Posted by: ken98 | September 9, 2011

Khusrau Adores, Maurice Cowers, Phocas Rebells, and Theophylact the Historian Lies Badly and Boringly

Day 726 – Ken here (F)(9-9-2011)
(DEF II, v.4, Ch.46, pp.890-900)(pages read: 1950)

Theophylact's history

A more appropriate name for Theophylact's history - and Gibbon's retelling of it - Cover for The Best of Benny Hill

I really am having more and more difficulty making it through Gibbon – I sometimes suspect, although I am almost certain it is not true that Gibbon is starting his second childhood right in front of our eyes here in the last chapters of Volume 4.

I know it’s all a problem of sources – we are leaning on weak links/supports indeed – Theophylact repeats the most outrageous calumny about Maurice’s reign with a straight face – the most obvious Kindergarten-level, deep political analyses – well, I’m getting purple in the face and frothing at the mouth at the moment (not a pretty sight I can tell you).

I’ve been wondering why I was getting less and less and less, well, involved and excited about reading my 10 pages of Gibbonian wit on the Later Roman Empire – and it just struck me today I now know the reason why. Theophylact (our principal source for the emperor Maurice) is just BAD. Boringly, un-creatively, mind-numbingly-you-can-see-the-punchline-coming-a-mile-away BAD in a particularly infantile way. And Gibbon is just EATING THIS STUFF UP.

It just makes you wonder about the rest of the history Gibbon is writing.

Well, at least me.

And it’s hard, because I like Gibbon, in a kind of always-watching-my-back-for-the-Gibbonian-knife kind of way. I like him, and I don’t like watching him make a fool of himself.

The Story
The Persian Khusrau II and his friend and guardian the Roman Emperor Maurice (591-603)
  • Khusrau II is supported for the King of Kings of Persia by Roman arms and personal help from Roman Emp Maurice
  • Supposedly Khusrau II converted to Christianity – but Gibbon doubts this, and relates that actually Khusrau just had a superstitious admiration for the military Saint of Antioch – St. Sergius – who had appeared to Khusrau once in a dream
  • Gibbon also relates the very romantic stories about one of Khusrau’s wives – the devout Christian Sira
  • It is truly unfortunate – and Gibbon feels this – that he (and we) have to rely upon the vague, fairy-tale-like, and strangely personal “histories” of Theophylact – which reads much more like a combination of a Marvel Comic Book and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not paperback – but thats a lot of the kind of history we will be settling for in the years to come…

    The Great Kingdom of the Avars, and the Great Avar King Baian(570’s. 600’s, etc)
  • After the Lombards leave the Danube lands to the Avars (supp with the guarantee that if the Lombards don’t like Italy – the Lombards can take back their lands they’ve given to the Avars)
  • Avars demand tribute from the Romans so that they will not attack Roman cities/soil – Theophylact has them acting like overgrown 5 year olds – these are the same jokes with slightly diff subject matter that Brits tell on Americans – How stupid/fat/etc is an American, I’ll tell you…
  • Avar King Baian is insufferably proud and foolishly greedy and stupid – Gibbon gives a couple of possible but unlikely examples – which all seem like bad polack jokes (bad as in not very clever, AND in bad taste) but Gibbon rehearses them with a certain panache and kind of relish – I guess he buys into them – I can’t
  • Baian the Avar King wants an elephant(like the Romans have), the Romans give him an elephant, Baian is unimpressed and even ungrateful and kind of stupid
  • Baian wants a golden couch to sleep upon (like the Romans have), the Romans build him one, Baian disdains it
  • <li>Baian wants Roman cities – Baian starts to build a bridge across the Danube very near the town of Sirmium (obviously for invasion) – the Romans tell him to stop – he swears on everthing thats holy that he intends no ill (literally, the list is endless, Gargantuan even), the Romans let him build, he finishes it and announces that Sirmium is now his since its surrounded – and does the same to Singidumum – REALLY GIBBON – these are Benny Hill sketches, not history – how can he repeat them?

  • welcome to Gibbon’s Readers Digest version of the THEOPHYLACT follies

    Maurice, his Generals, and his War Against the Avars (595-602)
  • Maurice wars against the Avars
  • 1st campaign – he leads himself, goes 7 miles then turns around heads back to Constantinople – Maurice is a coward and a poseur
  • 2nd Peter Maurice’s brother attempts to lead the men of Azimuntium, Peter insists on adding extra soldiers that the Azimuntium citizens do not care for, they barricade the town, refuse to fight, refuse to let Peter in – Peter returns to Constantinople – Peter gives up ridiculously at the slightest impediment
  • 3rdCommentiolus – plans, endlessly charts ways to get at the Avars, but when pursued, finds a million ways to get back home – Commentiolus is a caricature of a cowards
  • 4th Priscus – battles far far into Dacia – farther than any Roman army had ever been before – but Maurice calls him back because Baian threatens to attack Constantinople if Priscus isn’t pulled back – so Maurice pulls Priscus back – the only man who would fight is forced to stay at home because Maurice always does the bidding of Baian
  • I MEAN REALLY, GIBBON – Even if this were a sitcom, it would be cancelled a couple of episodes into the 1st season – this doesn’t even make GOOD DRAMA – its a story a 5 year old would tell another 5 year old – how can Gibbon swallow this obvious hogwash hook line and sinker? (to mix as many metaphors as possible in one sentence)

