29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NOT SO HOLY AN EMPEROR............
A review by Luciano Lupini. This is a good translation of Procopius most controversial opus, by G.A.Williamson, Senior Master of Classics at Norwich School (from 1922 to 1960). Whilst The Histories and Buildings are recognized as Procopius politically correct works, The Secret History tells a stunning tale of greed, corruption and destruction under Justinian and...
Published on 16 Feb. 2003 by Luciano Lupini
3.0 out of 5 stars Good read
Procopius's obvious intense dislike of his employers will resonate with many, but his rhetoric lacks style and I struggled to finish this book, although it is worth reading.
Published 22 months ago by RobR
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NOT SO HOLY AN EMPEROR............,
A review by Luciano Lupini. This is a good translation of Procopius most controversial opus, by G.A.Williamson, Senior Master of Classics at Norwich School (from 1922 to 1960). Whilst The Histories and Buildings are recognized as Procopius politically correct works, The Secret History tells a stunning tale of greed, corruption and destruction under Justinian and Theodora's empire.
Undoubtedly Procopius (A.D. 500?-565) was a qualified witness (having been private secretary to the greatest of Byzantium generals, Belisarius), although modern historians are at odds with the contradictions between what he wrote before and after this History, and still wonder what true motivations lie at the bottom of this work. But in my opinion, for anyone interested in a different , more private, assessment of Justinian and Theodora's deeds and character, this is a book that requires to be read. With caution, but with interest.
The architect of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the Codex Constructionum and the Digest, normally viewed as a "great conqueror, a great lawgiver, a great diplomat, and a great builder" (J.B. Bury) is screened in its defects by the author. The History mainly revolves around Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius and Antonina, their deeds, defects and personal motivations.
Justinian is portraited as a man of infinite greed and vicious cruelty. Theodora is exposed as a harlot, with a mind perpetually fixed upon inhumanity, constantly meddling in the affairs of the state.........
But let's not spoil the juicy tidbits. Let me just say that after one sorts out the mess created by this book, a more clear picture of the causes of the demise of the Roman Empire, the workings of the Imperial Court under Justinian and corruption of the mores will remain.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most devastating character assassination ever written ....,
In which an apparently loyal aide gets a mountain of bile off his chest and proves that no man is a hero to his private secretary ...
Procopius was the Byzantine equivalent of a civil servant. Among other things he was secretary to the great general Belisarius. Throughout his life, and in the books which he published in his lifetime, he appeared to be totally loyal to Belisarius, and even more so to Emperor Justinian.
Procopius wrote an eight-volume history of Belisarius's campaigns, usually referred to as "The Histories" or "The Discourses about the Wars" (or sometimes "The history of the wars") which is one of the definitive historial sources for the life of Belisarius. Later he wrote an an account of the great works of architecture construced under Justinian's regime. That book, known as "The Buildings," is so nauseatingly sycophantic to Emperor Justinian that it makes the average New Labour MP look like a severe critic of Tony Blair by comparison.
But in "The secret history" which he wrote to be published after his death, Procopius got off his chest all the negative comments about Belisarius, Justinian, and their wives which he ruthlessly suppressed himself from making anywhere where they might get to hear about them. The book is pure undiluted poison, in a horribly fascinating way.
This book accuses Belisarius of being a trusting fool, but he gets off lightly. His wife Antonina is accused of fornication (including with her adopted son) and murder. Justinian is accused of being quite literally a demon in human form, and his Empress Theodora of being a Messalina: both Justinian and Theodora are represented as mass murderers.
God only knows how much truth there is in this account. It seems unlikely that the people Procopius worked for could have been either as perfect as he presented them in the books he published openly or as demonic as he presents them in this book written behind their backs.
Personally I suspect the real Belisarius was much closer to the man presented in Graves' novel "Count Belisarius" than to the figure in this book. Nevertheless "The Secret History" will continue to be read for two reasons.
First, it is the most devastating exercise in character assassination ever written. And secondly if anyone wants a critical account of anything in the reign or life of Justinian, you are guaranteed to find it here.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A neat and nasty piece of political spitfire,
Written in 550 AD, this is my kind of book - it's a vicious piece of political backstabbing written by one of the inner circle of Justinian - the Eastern Roman Emperor.
Procopius was a high born Syrian who became adviser to Belisarius, Justinian's most able and successful military commander Justinian is married to Theodora, a former prostitute, and Procopius paints them as a couple of Byzantian chavs. Amoral, rootless, capricious, shameless, vulgar and grasping. They were also cruel either physically, in the case of Theodora, or by absention in the case of Justinian. However, like modern day chavs, Procopolis does accept that Justinian had the common touch and he comes across as engaging and personable. Theodora too had physical beauty and attraction on her side. The pair are also street smart and politically cunning in a low way.
Procopius really digs the dirt about their family history, their corruption, evil doings and incompetence. Many of the stories are jaw droppingly wonderful. It's very one sided but in fairness Procopius had already written two official books about Justinian - one concerning his military achievements and one his building programme. This book was written in secret and for publication after Justinian's death. In any case, a balanced account wouldn't be half as much fun.
