BMCR 2005.10.11

Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity

, Procopius of Caesarea : tyranny, history, and philosophy at the end of antiquity. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 1 online resource (viii, 305 pages). ISBN 9780812202410 $49.95.

Procopius has long intrigued historians of late antiquity. Ever since Gibbon’s remark that he “affects a Christian as well as a courtly style,” modern scholars have debated over his true beliefs and his literary craftsmanship. From Gibbon onward he has been identified variously as a half pagan, a Jew, a Samaritan, a dualist, a Christian skeptic, an Arian, and a quasi-Monophysite.1 In recent years consensus has settled, more or less, around Averil Cameron’s view that Procopius’ writings are “thoroughly Christian” and that his mind was that of a conventional Christian of the age.2 Cameron contends that attention drawn to the “apparent inconsistencies in his religious statements” is based “in general, on a misunderstanding of his habit of stylistic affectation.”3 Against this view of conventionality and against the very idea of there being a homogenous Byzantine mind and Age, Anthony Kaldellis, assistant professor of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University, offers a challenging re-assessment of the premier historian of early Byzantium. His interpretation is a new departure from the standard view that Procopius was a poor imitator of classical historians, hampered by the incongruity of his Christian faith and his pagan models, whose digressions were disjunctive, whose allusions inept and without real artistry, and whose thought is summarized by Cameron’s judgment that “the ‘real’ Procopius is far from being the penetrating and critical thinker that he is usually supposed to be.”4 Kaldellis’ view is that Byzantinists have long overlooked what philologists have so carefully studied in recent decades: elaborate compositional structure, a sophisticated use of quotations and intertextuality, and a rich sense of irony deployed for ideological purposes. Here as elsewhere, Kaldellis walks on the stage not as a Byzantinist, but proudly as a Classicist.5

The book’s greatest strength is Kaldellis’ re-examination of the classicism of Procopius, executed with a seriousness that expresses itself in such stern declarations as “Classical scholars are perhaps better prepared to understand Procopius than social or art historians of the sixth century” (59). Here Kaldellis has Averil Cameron in his sights. Indeed, a central mark of the book is Kaldellis’ disapprobation of the British Byzantine establishment. What is more, scholars in several disciplines will now be forced to reassess what is still viewed as one of the wastelands of late antiquity: political philosophy. Finally, the work is clearly meant as a shot across the bow of the current cadre of “social, military, and art historians, whose professional training does not recreate the paideia of any ancient author” (117). It is a call for emancipation from the degeneration of modern scholarship through the restoration of philology and the realization that key historical works such as Procopius’ Wars are acts of Platonic mimesis and, indeed, fundamentally “Platonic philosophy in disguise” (117).

Kaldellis divides his book into five chapters, preceded by an introduction.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the issue of classicism. Against the general view that an ossified system of terms, tropes, and quotations forces Procopius into inelegant affectation, Kaldellis offers an alternative. Procopius’ allusions are part of an elaborate program of allusions that move the perceptive reader “to a deeper, more sinister conclusion” (58) than any surface (or literal) reading would suggest.

Chapter 2 concentrates on the use of anecdotes, particularly in the Wars. In essence, the chapter is a close reading of Wars, book 1, for which Kaldellis suggests that the use of anecdotes is designed to undermine the reigning interpretation of “facts” about the Justinianic regime and introduce the Platonic mission of quasi-divine rule by the wise.

Chapter 3 elaborates on the previous chapter. Here, Kaldellis examines the role of Platonic mimesis in Procopius’ composition, arguing that passages imitating or lifted from the Republic offer a “common grid of language [that] binds together the Secret History and the Wars” (95).

Chapter 4 further expands the Platonic reading, contending that the negative view of the Secret History is meant to seep into and shade a reader’s interpretation of the Justinianic regime as presented in the Wars. Furthermore, Kaldellis proposes that the jaundiced and “shrill” voice of the Secret History bears witness to a classical mind confronted with and appalled by the new “metaphysical” tyranny of the Christian emperor.

Finally, in chapter 5, Kaldellis treats religion and morality directly and concludes that sense can be made of Procopius’ apparently confused views on the transcendent, if we understand that “he did not believe in a providential deity, but rather in a battle between virtue and amoral chance” (15). Here, Kaldellis suggests that what we have in Procopius, on the level of political theory, is a Thucydidean correction to Machiavelli. Chance will undermine all ideologies; no system can stop that process, but Platonic wisdom (purified by Nietzsche) provides a compass for the political life. Piety “has little or no place” (221).

Sadly, there is no synthesizing conclusion to the book. Two appendices are offered. The first is suggestive of a future work proposing that Secret History 19-30 should be read as a critical commentary on Justinianic legislation. The second appendix presents a simple one-page thematic sketch of Secret History 6-18.

