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 Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.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.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

I am probably the last person who both holds a classics degree and reads novels (and is from Vermont!) to read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Years ago I was having a conversation with Tom Zoellner (the author of Uranium) before he did a reading at Backpages Books in Waltham and he asked me if I had read it. I thought he was referring to Procopius’ history of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius that is translated under the same title.

Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History has fled suburbia USA (Plano, CA) where nothing is older than the 1960s, to an isolated pocket of the liberal arts in small town Vermont that is Hampden College (modeled on Bennington College). There he worms his way into into an incestuous, cultish circle of Classicists under the mesmeric guidance of Professor Julian Morrow. Richard is an outsider to this group as a newcomer, and as someone whose family doesn’t have even the pretense of wealth and status. But, as he comes to be accepted as sorts, his entrée into this circle leaves him isolated from the rest of the college. Nor is Richard at all close with his family, and the circle of Classicists is all he has.

There is no secret in the plot of The Secret History, which Richard shares about ten years after the events. The members of the little circle of classics, for reasons that come to be explained, kill their colleague Bunny Corcoran. The question, then, is not what happened, but why and what effect did it have on the participants.

One of the remarkable things Tartt achieves is to tell an engaging tale and provoke positive emotional responses about the characters, all of whom are repugnant. On one level these characters are idealized versions of classicists; they are superior to other students, they speak to each other in Greek and Latin, they pursue the sublime, the eternal, where even the art students are engaged in the mundane. On the other hand, Richard is habitual liar and actively runs away from his problems, they all drink heavily (though they specify Charles as having a problem), and the rest are various degrees of austere, severe, distant, and manipulative. Even Camilla, the most likable of the crew (and not just because she is idealized as Richard’s crush), suffers from many of these same problems. And then there is Bunny, who is demanding, needy, insulting, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and, as we are often reminded, simply not as good a student as the rest of them.

Tartt’s prose holds the reader through, compelling you to follow along, and there are a few features that ameliorate the sense that everyone is awful. While it is clear that the protagonists are not nice people, their monstrosity doesn’t come through in most cases until near the end, at which point she makes you nostalgic for the mean camaraderie of yestermonth. The characters do help each other out and are inextricably bound together, which creates a bond. All of this applies doubly to their relationship with Bunny Corcoran, who is nothing but awful and Richard insists repeatedly that they were friends and indeed liked him. More than any other part, this reminded me of that particular age (c.18) where, being thrust together with a random assortment of people, one makes friendships that from the outside look like nothing of the sort. Some of the faults, particularly the early ones encountered, are the sort borne of youthful hubris and stupidity that are possible to grow out of.

The Secret History confronts issues of beauty, aesthetics, memory, guilt, class, and sex, and does so well. But one of the mysteries that I found distracting and intriguing was when the story took place. It was published in 1992, the story is supposed to take place ten years in the past, and there were enough hints that I eventually settled on the main action taking place in 1981 or 1982, but the characters largely exist within a bubble where time has frozen so the few references to the television set are all the more striking. The Vermont, liberal arts, and Classics setting all give some protection from the crush of modernity, but there “pop” references that dated the story and passing a lot of the events off as 2015 contemporary would have been ludicrous. The same story could be told without a problem, but it would require more firm dating, which, in turn, starts to unravel the timeless aesthetic that the protagonists aspire to.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Secret History and found Tartt’s tone and writing more than sufficient. I, too, developed affection for Camilla, admiration for Henry, and sympathy for Bunny, even while determining early on that I wanted nothing to do with any of them. Vermont and Classics may have been a perfect trap for me, but it snared me.


I probably spent too much time reading fun books in June and have read quite a few since finishing The Secret History (a full reading review will probably go up tomorrow). Now I have started working my way through the first of two volumes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the 14th century Chinese epic attributed to Luo Guanzhong about the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The whole English translation is about 1300 pages, but, depending on how I feel, I may take a break between volumes 1 and 2. So far it reminds me of L’Morte Arthur more than anything.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (T. Anthony Chambers)

Perhaps the easiest way to explain Tanizaki’s 1935 novel, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, is to posit the existence of a “secret history” genre, that, if loosely defined could be expanded to include alt-earth or even roughly contemporary mystery-thriller novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the “American Treasure” movies, the Men in Black, or superheros. More narrowly, this genre blurs the lines between fiction, rumor, and history in order to explain how the world was (or is) at a particularly point in time beyond the historical record. The author or narrator of the text usually takes a stance that the record is flawed (at best) or manufactured (at worst), but, thanks to previously disregarded sources, this secret history will fix the oversight.

One frequent trope in this genre is that beneath an honorable facade and commendable actions lie paraphilia–sexual depravity and unspeakable behavior. For instance, Procopius, a sixth century historian from Caesarea, records that the Empress Theodora would exhaust up to thirty young men at a single sitting and lament that she was unable to have sex through her nipples, finding her other orifices insufficient (9). Now, Theodora probably did nothing of the sort and Justinian was almost certainly not a plague-bearing demon intent on destroying mankind (12), but these appear as the causes of suffering during Justinian’s reign in a text that a later Latin title appropriately calls “The secret History.”[1] As a historical record, Procopius’ work is problematic (though not useless), but it is an entertaining read. For the purposes of this discussion, though, this style of narrative, replete with conspiratorial stories and a declaration that the stories will set the record straight are particularly well-suited to fiction.

