Two King of Kings? Procopius’ Presentation of Justinian and Kosrow I

With Putin reasserting his power in Ukraine, I thought it would be a good time to talk about another powerful ruler who sought to restore a faded Empire, 


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, and the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It proposes that Procopius tended to present the two emperors as mirror images of each other. Indeed, particularly in the Secret History, the historian’s characterisation of Justinian sought to paint him 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.[1] Moreover, the essay will suggest that despite Procopius’ attempt in the Wars to create heroic secular men to compete with the ancient models found in Homer, his sixth-century Christian notions of valor created visions of ideal and non-ideal leaders that differed somewhat from those found typically in the classical literary tradition. It has been adapted from my 2003 Master’s thesis Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius.

Two Eyes of the World

Justinian held the most important and powerful position in the Eastern Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the Byzantine leader was not the only potent emperor of his era. In the sixth century CE, the Byzantine Empire faced a formidable challenge from the Persian Empire. 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.”[2] 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.[3]

According to Procopius, Justinian and Kosrow shared several traits that made them despots. Each leader loved innovation and disregarded the traditions of the Empire he ruled. Early in his reign, Kosrow’s hunger for power and his determination to introduce administrative reforms alarmed the Persian aristocracy: 

Kosrow, the son of Cabades, was a man of an unruly turn of mind and strangely fond of innovations. For this reason he himself was always full of excitement and alarms, and he was an unfailing cause of similar feelings in all others. All, therefore, who were men of action among the Persians, in vexation at his administration, were proposing to establish over themselves another king from the house of Cabades.[4]


Procopius remained vague about the details of Kosrow’s “innovations.” This absence suggests either that he did not know the particulars of these changes or that he merely created the notion of Kosrow as a revolutionary as a means to compare him with his true target: Justinian. Proof of the latter theory may be seen in the similarity between this narrative and Procopius’ description of the Nika revolt.[5] The resemblance between the two accounts is striking. In each case, the aristocracy’s unease with the reforms and the megalomania of the emperor led to an attempted overthrow. Ultimately, both insurrections failed. As a consequence of their victories, the vengeful emperors lashed out against the nobles and consolidated their power. With the upper classes in both Empires humbled, Justinian and Kosrow remained unchallenged for many years. Procopius lamented that this omnipotence, in due course, brought disaster to both Empires.

The adoration of power and money served as another appalling trait common to Kosrow and Justinian. Procopius emphasized that Kosrow’s invasion of the Eastern Provinces was motivated largely by avarice and jealousy. Vexed at the Byzantines’ success in North Africa, Kosrow demanded his share of the spoils. When Justinian refused, Kosrow accused the emperor of breaking the treaty between the two powers, and he invaded the Eastern Provinces, where he proceeded to sack cities in order to extort money from the Byzantine populace.[6] Although Procopius condemned Kosrow for looting the Eastern Provinces, at least the Persian emperor had attacked a foreign enemy. In contrast, Justinian’s exploitation of the Byzantine population was a far more vile crime. The historian lamented:

Now it was laid down by ancient law that whenever a senator of any of the cities departed this life without male issue, one quarter of his estate should be given to the local Senate, while the next of kin of the deceased enjoyed all the remainder. Here too the Emperor showed his own character in its true colors. He happened to have recently published a law which reversed everything. From then on, whenever a senator died leaving no male issue, the next of kin were to share the quarter of the estate while all the rest went to the treasury and to the account of the local Senate. And yet never before in the history of mankind had Treasury or Emperor been permitted to share the property of a senator.[7]


Roman culture had a long tradition of seeing rapacity as a flaw in men and leaders. Christian writers and thinkers had developed this theme. Indeed, in many Christian histories from Late Antiquity, a king’s or emperor’s desire for material goods served as the root cause for a subsequent “evil reign.”[8]

So too did Procopius expect ideal military leaders to grant unarmed civilians mercy. Unlike Justinian, Kosrow personally led the Persian army into battle.[9] Despite Procopius’ admiration for leaders who willingly faced the dangers and challenges of battle, he condemned Kosrow for his “vicious” military campaign in the Eastern Provinces:

He saw, while the city was being captured, a comely woman and one not of lowly station being dragged by her left hand with great violence by one of the barbarians; and the child, which she had only lately weaned, she was unwilling to let go, but was dragging it with her other hand, fallen, as it was, to the ground since it was not able to keep pace with that violent running. And they say that he uttered a pretended groan . . . though he knew well that he himself was most responsible for everything.[10]


