No, not the Donna Tartt novel, which I also like a lot, but the 6th-century text from which she copped her title, the one by Procopius about the reign of Justinian and Theodora (admirably and unflinchingly translated by Richard Atwater). I have a weak spot for the work of “contemporaneous” historians, especially when their self-interest is so patent. The great virtue of such texts is that they remind us: as wild and wonderful as the human imagination may be, there’s some stuff you just can’t make up. In the case of Procopius, however, it’s not clear that he isn’t making this stuff up, the Secret History being an alternate account of his experience in the Imperial court, the one he kept in a locked drawer just in case the Barbarians ever took over and needed proof he wasn’t just a toady to the former regime.
To that end, he offers up so much dirty laundry on the sitting Emperor and Empress—rank with so much depravity, violence, and Dark Triadic scheming—that the two perpetrators begin to take on an almost heroic quality. Leaving the more salacious material to the reader’s curiosity (which will be satisfied, trust me) consider this sampler: that in defense of the allegation that Justinian might literally have been the spawn of the devil, the author cites several members of the court who claim to have witnessed the features all disappearing from his face, as well as other times his whole head vanished from his shoulders and reappeared again. That’s what people were saying anyway.