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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a Chapter of
The Secret History


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 16

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter XV

 p177  Such, then, was Justinian. As for Theodora, she had a mind fixed firmly and persistently upon cruelty. 2 For she never did anything at any time as the result of persuasion or compulsion by another person, but she herself, applying a stubborn will, carried out her decisions with all her might, no one daring to intercede for the victim who had given offence. 3 For neither length of time, nor surfeit of punishment, no trick of supplication, no threat of death — fully expected to fall from Heaven upon the whole race — could persuade her to abate one jot of her wrath. And to state the matter briefly, no one ever saw Theodora reconciled with the one who had given her offence, even after the person had died, but the son of the deceased received the Empress' enmity as an inheritance from him, just as he received anything else that had been his father's, and passed it on to the third generation. For her passion, while more than ready to be stirred to the destruction of men, was beyond any power to assuage.

6 Her body she treated with more care than was necessary, yet less than she herself could have wished. 7 For instance, she used to enter the bath very early and quit it very late, and after finishing her bathing, she would go thence to her breakfast. After partaking of breakfast she would rest. 8 At  p179 luncheon, however, and dinner she partook of all manner of foods and drinks; and sleep for long stretches of time would constantly lay hold of her, both in the daytime up to nightfall and at night up to sunrise; 9 and though she had to such an extent strayed into every path of incontinence for so long a portion of the day, she claimed the right to administer the whole Roman Empire. 10 And if the Emperor should impose any task upon a man without her consent, that man's affairs would suffer such a turn of fortune that not long thereafter he would be dismissed from his office with the greatest indignities and would die a most shameful death.

11 Now for Justinian it was rather easy to manage everything, not only because of his easy-going disposition, but also because he rarely slept, as has been stated,1 and was the most accessible person in the world. 12 For even men of low estate and altogether obscure had complete freedom, not merely to come before this tyrant, but also to converse with him and to enjoy confidential relations with him. 13 The Empress, on the other hand, could not be approached even by one of the magistrates, except at the expense of much time and labour, but, actually, they all had to wait constantly upon her convenience with a servile kind of assiduity, waiting in a small and stuffy anteroom for an endless time. For it was a risk beyond bearing for any one of the officials to be absent. 14 And they stood there constantly upon the tips of their toes, each one straining to hold his head higher than the persons next to him, in order that the eunuchs when they came out might see him. 15 And some of  p181 them were summoned at last, after many days, and going in to her presence in great fear they very quickly departed, having simply done obeisance and having touched the instep of each of her feet with the tips of their lips. 16 For there was no opportunity to speak or to make any request unless she bade them to do so. For the Government had sunk into a servile condition, having her as slave-instructor. 17 Thus the Roman State was being ruined partly by the tyrant, who seemed too good-natured, and partly by Theodora, who was harsh and exceedingly difficult. 18 For whereas in the good-nature of the one there was instability, in the difficult nature of the other there was a bar to action.

19 So in their thinking and in their habits of life the contrast between them was clear, yet they had in common their avarice, their lust for murder and their untruthfulness to all. 20 For both of them were exceedingly gifted2 in lying, and if any of those who had offended Theodora was reported to be committing any wrong, even though it were trivial and utterly unworthy of notice, she straightway fabricated accusations which had no application to the man and thus she exaggerated the matter into a terrible crime. 21 And she listened to a great mass of accusations, and there was a court which sat on questions of repealing the established laws, and judges assembled who were brought together by her, whose function it was to contend with each other as to which of them by the inhumanity shewn in the judgment should be able  p183 better than the others to satisfy the Empress' purpose. 22 And thus she immediately caused the property of any man who had given offence to be confiscated to the public treasury, and after treating him with most bitter cruelty, though he might perhaps belong to an ancient line of patricians, she felt no hesitation whatever in penalizing him with either banishment or death. 23 But if any of her favourites chanced to be found guilty of wrongful manslaughter or of any other of the major offences, she by ridicule and mockery of the zeal of the prosecutors compelled them, much against their will, to hush up what had happened.

