A Short Rundown on Procopius’ Secret History
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
His writing formed the basis of most of the research I conducted to write my Double-Edged Sword Trilogy. (Shameless plug for book one: Empire Resurgent which will be in stores sometime in 2023)
Procopius wrote several large volumes giving exact details of what happened, some believable and some not so much. He is well-known for his, The History of the Wars, detailing Belisarius's campaigns against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths. But he is famous for his Secret History, which was published shortly after his death but lost to history until 1623 A.D. His Secret History is full of intrigue and more inner-circle personal stories about Emperor Justinian, his wife, General Belisarius, and his notoriously scandalous wife, Antonina.
First, Who was Procopius?
Before we dive right into the salacious stories of the past, we need to answer one question: Who is Procopius? He was a Greek born in Caesarea, in the then Roman province of Palestine. What we know of Procopius's life comes from his own writing and from an entry in the Suda, a Byzantine Greek encyclopedia written in the tenth century. We know that he was well-educated and thus likely from an upper-class family. We know that he had legal training, as his first role was legal advisor to Belisarius. From the years 531 to 538, he was the constant companion of General Belisarius while on the campaign and at home in Constantinople. During this period, he kept detailed records of his employer's ventures. By 540 he was no longer part of Belisarius's staff, and historians believe that there must have been a falling out between him and the general around the time that Belisarius entered Ravenna.
His Secret History
Procopius was employed by General Belisarius to keep a record of his campaigns. The book that was produced from this arrangement was The History of the Wars, where Belisarius is depicted in a mostly positive way by Procopius.
But the Secret History is another story. It is believed that he wrote these accounts after his relationship with the general had soured and thus the stories of the general and his wife take on a different tone. From a historian's perspective, it is difficult to discern if the accounts provided in
The Secret History should be trusted, but from the point of view of a historical fiction writer, this book is a gold mine of exciting and unbelievable tales of scandal and woe.
In his introduction, Procopius claims to be revealing the secret motives of these treacherous public figures, and of course, intimate details of the personal lives of all four characters. Some of the stories take on otherworldly descriptions such as:
"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."
While Justinian is portrayed as being an incompetent, demon-possessed, and cruel ruler, his wife, Theodora is described as an unashamed public whore with insatiable lusts. While reading Procopius's Secret History for Empire Resurgent, I came upon a particularly memorable depiction of Theodora that is represented as a historical fact,
"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 so 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." Secret History IX, 20-21
This scene was so strange and unbelievable that I had to include it in my book. Similar scenes are referenced when it comes to descriptions of Antonina. It seems that Procopius did not have a very high opinion of the women around him. Since he claims that hundreds of thousands witnessed performances like these, I doubt he made it up or he would have had no credibility as a historian.
The Not-So Secretly Adulterous Wife
It is from Procopius's Secret History that I first heard of a love triangle that existed between Belisarius, his wife Antonina, and their godson, Theodosius. Procopius accuses Antonina of carrying on a passionate liaison with her godson for years and years, though he only mentions the one particular occasion in the cellar in Carthage, and further accuses Belisarius of being a weak man and obsessed with his wife.
Was It All True?
It is difficult to know if the accounts portrayed in his Secret History are historical or not. Some scholars have suggested that he merely wrote this secret book (having never published it during his lifetime for the purpose of having some leverage if a rival deposed Justinian. He probably feared that publication in his lifetime would shorten it or that rivals might buy his unpublished book to the new ruler. If this was his true motive, we can see that the times were very difficult and unpredictable, especially for a courtier.
Gupta, Kanchan, Rodriguea, Emily, Tikkanen, Amy (2020) "Procopius: Byzantine Historian" Encyclopaedia Britannica Retrieved on Aug. 12, 2022, from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Procopius-Byzantine-historian
The portrait of Procopius was taken from:
Image of Theodora:
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