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The Secret History (Penguin Classics) Paperback – December 18, 2007
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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.
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As is well known, Procopius wrote both the official and the unofficial histories of Justinian's reign. In fact, the editor has an interesting passage on P.'s esoteric art of writing:
"...There are good reasons ... to take Procopius at his word, not least of which is the fact that the differences between these two works are more often apparent than they are real. The main one is that whereas criticism of Justinian and his policies in the Secret History is invariably explicit and direct and expressed in the authorial voice, in the History of the Wars the self-same accusations tend to be put into the mouths of others, such as foreign ambassadors or visitors to court, or are expressed implicitly, by way of literary allusion. Another ruse employed in the History of the Wars is to take charges levelled at Justinian in the Secret History and project them onto the Persian Shah Chosroes (Khusro). Justinian and Chosroes become, in effect, interchangeable as models of oriental despotism."
Nonetheless, Procopius does not lay everything out in the "unofficial" history, either. He may be describing a horrible state of affairs, and yet his rhetoric is often too classical:
If in the attitude of mind and way of life the difference between them (Justinian and Theodora) was apparent, they were at one in their rapacity, their bloodlust and their utter contempt for the truth. Both of them were the most practised liars, and if anyone who aroused Theodora’s ire was alleged to be committing any offence however trivial and insignificant, she promptly fabricated charges which had nothing to do with the accused and blew the matter up to criminal proportions. Endless indictments received a hearing, and a special court was set up to dispose of them. The judges appointed were of Theodora’s choosing, and it was their function to contend with each other to see which of them by the inhumanity of his verdict could succeed better than the others in satisfying the Empress’s desire.
Of Theodora's sexual depravity (the dishiest part of the book), I will say only that some things are too good to be true, and some things too awful.
Reassuring reading if you think we live in the worst of times.
I cannot bring myself to even describe many of the sexual exploits of these two women. Perhaps one mild example will give the flavor of their willingness to experiment beyond what I could have ever imagined. Have you ever heard of laying naked on the floor, being sprinkled with barley, and then allowing geese to come in and nibble the barley off one's body? That story transgresses the horizon of my sexual imagination.
Both women had a lust for cruelty, as well as for sexual pleasure. They meddled in affairs of state, and contributed to the decline and fall of Roman civilization in the West. (Belisarius destroyed Gothic power in the West, but did not stay to re-build Roman institutions, due to meddling back in Byzantium. So the truly barbaric Lombards took over, and western civilization collapsed irretrievably.
I was never told this aspect of the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" when I was a boy in school (or even when I was a young man in college for that matter!).