There are no secret histories

I loved my Penguin Classics paperback of Procopius’ Secret History as an undergraduate. I still have the book in a box in my office, though I haven’t had cause to take it out recently. Procopius of Caesarea lived in the age of Justinian (r. 527–565 CE), earning a living as secretary and historian for the emperor’s talented general Belisarius. He wrote numerous official histories that detailed Belisarius’ campaigns as part of Justinian’s wars of reconquest, but is better known for the other thing he wrote. That other thing is the Secret History.

In the Secret History, Procopius goes full Alex Jones of the sixth century CE. He accuses the emperor of being a devil stalking the halls of the palace and bringing a devastating plague to the world. These pages reveal a special hatred for women. He accuses Belisarius’ wife of cuckolding her husband with their adopted son, and dedicates long passages to the behavior of Empress Theodora, describing her (alleged) sexual appetites in lurid, pornographic detail. But for all that Procopius reveals about social controversies of his age, the Secret History reads more like a bitter screed than a careful history debunking the official version of events. And for good reason. Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.

Procopius is a special case, but I have been thinking about this book recently in conjunction with the genre of popular history book touting to reveal the history your teachers never taught you in school. Between the extremes of conspiracy theory, there is a spectrum of media united in the claim to reveal the truth about the past. Done well, this manifests as, for instance, the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that explores aspects of things that aren’t secret, but also aren’t immediately evident. Frequently, though, they are marketed more explosively as secret histories or under a title promising to reveal arcana guarded by the implacable sentry that is the history textbook.

I love history because it is big and weird—so big, in fact, that the science-oriented Randall Munroe  sarcastically proposed axing all odd or even years.  I say something to this effect to my students at the outset of nearly every course. The rhetorical move made by media marketing itself as “what professors didn’t tell you” is that teaching history requires selection. People who teach US history, as I did last semester, lament the impossibility of covering 150 years or so with any degree of depth, and the problem grows exponentially when the geographical and chronological scope swells to, say, everything in World History before 1500––or even before 1969 as in a course I took in college. Leaving aside the issue of sources, expertise, and political pressures to censor out most scandal, finite class time necessarily leads to superficial and spotty coverage. 

Most history exists beyond the walls of the classroom. Books patiently sit on dusty shelves waiting for a curious mind to challenge the tyranny of the textbook.

(I also believe that history as a discipline undercuts its own authority by introducing students to the field through big, broad courses rather than narrower, idiosyncratic courses. Inverting this structure would start students off with classes that deal with material on a human level, with the specificity of storytelling and enough engagement to arm students with tools before concluding with surveys that tie together the specific material with discussion of broad themes after students were invested enough to appreciate the big picture. In other words, history is taught backward even if reversing course is nigh on impossible.)

Spotty coverage does not a secret history make. I stress in my courses that history is a process, both in doing history and in how it unfolds. Touting something a secret history is at best a marketing gimmick and at worst something more sinister, both of which devalue the process.

There are no secret histories, only history not yet written. Individual documents may be restricted and authorities may push a particular narrative, and in this sense HISTORY is incomplete—and will always be.

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