PROCOPIUS, sixth-century Byzantine historian of the reign of JUSTINIAN. Procopius is the author of three works: the Wars (a history of Justinian's military policies up to 553/554); the Secret History (Anecdota; literally "Unpublished Things"), an "alternative" version of the early part of the Wars, combined with a vitriolic attack on Justinian and THEODORA, written in 550/551; and the Buildings, a panegyrical record of Justinian's building activity, written in 554/555 or about 560.
A native of Caesarea in Palestine, Procopius was trained as a lawyer. He became the secretary to the general Belisarius while the latter was in the East in 527. He accompanied him to Africa in 533, to Italy in 535, and after 540 back to Constantinople, where he witnessed the great plague of 542. He may have been briefly in the East and/or in Italy after this, or he may have stayed in Constantinople to write his history, books 1-7, which were finished in 550/551, and the final book in 553/554. It is not very likely that he should be identified with the Procopius who was prefect of the city in 562, since the best sources (e.g., Agathias) refer to him simply as "Procopius the rhetor." The date of composition of the Buildings is uncertain. It may, however, be dated to 559/560 by the mention of the work on the Sangarios bridge (V.3.10; cf. Theophanes, AM 6052), but since it makes no mention of the collapse of the dome of Saint Sophia in 558, nor of other significant events around that time, 554/555 seems more probable. If so, it is very possible that Procopius died soon afterward, leaving the end of the Gothic War to be recounted by Agathias.
The chief merit of Procopius is as a reporter, for he recorded military events with a lucidity and verve that are both detailed and unusual. He worked largely from his own notes, having been present at a fair proportion of the action described, or from the reports (mainly oral) of others. As a member of the entourage of Belisarius, he was well placed to obtain information, and was sometimes used for errands involving matters of supply or intelligence. The Wars is a voluminous record of Justinian's war policy. Thus, on the events of 527-554 we are very fully, and in the main reliably, informed. However, Procopius was not always so scrupulous, and there are many places where he obviously has distorted his material to produce a certain effect. Here his level of reliability is often much lower, since he will mix good observation or material from written sources with personal speculation or hearsay. There is relatively little in the Wars on internal affairs, but the account of the plague in Constantinople in 542 is memorable, as is that of the Nika Revolt in 532 (though not for its political insight).
The Wars is cast in the mold of classical historiography, concentrating on military affairs and avoiding direct discussion of the ecclesiastical, though permitting discussion of the intervention of God and fate in history. For this reason, there has been much speculation about Procopius' own religious views. He was, however, a conforming Christian, thinking it foolish to make a stand when persecution might follow; and though he disapproved of the doctrinal strife of his own day, he records miracles with credulity and approval.
The apparent contradictions among Procopius' three works has led to speculation about his motives for writing them, but we have no evidence for this apart from the works themselves. In fact, there is much in the later part of the Wars, especially Bello Gothico 3 and 4, that connects them with the critique of the Secret History. Procopius had become increasingly critical of the war policy and of Belisarius; and the tone of the final book of the Wars (Bello Gothico 4), written in 553/554, is far sadder and gives far more credit to the defeated Goths than would have been possible in the patriotic days of the victory in North Africa. Procopius set out to write a record of Byzantine victory. By the time he reached the end, he saw what the reconquest had cost. On the other hand, he had not lost his conception of what the Byzantine Empire ought to be, and this is what is expressed in the Buildings—the theory, and perhaps less of the actuality, of Justinian's achievement than is usually supposed. Many internal thematic and stylistic correspondences suggest that the three works appeared close together in time. (We do not know the circumstances that led Procopius to turn from criticism to panegyric.)
The strongly personal quality of Procopius' work is certainly a failing in the case of the Wars. He saw history in terms of personalities and judged issues in black and white. Thus criticism of the regime can only take the form of abuse of the emperor and empress, and the surprisingly explicit excesses of the Secret History are merely the reverse of the panegyrical tone of the Buildings. Procopius lived in a society in which free expression was limited, and this, too, made the Secret History necessary, for though the Wars is critical in the latter part, it could be so only obliquely. But it was also Procopius' own partisan views that caused him to write in so extreme a fashion.
All three of Procopius' works are written in a lucid and direct classical Greek. They were designed for readers of discernment and education. Procopius knew earlier historians well enough to copy them—Thucydides, Diodorus, Arrian, Priscus—and Agathias says he had read nearly all of them. He also employs a strict and idiosyncratic rhythmical prose, evidence of his high literary ambition. He was regarded as a standard author by EVAGRIUS (late sixth century) and Theophanes (early ninth century), but the Secret History was probably not generally known until the tenth century. It was not rediscovered until the seventeenth century and came as a shock to those who had taken the works of Procopius as evidence of the excellence of the rule of Justinian.
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