The Secret History is a remarkable work, informative and interesting, vivid and original, but presenting us with most unusual problems. The title by which it is usually known suits it well enough, but is of late Latin origin and bears no resemblance to the Greek title, for which likewise the author was not responsible. The Greeks called it the Anecdota, which Gibbon misleadingly translated 'Anecdotes'. The word Anecdota, which was applied to it by the lexicographer Suidas, means 'Unpublished things', and was used because the book was not published in the author's lifetime. We cannot say how long after his death it was published — if indeed it was, in the ordinary sense, published at all. Here then is our first problem: why was the book written, if it could not be published?
The second problem is how the author came to write a book which seems to fly in the face of all that he had written before, and to be still more difficult to reconcile with what he wrote later. Did he twice change his mind? Did he at each stage believe what he was writing? Was he writing for different groups of readers? Was he really the author of all the books, or has his name been mistakenly attached to the middle one, which seems to sort so ill with the others? This too is a problem which we are not yet in a position to tackle.
Leaving both problems aside for the present let us take a general look at our author and his book. Procopius lived at an eventful time, a time that stands out in history because it saw the death of the Classical Period and the birth of the Middle Ages. In the days of his father the western half of the Roman Empire had collapsed, and on the seven hills beside the Tiber there was no longer an imperial city, able regere imperio populos. The city of Constantine was now the sole capital, mistress of a community that still called itself Roman but from which Roman politics, Roman morals and religion, Roman architecture, and even Roman dress had disappeared. The time at which Procopius lives stands out all the more because he wrote about it, and wrote about it so revealingly. There was so much to record about that time that he was able to write volume after volume about it, writing from first-hand knowledge and personal experience, and rarely attempting to record events of an earlier day.
There are those who explain the course of history by reference to economic and other material causes. For Procopius history was made by persons, sometimes by God Himself but generally by human beings, swayed by human passions though perhaps subject to demonic influences; indeed, they might actually be themselves demons in human form. His books are not biographies but histories, in which events both on the battlefield and in cities, palaces, and homes are set down in the greatest detail; but they are primarily books about persons. This is true of The Secret History even more than of the other works. Here we read of little else than the doings, motives, and characters of two men and two women; and the many others who make brief appearances in the pages of this little book are introduced solely because of what they did on behalf of these four or suffered at their hands. The two men were Justinian, sometimes called the Great, for forty-seven-years ruler of the Roman Empire, and Belisarius, the outstanding soldier of his day and one of the greatest generals who ever commanded the armies of the Romans. The two women, so important because of their dominating characters and total lack of principle, were Theodora, for twenty-five years the consort of Justinian and joint ruler of the Empire, and Antonina, the irresistible enchantress whose husband Belisarius was powerless in her hands. How important in the story are these four may be judged from the fact that out of every twenty pages of this book Antonina appears on three, Belisarius on four, Theodora on ten, and Justinian on eighteen.
The period with which we are chiefly concerned extends from the birth of Procopius to the writing of The Secret History, a period of fifty years forming the first half of the sixth century of our era. It was a period filled with wars and riots, plagues, earthquakes, and floods, filled also with enormous creative activity in architecture and the arts. Before examining the course of events during those fifty years, let us place them in their setting by sketching in barest outline the historical phases that led up to them.
From the day in 27 B.C. when he assumed the title of Augustus till the day of his death forty years later Octavianus Caesar, the first of the imperial line, was careful to call himself princeps, the first citizen, and eschewing pomp to preserve the illusion that power remained in the hands of senate and people and of the historic magistracies. His example was largely followed by his successors for some three centuries, though with the increase of centralization and bureaucracy the pretence wore very thin. But with Diocletian, who ascended the throne in A.D. 284, it was dropped altogether. Power was divided between two Augusti and two Caesars, Diocletian occupying the first place. That power knew no constitutional limits. The rulers were openly recognized for the unbridled autocrats they were. Simplicity gave way to pomp and majesty, western dignity to oriental splendour. The princeps became the dominus, lord and master, and his fellow-citizens his subjects and bondservants. The linen toga was replaced by elaborately adorned garments of silk, the headband or wreath by a jewelled crown. Before His Majesty even the noblest must make humble obeisance. The four rulers established their own capitals in Gaul, Italy, the Balkans, and Asia Minor. Rome no longer counted.
When Diocletian abdicated, a fight to the death broke out between the remaining three, and there were no fewer than six rivals for domination by the time that the young Constantine began the struggle that was to end in his becoming sole ruler of the whole Empire. His reign was noteworthy for two events of immense importance — the recognition of Christianity as not merely a permitted religion but the religion of the State, and the establishment of a new capital at the old Greek colony of Byzantium, henceforth generally spoken of as Constantinople, but always referred to by Procopius under its old name. Rome, as already noted, belonged to the past.
