Historians have long taken Procopius' description of heavily armored mounted archers in the opening of his Wars to be a more-or-less accurate depiction of contemporary military practice. This paper argues that Procopius employs archery as a metaphor for authorship by drawing on the techniques of figured writing (which include metaphor) as developed by the late antique rhetorical tradition in which he was trained. The comparison between Homeric and contemporary warriors at the opening of the Wars is therefore a figured way for Procopius to engage in a self-referential discussion concerning authorship and, in particular, to develop his agonistic relationship with his primary classical models, Herodotus and Thucydides. This conclusion requires a reevaluation of the military history of the sixth century.
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.1 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.
ARCHERS OR AUTHORS?
Procopius of Caesarea was the chief historian of the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian (r. 527–565). He produced three works, the most important of which is the Wars, covering the campaigns waged by the Romans against Sassanian Persia, Vandal North Africa, and Ostrogothic Italy. The Wars is composed of eight books, the first seven of which appeared together in 550/1, while the eighth was brought out as a supplement in 553. Procopius concludes the preface of the work with a comparison between Homeric and contemporary mounted archery meant to justify his claim that those wars were the greatest in history.2 This passage has traditionally been understood to be a more-or-less accurate depiction of mounted warfare in the sixth century.3 However, this positivist approach to the passage requires readers to overlook a number of contradictory features. To begin with, the argument is either logically incomplete or unsound; Procopius never explains why we should treat bowmen as the principle metric for assessing the greatness of a war. The problem is only enhanced when he is compared with his models, Herodotus and Thucydides, in particular the latter who presents an extended justification for the importance of his war based on its size, the strength of its principal combatants, and the number of allies pulled into the conflict.4 What is more, Procopius himself offers better arguments for the importance of his Secret History, a work that was completed at the same time as, and was conceived as a complement to, the Wars, calling attention to the people Justinian killed, the kingdoms he overturned, and the customs he subverted—all of which made him more destructive than the bubonic plague!5 A positive or even neutral version of that polemic would have made for a more effective argument in the Wars preface. While we would not expect Procopius to so openly voice his criticism of a living emperor in a work intended for wide circulation, these passages from the Secret History demonstrate that the author was capable of articulating better arguments for his history's importance than the efficacy of contemporary mounted archers.6 Moreover, though there is some evidence for a wider contemporary debate concerning the role of infantry versus that of cavalry in the sixth century, it comes from a single fragmentary and anonymous Dialogue on Political Science, which comes down on the side of infantry.7 However, even if we accept that Procopius’ emphasis on mounted archers represents a pro-archer response to a wider debate about the tactics and composition of the Roman military, Procopius’ response remains nonsensical because he quickly pivots to arguing for the superiority of contemporary bowmen over their Homeric predecessors, rather than addressing the strengths of mounted archers vis-à-vis contemporary infantry (or infantry of any period). In other words, if the issue at hand truly is a debate over the merits of infantry versus cavalry, then why is Procopius talking about Homeric bowmen? Moreover, Procopius’ ensuing narrative throughout the Wars fails to support the notion that contemporary armies were composed primarily of mounted bowmen such as he describes in the preface or that mounted bowmen were elite units in the sixth century. In fact, there are far more battles won by infantry in the Wars than by cavalry, and a number of characters in the work who advocate for infantry over cavalry are proved right by the narrative—a tactic of implicit endorsement that can be traced back to Thucydides.8
Modern military historians often hedge their arguments when confronting these problems by claiming that Procopius is here presenting an idealized, but still fundamentally accurate, image of contemporary archers. Yet as a rule these historians can point to only one battle in seven books9 covering massive wars on three continents in support of this interpretation, and must also make excuses for the apparent superiority of Persian archers and the relative unimportance of mounted archers in the Vandal campaigns and the majority of the Gothic campaigns.10 There are likewise rhetorical reasons to be surprised by Procopius’ discussion of archery, namely that it sits at precisely the point where the two main models for his preface, Herodotus and Thucydides, placed demonstrations of their historical methods, situated themselves in relation to their respective literary models and predecessors, and offered stronger arguments than does Procopius for the historical importance of their respective wars.11 It seems, then, that we must either accept that Procopius wrote a surprisingly weak introduction for his Wars (when we know he could have done better), or that this passage is, to some extent, not about contemporary military units at all.12 Anthony Kaldellis interpreted the passage as intentionally ironic and deflating, or as evidence of a conservative reaction to changes in sixth-century warfare.13 However, Kaldellis does not assess the passage through the lens of sixth-century rhetorical techniques, nor does his reading explain the suggestive placement of the passage at the opening of the work. He notices that something is wrong, but does not offer a convincing explanation for it.
