Procopius, a 6th-century lawyer, historian, and secretary to the prominent general, Belisarius, claimed that Emperor Justinian of Constantinople (r. 527-565) had in his employ a terribly corrupt letter-writer by the name of Priscus. This thrifty scribe was said to have been always on the lookout for unethical ways to make money from his position, and he was quite good at exploiting his government access and insight for his own gain. Priscus, as told by Procopius, “very soon accumulated a huge fortune by very shady means” (Secret History, chapter 16). Despite his questionable business practices, Priscus was so skilled in his craft and so charismatic in his speech that he was able to remain in the emperor’s good graces. Yet, while the letter-writer was focusing his skill on keeping the emperor happy, he forgot to also spend time building comradery with other influential members of the court. In particular, he let his relationship with Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora, fall to the wayside. This was a grave error on Priscus’ part, as it would be Theodora who would eventually put an end to the corrupt scribe’s career.
After an unknown tipping point, Empress Theodora decided that she could no longer abide Priscus’ presence in Constantinople. She embarked on a campaign to undermine the scribe’s relationship with the emperor, and when her efforts started to show some success, she began to press her husband to remove Priscus from his post. Convincing Emperor Justinian to act, however, was taking too much time for Theodora’s liking, so she reportedly decided to pivot to a more hands-on approach in order to ensure that Priscus was promptly sent away. On the empress’ campaign against the scribe, Procopius wrote, “Theodora denounced him to her husband. Her first attempts produced no result, but it was not long before she put her enemy on a ship and dispatched him in mid-winter to a destination of her choosing. There she had his head shaved and, though he was most unwilling, compelled him to become a priest!” (Secret History, chapter 16). Such was the fate of the scribe Priscus. Emperor Justinian was said to have been shocked and a bit disgruntled by his wife’s swift and determined actions. Yet, he wisely sided with his better half and made no attempts to recall Priscus from his monastery prison.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a scribe from a 12th-century manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, manuscript labeled BL YT 26, f. 2 in The British Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.