The peace which this great emperor brought was as short-lived as himself, and on his death the old rivalries were resumed, his three surviving sons battling with each other. So it came about that only twenty-seven years later the Empire was again divided, Valens taking the East and Valentinian the West. Divided it remained except for the brilliant but brief reign of Theodosius, which was followed by a series of 'barbarian' incursions into Italy so overwhelming that in 476 the Empire of the West finally collapsed, and the last emperor, whose name through the irony of history was Romulus Augustulus, abdicated. From then on there was only the Empire centred in Byzantium, but it was to endure nearly a thousand years longer, till Byzantium itself was stormed by the Turks, Constantine XIII killed fighting to the last, and the Crescent set up in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, one of the greatest marvels of Christian art, and an enduring monument to the emperor who is the leading figure in The Secret History.
When poor Romulus laid down his authority, the throne of the East had for two years been occupied by Zeno, the first of the four emperors who figure in Procopius's pages. Zeno receives only a passing mention. Anastasius, who succeeded him in a.d. 491, is introduced more than once because he provides a contrast with Justinian: the former filled the Treasury, the latter emptied it; the former made ample provision for the soldiers on active service, the latter starved and robbed them. Of Justin there was more to be said, because as uncle to Justinian he made it possible for Justinian to succeed him: he allowed his nephew to be virtual ruler of the Empire throughout his own nominal reign, and made him officially joint emperor some months before his death. Moreover, by tampering with the law he enabled the foolish young man to wed the unspeakable Theodora, and so to bring miseries untold upon the Roman people. Having thus disposed in a few pages of three emperors, whose combined reigns totalled forty-four years, our author devotes the rest of his book to the reign of Justinian, or rather to the first twenty-three years of that reign, which he regarded as wholly calamitous.
Of peasant stock, the child of Gothic parents, Flavius Anicianus Justinianus was born at Tauresium (Skoplje) in Illyricum, probably in A.D. 483. Adopted as son by his uncle Justinus or Justin, he made himself so popular with both senate and people that he was elected consul and given the rank of Nobilissimus. Justin, a mercenary adventurer, had rendered such services to Anastasius that in 418 he became successor to that monarch. He was already an old man — as Procopius says, with one foot in the grave — far too old to carry out efficiently the duties of his exalted position; he was, moreover, as stupid as a donkey, and so illiterate that he was unable even to sign his own name. He lasted only nine years, and in A.D. 527 was succeeded by his adopted son, who with his wife as joint monarch now wielded alone the powers which before that he had shared with Justin. The Empress was to reign for twenty-one years, her husband for thirty-eight, if we count from Justin's death.
Justinian had married Theodora four years before their accession, having persuaded his uncle to abolish the long-established law forbidding a senator to marry a harlot, which all the world knew that Theodora was. Justinian was thirty-nine or forty, Theodora only twenty, perhaps not even that: she had not been born till some date in the first decade of the century. She had, however, packed a great deal into those few years. She had been born in Byzantium, or, as some said, in Cyprus, the home of Aphrodite. Her father was a bear-feeder, in the Amphitheatre. At a very early age she went on the stage as a knock-about comedienne, and at the first possible moment became, like her two sisters, a prostitute of the lowest type, giving herself up to three different vices, one of them unnameable even in our own outspoken days. Her vulgarity was appalling, and her lust, if Procopius is to be believed, unparalleled and insatiable. We need not anticipate here his detailed and revolting description. She conceived repeatedly, and except on one unfortunate occasion succeeded in murdering her unborn children. Then she met Justinian, who became her helpless slave, made her his mistress, and as soon as permission was given took her to wife.
Theodora was much more than a wife to the Emperor, albeit a faithful wife, to judge from the fact that from the time of their marriage no more imputations were made against the propriety of her personal behaviour, apart from her alleged passion for her servant Areobindus — a scandal which she disposed of by having him savagely flogged and making sure that he was never seen again. She was also Justinian's adviser in every sphere of government, and provided the stability which he lacked. Procopius more than once insists that he was as changeable as a weathercock, while she was determined and relentless. He owed a great deal to her, especially in the terrible days of the Nika insurrection, when he lost his head completely, panicked, and was ready to flee, but she stood her ground undaunted, saving the situation for them both, and making him yet more her slave. She was helped, of course, by the fact that she was not merely his consort but joint ruler with him, so that she could receive the ambassadors of foreign monarchs, insist that the Emperor's officials should swear an oath of allegiance to her as to him, and compel her visitors to grovel on the ground before her, a thing which her predecessors had never done.
