1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Procopius
PROCOPIUS, Byzantine historian, was born at Caesarea. in Palestine towards the end of the 5th century A.D. He became a lawyer, probably at Constantinople, and was in 527 appointed secretary and legal adviser to Belisarius, who was proceeding to command the imperial army in the war against the Persians (De bello persico i. 12). When the Persian War was suspended and Belisarius was dispatched against the Vandals of Africa. in 533, Procopius again accompanied him, as he subsequently did in the war against the Ostrogoths of Italy, which began in 535. After the capture of Ravenna in 540 Procopius seems to have returned to Constantinople, since he minutely describes the great plague of 542 (op. cit. ii. 22). It does not appear whether he was with the Roman armies in the later stages of the Gothic War, when Belisarius and afterwards Narses fought against Totila in Italy; his narrative of these years is much less full and minute than that of the earlier warfare. Of his subsequent fortunes we know nothing, except that he was living in 559. Whether he was the Procopius who was prefect of Constantinople in 562 (Theophanes, Chronographia, 201, 202), and was removed from office in the year following, cannot be determined. As the historian was evidently a person of note, who had obtained the rank of illustrins (Suidas), and from a passage in the Anecdota (1 2) seems to have risen to be a senator, there is no improbability in his having been raised to the high office of prefect. Procopius's writings fall into three divisions: the Histories (Persian, Vandal and Gothic Wars), in eight books; the treatise on the Buildings of Jnstinian (De aedihciis), in six books; and the Unpublished Memoirs ('A1/é:<5ora, Historia arcana), so called because they were not published during the lifetime of the author.
The Histories are called by the author himself the Books about the Wars (oi birép -ro'I>v 1ro}é;.4w1/ Mfyoi). They consist of: (1) the Persian Wars, in two books, giving a narrative of the long struggle of the emperors Tustin and Tustinian against the Persian kings Kavadh and Chosroes Anushirvan down to 550; (2) the Vandal War, in two books, describing the conquest of the Vandal kingdom in Africa and the subsequent events there from 532 down to 546 (with a few words on later occurrences); (3) the Gothic War, in three books, narrating the war against the Ostrogoths in Sicily and Italy from 536 till 552. The eighth book contains a further summary of events down to 554. These eight books of Histories, although mainly occupied with military matters, contain notices of some of the more important domestic events, such as the Nika insurrection at Constantinople in 532, the plague in 542, the conspiracy of Artabenes in 548. They tell us, however, comparatively little about the civil administration of the empire, and nothing about legislation. On the other hand they are rich in geographical and ethnographical information. As an historian Procopius is of quite unusual merit, when the generally low literary level of his age is considered. He is industrious in collecting facts, careful and impartial in stating them; his judgment is sound, his reflections generally acute, his conceptions of the general march and movement of things not unworthy of the great events he has recorded. His descriptions, particularly of military operations, are clear, and his especial fondness for this part of the subject seldom leads him into unnecessary minuteness. The style, although marked by mannerisms, by occasional affectations and rhetorical devices, is on the whole direct and businesslike, nor is the Greek bad for the period in which he wrote. His models are Thucydides and Herodotus. The former he imitates in the maxims (γνῶμαι) he throws in and the speeches which he puts into the mouth of the chief actors; the latter in his frequent geographical digressions, in the personal anecdotes, in the tendency to collect and attach some credence to marvellous tales. The speeches are obviously composed by Procopius himself, rarely showing any dramatic variety in their language, but they seem sometimes to convey the substance of what was said; and even when this is not the case they frequently serve to bring out the points of a critical situation. Procopius is almost as much a geographer as an historian, and his descriptions of the people and places he himself visited are generally careful and thorough. Although a warmly patriotic Roman, he does full justice to the merits of the barbarian enemies of the empire, particularly the Ostrogoths; although the subject of a despotic prince, he criticizes the civil and military administration of Justinian and his dealings with foreign peoples with a freedom which gives a favourable impression of the tolerance of the emperor. His chief defects are a somewhat pretentious and at the same time monotonous style, and a want of sympathy and intensity.
The De aedificiis contains an account of the chief public works executed during the reign of Justinian down to 558 (in which year it seems to have been composed), particularly churches, palaces, hospitals, fortresses, roads, bridges and other river works throughout the empire. All these are of course ascribed to the personal action of the monarch. If not written at the command of Justinian (as some have supposed), it is evidently grounded on official information, and is full of gross flattery of the emperor and of the (then deceased) empress. In point of style it is greatly inferior to the Histories—florid, pompous and affected, and at the same time tedious. Its chief value lies in the geographical notices which it contains.
The Anecdota (“Secret History”) purports to be a supplement to the Histories, containing explanations and additions which the author could not insert in the latter work for fear of Justinian and Theodora. It is a furious invective against these sovereigns, their characters, personal conduct and government, with attacks on Belisarius and his wife Antonina, and on other noted officials in the civil and military services of the empire. Owing to the ferocity and brutality of the attacks upon Justinian, the authenticity of the Anecdota has often been called in question, but the claims of Procopius to the authorship are now generally recognized. In point of style, the Anecdota is inferior to the Histories, and has the air of being unfinished, or at least unrevised. Its merit lies in the furious earnestness with which it is written, which gives it a force and reality sometimes wanting in the more elaborate books written for publication. The history of Philip of Macedon by Theopompus probably furnished the author with a model.
The best complete edition of Procopius is by J. Haury (Teubner Series, 1905); the Gothic War has been edited by D. Comparetti (1895–1898), with an Italian translation. There are English translations of the History of the Wars, by H. Holcroft (1653); of the Anecdota (1674, anonymous); of the Buildings, by Aubrey Stewart (1888, in Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society). Chief authorities: F. Dahn, Procopius von Cäsarea (1865); W. S. Teutfel in Studien und Charakteristiken (2nd ed., 1889); L. Ranke, Weltgeschichte (1883), iv. 2. On the genuineness of the Anecdota cf. J. B. Bury (who agrees with Ranke in rejecting the authorship of Procopius) A History of the Later Roman Empire (1889). vol. i., and introd. to vol. i. (p. 57) and app. to vol. iv. of his edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. For the literature of the subject generally, see C. Krumbacher, Gesehichte der byzantinischen Litteratur (2nd ed., 1897).