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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!)

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