Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday 3 May 2020

Procopius’ “Secret History”

I have just finished reading Procopius’ “Secret History” online. It is rather earlier in date than my usual interests, but is a wonderfully lurid account of the reign of the Emperor Justinian, his Empress Theodora and of Count Bellisarius and his wife, and of a whole range of courtiers and officials. Historians are not too sure how accurate Procopius is as a source in the “Secret History”. It is very much an account given by “one who knows”, but some of it needs to be taken with more than a pinch of the proverbial salt. The diabolical conception of Justinian or his shape-shifting would, I think, fall into that category. On the other hand the young Theodora’s performance in her Leda and the Swan act on stage seems to be accepted by historians...

I am sure that historians can interpret some at least of the Emperor’s actions in a less critical or censorious way than Procopius did, but then again, he was a contemporary and an ‘insider’.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes points out repeatedly there is nothing new under the sun, as one knows, and indeed that all is vanity. With that in mind sixth century Byzantium seems refreshingly normal by modern standards. Which, of course, is no great compliment to either era...

Unlike his semi-official and public account of Belisarius’s campaigns and his description of Justinian’s building projects, in his “Secret History” ( not recovered until the seventeenth century in the depths of the Vatican Library ) Procopius does a quite brief but unsparingly vicious hatchet job on Justinian and Theodora. Some have speculated as to quite what alienated him from the Imperial couple, but hostile he certainly was - and doubtless very wise to keep that fact and his manuscript to himself.

Mutatis mutantes it could, of course, be compared to published, let alone planned or projected, accounts of life in Downing Street or the White House or the Elysee in the past generation...

I will restrain myself from drawing closer parallels, but I am sure my readers can draw their own comparisons and conclusions.

Procopius’ text can be read in a 1927 translation by Richard Atwater, together with an introduction and notes at the Fordham University

Internet History Sourcebooks Project

and also at

The Secret History of Procopius Index - Internet Sacred Text

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