PROCOPIUS, Greek (Byzantine) historian (b. Caesarea Maritima [Palestine], ca. 500 CE; d. Constantinople? ca. 560), author of a major source of information for Byzantine-Iranian relations in the 6th century CE.
After completing his legal studies, Procopius joined the imperial service and in 527 was appointed counselor and secretary (assessor) of the Roman general Belisarius. Procopius accompanied Belisarius until at least 540 and left an eyewitness description of the campaigns against Vandals, Goths, and Sasanians. From 542 he apparently stayed in Constantinople, witnessing an outbreak of the plague and completing his works, consisting of an encomium on the emperor Justinian’s buildings (De aedificiis), the notorious Historia arcana (Secret history), and, most significantly, the Historiae, a classicizing description of Justinian’s wars. The exact dates of Procopius’s works are disputed (Greatrex, 2003; Croke, 2005), but he is likely to have completed them all before 562.
The first seven books of the Historiae were published in 550. Some years later, probably in 553, Procopius wrote an eighth book, describing further events in Italy, Africa, and the East up to that date. Some scholars believe that Procopius held the high office of praefectus urbi Constantinopolitanae (city prefect of Constantinople) in 562, but this is impossible to prove. As the former assessor of a magister militum, he must have held at least the rank of a vir spectabilis, perhaps even of a vir illustris (Suda, pi 2479). In Late Antiquity spectabiles and illustres (illustrious men) were members of the two most important status groups in the Roman state. In fact, Procopius evidently saw himself belonging to the late Roman senatorial elite (Procopius, Historia Arcana 12.14). He is very likely to have died before 565, or probably somewhat earlier.
Procopius is commonly held to have been the major Greek historian of Late Antiquity (cf. Cameron, p. 3). In matters of style and method, he was heavily influenced by his classical predecessors Herodotus and Thucydides (cf. Brodka, 2004), writing a clear Attic Greek. His continuator Agathias (d. ca. 580) praises Procopius, whom he calls a rhetor (Agathias, 2.19.1), for his learning. Doubtless, as Belisarius’s secretary he was in a good position to acquire reliable information. In all likelihood he was a Christian (contra Kaldellis, 2004).
A major portion of Procopius’s writings is devoted to the Sasanian empire and its relations with the West. The first two books of the Historiae and the first half of the eighth deal with the Roman-Persian wars, covering the period from 408 to 552 CE. Procopius clearly focuses on 6th-century events, starting with the Anastasian war of 502-06 between the two empires and giving a detailed account of the years after about 525. In addition, he offers a mostly reliable description of the Roman-Persian frontier in the second and third book of his De aedificiis, including a very short excursus on Parthian history (Procopius, Aedificiis 3.1.5). Between 527 and 531 Belisarius was commanding Roman forces in the east, so his counselor Procopius was an eyewitness to many events. Perhaps he visited the border region once again in 541 or 542.
As a trained lawyer (contra Howard-Johnston) and member of the imperial administration he must have known Latin. Apart from that, some think that Procopius spoke Syriac and perhaps even Middle Persian, the former being more probable than the latter (cf. Schwyzer). In any case, it is obvious that much of what he knew about the Sasanian empire was transmitted through Syrian sources; for example, the city of Gondēšāpur is called Bēt Lapat (Bēlapatōn) by him (Historiae 8.10.9). He claims to have used Persian accounts, and apparently he had some access to Armenian traditions as well (Historiae 1.5.9, 1.6.9). In addition to that, Procopius surely relied on oral sources, especially soldiers and Persian Christians (see, e.g., Historiae 2.24.8).
There is no actual excursus on Persia and the Persians in the Historiae, except for a very brief, incomplete, and somewhat garbled account of Sasanian history since 408 in the first chapters of book I. However, Procopius’s descriptions of Sasanian internal affairs and Persian-Roman relations, despite being occasionally distorted, are, at least in part, highly useful and reliable. On the other hand, he evidently had a preference for entertaining anecdotes, implausible details, misleading interpretations, and generalizations.
Unsurprisingly, Procopius is especially well informed about those aspects of the Persian state and society that mattered most to the Romans. What he says about the powers and duties of the monarch, the modes of succession to the throne, and the role played by the nobles (cf. Börm, 2010) all in all appears to be compatible with what is known today about these aspects, while providing some details otherwise unknown. Particularly remarkable is Procopius’s mention of an aristocratic assembly playing an important role during the succession crisis of 531 (Historiae 1.21.20). Apart from Ammianus Marcellinus’s Res gestae and the 6th-century Strategicon, Procopius’s work is the most important literary source for the equipment and tactics of the Sasanian army. He is the earliest author to describe the deportation of Roman civilians in 540 and their resettling in a newly founded city near Ctesiphon by Ḵosrow I (Historiae 2.14.1-3; see DEPORTATIONS ii).
