Sometime in the middle of the sixth century, the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote his “Secret History,” an account of the reign of the Emperor Justinian, whom Procopius had come to regard as a murderous, half-mad, utterly corrupt tyrant. Hidden for a thousand years, and often severely censored during subsequent publications, the full text did not appear in English until 1896, in an edition privately printed by the Athenian Society. That work is now available for free online.
As was the practice at the time, the table of contents of the 1896 edition contains brief, staccato descriptions of the elements covered in each chapter. Reading through them, I was struck by how many of the descriptions seemed to chime with our own day, where another corrupt and bloated military empire has burst open like a rotten fruit, oozing and reeking in the blaze of an indifferent sun.
So below are some snippets from those chapter descriptions, forming a bleak mosaic of these times and its sad continuities with the besetting abuses of power so common to our human kind.
Avarice and cruelty of Justinian
His inconsistency in regard to the laws
Calamities in the provinces—Justinian’s apathy
In spite of his ignorance, he is proclaimed Emperor
Murder committed with impunity—
Inaction on the part of the authorities—
Acts of violence committed upon both sexes
Culpability of Justinian—
His partiality for the oppressors,
upon whom he bestows favours and dignities.
Justinian’s fickleness and ill-faith—Venality of justice
Increased spoliation—Increasing corruption of officials
Waste of the public money during his reign
His partiality for the clergy—His gifts to the churches—
His passion for blood and money
The “posts” and “spies”
Inundations, earthquakes, and the plague
The senate a mere cipher
Abolition of various old customs
Laws changed for money considerations
Sacred asylums violated
He abolishes the assistance rendered to the unfortunate