Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Age of Justinian Part I

Justinian and his Court

Theodora and her Court
The above pictures are of mosaics from St. Vitale at Ravenna. They show the public image that the great Emperor and his equally great Empress wished to convoy. Even though many of the mosaics were usurped from mosaics designed to glorify the Gothic King of Italy Theodoric the Great, these ones seem to have been designed to glorify Justinian and Theodora. For all the glory of Justinian and Theodora's reign, like those mosaics, it seems half baked and borrowed. The appearance seems more dazzling than the prosaic reality of exhaustion and futility.

Interestingly the foremost historian, Procopius, of Justinian and Theodora's reign produced also, in secret, the salacious and libelous Secret History, which is brim full of viciousness and venomous invective. He also produced the remarkable Wars, and the classic example of suck-up brown nosing The Buildings.

Historians faced with the above productions have responded in various ways. One is to deny that Procopius wrote the Secret History, a point of view now very much out of favour and extremely unlikely anyway. The other is to explain away the Secret History. This as led and still leads to remarkable convolutions.

A typical example of a refusal to take the Secret History, seriously is the following,
We do not know why Procopius wrote the Secret History, which is so offensive that it can never have been publicly circulated. It is useless as a source of information about 'what really happened', but the the Secret History, is a goldmine of information about mid-sixth-century Byzantine social systems and is particularly informative about appropriate gender roles.
The Age of Justinian Gender and Society, Leslie Brubaker, Age of Justinian, Ed. Michael Maas, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 427-447, at. 432-433.

The above statement is typical of the mind set that refuses to accept that behind the invective of the Secret History, are actual facts, and it is false. For example does anyone seriously doubt that the picture of Theodora's upbringing is true or that she had in fact been a courtesan (polite term for prostitute) before she met Justinian or that she had been a actress? So much for being "useless".

Its obvious that the possibility that Procopius' Secret History, might contain reliable history is intolerable to many who prefer to mistake illusion for reality. So the rhetorical strategies to avoid this unacceptable result.

The statement that we do not know why the Secret History, was written rather conveniently ignores that in the preface to the Secret History, Procopius gives reasons. So what the author of the above means has reasons means is reasons "I",the author, can accept.

Procopius says:
As long has those responsible for what happened were still alive, it was out of the question to tell the story in the way it deserved. For it was impossible to either to avoid detection by swarms of spies, or if caught to escape death in its most agonizing form. Indeed, even in the company of my nearest relations I felt far from safe.

So in this part of my work I feel it my duty to reveal both the events hitherto passed over in silence and the reasons for the events already described.

Procopius The Secret History, Procopius, Trans. G. A. Williamsom, Penguin Books, London, 1966, p. 37.

I can't leave this topic without quoting two quotes from the Secret History, which demonstrate its awful salaciousness and give a good indication of why its so hard for some historians to take it seriously.

And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with nature, grumbling because nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region.
With such lasciviousness did she misuse her own body that she appeared to have her private parts not like other women in the place intended by nature, but in her face!
Procopius The Secret History, p. 84 & 85.

Rather remarkable examples of vicious useless invective. As a side note it is of interest that the Loeb Classical library translation translated the above passages not into English but Latin!! Thus indicating that the audience, perhaps thought of has impressible children, had to be protected from such corruption. Its probably one of the most ridiculous example of censorship in classical literature.

The Secret History complete with a very good Introduction can be located at Here

Pierre Cloutier