Friday, November 04, 2011

Age of Justinian Part III
Samizdat Under Justinian
A Note

Map of Byzantine Empire under Justinian I

In two previous postings I discussed the reign of Justinian I1 Here I will discuss a rather interesting feature of the intellectual culture of the time period. The existence of an alternative dissenting intellectual culture / opposition to the official culture promulgated by the Imperial state and glorifying Justinian.

I have in my previous two postings mentioned and used the contemporary historian Procopius of Caesarea, ( A town in modern day Israel). Now Procopius was more or less the official historian of Justinian I’s reign writing his classic The Wars. Later Procopius would write his panegyric to Justinian I The Buildings which was also his last work.2

Now in the former Soviet Union there circulated in the underground intellectual milieu Samizdat documents. Generally books, journals etc., that were banned by the authorities or contained information damaging to the regime. These documents would often be copied and circulated from person to person. Often the authors were unknown. These documents circulating were basically a type of intellectual resistance to the regime. Often Samizdat documents were created by those in official literary positions and circulated privately outside the more official accepted publications of the same author. Thus did dissent in the Soviet Union exist and circulate its view of reality as against official reality. Something similar may have existed in the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian I.3

Now Procopius didn’t just write the above works he also wrote, in secret, the scandalous, vicious attack on Justinian I, his wife Theodora and the whole state dominated by them called The Secret History.4

The Secret History is almost unimaginably vicious; it just reeks of hatred for Justinian I and his whole system. This is especially in contrast to The Buildings which comes across as an utterly servile example of stomach turning flattery to Justinian I. Not surprisingly most people have taken The Buildings' flattery as wholly insincere. There are of course some exceptions people who try to argue that Procopius’ venom in The Secret History is a simple literary convention and that The Buildings is likely to a large extent sincere.5

One read of The Secret History with it's almost pathological hatred and loathing of Justinian I and Theodora should cure that absurd notion. For example:
Well, then, this Emperor [Justinian I] was dissembling, crafty, hypocritical, secretive by temperament, two-faced; a clever fellow with a marvelous ability to conceal his real opinion, an able to shed tears, not from joy or sorrow but employing them artfully when required in accordance with the immediate need, lying all the time, not carelessly, however, but confirming his undertakings both with his signature and the most dread oaths, even when dealing with his own subjects.
…they [Justinian I and Theodora] were at one in their rapacity, their bloodlust and their utter contempt for the truth. Both of them were the most practiced liars.
Anyway, 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 the fortune still to be alive will know the truth…6
One of the ironies of The Secret History is that it is considered to be invective aside pretty accurate. This is often ignored by historians but it does seem to be the case.7

Further it is clear that Procopius’ books The Wars and The Buildings should be considered in context and conjunction with The Secret History. It is generally recognized that The Wars' picture of Justinian and his rule is not positive but carefully crafted to give a decidedly negative view if read with care. Certainly the work is no panegyric in the slightest. Although its criticism of the imperial pair, (Justinian and Theodora), is carefully veiled and indirect.8

Procopius had a whole set of classical allusions, tropes and metaphors he could use to convey the “real” meaning of his text. Further those who had read or knew about The Secret History could read the contents of The Wars bearing it in mind and then discover new meanings in the text. Like a Soviet Writer during the period of the Soviet Union he could convey meaning indirectly and by allusion, and metaphor. People could read into his text meanings that the authorities because they were not primed would miss.9

Thus we have The Buildings, a work that Procopius at its beginning explicitly states that its purpose is to praise virtuous deeds. Procopius then goes on to praise Justinian I wars, religious policy etc. it is an embarrassing panegyric done either by commission or for gain and probably not the slightest bit sincere. Certainly Procopius talks in the beginning about subjects who benefit from generous rulers.10

