Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), ruler of Constantinople and its sprawling empire, was a conqueror who sent Roman armies back to North Africa, Spain, and Italy. He was also a patron of the arts who backed architectural feats such as the Hagia Sophia and a lawgiver whose codes and legal theories greatly influenced Western law. With such ambitions flitting through the emperor’s head, Justinian likely needed ample time to turn the whirling ideas in his mind into an implementable plan of action. Curiously, the emperor was said to have had a personality trait that gave him as much time as he needed to brainstorm. It was both a blessing and a curse, as Emperor Justinian was allegedly plagued by insomnia.
Justinian’s supposed sleeping habits were recorded by the historian, Procopius (c. 6th century), in a curious book called The Secret History. It is a text that should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, as it was written in a libelously critical tone against the imperial couple and other leadership figures of the time. Much of the text is gossip, folklore, libel, or possibly satire—yet, there are enough gems of truth in the peculiar book to keep it historically relevant and valuable. Commenting jointly on Justinian’s eating and sleeping habits, Procopius wrote, “He had little need of sleep as a rule, and his appetite for food and drink was unusually small: he did little more than sample a morsel, picked up with his fingertips, before leaving the table” (The Secret History, chapter 13). Procopius went into further detail about the emperor’s alleged poor sleeping habits, writing, “after sleeping for perhaps one hour he would pass the rest of the night walking round and round” (The Secret History, chapter 13). Despite this alleged unhealthy lifestyle, Justinian lived a long life, even surviving exposure to the Justinianic Plague around 542. The long-lived emperor died at the ripe old age of eighty-three in 565.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of Emperor Justinian based on the mosaic at San Vitale (Ravenna) and produced by the Yorck Project; the background behind him was painted by Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.