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Bill Thayer

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Procopius: The Anecdota
or Secret History


The Secret History of Procopius is a strange companion for the Histories and the Buildings by the same author. The story of the three wars — against the Persians, the Vandals and the Goths — had almost been completed when the author, in seeming disgust, decided to regale a safely removed future age with the back-stage gossip that had been current while Justinian and Theodora had been playing their imperial rôles, and while Belisarius had been leading the Roman arms from triumph to triumph. Obviously this could not be done openly, for Procopius, with all his bitterness, had not by any means reached a state of reckless despair, and he was willing, or perhaps even eager, to continue to write in the flattering tone which the circumstances demanded, while he kept hidden away for posterity the record of mischievous and hateful and sordid gossip which must have been current during his lifetime. His avowed purpose in writing this book, which he appropriately called Unpublished (Notes), was to tell the whole unvarnished truth which he had not deemed wise to set down in the seven books of the Histories; these had already been published and broadcast throughout the Empire.​1 He had indeed given hints that the administration of Justinian had not been that of the Perfect Prince.​2 And it would seem from the opening words of the Secret History that he commenced the writing as a continuation of the Histories. In any case the opening sentences do not form a proper introduction to what follows; and strangely, these sentences reappear, with slight alterations, as the introduction of the Eighth Book of the Histories. This fact, in itself, is evidence of the necessarily furtive process of the composition of the Secret History, a clumsy defect which the usually careful author did not take occasion to correct.3

The work does promise to provide a supplement to the Books already published, but this avowed purpose is soon forgotten. It is rather a deliberate attempt to discredit the imperial pair and their leading General and to shew them as essentially both greedy and base — so base, indeed, that they seemed to Procopius nothing less devils incarnate. The interest of Procopius has shifted suddenly from events to persons, and his one purpose comes to be to impugn the motives of Justinian and of the able Belisarius, and to cover with vilest slander the Empress and Antonina, the wife of Belisarius. This, obviously, is the central theme of the Secret History, and the author concentrates all his effort on the attempt to demonstrate the utter depravity of Justinian and of Theodora, the futility of Belisarius, and the shamelessness of Antonina.

The method of attack is the simple one of recounting anecdotes, and it is this plan which has caused the title of Chroniques Scandaleuses to be applied to this book so often. Antonina is the first target for attack and her humble origin is recounted and her disgraceful relations with her adopted son Theodosius are set forth with unblushing frankness. In this affair Belisarius cuts a sorry figure, as he does in the following tirade against his conduct in the field. He is accused of being weak and mercenary in his conduct of operations against hostile armies, being under the dominance of the demoniac spell cast over him by his energetic spouse.

The procedure is similar with the imperial pair. Theodora is first defamed by the vilest slanders touching her private life before her marriage to Justinian and their elevation to the throne. The unedifying picture omits no detail of depravity which can be imagined as possible for the most shameless of women, and the author succeeds only in discrediting his own testimony, which he seems to offer in full confidence, but which falls to the ground through the weight of its own extravagance.

The next step is the attack on Justinian, and here, as in the case of Belisarius, no scandal touching his private life is brought forward (a plain indication that none existed), but much is said about alleged maladministration, squandering of state funds, and wasting of time on "senseless" disputes of the Christians. All the evidence, for Procopius, leads to the conclusion that Justinian was not merely influenced by evil demons, but actually was the Lord of Demons incarnate, allowed for a season to harass the human race. The charges against Justinian are, for the most part, futile, and arose from misguided zeal and a complete failure to understand the rapidly developing factors which already were transforming the narrow sectionalism of the ancient world into the confused pattern of mediaevalism, as a preparation for the realignment and widened horizons of the modern world. This change could not easily be understood or approved by the cautious historian who found his ideal in the compact polities of ancient Greece or the early stages of the Roman Empire, rather than in the sprawling and heterogeneous "Roman Empire" of his day, with its welter of nationalities and with its crumbling frontiers.

We thus have in the Secret History the record of a reactionary who could not appreciate at their true value the developments of his own age nor even guess whither the world was tending — one who sensed clearly only the crumbling of the older order. The record is valuable as sincere testimony, even though it is sadly miscoloured; if one should be able to strike an average between this and the obviously insincere and fulsome flattery in which the Histories occasionally, and the later Buildings constantly, indulge, he might arrive at a fair estimate of one of the most noteworthy reigns of the long period stretching from Constantine the Great (323 A.D.) to the heroic death of Constantine XIII Palaeologus in 1453 at the gate of Constantinople.

