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WHILE the diplomacy of Justinian and the strategy of Belisarius were apparently dictated only by motives of state policy and military expediency, there were private influences at work, which modified considerably the execution of their projects. The feminine proclivities and prejudices of Theodora and Antonina on more than one occasion diverted both men from the course which their better judgment inclined them to follow. Distinctive as were the characters of the Emperor and his most renowned general, in the quality of luxuriousness their similarity was complete. In order that the power exercised by the women in question over the destinies of the Empire at critical periods may be realized, it is necessary to refer to some domestic incidents which exemplify the extent of their conjugal gynarchy.

When Belisarius and his wife set out for Africa they were accompanied by a young Christian proselyte named Theodosius, whom they had affiliated as their adopted son. Of this youth Antonina became intensely enamoured, and succeeded in establishing an illicit intercourse with him, which was obvious to every member of the household except her too trusting husband. During their stay at Carthage Belisarius entered fortuitously a remote chamber of the palace, where he surprised his wife in company with Theodosius, whose dress was disordered in a manner which indicated unmistakably the nature of their commerce. The general was about to express himself indignantly, when Antonina, with perfect assurance, explained: “I have just come here with this young man in order to hide the most precious objects in our share of the booty from the cupidity of the Emperor”. Her husband stifled his suspicions and, blind to the evidence of his senses, retired submissively, leaving the youth in the act of adjusting his clothing so as to accord with the requirements of decency.

This intrigue went on, therefore, indefinitely, but at Syracuse a slave-girl, named Macedonia, vengeful or indignant, revealed it in precise terms to Belisarius, and produced two of her fellow-slaves to corroborate her evidence. The general was convinced, and swore not to betray bis informants; and thereupon charged some of his military intimates to make away with Theodosius. They, however, more solicitous as to the favour of his wife, gave the paramour a warning in consequence of which he fled to Ephesus. At the same time Antonina managed to persuade her husband that she had been calumniated, with the result that he surrendered the three witnesses to her discretion. They perished by a cruel death at the hands of their mistress, who killed them by torture, and had their bodies thrown into the sea.

In the next phase of the intrigue we see Antonina in conflict with her son Photius, whose animosity against Theodosius was such that the latter refused to return to the embraces of his mistress unless he were expelled from the household. This end was achieved by domestic persecution, and the paramour was shortly afterwards reinstated with the connivance of Belisarius himself. When the Master of Soldiers was sent into Mesopotamia against Chosroes, Antonina, contrary to precedent, remained at Constantinople to enjoy the society of her lover. Dreading, however, the interference of her son, she plotted to encompass his death. In self-defence he brought forward irrefragable evidence of the adulterous life that his mother was leading, whereupon Belisarius engaged him by a solemn compact to punish the enemy of his conjugal peace. With this design Antonina was summoned to join her husband, and consequently, as had been foreseen, Theodosius betook himself to his retreat at Ephesus, where he had attached himself to a religious fraternity. Photius followed on and, having made himself master of his person, caused him to be detained under strict surveillance.

It was in this year (541) that Chosroes undertook his expedition into Lazica, thereby denuding Persia of his most effective troops. For an enterprising Roman general the way lay open through the richest part of Assyria to Ctesiphon, where were congregated the captives and spoils of Antioch, within reach of a strategical march. But Belisarius could not persuade himself to quit the vicinity of the frontier, intent as he was on settling his relations with his wife; and on hearing of her approach he retreated with his forces to a position which enabled her to join him. Subsequent events in this connection now become merged in occurrences which I have yet to relate.

Chosroes, on his side simultaneously, was beset with untoward circumstances. Owing to the barren nature of Lazica his army was ill-provided with necessaries, and many of his soldiers had perished through disease and want. A mutinous spirit became rife, and during their retreat, hearing of the successes of Belisarius and Valerian, they feared to be cut off in the rocky passes commanded by heights accessible to a hostile force. The Shah was assailed with reproaches for having entered unadvisedly on a war with a nation of so much political competency, and he began to be alarmed for the security of his throne. In this strait his good fortune had provided him with a remedy of a peculiar kind, which emanated from the assumption and indiscretion of the Byzantine Empress herself. Zaberganes, his most influential adviser, had received a letter from Theodora, to whom he was personally known, imploring him to incline his master to grant considerate terms of peace. “Should you achieve this object”, she added, “I can promise you a splendid recompense on the part of my husband, who is absolutely dependent on my advice.” Having read this epistle Chosroes inquired of his staff whether a state could be efficiently governed in which a woman exercised such a preposterous ascendancy. They agreed unanimously that such an adversary did not deserve to be considered seriously, and acquitted the Shah of having acted rashly in embarking on a war with them. Confident, therefore, in the imbecility of the Byzantines, they resumed their march and soon arrived safely within the borders of their own country.

