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THE influence of women in antiquity varied extremely according to circumstances of time and place. During the mythical age they are celebrated as the heroines of many a legend; and in the epics of Homer the free woman seems to live on terms of equality with her male relations. Down to the historical period the same consideration was continued to them at Sparta, where the mental and physical integrity of the females was cultivated as essential to the designed superiority of the race; but among the Athenians we find the women of the community ignored as factors in the state to such an extent, that they rank little higher than domesticated animals. In neither of these states, however, were they ever invested with any political office; and their power could only be felt indirectly by the executive as the result of their activity as wives and mothers in the family circle.

But outside Greece, in those wider territories more or less permeated by Hellenes, women sometimes attained to a full share of government, inherited or assumed a sovereignty on the death of their husbands, commanded armies, and even appeared in martial attire at the head of their troops. Two Ionian princesses, both of whom bore the name of Artemisia, reigned in Caria: the elder distinguished herself at sea as an ally of Xerxes in the naval battle of Salamis (480 BC); her successor erected the magnificent monument at Halicarnassus in memory of her husband Mausolus, hence called the Mausoleum, which was admired as one of the seven wonders of the world. Cynane, a daughter of Philip of Macedon, led an expedition into Elyria, and is said to have killed the queen of that country, in an engagement which ensued, with her own hand. This lady had applied herself vigorously to military exercises, and similarly trained up her daughter Eurydice in the school of arms. As the wife of the imbecile Arrhidaeus, one of the successors of Alexander, Eurydice advanced into Asia to meet Olympias, the mother of that monarch, in a contest which was to decide the fate of Macedonia. While the young queen, as we are told, displayed herself with all the attributes of a female warrior, the dowager chose to accompany her forces with a train of attendants, who seemed rather to be acting their part in a Bacchanalian procession. This war, however, proved ultimately fatal to all three women, who were merely moved as puppets by the firmer hands of Alexander's generals in their rivalry for shares at the dissolution of his empire.

After the partition of the extensive dominions of Alexander among his numerous heirs, the number of Grecian women who enjoyed, or were allied to, sovereign power, was proportionately increased; and the names of many princesses of varied distinction in that age have been recorded historically, and even perpetuated popularly to the present day by towns designated in their honour, and spread over the three continents. While some of these ladies won an unusual share of marital respect and affection, not only by the graces of their person, but by their capacity for taking part in the councils of state, there were not a few who signalized themselves by a cruelty or criminality hardly exceeded by the male tyrants of that semi-lawless and contentious epoch.

Two Egyptian princesses, sisters named Cleopatra, were ambitious of occupying the thrones of Egypt and Syria, respectively, to the exclusion of their own sons. The Syrian queen, having murdered one of her sons, was obliged to accept his brother as a colleague, but being unable to nullify his authority, resolved to make away with him also. On his return from military drill one day, she presented him with a poisoned cup, which, however, he declined to empty, having had an intimation of her design, and bade her swallow the draught herself. She refused, while denying her guilt, but he insisted that in no other way could she clear herself, and she thus fell a victim to her intended treachery. Her sister, who reigned in Egypt, under almost similar circumstances was not more fortunate; for, having expelled one of her sons and committed various cruelties, she raised another to a partnership in the kingdom. Finding still that her ascendancy could not be maintained, she planned to assassinate him, but, being forestalled, perished herself in the attempt. Precocious in guilt, but, perhaps, more excusable, was the Cyrenean princess Berenice, who caused her intended husband to be murdered in the arms of her own mother, as the penalty of his having slighted her for this adulterous intercourse. Her name has been preserved to us in the nomenclature of science, and through an astronomical compliment a cluster of stars is still distinguished as the Coma Berenices. From these few examples the reader may derive some notion of the social relations of the ruling families in that extended Greek realm which came into being as the result of the conquests of Alexander. One by one the separate autonomies succumbed to the force of the Latin arms, and before the beginning of the Christian era all of them which lay to the west of the Euphrates had become merged in the provincial system of the Roman Empire.