It is small wonder that she was universally feared, especially as she appears to have been bloodthirsty, merciless, and sadistic. Procopius has much to say on this subject, and says it with vigour and emphasis; and his evidence on this point, as in the matter of her conduct before marriage, is corroborated by a number of Greek and Latin writers of quite early date, one of whom tells us, for instance, that she swore by the Almighty to flay a certain messenger alive — per Viventem in saecula excoriari te faciam. At the same time she was credited with great generosity towards the poor: but it is easy to be generous if one has enough left to satisfy every whim, and no scruples at all about piling up vast wealth at the expense of other people. Opinions will differ about her most original plan to clean up the forum of Byzantium by roping in all the five hundred prostitutes who plied their trade there, and locking them up in a sort of reformatory on the other side of the strait — a fate to which, according to Procopius, many of them preferred suicide.
Whatever she was like as a wife, Theodora made a very unsatisfactory parent. As we have seen, she regularly practised abortion. On one occasion she failed to take the necessary measures in time, and bore a son to one of her lovers, who acknowledged the child as his, and knowing only too well the ferocity and unscrupulousness of the youthful mother carried him off to the safety of Arabia. After the father's death the boy ventured to return to Byzantium; his mother took one look at him, and he was never seen again. She also gave birth to a daughter, presumably when she was mistress or wife of Justinian. Of this daughter we only know that she presented her mother with a grandson, whose life the heartless woman ruined by forcing him to become engaged to the daughter of Belisarius, and to live with the immature girl against the wishes of them both, by this means engineering a lucrative marriage which the girl's parents had striven to prevent.
Thus Theodora extended to her own offspring the cruelty which she had practised throughout her reign against one person or another, and against every class of her subjects. The boy Anastasius must have been almost the last of her victims, for a few months after the forced marriage she was dead. She was still in her forties: her husband was to live twice as long. The cause of her death was cancer, and there is evidence that she had felt it coming. Of this woman Bryce wrote, 'About the beauty, the intellectual gifts, and the imperious will of Theodora there can be no doubt. She was evidently an extraordinary person, born to shine in any station of life.' As such she has fascinated writers, especially between the years 1879 and 18 85, which saw the appearance of Pottinger's romance Blue and Green, of Débidour's enthusiastic study The Empress Theodora, and of plays by Rhangabe and Sardou, both entitled Theodora. Perhaps the French can appreciate the lady better than we can.
We return now to the widower, at this stage a man of sixty-five. He never married again. Perhaps there was no one fit to take Theodora's place; or perhaps he had had enough of married life and enjoyed being his own master once more. Procopius tells us little of the later years of his reign; for The Secret History was written only two years after Theodora's death. The Histories were completed four years later, and the remaining work, published five years before the Emperor's death, was concerned mainly with his work as a builder.
Since the present work consists mainly of a detailed account of Justinian's doings, there is no need for us to do more than consider his reign in the broadest outline. We may accept as our starting-point the summing up of J. B. Bury:
'Justinian was a great conqueror, a great lawgiver, a great diplomat, and a great builder. He was also the protector and leader of the church.'
The greatest of these achievements was in the realm of law. Justinian had not long occupied the throne before he commissioned ten experts to clear away the existing confusion by drawing up a Corpus Iuris Civilis. Two years after his accession he promulgated Codex Constructionum, followed four years later by the famous Digest, which comprised no fewer than fifty volumes. It is upon these consolidations of the law that the legal systems of many countries are built to this day. Whether Justinian was really devoted to the rule of law may however be doubted. The only allusions to the subject in our book are denunciations of his readiness to change the law in his own interest or to suit the whim of his partner, and to cancel existing statutes if adequately bribed by one party to a lawsuit and then re-enact them on receipt of a bigger bribe from his opponent.
The protection and leading of the church took the form of attempting to compel pagans to accept the State religion — in Asia Minor alone seventy thousand were forcibly baptized — and to compel all who were nominally Christian to accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. This involved wholesale and merciless persecution, which served chiefly to. alienate his subjects, especially in Egypt, and open the way for the irruption of Mohammedanism a century later. It may be stated without hesitation that his efforts did nothing but injury to the cause of Christ.
His architectural projects were on a vast scale: the number — , size, and beauty of the buildings for which he was responsible were alike immense. It is not his fault that so few have survived to our own time. But they were erected at enormous cost, and at such a time this vast expenditure on buildings, nominally raised to the glory of God but calculated to enhance that of their originator, could hardly be justified. The situation of the Empire was precarious in the extreme. All round its frontiers the warlike tribes were poised to strike; indeed, in Justinian's own reign they reached the walls of the capital and terrified its citizens. To spend money, public money, thus was very like fiddling while Rome burned. Procopius takes Justinian to task on two particular counts — that for the express purpose of killing off the inhabitants of Byzantium he refused to repair the aqueduct on which their water-supply depended, and that he spent great sums on erecting along the beaches structures which were intended to keep back the waters of the Bosporus. The writer has been critized on the ground that the Emperor was endeavouring to provide his subjects with defences against the encroachment of these waters; but was it not rather to protect the mansions which he, like his wealthy predecessors in Republican times, loved to build for himself at the water's edge?
