For the minor fictional character, see Tribonian (The Eyes of Argos).

Historical Figure
Nationality: Byzantine Empire
Date of Birth: 485?
Date of Death: 542
Cause of Death: Disease (possibly the plague)
Occupation: Lawyer, Author of Non-Fiction
Political Office(s): Master of Offices;
Quaestor of the Sacred Palace
Fictional Appearances:
Shared Universe Story
"The Fake Pandemic"
POD: 535 C.E.
Type of Appearance: Direct POV

Tribonian (Greek: Τριβωνιανός [trivonia'nos], c. 485?–542) was a notable Byzantine jurist and advisor, who during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I, supervised the revision of the legal code of the Byzantine Empire.

Tribonian was born in Side, in Pamphylia, around the year 500. He was well educated and practiced law before the court of the praetorian prefect. Justinian made Tribonian magister officiorum (Master of Offices), although it is not clear when, and then appointed him quaestor sacri palatii in September 529.

In 528, before he was appointed quaestor, Justinian named Tribonian as one of the commissioners charged with preparing the new imperial legal code, the Codex Justinianeus, which was issued on April 7, 529. In 530, after Tribonian had become quaestor, Justinian to charged him with compiling and harmonizing the writings of classical Roman jurists. Justinian's main objects in creating this harmonized compilation of juristic writings were to shorten litigation (by clarifying the law), and to create a syllabus to be used at the law schools in Berytus (Beirut) and Constantinople. During the same period, Justinian charged Tribonian with creating a textbook for first-year law students by updating the Institutes of Gaius. Both the Digest and the new Institutes of Justinian were promulgated in December of 533.

In 532 Tribonian was removed as quaestor due to the charges made by his enemies during the Nika riots, but he continued to work on the codification. He was restored to his post as quaestor in 535 and continued in that position until his death. Tribonian continued to help draft new laws for Justinian; these new laws (Novellae Constitutiones) were later combined with the Codex Justinianus, the Digest and the Institutes to comprise the Corpus Juris Civilis.

Tribonian died in 542 of a disease, possibly the plague.

Tribonian in "The Fake Pandemic"[]

In 538, Roman Emperor Justinian sent Tribonian on a diplomatic mission to the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, even though the jurist was compiling the Corpus Iuris Civilis. During this mission, Tribonian met Martinus Paduei, quaestor of King Urias, an encounter that changed Tribonian's life and probably saved the known world.

Meeting with Paduei[]

Tribonian arrived in Ancona, where one Quintus Verus conducted him to Florence, the new capital of Italy. While Tribonian had read Martinus' letters to Justinian, and knew something of Martinus' reputation for inventiveness, he was nonetheless impressed by the innovations and civilization he encountered on the trip.[1]

They arrived in Florence after four days. Martinus Paduei immediately introduced himself. Tribonian was surprised by his informality. Martinus surprised him further by inquiring about the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Martinus admitted he knew certain things, and then hinted at something of great importance he wanted to discuss with Tribonian, though he decided to wait until later that day.[2]

Tribonian dined with Martinus and Urias that evening. Tribonian found both Uria and the food they ate bland but pleasant. After they finished, Urias retired, leaving the two quaestors to conduct business over brandy.[3] Once alone, Martinus explained the important matter: based on his ability to "foresee the future", Martinus knew of a coming plague, and wanted Tribonian's help to stop it. Martinus didn't have a cure, but he thought he knew how to stop it. He explained that the plague arrived in Constantinople from Pelusium, in Egypt. Paduei proposed keeping the plague from reaching Egypt in 541; failing that, he proposed keeping it contained in Egypt. Paduei said the plague reached in Constantinople in 542; after converting it to the Roman calendar, Tribonian was relieved that he had some years yet to prepare. However, Paduei told Tribonian that he would first need to convince Justinian to let the quaestor take the required steps. Moreover, Paduei assured Tribonian that if he were successful, Tribonian would spend the rest of his days a subject of ridicule. Inebriated and frightened, Tribonian accepted this possibility but asked to table further conversation for the night. Paduei agreed.[4]

