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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 21

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.
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Chapter 23

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter XXII

 p253  When the Emperor and Theodora had destroyed John the Cappadocian, they wished to appoint someone to his office in his stead, and they made it their common task to find some man of the baser sort, looking about to find such a tool of their  p255 tyranny and investigating thoroughly attitude of the candidates, to the end that they might be able still more speedily to ruin their subjects. 2 Now as a temporary measure they put in John's place in the office Theodotus, a man who, though not of good character, had never proved able to please them completely. 3 After this they went about investigating every possibility. And unexpectedly they found a certain money-changer named Peter, a Syrian by birth, called by the surname of Barsymes.​1 He had years before sat at the table where bronze coins are exchanged and was gaining most shameful returns from this business, contriving his theft of the ha'pennies with great skill and always baffling his customers by the swiftness of his fingers. 4 For he was clever enough to steal freely the possessions of those who fell in with him, and when caught, to give his oath and to cover the sin of his hands by the impudence of his tongue. 5 And when he had been enrolled as a member of the Pretorian Guard, he became so outrageous that he was exceedingly pleasing to Theodora and he gave her readiest assistance in the perplexing details of her wicked enterprises. 6 So they immediately released Theodotus from the office to which he had been appointed after the Cappadocian, and they appointed thereto Peter, who accomplished everything to the liking of them both. 7 For though he deprived the soldiers on active service of all their pay, he was never seen to be moved by either shame or fear, nay, he even offered the offices for sale to a still greater extent than had been done before, and by making them less honourable  p257 he used to sell them to men who did not hesitate to carry on this unholy business, giving explicit permission to those who purchased the offices to treat the lives and property of their subjects as they wished. 8 For a bargain was straightway concluded between him and the man who had paid down the price of the office that gave the latter full licence to plunder and pillage. Thus from the capital​2 of the State there issued the traffic in human lives, and there Peter negotiated the contract for the destruction of the cities, 9 while in the highest courts and in the public square of the market-place there paraded a legalized brigand, who described his business as the recouping of the monies put up as the price of office, there being no hope that his misdeeds ever would be punished. 10 And among all those who served this magistracy as subordinates, a numerous and notable company, he always drew to himself the basest men. 11 But herein not he alone was guilty, but rather all who have assumed this office before and since.

12 And a similar abuse was practised also in the office of the Magister,​3 as he is called, and among the Palace officials who are wont to attend to the service that has to do with the treasures and with the funds known as privata and the administration of the patrimonium,​4 and, broadly speaking, in all the regular offices established  p259 not only in Byzantium but also in the other cities. 13 For since the time when this tyrant took charge of affairs, in each office the revenues which belonged to the minor officials were regularly claimed, without just reason, sometimes by Justinian himself, and sometimes by the man who held the office; and the men who served under their orders, being extremely poor, throughout this whole period were compelled to work under most servile conditions.

