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The Secret History of Procopius - Introduction

The Secret History of Procopius - Introduction

Cantante:  Richard Atwater


LIKE most notables of the Roman Empire in Byzantine times, the historian Procopius was not a Latin. He was born in Caesarea in Palestine about 500 A. D., and apparently was one of those Samaritans whom he mentions in the 'Secret History' as adopting Christianity for formal protection and not at all for spiritual reasons. Certainly his frequent allusions to the religion of his period, if they do not, in the words of Edward Gibbon, "betray occasional conformity, with a secret attachment to Paganism and Philosophy," at least show the detached mind of a critic to whom the hierarchy is not exactly infallible. If our historian shows at times a Grecian simplicity and an unorthodox distaste for the killing of heretics, it must be remembered that before he became a Roman he had been a Rhetorician, which profession
required a long and thorough acquaintance with that seductive siren, Hellenic literature. And one who once dallies with the language of Aeschylus and Sappho is only too likely thereafter to disdain any country other than Arcady. If the young Procopius, journeying to Constantinople in his middle twenties, anticipated himself a second Lysias in another Athens, he was likely to be disappointed. Here, washed by the waters across which Leander had plunged to Hero, and in sight of the Crashing Rocks between which the Argonauts had once venturously sailed, was a colorful but mad city of pomp and confusion, intrigue and cruelty.

For a while, of course, the excitement of living in the kaleidoscopic capital of the world, after the rustic quiet of Samaria and the imagined tranquillity of Theocritus, would stimulate the young stranger to seek a worldly success. The rhetorician's trade included giving lessons in elocution and acting as advocate in law cases. Apparently Procopius's skill at either was eminent; for in 527 he had become renowned enough to be appointed secretary and aide to the great general Belisarius, and as such accompanied him on the campaign against the Persians.

In this new role too he seems to have distinguished himself, and we hear of his being entrusted with various special and important commissions. He continued to serve under Belisarius in the Vandal campaign in 533, and against the Ostrogoths in Italy in 535. After the capture of Ravenna in 540 he returned to Constantinople to write, or complete, his valued 'Military Histories.' This weighty work included two books on the Roman wars with the Persians (408-553), two on the Vandal wars in Africa (395-545), and four on the Gothic wars, of which the fourth volume is a general supplement bringing the narrative down to 559.

The 'Military Histories' are of high merit, and have been acclaimed as "conspicuously brilliant as compared to the low literary level of his age," not unworthy of the language of Thucydides and Herodotus, in spite of the fact that his medium was necessarily the 'koine,' an Attic tainted by Roman and Asiatic influences, with certain stereotyped redundancies of phrase: to classic Greek what modern newspaper English is to Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, while Procopius had been fairly careful in the 'Military Histories' to write as much of the truth about the campaigns he had seen as could diplomatically be told under a jealous Emperor, he had therein praised the real greatness of Belisarius more highly than Justinian thought his subject required. The Emperor, in short, was highly displeased with the 'Military Histories.'

To restore himself in the imperial favor, to say nothing of saving his head, Procopius immediately set to work on a description of the 'Edifices' erected throughout the Empire by a tyrant who prided himself on his talent for architecture. By filling this work with almost slavish flattery, the desired object was attained. The Emperor was delighted, and Procopius was made a Senator. The purple border on the historian's toga, however, did not appease his critical conscience. It had been bad enough to smooth over certain incidents in the 'Military Histories;' but the false praise of Justinian in the 'Edifices,' however diplomatically necessary it had been, shamed the honest pagan soul of the writer.

He determined, for once, to write the whole truth about this fickle autocrat, his inhuman Empress, and their degenerate court. What he wrote could not, obviously, be published during Justinian's lifetime, or even, perhaps, his own; but the 'Secret History' would at least be revealed to posterity, so that future generations who read of Justinian's greatness in other books of Procopius should also learn in this of his cruelties, his deceptions, and all his genial deviltries.

The 'Secret History' (sometimes referred to as the 'Anecdotes,' though this is a transliteration and not a translation of the Greek name 'Anekdota') was completed in 559, a date determinable by the writer's mention of Justinian, in the latter part of the book, as having reigned for 32 years. Justinian ruled for 38 years (527-565). And it is quite certain the 'Secret History' remained secret, for in 562 the Emperor appointed Procopius Prefect of Constantinople. Three years later Justinian died. Whether Procopius outlived him is unknown.

But his 'Military Histories,' 'Edifices,' and 'Secret History' are all happily extant, the great sources of our knowledge of his time.

The historian's is an interesting, but hardly an easy task. If he writes what people wish to believe, he must frequently violate his conscience; if he writes the full truth, a storm of indignation may overwhelm him. Few chroniclers have solved the difficulty as Procopius did, by describing both sides of a question in different volumes.

Yet he hesitated in approaching the 'Secret History,' for fear later generations might find some of the things he had to say, incredible. "I fear," he admits, "they may think me a writer of fiction, and even put me among the poets." He need not have worried over this possible fate. Few indeed are the moderns to whom Procopius is recognizable as a proper name; and how many of even these could guess whether a Procopius was a tumor or a tuber?

