The Story of the First Anecdote, and Other History I Never Knew

The Emperor Justinian

The Emperor Justinian

Justinian the Great was a mighty important guy in the history of the world.

The last Roman Emperor whose native tongue was Latin, he ruled the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565. His armies reconquered much of the old Roman Empire that had been lost to invading hordes. He rewrote the body of law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many countries.

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

Justinian’s building program included the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which was the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for almost a thousand years. After the Ottomans took over, it became a mosque. Since 1935, it has been a museum.

Like most powerful politicians who tend to their image, Justinian had a historian who crafted fawning, flattering accounts of his exploits. Procopius of Caesarea wrote “The Wars of Justinian” and “The Buildings of Justinian.” Both were published during the emperor’s lifetime. The accomplishments chronicled therein were noteworthy.

The seductive Theodora

The seductive Theodora

However, the military and architectural feasts weren’t the emperor’s whole story. Procopius also wrote “The Secret History.” It contained the really interesting stuff, including unvarnished tales about the often scandalous private lives of Justinian and his seductive wife Theodora. The manuscript remained unpublished until 1623, when it was discovered in the Vatican Library.

The existence of The Secret History had been known earlier. It was mentioned in a 10th Century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda. In that encyclopedia, the Secret History was referred to by the Greek word “Anekdota,” or in Latin as “Anecdota.” Both of these mean “unpublished writings.”

Procopius of Caesarea

Procopius of Caesarea

The earliest meaning of “anecdote” in English was thus “Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history.” Only later did the word come to have its present meaning: “The narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting or striking.”

Justinian and Theodora, perhaps the Western World’s first Power Couple, didn’t have to worry about paparazzi, bloggers, or Facebook. Their naughty antics remained secret for nearly a thousand years. But the first anecdote, starring them, eventually found the light of day.

So, my friend, be careful what you write and what you post, lest you too have your own anecdotes become known to all the world.

One Response to “The Story of the First Anecdote, and Other History I Never Knew”

  1. Ask Says:

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