The points of contact with the Histories are much fewer than the Introduction would lead us to expect, though there are some twenty direct references to the earlier Books and to the later Buildings. Two examples may be cited to illustrate the hostile tendency of the Secret History. The marriage of Germanus' daughter to John is mentioned in the Histories​4 without comment, though it is implied that this may have prevented John from accomplishing the purpose of the mission on which he had been sent by Belisarius. In the Secret History, on the other hand, this marriage is described​5 as the last desperate resort of Germanus to save his daughter Justina — she was already eighteen years of age — from the social disgrace involved in failure to marry. Similarly the account of the death of Amalasuntha is given in the Histories​6 as the act of Theodatus, who simply wished to get her out of the way in order to smooth the path for his own succession to the kingship of the Goths. In the version of the Secret History7 she was put to death by Theodatus, to be sure, but at the instigation of Peter, an ambassador from Byzantium, and by direction of none less than Theodora herself.

Mention may also be made of an incident which is recorded both in the Secret History and in the Buildings — the establishment of a home on the Bosporus for fallen women.​8 In the first case the establishment of this home is described as a tyrannical, and futile, act of Theodora, while in the Buildings it is praised as the wise act of a sovereign mindful only of the welfare of her subjects.

Other specific examples might be adduced to illustrate the fact, which is at once obvious to the reader of the Secret History, that the tone of this book is completely at variance with that of the Histories and the Buildings — a fact which has led many to the conclusion that we have before us the work of another hand. The debate has been carried on with energy and enthusiasm and a list of notable defenders of either thesis might be adduced.

The chief arguments supporting the thesis that the Secret History was written by Procopius of Caesarea and which must be regarded as reasonably conclusive may be summarized thus.

1. The date of writing is plainly given four times in the text as the thirty-second year of Justinian.​9 One would expect these years to be counted from Justinian's accession, 527; yet his administration really included Justinus' reign, 518‑527, whence Haury,​10 probably rightly, concluded that the Secret History was written in 550. Comparetti reckons from 527.

2. There are frequent references to the Histories, whose author­ship is amply established.​11

3. There are no direct contradictions in statements of fact as between the Secret History and the signed works of Procopius. The discrepancies which undoubtedly exist must be explained by the circumstances in which the work was written and by the author's changed purpose in writing it.

4. The language and style are demonstrably those of Procopius and the general outlook is truly Procopian, as has been ably demonstrated by Felix Dahn,​12 and we need add only the observation that the use of the accentual rhythm, or cursus, which was the literary mode of the day, plainly supports the view that Procopius himself did write the Secret History. The rhythm is not only present, but it also corresponds in detail, though not as closely as a sly imitator could have made it, to that of the works whose author­ship cannot be doubted.13

Apart from the question of the author­ship of the Secret History, the question of the veracity of its statements is one which may be tested, to a certain extent, by the statements of other writers. At the outset it must be granted that the book is often characterized by malicious exaggeration, as well as by deliberate misrepresentation and falsehood, as, notably, in the account of the youth of Theodora. The misrepresentation consists usually in attributing to Justinian the institution of abuses which had been practised by his predecessors.

Yet granting that Procopius was often unfair in his presentation, it has been shewn, as by Haury in the Prolegomena, pages xxiii‑xxxi, of his edition of the Secret History (Teubner, 1906), that Procopius often has the support of the testimony of other writers of his time. Two writers may be quoted here in support both of Procopius' general thesis and of specific statements made by him.

Evagrius, a younger contemporary of Procopius and of Justinian (c. 536‑594), in his Ecclesiastical History, IV.32, writes as follows:

