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Procopius: The Secret History (Penguin Classics) Paperback – March 25, 1982

4.3 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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From the Back Cover

The last major ancient historian, Byzantine scholar PROCOPIUS OF CAESAREA (c. 500-565) traveled with the army of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I as a military adviser, and published his accounts of the wars the emperor fought in his eight-volume History of the Wars.

But what was the real story of life with Justinian, his wife, Theodora, and Justinian's greatest general, Belisarius? Procopius' Secret History was so scandalous that he withheld it during his lifetime, and in fact, it was not published until 1623. In this 1927 translation by RICHARD ATWATER (1892-1998), considered the best available, Procopius gives us all the scoop on:

* how the great general Belisarius was hoodwinked by his wife * how Theodora humiliated the conqueror of Africa and Italy * how Justinian created a new law permitting him to marry a courtesan * Justinian and Theodora: fiends in human form * the deceptive affability and piety of a tyrant * what happened to those who fell out of favor with Theodora * and much more.

An enthralling read, this curio of ancient history will fascinate anyone interested in tales of royal intrigue. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Procopius was born in Palestine around AD 500 and fought for the Byzantine Empire in Persia, Africa and Italy. Very little is known about him.

G.A. Williamson (1895-1982) was a Classical Exhibitioner at Worcester College, Oxford, graduating with a First Class Honours degree. He was Senior Classics Master at Norwich School from 1922 to 1960. He translated Josephus: The Jewish War (1959) and Procopius: The Secret History (1966) for the Penguin Classics. He died in 1982. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (March 25, 1982)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140441824
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140441826
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,335,703 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Luciano Lupini on February 1, 2003
Format: 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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Format: 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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Format: 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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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.
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