Vatican Mysteries: What’s So Secret about Procopius’ “Secret History?”

In a recent New Yorker article, the wonderful Daniel Mendelsohn visited the newly-refurbished and 21st-century-compatible Vatican Library and Vatican Secret Archives.  In the course of his article he mentioned two texts that we will explore in a bit more detail here.  The first is the intriguingly entitled Historia Arcana, which translates as “Secret History,” by the Byzantine historian Procopius.

The Vatican Library, the world’s largest rare books library by a large measure, has the earliest known copy of “The Secret History,” which appeared as a book in 1623, translated from the original Greek into Latin, by Nicolo Alamanni, a 17th century Vatican librarian.  The original manuscript is labeled “Vaticanus Graecus 1001” (Greek work in the Vatican collection, abbreviated VAT. GR. 1001).

Procopius (500-550) was a historian at the court of Justinian.  He accompanied the general Belisarius on his campaigns, and is considered the leading source on 6th century Europe.  In addition to his unpropagandistic “Secret History,” he also wrote “Wars of Justinian” and “Buildings of Justinian.”

“The Secret History” tells the inside scoop on the venerated Byzantine emperor Justinian (483-565).  While Justinian was praised by contemporary and posthumous spin-doctors, considered the last “great” Roman emperor, whose military and cultural distinctions certainly do set him apart.  He is also seen as someone who fought the good fight for the disintegrating Roman empire, by sending his famous general, Belisarius, on a revenge campaign to demolish the Vandals and lay waste to their realm in North Africa.  In the process, Belisarius is thought to have recovered some of the art looted from Rome during the Vandal sack of the city, including the treasures that had themselves been looted by Titus from the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish War.  These treasures are depicted in part on the Arch of Titus and Vespasian in Rome.

But there is more to Justinian’s reign than military success and support of the fine arts, and Procopius dished the dirt on the goings-on at court that Mendelsohn describes as “venal, corrupt, immoral, and un-Christian.”  In fact the pejorative term, to call something “Byzantine” rises from this text, and the idea that Byzantine court life was full of intrigues, back-stabbing (literal and metaphorical), and subversive behavior.  Justinian’s empress, Theodora, did not escape censure, either—her sexual exploits were legendary, and the humble Vatican librarian who translated the first published edition of “Secret History,” Alamanni, left out some of the naughtier sections completely (Theodora was known to have complained aloud that she had been provided by nature with only three orifices by which to be sexually satisfied).

Alamanni had actually stumbled upon the “Secret History” Greek manuscript, and for centuries the Vatican Library did not really know what might be found in its collections.  As recently as a few decades ago, individual librarians could find things that their colleagues could not, and hence the need for an elaborate new cataloguing process.  The library contains approximately 75,000 manuscripts, 1.1 million printed books, 8500 incunabula (early printed books, usually from before or circa 1500), while the Vatican Secret Archives (called “secret” in the less-intriguing sense of “segregated” or “kept distinct from,” denoting the fact that the archive is located in a separate section of the Vatican) has a further 150,000 items.

When Alamanni published “Secret History,” it made quite a stir, because insider stories that aired the dirty laundry of quasi-deified emperors were not an everyday occurrence.  While there was a precursor in the gossipy and highly entertaining “Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius (written around 119 AD), Justinian was of an elevated stature because he was considered a great Christian emperor—to learn of his misbehavior, and his empress’ practice of sodomy despite that being punishable by death, was hot stuff indeed.

We will next look at a forgery in the Vatican collection that changed the course of world history: the “Donation of Constantine.”

Noah Charney is an international best-selling author of fiction (The Art Thief) and non-fiction (Stealing the Mystic Lamb), and a professor of art history.  His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.

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