The inspiration for this article comes from a conversation with my colleague Joseph Lipp who, immediately after reading the passage in question for the first time, responded that the archers were clearly a metaphor for authorship. Lipp, a trained classicist, was approaching the text through the lens of a reader of ancient literature, not a historian of the later Roman empire, and his interpretation is precisely correct. This article argues that Procopius’ discussion of archery is not an accurate portrayal of sixth-century mounted archers, but rather an extended metaphorical discussion of authorship designed to promote the competition that the author establishes between himself and his principal models, Herodotus and Thucydides. It is in the service of this metaphor that Procopius introduces ancient infantry, Homeric bowmen, and contemporary archers as stand-ins for various groups of authors, including Procopius himself. Moreover, the passage serves a secondary function as a demonstration of historical method analogous to Herodotus’ discussion of the varying accounts of the Persians and Greeks on the origins of their enmity and Thucydides’ Archaeology. Read through the lens of the rhetorical theory in which Procopius is acknowledged to have been trained, the comparison of ancient and modern archers proves to be a figured account of Procopius’ own authorial methodology and situates him competitively within the longue durée of the classical tradition. It also offers surprising insight about the predicament of authors writing contemporary history in the Roman empire.
PROCOPIUS BETWEEN HERODOTUS AND THUCYDIDES
That the introduction to Procopius’ history borrows heavily from the language of Herodotus and Thucydides is obvious and has long been recognized.14 This borrowing has been variously explained as generically mandated imitation,15 identification with a particular literary tradition,16 and a programmatic statement of the historian's axiology—that is an argument for why this type of history was worth writing.17 Each of these explanations of Procopius’ agenda in his preface touches upon a critical function of the passage and indicates how a surface-level reader might make sense of it, but none of them is in itself complete; they all falter on the contradictions in Procopius’ argument.
Procopius is affiliating himself with a literary tradition, but the affiliation is not a broad-spectrum classicism (at least not at this moment). Rather, he is engaged specifically with his models, a feature which foreshadows his engagement with other classical authors, in particular Homer: Herodotus engaged with and modified Homer in his skeptical account of the Trojan War, whereas Thucydides rationalized and cut Homer down to size in his Archaeology.18 Both of them competed with Homer and, in the case of Thucydides, with one another. We should expect Procopius to follow his models here as well, and should therefore focus on the specific way in which Procopius frames his relationship to them by adopting and adapting their language, including their Homeric orientation. And we are not disappointed: immediately after signaling his adherence to the historiographical tradition of Herodotus and Thucydides, Procopius engages in a Homeric comparison focusing on archery. Procopius envisions himself as being in competition with both Herodotus and Thucydides (just as Herodotus was competing with Homer and Thucydides with both Homer and Herodotus). This competitive relationship is essential to understanding the figured speech that Procopius uses in his discussion of archery.
The reader's first indication of the competitive aspect of Procopius’ project comes at the very beginning of the Wars:
Procopius of Caesarea wrote the history of the wars which Justinian, the emperor of the Romans, waged against the barbarians of both the east and west, as each of them happened to occur, in order that a great span of time, when it had overpowered surpassingly great deeds, would not settle them in oblivion for want of an account nor make them fade entirely. The author believes that the memory of these deeds will be something great and exceptionally useful both to those alive now and those who will be born in the future, if time should ever again bring men into some similar necessity [italics added for emphasis].19
As Kaldellis pointed out, the framing of Procopius’ subject differs from that of both Herodotus and Thucydides in that it focuses attention and agency on Justinian, eschewing the balance between Greeks and barbarians in Herodotus, and that between Athenians and Peloponnesians in Thucydides.20 However, Procopius is not only calling attention to Justinian and the role that the emperor will play in his history (even if largely behind the scenes), but also to how his history compares with that of his predecessors. By defining his subject as the “wars” “against the barbarians of both east and west” he implicitly overshadows both Herodotus and Thucydides, the former because Procopius is writing about a greater range of barbarians than just the Persians (the barbarians of the east), the latter because Procopius is writing about more than one war.
Procopius continues to develop a (gently) competitive relationship with his predecessors by using them as models for his description of the purpose of his history. It is the need to preserve “surpassingly great deeds” (ἔργα ὑπερμεγέθη) that motivates him to write history. The verbal parallel to Herodotus’ “great deeds” (ἔργα μεγάλα) is unambiguous, as is the fact that Procopius is asserting the superiority of the material he is recording over that in Herodotus. Greatrex and Basso have argued that this statement contributes to Procopius’ axiology, namely his conception of what is worthy of memory and being recorded in a history.21 This is certainly the case, but the directness and competitiveness of the reference indicate that there is more at work than an attempt to argue for the mere validity of his subject matter. Procopius is implying that his history is superior to that of Herodotus’ because the deeds he records are more important and therefore more valuable historically.
