Some Penguin Classics defy the very dignity of the term, and surely the Anecdota, the so-called “Secret History” of the 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius is the best possible example of that curious phenomenon.
It’s a thoroughly scurrilous work, a scandal-sheet of gossip and fabrication, written in haste and in total privacy (public attribution would have resulted in the author being flogged to bloody cat-string in the public square), very likely at the same time that it’s thirty-something author was also writing the work for which he was famous in his own day: his multi-volume (and quite excellent) history of the military campaigns of the great general Belisarius. Procopius was a secretary on the General’s staff during the epic campaigns that briefly re-conquered large swaths of Persia, Africa, and Italy, and his sober, generally reliable account of those early campaigns stands as one of the last glimmerings of the great historical tradition of the Empire before it sank into darkness.
The Secret History is the under-side of all that imperial glory. In this brief account (this is a Penguin Classic you can read in one sitting – and trust me, you’ll want to), Procopius centers on the four people at the head of his world: the Emperor Justinian, who’s portrayed as a cold, grasping, semi-human monster, his wife the Empress Theodora, who in P’s famous accounting becomes a jade and a wanton of such magnitude that she makes Messalina look like Mary Tyler Moore (although she has more of the latter’s sense of humor – “When the fancy took her,” P recounts, quivering with outrage, “she amused herself by turning the most serious matters into a subject for laughter, as if she were watching a comedy on the stage”). Rounding out the quartet are Belisarius (some of P’s loyalty is showing even here: though vilified in the book, Belisarius isn’t painted nearly so harshly as the others) and his wife Antonina, here a scheming, murderous, headstrong witch.
Grasping Palace officials, corrupt administrators, brutish army officers, and even a marauding whale (it was an enormous creature, nicknamed Porphyrion, and it attacked shipping all around the Golden Horn for decades – almost certainly a territory-crazed male sperm whale) – all show up and get tarred and feathered, but our author saves his most bitter words for the Imperial couple. He recounts an endless stream of slanders against Theodora, including some that will strike haters of Nancy Reagan as familiar:
For from her earliest years she had herself consorted with magicians and sorcerors, as her whole way of life led her in that direction, and to the very end she put her trust in these arts and made them at all times the ground of her confidence.
Of course the end result of all this vituperation is inevitable: the reader comes away entirely rooting for Theodora and intensely saddened by the allusions Procopius makes several times that she’s dead in her grave by the time he’s writing his character assassination. Procopius retails every single bit of marketplace gossip about the ruling pair, and throughout this book, he then tries to cloak that gossip in a semblance of historical inquiry:
In view of all this, I, like most of my contemporaries, never once felt that these two were human beings; they were a pair of blood-thirsty demons and what the poets call ‘plaguers of mortal men’. For they plotted together to find the easiest and swiftest means of destroying all races of men and all their works, assumed human shape, became man-demons, and in this way convulsed the whole world. Proof of this could be found in many things, but especially in the power manifested in their doings. For the actions of demons are unmistakably different from those of human beings.
Most of his contemporaries thought no such thing, of course, and we can legitimately wonder if Procopius himself did either. The Secret History not only outrages: it revels in outrage. You don’t have to read many pages of it before you wonder if the author isn’t just plain enjoying himself, relaxing after a hard day’s work by sitting at his study table and writing the unwritable. I’d wager more than a few writers do the exact same thing today.
This 1966 Penguin Classic is done by Norwich School legend G. A. Williamson, who renders the whole sordid business in the clearest and (mostly) cleanest of prose, guarding himself always with the acerbity of an Oxford don. “I have resolutely refused,” he tells us, “to translate barbaroi by ‘barbarians’, and I trust that I have used no other words or expressions savouring of translationese.”
Williamson supplies the translation; Penguin supplies the edition; I supply the recommendation – it’s up to you to supply the healthy skepticism. Armed with it, you’ll find this an ancient classic you can’t put down.
Some Penguin Classics have the field all to themselves. The imprint actively encouraged popular scholarly endeavor, and throughout its history its editors have actively sought out the best accessible critical work being done anywhere and offered to fold it into the Penguin Classics library. This is going on today (the magnificent recent three-volume Tales of the Arabian Nights is one good example among many), and it was going on forty years ago when the publisher bought E. R. A. Sewter’s engaging Yale University Press translation of the Chronographia of Michael Psellus.
