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3.0 out of 5 stars Warning: Byzantine, 26 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: Of the Buildings of Justinian (Paperback)
Justinian's Buildings was once read as a tourist or archaeological guide to the Near East and to Constantinople, but it is both much more and much less than that. Modern historians have shown it to be a formulaic work, not so much descriptive or exhaustive, but an argumentative piece aiming to extol the emperor's church and fortress-building. Indeed, the Buildings are only interesting when they are fitted into Procopius' overall writings.

Procopius of Caesarea was a lawyer by training, and his three works: the Wars, the Secret History, and the Buildings sometimes sound as if he is presenting us the evidence, the prosecution, and the defence at Justinian's trial. The Wars are superficially a factual account embellished with such features of classical history as set speeches and allegorical anecdotes, the Secret History is a rant of a grotesque rather than a realistic turn, and the Buildings is an encomiastic text with strong Christian overtones. They also contradict each other in points of fact. Procopius, for example, says in Buildings that Justinian rebuilt the public baths in Constantinople and improved the water supply, contradicting the Secret History, which has the poor on the verge of dying of thirst. And while Buildings ascribes the hydraulic works at Dara to a divinely inspired vision of Justinian, Wars VIII state of the entry to the subterranean river that was their central feature: 'After the emperor Anastasius built this city, nature unaided fashioned and placed it there (Wars, VIII.7.5-9.).

But Buildings was probably a commissioned work, and it is almost certainly not sincere. In the introduction, for example, Procopius makes a parallel between Xenophon's praise of Cyrus and his own eulogy of Justinian, with the conclusion that Cyrus' achievements were 'child's play' compared to Justinian's. Note that first, Cyrus, in the classical, Herodotean framework that is invoked, meant the Persian tyranny that was the deadly foe of the free Greeks. If Justinian was a superlative Cyrus, as the introduction writes, was he not then a superlative tyrant? This seems all the more likely that, as the commentator Anthony Kaldellis found, the text of Justinian's decision to embark on the Vandal wars, in Wars III, is modelled on Herodotus' version of Xerxes' words upon attacking Greece. Second, Xenophon, an Athenian, betrayed his homeland in favour of its enemy Sparta. When Procopius compares himself to Xenophon, is he suggesting that Buildings is his own act of betrayal? The passage, tactically placed at the beginning of the work, may well be a watermark sign that the Buildings was a commissioned piece or that it was written under duress.

For readers on Procopius, the most important books are probably Averil Cameron's Procopius and the Sixth Century, and Anthony Kaldellis's Procopius of Caesarea. If you are a student, I would also advise buying the Loeb edition, which unlike this edition provides the manuscript page numbers, useful for footnoting.
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Of the Buildings of Justinian
Of the Buildings of Justinian by Procopius (Paperback - 17 Nov. 2004)
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