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Two King of Kings? Procopius’ Presentation of Justinian and Kosrow I
By Michael Stewart
Paper given at San Diego State University (2002)
Introduction: The importance of strong leadership represents a central theme in all of the sixth-century Byzantine intellectual Procopius’ works. According to Procopius, great men made history, and a leader’s heroic or shameful conduct often determined the prosperity or poverty of the Eastern Roman Empire. This paper investigates Procopius’ description of two of the most influential men of his era: the Persian emperor Kosrow I (ruled 531-579), and the Byzantine emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565). It proposes that Procopius tended to present the two emperors as mirror images of each other. Indeed, particularly in the Secret History, the historian sought to paint Justinian as an eastern despot rather than a Roman emperor. In doing so, the historian cleverly subverted contemporary imperial propaganda that promoted the emperor as a king of kings. It has been adapted from my 2003 Master’s thesis: Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius.
Justinian held the most important and powerful position in the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine leader, however, was not the only potent emperor of his era. In the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire faced a formidable challenge from the other great agrarian Empire in Late Antiquity, Persia. As Procopius portrayed it, the Persian war was not only a struggle for supremacy between two powerful Empires, but also a personal contest between two emperors, Justinian and Kosrow.
Kosrow provided Procopius with an ideal villain with which to describe all the dangers of letting a “depraved” man run an Empire. Ironically, like many scoundrels, Kosrow is one of the most intriguing men in Procopius’ work. And despite Procopius’ attempts to make Belisarius seem heroic during the Persian wars, frequently, as Averil Cameron suggests, “it is Kosrow who steals the thunder.” While Kosrow serves primarily as a foil to Justinian in Wars, Procopius’ negative description of the Persian leader closely resembles his account in the Secret History. of Justinian’s depravity. These parallel accounts might be taken to suggest that Procopius simplified history and failed to understand both emperors’ political motives and mindset. To the contrary, it reveals that, for Procopius, what made a “just or an “unjust” emperor was based on a universal code of morality.