Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Some more totally random history!

Today I delve into The Secret History by Procopius. The last time I did this, an anonymous commenter mentioned Procopius, so I decided to go to him this time. He's groovy.

Here's Procopius writing about the Empress Theodora, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), about whom more below:

She used to tease her lovers by keeping them waiting, and by constantly playing about with novel methods of intercourse she could always bring the lascivious to her feet; so far from waiting to be invited by anyone she encountered, she herself by cracking dirty jokes and wiggling her hips suggestively would invite all who came her way, especially if they were still in their teens. Never was anyone so completely given up to unlimited self-indulgence. Often she would go to a bring-your-own-food dinner-party with ten young men or more, all at the peak of their physical powers and with fornication as their chief object in life, and would lie with all her fellow-diners in turn the whole night long: when she had reduced them all to a state of exhaustion she would go to their menials, as many as thirty on occasion, and copulate with every one of them; but not even so could she satisfy her lust.

One night she went into the house of a distinguished citizen during the drinking, and, it is said, before the eyes of all the guests she stood up on the end of the couch near their feet, pulled up her dress in the most disgusting manner as she stood there, and brazenly displayed her lasciviousness. And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling because Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region. Naturally she was frequently pregnant, but by using pretty well all the tricks of the trade she was able to induce immediate abortion.

That's actually some of the tame stuff. Procopius had big issues with Theodora.

The interesting thing about The Secret History is that Procopius was the official court historian for Justinian (whom he hates as well). After he wrote the official history, which no one reads because it's boring, he wrote The Secret History, which everyone reads because it's salacious. The problem for historians is deciding which is the truth. Everyone assumes that because he didn't publish The Secret History (because he would have been killed pretty much instantly), it's the truth. However, it has been pointed out that Procopius may have had an axe (or several) to grind, and that we think he's telling the truth because he's such a good writer. I always tell my students that if they learn how to write they can influence the way people think about others. Procopius is the prime example.

Who was Justinian? Justinian was an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, whose capital was Constantinople. He ascended the throne in AD 527 and, after surviving a near-coup in 532, dispatched his best general, Belisarius, to reconquer the Western Roman Empire, which had been lost in the preceding century. Belisarius led armies to Italy, Spain, and northern Africa and defeated almost everyone he encountered. However, after Justinian's death, the Byzantines found themselves with an overextended empire and gave up most of it, retaining a foothold in Italy for a while. The empire became truly an eastern one, and the great divide between Western Christianity (Catholicism) and Eastern Christianity (Greek Orthodoxy) became more pronounced. If you want to find parallels to George Bush, go right ahead - I certainly do. We remember Justinian as a great emperor, but he wasn't really - he just managed to live a long life. His one great claim to fame was his codification of Roman law. That's pretty important, especially because most western law codes (hey! the U.S. is in the West!) are based on Justinian's law, and not necessarily older Roman law.

Procopius really does a number on Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius, and Belisarius's wife, Antonina. He hates them all. Whether or not what he says is true, it's certainly remarkably entertaining and, as you can tell from the excerpt above, wildly frank for the times. We tend to think of everyone prior to our open-minded age as being stuck-up prigs for whom sex and violence was abhorrent. Hah! Despite all the crap we see in society around us, we're still puritanical. Those Byzantines, whether Procopius was telling the truth about Theodora or not, were pretty wild. And God didn't necessarily curse them - the Empire lasted almost 1000 years after Justinian's death.

Buy The Secret History here. It's a quick read - less than two hundred pages of big print. Learn more about Justinian here. Learn more about that wonderful whore Theodora here. Learn more about Belisarius here.

Today is the last day to enter my contest. How will you win if you don't enter???


Blogger Aries327 said...

I love your history entries. Have you read Utopia?

1/9/05 2:56 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I have not. Utopia is about 1000 years after my specialty area, and I never had an opportunity in school to read it, and now I'm just lazy. Maybe some day ...

1/9/05 3:34 PM  
Blogger Aries327 said...

By the way, I should point out that I still think it's pornographic, even if it is old. I can't tell if it's a historical account or if your friend is just another man who gets off on writing about women. To me it reads as early porn. He didn't have pictures, so he wrote in detail about a women who 'couldn't get enough,' just like todays female porn stars.

I've never thought people were, historically, closed up about sex. The Bible, hello? It's full of immorality, violence and destruction. And all those fertility statues? Early porn. I'm sort of joking, but I'm also serious. Academics find things like the Venus of Willendorf and call it a fertility statue, and elevate it to some sacred role in the lives of the peopel who had it. What do they really know? As far as I'm concerned the explanation that it was early porn is as good as their fertility story.

For so long men have been enamored with the sexuality of women. That's what this excerpt is to me. Have you read the "Secrets of Women" -- the clerical writings? It's ridiculous. Demonizing women while being enthralled by their mysteries.

