Bonus Episode 2: Procopius and Brittia
Updated: Jul 26
NOTE: The only source used for this episode, outside of the direct quotation from Moby Dick, was Procopius's History of the Wars. For more information on this source, please see my List of Sources for Episode 12.
“In the sixth Christian century lived Procopius, a Christian magistrate of Constantinople, in the days when Justinian was Emperor and Belisarius general. As many know, he wrote the history of his own times, a work every way of uncommon value. By the best authorities, he has always been considered a most trustworthy and unexaggerating historian, except in some one or two particulars, not at all affecting the matter presently to be mentioned.”
- Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
Ah yes, Procopius. As mentioned in our last episode, you’ll recall that Procopius of Caesarea was a sixth century Byzantine scholar who wrote mainly about the exploits of Emperor Justinian and his general Belisarius. However, Procopius also took it upon himself – in his series History of the Wars – to also discuss the Gothic Wars, a series of conflicts in which he would have had very little direct participation. He more than likely received his information on these events from various Western embassies that visited Constantinople, the city in which Procopius was serving in some sort of upper-level position of power.
With all of that said, Procopius provides a perfect example of some of the problems that present themselves when dealing with history that is nearly 1,500 years old. First off, (and most obviously) Procopius wasn’t speaking and writing English. His texts were in Greek, leaving his words open to argument by translators. This causes plenty of problems in and of itself, but then second, Procopius wrote his histories as stories using phrases such as “Such then are the facts.” Well, if you’re like the narrator in our opening passage from Moby Dick and you’re willing to accept Procopius as “a most trustworthy and unexaggerating historian,” well, his claim that his statements and stories are “facts” can lead some to accept everything he says without critical thought. Third, Procopius was certainly afflicted by his own personal interpretations and cognitive biases, just as we all are. But for those of us who are trying to parse his words in the modern day, we have to add in this extra layer of attempting to understand what may have been on Procopius’s mind as he wrote his histories in a time and place that is completely foreign to our current condition.
With all of this said, we’re left with a situation when reading authors like Procopius wherein we don’t want to believe everything he says, but at the same time we don’t want to dismiss him entirely out of hand, if for no other reason than the fact that there’s just not a lot of surviving sources from the sixth century to pull from. So we read his stories, we try our best to work through all of the issues I mentioned a moment ago, and we then attempt to use what’s left as a puzzle piece that we can add to the picture and maybe illuminate our understanding somewhat. And if absolutely nothing else, some of what Procopius wrote is just amusing, and that’s why I’m presenting a portion of his writing here today.
In this passage, Procopius outlines the broken betrothal of a British princess and a Varni prince. This prince had some interesting family ties to Theudebert, thus tying him into our larger Frankish narrative; this story is also likely part of a narrative to explain how it came to be that the Varni chose to send Theudebert’s sister back to the Franks after she had been married to the king of the Varni. In this sense, we can see the biases of not just Procopius, but perhaps the Franks who told him the story as well. We also get a glimpse of just how far and fast understanding of basic geography had fallen in the Eastern Roman Empire following the Roman loss of power and influence in 5th century Britain. Procopius notes two British islands in his writing, Britain and Brittia. Based on his writing and a bit of speculation, it’s entirely possible to believe that Procopius has confused the Brittany region of northwestern France – an area with ties to mainland Britain and often under its own rule – as being a physical island rather than simply being an independent political entity. Finally, as we go through the story, think of who gains from this telling. This, from what I can tell, is the first instance of a French monarch making a claim on the island of England, when Theudebert attempts to “establish his claim that this island was ruled by him” to the Byzantines. This theme of who rules the thrones of Britain and France will come back into our history on multiple occasions and will be told by both sides; this is just the first.
Alright, enough with the prelude; let’s get to the story! This is Thugs and Miracles - Bonus Episode 2: Procopius and Brittia.
