The Secret History – Procopius

Procopius was born around 500AD and died sometime after 565AD, a period during which the Roman empire was in serious decline. For many years he worked for the celebrated military commander General Belisarius during which time he wrote the work he became known for in the time of the empire ‘History of the Wars’. This series of eight books is a standard document of the campaigns of Belisarius who seemed to be leading his armies, and even the navy at some point, everywhere. It is clear from the level of detail that Procopius was on the scene for most of the battles he describes even though his official role, at least initially, was as legal advisor to the general. Less well known is his work ‘The Buildings’ which is largely a hagiography of Emperor Justinian (527AD to 565AD) as it describes the major construction works undertaken during his reign and exclaims the greatness of Justinian due to these churches and other civil engineering projects. His third work however is the one that I have read this week and it is very different to the rest, not least because it wasn’t available during his lifetime and indeed was only discovered in the Vatican library centuries after his death and finally published in 1623. So why wasn’t it available in the preceding thousand years, well Procopius gives us the explanation in his foreword.

This book is basically a scandal sheet denigrating Justinian as a genocidal leader interested only in the money he could confiscate or swindle out of everyone else and slaughtering tens of thousands of people on a whim whilst losing vast chunks of what was left of the empire. His wife is portrayed as a scheming whore, free with her body from an outrageously young age, stripping off in public places and letting anyone have their way with her as they wished. His former boss Belisarius and his wife are similarly pilloried by Procopius as is the previous emperor Justin who is described as an idiot and little more than a jackass. It is quite clear why he decided not to publish in his lifetime or indeed whilst anyone mentioned in the book was still alive, the repercussions would have been swift and brutal.

One slightly irritating feature of the book is the constant references back to Procopius’s eight volume history, this is usually where he is giving a scandalous reason for something that he had previously written about but which he had glossed over the causes of in the earlier book. This becomes more annoying if, like me, you don’t own ‘History of the Wars’ so can’t refer back, the notes in this edition simply tell you which of the eight volumes the story was first told, it would have been nice if a short precis was available so that the reader can compare the two accounts but that would have made the book probably over long. All in all I quite enjoyed this book though, it is unusual by being a character assassination of a couple of Roman emperors written at the time of their reigns, the only work I can think of that I have read with a similarly blunt although not as brutal or scandalous assessment of the emperors is ‘The Twelve Caesars’ by Suetonius although all the rulers he wrote about were dead before he started work on that.

As can be seen from the foreword the writing style is fairly chatty, although the subject matter with it’s never ending tales of depravity can get a little wearing at times. The translator of this Folio Society edition is Geoffrey Williamson and it was originally published as a Penguin Classic (L182, first published August 1966). The Folio Society first printed it in 1990 and it has gone through several editions since then.

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