Procopius situates himself vis-à-vis Herodotus in much the same way that Thucydides had done. In his introduction, Thucydides makes an argument for the worthiness of his subject on the basis of its greatness, one which links him directly back to the account of Herodotus:
The war with the Medes was the greatest of the deeds of earlier times, but this had a rapid resolution in the course of two sea battles and two land battles. But compared to that war, the current war extended to a great length, and it happened that the sufferings which occurred in Greece during its course were of a sort for which there are no parallels in an equal space of time.22
Thucydides acknowledges the greatness of Herodotus’ subject, echoing the latter's language of “great deeds” with the phrase “the greatest of the deeds of earlier times” (τῶν δὲ πρότερον ἔργων μέγιστον). Thucydides uses this reference as a means to enhance the reputation of the deeds and the war on which he will be reporting, and to situate himself in competition with Herodotus. By extension Procopius’ claim to “surpassingly great deeds” functions in precisely the same way, save that he thereby establishes himself as superior to both Thucydides and Herodotus. Procopius is therefore expanding upon his previous claim to superiority, based on the number and scope of the wars, by using Thucydides as a model for how to aggrandize one's history while situating it in competition with its predecessors.
Procopius continues in this vein with his reference to “a great span of time” (ὁ μέγας αἰὼν), a phrase that verbally recalls Thucydides’ claim to be writing a work “for posterity,” or, literally, “for forever” (ἐς αἰεί). Procopius’ “great span of time” can hardly compete with Thucydides’ eternity, but the Wars claims superiority in another respect: it is written for both the future and the present. Whereas Thucydides aggressively dismisses the tastes of his own day, Procopius makes it clear that his work is for both the living and the yet-to-live. This contrast is all the more emphatic because it comes in the midst of a statement whose sentiment is borrowed directly from Thucydides: the purpose of the history is not simply to fend off oblivion, as was the case in Herodotus, but to allow for a “clear understanding” of events in the immediate present, not only the future, as well as in situations that are likely to recur in the future.23
In his opening lines, therefore, Procopius establishes the purpose of his history in relation to his classical models, specifically to tell a story of greater deeds aimed not only at the future but also at the present, deeds whose value will be not simply in their remembrance later but also in their usefulness now. When the first edition of the Wars, containing the first seven books, was published in 551, none of the conflicts they described had reached a permanent conclusion. Under these circumstances, we must read Procopius’ claim that he will be useful to those currently alive as highlighting another key difference between himself and his models, a difference that will also factor into our interpretation of the archers below: he was writing the history of an ongoing conflict. Thucydides’ history was never meant to influence decision-making during the course of the Peloponnesian War, nor could Herodotus’ account have played any role in the Persian conflict (though there is reason to suspect that his knowledge of the Peloponnesian War influenced how he wrote about the past). Procopius therefore stands alone among his models in terms of the potential role that his history could play in shaping the unfolding of current events.
Of course, Procopius’ decision to write for the benefit of his contemporaries engaged in ongoing wars reminds us that he was writing under a very different set of political circumstances, which were to a large extent peculiar to Roman historians. Neither Herodotus nor Thucydides wrote under an emperor and we have no indication from either historian that he felt the need to censor or encode his work for fear of personal retribution.24 Procopius, on the other hand, makes clear in his Secret History that authors of the period, including himself, were justifiably fearful of retribution from Justinian's regime, especially, but not exclusively, from the empress Theodora.25
INTERPRETING THE ARCHERS
After opening his history with a deliberate imitation of Herodotus and Thucydides signaling his intent to compete with them as models for historical writing, Procopius indicates that his history will be impartial and contain an account of the things done, both well and poorly, by everyone, including his closest associates. He goes on to claim that the wars he will record are the greatest ever witnessed in human history. This is true, he says, unless the reader gives undue deference to the ancient world. The passage must be quoted in its entirety:
It is clear to anyone wishing to judge truthfully that there is nothing greater or more powerful than the things which have occurred during these wars. The things that were done in them are so remarkable, they are greater than all of the deeds which we know by report, unless someone who has read through my work gives the place of honor to ancient times, and does not think that events of the present day deserve to be considered remarkable. In just this way, for instance, some men call those who serve in the army nowadays “bowmen” (τοξόται), but they wish to apportion to the most ancient men names like “hand-to-hand fighters” (ἀγχέμαχοι), “shieldmen” (ἀσπιδιώται), and the sort. These men think that this excellence has scarcely come down to the present time, but they form this opinion on the subject carelessly and far removed from experience. For the thought has never occurred to these men that a horse did not carry nor did a spear or shield protect the archers in Homer, the very men who happened to have been mocked because they were named after their skill, and there was no other defense for their body. Instead, they went into battle as footsoldiers and it was necessary for them to conceal themselves, choosing either the shield of a comrade or relying on a tombstone on a burial mound, from which they were able neither to save themselves by retreating nor to attack fleeing enemies. Certainly, these men could not fight in the open, but instead always seemed to be stealing something from those who were in the thick of it. On top of this, they approached the skill lazily with the result that, having drawn the bowstring to their chest, they then launched an arrow that would be dull and ineffective against their targets. This is the sort of skill archery appears to have been in the past.26
Procopius’ discussion of archery is subordinate to his discussion of authorship and the greatness of the wars he is going to discuss. Scholars of military history who take Procopius’ discussion as (to any extent) accurate too often overlook this context. Procopius presents this discussion in order to help his reader understand what he has to say about the worthiness of his history—all other roles for the passage are secondary, including its potential role as evidence for sixth-century military practices.
