The Crimes of Theodora
From 'The Secret History' by Procopius

HAVING completed our portrait of Justinian, let us turn now to Theodora. Her mind was firmly and perpetually fixed upon inhumanity. No one ever once persuaded her or forced her to do anything: she herself with stubborn self-will fulfilled her own purposes with all the powers at her disposal, and nobody dared to ask mercy for anyone who had incurred her displeasure. Neither the passage of time, nor surfeit of punishment, nor any kind of appeal, nor any threat of death, — though all mankind lives in expectation that it will fall from heaven, could induce her to abate her wrath in the slightest. To put it in a nutshell, Theodora was never once known to come to terms with anyone who had aroused her ire, even when he had departed this life. The dead man's heir inherited the hatred of the Empress like anything else belonging to his father, and bequeathed it to the third generation. For her animosity was ever ready to be aroused to the destruction of other people, and no power on earth could mitigate it.

To her bodily needs she devoted quite unnecessary attention, though never enough to satisfy herself. She was in a great hurry to get into her bath, and very unwilling to get out again. When she had finished her ablutions she would go down to breakfast, and after a light breakfast she would take a rest. But at lunch and supper she indulged her taste for every kind of food and drink. Again and again she would sleep for hours on end, by day till nightfall and by night till sunrise. And though she had strayed thus into every path of self-indulgence for so great a part of the day, she thought fit to run the whole of the Roman Empire! If the Emperor entrusted any business to a man without first seeking her approval, such a change of fortune would come upon that man's affairs that very soon after he would be removed from his position with the utmost ignominy, and die a most shameful death.

Justinian found it easy to cope with everything, not only because of his tranquil temperament, but because, as remarked before, he had little need of sleep as a rule, and was approachable in the extreme. For there was almost complete freedom for people, even if they were obscure or completely unknown, not only to come into the presence of this autocratic monarch, but to converse with him quite freely and be closeted with him in private. But to the Empress's presence even for one of the magistrates there was no admission except at the cost of much time and effort; on every occasion they all had to await her pleasure, waiting like slaves in a small, stuffy anteroom all the time. For it was impossibly risky for any of the magistrates to be missing. Hour after hour they stood on tiptoes, each straining to hold his head higher than those near him in order to catch the eye of any eunuchs emerging from within. At long last and after days of waiting a few of them were called for: they went into her presence trembling with fear and hurried out again as quickly as they could, having merely prostrated themselves and touched the instep of each imperial foot with the edge of their lips. To make any comment or request unbidden by her was completely ruled out. The nation had become a community of slaves with Theodora as slave-driver. To such an extent was the Roman State being brought to nothing, what with the monarch's temperament, which seemed too easy-going, and Theodora's, which was harsh and implacable. For an easy-going temperament meant instability, an implacable one made action impossible.

If in their attitude of mind and in their way of life they clearly had nothing in common, they were as one in their rapacity, their lust for blood, and their utter contempt for the truth. Both of them were most practiced liars, and if anyone who had aroused Theodora's ire was alleged to be committing any offence however trivial and insignificant, she promptly fabricated charges which had nothing to do with the accused, and blew the matter up to criminal proportions. Endless indictments received a hearing, and a special court was established to dispose of them. The juries impaneled were of Theodora's choosing, and the members were expected to contend with each other to see which of them by the inhumanity of his verdict could succeed better than the others in satisfying the Empress's desire. Thus she saw to it that the property of anyone who had offended her should be immediately pocketed by the Treasury, and after having him most cruelly flogged, though he might perhaps be descended from a long line of noble ancestors, she did not hesitate to punish him with either banishment or death. But if by any chance one of her favourites was known to have committed homicide or any other capital offence, she mocked and ridiculed the efforts of the accusers, and forced them much against their will to keep silence about what had occurred.

