Procopius was one of the greatest of the Roman historians (or slightly post-Roman if you insist that the Empire “fell” in 476 A.D.). He wrote during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. As he was the personal secretary of the brilliant general Belisarius, his works are full of first hand accounts of the great man’s many victories against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths. These include many fascinating and touching anecdotes, such as finding a young boy, obviously from a wealthy family because he was wearing a gold chain, abandoned by his mother on the side of the road just as the invading Persian armies were approaching; of a Hun in Belisarius’ little army of mercenary barbarians who became depressed, perhaps because he was so far from home, and one day rode out alone among the enemy Goths, killing many of them before being cut down himself; of Belisarius’ men’s consternation at his laughter when, besieged in Rome, the vast host of Goths outside sent massive seige towers against them that overtopped the walls. Belisarius merely let them come on until they were within range, drew back his bow, and shot down one of the oxen pulling the towers. After his men had finished off the rest, they realized why Belisarius had been laughing.
Some of the other stories Procopius recounts were picked up by hearsay, or from books, and many are little more than glorified fairy tales. Like the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, though, they often provide some insight into human nature. One of them is the story of the pearl, apparently well known among the Persians of the time. As the story goes, an oyster on the Persian coast produced a fabulous pearl, which it like to display between its open valves. A shark fell in love with the beautiful gem, and could only leave off looking at it when, at long intervals, it was forced by hunger to search for food. A fisherman saw what was going on, and reported the whole matter to the Persian king, Perozes. According to Procopius,
Now when Perozes heard his account, they say that a great longing for the pearl came over him, and he urged on this fisherman with many flatteries and hopes of reward. Unable to resist the importunities of the monarch, he is said to have addressed Perozes as follows: “My master, precious to a man is money, more precious is his life, but most prized of all are his children; and being naturally constrained by his love for them a man might perhaps dare anything. Now I intend to make trial of the monster, and hope to make thee master of the pearl. And if I succeed in this struggle, it is plain that henceforthf shall be ranked among those who are counted blessed. For it is not unlikely that thou, as King of Kings, wilt reward me with all good things; and for me it will be sufficient, even if it so fall out that I gain no reward, to have shewn myself a benefactor of my master. But if it must needs be that I become the prey of this monster, they task indeed it will be, O King, to requite my children for their father’s death. Thus even after my death I shall still be a wage-earner among those closest to me, and thou wilt win greater fame for thy goodness, – for in helping my children though wilt confer a boon upon me.
Predictably, the shark caught up with the poor fisherman, but not before he was able to throw the pearl to his companions on shore. If there’s any truth to the story, his children did very well. The Persian kings apparently took such matters very seriously. One of them, Isdigerdes, was named the guardian of the child of the Roman emperor Arcadius just before the latter’s death. The King of Kings took immediate charge of the child, and threatened immediate invasion and death to anyone who presumed to harm him or usurp his place.
Another interesting story turns up in the same book (Book I, History of the Wars) a few pages later. It seemed that certain persons had impugned the loyalty of the Armenian client king Arsaces to his Persian overlord Pacurius. The latter invited Arsaces to his capital, where he was made a prisoner. However, he was in a quandry as to whether the Armenian was really guilty or not, and solicited advice from his wisemen, the Magi. Again, letting Procopius pick up the tale,
Now the Magi deemed it by no means just to condemn men who denied their guilt and had not been explicitly found guilty, but they suggested to him an artifice by whicdh Arsaces himself might be compelled to become openly his own accuser. They bade him cover the floor of the royal tent with earth, one half from the land of Persia, and the other half from Armenia. This the king did as directed. Then the Magi, after putting the whole tent under a spell by means of some magic rites, bade the king take his walk there in company with Arsaces, reproaching him meanwhile with having violated the sworn agreement. They said, further, that they too must be present at the conversation, for in this way there would be witnesses of all that was said. Accordingly Pacurius straightway summoned Arsaces, and beganf to walk to and fro with him in the tent in the presence of the Magi; he enquired of the man why he had disregarded his sworn promises, and was setting about to harass the Persians and Armenians once more with grievous troubles. Now as long as the conversation too place on the ground which was covered with the earth from the land of Persia, Arsaces continued to make denial, and, pledging himself with the fearful oaths, insisted that he was a faithful subject of Pacurius. But when, in the midst of his speaking, he came to the center of the tent where they stepped upon Armenian earth, then, compelled by some unknown power, he suddenly changed the tone of his words to one of defiance, and from then on ceased not to threaten Pacurius and the Persians, announcing that he would have vengeance upon them for this insolence as soon as he should become his own master. These words of youthful folly he continued to utter as they walked all the way, until turning back, he came again to the earth from the Persian land. Thereupon, as if chanting a recantation, he was once more a suppliant, offering pitiable explanations to Pacurius. But when he came again to the Armenian earth, he returned to his threats.
As I mentioned in my last post, Razib Khan at Discover’s Gene Expression blog just wrote,
…cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.
I am not so pessimistic. I think they might yet recover if they read more ancient fairy tales, and stopped inventing new ones of their own.