The Secret History – Procopius

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Synopsis:

When comparing The Secret History with On Buildings it is almost unbelievable both were written by the same author: Procopius. On Buildings glorifies the preeminence of the emperor Justinian in all things, and The Secret History maligns Justinian in all things. Extracting the attainable truth from The Secret History is devilishly difficult, because it was clearly written when Procopius was out of favor. It was also ostensibly written following the plague years, and after the wars in the West as well as East of the Byzantine Empire had gone bad. Despite these dilemmas the work does bring forth the apparent emotional underpinnings of East Roman society near the end of Justinian’s reign.

Excerpts:

“Theodora had at her disposal secret and absolutely secluded dungeons, so solitary and so dark that it was impossible to distinguish between night and day…to her no place ever was sacred or unassailable; and she thought nothing of violating the holiest of sanctuaries. The Christian priests and people were struck with horror at her impiety, but nevertheless yielded and submitted to her in everything.

“Belisarius, although none of the charges brought against him could be proved, was removed by the Emperor, at the instance of Theodora, from the command of the army in the East…As for his friends and the many people who had before served under him, Justinian forbade them to visit him. Thus was seen in the city a piteous spectacle which men could scarce believe to be real, that of Belisarius simply a private individual, almost alone, gloomy and thoughtful, ever dreading to be set upon and assassinated.

“At the time when Leo occupied the imperial throne, three young husbandmen, of Illyrian birth, named Zimarchus, Ditybistus, and Justin of Bederiane, in order to escape from their utter poverty at home, determined to enlist in the army. They made their way to Byzantium on foot, with knapsacks of goat’s-hair on their shoulders, containing nothing but a few biscuits which they had brought from home. On their arrival they were enrolled in the army, and chosen by the Emperor amongst the palace guards, being all three very handsome young men.

“Justinian, by openly encouraging and provoking the Blue faction, shook the Roman Empire to its foundation, like an earthquake or a flood, or as though each city had been taken by the enemy. Everything was everywhere thrown into disorder; nothing was left alone. The laws and the whole fabric of the State were altogether upset, and became the very opposite of what they had been.

“He wrote decrees, without the slightest hesitation, for the capture of fortresses, the burning of cities, the enslaving of whole races of men for no crime whatever, so that, if anyone were to reckon all the calamities of this nature which have befallen the Roman people before his time, and weigh them against those which were brought about by him, I imagine that it would be found that this man was guilty of far more bloodshed than any ruler of previous times.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Complete Procopius Anthology, Bybliotech.

Military Institutions of the Romans – Vegetius

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Synopsis:

Late antiquity engendered consequential institutional adjustments for Roman arms. The wealth of the state meant that Rome would always attract the best recruits to its standard, but commonly these recruits were foreign mercenaries. Although still effective the army over time became more and more challenging to control because of foreign preeminence.

The Western Roman Empire never solved the problem of the barbarianization of its army, but rather was taken over by it, and collapsed as a state in 476. On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire answered the institutional dilemma of barbarianization first by elevating the hard-bitten Isaurian Romans of Anatolia to supremacy over the formerly favored barbarian mercenaries, and later by establishing the militia thémata system.

The late Roman writer Vegetius sought to unravel the institutional riddle of the late Roman army by advancing the thesis of how the ideal Roman army ought to be organized. His work never reflected the reality of late antiquity, but would become influential in the medieval West.

Excerpts:

“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.

“Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their provisions as well as their arms.

“The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.

“Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight.

“To pretend to enumerate the different nations so formidable of old, all which now are subject to the Romans, would be tedious. But the security established by long peace has altered their dispositions, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits and infused into them a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion.

*All excerpts have been taken from Military Institutions of the Romans, Praetorian Press, LLC.

The Decline of Roman Power in the West – J.B. Bury

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Synopsis:

In The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, distinguished historian J.B. Bury offers a narrative account of the deluge of barbarian invasions, and mass migrations which afflicted the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. He also chronicles the early evolution of the barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe throughout late antiquity.

The chapter Bury dedicates to the decline of Roman power in the western half of the empire centers on the institutional collapse of the state, and the ensuing snowball of barbarianization within the army. The barbarianization of the army thus allowed for the eventual consummation of an Italian kingdom under the rule of the barbarian warlord Odovacar.