"There was also another quality latent in the character of Justinian, a depravity which exceeded any bestiality which can be imagined; and whether this was a defect of his natural character, or whether it was the outgrowth of cowardice and fear, I am unable to say, but in any case it manifested itself as a result of the popular Nika Insurrection. For he seemed to be absolutely devoted to one of the two Factions, the Blues namely, and to such a degree that these actually used to murder their opponents in cold blood in broad daylight and in the middle of the city, and not only did they suffer no penalty, but they actually were counted worthy of prizes of honour. And they were permitted even to enter houses and to gather as plunder the valuables therein and to force the inhabitants to pay for their own lives. And if any of the magistrates tried to stop them, he thereby endangered his own life. Thus, for instance, a certain man administering the government of the East, because he disciplined with stripes some of the unruly element, was himself flogged in the very middle of the city and roughly handled. And Callinicus, the Governor of Cilicia, because he inflicted the punishment of the law upon two Cilician murderers, Pautus and Faustinus, who had assaulted him and made an attempt upon his life, was impaled, thus paying the penalty for his correct judgment and his support of the laws.​14 Consequently the members of the opposite Faction went off into exile, and being received by no one at all, but being driven away from every place like polluted creatures, they proceeded to waylay travellers, both robbing and murdering them, so that every place was full of violent deaths and highway robbery and the other sorts of crime. Occasionally too he​15 went over to the opposite side and began to destroy them,​16 allowing the laws which he had abandoned to run riot through the cities like barbarians. And to tell of all these matters in detail, neither words nor time would suffice; yet these examples are sufficient to furnish evidence for all the rest."

These general accusations are amply corroborated by the historian Agathias (530‑582), Bonn edition, 252.2‑255.1; 284.13‑285.20; 305.13‑306.9.

In the case of John the Cappadocian, who is represented by Procopius​17 as an utter scoundrel, John Lydus (490‑565), Bonn edition, 250.13 ff., says the following:

"The wicked Cappadocian, upon acquiring power, became the instrument of public calamities; for first of all, he used to keep fetters and shackles and stocks and irons on exhibition inside the praetorian chambers, providing a private prison in the dark for the punishment of those who served under his orders, like an inhuman Phalaris, and exercising his great power through the instrumentality of his slaves alone; and there he confined his victims who were being put under pressure, exempting no man from any sort of torture whatsoever, and putting on the rack without investigation those who were denounced simply as being in possession of money, and releasing them either naked or dead. And the whole population can bear witness to these things, but I know the facts through having seen them with my own eyes and through having been present while they were being enacted. And I shall give an example. A certain Antiochus, a man of advanced years, was reported to him as being in possession of a certain amount of gold. So he arrested him and strung him up by the hands with stout ropes until the old man, with dislocated shoulders, was freed from the bonds a corpse. This outrage I actually witnessed myself; for I was an acquaintance of Antiochus.

"Now this act of the Cappadocian was the mildest of all the things he did. And would that​18 he had been alone in his tireless quest for unholy deeds. But in fact, just as Briareus of the legend is said by the poets to have had countless hands, just so that avenging demon had an indefinite number of coadjutors in his evil deeds and so carried on his operations not only at the Imperial Palace, but he dispatched men like himself to every place and to every district, drawing up like a suction-pump the last obol which thus far had lain hidden away in each corner."

There follows a specific example of the rapacity of John's agents, and then he continues (p. 255.19):

"And would that this man were the only one of the kind and that he had chanced to devour only that one province; and would that it were not true that in every single city and district others like this man and even worse than he went about sucking up the last hidden obol wherever it lay, trailing after them an army of devouring demons and whole swarms of Cappadocians."

Evagrius, V.3, thus characterizes a certain Aetherius, one of Justinian's ministers. "Aetherius, who resorted to every degree of sycophancy, plundering the properties of the living and of the dead in the name of the Imperial Household, of which he was in charge under Justinian. . . .

In regard to the monkhood of Photius,​19 the matter is stated thus in the Syriac text of John of Ephesus, p31:

"This Photius, who had come to the capital from Palestine, was the son of Belisarius' wife Antonina. And when he was in the army and had gone off to war with Belisarius, for some reason or other he went off, had his hair cut off and assumed the garb of a monk. Yet he could not be reconciled to the monks' way of living and he wore the garb only for the name. After a short time, however, since he could not tame his wild nature by means of religion, he hurried away to the Emperor. So this man, though to all appearances clothed in the cloak of a monk, was sent to the province of Syria because of a revolt of the Samaritans. And since he wished to make himself pleasing to men, but to cause pain to God his Creator and sought for dishonourable gain by (various) pretexts, he devoted himself to plunder, robbery and extortion for the destruction and ruin of the people, as if by barbarian robbers, in all the provinces of the East, the larger as well as the smaller, so that even the Bishops and the clerics of all the cities fled before him. But he seized upon every man, whoever he might be, whether in the city or in the country, if he discovered that he possessed bread for a single day, and such persons he plundered, he imprisoned, hung them up and tortured them. He demanded from them the sum of one gold pound for his portion, whether the individual in question possessed it or not; indeed he followed this procedure even if the poor victim would have been obliged to sell himself, his children, his house and his property — even in such cases it would have been impossible to alter one word he had uttered. For he always took his portion, and said, 'Give many pounds; the Emperor needs money for his wars.' In such fashion he gathered in the talents and sent them forward, to the end that he might retain the authorization to do whatever he wished.