Again, when the fancy took her, she amused herself by turning the most serious matters into a subject for laughter, as if she were watching a comedy on the stage. For instance there was one of the patricians, an old man who had long held public office. I am well aware of his name, but I shall on no account mention it for fear of keeping alive indefinitely the ridicule that befell him. He was unable to collect a large sum owed to him by one of the Empress's servants; so he went to Her Majesty in order to accuse the other party to the transaction and to petition her for help in securing his due. But Theodora had advance information, and gave instructions to her eunuchs that when the patrician appeared before her they were to form a circle round him and listen carefully to what she said, indicating what they must say in response. When the patrician was admitted to the women's quarters, he prostrated himself in the way she always insisted on, and as if on the point of weeping spoke thus:

Mistress, it is painful for a patrician to be short of money. For what in other men brings sympathy and compassion is regarded as ridiculous in one of my rank. Anybody else in extreme financial difficulties can inform his creditors of his position and escape immediately from his predicament; but if a patrician should find himself unable to meet his obligations, he would be terribly ashamed to disclose his situation, and if he did disclose it he would never convince his creditors, who would think it incredible that poverty could be known in such a class of society. If he does convince them, he will inevitably suffer the most shameful and agonizing misery. Well, Mistress, I have both creditors who have lent their money to me and debtors who have borrowed mine. Those who have lent to me are perpetually pressing for payment, and respect for my position in society makes it impossible for me to bilk them; while those who are in my debt, not happening to be patricians, resort to inhuman excuses. I appeal to you therefore, I beg you and implore you to help me secure my due and escape from my present unhappy situation.

Such was his statement. The lady replied by intoning, `Patrician So-and-So'; and the chorus of eunuchs chanted their response, `You have a great big rupture.' When the suppliant renewed his appeal and spoke in very much the same terms as before, the lady repeated her former reply and the chorus their former response, until the wretched man gave up in despair, prostrated himself in the regulation way, left the Palace, and returned home.

Most of the year the Empress spent her time in the suburbs overlooking the sea, chiefly in the place called Herion. This meant a great deal of discomfort for her huge retinue of attendants; for provisions were in short supply, and they were exposed to dangers from the sea, especially if a storm happened to break, or the whale made a sudden attack somewhere in the area. But their master and mistress were indifferent to the sufferings of all men alive, so long as they themselves could live in luxurious comfort.

Theodora's method of dealing with those who had offended her shall be my next subject. Of course I shall mention only a few cases, that I may not seem to be toiling at an interminable task.

When Amalasuntha, in her anxiety to part company with the Goths, made up her mind to change her whole way of life and was thinking of migrating to Byzantium, as related in an earlier volume , Theodora reflected that the woman was an aristocrat and a queen, besides being extremely attractive in appearance and swift as lightning to find means to her ends, and became suspicious of her splendid and extraordinarily masculine bearing, the fickle spirit of her own husband giving her further cause for alarm. It was not in trifles that she made her jealousy evident: nothing less than to ensnare the woman and bring her to her death would satisfy the Empress. So she forthwith induced her husband to send Peter to Italy by himself to act as ambassador. At his departure the Emperor gave him the instructions detailed in the relevant chapter of my record where through fear of the Empress it was quite impossible for me to tell the true story of what happened. She herself gave him this single command — to remove the woman from this world at the earliest possible moment; and she saw to it that the man was swept off his feet by the hope of ample rewards if he carried out her commands. When he arrived in Italy — for man is incapable by nature of proceeding with hesitation to a brutal murder when he has hopes of some office, perhaps, or of a big monetary reward — he approached Theudatus with an offer of some sort and persuaded him to make away with Amalasuntha. As recompense he was promoted to the rank of Magister, and became immensely powerful and hated more than any man alive. So ended the story of Amalasuntha.

