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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a Chapter of
The Secret History


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter XIII

 p155  Now the case stood as I have said as regards  p157 the opinion of most of the people. And while Justinian was such as I have described in respect to his character in general, he still shewed himself approachable and kindly to those who came into contact with him; and no man whatever had the experience of being excluded from access to him, but on the contrary he was never angry even with those who failed to observe decorum as to standing or speaking in his presence. 2 However, he did not, on that account, blush before any of those destined to be ruined by him. Indeed he never allowed himself to shew anger, either, or exasperation, and thus to reveal his feelings to those who had given offence, but with gentle mien and with lowered brows and in a restrained voice he would give orders for the death of thousands of innocent men, for the dismantling of cities, and for the confiscation of all monies to the Treasury. 3 And one would infer from this characteristic that he had the spirit of a lamb. Yet if anyone sought to intercede through prayers and supplications for those who had given offence and thus to gain for them forgiveness, then, "enraged and showing his teeth,"1 he would seem to be ready to burst, so that no one of those who were supposed to be intimate with him had any hope after that of getting the desired pardon.

4 And while he seemed to have a firm belief as regards Christ, yet even this was for the ruin of his subjects. For he permitted the priests with comparative freedom to outrage their neighbours, and if they plundered the property of the people whose lands  p159 adjoined theirs, he would congratulate them, thinking that thus he was shewing reverence for the Deity. 5 And in adjudicating such cases, he considered that he was acting in a pious manner if any man in the name of religion succeeded by his argument in seizing something that did not belong to him, and, having won the case, went his way. For he thought that justice consisted in the priests' prevailing over their antagonists. 6 And he himself, upon acquiring by means which were entirely improper the estates of persons either living or deceased and immediately dedicating them to one of the Churches, would feel pride in this pretence of piety, his object, however, being that title in these estates should not revert to the injured owners. 7 Nay, more, he carried out an indefinite number of murders to accomplish these ends. For in his eagerness to gather all men into one belief as to Christ, he kept destroying the rest of mankind in senseless fashion, and that too while acting with a pretence of piety. For it did notº seem to him murder if the victims chanced to be not of his own creed. 8 Thus his single interest was the ceaseless destruction of men, and in company with his spouse he never ceased contriving accusations leading to this end. 9 For these two persons had their desires for the most part akin, and where they did actually chance to differ in their characters, though each of them was base, yet by displaying the most opposite tendencies they kept destroying their subjects. 10 For he was lighter than dust in his judgment, always submitting himself to  p161 those who from time to time wished to lead him into evil according to their whims, — unless indeed the project involved an act of kindness or loss of gain — and endlessly listening to "fawning speeches."2 11 For his flatterers could persuade him with no difficulty that he was raised to the skies and "walking the air."3

12 And one occasion Tribonianus, who was acting as Assessor to him, said that he was exceedingly fearful lest some day on account of his piety he might unawares be swept up into the heavens. Such praises, or rather gibes, he would interpret in accordance with the fixed conviction4 of his mind. 13 But even when, should it so happen, he expressed his admiration for the virtues of some man, a little later he would be reviling him as a scoundrel. And after abusing one of his subjects, he would turn about and seem to praise him, shifting his ground for no cause at all. 14 For his thinking ran in a direction exactly contrary to what he himself said and to what he wished to appear. 15 I have already described his character with regard to personal friendship and enmity, citing as evidence for the most part the things the man actually did. 16 For as an enemy, he was sure and unswerving, but to his friends very untrustworthy. Consequently he really caused the ruin of great numbers who had been cultivated by him, but he never became a friend to anyone whom he had once hated. 17 But those whom he seemed to know best and to regard as most  p163 intimate he after no long time betrayed to their destruction by delivering them as a favour to his consort or to someone else, even though he was well aware that they would die solely because of their loyalty to him. 18 For he was conspicuously untrustworthy in all things except, to be sure, his cruelty and his avarice. For to make him give up this last proved an impossible task for any man. 19 But also in those matters in which his spouse was not able to persuade him, by injecting into the argument the hope of large sums of money to accrue from the transaction she could win over her husband quite against his will to the action she desired. 20 Indeed for the sake of unseemly gain he never refused either to set up laws or again to tear them down.

