A secret never to be told

San Vitale mosaics
Justinian and his court, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

Procopius The Secret History
Translated and introduced by G A Williamson
Penguin Classics 1981 (1966)

I’ve never yet been to Istanbul — formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium — but I have been to Ravenna on Italy’s east coast. Here the visitor can glimpse some of the glory that was Byzantium of old in the form of the magnificent mosaics, located in various surviving structures such as the Arian Baptistry, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the Basilica of San Vitale. Amidst splendid religious mosaics of Christ’s baptism and the Adoration of the Magi are more secular images, in particular of the 6th-century Emperor Justinian I, his Empress Theodora and possibly the general Belisarius. These are icons meant to impress, and it’s noteworthy that the heads of the two imperial figures are each surrounded by a nimbus — what we recognise as the halo associated with Christ and the saints but which was also, as here, applied to rulers or heroes. To see these figures so bedecked with jewels and crowns and aureoles one would be rightly suspect a measure of self-glorification; but in truth, if their contemporary the writer Procopius is to be believed, no two individuals were less suited to being portrayed thus in a Christian context.

Justinian, Theodora
Justinian and Theodora, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

Procopius was the private secretary of Count Belisarius, long the emperor’s most trusted general, and was present when Ravenna was captured for the Byzantine Empire in 540. A score or so years later he had risen to become — we surmise — Prefect of Constantinople as well as official imperial historian, whose job was to chronicle the Emperor’s achievements in law, history and public works. Procopius did his job well, providing supporting evidence of Justinian’s vast law codification for the Empire and the raising of edifices such as the simply astounding Hagia Sophia in the 530s, with its jaw-dropping dome:

“marvellous in its grace, but by reason of the seeming insecurity of its composition altogether terrifying. For it seems somehow to float in the air with no firm basis but to be poised aloft to the peril of those inside…”

But this seeming imperial paragon of virtue was, to Procopius, no such thing. While he was writing and publishing The Histories and Buildings the historian was also putting together The Secret History, at no great danger to himself. We are all aware of the malign propensities of modern-day tyrants and dictators — no continent seems immune from them — and it is a brave individual who attempts to record their abuses and injustices, especially one in a position of trust and authority. “It was impossible either to avoid detection by swarms of spies, or if caught to escape death in its most agonizing form,” he writes in a foreword from around 550, fifteen years before his and Justinian’s deaths. Even now, he adds, “I envisage the probability that what I am now about to write will appear incredible and unconvincing to future generations.” And, in a prescient comment, he tells the reader that he is “afraid that I shall be regarded as a mere teller of fairy tales or listed among the tragic poets.”

But despite lingering fears of reprisals on his future descendants he dares to set down the facts of Justinian’s reign secure in the knowledge that there have been ample enough witnesses to support his report, that such an account might cause future tyrants to rein back on their excesses from fear of divine retribution and, moreover, that future victims could take small comfort from knowing that they are not the only ones to suffer from misrule. With the words “This is my justification for first recounting the contemptible conduct of Belisarius, and then revealing the equally contemptible conduct of Justinian and Theodora,” Procopius embarks on a character assassination of his erstwhile employers that sickeningly outdoes any gossipy exposé by today’s tabloids.

Belisarius, San Vitale
Possible portrait of Belisarius on Justinian’s right side, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

Procopius structures his report into seven chapters: first outlines the weaknesses and failings of Count Belisarius and his scheming wife Antonina, then goes on to the less than salubrious family background of the emperor, the latter’s uncle the Emperor Justin and, last but not least, the empress; these are followed by chapters on Justinian’s misgovernment and the Theodora’s crimes; then we’re treated to the consequences of their misdeeds — needless destruction, wanton ruin, pointless sacrifice — with a last word on “The Arrogance of the Imperial Pair”. Frankly, I found it hard to read this account without breaks. In terms of the scandalous doings of these two of the original quartet the sheer piling of Pelion on Ossa is mind-numbing: ruthlessness, vindictiveness, rapaciousness, disloyalty, wastefulness, greed, depravity — of the seven deadly sins only sloth and gluttony seem alien to the monsters Procopius depicts, and the imperial pair seem to have invented as many variations on the remaining five as they could.

The Latin-speaking Justinian and his soldier uncle Justin were from a Balkan village but, moving to Byzantium, Justin was fortuitously placed as captain of the guard to become Emperor, and Justinian was equally well placed to slip into the role when his time came. The actress and prostitute Theodora caught his eye on his way to the throne in 527 and together the two very strong-minded individuals weathered riots in 532 and a devastating plague 540-2 until the reconquest of Italy by Belisarius led to the completed mosaics of San Vitale in 547, a year before Theodora’s death at 48 from cancer. Orthodox historians call this a Golden Age of art and architecture and praise Justinian for his streamlining of bureaucracy and the law and his support of Catholic Christianity against heresy; Procopius had already chronicled his military and religious successes but in The Secret History more than balances this with an alternative and very disturbing view of a corrupt court aided and abetted by an equally corrupt state apparatus. Peter Brown suggests that Justinian “has been trapped in his own image. His astute manipulation of the resources of propaganda has been taken at face value. Hence he has gained the reputation of being a romantic idealist, haunted by the mirage of a renewal of the Roman empire…” Even if only a third or a quarter of what Procopius says is true, untainted by hyperbole, that romantic idealist image must be very far from the truth.

The San Vitale portraits, for all the drawbacks of mosaic techniques, present what seem to be very powerful individuals. It’s difficult not to look into those eyes desperately seeking answers to the apparent conundrums of later judgements, and perhaps being a little frightened by what one sees there. And that reminds me: I must re-read Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name…

Peter Brown The World of Late Antiquity, Thames & Hudson 1971
Speros Vryonis Byzantium and Europe Thames & Hudson 1967

5 thoughts on “A secret never to be told

  1. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Istanbul including the Hagia Sophia and even by modern standards it takes your breath away. Some of the mosaics contain a depth and power that is mesmerising. There was a series on BBC4 recently about the 3 cities, Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul which was incredibly interesting. If you liked this, I suggest you look it up on iPlayer (if still available) as the story of Justinian and Theodora is just one of a series of rulers that rules these cities through the ruthless application of absolute power.


    1. We recorded the series and we’ve got as far as watching the first programme so far, so thanks Dylan for the reminder. In fact it probably jogged a vague memory that I’d got a couple of chapters of The Secret History to finish.

      Good to have the expert Simon Sebag Montefiori on hand — I’d actually been lent his Jerusalem to read, so another reminder. I did however find his presentation a bit insipid and occasionally offputting. And why do we have to have presenters interposing themselves between us, the viewers, and what we’ve switched on to see? Don’t producers and directors think BBC4 viewers are capable of sustained concentration without arty camera angles and views of the presenter walking through a milling crowd or riding on a ferry?

      Oh, sorry, I’ve gone overboard a bit on this…


      1. I think part of it may be the Michael Caine effect.

        “You’re commissioning a programme about Istanbul? Hmm, not sure. What? I get to go there for a few weeks in a 5 star hotel, see the sights and be on telly as well? Now you’re talking!”


  2. Pingback: Two literary eunuchs. | Stuff I Done Wrote - The Michael A. Charles Online Presence

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