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on 25 May 2009
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.
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on 14 April 2015
I found this a tricky book. All about characterisation and so many references to Classics. Great if you enjoy American literature and preppy college backgrounds but I am finding out that American is not for me. I can understand why it is so highly rated but I won't be reading it again.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 February 2007
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.
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on 10 November 2017
Reading now. Print is tiny so not happy with that.
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on 16 February 2003
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.
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VINE VOICEon 3 October 2015
I'm with the one and two star reviewers here. This is a dull and dreary book, effortful to read without reward, and most of the time I found myself thinking "get on with it" in terms of storytelling. The style, plot, characters amd writing feel like they belong in a book set a longer time ago in the past. I would agree with other reviewers here who have commented on "Dead Poets Society" being called to mind for some aspects of the book, but whereas that film was dark and entertaining in equal measure, The Secret History feels laboured and over-done, often like the reader is trudging through treacle. Clearly the book is highly regarded by critics, and still features in books listing the best crime and serious novels to be read. The mystery would be to ask why. One of the least enjoyable novels I have picked up in ages.
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on 31 October 2017
The Depth of characters and relationships is fantastic, gripping for reasons I'm not used to . Would recommend to anyone.
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VINE VOICEon 9 December 2007
I came across this book quite by accident - and over a dreafully blustery weekend read it cover to cover. It is long and meandering, full of clever academic asides and an insight into group dynamics and intimates. I do not think I have come across such an original character as `Bunny' in a long time. Tartt has produced someone as unique as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead, or even Rex Motram - although far less likeable than either! The observations of campus and dorm life are warming, and despite being British, the insights travel the pond well: I too had a fellow student like Judy on my corridoor many years agi! A thriller that is both comical and touching and intelligently written - it will not appeal to everryone - but it is long and indulgent and rather special.

I have just re-read this (2008) - a rare feat for a man who panics over what is left untouched on his shelves - but on this second go I was really impressed, really transported by this book. It isn't just Bunny, but all the characters - Henry especially - who I found, on first reading, slightly unapproachable. Tartt's ability to create an ambiance of intimacy and suspense is just breath taking easy. And the use of Greek - the central, rather mysterious position of Julian - which in so many other hands would fail, is excellently, sensitively done: the use and understanding of language is faultless.
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on 11 September 2016
This novel has left me with very mixed feelings; at moments I could easily give this a full score, at other times due to what I consider to be some glaring flaws I want to give it a distinctly average 3 stars.

(Edit: I've just knocked it down to a 3, after trying to discuss this with a friend yesterday I found after only reading it mere months ago I could remember very little character detail but did remember pages and pages of Greek history that have next to no part to do with the actual story, never a good sign!)

As always I find it easier to write about what I dislike about a book, and I have plenty of little niggling things here.

Actually my first one isn’t small or niggling at all; it’s pretty big and has bothered me from about halfway. I’ve already discussed it with my GR friend who has (unintentionally) been the biggest reason I got around to reading this now as it’s her favourite book and I respect her opinion, and that’s the drug use in this book. I don’t mean that in a prissy, drugs are bad way, but firstly how they are introduced to the major players of the novel. On 40% (reading on a kindle so I can be absurdly accurate!) we find Richard, our narrator, sitting in a car with known drug user Judy, happily taking coke while spying on Henry. No big deal, had it been setup, but (at least to me) there was no sign that Richard had even accidental passive smoking of weed up to this point, it really threw me on how I had been perceiving the main character for the last 200 pages or so.

Now I’m not prudish with drugs, never been a user myself but have been around them in my time like most would have been. But I went to a University with a student base of around 34,000, and as everyone does I went to parties and gigs, But not once did I stumble upon students using meth, so I’m meant to believe that pretty much every student at the tiny fictional Hampden are happy to take hard drugs like they are candy? Maybe I’m just ignorant of 80’s America drug use, but every time drugs were mentioned it just didn’t ring true for me.

Now I’ve got that rant out of the way other things that bothered me were that the second half of the book simply isn’t as engrossing as the first, it’s far from bad, but after how great the first part was it seems a bit deflated, and the part where everyone is at the Corcoran’s is very sluggish, but luckily it’s short.

And oh oh oh Donna, why mention the Bacchanal so little! Yes it’s probably intentional, making you want to read the rest of the novel just in case, but really?! You take potentially the most interesting single piece and it gets about two further mentions in the book, never in any detail at all. It works as it is, but I defy anyone who loved this book not to be aching to know more about what happened that night.

I’m going to stop there because even to myself I’m currently wondering how I gave it 4 stars. But it’s pretty simple really, it’s so damn readable. Ignore the absurd drug use; ignore the pretty unbelievable characters that even in a 550 page novel you never really learn enough about; ignore that every male (including her twin brother!) seems to be in love with the female who doesn’t seem to actually have one good thing going for her; ignore that the whole novel is pretty contrived and it seems impossible for Richard to stumble upon exactly the next piece of information he needs at exactly the right time. After all that; most of which you only discover upon completion of the book, you’ve got a superbly written, page turning mystery (reverse-mystery? I have no idea if there is a correct term for what this book is). I was genuinely gripped for reasons I almost can’t put my finger on beyond the quality of Tartts’ writing and needing to know how the players in this quintessential modern times Greek tragedy turned out.
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This was a super strange reading experience. I don’t often read literary fiction, and occasionally I felt myself struggling a little with this slow-burn, lazily-paced suspense novel. That being said, it kept me entertained and made for addictive reading. Even though it wasn’t an “oh my God, this is amazing” read, I still enjoyed coming back to it every evening, and felt compelled to finish it.

The atmosphere surrounding this group of elitist college students smacks of The Great Gatsby (which in this case, is not a compliment) – there’s a sense of self-importance, entitlement, and grandeur, of self-indulgence and pretence. Basically, all of the negative nouns. While this worked to an extent in terms of characterisation, it also made for a ton of irritation, annoyance, and exasperation for the reader.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book, but my feelings about it are really on-the-fence. I’m left feeling incredibly neutral.
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