Historians, when writing about history, not only discuss the theoretical facts that are being proposed as the timeline, but also the means by which they arrived at their ideas. Generally, they draw their conclusions about history by reading “sources,” or earlier accounts of the matter at hand. In some cases these are eye-witness accounts, in others, accounts told to a scribe by a witness, and so on.
Historians try to make a distinction between sources as “primary” and “secondary.” A primary source is not necessarily an eye-witness account – though it would be nice if it was – but is defined by historians as one that cannot be traced back any further and does not seem to depend on someone else’s account. Secondary sources are those that are essentially copies or “re-worked” primary sources. Often, they consist of material from several sources assembled together with commentary or additional data.
Well, obviously this could present a problem if the primary source is completely falsified.
Primary sources can legitimately require interpretation and assessment; this is the role of a good secondary source, providing the distinction between source and interpretation is made clear. Indeed secondary sources – analyses – are vital to the average reader who may not have the necessary linguistic, historical and cultural background to assess the primary sources.
But, all too often, historians deal with their sources exactly as Huysmans has described, which bears repeating:
Events are for a man of talent nothing but a spring-board of ideas and style, since they are all mitigated or aggravated according to the needs of a cause or according to the temperament of the writer who handles them.
As far as documents which support them are concerned, it is even worse, since none of them is irreducible and all are reviewable. If they are not just apocryphal, other no less certain documents can be unearthed later which contradict them, waiting in turn to be devalued by the unearthing of yet other no less certain archives. [Huysmans, 1891, Ch II].
Let’s talk about the Emperor Justinian now. A reader of the Catholic Encyclopedia will discover the following praises of Justinian:
The thirty-eight years of Justinian’s reign are the most brilliant period of the later empire. Full of enthusiasm for the memories of Rome, he set himself, and achieved, the task of reviving their glory.
The many-sided activity of this wonderful man may be summed up under the headings: military triumphs, legal work, ecclesiastical polity, and architectural activity. Dominating all is the policy of restoring the empire, great, powerful, and united. […]
Justinian also acquired immortal fame by the impetus he gave to the arts. If any style can ever be ascribed to one man, what we call Byzantine architecture, at least in its perfect form, owes its origin to Justinian and the architects he employed. His activity in building was prodigious. He covered his empire from Ravenna to Damascus with superb monuments. All later building in East and West was derived from his models; two most famous schools, ourmedieval (Gothic) and the Moslem styles, are the lineal descendants of Justinian’s architecture. Of his many buildings may be mentioned the two most famous, the church of Our Lady (now the El-Aqsa mosque) at Jerusalem and, by far the most splendid of all, the great church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) at Constantinople. This church especially, built by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and consecrated on 27 December, 537, remains always one of the chief monuments of architecture in the world. […]
Justinian died in November, 565. He was undoubtedly the greatest emperor after Constantine, perhaps the greatest of all the long line of Roman Caesars.
Indeed one may question whether any state can show in its history so magnificent a ruler.
His glorious memory lasted through all the ages after him and his portrait gleams still from the mosaic in S. Vitale at Ravenna, where he stands in his toga and diadem, surrounded by his court, with a bishop at his side the very type of the majesty of Christian Rome on the Bosporus.
He sounds like a veritable paragon, eh? Of course, everything wasn’t all positive, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:
The Catholic cannot applaud the great emperor’s ecclesiastical polity, though in this, too, we recognize the statesman’s effort to promote peace and union within the empire. […]
The Corpus Juris is full of laws against paganism (apostasy was punished by death), Jews, Samaritans (who began a dangerous revolt in 529), Manichaeans, and other heretics. The decrees of the four general councils were incorporated in the civil law. There was no toleration of dissent.
True to the ideal of Constantinople, the emperor conceived himself as “priest and king”, supreme head on earth in matters ecclesiastical as well as in the State. […]
And all through his reign he fell foul of the authority of the Churchby his attempts to conciliate the Monophysites. […] These heretics filled Syria and Egypt, and were a constant source of disunion and trouble to the empire. Justinian was one of the many emperors who tried to reconcile them by concessions.