He is not read in university Greek classrooms, because he is a late Roman writer; Latin seminars leave him unstudied, because he wrote in Greek. There is not a schoolbook of Roman history, of course, that is not indebted to Procopius for its pages on the time of Justinian; but the debt is not necessarily acknowledged. Gibbon, who read him with delight in the Greek, indeed quotes liberally and enthusiastically from the 'Secret' and 'Military Histories' in his 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' ("Happy would be my lot, could I always tread in the footsteps of such a guide"); but even Gibbon is now unread by the multitude—Gibbon, who devoted a lifetime to penning that most amazingly brilliant narrative of the fall of an Empire, while his colonial contemporary Washington was building a new one. Where is the Plutarch to write the parallel lives of these two historians?

We may only for the moment speculate upon the gallant picture of General Washington, thoughtfully pacing the shows of Valley Forge while he considers the problem of avoiding foreign entanglements, while, across the seas, the more portly Mr. Gibbon, consuming the pages of Procopius with one hand and a sixth glass of Madeira with the other, meditates on the clear, if uncontemporary, figure of the Empress Theodora, "whose strange elevation cannot be applauded as the triumph of female virtue;" or, after his ninth glass, plans a nice sentence on the late ladies of the Byzantine period and their novel habit of wearing silken dresses, which present to the imaginative historian a vision of "naked draperies and transparent matrons."

Mr. Gibbon, by the way, would doubtless have snorted with amazement could even his clever mind have forseen the possibility that a later editor of his 'Decline and Fall,'—a gentleman named the Reverend Milman—was, a century or so later, to shake his prudent head and footnote that "here Gibbon must have made a mistake, intending to write 'transparent draperies and naked matrons,' as Gibbon is often affected but
never inaccurate"! It was this same Reverend Milman, incidentally, who declared Procopius's 'Secret History' the worst book in all literature: a summary which may quietly be disregarded, since the certainly orthodox authorities at Rome thought the manuscript worth preserving all these centuries in the Vatican Library as part of the great human record.

Here, then, is an important document covering the greater part of the sixth century of Our Lord and the pious reign of their Imperial Majesties Justinian and Theodora, by the grace of God Rulers of the Holy Roman Empire of the East and of the West, and Defenders of the True Faith . . . Mentioned by the lexicographer Suidas circa 1100, the loss of this valuable work to modern readers was lamented by Baronius in 1548, though the manuscript was then in his custody in the Vatican. A later and more diligent librarian one day discovered the 'Secret History,' and it was published for the first time in print in 1623, the first English translation appearing in 1674.

Not till 1896, however, if we may believe its title page, was a "literal and complete" English translation made: this was privately printed in Athens in an edition of 255 copies, a rare monument of Victorian scholarship and deplorable style, whose obscurities of construction are not alleviated by the harsh bluntness of its vocabulary. English may be made as subtle a tongue as French or Greek, but it slips only too easily into brutality. Lately, however, one James Branch Cabell has lighted the way to an English made safe for the daintiest of readers; and perhaps it is now possible for the present translator, in the most intimate of Procopius's anecdotes, to convey faithfully the original candor of the sunlit Greek with no more added nuance of veiling than, perhaps, a silken and delicately perfumed metaphor.

Lest the occasional reader be slightly puzzled that a Latin historian should have written in Greek, it may be worth recalling that the capital of the Roman Empire had been removed, since the time of Constantine, from Italy to Byzantium; which city, already Hellenic for centuries, continued to preserve its Grecian character under the new name of Constantinople. That the conquered Greeks had the habit of insidiously enslaving their Roman masters is a familiar statement; the Greco-Roman Empire of the East soon became more Greek than Roman. By the time Justinian came to power, Rome itself, with all the rest of Italy was in the hands of the Goths; who, when they spoke of the Byzantine Romans, alluded to them as Greeks: intending, it must be admitted, a contemptuous reproach.

Justinian, indeed, or rather his brilliant general Belisarius, regained the lost mother country and the Libyan provinces, and for a time it must have seemed the full grandeur of the early Empire had been regained. But it was the last flare of a dying candle. A Fonteius had once prophesied that the Roman Empire would fall when it abandoned the Roman language. And Lydus, a pretorian prefect under Justinian, complains in his 'De Magistratibus' against the ominous change of language in official documents of his time from Latin to Greek.

Still, if only for a time, Justinian had once more made the Mediterranean "Mare Nostrum," encircled by a Roman Empire superficially equal to that the first and greatest Augustus had left, five centuries before; and governed by the principle of "one state, one church, one law." The state was Justinian; the church, orthodox Catholic; the law, the newly collated and unified Justinian Code, of immense and lasting importance. (Its definitions were law in Bavaria, for example, as late as 1900.)