So far in the course of my narrative we have often seen the names of Theodora and Antonina coupled together, but merely in juxtaposition. As I proceed in my attempt to elucidate the sequence of events we shall arrive at a point of time when their lives actually become mingled. Some retrogression, however, is necessary in order to enter on the political track of Theodora nearer its beginning before we can reach those entanglements in her secret machinations where concerted action between the two women becomes apparent. I have already alluded cursorily to the circumstances under which Queen Amalasuntha met her death, but the most effective cause of that crime was one which remained hidden from the public. In addition to her royal descent, which was derived from a long line of kingly ancestors, the Gothic queen was a woman of great personal charm, of cultivated mind, and of an age scarcely exceeding that of the Eastern Empress. Justinian was much impressed at the prospect of a princess of her rank placing herself under his protection, and he prepared a temporary establishment at Epidamnus, in a style suitable to her dignity, in anticipation of her being obliged to fly from the soil of Italy. Later on he expected to receive her at Constantinople, where he doubtless intended that she should be housed permanently in one of the palaces adjacent to the Court. This project, so grateful to the Emperor, was viewed with more than equal abhorrence by his consort. That Amalasuntha, pro-eminent by her birth, her talents, and her beauty, would receive unremitting homage and admiration from Justinian and his nobles, and eclipse the Empress in her own halls, might be foreseen as an inevitable result of such an arrangement.

While this affair was under consideration, and might at any moment be realized, another woman appeared on the scene, to whom the rivalry of the Gothic queen was at once as odious as it threatened to become to Theodora herself. Gudelina, the wife of Theodahad, participating in her husband’s elevation, assumed the attributes of royalty at the Court of Ravenna, where she immediately found herself outshone by her brilliant cousin, whose prerogatives and merits were so much superior to her own. An instinctive alliance between the two women, the sting to whose vanities was projected from the same source, was quickly formed. Letters passed between them, cautiously expressed, but clear to the mind of each; and Theodora infused some of her own determination into the mind of the nominal queen in the West. The details of the plot which ensued are lost to us, and we can only see that the daughter of Theodoric, probably without apprehensions as regards those for whom she had been the author of fortune, was ensnared by a coalition of her foes, and under some specious pretence deported from her own court. By this consummation the Gothic clique might, perhaps, have been appeased; but the Empress was no advocate of half measures, and when Peter departed on bis embassy to Ravenna he was intrusted by her with a secret mandate to encompass the death of Amalasuntha. Instead, therefore, of acting on behalf of Justinian, he obeyed Theodora, and through his insidious counsels the unfortunate princess perished forthwith in her obscure prison.

Hitherto Theodora and Antonina had pursued their respective courses at a distance from each other, but they were on convergent paths, which after the outbreak of the Gothic war necessarily became united. Although she had previously viewed her with dislike, the Empress now found that the wife of Belisarius was the only congenial agent she could employ for the furtherance of her underhand designs. Whether through policy or prejudice, Theodora had always been a zealous partisan of the Monophysite sect, and she was anxious to wring some concessions from the Catholics, which should conduce to the union of Christendom. To promote a willing instrument to the Papal chair was the leading move towards this end; and as a first step Silverius had to be removed to make room for such a pliable occupant.

After the capture of Rome the opportunity occurred, and the commission was given to Antonina. By her artifices the Pope was accused of collusion with the Goths and banished to the lonely isle of Palmaria. There shortly afterwards he ended his life at the hands of an assassin suborned by the same intrigant. By her address and success on this occasion Antonina conquered the favour of the Empress, who for the future deigned to make use of her whenever some object had to be attained by means of bold and deceitful assurance. Her skill in such diplomacy was soon to be tested in a more delicate enterprise.

On his restoration to office after the Nika riot John of Cappadocia attained to the summit of his power. He accumulated wealth to a prodigious amount, and at length his mind became inflated by the possession of vast resources to such an extent that he deemed nothing less than the purple to be an adequate reward of his merit. He had recourse to soothsayers, who predicted for him the highest fortune he could desire; and he displayed himself to an expectant element of the populace in dazzling apparel and surrounded by extraordinary state. To publish his importance to the utmost he went on a progress through the Orient, where he enthralled the vulgar by his magnificence, and appalled the sober-minded by the unscrupulousness of his extortions. Having fulfilled his purpose by this expedition, he returned to the capital, and made a triumphal entry escorted, or rather borne along, by a pageant of female nudity, thinly veiled by a diaphanous material which exposed more than it concealed of their beauties.