I can't figure out, exactly, why you chose to use such a pornographic excerpt. I don't read all your entries, so I still don't get you. Partly I think you're just like those monks who wrote the "Secrets of Women." But I can't tell for sure.

2/9/05 1:22 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Well, in my long list of historical entries, I've only done two, so the sample size isn't that big. I chose this almost at random (not quite, but almost) - I wanted to do something about Theodora, so I opened her chapter at random, but it's all pretty much like this. My point in choosing this was that we have to be very careful about studying the past, because who knows what these people were thinking when they wrote it, and also that we in America seem to think we are living in a much more crass time than ever, which isn't necessarily the case.

I hope I'm not like the monks of that book (which I haven't read) - I don't think I have ever demonized women. I'm not quite sure why writing about women this way is "demonizing" them, although the danger is there, sure. There's no evidence that Theodora WASN'T a circus prostitute, so Procopius may have been telling the truth in The Secret History. And is telling about Caligula's famous sexual predilictions "demonizing" men? I don't know, but I doubt if you (or anyone) would make that claim. Theodora was just a person. A very interesting person, to be sure, but just one person. If men (who, let's be honest, have written most of history) can't write about people in the manner they choose, then we'll never understand anything about history. This book tells us a lot about Byzantine society, and it also tells us a lot about Procopius. I agree with you - it's early porn. But what was his point in writing it? Did he do it just to get off? I doubt it, because it is part of a larger work demonizing three other people as well, two of whom were men. True, he doesn't delve into their sexual lives as much (although he does a little), but was he using sex to smear Theodora simply because society would treat her differently because she was a woman? I don't know, but that's what makes studying history so fascinating.

I'm sorry you don't get me. What's to get - I'm a simplistic person.

2/9/05 2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm disappointed you think Procopius is early porn. It's a real shame that arguably the greatest Greek historian; yes, I'd put him ahead of both Herodotus and Thucydides, and on par with Polybius, gets such a shitty discussion on the merits of his work.
If you wanted a topic for parallel political discussion you could always talk about the financial policy and taxes of Justinian which closely mirror our own and which Procopius discusses with a real and devastating critical insight. His description of the plague is also chilling.
And what makes you think that the Secret History was never broadcast? I've always been under the strong suspicion that it is Justinian's official state eulogy, which once delivered, guaranteed the writer's execution in the same year.
In your comments, Greg, you also mention Caligula. I'd refer you to an examination of his reign by David A. Wend. It shows Caligula as the greatest of the Roman Emperors who simply suffered from a long, and unfortunately successful smear campaign. Look it up, it's on the web.
The Histories of Procopius are far from boring, by the way.

2/9/05 9:21 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I really hate anonymous comments - not because yours was a bad one, because it wasn't, but they still bug me.

Anyway, depending on your definition of pornography ("I know it when I see it," according to Congress), I would say that the parts of Procopius dealing with Theodora are definitely pornographic. I don't have as much of a problem with this as Aries327, though - I'm just pointing it out. As I mentioned, there's no evidence that Theodora DIDN'T do these things, so even though it might be the truth, it's still pornographic. That doesn't change its historical significance.

As for publication, nothing I've read indicates it was published soon after Justinian's death, and although Procopius died later in the same year, there's no indication he was executed. I will admit that I have not read his official Histories, which I should, so my contention that they are "boring" is an exaggeration. Sorry. Other people have told me so, but I have no way to back it up.

I will have to look for the book on Caligula. It's always fun to read about Little Boots.

I'm sorry you think this is a "shitty" discussion of his merits. The point of these posts, in my mind, is to present a tiny little part of an author's work. I think Procopius's chapters on Justinian are very insightful, but I always thought his chapter on Theodora was most interesting, simply because of the vitriol he pours out on what sounds like a remarkable, if perhaps a little morally-challenged, woman. Tax policy and rebuilding cities are all well and good, but it's always fascinating to read how male authors handle a woman who does not conform to the stereotypes. Whether you condemn Theodora for her actions or not, she's certainly an interesting object for further study.

3/9/05 6:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok-first off, what's with the hatred of anonymous posts? Should I use my real name or will an ambiguous title, like say, aries327, just to pick a convenient example, do? (Aries327 is hardly a real name yet I never see him called on to give his real identity, so what's with this double standard?)

Secondly, I wouldn't go as low as to suggest that Theodora is a valuable object for study. It's more the whole Byzantine setup that is so illustrative and interesting. Focusing on one portrayl is irritating, limited and blinds you to the picture that you should be studying. Whether Procopius' portrayl is pornographic or not is besides the point. The important thing is to note the makeup of the imperial court and how this swayed and influenced policy in terms of how the resources of beaucracy and empire were used.

