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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

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 7

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter VI

 p69  Now what manner of persons Justinian and Theodora were and the method by which they ruined the Roman Empire I shall proceed to tell forthwith. 2 When Leon was holding the imperial power in Byzantium, three young farmers, Illyrians by race, Zimarchus, Dityvistus and Justinus from Vederiana,​1 men who at home had to struggle incessantly against conditions of poverty and all its attendant ills, in an effort to better their condition set out to join the army. 3 And they came to Byzantium, walking on foot and themselves carrying cloaks slung over their shoulders, and when they arrived they had in these cloaks nothing more than toasted bread which they had put in at home; and the Emperor enrolled them in the ranks of the soldiers and designated them for the Palace Guard. For they were all men of very fine figure. 4 But at a later time Anastasius, who had succeeded to the royal power, became involved in a war against the Isaurian nation, who had taken up arms against him. 5 And he sent a considerable army against them, commanded by John who is known as the Hunchback. This John had confined Justinus in a prison because of some offence and was on the point of removing him from the world on the following  p71 day, and would have done so had not a vivid dream come to him in the meantime and prevented him. 6 For the General declared that in a dream a certain person came to him, a creature of enormous size and in other respects too mighty to resemble a man. 7 And this vision enjoined upon him to release the man whom he had chanced to imprison on that day; and John said that upon arising from sleep he paid no heed to the vision of his dream. 8 But when the next night came on, he seemed once more in sleep to hear the words which he had heard before; yet even so he was unwilling to carry out the order. 9 And a third time the vision stood over him and threatened him with a terrible fate if he should fail to carry out the instructions, and added that when he in later times should become exceedingly angry, he would have need of this man and of his family.

10 So at the same time it came about that Justinus was saved in this way, and as time went on this Justinus advanced to great power. 11 For the Emperor Anastasius appointed him Commander of the Palace Guards. And when the Emperor departed this life, he himself, because of the power of his office, succeeded to the throne, being already an old man tottering to his grave, who had never learned to tell one letter from another, and was, as the familiar phrase has it, "without the alphabet," a thing which had never happened before among the Romans. 12 And while it was customary for the Emperor to affix letters in his own hand to all documents containing the orders that issued from him, he was unable either to issue  p73 orders himself or intelligently to share in the knowledge of what was being done. 13 But the man who drew the lot to sit as his Counsellor, Proclus by name, who held the office of Quaestor,​2 as it is called, himself used to attend to all matters with independent judgment. 14 But in order that they might have evidence of the Emperor's hand, those who had this matter in charge devised the following plan.​3 15 Taking a small strip of prepared wood, they cut into it a sort of pattern of the four letters which mean in the Latin tongue "I have read," and dipping the pen into ink of the colour which Emperors are wont to use in writing, they would put it into the hand of this Emperor. 16 And pla­cing on the document the strip of wood which I have mentioned and grasping the Emperor's hand, they moved it and the pen along the pattern of the four letters, causing it to follow all the winding lines cut in the wood, and then went their way, carrying that kind of writing of the Emperor.

17 Such an Emperor had the Romans in Justinus. And he had a wife named Lupicina who, as being a slave and a barbarian, had been concubine of the man who had previously bought her. And she as well as Justinus attained the throne in the closing years of life.

 p75  18 Now Justinus did not succeed in doing his subjects any harm nor any good either. For he had a very easy-going disposition, being an altogether tongue-tied man and a very boorish fellow. 19 And his nephew Justinian, who was still young, used to administer the entire government and he proved the author of calamities for the Romans — calamities so serious and so manifold that in all the history of the world probably no one previously had ever heard their equal. 20 For he used to proceed with the lightest of hearts to the unjust murder of men and the seizure of other men's money, and for him it was nothing that countless thousands of men should have been destroyed, though they had given him no grievance. 21 And he took no thought to preserve what was established, but he was always wishing to make innovations in everything, and, to put all in a word, this man was an arch-destroyer of well-established institutions. 22 Now the plague which was described by me in the previous narrative,​4 though it fell upon the entire world, was escaped by no fewer persons than those who chanced to be carried away, either because they were not taken at all by the disease or because they recovered when they had the fortune to be caught. 23 This man, however, not one living person of the entire Roman world had the fortune to escape, but, like any other affliction from Heaven falling upon the whole race, he left not a single soul wholly untouched. 24 For some he killed without any just cause, while others he left in the grip of poverty, making them  p77 more wretched than those who had died, so that they implored him to resolve the present misery by a most pitiable death. In some cases, however, he destroyed both property and life. 25 But since it was nothing for him to ruin the Roman Empire alone, he succeeded in subjugating Libya and Italy for no other reason than to be able to destroy the inhabitants of these countries along with those previously under his sway. 26 Indeed, when he had been not yet ten days in power, he slew Amantius, Director of the Palace eunuchs, together with certain others for no cause whatever, charging the man with nothing except that he had spoken some hasty word against John, the Chief Priest of the city. 27 And as a result of this conduct he became the most dreaded man in the world. And he immediately summoned also Vitalian, the usurper, having previously given him a pledge for his safety by sharing with him the Christian sacraments. But a little later, 28 when he was suspected of having given him offence, he executed him in the Palace together with his followers for no just cause, by no means consenting to honour his pledges, terrible as they were.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 A hamlet in Illyria, cf. BuildingsIV.i.17. The district, Dardania, was perhaps near modern Sofia. The Emperor Justinian was born there.

2 Cf. Book I.xi.11.

3 With the following description cf. the account given by Anon. Vales. in Chronica Minora, I.326, of the device used by Theoderic: "Theodericus inliteratus . . . laminam auream iussit interrasilem fieri quattuor litteras "legi" habentem; unde si subscribere voluisset, posita lamina super chartam per eam pennam ducebat, ut subscriptio eius tantum videretur." The word LEGI was cut in a flat strip made of gold, thus forming a stencil, which would serve as a guide for the imperial pen.

4 Book II.xxii, xxiii.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 20