In this passage, Procopius argues that, if the ancients are not unfairly privileged, then the subject of his history (and by extension his work as an author) will be found to be superior to all previous histories. This statement is meant to apply to all of the authors who have preceded Procopius,27 but, in the context of his preface, with its emphatic focus on his competition with Herodotus and Thucydides, the privileged ancient events must be those of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. Procopius’ discussion of archery is framed as an elaboration on the theme of privileging ancient materials over modern, but, in the context of his competition with Herodotus and Thucydides, his discussion of archery would have been readily understood by his classically-educated readers as a metaphorical discussion of authorship and an extension of the rivalry he develops with his models throughout his preface. The archers, in other words, are not historical subjects but historical authors.
The key to deciphering Procopius’ archery passage is recognizing that archery was a longstanding metaphor for authorship in the ancient world. The most famous and most relevant example of this metaphor comes from Pindar's Second Olympian:
I have many sharp arrows beneath my elbow,
In my quiver,
Arrows that speak to those who understand; but for most people, there is a need for interpreters.28
To a modern reader, Pindar's discussion here reads as an unambiguous metaphor for authorship, and that is likewise how the passage appeared to the ancients, at least according to the scholia on Pindar. According to one scholiast, Pindar's comment “is a metaphor for changing arrows into poems; the quiver is his intelligence and the arrows are his words.”29 Another scholiast is even more direct: “sharp arrows: a figurative expression. He has said that his words are arrows on account of the sharpness and appropriateness of his praise.”30 The same scholiast goes on to say, in reference to Pindar's claim that most people will need an interpreter to understand him, that “he is speaking about his own poems, for he knows that he has made use of a great deal of history, unusual figures of speech, and an intricate manner of speaking.”31 The image of the author or speaker as an archer can be found throughout both ancient and late antique Greek literature, including Pindar's own Ninth Olympian,32 Aeschylus,33 Plato,34 and Libanius.35 Lucian's Hermotimos also contains an image of archers with strong parallels to the interpretation of Procopius that will be offered below. In that dialogue, archery is explicitly used as a metaphor for philosophical debate: refuting a speaker who is not present is likened to shooting an arrow at a straw target, while good archers (read: philosophers), who are like Persians and Scythians, prefer to shoot from horseback at moving targets, or at the very least test the efficacy of their arrows against armored targets.36 Additionally, the image of archers as authors remained popular long after late antiquity. Pindar's appearance as an archer in his Second Olympian is cited in the works of two twelfth-century Byzantine scholars, Ioannes Tzetzes, in his Exegesis in Iliadem, and Eustathios of Thessalonike, in his Ad Iliadem and his Proemium Commentariorum Pindaricorum.37
Taken together, the comments of the scholiasts, the evidence of ancient authors, and the attention of Byzantine scholars indicate that archery was a natural and intuitive metaphor for authorship in the ancient world and beyond, one that would have been a part of the metaphorical vocabulary of anyone educated in the standard authors. Moreover, the scholiasts understand Pindar's metaphor as corresponding specifically to the incisive, but potentially obscure, writing of the sort the Theban poet was and is famous for, and which Procopius likewise makes use of in the allusions and intertexts that permeate his Wars. Nor is there any doubt that Pindar was known to the authors of the sixth century and associated with the writing of history. For proof of the latter point we need only look to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who singles out Pindar and Thucydides as the “strongest in severe composition,”38 or to the text of Herodotus himself, who famously cites Pindar as his source for the idea that “custom (nomos) is king of all.”39 For the former point, Christodorus of Coptus reports that there was a statue of Pindar in the Zeuxippus Baths in central Constantinople prior to the destruction of that complex in the Nika Revolt of 532.40 Moreover, we can point to Procopius’ own quotations of Pindar, as well as to a reference in the Histories of his later contemporary Agathias.41 It is important to note that, when Procopius quotes Pindar in the Buildings, he does so programmatically as part of his argument for the importance of recording great deeds (here Justinian's building program) lest they be forgotten or disbelieved. In that passage, he makes Pindar the figurative foundation for his account of Justinian's building program in Constantinople. There is a close thematic correspondence, therefore, between Procopius’ use of Pindar in the Buildings and his Pindaric statement on archers in the preface to the Wars.
We know that Procopius was familiar with Pindar, that there was a long tradition linking Pindar and Thucydides, the latter of whom is Procopius’ most influential stylistic model,42 and that Pindar used, and was understood by the ancients to have used, archery as a metaphor for authorship as part of his larger use of obscure or figured language aimed at “those who understand.” Moreover, the commentary of the scholiasts and evidence from ancient authors demonstrates that this metaphor was not limited solely to Pindar, but was widely recognized and recognizable to those trained in rhetoric, literature, and philosophy in the ancient world.43 Given all of this, as well as Procopius’ appeal to readers who wish “to judge truthfully,” there can be little doubt that the classically educated readers of Procopius’ Wars would have been primed to read his discussion of archers as a metaphor, specifically as a metaphor for authorship, and that the most alert of his readers would have caught the strong parallels between his work and Pindar's Second Olympian. If, then, we accept that Procopius is asking his reader to interpret his discussion of archery as a metaphor, it remains to consider what exactly he intends to communicate.