However the irony begins very quickly when Procopius praises in various sections of The Buildings Justinian’s religious policy. This is ironic given Procopius’ quite vehement denunciations of religious persecution in The Secret History. Thus we have Procopius praising in The Buildings the enforcement of religious uniformity.
And finding that the belief in God was, before his time, straying into errors and being forced to go in many directions, he completely destroyed all the paths leading to such errors, and brought it about that it stood on the firm foundation of a single faith.11
In The Secret History we have comments like:
His [Justinian I] ambition being to force everyone into one form of Christian belief, he wantonly destroyed everyone who would not conform, and that while keeping up a pretense of pity. For he did not regard it as murder so long as those who died did not happen to share his beliefs.12
Thus read in the context of The Secret History Procopius’ comment is utterly insincere or sarcastic. It is also possible that Procopius, although over all unlikely, was not a Christian but a sort of philosophical pagan who had the good sense to conceal his opinions from most people. It is highly unlikely he would have changed his mind and a few years later approved of religious persecution.

Procopius’ hostility to the state dominated by Justinian I is of course veiled in The Buildings which comes across as a panegyric but we get interestingly little tidbits. Like Procopius’ description of a statute of the Emperor Justinian I has Achilles has having light radiate from it like a star of Autumn. If you dip into your classical learning you find that Achilles is indeed compared to an Autumn star in the Iliad; but that star is a star of ill fortune for mortal man.13

In another section Procopius uses the line “gentle as a father" to describe Justinian I and right after that line in the Odyssey occurs this line spoken by Telemachus “... and there is now this greater evil still: my home and all I have are being ruined”. In antiquity it was common to recite a line and allow the audience to supply the next lines.14

Thus we have Procopius in The Buildings saying that compared to the reign of Justinian I the rule of the great Persian King Cyrus was as:
…if one should examine his reign with care, he will regard the rule of Cyrus as a sort of child's play.15
In The Secret History Procopius attacks Justinian I, for under him:
…the state resembled one huge gang of children playing ‘King of the Castle’.16
Thus Procopius makes an allusion to his own Secret History. These sorts of allusions are rife in The Buildings. So it appears that Procopius did not change his mind about Justinian I and his reign. In fact the panegyric aspects of the The Buildings can be read as satire to those in the know.

Procopius seems to have been part of a circle of dissident intellectuals of his time who tried to stay out of trouble and at the same time tell the truth as they saw it. Justinian I and Theodora’s reputation have not and will likely never recover from the shock of the The Secret History. Which did survive and serves to blacken them both.

But then consider the following passage and be reminded that police state methods have existed for thousands of years and so has the fear of them.
The reason [Procopius gives the reason he did not record certain facts] for this is that it was out of the question to tell the story in the way it that it should have been recorded as long as those responsible for what happened were still alive. For it was impossible 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.17.
The above would not be an uncommon sentiment in the mind of a 20th / 21st century intellectual in a 20th / 21st century Police State.

As it is I suspect Procopius would have found much in the Soviet Union distressingly familiar.

Harbour of Caesarea Israel

1. See Here, and Here.

2. See Procopius, The Wars, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, In five volumes, 1914-1928, (Procopius originally published it in 8 books.) Books 1 to 6 are available at Gutenberg Here. Books 7 and 8 are available at the Internet Archive Here and Here. The Buildings is available at Lacus Curtius Here; which is Volume 7 of the Harvard translation of Procopius.

3. For the Soviet Union see Smith, Hendrick, The Russians, Ballantine Books, New York, 1976, pp. 504-620. Kaldellis, Anthony, Procopius of Caesarea, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2004, pp. 94-117, Kaldellis, Anthony, Introduction, Prokopios The Secret History, Hackett Pub. Co. Inc, Indianapolis, IN, 2010, pp. vii-lix, at xl-xlviii.
4. See Procopius, The Secret History, Penguin Books, Revised Translation, London, 2007. The Secret History can be found on the net at Gutenberg Here.