When we turn our attention to the Roman Republic, we find that the females, although in law subjected absolutely to the will of their male relatives, were virtually as influential in the state as were the women at Sparta. From Cloelia to Portia the maidens and matrons of that community displayed the spirit and resolution which we should assume to be characteristic of the wives and sisters of the men who made themselves gradually the masters of the earth. Nor were they backward in applying themselves to intellectual pursuits when the rusticity of the Republic began to be dissipated by the infiltration of Hellenic culture; and by their assiduous studies in philosophy, geometry, literature, and music, they kept pace determinedly with the mental development of the sterner sex. With the establishment of the Empire, a greatly enhanced authority became the permanent endowment of a limited class. It followed naturally that the female connections of the emperors and their chief ministers could aspire to participate in the despotic government, but the throne itself always remained debarred to women, and to the last days of the Empire the Romans never acquiesced in a female reign.

When Agrippina, presuming on her power over a son whom her intrigues had raised to the throne, pressed forward amid general amazement to preside as of equal authority with him at a reception of ambassadors, the philosopher Seneca hastily impelled the young Emperor to arrest his mother with a respectful greeting, and thus, in the words of Tacitus, “under the semblance of filial devotion the impending disgrace was obviated”. Yet, in several instances, as the guardian of an immature heir to the crown, or as the associate of an incapable husband or brother, a woman was able to retain for a considerable time all the attributes of monarchy.

The Syrian Soaemias, the equal in profligacy of her son Elagabalus, assumed the reigns of government, and took her seat in the Senate, which then beheld for the first time a female assisting at its deliberations. Her career speedily terminated in disaster, but during the break-up of the Western Empire, two centuries later, no opposition was offered to the predominance of her sex by a dejected people. The Empress Placidia Galla, after enduring many misfortunes, exercised a regency scarcely distinguishable from absolutism for more than a decade, in the name of her son Valentinian III.

In the East the rule of Pulcheria, as the adviser of her brother Theodosius II, and afterwards of her nominal husband Marcian, extended almost to half a century. The importance of an Augusta in disposing of the crown on the decease of her husband has been indicated in the description of the elevation of Anastasius; and the official who records the election of Justin, ascribes the turbulence of the populace on that occasion to the absence of control by a princess of that rank. But the power of a dowager empress was most signally exemplified in the case of Verina, widow of Leo I, who, in her dissatisfaction with the policy of her son-in-law Zeno, succeeded in provoking a revolution, placed the chief of her party on the throne for more than a twelve month, and continued to involve the Empire in bloodshed for a series of years.

Below the Imperial dignity the feminine element was perpetually active and widely exerted, especially throughout the provinces. The wives of legates, of proconsuls or governors, accompanied their husbands on their missions to distant parts, and were often responsible, both in peace and war, for the complexion assumed by the local administration. They displayed themselves ostentatiously in public, addressed themselves authoritatively to the army, and instigated measures of finance, to such an extent that they were sometimes regarded as the moving spirit in whatever was transacted. Agrippina shared the hardships of Germanicus in his campaign against the Germans, opposed herself to the disorder of the troops when retreating through fear of the enemy, preserved the bridge over the Rhine, which in their panic they were about to demolish, and, combining the duties of a general with those of the intendant of an ambulance, restored confidence to the legions. Yet Germanicus, in his Asiatic command, fell a victim to the machinations of Plancina, the wife of a colleague; and Agrippina strove ineffectively to withstand the malignant arts of another woman. In some instances oppression of the provincials was clearly traceable to female arrogance and intrigue; and at length it was seriously proposed in the Senate that no official should be accompanied by his consort, when deputed to the government of a province. The motion was hotly debated, but was ultimately lost through the vehemency of opposition.

Nothing in antiquity is more remarkable than the diversity of sentiment as to prostitution among the Greeks. Considering the deification of amorous passion and fecundity expressed by polytheism in the cult of Aphrodite, and the ethics of social order which instilled a reverence for chastity, the popular mind continually wavered as to whether the hetaira or courtesan should be condemned as an outcast, or adored as the priestess of a goddess.