Excerpts:

“The contribution which the Vandals made to the shaping of Europe was this: the very existence of their kingdom in Africa, and of their naval power in the Mediterranean, acted as a powerful protection for the growth of the new German kingdoms in Gaul and Spain, and ultimately helped the founding of a German kingdom in Italy, by dividing, diverting, and weakening the forces of the Empire. The Vandals had got round, as it were, to the rear of the Empire; and the effect of their powerful presence there was enhanced by the hostile and aggressive attitude which they continuously adopted.

“He (Ricimer) became through circumstances an emperor-maker; and his difficulty was this. If he set up too strong a man, his own power would have probably been overridden; his own fall would have been the consequence; while on the other hand weak upstarts were unable to maintain their position for any length of time, since public opinion did not respect them.

“It is also to be noted that in the intervals between the reigns of the emperors whom Ricimer set up and pulled down, when there was no emperor regnant in Italy, it did not mean that there was no emperor at all. At such times the imperial authority was entirely invested in the eastern emperor who reigned at Constantinople, the Emperor Leo; and this, too, was fully acknowledged by Ricimer, who indeed selected two of his emperors by arrangement with Leo.

“Odovacar had statesmanlike qualities, and he decided against the system of Ricimer, which had proved thoroughly unsatisfactory and unstable. His idea was to rule Italy under the imperial authority of Constantinople, unhampered by a second emperor in Italy, whom recent experiences had show to be worse than useless. There would have been no difficulty for Odovacar in adopting this policy, if there had existed no second emperor at the time; but Julius Nepos was still alive, and, what was most important, he had been recognized at Constantinople.

“Odovacar was not hampered, as Ricimer had been, by the nominal authority of a resident emperor; he was able to pursue his own policy without any embarrassment, and to act as an independent ruler. His policy was one of peace; he was entirely averse from aggression. It must be noted, too, that his position was much easier than that of Ricimer, because the Vandal hostilities had ceased. Gaiseric had died in 477; and two years before his death he had made peace with Rome, and Odovacar had induced him to restore Sicily in return for a yearly payment.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, Endeavour Press Ltd.

Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist – Peter Crawford

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Synopsis:

Following the passing of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Roman Empire was divided among his sons Constantine, Constantius, and Constans. Ultimately, Constantius would consolidate power under his exclusive authority. However, the religious schisms befalling the empire concerning the true nature of Christ between the Arians, Monophysites, and Catholics manifested a legacy as the anti-Christ for Constantius among the victorious Catholics, because of his alliance with the Arian cause.

In his book, Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist historian Peter Crawford renders the contexture of the schisms of Christianity throughout the era of Constantius II. He also describes the considerable pagan rebellions, the war with the neighboring superpower Persia under Shapur II, as well as the dynastic civil war of Julian the Apostate, and the power politics which sculpted the complexion of the epoch that Constantius ruled over.

Excerpts:

“Not only was Sirmium now an increasingly important military position in the prefecture of Illyricum, the extended presence of emperors had seen the construction of many of the buildings required for an imperial residence: imperial and public palaces, mint, circus, arena, aqueduct, churches and villas. Indeed, so well-polished had Sirmium become that the hard-to-please Ammianus called it ‘a populous and famous metropolis.’

“And it was to prove as the subsequent Battle of Mursa on 28 September 351 was one of the bloodiest battles in Roman history; although even with such a status, information about the battle remains scant. Magnentius is said to have lost two-thirds of his force in this slogging match while the victorious Constantius lost half of his, equating to perhaps more than 50,000 casualties.

“Constantius’ record on the battlefield was almost impeccable. Losing control of his army at Singara is the only real blemish when he led men in person. He defeated armies of Persians, Sarmatians, Quadi, Limigantes, Alamanni and probably other tribes on top of the two large Roman armies of Magnentius; all of this achieved with an army that was in a transitional phase of its development not just from the reforms of Constantine but also the increasing regionalisation sparked by the divisions of the central field army between his sons.

“It was the potential strategic considerations behind the promotion of Sabinianus that represents the least popular aspect of Constantius’ military approach with his lack of offensive strikes and major battles against foreign enemies seen as un-Roman and cowardly. However, it is in this realm of military strategy that Constantius demonstrated a far greater insight into the abilities of the fourth century empire, its army, its officers and its opponents than many of his contemporaries, even if it was to the detriment of his own reputation.

“Throughout his reign, Constantius held a massive Persian army headed by perhaps the greatest Sassanid king at bay at a time of Roman military transition, imperial division, usurpation and barbarian invasion. During the 340s, he had even managed that with just a third of the empire’s resources at his disposal.

*All excerpts have been taken from Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist, Pen and Sword.

