Byzantine Anecdotes

Procopius, The Secret History, Penguin, 1966.

Like Suetonius, but even more so, Procopius’s Secret History gives us the National Enquirer version of history. The book (Historia Arcana in Latin) might just as well be called Anecdotes , from its actual Greek name Anekdota (′Aνέκδοτα). “Anekdota” originally just meant “Unpublished Writings”, a name chosen by an editor, but Procopius’s gossipy, scurrilous book eventually gave that word its new meaning. The book describes in lurid detail the 527-565 AD reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, giving special emphasis to the lewdness and cruelty of his wife and co-Emperor Theodora and her best friend and henchwoman Antonina.

There are plenty of anecdotes. A holy man is terrified by the demon-spawn Emperor. The emperor’s demon nature reveals itself to witnesses. Trained geese peck grains of wheat from the naked Empress-to-be’s aidoiôn (look it up). The Empress-to-be, a stripper and courtesan, goes to a party and pulls a train with all the guests (regretting, however, that she had only three usable holes). Street gangs dressed as Huns (early counterculturists) terrorize the streets under the Emperor’s protection. Hoodlums and con men are picked up on the street and promoted to powerful positions. The lovely daughters of the nobility are forced into marriages with low-class oafs. Inconvenient persons are chopped into pieces and thrown into the sea. Two of the most powerful men in the world show themselves to be henpecked. The tall, splendid, very attractive Gothic princess Amalsuentha (with her “extraordinarily masculine bearing”) is strangled in her bath.

Mostly it isn’t that juicy, just a long string of murders and frameups and expropriations and illegal exactions and bribes and betrayals and slanders and mutilations and tortures and disappearances. Procopius combined hyperbole and innumeracy to claim that Justinian killed a trillion people, depopulated the empire, and bankrupted the  treasury.

A devout Christian of sorts, Justinian persecuted and dispossessed heretics, Jews, Samaritans, astrologers, pagans, prostitutes and homosexuals. For this he is revered as a saint by the Orthodox churches and by Missouri Synod Lutherans. He seems to have been manic — he seldom slept, walked around the palace at all hours of the day and night, and ate very little and mostly on the run. He was surprisingly amiable and informal in some circumstances, but demanded self-abasement in others. He ordered executions and murders without a second thought, but was pleasant toward his victims until the very end.

Procopius’s story doesn’t fit with what we know from other sources (including Procopius’s other nine books about the era). Elsewhere Justinian the Great appears as an effective ruler who codified Roman law, expanded the empire, improved Constantinople with public works and public buildings, and left the empire in generally good fiscal condition (granted that he had spent the large surplus he had inherited).

How do we reconcile all this? The discrepancy between Procopius’s first eight books and the last can be easily explained as the revenge of an aggrieved minister. Justinian ruled despotically, and the underlings of despots normally hate and despise their masters, but never say so out loud until after they have killed them and usurped the throne (a very frequent occurrence). Procopius’s first laudatory books were written in an official capacity for the Emperor himself, whereas the final book was written in secret out of spite. Probably Justinian’s cruelty  had cut too close to Procopius or someone near him, thus turning him against the Emperor forever.

Innumeracy and hyperbole aside, however, some of the things Procopius said could not have been true, or the Empire would have collapsed entirely. His claim that Justinian had depopulated the empire and bankrupted everyone in it was just a wild accusation. Probably Justinian was as cruel as Procopius said, but more cunning,  more purposeful, and more effective. What Procopius describes is the habitual behavior of very effective despots — using confiscations and heavy taxes to centralize all wealth in the hands of the state, destroying the aristocracy and anyone capable of resistance, never trusting anyone, elevating no-name thugs to positions of power, and playing the lackeys off against one another until it’s time for them to be eliminated. Procopius saw these things up close and personal, and many of those destroyed were people he knew, but what he says about the big picture is delusional.

Everyone is aware of the horrors of disorder — civil war, murder, looting, and so on. But that’s not what we see here. The Byzantine Empire was an efficient,  well-oiled machine.  All of the functionaries did what they were supposed to do, and there was little or no resistance. Procopius was describing the horrors of order.


Books I Should Really Take a Look at

Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, University of California Press, 1985.

James A. S. Evans,   Procopius,  Twayne Publishers, 1972.

Michael Maas, (ed.),  The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, Cambridge, 2005.

Saint Justinian

Every November 14 Justinian is commemorated as a saint by the Orthodox churches and by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. His demon nature and his wife’s  aidoiôn are not mentioned in the hagiography:

Justinian, Christian Ruler & Confessor of Christ Emperor of the East from A.D. 527 to 465 when the Roman Empire was in decline. With his beautiful and capable wife, Theodora, he restored splendor and majesty to the Byzantine court. During his reign the Empire experienced a renaissance, due in large part to his ambition, intelligence, and strong religious convictions. Justinian also attempted to bring unity to a divided church. He was a champion of orthodox Christianity and sought agreement among the parties in the Christological controversies of the day who were disputing the relation between the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ. The Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in A.D. 533 was held during his reign and addressed this dispute. Justinian died in his eighties, not accomplishing his desire for an empire that was firmly Christian and orthodox.


One of Justinian’s lackeys was a Samaritan turned Christian from Scythopolis in Palestine. The Scythians lived in the Ukraine and this name seems out of place in Palestine, so I looked it up. One theory is that the town was named after a settlement of retired Scythian soldiers from the army of the Ptolemies. A less likely theory is that it was named after the Scythians who invaded Palestine in the sixth century BC.

The town, now in northeastern Israel and called Beit She’an, first appears in the historical record in the 15th century B.C. It is strategically located and  has changed hands many times; at present it is inhabited by Jewish Israelis. (Thermopylae was another ancient military post which was still manned in Justinian’s time and was mentioned in the Secret History.)


The Lutheran Saint Justinian


Beit She’an

Translation of The Secret History

Anekdota definition

Procopius and Justinian’s Financial Policies, C. D. Gordon, Phoenix, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1959), pp. 23-30.

Lengthy controversy about Justinian’s nationality (Greek or Albanian?) and whether the Albanians were descended from the Illyrians.

Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 4:32 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Procopius’ Anekdota is my favorite work of history. Or “history”, whatever. It barely comes in first over Josephus’ The Jewish War, although Josephus has better individual anecdotes and is more inspiring in a see-how-my-ancestors-were-survivors kind of sense.

    A couple of notes. The bit about Justinian killing a trillion people is often brought up as innumeracy. But doesn’t the original say something like “a myriad myriad of myriads”? It’s more obvious with the original phrasing that it’s emphasis, not a body count.

    Also, I seem to remember that Procopius’ best moment of revenge was Gibbon. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire seems to have taken Procopius as its primary source text for the time, and so Procopius was both widely known and got to be taken seriously for a while. I remember one of Gibbon’s footnotes describing the three-orifice thing as something like “she regretted that she only had three altars on which to spill offerings to Venus.”

  2. The idea must be that primitive peoples are allowed to be poetic with numbers, but not Greeks. Body counts and troop estimates for wars always seem to be exaggerated too. Procopius’s tone is pretty factual and not very flowery, though.

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