Among the Semites who dwelt along the Oriental borders of the Grecian dominions an act of prostitution at the temple of the goddess of concupiscence was enjoined on every woman at least once in her life as a religious rite; but the nicer ethical discrimination of the Greeks debarred this custom from ever establishing itself in Hellenic religion. At Corinth, however, one of the most distinguished art centres of Greece, it obtained a footing in a modified form; and in that city a thousand female slaves sacred to Aphrodite were maintained as public courtesans attached to her temple. At Athens, Solon regarded the state regulation of prostitution as an essential safeguard to public morality, whence he constituted a number of brothels under definite rules throughout the town, thus providing, in his opinion, an outlet for irrepressible passions which might otherwise be manifested in a more unseemly manner. As in all ages there were two grades of females who led a life of incontinence for the sake of gain; and of these the higher class, the hetairas, filled a place not devoid of a certain distinction in most of the Grecian cities. This class relied not on their personal attractions only, but also on their mental accomplishments, aspiring to become the intellectual companions of their lovers by applying themselves to the study of literature and philosophy. Hence they ranked as the best educated women of the community, and exerted more influence in the state than the usually dull and secluded housewives.

The majority and the most noted of such courtesans flourished, of course, in Athenian society, the ascendancy of the women which obtained at Sparta being altogether adverse to their pretensions. Thus it happened that the hetairas of Athens were generally regarded as persons of some consequence; and several writers of the period thought it no unworthy task to compose their biographies, as might be done at the present day in the case of eminent women. To the connection of Aspasia with Pericles and her position as the leader of Athenian society during his tenure of power, an important page is devoted in all histories of Greece; and it appears that even matrons were permitted to frequent her salon in order to improve themselves mentally by listening to the elevated discourses held there.

Socrates visited Theodote for the purpose of augmenting his sociological insight, and Xenophon has included an account of his debate with her in his memoirs of that father of philosophers. Leontium was a conspicuous figure in the garden of Epicurus, where he convened his disciples; and she penned a treatise against the Peripatetics, which deserved the commendation of Cicero. Scarcely, indeed, can a man of note in this age, whether potentate, orator, philosopher, or poet, be found whose name does not occur in anecdote or more serious record as the associate of some hetaira. It follows that courtesans should appear not rarely as the mothers of persons of distinction. Themistocles, the younger Pericles, Timotheus, and Nicomachus, the son of Aristotle, are mentioned in this connection; and more than one sovereign prince is allowed to have been the offspring of some hetaira, namely, Arrhidaeus, king of Macedonia, alluded to above, and Philetaerus, the founder of the kingdom of Pergamus. Many of these hetairas realized wealth, and some had the faculty of keeping it; nor were they disinclined to spend it patriotically if an opportunity offered.

Lamia erected a splendid portico at Sicyon; and Phryne proposed to rebuild the walls of Thebes, which had been levelled by Alexander, provided that the fact should be commemorated by a suitable inscription. The Thebans, however, were too proud to owe the restoration of their town to such a source. As the result of their notoriety and the consideration accorded to them, some courtesans won the distinction of living in metal or marble; and it. was remarked that, whilst no wife had been honoured by a public monument, the memory of hetairas had often been perpetuated by the statuary. The reasons, however, why courtesans happened to be thus distinguished were in many instances totally dissimilar: some for actual merit, others merely through the caprice of passionate lovers, challenged the popular eye from a pedestal. Leaena was represented at Athens under the form of a tongueless lioness, because she preferred to die by the torture rather than disclose the conspiracy of Harmodius and Aristogeiton against the tyrants of the day. Even at Sparta the image of Cottina was a familiar object, standing beside a brazen cow which she had consecrated to Athena. A sculptured tomb to Lais was set up at Corinth, and a golden statue of Phryne was dedicated at Delphi, to express the admiration of their townsmen for their pre-eminence as venal beauties. A magnificent cenotaph on the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis surprised a wayfarer into the belief that he was approaching the tomb of some great general or statesman; it was no more than the fantasy of Harpalus, an extravagant viceroy of Alexander's, constructed in glorification of his deceased mistress, Pythionice. At Abydos, a temple to Aphrodite, styled the Prostitute, recorded the patriotic treachery of a band of loose women, which conduced to the slaughter of an alien garrison; but when the degradation of Greece was already far advanced, both Athens and Thebes descended to flatter Demetrius Poliorcetes by rearing lanes in honour of his favourite concubine, Lamia.