Constantine Psellus (‘Michael’ was his name as a monk, adopted late in life) was born of a noble family in 1018 and given a first-rate education by his doting mother. He attached himself to the court of Constantinople’s Emperor Michael V, and through a succession of emperors he rose to Secretary of State, Grand Chamberlain, Prime Minister, and Professor of Rhetoric at the new University of Constantinople. He was friends with all the leading intellectual lights of his time, and he himself was steeped in classical learning – his numerous extant works are filled with echoes and references to Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plutarch, the Church fathers, the Stoic philosophers, and the leading medical treatises of the day.
He wrote a vast amount, most of which we still have – including well over 500 extant letters that have never received a popular scholarly edition, despite the fact that there’s virtually nothing like them in the entire canon. The first section of the Chronographia was finished around 1063, but the work remains unfinished. Psellus died in 1078, apparently having fallen from imperial favor and been turned out of all his high offices by Michael Parapinaces. We’ll probably never know the reason for this sudden turn of fortune, although sometimes, just very occasionally while reading the work here given as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, we get the faint impression it might have been for the crime of being a bit tedious.
Only very occasionally, though, and Psellus was writing under the conventions of his time. The rulers of Constantinople were hardly the degenerate nincompoops of casual lore, but at their courts they enforced the most slavish Oriental despotism imaginable, and court writers learned the vocabulary of abasement from the cradle – so we can’t hold his book’s incessant fawning against Psellus. And translator Sewters is entirely correct when he says “Psellus can have few rivals as a vivid narrator of events … as a picture of Byzantine life and particularly life at the imperial court his work could scarcely be surpassed.”
A big key to these superlatives is access – Psellus is mostly writing about things he was personally on hand to see and hear, and that makes his book spellbinding. When he writes of the threat of war with the Russians faced by the emperor Constantine IX in 1042, his reporting is full of first-hand opinionizing:
They [the extorting Russians] mentioned the actual amount, a thousand staters for each ship, on the understanding that this money should be counted out to them in one way only – on one of the ships in their own fleet. Such were the proposals they put forward, either because they imagined that there were springs of gold in our domains, or simply because they had decided to fight in any case. The terms were impossible, purposely so, in order that they could have a plausible excuse for going to war …
And our author’s subsequent note while narrating the ensuing naval battle is one that becomes familiar throughout the course of this remarkable book: “It was a sight that produced the most alarming effect on every man who saw it. For my own part, I was standing at the emperor’s side…
The aforementioned leaning toward sycophancy crops up consistently too, and that can get wearying for modern readers who are accustomed to less bowing and scraping in their historians (with very notable and best-selling exceptions, of course). Our scanty secondary sources about Constantine IX, for instance, paint a slightly different picture of his physical appearance than the one Psellus is so eager to commit to paper:
It was a marvel of beauty that Nature brought into being in the person of this man, so justly proportioned, so harmoniously fashioned, that there was no one in our time to compare with him. To this symmetry she added a robust vigour, as though she were laying the foundations for a beautiful house. This strength that she gave him was not manifest in long hands or the great size of his limbs or other parts of his body; rather, I fancy, she hid it deep in his heart, for it was not revealed in the parts that were visible. They, in fact, were more distinguished for their beauty and proportion than for any unusual size. Indeed, his hands were only moderately big, and the same can be said of his fingers: their medium size was most noticeable, but they were endowed with more than ordinary strength, for there was no object, however hard, which he could not very easily crush with his hands and break in pieces.
He adds to these rather bland superlatives an incredibly revealing further line: “An arm gripped by that man was painful for days.” There’s only one way Psellus could have come to know that, and the mind boggles at how that came about. And to be fair about all that body-worshipping, when Constantine IX was shortly after stricken with the crippling rheumatism that would afflict him for the rest of his life (his joints deformed, he could scarcely sit up, and his every movement brought sharp pain), Psellus describes it all with equal specificity. He took certain parts of his job as historian very seriously.
And perhaps the most eye-opening part of Fourteen Byzantine Rulers is its continuous reminder that Psellus had lots of history to recount. Sewter, in his playful Introduction, recalls a time not long before when there were scarcely any modern studies being done of the Byzantine era, and when schoolboys were discouraged from inquiring about the ten centuries between the fall of the empire in the West and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 – even though those schoolboys were understandably curious:
However ignorant we may have been, some of us did ask awkward questions: if they were so inferior, how did those wretched Byzantines manage to survive so long after the collapse of the West? And what about Santa Sophia? And wasn’t a millennium rather a long time for a sustained decline?
Yes indeed it was, and it’s a shame that even today, readers of history know so far less about Byzantine history than about Imperial Rome or the Crusades. But at least Penguin Classics like this one have been out there trying all these years.