24 Indeed she also made it her business, whenever it seemed best to her, to change even the most serious matters to an occasion for buffoonery, as though she were on the stage in the theatre. 25 And on a certain occasion one of the patricians, an old man who had spent a long time in office — whose name I shall by no means mention, though I know it well, that I may not indefinitely prolong the disgrace which fell upon him — being unable to collect a debt from one of the Empress' servants who owed him a large sum, appealed to her in order to lay a charge against the man who had made a contract with him and to entreat her to assist him to obtain justice. 26 But Theodora, learning of his purpose in advance, instructed the eunuchs that when the patrician came before her, they should all stand about him in a circle and should listen attentively to her as she spoke, suggesting to them what words they should say in the manner of a "response."3 27 And when the  p185 patrician entered the women's quarters, he did his obeisance before her in the customary manner,4 and with a face that seemed stained with tears, said, "Mistress, it is a grievous thing for a man of patrician rank to be in need of money. 28 For that which in the case of other men calls forth forgiveness and compassion is accounted outrageous in men of my rank. 29 For in the case of any other man in extreme destitution, it is possible, simply by stating this fact to his creditors, to escape straightway from the embarrassment, but if a man of patrician rank should not have the means to meet his obligations to his creditors, most likely he would be ashamed to mention it, but if he did mention it, he would never be believed, since all men would feel that it is not a possible thing for poverty to be a housemate of a man of this class. 30 But if he does win belief, it will fall to his lot to suffer the most shameful and distressing affliction of all.5 31 Now, my Mistress, I do have financial relations with men, some of whom have loaned their substance to me, and some have borrowed from me. 32 As for my creditors, who most persistently dog my steps, I am unable through the shame proper to my position to put them off, while as for those who are in debt to me, since they happen not to be patricians, they take refuge in certain inhuman excuses. 33 Therefore I entreat and supplicate and beg you to assist me in obtaining my rights and in escaping from my present ills." So he spoke. 34 And the woman replied, in sing-song, "O Patrician So-and‑So" (naming him),6  p187 and the chorus of eunuchs, catching up the strain, said responsively, "It's a large hernia you have!" 35 And when the man again made supplication and uttered words resembling what he had said before, the woman replied again in the same strain and the chorus chanted the response, until the poor wretch in despair made his obeisance in the customary manner and departing thence went home.

36 And she lived the greatest part of the year in the suburbs on the seashore, and particularly in the place called Herion,7 and consequently the large retinue of attendants were grievously afflicted. 37 For they had a scant supply of provisions and they were exposed to the dangers of the sea, particularly when a storm came down, as often happened, or when the whale8 made a descent somewhere in the neighbourhood. 38 However, they9 considered the ills of all mankind to be nothing at all, provided only that they should be able themselves to live in luxury. 39 And I shall straightway make clear of what sort was the character of Theodora as revealed in her treatment of those who had given offence, mentioning only a few details so that I may not seem to labour at an endless task.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Chap. xiii.28, 30.

2 ἐπιτηδείως εἶχον as in Thuc. V.82.1.

3 They were to "respond" like priests in the modern Orthodox Church service.

4 The obeisance at this time consisted of complete prostration and kissing the feet of the person thus saluted, being (p185)required of all in approaching the Empress as well as the Emperor. See the protest of Procopius in Chap. xxx.21‑26.

5 i.e. social disgrace as well as bankruptcy.

6 Procopius conceals the name as he promised to do in Sec. 25.

7 On the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus; called also Heraeum and, much more commonly, Hieron; cf. Buildings I.iii.10. Arrian, Periplus 12, gives the following note: "Near the Thracian Bosporus and the mouth of the Euxine Sea, on the Asiatic side at the right, which belongs to the race of the Bithynians, lies the place called Hieron, where is a temple of Zeus Ourius, as it is called. And this place is the starting-point for those sailing into the Pontus."

8 This creature was called Porphyrion, and harassed shipping in the waters about Byzantium for a period of fifty years; see Book VII.xxix.9 ff.

9 Justinian and Theodora.

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Page updated: 8 May 12