The next day, the two quaestors nursed their hangovers and accomplished nothing. The day following, Martinus re-emphasized his fears of the plague by agreeing to give enough diplomatic and trade concessions to Tribonian so Tribonian would have the clout to convince Justinian to allow him to put Martinus' plan into action. Any remaining doubts Tribonian harbored vanished, and he began asking for details about the plague, including symptoms. Martinus made the very grim recommendation that any ship carrying someone with the plague should be burned before it could dock. Tribonian was impressed with the obvious ethical concerns Martinus had with his own proposal. He also assured Martinus that, even if Justinian would not sanction implementation of Martinus' plan, Tribonian would find a way implement it.[5]

Implementing Paduei's Plan[]

Tribonian returned home to Constantinople. He was surprised by how old-fashioned and shabby he found his homeland was compared with Italy. Even Constantinople, despite his modern amenities, stank and seemed filthy.[6]

After settling in, he wrote Justinian to let him knew he'd returned, and that Paduei had matters of additional concern, although he did not go into detail. Justinian summoned him the following day. In an audience with Justinian and Empress Theodora both, Tribonian explained Paduei's warning about the plague, and his proposal for stopping it. Both Justinian and Theodora plainly thought Martinus was lying and that Tribonian was foolish for believing him. Justinian proclaimed Martinus and his plague were both fake. Tribonian carefully reminded Justinaian that the emperor was moving against the Arabian Peninsula on Paduei's recommendation. Justinian presented Tribonian with the choice of finishing the Corpus Iuris Civilis or going to Pelusium. While Tribonian wanted to finish the legal text, he knew the danger of the plague was more important. So he asked leave to go to Pelusium with the authority and resources to put Martinus' plan into action. Surprised, Justinian grudgingly agreed to allow Tribonian to go to Pelusium. Theodora then convinced Justinian to give Tribonian the resources he needed; while she didn't believe Paduei either, she saw no harm in letting Tribonian "play sea captain at the end of the world." Justinian agreed and dismissed Tribonian.[7]


Upon his arrival in Pelusium, Tribonian was dismayed to learn that the town was not much of a port, the harbor having silted up. The commandant, Matthew, was astonished by Tribonian's mission. He directed Tribonian to go to Clysma, where he would have access to the Red Sea. Three weeks later, Tribonian joined a caravan for the journey, and safely arrived in Clysma, a city he found even less impressive than Pelusium.[8]

He first met with Peter, the naval commander of the town. Peter was horrified by Tribonian's proposal to shut down sea trade in the fourth, fifth, and sixth indictions (that is the years 540, 541, and 542), as shutting down trade would kill the town. When Tribonian darkly asked if Peter was refusing his orders, Peter assured Tribonian that he would give the orders, but that his men might ignore them rather than risk letting their family go hungry. Tribonian informed Peter that there would be more imperial ships in the Red Sea proper. He also made it clear to Peter that if there was any interference with the communications between Clysma and the imperial ships, he would hold Peter responsible.[9]

Then Tribonian paid his respects to Stephen, the bishop of Clysma. He told Stephen about the plague, but claimed his source was from God, who'd conveyed the warning to a pious monk in Italy. Stephen believed this source, and agreed to help Tribonian with sermons on the plague in exchange for Tribonian's informing Emperor Justinian of Stephen's efforts to establish a monastery.[10] The following Sunday, Stephen gave a fiery sermon, imploring the people of Clysma to help save the world from the "Satanic" plague. The people responded enthusiastically. Tribonian sent his letter to Justinian, updating his progress and praising Stephen.[11]

It was some time before the men Justinian promised appeared in Clysma. Tribonian explained to the captains their new mission over a dinner, promising to make it worth their while, although he assured them they would not be revered as heroes by posterity.[12] Patrols began in earnest in 539 (the third indiction by the Roman calendar). Tribonian issued fire arrows to each ship, and ordered them to keep the braziers going at all times.[13]