On the defence of the Empire Justinian did of course spend money freely. Much of it went to bribe his dangerous neighbours to forgo their incursions into his territory, a form of diplomacy which in the long run was bound to be ruinous. He made further inroads into the funds bequeathed to him by his prudent predecessor, the Emperor Anastasius, in order to maintain large armies in the field. These were not formed of citizen levies as in the brave days of old; the manhood of the capital were not prepared to leave their comfort, their money-making, and their pleasures to face the dangers and privations of a distant campaign as their fathers had done. They left the defence of their fatherland to mercenaries, and their fighting instincts found expression only in murderous and senseless partisan strife between the rival Blue and Green factions. Justinian's armies consisted of a motley collection of contingents contributed by a variety of half-civilized races, moulded into a magnificent fighting force by the genius of one man, a man to whom the Emperor owed nearly all the victories won during his reign, and whom he treated with meanness, ingratitude, and distrust. It was not he but Belisarius who was the great conqueror. What the situation called for was the establishment of defensible frontiers, even if that meant his withdrawing from some of the territory governed by his predecessors, just as the wise Hadrian had abandoned most of the ground conquered by his less prudent predecessor Trajan. But Justinian, like so many rulers before and after him, was bent on extending his dominions, and used his armies and their brilliant commander to recover the western provinces of Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Belisarius was successful; but Italy had to be fought over a second time, and could not long be held.
Justinian was hardly in his grave before his house of cards began to collapse. In A.D. 568 the northern half of Italy was conquered by the Lombards. Then Pannonia and Dacia fell to the Avars, who had come all the way from the Caspian, and proceeded to found a Slav-Bulgar empire. They swept southwards into the Balkans and exacted tribute from Justinian's successors. A generation after his death the eastern provinces were overrun by the Persians. There was no one to do for the Emperor Maurice what Belisarius had done for Justinian.
Thus it may safely be said that apart from the consolidation of Roman law Justinian accomplished little of permanent value, and that Procopius's unfavourable comparison of him with Anastasius is hardly surprising.
It is time now to say something of Belisarius and Antonina. Like his master, Belisarius came from IIlyricum, but he was a much younger man, born probably in A.D. 505 After service in the Emperor's bodyguard he became at twenty-five — an age similar to that of Hannibal and Napoleon — Commander in the East, where at Daras in Mesopotamia, though seriously outnumbered, he defeated the Persians. A year later, however, he was himself defeated at Callinicum on the Euphrates. He was recalled, but without dishonour. Never again was he to suffer defeat. The next year, A.D. 532, he was faced with a very different task. The great Nika revolt took place, in which the Blues and the Greens combined to place Justinian in the utmost danger, and blood ran freely. The young officer, showing tact, resourcefulness, and immense courage, stepped into the breach and quelled the furious mob in the Hippodrome, a service which a better man than Justinian would never have forgotten.
Having recovered his confidence, Justinian, blind to the pressing danger from east and north, resolved to recover the lost provinces in the west, and in the following years sent Belisarius at the head of an army only fifteen thousand strong — a fifth of the number that little Rome, after three defeats at Hannibal's hands, had sent nearly seven and a half centuries before to face him at Cannae — to dispose of Gelimer and his Vandal host in Africa. Julius Caesar had found infantry always more than a match for any cavalry available in his day. But Belisarius realized that heavy men, heavily armed and mounted on heavy horses, could be used to devastating effect, as Robert Graves explains with great thoroughness in his historical novel Count Belisarius. Belisarius certainly did use them to devastating effect, and after twice defeating the Vandals and capturing their king he was able to return after a single campaign, enriched with vast loot, enough to supply his own needs for many a day. He also brought back with him the Seven-branched Golden Lampstand which Titus had removed from the Sanctuary of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem on the day when that wonderful edifice went up in flames; his father Vespasian had placed it in his great Temple of Peace in Rome; and only fifty years before the birth of Belisarius a Vandal king had conveyed it to Carthage. The victorious 'Roman' presented it to Justinian, who sent it back to its original home, Jerusalem. Justinian rewarded his overwhelming success by allowing him to celebrate a 'triumph' through the streets of Byzantium, and by striking a medal in his honour.
