Poor Befuddled Procopios
Updated: Aug 6, 2019
I once wrote that history transmits to other generations the memory of those who have gone before and resists the steady effort of time to bury events into oblivion. I also wrote that the deeds of the past shall be clearly set forth. O! You naïve innocents! So much happened of which you know NOTHING. I, Procopios the historian, have recounted to you my memories of the era of Justinian and Theodora. I WAS THERE! I lived under their often harsh and cruel rule. And yes, I contradicted myself. In my early writings I lay praise on those two. And yes, I gave you facts, but in my last book Secret History, I offer lurid details of those events, details that other writers, those miserable sycophants, ignore as they search for position, wealth and glory, which only the emperor and his Consort can bestow.
Oh, it is true that the great Justinian built monuments to his glory and to the glory of God. But at what price? The maintenance of well-established institutions meant nothing to him. Taxes were raised, properties expropriated; endless innovations were his constant preoccupation. And so we have the magnificent Ayia Sopha, an architectural marvel, which shall no doubt endure throughout the ages to come. But gone are the old and long-venerated buildings of the past.
And do you recall the Nika riots? Ach, my friends, Justinian took pleasure in the rivalry of those two factions, the Blues and the Greens. BUT when the enmity grew out of control and riots ensued, he was all too ready to flee the City to save his skin. The COWARD! Oddly, it was Theodora who saved the day by refusing to leave the capital. Citing the ancients, she announced: "Purple is the noblest shroud."
She was a contradiction that woman! Everyone knew of her slanderous past, her life in the circus, her promiscuity. And this did not end when she married Justinian and became empress. No, not at all. But she was merciless when it came to her former cohorts of the night. Intent on ridding the City of their presence, she rounded up about 500 of them and had them incarcerated in a convent on the opposite shore of the Bosphorus in an attempt to force them into a better way of life. The name of the establishment? REPENTANCE! Hah! Just who is calling the kettle black?!
Ah, yes, it was a time of good and evil. I have spoken of both, publicly and secretively often....In the case of Justinian and Theodora, the good they did will be remembered; the bad shall be lost in the sea of memory.
(Author: Alexandra Alissandratou, for PAOI Gala, An Evening in Byzantium, Fall, 2016)
Do you recall the song with the repeated lyrics "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" from The Sound of Music? Well, that's how I feel about Procopios - How do you solve a problem like Procopios? Historians have debated this for hundreds of years. And the debate goes on...............
Born in Caesarea, in Palestine, to, what historians believe, a wealthy family, given his education, Procopios rose to interesting heights in the Emperor Justinian's court. He witnessed great battles, and wrote about them. A famed historian, he addressed Justinian in glowing terms, praising him for the structures he ordered built to the glory of the empire. And through all this, he was writing his Secret History in which he defames Justinian and his empress Theodora. Mind you, it didn't take much to defame the notoriously promiscuous empress. But the point is that he didn't do it openly. While he accuses others in Justinian's circle of being sycophants, he was not, by his own definition, any better himself. In his two other books, The Wars and Buildings, he writes as eye-witness as he accompanied campaigns and later wrote in the style of a panegyric the glory of Justinian’s public works, including the ruler’s magnificent claim to fame, the Cathedral of Ayia Sophia.
The Secret History was discovered centuries later in the Vatican library and was not published until the 17th century. One can only imagine that he wrote the other two books to maintain his position at court but then let loose his ire in The History, knowing full well that the discovery of such a work would only lead to his downfall and death. It would have been seen as treasonous.
All this leads me to the age-old question: the veracity of written histories. Historians write through their own particular lenses, often allowing their own prejudices to color their writing. I wonder: how often do we actually learn facts from these individuals? How much must we glean through their writings to learn the truth? Aren’t even eye-witness reports often prceptions, interpretations of what was experienced?
And so we come full circle: How do you solve a problem like Procopios? How do we solve the problem of history? What ARE the facts? On whose side is the historian? On those side is the reader? Is the bad, along with truth, often lost in the sea of memory?