Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.48

Anthony Kaldellis (ed.), Prokopios: The Secret History: With Related Texts.   Indianapolis/Cambridge:  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2010.  Pp. lxxix, 195.  ISBN 9781603841801.  $12.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Winnipeg (


The publication of Kaldellis’ translation of Procopius’ Secret History in a series that includes such classical stalwarts as Homer’s Iliad (BMCR 97.07.20 and Odyssey BMCR 2000.07.06), not to mention the heavyweights of ancient historiography, such as Tacitus and Thucydides, is surely a good sign. If there is a text of Procopius’ that is most likely to reach a wider audience this is it. Not only is the text filled with the pornographic exploits of an empress in her youth, but it also has a scene that is reminiscent of the television programme “Dexter”, and another scene, and character, that one student of mine likened to Star Wars and Darth Vader.1 Consequently, the time is ripe for this important author to reach a broader audience, and Anthony Kaldellis is as a good a candidate as any to tackle such a project.2

Internet translations aside, there are two widely available English translations of Procopius’ Secret History already in circulation: the Loeb and Penguin editions.3 The Loeb and Penguin editions both include a brief introduction, short index, and a couple of maps, although the former has the Greek text, while the latter has a genealogical table. Kaldellis’ edition also includes an introduction, but his is much more substantial and consists of a number of subtopics including, among others, “The Roman Empire in the Sixth Century” (x); “The Works of Prokopios” (xxiv); “The Style and Images of The Secret History” (xxxv); “Prokopios and Justinian: A Conflict of Ideologies” (xl); and “The Reliability of the The Secret History and the Case of Theodora” (xlix). We also find a timeline (lxiii); a helpful – though disappointingly short – glossary (lxv); genealogical tables (lxvi-lxvii); three maps (lxviii-lxxi); and overviews of the ancient sources (lxxii), and a bibliography of modern scholarship on Procopius (lxxvii). These inclusions, and the lengthy introduction in particular, which is reminiscent of the Spanish translation of The Secret History by Signes Codon~er, should make this edition particularly valuable for students.4

Given the occasionally combative nature of some of Kaldellis’ writing, one might expect hints of this here, that is, if one expected it to appear anywhere in this book. Thankfully, it does not, and Kaldellis has provided readers with a sensible and insightful overview, all the while remaining relatively objective, no mean feat given the divergences in opinion with regard to the nature of Procopius’ texts and his presumed political and religious leanings. There are, unsurprisingly, points where scholars such as myself disagree with Kaldellis’ overview. For example, the suggestion that the Romans possessed the most powerful nation in the region at the time strikes me as a bit misleading, particularly considering the difficulties they had with the Sasanid Persians. In addition, to call Procopius courageous (x) is to read too much into the limited evidence, particularly since it seems that the polemical Secret History was not published in Procopius’ lifetime. On the other hand, Kaldellis’ discussions of the literary milieu (xii-xiv) as well as the style and images of the Secret History (xxxv-xl) make for stimulating reading. His choice of what to discuss, from structure to reliability, is also sensible. All in all, then, the reader gets an interesting overview of the principal text and its context.

The Secret History is Procopius’ vehicle for venting his frustrations, and vent he does. Procopius is clearly quite angry with Belisarius, and for a number of reasons, of which, perhaps, the most significant is his slavish loyalty to Justinian. In Procopius’ eyes, it seemed that Belisarius provided him and the state at large with their best opportunity to remove the tyrant, only he failed to deliver. The theme of slavery and control pervades the text.5 On a related note, in the opening chapters and sections Procopius is largely concerned with the problems posed by Justinian’s and Belisarius’ failures to take control of their women; the reversal of gender roles here shakes up the natural order and leads to many of the state’s ills.6 Procopius, like many of his peers, was a conservative fellow and many of his complaints, like those with regard to gender, are concerned with the radical innovations that Justinian implements.