To understand Procopius’ figured argument in his discussion of archery we have to realize that it is based on the distinctions he draws between infantrymen (hand-to-hand fighters, shieldmen) and bowmen, on the one hand, and then between Homeric bowmen and modern bowmen on the other. The two axes of the metaphor highlight two different forms of competition, both of which are picked up again by his representation of contemporary mounted archers, which, according to the logic of the metaphor, would be Procopius himself.44 There is therefore a three-way relationship being developed among ancient infantry, Homeric archers, and contemporary archers, each of which corresponds to a distinct group of authors in relation to whom Procopius is situating himself. At this point, it is rather easy to figure out who is who, which is what we would expect: the greatest difficulty for modern readers (though not ancient ones) is in making the leap to the concept of figured speech. Once we make that leap, the rest falls into place.
According to Procopius, men in ancient times are given titles such as “shieldmen” and “hand-to-hand fighters.” These men, according to the logic of the metaphor and the clear implication of Procopius’ preface, are Herodotus and Thucydides. The honorary titles that they are given by “those who worship antiquity” correspond to their seminal and canonical status in ancient literature and historiography. We should recall Lucian's famous complaint, already four centuries old by the time of Procopius, about the prevalence of Herodotean and Thucydidean mimicry in historians of his period,45 which was a natural result of the prominent role these authors played in Greek education.46 Why then does Procopius equate them with infantrymen who engage in hand-to-hand combat? One of the distinguishing features of Thucydides as a historian, shared by Procopius, is that he was a participant in the war he reported. The involvement of an author in the conflicts that he reports mirrors the directness and immediacy of shieldmen and hand-to-hand fighters, as opposed to bowmen. This is at least part of the basis for the longstanding prejudice against archers in the ancient world: they fought from a distance. Moreover, from Procopius’ perspective, both Herodotus and Thucydides were able to write without the fear of official reprisal—in other words, they enjoyed an astonishing degree of parrhesia, especially compared to Roman authors of the imperial period. The freedom of speech enjoyed by ancient Greek historians allowed them to come to grips with their material directly and express their opinions openly, another feature that mirrors the directness of hand-to-hand combat.
Who then are the Homeric archers, whose failures, Procopius claims, have unfairly tarnished the reputation of contemporary bowmen? Procopius identifies several key features of Homeric bowmen: that they entered battle on foot (this distinguishes them not from hand-to-hand fighters but from mounted archers); and their lack of protection, and their consequent need for some sort of cover, either provided by more powerful allies or offered by tombstones—an interesting image. If we read these archers as authors, and specifically as a type of historian, then the metaphor is relatively straightforward. These Homeric authors/archers relied either on the protection of a powerful patron or the death of their subject. These must be Roman imperial historians, whose lack of parrhesia, an inability to engage at close quarters with their subject, separates them from ancient infantrymen such as Herodotus and Thucydides. Here archery serves as a metaphor for the distance that Roman historians maintained between themselves and their subjects: they could only strike at people and events that were temporally distant and, even then, only if they had protection or their subject was dead. Procopius is calling attention to the fact that he is writing the history of a living emperor, an act that was almost unprecedented among surviving Roman historians,47 and, as we know from the Secret History, one that carried lethal dangers for the author. Procopius concludes his critique of Homeric bowmen by calling attention to their “dull and ineffective” arrows. We should recall here Lucian's discussion of philosophical inquiry in his Hermotimos, in which good philosophers test their arguments against armored targets, and the easy identification of Pindar's arrows with words or arguments (logoi) in the scholiasts. In the logic of Procopius’ metaphor, the penetration of arrows corresponds to the incisiveness of the author's history, so weak arrows are the hallmark of unpersuasive or un-insightful histories. In addition, the metaphor calls attention to the fundamentally different role that a contemporary history of a living emperor could play: Procopius’ words were “sharp” in more ways than one. The focus on the efficacy of arrows therefore neatly complements the image of authors/archers hiding behind shields and tombstones.
Procopius further emphasizes the connection between historians and Homeric archers through the vocabulary he uses to describe each. He describes those who worship antiquity as forming their opinions “carelessly and far removed from experience” (ἀταλαίπωρόν γε καὶ τῆς πείρας ἀπωτάτω). Similarly, he chastises Homeric archers for practicing their skill “carelessly” (ἀταλαιπώρως) because they did not draw their bowstrings past their chest. Procopius’ style is not famous for its variatio, but the repetition of a single unusual word within the space of three sentences to refer to what are ostensibly radically different groups of people (those who worship antiquity and Homeric bowmen) unambiguously links the two groups. Moreover, the adverb makes little sense when applied to Homeric bowmen. The root of the word comes from the verb ταλαιπωρέω, which literally means to suffer or endure hardship.48 Although its semantic range can overlap with the modern meaning of “lazy,” it more precisely calls attention to a lack of experience rather than a lack of effort. This is the word's meaning in its first appearance, as confirmed by the hendiadys with the phrase “far removed from experience.” The same sense cannot reasonably be applied to Homeric archers, who are active participants in a war.49 By linking these two figures through repeated vocabulary, Procopius helps to collapse the distance his metaphor establishes between signifier and signified, making it even more obvious to a classically trained ancient readership that he is not really talking about Homeric bowmen at all. The statement also allows Procopius to once again call attention to his qualifications for writing history: his participation in many of the events he is about to report.
