Procopius The Secret History


Now when the Emperor and Theodora dismissed John of Cappadocia, they wished to appoint a successor to his office, and agreed to choose a still baser rogue; so they looked everywhere for such an instrument of tyranny, examining all manner of men that they might be able to ruin their subjects the faster. For the time being, they appointed Theodotus to the office: a man who was by no means good, but still not bad enough to satisfy them; and meanwhile they continued their general search till finally, almost to their surprise, they discovered a banker named Peter, a Syrian by birth, surnamed Barsyames; who, after years of sitting at the copper money-changer's table had made himself rich by thievish malpractices, being gifted at stealing obols, which he could filch under the eyes of customers by the quickness of his fingers. He was not only smart at this sleight-of-hand thievery, but if he were ever detected, would swear it was a mistake, covering up the sins of his hands with the impudence of his tongue.

Enlisting in the Pretorian guard, he behaved so outrageously that Theodora was delighted with him, and decided he could most easily serve her in the worst of her nefarious schemes. So Theodotus, who had succeeded the Cappadocian, was straightway removed from office and Peter appointed in his place; and he did everything to their taste. Cheating all the soldiers of -their due pay, without the slightest shame or fear, he also offered offices for sale to a greater extent than ever to those who did not hesitate to engage in this impious traffic for dishonored positions; and he openly licensed those who bought these offices to use as they wished the lives and substance of their subjects. For he claimed himself, and granted to whoever paid the price of a province, the right to destroy and ravage without restriction.

This sale of human lives proceeded from the first officer of the State; and by him the contract for the ruin of cities was made. Through the principal law courts and in the public Forum went the licensed bandit who was given the name of Collector-collector of the money paid for high offices which was in turn extorted from the despairing people. And of all the imperial agents, many of whom were men of repute, Peter selected for his own service those who were villains.

In this he was not unique; for those who held the same office before and after him were equally dishonest. So were the Master of Offices, the Palatine Treasurers of the public and the Emperor's private moneys, and those in charge of his personal estates; and, in short, all who held public offices in Constantinople and the other cities. For from the time when this tyrant first managed the affairs of state, in each department the ministers without any justification claimed the moneys pertaining to that department for themselves whenever he did not take them himself; and the subordinates of these officials, suffering the extremes of penury during all this time, were compelled to serve in the manner of slaves.

Most of the great stores of grain that had been kept in Constantinople had rotted; but he forced each of the cities of the East to buy what was not fit for human consumption; and he made them pay not what was the usual price for the best grain, but a still higher rate; so that the purchasers who had thrown away large sums of money, buying at such extravagant prices, had then to throw the rotten grain into the sea or down the sewers. Then the grain that was still sound and wholesome, of which there was great abundance, he decided to sell to the cities that were in danger of famine. In this way he made twice the money which the public collectors had formerly taken by the sale of this grain.

The next year, however, the harvests were not so ample, and the grain transports arrived at Constantinople with less than the necessary supply. Peter, worried over the situation, determined to buy a large quantity of grain in Bithynia, Phrygia, and Thrace. So the inhabitants of these regions were forced to the heavy task of bringing their harvests down to the seacoast and to transport it at considerable peril to Constantinople, where they received a miserably small price. So great indeed were their losses, that they would have been glad to give their grain outright to the State and pay a fine for that privilege. This is the grievous burden which was called "co-operative buying."

But when even thus the supplies of grain in Constantinople were insufficient for its needs, many denounced this system before the Emperor. And at the same time nearly all the soldiers, because they had not been given their due pay, assembled mutinously throughout the city and created a great uproar. The Emperor turned now against Peter and decided to remove him from office, because of the above-mentioned complaints, and since he heard he had hidden a devilishly large amount of plunder of which he had robbed the State. Which was indeed the case.

But Theodora would not let her husband do this, for she was marvelously delighted with Barsyames, I suppose because of 'his wickedness and his remarkable cruelty to his subjects. For she herself was utterly savage and bursting with inhumanity, and thought those who served her should be as nearly as possible of a character with herself. They say, too, that she had been involuntarily charmed by magic to become Peter's friend; for this Barsyames was a devotee of sorcerers and demons, and was admittedly a member of the Manichaeans. Although the Empress had heard all this, she did not withdraw her favor from the man, but decided to prefer and favor him all the more on this account. For she herself from childhood had consorted with magicians and sorcerers, as her pursuits inclined her toward them and all her life she believed in the black art and had' great confidence in it.

They even say that it was not so much by flattery that she made Justinian eat from her hand as by demoniac power. For this was not a kindly, just, or good man, to prevail over such machinations, but plainly overmastered by his passion for murder and money; easily yielding to those who deceived and flattered him, and in the midst of his fondest plans he could be diverted with facility, like a bit of dust caught up by the wind. None of his kindred or his friends had any sure confidence in him, and his plans were continually subject to change. Thus, he was an easy mark to sorcery, as I have said, and with no difficulty fell into the power of Theodora. And it was for this reason that the Empress regarded Peter, practised in such arts, with great affection.

So it was all the Emperor could do to remove him from office; and at Theodora's insistence, soon afterward he made him chief of the treasurers, removing John from this position which he had given him only a few months before. This man John was a native of Palestine, exceedingly good and gentle, ignorant of the possibility of increasing his private fortune, and had never wronged a single man. All the people loved him; and therefore he could not please Justinian and his wife, who, as soon as they saw among their agents an unexpected decent gentleman, became faint with horror, and determined to get rid of him at the first possible opportunity.

So it was that Peter succeeded John as chief of the treasurers, and once more became the cause of great calamities. Embezzling most of, the moneys which had been set apart since the time of a long-past Emperor to be distributed each year to the many poor, he made himself thus unjustly rich at the expense of the people, and handed a share of it to the Emperor. Those who were thus deprived of their dole sat around in great grief. Furthermore, he did not coin the customary amount of gold, but issued a less amount, a thing that had never happened before. And this is how the Emperor dealt with the magistracies.


2003 Procopius