In Justinian's employment was a letter-writer named Priscus, utterly villainous and as blustering as any Paphlagonian, just the man to fit in with the character of his master, and only too anxious to please him in the expectation of receiving similar treatment in return. Consequently, he very soon accumulated a vast fortune by very shady means. However, on the ground that he treated her with scorn and put obstacles in her way, Theodora denounced him to her husband. Her first attempts produced no result, but it was not long before she put her enemy on board a ship and dispatched him in mid-winter to a destination of her own choosing. There she had his head shaved, and though he was most unwilling compelled him to become a priest! The Emperor himself behaved as if he knew nothing at all of what was going on: he made no attempt to discover the whereabouts of Priscus, nor did he ever give him another thought, but sat in silence as if steeped in oblivion. But finding that Priscus had left a little money behind he pocketed the lot.

Suspicion fell upon Theodora of a love affair ; with one of her servants called Areobindus, of foreign extraction but handsome and quite young, whom she had chosen to be her steward. Wishing to refute the charge (though, if report was true, madly in love with the man) for the moment she made up her mind to have him cruelly flogged for no reason at all. What happened to him after that we have no idea, nor has anybody seen him to this day. For if she chose to conceal anything that was going on, that thing remained unspoken and no reference was ever made to it; the man who knew the facts was no longer allowed to report them to any of his closest friends, nor might the man who wished to learn them ask any questions, however curious he might be. Since man's first appearance on the earth no despot has ever been regarded with such fear. No one who had given offence stood any chance of escaping detection: an army of spies kept her informed of all that was said or done in the forum and in private houses. In cases where she did not wish the punishment of the offender to be generally known, this is what she used to do. She first sent for the man; then if he happened to be a person of position, she would with the strictest secrecy hand him over to one of her attendants, with instructions to convey him to the farthest limits of the Roman Empire. At dead of night the attendant would put the offender on board ship shrouded and fettered, and go on board with him. Then at the place which the Empress had appointed he would furtively hand him over to someone well qualified for this task, impressing on him that he must keep the prisoner absolutely safe, and forbidding him to say a word to anyone until the Empress felt sorry for the unfortunate creature, or after dying by inches and wasting away for many years as a result of the hardships which he suffered there he reached the end of his days. Then the attendant would set off for home.

Vasianus again, one of the Greens , a young man of some distinction, made such uncomplimentary remarks about her that she was furious with him. News of her displeasure soon came to his ears, so he took refuge in the Church of the Archangel . She at once detailed the officer in charge of the people to deal with him, not giving him any instructions to charge Vasianus with his uncomplimentary remarks, but accusing him of offences against boys. The officer soon had the man out of the church and tortured him with an unendurable form of punishment. When the people saw a member of the upper classes who had been surrounded with luxury all his life overwhelmed with such agonies, they were immediately cut to the heart, and their groans and shrieks rose to high heaven as they pleaded for the young man. But Theodora made his punishment even worse: she had his privy member cut off and destroyed him, though he had never been brought to trial, and finished by confiscating his estate for the Treasury. Thus whenever this harpy worked herself up no sanctuary was inviolate, no law offered any protection, nor was the intercession of a city's entire population sufficient to save the offender from his doom, nor could anything else on earth overcome her determination.

In the same way Diogenes, because he was a Green, roused Theodora's fury. He was a charming fellow, very popular with everyone, including the Emperor himself, but that fact did not weaken her determination to charge him slanderously with offences against male persons. She suborned two of his household slaves, and produced them in court to serve both as prosecutors and as witnesses against their owner. He was not examined secretly and behind locked doors, as was usual with her, but in open court, a large jury being chosen from men with excellent qualifications, in deference to the high standing of Diogenes. The jury, after investigating the case with great thoroughness, came to the conclusion that the evidence of the slaves was not weighty enough to enable them to reach a verdict, especially as the witnesses were mere boys. So the Empress locked up Theodore, one of Diogenes's closest friends, in her favourite cells. There she set about her victim with many flattering enticements, and finally with prolonged physical torture. Since this treatment produced no result, she ordered a strip of leather to be wound round the prisoner's head about his ears and then twisted and tightened. Theodore imagined that his eyes had left their sockets and jumped out of his head; but he resolutely declined to confess anything that he had not done. Accordingly the jury ruled that the evidence had failed to substantiate the charge and found the accused Not Guilty, and the city with one accord kept holiday in honour of the event.

