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Monday, November 4, 2013

“The Secret History”, by Procopius, translated by G.A. Williamson, introduced by Philip Ziegler

151 pages, The Folio Society

If we accept that The Secret History as authentic, then it makes Procopius perhaps the most schizophrenic author in all of history. In the vast majority of his works, at least one of which was written after The Secret History, he praises the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his works. Why he would have written something so at odds with his previous and later histories is in itself a fascinating question; clearly, he had some axe to grind. It’s important to remember that Constantinople at that time was a highly partisan place and that when we reflect on some of the partisan and often fictitious scandal sheets that are written about our own leaders today, it is not surprising that similar slanders existed then (one wonders whether Procopius was a green or a blue…)

Modern scholars, for the most part, seem to accept the authenticity of The Secret History; I, for one, remain doubtful, based on the other works of Procopius that I have read. In his other works, he appears to be a reasonably sober historian of the classical Greco-Roman stripe, but in The Secret History he is little short of hysterical. He makes ridiculous claims – such as that Justinian was responsible for the deaths of over 1 trillion people, or that the emperor was actually a demon in human form (as to this latter claim, he even goes so far as to relate an anecdote that supposedly Justinian’s mother believed that he was conceived by a demon). Furthermore, he claims that several “unnamed sources” saw Justinian’s head disappear or else become transformed into a shapeless lump of flesh. Well, then, with sources such as these, it’s settled: Justinian was a demon.

This is a good translation by G.A. Williamson, Senior Master of Classics at Norwich School from 1922 to 1960, of Procopius’ controversial opus. While The Histories and Buildings are recognized as Procopius’ politically correct works, The Secret History tells a stunning tale of greed, corruption and destruction under Justinian and Theodora’s empire. The result is something that reads like an ancient tabloid, an endless tirade of hyperbole and empty rhetoric. It is here that the reader can dismiss the whole thing as the ranting’s of a lunatic who had a personal grudge against Justinian (which is true). But this does not make it a worthless document: 1st, it’s genuinely interesting as a quick read made lively by the extreme rhetoric describing Justinian’s viciousness and greed; 2nd, you really do get a good look at some parts of Byzantine life, from prostitution to constant legal disputes over wills in the aristocracy to the attempts to revive/keep up the notion of a Roman empire; and 3rd, Procopius, in this book, is more of a political commentator rather than a historian (I did not expect to find in the authoritarian and dogmatic world of Byzantium a voice like Procopius, who opposes torture, thinks that women should be free to marry whom they love, and who even opposed Justinian’s persecutions of the Jews).

Yes, he certainly does exaggerate, but there’s no question that a lot of it is due to Justinian really being a murdering SOB and Procopius having a totally different worldview. So, besides being an interesting read, The Secret History revealed to me much about our own world and the ideas of authority, dissent and human rights. 

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