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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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 9

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter VIII

 p91  These things, then, were being enacted both in Byzantium and in every other city. For the evil, like any other malady, beginning there fell like a scourge upon every part of the Roman Empire. 2 But the Emperor Justinus paid not the slightest heed to what was passing, for he, in fact, had no power of perception at all, though he was an eye-witness at all times of what was being done in the hippodromes. 3 For he was extraordinarily simple-minded and exceedingly like a stupid donkey, inclined to follow the man who pulls the rein, his ears waving steadily the while. 4 And Justinian was not only doing the things described but was also throwing everything else into confusion. Indeed, as soon as this man laid hold of the Government of his uncle, he straightway was eager to squander the public funds with complete recklessness, seeing he had become master of them.  p93 5 For he kept squandering very great sums for service to the State on those of the Huns who chanced from time to time to meet him; and as a result of this the land of the Romans came to be exposed to frequent inroads. 6 For when once these barbarians had tasted the wealth of the Romans, they could no longer keep away from the road leading to Byzantium.

7 He also saw fit to throw much money into certain buildings along the sea, seeking to put constraint upon the incessant surge of the waves. 8 For he kept moving outward from the beach by piling up stones, being determined to compete with the wash of the sea, and, as it were, seeking to rival the strength of the sea by the sheer power of wealth. 9 And he gathered into his hands the private property of every Roman in the whole world, charging some of them with some crime or other which they had not committed, and in the case of others deluding their minds with the idea that they had made him a present. 10 And many who had been convicted of murder and other such crimes handed over to him their entire fortunes and thus escaped paying the penalty for their misdeeds; 11 and others who might, for instance, be urging against their neighbours a claim to certain lands to which they had no right, finding themselves unable, because the law was against them, to secure a judgment against their adversaries by arbitration, simply bestowed this disputed property upon the Emperor and so were free of the business, thus winning for themselves, by a gift which cost them nothing, an acquaintance with this man, and having succeeded by most illegal means in getting the better of their opponents at law.


[image ALT: A mosaic of the head and shoulders of a cherubic-looking man of about 40, wearing a jeweled crown, earrings, and a cloak. It is a depiction of the late Roman Emperor Justinian.]
Portrait Head of the Emperor Justinian
Mosaic in the wall of the North Transept of the Church of S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

12 And I think it not inappropriate to describe the appearance of this man. He was neither tall in stature not particularly short, but of a medium height, yet not thin but slightly fleshy, and his face was round and not uncomely; for his complexion remained ruddy even after two days of fasting. 13 But that I may describe his appearance as a whole in few words, I would say that he resembled Domitian, son of Vespasian, very closely, an Emperor who so impressed the Romans who suffered under him that even after they had chopped his whole body into pieces they felt that they had not satisfied their rage against him,​1 but through a decree of the Senate​2 determined that not even the name of this Emperor would appear on documents nor any likeness of him whatsoever be preserved.​3 14 His name, at any rate, everywhere in the inscriptions in Rome and wherever else it chanced to have been carved has been chiselled out, this name alone among all the others,​a as the observer may see, and not a single statue of him is to be seen anywhere throughout the Roman Empire, with the exception of one bronze statue, accounted for as follows.​4 15 Domitian had a wife​5 of noble character and discreet, and neither had she herself ever harmed any man in the world nor was she pleased at all with any of the actions of her husband. 16 Consequently  p97 she was dearly beloved, and the Senate at that time summoned her and bade her ask whatever she wished. 17 And she begged only this, that she might take the body of Domitian and bury it and that she might set up one bronze statue to him wherever she wished. 18 And the Senate conceded this. And the woman, wishing to leave to future ages a memorial of the inhumanity of those who had butchered her husband, contrived the following. 19 Collecting the flesh of Domitian, and putting the pieces accurately together and fitting them one to the other, she sewed up the whole body; then, displaying to the sculptors, she bade them represent in a bronze statue the fate which had befallen her husband. 20 So the artists straightway made the statue. The woman then took it and set it up on the street leading up to the Capitol, on the right as one ascends thither from the Forum, and it shews both the features and the fate of Domitian, even to the present day.​6 21 And one might hazard a guess that the body of Justinian in general and particularly the face and all the characteristic features of his countenance are clearly embodied in this statue.

