Your RDA of Irony

November 16: Best Sellers of 534 A.D.

What did the Byzantines do for fun? The eunuchs certainly indulged in wishful thinking, and everyone loved debating the correct prepositions in defining the Holy Trinity. But for pure hilarity the medieval Greeks had their own version of MadLibs: the Justinian Code.

The Emperor Justinian was a workaholic and he expected everyone else to be one, too. The legal department was ordered to compile 400 years of imperial edicts and publish them in one handy reference. Tactfully named the Justinian Code, it was a best seller. Every Byzantine bureaucrat bought a copy, if only to learn what laws he would have broken by not buying it.

Now the Byzantine magistrate knew all the legal precedents for judging a merchant who shortweighted anchovies on St. Halitosia’s Day. (That would be the St. Halitosia of Cappodocia, not the one of Epirus.) According to the Code, the correct punishment would be amputation of the right side of the nose. Furthermore, the Code would establish the cost of the surgery. If the amputation was performed by an in-network torturer, the government would cover the cost–after the victim’s initial co-payment. The government would cover only fifty percent of the cost for an out-of-network torturer.

Finally, establishing the definitive standard for government bureaucracy and human resource departments, the Code was in Latin and its audience read Greek.

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