" 'Give many pounds of gold,' Photius kept shouting, he who lived in the time of Justinian and of Justinus; 'the Emperor needs money for carrying on war'; and all magistrates of Justinian kept making the same demand from the Roman citizens, a matter which Procopius in the Secret History makes a particular ground of complaint. Obviously, since Justinian carried on many more wars than other Emperors, it is entirely natural that he needed more money. In order to be able to prosecute a war against the Vandals, he purchased peace from the Persians for eleven thousand pounds."​20

On the subject of Theodora's offspring, both Greek and Latin authors are silent except Procopius, who makes mention​21 of her grandson Anastasius.º This notice is corroborated by the Syriac Historia Eccles. of John of Ephesus (German transl., p55): "The blessed John, who was sprung from the family of the Emperor Anastasius and also was a son of the Empress Theodora's daughter." And on p196 of the same work there is mention of "Athanasius, son of the Empress Theodora's daughter." Also, in a German rendering of John of Ephesus, p269, Schoenfelder notes: "Athanasius appears in Bar-Hebraeus as an intermediary between Ascosnagh and Philoponus: he says: 'At that time the Empress Theodora had a grandson, by name Athanasius. . . .' " Cf. also Mich. Syr., p197: "Athanasius, grandson of the Empress Theodora."

On the matter of the close co-operation of Justinian and Theodora in the administration of the government​22 the words of Justinian himself should be noted; Novella VIII Cap. I: "After considering all these matters alone and then after taking as partner in the deliberation my most pious consort who has been given me by God. . . ."

Theodora's method of handling recalcitrant subjects is well illustrated by a passage from the Vita Silverii.23

"Now the Empress, grieving for the patriarch Anthemus, because he had been deposed by the most holy Pope Agapitus, on the ground that he had found him a heretic and in his place had appointed Menas, servant of God, then the Emperor, after conferring with the deacon Vigilius, sent his letter to Pope Silverius at Rome begging and entreating him: 'Make no delay in coming to us or without fail recall Anthemus to his own place.' And when the Blessed Silverius had read this, he groaned and said: 'I know very well that this affair has brought an end to my life.' But the most blessed Silverius, feeling confidence in God and in the blessed apostle Peter, replied by letter to the Empress: 'Mistress Augusta, I shall never consent to do such a thing as to reinstate a man who is a heretic and who has been condemned in his own wickedness.'

Then the Empress in a fury sent orders to the patrician Belisarius by the deacon Vigilius with these instructions: 'Seek out some grounds of complaint against the Pope Silverius and remove him from the office of bishop or at least send him quickly to us. You have there the archdeacon Vigilius, our most beloved deputy, who has promised us to recall the patriarch Anthemus.' And then the patrician Belisarius undertook the commission, saying: 'I shall indeed carry out the instruction; but that man who has an interest in the murder of Silverius must himself render an account of his deeds to our Lord Jesus Christ.' And under urgent orders, certain false witnesses issued forth and actually made the statement that they had discovered the Pope Silverius sending messages to the King of the Goths. Upon hearing this the patrician Belisarius refused belief; for he knew that these reports were being circulated through envy. But since many persisted in this same accusation, he became afraid.