That was the end of this story. At the beginning of the present volume I described what Belisarius and Photius and Buzes suffered at her hands.

Two Blue partisans of Cilician origin, at the head of a riotous crowd, set upon Callinicus, the Governor of the Second Cilicia, and subjected him to physical assault. His groom, who was standing by his side and tried to shield his master, was murdered before the eyes of the Governor and the whole populace. The partisans were convicted of a series of murders culminating in this one, and in accordance with the law the governor sentenced them to death; but when Theodora heard of it she flaunted her support of the Blues by seizing Callinicus while still in office, and without the slightest pretext impaling him over the murderers' grave. The Emperor shed crocodile tears over the dead governor and sat there grunting like a pig , and though he uttered dire threats against those who had executed the outrage he did nothing at all. But the property of the dead man he plundered without the slightest hesitation.

Theodora made it her business also to devise punishments for the sins of the flesh. Prostitutes — more than five hundred in all — were rounded up; women who in the middle of the forum sold their services for a shilling a time, just enough to keep body and soul together. They were then dispatched to the mainland opposite and confined in the Convent known as Repentance in an attempt to force them into a better way of life. However, some of them from time to time threw themselves dawn from the parapet during the night, and so escaped being transmogrified against their will.

In Byzantium, there were two young sisters. Not only had their father — and his father and grandfather before him — attained the consulship, but their remote ancestors had been some of the most distinguished members of the Senate. These girls had already been married, but the unfortunate deaths of their husbands had left them widowed. Thereupon Theodora picked out two vulgar, revolting creatures with the firm intention of marrying them to the girls, whom she accused of improper living. Terrified by this prospect they took refuge in the Church of Sophia, and making for the holy baptistery held on to the font with their hands. But such privations and sufferings did the Empress inflict upon them that in their anxiety to escape from the miseries of their confinement they became reconciled to the lesser evil of the proposed marriage. So true it was that for Theodora no place remained unsullied or inviolate. Thus these girls were coerced into matrimony with a pair of beggarly louts far beneath them in station, though there were young aristocrats who would have been delighted to marry them. Their mother, a widow herself, dared not voice her grief or shed a tear over their calamity, but steeled herself to attend the betrothal. Later Theodora, anxious to shake off the guilt of her loathsome conduct, resolved to make amends to the young wives at the cost of injury to the community. She bestowed an office of authority on each of the husbands. But the girls found no consolation even in this, and incurable, intolerable distresses were brought by these men on almost all their subordinates, as I shall show in a later volume . For Theodora had no respect either for office or for the common weal, nor did anything else matter to her so long as she accomplished her purpose.

Her Son John
Now it happened that while she was still on the stage Theodora had become pregnant by one of her lovers, and being unusually slow to recognize her unfortunate condition she tried by all her usual means to procure an abortion; but try as she might she could not get rid of the untimely infant, since by now it was not far from acquiring perfect human shape. So as she was achieving nothing, she was compelled to abandon her efforts and give birth to the child. When the baby's father saw that she was upset and annoyed because now that she was a mother she would no longer be able to employ her body as before, he rightly suspected that she would resort to infanticide; so he took up the child in acknowledgement that it was his and named it John, since it was a boy. Then he went off to Arabia for which he was bound. When he himself was on the point of death and John was now in his early teens, the boy learnt from his father's lips the whole story about his mother; and when his father departed this life, performed all the customary rites over him. A little while later he came to Byzantium, and made his arrival known to those who at all times had access to his mother. They, never imagining that she would feel any differently from the generality of mankind, reported to the mother that her son John had arrived. Fearing that the story would come to the ears of her husband, Theodora gave instructions that the boy was to come into her presence. When he appeared, she took one look at him and put him in the hands of one of her personal attendants whom she regularly entrusted with such commissions. By what means the poor lad was removed from the world of the living I am unable to say, but no one to this day has ever set eyes on him, even since the decease of the Empress.