“At about this time war and fighting sprang up between the nation of the Varni and soldiers who live on the island called Brittia; and it came about from the following cause. The Varni dwell beyond the Ister River, and extend as far as the northern ocean along the river Rhine, which separates them from the Franks and the other nations who dwell in that region. Now among all these nations which in ancient times dwelt on both sides of the Rhine River each people had its own particular name, but the whole group was called in common Germans. The island of Brittia lies in this part of the ocean not far from the coast, being about two hundred stades off and approximately opposite the mouth of the Rhine, and between the islands of Britain and Thule. For while Britain lies to the west about in line with the extreme end of Spain, separated from the continent by a distance which at the least is about four hundred stades, Brittia is towards the rear of Gaul, that side namely which faces the ocean, being, that is, to the north of both Spain and Britain. And Thule, as far as men know at any rate, is situated towards the extremity of the northern ocean. But the description of Britain and of Thule has been set down by me in the preceding narrative. The island of Brittia is inhabited by three very numerous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are Angili, Frissones, and Brittones, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the population of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies with their women and children and go to the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted, and by this means they say they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks, in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angili, thus seeking to establish his claim that this island was ruled by him. Such then are the facts relating to the island that is called Brittia.
The Varni, not long ago, were ruled by a man named Hermegisclus. He, being eager to strengthen his kingdom, had made the sister of Theudebert, ruler of the Franks, his wedded wife. For his previous wife had died recently, having been the mother of one child, Radigis by name, whom she left to his father; and he sought a marriage for this child with a maiden born in Brittia, whose brother was then king of the nation of the Angili, and had given her a large sum of money because of his wooing. Now this man, while riding with the most notable of the Varni in a certain place, saw a bird sitting in a tree and croaking loudly. And whether he really comprehended the bird's voice, or, possessing some other knowledge, simply made a mysterious pretense of comprehending the bird's prophecy, he at any rate immediately told those with him that he would die forty days later. For this, he said, was revealed to him by the pronouncement of the bird. "Now I," he said, "making provision that you should live most securely and at your ease, have related myself with the Franks by taking from their country the wife who is now my consort, and I have bestowed Brittia upon my son by betrothal. But now, since I expect to die very shortly, and, as far as this wife is concerned, I am without issue male or female, and my son furthermore is still unwed and without his bride, come now, let me communicate my thought to you, and, if it should seem to you not without some profit, do you, as soon as I reach the term of my life, put upon it the seal of your approval and execute it. I think, then, that it will be more to the advantage of the Varni to make the alliance by marriage with the Franks than with the islanders. For the men of Brittia, on the one hand, are not even able to join forces with you except after a long and difficult journey, while the Varni and Franks, on the other hand, have only yonder water of the Rhine between them, so that they, being very close neighbours to you, and having achieved an enormous power, have the means ready at hand both to help you and to harm you whenever they wish; and they will undoubtedly harm you if the said marriage alliance shall not prevent them. For men naturally find a neighbouring state's power, when it surpasses their own, grievous and a most ready cause of injustice, for a powerful neighbour may with comparative ease secure causes of war against his neighbours who are doing no wrong. Since, then, the facts are these, let the island girl who has been wooed for this boy be given up by you, and all the money which she has received from us for this purpose, let her retain as remuneration for the indignity, as the common law of mankind has it; but let my son Radigis be married to his own stepmother thenceforth, just as our ancestral law permits us."
So he spoke, and on the fortieth day from the pronouncement he fell sick and fulfilled his destiny. Then the son of Hermegisclus, after taking over the kingdom of the Varni, by the will of the notable men among these barbarians, carried out the counsel of the dead king, and straightway renouncing his marriage with his betrothed, became wedded to his stepmother. But when the betrothed of Radigis learned this, she could not bear the indignity of her position and undertook to secure revenge upon him for his insult to her. For so highly is virtue regarded among those barbarians, that when merely the name of marriage has been mentioned among them, though the fact has not been accomplished, the woman is considered to have lost her maidenhood. First, then, she sent an embassy to him of some of her kinsmen and inquired for what reason he had insulted her, though she had neither been unfaithful nor done him any other wrong. But since she was unable to accomplish anything by this means, she took up the duties of a man and proceeded to deeds of war.
She accordingly collected four hundred ships immediately and put on board them an army of not fewer than one hundred thousand fighting men, and she in person led forth this expedition against the Varni. And she also took with her one of her brothers who was to assist her in settling the situation, not that he was holding the kingship, for he was still living in the position of a private citizen. Now these islanders are valiant beyond any of the barbarians we know, and they enter battle on foot. And this is not merely because they are unpracticed in horsemanship, but the fact is that they do not even know what a horse is, since they never see so much as a picture of a horse on that island; for it is clear that this animal has in no time lived in Brittia. And whenever it happens that some of them on an embassy or some other mission make a visit among the Romans or the Franks or any other nation which has horses, and they are there constrained to ride on horseback, they are altogether unable to leap upon their backs, but other men lift them in the air and thus mount them on the horses, and when they wish to get off, they are again lifted and placed on the ground. Nor, in fact, are the Varni horsemen either, but they too all march on foot. Such, then, are these barbarians. And there were no supernumeraries in this fleet, for all the men rowed with their own hands. Nor do these islanders have sails, as it happens, but they always navigate by rowing alone.