One of the most prominent features of this book is its application of Straussian philosophy to the area of late classical and Byzantine studies. Like Kaldellis’ early work, The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia (Leiden: Brill, 1999), Procopius is embedded in the concerns and scholarship of Leo Strauss and his disciples, as well as Straussian touchstones such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, and Nietzsche. As Straussianism tends to be little known, especially in Byzantine studies, it is worth a résumé. Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was professor of political science in the third quarter of the twentieth century. His work and that of his numerous students and followers focuses on consistent themes. Those relevant to classical and Byzantine scholarship can be summarized as follows. First, there is a kind of perennialist approach to classical texts, especially philosophical works, and particularly those of Plato. Ancient texts should be treated with the utmost dignity and, maintain Straussians, scholars should try to understand the text from within, remaining on guard against the common received tradition surrounding ancient texts.6 Second, Straussians have a facility for mining a text to determine its political purpose: metaphysics may be given a kind of hierarchical precedence, but the study of philosophy is largely the study of political theory.7 Third, there is a belief in the long-standing rift between the force of Reason and the forces of Revelation, Faith, or popular morality, often conceived of as the “Athens-Jerusalem” divide. The two forces represent two distinct approaches to thought and action; a bridge between the two, for most Straussian scholars, cannot be established.8 Fourth, there is a belief in the proclivity of political power, especially when that power identifies itself with religious orthodoxy, to persecute those of the rationalist tradition.9 Fifth, following upon the last point, there is a need for esotericism amongst philosophers so that the coercive gaze of the tyrant or the moralistic majority will not perceive their true activities.10 Sixth, there is the remote chance that, if philosophers can influence the active man, the Thrasymachus of any given regime, then the political order will be directed by the wise or, at least, the attempt to do so will create space in the political order for the philosopher to pursue his mission.11

All these themes or concerns are at play in Kaldellis’ work and, in fact, understanding the historiography of Straussianism will help readers understand the context for Kaldellis’ revisionism. One thus may find in Procopius all of the Straussian tenets enumerated above: a call to take Procopius seriously, against what Kaldellis sees as Cameron’s demeaning “face value” approach (passim); a resolve to show Procopius as an exponent of that high art, the political philosophy of Plato (esp. 94-117); a clear separation of the worlds of faith and reason, with orthodox Christianity held in rationalist contempt (e.g., 137-142); an exploration of Justinian as tyrant along conventional Straussian lines (chapter 4); recurring claims that Procopius needed to write in an Esoteric-Exoteric fashion, as all wise men do under tyranny (e.g., 57; 157-159); and an exploration of what a just regime would require for its instantiation in history (159-164). These issues are stimulating and Kaldellis is right to consider them. Nevertheless, the concerns should be understood as part of a larger intellectual project, a movement whose objective we can descry in Kaldellis’ own unraveling of [Constantine] Michael Psellos’ ultimate teaching: “True piety has now become something that only philosophers can attain, while the religion of the majority, Orthodox Christianity, has been quietly and gradually dismissed from serious consideration. True religion is philosophy, and true piety is wisdom.”12

One distraction, entertaining though it will be for some, is Kaldellis’ edge regarding British scholarship. The likes of Robert Browning, Cyril Mango, Michael Whitby and, most especially Averil Cameron, are charged with all sorts of crimes, and British scholarship, in general, is accused of “positivism.” Furthermore, the appearance of comments like “when all is said and done, we may find that Byzantine authors were more intelligent and profound than their modern detractors and had better taste to boot” (40) become irksome when one considers the serious contribution of these scholars, the dedication that they have given to Byzantine studies, and the fact that the majority of them are trained in philology and classical criticism.

More problematic is Kaldellis’ dismissal of “conventional” religion, and certainly his treatment of Procopius’ religious background will prove the most tendentious of the book’s claims. If Procopius is not a Christian, then Kaldellis’ suggestion of an esoteric Platonist undermining the Justinianic regime for deep ideological purpose becomes more tenable. Unfortunately, such a view is possible only if one avoids a serious discussion of Christianity in Procopius, something the book succeeds in doing.13 Procopius’ remarks about God are decidedly not “entirely ambiguous”—as Kaldellis contends; sometimes they are bracingly clear. It is true that Procopius’ handling of tyche is complex, and Kaldellis’ reading is welcome, but, at times, tenuous. For example, in Wars 2.9.1, the reader finds Chosroes giving views on chance which Procopius, on the surface at least, criticizes. Kaldellis, however, contends that the pagan view on tyche found here is the view of Procopius. We are asked to believe this because a similar view shows up once several hundred pages later at the opening of 6.8.1. The two passages have similarities, but neither seems to carry any endorsement by Procopius. The first is criticized; the second is clearly a trope for opening a new segment of narrative, unless, of course, one wishes to argue that Procopius also believes phthonos is a divine force. More problematic is Kaldellis’ avoidance of episodes like Wars 2.12, on the city of Edessa and the letter from Jesus to Abgar V. Here Procopius had a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate the illegitimacy of Christianity in subtle ways, in particular, by casting doubt on the validity of the letter itself through showing that its promises proved false. At the very least, he could simply have avoided the letter. Instead, Procopius gives a bold and clear statement about “Jesus, the son of God,” his life in Palestine, his sinlessness, his miracles, etc. After this long account, Procopius then carefully distinguishes between a likely real letter to Abgar and a later pious addendum. Yet he continues to state (in treating the problematic promise of the addendum that Edessa would not fall to Barbarians, as he knew it had) that “the thought once occurred to me that, if the Christ did not write this thing just as I have told it, still, since men have come to believe in it, He wishes to guard the city uncaptured for this reason, that He may never give them any pretext for error.”14 Until such challenging passages are addressed, the central arguments of Kaldellis which touch upon religion must be viewed with circumspection.

Finally, many readers, philologists in particular, will be disappointed with the infrequency of quotation and comparative citation of classical Greek texts, especially since so much of Kaldellis’ interpretation relies upon his innovative referencing of Procopius with his ancient predecessors. Too often, one has the impression that the final hermeneutic for reading a text remains rather arcane; as Kaldellis explains, “Hidden truths can be safely discovered by future readers or by those who know how to look past the ‘plaster’ that lies on the surface” (25; cf., 37). This is a milieu where traditional historians will not be found among the illuminati.

It would be surprising if this book did not initiate a wave of articles and monographs in response to its arguments. Indeed, a cursory glance at Kaldellis’ recent and future projects points to probable flash points in Byzantine studies: the classical astuteness and Platonism of many key Byzantine authorities; an interpretation of the Christian monarchies of late antiquity and early Byzantium as outright tyrannies; the esoteric nature of select Byzantine authors—indeed, the presence of an anti-Christian counter-culture; and the dissident political views of late Roman and Byzantine scholars.15 Such articles, like this text, mark the appearance in Anglo-American scholarship of the political philologist in Byzantine studies, a provocative addition to a field largely dominated by social historians. In sum, this controversial book demands a thoughtful response from specialists. Graduate students will find Kaldellis’ study a fine and feisty companion to the standard presentations of Averil Cameron and J.A.S. Evans. All readers, however, should be grateful for Kaldellis’ taking seriously the works of Procopius.


1. A review of earlier scholarship can be found in Kaldellis, Procopius, 263.

2. Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London, 1985), 113-133.

3. Cameron, Procopius, 113.

4. Cameron, Procopius, 45.

5. See A. Kaldellis, “Things Are Not What They Are: Agathius Mythohistoricus and the Last Laugh of Classical Culture,” Classical Quarterly 53 (2003), at 296: “To appreciate [Agathias’ literary allusions] one must know well the main body of Greek historians and poets (in the original and from memory). This describes the educated elite of the sixth century far better than it does modern Byzantinists.” Kaldellis aims chiefly, again, at Averil Cameron.

6. L. Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” and “Liberal Education and Responsibility,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (New York, 1968), 3-25.

7. L. Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Glencoe, Illinois, 1959).

8. L. Strauss, Philosophy and Law: Essays toward the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors (Philadelphia, 1987) and “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Questions,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago, 1983), 147-73.

9. L. Strauss, On Tyranny, Including the Strauss-Kojeve Correspondence (New York, 1991).

10. L. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, Illinois, 1952).

11. L. Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago, 1964), 123-127; see L. Lampert, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (Chicago, 1996), 150-155.

12. A. Kaldellis, The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia (Leiden, 1999), 74; see Chapter 11, “The Liberation of Philosophy from Christianity,” at 90 where we learn that by comparing and linking Psellos’ digressions we enter into a conversation each part of which is “a step in the gradual unveiling of his wider program, which was possibly the most ambitious enterprise ever attempted in all of Byzantine history. One of its central components was the liberation of philosophy from the dominion of Christian doctrine . . . . Whereas philosophy had originally designated a search for the truth that was unfettered by social conventions and established religious beliefs, during the Christian centuries a slow but far-reaching cultural transformation had led to its usurpation by narrow-minded sectarians who were even illiterate or hostile to advanced learning.”

13. There are, for example, no entries in the index for such topics as Christianity, monasticism, miracles, relics, and religion, precisely the sort of things discussed throughout the works of Procopius and which any serious assessment of Procopius’ religious complexion should treat. One the other hand, Anti-Christ, Manichaeans, Mazdakites, and Zoroastrianism, items of lesser import, are indexed.

14. Procopius, History of the Wars, 2.12.30, trans. H.B. Dewing in LCL vol. 48 (London, 1914), 371.

15. For example, “Julian, the Hierophant of Eleusis, and the Abolition of Constantius’ Tyranny,” forthcoming in Classical Quarterly; “Republican Theory and Political Dissidence in Ioannes Lydoes,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 29 (2005).