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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 20

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,
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Chapter 22

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter XXI

 p243  Thus were these matters handled by this Emperor. And by the Praetorian Prefect upward of thirty centenaria1 were collected each year in addition to the public taxes. 2 To these he gave the name "air-tax," to suggest, I presume, that this did not happen to be any regular or customary tax, but that he always got it by a stroke of luck, as though  p245 it came of itself out of the air, though in reality this sort of thing should be called villainy on his part.2 3 Under the shield of this name those who successively held this office kept up their brigandage towards their subjects with ever-increasing fearlessness. 4 And though they claimed to be delivering this money to the Emperor, they, on their part, found no difficulty in appropriating imperial wealth to themselves. 5 But Justinian saw fit to take note of none of these things, watching for his opportunity with the idea that, as soon as ever they should appropriate some huge piece of wealth, bringing against them some accusation or other which would give no room for excuses, he would thus be able to seize their property all at once. Indeed, this is exactly what he did to John the Cappadocian. 6 Now every single man who held this office during this period suddenly became wealthy beyond measure, with only two exceptions, namely Phocas — whom I have mentioned in an earlier Book3 as being a man who shewed himself a most scrupulous respecter of justice; for this man remained clear of any gain whatsoever while in that office — and Bassus, who assumed the office at a later time. 7 Yet neither one of these two succeeded in holding the position a year, but, on the ground that they were useless and altogether alien to the spirit of the times, they were relieved of their office within some few months. 8 But in order that my account may not  p247 be interminable, through my relating each separate thing, I might say that the same intrigues were being carried out in all the other magistracies in Byzantium.

9 In all parts of the Roman Empire, however, Justinian's method was as follows. Picking out the basest men, he would sell to them at a great price the offices that were to be corrupted by them;4 10 for no man of decency or any degree of intelligence would think for a moment of paying out his own money in order to buy the privilege of plundering those who had done no wrong. 11 Then, after collecting this money from those who were making the bargain with him, he would confer upon them authority to treat their subjects in any way they pleased. 12 As a result of this, they were destined, after ruining all the districts under their jurisdiction, along with their entire population, to be very rich themselves from that time on. 13 These men, then, borrowed from the bank at a staggering rate of interest the amount of the prices they had paid for the cities, paid it to the man who had made the sale, and then, as soon as they reached their cities, proceeded to inflict upon their subjects every form of misery, having no concern for anything else than how they might meet their obligations to their creditors and themselves be rated thenceforth among the most wealthy, seeing that this business involved neither danger nor disgrace for them, but actually conferred upon them a certain amount of glory, in  p249 proportion to the number of those falling into their clutches whom they were able without any justification to kill and to plunder. 14 For the titles of "murderer" and "brigand" came to be regarded by them as equivalent to "energetic"! 15 All these office-holders, however, whom Justinian observed to be abounding in wealth, he bagged on trumped-up charges and straightway wrested from them absolutely all their fortunes.

16 But later he promulgated a law that all who sought the offices should take an oath that in very truth they would themselves be innocent of all theft, and that they would neither give nor take anything for the sake of the office. 17 And he laid upon them all the curses which have been mentioned by men of most ancient times, in case anyone should depart from the written terms. 18 Yet when the law had been in force not yet a year, he himself, disregarding the written terms and the curses and the disgrace which would ensue, proceeded more fearlessly than before to negotiate the prices of the offices, not in secret, but in the public square of the market-place. 19 And those who purchased the offices proceeded, though under oath, to pillage everything still more than before.

20 And later on he hit upon still another device, one transcending all report. He decided that he would no longer sell, as formerly, those offices which he considered most valuable both in Byzantium and the other cities, but he sought out hired agents and put them in office, instructing them, for a wage of whatever it was, to deliver to him all their plunder. 21 And they, having taken their pay, proceeded to collect and carry off everything from the whole country quite  p251 fearlessly, and a hireling authority was thus going the rounds and, in the guise of the office, plundering the subjects. 22 Thus the Emperor, making his calculations with nice exactness, kept putting in power constantly those who were in very truth the vilest rascals in the world, and he always succeeded in tracking down the abominable creatures he wanted. 23 Indeed, when he appointed the first set of rogues to office and the licence of power brought to light their inherent villainy, we were in truth astonished that man's nature had room for depravity so great. 24 But when those who at some later time succeeded them in office were able to surpass these men by a very wide margin, men wondered among themselves how it was that those who formerly seemed most base were now outdone by their successors to such a degree that they now seemed to have been men of high character in their dealings, and the third group, in turn, overshot the second in every manner of wickedness, and after them still others, by their innovations in crime, caused an honourable name to be attached to their predecessors. 25 And with the long continuance of the evil all men have finally been taught by facts that whereas man's natural depravity is wont to grow beyond all limits, yet when it is nourished by the instruction of predecessors, and when, through the influence of the licence which complete immunity inspires, it is lured on to wreak foul injuries upon all who fall in its path, then it seems invariably to attain to so great a bulk that not even the imagining of its victims is able to measure it.

26 Such was the state of affairs for the Romans, as  p253 touching their magistrates. And many a time, when a hostile army of Huns had enslaved and plundered the Roman domain, the generals of Thrace and Illyricum, after purposing to attack the retreating enemy, recoiled when they saw a letter from the Emperor Justinian forbidding them to make the attack upon the barbarians, they being necessary to the Romans as allies against the Goths, it might be, or against some other enemy. 27 As a result of this, these barbarians used to plunder and enslave the Romans in those parts as enemies, and then, taking with them their prisoners and the rest of their plunder, they would retire to their own homes as friends and allies of the Romans. 28 And often some of the farmers of that region, moved by the loss of their children and women, who had been reduced to slavery, gathered in a body, attacked the retreating foe, and succeeded in slaying many of them and in capturing their horses together with all the booty; then, however, they found themselves involved in serious difficulties. 29 For certain men, sent out from Byzantium, saw fit to maul and mutilate their bodies and to impose fines upon them without the least compunction, until they gave up all the horses which they had wrested from the barbarians.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. Chap. i.33, note.

2 Cf. Papyrus London. IV.1357, and note: "The ἀερικὸν or "air-tax" was first instituted by Justinian and was levied, according to Procopius, as an addition to the ordinary taxes (p245)(πρὸς τοῖς δημοσίοις φόροις). Possibly the tax was continued under the Arabs unchanged; but more probably ἀερικά, thus placed in the plural, is simply another name for the ἐστραόρδινα (i.e. extraordinaria); cf. 1338, 5, χρυσικῶν δημοσίων καὶ ἐστραορδίνων καὶ λοιπῶν στίχων." The new Liddell and Scott Lexicon is in error in calling this a "tax on lights."

3 Book I.xxiv.18.

4 The text is corrupt and the translation merely attempts to supply for the lost words a thought which is consistent with the words which remain. The next sentence seems to suggest that Justinian had to select men already known to be rogues, for no decent man would have accepted the condition attached to the office.

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