Justinians ecclesiastical “confusion” is blamed on his wife:
His wife Theodora was a secret Monophysite; influenced by her, the emperor, while maintaining Chalcedon, tried to satisfy the heretics by various compromises. […] In all this story Justinian appears as a persecutor of the Church, and takes his place, unhappily, among the semi-Monophysite tyrants who caused the long series of quarrels and schisms that were the after-effect of Monophysitism. His ecclesiastical tyranny is the one regrettable side of the character of so great a man.
What is a Monophysite?
Monophysites believed that Jesus’ human nature was transformed, subsumed, into a Divine Nature, thus the term “monophysite,” or “one-natured.”
This idea was in direct conflict with the dogma adopted by the church that in Christ, there is ONE divine Person, and TWO distinct natures: one fully human and one that was fully divine.
The earliest instances of monophysitism were not condemned and were, in fact, advocated by a number of prominent Church leaders, like Cyril. The monophysite view that Jesus had a single nature was eventually condemned at the Council of Chalcedon (451) which asserted that Jesus had both a Divine and a Human nature combined in a single person. Some tried to avoid being condemned as heretics by asserting that Jesus may have had two natures technically, the Human nature was so subsumed by the Divine nature that the practical effect was a single nature.
Well, it is easy to see why this was so touchy a point. If Christ was supposed to have been transformed into a Divine Being, then of course, his “heirs,” i.e. the Emperors, would have to be similarly transformed and would not be able to be just a normal human with claims to another “divine nature” that he could put on and take off at will.
A genuine schismatic movement of Monophysites did not appear until after the Second Council of Constantinople (553) which required acceptance of the formulation decided upon at Chalcedon and some simply refused. They were the precursors of the present-day Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches. In 1984, the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox church (Mar Ignatius Zakka II) met with Pope John Paul II and together they signed a new declaration which stated the difference in their dogmas were more apparent than real and ultimately based upon cultural and linguistic “inadequacies.”
Getting back to Justinian, regarding his great building projects:
Naturally these great enterprises demanded great expense. Justinian’s subjects frequently complained of the heavy taxes; many people in the lands he conquered back thought that the glory of being once more Roman citizens was bought too dearly when they realized how much they had to pay to the Roman exchequer.
One of the things that Justinian is most famous for was his legal code:
The most enduring work of Justinian was his codification of the laws. This, too, was an important part of his general scheme. The great empire he was reconquering must have the strength of organized unity. He says in the edict of promulgation of his laws that a state rests on arms and law (“De Justin. Cod. Confirmando”, printed in front of the codex).
The scattered decrees of his predecessors must then be collected in a well-ordered and complete codex, logically arranged, so that every Roman citizen could learn at once the law of the empire on any subject. This codification was Justinian’s great work. He made many new laws himself, but his enduring merit is rather the classification of scattered older laws.
The Catholic Encyclopedia finds that it cannot avoid mentioning Justinian’s scandalous life and basically blames it on his wife because, of course, she was a Monophysite:
The emperor’s private life is somewhat clouded by the scandals told of his wife, Theodora. She had been a dancing-girl; there is no doubt that she had led an immoral life before her marriage in 523. She was also a Monophysite. But most scholars now reject the scandalous account of her married life given by Procopius in his “Secret History”. And in January, 532, at the time of the Circus revolution that nearly wrecked the state, it was Theodora’s courage and presence of mind that saved the situation. For the rest she had a hand in all her husband’s policy; administration, diplomacy, church affairs, etc., felt her influence for twenty-one years. If she did not dishonor Justinian by infidelity she certainly led him into semi-Monophysitism (see Diehl, Theodora, imperatrice de Byzance,” Paris, 1904).
It is said that the reign of Justinian was a turning-point in Late Antiquity. It was the period when paganism finally lost its long battle to survive, and when the schism in Christianity between the Monophysite east and the Chalcedonian west became insurmountable.