Pictures like that of the Vandal King being captive in triumph, eyes shut and intoning "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity" while the crowd passed by, cheering, are astonishing.

The method of taxation used to strip one's own population of all its resources to finance foreign wars that were unwinnable and vain to undertake in the first place has special signifigance today too. Look at the price of gas. Look to Iraq. That's not the end of similarities either.

Focusing on who some chick is fucking is cheap and lightweight when you should be taking home a lot more.

Procopius' despair and desperate need to educate as a warning to the future and a corrective against the flattery of his present is serious and desperately noble.

Procopius keeps faith with the promise "Romans have an excellent tradition: that the state should concern itself with those who commit private wrongs and help the victims."

You might want to pay attention to this and keep your eyes off the whore.

3/9/05 8:22 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Agreed with Anonymous. If you want to read Procopius the volumes of the Histories published by Harvard University Press are expensive but you can buy a good and critical summary in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume II from Penguin. It's like thirty bucks. Worth reading.

3/9/05 10:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Anonymous - you misunderstand me. Of course Aries327 is not HER real name, but I know it's always her. I'm always interested in people who come here more than once, but "anonymous" is just ambiguous - it could be anyone!

And I disagree that Theodora is unworthy of study. Sure, maybe this passage is too salacious, but all I want to do with these posts is show people what they are missing when they ignore history, and maybe stir up some discussion (in that, at least, I have succeeded). Theodora by her very position is worthy of study - by all accounts, even when Procopius is writing nasty things about her, she ruled almost equally with Justinian, and this aspect of her character makes her interesting. Should we not study Eleanor of Aquitaine because she never held an "official" position? From 1189 to 1204 she ran England, I would argue. Just because Theodora may or may not have been a whore does not make her unworthy of study. As I mentioned, the aspect of history in which Theodora is relevant is how men view women and how they write about them - would Procopius have smeared Justinian in the same way? Probably not.

You're right, though - Byzantine history, as well as really any history of a large empire, does give us great insight into our own time. Byzantine history (which is a favorite of mine) gives us an interesting look at east-west relations, religious strife, as well as, like you pointed out, a desperate nostalgia for the lost glory of Rome, which certainly can be relevant in our own time. I'm not arguing these points with you, because you're right. I'm sorry you didn't like my little snippet of Procopius, but his portrayal of someone who not only seems to be the kind of person he claims she is but also bitch-slapped Justinian around at the time of the Nika revolt and made sure he kept his throne is certainly pertinent to the study of Byzantine history in the 6th century. Wouldn't you agree?

Phil - thanks for the advice. Of course, there's so much else I want to buy as well, we'll see if I get around to it. But at least I know.

3/9/05 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything is pertinent to the study of history. It's just that by singling Theodora's sexuality out you pervert Procopius' theme and motives. And Procopius does set out to smear Justinian. He did it in every way he could. He accuses him of cruelty, bloodlust, cowardice, superstition, of being totally incapable and worthless. Procopius does not set out to titillate, he sets out to disgust, and uses all the ammunition at his disposal to condemn the memory of tyrants and point the way out of a helltrap.

It's likely he died doing it.

"If we remembered that we are Romans miscreants would not be bolder to become our masters than we to stop them."

It's that sentiment, that thought, that you should walk away remembering.

Romans have a bad reputation in representation now because people focus on the cruelty of emperors, sexuality and gladiators. It's passed over that every single humanitarian reform was done first and done better by the Romans. Read about the brothers Gracchi, Cato the Younger, Marcus Livius Drusus, Germanicus, Thrasea Paetus, Helvidius Priscus, Titus Labienus the orator, the Seccessions of the Plebs, Scipio Africanus, Camillus, the three hundred Furii, Flaminius liberating Greece from Macedon, Cicero prosecuting Verres and Asinius Pollio beating it out of Spain to relieve the world's first concentration camp at Perusia.

It is shameful that when people think of Rome they concentrate only on the bad parts and it's shameful to see it here now.

3/9/05 12:53 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Hmmm. I have never said the Romans didn't contribute a great deal to the advancement of civilization. They did. I'm not sure if it's "shameful" if people think of Rome as a place of cruelty and bloodlust, because, well, it was. And I'm not really sure that "every single humanitarian reform was done first and done better by the Romans." That's a pretty sweeping statement, and let's remember that for most of their history, Rome was concerned little with "human rights" - that's not really a criticism, since the very idea of "human rights" is a relatively modern concept. It's not that they weren't forward-thinking, it's just that they weren't thousands of years ahead of their time.

All the authors you mention, after all, are ROMAN authors. Procopius, for all his pretensions, was not. The Byzantine Empire, which pretended to be Roman, was Greek. Sure, that's not really the point, but I would argue that Procopius had much more in common with 6th-century writers than he did with the classical Roman writers.

