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.