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

War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives, edited by Alexander Sarantis and Neil Christie (Brill, 2013)

Battle of Dara – image by United States Military Academy Department of History / Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: This paper examines Procopius’ descriptions of Roman, Persian and Gothic strategies to control Dara in 530 and Rome in 537-8 by reconciling texts with the landscapes of the areas concerned drawing on satellite imagery, cartography and field visits. The traditional approach to this history has been to use written sources only, but, as will be shown, these are subject to multiple interpretations. Study of the landscape provides a different, complementary perspective which is in some ways more reliable, as the physical features have not changed too significantly over the centuries, and modern technology has opened up new ways of reading them.

The first part of the paper is concerned with Procopius’ account of the battle of Dara. There has been scholarly debate about some of the units of measurement within his Wars, and this had led some people to doubt the reliability of Procopius. However, by considering the practicalities of the battle, such as the space needed to accommodate the Roman and Persian armies within the landscape and the size of the fortress, plus analysis using Google Earth, it will be shown that his figures are feasible and therefore, he is reliable.

The second part of the paper concerns strategies used in the Gothic War, for which Procopius is a major source. In particular, the siege of Rome will be analysed, and the identity of a crucial anonymous bridge will be discussed. Based upon a combination of textural analysis and topography (field-work plus Google Earth), it is proposed that this is the Salarian Bridgeover the Anio, rather than the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber, as has been traditionally accepted.

These two case studies strongly suggest that Procopius is reliable when he is interpreted carefully, and this has implications for studies of the many other events for which he is the main source.

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