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52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NOT SO HOLY AN EMPEROR ?
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...
Published on February 1, 2003 by Luciano Lupini

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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Byzantine scandal sheet
I was assigned the Secret History in college but never read it. Instead, I read Procopius's historical works from the Loeb Classical Library, Vasiliev's two volume Byzantine Empire, and various other works. It was only recently that I picked up my copy of the Secret History and read it. I now understand why my professors in college assigned it--but not the actual...
Published on May 31, 2003 by Florentius


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52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NOT SO HOLY AN EMPEROR ?, February 1, 2003
By 
Luciano Lupini (Caracas Venezuela) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
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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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The secret history of Justinian's court, April 27, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Procopius is certainly biased against his subjects, but if even a fraction of what he writes in here is true then he had good reason to be. Of the major persons in his book, only Belisarius emerges as a sympathetic figure, honest and loyal, but terribly wronged against by his wife and his emperor. Theodora comes out as a power-hungry whore, and Justinian as an amoral money-grubber. In his zeal Procopius sometimes carries it too far though, like when he reports with a straight face rumors that Justinian was some kind of shape-shifting demon.
We tend to think of the accomplishments of Justinian - the law codifications, the reconquest of Italy, his grand architectural projects - but what price glory? In order to finance such contructions as the Hagia Sophia for posterity, he imposed miserably on his subjects, confiscating lands, wealth, ruining lives. While marveling at such accomplishments, we forget that in order to finance them Justinian refused the most basic needs of his citizens, like neglecting to fix a damaged aquaduct in Byzantium which created a great water shortage for his people. And Procopius's book is valuable because it shows that other side of the coin.
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51 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Kitty Kelly of Byzantium, November 29, 2002
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
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.
Yes, 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.
BK
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mightier than the Sword: A Remarkable Tell-All Transcript, January 4, 2005
By 
Ian Vance (pagosa springs CO.) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
The reign of Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565 A.D.) can be rightfully viewed as a sort of last-gasp greatness for the decrepit Roman Empire, by this point a scattershot ghost of its former self. Justinian is a renown figure in this era, a titan: he begged off the barbarians with many a-bribe, and thus thrived; he began silk production (stealing the secrets from China); he erected magnificent buildings and edifices, one of which is now declaired to be a lost `Wonder of the World.' Most predominately, he put scholars to work on a new law-code; this well-organized legal code, set in twelve volumes, became the basis from which European law sprung.

It is interesting to see how history depicts Justinian. In Asimov's Chronology of the World, the science-fiction author states: "...Justinian I (482-565), sometimes called `Justinian the Great.' He was forceful and intelligent, and his wife, Theodora (500-548), of lowly origin, was even more forceful and intelligent..." and goes on to list the varied accomplishments of the era, hinting between the lines that all was not utopian - a brief passage that some 30,000 people were slain in a riot involving horse racing, and a concluding statement that, as of 600 A.D., while "...the East Roman Empire still looked formidable on the map...it had been exhausted past the possibility of any new expansive adventures."

For a slightly more askew glance at the reign of Justinian and his consort Theodora, Procopius' *The Secret History* will readily fill in the spaces that Asimov (and most respectable historians) glaze over in light of the Emperor's many accomplishments. Procopius, a secretary, legal advisor and (eventually) Prefect of the City for Constantinople, chronicled these public accomplishments in voluminous detail in his *Histories* and *Buildings*. Perhaps chaffing from a personal slight, or perhaps disgusted by the corruption he saw day-in, day-out, he scribed *The Secret History* as counterpoint to these technical, borderline-fawning texts, exposing the mindboggling vice the Emperor and his court delighted in. Another reviewer on this page describes Procopius as "the Kitty Kelly of Byzantine," and I have to admit that this is a clever catch-phrase; yet unlike Kelly, Procopius wrote his History not for profit, or fame, as public knowledge of this work would have had him killed in a very painful manner: Procopius claims, at the beginning, that he set these deeds down for the sake of posterity. And in this case, the Pen proved to be far mightier than the Sword - the *Secret Histories* have endured fifteen hundred years to paint a disturbing portrait of greed, avarice, contempt for human life and crazed ambition; to give us warning, in this modern era, of how far a man might go when he is exempt from consequence.

