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Procopius of Caesarea (Latin: Procopius Caesarensis, ; c. 500 – c. 565) was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History. He is commonly held to be the last major historian of the ancient world.


Before the source of his own writings, the main source for Procopius' life is an entry in the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia that tells nothing about his early life. He was a native of Caesareamarker in Palaestina Prima (modern Israelmarker). He would have received a conventional élite education in the Greekmarker classics and then rhetoric, perhaps at the famous School of Gaza, may have attended law school, possibly at Berytus (modern Beirutmarker) or Constantinople, and became a rhetor (barrister or advocate). He evidently knew some Latin, as would be natural for a man with legal training. In 527, the first year of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I's reign, he became the adsessor (legal adviser) for Belisarius, Justinian's chief military commander who was then beginning a brilliant career.

Procopius was with Belisarius on the eastern front until the latter was defeated at the Battle of Callinicum in 531 and recalled to Constantinoplemarker. Procopius witnessed the Nika riots of January, 532, which Belisarius and his fellow general Mundo repressed with a massacre in the Hippodromemarker. In 533, he accompanied Belisarius on his victorious expedition against the Vandal kingdom in North Africa, took part in the capture of Carthagemarker, and remained in Africa with Belisarius' successor Solomon when Belisarius returned to Constantinople. Procopius recorded a few of the extreme weather events of 535-536, although these were presented as a backdrop to Byzantine military activities, such as a mutiny, in and near Carthage. He rejoined Belisarius for his campaign against the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italymarker and experienced the Gothic siege of Romemarker that lasted a year and nine days, ending in mid-March, 538. He witnessed Belisarius' entry into the Gothic capital, Ravennamarker, in 540. Book Eight of The Wars of Justinian, and the Secret History, suggest that his relationship with Belisarius seems to have cooled thereafter. When Belisarius was sent back to Italymarker in 544 to cope with a renewal of the war with the Goths, now led by the able king Totila, Procopius appears to have no longer been on Belisarius' staff.

It is not known when Procopius himself died, and many historians (James Howard-Johnson, Averil Cameron, Geoffrey Greatrex) date his death to 554, but in 562 there was an urban prefect of Constantinoplemarker who happened to be called Procopius. In that year, Belisarius was implicated in a conspiracy and was brought before this urban prefect.


The writings of Procopius are the primary source of information for the rule of the Roman emperor Justinian. Procopius was the author of a history in eight books of the wars fought by Justinian I, a panegyric on Justinian's public works throughout the empire, and a book known as the Secret History (Greek: Anekdota) that claims to report the scandals that Procopius could not include in his published history.

The Wars of Justinian

Procopius' Wars of Justinian ( , , "About the Wars") is clearly his most important work, although it is not as well-known as the Secret History. The first seven books, which may have been published as a unit, seem to have been largely completed by 545, but were updated to mid-century before publication, for the latest event mentioned belongs to early 551. The first two books (often known as the Persian War, Latin De Bello Persico) deal with the conflict between the Romans and Sassanid Persia in Mesopotamia, Syriamarker, Armeniamarker, Lazica and Caucasian Iberia (roughly modern-day Georgia). It details the campaigns of the Sasanian Shah Kavadh I, the 'Nika' revolt in Constantinoplemarker in 532, the war by Kavadh's successor, Khosrau I, in 540 and his destruction of Antiochmarker and the transportation of its inhabitants to Mesopotamia, and the great plague that devastated Constantinople in 542. They also cover the early career of the Roman general Belisarius, Procopius' patron, in some detail. The next two books, the Vandal War (Latin De Bello Vandalico), cover Belisarius' successful campaign against the Vandal kingdom in Roman Africa. The remaining books cover the Gothic War (Latin De Bello Gothico), the campaigns by Belisarius and others to recapture Italy, then under the rule of the Ostrogoths. This includes accounts of the sieges of Naplesmarker and Romemarker.

Later, Procopius added an eighth book (Wars VIII or Gothic War IV) which brings the history to 552/553, when a Roman army led by the eunuch Narses finally destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdommarker. This eighth book covers campaigns both in Italy and on the Eastern frontier.

The Wars of Justinian was influential on later Byzantine history-writing. A continuation of Procopius' work was written after Procopius' death by the poet and historian Agathias of Myrina.

Secret History

The famous Secret History (Lat. Historia Arcana) was discovered centuries later in the Vatican Librarymarker and published by Niccolò Alamanni in 1623 at Lyonsmarker. Its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as the Anekdota ( , Latin Anecdota, "unpublished writings"). The Secret History covers roughly the same years as the first seven books of the History of Justinian's Wars and appears to have been written after they were published. Current consensus generally dates it to 550 or 558, or maybe even as late as 562.

The Secret History reveals an author who had become deeply disillusioned with the emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, as well as Belisarius, his former commander and patron, and Antonina, Belisarius' wife. The anecdotes claim to expose the secret springs of their public actions, as well as the private lives of the Emperor, his wife, and their entourage. Justinian is raked over the coals as cruel, venal, prodigal and incompetent; as for Theodora, the reader is treated to the most detailed and titillating portrayals of vulgarity and insatiable lust combined with shrewish and calculating mean-spiritedness.

Among the more titillating (and doubtful) revelations in the Secret History is Procopius' account of Empress Theodora's thespian accomplishments:

Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.

Her husband Justinian, meanwhile, is depicted as a madman, at least according to this passage:

And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place. One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne and walked about, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian's head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. But presently he perceived the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.

