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The Secret History - Procopius I found this book after reading Bird Brian’s
terrific review
. First, though, I read [b:Count Belisarius|324312|Count Belisarius|Robert Graves|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348678970s/324312.jpg|315214], a work of historical fiction by Robert Graves (author of [b:I, Claudius|18765|I, Claudius (Claudius, #1)|Robert Graves|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348245799s/18765.jpg|4232388]) written about the same people - the Byzantine/Roman Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, and leading general Belisarius and his wife, Antonina. In Graves’s novel, Belisarius emerges as a sympathetic character. In Procopius’s contemporary history - not so much.

Procopius lived during the first half of the 6th century. He was secretary to Belisarius and is known for writing several sober histories of the period. In The Secret History, though, he lets it all out, attacking his subjects with a lurid fervor unmatched by any modern day tabloid. The narrator in Count Belisarius described the origins of The Secret History, saying, “Then Procopius in the bitterness of his heart wrote a book of libels not only upon Belisarius and my mistress Antonina but upon the Emperor himself and dead Theodora. Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied - according to his vindictive purposes.”

That’s putting it lightly. In his section on “The Tyranny of Women,” Procopius makes sure that we are left with no doubt that Theodora and Antonina were wanton sluts who manipulated their husbands shamelessly and had no regard for the collateral damage wreaked on the Roman empire. The conservative Procopius was no fan of powerful women in general, and the Empress Theodora, demanding displays of servile obeisance from patricians as she pulled Justinian’s strings, made him apoplectic. But in her younger days, according to Procopius, the future Empress could sleep with more than 30 men at a single dinner party, and she had a trick involving nudity, barley grains, and geese that it’s best not to get into on a family website.

Procopius doesn’t spare Emperor Justinian or Belisarius, though. He tells us Justinian is worse than the bubonic plague (with the plague, “just as many people escaped as had the misfortune to succumb - either because they escaped the infection altogether, or because they got over it if they happened to be infected. But this man not a single person in the Roman Empire could escape.”)

Justinian may also, in fact, have been a demon. Justinian’s mother said she conceived him not with a man but with a demon (I wonder what Byzantine birthers had to say about that). Later on, a witness noticed the Emperor’s head disappearing from his body while he paced the floor, and then returning spontaneously to its usual location, a sure sign that something was up.

Procopius tell us the greedy Justinian was the worst Emperor the Roman empire has seen, which is saying a lot: “So that if one chose to add up all the calamities which have befallen the Romans from the beginning and to weight them against those for which Justinian was responsible, I feel sure that he would find that a greater slaughter of human beings was brought about by this one man than took place in all the preceding centuries.” He also blames him for floods, earthquakes, and the plague, since he feels anyone that awful surely must have provoked divine retribution.

As history books go, this one may not be the most reliable, but it has to be the most entertaining. It makes [b:The Twelve Caesars|29022|The Twelve Caesars|Suetonius|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347187766s/29022.jpg|372997] seem like a sedate, measured analysis. I’m not sure what exactly Justinian and Theodora did to Procopius to make him so mad, but he certainly has his revenge here. He tells us he writes for the “enlightenment of future generations,” and it turns out he gets the bonus of giving tabloid journalists something to aspire to.


Empress Theodora, as depicted by Procopius