In the summer of 541 (the tail-end of the 4th indiction, just prior to the 5th indiction), Arethas, commander of the Cosmas and Damian, reported an encounter to Tribonian: another ship was holding a burial at sea. When hailed, the other ship's crew claimed not to speak Greek. The Arabic-speaking Arethas cursed them violently. The other crew then admitted they had sickness aboard, with one dead, and another two or three sick. The symptoms matched the plague Tribonian described. Arethas ordered his crew to launch fire arrows. As the other crew cursed, their ship burned to the waterline, with no survivors. Tribonian could see that Arethas was disturbed, both by Tribonian's accurate prediction, and by what he'd done to keep the plague at bay. He thanked Arethas profusely and promised he and his crew would be rewarded.[14]

Despite this success, Tribonian resolved to stay through the end of the 6th indiction (September, 542), reporting back to Justinian.[15] Word spread of what had happened. The Sunday following the sinking, Stephen preached a fiery sermon thanking God for sending the warning of the plague to Clysma, thanking Arethas and his crew for stopping it, and thanking Tribonian for organizing the efforts. Afterward, he pointedly thanked Tribonian, reminding the quaestor that he didn't have to come to Clysma in the first place. Tribonian appreciated the recognition.[16] Justinian did pay Arethas' crew, and gave Arethas a medal.[17] Unfortunately, while Justinian kept his promises, he also sent a letter to Tribonian assuring him he wasn't missed in Constantinople, and could stay chasing "imaginary illnesses" in Clysma as long as he liked.[18]

Tribonian left at the beginning of the seventh indiction (September, 543). He promised that he would do everything in his power to make sure the naval officers who'd helped him would be posted wherever they wished. Arethas in particular complimented Tribonian for mostly keeping his promises.[19]

Return Home[]

Upon his return to Constantinople, Tribonian sent to Justinian a recommendation that the emperor post the various naval officers who'd helped him be allowed to return to the Mediterranean. Justinian responded a few days later, reminding him that the navy was Justinian's to do with as he pleased. The letter also informed Tribonian that Justinian had no need for him. When Tribonian completed his final report and sent it to the emperor, Justinian merely replied with a terse "Received". While these responses were what Tribonian expected, they stung all the same.[20]

Tribonian spent the remainder of the year rebuilding his life with some success. The following spring, he received a letter from Martinus Paduei, thanking him for saving world, and making sure Tribonian knew he always had a place in Italy. Tribonian felt as if he'd received a true reward, after all.[21]


  1. Lest Darkness Fall & Timeless Tales Written in Tribute (second edition), pgs. 376-379, loc. 4911-4961, ebook.
  2. Ibid., pg. 380-382, loc. 4966-5003.
  3. Ibid., pg. 383, loc. 5013.
  4. Ibid., pgs. 383-388, loc. 5013-5085.
  5. Ibid., pgs. 388-391, loc. 5085-5122.
  6. Ibid., pg. 392, loc. 5140.
  7. Ibid., pgs. 392-396, loc. 5140-5194.
  8. Ibid. pgs. 397-399, loc. 5210-5255.
  9. Ibid. pgs. 400-401, loc. 5252-5269.
  10. Ibid., pgs. 401, loc. 5269.
  11. Ibid., pg. 402, loc. 5286.
  12. Ibid. pgs. 403-404, loc. 5291-5315.
  13. Ibid., pg. 406, loc. 5334.
  14. Ibid. pg. 407-409, loc. 5352-5386.
  15. Ibid. pg. 409, loc. 5386.
  16. Ibid, pg. 411, loc. 5404.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., pg. 412, loc. 5421.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., pg. 413-414, loc. 5438-5454.
  21. Ibid., pgs. 415-416, loc. 5472-5490.