Excerpt from Secret History
Published in Secret History, 1927
"To me, and many others of us, these two seemed not to be human beings, but veritable demons, and what the poets call vampires: who laid their heads together to see how they could most easily and quickly destroy the race and deeds of men."
The writings of the Greek historian Procopius (proh-KOH-pee-us; died c. 565), including History in Eight Books and On Buildings, have certainly inspired much admiration from scholars of the medieval world. Yet these works, respectable as they are, are not nearly as entertaining—nor do they receive as much attention today—as a gossipy, scandalous book called Secret History, which Procopius never intended to publish. Chock-full of tall tales, and so slanted with the writer's own opinions that it barely qualifies as a serious historical work, Secret History is nonetheless more intriguing than the hottest soap opera on television.
In Procopius's time, the Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire, which grew out of the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece, was ruled by the emperor Justinian (483–565; ruled 527–565). Justinian, often considered the greatest Byzantine emperor, set out to reconquer lands that had once belonged to the Western Roman Empire, and in this undertaking he relied on his brilliant general Belisarius (c. 505–565). Procopius, who served as Belisarius's advisor, wrote an account of these wars in his History in Eight Books, which presented Justinian and Belisarius as great leaders. Their portrayal in Secret History, however, was quite different.
Secret History depicts Belisarius as a fool whose wife cheated on him constantly; as for Justinian, Procopius made him out to be a sort of gangster who helped himself to other people's wealth and killed anyone who got in his way. Even worse was Procopius's depiction of Justinian's wife, Theodora (c. 500–548), who he portrayed as a lustful, scheming woman. Chapter titles from Secret History say it all: "How Justinian Killed a Trillion People"; "How Justinian Created a New Law Permitting Him to Marry a Courtesan" (or prostitute—referring to Theodora); and the title of the chapter from which the following excerpt is drawn, "Proving That Justinian and Theodora Were Actually Fiends [demons] in Human Form."
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Secret History
- Procopius intended his Secret History—published centuries after his death—only for close friends who shared his views; had the book seen the light of day during Procopius's lifetime, Justinian would certainly have had its author imprisoned or executed. As it is, the book is damaging to Procopius's enduring reputation as a serious historian, since his observations were motivated not by a quest for truth, but by personal grudges.
- The roots of Procopius's conflict with the emperor and empress lay in a larger struggle between two groups that dominated Byzantine life, the Greens and the Blues, named for the colors of their respective horse-racing teams. The specific political differences between the two groups hardly matter in the context of the Secret History: what matters is that Procopius was a Green, and Theodora supported the Blues. As emperor, Justinian had to appear to be above the Blue-Green conflict, but it is easy to guess that his sympathies lay with his wife.
- Procopius's claim that Justinian and Theodora were actually demons in human form was not as far-fetched—from the perspective of his time and place, that is—as it might seem. To the medieval mind, supernatural forces were as real and ever-present as the Sun and Moon; therefore it would not have seemed at all unbelievable to Procopius's readers, for instance, that Justinian's father was a demon, who left "evidence of his presence perceptibly where man consorts with woman." (In other words, the demon left some sort of physical evidence that he had engaged in sexual intercourse with Justinian's mother.)
- The emperor Justin (ruled 518–27) was Justinian's uncle, under whom Justinian served as an administrator. As for Hecebolus (hek-EB-uh-lus), he was one of Theodora's lovers from her days as an actress. When he became governor of a Byzantine province, Procopius reported in another chapter of the Secret History, Theodora followed him there, but later Hecebolus left her with no money.
Excerpt from Secret History
… [T]o me, and many others of us, these two [Justinian and Theodora] seemed not to be human beings, but veritable demons, and what the poets call vampires: who laid their heads together to see how they could most easily and quickly destroy the race and deeds of men; and assuming human bodies, became man-demons, and so convulsed the world. And one could find evidence of this in many things, but especially in the superhuman power with which they worked their will.
For when one examines closely, there is a clear difference between what is human and what is supernatural. There have been many enough men, during the whole course of history, who by chance or by nature have inspired great fear, ruining cities or countries or whatever else fell into their power; but to destroy all men and bring calamity on the whole inhabited earth remained for these two to accomplish, whom Fate aided in their schemes of corrupting all mankind. For by earthquakes, pestilences, and floods of river waters at this time came further ruin, as I shall presently show. Thus not by human, but by some other kind of power they accomplished their dreadful designs.
