Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Procopius of Caesarea

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 12
Procopius of Caesarea

by John Swinnerton Phillimore


Byzantine historian, b. in the latter years of the fifth century at Caesarea in Palestine, d. not earlier than A.D. 562. We have no account of his parentage or education, except that by a legal and literary training he qualified himself for the civil service. As early as A.D. 527, before Justin's death, he became counsellor, assessor, and secretary to Belisarius, whose fortunes and campaigns he followed for the next twelve or fifteen years. He was raised to the dignity of an illustris. He is reckoned the greatest of the later Greek historians.

We owe to him an 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. The scope of the work is more than military; he is the best authority for the history of Justinian's reign, and Gibbon eloquently expresses his regret at reaching a date where he must exchange Procopius for less intelligent guides. In style he imitates Thucydides chiefly; perhaps also in casting his work into eight books. His range of reading included all the greatest of the Greek historians and geographers, and he was well schooled in the poets and the orators. But his unique value lies in his personal as well as official familiarity with the people, the places, and the events of which he writes. His tone in this work is critical and independent. His account of "Justinian's Buildings" (peri ktismaton) was completed in A.D. 558 or 559. It is composed in the manner of the courtly panegyrics for which Pliny's encomium of Trajan had cast the model; and he is thought to have written it either by imperial command or at least in order to vindicate himself from suspicions of disaffection. But the very extravagance which prompts him to credit Justinian with all the public works executed in the entire Eastern Empire during his reign gives the work an exhaustive scope and a peculiar value for the archaeologist. The third of his books has gained a scandalous celebrity and aroused much question both as to its authenticity and motives. This is the "Anecdota", which Suidas characterizes as "a satirical attack on Justinian", but which 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. 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.)

DAHN, Prokopius von Caesarea (Berlin, 1865). A succinct account with a bibiography is to be found in KRUMBACHER, Geschichte der Byzantinischen Litteratur vom Justinian bis zum Ende des oströmischen Reiches in MÜLLER, Handbucher der klass. Alterthumswissenschaft (Munich, 1890). See also BURSlAN. Jahresbericht, XXXVIII, 255 (SCHENKL), and LVIII, 62, and prefaces to the edition by COMPARETTI (Rome, 1895) and HAURY; Byzantinische Zeitschrift (1893), II, 107-109; Mnemosyne N. S., IX (1881), 109-112, 149-54, 160-4.

J. S. Phillimore.