22 Such was Justinian in appearance; but his character I could not accurately describe. For this man was both an evil-doer and easily led into evil, the sort of a person whom they call a moral pervert,​7 never of his own accord speaking the truth to those with whom he conversed, but having a deceitful and crafty intent behind every word and action, and at the same time exposing himself, an easy prey, to those who wished to deceive him. 23 And a certain unusual mixture had  p99 developed in him, compounded of both folly and wickedness. And possibly this illustrated a saying uttered by one of the Peripatetic philosophers in earlier times, to the effect that the most opposite elements are found in man's nature, just as in mixed colours. 24 (I am now writing, however, of matters in which I have not been able to attain competency.) But to resume, this Emperor was insincere, crafty, hypocritical, dissembling his anger, double-dealing, clever, a perfect artist in acting out an opinion which he pretended to hold, and even able to produce tears, not from joy or sorrow, but contriving them for the occasion according to the need of the moment, always playing false, yet not carelessly but adding both his signature and the most terrible oaths to bind his agreements, and that too in dealing with his own subjects. 25 But he departed straightway from his agreements and his oaths, just like the vilest slaves, who, through fear of the tortures hanging over them, are induced to make confession of acts which they had denied on oath. 26 He was a fickle friend, a truceless enemy, an ardent devotee of assassination and of robbery, quarrelsome and an inveterate innovator, easily led astray into wrong, but influenced by no counsel to adopt the right, keen to conceive and to execute base designs,​8 but looking upon even the hearing about good things as distasteful. 27 How could any man be competent to describe adequately the character of Justinian? These faults and many others still greater he manifestly possessed to a  p101 degree not in accord with human nature. On the contrary, Nature seemed to have removed all baseness from the rest of mankind and to have concentrated it in the soul of this man. 28 And in addition to his other shortcomings, while he was very easy-going as to lending an ear to slanders, yet he was severe as to inflicting punishment. For he never paused for a thorough investigation before reaching a decision, but straightway upon hearing what the slanderer said, he would make his decision and order it published. 29 And he did not hesitate to write orders that called for the capture of towns and the burning of cities and the enslavement of whole peoples, for no reason whatever. 30 Consequently, if one should care to estimate all the misfortunes which have befallen the Romans from the earliest times and then to balance against them those of the present day, it seems to me that he would find a greater slaughter of human beings to have been perpetrated by this man than has come to pass in all the preceding time. 31 And while he had no scruples whatever against the quiet acquisition of other men's money — for he never even made any excuse, putting forward justice as a screen in trespassing upon things which did not belong to him — yet when once these had become his own, he was perfectly ready to shew his contempt for the money, with a prodigality in which there was no trace of calculation, and for no reason at all to fling it away to the barbarians. 32 And, to sum up the whole matter, he neither had any money himself, nor would he allow anyone else in the world to have it, as though he were not a victim of avarice, but simply consumed by envy of those who possessed money. 33 Consequently  p103 he lightly banished wealth from the Roman world and became the creator of poverty for all.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 An unsubstantiated report. According to Suetonius, Domitian's body was cremated by his faithful nurse. See Appendix III.

2 Suetonius, xxiii, records that "memoriae damnatio" was decreed by the Senate against Domitian, also "eradendos ubique titulos abolendamque omnem memoriam."

3 The decree was only partially effective; the features of Domitian are known from coins and from a limited number of statues.

4 It is a fact that only one inscription of Domitian's reign has come down to us from the city of Rome (CIL VI.932), though many have been found in the provinces. Gibbon (4th ed. Bury, Vol. IV, p430 note) frankly characterizes as foolish the belief of Procopius that only one bust of this Emperor survived to the sixth century.

5 Domitia Longina. She was the divorced wife of Aelius Lamia.

6 No such statue has been found. The original and fairly accurate reports of Domitian's reign would seem to have given rise to a saga of horrors.

7 The Greek word indicates a combination of folly and wickedness.

8 Cf. Book III.x.25.

Thayer's Note:

a Just as with the likenesses of Domitian, Procopius is pushing his point, and probably knew better. Depending on one's definition of damnatio memoriae, at least one and as many as six other emperors saw their memory condemned in this way: Elagabalus for sure; and Nero, Commodus, Didius Julianus, Pupienus and Balbinus. Statues of all of them are extant.

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Page updated: 9 Jun 20