When they came to land on the continent, the maiden who commanded them, having established a strong stockade close by the mouth of the Rhine River, remained there with a small number, but commanded her brother to lead forward all the rest of the army against the enemy. Now the Varni at that time were encamped not far from the shore of the ocean and the mouth of the Rhine. So when the Angili reached that place, marching swiftly, the two armies engaged in combat with one another, and the Varni were defeated decisively. And many of them fell in this struggle, while the entire number of those remaining, together with the king, turned to retreat, and the Angili, after keeping up the pursuit for only a short distance, as is customary for infantry, retired to their camp. But the maiden rebuked them when they returned to her and inveighed most vehemently against her brother, declaring that nothing worthy of mention had been achieved by the army, because they had not brought her Radigis alive.
She then selected the most warlike men among them and sent them off straightway, instructing them to bring the man captive without fail. Then, by way of carrying out her mission, these men went about searching that whole country thoroughly, until they found Radigis hiding in a dense wood; then they bound him and took him back to the girl. So he stood before her eyes trembling and expecting to die instantly by the most cruel death; she, however, contrary to his expectations, neither killed him nor inflicted any other harm upon him, but by way of reproaching him for his insult to her, enquired of the fellow why in the world he had made light of the agreement and allied himself to another woman, and that too though his betrothed had not been unfaithful. And he, seeking to defend himself against the charge, brought forward the commands of his father and the zeal of his subjects, and he uttered words of supplication and mingled many prayers with his defense, excusing his action by the stress of necessity. And if it was her will that they should be married he promised that what he had done unjustly in the past would be repaired by his subsequent conduct. Now when this was approved by the girl, and Radigis had been released from his bonds and received kind treatment in all other matters, he straightway dismissed the sister of Theudebert and wedded the girl from Brittia. Thus did these events take place.”
CONCLUSION: Alright, so now you can see what I’m talking about insofar as the difficulties in using a historical source such as Procopius. He clearly didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the event, as he couldn’t even give a proper name to the Brittia princess or her brother. He also was willing to say that this sixth-century tribe was willing and able to cross the English Channel with 100,000 warriors, all in the name of salvaging their princess’s virtue. A crossing of that magnitude wouldn’t be attempted again until 1944, so I’m willing to assume there were some numbers fudged in this telling for the sake of setting the scene. However, Procopius does give us insight into things such as the strength and estimation of the Franks, as viewed by the Byzantine Empire. He gives us an idea of this first attempt by a Frankish king to claim England as his own, and in an indirect way, his entire story can really be seen as the reaction on the part of lesser groups to push back against Frankish hegemony. As pointed out by the historian Fabio P. Barbieri, “The logic of things is that the English and the Varni are backing each other to gain extra maneuvering space against… a genuinely overmighty and influential Frankish power with its hand in both their powers; and that they are succeeding in doing so.”
In the end, Procopius is an interesting source – so long as his words can be measured against other sources and what we know about this period. But he should not be considered, as Melville said, “a most trustworthy and unexaggerating historian, except in some one or two particulars.” Rather, he should be studied based on what makes him untrustworthy, on why he exaggerates, and the context he can provide to the greater narrative. And if nothing else, we can always enjoy him for telling a fun story, facts be damned.
OUTRO: Alright, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode and a list of sources is available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please leave a comment and be sure to sign up for the e-mail list so we can keep you up-to-date on new episodes and all things T+M. Speaking of email, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle with no “s” at the end, or you can follow us on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. Finally, if you enjoyed the show and these bonus episodes, I ask you to go forth and spread the word! Word-of-mouth is the main driver allowing the show to grow, and it makes me happy to see more and more people from all over the world interested in our history and coming into our community. If you want to go a little further, please consider leaving a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts; we love those five star reviews, and as I’ve said repeatedly, it’s makes it feel well worth the effort when people such as yourself take the time to say nice things.
Once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you next week with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.