There is, however, something more broadly amiss with Procopius’ discussion of Homeric bowmen than just his description of them as lazy. In his discussion of Homeric bowmen he references three specific scenes in the Iliad. The first is the encounter of Paris and Diomedes in Iliad 11, during which Paris, “relying on the tombstone upon the manmade mound of Ilios the son of Dardanos,”50 wounds Diomedes by shooting him in the foot. Diomedes subsequently insults Paris, calling him a bowman, which is the basis for Procopius’ claim that Homeric bowmen were “mocked because they were named after their skill.”51 The second scene comes from Iliad 8, when Teucer uses Ajax's shield as cover while attempting to stem the Trojan advance.52 Although Procopius presents both of these scenes as deeply negative, indicating the worthlessness of ancient bowmen as a cipher for Roman imperial authors before him, a close reading of these passages reveals that Procopius is deliberately overstating his case. In both of these scenes, the bowmen in question are actually highly effective military figures. Paris wounds Diomedes in the foot, in a move that obviously foreshadows his eventual slaying of Achilles, and forces the Achaean hero (and stand-in Achilles) to retreat as part of a larger rout—hardly an ineffective shot. Likewise, Teucer’ use of Ajax as cover is not what it seems. Not only is Ajax, the bulwark of the Achaeans (ἕρκος Ἀχαιῶν), famous for shielding all sorts of heroes, archers and otherwise, but the scene in question is presented as an aristeia for Teucer.53 Moreover, Teucer is later seen to be capable of fighting hand-to-hand in Iliad 15, when, at Ajax's command, he puts aside his bow and takes up his spear to help defend the Achaean ships.54 In other words, Teucer evinces precisely the tactical flexibility Procopius goes on to claim for contemporary archers. The final Iliadic scene that Procopius references comes from Iliad 4, when Pandarus is incited by Athena to break the truce that had been called in order to enable the duel between Paris and Menelaus. Pandarus’ shot penetrates three layers of armor to give Menelaus a profusely bleeding wound; Menelaus is saved only through Athena's intervention.55 Again, this is hardly evidence for a dull and ineffective shot or laziness in the practice of bowmanship.
Procopius has chosen Homeric references that not only complement his discussion of authorship, but also ironically undermine the claims made by critics of bowmen by drawing attention to scenes in the Iliad in which archers are shown to be capable and effective participants in the action. The effect of this subversion is to temper the criticism of earlier authors found in the opening of the Wars. Procopius uses these allusions to underline the rhetorical nature of his competition with his predecessors and more finely modulate the implications of his metaphor. Moreover, the use of allusions that require his readers to closely read (or, in the case of anyone with a solid classical education, merely recall) the original contexts of these passages in order for their implications to be understood is a central feature of Procopius’ style thereafter, and it is thus not surprising to see such allusions placed in the methodological demonstration in the preface.
Having decoded the “figured” signification of ancient bowmen, we must turn now to the way Procopius depicts contemporary bowmen.
Present day bowmen go into battle wearing body armor and equipped with greaves up to the knee. Their arrows hang at their right side, their sword at their left. They have hung alongside these a spear and, from their shoulders, a small shield without a handle, the sort which covers both the face and the neck. They are the best possible horsemen, and they are able to draw their bows on either side without difficulty, even when their horses are running, and to shoot their foes either while pursuing or fleeing. The bowstring is pulled by these men back to their foreheads almost alongside their right ear, which charges their arrow with such power that the man struck always dies and neither a shield nor a breastplate can deflect any of the force. Those men who reflect on these things only a little revere and marvel at ancient times, and they pay no further attention to artifice. But none of this precludes the fact that the greatest and most noteworthy deeds occurred during these wars.56
Procopius’ description of contemporary bowmen precisely answers the challenges to the value of ancient bowmen that the author has previously laid out. That they are “shieldmen” is made clear from the fact that they carry shields, and even the same root word (ἀσπίς) is used. They are clearly “hand-to-hand fighters,” given that they are equipped with both spears and swords. They are also armored and mounted, unlike Homeric bowmen, and capable of launching powerful arrows from their bows while both pursuing and fleeing. In terms of the authorial metaphor Procopius has established, this depiction of contemporary archers functions to demonstrate the differences between the author, Procopius, and his predecessors, specifically his need for protection when writing the history of a living emperor; the utility of an account of ongoing conflicts; and the value of evasiveness—the ability to run away—when one cannot take cover.