The next year he was sent to yet a third area of conflict. He began by recovering Sicily; then he crossed to Italy and captured first Naples, then Rome, where he was besieged far a year by the Ostrogoths but emerged victorious. Four years after that he captured Ravenna and took prisoner the, Gothic king, Vittigis. It was a splendid achievement, and the Goths held him in such respect that they offered to set him on the imperial throne. Being then as throughout his life devotedly loyal to his emperor, he defied all precedent by refusing. Justinian nevertheless summoned him to the capital and received him coldly, alleging the danger that threatened once more on the Persian front. The danger was very real. King Chosroes was a formidable enemy, ready at all times to pour his troops into Roman territory. The Emperor had no option but to employ once more the faithful servant of whom he was so jealous, and Belisarius spent the next three years campaigning for the second time against Rome's enemies in the east. But his removal from Italy had left a vacuum which the Goths had not been slow to fill, and the indispensable general was switched thousands of miles from the eastern frontier to the western. His forces were, however, quite inadequate, and no provision was made by Justinian even for the payment of the troops. Five years' effort produced but little result, and the unfortunate commander was recalled, being replaced by the eunuch Narses.
How much Belisarius might have accomplished for Justinian, had that ungrateful and short-sighted monarch provided him with a fraction of the backing that he needed and deserved! The military genius, now comparable in age with Cromwell and Marlborough, was forced to spend ten years in retirement, until in A.D. 559 the Huns swarmed round the wall of Byzantium itself, and in this desperate emergency he was called on to improvise measures to save the threatened city. Once more his courage and resourcefulness prevailed, and the danger was averted. Even this did not mitigate the resentment and suspicion which his every act aroused in the Emperor, and three years later an absurd charge of conspiracy was brought against him, and he was imprisoned and deprived of all his property. We need not accept the picturesque but much later story that he was blinded and died a beggar. We know that he was restored to favour, though never again employed, and that he died on the thirteenth of March A.D. 565, anticipating the death of his master by exactly eight months. From first to last he had shown himself a man of devoted loyalty and astonishing ability, and of high principles that show a marked contrast with the selfishness and depravity that surrounded him. The only faults with which we are in a position to charge him are those set forth so mercilessly in the denigrating pages of The Secret History.
Chief of these faults was the weakness of character that put him at the mercy of the enticement, wiles, and if Procopius is to be believed, the spells or love-potions of the sorceress, his wife. Antonina was fully qualified to become the friend, ally, and partner in abominations of the Empress Theodora. Her father and grandfather had been charioteers and the associates of magicians, her mother a street-walker. She spent her own early years in the same way, and again and again became a mother. She seems to have married twice. Her first husband she presented with a son, Photius, her second (Belisarius) with a daughter Joannina. She was many years older than Belisarius, and perhaps he realized that she would never bear him a son; for before his expedition to Libya he adopted a youth called Theodosius. Marriage had not improved his wife's morals nor satisfied the demands of her body, and it was not long before she conceived an uncontrollable passion for her adopted son, with whom she had intercourse even before the eyes of servants. Such was her power over her husband that even when he caught them in the act she silenced him with her brazen denials of guilt. At last a woman slave, with two boys who had the care of the bedchamber, under a sworn guarantee of secrecy reported to the poor cuckold all that was going on. But the enchantress convinced him that his informants were lying, drove him into betraying them to her, cut out their tongues, and carved them up. She then persuaded him to kill Constantine, a general who as Belisarius's friend had dared to express sympathy for him.
Nothing could keep the elderly adulteress and her youthful lover apart. For a time, he lay low in Ephesus and professed to be a monk. But he was soon back, driving his indignant foster-father and Antonina's son Photius to make an agreement that Photius should run the miscreant to earth. The latter fled once more to Ephesus and took sanctuary in the cathedral, but was sold to Photius by the archbishop himself. Photius sent him under guard into Cilicia; but the Empress, with whom Antonina was hand in glove, rewarded her for services rendered in the destruction of Pope Silverius and others by fetching him back to Byzantium, where she hid him for a time and then presented him to her friend as a pearl, the most beautiful that had ever been seen. Evidently Theodora, who is supposed to have left all her sins behind her when she married Justinian and to have become a model wife, had no scruples about aiding and abetting the infamous conduct of another man's wife, and wrecking the life of her own husband's most faithful servant. Nor had her friend any scruples about accepting Theodora's help in getting rid of her unwanted son Photius. With her approval the Empress tortured him and cast him into prison, whence at the third attempt he escaped, to spend the rest of his life in Jerusalem under the protection of a monk's cowl.
Such then were the four persons in comparison with whom all others mentioned in this book are of little account. Can we trust the book and accept it as factual? Before attempting to answer that question let us summarize what is known of its author, of whom it may be said at once that as a contemporary of almost all the people of whom he writes, as a prominent citizen of Byzantium acquainted with many of the leading men of his days, as the companion of Belisarius and Antonina — for Antonina accompanied her husband on all his earlier expeditions — and as an educated, intelligent, and observant man and a capable writer, he was well qualified to compose the works that he bequeathed to the world.
