Procopius of Caesarea (Latin: Procopius Caesarensis, Greek: Προκόπιος ὁ Καισαρεύς; c. AD 500 – c. AD 565) was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History. He is commonly held to be the last major historian of the ancient world.
The famous Secret History (Lat. Historia Arcana) was discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library and published by Niccolò Alamanni in 1623 at Lyons. Its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as the Anekdota (Greek: Ἀνέκδοτα, Latin Anecdota, “unpublished writings”). The Secret History covers roughly the same years as the first 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 558, or maybe even as late as 562.
The Secret History reveals an author who had become deeply disillusioned with the emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora, as well as Belisarius, his former commander and patron, and Antonina, Belisarius’ wife. 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 Theodora’s thespian accomplishments:
- Often, even in the theatre, 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 a monster whose head could suddenly vanish, at least according to 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.