On the other hand, what he says about Sasanian history before his own time is almost useless. His version of 5th-century events is particularly full of errors, distortions, and omissions. Whether the famous story about King Yazdegerd I acting as “guardian” (epitropos) of the young emperor Theodosius II (Historiae 1.2.1-10) preserves a nucleus of correct historical information remains disputed. Procopius is quite well informed about the geography of the Roman-Persian frontier region, but he says almost nothing about eastern Iran or the Hephthalites. He shows very little interest in Persian religion, although what he says is basically correct and almost completely free of Christian or anti-Zoroastrian polemic.
Procopius is a primary source for the way the elite of the Later Roman Empire looked on its most important rivals, the Sasanians. While he was completing his writings, the Romans were at war with Persia. Therefore, it is not surprise that the image of Persia and the Persians found in his works is often quite hostile. Especially King Ḵosrow I is portrayed as a brutal, avaricious, and untrustworthy tyrant (see, e.g., Historiae 1.23.4, 2.9.8, 8.10.10; cf. Brodka, 1998). A number of standard negative topoi about “Eastern barbarians” (e.g., cowardice, cruelness, decadence, pomposity, falseness) are frequently used by Procopius (see, e.g., Historiae, 1.2.5, 1.11.15, 1.11.33, 1.23.24, 2.28.25-26; cf. Börm, 2007, pp. 247-49). On the other hand, there are many positive statements (e.g., courage, inventiveness, justice, truthfulness) about Persia and the Persians to be found in the Historiae (e.g., 1.2.8, 1.3.5, 1.6.18, 1.7.34, 2.15.19, 8.12.17). Apparently this reflects the existence of a position within the Roman elite tending to see the Sasanians rather as partners and allies than as rivals and arch-enemies, a view justified by the long period of mostly peaceful coexistence between 387 and 502. In short, due to a number of factors, Procopius’s image of the Persians is of a very inconsistent nature (Börm, pp. 247-75).
For many events, Procopius is not only our main but sometimes even our only contemporary source. For example, by combining information about an insurrection in Persia given in books II and VIII of the Historiae, it is possible to re-date the failed revolt of Prince Anōšazād against his father Ḵosrow I to 543. Although the events are narrated in book VIII (8.10.17-19), dealing mostly with the years 550 to 552, the revolt is in fact mentioned for the first time much earlier, albeit briefly (2.24.8). Without Procopius’s writings it would be virtually impossible to reconstruct the history of the Roman-Persian wars between 526 and 552, especially the battles of Dārā (in 530) and Callinicum (in 531) under King Kawād and the four campaigns against the Romans led by Kawād’s son and successor, Ḵosrow I. What is more, a close examination of his narrative enables us to reconstruct the events leading to the conclusion of the peace of 532 and to Ḵosrow’s attack on Roman Syria in 540 (Börm, pp. 2007, 318-25). Kawād I had regained his throne in 499 with the support of the Hephthalites and a group of Persian nobles sympathizing with the Huns and the Mazdakite movement (cf. Wiesehöfer). Led by the chief of the warriors (artēštārān sālār) Seoses (Siāwoš), they apparently urged the king to attack the Romans in 502 after the emperor Anastasius had refused to pay tribute to Persia. Seoses was executed in about 530 (Procopius, Historiae 1.12.31-38), when Kawād seems to have turned towards another group of aristocrats around the sar-naxwēragān Mebodes (Mehbod) to secure the succession of his third son, Ḵosrow. Mebodes was apparently responsible for the successful peace negotiations with Justinian in 532, but only a few years later he was accused of insubordination and executed. Ḵosrow now seems to have been supported by the noble Zaberganes (Zaurān), who appears to have opposed the treaty of 532 (Procopius, Historiae 1.23.25 ff., 2.26.16-19), and in 540 the Persians invaded Roman territory, thus ending a period of mostly peaceful coexistence of the two great powers of Late Antiquity (cf. Börm, 2006).
