In the 6th century, a master of the illicit art of forgery was said to have set up a criminal syndicate within the city of Emesa (now known as Homs, Syria). The leader of this group was a man named Priscus. He was truly central to the group’s success, as, in addition to organizing and planning their operations, he was also the syndicate’s head researcher, as well as the man who actually produced the forged documents. Procopius, a 6th-century historian, wrote of Priscus’ process:
“During Justinian’s reign [r. 527-565] Priscus investigated all the families of the city we have named [Emesa], and if he found any persons who were very well off and able to survive the loss of large sums, he would trace their progenitors with great care, and if he could put his hand on any old letters of theirs, he forged documents purporting to have been written by them” (Procopius, Secret History, chapter 28).
Priscus’ specialty was apparently mortgages, or other such documents that implied an unpaid loan. To increase the believability of these forged documents, Priscus also mastered the ability to reproduce the signatures of the most trusted notaries who had worked in Emesa during the decades before his own day. He used these signatures to countersign the forged documents, making them all the more compelling.
Like many criminal leaders, Priscus wanted to distance himself from his crimes, never attempting to directly use his forgeries in person. Instead, his documents were tailored for other people to use, with Priscus receiving a fee or a share of what his partners made when the claims of the forged documents were pressed. Ironically, Priscus’ most lucrative allies in his schemes were clergymen from Emesa. On the one hand, such clergymen were viewed with trust and respect (which automatically lent more weight to forged documents they possessed), and, on the other hand, the laws of Justinian granted churches much more time than average citizens or institutions to prosecute their legal claims. Based on the empire’s laws at the time, if Priscus forged a document for an average individual to use, the mortgage or loan he was inventing had to reference a contract made within the past thirty (and in some cases forty) years—anything dated beyond that would be considered past its statute of limitations. The church, contrastingly, was given a century to press its claims before such documents expired. Priscus, understandably, preferred creating forgeries for the church, as it allowed him to date his documents to distant times that were obscure from public memory.
Despite his smooth operation, Priscus did not ultimately escape the law. An official named Longinus, who was sent to Emesa by Emperor Justinian, happened to be in the city when some corrupt church estate administrators were trying to use forged documents to compel a man to pay them money. Exactly how the investigation proceeded is unclear, but Longinus eventually uncovered the whole forgery syndicate. In the end, Priscus was arrested and, under the pressure of beatings and torture, he soon confessed to everything. The ultimate fates of Priscus and his accomplices, however, remains uncertain.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Manuscript Illustration from Jean Mielot’s translation of the Speculum humanae salvationis, c. 15th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.