Procopius was born at Caesarea, the great city built by Herod on the coast of Palestine. We do not know the date: it was probably A.D. 500 or a little before. After practising at Byzantium as an advocate and rhetorician he became in A.D. 527 private secretary and legal adviser to Belisarius, whom he accompanied on his first three campaigns, in Persia, Africa, and Italy, and by whom he was entrusted with important missions. When Belisarius after capturing Ravenna was recalled to Byzantium, Procopius went with him, and it is probable that when in the next year Belisarius was again sent to the eastern front his secretary once more accompanied him. But twelve months later, in A.D. 542, he was certainly back in the capital, where he witnessed the terrible plague which visited that city, and which he was able to describe in graphic detail. We do not know whether he was with the general during the years of his second campaign in and around Italy, which he describes less minutely, or what he did with his time, apart from literary work, during the remaining years of his life. He must have been in the Emperor's good books, as in A. D. 560 he was given the exalted rank of illustris; and it is probable that he was the Procopius who two years later was Prefect of the City. The date of his death is not known with absolute certainty; but he seems to have outlived Justinian, and some scholars state positively that he died very late in A.D. 565. If so, we have the strange coincidence that Belisarius, Justinian, and Procopius all died in the same year. But such a coincidence is by no means unique in history.
From Procopius's pen three works have come down to us, commonly known as The Histories, Buildings, and The Secret History. The first and longest work was entitled by its author The Discourses about the Wars. It consists of eight books: two of them are about the Persian Wars fought in Mesopotamia, two about the Vandal War fought in Africa, three about the Gothic War fought in Italy and Sicily. These seven deal separately with events in the three different regions down to the year 552, when publication was completed, and were followed by one further volume, which covers the events on all fronts down to 554, when the volume was published. Though entitled 'Wars', these volumes contain far more than a narrative of military operations; they provide much material for a general history of the years with which they are concerned. Thus they supply valuable information about important happenings in the capital, such as the terrible insurrection of A.D. 5 3 z, and the equally terrible plague that followed ten years later. It is these volumes that are referred to in the footnotes to this translation as Book I, etc.
The second longest work was Buildings, an account in six books of the chief architectural splendours with which Justinian enriched the capital down to the year 560. This is a fulsome and tedious work, written in pompous language, and made distasteful by the constant flattery of the imperial pair. Can it be that it was intended to safeguard the writer's position in the eyes of the Emperor, and that it brought him the promotion to which we have referred?
The third work — third in size and in date of publication, but not in date of composition — was The Secret History. The two references in this book to the fact that Justinian had so far been ruler for thirty-two years led Gibbon to believe that it was written in A.D. 559. But if we reckon his reign as beginning not in 527 but in 518 since it was not Justin but his nephew who actually governed the Empire, we shall agree with Bury and the other modern scholars who believe the date to have been 550. This seems highly probable in view of the contempt with which Procopius dismisses the earlier monarch as a nonentity. Parallels are not hard to find. When St Luke dates the beginning of the Baptist's ministry as 'the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar' he is almost certainly counting not from that emperor's accession in A.D. 14, but from his association in the imperial prerogatives two years earlier. Eusebius reckons the reign of Augustus as having begun not in 27 or even 31 B.C. but on the Ides of March 44 B. e. Much later the Jacobites were to reckon the years of Charles I I's reign not from his restoration in 1660 but from his father's martyrdom eleven years earlier.
In the opening paragraphs of this Introduction we posed two questions but postponed any attempt to answer them. Why was The Secret History written and not published? And why is it so extraordinarily different from the author's other works that some have doubted whether it could have been written by the same man? The Histories, which were to win such high commendation from Gibbon, are careful, methodical, chronological, and accurate records of a series of wars, in which tribute is paid to the genius and high character of the commander-in-chief, and no aspersions are cast either on him or his wife or his imperial employers. The Secret History, which professes to be an extension of the first seven books of The Histories, and begins with sentences which appear to link it with the end of Book VII, is a ferocious diatribe against all four and against many of the Emperor's officials, exposing mercilessly both their public actions and their private lives, and stripping them bare of any claim to admiration or even common respect. From start to finish it is an unpleasant book; some would say horrid. No one who reads it will feel much doubt as to why it was not published. If a fraction of the charges which it levels against the Emperor and Empress are true, imagination boggles at the thought of what would have happened to the author had they ever known that he had written such things about them. The question is not why it was not published but why it was written at all. Was it, as some have suggested, merely a letting off of steam, a boiling over of spleen and spite in a man disgruntled because he was denied promotion? I think not. I, believe that knowing that his earlier writings had left much unsaid, though they were truthful and sober history as far as they went and were written in the only way that would make publication possible in a time of tyranny and terror, Procopius felt that the other side of the truth must be set forth too, and expressed with a vehemence and starkness that strike us as extravagant and in bad taste. In his view monstrous crimes must be laid bare with brutal frankness. There must be no pulling of punches.