This last point bears further scrutiny because of Procopius’ curious focus on flight and pursuit. He identifies this as a key difference between Homeric and contemporary bowmen, ignoring the fact that Homeric heroes of all sorts frequently made use of chariots in order to maneuver around the battlefield. Procopius’ greater metaphorical mobility contains an allusive reference to the discussion of bravery in Plato's Laches.57 Plato's Laches takes the form of a discussion on the subject of “manly courage” (andreia) among Socrates and two prominent Athenian statesmen and generals of the fifth century: Nicias and the eponymous Laches. During the course of the discussion, Laches argues that a brave man is not hard to define: he is the man who holds his place in (an infantry) formation, resists the enemy, and does not flee. Socrates responds by raising the example of the Scythians, who “are said to fight when fleeing (φεύγοντες) no less than when pursuing (διώκοντες).”58 Socrates’ statement is closely paralleled and verbally echoed by Procopius’ claim that contemporary mounted archers are able “to shoot their foes either while pursuing (διώκοντάς) or fleeing (φεύγοντας).” Socrates proceeds to elaborate on this point by citing Homer, who describes the horses of Aeneas as “knowing how to pursue (διωκέμεν) and flee (φέβεσθαι) this way and that very quickly over the plain.”59 Laches admits that pursuit and flight might be equally courageous for the heroes of Homer, such as Aeneas, who fought from chariots, or for those, like the Scythians, who fight as cavalry; however, for a hoplite, flight can never be courageous. The dialogue proceeds from there.
This passage bears obvious thematic parallels to the metaphor Procopius develops in his discussion of modern archers. Like the Scythians of Socrates’ counter-example, Procopius (qua mounted archer) is able to be brave even when he is not standing his ground—in other words, even when he makes use of allusions, coded critique, or a separate publication such as the Secret History. Therefore, the author's unwillingness to confront Justinian directly at various moments in the “battle” should not be seen as a mark of cowardice, but rather of a form of courage appropriate to his role, just as cavalry archers like the Scythians may be brave for fighting even in retreat. This interpretation is further recommended by the fact that it accounts for and anticipates the occasions when Procopius does voice direct criticism in the Wars. There is, however, more to this reference than Procopius’ attempts to defend himself from potential retribution. As Steve Maiullo has argued, the passage from the Laches mentioned above, like Procopius’ preface itself, intentionally misrepresents the scenes referenced in Homer, as neither mention of Aeneas’ horses supports Socrates’ definition of courage. In the first instance in Iliad 5, Aeneas refuses to retreat and is almost killed by Diomedes; in the second instance in Iliad 8, Diomedes, now in possession of Aeneas’ horses, retreats even though he believes that it is cowardly. Maiullo argues that these Homeric miscues are part of a deliberate strategy on the part of Plato to situate his discussion of courage vis–à–vis Homer and Thucydides.60 Regardless of whether or not Procopius understood this passage in the same way as Maiullo, there can be no denying that in his references to the inefficacy of Homeric archers, Procopius is making use of a Homeric miscue directly analogous to that described by Maiullo. This shared technique is important because it not only confirms the close connection between Procopius and Plato first described by Kaldellis,61 but also provides clear evidence that Procopius borrowed not just ideas, but also rhetorical techniques from three of the most notoriously allusive and enigmatic authors in antiquity: Pindar, Thucydides, and Plato.
There is one final element to be added to Procopius’ reference to the Laches, one that a reader familiar with Thucydides (such as Procopius was) would be likely to catch and which fits neatly into Procopius’ discussion of authorship as archery: both Nicias and Laches died during the Peloponnesian War because of their determination to stand their ground. The former refused to retreat from Syracuse until it was too late, and the latter died fighting in the Athenian phalanx at Mantineia. The third interlocutor, Socrates himself, likewise died because of his refusal to flee Athens: he too bravely stood his ground. The discussion of bravery in the Laches takes place under the shadow of the knowledge that the bravery of its three interlocutors will result in their deaths. By aligning himself with the bravery of the Scythians and Persians through an emphasis on his mobility as an archer/author, Procopius makes clear both what he feared and how he sought to avoid it. He did not intend to stand his ground and die.
