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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16

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 18

The Anecdota
or Secret History

Chapter XVII

 p197  Such was the outcome of this affair. But at the beginning of this Book I told all that the Empress  p199 did to Belisarius and Photius and Bouzes.1 2 And two members of the Blue Faction, Cilicians by birth, with a great tumult set upon Callinicus, Governor of the Second Cilicia, and proceeded to lay violent hands upon him, and they slew the man's groom who stood hard by and was trying to defend his master, while the Governor and the whole populace looked on. 3 And he by process of law brought about the death of the factionists who were found guilty of this and of many other murders, but she, upon learning of this and making a display of the fact that she favoured the Blues, caused him to be impaled for no good reason and while he still held office, on the grave of the murderers. 4 And the Emperor, pretending to weep and lament over the murdered man, sat there groaning, and though he held many threats over those who had performed the deed, he did nothing; yet he by no means declined to plunder the money of the deceased.

5 But Theodora also concerned herself to devise punishments for sins against the body. Harlots, for instance, to the number of more than five hundred who plied their trade in the midst of the market-place at the rate of three obols — just enough to live on — she gathered together, and sending them over to the opposite mainland she confined them in the Convent of Repentance, as it is called,2 trying there to compel them to adopt a new manner of life. 6 And some of them threw themselves down from a height at night and thus escaped the unwelcome transformation.

 p201  7 There were two girls in Byzantium who were sisters; they were not only the offspring of a consular father and of three generations of Consuls, but drew their lineage from men who from remote times were of the foremost blood of the whole Senate. 8 These had previously entered into marriage, but it had come about by the death of their husbands that they became widows. And immediately Theodora selected two men — men who were not only of the common herd, but also disgusting fellows — and made it her business to mate them with the women, whom she charged with living unchaste lives. 9 And they, fearing lest this be brought to pass, fled into the Church of Sophia, and coming into the holy baptismal chamber, they seized with their hands the font which is there. 10 But the Empress Theodora inflicted upon them such dire constraint and suffering that in their desire to escape these woes they became eager enough to accept the marriage in place of them. Thus for her no place remained undefiled or inviolate. 11 So these women, against their wills, were united in marriage to men who were beggars and outcasts, much beneath them in standing, although noble suitors were at hand for them. 12 And their mother, who also had become a widow, not daring to groan or to cry out at the calamity, attended the betrothal. 13 But later Theodora, by way of expiating the scandal, decided to console them at the expense of public misfortunes. For she appointed both of the men magistrates. 14 But no comfort came to the girls even so, and woes incurable and unbearable fell from the hands of these men upon practically all their subordinates, as will be  p203 told by me in the later Books.3 15 For in Theodora there was respect of neither magistrate nor government, nor was anything else the object of her concern, provided only that her will was being accomplished.

16 Now she had chanced to conceive a child by one of her lovers while she was still on the stage, and being late about discovering her misfortune she did everything to accomplish, in her usual way, an abortion, but she was unsuccessful, by all the means employed, in killing the untimely infant, for by now it lacked but little of its human shape. 17 Consequently, since she met with no success, she gave up trying and was compelled to bear the child. And when the father of the new-born child saw that she was distressed and displeased because after becoming a mother she would no longer be able to go on using her body as she had done, since he rightly suspected that she would destroy the child, he acknowledged the infant by lifting it up in his arms, and, naming it John, since it was a male, he went his way to Arabia, whither he was bound. 18 And when he himself was about to die, and John was now a young lad, his father told him the whole story of the mother. 19 And he, after performing all the customary rites over his father after his death, a little later came to Byzantium and announced the fact to those who had constant access to his mother. 20 And they, supposing that she would not reason otherwise than as a human being, reported to the mother that her son John had come. 21 But the woman, fearing that the matter would  p205 become known to her husband, gave orders that the boy should come into her presence. 22 And when he came and she had seen him, she entrusted him to one of her domestics to whom she was always wont to delegate such matters. 23 And by what method the poor wretch was spirited out of the world I cannot say, but no man to this day has been able to see him, even since the death of the Empress.

24 At that time it came to pass that practically all the women had become corrupt in character. For they sinned against their husbands with complete licence, since such acts brought them no danger or harm, because even those who were found guilty of adultery remained unscathed; for they straightway went to the Empress and turning the tables brought counter-suit against their husbands and haled them before the court though no charges had been made against them. 25 And all the good the husbands got of it was to pay a fine double the wife's dowry, although no charge had been proved against them, and then to be scourged and, usually, led off to prison, and afterwards to look on while the adulteresses preened themselves and more boldly than ever accepted their seducers' embraces. And many of the adulterers actually attained honour from this conduct. 26 Consequently most men thereafter, though outrageously treated by their wives, were very glad to remain silent and escape the scourge, granting their wives complete freedom by allowing them to think that they had not been detected.