Although as emperor Justinian never led his armies into battle, Procopius still blamed him for what he considered the dire consequences of his military campaigns.[11] The historian suggested that, like Kosrow, the Byzantine emperor had also launched his reconquest in order to plunder “other people’s property.” Procopius maintained that Justinian had “insisted on making himself master of Libya and Italy for the sole purpose of destroying their inhabitants along with those already subject to him.”[12]

For Procopius, a weakness of spirit was often matched by an infirmity of the body. And he described both emperors as sickly men. Kosrow’s frail nature forced him to surround himself with physicians.[13] Similarly, Justinian nearly succumbed to the plague; only divine intervention saved him. Procopius hinted that the plague served as God’s warning that he was dissatisfied with the Eastern Romans and their Emperor. He also suggested that, like all men, the emperor was mortal, and that his temporary power paled in comparisons to God’s eternal authority.[14]

Procopius argued that while Kosrow established his superiority by leading his armies on campaigns, Justinian maintained his dominance by remaining in the capital and manipulating things behind the scenes. Justinian ruled as a secular and a religious leader. In both realms, however, Justinian faced challenges to his ascendancy. The emperor took several steps to deal with these threats and guarantee that he remained the “preeminent man” in the Byzantine Empire. While the early Byzantine successes in the North African and Italian campaigns enhanced Justinian’s vision of a “new” Roman Empire, they also created rivals draped in martial manliness who could potentially serve as competitors to the emperor. From the era of the Roman Republic, a triumphant general’s popularity amongst his soldiers and the populace presented the greatest threat to the authority of the Roman government.

The fifth and early sixth centuries had seen Roman and non-Roman soldiers playing increasingly important roles in both making and unmaking Roman emperors. Generals like Aetius and Ricimer in the West and Aspar in the East were arguably the most powerful and influential politicians in the fifth century. All of these men hailed from the military aristocracy, and they often used their power and influence to control the reigning emperors, who were often little better than puppets. Indeed, many fifth-century emperors had begun their careers as relatively obscure soldiers in the armies of these generalissimos.[15]  

It should not surprise us then that the non-campaigning Justinian thought he was vulnerable to usurpation. Procopius certainly showed his readers that Justinian felt threatened by Belisarius’ military victories and his subsequent fame. His fears were not completely unjustified. After Belisarius’ defeat of Vittigis, the Gothic nobility had offered, “to declare Belisarius Emperor of the West.”[16] This threat to Justinian’s authority must have made him very suspicious of Belisarius’ motives. Even before this proposal occurred, Justinian had taken steps to check Belisarius’ growing influence. Following the Eastern Romans’ relatively easy victory over the Vandals, Belisarius had returned to Constantinople basking in glory. Rumors, though, had already reached the emperor that Belisarius sought “to set up a kingdom himself.”[17] Justinian handled the situation carefully. He realized that he had to reward his victorious general, but he also recognized the need to preserve his own prestige. In an effort to suggest the former glory of the Roman Empire, Justinian allowed Belisarius a “triumph.”

While Belisarius’ celebration evoked memories of former processions, officially it only served to commemorate Belisarius’ inauguration as a consul. (During the era of the Republic two men had held this office similar to that of a Prime Minister; by the sixth century, though still prestigious, the position had become symbolic and was abolished by Justinian in 541.)[18] Like every Roman emperor since Augustus, however, Justinian made sure that the triumph was granted in his own name. Justinian emphasized that Belisarius had achieved his victory through his, and therefore God’s good graces. Justinian allowed Belisarius to march the defeated Vandals and their magnificent treasures through the streets of Constantinople. However, fully aware of the importance of visual symbolism, the emperor set himself upon his throne high above everyone else. When Belisarius came before Justinian, the general fell prone to the ground to pay the emperor homage.[19]


Justinian also took steps to make himself the face of Roman victory. Contemporary literature and iconography lauded “the image of a victor emperor.[20] Besides, Procopius several other Byzantine authors composed works dedicated to promoting the emperor’s military campaigns.[21] Justinian also created public monuments like the one above to commemorate “his” military victories (importantly the statue faced East at the Byzantines most formidable enemy, the Persians). In Buildings, Procopius described a magnificent mosaic in Constantinople depicting the Empire’s victories over the Vandals and North Africa and in Italy against the Goths. The emperor and the empress Theodora represented the center-point of this visual expression of “Roman “military hegemony.

