War, battle, and my Dissertation

Well, my MA thesis is essentially done, defense and minor corrections aside. The next stage of my never-ending life of a student doesn’t begin officially until the 26th of September. Regardless, I’ve already thrown myself into the fray and have begun the first stages of my next dissertation. Over the course of the next 3 or 4 years I shall become better acquainted with this long dead fellow named Procopius; the Roman army of the 6th century; Procopius’ 6th century classical Attic Greek; Classical Greek and early Byzantine historiography; warfare in the late Roman world; east Roman culture, or rather what we can gleam of it from Procopius’ narrative; attitudes to war; and that most dominant of human events, the battle. Yes, the focus of my dissertation is loosely battle in Late Antiquity through the eyes of Procopius. So, it’s now time for to throw some questions out there for you all to ponder.

Procopius is, or rather was in a unique position as he was for quite some time the secretary to a man who was one of the greatest generals of his day, Belisarius. Belisarius was entrusted with Justinian’s ‘cooky’ plan to reconquere some of those long-lost west Roman provinces. Procopius accompanied Belisarius as he sailed east with a modest Roman armada and thus was privy to many of the events that he describes. This force that may have numbered no more than 15,000 troops sailed off from Constantinople, paused in Sicily to pursue some diplomatic enterprises, before making for Africa. Surprisingly (at least in my eyes), the Romans achieved success against the Vandals fairly quickly and not long after the campaign had begun, the Romans had retaken some of the most important parts of North Africa. With that said, their attempts to reconquer would be difficult: it took several years for Rome to finally overcome the ruling Goths and by that point, Italy had been raped.

Procopius also seems to have been around for a considerable bit of the Persian War that occupied the Romans in the first third of the sixth century. This was yet another of the seemingly endless struggles between those two great superpowers of Late Antiquity, the east Roman Byzantines, and the Sassanian Persians. In the end, Rome managed to secure peace long enough (and put themselves on a solid enough footing) to undertake their western reconquest.

As noted, Procopius’ first-hand experience makes him an excellent source for such a study (unfortunately he wasn’t around for all that he describes – thus, it will be interesting to see if there are any substantial differences between the descriptions of the battles that he experienced, and those that he didn’t). Moreover, as that very rough sketch suggests, there was more than enough “shit going down” to provide ample material for any classical historical narrative. Battle descriptions were a hallmark of classical historiography. Moreover, battle is an ubiquitous part of the human existence, and continues to be so. In the last few weeks I have seen 3 new videos (and I don’t watch MuchMusic THAT much) that portray, to some extent, the horrors of war. Of course, our current superpower is embroiled in a protracted campaign in Iraq that has achieved mixed results thus far. Living in the media age also means that there are conisderably more avenues to discuss these sorts of things: newspapers, books, magazines, TV news, music videos, movies, songs, poetry, internet posts like this, blogs, you name it. This is in marked contrast to Procopius’ day.

At the same time, we live in a culture that is quite different from Procopius’. Even in the western world there are a myriad of different cultures that have different views about war. Here in Canada war is something to be shunned. For the most part, we try and avoid it where and whenever possible; this is perhaps best reflected in the paltry resources that we give our armed forces. Now, it was not always this way: back in WWII we boasted an army that had 1.3 million soldiers; in addition we had an airforce and a navy that combined may have totalled 500,00. That’s a far cry from today’s Canadian Forces that probably number less than 100,000 (and might be closer to 75,000 – thoughts Morgan?). Conversely, our southern juggernauts continue to pour billions into their armed forces. Turn on the evening news and you are likely to find a significant portion of the program on American networks devoted to war and the American military. There have been a number of protests and rallies, both for and against the war. There are trucks driving down Ontario’s freeways that proclaim their unflagging support for US troops. This is where we as Canadians go: “of course. They’re at war and we’re not.” But, as I type this there are perhaps 1000’s of Canadian soldiers that are “in harm’s way” fighting to keep the peace. Shoud those Canadian Service persons who were nearly killed in Egypt recently receive any less support from us than those American soldiers in Iraq receive from their public? Whether we like or agree with it or not, war continues and will continue to be something that will dominate the human existence. Attitudes to war – and here’s where I turn back to my new dissertation – tell us a lot about a culture. How Canadians describe and discuss these sorts of issues tells us a lot about the Canadian psyche; conversely, how Americans describe and discuss these same issues tells us a lot about the American psyche.

So, if we keep all of this in mind, a study of how one particular author writing around AD 550 describes battles should tells us a lot about both his own views about battle and war, that of his class, and ideally in a broader sense, that of his culture. Do the values that he expresses, whether directly or indirectly, and as a result those of a 6th century Roman (I need a little digression here: Roman in this context is a very sticky word. At the time that he was writing, Latin was close to disappearing from the Roman empire. Moreover, Procopius wrote in Greek and was greatly influenced by Greek authors like Thucydides and Xenophon. There were certain ways that one writing such a history was go about doing it. He probably followed the models set out by his Classical Greek predecessors and this will certainly have an impact on what he describes; it’s also something that I’m going to work through. How do I find the values of 6th century Roman from a history that was modelled after a style that was first used 1000 years earlier?) differ from those of second century Roman? Christianity has now entered the fray. Does this have any bearing on what he describes? Does he attribute success in case to “the favour of God”? How important in morale and pyschology? How about tactics?

As I hope that I demonstrated, there is certainly a lot to think about. Plus, there are a number of other things that I shall have to keep in mind when doing this study. Still, I hope by pouring through piles of battle descriptions from principally Procopius (though also those of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors) to gleam something of the late Roman culture, particularly as regards war and battle.

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