1902 Encyclopedia > Procopius

Byzantine historian
(died c. 565)

PROCOPIUS, the most eminent historian of the Eastern Roman empire, was born at Cassarea in Palestine, then one of the chief cities of the Roman East, towards the end of the 5th century, probably between 485 and 495 A.D. Of his family and earlier life nothing is known, but it has been plausibly conjectured from the aristocratic sympathies he manifests that he belonged to one of the better families of his city, and from the place of his birth that he was educated at the great law school of Berytus (Beirut). He became a lawyer, probably at Constantinople, and was in 526 appointed ______ to Belisarius, who was proceeding to command the imperial army in the war against the Persians (Proa, Pers., i. 12). The chief duties of this office, which is also described as that of ______ or _____, seem to have been the giving of legal advice to the general, who had a measure of judicial as well as administrative power, and have been well compared by Mr Hodgkin (Italy and Her Invaders, vol. iii. p. 638) to those of an English judge advocate. When the Persian War was suspended Procopius probably returned with his general to Constantinople ; and when Belisarius was despatched against the Vandals of Africa in 533 Procopius again accompanied him, as he subsequently did in the war against the Ostro-goths of Italy which began in 536. Whether he held the same position of legal assessor through these campaigns or was merely a member of the large personal following which Belisarius had we do not know. Suidas calls him the secretary (______) of Belisarius, but this may be merely a reference to his original appointment as crvp.fSovXo's in the Persian campaign. He was evidently much valued by Belisarius, who twice employed him on difficult and important missions—once in 533 to obtain from Syracuse provisions for the Boman fleet and information as to the preparations of the Vandals, and again in 537, when the historian was despatched from Rome, which Belisarius was holding against the Goths, to collect troops and corn in Campania and bring them in a fleet to Ostia. On both occasions Procopius ac-quitted himself with skill and success. He passes lightly over his own performances, and nowhere strikes us as eager for an opportunity of singing his own praises.

After the capture of Ravenna in 539 Procopius would seem to have returned to Constantinople, where he was in 542, the year of the great plague, which he has minutely described (Pers., ii. 22). It does not appear whether he was with the Boman armies in the later stages of the Gothic War, when Belisarius and afterwards Narses fought against Totila in Italy, though his narrative of these years is so much less full and minute than that of the earlier warfare that probably he was not an eye-witness of these campaigns. Of his subsequent fortunes we know nothing, except that he was living in 559. He was an advocate by profession (Agathias, Evagrius, and other Byzantine writers call him prJTwp), but whether he practised law after his return from the Italian wars may be doubted, for he must have been then occupied with the composition of his histories, and his books show that he spent a good deal of time in travel. He seldom refers to legal matters, and shows little interest in them, mentioning only in the most cursory way the legislation and codification of Justinian. Whether he was the Procopius who was prefect of Con-stantinople in 562 (Theophanes, Chronographia, 201, 202) and was removed from office in the year following cannot be determined. Little can be founded on the name, for it was a common one in that age, and had this Procopius been our historian one might have expected some of the subsequent writers who refer to the latter to have mentioned this fact about him. On the other hand the historian was evidently a person of note, who had obtained the rank of Illustris (Suidas calls him _____), and a passage in the Anecdota looks as if he had risen to be a senator (Anecd., c. 12), so that there is no improbability in his having been raised to the high office of prefect.

There has been some controversy as to his religion. So far as external profession went, he must have been a Christian; for paganism, persecuted by Justinian, would hardly have been tolerated in so conspicuous a person ; nor is there any evidence for his being a heathen other than the cool indifference with which (except in the De Aedificiis) he speaks about Christian beliefs and practices. He seems to have been so far a Christian as to have believed in a God and have held Christ to be a supernatural being, but he frequently expresses himself in sceptical language, talks of God and Fate as if practically synonymous, and entertained great contempt for the theological controversies which raged so hotly in his own time.