And they say his mother said to some of her intimates once that not of Sabbatius her husband, nor of any man was Justinian a son. For when she was about to conceive, there visited a demon, invisible but giving evidence of his presence perceptibly where man consorts with woman, after which he vanished utterly as in a dream.
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.
Another said he stood beside the Emperor as he sat, and of a sudden the face changed into a shapeless mass of flesh, with neither eyebrows nor eyes in their proper places, nor any other distinguishing feature; and after a time the natural appearance of his countenance returned. I write these instances not as one who saw them myself, but heard them from men who were positive they had seen these strange occurrences at the time.
They also say that a certain monk, very dear to God, at the instance of those who dwelt with him in the desert went to Constantinople to beg for mercy to his neighbors who had been outraged beyond endurance. And when he arrived there, he forthwith secured an audience with the Emperor; but just as he was about to enter his apartment, he stopped short as his feet were on the threshold, and suddenly stepped backward. Whereupon the eunuch escorting him, and others who were present, importuned him to go ahead. But he answered not a word; and like a man who has had a stroke stag-gered back to his lodging. And when some followed to ask why he acted thus, they say he distinctly declared he saw the King of the Devils sitting on the throne in the palace, and he did not care to meet or ask any favor of him.
Indeed, how was this man likely to be anything but an evil spirit, who never knew honest satiety of drink or food or sleep, but only tasting at random from the meals that were set before him, roamed the palace at unseemly hours of the night, and was possessed by the quenchless lust of a demon?
Furthermore some of Theodora's lovers, while she was on the stage, say that at night a demon would sometimes descend upon them and drive them from the room, so that it might spend the night with her. And there was a certain dancer named Macedonia, who belonged to the Blue party in Antioch, who came to possess much influence. For she used to write letters to Justinian while Justin was still Emperor, and so made away with whatever notable men in the East she had a grudge against, and had their property confiscated.
This Macedonia, they say, greeted Theodora at the time of her arrival from Egypt and Libya; and when she saw her badly worried and cast down at the ill treatment she had received from Hecebolus and at the loss of her money during this adventure, she tried to encourage Theodora by reminding her of the laws of chance, by which she was likely again to be the leader of a chorus of coins. Then, they say, Theodora used to relate how on that very night a dream came to her, bidding her take no thought of money, for when she should come to Constantinople, she should share the couch of the King of the Devils, and that she should contrive to become his wedded wife and thereafter be the mistress of all the money in the world. And that this is what happened is the opinion of most people.
What happened next …
The Byzantine Empire reached a high point under Justinian, but it began to decline within his lifetime. A plague or disease reached the empire in 541, and did not end until the mid-700s, by which time it had killed millions of people. Aside from everything else, this meant that the empire's tax revenues decreased dramatically, leaving it unable to pay for its armies. A number of neighboring peoples revolted, further weakening Byzantine power.
Procopius mentioned a number of places within the Byzantine Empire: Egypt; the neighboring land of Libya; Antioch (AN-tee-ahk), a city on what is now the border between Syria and Turkey; and the desert beyond. All these lands—along with a great portion of what Justinian had won back from barbarian tribes in Europe—would be lost during the
600s. A new and powerful empire was on the rise, with its roots among the Muslims of Arabia.
The Byzantine Empire seemed doomed, but it managed to hold on, driving back the Arabs who attacked Constantinople in 718. Over the centuries that followed, it won back territories in southeastern Europe, though it never regained the lands it had lost in the Middle East. The empire reached a second high point in 1025, but its defeat by the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 signaled the beginnings of a long decline that would bring the Byzantine Empire to an end in 1453.
Did you know …
- Procopius did not give the Secret History its title. When it was first published in the 900s, it was called Anekdota, meaning unpublished. The present title only appeared in modern times.
- In 1992, novelist Donna Tartt published a best-selling murder mystery about a group of college students majoring in ancient Greek studies. Its title was The Secret History.
For More Information
Chrisp, Peter. The World of the Roman Emperor. New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1999.
Evans, J. A. S. Procopius. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
Nardo, Don. Rulers of Ancient Rome. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Procopius. Secret History. Translated by Richard Atwater. Chicago: P. Covici, 1927.
"Medieval Sourcebook: Procopius of Caesarea: The Secret History." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/procop-anec.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).