Thanks to the careful organization of the text, sifting through Procopius’ complaints is fairly straightforward. Kaldellis has divided the Secret History into three sections, so reflecting the natural division of the work itself. There are many subsections such as “the Emasculation of Belisarius” (p. 17; SH 3.30), “Taming the Hippodrome Fan-Clubs” (p. 44, SH 9.29), and “the Destruction of the World by the Demon Justinian” (p. 80, SH 18.1). There are also ample footnotes in the text that highlight interesting and important details, while sending readers to other passages of relevance as well as, occasionally, other important ancient texts (p. 46, n. 59, 60, 61, and 63). What these footnotes do not include is references to the modern literature. This might have been quite useful, even if it simply referred readers to the scholarship outlined in the introduction. The footnotes, however,are filled with interesting comments (p. 30, n. 10), including, on occasion, some humour (p. 45, n. 56). If there is a complaint it is that I wish there was more discussion of the issues raised by the text in the footnotes.

Kaldellis states that he “kept the prose blunt and precise, as it is in the original” (lx). Indeed, his translation differs markedly from those of Dewing and Sarris, not least of all in his strict adherence to Hellenic spellings. Although the translation of Sarris might be the most readable of the lot, Kaldellis’ is no slouch; his attempts at precision, are usually, but not always successful, so making this edition more useful to someone without Greek than the former.7 On the other hand, Dewing’s remains the closest to the original Greek, despite Kaldellis’ protestations (lx). There is the occasional blemish and awkwardness, though the only tangible problem, and it is a rare one, is with Kaldellis’ word choices. The translations of the Greek word ‘myriad’, for example, are inconsistent: at 3.31 we read “many myriads of Romans”, where we find μυριάδας…Ῥωμαίων πολλάς ; at 6.20 we read “countless thousands”, where we find μυριάδας πολλὰς ; at 11.29 we read “ten times ten thousand men”, where we find μυριάδες ἀνθρώπων δέκα ; and at 18.6 we read “numbered 80,000”, where we find μυριάδες ὀκτὼ. Although this is a very minor thing – and my comments reflect my own obsessions more than any significant problems – a stricter adherence to accuracy, or at least, greater consistency, might be of help to those unfamiliar with the nuances of this term.

On the other hand, Kaldellis is consistent in his translation of στασιῶται as “militants”. The term itself is not an overly common one, and Procopius uses it far more than any other author: a quick skim through the TLG shows that Procopius uses it in 36 of the 86 known usages. Most of Procopius’ uses of the term in the Wars hail from the military unrest that sprouted after the initial conquest of Africa (Wars 4.14-18). These στασιῶται are soldiers unhappy with their situation (Wars4.14.7), and “mutineers” perhaps conveys the sense of the word, in English, best.8 When Procopius uses στασιῶται in the Secret History it is generally restricted to his discussions of the infamous circus factions. The author/s of the Suda, following, in part, the scholia of Thucydides, suggest that the word is used for those involved in internal war ( Στάσις ) as opposed to πόλεμος (Suda Σ 1006). Consequently, the first instance in which Procopius uses the term at 7.2 is perhaps best rendered as follows: “Not all Blues were convinced by the man’s [Justinian’s] plan, but only those who happened to be seditious types [στασιῶται]”.9 In the second instance (SH7.4.3) the meaning seems to be the same. Thereafter, however, it is not so clear-cut, though Procopius is still referring to these rowdiest of members of the two factions (SH7.8.1, 7.17.2, 7.36.2, 7.39.1, 9.33.2, 9.35.3, 9.43.2, 10.19.1, 17.2.1, 26.35.2, and 29.37.4). Thus, translating στασιῶται as “factionalists”, as Dewing and Sarris often do, is misleading; here Kaldellis’ use of “militant” is probably closer to the mark, for Procopius makes it clear that ordinary members of the two factions were not pleased with the actions of these violent types (SH7.17.2). On the other hand, the English word “militant” tends to connote engagement in warfare, and Procopius does not in these instances seem to be using the term quite this way. Instead they seem to be acting rather more like criminals (SH7.39.1).