Procopius's writings fall into three divisions—the Histories (Persian, Vandal, and Gothic Wars) in eight books, the treatise on the Buildings of Justinian (De Aedificiis) in six books, and the Unpublished Memoirs (______, Historia Arcana), here cited as the Anecdota.
The Histories are called by the author himself the Books about the Wars (_____). They consist of—(1) the Persian Wars, in two books, giving a narrative of the long struggle of the emperors Justin and Justinian against the Persian kings Kobad and Chosroes Anushirvan down to 550 ; (2) the Vandal War, in two books, describ-ing the conquest of the Vandal kingdom in Africa and the subsequent events there from 532 down to 546 (with a few words on later occurrences); (3) the Gothic War, in four books, narrating the war against the Ostrogoths in Sicily and Italy from 536 till 552. These three treatises were written continuously to form one connected history ; but, as the arrangement of events is geographical, not chronological, they overlap in time, the Persian War carry-ing its narrative over a large part of the period embraced in the Vandal War and the Gothic War. The fourth and last of the four books of the Gothic War is really a general history of the empire, designed to continue the Persian War as well as the Gothic. It was written after the year in which the preceding seven books had been published, and was itself published apparently in 554 or 555. These eight books of Histories, although mainly occupied with military matters, contain notices of some of the more im-portant domestic events, such as the Nika insurrection at Constantinople in 532, the plague in 542, the conspiracy of Artabanes in 548. They tell us, however, comparatively little about the civil administration of the empire, and nothing about legislation. On the other hand they are rich in geographical and ethnographical information, often of the highest value for our knowledge of the barbarian and particularly of the Teutonic tribes who lived on the borders of the empire and were either its enemies or the material of its armies.

As an historian, Procopius would have deserved honour in any age, and is of quite unusual merit when one con-siders the generally low literary level of the age which produced him. From the 4th to the 15th century the Eastern empire has no lay writer of gifts approaching his. He is industrious in collecting facts, careful and. impartial in stating them; his judgment is sound, his reflexions generally acute, his conceptions of the general march and movement of things not unworthy of the great events he has recorded. His descriptions, particularly of military operations, are clear, and his especial fondness for this part of the subject seldom leads him into unnecessary minuteness. The style, although marked by mannerisms, by occasional affectations and rhetorical devices, is on the whole direct and businesslike, nor is the Greek bad, when one considers the time. Thucydides and Herodotus are the two models whom he keeps always before his eyes: he imitates the former in the maxims (______) he throws in, and the speeches which he puts into the mouth of the chief actors; the latter in his frequent geographical digressions, in the personal anecdotes, in the tendency to collect and attach some credence to marvellous tales. It need hardly be said that he falls far short of the vigour and profundity of the Attic, as well as of the genial richness, the grace, the simplicity, the moral elevation, the poetical feeling of the Ionic historian. The speeches are obviously composed by Procopius himself, rarely showing any dramatic variety in their language, but they seem sometimes to convey the substance of what was said, and even when this is not the case they frequently serve to bring out the points of a critical situation. The geographical and ethnological notices are precious. Procopius is almost as much a geographer as an historian—it is one of his merits to have perceived the importance of each science to the other—and his descriptions of the peoples and places he himself visited are generally careful and thorough. Although a warmly patriotic Roman, he does full justice to the merits of the barbarian enemies of the empire, and particularly of the Ostrogoths; although the subject of a despotic prince, he criticizes the civil and military administration of Justinian and his dealings with foreign peoples with a freedom which gives a favourable impression of the toler-ance of the emperor. His chief defects are a somewhat pretentious and at the same time monotonous style, and a want of sympathy and intensity, which prevents him from giving full life and reality to the personages who figure in his narrative, or raising it to a level worthy of the great and terrible scenes which he has sometimes to describe.

The De Aedificiis, or treatise on the Buildings of Justinian, contains an account of the chief public works executed during the reign of the emperor down to 558, in which year it seems to have been composed, particularly churches, palaces, hospitals, fortresses, roads, bridges and other river works. All these are of course ascribed to the personal action of the monarch. The treatise is a little longer than the average length of one single book of the eight books of the Histories. Its arrangement is geographical ; beginning from Constantinople, it describes works executed in the Mesopotamian provinces, in Armenia and the Caucasian countries, in Thrace and Macedonia, in Asia Minor and Syria, in Egypt and Africa as far as the Pillars of Hercules. If not written at the command of Justinian (as some have supposed), it is at any rate semi-official, being evidently grounded on official information, and is full of gross flattery of the emperor and of the (then deceased) empress. In point of style it is greatly inferior to the Histories—florid, pompous, and affected, and at the same time tedious. Its chief value lies in the geographi-cal notices which it contains.

The Anécdota, or Secret History, in length almost equal to the De Aedificiis, and somewhat shorter than the aver-age length of a book of the Histories, purports to be a supplement to these, containing explanations and additions which the author could not place in the Histories for fear of Justinian and Theodora. It is a furious invective against these sovereigns, their characters, personal con-duct, and government, with attacks on Belisarius and his wife Antonina, and on other official persons of note in the civil and military services of the empire—attacks whose effect is weakened by the passion the author betrays. Frequent references to the Histories are interspersed, but the events of the wars are seldom referred to, the main topic being the personal and official misdeeds of the rulers as shown in domestic affairs. The ferocity and brutality ol this scandalous chronicle astonish us, for modern writings of the same order have usually been the work of vulgar and anonymous scribblers, not of an able, accomplished, and highly placed man such as Procopius was. Hence its authenticity has been often called in question, and a few words are needed both on that question and on the further question of the credibility of its contents.
It was unknown to Agathias and Evagrius, younger contemporaries of Procopius who frequently mention his Histories, and is first referred to by Suidas (writing in the 10th century), who ascribes it to Procopius. Two MSS. (since lost) are mentioned as having been brought to Italy in the days of the Benaissance, but the first publication was made by Nicholas Alemanni, an official of the Vatican, who found a MS. in that library and edited it with copious and learned notes and a Latin translation (Lyons, 1623). Since his day several jurists (led thereto by jealousy for Justinian's reputation) and other scholars have denied it to be the work of Procopius, among whom it is sufficient to refer to the latest, J. H. Beinkeus. The external argument against its genuineness, drawn from its not being mentioned till four centuries after the death of Procopius, appears weak when we recollect that it was, obviously not written to be published at the time, and may well have remained concealed for generations. The internal argument from the difference between the view of Justinian it presents and that given in the Be -/Edificiis. will impress no one who has observed the almost patent insincerity of the latter book, and the censure, severe though carefully guarded, which the Histories frequently bestow on Justinian's policy. On the other hand the agreement in many points of fact between the Histories. and the Anecdota, and the exactness of the references from the latter to the former, point to unity of author-ship; while the similarity of opinions, ideas, beliefs, pre-judices, and still more the similarities of literary manner, style, and language, supply an overwhelming body of evidence that the Anecdota are a genuine, and so far as his deep-seated feelings go the most genuine, work of Procopius. The question, which ought never to have been deemed doubtful, has been set at rest by the careful com-parison of the use of words and phrases in the acknow-ledged works of Procopius and in the Anecdota, which we owe to the industry of Dr Felix Dahn, and which is set forth in his excellent book mentioned at the close of this article. It is less easy to pronounce on the credibility of the picture which the Anecdota give of the court and government of Justinian. Plainly there are many exag gerations and some absurdities; yet, when we find some of the severest statements of the book confirmed by other, annalists and others substantially tallying with or explain-ing those made by Procopius himself in the Histories, we are led to conclude that there is a substantial basis of fact for the charges it brings. It is of course often difficult, sometimes impossible, to say what deductions must be made from the form these charges take; but after study-ing the book closely one becomes rather less than more, sceptical.

In point of style, the Anecdota are inferior to the Histories, and have the air of being unfinished or at least unrevised. Their merit lies in the furious earnestness with which they are written, and which gives them a force and reality sometimes wanting in the more elaborate books written for publication.

The character of a man who could revenge himself for having been obliged to bestow gross flattery on his sovereign by ferocious invective meant to be launched after his death inspires little respect. Otherwise Procopius is a favourable specimen of his age. He is patriotic, with a strong feeling for the greatness of the empire, its dignity, the preservation of its ancient order. He is a worshipper of the past, whose ideal is such a government as that of Trajan or Hadrian. His ethical standard is scarcely affected by Christianity, but is that of a Greek of classical times, with too great a tolerance of deceit when practised against barbarian enemies, and doubtless also with a de-ficient sense of honour and personal independence. Yet his patriotism does not prevent him from doing justice to the valour of the Persians, or the still finer qualities of the Goths as he had learnt to know them in Italy. He is, however, frigid in sentiment as well as in style, and throws little geniality into his narratives and de-scriptions. In his attitude towards the unseen world he is at once sceptical and superstitious—sceptical in that he speaks with equal hesitation about the practices and doctrines of different faiths, and declares his persua-sion that nothing more can be known about God than that He is all-wise and all-powerful; superstitious in his readiness to accept all kinds of marvels, omens, prophecies, apparitions, and to find in the sudden changes of human affairs the action of a spiteful fortune which delights to startle men and confound their schemes. Procopius has little philosophy in his history; he is a vague and incon-sistent thinker, and is strongest when he is describing events or facts, or drawing such direct inferences from them as strike an acute man of the world.

The best edition of Procopius is that by Dindorf in the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantium, 3 vols., Bonn, 1833-38. The best criticisms and examinations of his writings are those by W. S. Teuffel, in his Studien und Charakteristiken zur Literaturgeschichte, Leipsic, 1871 ; and F. Dahn, Protcopius von Caesarea, Berlin, 1865. (J. BR.)

The above article was written by: Prof. James Bryce, D.C.L., M.P.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries