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History of the Wars by Procopius Of Caesarea
Translated by H. B. Dewing
Procopius Of Caesarea
History of the Wars
Procopius is known to posterity as the historian of the eventful reign of Justinian (527-565 A.D.), and the chronicler of the great deeds of the general Belisarius. He was born late in the fifth century in the city of Caesarea in Palestine. As to his education and early years we are not informed, but we know that he studied to fit himself for the legal profession. He came as a young man to Constantinople, and seems to have made his mark immediately. For as early as the year 527 he was appointed legal adviser and private secretary to Belisarius, then a very young man who had been serving on the staff of the general Justinian, and had only recently been advanced to the office of general. Shortly after this Justinian was called by his uncle Justinus to share the throne of the Roman Empire, and four months later Justinus died, leaving Justinian sole emperor of the Romans. Thus the stage was set for the scenes which are presented in the pages of Procopius. His own activity continued till well nigh the end of Justinian's life, and he seems to have outlived his hero, Belisarius.
During the eventful years of Belisarius' campaigning in Africa, in Italy, and in the East, Procopius was moving about with him and was an eye-witness of the events he describes in his writings. In 527 we find him in Mesopotamia; in 533 he accompanied Belisarius to Africa; and in 536 he journeyed with him to Italy. He was therefore quite correct in the assertion which he makes rather modestly in the introduction of his history, that he was better qualified than anyone else to write the history of that period. Besides his intimacy with Belisarius it should be added that his position gave him the further advantage of a certain standing at the imperial court in Constantinople, and brought him the acquaintance of many of the leading men of his day. Thus we have the testimony of one intimately associated with the administration, and this, together with the importance of the events through which he lived, makes his record exceedingly interesting as well as historically important. One must admit that his position was not one to encourage impartiality in his presentation of facts, and that the imperial favour was not won by plain speaking; nevertheless we have before us a man who could not obliterate himself enough to play the abject flatterer always, and he gives us the reverse, too, of his brilliant picture, as we shall see presently.
Procopius' three works give us a fairly complete account of the reign of Justinian up till near the year 560 A.D., and he has done us the favour of setting forth three different points of view which vary so widely that posterity has sometimes found it difficult to reconcile them. His greatest work, as well as his earliest, is the History of the Wars, in eight books. The material is not arranged strictly according to chronological sequence, but so that the progress of events may be traced separately in each one of three wars. Thus the first two books are given over to the Persian wars, the next two contain the account of the war waged against the Vandals in Africa, the three following describe the struggle against the Goths in Italy. These seven books were published together first, and the eighth book was added later as a supplement to bring the history up to about the date of 554, being a general account of events in different parts of the empire. It is necessary to bear in mind that the wars described separately by Procopius overlapped one another in time, and that while the Romans were striving to hold back the Persian aggressor they were also maintaining armies in Africa and in Italy. In fact the Byzantine empire was making a supreme effort to re-establish the old boundaries, and to reclaim the territories lost to the barbarian nations. The emperor Justinian was fired by the ambition to make the Roman Empire once more a world power, and he drained every resource in his eagerness to make possible the fulfilment of this dream. It was a splendid effort, but it was doomed to failure; the fallen edifice could not be permanently restored.
The history is more eneral than the title would imply, and all the important events of the time are touched upon. So while we read much of the campaigns against the nations who were crowding back the boundaries of the old empire, we also hear of civic affairs such as the great Nika insurrection in Byzantium in 532; similarly a careful account is given of the pestilence of 540, and the care shewn in describing the nature of the disease shews plainly that the author must have had some acquaintance with the medical science of the time.
After the seventh book of the History of the Wars Procopius wrote the Anecdota, or Secret History. Here he freed himself from all the restraints of respect or fear, and set down without scruple everything which he had been led to suppress or gloss over in the History through motives of policy. He attacks unmercifully the emperor and empress and even Belisarius and his wife Antonina, and displays to us one of the blackest pictures ever set down in writing. It is a record of wanton crime and shameless debauchery, of intrigue and scandal both in public and in private life. It is plain that the thing is overdone, and the very extravagance of the calumny makes it impossible to be believed; again and again we meet statements which, if not absolutely impossible, are at least highly improbable. Many of the events of the History are presented in an entirely new light; we seem to hear one speaking out of the bitterness of his heart. It should be said, at the same time, that there are very few contradictions in statements of fact. The author has plainly singled out the empress Theodora as the principal victim of his venomous darts, and he gives an account of her early years which is both shocking and disgusting, but which, happily, we are not forced to regard as true. It goes without saying that such a work as this could not have been published during the lifetime of the author, and it appears that it was not given to the world until after the death of Justinian in 565.
Serious doubts have been entertained in times past as to the authenticity of the Anecdota, for at first sight it seems impossible that the man who wrote in the calm tone of the History and who indulged in the fulsome praise of the panegyric On the Buildings could have also written the bitter libels of the Anecdota. It has come to be seen, however, that this feeling is not supported by any unanswerable arguments, and it is now believed to be highly probable at least, that the Anecdota is the work of Procopius. Its bitterness may be extreme and its calumnies exaggerated beyond all reason, but it must be regarded as prompted by a reaction against the hollow life of the Byzantine court.
The third work is entitled On the Buildings, and is plainly an attempt to gain favour with the emperor. We can only guess as to what the immediate occasion was for its composition. It is plain, however, that the publication of the History could not have aroused the enthusiasm of Justinian; there was no attempt in it to praise the emperor, and one might even read an unfavourable judgment between the lines. And it is not at all unlikely that he was moved to envy by the praises bestowed upon his general, Belisarius. At any rate the work On the Buildings is written in the empty style of the fawning flatterer. It is divided into six short books and contains an account of all the public buildings of Justinian's reign in every district of the empire. The subject was well chosen and the material ample, and Procopius lost no opportunity of lauding his sovereign to the skies. It is an excellent example of the florid panegyric style which was, unfortunately, in great favour with the literary world of his own as well as later Byzantine times. But in spite of its faults, this work is a record of the greatest importance for the study of the period, since it is a storehouse of information concerning the internal administration of the empire.
The style of Procopius is in general clear and straightforward, and shews the mind of one who endeavours to speak the truth in simple language wherever he is not under constraint to avoid it. At the same time he is not ignorant of the arts of rhetoric, and especially in the speeches he is fond of introducing sounding phrases and sententious statements. He was a great admirer of the classical writers of prose, and their influence is everywhere apparent in his writing; in particular he is much indebted to the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, and he borrows from them many expressions and turns of phrase. But the Greek which he writes is not the pure Attic, and we find many evidences of the influence of the contemporary spoken language.
Procopius writes at times as a Christian, and at times as one imbued with the ideas of the ancient religion of Greece. Doubtless his study of the classical writers led him into this, perhaps unconsciously. At any rate it seems not to have been with him a matter in which even consistency was demanded. It was politic to espouse the religion of the state, but still he often allows himself to speak as if he were a contemporary of Thucydides.
ξύμβουλος, Proc. Bell. I. xii. 24. He is elsewhere referred to as πάρεδρος or ύπογραφεύς.