Migration Period
between Odra and Vistula

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Procopius of Caesarea

Procopius of Caesarea, ca. 500 – ca. 560, late antique historian, author of works central to understanding the age of Justinian the Great (527-565). Born in Caesarea (Palestine) in a rich family, educated in rhetoric and law. In 527 legal advisor and personal secretary to Belisarius, chief commander in Mesopotamia, soon afterwards, main commander of the armies of Justinian I. Procopius accompanied Belisarius on his campaigns: until 531, in the war with Persia, in 533, on his expedition against the →Vandals  in North Africa and finally, in 536-540, in the war against the →Ostrogoths  in Italy. After 540 Procopius found himself in Constantinople where he focused on his writing and presumably held a position in the state administration.

Procopius wrote in Greek but Latin titles of his books also are commonly used. His main work are military histories (Bella) in which the narration is brought up to the year 553. Procopius gives an account of the wars of Justinian in a geographical order: Bellum Persicum (books I-II), Bellum Vandalicum (books III-IV), Bellum Gothicum (books V-VII). Book eight deals with wars waged in Italy, on the Danube and on the border with Sasanian Persia. Books I-VII were published in 550, book eight in - 553 or 554.

The Bella are marked by an abundance of detail, which is understandable as Procopius described events he had been a witness to. He deliberately drew from the legacy of Greek historiography: Herodotus, Xenophon, and especially, Thucydides and Polybius. He varies his descriptions of battles with numerous excursions, some of them ethnographic, a valuable source of information about the barbarians →Barbaricum , including the Germanic Tribes  and →Slavs .

The next important work of Procopius is On buildings (De aedeficiis), written presumably around 554-555, although a later dating cannot be discounted. In six books Procopius eulogises the building activity of Justinian, the restoration of old and the construction of new edifices in Constantinople (book I), Syria (book II), Armenia – on the Black Sea (book III), Greece and in the Balkans (book IV), Palestine (Asia; book V) and North Africa (book VI). De aedeficiis may be an incomplete work, with a noticeable lack of a book dedicated to Italy, so well-known to Procopius.

Around 550, possibly later, Procopius wrote his Secret history (Historia arcana; the Greek title, often used, is Anekdota). This work was not published. If Bella and De aedeficiis were panegyrics in honour of Justinian and Belisarius the Historia arcana is a piece of vicious and libellous writing in which Justinian and Belisarius and their spouses (Theodora, Antonina) are represented as degenerates and incompetents, responsible from implementing ruinous fiscal and military policies.

With his detailed and colourful narration Procopius is a primary source for the general history and history of art of the 6th century. At the same time, the glaring discrepancy between the description of Justinian given in Bella and in De aedeficiis on the one hand and Historia arcana on the other is a riddle for historians and makes us question the reliability of Procopius.

The record left by Procopius is invaluable for the study of the →Migration Period  in Europe, not the least, for Poland. For instance, the construction of mighty fortifications in the Balkans (De aedeficiis) may be recognized as proof of a major threat from →Slavs  and other barbarians →Barbaricum . This should be reason enough to make a careful study of the chronology of fortresses in 6th century Balkans as they afford insight into more than the history of the Roman Empire.

Procopius refers to →Germanic Tribes  repeatedly; in one account which is crucial for the study of the →Migration Period  in Central Europe he describes the journey of a group of the Germanic →Heruli  who, defeated by the →Langobards in 512 “[…] traversed all the nations of the Sclaveni one after the other, and after next crossing a large tract of barren country, they came to the Varni, as they are called. After these they passed by the nations of the Dani  […]” (Bellum Gothicum II.15, book VI). If we accept that the Heruli took a route from the Lower Danube along the Carpathians, then the account of Procopius would lend weight to the conjecture that there were tracts of depopulated land in the south of Poland in early 6th c. In one recently made attempt the archaeological record from Ulów in Roztocze has been attributed to the migrating →Heruli  (B. Niezabitowska, A. Kokowski). It is important to understand that the validation of these ideas depends not only on the dating of the finds from Ulów but also on the correct interpretation of the account in Procopius. One historian’s interpretation (J. Prostko-Prostyński) is that the Heruli journeyed to Scandinavia from the territory of Bohemia.

To Procopius we also owe his account not only on Slav raids in which they laid waste to the Balkans (e.g., Bellum Gothicum III.38) but also insights on their social order, beliefs and even their name in the olden times – Spori.


Editions: Procopii Caesariensis Opera omnia, vol. I-IV, J. Haury (ed.), Leipzig 1905-1913 (new edition: G. Wirtha Leipzig 1962-1964); Procopius, Buildings, History of the Wars, Secret History, H. B. Dewing, G. Downey (ed.), Loeb Classical Library, vol. I-VII, Cambridge 1914-1940.

Studies: A. Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, Duckworth 1985; A. S. Christensen, Cassiodorus, Jordanes and the History of the Goths. Studies in a Migration Myth, Kopenhagen 2002; M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians. Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6. Jahrhundert n. Chr., Hypomnemata. Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben, 147, Göttingen 2003; M. Meier, Prokop, Agathias und das ‘Ende’ der antiken Historiographie. Naturkatastrophen und Geschichtsschreibung in der ausgehenden Spätantike, Historische Zeitschrift, 278, 2004, s. 281-310; D. Brodka, Die Geschichtsphilosophie in der spätantiken Historiographie. Studien zu Prokopios von Kaisareia, Agathias von Myrina und Theophylaktos Simokattes, Frankfurt am Main 2004;

R. Steinacher, The Herules: Fragments of a History, [in:] F. Curta (ed.), Neglected Barbarians, Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 32, Turnhout 2010, p. 319-360; J. Prostko-Prostyński, Herulowie między Wisłą a Bugiem w VI wieku?, Slavia Antiqua, 52, 2011, p. 155-161; S. Turlej, Justinian Prima. Niedoceniony aspekt polityki kościelnej Justinian, Notos – Scripta Antiqua et Byzantina, 8, Kraków 2011.