Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) was an intelligent man and he enjoyed applying his education to his daily tasks, such as giving speeches and writing dispatches. Justinian’s behavior in regard to actions such as these, was recorded by the mysterious historian, Procopius, whose personal impression of the emperor is a puzzle, as his texts (The Wars, The Buildings, and The Secret History) peculiarly all used different tones of affection or disdain for Justinian. On the emperor’s habit of writing his own sensitive dispatches, Procopius wrote, “The officials known as a secretis were not allowed the privilege of writing the emperor’s secret dispatches—the task for which they had originally been appointed—but he wrote almost everything himself” (The Secret History, chapter 14).
Procopius also wrote of Justinian’s alleged insistence on personally giving public speeches about edicts or announcements that were published under his name. As the story goes, the emperor insisted on doing the speeches himself, even though he was reportedly a lackluster orator. Emperor Justinian’s diction, wrote Procopius, “was utterly uncouth. Whenever he wished a rescript to be published in his name, he did not send it in the usual way to the holder of the Quaestor’s office to be promulgated but thought fit in most cases, in spite of the poorness of his speech, to read it out himself” (The Secret History, chapter 14). Although Procopius meant these passages to be insults and criticisms against Justinian—as was the theme of the peculiar Secret History—one can only admire the emperor’s determination to put his education in language and writing to a practical use.
Written by C. Keith Hansely
Picture Attribution: (Image of Emperor Justinian based on the mosaic at San Vitale (Ravenna), [Public Domain] via the Yorck Project and Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.