Notwithstanding his singular talents and versatility in devising expedients, there was one relationship in which John showed himself to be obtuse and indiscreet in the highest degree. Overpowered by his own conceit, and feeling that the Emperor reposed unlimited confidence in him, he was unable to appreciate the fact that Theodora exercised a boundless dominion over her husband. He, therefore, not only neglected to pay his court to the Empress, but, contemning and resenting her interference in affairs, met her with a hostile countenance, and even went so far as to asperse her in conversation with Justinian. Becoming fully aware of his sentiments towards her, Theodora soon came to hate him with an intensity she displayed towards no other member of the bureaucracy. His ruin was long uppermost in her thoughts, and she sought assiduously for some opportunity of killing him without incurring the odium of the deed. On his side the Cappadocian was keenly perceptive of the enmity he had kindled against himself in the breast of his Imperial mistress, and lived in continual dread of her murderous intent. Although he was encompassed by thousands of private guards, such as no Praetorian Praefect had ever before maintained, and his palace was paraded by wakeful sentinels every hour of the day and night, he was unable to sleep without rising from time to time to explore with his eye every passage leading to his bedchamber, fearful lest some barbarian might be lurking in the dark ready at any instant to deal him his death-blow.

Such was the posture of affairs in relation to John until in the tenth year of his magistracy the inevitable catastrophe befell him. It was in 541, when Belisarius left his wife behind him at Constantinople, that Theodora unbosomed herself to her confidential friend, as that lady had now become, as to her grievances against the insolent Praefect. The wile-weaving Antonina immediately evolved a plot to deliver her royal mistress from her pet aversion. Euphemia, an only child, was the daughter of the Cappadocian, and for her he cherished a deep affection. In sympathy with her father, the girl abhorred the Empress as the source of his disquietude; and would have welcomed eagerly a change of sovereignty. Intuitively conscious of her sentiments, Antonina approached Euphemia with blandishments, and, by professing a fellow feeling, soon captured her confidence. She bewailed the lot of her husband, whose magnificent services had been ill-requited by Justinian, and simulated a demeanour of hopeless discontent.

"But why, my dearest friend," exclaimed the girl, "when you have the remedy in your own hands, the devotion of the army, do you hesitate to redress your wrongs?"

"In the camp," replied the temptress, "we could do nothing unless we had a powerful coadjutor in the capital; but, were your father to join our party, we should doubtless effect what God wills with the greatest case."

The Cappadocian was at once informed by his daughter of all that had passed, and she expressed her belief in the sincerity of Antonina with warm enthusiasm. He was captivated by the brilliant suggestion, which seemed to him to signalize the providential fulfilment of the prophecies on which he relied. He, therefore, instructed Euphemia to prepare an interview between himself and Antonina for the following day, but first to extract from her an oath, in the form most sacred to the Christians, that she was acting in strict good faith. Antonina perjured herself without hesitation in the most impressive manner, but represented that an immediate colloquy in the city would be perilous. She, however, was about to join her husband in the East, and would halt on her way at their suburban residence, where a meeting might take place without arousing suspicion. Hence it was agreed that on a certain date John should repair by night to the place indicated, where mutual pledges could be given and their plans matured for execution. Justinian was now quietly informed that John was engaged in a plot against the throne, whereupon he ordered Narses, with a company of guards, to be present at the meeting, in concealment. Should John be overheard to utter anything treasonable, they were to rush in and cut him down on the spot. At the same time, such was his attachment to the man, he sent a secret emissary warning him to have no clandestine relations with Antonina. The caution was, however, disregarded by the ambitious conspirator; the interview took place, and he expressed his intentions clearly in the hearing of the eunuch. He was attacked forthwith by the soldiers, but his own guards, who had also been lying in wait, flew to his assistance, and in the scuffle which ensued he made his escape. Had he even now sought the presence of the Emperor he could have saved his credit by some plausible explanation; but he acknowledged his guilt by hastening to take sanctuary in a church, and thus gave Theodora time to elaborate all her charges in due form.