5. See Cameron, A, Procopius and the Sixth Century, Routledge, London, 1996, (Reprint of 1985 Edition).

6. Procopius, The Secret History s. 8 p.35, s. 14 p. 62, s. 28 p. 124.

7. See Kaldellis, 2010, xlix-lix, Kaldellis, 2010, 223-228. For an example in volume 6 of the Harvard University Loeb translations of Procopius Prof. H. B. Dewing admits in his Introduction to The Secret History the basic accuracy of it. See a copy of the Introduction at Lacus Curtius Here.

8. See Kaldellis, 2004, pp. 45-61, 118-164, Kaldellis, 2010.

9. IBID, and pp. 94-117, Smith, pp. 504-530.
10. Procopius, The Buildings, Book. 1 s.1.

11. IBID.

12. Procopius, The Secret History, s. 13, p. 55.

13. Procopius, The Buildings, Book 1, s. 2. Homer, Iliad, Bantam Books, New York, 1960, Book 22, v. 26-31, p. 335, Kaldellis, 2004, p. 53, 165-172,. The Iliad can be found at Gutenberg Here.

14. Procopius, The Buildings, Book s. 1, Homer, Odyssey, Penguin Books, London, 1946, Book 2, v. 47-49, p. 38, Kaldellis, 2004, p. 53-54, Kaldellis, 2004, pp. 53-54. The Odyssey can be found at Gutenberg Here. Lines from Odyssey is quoted from Kaldellis, 2004, p. 53.

15. Procopius, The Buildings, Book 1 s. 1, Kaldellis, 2004, pp. 54-56.

16. Ptocopius, The Secret History, s. 14, pp. 59-60, Kaldellis, 2004, pp. 54-56.

17. Procopius, The Secret History, s. 1, p. 1.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. I wouldn't blame Justinian for the Islamic conquests. Byzantium and Persia were in relative equilibrium for decades after his death, it was more the usurpation of Phokas and subsequent instability that allowed Khusro II to gain so much territory - and Herakleios still beat him back. And that long Byzantine-Persian war weakened both empires just before the Arabs started their conquests.

  2. Thank you for your comment but your comment proberly belongs with one of my earlier Justinian postings and not this one.

    I also do not believe that Justinian I was responsible for the Muslim conquests. After all who could have predicted Mohammed?

    However in my opinion justinian weakened the empire in relation by his useless, costly conquests in relation to the slavs and Persians.

    Atributing the collapse entirely to Phocus' usurpation ignores that the Emopire had and would in the future have many such usurpations, just why in this particualr case the Byzantine military system collapsed so abjectly requires an explanation and the simple act of usurpation fails to do it. Frankly I suspect deep seated systemic and institutional weaknesses.

    As for an equilibrium with Persia, that was to a large extend the result of Persia being distracted by vicious wars with the Turks and certain dynastic problems. When Khuro Ii was able to concentrate Persian military might against the Byzantines the result was disater for the Byzantines.

    As for the war itself. The accounts are shoddy and dubious. I strongly suspect that Heraclius' military achievements were dressed up by the accounts. Since Heraclius seemed to have done very little, it seems, for ten years after becoming Emperor i suspect the problems were deep and terrible that he had to deal with. Further I have given up trying to make sense of them, they are pathetic and a scandal.

    As for Heraclius defeating the Persians. Well the accounts are very, very poor. Perhaps you have not heard of the account that claims that even after Heraclius' alleged crowning mercy in the battle of Ninevah the Persians retained Syrian and Egypt and Libya and only gave them up when the Persian general Shahr made a bid for the Persian throne and made a deal with Heraclius in exchange for his support.

    As I said above I don't give this version of events anymore credence than any other. This entire time period is stunningly opaque.

    I agree that the mutual exhaustion of both empires played a role in the Arab conquests. Although I suspect the Byzantine reforms instituted by Heraclius probably with the "trifle" that enabled the Byzantine empire despite the loss of much territory to survive. Persia due to dynastic instability and other factors was unable to do so and collapsed.