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Posted October 30, 2009
The modern reader of history must typically depend on the research of equally modern historians. Which is certainly not a bad thing. Modern historians have access to a vast number of resources and often at least strive to present a more objective view of the past, while most ancient historians had no appreciation whatsoever for objectivity in composing their accounts of what would have been for them contemporary events and figures. While true objectivity may be impossible, I prefer a more balanced approach to history over the panegyrics of the past.
Having said that, it is still a pleasure to read ancient historians now and then, despite their shortcomings. And no historian was better placed to report on the lives of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius of the eastern Roman Empire than was Procopius, who produced eight volumes on the history of one of the greatest, most renowned Byzantine emperors - Justinian I. In his Secret History, Procopius not only casts aside panegyrics, but delves perhaps a bit too avidly into the revulsion he felt at his mighty emperor and empress. This is a history certainly worth reading for anyone whose view of Justinian is limited to praise for him as a devoted Christian ruler and appreciation for his sacral architecture, such as the fantastic Hagia Sophia in Konstantinopolis. Procopius details the greed and cruelty of his emperor, as well as the malice and lasciviousness of his wife, Theodora.
Which is interesting reading, although I can't help but feel it is more than a bit overstated and undersupported. Unfortunately, ancient writers also lacked a concern for citing their sources. You can't simply assume that because Procopius was a contemporary of Justinian, therefore he personally witnessed all that he writes about. Nor does he suggest so himself. In which case, how much of his account is hearsay, is simple rumor based on rumor, and how much of it - if any - can be further documented? I at least walk away from this book with a sense that Justinian and Theodora were extremely suspicious characters. Yet, while Procopius insists that Justinian was the worst ruler in all of history, just how much worse were he and his wife from other rulers in the ancient world? Or, for that matter, our own?
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Posted October 25, 2008
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