The Secret History of the Court of Justinian by Procopius


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Page 1

As the reward of his services, Justinian bestowed upon him the title
of "Illustrious" (_Illustris_), given to the highest class of public
officials, raised him to the rank of a Senator, and, finally,
appointed him Praefect of Byzantium in 562. He does not, however, seem
to have been altogether satisfied: he complains of having been
ill-paid for his labours; for several years he was even without
employment. This is all that is known of his life. He died shortly
before or after the end of the reign of Justinian (565), when he would
have been over sixty years of age.

His career seems to have been as satisfactory as could be reasonably
expected, all things being taken into consideration; but the violent
hatred displayed by him against Justinian in the "Anecdota" or "Secret
History"--if the work be really his[2]--appears to show that he must
have had some real or imaginary grounds of complaint; but history
throws no light upon these incidents of his political career.

Another question which has been much discussed by the commentators is:
"What were the religious opinions of Procopius?"

His own writings do not decide the question; he seems to shew a
leaning towards heathenism and Christianity alternately. The truth
seems to be that, being of a sceptical turn of mind, he was
indifferent; but that, living under an orthodox Emperor, he affected
the forms and language of Christianity. Had he been an open and avowed
adherent of Paganism, he would scarcely have been admitted to the
Senate or appointed to the important official position of Praefect of
Byzantium. His description of the plague of 543, which is exceedingly
minute in its details, has given rise to the idea that he was a
physician, but there is no proof of this. The same thing might have
been with equal justice said of Thucydides; or we might assert that
Procopius was an architect, on the strength of his having written the

Procopius, holding a position in a period of transition between
classical Greek and Byzantine literature, is the first and most
talented of Byzantine historians. His writings are characterized by an
energetic combination of the Attic models of the affected, but often
picturesque style employed by the Byzantine writers. Although he is
not free from errors of taste, he expresses his ideas with great
vigour, and his thoughts are often worthy of a better age. The
information which he has given us is exceedingly valuable. He had
ample opportunities of observation, and his works present us with the
best picture of the reign of Justinian, so important in Greco-Roman

His chief work is the "Histories," in eight books: two on the Persian
wars (408-553), two on the Vandal wars (395-545), and four[3] on the
Gothic wars, bringing down the narrative to the beginning of 559. The
whole work is very interesting; the descriptions are excellent: in the
matter of ethnographical details, Procopius may be said to be without
a rival among ancient historians.

He shews equal descriptive talent in his work on the "Buildings" of
Justinian, a curious and useful work, but spoiled by excessive
adulation of the Emperor. Gibbon is of opinion that it was written
with the object of conciliating Justinian, who had been dissatisfied
with the too independent judgment of the "Histories." If this be the
case, we can understand why the historian avenged himself in the
"Secret History," which is a veritable _chronique scandaleuse_ of the
Byzantine Court from 549-562. Justinian and Theodora, Belisarius and
his wife Antonina, are painted in the blackest colours. Belisarius,
who is treated with the least severity, is nevertheless represented as
weak and avaricious, capable of any meanness in order to retain the
favour of the Court and his military commands, which afforded him the
opportunity of amassing enormous wealth. As for Antonina and Theodora,
the revelations of the "Secret History" exhibit a mixture of crime and
debauchery not less hideous than that displayed by Messalina.
Justinian is represented as a monstrous tyrant, at once cunning and
stupid, "like an ass," in the the words of the historian, and as the
wickedest man that ever lived. The author declares that he and his
wife are spirits or demons, who have assumed the form of human beings
in order to inflict the greatest possible evils upon mankind. These
accusations seem to be founded sometimes upon fact, sometimes upon
vague rumours and blind gossip. Generally speaking, the author of the
"Secret History" seems sincere, but at the same time he shows a
narrowness by confounding all Justinian's acts in one sweeping
censure, and in attributing to him the most incredible refinements of
political perversity. Critics have asked the question whether the
author of such a work can be Procopius of Caesarea, the impartial
historian of the wars. Direct proofs of authenticity are wanting,
since the most ancient authors who attribute it to him--Suidas and
Nicephorus Callistus--lived centuries later.[4] But it is easy to
understand that a work of this kind could not be acknowledged by its
author, or published during the lifetime of Justinian. In later times,
it circulated privately, until the lapse of time had rendered the
Byzantine Court indifferent to the hideous picture of the vices of a
previous age. The work is evidently that of a contemporary of
Justinian; it can only have been written by a functionary familiar
with the ins and outs of Court intrigue, who had private grievances of
his own to avenge. It is true that it sheds little lustre upon the
character of Procopius, since it exhibits him as defaming the
character of the masters whom he had formerly served and flattered.
But this kind of inconsistency is not uncommon in writers of memoirs,
who often revenge themselves posthumously by blackening the reputation
of their former masters. Although the author writes under the
influence of the most violent resentment, there seems no reason to
doubt that, although details may be exaggerated, the work on the whole
gives a faithful picture of the Byzantine Court of the period.

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