The book includes a number of related texts translated by Kaldellis and others, appended to the translation of The Secret History. We find two laws from the Corpus Iuris Civilis, particularly Codex Iustinianus 5.4.23, concerned with marriage laws, and Novella 8, concerned with corruption. There is a selection from John of Ephesus’ (Yuhannan of Amida’s) Lives of the Saints particularly 10, 13, 36, and 47, concerned with Theodora and Monophysitism. A short extract from Simplikios’ Commentary on Epiktetos is included. There are also a number of selections from Procopius’ other texts, including one from the Buildings (1.9.1-10, on Theodora’s monastery for reformed prostitutes), and six from the Wars (1.24 – wrongly listed as 1.2 in the book, one of the few errors; 1.25, 2.22-23, 2.30.49-54, 7.29.4-20, 7.31-32, and 8.17.1-8). The related texts that follow the Secret History complement it well, and Kaldellis has been careful to identify the relationships between them, as well as to include cross-references to them throughout the texts themselves. So, for example, on pages 91-92 in note 19 Kaldellis briefly discusses Tribonian’s background, so touching on his dismissal in the wake of the Nika Revolt. Accordingly, he directs readers to the related text at the end, as well as the requisite section in the Wars.

In sum, this is a good translation and edition of the text, largely because of all of the extra material that has been included. This book would be a very useful edition for any relevant course, especially when used in conjunction with Peter Bell’s Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian, which complements it well.10 If Kaldellis does end up tackling the Wars, as he suggests he might in the preface (lxii), one hopes that it reaches the same high standards that he has achieved here.


1.   For Dexter see SH 1.27. For the Star Wars scene see SH 12.21 and Star Wars Episode V, scene 22.
2.   Some of Kaldellis’ publications include Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition Cambridge, 2007; “Historicism in Byzantine Thought and Literature,” DOP 61 (2007) 1-24; “Classicism, Barbarism, and Warfare: Prokopios and the Conservative Reaction to Later Roman Military Policy,” AJAH n.s. 3 (2004): 189-218; Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity Philadelphia, 2004; and “The Historical and Religious Views of Agathias: a Reinterpretation,” Byzantion 69: 206-252.
3.   Dewing, H. B. (trans.), Procopius: The Anecdota or Secret History, Cambridge, Mass. 1935; Williamson, G. A., and P. Sarris (trans.), Procopius: the Secret History, London, 2007.
4.   Signes Codoñer, J., Historia Secreta – Procopio de Cesarea, Madrid, 2000.
5.   cf.Wars see Pazdernik, C., A Dangerous Liberty and a Servitude Free from Care: Political Eleutheria and Douleia in Procopius of Caesarea, unpublished PhD Dissertation, Princeton University, 1997.
6.   Some discussion of this issue is lacking, which is unfortunate given the work of Brubaker, for example: “The Age of Justinian: gender and society,” in M. Maas (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, Cambridge, 2005, 427-447; and “Sex, Lies, and Textuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-Century Byzantium”, in Brubaker, L. and J. M. H. Smith (eds.), Gender in the Early Medieval World, East and West, 300-900, Cambridge, 2004, 83-101.
7.   For example, at 1.20 Kaldellis has: “he was so infatuated with this person, his wife, that he could not bring himself to believe the evidence of his own eyes”, when a precise translation would be something to the effect of: “compelled by the love of the woman he wanted to believe what was before his eyes as little as possible”. The Greek says: ἔρωτι γὰρ τῆς ἀνθρώπου ἀναγκασθεὶς ἐβούλετό οἱ τὴν τῶν οἰκείων ὀφθαλμῶν θέαν ὡς ἥκιστα ἀληθίζεσθαι.. cf. SH 5.3 and 11.23 for some other examples.
8.   Note Kaegi, W., 1981, Byzantine Military Unrest, 471-843, Amsterdam, p. 49.
9.   “Troublemakers” might have been another suitable translation, given that Procopius is highlighting the most volatile of the members of the Blues (and later Greens).
10.   BMCR 2010.06.06.

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