During the reign of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), a wealthy man named Zeno was appointed to be the emperor’s prefect of Egypt. After receiving this order, Zeno started gathering his treasures of gold and jewels, for he wanted to live in luxury during his term of office. Vast quantities of gold, silver, emeralds and pearls that he owned were transported to the empire’s capital city of Constantinople, where the treasure was stockpiled on the ship that would soon take Zeno to Egypt. The voyage, however, never took place—before Zeno could leave for Egypt, his ship caught fire and the wreckage sank below the waves. With the ship went his treasure. To Zeno’s horror, not a single salvageable coin or jewel could be found floating above the water or down in the debris field on the seabed. Yet, Zeno’s misfortunes did not end there. Not long after the fire, Zeno mysteriously and suspiciously died. After his death, a will was discovered in which Zeno bequeathed all of his property to the imperial couple, Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.
Zeno’s death became a hot topic for gossip. With the suspicious fire on the ship, the unexplained absence of treasure in the wreckage, and his subsequent mysterious death not long after the incident, many people in Constantinople were convinced that there was foul play afoot in Zeno’s sudden downfall. One of the people who expressed this concern was Procopius (c. 490-565), the greatest contemporary historian of Justinian’s reign. In his Secret History, Procopius took the side of the gossipers, suggesting that Emperor Justinian sent henchmen to steal Zeno’s treasure and then burned the ship to cover the crime. The historian was less assertive, but still insinuative, in implicating Justinian in Zeno’s later suspicious death. Procopius wrote, “Not long after, as it happened, Zeno died very suddenly, and the two of them [the imperial couple] took over his estate as his lawful heirs, for they produced a will of sorts, which it was openly rumored was not of his making” (Secret History, chapter 12). It must be noted that Procopius was extremely critical, and often libelous, of Justinian in his Secret History, and the historian’s allegations should be taken with a grain of salt. Procopius had no definitive proof or evidence that Justinian was involved in Zeno’s death; the historian likely believed, however, that such a crime could fit with the emperor’s conniving and opportunistic character.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting of the Archimedes Mirror being used to burn a ship, by Giulio Parigi (1571–1635), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).