Saturday, September 30, 2006

Procopius: crazy little bastard?

Tomorrow I'm going back to talking about Snorri, because I think I've failed to convey fully what a fucking mensch he was. But today we're going to talk about an earlier historian who wrote possibly the most lunatic work of the late antique/early medieval period. Don't believe me? Read on!

Procopius of Caesarea was, in his own weird way, awesome. Procopius was a Byzantine historian, born sometime around AD 500. From 527 onward, he served as legal advisor to this guy Belisarius, who was a general in the Byzantine army, Emperor Justinian I's right-hand man except when the Emperor was suspecting him of being a threat to his power and recalling him to Constantinople in disgrace. It was that kind of relationship, you know?

Anyway, Procopius wrote histories, including an exhaustive (and exhausting) eight-volume History of the Wars, chronicling Justinian's various campaigns against the Persians, Vandals, and Ostrogoths. He was sometimes critical of the Emperor's treatment of Belisarius, but in a very restrained, implied way. Byzantine society just didn't roll like that.

I like to imagine that the strain of being polite about a guy he despised who could ruin his career or even have him killed built up and up inside the guy until he just couldn't take it anymore, and the end result is the document we call The Secret History. It is fucking awesome.

Let me set you up with a little contrast here. Here's the kind of thing Procopius has to say about Justinian in History of the Wars:
This twenty centenaria [tribute] Isdigousnas [a Persian envoy] wanted to take with him, but the Emperor wanted to pay four each year so that he would have a guarantee that Chosroes would not break his agreement. But later the Romans gave to the Persians the whole amount of gold on the spot, so as not to appear to be paying a yearly tribute. Men are usually ashamed of dishonorable names, not actions.

Check out that sly little dig there! He's just makin' a general observation on human nature, him.

But the Secret History, well... that's a horse of a different color. Observe:
At least, though the plague ... fell on the entire earth, as many men escaped as perished from it, either through never having caught the disease or else having survived it after they had contracted it. But no Roman whatever succeeded in escaping from this man -- he fell like a disaster from heaven over the whole race and left no one whatever untouched. Some he killed without cause, others he left contending with poverty, more wretched than the dead, praying to him to release them from their present troubles, even by a cruel death.

Whoah! What kind of person could do that? Let's ask Procopius:
He was extremely stupid...

Come on, Pro! There's got to be more to it than that!
dissembling, treacherous, false, secret in his anger, two-faced; a clever man, well-able to feign an opinion ... always deceiving ... an unreliable friend; an enemy who would not keep a truce; a passionate lover of murder and of money ... he was easily led to evil, but never for any reason did he turn to good ... nature seemed to have taken away wickedness from all other men and put it all in his heart.

Lord! Sounds more like a monster than a man to me!
They say that Justinian's mother told some of her friends that he was not the son of her husband Sabbatius, nor of any man. Before he was conceived, and unseen spirit came to her ... Some of those who were ... undoubtedly with him in the palace, men of pure sould, thought they saw a strange demonic apparition instead of him. One said that ... suddenly the face took on the appearance of featureless flesh, for the brows and the eyes were no longer in their place, and it had no other recognizable feature at all.

So that's Procopius's view of Justinian in a nutshell -- a superhumanly evil monster. But what did he think of the Emperor's lovely wife, Empress Theodora?
Frequently, she conceived but as she employed every artifice immediately, a miscarriage was straightway effected. Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat. When she rose, it was not with a blush, but she seemed rather to glory in the performance. For she was not only impudent herself, but endeavored to make everybody else as audacious. Often when she was alone with other actors she would undress in their midst and arch her back provocatively, advertising like a peacock both to those who had experience of her and to those who had not yet had that privilege her trained suppleness.

So perverse was her wantonness that she should have hid not only the customary part of her person, as other women do, but her face as well. Thus those who were intimate with her were straightway recognized from that very fact to be perverts, and any more respectable man who chanced upon her in the Forum avoided her and withdrew in haste, lest the hem of his mantle, touching such a creature, might be thought to share in her pollution. For to those who saw her, especially at dawn, she was a bird of ill omen. And toward her fellow actresses she was as savage as a scorpion: for she was very malicious.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the foremost historian of his age just claimed that the Empress fucked a goose. You see why this is such a fascinating historical period?

Anyway, there's lots more of this stuff and you can read all about it in the man's own words, available to you by the magic of the internet.


At 12:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always particularly loved the bit about her being unsatisfied with the regular three orifices, and so wishing for larger gaps in her nipples. You get the feeling that Procopius' feelings about Theodora were ... a little mixed up.


At 2:52 AM, Blogger James said...

" You get the feeling that Procopius' feelings about Theodora were ... a little mixed up. "

If by this you mean, "you are tormented by the image of Procopius sitting at home, writing about Theodora with one hand and frantically masturbating with the other," then I'm right there with you.

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