From a military viewpoint, it marked the last time that the Roman Empire could dominate the known world. Africa and Italy were reconquered, and a presence was established in Spain. When Justinian died, the frontiers were still intact although the Balkans had been devastated by a series of raids and the Italian economy was a disaster.
Now, let’s come back to Procopius mentioned above as having slandered Justinian and Theodora with his “Secret History.”
Procopius of Caesarea was born in the late fifth century in Palestine. Nobody knows who his parents were or where or how he was educated. It is known that he was qualified for civil service in Byzantium by virtue of some sort of legal and literary training. As early as A.D. 527 he became counsellor, assessor, and secretary to the great General Belisarius, whose fortunes and campaigns he followed for the next twelve or fifteen years.
To Procopius we owe thanks for his eyewitness’s description of Belisarius’s wars, in eight books. Of these, two deal with the Persian war, two with the Vandalic, three with the Gothic; Book VIII concludes with a general survey of events down to A.D. 554.
Procopius wrote about more than military matters, however. He is the best authority for the history of Justinian’s reign, and the historian, Gibbon, regretted the fact that the histories subsequent to Procopius were written by less intelligent and insightful individuals.
Procopius was evidently widely read in all the greatest of the Greek historians and geographers, and he was familiar with the works of the famous Greek poets and orators. But his unique value lies in the fact that he personally knew the people, the places, and the events of which he wrote.
Procopius’ approach to his task is critical and independent though it is clear he was required to please his employer and certainly the Court. His account of “Justinian’s Buildings” was completed in A.D. 558 or 559 and it is thought that he wrote it either by imperial command or to vindicate himself from suspicions of disaffection. In an extravagant way, he credits Justinian with all the public works executed in the entire Eastern Empire during his reign.
What we are most particularly interested in is the third of his books. This work is scandalously famous and there has been a great deal of controversy as to whether it was authentic and what were Procopius’ motives in writing it. This book is most commonly known by the title of “Arcana Historia” (the secret history). It is a supplement to the other history, carrying the narrative down to the year 558-9, where it breaks off. Into it, as into the pages of a private journal, Procopius pours his detestation of Justinian and Theodora; even Belisarius and his wife are not spared.
One expert describes this book as “a satirical attack on Justinian.” and the Catholic Encyclopedia says:
It is a bitter, malignant, and often obscene invective against all the powers of the Byzantine Church and State, apparently the tardy revenge of an ill-conditioned man of letters for a lifetime of obsequiousness. The indiscriminate violence of the pamphlet betrays the writer’s passionate indignation, but spoils his case. The authenticity is now generally allowed, after a great deal of not unbiased discussion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (The “Anecdota” was first published in 1623.)
We ought to note that the Secret History of Procopius was not published during his lifetime and most certainly not during the lifetimes of those about whom he was writing. That pretty much demolishes the theory that it was a “tardy revenge of an ill-conditioned man … for a lifetime of obsequiousness.” What good is revenge if there is no one to receive it or to enjoy it? Yes, it was certainly vitriolic and pornographic in parts. For a long time, translations from Greek were only available into Latin and Gibbon – in Ch. 40 of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – wrote about Theodora that “her arts must be veiled in the obscurity of a learned language “, and then went on to quote the passage in Greek with Latin comments!
Procopius tells us in the introduction to The Secret History that he is going to provide explanations and additions that he could not previously reveal for fear of retribution from Justinian and Theodora. Since both before and afterward, Procopius wrote approvingly of the emperor, (keeping in mind that the Secret History was kept secret) it was suggested in the past that he was not the author of the work. Due to expert analyses, it is now generally accepted that Procopius did, indeed, write it. The text shows no contradictions in point of fact between the Secret History and Procopius’ other works and the linguistic and grammatical analysis makes this a conclusive opinion.
The Secret History of Procopius is so important to our subject here that I am going to reproduce it in its entirety over the next couple of chapters. And yes, it IS pornographic in parts.