In the earlier centuries of the Republic the strict censorship upheld at Rome kept the city purged of dissoluteness; and prostitution, regularly supervised and licensed, was reduced to the inevitable minimum; but in proportion as Hellenic manners permeated the community, the courtesan established herself on the same footing as in Greece. We are told that a fortune gained by her harlotry was willed to Sulla by Nicopolis; and the relations of Flora with the great Pompey are given in detail by Plutarch. Captivated by the beauty of the latter, Caecilius Metellus included her portrait among the adornments of the temple of Castor and Pollux. Precia, a notorious strumpet, won the devotion of Cethegus, one of the abettors of Sulla, and the heritor of a large share of his power. At Rome he carried all before him for some years, whilst he surrendered himself absolutely to the caprices of his mistress. The provinces were distributed to her nominees; and the command against Mithridates, in which Lucullus acquired such extensive territories for the Republic, was obtained by courting her favour by costly presents and blandishments. It is needless to inquire how far illicit sexual connections were politically operative during the rule of insensate emperors, for in these times every excess had its parallel; but it may be noted that the stern and sordid Vespasian abandoned the patronage of the Empire to a mistress, into whose lap riches were poured by governors, generals, and pontiffs, in the form of bribes for securing coveted appointments. Concurrently with the decline of the Empire, municipal institutions decayed, especially in the West, and the sense of public decency became blunted. When Theodosius visited Rome in 389, he found prostitution in league with crime and administrative measures more offensive than the moral laxity they were intended to correct.

Nor was the balance of public morality redressed until Europe had passed through medievalism, and advanced for two or three centuries into the modern period.

During the greater part of the reign of Justinian the fortunes of the Empire were influenced to an unusual extent by two women, the Empress Theodora and Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, whom chance had raised from a base origin to the highest rank in the state. In the early years of the reign of Anastasius, a man named Acacius filled the post of bear-keeper to the Green faction. Dying somewhat unexpectedly, he left his wife and three daughters, Comito, Theodora, and Anastasia, totally unprovided for. The eldest child was but seven years old, and the widow immediately attempted to provide for the future by uniting herself with the man who was expected to become her late husband's successor. Another candidate, however, presented himself, and by bribing the master of the shows, whose decision was final, despoiled them of the situation. The family was now destitute, but the mother resolved on a last effort to enlist the sympathy of the faction. Binding the heads and hands of her little girls with wreaths of flowers, according to ancient custom, she displayed herself with them in the crowded Hippodrome in the posture of suppliants. These tactics proved successful, for, although the Greens rejected her prayer, it happened that the Blue faction were at the moment in want of a bear-keeper, and they at once preferred the step­father to the vacant place. In course of time the daughters developed into handsome young women, and one by one were consigned to the theatre, as the sphere most congenial to the associations in which they had been reared. The eldest, Comito, was the first to make her appearance, and she soon became a person of some consequence, if not as an actress, at least as a hetaira, a career indissolubly linked with that of a female performer on the stage.

At the same time her younger sister Theodora became a familiar object to the public. Dressed in a short tunic, such as was worn by young slaves, she was always to be seen in the wake of Comito, bearing on her shoulder the folding seat without which no one of any pretensions could stir abroad. Thrown into the haunts of vice thus prematurely, she became initiated objectively, before she attained the age of womanhood, in all the excesses of lasciviousness. In her turn, as soon as she was old enough, she was pushed to the front to play a part upon the scene, where she soon captivated the audience by her special gifts.

Theodora was short of stature, of slight physique and pale, whence she became possessed with the procacity and insistence peculiar to those who fear to be slighted on account of some physical defect. Her accomplishments included neither singing nor dancing, but she proved herself to be a burlesque comedienne of singular aptitudes. She was quick-witted and full of repartee, and her air in coming on the stage was at once provocative of mirth. She excelled particularly in the comic piteousness with which she resented a mock chastisement delivered, according to a trick of the day, on her puffed-out cheeks, which seemed to resound with the severity of the infliction. But she was far from trusting to merely histrionic art to gain the notoriety she craved for, and she applied herself sedulously to charm that considerable section of humanity for whom the salt of life is indecency.