Whereas Asimov cloaks any deviant possibility of Justinian and Theodora with his "strong, forceful" remark, Procopius goes straight for the heart of the matter, at least as a Christian of that era would see it: he claims Justinian not a human being, but rather a demonic being having taken mortal flesh (and Theodora, an ex-prostitute of incredible licentious ability, is considered the same): "...I, like most of my contemporaries, never once felt that these were two human beings: they were a pair of blood-thirsty demons and what poets call `plaguers of mortal men.' For they plotted together to find the easiest and swiftest means of destroying all races of men and all their works, assumed human shape, became man-demons, and in this way convulsed the world...(etc.) [pg. 102]." Procopius hammers this point of his again and again throughout the text - spoken tellingly through the chapter-titles (`The Destruction Wrought by a Demon-Emperor'; `Everyone and Everything Sacrificed to the Emperor's Greed') - even to the point of redundancy, though I must admit he never lacks in ways of expressing it interestingly. Certainly some horrific amusement can be found in the apocryphal examples he provides to prove his point. One story in particular comes across vividly: a senator, while feasting and conversing with the Emperor, turns around to see Justinian's face sudden melt into a vague, sinister visage (!) - necro-fantasy of chilling execution. Even more chilling, however, is when Procopius details the methods in which Justinian and Theodora robbed their citizens: trumped up charges to condemn and execute a victim, then a forged will to confiscate property, over and over and over...and most of this money either going to bribe the eastern tribes crouched on the borders, or to erect the fabulous architecture Justinian is famed for. Along with these schemes, Procopius also relates the soap-opera shenanigans of Theodora and her many suitors; the pathetic persona of general Belisarius, brilliant in war yet utterly whipped by his wife; and the disintegration of the Empire's structural illusions of law and justice as the inhabitants follow their leader's stead in corrupt behavior.

How much *The Secret History* can be taken at face value is, of course, impossible, given the fact that it may indeed be a grudge-work, and/or corrupted over various translations. But given the fact that, according to conservative estimates, some _one hundred million_ people died during this reign (Procopius claims a million million!) in itself speaks rather tellingly. Let's ponder that number for a moment - essentially, Justinian's count is equal to Mao, Stalin, Ide Aman and Pol Pot combined! Byzantine lost its temporary grace soon after Justinian's death, with Persians, Avars, Muslims attacking not long after (the advent of Greek Fire being Constantinople's saving grace in the latter invasion); the Empire survived, in various incarnations, for another thousand years, but never really regained its pre-eminence in world affairs. Procopius's *The Secret History* can, in many ways, be seen as the final depiction of an Empire at its utmost decline, utterly unaware of the vicious tides surrounding; and is a great companion piece to Gibbon's *Decline and Fall*, or just by itself for entertainment and eye-opening examples _ad nauseam_ of regal reprobation. Essential!
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scandalous History from Belisarius's Secretary, May 24, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
The Anecdota, or Secret History, is undoubtedly the most colourful contemporary source of Byzantine history. People tend not to appreciate Procopius as much as I think they should: barring Michael Psellus and Liudprand, and maybe the Alexiad, Procopius is about the only talented writer to take on a history of the Byzantine Empire. The Anecdota is full of bawdy and outrageously libellious stories about Justinian and Theodora, undoubtedly many of them gathered at taverns over many drinks and gossip. However ridiculous, and hilarious, the account may seem, it gives us a valuable impression of the characters of Justinian and his wife. Those famous mosaics in Ravenna, picturing Justinian as the ancestor of the modern day couch potato and his wife as a decadent and domineering witch, are certainly vindicated artistically by this work.
I'm a little disappointed at Penguin Classics. The Secret History is a fine work, but more valuable is Procopius's History of the Wars (the Gothic Wars), which would've made a better addition to the Penguin collection (at least an abridgement). Procopius's eloquent work on contemporary buildings is another that would've been a good pick.
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Byzantine scandal sheet, May 31, 2003
By 
Florentius (New Jersey, USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I was assigned the Secret History in college but never read it. Instead, I read Procopius's historical works from the Loeb Classical Library, Vasiliev's two volume Byzantine Empire, and various other works. It was only recently that I picked up my copy of the Secret History and read it. I now understand why my professors in college assigned it--but not the actual histories of Procopius. It's short and full of titilating hearsay--perfect fodder for lazy college students. It also casts a terrible light on the Emperor Justinian, who is otherwise well remembered by history and the Empress Theodora is especially singled out for attack.
Modern scholars, for the most part, seem to accept the authenticity of the "Secret History." I remain doubtful, based on the other works of Procopius I have read. In his other works, he appears to be a reasonably sober historian of the classical Greco-Roman stripe. In the "Secret History" however, he is little short of hysterical. He makes ridiculous claims--such as that Justinian was responsible for the deaths of over 1 trillion people or that the emperor was actually a demon in human form. As to this latter claim, he even goes so far as to relate an anecdote that supposedly Justinian's mother believed that he was conceived by a demon. Futhermore, he claims that several "unnamed sources" saw Justinian's head disappear or else become transformed into a shapeless lump of flesh.
If we accept that the "Secret History" is authentic, it makes Procopius perhaps the most schizophrenic author in all of history. In the vast majority of his works, at least one of which was written *after* the Secret History, he praises Justinian and his works. Why he would have written something so at odds with his previous and later histories is in itself a fascinating question. Clearly, he had some axe to grind. It's important to remember that Constantinople at that time was a highly partisan place. When we reflect on some of the partisan and often fictitious scandal sheets that are written about our own leaders today, it is not surprising that similar things existed then. One wonders whether Procopius was a green or a blue...
At any rate, I do not recommend reading the "Secret History" if you know little to nothing about the late Roman/early Byzantine period. You will come away with a highly skewed opinion of the time period. Now, if only Penguin would see fit to put the other works of Procopius in inexpensive paperbacks, a balanced understanding could be achieved. Until then, I recommend the Loeb editions, expensive though they are.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Procopius reveals the dark side of Justinian's Byzantium., June 7, 1998
By A Customer
Procopius was the personal secretary of Belisarius, the Byzantine general who was Emperor Justinian's right-hand man. Procopius was initially a good servant, dutifully writing the obligatory positive accounts of Justinian's wars and the reconquest of Theodoric'c Italy. However, Procopius was not to be pushed around. The Secret History reveals his rebellious streak. This history describes the selfishness and deception that pervaded Justinian's court. Apparently, it was written against the will of Procopius' masters--as such its Latin title translates literally into "Unpublished Things." The Secret History is recommended to anyone interested in Roman or Byzantine history and particularly anyone looking for the opposite side of the usually positive accounts Roman historians provided of their rulers.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars scathing account, March 30, 2000
By A Customer
The most important historian of early Byzantium by day published sycophantic, if historically invaluable, versions of the reign of his sovereigns, the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora. Indeed, history recognizes their reign as one of the high points of the 1,000 year history of Byzantium, in terms of scope of the Empire, reforms in law, and architecture (including Hagia Sophia). By night however, Procopius, a bit like Claudius in fiction, wrote a scathing unpublished account of this "demon" who stole everything in his reach and had "millions" killed and was largely a ninny to boot, and his wife, an utterly ruthless power mad nymphomaniac ex-circus performer/prostitute. This is perhaps the most famous work of sustained character assassination in all of history, and an essential counterbalance to understanding this important era.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars amazing historically, humanitarian-ly and literarily, April 30, 2005
This review is from: Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This is one of THE classic primary sources from the Byzantine empire. It was written by Procopius who was the emperor Justinian's offician chronicler. And indeed, in the official histories according to Procopius, Justinian is the holy and wise emperor who could do no wrong. Unable to give his real opinion (or at least the flip side of the coin to any of Justinian's achievements) in this state-sanctioned propaganda, Procopius went on to write a "Secret History" aimed for publication after Justinian's death.

