Penguin Classics has published an English translation of the text we know as "The Secret History" written by Procopius - a Roman historian who wrote in Greek - ca. AD 550. The first version of the translation by G. A. Williamson was published in 1966 and re-printed several times. The second version (which is under review here) was published in 2007. Peter Sarris has revised Williamson's translation from the 1960s. In addition, he has written a new introduction to the text. At the end of the book there is a useful reference section where we find the following:
* Further reading
* Index of places
* Index of persons
* Index of subjects
Here is some background information about the first translator G. A. Williamson, the second translator Peter Sarris, and the author Procopius:
G. A. Williamson (1895-1982) was Senior Classics Master at Norwich School from 1922 to 1960. He also translated "The Jewish War" by Titus Flavius Josephus and "The History of the Church" by Eusebius for the Penguin Classics.
Peter Sarris was born in 1971 and educated at St. Albans School and Balliol College, Oxford. He is now University Lecturer in Medieval History and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Procopius was born at Caesarea, on the coast of Palestine, ca. AD 500. In 527 he was appointed private secretary and legal advisor to the famous military commander Belisarius, whom he accompanied on his first three campaigns, in Persia, Africa, and Italy. In 542 he was in Constantinople where he witnessed the terrible plague which visited that city. We do not know when he died. He may have outlived Justinian, who was emperor 527-565.
From Procopius three works have been preserved until our time: "The History of the Wars," 8 books, written between 545 and 554; "The Buildings," written ca. 562-563; and "The Secret History," written ca. 550 (but probably published posthumously).
Let us now turn to "The Secret History." The text is 124 pages long. By tradition, it is divided into 30 chapters, so the average chapter is about four pages long. Peter Sarris has divided the text into three parts. Here are the headlines:
PART I: The Tyranny of Women (chapters 1-5)
PART II: Justinian and Theodora (chapters 6-18)
PART III: Anatomy of a Regime (chapters 19-30)
This account is a long line of accusations against Justinian and his wife Theodora and against Belisarius and his wife Antonina, who are all accused of killing many Romans and stealing their assets - not once or twice, but continuously and systematically.
[In the index Belisarius' wife is incorrectly listed as "Antonia."]
One important element of the text is exaggeration. On page 73 we are told that "Libya, for instance, in spite of its enormous size, has been laid so utterly waste that however far one went it would be a difficult and remarkable achievement to find a single person there."
On the next page we are told that "Italy, which is at least three times as large as Libya, has been far more completely depopulated than the latter..."
If Libya is so depopulated that it is difficult to find a single person there, how can Italy be even more depopulated?
I assume the author makes these exaggerations in order to support his argument, but in my opinion it has the opposite effect: it undermines his credibility.
Some claims are clearly false. Here are three examples:
# 1: On pages 33-34 he claims that all portraits and statues of Vespasian's son Domitian (who was emperor 81-96) were destroyed after his death - except for a single bronze statue.
Several portraits of Domitian survive until today.
# 2: On page 46 he claims that "the Romans [at the beginning of Justinian's reign] were at peace with all mankind..."
The Roman Empire was never at peace with all mankind.
# 3: On page 47 he mentions some of the Christian denominations which existed at the time of Justinian and claims that some of them were very rich, because they had never before been persecuted.
Several Roman emperors persecuted the Christians. Even Constantine, who recognised Christianity in a famous decree of 313, persecuted the Christian groups he considered heretics.
[I am surprised to see that these obvious falsehoods are not pointed out by Peter Sarris.]
One explanation offered for the large number of crimes is patently absurd: the author claims that Justinian and Theodora are not human beings, "but rather a pair of blood-thirsty demons of some sort."
The demon theme begins on page 51 and takes up the following two pages. It seems to be important. He cannot let it go. It appears again on pages 73 and 91.
Having reported stories about Justinian's head leaving his body or changing shape, the author does add the following words of caution:
"I did not myself witness the events that I am describing, but I heard about them from men who insist they saw them at the time."
If "The Secret History" was written by a modern scholar, we would have to dismiss it completely, because it does not live up to the rules of modern scholarship. However, this is an ancient text; this is an eye witness report from the time of Justinian, written by an author who met and knew many of the persons described here.
This does not mean we have to believe everything he says, but it does mean that this is a valuable document. It is interesting because it shows what a member of the elite was thinking; perhaps what some members of the elite were talking about with their most intimate and trusted friends.
The exaggerations do not sit well with a modern reader, and the obvious falsehoods are unfortunate. But in spite of these reservations I think that this is an important text which is still relevant and still worth reading today.