A lovely translation by G A Williamson and a super introduction from Peter Sarris.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dodgy business in Byzantium,
The Secret History was suspected to be a fake for some years but is now regarded as genuine. I have my doubts: Procopius paints Justinian to be a complete stinker and his wife Theodora as an evil witch given to bumping off her illigitimate sons. However, other histories record that Justininans reign was the last flowering of the Eastern Roman Empire, which is at odds with Procopius's memoirs. Procopius also did rather well from his time as courtier and achieved high status, so it couldn't have been all that bad for him. Anyway, it's a meaty read and they do the sort of things that loopy emperor types do. Would make a good TV series.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Kitty Kelly of Byzantium,
OK, so maybe that's an exaggeration. Procopius' penchant for dishing out the dirt is one of the reasons, however, that this is probably the most "readable" of Byzantine texts for modern audiences. He absolutely skewers Theodora, recounting her rise from child prostitute, circus performer and all-around besotted, depraved, licentious harlot to Empress of the Roman Empire. This is the primary reason this is the SECRET history, else Procopius would have ended up like Boethius.
Though Theodora was Procopius's primary target for vitriol, none of the personages who graced Justinian's court come off smelling so great. Justinian's most celebrated general, Belisarius (whom Procopius accompanied in several campaigns), comes across as kind of a good natured boob, whom Theodora easily tricks. Justinian himself is nowhere near the paragon Procopius depicted him as in his "official" history. When Justinian isn't scheming or engaged in petty retributions, he is basically passive, letting his wife run the show.
However interesting numerous passages are throughout the Secret History (P's recounting of the Plague that wiped out most of Constantinople in 542 AD, for instance), what it boils down to are the juicy parts. Who can say how many Latin scholars through the ages have turned to Procopius when they felt the need for a little titillation? Though the shock value has definitely diminished as far as our "modern" sensibilities are concerned, it's still some pretty heady stuff. I mean, Theodora makes Catherine the Great look like Mother Theresa, by comparison.
Procopius' official histories (eight books on military campaigns and five books on architecture) are perhaps of more merit to Byzantine scholars. In terms of enjoyable reading, however, this is definitely the place to start.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting ancient account,
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.
4.0 out of 5 stars Tyranny of Empire,
Procopius was the official Historian during Justinian's reign and, like many another Historian, was faced with the delicate task of creating an accurate account of events while still presenting a suitably positive image of the Empire and it's major figures, General Belasarius and the Emperor and Empress. To balance his official accounts of the wars and policies of the Byzantine Empire, Procopius had also been compiling his Secret History, despite the very real and constant danger which this placed him in. The Secret History is forthright and unequivical in its condemnation of these people and their actions but one which Procopius considered to be a true depiction of the corruption and tyranny at the heart of the Empire.
The Secret History is a remarkably concise work in three sections which abandons the strictly linear form of histotical narrative in favour of character sketches and the misdeeds of those depicted. The first of these sections is devoted to General Belasarius and his wife Antonina. The second to Justinian and his Empress Theodora, while the third details how these two undermined the established laws and customs of the Empire, much to the detriment of the Empire and its citizens. Complete with further reading, maps of the Empire and Geneologies, the Secret History has quickly become one of my favourite books.
The life and reign of Justinian was to prove a crucial turning point for the late Classical world, bracketed as it was by the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. While there are several more positive histories of Justinian and his Empire, how many of these were written by someone who actually witnessed the events described? On these grounds alone, quite apart froma the fact that it offers an engaging and remarkably modernistic insight into the nature and effects of Tyranny, the Secret History is a master work which more people should read.
5.0 out of 5 stars Byzantine indeed,
The Secret History is, according to Procopius' own introduction, the key to his monumental Wars, which provide a classicising account of Justinian's reign up to AD 553. Incidentally, it was only rediscovered in 1623 as it was unearthed from some Vatican archive, so that all historians had up to then was Procopius' Wars and his hagiographical Buildings of Justinian.
On its own, the Secret History is a vitriolic and highly entertaining but scarcely credible attack on Justinian and his empress Theodora. It has juicy, verging on horrifying, bits on Theodora's supposed sexual antics, it describes Justinian as a demon in human form, and it denounces systematically every one of the laws of an emperor who was long admired for his legal codification. But as the author writes, this is really a code to the Wars. 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.). So while the Secret History is an interesting piece on its own, the fun really is to take a look at all three works and try to make sense of them.
This edition comes with an excellent introduction by Peter Sarris, a renown Byzantinist from Cambridge. Otherwise, for modern interpretations on Procopius, the most important books are probably Averil Cameron's Procopius and the Sixth Century, and the more up-to-date Anthony Kaldellis's Procopius of Caesarea.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic,
Bought because I felt I needed a contemporary view of Justinian and his court, to accompany the books I was reading by modern historians.
Reads almost like a gripping adventure story although tends to be a little bitty in places. Has to be read though - by anyone interested in the nature of Justinian's rule and society of the period of Justinian. Obviously a highly biased view, to be read with a pinch of salt and a knowledge of just what achievements were made during the reign of Justinian. A great read though.
5.0 out of 5 stars Lifestyles of the rich & famous!,
This review is from: The Secret History [Illustrated] (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Edition)
This account lifts the lid on the 'world' leaders of his day and, guess what? It seems that absolute power always has corrupted absolutely, or maybe its just the case that, generally speaking, the people who most aspire to lead the rest of us are the last people who should be given such responsibility. Try telling them that though.... The more things change, the more they stay the same!
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The Secret History [Illustrated] (Penguin Classics) by Procopius of Caesarea