14 Now at one time a very great quantity of grain had been transported to Byzantium, but after the largest part of this had rotted already, he himself consigned​5 it in proportionate quantities to each several city of the East, though it was not suitable to be eaten by man; and he consigned it, not at the price at which the finest grain is wont to be sold, but at a much higher price, and it was necessary for the purchasers, after spending very great sums of money to meet the very oppressive prices, to throw the grain into the sea or a sewer. 15 And since a huge supply of sound grain which had not yet rotted also lay in storage there, he decided to sell off this too to the very large number of the cities which were in some need of grain. 16 For in this way he made double the money which the Treasury had previously paid to the tributary states for this same grain. 17 But the next year, when the crop of the grains was no longer bountiful to the same degree, the grain-fleet arrived  p261 in Byzantium with less than was needed,​6 and Peter, being at a loss because of this situation, decided to buy from the farm-lands of Bithynia and Phrygia and Thrace a great supply of grain. 18 And the inhabitants of these regions were compelled to transport with great labour the cargoes to the sea and to convey them to Byzantium at great peril, and to receive from him the small amounts which passed for prices; and the loss for them mounted up to such a figure that they were glad to be permitted to present the grain to a government warehouse and to deposit a further payment for the privilege. 19 This is the burden which they are accustomed to call "re­quisition."​7 But when even thus the supply of grain in Byzantium had not become sufficient to meet the need, many made bitter complaints of the situation to the Emperor. 20 And at the same time pretty nearly all the men in military service, seeing that they had not received their usual pay, gave themselves over to tumults and disturbances throughout the city. 21 So the Emperor seemed at last to be vexed with the man and wished to relieve him of his office both on account of these facts which have been mentioned and also because he had heard that a prodigious amount of money had been hidden away by him, which, as it chanced, he had filched from the Government. And this was true. 22 But Theodora would not permit her husband to act; for she had an extraordinary affection for Barsymes on account of  p263 his depravity, as it seems to me, and because he was exceedingly efficient in bringing ruin upon the citizens. 23 For she herself was a very ruthless person and completely filled with inhuman cruelty, and she required that her minions should conform as closely as possible to herself in character. 24 But they say that she was put under a spell by Peter and shewed him favour against her will. 25 For this Barsymes had shewn an exceptional interest in sorcerers and in the evil spirits, and he had a great admiration for the Manichaeans,​8 as they are called, and never hesitated to stand forth openly as their champion. 26 And yet, even when the Empress heard of these reports, she did not abate her good-will towards the man, but she saw fit to both protect and cherish him even more on this account. 27 For she too from childhood on had consorted with magicians and sorcerers, her habits of life seeming to lead her in this direction, and throughout her life she retained her faith in such things and always based her confidence upon them. 28 And it is also said that the way she made Justinian tractable was not so much by cajoling him as by applying to him the compulsion of the evil spirits. 29 For this man was not so right-minded or just a person or so steadfast in virtue as to be at any time superior to attempts upon him of the kind just mentioned, but, on the contrary, while conspicuously susceptible to the appeal of bloodshed and money, yet he found it easy enough to yield to those who tried to cozen and flatter him. 30 But even in those matters in which he took particular interest he used to reverse his position for no real reason and he had become  p265 absolutely like a cloud of dust in instability.​9 31 For this reason none of his relatives, and none of his acquaintances in general, ever based any confident hope on him, but, on the contrary, he had become subject to constant shiftings of his opinion as regards what he was to do. 32 Thus, being easily accessible to the sorcerers, as has been said, he very readily became tractable in the hands of Theodora also; and chiefly for this reason the Empress loved Peter exceedingly as being an expert in such matters. 33 So the Emperor removed him only with difficulty from the office which he previously held, but at the insistence of Theodora he not long afterwards appointed him Master of the Treasuries,​10 dismissing from this office John, who chanced to have assumed it only a few months earlier. 34 Now this man was a native of Palestine, and a very gentle and good person, who neither was skilled in opening ways to wrongful gain nor ever had maltreated any man in the world. 35 In fact, the whole populace loved him with extraordinary devotion. And just for this reason he did not satisfy Justinian and his spouse at all, for as soon as they unexpectedly discovered among their subordinates any man of high character, losing their heads and being vexed to the utmost, they eagerly sought by any and every means to push him out of the way at the earliest possible moment.

36 It was in this way, at any rate, that Peter succeeded this John and took charge of the imperial treasuries,  p267 and he once more became the chief cause of great calamities for all. 37 For he cut off the greater part of the payment which it had been ordained from of old should be given by the Emperor each year to many in the guise of a "consolation," and he himself, meanwhile, by improper means, grew rich on the public money and kept handing over a portion of it to the Emperor. 38 And those who had been stripped of their money sat about in great sorrow, since he saw fit also to issue the gold coinage, not at its usual value, but reducing its value materially,​11 a thing which had never been done before.12

39 Such were the dealings of the Emperor in the matter of the magistrates. And I shall next proceed to tell how, in each division of the Empire, he ruined those who owned the lands. 40 Now it was sufficient for our purpose, in mentioning a short time ago the magistrates sent out to all the cities, to note also the sufferings of the common people. For the owners of land were the first whom these magistrates oppressed and plundered; but even so all the remainder of the story shall be told.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Really a patronymic, "Son of Simon."

2 Following Haury. Other editors take τὸ κεφάλαιον to mean "the official head of the State," i.e. Justinian or, possibly, Peter.

3 See Chap. xvi.5, note.

4 Both these funds were administered by the Emperor personally, the patrimonium being taken over from his predecessor — in a sense, inherited.

5 The consignment was a forced sale, as appears from the following.

6 Justinian made a serious attempt to forestall this very contingency; cf. Buildings V.i.10‑16.

7 συνωνή or "coëmptio" was purchase by the Government at a price which made the process practically confiscation. The practice was familiar in Egypt; cf. Preisigke, Wörterbuch der Griechischen Papyruskunden.

8 See Appendix II and Hastings, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics.

9 For the proverbial expression cf. Chap. xiii.10.

10 Praefectus Aerarii.

11 The standard gold coin, the "solidus," which Procopius calls "stater," was reduced, he says (Chap. xxv.12), are 210 "obols" to 180 — a cut, as it seemed to him, of over fourteen per cent. Yet the intrinsic value of the "solidus" was not (p267)changed materially, and this coin continued to serve for many centuries as a standard unit of value, known as the "Besant," or "Byzant," throughout the world of commerce from the Far East to the western shores of Europe. Cf. Book VII.i.30.

12 Here Procopius is exactly wrong. The "aureus," which was first coined by Julius Caesar as 140 of a pound in weight, sank steadily to 172 of a pound under Constantine.

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Page updated: 9 Jun 20