BMCR 2008.05.23

Prokop und die Perser. Oriens et Occidens 16

, Prokop und die Perser : Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike. Oriens et occidens ; Bd. 16. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2007. 382 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9783515090520 €68.00.

[Declaration: the author was kind enough to thank me at the start of his book for help on a few points in the preparation of this work.]

This work, which began as a doctoral thesis undertaken at Kiel University under the direction of Professor Josef Wiesehöfer, represents a significant contribution to the study both of Procopius and of Sasanian Persia in the early sixth century. In essence, the work offers a detailed consideration of all the information Procopius provides, above all in Wars I-II but also in Wars VIII and in the Anecdota, concerning Persia and the Persians. Börm is interested in three main areas (pp. 11-12): how much Procopius knew about the Persians, from which extrapolations can be made about how much information was available to Romans generally at this time; what he made of them, i.e. what determined or influenced his attitude; and what can be said of Romano-Persian relations on the basis of Procopius and other sources. His work is thus both historiographical and historical and relies upon a thorough knowledge of both the latest Procopian and Sasanian scholarship.

The introduction (pp. 11-17) explains the purpose of the work, noted above, and Börm’s methodology. Procopius’ information is to be checked against all the other available evidence in every case, both eastern and western, in an effort to gauge his accuracy and to gain an understanding of what the Romans thought of the Persians in the sixth century. There is some common ground here between Börm’s enterprise and that of Alain Chauvot in his (unjustly) neglected Opinions romaines face aux barbares au IVe siècle ap. J.-C. (Paris, 1998), a work that offers a detailed analysis of Roman perceptions of and attitudes to barbarians (including Persians) throughout the fourth century and traces their evolution; unlike Börm, however, Chauvot is little concerned with the accuracy of the picture drawn by the Roman sources.1

There follow three short chapters that serve as a preliminary overview of the subject before going into details. Thus chapter two (pp. 18-29) offers a survey of Procopian scholarship, ranging from Dahn and Haury to Cameron and Kaldellis, as well as of recent work on the later Roman empire, including works published in 2006 and even 2007, and of research into Sasanian matters. Chapter three provides a more detailed consideration of the historian himself and of his attitude to the emperor Justinian, the subject of continuing debate among scholars. Börm shows himself to be well acquainted with modern scholarship, taking into account, for instance, the important recent work of Mischa Meier ( Das andere Zeitalter Iustinians, Göttingen, 2003). There is a useful discussion of the issue of the western reconquest and to what degree it was pre-planned (pp. 40-3). His presentation of Procopius’ career is convincing (pp. 45-9), as is his discussion of the still disputed dating of his works (pp. 49-52).2 Börm goes on to discuss possible sources of Procopius (pp. 52-7), other parallel sources, such as the intriguing ‘History of the Armenians’ that he mentions, and other authors such as Ammianus and Priscus, as well as Syriac and Persian sources. In the case of John the Lydian, the new French edition and translation of Jacques Schamp (Paris, 2006), should now be used. To his credit, Börm is well aware of the potential circularity of checking Procopius’ information against other sources: our ‘control’ for Procopius might well have derived his information from the same source as he did (p. 69). Chapter 4 considers the image of the Persians in ancient historiography. Here Börm shows familiarity with debates on ethnography and the extent to which ancient authors sought to conform to certain models in how they described foreign peoples. As he notes, it is interesting that Procopius never sought to devote an actual excursus to the Persians (unlike, for instance, Ammianus and Agathias) (p. 71). It is clear that Procopius could not avoid being influenced by certain received ideas about the Persians, but the fact that some of his characterisations of them follow this tendency does not invalidate them per se: the stereotype Persian might indeed have a basis in reality (p. 82). Procopius does tend to simplify and perhaps to overlook differences among the Persians themselves; he also is led into error sometimes by his own sources, but there is no reason to suppose, Börm argues, that he actually invented material (p. 83). There follows a brief overview of the picture of Persia in classical sources from Herodotus to Tacitus.

