Procopius Secret History And Historical Consciousness History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Procopius of Cesarea’s Secret History of the sixth century reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian is problematic for the modern historian. From its descriptions of Empress Theodora’s sexual escapades to the description of Justinian’s transformation into a devil, it reads more like a lurid tabloid than a historical monograph. It stands in stark contrast to Procopius’ earlier History in Eight Books, also known as the Wars, which covered the Vandal, Persian and Gothic wars and was “written with a great attention to accuracy and with a high degree of objectivity.”  Why after writing such a conventional work did Procopius produce the scurrilous Secret History, which he feared could cost him his life?  Though the modern historian is right to be skeptical of some of Procopius’ claims, for the author himself there was no conflict between the two works; the Secret History was as much a historical work as the Wars. In fact, they were part of the same historical project: to accurately and completely document Justinian’s reign. To understand Procopius’ view of history, one must embrace the Secret History as an integral part of the historical record he was creating.
The Secret History was written circa 550 AD.  There is no evidence that it was published in Procopius’ lifetime, and the first reference to it is in a tenth-century bibliography, where it was called the Anekdota. Anekdota, literally “unpublished,” was a common title for works that disparaged political enemies.  It is unclear whether it would have been read in private, or how it was distributed.  It offers a scathing and insulting critique of Justinian and his wife Theodora, attacking their political leanings, military policy, personal habits and very humanity. It offers a shorter, but also negative, discussion of the general Belisarius and his wife Antonina.
The virulence of these attacks makes it easy to superficially dismiss Procopius’ claims to historical accuracy. His biography provides many reasons for one to be skeptical of his objectivity. Procopius was born circa 500 AD in Cesarea into a family that was part of the conservative senatorial aristocracy of the Eastern Roman empire. His writing suggests that he studied Greek and law in Constantinople.  Procopius was drawn closely into Justinian’s administration when be became legal secretary to Belisarius in 527 AD. He remained loyal to the general, who was accused of treason by Justinian in 542 AD.  Procopius’ upper class standing and conservative views, which conflicted with the emperor’s attempts to consolidate power in his office, in addition to his partiality to Belisarius, made him a natural critic of Justinian.  However, as scholars have noted, his unhappiness seems more personally based. Arthur E. R. Boak suggests in his introduction to the Secret History that Justinian may have prevented Procopius’ rise in the civil service, and that this situation could account for the extreme personal bitterness Procopius expresses.  Procopius’ relationship to Justinian is further complicated by the laudatory tone of the Buildings. It is unclear whether this represents a major shift in Procopius’ feelings towards the Emperor or whether, being due for publication, the flattery was put in but not sincerely. As Boak points out, there is no evidence that Procopius attempted at this point to destroy, disavow the work. 
In light of these circumstances, modern historians might question Procopius’ lip service to truth. It is clear to anyone who reads the Secret History that Procopius is not particularly fond of Justinian. In fact, the Secret History was probably written because he could not openly criticize the Emperor.  Procopius may give some clues as to how to interpret his discussion of Justinian. On one hand, his desire is obvious and explicitly stated – to show what a horrible Emperor Justinian was. He wanted to balance out the neutral to positive image he had given Justinian in the Wars. On the other hand, he employs certain images that ask for a more critical reading. Consider Chapter XII “Proving that Justinian and Theodora Were Actually Fiends in Human Form”. He describes them as “vampires” and says they used their supernatural powers to bend others to their will.  He cites witnesses who claim to have seen Justinian transform into a demon.  Boak argues that Procopius actually believed in devils, because that was the nature of the age, and that he was following an older Christian belief that saw oppressive leaders as literal devils.  In his study of Procopius, Anthony Kaldellis argues that Procopius was aware of such beliefs, but employed them as a rhetorical device.  Assuming Kaldellis’ reading is correct, we see that for Procopius creating a feel of the period, of Justinian, using strong rhetorical methods is obviously of utmost importance, which in part confirms the suspicions of the modern historian about his objectivity.