In recent years, historians have grown somewhat suspicious of Procopius. Earlier generations of scholars had sometimes taken his statements at face value too readily. Today, some even think that Procopius, wishing to address a secret (pagan?) opposition to Justinian through more or less hidden messages, never really intended to inform his readers about Persia (cf. Kaldellis, pp. 62-93). There can be no doubt, however, that most of what he has to say about the Sasanians can be shown to be correct, even though at times being inaccurate or distorted. Despite a number of difficulties associated with the evaluation of his work, his writings remain one of the most important contemporary sources for the history of late ancient Persia and its relations with the Later Roman Empire.
Procopii Caesariensis Opera Omnia, ed. Jacob Haury and Gerhard Wirth, 4 vols., Leipzig, 1962-64; tr. Henry Bronson Dewing and Glanville Downey, as Procopius: Buildings, History of the Wars, and Secret History, 7 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1914-40.
Agathias of Myrina, Historiarum libri quinque, ed. Rudolf Keydel, Berlin, 1967; tr. Joseph D. Frendo, as Histories, Berlin and New York, 1975.
Ammianus Marcelinus, Rerum gestarum libri qui supersunt, ed. Victor Emil Gardthausen, 2 vols., Stuttgart, 1967.
Henning Börm, “Der Perserkönig im Imperium Romanum,” Chiron 36, 2006, pp. 199-328.
Idem, Prokop und die Perser: Untersuchungen zu den römisch-sasanidischen Kontakten in der ausgehenden Spätantike, Stuttgart, 2007.
Idem, “Herrscher und Eliten in der Spätantike,” in Henning Börm and Josef Wiesehöfer, eds., Commutatio et contentio, Düsseldorf, 2010, pp. 159-98.
Dariusz Brodka, “Das Bild des Perserkönigs Chosroes I. in den bella des Prokopios von Kaisareia,” in Jerzy Styka, ed., Studies of Greek and Roman Civilization, Krakow, 1998, pp. 115-24.
Idem, Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie: Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes, Frankfurt, 2004, pp. 14-151.
Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, London, 1985.
Brian Croke, “Procopius’ Secret History: Rethinking the Date,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, no. 45, 2005, pp. 405-31.
Idem, “Historiography,” in Scott Johnson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Oxford, 2013, pp. 405-36.
James A. Stewart Evans, Procopius, New York, 1972.
Geoffrey B. Greatrex, “Procopius and the Persian Wars,” Ph.D. diss., Oxford, 1994.
Idem, “Recent Work on Procopius and the Composition of Wars VIII,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 27, 2003, pp. 45-67.
Idem, “Prokopio de Cezareo, enigma historiisto de la epoko de Justiniano (ses jarcento p. K.),” in José Antonio Vergara, ed., Internacia Kongresa Universitato: 61a sesio, Rotterdam, 2008, pp. 56-72.
Jacob Haury, Zur Beurteilung des Geschichtsschreibers Procopius von Cäsarea, Munich, 1896.
James Howard-Johnston, “The Education and Expertise of Procopius,” Antiquité Tardive 8, 2000, pp. 19-30.
Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, Philadelphia, 2004.
Idem, “Prokopius’ Persian War: A Thematic and Literary Analysis,” in Ruth Macrides, ed., History as Literature in Byzantium, Aldershot, UK, 2010, pp. 253-73.
Mischa Meier, ed., Brill’s Companion to Procopius, Leiden and Boston, forthcoming.
Berthold Rubin, Prokopios von Kaisareia, Stuttgart, 1954.
Idem, “Prokopius von Kaiareia,” in Pauly-Wissowa, XXIII/I, cols., 273-599.
Rüdiger Schmitt, “Byzantinoiranica: Zum Beispiel Prokop,” in Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, ed., La Persia e Bisanzio: convegno internazionale, Roma, 14-18 ottobre 2002, Rome, 2004, pp. 665-77.
Eduard Schwyzer, “Die sprachlichen Interessen Prokops von Cäsarea,” in Festgabe Hugo Blümner, Zurich, 1914, pp. 303-27.
Suda, Suidae Lexicon, ed. Ada Adler, 5 vols., Stuttgart, 1967.
Warren T. Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians, Basingstoke, 2007, pp. 176-227.
Josef Wiesehöfer, “Kawad, Khusro I, and the Mazdakites: A New Proposal,” in Philippe Gignoux, Christelle Jullien, and Florence Jullien, eds., Trésors d’Orient, Leuven, 2009, pp. 391-409.
David Woods, “Late Antique Historiography: A Brief History of Time,” in Philip Rousseau, ed., A Companion to Late Antiquity, Oxford, 2009, pp. 357-71.
Originally Published: January 1, 2000
Last Updated: May 24, 2013