Procopius of Caesarea (Greek: ? Prokópios ho Kaisareús; Latin: Procopius Caesariensis; c. 500 - c. after 565) was a prominent late antiqueByzantine scholar from Palaestina Prima.[a] Accompanying the Byzantine general Belisarius in Emperor Justinian's wars, Procopius became the principal Byzantine historian of the 6th century, writing the History of the Wars, the Buildings, and the Secret History. He is commonly classified as the last major historian of the ancient Western world.
Apart from his own writings, the main source for Procopius's life was an entry in the Suda, a Byzantine Greek encyclopaedia written sometime after 975, which discusses his early life. He was a native of Caesarea in the province of Palaestina Prima. He would have received a conventional elite education in the Greek classics and rhetoric, perhaps at the famous school at Gaza. He may have attended law school, possibly at Berytus (present-day Beirut) or Constantinople (now Istanbul),[b] and became a lawyer (rhetor). He evidently knew Latin, as was natural for a man with legal training.[c] In 527, the first year of the reign of the emperor JustinianI, he became the legal adviser (adsessor) for Belisarius, a general whom Justinian made his chief military commander in a great attempt to restore control over the lost western provinces of the empire.[d]
As magister militum, Belisarius was an "illustrious man" (Latin: vir illustris; Greek: , illoústrios); being his adsessor, Procopius must therefore have had at least the rank of a "visible man" (vir spectabilis). He thus belonged to the mid-ranking group of the senatorial order (ordo senatorius). However, the Suda, which is usually well informed in such matters, also describes Procopius himself as one of the illustres. Should this information be correct, Procopius would have had a seat in Constantinople's senate, which was restricted to the illustres under Justinian. He also wrote that under Justinian's reign in 560, a major Christian church dedicated the Virgin Mary was built on the site of the Temple Mount.
It is not certain when Procopius died. Many historians--including Howard-Johnson, Cameron, and Greatrex--date his death to 554, but there was an urban prefect of Constantinople (praefectus urbi Constantinopolitanae) called Procopius in 562. In that year, Belisarius was implicated in a conspiracy and was brought before this urban prefect.
In fact, some scholars have argued that Procopius died at least a few years after 565 as he unequivocally states in the beginning of his Secret History that he planned to publish it after the death of Justinian for fear he would be tortured and killed by the emperor (or even by general Belisarius) if the emperor (or the general) learned about what Procopius wrote (his scathing criticism of the emperor, of his wife, of Belisarius, of the general's wife, Antonia: calling the former "demons in human form" and the latter incompetent and treacherous) in this later history. However, most scholars believe that the Secret History was written in 550 and remained unpublished during Procopius' lifetime.
The writings of Procopius are the primary source of information for the rule of the emperor JustinianI. Procopius was the author of a history in eight books on the wars prosecuted by Justinian, a panegyric on the emperor's public works projects throughout the empire, and a book known as the Secret History that claims to report the scandals that Procopius could not include in his officially sanctioned history for fear of angering the emperor, his wife, Belisarius, and the general's wife and had to wait until all of them were dead to avoid retaliation.
History of the Wars
Procopius's Wars or History of the Wars (Greek: ? ? , Hypèr t?n Polémon Lógoi, "Words on the Wars"; Latin: De Bellis, "On the Wars") is his most important work, although less well known than the Secret History. The first seven books seem to have been largely completed by 545 and may have been published as a unit. They were, however, updated to mid-century before publication, with the latest mentioned event occurring in early 551. The eighth and final book brings the history to 553.
Procopius's now famous Anecdota also known as Secret History (Greek: ?, Apókryphe Historía; Latin: Historia Arcana) was discovered centuries later at the Vatican Library in Rome and published in Lyon by Niccolò Alamanni in 1623. Its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as Procopius's "unpublished works" containing "comedy" and "invective" of Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius and Antonina. The Secret History covers roughly the same years as the first seven books of The History of the Wars and appears to have been written after they were published. Current consensus generally dates it to 550, or less commonly, 558.
