Procopius of Caesarea
, ; c. 500 – c. 565) was a prominent
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
Buildings of Justinian
and the celebrated Secret
. 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 Caesarea in
Palaestina Prima (modern Israel).
have received a conventional élite education in the Greek classics and then rhetoric,
perhaps at the famous School of Gaza, may have attended law school,
possibly at Berytus (modern Beirut) 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
(legal adviser) for Belisarius
, Justinian's chief military commander
who was then beginning a brilliant career.
was with Belisarius on the eastern front until the latter was
defeated at the Battle of
Callinicum in 531 and recalled to Constantinople. Procopius witnessed the Nika riots of January, 532, which Belisarius and
his fellow general Mundo repressed
with a massacre in the Hippodrome. In 533, he accompanied Belisarius on his
victorious expedition against the Vandal
kingdom in North Africa, took part in
the capture of Carthage, and
remained in Africa with Belisarius' successor Solomon when Belisarius returned to
Procopius recorded a few of the extreme weather events of
, 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 Italy and
experienced the Gothic siege of Rome that lasted
a year and nine days, ending in mid-March, 538. He witnessed
Belisarius' entry into the Gothic capital, Ravenna, in
Book Eight of The Wars of Justinian
, and the
, suggest that his relationship with
Belisarius seems to have cooled thereafter. When Belisarius was
sent back to Italy 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 Constantinople who happened to be called Procopius.
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
) 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, Syria, Armenia, Lazica and Caucasian Iberia (roughly modern-day
Georgia). It details the campaigns of the Sasanian
Shah Kavadh I, the 'Nika' revolt in Constantinople in 532, the war by Kavadh's successor, Khosrau I, in 540 and his destruction of Antioch and the transportation of its inhabitants to
Mesopotamia, and the great
plague that devastated Constantinople in 542.
cover the early career of the Roman general Belisarius
, Procopius' patron, in some detail.
The next two books, the Vandal War
(Latin De Bello
), cover Belisarius
kingdom in Roman Africa
. The remaining books cover the
(Latin De Bello Gothico
campaigns by Belisarius
and others to
under the rule of the Ostrogoths
includes accounts of the sieges of Naples and Rome.
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
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
The famous Secret History
Arcana) was discovered centuries later in the Vatican
Library and published by Niccolò Alamanni in 1623 at Lyons.
existence was already known from the Suda
, which referred to it as the
( , Latin Anecdota
writings"). The Secret History
covers roughly the same
years as the first seven books of the History of Justinian's
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
is Procopius' account of Empress Theodora's
- 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
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
on Justinian's building
activity in the empire. The first book may date to before the
collapse of the first dome of Hagia Sophia 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 Sangarius in the late 550s.
(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
secular historians who continued the traditions of the
; they wrote in
, their models were
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,
, is the
equivalent of a temple
and that monks
most temperate of Christians...whom men are accustomed to call
monks." (Wars 2.9.14; 1.7.22) In classical
Athens, 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
. However, Averil Cameron
has argued convincingly that Procopius' works reflect the tensions
between the classical and Christian models of history in 6th
. Procopius indicated
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
on Procopius' works (along with other sources) have been written,
one of which, Count
, was written by poet and novelist Robert Graves
- 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
- Greatrex, Geoffrey: The dates of Procopius' works; in:
BMGS 18 (1994),
- Greatrex, Geoffrey: Recent work on Procopius and the
composition of Wars VIII; in: BMGS 27 (2003),
- Howard-Johnston, James: The Education and Expertise of
Procopius; in: Antiquité Tardive 10 (2002),
- 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,
- Meier, Mischa: Prokop, Agathias, die Pest und das ′Ende′
der antiken Historiographie, in: Historische Zeitschrift 278
- Rubin, Berthold: Prokopios, in: RE 23/1 (1957), 273–599. Earlier published
(with index) as Prokopios von Kaisareia, Stuttgart:
- 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
- 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
- Suda pi.2479. See under
'Procopius' on Suda On Line.
- Procopius, Wars of Justinian I.1.1; Suda pi.2479. See under 'Procopius' on
- Cameron, Averil (1985) Procopius and the Sixth
Century, p.7. Duckworth, London. ISBN 0-7156-1510-7.
- Evans, James A. S. (1972) Procopius, p.31. Twayne
Publishers, New York.
- 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.
- 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
- Procopius Wars of Justinian 1.12.24. Procopius speaks
of becoming Belisarius' symboulos, 'advisor', in that
- Wars of Justinian I.18.1-56
- Wars of Justinian I.21.2
- Procopius Wars of Justinian I.24.1-58
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
- Cresci, Lia Raffaella. "Procopio al confine tra due tradizioni
storiografiche". Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione
Classica 129.1 (2001) 61–77.
- Procopius Secret History 9.20-21, trans. Atwater
- Procopius Secret History 12.20-22, trans. Atwater
Texts of Procopius
- Complete Works, Greek text (Migne Patrologia Graeca) with analytical
- The Secret History, English translation
(Atwater, 1927) at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook
- The Secret History, English translation
(Dewing, 1935) at LacusCurtius
- The Buildings, English translation (Dewing,
1935) at LacusCurtius
- The Buildings, Book IV Greek text with commentaries,
index nominum, etc. at Sorin Olteanu's LTDM Project
- Dewing's Loeb edition of the Wars, books 1 and 2 at the
- Dewing's Loeb edition of the Wars, books 3 and 4 at the
- Complete Works 1, Greek ed. by Dindorf, Latin trans. by Maltret in Corpus Scriptorum
Historiae Byzantinae Pars II Vol. 1, 1833.
(Persian Wars I-II, Vandal Wars I-II)
- Complete Works 2, Greek ed. by Dindorf, Latin trans. by Maltret in Corpus Scriptorum
Historiae Byzantinae Pars II Vol. 2, 1833.
(Gothic Wars I-IV)
- Complete Works 3, Greek ed. by Dindorf, Latin trans. by Maltret in Corpus Scriptorum
Historiae Byzantinae Pars II Vol. 3, 1838.
(Secret History, Buildings of Justinan)
This article is based on an earlier
version by James Allan Evans, originally posted at Nupedia.