"Then he caused the blessed Pope Silverius to come to him in the Pincian Palace and he stationed all the clergy at the first and the second entrance. And when Silverius and Vigilius had come alone into the salon, the patrician Antonina was reclining on a couch and the patrician Belisarius was sitting at her feet. And as soon as the patrician Antonina saw him, she said to him: 'Tell me, Master Silverius, Pope, what have we done to you and the Romans that you wish to betray us into the hands of the Goths?' And even while she was still speaking these words, there entered John, the regional sub-deacon of the first ward, lifted his collar from his neck and led him into a chamber; there he unfrocked him, put on him monk's garb and spirited him away. Then Xystus . . . came out and announced to the clergy that 'Our Lord, the Pope, has been deposed and has been made a monk.' And Vigilius took him in charge, under his personal protection, as it were, and he sent him into exile in Pontus and sustained him with the bread of tribulation and the water of necessity. And he weakened and died and he became a confessor."​a

This grim story explains the sinister reference of Procopius in Chap. i.14 and 27.

The Secret History has been translated into modern languages by several hands, sometimes anonymously and with the manifest purpose of exploiting the salacious tone of some of its passages. The only serious attempts to render the work in a scholar­ly manner in recent times are those of the Athenian Society, Athens, 1896 (anonymous) and of Domenico Comparetti, contained in his posthumous edition.

The following editions are of importance:

1623. Alemannus,​b Procopii Caesariensis, V. I., Arcana Historia, qui est liber nonus Historiarum (Editio princeps).

1838. Dindorf, in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae.

1899. Krašeninnikov, Procopii Caesariensis Anecdota quae dicuntur.

1906. Haury, Procopii Caesariensis Opera Omnia, Vol. III.

1928. Comparetti, Le Inedite, Libro Nono dell Istorie, di Procopio di Caesarea; edizione postuma da Domenico Bassi.

The Latin translation of Alemannus, which appeared in the (slightly expurgated) edition of 1623, was repeated with little change by Dindorf. The Comparetti edition contains, as noted, a new Italian translation.

The map of Constantinople is taken, with due acknowledgement, from Van Millingen, Byzantine Constantinople; that of the Eastern Empire from the Cambridge Mediaeval History.

The portraits of Justinian and of Theodora were supplied, through the courtesy of Professor C. R. Morey, from the Index of Christian Art maintained by Princeton University.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Book VIII.i.1.

2 Book VII.xii.2‑10, xxxv.11, xxxvi.4‑6.

3 The Secret History was not published with Procopius' other works, and was first mentioned by Suidas in the tenth century:

ἔγραψε καὶ ἕτερον βιβλίον, τά καλούμενα Ἀνέκδοτα, τῶν αὐτῶν πράξεων, ὡς εἶναι ἀμφότερα βιβλία θ´. "He also wrote another book, which goes under the name of Unpublished Notes, so that the two works together make nine Books."

ὅτι τὸ βιβλίον Προκοπίου τὸ καλούμενον Ἀνέκδοτα ψόγους καὶ κωμῳδίαν Ἰουστινιάνου βασιλέως περιέχοι καὶ τῆς αὐτοῦ γυναικὸς Θεοδώρας, ἀλλὰ μὴν καὶ αὐτοῦ Βελισαρίου καὶ τῆς γαμετῆς αὐτοῦ. "Note that the book of Procopius which goes by the title of Unpublished Notes contains criticism and ridicule of the Emperor Justinian and of his wife Theodora, and indeed even of Belisarius and his wife."

4 Book VII.xii.11.

5 Chap. v.8‑10.

6 Book V.IV.4 ff.

7 Chap. xvi.1 ff.

8 Chap. xvii.5, 6 and Buildings I.ix.2.

9 Chap. xviii.33, xxiii.1, xxiv.29, 33.

10 Procopiana, 1890.

11 See footnotes.

12 Procopius von Caesarea, Berlin 1865.

13 Cf. Dewing: The Accentual Rhythm, Proceedings of the Conn. Academy 1909.

14 Cf. Secret History, xvii.2, 3.

15 Justinian.

16 The Blues.

17 See Indexes.

18 Reading εἴθε.

19 Cf. Chap. xxiii.19.

20 Cf. Persian Wars, I.xxii.3, where the amount is stated as 110 "centenaries."

21 Chap. iv.37.

22 Cf. Chap. x.13, 14, etc.

23 Gest Pont. Rom. I.146 (ed. Mommsen).

Thayer's Notes:

a The Liber Pontificalis is not yet online, but for a very clear modern summary of the deposition, with the full context and additional material, see the article Pope St. Silverius in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

b For further details on Nicolò Alemanni, both his biography and his scholar­ly contributions, see James Bryce's Life of Justinian by Theophilus.

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Page updated: 9 Jun 20