Thursday, July 14, 2011

Procopius: The Secret History

If a salacious historical novel is your flavour then let me introduce you to the Byzantine author Procopius. Once a favourite of the great general Belisarius, he wrote a scathing attack upon the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora. As a student at ANU I took guilty pleasure from his witty but incredibly acerbic descriptions of the imperial court in 6th Century Constantinople. Reading Procopius was like a date with Jackie Collins in a comfy sofa! As an ancient historian you rely upon several sources to make observations on a period or location; the literary record, the physical evidence provided by archaeology, and sometimes surviving legal records through contemporary writers of the period.

Procopius was the archetypal scorned man. He wrote from the perspective of a discarded confidant and while his writings slandered the Imperial family they successfully represented themselves as quasi divine (as seen in the mosaics of Ravenna) I have attached a description of the 'humble origins' of the Empress Theodora according to the author... "But as soon as she arrived at the age of youth, and was now ready for the world, her mother put her on the stage. Forthwith, she became a courtesan, and such as the ancient Greeks used to call a common one, at that: for she was not a flute or harp player, nor was she even trained to dance, but only gave her youth to anyone she met, in utter abandonment. Her general favors included, of course, the actors in the theater; and in their productions she took part in the low comedy scenes. For she was very funny and a good mimic, and immediately became popular in this art. There was no shame in the girl, and no one ever saw her dismayed: no role was too scandalous for her to, accept without a blush."

I have chosen a safer extract as Procopius really gets going on her after warming up. The Secret History (Anecdota) was found in the Vatican Library in the late 17th Century (probably hidden for personal reading by the Pope). And people say history is dull!

Image: Theodora in Byzantine mosaic in Basilica of San VitaleRavenna

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