Justinian “the Great” led the Eastern Roman Empire to its largest territorial extent since the fall of the Western Empire. To the west, Italy, Carthage, and Rome itself were all retaken, and to the east, numerous victories pacified the threat posed by Sassanid Persia. Domestically, the emperor had substantially revised the Empire’s legal system through the Justinianic Code and oversaw the construction of Byzantium’s greatest monuments, including the Hagia Sophia. But despite all his accomplishments, Justinian’s own historian, Procopius, whose works famously include the monumental Wars and Buildings, penned one of the most scathing polemics of Byzantine literature against him. Procopius’ Secret History, a third, unpublished (and of course, secret) work details the supposedly sinister, inner lives of members of the emperor’s imperial court.
“And he brought on the Romans disasters which surely surpassed both in gravity and in number all that had ever been heard of at any period of history.”
(Secret History 6.19 translated by G.A. Williamson and Peter Sarris)
Justinian in Procopius’ Secret History: The Inhuman Emperor
“Whenever Justinian, if he is a man, departs from this life, or, as the Chief of the Demons, sets this mortal life aside, then all those who have the fortune still to be alive will know the truth…”
(The last sentence of the Secret History, 30.34)
The Secret History describes Justinian as a demon. This is not a metaphor either. Justinian is a literal demon in the text. Firstly, it was claimed that the emperor was able to utterly ignore his bodily needs on numerous occasions. Procopius asserts that he could, and often did, go without food for two days and typically subsisted only on water and wild plants. Likewise, Justinian habitually rejected sleep, often resting for only one hour a night and spending the time walking in circles. Predictably, the text alleges that these sleepless periods were for the purpose of devising schemes to ruin the Empire.
To back up Procopius’s accusations further, the Secret History gives several reported incidents in which Justinian’s demonic nature became apparent. The earliest instance occurred with Justinian’s mother. Supposedly, she admitted to several friends that Justinian was not her husband’s son, but that of a demon who slept with her. Procopius subsequently offers a string of rumors from around the imperial palace that Justinian would sometimes assume a demonic form while sitting on his throne. Two examples of this include an episode where Justinian’s head mysteriously vanished from his body and another wherein his face lost all features such that “neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their normal position, and it showed no other distinguishing feature at all” (Secret History 12.23). Finally, there is the reported visit of a desert monk to Justinian’s court, who immediately recoiled back upon setting foot in the throne room, claiming to have seen not Justinian sitting on it, but the “Head of Demons.”
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Did Justinian Want to Destroy the Empire?
Satanic descriptions aside, how did Justinian’s demonic status shape his rule? The Secret History’s answer is rather unsurprising. That is, the emperor conducted a policy of purposefully destroying the Empire. Judicially, Justinian’s control of the courts was marked by an arbitrary attitude and the acceptance of bribes. Procopius states that the emperor even overruled his own laws for monetary gain. In the religious sphere, the emperor was a strict Chalcedonian (believing that Christ had two natures, human and divine), and regularly murdered those who did not share in his vision of orthodoxy (even though his wife, Theodora, was a Miaphysite, believing that Christ had one nature fused between the human and divine).
Also included in the Secret History’s grievances against Justinian was the ever-lamented burden of taxation. Nobody enjoys giving up their money, but the Secret History claims that the emperor overtaxed the Roman people into mass poverty. At times he simply confiscated whatever funds and properties he wanted by accusing his targets of fabricated charges. These accusations included paganism, heresy, pederasty, sleeping with nuns, and even being associated with the wrong chariot faction.
Likewise, Justinian was supposedly a miser, who withheld regular state expenditure. To begin with, the emperor withheld the stipends paid to educated scholars and doctors, ruining the intellectual environment of the Empire. In addition, Procopius lists the mass degradation of public services in Constantinople. Theatres, baths, and chariot tracks were regularly closed because their upkeep was no longer being financed. The text similarly laments how the emperor stopped maintaining the public lamps which illuminated the capital. Even the cheap bread reserved for the urban poor was affected by the emperor’s financial conservation: ash began to be substituted for certain portions of flour to produce cheaper bread. In the Secret History, nobody was safe from Justinian’s fiscal policy.
Given the increase in taxation and the cutting of public spending, what was the emperor doing with all his money? In short, Procopius charges the emperor with wasting all the funds he seized. The historian alleges that Justinian spent a vast amount of wealth on barbarian groups as a means of diplomacy, thereby subordinating the Romans to foreigners. Likewise, the emperor initiated a vast building program. However, the Secret History broadly claims many of these buildings were practically useless, meant only for the imperial court. In contrast, Justinian had supposedly neglected the maintenance of Constantinople’s primary aqueduct while funding other construction projects.
Justinian’s program of overthrowing the Empire was not restricted purely to the imperial policy either. Procopius argues that the emperor’s mystical powers gave way to an explosion of natural disasters, ranging from floods and earthquakes to the Justinianic plague in the 540s. The Secret History’s picture of Justinian is clear. He was determined to destroy the Roman state and its people whether through administrative or supernatural means.
Theodora, the Prostitute Queen
“As for Theodora, her mind was firmly and perpetually fixed upon inhumanity.”
(Secret History 15.1)
According to Procopius, Justinian was not alone in his quest to demolish the Empire. His wife, Theodora also wielded imperial power. At the center of the Secret History’s evaluation of Theodora was her social background. While her known role as a theatrical performer drew plenty of criticism when she was elevated to the imperial throne, the text goes further, accusing her of having been a prostitute. That is, before she was physically mature enough to participate in the theater, Theodora was said to have worked in a Constantinopolitan brothel. Procopius is quick to note that the eventual empress had no shame in her profession. He claimed she would often sleep with more than thirty men in one night and, when she wanted to attract customers, would stand naked in the street. Supposedly, her behavior did not change once she joined the theater: she often performed on stage naked as well.
The Secret History did not treat Theodora any better once she became empress. Of course, Justinian’s marriage itself was a major point of controversy in imperial politics. Not only was a marriage between an emperor and a lowly actress outrageously scandalous, but it was outright illegal until Justinian deemed it lawful so that he could marry Theodora.
Once in power though, Procopius claims that the empress acted in unison with her husband to bring the Empire to ruins. Naturally, she was demonic as well. The Secret History notes that many of Theodora’s lovers reported being whisked away from her bed-chamber by demons after sleeping with her. Concerning lifestyle though, the empress was the opposite of her husband. She would indulge in every kind of food and would sleep for hours throughout the day and night.
While she was a woman, she remained quite active in the imperial administration. The Secret History asserts that Justinian sought her approval on policy quite habitually. Consequently, Theodora’s presence in imperial politics became an influential one, marked by the empress’s extreme temper and harsh punishments. Just like her husband, she often fabricated legal charges against anyone who angered her. Given that she also appointed the judges of these cases, the empress could easily indict her enemies and acquit her friends. Once found guilty, Theodora would seek the most severe forms of punishment: confiscation for the imperial treasury, flogging, banishment, and even death.
Part of some cruel projection, she was similarly harsh against sex workers, and Procopius cites an incident where the empress had forced a group of more than five hundred prostitutes into a nunnery.
The empress also became responsible for arranging marriages among the nobility to an extreme degree. Many of these marriages were made without the consent or even awareness between the actual couple being wedded. Procopius reports that at times, men would unwittingly discover that they had a wife because Theodora had suddenly willed them to marry, while women would find themselves forced to live with men whom they had never known before.
Theodora was certainly different from Justinian in many ways. Where the emperor was known for never sleeping and living an ascetic life, the empress recklessly indulged and spent much of her time asleep. While Justinian was moderate and calculating, Theodora was subject to extreme ire. Nevertheless, both shared a singular mission to make the Roman people suffer.
Belisarius, the Lackey
“Belisarius, however, paid no heed to anything that had happened: completely oblivious and indifferent to the oaths which he had sworn to Photius and all his most intimate friends, he went where his wife directed him, for he was hopelessly in love with her, though she was already a woman of sixty.” (Secret History 4.41)
Moving past the imperial couple, the Secret History has a bit to say about Justinian’s leading general, Belisarius, the mastermind behind the reconquests of Carthage and Italy. But despite having the reputation of an accomplished military commander, the Secret History paints him as a weak-willed fool. In fact, the real authority behind Belisarius, according to Procopius was really his wife, Antonina.
The historian subsequently devoted a major section of his invective against Belisarius to detailing the numerous affairs of Antonina. In short, their marital relationship can be summarized by an incident involving a certain Theodosius, who had begun an affair with Antonina. The relationship had become so egregious that Belisarius eventually caught the two together in a basement bedroom in Carthage.
Yet, Belisarius was so dim-witted, that he believed Antonina’s flimsy explanation that she and Theodosius were in the basement to hide spoils captured in Africa from the emperor. Procopius awkwardly notes how Belisarius accepted the excuse, despite seeing that Theodosius’s undergarments were completely unstrapped. Numerous other stories of adultery line the Secret History’s account of Belisarius, but the central theme is clear, the general was essentially a slave to his wife.
Procopius’ Secret History: Who Was the Author?
“But as I embark on a new undertaking of a difficult and extraordinarily baffling character, concerned as it is with Justinian and Theodora and the lives they lived, my teeth chatter and I find myself recoiling as far as possible from the task; for I envisage the probability that what I am now about to write will appear incredible and unconvincing to future generations.” (Secret History 1.4)
Procopius of Caesarea is the primary historiographical source concerning the reign of Justinian. Of his three major texts, Wars was written first in 550/1 CE, with an extra eighth book added in 552/3 CE. It details the various conflicts concerning the Persian frontier in the east and the recapture of Italy and North Africa to the west. Procopius’s own life only lends credence to the text in that he served as an advisor to Belisarius during several of his campaigns in North Africa and Italy. Written last was Buildings sometime in the second half of the 550s CE. It is a long text detailing the various construction projects initiated by Justinian, from the border forts of the Euphrates to the great churches of Constantinople. Wars is relatively ambivalent toward the imperial court and Justinian, while Buildings grants heavy praise to the emperor and his architectural ingenuity.
Considering only Wars and Buildings, Procopius’ conception of the emperor would be quite simple to deduce. Instead, one is left wondering why he wrote the fiery, albeit entertaining, hit piece that is the Secret History. Its authorship is not disputed, and all three texts are stylistically close to one another.
Why Did Procopius Write the Secret History?
One theory is that Procopius became aware of a conspiracy against Justinian in favor of his cousin, Germanus, and wrote the work in case it succeeded. Germanus died in 550 CE, the same year Procopius completed the Secret History, explaining why the work was never published.
Additionally, it has been hypothesized that Procopius intended to add his explosive critique of Justinian onto Wars in the event of the emperor’s death. Though he would have had to wait fifteen more years to do so when Justinian died in 565 BCE.
Another, less complex explanation is that Procopius merely changed his opinion of the emperor over time. That is, he was disillusioned with the imperial reconquests in the 540s and wrote the Secret History alongside the Wars, then reversed his attitude and wrote the obviously panegyrical Buildings in the 550s.
Should We Believe Procopius’ Secret History?
Why Procopius wrote the Secret History may never be fully confirmed. But another complex question is whether we should believe it. Given its complete tonal disagreement with the rest of the historian’s works, why should we trust Procopius’s branding of Justinian as a demon and Theodora as a harlot? That issue will likely never be entirely resolved, but at the least, readers can enjoy the compelling style with which Procopius leveled these amusing accusations.