Procopius on Roman, Persian and Gothic Strategy near Dara and Rome

Procopius on Roman, Persian and Gothic Strategy near Dara and Rome

By Christopher Lillington-Martin

Lampeter Working Papers in Classics (2008)

Abstract: This paper reinterprets Procopius’ descriptions of opposing Roman, Persian and Gothic strategies near Dara in AD 530 and Rome in AD 537-8 by reconsidering evidence pertaining to the location of temporary army camp sites. The method consists of reconciling his text with the landscapes of the areas concerned by supplementing the analysis with information gained from satellite imagery, cartography and field visits. This is evaluated, with secondary sources in mind, to analyse the landscapes and associated events described by Procopius. The satellite images are available via Google Earth and date from September and October 2004. By reconsidering Procopius’ account, after visiting the landscapes he described, we gain additional insights and can therefore reinterpret strategy and events.

Introduction: Analyzing the landscape and reconciling it with the literary description provided by this eyewitness is particularly appropriate as Procopius himself, with Homer in mind, offered reconciliation between landscape and literature:

“…Taracina; and very near that place is Mt. Circaeum, where they say Odysseus met Circe, though the story seems to me untrustworthy, for Homer declares that the habitation of Circe was on an island. I am able to say… Mt. Circaeum, extending … far into the sea, … has every appearance of being an island… for this reason Homer perhaps called the place an island.” Wars, V.xi.

This paper is concerned with reconsidering the strategies which culminated in three conflicts: one of AD 530 on a site 20-24 km West-Northwest of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey), just East of the Roman–Persian frontier in Northern Mesopotamia and two of AD 537-538 on a site 3.5 km North of the Aurelian Walls at Rome. The first conflict was connected to Justinian’s policy arguably intended to generate conditions for the initiation of the re-conquest of the West led, initially, by Belisarius in which in the latter two conflicts took place. Military fortifications were related to all three conflicts because Belisarius occupied such strategic sites as bases from which to direct field armies to oppose Persian and Gothic manoeuvres. The first conflict took place near Dara (modern Oğuz, Mardin, Turkey). Analysis of Procopius’ text will discuss measurements of distances and relative positions of temporary field fortifications linked to Dara and Ammodios (modern Amuda, Syria) 8 km to the south. The interrelated strategies, and those of central Italy, as related to the two conflicts near Rome will be re-evaluated.

Satellite imagery and field visit evidence will be discussed in relation to landscape features which probably related to the historical conflicts. The relationship between textual and material evidence can be problematical when using a source such as Procopius in a relatively literal way and comparing it to aerial photography or using satellite imagery. However, Poidebard used Procopius to identify at least one tower mentioned by him and analysis of satellite imagery has convincingly located a Roman fort 30 km east of Nisibis. Before discussing the reinterpretations of strategies, it is pertinent to offer some background and summarise how this methodology has already been deployed by me to argue for a more precise location of the battlefield of Dara, A.D. 530, which Procopius described as having had temporary fortifications constructed across it.

Click here to read/download this article (PDF file)

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons