Procopius’ Anecdota – The Secret History of the General, the Emperor and their Wives


Justinian Emperor BizantiumTyranny, corruption and sex in a decadent civilization. No, this is not a post about a regime of an oil-rich country nowadays; it is about Byzantium in the sixth century.

I just finished reading a vigorous translation by G. A. Williamson of The Secret History of Procopius.

Procopius worked as a legal advisor of Belisarius, the incumbent General that extended Bizantium domains to the West. The Emperor Justinian and his wife ruled the Eastern Romans at the time.

Procopius was a two-faced official: a propagandist of the achievements of the Emperor,
he secretly wrote a fierce attack to Justinian and Theodora.

The book is composed by a story of the marriage of Belisarius and his wife Antonina and an anatomy of the destruction of all things civilised by Justinian and Theodora.

The chapters of the book are revealing of its content:

1. Belisarius and Antonina
2. Justin, Justinian and Theodora
3. Justinian’s Misgovernment
4. The Crimes of Theodora
5. The Destruction Wrought by a Demon-Emperor
6. The Ruin of Various Classes of the Community
7. Everyone and Everything Sacrified to the Emperor’s Greed
Last Word: The Arrogance of the Imperial Pair

Procopius seems to be motivated more by revenge rather than by historical justice when he gets personal with the subjects of this book:

When Justinian ascended the throne it took him him a very little while to bring everything into confusion […]. That the emperor was not a man but […] a demon in human shape, could be demonstrated by the magnitude of the calamities which he brought on the human race.

Theodora didn’t rank high in Procopius’ esteem either:

Her mind was firmly and perpetually fixed upon inhumanity. […] Neither the passage of time, nor surfeit of punishment, nor any kind of appeal, nor any threat of death, though all mankind lives in expectation that it will fall from heaven, could induce her to abate her wrath in the slighest.

I do know that I would not like to have lived in that period: wars, genocides, political instability, economic crisis, civilian revolts, disasters, famine, plagues…

A catastrophe occurred in 535 or 536 at a planetary scale, probably a colossal eruption of a volvano whose gases and dust darkened the skies. Also, the Empire was struck by the plague in the early 540’s. Procopius also describes earthquakes in Antioch, inundations of the river Scirtus, Nile and Cydnus (Tarsus).

Procopius’ propaganda doesn’t seem to have influenced historians and Justinian is said to have been an active and ambitious Emperor just before the relative darkness of the Middle Ages.

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