On the scene, or at private reunions, she distinguished herself by her impudicity above any of her companions. Her ingenuity was inexhaustible in inventing occasions for the exposition of her nudities, and in sexual vice she became a mistress of everything fantastic and unnatural. She dispensed with drapery as far as was permissible by law, and one of her favourite devices was to prostrate herself on the stage, with grains of corn distributed about her person, so that a number of geese, in searching for their food, might throw her scanty clothing into obscene disorder. At orgies of the dissolute she was the life and soul of the festivities; and she assumed the role of instructress in depravity among her compeers of the theatre. Yet with respect to the latter, she also achieved a reputation for being quarrelsome and spiteful beyond the usual measure of her tribe. By her habitual and flagrant excesses, she became universally known in the capital, and she was shunned by all worthy citizens to such an extent, that they shrunk from being sullied by her touch, should they chance to meet her in the street. If a merchant encountered her in the morning he was as much scared at the sight as at that of a bird of ill-omen. Animated by a genius so restless and aspiring, it is evident that such a woman needed only transference to a field of higher potential, to become one of the most notable characters of the age. Such a place had been prepared for her by fate, and she was destined to renew on the throne of the Empire the triumphs she had won on the boards of the theatre.

By a mischance, which she had always practised every expedient to avert, Theodora became the mother of a son while at Constantinople. His father christened him John and, fearing that the repugnance evinced towards the boy by his mother might endanger his life, he carried him off into Arabia, the province of his permanent residence. Soon afterwards Theodora was induced to quit the capital by a Tyrian named Hecebolus, who was proceeding to North Africa to occupy the seat of government in the Pentapolis. In a short time, however, she alienated this lover by her petulant temper until, provoked by her insolence, he expelled her from his establishment without making any provision for her future. This consummation was assuredly a valuable lesson by which she did not fail to profit at a later date. Devoid of resources, she betook herself from Cyrene to Alexandria, where she attempted to live by prostitution; but in a strange city, without the entry of a congenial circle, she discovered that her talents or her attractions were unavailing to procure a livelihood. From city to city of the East she proceeded, repeating always the same experience in a state of incurable distress. She directed her steps constantly northwards in her wanderings, keeping her mind fixed on the capital, to which she longed to return, and at length she found herself on the southern shores of the Euxine, within the limits of Paphlagonia.

In that austere province, where the circus and the theatre were eschewed, and fornication and adultery were looked on as the most abominable crimes, it is possible that she may have been affected by the puritanism of the inhabitants, certain that she must have felt chastened by the trials she had undergone. It is probable also that she remained there for some time in the receipt of hospitality, whilst being exhorted and encouraged to live a life of continence. Ultimately, however, she found means to regain Constantinople, where she arrived in a sober frame of mind and with the resolution not to relapse into her former habits.

She sought out a humble tenement in a portico near the Palace, where she resigned herself to earn a modest living by feminine industry. A veil of obscurity hangs over the circumstances which preceded the social elevation of Theodora, which can only be partly dissipated by surmise. It appears that after the accession of Justin she was discovered by Justinian sitting demurely at her spinning-wheel, and that he was fascinated by her at once with a force which he was unable to resist. It is allowed that she was not devoid of beauty, but if she captivated him by that quality, it was one which she possessed in common with a thousand others of her class. Rather must we conclude that she won her dominion over him by her distinction of mind and character, by her wit, vivacity, insight, and social address. He was now verging on his fortieth year, and, as we shall recognize more fully hereafter, must always have been of a staid disposition, as free as possible from the wildness of youth. How far he was acquainted with her past is altogether unknown; if her travels had extended to a few years her former intimates might now for the most part be scattered, her person might be half forgotten, and her meretricious enormities but faintly remembered. Her scenic extravagances may never have been witnessed by Justinian, but it is certain that before long her former mode of life was at least partially revealed to him. Their intercourse soon ripened into familiarity; he made her his mistress, but without concealment, and with the fixed intention of marrying her; and as the first step towards that end he raised her to the rank of a patrician. Theodora was now removed from her sordid surroundings and housed in a style suitable to her enhanced fortunes. At the same time her sisters, Comito and Anastasia, were rescued from their degrading vocation and maintained in a manner befitting their semi-royal relationship. Her influence with Justinian became unbounded, and, as the favorite of the virtual master of the Empire, she was courted by all aspirants to the emoluments of state. Her age was now more mature; she had been taught discretion and self-restraint in the school of adversity, and she was wise enough for the future not to hazard her ascendancy by yielding intemperately to her passions. Her physical mould was not that of a sensual woman, her amazing immorality resulted merely from an inordinate desire to outrun all competition in the career on which she had been launched, and we may believe that, after every incentive to sexual excess had been removed from her path, she found no difficulty in leading a life of the strictest chastity. Her energies were now directed into other channels; she did not deny herself the indulgence of using the exceptional power with which she was invested to gratify her ambition to the full; she accumulated wealth by every means possible to an official of the highest authority, and she seldom allowed the machinery of government to escape altogether from her control.

