The Mixed Legacy of Procopius

One of the most interesting characters of the Age of Justinian was the historian Procopius. We owe him a great debt for recording the events that happened during his time. The first of his writings is the Wars of Justinian and the second is the Buildings of Justinian. But this is not the entire legacy that Procopius left us. He is also famous for his Secret History which portrays the characters of the age in a vastly different and negative light. Who exactly is this man whose words we depend on to shed light on his era? Read on to find out.

Who was Procopius?

Procopius of Caesarea was a learned scholar from Palestine. Trained in law, he served as the legal advisor of the great general Belisarius from 527 onwards. This meant that Procopius was on hand to witness the major campaigns that took place during the reign of Justinian. He was with Belisarius at the Persian front and the wars in North Africa and Italy. He also witnessed the Nika Riots and the plague. In the early 540s, he settled down in Constantinople and did not return with Belisarius to Italy in 544. It is unclear when Procopius died or whether he was the same urban prefect of Constantinople who tried Belisarius in 562. But due to his status in the court and the social circles he belonged to, his writings is a vital source of information for the Age of Justinian. Procopius had access to and knew things that other historians could not.

The Official Works of Procopius

The most important work of Procopius was the Wars of Justinian that comprised of eight books. The first seven books covered the campaigns of Belisarius on the Persian front, in North Africa and in Italy. His last book finished the conquest of Italy under the eunuch Narses. The books also provided many details of the war that would have been lost to us otherwise. But that was not all. Procopius also gave an account of the events that happened such as the Nika Riots and the plague. His other work was on the Buildings of Justinian. Written to glorify his master, Procopius did just that. He even wrote about how his master gave his architects pointers to overcome the problems they faced.

Published during the lifetime of Justinian, these works cannot have contained the true feelings of Procopius. After all, he knew what he needed to write to please his master. He also knew the consequences if he chose to do otherwise. Thus for the sake of his life and career, he did what he had to do.

The Secret History of Procopius

Due to its shocking content, the Secret History or Anecdota, found greater and more lasting fame than either of the earlier two books. It portrayed the private lives of the imperial court in a very bad light. For example, Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, cuckolded him regularly with their godson. The Empress Theodora was a wanton whore during her younger days. And Justinian was a demon whose head could disappear.

The Secret History never saw the light of day during the lifetime of Justinian. Such a book would have gotten Procopius tortured and killed, for clearly he had an axe to grind. Given its shocking claims, it is hard to believe what he says. Still, we cannot dismiss the Secret History entirely. Even if it is not the whole truth, there must have been elements of truth involved. What is clear is the bitterness and hatred Procopius had for the court and its main actors.

Assessing Procopius

From the way Procopius wrote, we can easily discern a few things. Firstly, he was a man who knew how to bend with the times. Knowing the power of his patrons, he could easily write and say what they wanted to hear. This shows that he was a flexible man who knew how to survive. Secondly, he was clearly petty minded and a hypocrite. Justinian and the rest may have disappointed him somehow. But to get back at them through such a means clearly shows that he was not straightforward. Lastly, he was mean-spirited. As a historian, Procopius knew that future generations would rely on what he said to understand the events of his time. He obviously had this in mind when he wrote the Secret History. If he could not get his revenge on Justinian during their lifetime, he would do so for the rest of eternity.

Reflections of the Vizier

Despite the dubious character of Procopius, his works are still worth reading. The Wars and Buildings of Justinian provide us with a detailed account of the era witnessed firsthand by Procopius himself. It is true that he exaggerates and makes things up in the Secret History. But if you take it with a pinch of salt, it still makes for an enjoyable read. He may have been many things, but Procopius cannot be accused of being boring.

References

Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.

Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Yorgos says:

    Bravo! Excellent post!
    I’ve studied Procopius for a long time and have always been amazed at how some scholars are afraid to criticize him as you have done. I believe its because there are few other writings from that time period covering the same events other than Procopius and they don’t want to ‘poison the well’ . but the truth was exactly as you say it: Procopius was a mean spirited, crooked hypocrite. To be so close to the Emperor and then sneak off and write this to have it published after his death is to me the height of cowardice. Plus he dismisses Justinian’s achievements in writing the famous and important law code for the people (no small feat! –it still has an effect on common law courts today) –a thing Justinian did not have to do since as Emperor he could have simply avoided such tedious work and could have simply lived as an ancient roman dictator if he wanted to (even in the midst of a Christian Roman empire–julian the apostate did that after all). Also I don’t buy that Procopius was a ‘christian’ –I think he was like Julian, a man of his times who understood it was ‘in’ to be ‘christian’. If he lived today would be a secular humanist or whatever allowed him to be considered ‘ok’. Publishing a book of hatred against your old employer AFTER his death breaks so many common Orthodox and biblical rules its laughable–no serious religious person of that time would think of doing that. In those days people would fast and repent furiously when they saw that death was approaching and Orthodox history is filled with examples of pilgrims spending their last days praying. To PLAN on publishing an angry manual against the king and have it published after his death is the scheme of a wretched and unrepentant soul.

    I know you wrote this post a while ago but I stumbled across it tonight and wanted tell you I enjoyed it. thank you for writing it. you have a great website.

  2. Yorgos says:

    PS wanted to add: the reason I say ‘Also I don’t buy that Procopius was a ‘christian’ ‘ –is because quite a few scholars bend over backwards to claim he was in order to avoid saying he was a disgruntled pagan ‘going through the motions’, since that would cast further doubt on his honesty (not because pagans weren’t honest but because it would show him specifically as even more of a hypocrite). Many historians focus too much on the source text and ignore the cultural reality of what it meant to be religious in the 6th century. To make arrangements to have such a work published after ones death, when ones soul is being judged by God instantly shows he did not take his ‘Christianity’ seriously at all (and this is early byzantine Orthodox Christianity not ‘jesus is your buddy’ modern feel-good faith!) It was serious business for your eternal soul.

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