Historicity in the Secret History of Procopius

Written by on June 26th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Roman, about Procopius Italian

|||Procopius, G.A. Williamson, and Peter Sarris, The Secret History. New York: Penguin Classics. 2007.|||

Mosaic of Justinian In what I have written on the Roman wars up to the present point, the story was arranged in chronological order…What I shall write now follows a different plan, supplementing the previous formal chronicle with a disclosure of what really happened…You see, it was not possible, during the life of certain persons, to write the truth of what they did, as a historian should…That is why I was compelled to hide the real explanation of many matters glossed over in my previous books. These secrets it is now my duty to tell and reveal the remaining hidden matters and motives. Yet when I approach this different task, I find it hard indeed to have to stammer and retract what I have written before about the lives of Justinian and Theodora. Worse yet, it occurs to me that what I am now about to tell will seem neither probable nor plausible to future generations, especially as time flows on and my story becomes ancient history. I fear they may think me a writer of fiction, and even put me among the poets. Proemium1.

Although most of our extant history about the emperor Justinian comes from the writings of Procopius, his final work, the Secret History, presents certain difficulties in the realm of historical scholarship. As the title suggests, it was a work written secretly, as Procopius’ status within the court prohibited its being published during his lifetime. The steamy details about Antonia and Theodora, both of whom he utterly detests, (I.3 ff.), reveal an author who has serious issues with both virtue and vice. Historically, it does not matter whether or not the accounts of adultery (I.7 ff.), murder (I.13, I.62), or financial impropriety (III.78 ff.), are true. I say this because almost all ancient rulers, even Christian ones, committed horrible atrocities in the name of authority. What is important to me is whether or not his overall work constitutes history per se. Unfortunately, his work is replete with unsubstantiated claims and vitriolic statements which make it difficult for us to separate fact from fiction.

Vacillating between lurid innuendo and actual historical events, Procopius subtly moves from both Justinian’s and Theodora’s immorality to their prowess in wars with the barbarians, (II. 38, 46 et ff.), their incessant need to build cities at the expense of their subjects, (II.33), as well as their persecution of those guilty of spreading heresy, (II.47 ff.). These examples, and many others, are offered as proof that Justinian and Theodora are evil. I argue, however, that the contrary is true. It is these very things–expansion of cities, subduing the barbarian tribes, and elimination of heresy, which catapulted Christianity into its necessary elevated position in the declining Roman Empire. Procopius’ inclusions of steamy details throughout the work are meant to catch the attention of the reader, but bring discredit to other important historical considerations in the work. Like other authors, Procopius wanted his account to be read, and so embellishes his story to make it more fantastical. His embellishment, though, makes for a difficult read. Is his account, then, to be treated as historical? Here, I think not. While some of the stories may be true, it reads more like a pulp novel–not really that believable, but a great story nonetheless.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. Introductory quote from: Procopius, and Richard Atwater. Secret History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961.