Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Procopius (ca. A.D. 490-ca. 563) Byzantine historian

As an attorney and military aide to the Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius, Procopius of Caesarea (present-day Israel) reported accounts of wars against Goths, Ostrogoths, Persians, and Vandals. He gained a knowledge of the politics of Italy, North Africa, Persia, and Sicily from some 15 years of military campaigns. In retirement, in his early 50s, he served Constantinople as prefect or security officer. In the style of the Greek historians HERODOTUS and THUCYDIDES, he recorded in classic Attic Greek the details of the Nika riots and massacre at the Hippodrome in A.D. 532; the fall of Carthage (present-day Tunis, Tunisia) in 533; the capture of Rome from the Goths in 538; and the plague of 542, which infected the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. In the next decade, Procopius completed the Anecdota or Historia arcana (Secret History, ca. A.D. 550), an expose of the court intrigues of Belisarius and his wife Antonina and a model of invective directed at the emperor and his wife, the Empress Theodora. Beyond the maligning of Belisarius as henpecked and the pornographic details of Theodora's sexual excesses, the historian focuses on the emperor's ineptness and conceit. Procopius dares to charge, “Of the forcible seizure of property and the murder of his subjects [Justinian] could never have enough” (Procopius 1966, 94). To maintain the flow of tribute, the emperor fomented foreign wars, though their cost weakened his empire.

His next compendium earned Procopius the title of leading Byzantine historian. In the opening chapter of an eight-volume history, De bellis (On the wars, A.D. 552), the text characterizes Justin's seizure of the empire by “forcing aside all the kinsmen of [the former Emperor] Anastasius, although they were numerous and also very distinguished” (Procopius 1914, 24). When the business of governing fell to Justin's nephew, Justinian I, Procopius notes that pestilence bore political implications for the inexperienced ruler: “Work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans” (109). In more upbeat passages, the historian returns to his first love, the siege tactics, tunneling, and undermining that marked the Roman army corps of engineers as the world's most efficient. The narrative outlines the destruction of King Totila of Treviso, Italy, and his Ostrogoths by the 74-year-old Armenian-Roman general Narses and his force of Armenian, German, Hun, and Slavic mercenaries. For background, Procopius juxtaposes physical and geographic details with wise observations and instructive passages written in his own individual style.

A peacetime project, the six-volume De aedi- ficiis (On buildings, A.D. 561), a panegyric on civic and church projects, covers architect Anthemius of Tralles's creation of the Hagia Sophia, the architectural jewel of the Eastern Roman Empire. A more amenable tone credits God with inspiring the floor plan and exalts Justinian for organizing construction crews and for employing Anthemius and a deputy designer, Isidorus of Milesia. Their work impresses Procopius as “a most glorious spectacle, extraordinary to those who beheld it, and altogether incredible” for its dome and the interior lighting of sacred mysteries (Procopius 2004, 6). The structure set the model for basilicas and sanctuaries that Justinian erected throughout the empire to honor the Virgin Mary. Byzantine liturgy and anthems by Romanos the Hymnographer assimilate Christian worship with exaltation of the emperor himself, whom Christ protects and blesses. Procopius's comment on church music implies that Romans furthered the concept of the divine right of kings.


Cameron, Averil. Procopius and the Sixth Century. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Procopius. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. London: Heinemann, 1914.

------- . Of the Buildings of Justinian. Boston: Adament

Media, 2004.

------- . The Secret History. Translated by Geoffrey Arthur

Williamson. London: Penguin, 1966.