H. B. Dewing, trans. The Wars of Justinian. Revised and modernized, with an introduction and notes, by Anthony Kaldellis. Indianopolis: Hacket Publishing, 2014. 680 pp. $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62466-172-3.
Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells (Quincy College)
Published on H-War (March, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Historians, whether professionally trained or amateur, who strive to learn about a civilization and its leaders often rely on sources that were close to those who determined seminal events. By this standard Prokopius of Caesarea is certainly among the more important chroniclers of history. Serving during the reign of the emperor Justinian as legal advisor to the Byzantine general Belisarius, Prokopius accompanied him on campaigns both in the Near East against the Persians and in Italy against the Goths. While his The Wars of Justinian and The Buildings of Justinian are remarkable for the volume of detailed writing over a relatively short span of time, Prokopius is also chiefly remembered for his scandalous Secret History documenting the relationship between Justinian and the empress Theodora. Just as his emperor Justinian is remembered as possibly the last Roman emperor (or the first Byzantine one), Prokopius is possibly the last great historian of antiquity. While H. B. Dewing’s translation of The Wars of Justinian has been available for nearly a century, this is a new translation by Anthony Kaldellis.
The emperor Justinian spent much of his thirty-eight years on the throne engaged in wars, both foreign and domestic. These military campaigns were waged in both the east and west as Justinian attempted to secure existing borders and reclaim part of the old empire. Just as successful generals like Belisarius and Narses enjoyed imperial patronage, so too did chroniclers like Prokopius and Agathias. The Wars of Justinian is divided into eight books, or sections. The first seven were most likely compiled and published together; the eighth and final book was added perhaps a decade later. The first two books deal with the conflict between the Romans and Sassanid Persia and describe the campaigns of the Sasanian shah Kavadh I, the "Nika" revolt in Constantinople in 532, the war by Kavadh's successor, Khosrau I, in 540, and his assault of and destruction of Antioch. The great plague that devastated Constantinople in 542 is also covered here. The early career of Belisarius is covered in some detail. This is unsurprising, given that Belisarius was a patron of Prokopius, and would see service against the Persians. The next two books, the Vandal War, cover Belisarius's campaign against the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. The remaining three volumes comprise The Gothic War, the campaigns by Belisarius and others to recapture Italy, then under the rule of the Ostrogoths. The eighth and final book covers 552/553, when a Roman army led by Narses finally destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. This eighth book covers campaigns both in Italy and on the eastern frontier.
This review is not so much of Prokopius’s work, but rather that of Kaldellis. I used the Dewing translation as source material for my graduate work on the Roman/Byzantine military of the sixth and seventh centuries. It was a solid translation and proved quite useful. Why the new translation, then? Kaldellis released an updated translation of Prokopius's Secret History in 2010, and the fact that many events are covered in both volumes seems as good an incentive as any. While the general view is that Secret History was most likely a farcical account meant only for the eyes of Prokopius's close friends, that both were written by the same author, with the same mindset, means that these two volumes and Prokopius's Buildings of Justinian should be treated as a boxed set of sorts. Kaldellis's translation of the Secret History was well received, and so should be his Wars of Justinian.
This is a fine volume overall, but there are some criticisms. While Prokopius is often regarded as the last great historian of antiquity, his successors Agathias and Menander Protector were in many ways as important. Edward Gibbon famously considered Agathias "a poet and rhetorician" whereas Procopius was "a statesman and soldier," but this oversimplifies things. The later historians described the end of Justinian’s reign, as well as how Emperor Justin II would try to maintain the enlarged, yet vulnerable empire. Both should get more than a passing comment in the notes. The more glaring issue is that despite the inclusion of several maps covering the Roman and Persian worlds, several of the events described occur in locations not shown on these maps. Tracking Belisarius or Narses often required an atlas. All criticisms aside, however, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in Roman, Byzantine or military history.
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Nathan D. Wells. Review of Dewing, H. B., trans., The Wars of Justinian.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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