While Justinian largely succeeded in overcoming his rivals in the secular world, he had a more difficult time asserting his ascendancy in the religious domain.[22] This was particularly true in the Empire’s provincial cities, where bishops had accumulated ever increasing authority and prestige. Part of the bishops’ increased authority came through their roles as the providers of charity for the poor within the Empire. In Late Antiquity it became the duty of all Christian men to provide both financial and moral support to the poor.[23] The Christian notion of charity differed from classical forms of social welfare in that it obligated members of the clergy and aristocratic Christians to provide assistance to all people in need. In contrast, the classical form of charity had involved political relationships and to borrow the words of J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz “its recipients were . . . as a whole voters, clients and other individuals who could be expected to do a favor in return.”[24]

Procopius indicated that imperial charity was the mark of a great emperor. Following other Christian emperors, Justinian felt compelled to support charitable institutions throughout the Empire. While Procopius frequently condemned the emperor for frittering away the Empire’s treasury, he praised him for the building of philanthropic institutions.[25] Procopius considered Christian charity as one of the Byzantine emperor’s most important duties. When the bubonic plague devastated the Empire in 542 CE, Procopius showed how Justinian played a leading role in easing the Byzantine citizens’ suffering:

It fell to the lot of the emperor, as was natural, to make provision for the trouble. He therefore detailed soldiers from the palace and distributed money, commanding Theodorus to take charge of this work. . . . Theodorus, by giving out the emperor’s money and by making expenditures from his own purse, kept burying the bodies, which were not cared for.[26]


Justinian felt compelled to protect the poor. By providing this service he competed with the Christian hierarchy who had gained increasing power through their role of providing the poor with financial and social assistance.

 Justinian took great pains, as well, to stress his special role as an intermediary between his people and God. In Buildings, Procopius revealed how past Roman emperors had emphasized their special relationship with the Christian Church: “the Emperor Constantius had built this church in honor of the Apostles and in their name, decreeing that tombs for himself and for all future Emperors should be placed there.” Procopius made it clear that this relationship was more than just a symbolic one:

When the Emperor Justinian was rebuilding this shrine, the workman dug up the whole soil so that nothing unseemly should be left there; and they saw three wooden coffins lying there neglected, which revealed by inscriptions upon them that they contained the bodies of the Apostles Andrew, Luke, and Timothy.[27]


Because the emperors and the Apostles had a special relationship, it was natural that they would be buried in the same ground.  Constructing religious shrines served as a means for an emperor to accentuate his special relationship with the spiritual realm. Procopius emphasized that Justinian gave thanks to the Apostles by continuing his church building with an increased passion. Dedicating churches throughout the Empire and the newly conquered territories also served a political purpose. It not only cemented the emperor’s religious role in the minds of the Byzantine populace, but also helped established Justinian’s preeminence for his new subjects as well.

Procopius blamed many of Justinian’s faults, as was the case with Belisarius, on his marriage to an immoral woman. Instead of portraying Justinian as an “evil genius,” Procopius maintained that the emperor was a simple man: “with no more sense than a donkey, ready to follow anyone who pulls his reins.” According to Procopius, Justinian married Theodora because he was overcome by “an overwhelming passion for her”.  Procopius used the union as an example to show how far Justinian had strayed from “Roman” traditions. Even Justinian’s aunt, the empress Euphemia, whom Procopius perceived as “completely without culture,” and “of barbarian origin,” refused to accept the marriage while she lived.[28] For Procopius, the fact that a “non-Roman” would have more respect for Roman traditions than its emperor showed just how far Justinian’s lust for Theodora had kept him from looking out for the needs of the Empire.

Procopius indicated that powerful couples could be a force for good or evil in the world. Procopius’ fear of Theodora’s influence suggests that women could play powerful roles in sixth-century Byzantium. Nevertheless, in his invective against the imperial couple, Procopius also concluded that the most powerful players in the Byzantine Empire dwelled in the spiritual realm. While Procopius described both Justinian’s and Theodora’s flawed natures as resulting from their sordid characters and humble backgrounds, he had a difficult time attributing all of their “evil triumphs” to their own actions. Procopius indicated that there had to be some higher power guiding the emperor and the empress. For a Christian like Procopius, it was logical to assume that if a just emperor relied on God’s and the saints’ supernatural assistance to promote his reign, then an unjust emperor must have another mystical form of support: demons. Procopius stressed that those who thought that Justinian and Theodora had succeeded in bringing ruin to the Eastern Roman Empire by chance were mistaken, for “it was not by human but by some very different power that they wrought so much havoc.” For in fact, “a pair of blood-thirsty demons” had possessed Justinian and Theodora. This assessment made perfect theological sense to Procopius, suggesting the extent of his Christian belief. A mere mortal man and woman could never have stood up to God or the Apostles; therefore, for Procopius, the only logical explanation for their success was that the two had become “man-demons” [ἀνθρωποδαίμονες] who had thwarted God and led the Eastern Roman Empire and the “whole world” to ruin.[29]

