215. The Secret History, by Procopius (550-560 AD)

Plot : The conditions of 6th century Byzantium and the imminent collapse of all things Roman are driven home to the actions and inactions of the Emperor Justinian, in a treatise full of stories of overwhelming greed and imperial sabotage to the point of disbelief.

My copy was the Penguin black classic translated by G. A. Williamson (ISBN 0140441824)

Thoughts : The fascination this small volume holds is in the sheer venom and overwhelming horror that Procopius lays at the door of the Emperor Justinian, who he claims was quite literally a demon in human form, with stories of his head melting and reforming or disappearing and reappearing, deliberately destroying the entire Roman Empire and all adjoining peoples, allies and enemies alike, through war, plague and disasters. Every method imaginable to rob anyone of their property and money to swell the Emperor’s coffers was used, yet this money was used to pay off neighbouring tribes, which only encouraged more to come seeking bribes. Procopius tallies the total deaths Justinian was responsible as a million million.

This is the same Justinian recognised as a saint by the Church, and still a byword for law reform today.

His wife Theodora is pictured as equally rapacious and cruel, for whom no lewd act was too base to not be embraced immediately and wholeheartedly in public or private. From a young age, she was enthusiastic in taking on all lovers, sometimes dozens at a time on stage or other public places. The numerous resulting pregnancies were all aborted.

Procopius lays all these claims on as heavily as possible, yet had himself worked for the Emperor’s general Belisarius (who he paints as a capable military man completely under the control of his witchy wife) and wrote praising works on the history of Justinian’s reign and the architectural wonders he commissioned both before and after writing The Secret History. Was there any truth in Procopius’ claims or was this an over-the-top rant which was never intended to see the light of day?

Personal rating:  Interesting but only 4/10

Also in the years 500 to 550 AD:

  • Persia at war with Byzantine Empire, 503-505, again from 524-531
  • Franks defeat Visigoths and take French lands 507
  • St Columba encouages monasticism in Ireland 533
  • Belisarius, Justinian’s chief general, wins back North Africa, Sicily and Italy 533-540, but Ostrogoths reclaim Italy 541-543
  • Bubonic plague throughout Europe 542-546
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