Two obstacles stood in the way of Justinian when he proposed to make Theodora his wife. In the first place he was confronted by the old law of Constantine which aimed at preserving the aristocratic families of the Empire free from any taint in their blood. It was enacted thereby that no woman of vicious life, actress or courtesan, or even of lowly birth, could become the legal spouse of a man who had attained to the rank of Clarissimus or Senator, the third grade of nobility. To abrogate this statute was therefore a necessity before he could carry out his design, but he easily prevailed on Justin to give the Imperial sanction to a Constitution which recites at length the expediency of granting to such women, who have repented and abjured their errors, an equality of civil privileges with their unblemished sisters. A further impediment arose from the opposition of the Empress Euphemia, who withstood the marriage with an obstinacy which neither argument nor entreaty could overcome. Although her relationship to Justin had until recently been abased, the quondam slave had never deviated from the path of virtue and had imbibed all the prejudices of the strictest matron against women who made a traffic of their persons. A critical delay thus became inevitable, but Theodora passed through it triumphantly, and in 524, by the death of Euphemia, Justinian was freed from all restraint. Their nuptials were then celebrated with official acquiescence and without even popular protest. The Church, the Senate, and the Army at once accepted the former actress as their mistress, and the populace, who had contemplated her extravagances on the theatre, now implored her protection with outstretched hands. The crown with the title of Augusta was bestowed on her by Justinian at the time of his own coronation; and she acquired an authority in the Empire almost superior to that of her husband. After her elevation Theodora became a zealous churchwoman, and extended her protection far and wide to ecclesiastics and monks who had fallen into distress or disrepute through being worsted in the theological feuds which were characteristic of the age. But she was always bitterly hostile to those who opposed her particular religious views or political plans, and proceeded to the last extremity to subject them to her will.

Antonina sprang from the same coterie as Theodora, but her birth was more disreputable. Her father was a charioteer of the Circus at Thessalonica, and her mother a stage-strumpet. The two women were not, however, companions, perhaps not even acquainted, as the wife of Belisarius was almost a score of years senior to the Empress, and she also exceeded the age of her husband by an even greater amount. It appears, therefore, that whilst Justinian was probably twenty years older than Theodora, Belisarius was at least as much junior to Antonina. The latter was, in fact, the mother of several illegitimate children before being married, and a son of hers named Photius, not more than eight or ten years junior to his stepfather, is an observable figure in the historic panorama. We have no details as to the career of Antonina previous to her becoming involved in the current of political affairs, nor can we regret the loss of another story of moral obliquity, but there is evidence to prove that she was a woman of a totally different stamp from the Empress, one disposed by natural propensity to debauchery, and at no time inclined to deny herself the pleasures of incontinency. At the outset of Justinian's reign Theodora regarded her with the greatest aversion, but whether because the character of Antonina was at variance with her own or that she loathed the presence of one too well informed as to her own antecedents cannot now be determined. In the political vortex they were unavoidably thrown much together, and it will often be necessary to inquire as to how far the course of history may have been modified by their respective activities and temperaments.