Chapter five, in which Börm offers a detailed analysis of Procopius’ portrait of Persia, is the core of the work. Rather than offer a commentary on each passage of Procopius, he prefers, quite rightly, to proceed thematically, in order to arrive at a more rounded picture of the various topics discussed. In the case of the Persian king (pp. 90-126), Börm concludes that Procopius is reliable, even if his information is often vague. He rightly brings out, for instance, how the king could not be disfigured, how he was supposed to defend his kingdom, and how there was an element of election in the choice of a king (pp. 108-12). Parallels for these elements, and others, can be found in the oriental tradition. Procopius is quite well informed about the insurrection of Anosozadus, although, unlike the later Persian tradition, he does not claim that he was a Christian; it is unclear, however, which version is more credible (pp. 121-3). The nobles play an important role in Procopius’ work, especially in the opening chapters of the Wars; although Procopius clearly has considerable sympathy for them, no doubt because of his identification with the nobles of the Roman empire, he does not appear to have overestimated their role: there were indeed councils of nobles, as other sources attest (pp. 136-7). Procopius has little to say about the priests, but, as Börm rightly argues, this is probably because he has little interest in Persian religion. Although Procopius names only four Persian offices (rather than Greek equivalents), his explanations of them are broadly accurate (pp. 147-8). Whether Procopius knew any Persian is unclear: his translation of the name Anosozadus, for instance, is inaccurate, but not actually wrong (p. 149). One of the historian’s strong points, of course, is his treatment of military matters, and here it is possible to find confirmation of many of his assertions. Other sources, for instance, confirm the great skill of the Sasanians in siege warfare (pp. 163, 169-71), as well as their use of elephants on campaign. On the former point one might have referred to the remarkable evidence from Dura Europus, even if it concerns a rather earlier period; on the latter, reference should be made to P. Rance, ‘Elephants in Warfare in Late Antiquity’, Acta Ant. Hung. 43 (2003), pp. 355-84. Oriental sources likewise confirm Procopius’ description of the deportation of the population of Antioch (p. 175).

On religious matters, on the other hand, Procopius reveals himself to be patchy in his coverage, no doubt because of his limited interest in the subject; he cannot be convicted, however, of any gross inaccuracies. While he seems to be prepared to give credence to the magi and their prophecies (pp. 189-90), the Zoroastrian clergy does not in general play such a large role in his work as it does in Agathias or in the oriental tradition (pp. 191, 195-6). Börm rightly points out that Procopius may better reflect the reality of the sixth-century situation, since the later oriental sources tended to exaggerate the extent of priestly influence. With regard to geography, Procopius is much better informed about the western marchlands of the Persian empire; beyond that, he knows, of course, of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Beth Lapat (Belapaton in Wars VIII.10.9, implying use of a Syriac intermediary), i.e. Gundeshapur, and has some knowledge of the north-eastern frontier, where the Sasanians faced the Hephthalites. His coverage of the Persians’ neighbours, such as the Hephthalites, Arabs, and Caucasian peoples is variable. In most cases he was at the mercy of his sources, which may explain why he exaggerates the poverty of Lazica (p. 212); Börm also suggests that he may have been inclined to downplay its worth since at the time of the composition of his work, he may have believed that the Romans would be forced to cede the kingdom. Börm is right to suppose that Procopius, having never visited the region concerned, was here at the mercy of his sources, probably official reports, and consequently tended to take a markedly pro-Roman stance (p. 215). It is possible that Procopius deliberately aimed to give the impression that Lazica had long been within the Roman orbit (cf. Wars II.15.15-16) because of the continuing struggle for domination in the region in the 540s, but one might here suggest an alternative interpretation. At Wars I.11.28-9 he alludes briefly to the Roman negotiators’ indignation (c.525) that the Persian emissary Seoses should bring up the issue of Colchis (Lazica) in the course of discussions about the possible adoption of Khusro by Justinian. Seoses clearly indicates that Lazica had only recently defected to the Romans, as was indeed the case: Tzath changed sides probably in 522 (cf. Börm, p. 215). Procopius therefore clearly was well aware of this significant development in Romano-Persian relations and chose not to include it, most probably because it was so well known to his public: it is reported at considerable length in all the chronicles, e.g. Malalas, 17.9, Chronicon Paschale, pp. 613-15. By contrast, none of the chroniclers has anything to say about the defection of King Gourgenes and the Iberians a few years later, an event dealt with in some detail by Procopius ( Wars, I.12.1-19). Procopius’ deployment of material, which Börm rightly views as selective, may at least to some extent be tailored to his readers’ expectations and to what they might have been expected to know already. To Börm’s brief discussion of Procopius’ description of the ‘Prison of Oblivion’ ( Wars I.5.7-40) should be added the detailed treatment of C. Ciancaglini and G. Traina, ‘La forteresse de l’oubli’, Muséon 115 (2002), 399-422.

