Classics Reissued: The Wars of Justinian
Translated by H. B. Dewing
Revised and modernized by Anthony Kaldellis
Hackett Publishing, 2014
The 6th-century historian Procopius enjoyed a position hardly ever given to practitioners of his craft: he was an eyewitness to some of the most pivotal and dramatic events of his day, actually participating in those events as an intimately-trusted staff member of the greatest general in five hundred years. The general was Belisarius, and the events were the efforts the Emperor Justinian made to re-take segments of the Empire that had been lost to plundering barbarians. Justinian sent Belisarius to such theaters as Sicily, Italy, and North Africa, and Procopius went along, dutifully taking notes. And from these experiences, he produced a masterpiece very nearly the equal of similar works by Livy, Tacitus, and Polybius, the Wars.
Of course, the fame of Procopius rests on another work entirely: the scandalous, hilariously readable Secret History, a blistering expose of the very same illustrious people he’d treated so soberly in his public work, including both Justinian and Belisarius (and concentrating on the wives of both men). The Secret History is irresistible and has had many, many translations.
Not so the poor old Wars, which had a full and very good translation for the Loeb Classical Library nearly a century ago, by a redoubtable scholar named H. B. Dewing, and virtually no other attention in English – a testament to the enduring solidity of Dewing’s work, yes, but also a testament to the fact that most of the general public would rather read about the Empress Theodora taking her clothes off in public than about the logistics of maintaining the grain supply to auxiliary troops stationed outside Ravenna. Or so such unjust reactions would tend to go.
In reality, the Wars is a readable, deeply fascinating work, full of dramatic turns of fortune, insightful character analysis, and plenty of well-drawn action (and, pace the Secret History, a genuinely great man at its center). Plenty of readers, encountering Dewing’s translation in those sturdy little Loeb volumes, have discovered a writer they could read and re-read with real pleasure.
And now, thanks to the good folks at Hackett Publishing, those readers – and, one hopes, plenty of newcomers – have a even better alternative to those Loeb volumes: Ohio State Classics professor Anthony Kaldellis has taken Dewing’s translation of the Wars, extensively altered and updated it, and added hundreds of textual and historical notes. The result is a fat single-volume paperback of Procopius’s masterpiece.
Kaldellis is, critically, a sensitive and appreciative fan:
The Wars is written in clear, fluid classical Greek, and rarely bores or confuses the reader. It is an engaging narrative of a fascinating period of history that would otherwise have been much more obscure to us. It draws on classical literature to offer moments of Homeric heroism, Herodotean inquiry, and the Thucyidean level-headedness and rhetoric. Prokopios is always in control.
And he perfectly balances his notes between the kind of general background information first-time readers might need in order to follow along and the more extensive classical contextualizing that will only make the whole thing more interesting for readers already familiar with ancient literature in general and Procopius in particular. To take one example among thousands, we get Procopius’s description of the far-off land of Thule:
In that place a wonderful thing takes place each year. For the sun at the time of the summer solstice never sets for forty days but is constantly visible during this whole time above the earth. Not less than six months later, at the time of the winter solstice, the sun is never seen on this island for forty days, but eternal night envelops it; and as a result, the people there are depressed during this whole time, because they are utterly unable to mingle with each during this interval.
In his note, after first identifying Thule with Scandinavia, Kaldellis tells us: “This phenomenon was well known since antiquity; Homer, Odyssey 10.82-86 (the Laistrygonians); Pomponius Mela, Description of the World 3.57; Plinius, Natural History 4.16.104; Tacitus, Germania 45; in addition to Jordanes.”
Kaldellis likewise helps out with additional enhancing details large and small, as at the point where Procopius describes the Roman reaction to the death of the feared Gothic leader Totila:
The Romans did not know that Totila had been thus taken from the world, until a Gothic woman told them and pointed out the grave. But when they heard it they did not thing the story sound, and so they came to the spot, dug up the grave with no hesitation, and brought up from it Totila’s corpse; then, they say, after recognizing him and satisfying their curiosity with this sight, they again buried him in the earth and immediately reported the whole matter to [their general] Narses.
To which Kaldellis adds: “Malalas, Chronicle 18.116, reports that Totila’s bloodstained clothes were displayed in Constantinople.” And the natural inference – that Narses’s men stripped the corpse before they re-buried it – is one the reader is free either to make or to queasily reject. By adding his exhaustive scholarship to Dewing’s sturdy framework, Kaldellis provides many, many such thoroughly thought-provoking moments. His goal, he writes, “has been to produce an accessible, reliable, and affordable translation of the Wars in a single volume”:
There is no such version of the text currently available in any language. Prokopios is a major historian on a par with any of his ancient or medieval counterparts, and he deserves to be more widely available.
The Wars of Procopius does indeed deserve such a wide audience (it’s something a minor scandal that excellent classics-popularizers like Penguin or Oxford haven’t long since produced just such an accessible version of the work; they’ve certainly been eager enough to keep readers well-supplied with the Secret History), and thanks to Hackett – and Kaldellis’s indefatigable scholarship – there’s the chance of it. Certainly no student of ancient literature should be without this wonderful volume.