FIGURED SPEECH IN THE SIXTH CENTURY
That the archery metaphor does double duty as an extension of Procopius’ rivalry with his models is evident when we place Procopius into his appropriate rhetorical context. In his seminal 1984 article, Frederick Ahl clearly demonstrated the widespread existence of coded language in theoretical and critical discussions of literature in the ancient world.62 Ahl surveyed the discussion of “figured speech” primarily in Demetrius’ On Style and Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory and drew his examples from works such as the Iliad and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.63 He did not, by contrast, devote much attention to the fact that figured speech was a regular topic in rhetorical handbooks of the imperial period. According to ancient and late antique rhetorical manuals, figured speech was a means by which an author could communicate an idea without saying it openly. In one handbook current in the fifth and sixth centuries, On Invention attributed to Hermogenes, figured speech is broken down into three categories, of which the type relevant for Procopius is that achieved “by implication (κατὰ ἔμφασιν).”64 The handbook defines this type of figured speech in the following way:
[Figured speech] is by implication whenever we are not able to speak because we are being prevented or because we do not have freedom of speech [παρρησία]. We demonstrate that which is not able to be said in the format [σχῆμα] of another opinion and in accordance with the composition of the argument in such a way that it is possible for the listeners to understand and that there is nothing reprehensible for the speaker.65
In simple English, figured speech by implication is a method by which an author can appear to be talking about one topic but is in fact speaking about another. It is in this vein that Demetrius, in his On Style, suggests that, if attempting to critique a tyrant such as Dionysius of Syracuse, it would be wise to couch criticism by discussing the cruelty of Phalaris of Acragas.66 However, Demetrius warns, a speaker cannot be too blunt or obvious in his figured speech, lest his subject catch on. Such was apparently the case with the one-eyed king Philip II of Macedon, who was angered by any mention of the Cyclops, an obvious character to employ in figured discussions of the monarch.67
Although it seems unintuitive to a modern audience, figured speech was a consistent feature of ancient rhetorical training. An extended discussion of figured speech appears in the corpus of Apsines, a writer of the Second Sophistic, and it has been argued that the sections of Pseudo-Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Art of Rhetoric dealing with figured speech are of a second-century origin as well, possibly drawing on the writings of Aelius Sarapion.68 A similar discussion, the opening of which is identical to that of Apsines, can be found in On Invention, which is attributed (likely spuriously) to Hermogenes and forms part of the Hermogenic Corpus, a collection of rhetorical works assembled during the fifth or sixth century, which would likely have been part of the rhetorical training made available to students of rhetoric in late antiquity. The Hermogenic Corpus is decidedly patchwork and there is a strong likelihood that the sections of On Invention that cover figured speech belong to a different author than the remainder of the work.69 Figured speech therefore appears to have been a consistent element of rhetorical training under the Roman empire from Quintilian onward, though it is far more heavily attested in Greek than in Latin.70
The presence of figured speech in ancient discussions of rhetoric is important because it directly links Procopius to the technique. Procopius identifies himself in his preface as Belisarios’ “advisor” (σύμβουλος) during the course of the war. As Greatrex has convincingly argued, the position Procopius is referring to is almost certainly that of assessor, a sort of legal secretary employed by prominent members of Roman society.71 This judgement is supported by clear evidence that Procopius was familiar with Justinian's legal codes. However, one important ramification of this identification has not yet been properly appreciated: if Procopius had been trained as a lawyer, then his education would have included a great deal of rhetorical training from precisely the sorts of manuals discussed above.72 In other words, if we accept that Procopius was a trained lawyer, then we can say with a high degree of confidence that he was exposed to, and trained in, techniques of figured speech of precisely the sort I am arguing he is using in his discussion of archery. It is worth noting, in this respect, that Procopius was identified as “Procopius the Rhetor” by his close contemporaries Agathias and Evagrius.73
Positivist military-historical readings of the preface to the Wars have struggled to reconcile the literal interpretation of Procopius’ mounted archers with the evidence provided elsewhere in the Wars. Moreover, they have not been able to explain why Procopius would discuss archery at this point in his work, why the quality of contemporary archers would validate the importance of the wars Procopius is setting out to record, or why he sets up a Homeric comparison. Put simply, these readings require scholars to overlook or ignore both the context of the passage and prominent contradictions in order to extract historical information. What I have proposed here, by way of an alternative, is a new reading of Procopius’ discussion of archery that clearly accounts for its position in the text and resolves the various oddities and contradictions that previous interpretations imposed. This reading is plausible not only on the merits, but also on the basis of contemporary rhetorical theory, in which Procopius was certainly trained during the course of his legal education. As a consequence, we should reconsider whether the mounted archers in the preface aim to accurately depict contemporary military practices. As I have shown, the discussion of archery is guided by concerns over authorial competition and methodological demonstration that argue against, even if they do not absolutely preclude, the accuracy of Procopius’ information. Whatever we think we know about the equipment and importance of mounted archers in the Roman armies of the sixth century, Procopius’ preface can no longer be reliably used as evidence on this topic without caveats and qualifications. Going forward, the challenge in using Procopius’ evidence on the topic of mounted archers will be in determining the balance between historical reality and figured self-representation in his account. I am inclined to believe that the image Procopius presents is driven largely by his metaphorical agenda, but both of the anonymous readers felt that the metaphor would derive rhetorical power from its close correspondence to contemporary reality. In either case, the accuracy of Procopius’ depiction can no longer be assumed to be settled based on the testimony of the preface itself.
One final note: the interpretation of the preface offered above authorizes literary and rhetorical approaches to the Wars by demonstrating that Procopius himself identifies literary and rhetorical techniques as an essential component of his historical method by giving them a privileged place in the methodological portion of his preface. This conforms with recent trends in Procopian scholarship that have produced many examples of the author's literary and rhetorical features.