A sentence of degradation and confiscation was now passed, and John was banished to Cyzicus, where, under the Gospel name of Peter, he was forcibly ordained as a cleric. A bishopric, however, he declined—criminals of lofty rank in that age were punished by being made bishops—still indulging himself in visions of restoration, and chose to remain in the unattached orders of the ministry. Shortly, in fact, he began to live in his old style of splendour, for Justinian had not exacted a rigorous surrender of all his property, whilst he was also able to draw on large reserves which he had hidden away. Nevertheless further trials awaited him; an unpopular bishop of Cyzicus was murdered, and he was accused of the deed. A commission of Senators repaired lo the place, and, although his innocence was proved, old charges of peculation were raked up, and in the end he was stripped of everything, and turned out as a mendicant with a single garment. He was then shipped to Alexandria, where he was forced to beg his bread; again under some pretence he was seized and imprisoned for three years; yet, while living as a vagrant, he often had the audacity to try and raise money by claiming arrearages from defaulting debtors of the treasury.

We are now in a position lo take up the thread of our narrative as regards Belisarius, whom we left, in a state of mental distraction over his wife's irregularities, in Mesopotamia. As soon as he came up with her he placed her under guard in strict seclusion, divested of the honours due to her rank, and began to prepare a process for the severance of their relationship for the future. But he vacillated, postponing any decisive step; and at length a will more powerful than his own intervened to deprive him of al option in the matter. The news of her confidant's disgrace was quickly carried to Theodora, and she resolved that her right to do as she pleased should be vindicated in the most complete and effectual manner. All her adversaries were arrested at a single coup, and Belisarius was commanded peremptorily to make his peace with his wife. Photius was seized and submitted to the torture, but he kept his faith steadfastly, and refused to disclose where he had sequestered Theodosius. Theodora, however, put her agents on his track, and in no long-time succeeded in unearthing him from his enforced obscurity. Only after several years of suffering did Photius escape from the prison he had been consigned to, and, making his way by secret paths to Jerusalem, at last freed himself from persecution by becoming a monk.

In the autumn (541) the Master of Soldiers and his wife returned to Constantinople, where the reception accorded to them at Court was in conformity with their respective merits in the eyes of Theodora. At the first convenient moment the Empress received her friend in private and addressed her: "Dearest Patrician Lady, a jewel fell into my hands the other day, the like of which no one ever saw before; but, if you wish to see it, I shall be pleased to show it to you". Antonina begged effusively to be permitted to see the treasure; when Theodora, passing her band behind a curtain which veiled the entrance to another apartment, led out Theodosius and presented him to his mistress. The raptures which ensued, and the expressions of gratitude bestowed by Antonina on her benefactress, surpassed description; but the reunion of the lovers was of brief duration. Theodosius, for whom the Empress was meditating great honours, was shortly afterwards seized with a dysentery, and disappeared from the ranks of the living.

Much deeper humiliation, however, was in store for Belisarius. Next year, when he was absent with the army in the East, a report was spread that he Emperor, resident in the plague-stricken capital, was himself in the throes of a fatal attack of the malady. The question of the throne becoming vacant was anxiously debated by the generals, and some of them observed that, if the people of Constantinople proceeded to elect a successor, he should not have the allegiance of the army. Justinian, however, recovered unexpectedly, and the attitude adopted by the military council was divulged at Court. Theodora was especially enraged, as she assumed it to be part of her prerogative, in the case of her husband's death, to nominate the next occupant of the throne. When the generals returned to Constantinople for the season, she instituted an inquiry, and chose to see in Belisarius, though without proof, the leader of the culprits. She denounced him in the bitterest terms to the Emperor, who was doubtless only too pleased at finding a pretext to subdue the excessive popularity of his eminent subordinate. He was forthwith deprived of his post of General of the East; his veteran guards, who had followed him into so many battles, were divided into parcels and assigned to various magnates of the Court, and his fortunes were seized for the benefit of the fisc. As a mere private citizen he might be seen daily walking dejectedly alone between bis house and the Court, where he was viewed with neglect and disfavour, but feared to absent himself lest a worse fate might befall him. In the meantime Antonina enjoyed the highest favour with the Empress, whilst the intercourse between husband and wife was of the coldest description. For several weeks the great general languished in the abject condition to which he had been reduced, although it appeared that his wife, being possessed of such powerful interest, should be regarded as the arbiter of his fate. On a certain day he left the palace, where he had been treated with such contumely, even by minions of low grade, that on the way home he glanced around involuntarily, fearful lest assassins should be posted in some obscurity with a mandate to terminate his life. On his arrival he threw himself on his couch, despairing of any alleviation of his lot, while in an adjacent chamber he heard his wife's footsteps as she walked to and fro restlessly, under the influence apparently of some painful agitation. It was already dark when some one from without was heard demanding admission, and shortly an emissary was announced as the bearer of a despatch from the Empress.

