Procopius of Caesarea (Greek: Prokpios ho Kaisares; Latin: Procopius Caesariensis; c.500 c.after 565) was a prominent late antique Byzantine scholar from Palaestina Prima. 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), and became a lawyer (rhetor). He evidently knew Latin, as was natural for a man with legal training. 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.
Procopius was with Belisarius on the eastern front until the latter was defeated at the Battle of Callinicum in 531 and recalled to Constantinople. Procopius witnessed the Nika riots of January, 532, which Belisarius and his fellow general Mundus repressed with a massacre in the Hippodrome. In 533, he accompanied Belisarius on his victorious expedition against the Vandal kingdom in North Africa, took part in the capture of Carthage, and remained in Africa with Belisarius's successor Solomon the Eunuch when Belisarius returned east to the capital. Procopius recorded a few of the extreme weather events of 535536, although these were presented as a backdrop to Byzantine military activities, such as a mutiny in and around Carthage. He rejoined Belisarius for his campaign against the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and experienced the Gothic siege of Rome that lasted a year and nine days, ending in mid-March 538. He witnessed Belisarius's entry into the Gothic capital, Ravenna, in 540. Both the Wars and the Secret History suggest that his relationship with Belisarius cooled thereafter. When Belisarius was sent back to Italy in 544 to cope with a renewal of the war with the Goths, now led by the able king Totila, Procopius appears to have no longer been on Belisarius's staff.
As magister militum, Belisarius was an "illustrious man" (Latin: vir illustris; Greek: , illostrios); 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 historiansincluding Howard-Johnson, Cameron, and Greatrexdate 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: , Hypr tn Polmon Lgoi, "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.
The first two booksoften known as The Persian War (Latin: De Bello Persico)deal with the conflict between the Romans and Sassanid Persia in Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, Lazica, and Iberia (present-day Georgia). It details the campaigns of the Sassanid shah KavadhI, the 532 'Nika' revolt, the war by Kavadh's successor KhosrauI in 540, his destruction of Antioch and deportation of its inhabitants to Mesopotamia, and the great plague that devastated the empire from 542. The Persian War also covers the early career of Procopius's patron Belisarius in some detail.
The Wars next two booksknown as The Vandal War or Vandalic War (Latin: De Bello Vandalico)cover Belisarius's successful campaign against the Vandal kingdom that had occupied Rome's provinces in northwest Africa for the last century.
The final four booksknown as The Gothic War (Latin: De Bello Gothico)cover the Italian campaigns by Belisarius and others against the Ostrogoths. Procopius includes accounts of the 1st and 2nd sieges of Naples and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd sieges of Rome. He also includes an account of the rise of the Franks (see Arborychoi). The last book describes the eunuch Narses's successful conclusion of the Italian campaign and includes some coverage of campaigns along the empire's eastern borders as well.
The Wars proved influential on later Byzantine historiography.
In the 570s Agathias wrote Histories, a continuation of Procopius's work in a similar style.
Procopius's now famous Anecdota also known as Secret History (Greek: , Apkryphe Histora; Latin: Historia Arcana) was discovered centuries later at the Vatican Library in Rome and published in Lyon by Niccol 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, whichas a kind of court historianmight 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: , Per Ktismton; 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 Justin I. 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 Anastasius I, 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 andparticularlyThucydides; 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 ekklesa 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.
A number of historical novels based on Procopius's works (along with other sources) have been written. Count Belisarius was written by poet and novelist Robert Graves in 1938. Procopius himself appears as a minor character in Felix Dahn's A Struggle for Rome and in L. Sprague de Camp's alternate history novel Lest Darkness Fall. The novel's main character, archaeologist Martin Padway, derives most of his knowledge of historical events from the Secret History.
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, 196264. Greek text.
- Procopius. Edited by H. B. Dewing. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London, Hutchinson, 191440. 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.
- This article is based on an earlier version by James Allan Evans, originally posted at Nupedia.
Texts of Procopius
- Complete Works, Greek text (Migne Patrologia Graeca) with analytical indexes
- The Secret History, English translation (Atwater, 1927) at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook
- The Secret History, English translation (Dewing, 1935) at LacusCurtius
- The Buildings, English translation (Dewing, 1935) at LacusCurtius
- The Buildings, Book IV Greek text with commentaries, index nominum, etc. at Sorin Olteanu's LTDM Project
- Works by Procopius at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Procopius at Internet Archive
- Procopius on LibriVox
- H. B. Dewing's Loeb edition of the works of Procopius: vols. IVI at the Internet Archive (History of the Wars, Secret History)
- Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society (1888): Of the buildings of Justinian by Procopius, (ca 560 A.D)
- Complete Works 1, Greek ed. by K. W. Dindorf, Latin trans. by Claude Maltret in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae Pars II Vol. 1, 1833. (Persian Wars III, Vandal Wars III)
- Complete Works 2, Greek ed. by K. W. Dindorf, Latin trans. by Claude Maltret in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae Pars II Vol. 2, 1833. (Gothic Wars IIV)
- Complete Works 3, Greek ed. by K. W. Dindorf, Latin trans. by Claude Maltret in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae Pars II Vol. 3, 1838. (Secret History, Buildings of Justinian)
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Procopius of Caesarea". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Entry for Procopius from the Suda.