wouldn't get too far.  Corippus' Iohannis, though quite detailed, is a panegyrical epic, and his combat scenes are vaguely Homeric:  they involve single combats, and the dashing to and fro of soldiers into and out of battle.  Agathias, on the other hand, does go to some lengths to describe the experience of combat even if he spends only a little on the finer details. In his most detailed battle, the Battle of Casilinum, there's little in his account that betrays a clear emphasis on either cavalry or infantry.  That might help provide context for the anonymous treatise of political science which includes that fictional debate between Menas and Thomas on the relative merits of the two solitudes to borrow a Canadian literary-cum-historical phrase.  But whether cavalry had supplanted infantry would not yet be clear.

Moving on to the conquest, we would suspect that the campaign in Italy had the smallest of impacts on matters in the capital, which would be in line with some of Scott's arguments.  Even the more local evidence, the Lives of the Popes, devotes only a little bit of attention to the war, with the siege of Rome, such a central feature of Procopius' account, restricted to a few lines.  North Africa, on the other hand, is something else.  Later writers, like Photius and Theophanes, who had read all of part of Procopius, either paraphrase or quote Procopius' narrative of the Vandal Wars.  The aforementioned epic of Corippus also gives the impression that a significant conflict had taken place in the region.  In fact, we could even look to another of the four pillars, Roman law, for yet more evidence of the war's impact.  Besides the overt propaganda at the opening of the Codex of Justinian, there are specific laws that point the acquisition of significant territory in North Africa, and the efforts of the state to administer the new lands.  What this evidence might imply was that a long and significant war had taken place in North Africa, which resulted in a lasting Roman victory.

That North African success brings us to the last point, the reputation of Belisarius.  It seems to me, and many others besides, that his reputation rests largely on the literary efforts of Procopius.  A closer look at the epigraphy, on the other hand, might bring greater attention to Solomon, who published his successes in North Africa quite widely.  Belisarius features in maybe a dozen Latin inscriptions, and a handful of Greek ones.  Solomon, however, features in nearly three times as many Latin inscriptions from North Africa.  On this limited evidence the impression might be that Solomon was the great general of the age, or at least the campaign.  Thanks to Agathias, Narses' reputation might rise too, and though the historian is not unflattering towards Belisarius, his account gives only the vaguest impression of the man's military accomplishments.  Indeed, if all we had to go on was the many later references to Procopius' works, we'd be left wondering what the scope of Belisarius' accomplishment truly was, and perhaps a little baffled the comments of authors like the one who wrote the entry on Procopius in the Suda, or the later Byzantine historian Manasses.

All this is to suggest that the survival of Procopius' long works has not only obfuscated our understanding of the wider world of sixth-century Byzantium, but also more specifically Byzantine military affairs.  While his work has undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on matters like combat, in other instances, such as the careers of "lesser" generals like Solomon or the hardships of the frontier soldiers, what he has provided has obscured other important aspects of the empire's military history.  A greater focus on these other kinds of evidence for sixth-century military affairs might bring a much more about this period to light.

NOTE:  I'd forgotten about Foss' paper on Theodora.  He does this, only with the Secret History.  I've got a copy, but haven't read it yet (will do so now...)


  1. Roger is a fellow member of the AABS, but I find his takes on Malalas as the real voice of the sixth century unconvincing if not to the extent Treadgold finds his views is perhaps important to point out that Australia where Roger and I now hail is a very demiliterized place...I think also that the shadows of Vietnam and the two Iraq wars loom large in our modern historiographical perspectives of Procopius and indeed Thucydides. As you know as well I am beginning to lean towards Borm and Codoner's take on Secret History...however, whether or not one believes it is representative of P's true views around 550 and/or a cistern of material to insert once Justinian died or as cover for a regime-change, one must wonder about its focus and why certain people are missing and why no individual receives any praise. Moreover, is it significant that Procopius unlike Malalas never mentions Sittas' marriage to Theodora's sister Comito? Procopius obviously admired what he does not say may be important...okay babbling now. But I will tell you I am going writng a journal article on marriages and alliances within Justinian's circle and am looking at the P's portrait of Belisarius from the three possible perspectives (Greatrex, Kaldellis, Borm).

    1. That is my son by the way in the photo!