Procopius of Caesarea

The Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (ca. 500-ca. 565), the last of the great classical Greek historians, was an eyewitness to, and prime reporter of, events in the reign of Emperor Justinian I.

Born in Palestinian Caesarea between 490 and 507, Procopius was thoroughly educated and probably trained in law. In 527 he was made advisor and secretary to the young general Belisarius, then imperial commander in Mesopotamia against the Persians. In this capacity Procopius accompanied Belisarius on many of his campaigns, witnessing not only the Persian hostilities but also the suppression of the Nika Riots (532), the conquest of the Vandal kingdom of North Africa (533-534), and—after a term of service in North Africa (534-536)—the first war against the Ostrogoths in Italy (535-540). Procopius was in Constantinople in 542, where he observed the beginnings of the terrible plague that struck the empire. Presumably, Procopius did not join Belisarius on his second Italian campaign. He seems to have held government posts in the capital for the remainder of his career.

Drawing upon his experiences, Procopius began during the 540s a formal history of military and political events of his day, his History of the Wars, written in excellent Greek. Of its eight books, the first two narrate the empire's Persian Wars, from early in the 5th century to about 550. The next two books describe the Vandalic Wars and subsequent events in North Africa to the late 540s. Three more books describe both phases of the Ostrogothic Wars, from 535 to 551. A supplementary eighth book covers events generally between 548 and 554.

Meanwhile Procopius's attitude seems to have undergone a drastic change. Apparently cool personally to Justinian and his consort Theodora, he seems at least to have shared the aspirations of their reign's early years. The subsequent disasters and disillusionments soured him—a process increased, it is thought, by his failure to obtain all the advancements he expected. Consequently, about 550, Procopius composed The Unpublished Sections ( anékdota), now known as the Historia arcana, or Secret History. The Wars, a public and semiofficial history, had been meant for circulation. In this secret memoir, not intended for publication, Procopius poured out his frustrations in terms of ridicule and abuse of Belisarius, of his wife Antonina, of Empress Theodora, and, above all, of Justinian himself. The Emperor is depicted as malicious, rapacious, a destroyer of all established order and traditions, and, in effect, an evil demon.

Though objective and skeptical about religious matters, Procopius planned an ecclesiastical history of Justinian's reign, but this work was either lost or unrealized. In the mid-550s, however, Procopius composed an account of Justinian's architectural program entitled On the Buildings. Organized geographically into six books, it is incomplete as planned, lacking a section on Italy.

Procopius seems to have received some higher positions at court late in life. He is last specifically heard of in 559, and the date of his death is unknown.


Further Reading on Procopius of Caesarea

The complete works of Procopius are most readily available in the Loeb Classical Library series (7 vols., 1914-1940), with the Greek text and English translation by H. B. Dewing and G. Downey. The Secret History is available in paperback translation by R. Atwater (1963) and G. A. Williamson (1966). There is no comprehensive study of Procopius in English, but all major works on the age of Justinian discuss him at length. See, for example, John Bagnell Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (1923).