How vigorously, even cruelly, this unity was enforced will be seen in the 'Secret History;' and how bitterly the re-conquests of Italy, Africa and southern Spain were paid for by the oppressed subjects of an ambitious Emperor: and all for nothing, since Justinian's successors immediately abandoned all control of the Western provinces. Only one physical memorial built by Justinian still stands, the Church of St. Sophia. From its minarets in Constantinople the faithful are yet called to prayer. Only, to make the irony complete, it is the Allah of Mohammed whom the faithful have worshipped in this church of Rome, since the year of Christ 1453.

Of the final fall of the Empire there were, as we have seen, omens enough in Justinian's time. But decadence is notably colorful, and the autumn sunset of Rome was no exception to the rule. Procopius's Constantinople is as gaudily cinematographic as one might expect when one recalls that the moving picture palaces of today boast of their Byzantine architecture. Here are the nimble Greeks of old Byzantium; sailors from the Pillars of Hercules jostling elbows with Christianized Jews; visiting Persian ambassadors or spies; Vandal, Visigoth, Ostrogoth, and all the barbarian tribal emissaries, staring about contemptuously at the sights of an effete metropolis; here marches a company of the ever-present Pretorian Guard, while the also ever-present crowds of gaily dressed courtesans giggle and whisper as the soldiers march past.

Here, possibly, strides even a Roman (though more likely he bears some such name as Demosthenes) conspicuous in his old-fashioned bordered toga as he goes to the Senate—to vote as the Emperor commands.

Here are the partisans of the Hippodrome teams, wearing their rival Blue or Green colors, and a sharp dagger too, for Blues and Greens seldom meet without blood being spilled in the open street. Here waddle obese eunuchs, with fat noses held high in curious pride: but their frown may mean confiscation of your estates, their scowl your death by the torture rack. Here is the Forum, where you may buy anything from love to a Senate decision. A common girl costs a copper coin; a judge's favor, of course, requires gold. A girl who can play the harp or the flute is somewhat expensive, though less so, of course, than one of the ladies of the court of Theodora. The august Empress herself is, to be sure, a penitent and chaste wife to Justinian, though they say that in the old days—but one does not even whisper of those days, for her spies are everywhere . . . Even a Procopius does not gossip about Theodora's early days, and nights, within his own household.

There had been another Procopius who had dared, not only to criticize an Emperor, but to seize the very throne of Constantinople
and hold it, for a time, against the timorous Valens, claiming his dying cousin Julian had willed the purple to him, as the Apostate, and Paganism with him, died. And presently that other Procopius was beheaded.

So a second Procopius, who has had enough of wars and Emperors, neither gossips of Theodora in the presence of his family nor claims any kinship to a well-punished usurper, let alone to a Julian who acknowledged the fashionable Galilean only with his dying, and that ironic, breath. No, our Procopius does not whisper these things, except in the safer fashion of King Midas's barber, who confided to the reticent ground the secret of his master's inordinately long ears . . .

If Justinian is an ass, the fact is inscribed carefully in a well-guarded notebook; and other dangerous anecdotes, as they occur to the critic, are similarly jotted down now and then, as Procopius is able to steal an occasional hour alone. When he has written the whole story, he hides the manuscript somewhere against the day when Justinian dies. Then, perhaps, he may publish this 'Secret History;' reading it, for the first safe time aloud, to the book publisher's copying slaves, revising his sentences as he dictates: for in the first careless draft there must be some few repetitions of phrase or even of subject matter, requiring due correction by the celebrated author of the 'Military Histories,' a Senator and a Rhetorician, well schooled in the tradition of the old Athenian masters.

Only it seems that Justinian did not, like the cancerous Theodora, die quite soon enough. Or else the author was inspired to foresee that critics of a later era would prefer the 'Secret History' unrevised, as being the more interesting and forceful for being penned in a white heat of furious earnestness. True, fury is less generally desirable than cool impartiality in a historian, and a chronicler does not, usually, report that in his judgment the Emperor and Empress of his age were devils in human form, with supernatural powers causing earthquakes and pestilences. But one should remember that devils were very much believed in at this Christian time; and if earlier Emperors of Rome had claimed due worship as gods, certainly even the most honest of historians might conceivably give his sovereigns full spiritual credit, so long as they did not hear about it.

Thus, as you will find, full credit is what he gave them, and (if the appreciative word of a till now unoffending translator be permitted) Procopiously.

In the following text, the chapter divisions are those of the manuscript; the chapter titles, however, are an added whim of the romantic editor, as are the occasional notes in the helpful glossary. And with no more to-do than this slight overture explaining the play for those who like to come early and read the program, he turns to make his formal bow and express a hope that the audience will find as much instruction and entertainment in the production, which starts immediately, as he has found in its rehearsal. Here is a narrative with the fascination of the elder Dumas; but it is more than a collection of anecdotes of intrigue: it is history, in which the purple past of Rome lives again in spirited pictures, thrown, if you care for a further metaphor, upon the screen of the present. For the modern reader, though he will find here many things that are, indeed, all too familiar in present society, may still sigh with relief that such thorough and unmitigated tyrants as the affable Justinian and the prankish Theodora are no longer permitted to pillage their subjects with an utterly unchecked hand. And so the curtain rises. "Once upon a time, fourteen hundred years ago— —"

Richard Atwater

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20 11 2019

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