However, how do we reconcile this over the top presentation with the careful Procopius of his other texts? Procopius is otherwise regarded as a careful historian who took Thucydides as his model and wrote on a wide variety of subjects. His History in Eight Books covered the wars and focussed on the years 527 to 553, but it was more than just a military history. He discussed policy, social customs, and other topics as well.  His later work, On the Buildings, discussed the architectural achievements that occurred under Justinian’s reign. It is curious in that it often praises Justinian, which happened rarely in the Wars and never in Anekdota.  Procopius’ sensibility is not that far removed from the modern one. Kaldellis argues that one of the reasons that Procopius has been so widely cited is because he analyses things using modern-style categories. Thus, while he will often ultimately attribute a policy’s failure to Justinian’s evil, he will analyse its repercussions in terms of social structure, economy and military.  Can we integrate the Secret History with these other works, while at the same time addressing some of the major complaints of the modern historian?
Procopius introduces both The Wars and Secret History by outlining his reasons for writing history. In The Wars he claims he his writing because “the memory of these events he deemed would be a great thing and most helpful to men of the present time, and to future generations as well, in case time should ever again place men under a similar stress.”  One sees here a notion of history as purely educational and future directed. But Procopius was also concerned that a history get the story right. Later, in the same introduction, he claims “while cleverness is appropriate to rhetoric, and inventiveness to poetry, truth alone is appropriate to history.”  In the introduction to the Secret History, Procopius wishes to add to that truth. While he says that his earlier work was chronological and complete, he is writing this time with the goal of “supplementing the previous formal chronicle with a disclosure of what really happened throughout the Roman Empire.”  Procopius says that “It was not possible during the life of certain persons, to write the truth of what they did, as a historian should.”  He claimed it as his duty to tell such secrets, though he feared they were so outrageous that they might be regarded as fiction.  He says he considered not writing it, because he was unsure if people needed to know the negative aspects, but ultimately decided that they too were part of history, so his book “will reveal the folly of Belisarius, then the depravity of Justinian and Theodora.”  Procopius sees history as preserving the lessons and truth of the present for the future. He is less focused on the past, as seen by the fact that he writes mainly on topics that happened during his lifetime.
This emphasis on experience causes Procopius to focuson witness testimony. He sees his presence and the presence of those around him as legitimization of his authority. And overall Boak argues that despite many of his biases, Procopius got many of the facts of court politics right – things happened roughly as they said he did. But the motives he ascribes to people are often more sketchy.  There seems to be no appeal to authority as to why people did what they did. Procopius seems to have made them up. He also overstates things – he complains bitterly about many imperial policies and institutions, blaming Justinian for their malfunction. However, most of this bureaucracy was in place before Justinian took the throne.  He states vaguely that others involved with the court could vouch for his description, though the utility of this is questionable, given the work was left unpublished until after the deaths of everyone involved.  His scandalous description of Theodora’s early life as an actress and prostitute is probably only gossip.  There are two implications of his decision to include it. One is that he simply hated Theodora and would include anything that could possibly disparage her. The second is that the source – common knowledge – was what he relied on for other things, so the standard of evidence is not necessarily that different. Like so much of the Secret History, Procopius’ choice can be taken either as evidence of a great personal enmity or as part of a broader statement about his historical consciousness. In fact, the “or” is misleading; Procopius’ conception of good history as participant history that spared no one allowed him to write with such vitriol and call it his duty as a historian.
Procopius’ history is both very present and future minded. The “past” he discusses was roughly contemporary to him. He emphasises participant history, and draws his legitimacy from the fact he experienced the events he describes, and he fellow participants can support him. But he recorded it for “future generations” so they knew what came before them.  The modern historian is right to be wary of Procopius. He obviously had a biased view of Justinian’s administration and rarely misses an opportunity to grind his axe. Though the Secret History leaves something to be desired in the eyes of the modern historian, who generally prefers the more sedate and careful structure of the Wars, for Procopius both were equally necessary. While an uncharitable reading may see him as a bitter partisan, a more charitable reading sees him as trying to record what he saw as the truth, to give an accurate version to the future.
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