Further evidence of Procopius’ Christian beliefs and the powerful influence of women over powerful men may be found in his description of Kosrow’s marriage to a Christian woman, Euphemia. Procopius indicated that the Persian emperor felt both intrigued and repelled by Christianity. Procopius argued that Kosrow had captured Edessa in order to refute the Christians’ claims that city could not be taken because it had divine protection. Despite Kosrow’s belief in the superiority of Zoroastrianism over Christianity, Procopius revealed that the Persian emperor’s fondness for his Christian wife played a role in his displaying restraint and “kindness to the inhabitants of Sura.”[30] Although political necessity forced Procopius to portray Kosrow as a typical villain, Procopius hints that the power of Christianity could influence even the most powerful and corrupt men.

Procopius’ description of admirable and villainous leaders presents a complex amalgamation of Christian and classical ideals. Procopius presented Justinian and Kosrow as two mighty yet defective leaders. Each was convinced of his own omnipotence and natural right to dominate others. Procopius maintained, however, that despite both emperors’ seeming supremacy, when compared to the power and magnificence of God, their authority was fairly limited. Their power was temporary, while God’s authority was eternal.




1. Presbytery mosaic of the emperor Justinian I, church of San Vitale, Ravenna Italy.

2. Kosrow I seated on his throne, Ctesiphon, Iraq.


[1] For this propaganda during Justinian’s reign, see Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual Between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 134.


[2] Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London: Routledge, 1985), 163.


[3] For an in-depth discussion of some of these parallels see now Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), esp. 119-142.

[4] Procopius, Wars 1.23.1-3.


[5] Procopius, Wars 1.24.1.


[6] Procopius, Wars 2.8.1.


[7] Procopius, Secret History 29.25


[8] E.g. Martin Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, trans. Christopher Carroll (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2000), 156.


[9] Like earlier Roman emperors, the success of the Sassanid dynasty depended upon the ability of the king to lead his armies to victory. Zeev Rubin, “The Sassanid Monarchy,” in The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 14 Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A. D. 425-600, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 659-60.


[10] Procopius, Wars 2.9.9-11.


[11] Justinian, however, began his career as a solider. He served as an elite member of the palace guards (kandidatoi) during the reign of the Emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518), and in 520, during the reign of his uncle Justin I (ruled 517-527), was named commander of the imperial troops in Constantinople (magister militum praesentalis).


[12] Procopius, Secret History 6.16.


[13] Procopius, Wars 8.10.11-3.


[14] J.A.S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 60. 

[15] Brian Croke“Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar, “Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203. Justinian’s predecessors Marcian (ruled 450-457), Leo I (ruled 457-474,) Zeno (ruled 474-5, 476-91), Basiliscus (ruled 475/6), Justin I all began their careers as humble soldiers (the exception, Anastasius ruled 491-518, served as a palace official before surprisingly being named emperor).


[16] Procopius, Wars 6.30.24-7.


[17] Procopius, Wars 4.8.6.


[18]Procopius, Secret History, 170, n. 1.



[19] Procopius, Wars 4.8.2-10.


[20] McCormick, Eternal Victory, 67.


[21] Whately, “Militarization”, 51.

[22] Most seriously, the on-going divide between supporters of the council of Chalcedon, like the emperor, and those who opposed it, like the empress Theodora, created religious division where the emperor sought unity.


[23] For these developments, see now Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).


[24] J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz: Barbarians and Bishops: Army, Church and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 187-9.


[25] Cameron, Procopius, 127.


[26] Procopius, Wars 2.23.6-10.


[27] Procopius, Buildings 1.4.20-2.



[28] Procopius, Secret History  9.28-9.

[29] Procopius, Secret History 12.14.


[30] Procopius, Wars 2.12.6-26.


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