Today’s blog looks at Procopius’ famous digression describing the supposed ship of the legendary Aeneas that he saw preserved in a museum like setting in sixth-century Rome. I will show, that rather than being merely the observations of a fascinated tourist, the digression served a much larger and essential literary purpose.
Throughout his Wars, the mid sixth-century historian had little positive to say about the native Italo-Romans, whom he frequently condemned for “sheepishly” abandoning their traditional martial roles in the fifth and sixth centuries, and therefore becoming “slaves” to the Goths. Moreover, the majority of his descriptions of the ancient city of Rome seem to lack the traditional reverence for the birthplace of Roman civilization and the entire notion of Romanitas. To borrow the words of the eminent Procopian scholar, Averil Cameron, “when he (Procopius) writes about Rome itself, it is striking that he does so as an outsider, interested in, but not overwhelmed by the monuments he saw around him.”
This is not to say that he did not admire the city of Rome or some sixth-century Italo-Romans. It is clear that from his time in the city serving under the general Belisarius he had made friends amongst members of the Roman senate. So too does one find in his descriptions of the plagues and famines that struck Italy during Justinian’s Gothic campaigns a genuine concern for the native population’s suffering.
He began his retelling of the final confrontations (Wars 8.21.) between the Eastern Romans and the Goths in 552 by describing the sorry state of the native Romans. He showed that the citizens of Rome were unable to defend or rebuild their city after it had been damaged by the nearly non-stop tit-for-tat warfare between the Goths and Eastern Romans that had plagued Italy and the city of Rome for fifteen years. Procopius wrote: “These Romans being reduced to the state of slaves and stripped of all their money, were not only unable to lay claim to the public funds, but could not even secure those which belonged to them personally.”
Though the passage above follows his general negative view, as he continues this tale he related the tenacity of the Italo-Romans. He wrote with seeming admiration:
“The Romans love their city above all men that we know, and they are eager to protect all their ancestral treasures and to preserve them, so that nothing of the ancestral glory of ancient Rome may be obliterated. For even though they were for a long period under barbarian sway, they preserved the buildings of the city and most of the adornments, such as (they) could through the excellence of their workmanship withstand so long a lapse of and such neglect.”
Knowing as we do Procopius’ general scorn for the Italo-Romans, the passage above may be a backhanded compliment. Procopius did not stop here; to the excitement of many modern scholars, Procopius then described how the citizens had preserved “the ship of Aeneas, the founder of the city, an altogether incredible sight.” Procopius went on to recount what he saw of the ship in great detail (8.22.9-16). Scholars have spilled much ink on this depiction. They rightly point to its significance in reconstructing how sixth-century Romans linked their culture to their civilizations legendary founder. Two recent examples of this modern view should suffice. Steven Rutledge suggests that for Procopius the ship “symbolized the Romans weathering of adversity, and their native fortitudo et constantina.” “It is an instance”, Rutledge continues, “where the literal evidence of an object served to mirror the endurance and antiquity of an ancient people.”
Cameron places less importance on Procopius’ digression, maintaining that while interesting, it represents merely the observations of a tourist.
While both of the remarks above discuss important aspects of Procopius’ account each one, in my mind, miss the historian’s main purpose in placing this digression at the opening of his final section of the Gothic Wars. As Anthony Kaldellis has emphasized in his work on Procopius, these seeming trite digressions often hold the key to the events to come. This seems to be the case here. This conscious appeal to a distinguished Roman past served a larger purpose. Indeed, immediately after he described the ships, he related how the Goths under Totila had built their own fleet of 300 ships to attack Greece. This fleet, however, failed to do any serious damage. The Goths, in Procopius’ telling, appear to be only playing at being martial sailors. It is important for me to once again emphasise that the Goths had long tried to present themselves as the revitalisers of ancient Rome’s traditional martial prowess. Here Procopius tried to make plain the lie of such propaganda. Who then in historian’s mind were the “true” heirs of Aeneas? Surely not the feeble Italo-Romans whom as Procopius had shown throughout his Gothic Wars had merely preserved a memory of their native martial and nautical past.
Only a little later after a description of Totila’s rather meagre naval campaigns in the Mediterranean Sea, and another seeming innocuous depiction by Procopius on the geography found in Homer’s writings (Wars 8.22.16-29), does the reader finally find out who the true naval Romans were, the Byzantines led by its naval commanders John and Valerian. His account of the subsequent naval battle is the key to understanding the earlier digression on Aeneas’ ship. It is surely no coincidence that Procopius here places the set-speech of an arrogant Gothic commander. Before the coming naval confrontation, the Gothic naval commander exhorted his forces “To show therefore quickly as possible that they (the Eastern Romans) are Greeklings and unmanly by nature and are merely putting on a bold front when defeated, do not let this bold experiment of theirs proceed further (Wars 8.23.24-27).” Here the Gothic leader is relying (once again) on old Theoderican propaganda that sought to disparage the Eastern Romans as unmanly Greeks. The experiment he discussed is nothing less than Justinian’s entire reconquest.
Like many of the claims found in Procopius’ set-speeches, the words of the Gothic commander are proven patently false. As Procopius explained to his readers, “the barbarians, through their lack of sea fighting, began to carry on the combat in great disorder.” The battle is an overwhelming Eastern Roman victory. Moreover, it was he Byzantines fighting “manfully”, whilst the Goths acted in a clearly unmanly manner.
Thus, Procopius seeming admiration of the Italo-Romans found at the opening of this passage is not set in stone as complimentary. Indeed, I hope I have shown in this brief analysis some of the dangers of merely picking out a single passage from the historian’s (or, indeed, any ancient historian’s) writings and trying to uncover his “true” views. As I have argued in much of my previous work on Procopius, the historian creates large interconnected themes and characterizations in his set-pieces and digressions. So to take Procopius’ depiction on Aeneas’ ship as merely the observations of a tourist or admirer of a shared Roman past is to miss the main purpose of the digression, which as we have seen was to show that the “true” heirs of Aeneas now dwelled in Constantinople, and only when these ‘true” Romans defeated the Goths would the real Romans return to Rome.
 For my views on this attitude, see, Michael Edward Stewart, “Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars Parekbolai 4 (2014): 21-54.
 Averil Cameron, “Old Rome and New Rome: Roman Studies in Sixth Century Constantinople,” (2009).
 Steven Rutledge, Ancient Rome a Museum: Power and Identity, and the Culture of Identity (2102), 132.
 Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (1985), 203, nt. 112.