21 And he rendered judgment, not according to the laws which he himself had written, but according as he was influenced by the vision of a greater or more magnificent promise of money. 22 For he even believed that to take away the property of his subjects by small thefts brought no disgrace whatever upon him — in those cases, namely, where he was not able to take everything at once on some pretence, either by advancing an unexpected accusation or by the pretext of a will never made. 23 And while he ruled over the Romans, neither good faith nor belief in God remained secure, no law remained fixed, no transaction safe, no contract valid. 24 And when any of his intimates were sent by him on some mission, if they had the fortune to destroy many of those whom they encountered and to plunder a quantity of money,  p165 they immediately seemed to the Emperor worthy both to be and to be called men of distinction, as having carried out with exactness all their instructions; but if when they returned to him they had shewn mercy to men in any way, he was offended with them thereafter and hostile. 25 And despairing of the ability of these men, as being somehow out of date, he no longer called them to service. Consequently many were eager to shew him how base they could be, even though their usual conduct was not of such sort. 26 And in certain cases, after making a promise many times and making his promise more binding by an oath or by a writing, he straightway became wilfully forgetful, thinking that this conduct brought him some credit. 27 And Justinian continued to act thus, not only to his subjects, but also to many of his enemies, as I have stated previously.5

28 And he was not given to sleep, as a general thing, and he never filled himself to repletion with either food or drink, but he usually just touched the food with the tips of his fingers and went his way. 29 For such matters seemed to him a kind of side-issue imposed upon him by Nature, for he often actually remained without food two days and nights, especially when the time before the festival called Easter led that way. 30 For on that occasion he many times abstained from food for two days, as has been said,6 and insisted upon living on a little water and certain  p167 wild plants,a and after sleeping perhaps one hour he would spend the rest of the time walking about constantly. 31 And yet, if he had been willing to spend just this Easter-tide on good deeds, affairs would have advanced to a high pitch of prosperity. 32 But as it was, by employing his natural strength for the ruin of the Romans, he succeeded in pulling down to the ground their whole political structure. For he made it his task to be constantly awake and to undergo hardships and to labour for no other purpose than to contrive constantly and every day more grievous calamities for his subjects. 33 For he was, as has been said,7 particularly keen in devising and swift in executing unholy deeds, so that in the end even his natural good qualities resulted in the undoing of his subjects.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. Aristophanes, Peace, 620, ἠγριωμένους ἐπ’ ἀλλήλοισι καὶ σεσηρότας.

2 Plato, Theaetetus, 175E.

3 Aristophanes, Clouds, 225, ἀεροβατῶ καὶ περιφρονῶ τὸν ἥλιον; Plato, Apology, 19C.

4 i.e. in accordance with the fixity of his ideas concerning himself. Cf. also xiv.21 and xv.1. The phrase is taken from (p161)Thucydides II, 89, where, however, the meaning is "the steadfastness of (their) resolution." Procopius means to say that Justinian was so convinced of his own genius that he took all such jests seriously.

5 Book VIII.xxv.7 ff.

6 Chap. xii.27; Procopius gives an illustration of these traits in BuildingsI.vii.7, 8.

7 Book III.ix.25; Chap. viii.26.

Thayer's Note:

a the festival called Easter . . . two days . . . a little water and certain wild plants: To my mind at least, there is a very strong hint here of the bitter herbs of the Jewish Passover, which may have found its way into the fasting ritual for the triduum, the three days (counting inclusively) between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection that were so conspicuously observed in early Christianity. Procopius, who strikes me and many others as the most nominal of Christians at best, and very likely a crypto-pagan, would not be familiar with the private devotional exercises of pious Christians. The connection is even clearer in another passage of Procopius (BuildingsI.7.7), in which he seems to understand the practice a bit better; which, parenthetically, should probably be added to the internal evidence for the view that the Buildings was written later than the Secret History.

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Page updated: 8 May 12