But even if this is correct, we may still wonder why Procopius should bother to write a book which could not be published. I am satisfied in my own mind that he hoped that it would be published. Surely no sane and successful author, who had published seven books of a history that was acceptable both to the public and to the exalted personages concerned, and who intended to add an eighth book and then go on to write a long treatise on architecture and possibly a work on the affairs of the Church, would waste his time writing a book which unless published would serve no purpose at all, and if published would ensure his own destruction. The book, certainly, could not be published immediately; but Theodora was dead, and if the. hated tyrant her husband followed her in a year or two, the book could be published and might well be a triumphant success. Justinian was years older than Procopius, and might reasonably be expected to predecease him by ten or twenty years. Had there ever been an emperor who reigned for nearly half a century and died in his bed at the age of eighty-two? It may well have been that sudden realization of the sad truth that Justinian refused to die provided the reason for his decision to abandon abuse and go to the other extreme, and in writing Buildings to lay on flattery with a trowel.
As we have already remarked, the differences between The Secret History and the two longer works, so startling at first sight, have led some to deny that they could all be the work of the same writer. These doubts have now been generally abandoned, for careful study reveals that there is no actual contradiction between the different works. No fact is asserted in one and denied in another, though a different complexion is sometimes placed upon the same fact. The Histories are full of deserved praise for Belisarius, but no admiration is expressed for his employers, and various hints are dropped that are by no means complimentary to the Emperor. The second work does not unsay any statement in the first. Nor is there any change in the ideas that underlie what is written: the author's attitude to politics, society, and life in general remains unaltered. There is the same prejudice in favour of aristocracy and conservatism. Moreover, a study of the Greek reveals an unmistakable consistency of grammar, vocabulary, and rhythm. No one can read many pages without noticing the constant recurrence of the author's favourite words and phrases, or his addiction to the same rather unusual arrangement of the words. Surely no one would have gone to the trouble of carefully imitating these things for the purpose of passing off as the work of Procopius a book that could not be published.
Similar doubts have been cast on the trustworthiness of the record; but as we have seen, there is no real contradiction between the first work and the second. Procopius himself claimed that his account was 'unvarnished and essentially correct'. Gibbon had no doubts about this, and while criticizing the tone of The Secret History had no hesitation in reproducing its statements as objectively true, adding the comment,
'Even the most disgraceful facts, some of which had been tenderly hinted at in his public history, are established by their internal evidence, or the authentic monuments of the times.'
Monuments and records abound, and while they constantly confirm the statements of Procopius they never subvert them. Only on the ground of incredibility or self-evident falsity can his statements be questioned, and on this matter Gibbon wrote,
'Of these strange Anecdotes a part may be true because probable, and a part true because improbable. Procopius must have known the former, and the latter he could scarcely invent.'
We may add that since Procopius was writing of things almost all of which had happened in the last twenty-five years, the public, or any friends to whom he might have shown the manuscript in secret, would have at once detected any inventions.
Of course the book contains exaggerations, some of which will strike the modern reader as absurd. The author's belief in magic (or was it aphrodisiacs?) and in demon-lovers and demon-emperors, will seem even more absurd; but we must remember that such beliefs were commonly held a t the time. So too was the belief that a monarch's wickedness, by provoking the Deity, might bring about floods, earthquakes, and other calamities, which to this day we call 'Acts of God'. A thousand years later the same kind of thing was to be written by John Foxe about Mary Tudor. Again, the book has been denounced as grossly unfair. Of course it is unfair if taken by itself; but to do so is equally unfair. The book should be taken as part of a much larger work, a work in which Procopius puts the pros and cons in different volumes, as another author might put them in different chapters or different paragraphs. First we read of what was achieved by Justinian and his commander in the field. Then we are told that though these men did great things, the one also did a great deal of harm, and his motives were evil; the other lacked moral courage; both were subject to their wives. As regards Belisarius, this is almost the only charge brought against him in The Secret History; and it is in reality a tribute to the great man that Procopius suggests that he would never have been overcome by Antonina had she not employed supernatural arts to effect her purpose.
However great the defects of the book may be, there is no denying that for those who wish to know how men lived in other times and places, and are prepared to read of things that were sordid and disgusting, it makes most interesting reading. We find in it not only political and military history, not only scandalous stories, diatribes, and insinuations, but also vivid descriptions of life in that far off age. Byzantium was full of beauty and magnificence, full too of moral and religious corruption. We get an insight into the sad state of the Church, the despicable characters of certain prelates, the criminal methods employed to augment Church funds. We read of a city where sexual morality was apparently non-existent, where adultery and promiscuity were rampant and chastity unknown, where the laws of God and the example of Christ had been forgotten, and the pagan adage 'Let nothing be in excess' had ceased to have a meaning. To read of these things will do us no harm. The only harmful books are those which make wrong seem attractive, or represent sin as being other than the hideous thing that it is. Procopius was unquestionably on the side of right, and the things which are disgusting to us were equally disgusting to him.
