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The “Secret History” of the Emperor Justinian

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the year 565, the 83rd of his life, and the 38th of his reign. Although he was born in Macedonia, his family was Roman, as evidenced also by his name; he was a native Latin-speaker, likely the very last such among the Emperors of the East. Latin was still an official language throughout the empire in his time, but spoken by very few people in the East outside official circles, and the primary sources for his life and career were all written in Greek.

By far the most important among these are the writings of Procopius of Caesarea, thus called to distinguish him from an important Christian theologian of the previous generation, Procopius of Gaza. One of these is an extensive account of the wars by which Justinian regained control of various part of the western empire (the Italian peninsula, much of Africa, and even part of southern Spain), albeit at enormous and debilitating cost. Procopius was a member of the staff of Belisarius, the general who led this reconquest, and personally witnessed many of the events recounted in the book. Another book, known as The Buildings, is a panegyric on Justinian’s many public works projects throughout the empire, including several of the most important Christian churches of the era. One of these, the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai, is still functioning to this very day.

(The monastery complex of St Catherine on Mt Sinai. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0

The most famous source, however, is generally known as The Secret History in English, but in Greek as the “Anekdota – the things not published”, because unpublishable. This is an account of the innumerable (and in many ways impossible) scandals and misdeeds of Justinian and his wife Theodora, who predeceased him by about 20 years. A good sense of its general tenor may be had from the title of the twelfth chapter, “Proof that Justinian and Theodora were actually demons in human form.” The eighteenth is titled “How Justinian killed a trillion people” (“a myriad myriad of myriads”, one myriad being 10,000). In reality, the population of the entire world in the mid-6th century is guessed (very broadly, of course) to have been around 200 million; the total number of all human beings who have ever lived is roughly 117 billion. Well, therefore, does Procopius write at the beginning of The Secret History, “As I turn … to a new endeavor which is fraught with difficulty and is in fact extraordinarily hard to cope with, being concerned, as it is, with the lives lived by Justinian and Theodora, I find myself stammering and shrinking as far from it as possible, as I weigh the chances that such things are now to be written by me as will seem neither credible nor probable to men of a later generation; and especially when the mighty stream of time renders the story somewhat ancient, I fear lest I shall earn the reputation of being even a narrator of myths and shall be ranked among the tragic poets.”

Human nature being what it is after the fall, what has made the book famous is above all its tale of Theodora’s rise to prominence in Constantinople as a circus performer and prostitute. The stories which Procopius puts forth of this are so unhinged in their obscenity that it was long customary in English editions of The Secret History to veil them “in the obscurity of a learned language” (as Gibbon says in his Decline and Fall, 2, 40) by printing the relevant sections translated… into Latin!

(The Emperor Justinian, with the contemporary bishop of Ravenna, Maximian, and various members of his clergy; mosaic in the basilica of St Vitalis, which was completed and consecrated in 547 A.D., in Ravenna, the capital of the Byzantine exarch who ruled over Italy after the reconquest. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Roger Culos, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

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