The Secret History

Emperor Justinian

Procopius was a respected historian back in his day. Upright. Sober. The go-to guy if you wanted to know what was up with Emperor Justinian.

So everybody was kind of surprised when, a few centuries later, somebody dug up The Secret History. Procopius hated Justinian. Hated him. Hated hated hated hated hated him. Not as much as he hated Empress Theodora, but still a lot. It wasn’t that Justinian was stupid. It wasn’t that he was corrupt. He managed to be stupid and successfully corrupt at the same time: “never of his own accord speaking the truth to those with whom he conversed, but having a deceitful and crafty intent behind every word and action, and at the same time exposing himself, an easy prey, to those who wished to deceive him.”

The Secret History was where Procopius vented the bile he couldn’t pack into his official histories without getting executed. He starts out… what do they call it these days? “Shrill?” As the pages go by he gets shriller and shriller until he reads like a steam whistle. Look at the chapter titles from the Penguin edition—I think they were added by the translator, but they give you the flavor. They start with “Belisarius and Antonina,” and progress to “Justinian’s Misgovernment,” and then “The Destruction Wrought by a Demon-Emperor,” and by “Everyone and Everything Sacrificed to the Emperor’s Greed” Procopius’s face is bright red and he’s muttering to himself and steam is jetting out of his ears and you’re sort of afraid he’ll pull out a couple of pistols and shoot up the room like Yosemite Sam. (Then you remember he’s been dead for over fourteen centuries. We’re safe!)

I don’t want to oversell The Secret History’s entertainment value. Justinian’s crimes amounted mostly to various kinds of graft; endless descriptions of financial frauds get a bit repetitive. And Procopius is hardly a gonzo prose stylist. He manages a few good turns of phrase (Justinian “was extraordinarily simple-minded and exceedingly like a stupid donkey, inclined to follow the man who pulls the rein, his ears waving steadily the while”) but if you follow the footnotes you’ll discover a lot of his best lines were cribbed from Aristophanes.

The great thing about The Secret History is the thing that makes it useless as history: Procopius was willing to believe pretty much anything about Justinian. He thought Justinian was a demon. The way Procopius figured, mere humans were not capable of wreaking the kind of havoc Justinian and Theodora were into.

For such reasons, to me and to the most of us these two persons never seemed to be human beings, but rather a kind of avenging demons and, as the poets say, “a twin bane of mortals,” seeing that they purposed together how they might be able most easily and most quickly to destroy all races of men and their works, and, assuming human form and becoming man-demons, they harassed in this fashion the whole world. And one might draw such an inference from many indications and particularly from the power their actions revealed. For demons are distinguished from human beings by a marked difference. Indeed, he though many men in the long course of time either by accident or by nature have shewn themselves supremely terrible, some ruining by their own sole effort cities or countries or other such things, yet no man, with the exception of these two, has been able to accomplish the destruction of all mankind and to bring about calamities affecting the whole world; it is true, however, in their case that chance also assisted their purpose, co-operating in the destruction of men, for by earthquakes, by pestilence, and by the overflowing of the waters of rivers very great destruction was wrought at about this time, as will be told by me directly. Thus they performed their fearful acts, not by human strength, but another kind.

Let’s not feel too superior to Procopius. Here and now there are still people who find this kind of thing entirely convincing. Instead, enjoy the crazy stories his theory led him to believe:

And they say that Justinian’s mother—

Incidentally, Procopius never explains who “they” are, that I recall.

And they say that Justinian’s mother stated to some of her intimates that he was not the son of her husband Sabbatius nor of any man. For when she was about to conceive him, a demon visited her; he was invisible but affected her with a certain impression that he was there with her as a man having intercourse with a woman and then disappeared as in a dream.

