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Plague in the Time of Procopius: Thucydides, Intertextuality, and Historical Memory

Jessica Moore

The account of the Justinianic plague of 542 CE by the late antique historian Procopius of Caesarea (Wars 2.22-23) has long been evaluated in terms of its factual accuracy.  Nineteenth-century German scholars debated his historical reliability given the obvious imitation of Thucydides’ narration of the 430 BCE plague of Athens (Th 2.47-53) (Haury (1896), Soyter (1951)). More recent scientific analyses have studied the identity and epidemiology of the disease, so strikingly similar to modern Bubonic plague (Allen (1979), Horden (2005), Wagner (2014)).  While recent scholarship has located Procopius’ use of Thucydides as an allusive model in this and other instances as part of a broader ‘classicizing’ program, little has been done to analyze Procopius’ intertextual use of Thucydides’ plague narrative in terms of his own literary and rhetorical ends (see Cameron (1985) 40-42 for some preliminary thoughts).  The proposed paper will examine the rhetorical impact of the intertextuality of Procopius’ plague narrative, and briefly situate it in the broader context of Procopius’ program of historical memory in the Wars.

While Procopius borrows from Thucydides the basic organization of his account, as well as particular tropes, turns of phrase, and the Atticizing language he uses throughout his work, he pointedly distinguishes his account from his predecessor’s.  He does this by not merely deviating from his model, but by carefully and explicitly contradicting the Thucydidean expectations of his readers. Through omission and modification of the opening sentiments of Thucydides’ account, Procopius stresses the implacable, irrational nature of his own plague (W 2.22.1-5). Not only does Procopius not shy from describing a disease that is plainly different from that which tore through Periclean Athens, but he draws attention to the difference by specifically denying the presence of Thucydidean symptoms (W 2.22.15-16,23). Moreover, Procopius makes a clear difference between the two epidemics, the death rate among those who contract the plague, into a key thematic element of his account: the irrationality of the disaster, rooted in unpredictability of the plague’s mortality and the resulting reactions of the city’s populace to it (W 2.23.12-15).

Thus Procopius turns a striking difference between the scientific fact of Thucydides’ plague and his own into a fruitful opportunity: for a searching character assessment of sixth-century Constantinople, for exploration of the larger thematic thread in his work of the inscrutability of fate, and for a way to make the plague of his own day more remarkable, in some way, than the one described by his classical predecessor.

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Ancient Receptions of Classical Literature

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