27 This woman claimed the right to administer everything in the State by her own arbitrary judgment. For she controlled the election of the occupants of both the magistracies and the priesthoods, investigating  p207 and guarding very persistently against just one thing, namely, that the candidate for the dignity should not be an honourable or good man or one who would be likely to be incompetent to carry out her instructions. 28 And she regulated all marriages with an authority that may be described as grandmotherly.4 29 It was then for the first time that men and women gave up entering into a voluntary betrothal looking to marriage; for each man would all of a sudden find that he had a wife — not because she pleased him, as is customary even among the barbarians, but because this was the will of Theodora. 30 Thus women who were being married had precisely the same experience in their turn; for they were compelled to be united with husbands quite against their will. 31 And many a time Theodora even took the bride away from the bridal chamber for no reason at all and left the bridegroom unmarried, merely remarking in a burst of passion that the woman displeased her. 32 And she did this to many men, including Leon, who held the office of Referendarius, and to Saturninus the son of Hermogenes, who had been Magister, in the case of women to whom they were betrothed. For this Saturninus had an unwedded second cousin to whom he was betrothed, a free-born woman of seemly deportment whom her father Cyrillus had pledged to him, Hermogenes  p209 having already departed this life. 33 And after their bridal chamber had already been closed fast upon them, she took the bridegroom into custody and he was led to a second chamber, where, with great wailing and lament, he married the daughter of Chrysomallo. 34 Now this Chrysomallo had long before been a dancer and again a courtesan, but at that time she was living in the Palace with another Chrysomallo and Indaro. 35 For instead of the phallus and the life in the theatre, they were managing their affairs here. 36 And when Saturninus had slept with the girl and found that she had lost her maidenhood, he reported to one of his intimates that he had married a girl who had been "tampered with." 37 And when this remark was brought to Theodora, she commanded the servants to hoist the man aloft, as one does children who go to school, because he was putting on airs and assuming a lofty dignity to which he had no right, and she gave him a drubbing on the back with many blows and told him not to be a foolish babbler.

38 Now the things which she did to John the Cappadocian have been told in the earlier narrative.5 These things were done by her to the man in anger, not on account of his offences against the State (and the proof is that later, when men did still worse things to her subjects, she treated no one of them in such a way), but because he was making bold to oppose the woman outright in other matters and especially because he kept slandering her to the  p211 Emperor, so that she came very near getting into a state of hostility with her husband. 39 But here, as I have said, I must by all means tell the reasons for her conduct which are absolutely true. 40 And even when she had got him imprisoned in Egypt after he had endured all the sufferings which I have previously described, even thus she did not reach any satiety of punishing the man, but she never ceased searching out false witnesses against him. 41 And four years later she succeeded in finding two members of the Green Faction in Cyzicus who were said to be of those who had risen against the Bishop.6 42 And she won over these men with flattering speeches and with threats, with the result that one of them, in terror and at the same time uplifted by hopes, laid the sacrilege of the Bishop's murder at John's door. 43 As for the other man, he refused absolutely to contradict the truth, though he was so racked by the torture that he was even expected to die immediately. 44 Therefore,a although she was unable, no matter what means she employed, to destroy John through this subterfuge, she cut off the right hands of these two young men, of the one because he had refused to bear false witness, and of the other in order to prevent her plot from becoming altogether manifest. 45 And though these intrigues were being carried on in the publicity of the market-place, Justinian pretended to know absolutely nothing of what was going on.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Chaps. i‑iv.

2 This convent was on the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus. For a somewhat different account cf. Buildings I.ix.3, where the name given to the retreat, lost from the MSS. of the Secret History, is preserved.

3 An unredeemed promise.

4 Although the adjective τηθείᾳ does not occur elsewhere, and at that is an emendation (see Critical note), yet the comparison of Theodora with the grandmother in a Greek household, exercising her matriarchal authority in arranging the marriages of her grandchildren, seems appropriate.

The critical note to the Greek text is:

τηθείᾳ ἐξουσίᾲ Buecheler, αὐτὴ ὀθνείᾳ ἐξουσίᾲ Reiske, τῇ οἰκείᾳ ἐξουσίᾲ Alemannus, ἀηθεῖ ἐξουσίᾲ Krašeninnikov: τῇ θείᾳ ἐξουσίᾲ.

5 John was trapped by Antonina, acting for Theodora, and was reluctantly banished by the Emperor to Cyzicus. See Book I.xxv.13 ff.

6 John had been accused of murdering Eusebius, the Bishop of Cyzicus, but the case had not been proved. See Book I.xxv.40.

Thayer's Note:

a the recalcitrant witness: the genius of Roman law won the day. It was not enough for there to be just one witness (as in most modern legal systems provided the witness is credible). Roman law required a minimum of two; the axiom was Unus testis, nullus testis: "One witness is no witness at all."

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Page updated: 17 Apr 13