And some of those who were present with the Emperor, at very late hours of the night presumably, and held conference with him, obviously in the Palace, men whose souls were pure, seemed to see a sort of phantom spirit unfamiliar to them in place of him. For one of these asserted that he would rise suddenly from the imperial throne and walk up and down there (indeed he was never accustomed to remain seated for long), and the head of Justinian would disappear suddenly, but the rest of his body seemed to keep making these same long circuits, while he himself, as if thinking he must have something the matter with his eyesight, stood there for a very long time distressed and perplexed. Later, however, when the head had returned to the body, he thought, to his surprise, that he could fill out that which a moment before had been lacking. And another person said that he stood beside him when he sat and suddenly saw that his face had become like featureless flesh; for neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their proper place, nor did it shew any other means of identification whatsoever; after a time, however, he saw the features of his face return. These things I write although I did not see them myself, but I do so because I have heard the story from those who declare that they saw the occurrences at the time.

The story that interested me most isn’t in The Secret History at all, except as a reference. It was The Whale.

And she lived the greatest part of the year in the suburbs on the seashore, and particularly in the place called Herion, and consequently the large retinue of attendants were grievously afflicted. For they had a scant supply of provisions and they were exposed to the dangers of the sea, particularly when a storm came down, as often happened, or when the whale made a descent somewhere in the neighbourhood.

G. A. Williamson translates this as “if a storm happened to break, or the whale made a sudden attack somewhere in the area.” Procopius mentions this casually, as though whale attacks—and not attacks from whales in general, but from a specific whale that apparently hated everybody—were just one of those things. The tone was explained when I learned that Procopius viewed the Secret History as of a piece with his other books. According to a note, the whale was named “Porphyrion,” and spent about fifty years attacking the shipping around Byzantium. So I went googling for information about Porphyrion and found it maddeningly scarce—apparently Procopius himself dealt with it in Book VII of his History of the Wars, but it seems most scholars who’ve attempted to translate the thing only get up to Book VI before getting bored and wandering off to translate something more racy. I could only find books I-VI online and it’s pretty damn difficult to find book VII even on, so don’t expect fun facts about Porphyrion to turn up here anytime soon.

I did, though, turn up a passage from Moby Dick. Melville, or rather his narrator, says:

In the sixth Christian century lived Procopius, a Christian magistrate of Constantinople, in the days when Justinian was Emperor and Belisarius general. As many know, he wrote the history of his own times, a work every way of uncommon value. By the best authorities, he has always been considered a most trustworthy and unexaggerating historian, except in some one or two particulars, not at all affecting the matter presently to be mentioned.

Now, in this history of his, Procopius mentions that, during the term of his prefecture at Constantinople, a great sea-monster was captured in the neighboring Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, after having destroyed vessels at intervals in those waters for a period of more than fifty years. A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid. Nor is there any reason it should be.

Apparently it’s not universally accepted that this thing was a whale, but Ishmael is here to set us straight:

Of what precise species this sea-monster was, is not mentioned. But as he destroyed ships, as well as for other reasons, he must have been a whale; and I am strongly inclined to think a sperm whale. And I will tell you why. For a long time I fancied that the sperm whale had been always unknown in the Mediterranean and the deep waters connecting with it. Even now I am certain that those seas are not, and perhaps never can be, in the present constitution of things, a place for his habitual gregarious resort. But further investigations have recently proved to me, that in modern times there have been isolated instances of the presence of the sperm whale in the Mediterranean. I am told, on good authority, that on the Barbary coast, a Commodore Davis of the British navy found the skeleton of a sperm whale. Now, as a vessel of war readily passes through the Dardanelles, hence a sperm whale could, by the same route, pass out of the Mediterranean into the Propontis.

In the Propontis, as far as I can learn, none of that peculiar substance called BRIT is to be found, the aliment of the right whale. But I have every reason to believe that the food of the sperm whale—squid or cuttle-fish—lurks at the bottom of that sea, because large creatures, but by no means the largest of that sort, have been found at its surface. If, then, you properly put these statements together, and reason upon them a bit, you will clearly perceive that, according to all human reasoning, Procopius’s sea-monster, that for half a century stove the ships of a Roman Emperor, must in all probability have been a sperm whale.

Ishmael is an authority on whale attacks. I guess I’ll take his word for it.