At that period almost all women had become morally depraved. For they could play false to their husbands with complete impunity, since such behaviour involved them in no danger or harm. Wives proved guilty of adultery were exempt from penalty, as they had only to go straight to the Empress and turn the tables by bringing a countersuit against their husbands, who had not been charged with any offence, and dragging them into court. All that was left to the husbands, against whom nothing had been proved, was to pay twice the amount of the dowry they had received, and as a rule to be scourged and led away to prison — and then once more to watch their faithless partners showing off and inviting the attentions of their paramours more brazenly than before. Many of the paramours actually gained promotion by rendering this service. Small wonder that from then on most husbands, however shocking their wives' behaviour might be, were only too glad to keep their mouths shut and avoid being scourged, conceding every licence to their wives by letting them believe that they had not been found out.

The Empress felt herself entitled to assume control of every branch of public affairs according to her own personal ideas. It was she who filled the offices of Church and State, investigating one point alone and invariably insisting that no honourable or good man should be a candidate for high office; no one in fact who would be incapable of giving effect to her instructions. Again, she arranged all marriages as if by divine right. In her time no contracts of marriage were voluntarily entered into: a man would suddenly discover that he had a wife, not because he had any desire for one, which is the one thing that matters even in backward countries. but because Theodora willed it. The women thus pushed into marriage found themselves in the same disagreeable situation: they were forced to live with men when they had not the slightest inclination that way. Often the Empress would even fetch the bride out of the bridal chamber at a mere whim, leaving the bridegroom still unmarried, and merely declaring in a fit of anger that she disapproved of the match. Among the large number of men whom she treated in this way were Leontius, who occupied the position of Referendarius, and Saturninus, son of Hermogenes the Magister , both of them just married.

This Saturninus had married a second cousin, a maiden of good birth and excellent character, whose father Cyril had approved the match, Hermogenes having died earlier. No sooner had they shut themselves into the bridal chamber than Theodora seized the groom and carried him off to another chamber, where in spite of his heartbroken protestations he was married to Chrysomallo's daughter. This Chrysomallo had once been a dancer and later a courtesan, but at the time of this incident she was living in the Palace with another Chrysomallo and Indaro. For there it was that after abandoning woman's oldest profession and the life of the theatre they had established their headquarters. When Saturninus had slept with his new bride and found that she had been deflowered, he informed one of his intimate friends that the girl he had married was nothing but damaged goods. When this comment came to Theodora's cars, she said that he was showing off and had no right to be so puffed up, and ordered her servants to bend him over like any schoolboy. Then she gave his behind a fearsome beating and told him not to talk such nonsense in future.

What she did to John the Cappadocian has been related in an earlier volume . Her actions sprang from her anger against him, which was not due to his offences against the State — she proved this later, when men who treated those under them more outrageously still in no case received such punishment at her hands — but to the boldness he showed in standing up to her in one matter after another, and above all to the damaging accusation which he brought against her to the Emperor, with the result that she and her husband were almost in a state of open war. As I said at the start, in this book I must at all costs make clear the true reasons for what happened.

When she had locked him up in Egypt after he had undergone all the miseries already described in my pages, even then she was not satisfied with the punishments she had inflicted on him, but kept up a relentless search for false witnesses to bring against him. Four years later she managed to find two Greens belonging to the party in Cyzicus: they were believed to have taken part in the revolt against the bishop . By means of flattery, arguments, and threats she got these two so firmly in her power that one of them, terrified and at the same time elated with expectations of profit, laid the horrible responsibility for the bishop's murder on the shoulders of John. The other man flatly refused to speak anything but the truth, even though he was stretched on the rack till he seemed certain to die at any moment. And so she was completely baffled in her efforts to get rid of John on this pretext; yet she cut off the right hands of these two young men — of one because he could not be coerced into giving false evidence; of the other for fear her scheming might become clear as daylight. And although all this was going on in the forum with no attempt at concealment, her husband pretended that he knew nothing whatever about it.

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