The Secret History by Procopius

I have recently finished reading “The Secret History” by Procopius. He was the personal secretary to Emperor Justinian’s excellent General Belisarius. It was Belisarius who fought and held off the Persians in the East, and then defeated the Vandals in Africa, and the Goths in Italy to bring these provinces back under the control of the Roman Empire for the first time since the fall of the empire in the West in 476 AD. Procopius was with Belisarius on these campaigns and describes these events in detail in his series of books called “The Wars”. These were factual works and praised both Belisarius and Justinian.

The Secret History is, however, an altogether different work. It remained a secret during his lifetime and one can see why. It is quite the opposite of The Wars, castigating the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora in no uncertain terms. He describes Theodora’s sexual and moral corruption, and Justinian’s greed in great detail. This is probably the problem with the book; it can become rather dull. Procopius clearly disliked the pair and blames them for bankrupting individuals and the State by their greed and corruption. He even criticises Belisarius and his wife Antonina at some length; they certainly deserve some. Belisarius, although a great general, fighting often against the odds was a weak man in his personal life, and let his relationship with his wife affect the conduct of at least one campaign.

For those who wish to study the Byzantine Empire it is an essential read. However, the clear lack of balance in the book, and the contrast with his comments in the Wars and his other work praising Justinian’s building programme, called unimaginatively “The Buildings”, brings some doubt into the mind of the reader; what is the truth? He probably also spends too long describing the many ways in which Justinian seeks to seize the property of successful landowners and businessmen for himself and his cronies to make the book a riveting read. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a factual basis for his views (backed up by other contemporary sources), which makes The Secret History a must read for those interested in this period of the Empire.

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About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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