    For the 1st time in 300 years, An Emperor is Raised by Mutiny (602)
  • The legions mutiny – why?
  • 1) Maurice deducts the cost of their clothes and weapons from their pay, and
  • 2) Maurice refuses to ransom 12000 men with 6000 gold pieces – 80lbs of gold – not a lot of gold actually for the Roman empire
  • 3) Maurice tells the Danube legions to spare the expense of wintering in Roman territory, and go and sack the Avar territory to find food to live on

    Election of Emperor Phocas (10-602)
  • leads mutiny, marches on Constantinople



    Last Word…


    On Sources and on Being a Historian

    I’ve ranted and raved enough in the introduction. I’ll just say a few words about the lowly work of a historian of Late Antiquity, and about the work of puzzling out the late 500’s and 600’s in particular.

    Theophylact's characterizations of emperors and generals

    Theophylact's characterizations of emperors and generals sometimes don't even have the depth of a comic book here - Collage of Marvel Comics heroes

    Problems of Secondary Sources

    First of all, your primary sources are everyone else’s secondary or tertiary sources – i.e. we almost never get evidence for a thing (except through archaeology, coins, seals, architecture, etc etc or some kind of virtuoso reverse-engineering of societal statistics out of Saint’s Lives or some other equally difficult feat) – i.e. we don’t have a Constitution, but we have copies of copies of copies of pieces of compilations of laws. Think about it for a second. There is absolutely no DIRECT EVIDENCE Alexander the Great ever lived. We have lots of secondary evidence – people who wrote about Alexander – and we do have the remains of cities way out in Central Asia that look like something a Greek would build – but mostly, we know about Alexander because people talked about him later. And that’s it. If they repeat lies, or if they repeat what they WANT posterity to think, or if they repeat what they themselves sincerely think (but have opinions that are garbage) then we, as historians are up a creek. Without a paddle.

    And when the sources dry up and we end up with 2 or even 1 source for extended periods of time (so we can’t even cross-check the sources against each other and see what’s what – kind of like using both your eyes to triangulate on a single object and get it in focus) – when we can’t even do that – life becomes very difficult.

    (Note – his=either his or hers in all of the following)

    What you always have to do with secondary evidence is 1) look for the prejudices/perspectives of the historian/writer – his culture, his religion, his reason for writing the history, his nationality, his worldview, his understanding of what a history is,, etc and 2) sense what the story is he’s trying to tell – and here is where we are so helpless it almost makes you want to shout and spit and throw your fists up at the sky – no history is possible without some kind of “story” being told – and when the story is obvious, most of the important facts (well, important to US in the 21st cent) get hidden, obscured, deleted, or what’s worse transmogrified into something else.

    Theophylact's historical analysis

    More of my ranting and raving on the level of Theophylact's - and by reflection, Gibbon's - historical analysis and skepticism

    Augustan Histories

    We’ve already been through this before – during the Crisis of the Third Century (the 200’s) we LITERALLY HAVE NO HISTORY. A great deal of what we know, after the Severans and before Diocletian comes from a Roman comic book we now call the Augustan Histories. One way to tell how honest a Late Antique historian is – to himself, and to the people around him – is to CHECK ON HIS OPINION OF THE AUGUSTAN HISTORIES – a weak or less-than-honest historian will defend them (or the person could be from the 1950’s or before, at a time when the Augustan Histories weren’t generally considered SATIRICAL). Why? because their mentors in their graduate programs or grandfathers or who knows who believed in the Augustan Histories and all their ridiculousness and they cannot admit to having egg on their faces now. And there’s the problem that without them, we know next to nothing about the period – so we’re left HAVING TO USE SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE SKITS to reconstruct the breakdown of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980’s. Not a fun, nor easy thing/historical task to do. It’s much easier just to think the skits are history and take them at face value. Much easier. But dishonest. And incorrect.

    Theophylact and Gibbon

    Theophylact (our main source for Maurice) is obviously a Maurice-hater. All Maurice’s generals are fools. Maurice is a fool. It’s possible all this is true – it’s just that the empire was a very complex machine, politically and administratively, and the Roman Empire NEVER suffered fools gladly. I find it difficult to believe that so many stupid people were at the helm – and that so many people acted like they had the mental dexterity of First Graders. Its also hard to believe that Baian – King of the Avars – manages to run an empire much larger than Rome’s and yet acts like a spoiled 2 year old most of the time. Theophylact obviously had some axes to grind in his histories – I’m just shocked Gibbon doesn’t catch him out, with blade to the whetting stone so to speak.

    But, enough of this – on to the rest of Chapter 46 in the coming week – it’s got to bet better, it’s just go to…


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