Belisarius shuddered and drew himself up, anticipating him to be the messenger of death. A letter was then presented to him, which he opened and read as follows: "You are not ignorant, my good sir, as to what your conduct has been towards us. But I am extremely indebted to your wife, and for her sake I pardon you, and make her a present of your life; look upon her as your saviour, and remember that our favour towards you in future shall be strictly measured by the amiability of your disposition towards her." A sudden revulsion of feeling was produced by the perusal of these words; he rushed to his wife and knelt before her. He kissed her feet and protested that he owed her everything; for the future she might call him her slave, and he should never again claim to control her as a husband.

After this crisis Theodora dealt definitely with the fortune of Belisarius, which he had amassed during his wars. His money and valuables were estimated to amount to six thousand pounds of gold, and of this she made two portions, one half to be returned to the owner, the other she presented to the Emperor. Jealous even of so much wealth remaining in private hands, she now sought to cement a marriage between a young relative of her own and Joannina, the only child of Belisarius.

The general now petitioned to be reinstated in his military rank, in order that he might march against the Persians, but Antonina protested that she would never again visit a country where she had been subjected to such outrageous treatment. He was appointed, therefore, to the equivocal position of Count of the Stables, which left the rulers of his destiny the option of employing him on any opportune service.

The sequels of two episodes related in a previous portion of this work may form a fitting conclusion to the present chapter. The first concerns the son of Theodora, who, as an infant, was apprehensively removed from the custody of his mother. In the remote province of Arabia the child grew up to manhood under the tutelage of his father, who watched with interest the career of his former mistress, but without revealing to the youth the secret of his birth. Being on his death-bed, however, he thought it right to communicate to him all the details as to his origin. After his father's decease, therefore, John set out for Constantinople, expecting that his mother would recognize his claims and provide for him accordingly. On his arrival he introduced himself among her servitors, stating plainly who he was, and awaited her pleasure. But Theodora was alarmed lest the knowledge of this amour and its result should come to the ears of Justinian, and determined that all trace of it should be effaced. Hence she received her son in strict privacy, and at once commended him to the attention of certain satellites of hers, who were generally regarded as the authors of unexplained disappearances. What method of suppression was adopted remained uncertain, but, whether alive or dead, nothing further was ever seen of this John.

When Artabanes returned to Constantinople (546) after his signal exploits at Carthage, he was received with great applause, and immediately promoted to the rank of Master of Soldiers at Court. He was much exalted by his good fortune, and especially at the prospect of marrying the Emperor's niece, Prejecta, on whose account he had resigned his independent vicegerency of Africa. With the acquiescence of all parties, the brilliant nuptials were being prepared, when, at the last moment, an unexpected obstacle intervened to shatter his impassioned hopes. A wife of his youthful days, long since repudiated and forgotten, still languished in his native land. In the times of his humble fortune she was indifferent to the relationship, but, learning by report of her husband’s eminent success in the Byzantine service, she became eager to enjoy the benefit of his advancement. Abandoning Armenia, therefore, she arrived opportunely in the capital, and became informed of the projected union which would exclude her for ever from his life. She presented herself at the Palace with her sad story, and prayed for an audience of the Empress. Theodora, who always evinced a lively desire to act as the special providence of distressed women, readily granted her admission, and resolved to interfere on her behalf. She did so with her usual effectivity, the imminent marriage was broken off, and the unwilling Artabanes was forced to establish his rejected consort in her conventional position as the head of his household. As for Prejecta, she was shortly consoled with another partner, and became the wife of John, son of the luckless Pompeius, who had perished more than a dozen years before in the Nika rebellion. But Artabanes was so exasperated that he was induced by some malcontents of his own nation to join a conspiracy which had for its object the assassination of Justinian and the elevation of Germanus to the throne. The plot, however, was quickly betrayed, and proved such a complete fiasco, that, after a commission of the Senate had sat on the offenders and passed a nominal sentence, the Emperor lost all interest in the matter. Even Artabanes within a twelvemonth was lifted out of his disgrace and given an active appointment as Master of the Forces in Thrace.