Archive for June 30th, 2014

Lucius Procopius – The Gothic Wars

Monday, June 30th, 2014

I conclude The History Of The Wars  by Lucius Procopius with Books V & VI which described The Gothic Wars (ca. 553). Unfortunately I discovered that The Gothic Wars do not consist of 2 books like the previous two Wars but of four, of which Book VIII only exists in a fragmentary form. Of Book VII there is no affordable translation available, so I will have to do with an incomplete collection of the events.

The Gothic Wars is a bit misleading name. It recounts the war that the Eastern Roman Empire fought against the Ostrogothic kingdom that finished the Western Roman Empire in 476. The setting is thus Italy where the Goths only form the ruling class and society is still very much Roman in nature and character. The reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire is possibly an essential event that allowed for the survival of Roman society and culture in Italy and the Pope in Rome gradually gaining ascendancy as the central power of the Catholic Church, as the Goths, and later the Langobards, were Arians, and this protected them against a possible dominant influence. But I am getting ahead here of the narrative. This book is only about the first campaign in Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire.

The difference between the first two Wars is that in each War the central figure, the general Belisarius, is more present. In the first Persian Wars he was only barely present during the events and in the Vandalic Wars he was only there initially and the successes could hardly be assigned to him and more to his commanding officers. In The Gothic Wars he is all present and here I finally had the feeling his fame was given credit. Warfare in the later days of the Roman Empire was far from the effective military machine of its early days so it is nice to see some tactical creativity.

More than the previous Wars, as Belisarius is more present, Procopius is able to provide an accurate narrative of the events as he was the personal secretary to Belisarius. There is much more detail and far less digressions than before. The previous Wars were more chaotic in nature. This war is more focused and there are more peculiarities to be noticed. This is not the place to discuss them as they are the interesting things to explore when reading this history. Procopius remains a fairly neutral observer. He does not judge although he sometimes expresses sadness or worries regarding the actions of certain persons. So his commentary remains of a mild nature. In general he is never negative or overly positive.

Despite that The Gothic Wars ends abruptly as there have been written more books there is a sort of conclusion of the first part of the campaign and some events of the second part which in some cases remain somewhat in the open. There the war turns a bit more chaotic again so one could say we get to see the better and more interesting part of the war.

The quality of the narrative in this final volume is the best of the series as we get a true eyewitness account of someone who was in the middle of the events. It is a well written history and there are few of those in those days at the start of the Middle Ages. Later histories were mostly written by members of the church and their histories have a very religious perspective, giving more focus to religious events, something that Procopius barely has attention for. It is perhaps one of the shortcomings of the histories of Procopius as they focus on martial events and only political events directly related to these are remarked upon. There is no complete picture as most historians are wont to provide for. However, this remains a very interesting read.