Procopius’ Secret History

Skimming through the Wall Street Journal at school the other day, an article about the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine caught my eye.  It did not talk about military progress or strategic victories, but rather, it raised alarmist concerns about the education system in occupied Ukraine. Russian forces were coercing Ukrainian teachers to teach a new curriculum in Russian that laundered the reputation of Russia and its leading figures. In other words, revisionist history.

After the immediate feeling of shock subsided, I remembered that revising history has been the tried-and-true method to building an empire.[1]

Throughout history, there are several examples of exalted historians manipulating the tales they are telling in service of an empire. One such case would be the famed Byzantine historian Procopius (d. 565 ce). Procopius chronicled the reign of Justinian I (d. 565 ce) and his wife Theodora (d. 548 ce).  His official histories of Justinian I’s rule have been extolled for millennia as the peak of historical recording since the Roman Empire.[2]

Several centuries later, a dusty tome was found hidden behind a fake wall in the Vatican Library. Procopius’ Anecdota, informally referred to as the Secret Histories, tells a tale not of the good emperor that he extols in his official histories, but rather of a demon disguised as a man, seeking the total destruction of his empire: “That Justinian was not a man, but a demon, as I have said, in human form, one might prove by considering the enormity of the evils he brought upon mankind.”[3]

In contrast to the vitriolic tone of Procopius’ Anecdota, the official histories are more formally penned and glorify Justinian I.[4] For example, at the conclusion of Procopius’s historical text Buildings he ends with connecting the emperor to a demi-god; “They swell with pride and smile upon the Emperor, offering him honours as though to a demi-god, after his magnificent achievements.”[5] During the time of the official histories’ writing, the Byzantine Empire was waging several wars on the periphery of their borders. Two of these wars were the subjects for Procopius’ histories, aptly titled Histories of the Wars. In them, Procopius talks at length about the campaigns underway in continental Italy and the posturing happening at the Persian border. The important conflict for us to look at is the war between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines in Sicily and southern Italy. This campaign was meant to be Justinian’s crowning achievement, reuniting the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire. In this campaign, the famed Byzantine general Belisarius was constantly winning battle after battle for Justinian, and making tremendous gains in terms of territory in Italy. As such, the Histories of the Wars rightly lauds both Belisarius for his military prowess and Justinian for his statesmanship.

The official histories are just that, official histories. As Procopious’ later works evinced, Justinian was not only losing his military campaigns but was also unfit to rule. “As for seizing property and murdering men, he never got his fill of them, but after plundering numerous homes of affluent men he kept seeking new ones, straightway pouring out the proceeds of his earlier robbery in making presents to sundry barbarians or in erecting senseless buildings.”[6]

“Official histories” like Procopius’ serve to launder the reputation of whatever empire that employs them. They have been endorsed by the state and are propped up as the government-approved history of the empire. This is quite similar to what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine, albeit not in the same manner. Instead of trying to moderate the histories that get written into a book, Russia is trying to instead manipulate the history that will be taught in schools. Russia is not the only country who has attempted to massage the details of their history. An example of this in very recent U.S. history would be the 1776 project begun by former President Donald Trump. The 1776 project was aimed to provide American children with a “patriotic education,” ostensibly defending the link between America’s founding and the legacy of slavery, while also likening modern-day progressivism to fascism.[7]

It is interesting to note that official histories are often written when things go wrong. Empires tend to fixate on knowledge production and legacy the most when the seams are unraveling beneath them. The change in curriculum comes at a time when Putin is losing his grip in Ukraine; he is trying to force Russian identity into Ukraine, in an effort to try and justify its continued presence in Ukraine. This is an echo of what occurred in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian’s reign. Justinian urged Procopius to write about all the battles he was winning in Italy when, in reality, his armies were being annihilated in the fields and his captured territories being reconquered.

Procopius’ writings help to better understand the present in the sense that they offer a word of warning about the ways in which empires will go about revising history. The state-sponsored history in Russian-occupied Ukraine, the official histories written by Procopius, and the 1776 project in the United States (among many other examples) are echoes of one another, with each shedding light on the ways in which nations alter their history to better suit their needs.

 

[1] “A piece of Propaganda” The eighth campaign of Sargon II. A historiographical approach. https://hist1039-16.omeka.fas.harvard.edu/exhibits/show/the-eighth-campaign-of-sargon-/the-eighth-campaign-of-sargon- Last modified 2016.

[2] J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (Dover: Dover Publications, 2011).

[3] Procopius, The Secret History of Procopius, trans. by Richard Atwater (New York: Kessinger Publishing, [1927] 2003), 178.

[4] Philip Rousseau, “Procopius’s ‘Buildings’ and Justinian’s Pride,” Byzantion 68, no. 1 (1998): 121-30

[5] Procopius, Of the Buildings of Justinian,” trans. by Aubrey Stewart (Adegi Graphics 1999).

[6]  Procopius, The Secret History, 118

[7] Michael Crowley and Jennifer Schuessler, “Trump’s 1776 Commission Critiques Liberalism in a Report Denied by Historians,” The New York Times, Jan 18, 2021.

 

 Hunter MacArthur is a junior at St. Sebastian’s in Needham. He can be reached at huntermac999@gmail.com