And although I agree with you that Procopius set out to "disgust," I still think it's relevant that he did not try to "disgust" us with stories of Justinian's orgies. He did it by, as you point out, saying he was a bad ruler. I wonder if he had chosen to portray Justinian as someone who was sexually voracious if that would have made as much of an impression.

Finally, I am not claiming the Romans, or the Greeks, are shameful. Procopius seems to be doing a pretty good job of that by himself. If I am going to use an excerpt from The Secret History, it's going to portray the Empire in a negative light. Next time I may use an excerpt from Tacitus that glorifies the Romans. Then I'll get people telling me how horrible they really were and that I shouldn't glorify them. The Romans were much more complex than even history shows on television or standard history books make them out to be, just like any other people. So I hope you check it out when and if I do classical Roman writing (I don't have as much of it as medieval writing, but I have some Tacitus and Polybius, so I'll get to it eventually).

3/9/05 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's easy to claim that the Romans can take the credit for every single humanitarian reform put forward - because they did.

If you want the proper way to wage a war of liberation study the war Flaminius evicted Macedonia from control of Greece. Study Caligula for stopping racism and the establishment of concentration camp ghettos for Jews in Alexandria. Study Tiberius Gracchus for land reform, specifically speaking his decisions were borrowed and put into practice only recently in South America. Study the tribuneship of Caius Gracchus for the creation of the welfare state, subsidised agriculture, public transportation, the first postal service and court reform. Study Cato the Younger for financial reform, prosecution of war criminals and the first prosecution for genocide ever called for (against Julius Caesar).
The cancellation of debts was achieved not once, but seven times, relieving poverty.

If you choose to argue for the merits of other cultures you're on pretty shitty ground. The Gauls and Britons had no democracy, no republicanism, just autocracy. They sacrificed men, women and children on harvest holidays for luck (see recent excavations of the Celts in Asia Minor), sold each other into slavery, tortured criminals and burnt them alive in view of the public. The Greeks, for all their laudations were far worse, with the enslavement and isolation of women, even denying them sustainable amounts of food restricting them to the darkness while inside and steering them away from public exposure, public indecision in mob rule, constant cruelty and slaughter, severe xenophobia and racism, especially against the Middle Eastern peoples and the Jews in particular.

And yes, the people I told you to read about were Romans and written from a Roman perspective. I do not think this is a weakness in presentation or a fault. The two most effective critics on America I can think of, and from two different perspectives, are Noam Chomsky and Richard Lewontin, both Americans. Tacitus is not propagandistic, neither is Sallust, Polybius is not, Appian is not, Cicero is not, Plutarch is not, Catullus is not. Lucreitus, who put forward atomic theory, described evolution without giving it a name, and described scientific theory that was more theoretically advanced and correct than anything until the twentieth century isn't propagandistic either.

Celsus, who wrote on medicine, was also far more advanced than people give the ancients credit for. Frontinus, who is often made fun of for saying "everything which can be invented for military art has been achieved, in my opinion, for the forseeable future" is not contemptible either, seeing as he was accurate for the next three hundred and seventy years. As far as the forseeable future goes I think three hundred and seventy years is decent.

The reason Procopius doesn't slur Justinian sexually would be obvious, I believe: Procopius probably didn't see him fucking. A circus prostitute and stripper given to exhibitonism and public shows might be a little more out in the open.

If you do do a write up on earlier Rome praising them and get someone mouthing off on how bad they were, by all means invite me along to take them out.


4/9/05 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By which, I of course mean having the endurance and background to refute, ignore and invalidate their ravings.
I've been pretty long-winded here and I apologize for that.
Thanks again.

4/9/05 1:19 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Don't apologize - it's fascinating. I still disagree a bit with some of what you say, but you make many valid points. And long-winded? What the hell do you think I am?

4/9/05 3:05 PM  
Blogger Krys said...

Can I insert a little levity into this discussion by pointing out that when you start discussing the contributions of the Romans, I always think of Monty Python's "The Life of Brian"?

"What did the bloody Romans ever do for us"?

6/9/05 1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, but do you remember what the punchline was?


7/9/05 7:48 AM  
Blogger Krys said...

Actually, I think it was "Nothing". That's why it was so funny--they go throught this big long list of everything the Romans did for them, and then they say "Nothing".

7/9/05 12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nah, at the end of the monumentally long list, which goes on for a good five minutes or so, one guy pipes up brightly and says "Peace", at which the instigator of the rebellion meeting, exasperated, says "Oh, shut up!"
Watch it again.

7/9/05 4:24 PM  
Blogger PS said...

Thanks - I wanted this quote but was too lazy to type it all out, so Googled the first line and landed here.

29/12/09 11:23 PM  

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