The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900

By Christopher Holdsworth; T.P. Wiseman | Go to book overview

V
HISTORY AS TEXT:
COPING WITH PROCOPIUS

Averil Cameron

An alternative title for this paper might be ‘Procopius and Interpretation’. But it would be truer to talk of Misinterpretation, for it would be fair to say that a kind of assumption still prevails that Procopius is, in the words of Bury, ‘the most excellent Greek historian since Polybius’.1 Broadly, this judgement assumes that he was critical, reliable, classical, concerned with causes…and so on. Add to that the fact that he was literally an eye-witness of quite a lot of what he describes, that he was close to Belisarius and that he took part sometimes on missions himself. He seems to have the best possible credentials.

And yet Procopius was an author trying to write classical history nearly two centuries after Ammianus. Any writer with these ambitions in sixth-century Constantinople might be expected to have encountered difficulties.

And there is a further problem, specific to Procopius; for the very same author also wrote a flattering panegyric on Justinian’s buildings, and a vitriolic attack on the same emperor.2 Doesn’t this detract from the reputation of the historian, or make us wonder whether in fact the interpretations offered in the Wars will stand up to scrutiny? That, however, is a matter of our responses. For most admirers of the Wars the response has been very simple: to privilege the Wars and explain away the other two works by one means or another, from the most extreme— denial of Procopian authorship, to the most common—trivialisation, explaining them in terms of incidents in Procopius’s biography (about which, incidentally, we know nothing outside his own works).

The Secret History remained unknown until after the reputation of the Wars was assured; consequently it is not very surprising that the Roman lawyers of the seventeenth century refused to believe that it could be by Procopius.3 As recently as 1889, Bury still thought it spurious,4 and it remains a problem for those who are most impressed by the supposed classicism of the Wars. By 1923 Bury had decided that Procopius wrote it, but thought he must have suffered a ‘brainstorm’ first;5 Gibbon thought that it must ‘sully the reputation and detract from the credit of Procopius’6—at the same time, of course, relishing its more salacious bits with prurient comment. The Penguin translator is equally

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