The Buildings of Justinian

Procopius' Buildings of Justinian ( , , "On Buildings") is a panegyric on Justinian's building activity in the empire. The first book may date to before the collapse of the first dome of Hagia Sophiamarker in 557, but some scholars (for example Michael Whitby) think that it is possible that the work postdates the building of the bridge over the Sangariusmarker in the late 550s. The Peri ktismaton (or De Aedificiis) tells us nothing further about Belisarius, but it takes a sharply different attitude towards Justinian. He is presented as an idealised Christian emperor who built churches for the glory of God and defenses for the safety of his subjects and who showed particular concern for the water supply. Theodora, who was dead when this panegyric was written, is mentioned only briefly, but Procopius' praise of her beauty is fulsome. The panegyric was likely written at Justinian's behest, however, and we may doubt if its sentiments are sincere.


Procopius belongs to the school of late antique secular historians who continued the traditions of the Second Sophistic; they wrote in Attic Greek, their models were Herodotus and especially Thucydides, and their subject matter was secular history. They avoided vocabulary unknown to Attic Greek and would insert an explanation when they had to use contemporary words. Thus Procopius explains to his readers that ekklesia, meaning a Christian church, is the equivalent of a temple or shrine and that monks are "the most temperate of Christians...whom men are accustomed to call monks." (Wars 2.9.14; 1.7.22) In classical Athensmarker, monks had been unknown and an ekklesia was the assembly of Athenian citizens which passed the laws.

The secular historians eschewed the history of the Christian church, which they left to ecclesiastical history—a genre that was founded by Eusebius of Caesarea. However, Averil Cameron has argued convincingly that Procopius' works reflect the tensions between the classical and Christian models of history in 6th century Byzantium. Procopius indicated (Secret History 26.18) that he planned to write an ecclesiastical history himself and, if he had, he would probably have followed the rules of that genre. But, as far as we know, the ecclesiastical history remained unwritten.

A number of historical novels based on Procopius' works (along with other sources) have been written, one of which, Count Belisarius, was written by poet and novelist Robert Graves in 1938.

Further reading

  • Börm, Henning: Prokop und die Perser. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.
  • Brodka, Dariusz: Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2004.
  • Cameron, Averil: Procopius and the Sixth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Evans, James A. S.: Procopius. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
  • Greatrex, Geoffrey: The dates of Procopius' works; in: BMGS 18 (1994), 101-114.
  • Greatrex, Geoffrey: Recent work on Procopius and the composition of Wars VIII; in: BMGS 27 (2003), 45-67.
  • Howard-Johnston, James: The Education and Expertise of Procopius; in: Antiquité Tardive 10 (2002), 19-30
  • Kaldellis, Anthony: Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • Martindale, John: The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire III, Cambridge 1992, 1060–1066.
  • Meier, Mischa: Prokop, Agathias, die Pest und das ′Ende′ der antiken Historiographie, in: Historische Zeitschrift 278 (2004), 281–310.
  • Rubin, Berthold: Prokopios, in: RE 23/1 (1957), 273–599. Earlier published (with index) as Prokopios von Kaisareia, Stuttgart: Druckenmüller, 1954.
  • Treadgold, Warren: The Early Byzantine Historians, Basingstoke 2007, 176-226.

List of selected works

  • Procopii Caesariensis opera omnia. Edited by J. Haury; revised by G. Wirth. 3 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1976-64. Greek text.
  • Procopius. Edited by H. B. Dewing. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London, Hutchinson, 1914-40. Greek text and English translation.
  • Procopius, The Secret History, translated by G.A. Williamson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966. A readable and accessible English translation of the Anecdota. Recently re-issued by Penguin (2007) with an updated and livelier translation by Peter Sarris, who has also provided a new commentary and notes.


  1. Suda pi.2479. See under 'Procopius' on Suda On Line.
  2. Procopius, Wars of Justinian I.1.1; Suda pi.2479. See under 'Procopius' on Suda On Line.
  3. Cameron, Averil (1985) Procopius and the Sixth Century, p.7. Duckworth, London. ISBN 0-7156-1510-7.
  4. Evans, James A. S. (1972) Procopius, p.31. Twayne Publishers, New York.
  5. Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, p. 6. For an alternative reading of Procopius as an engineer, see Howard-Johnston, James. 'The Education and Expertise of Procopius', in Antiquité Tardive 10 (2002), 19-30.
  6. Procopius uses and translates a number of Latin words in the Wars of Justinan. Börm suggests a possible acquaintance with Vergil and Sallust: Börm, Henning (2007) Prokop und die Perser, p.46. Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart. ISBN 978-3-515-09052-0
  7. Procopius Wars of Justinian 1.12.24. Procopius speaks of becoming Belisarius' symboulos, 'advisor', in that year.
  8. Wars of Justinian I.18.1-56
  9. Wars of Justinian I.21.2
  10. Procopius Wars of Justinian I.24.1-58
  11. Before modern times, European and Mediterranean historians, as far as weather is concerned, typically recorded only the extreme or major weather events for a year or a multi-year period, preferring to focus on the human activities of policymakers and warriors instead.
  12. Cresci, Lia Raffaella. "Procopio al confine tra due tradizioni storiografiche". Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 129.1 (2001) 61–77.
  13. Procopius Secret History 9.20-21, trans. Atwater
  14. Procopius Secret History 12.20-22, trans. Atwater

External links

Texts of Procopius

Secondary material

This article is based on an earlier version by James Allan Evans, originally posted at Nupedia.

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