In the eyes of many scholars, the Secret History reveals an author who had become deeply disillusioned with Emperor Justinian, his wife Theodora, the general Belisarius, and his wife Antonina. The work claims to expose the secret springs of their public actions, as well as the private lives of the emperor and his entourage. Justinian is portrayed as cruel, venal, prodigal, and incompetent. In one passage, it is even claimed that he was possessed by demonic spirits or was himself a demon:
And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place. One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne and walked about, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian's head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. But presently he perceived the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.
Similarly, the Theodora of the Secret History is a garish portrait of vulgarity and insatiable lust juxtaposed with cold-blooded self-interest, shrewishness, and envious and fearful mean-spiritedness. Among the more titillating (and dubious) revelations in the Secret History is Procopius's account of Theodora's thespian accomplishments:
Often, even in the theatre, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.
Furthermore, Secret History portrays Belisarius as a weak man completely emasculated by his wife, Antonina, who is portrayed in very similar terms to Theodora. They are both said to be former actresses and close friends. Procopius claimed Antonina worked as an agent for Theodora against Belisarius, and had an ongoing affair with Belisarius' godson, Theodosius.
On the other hand, it has been argued that Procopius prepared the Secret History as an exaggerated document out of fear that a conspiracy might overthrow Justinian's regime, which--as a kind of court historian--might be reckoned to include him. The unpublished manuscript would then have been a kind of insurance, which could be offered to the new ruler as a way to avoid execution or exile after the coup. If this hypothesis were correct, the Secret History would not be proof that Procopius hated Justinian or Theodora.
The Buildings (Greek: ? , Perì Ktismáton; Latin: De Aedificiis, "On Buildings") is a panegyric on Justinian's public works projects throughout the empire. The first book may date to before the collapse of the first dome of Hagia Sophia in 557, but some scholars think that it is possible that the work postdates the building of the bridge over the Sangarius in the late 550s. Historians consider Buildings to be an incomplete work due to evidence of the surviving version being a draft with two possible redactions.
Buildings was likely written at Justinian's behest, and it is doubtful that its sentiments expressed are sincere. It tells us nothing further about Belisarius, and it takes a sharply different attitude towards Justinian. He is presented as an idealised Christian emperor who built churches for the glory of God and defenses for the safety of his subjects. He is depicted showing particular concern for the water supply, building new aqueducts and restoring those that had fallen into disuse. Theodora, who was dead when this panegyric was written, is mentioned only briefly, but Procopius's praise of her beauty is fulsome.
Due to the panegyrical nature of Procopius's Buildings, historians have discovered several discrepancies between claims made by Procopius and accounts in other primary sources. A prime example is Procopius's starting the reign of Justinian in 518, which was actually the start of the reign of his uncle and predecessor By treating the uncle's reign as part of his nephew's, Procopius was able to credit Justinian with buildings erected or begun under Justin's administration. Such works include renovation of the walls of Edessa after its 525 flood and consecration of several churches in the region. Similarly, Procopius falsely credits Justinian for the extensive refortification of the cities of Tomis and Histria in Scythia Minor. This had actually been carried out under who reigned before Justin.
Procopius belongs to the school of late antique historians who continued the traditions of the Second Sophistic. They wrote in Attic Greek; their models were Herodotus, Polybius and--particularly--Thucydides; and their subject matter was secular history. They avoided vocabulary unknown to Attic Greek and inserted an explanation when they had to use contemporary words. Thus Procopius includes glosses of monks ("the most temperate of Christians") and churches (as equivalent to a "temple" or "shrine"), since monasticism was unknown to the ancient Athenians and their ekklesía had been a popular assembly.
The secular historians eschewed the history of the Christian church; ecclesiastical history was left to a separate genre after Eusebius. However, Cameron has argued convincingly that Procopius's works reflect the tensions between the classical and Christian models of history in 6th-century Constantinople. This is supported by Whitby's analysis of Procopius's depiction of the capital and its cathedral in comparison to contemporary pagan panegyrics. Procopius can be seen as depicting Justinian as essentially God's vicegerent, making the case for buildings being a primarily religious panegyric. Procopius indicates that he planned to write an ecclesiastical history himself and, if he had, he would probably have followed the rules of that genre. As far as known, however, such an ecclesiastical history was never written.