In the same section, Börm rightly draws attention to the fact that, although he is interested in the boundary-lines between Rome and Persia, Procopius makes no allusions to Roman claims to Persian territory, even to Nisibis (p. 219). He concludes that knowledge of Persia beyond its western borderlands was limited; much of what Procopius knew probably came from diplomatic contacts. Nevertheless, what he does report is correct and testifies to the circulation of reliable information in the Roman empire about its Sasanian rival; Syriac-speaking Christians no doubt played an important part in this (pp. 220-1). As regards Procopius’ knowledge of Persian history, Börm is downbeat. There is very little information on the third and fourth centuries A.D., while his account of the partition of Armenia is far wide of the mark; he seems here to have relied on an Armenian source of doubtful value.3 For the period from 400 onwards there is not much of an improvement: Procopius telescopes the two fifth-century wars into one (p. 228). As Börm suggests, his intention in providing this brief survey may have been to show that collaboration was possible between the two powers. On the other hand, his account of Peroz’s wars is amply confirmed by oriental sources; his confusion of Balash and Zamasp, conflated into ‘Blasses’, who replaced Kavadh in 496, may be ascribed to his source, or indeed to Procopius seeking (wrongly) to correct what he conceived of as a doublet in his source (p. 230). As regards the causes of the various wars that broke out between the two powers, Procopius’ account again stands up well when compared to other sources; unsurprisingly, he offers more detail on the wars of the sixth century than the fifth. He has little to say about internal Persian affairs, such as the reforms undertaken by Kavadh and Khusro (pp. 241-2). From this chapter Börm concludes that Procopius can very rarely be convicted of outright errors about Persian matters; when he is mistaken, it is probably as a result of his source, rather than a deliberate invention. Nevertheless, he does shape his material and distort it; he concentrates on certain areas rather than others, saying very little (for instance) on religious matters.

The sixth chapter considers the image of Persians in Procopius. Börm successfully here brings out the contradictions in Procopius’ work: both the Persian people as a whole and their kings are praised and criticised in different sections of the work. This ambivalent attitude is to be ascribed to various factors, including the influence of traditional attitudes to the Persians and differing currents in sixth-century society, some of which were markedly favourable to the Persians. On the one hand one encounters certain traditional characteristics of the Persians in Procopius, such as their faithlessness, their arrogance and their love of luxury; on the other, their kings can behave generously, while their military competence is highly regarded. Börm suggests that, because of the (unprovoked) outbreak of war in 540, one may detect a more anti-Persian tone in book II of the Wars than in the first book (p. 260). Börm is aware that one factor that no doubt influenced Procopius’ portrayal of the Persians was the possibility of doing so in a way to express oblique criticism of Justinian’s regime; the parallel of Justinian and Khusro has often been noted. The explicit parallel drawn between the Nika riot and the plot against Khusro is an obvious instance of this ( Wars I.23.1). Although Procopius clearly did have sympathy for the Roman aristocracy, I am not persuaded that he believed that one of Anastasius’ nephews should have inherited the throne (rather than Justin), even if he clearly thought that Kavadh’s desire to promote Khusro flew in the face of Persian tradition (by which, Procopius thought, his eldest son should succeed him). Although Procopius regards the succession of Justin as remarkable, in that he ‘pushed aside’ (his term) his predecessor’s relatives ( Wars I.11.1, cf. Evagrius, IV.1), it does not follow that he took their part or believed that this dynastic principle ought to be followed in the Roman empire; Hypatius emerges with little credit from the Wars, both in the Persian war waged under Anastasius and in the negotiations of c.525 and even in the account of the Nika riot (Börm, pp. 267-8 and see p. 268 n. 3, where he notes difficulties with his own interpretation). Overall, Börm concludes that there is no one homogeneous picture of the Persians in Procopius’ work, which well reflects the differing currents in sixth-century attitudes.