The result is something that reads like an ancient tabloid (see his descriptions on the sexual perversions of Justinian's wife Theodora!), an endless tirade of hyperbole, rhetoric as Procopius claims Justinian to be literally the son of a demon, purposely intent on bringing havoc on Byzantium and as a vicious SOB. It is here that the reader can dismiss the whole thing as the rantings of a lunatic who had a personal grudge against Justinian (which is true). But this does not make it a worthless document.

Firstly, it's genuinely interesting. A quick read made more lively by the extreme rhetoric describing Justinian's viciousness and greed - which is different to many other more "methodical" Byzantine sources. Secondly as you read it, you really do get a good look at some parts of Byzantine life, from prostitution to constant legal disputes over wills in the aristocracy to the attempts to revive/keep up the notion of a Roman empire.

Thirdly and most importantly, I see Procopius in this book as more of a political commentator rather than a historian. The text does read like a modern day op-ed piece criticising a contemporary reader. I did not expect to find in the authoritarian and dogmatic world of Byzantium a voice like Procopius - who opposes torture (even of "heretics"), who thinks that women should marry who they love and who even opposed Justinian's persecutions of the Jews. All of these things make him a unique voice in his era and his work an important milestone in the history of human rights.

Yes, he certainly does exaggerate. But there's no question that a lot of it is due to Justinian really being a murdering SOB and Procopius having a totally different worldview. So, besides being an interesting read, the Secret History revealed to me much about our own world and the ideas of authority, dissent and human rights - not bad for a "historical" work!
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The most devastating character assassination ever written, February 15, 2007
This review is from: The Secret History (Paperback)
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 White House staffer. 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.

He wrote an eight-volume history of Belisarius's campaigns, usually referred to as "The Histories" which is one of the definitive historial sources. 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 to describe is as toadying would risk a class action from toads.

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.

Heaven 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 describes 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 the figure in this book. Nevertheless "The Secret History" will continue to be read for two reasons.

First, it is probably the most devastating - and successful - exercise in character assassination ever written. And secondly if you should ever need a critical account of anything in the reign or life of Justinian, you are guaranteed to find it here.
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Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics)
Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) by Procopius (Paperback - March 25, 1982)
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