Reason and the True Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #124, Seneca engages the fountainhead of the ‘true good’ in human action. He concludes that virtue is the cradle of happiness, and the cradle of virtue is reason.

Excerpts:

“And what is this good? I will tell you: It is a free and upstanding mind which subjects other things to itself and itself to nothing.

“We assert that ‘happy’ is what is in accordance with nature, and what is in accordance with nature is directly obvious, just as wholeness is obvious.

“As far as perception of good and evil is concerned both are equally mature; an infant is no more capable of the good than is a tree or some dumb animal. And why is the good not present in tree or dumb animal? Because reason is not.

“Confusion is applicable only where non-confusion can also occur, as anxiety is applicable only where serenity can obtain. No man is vicious unless he is capable of virtue.

“Pronounce yourself happy only when all your satisfactions are begotten of reason, and when, having surveyed what men struggle for, pray for, watch over, you find nothing to desire let alone prefer.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Crowds – Seneca

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Synopsis:

In letter #7, Seneca grapples with the nature of crowds. He catechizes the influence crowds have on the human soul, and traces the remedies for its negative effects.

Excerpts:

“Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it. In every case, the larger the crowd with which we mingle the greater the danger.

“A single example of luxury or avarice works great mischief. A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness; a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust off upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.

“Retire into yourself, so far as you can. Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.

“There is no reason why ambition to advertise your talents should lure you to the public platform to give popular readings or discourses. I should agree to your doing so if your wares suited such customers, but none of them can understand you. A solitary individual or two may come your way, but even him you will have to educate and train to understand you. ‘Then why did I learn all this?’ Never fear that you have wasted your effort; you learned for yourself.

“When asked the object of applying himself so assiduously to an art which would reach so very few people, he said: ‘For me a few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Campaigns of Heraclius in the East – George Finlay

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Synopsis:

When the Roman Emperor Heraclius elevated himself to the throne in Constantinople, the empire was in a bleak state. It had been defeated, its armies destroyed, and most of its major cities conquered. The Persian monarch Chosroes II had succeeded in destroying Roman power in a string of successful campaigns initiated after the murder of his benefactor the Roman Emperor Mauricius by the usurper Phocas.

Nearly twenty years later the empire had been restored on all fronts, and the Persian enemy completely defeated with great slaughter. Heraclius was able to achieve this spectacular result after a series of brilliant counter-offensive campaigns into the heart of Persia, which included extinguishing the eternal flame of the fire god Ahura Mazda – the national deity of Persia – and the destruction of its ancient shrine.

In his seminal History of Greece, George Finlay details these campaigns and imparts his own sagacious commentary on the events.

Excerpts:

“Heraclius had repeatedly declared that he did not desire to make any conquest of Persian territory. His conduct when success had crowned his exertions, and when his enemy was ready to purchase his retreat at any price, proves the sincerity and justice of his policy. His empire required not only a lasting peace to recover from the miseries of the late war, but also many reforms in the civil and religious administration, which could only be completed during such a peace, in order to restore the vigor of the government.

“The fame of Heraclius would have rivaled that of Alexander, Hannibal, or Caesar, had he expired at Jerusalem, after the successful termination of the Persian war. He had established peace throughout the empire, restored the strength of the Roman government, revived the power of Christianity in the East, and replanted the holy cross on Mount Calvary. His glory admitted of no addition. Unfortunately, the succeeding years of his reign have, in the general opinion, tarnished his fame.

“Though the military glory of Heraclius was obscured by the brilliant victories of the Saracens, still his civil administration ought to receive its meed of praise, when we compare the resistance made by the empire which he reorganized with the facility which the followers of Mahomet found in extending their conquests over every other land from India to Spain.

“The moment the Mohammedan armies were compelled to rely solely on their military skill and religious enthusiasm, and ceased to derive any aid from the hostile feeling of the inhabitants to the imperial government, their career of conquest was checked; and almost a century before Charles Martel stopped their progress in the west of Europe, the Greeks had arrested their conquests in the East, by the steady resistance which they offered in Asia Minor.

“His effort to strengthen his power, by establishing a principle of unity, aggravated all the evils which he intended to cure; for while the Monophysites and the Greeks were as little disposed to unite as ever, the authority of the Eastern Church, as a body, was weakened by the creation of a new schism, and the incipient divisions between the Greeks and the Latins, assuming a national character, began to prepare the way for the separation of the two churches.

*All excerpts have been taken from Greece Under The Romans, B.C. 146 – A.D. 716, Palala Press.