The narrator in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick cites Procopius's description of a captured sea monster as evidence of the narrative's feasibility.
List of selected works
Procopii Caesariensis opera omnia. Edited by J. Haury; revised by G. Wirth. 3 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1962-64. Greek text.
Procopius. Edited by H. B. Dewing. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London, Hutchinson, 1914-40. Greek text and English translation.
Procopius, The Secret History, translated by G. A. Williamson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966. A readable and accessible English translation of the Anecdota. Recently re-issued by Penguin (2007) with an updated and livelier translation by Peter Sarris, who has also provided a new commentary and notes.
Prokopios, The Secret History, translated by Anthony Kaldellis. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2010. This edition includes related texts, an introductory essay, notes, maps, a timeline, a guide to the main sources from the period and a guide to scholarship in English. The translator uses blunt and precise English prose in order to adhere to the style of the original text.
^"Like many Byzantine scholars, Procopius affected a remarkable traditional form of writing".
^For an alternative reading of Procopius as a trained engineer, see Howard-Johnson.
^Procopius uses and translates a number of Latin words in his Wars. Börm suggests a possible acquaintance with Vergil and Sallust.
^Procopius speaks of becoming Belisarius's advisor (symboulos) in that year.
^Before modern times, European and Mediterranean historians, as far as weather is concerned, typically recorded only the extreme or major weather events for a year or a multi-year period, preferring to focus on the human activities of policy makers and warriors instead.
Braund, David: Procopius on the Economy of Lazica, in: The Classical Quarterly 41 (1991), 221-225.
Brodka, Dariusz: Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2004.
Cameron, Averil: Procopius and the Sixth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Cameron, Averil: The scepticism of Procopius, in: Historia 15 (1966), 466-482.
Colvin, Ian: Reporting Battles and Understanding Campaigns in Procopius and Agathias: Classicising Historians' Use of Archived Documents as Sources, in: A. Sarantis (ed.): War and warfare in late antiquity. Current perspectives, Leiden: Brill 2013, 571-598.
Cresci, Lia Raffaella: Procopio al confine tra due tradizioni storiografiche, in: Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 129 (2001), 61-77.
Cristini, Marco: Il seguito ostrogoto di Amalafrida: confutazione di Procopio, Bellum Vandalicum 1.8.12, in: Klio 99 (2017), 278-289.
Croke, Brian and James Crow: Procopius and Dara, in: The Journal of Roman Studies 73 (1983), 143-159.
2007, "Archaeological and Ancient Literary Evidence for a Battle near Dara Gap, Turkey, AD 530: Topography, Texts and Trenches" in BAR -S1717, 2007 The Late Roman Army in the Near East from Diocletian to the Arab Conquest Proceedings of a colloquium held at Potenza, Acerenza and Matera, Italy edited by Ariel S. Lewin and Pietrina Pellegrini, pp. 299-311;
2013, Procopius on the struggle for Dara and Rome, in A. Sarantis, N. Christie (eds.): War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Late Antique Archaeology 8.1-8.2 2010-11), Leiden: Brill 2013, pp. 599-630, ISBN978-90-04-25257-8;
2013 "La defensa de Roma por Belisario" in: Justiniano I el Grande (Desperta Ferro) edited by Alberto Pérez Rubio, no. 18 (July 2013), pages 40-45, ISSN 2171-9276;
2017, "Introduction" and chapter 10, "Procopius, / quaestor, Codex Justinianus, I.27 and Belisarius' strategy in the Mediterranean" in Procopius of Caesarea: Literary and Historical Interpretations above.
Maas, Michael Robert: Strabo and Procopius: Classical Geography for a Christian Empire, in H. Amirav et al. (eds.): From Rome to Constantinople. Studies in Honour of Averil Cameron, Leuven: Peeters, 2007, 67-84.