In Tanizaki’s tale, the author purports to be telling the coming of age story of the lord of Musashi, which, he says, will also reveal the origins of the lord’s peculiar brand of sadistic sexual proclivities that do not appear in the official record and exist only as rumor. According to the author, the official story about the lord is that he was a fearsome warrior and commander during the period of Japanese civil wars in the 16th century, but at the start of the 20th century he has “discovered” two memoirs written by people who were close to the lord and set the record straight. Unlike Stendhal’s The Abbess of Castro, which Tanizaki translated into Japanese in 1928, both the characters and the sources The Secret History are works of fiction.[2]

I cannot say that I loved this novel, but it was short and eminently readable, with enough tension and characterization, particularly with the juxtaposition of the increasing depravity of the lord of Musashi and the aspirations to purity of the people around him, that I was entertained. Despite its content, or perhaps because of it, The Secret History possesses a subdued humor that emerges from the absurd lengths the young man goes through to achieve satisfaction. Moreover, Tanizaki portrays Japanese culture at the time–something I know little about–as obsessed with decorum, which heightens the tension between the Lord of Musashi and everyone else. And yet in the preface, the author says that he sympathizes with the lord because everything he did, including bring peace in a time of civil war, was caused by an overwhelming passion for a beautiful and refined woman who did not reciprocate his feelings. He sympathizes with this man, while simultaneously recording precious little that is actually sympathetic.

Here I am being deliberately vague. The central conflict in the narrative, exacerbated by his introduction to the beautiful and refined woman, is the awakening of his arousal by a particular scene when he was twelve and how the desire evolves over the next decade his life. The changes in his life cause his fetish to change and the pursuit of his fetish changes his ambitions in life, and the author suggests that it is the latter half prompted the actions that would be recorded in the official histories. He concludes by saying that the Lord of Musashi continued seeking a sexual partner who would satisfy his bizarre stimulus after the events in the historical novel, but declines to continue the account because it would detract from how the lord is perceived. Further, in this novel about outlandish sexual proclivities, there is no sex, though, as a warning for the squeamish, there are a few violent episodes. The point of the story–as in historical accounts–is to explain how some state came to be. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is not a tabloid tell-all, but is meant to explain how this man was able to bring about peace, with the explanation to be found in his thwarted desire.

The Secret History was a good book, but it also felt to me as though it was a quality addition to a genre rather than a brilliant original piece of literature. The faint praise here may also stem from my limited experience with Japanese fiction and culture, thereby rendering a deep appreciation for the cultural messages impossible. I enjoyed The Secret History well enough that I am going to read another of Tanizaki’s novels, Arrowroot that was translated in the same edition. Anthony Chambers’ translation was smooth and clear and the prose was measured and subtle, but there was also no one aspect of the novel that jumped out as exceptional. For all the adjectives that could be used to describe the story–graceful, elegant, subtle, funny, etc–it is not a book I would emphatically demand people read, but it is one that has my recommendation. As noted above, this was a quick read, only about 130 pages, and if there is anyone looking for something relatively short to read over a weekend, you could do much worse than The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.

[1] The Greek title is merely anecdota, or “unpublished things.”

[2] This information is in the translator’s prologue. Tanizaki published The Secret History some seven years after his translation.


First, I have been remiss in posting just because I have had a lot going on in life, almost none of which pertains to my study of history, but I hope to rectify this by writing about various things I pick up, mostly from the books I am currently reading.

Second, I have been designing classes for almost a year now, in effect just picking topics I am interested in knowing more about or that would make an interesting class or that I would like to teach.

The first class I made was with a fellowship from Brandeis University in which I designed a course on the fall of the Roman Empire, tracing it from the mid 200’s until 1400, largely with the help of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I think I did well and could find myself teaching it if called upon, but it was not my favorite subject.

The second class that I decided upon was a class on classical eduction. It is designed as a freshman seminar (for Brandeis students, think USEM), wherein it looks at the classical tradition, why it is important and makes people think about requirements and what they want to do. In part I chose to do this because of one book I read, and in part it is because I think I would have benefited from a course about it. At present the course is about 1/3 set and I need to find some of the additional books I lined up for it.

The second class I am currently working on is one that I only thought of today. It is still in the brainstorming phase, but I am thinking it would be on scandals in the ancient world and going against cultural norms. Like I said, I don’t have anything on paper yet, but I was thinking about selecting a number of scandalous situations and the characters involved and then going from there. The list so far includes The Queen of Bythinia, Alcibiades (his divorce and other scandalous behavior), Agrippina and Nero (Nero’s boat designed to collapse and kill her), and Procopius’ secret history.