Procopius and Collective Trauma in the Classroom

Reading time: 4 mins

In the second book of the Wars Procopius of Caesarea describes the outbreak of the plague in Constantinople in 542. This late antique text has been much discussed recently, as were other mentions of the Plague of Justinian. Recent years and our own experience of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought some excellent scholarship on the “first plague pandemic”. I am not a historian of medicine but I decided to teach this text in the “Pandemic” section of my Global Early Middle Ages module. Those are some impressions from that teaching experience that I thought to be valuable to put down.

Teaching that fragment of Procopius is difficult now. While it has enormous value it is also a high-stakes material. Students need a lot of background knowledge and it is challenging, if perhaps necessary, to teach pandemic in a pandemic. The account of Procopius is crucial for our narrative of the outbreak of the plague in Constantinople in 542. But I would argue this text is also crucial for our application of trauma-informed pedagogy. As a literary text, written by someone dealing with pandemic trauma it provides us as teachers with a unique way to address the impact of the COVID pandemic in the classroom. Not by drawing direct parallels or by dissecting its historical accuracy but instead as a way of accessing the emotions of someone who lived through a traumatic mass-disease event.

Procopius describes in detail how people looked for explanations of the unknown disease; how there is a growing understanding that it is the direct contact that causes the spread of the illness and how different course of the disease appears depending on individual cases. There is a dose of scepticism in this text, “I am unable to say” writes Procopius more than once, freely admitting that the plague has left him (and the doctors, even after they attempted autopsies of the victims) at a loss. And then there is desperation.

For Procopius describes how the logic of social interaction failed. Those that were not cared for died, but those who were given adequate attention sometimes died as well. People deemed too weak to recover survived, while strong ones did not. But for many survivors getting rid of the disease itself was not the end of suffering — they had to deal with long-time consequences affecting their speech. People driven to despair by the illnes but also by the burden of societal crisis (or rather collapse) committed suicide. Some of those who survived have considered themselves invincible.

There is a sharp observatory’s eye at work when Procopius talks about how the streets were completely empty, how fresh baked bread was not to be found, how the “necessities of life” were impossible to fulfil. How the society, under the burden of this traumatic event, started to lose the coherence that warded off insecurity. And how, under the same stress, conspiracy theories can spread and how lack of information can allow radicals to pray on people and spread misinformation.

Teaching this text today means a necessity of teaching it as a record of trauma. But it also sharply reminds us of the differences in the experiences of “our” pandemic. In class discussion we compared this record with the scenes from Germany, of empty Berlin streets, the fear how the disease will spread, the uncertainty permeating our existence for the last two years. But we also compared it to the reports from Bergamo in Italy, with the horrific scenes of bodies being gathered outside of hospitals for lack of space; and from India, where people died on the streets for lack of oxygen. We used it talk about our experience of dealing with protective measures and how our encounters with those measures differed from the experience of people in China or the US. Procopius reminded us how, in this pandemic, we lived through our personal trauma but at the same time through global trauma, for the disease “fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other […] besides”. It was informative to think about this fragment as one to be seen through the lens of history of emotions and as a gateway to talk about our emotional responses as well.

Ultimately Procopius gave us a laugh as well when he wrote

And, to put all in a word, it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamys, and especially when the emperor became ill (for he too had a swelling of the groin), but in a city which held dominion over the whole Roman empire every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home.

And we wondered if this was the first mention of a work-from-home order on a large scale (without Zoom, mind you)? For laughter and trauma do go together as well.

The Plague of Justinian was a very different disease to COVID-19. The society in which Procopius lived was also very different. But his vivid account of trauma, if seen as literature, has much to show us in the classroom today. It can enable students to voice their experiences and to see the past pandemics as global ordeals just like the one today is.

Written on February 4, 2022

Cite this post:

Fafinski, Mateusz "Procopius and Collective Trauma in the Classroom." History in Translation (blog), 04 Feb 2022,