Procopius

(c. 490/507-c. 560)
   Author of the most important histories of the reign of Justinian and Theodora, Procopius was an eyewitness and participant in the events he describes. Although he was also the author of official histories of Justinian's reign, Procopius is known best for his scandalous and unrelentingly hostile work The Secret History (Anecdota, or Unpublished Things), which portrayed nearly everyone associated with Justinian in a most negative light. Indeed, his invective against Theodora was so harsh, and nearly pornographic, that the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote that "her arts must be veiled in the obscurity of a learned language," and J. B. Bury described the Secret History as an "orgy of hatred." At the same time, Procopius did write very important official histories, including History of the Wars (Polemon, or De bellis) and On Buildings (Peri Ktismaton, or De aedificiis).
   Procopius was probably born around 500, as early as 490 and as late as 507, in Caesarea in ancient Palestine (modern Israel). Little is known of his early life, but he probably received an education according to ancient traditions and was learned in the Greek classics. Indeed, as his later works clearly show, he knew the writings of the great historians Herodotus (c. 484-430/420 b.c.) and Thucydides (460-after 404 b.c.). He later became a rhetor, or attorney, and in 527 joined the staff of the great general Belisarius as a legal advisor. He remained with Belisarius until 540 and joined him on his campaigns against the Persians (527-531), the Vandals (533-534), and the Goths (535-540). He may well have lost the general's favor in 540 and returned to Constantinople after Belisarius captured Ravenna and remained in the imperial capital until his death, although his exact movements are uncertain. He did witness the plague in Constantinople in 542, received the title illustris in 560, and may have been prefect of Constantinople in 562-563. Although much remains uncertain about his movements after 542, and even the date of his death is not definitely known, it was after his return from the Gothic campaign that Procopius began to write. He published his great official histories in the 550s and 560s; the Secret History was published after his death. Although much is uncertain concerning his life, his literary record remains as a significant and lasting achievement.
   Procopius's works provide important accounts of the political and military affairs of the day as well as bitterly personal insights into the major figures of his day. Written in Greek, his works draw on Herodotus, Thucydides, and possibly Arrian (d. 180 a.d.) and reveal his growing disenchantment with Justinian and the members of his court, including Belisarius and, especially, Theodora. His first work, History of the Wars, was published in 551 or 552, with an addition in 554 or 557, and covers the emperor Justinian's wars from the 530s to 554. Divided into eight books, the History addresses the wars with the Persian Empire (Books 1-2); wars against the Vandals (Books 3-4); and the Gothic Wars (Books 5-7). The eighth book surveys all theaters of war from 550 to 554. The accounts focus on military and political affairs and often include speeches from the participants and other digressions from the main narrative. The work also reveals his belief in Christianity and opposition to doctrinal disputes and, more importantly, his growing disenchantment with Justinian. Despite that developing hostility, Procopius did also write a panegyric to Justinian, possibly commissioned by the emperor, on the emperor's building program.
   Published in 560 or 561, although possibly unfinished, On Buildings may have been written several years earlier, possibly before the collapse of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in 558. The work describes in important details Justinian's building program throughout the empire. Procopius discusses the numerous fortifications and churches-including the Hagia Sophia, the greatest of all-and supports the ideology of Byzantine imperialism, stressing that Justinian served and was inspired by God. In stark contrast to the portrayal of the emperor in Buildings, The Secret History offers a vicious and vindictive portrait of Justinian and Theodora and others. It purports to offer the "true" reasons for the actions of the emperor and empress, who were motivated by greed and a desire for evildoing, and describes them both as demons, a term he meant literally and not as a figure of speech. The Secret History does offer some substantial criticisms of Justinian's policies, but it is best known for its purple prose and scurrilous attacks on the empire's leaders. Although written as early as 550, The Secret History was not published until after Procopius's death and was lost for centuries, being discovered in the Vatican Library and published in 1632.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora, rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ Cameron, Averil. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, a.d. 395-600. New York: Routledge, 1993.
 ♦ ---. Procopius and the Sixth Century. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
 ♦ Evans, James A. S., Procopius. New York: Twayne, 1972.
 ♦ Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Modern Library, 1983.
 ♦ Procopius. The History of the Wars; Secret History, 4 vols. Trans. H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914-1924.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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