Archery in the Preface to Procopius’ Wars: A Figured Image of Agonistic Authorship
By Marion Kruse
Studies in Late Antiquity, Volume 1, Number 4, 2017
Introduction: By virtue of its interdisciplinarity and pioneering spirit, the study of late antiquity creates the opportunity to test models and approaches, developed in various fields, on material that has previously been analyzed only in limited or conservative ways.
The study of late antique Greek historiography is an excellent frontier in this regard, representing as it does the nexus of four overlapping but individually coherent fields of scholarship: the study of classical literature (which includes historiography), the memory and living traces of ancient history, the study of early Byzantine literature, and the history of the later Roman empire itself. Among these, approaches distinctive to the study of classical literature have been the last to be brought to the table, as classicists used to dismiss later literature as derivative and composed primarily of unremarkable imitations of classical authors. Conversely, an author such as Procopius is more likely to draw the attention of social, political, and military historians of the late antique world, many of whom remain skeptical of literary interpretations of historical writing.
This article is a case study in the problems that can arise when a narrow interpretive lens is brought to historical texts by modern historians interested primarily in the facts of military history. Whether or not an individual reader, or even the field as a whole, ultimately finds the particular reading of the preface to Procopius’ Wars advanced below compelling, it is developed in accordance with the methodologies of classical scholarship. It argues that what has traditionally been taken as a fundamental “fact” about warfare in the age of Justinian, namely that heavily armed horse archers came to prominence as a core unit in the Roman field army, may turn out to be a metaphor encoding a self-reflexive authorial narrative. Procopius’ famous depiction of horse archers plays an important role in establishing the narrative of Rome’s conversion from infantry to cavalry-centered armies, and this narrative has, in turn, been used to argue for a broader Eurasian shift toward cavalry in the late sixth and seventh centuries.
The argument presented below therefore has implications beyond the fields of late Roman historiography and military history. Given these potential implications, this article also acts as a demonstration of the benefits of a broadly interdisciplinary approach to late antiquity.