The final chapter provides a first-rate survey of Romano-Persian relations in late antiquity. 4 Börm offers here a thorough re-evaluation of all the evidence available, taking into account works such as the Dialogus de scientia politica, seldom cited in this context, in order to arrive at as rounded a picture as possible of the evolution of relations between the two powers. What emerges is a fascinating picture in which two strands of opinion fought for dominance on either side of the frontier. At both the Roman and Persian courts could be found ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, some favouring co-operation with their neighbours, others insisting that they could not be trusted. Börm notes many aspects in which the Persians exercised an influence over the Romans, ranging from literature to philosophy, architecture and textiles (pp. 294-5). Through diplomatic contacts over the fifth century it had become clear that co-operation was a possibility; the foundations were perhaps laid at the end of the fourth century by the Hunnic raid of 395 that caused serious damage to both empires (p. 300).5 Relations frayed in the late fifth century, as Anastasius exploited Persian difficulties with the Hephthalites to refuse Kavadh’s demands for money on several occasions; this triggered the outbreak of war in 502. Despite this, relations remained sufficiently good for Kavadh to seek Khusro’s adoption by Justin and to bring the war to an end in 532 (p. 306). Börm is rightly prepared to take this adoption attempt seriously; he is less certain about the historicity of Yazdgerd I’s guardianship of the young Theodosius II, on the other hand. As he correctly observes, the negotiations were brought to nothing by hawks on both sides, Hypatius in the case of the Romans, Seoses in that of the Persians. Persian opponents of good relations with Rome were generally, as he insists, supporters of the Hephthalites and the Mazdakites (p. 323). Thus with the elimination of the latter around 530 and the downfall of Seoses, the ground was ready for a cessation of hostilities. Rufinus, a Roman dove, was the leading negotiator on the Roman side, and in 532 an Eternal Peace was concluded. In the late 530s, however, the hawks came to the fore on the Persian side, represented by the disappearance of Mebodes and his replacement by Zabergan as the leading counsellor of Khusro. Thus was the king induced, nothing loth, to break the peace and invade Roman territory in 540. For Börm, this invasion is the decisive break in Romano-Persian relations, the point of no return. Thenceforth the doves on the Roman side had little influence; the Persians could no longer be trusted. Hence the treaty of 562 left nothing to chance, going into detail on any potential causes for war, and providing regular payments to the Persians. Procopius, a contemporary of these developments, was heavily influenced by the breaking of the peace in 540, as can be detected in his often harsh depiction of Khusro (pp. 331-6). The case is perhaps overstated: Menander protector, writing in the early 580s, seems, like Procopius, to have accepted Persia’s existence and to have favoured a peaceful co-existence of the two powers, which helps to explain the detail he provides on the treaty of 562. Furthermore, although Börm is correct in noting (p. 335) that Maurice’s decision to restore Khusro II in 591 met with some opposition at the Roman court, some sources, such as the Life of Saint Golinduch of Eustratius, writing in the immediate aftermath of the treaty, are remarkably positive.6

Börm offers a brief conclusion to his work (pp. 337-40). He is positive in his assessment of Procopius, seeing in him a first-rate source on Persian matters, whose account bears up to close scrutiny and comparison with the oriental sources. Even if he had no doubts about the relative superiority of the Romans to the Persians, he also believed in the possibility of co-operation between the two empires; nowhere does he even envisage the idea, for instance, of eliminating the Persian kingdom.

