Conor Whately, Battles and Generals: Combat, Culture, and Didacticism in Procopius’ Wars (McMahon)

Conor Whately

Battles and Generals: Combat, Culture, and Didacticism in Procopius’ Wars

(Brill, 2015) 292 pp. $149.99


Conor Whately’s Battles and Generals: Combat, Culture, and Didacticism in Procopius’ Wars is an important book for the study of late antique historiography and military history. The nature of the evidence means that the study of many military campaigns in late antiquity is entirely reliant on the genre of classicizing historiography. This leads to a whole host of issues such as genre, literary affectation, and mimesis. Whately examines Procopius’ Wars as carefully contrived pieces of literature rather than mere fonts of historical data and the result is an illuminating study that has major implications for the use of Procopius in the writing of military history. The thesis of the book is that while Procopius is writing classicizing historiography, his Wars also has value as a sort of military manual in narrative form. The argument is that Procopius has structured his works to outline a series of examples of good and bad generalship that future leaders can learn from. By taking a literary approach to the combat scenes in the book a variety of military lessons become clear.

The introduction sets out these arguments and the scholarship that lies behind it. The twin themes of this chapter are how to approach Procopius as a piece of literature and what sort of history can be gleaned from it. Whately ascribes a high degree of complexity to ancient historiography, noting that authors were interested in matters akin to narrative theory, a concern for the truth, and the response of readers. Procopius is situated in this matrix as a text that can be both a literary artifact and a piece that claims to describe describes real events. Whately stakes a claim here by arguing that Procopius can be both literary and truthful, a theme that underlies this book. The next chapter mainly provides background on Procopius and the scholarship on his life and works. The bibliography here is judicious and the discussion is succinct. Whately takes no radical positions here. He supports the idea that Procopius was trained in law, and rejects the idea of Anthony Kaldellis that he was a philosopher, as well as James Howard-Johnston’s idea that he was an engineer.

The bulk of the book is organized into chapters on each of the major opponents faced in the east, in Africa, and in Italy. While this broadly follows the outline of the Wars, it is also, as Whately opines, a means of dividing Procopius along ethnographic lines that scholarship typically does not. Ideally, the reader-general is to learn different lessons from each of the opponents. The chapter on fighting the Persians brings up a number of useful points. Whately gives attention to the battle speeches not as historical artifacts but rather as roadmaps for Procopius’ readers in evaluating the combat to follow. Several themes emerge from Whately’s analysis of the Persian campaigns: a lack of technical language, the importance of morale and discipline, and the model of Belisarius and Khusro as models for future generals. The general’s role in fighting the Persians is given high importance, and he has to maintain unity with his troops if the Romans are to win.

In the following chapter, Whately argues for narrative unity in Procopius’s description of the war against the Vandals in Africa. He suggests that Procopius wrote the books in a manner to explain why the Romans won, and while this sacrifices chronology it permitted Procopius to explain matters more thematically. Morale appears as a chief factor in fighting the Vandals, and both Belisarius and Gelimer have speeches that attempt to inspire their men rather than to explain tactics. Discipline has a role in the distribution of plunder. The reader-general is warned that looting must be sanctioned by officers and must be available to the entire army lest disorder prevail. Advice is a key theme here as well. Belisarius is commended for being open to advice, and Procopius laces the speeches with maxims that would not be out of place in the manuals of Vegetius or Maurice, and thus using them to give his explanations of the war a greater force of authority. By choosing to focus on Belisarius’s war in Africa instead of Solomon’s Whately created a tightly-focused and well-argued chapter that concludes by arguing that Procopius’s Belisarius is not being shamelessly glorified, but rather is a model general who listens to advice, is cautious, and treats his troops as fellow-soldiers.

In examining the wars in Italy, Whately chooses to focus on the siege of Rome and argues that Procopius uses Homer in writing these sections. Single combats are important in this campaign, as is arête, but many of the details of the campaign are deliberately vague so as to highlight important features in the narrative. The main lesson that Whately sees Procopius emphasizing is that heroic leadership is bad and that rash action can bring about defeat. Belisarius is nearly killed when leading from the front. Belisarius is thus cast as an Odysseus who hangs back, whereas the Gothic commanders who take an Achillean approach and lead from the front are killed.

The penultimate chapter deals with book eight of Procopius, and is where Whately observes that the fairly neat lines drawn before in each theatre begin to break down. Thus the action described at the battle of the River Hippis on the eastern frontier is more akin to that in the Gothic wars, while the Battle of Sengallia against the Goths echoes action from the wars in Persia. The final chapter is composed of a variety of themes, and looks briefly at who read Procopius and what the results of this might be. Although the evidence is not particularly full, Whately argues that Procopius must have had readers since we still read him today, and that a militarization of the elite in the sixth century may have increased interest in reading about war. He concludes that although there is no direct evidence of Procopius being read didactically, presumably future generals would read it in that frame of mind. One short section at the end suggests that Procopius lacks the necessary material to write a Face of Battle for the sixth-century Roman army. While this gives the impression that this was the book that Whately set out to write, we are indebted to this close reading of Procopius for opening up related issues and asking difficult questions about the utility of ancient military history and its relation to literature.

This is a thought-provoking book, but a few points could have used further elucidation. A key point of this work is that Procopius’ Wars had a didactic purpose, but the discussion to the background to this is unfortunately rather brief. Whately gives only a little attention to the use of classical and classicizing historiography in a military education, and given the importance of his point a more full discussion would help to contextualize what Procopius was attempting to do. Likewise, more attention to late Roman military education would have helped to contextualize one of the main points of this book. The assumption that elite young men headed for military careers would turn to historiography has been discussed elsewhere by Whately, and so the lack of it in this book is a little confusing and may leave the reader desiring some further attention to the topic. Sometimes the tension between literature and history can be problematic. For example, did Procopius give more attention to the hippoxotai as the main operational arm of the expedition in Italy because it suits his heroic narrative, or because they did not play as large a role in the other theatres?

While questions of this sort occur throughout the book, Whately should be commended for keeping his study focused and not pursuing every minor issue. Some of the traditional forms of military history may be considered outmoded in the academic world today, but Whately’s great contribution here is to ask whether there is a profitable way to bring new methods to old paradigms. Whately’s answer to that is yes: classicizing historiography can be used if subject to close literary analysis. The direct result is a new and highly plausible reading of Procopius, but more broadly, Whately has brought forth important methodological considerations for writing ancient military history in the twenty-first century.

Lucas McMahon

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