Apart from the widespread indifference to religion and morality, the reader will find in Procopius many things, not all of them objectionable, to remind him of life today. He will read of social services, with State-employed doctors and teachers and subsidized entertainments; of elaborately organized postal services; of espionage and counter-espionage; of rates and taxes, customs-offices, import-duties, and prohibited imports; of defective street lighting and inadequate water-supplies; of monopolies, price-fixing, rake-offs, under-the-counter sales, and the cornering of supplies; of the rising cost of living and depreciation of the currency; of smaller loaves and adulterated flour; of a statute of limitations; of a mad passion for sport and the frantic and aggressive partisanship of its devotees.
It only remains to say something of the literary characteristics of the book, and of its history since it was first mentioned by Suidas.
The work is thought to have been modeled on Theopompus's History of Philip of Macedon. Procopius also owed a great deal to Herodotus and Thucydides, particularly the latter, who had set the pattern for The Histories, and in language at least influenced the writing of the very dissimilar Secret History. He owed little to the Bible, or to Latin authors, but he esteemed highly the great Greek writers of the early and classical periods, such as Homer and Aeschylus, and especially Aristophanes, to four of whose comedies he alludes no less than eight times in this short book. His Greek is excellent, not unlike Attic, though of course the vocabulary had undergone changes, and on the whole lucid, though there are a few difficult passages which translators have interpreted in very different ways. His narrative flows easily, his descriptions are clear, his sentences are not over-long, and the speeches which like all ancient historians he puts into the mouths of his characters are more natural than is sometimes the case.
Mention was made earlier of favourite words that characterize Procopius's style, some twenty of which constantly recur in this book. They are not so conspicuous in a translation, where in accordance with English taste, which demands a more varied vocabulary, they do not always appear in the same guise. But readers of the present version may notice the frequent use of the following — all, always, never, it happened that, manage to, for no reason at all, for the most part. They may also notice that the word 'bishop', which had been in regular use for nearly five centuries, is always replaced by 'archpriest', a word still used in the Orthodox Church.
I need not trouble the reader with a detailed description of the manuscripts. They are few in number and all very late: only two were written as early as the fourteenth century, the rest in the fifteenth and sixteenth, and even the seventeenth and eighteenth. They contain many errors, some of which occur in every single manuscript and are astonishing, for instance 'Romans' for 'Persians', which was correctly given by Suidas.
The first printed edition of The Secret History was that of Alemannus, published at Lyons in 1623, with the omission of one section which he thought too indecent for his readers to stomach. This amused Gibbon, who quaintly remarks of Theodora that
'her arts must be veiled in the obscurity of a learned language'
and proceeds to quote the passage in the original Greek, adorned with a comment in Latin, adding that the omission was not rectified in the Paris edition (that of Maltretus, 1663). Modern editions include those of Comparetti (Rome, 1898) and Haury (Leipzig, 1913). The last of these is now the standard text. For English readers there is the admirable Loeb Edition, with notes and translation by Dr H. B. Dewing, first issued in 1935. The earliest known English translation was that of Holcroft (1623), the latest an American version by Atwater, which reached our shores in 1963.
I must add a few words about this present translation, which I have tried to make both accurate and readable. For the most part it follows Haury's text, but I have rejected emendations wherever it seemed possible that the MSS might be right. Twice on one page I have refused to admit a 'not' inserted by improvers of the text. I have likewise declined to follow Gibbon — and Atwater in changing Theodora's grandson into a nephew without MS authority. Latin words transliterated by Procopius I have retained untranslated, but distinguished by italics: such words as 'praetor' and 'toga' I have treated as English. Money One Latin word only have I removed altogether — centenarium, which denotes the monetary unit employed where large sums were involved. As it is unfamiliar to the great majority of readers, in the eleven passages where it occurs in this book I have converted the sums in question into modern terms, based not on an estimate of purchasing power but on the value of gold. A centenarium was undoubtedly a quantity of gold, as Procopius repeatedly states, and all the evidence suggests that it weighed 100 lb. Of 12 oz. each. With gold at over £12 10s 0d an oz., that would give it a value today of over £15,000, and on that basis I have made my calculations. The resulting figures must of course be taken as approximate only; but at least they have meaning.
In conclusion, I have resolutely refused to translate barbaroi by 'barbarians', and I trust that I have used no other words or expressions savouring of translationese.
Norwich, April 1965
In 1979 the price of gold rose to nearly £165 an ounce. If, therefore, the English equivalents given in the translation are multiplied by twelve the value in modern terms will be roughly indicated.
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