Procopius of Caesarea (in Greek Προκόπιος, c. 500 - c. 565) was a prominent Byzantine scholar of the family Procopius. He is commonly held to be the last major ancient historian.
Other than his own writings, the main source for Procopius' life is an entry in the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia that tells nothing about his early life. His birthplace is traditionally assigned to Caesarea (modern Israel). We know, however, that he received an education in the Greek classics, attended law school, possibly at Berytus (modern Beirut), and became a rhetor (barrister). In 527, the first year of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I's reign, he became the assessor (legal adviser) for Belisarius, Justinian's chief military commander who was then beginning a brilliant career.
Procopius was with Belisarius on the eastern front until the latter was defeated at the Battle of Callinicum in 531 and recalled to Constantinople. Procopius witnessed the Nika riots of January, 532, which Belisarius and his fellow general Mundo repressed with a massacre in the Hippodrome. In 533, he accompanied Belisarius on his victorious expedition against the Vandal kingdom in North Africa, took part in the capture of Carthage, and remained in Africa with Belisarius' successor Solomon when Belisarius returned to Constantinople. But he rejoined Belisarius for his campaign against the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and experienced the Gothic siege of Rome that lasted a year and nine days, ending in mid-March, 538. He witnessed Belisarius' entry into the Gothic capital, Ravenna, in 540. Book eight of "The Wars", and the Secret History, suggest that his relationship with Belisarius seems to have cooled thereafter. When Belisarius was sent back to Italy in 544 to cope with a renewal of the war with the Goths, now led by the able king Totila, Procopius appears to have no longer been on Belisarius' staff.
We do not know when Procopius himself died, and the pre-eminent historian James Howard-Johnson dates his death to 554, but in 562 there was an urban prefect of Constantinople who happened to be called Procopius. In that year, Belisarius was implicated in a conspiracy and was brought before this urban prefect.
The writings of Procopius are the primary source of information for the rule of the emperor Justinian. Procopius was the author of a history in eight books of the wars fought by Justinian I, a panegyric on Justinian's public works throughout the empire, and a book known as the Secret History (Greek: Anekdota) that claims to report the scandals that Procopius could not include in his published history.
The first seven books of his History of Wars, which were published as a unit, seem to have been largely completed by 545, but were updated to mid-century before publication, for the latest event mentioned belongs to early 551. Later, Procopius added an eighth book which brings the history to 552, when a Byzantine army led by the eunuch Narses finally destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. The first book of Procopius' De Aedificiis ("On Buildings") a panegyric of Justinian's building activity in the empire, may date to before the collapse of the first dome of Hagia Sophia in 557, but it is possible that the work postdates the building of the bridge over the Sangarius in the late 550s.
The Secret History was discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library and published in 1623, but its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as the Anekdota ("the unpublished composition"). The Secret History covers the same years as the seven books of the History of Justinian's Wars and appears to have been written after they were published. Current consensus generally dates it to 550, or maybe as late as 562.
The Secret History reveals an author who had become deeply disillusioned with the emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, as well as Belisarius, his old commander, and Antonina, Belisarius' wife, although it may reflect Procopius' adoption of the genre of invective. The anecdotes claim to expose the secret springs of their public actions, as well as the private lives of the Emperor, his wife, and their entourage. Justinian is raked over the coals as cruel, venal, prodigal and incompetent; as for Theodora, the reader is treated to the most detailed and titillating portrayals of vulgarity and insatiable lust combined with shrewish and calculating mean-spiritedness.
Among the more titillating (and doubtful) revelations in the Secret History is Procopius' account of Empress Theodora's thespian accomplishments:
- Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.
Her husband Justinian, meanwhile, was using his head, at least according this passage:
- And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place. One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne and walked about, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian's head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. But presently he perceived the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.
The De Aedificiis tells us nothing further about Belisarius but it takes a sharply different attitude towards Justinian. He is presented as an idealised Christian emperor who built churches for the glory of God and defenses for the safety of his subjects and who showed particular concern for the water supply. Theodora, who was dead when this panegyric was written, is mentioned only briefly but Procopius' praise of her beauty is fulsome. The panegyric was likely written at Justinian's behest, however, and we may doubt if its sentiments are sincere.
Procopius belongs to the school of late antique secular historians who continued the traditions of the Second Sophistic; they wrote in Attic Greek, their models were Herodotus and especially Thucydides, and their subject matter was secular history. They avoided vocabulary unknown to Attic Greek and would insert an explanation when they had to use contemporary words. Thus Procopius explains to his readers that ekklesia, meaning a Christian church, is the equivalent of a temple or shrine and that monks are "the most temperate of Christians...whom men are accustomed to call monks." (Wars 2.9.14; 1.7.22) In classical Athens, monks were unknown and an ekklesia was the assembly of Athenian citizens which passed the laws.
The secular historians eschewed the history of the Christian church, which they left to ecclesiastical history—a genre that was founded by Eusebius of Caesarea. However, Averil Cameron has argued convincingly that Procopius' works reflect the tensions between the classical and Christian models of history in 6th century Byzantium. Procopius indicated (Secret History 26.18) that he planned to write an ecclesiastical history himself and, if he had, he would probably have followed the rules of that genre. But, as far as we know, the ecclesiastical history remained unwritten.
A historical novel based on Procopius' works (along with other sources), Count Belisarius, was written by poet and novelist Robert Graves in 1938.
- Evans, J. A. S. Procopius. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
- Cameron, Averil. Procopius and the Sixth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
- Greatrex, G. The dates of Procopius' works. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 18 (1994): 101-114.
- Kaldellis, Anthony. Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
List of selected works
- Procopii Caesariensis opera omnia. Edited by J. Haury; revised by G. Wirth. 3 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1976-64. Greek text.
- Procopius. Edited by H. B. Dewing. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London, Hutchinson, 1914-40. Greek text and English translation.
- Procopius, The Secret History, translated by G.A. Williamson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966. A readable and accessible English translation of the Anecdota.