Procopius is another one of those little known, but extremely important scholars/historians of long ago to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. He was a lawyer and legal advisor in the court of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (mid-sixth century). The western Roman empire had already fallen (476 AD), but the eastern half continued for almost a thousand years. Procopius witnessed the attempt by the eastern Roman empire (today we call it the Byzantine empire) to reclaim by military conquest much of what it had lost to “barbarian” invasions. Procopius actually accompanied General Belisarius as sort of a “travelling war historian” in their campaigns against the Persians, the Vandals in North Africa, and the Ostrogoths in Italy.
In his official writings (“The History of the Wars”) he also recorded for us the infamous “Nika Riots” in which Justinian ordered his general, Belisarius, to put down a riot by indiscriminately slaughtering thousands of people in the streets of Constantinople. Fans of competing chariot race teams had gotten out of hand, and a riot of sports-enthusiasts had turned into revolt. In typical tyrannical fashion, the ruling class murdered a large portion of the crowd.
This historian also tells us about a strange climate event that occurred in the year 535-536 AD. He tells us that the sun barely shone for a full year, and it seemed as if the sun was eclipsed. His contemporary over in Italy, Cassiodorus, tells us the same thing in his writings. This phenomenon is also confirmed by Chinese court officials during the same time. There was massive crop failure around the world, famine, and pestilence in that year. (Truly it was a bad year for humanity.) Today it is the consensus of many scientists that a volcano erupted, and the resulting dust cloud obscured the sun’s rays. We know today that volcanos such as Krakatoa in the 19th century, or Mount St. Helens or Mount Pinatubo in the late 20th century, have in fact caused similar climate situations.
Procopius’ “Secret History” was an account actually discovered in the Vatican Library centuries after he died. This account, highly critical of Justinian and his empress-wife Theodora, gives us another view that is quite a bit different than the “official” government view of those who were in charge. Of course, if this critical account had been discovered by Justinian, Procopius would have been executed immediately. It is possible that the historian wrote “Secret History” as an insurance policy just in case someone deposed the emperor and thus would look favorably on Procopius.
Procopius is another important “hinge-man”: a scholar who was between two worlds (the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval world). In spite of all the wars, famines, pestilences, and political intrigue, he survived and (at great risk to his own life) preserved for us the events and lessons of his day.