Why Some Historians Distrust Procopius




The problematic nature of relying on classicising like Priscus, Procopius, and Agathias to reconstruct the culture mores of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire is an issue that divides many modern scholars. Intertextuality has become all the rage in Late Antique studies. While I see value in such scholarship, as my mentor John Moorhead reminded me such studies frequently tell us more about the cleverness of the modern scholar than the ancient author they are trying to examine. In my work I recognise the debt that the mid-sixth-century historian Procopius had to his classical models. I argue, however, that much in his work reflects sixth-century Byzantine cultural views. I summed up my views on this topic in the introduction to my 2003 MA THESIS, Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius. I wrote:

“Despite the influence and limitations of the Classical Greek models of history that Procopius followed, his writing and thinking reflected sixth-century Byzantine trends. It is vital to look back into the Classical past and forward into the Middle Ages in an attempt to achieve a better understanding of the sixth-century Byzantine mindset. Just as imperative, however, is looking at this era as its own unique historical epoch. There are no simple answers in analyzing Procopius’ complex constructions of men’s heroic conduct; nonetheless, his descriptions of heroes and villains can provide an increased understanding of Procopius and of the sixth-century Eastern Mediterranean world in which he lived.”

I ran into this debate again in my 2012 thesis review. One examiner questioned whether Procopius and other secular historians could be used to tell us about Byzantine values. Funny enough the same scholar had no problem when I used rigorist Christian sources.

The examiner maintained: There also needs to be a clearer awareness of how much of Procopius’ text and focus (and that of other writers) is deliberately ‘Thucydidean’ rather than (say) sixth-century CE

What follows is my reply:

Thucydides is only one of many ancient and early Byzantine historians upon whom Procopius had patterned his history. As I suggest on (p. 11), “Without a doubt, the classicising historians emulated some of the Greek prose and techniques of their classical models Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius”. So too did Procopius rely upon the fifth and early sixth-century secular and ecclesiastical histories of Priscus of Panium and Eustathius of Epiphania for his account.  


Procopius unquestionably adapted some of Thucydides’ narrative strategies, and in particular, his reliance on set-speeches before battles. His use of a rather limited vocabulary also emulates Thucydidean strategies, that in the words of Anthony Kaldellis (Procopius, 11-12), “enables the reader to track the distribution of key concepts and appreciate subtle connections and changes”. I note this relationship in several places. References to Thucydides’ influence on Procopius’ writings and other early Byzantine classicising histories are found at 11-13, 29, 126,177-78, and 194. So too does my study guide its reader to recent studies that examine the extent of intertextuality in Procopius and other classicising historians.

 The notion that Procopius “slavishly” followed Thucydidean models and therefore provides one with little relevant material about warfare, masculinity, and sixth-century Byzantine society in general has, however, been rejected in much of the scholarship on the Byzantine historian. As J. A. S. Evans argues, “he [Procopius] may have borrowed vocabulary from the Periclean age, but the substance belonged to the sixth century after Christ”. Another respected scholar (Kaegi, “Procopius the Military Historian”, 67) insists that, despite his borrowings from Thucydides, Procopius remains the best and most reliable Byzantine military historian. Averil Cameron (Procopius, 37), in fact, questions just how deeply Procopius knew Thucydides’ history. Procopius certainly described a far different and larger landscape than Thucydides had a thousand years earlier. Thucydides, indeed, would have found much in Procopius’ history strange. Some of Procopius’ views on ethnicity and non-Romans, his inclusion of influential women, bishops, holy men, demons, and miracles all help to mark him as an early Byzantine intellectual. 

Moreover, just because Procopius, or another early Byzantine historian, uses a “Thucydidean concept” or narrative strategy does not necessarily mean that the subsequent thoughts or descriptions do not reflect “sixth-century values”. Indeed, imagine if one rejected early Byzantine writers’ use of passages and concepts found in the Old and New Testament, and/or early Christian theologians, as “products of an earlier age”, and therefore not representative of early Byzantine values. Brought up in a culture that educated many young elites on the writings of Thucydides and other classical authors, it should not surprise that some more traditional views on manliness and unmanliness survived as well. As I suggest in my introductory chapter, “The Eastern Roman Empire had far more stable and restricted views about masculinity, or indeed, about society in general, than is typically found in the modern world, where rapidly changing cultures and technologies have created far more adaptable and varied understandings of these concepts”.

 As the most recent monograph on Procopius points out, there is a tendency in some modern scholarship to dismiss any adherence to “classical values” in the early Byzantine literature as representing mere embers of a dying age and/or not truly representative of what they see as early Byzantines values. Yet, I would propose that the “true” picture is more nuanced, and therefore more exciting and interesting.



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