We may conclude by underlining the importance of this work in the ongoing debate as to the nature of Procopius’ work. Recent scholars have not hesitated to question much of what he says, in particular A. Kaldellis in his Procopius of Caesarea. Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (Philadelphia, 2004), according to whom much of the opening section of the Wars is intended merely to illustrate the degeneration of the Persian, and by extension, the Roman rulers (p. 75, noted by Börm, p. 296 n. 3). Were such a view accepted, little store could be put in anything of what Procopius says about Persia in his work, particularly in the opening chapters. Fortunately, by means of this painstaking study, Börm has amply demonstrated that such a negative view cannot be vindicated.7 At the same time, he has shed much light on the issue of Romano-Persian relations in the fifth and sixth centuries. Consequently the work will be of immense use both to Procopian scholars and to those concerned with the political and military history of the late Roman and Sasanian empires.


1. The work is absent also from Börm’s bibliography. For a brief assessment of Chauvot’s book see my review in JRS 90 (2000), 249.

2. To his bibliography in this instance could be added two relevant recent works, B. Croke, ‘Procopius’ Secret History : Rethinking the Date’, GRBS 45 (2005), 405-31 and W. Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (London, 2007), chapter six.

3. More use might have been made here of valuable studies by Nina Garsoian, e.g. ‘La date de la fondation de Théodosioupolis-Karin’, REB 62 (2004), 181-96, ‘Armenia Megale kai eparkhia Mesopotamias’ in Eupsychia. Mélanges offerts à Hélène Ahrweiler (Paris, 1998), p. 239-64. See also my forthcoming article, ‘Deux notes sur Théodose II et les Perses’ due to appear in AnTard 16 (2008). G. Traina, ‘Faustus “of Byzantium”, Procopius and the Armenian History’ in C. Soda and S. Takács, eds, Novum Millennium. Studies on Byzantine history and culture dedicated to Paul Speck (Aldershot, 2001), 411-12, a work that does feature in Börm’s bibliography, argues that Procopius made use of a version of ‘Faustus” work composed in Greek.

4. One might note in this context the recent publication of an English translation of the German source-book of E. Winter and B. Dignas, entitled Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2007), which Börm naturally cites in its original German edition of 2001: cf. my review. F. Haarer, Anastasius I. Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World (Cambridge, 2006), which offers an excellent survey of Romano-Persian relations in the late fifth and early sixth centuries in chapter three, no doubt appeared too late to be taken into consideration.

5. On this raid see also G. and M. Greatrex, ‘The Hunnic Invasion of the East of 395 and the fortress of Ziatha’, Byzantion 69 (1999), 65-75. On the diplomatic contacts between the two sides and the role of (Syriac) Christians in these exchanges, very important in the early fifth century, see also L. Sako, Le rôle de la hierarchie syriaque orientale dans les rapports diplomatiques entre la Perse et Byzance aux Ve-VIIe siècles (Paris, 1986); in this context should also be mentioned the important article of L. Van Rompay, ‘Impetuous Martyrs? The situation of the Persian Christians in the last years of Yazdgard I (419-20)’, in M. Lamboigts and P. van Deun, eds., Martyrium in multidisciplinary Perspective. Memorial Louis Reekmans (Louvain, 1995), 363-75. Of minimal importance is a minor slip on p. 300, where Börm claims that both Sozomen and Socrates report the conclusion of a 100-year peace in 408: only the former does so.

6. On Menander’s view of the Persians see R.C. Blockley, The History of Menander the Guardsman (Liverpool, 1985), p. 29-30. For the Life of Saint Golinduch see the extract (chapter 23) quoted in G. Greatrex and S.N.C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars, A.D. 363-630 (London, 2002), pp. 174-5.

7. Cf. L. Brubaker, ‘Sex, lies and textuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the rhetoric of gender in sixth-century Byzantium’ in L. Brubaker and J.M.H. Smith, eds, Gender in the Early Medieval World, East and West (Cambridge, 2004), p. 101, ‘The Secret History is a successful piece of fiction’. Of course, the Anecdota is a very different work from the Wars, but it is significant that assaults on the veracity of both have been made recently. Worth noting in this context is vol.13 of Electrum, devoted to Continuity and Change. Studies in Late Antique Historiography, D. Brodka and M. Stachura, eds (Cracow, 2007).