The Emperor Justinian (A.D. 485-565) and his wife, the Empress Theodora, are well-known sovereigns of the eastern Roman Empire. The absolute power which centered around the throne at this period in history encouraged palace intrigues of all sorts, and their reign was no exception. One of the more interesting stories of betrayal and revenge during their rule is that of John the Cappadocian, the Praetorian Prefect of the East.
He was a native of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and was of obscure background. He came to the attention of the emperor somehow during the scope of his duties as a magister militum (master of soldiers). By his own schemes he rose up through the ranks to become Praetorian Prefect around A.D. 531.
His chief virtue was his ability to raise money by almost any means necessary. Justinian’s government, like most, was always starved for revenue, and the wily John always had a way of extorting the peasantry and merchants for coin.
The problem was that he was absolutely unscrupulous, even by the standards of the time. One contemporary historian related how, when he visited the province of Lydia, he “left not a vessel in a house, nor a wife, a virgin, or a youth unviolated.” He was nearly universally despised.
Yet Justinian was willing to overlook these personal qualities, since he kept the money flowing into the imperial coffers. It is a common trait among ambitious leaders to avert their eyes to the worst abuses of their subordinates, if their purposes are being adequately served.
And yet there is a limit to everything. The Empress Theodora, who like John also came from humble (some would say scandalous) origins, began to take a violent dislike to him. In the court of Justinian, the one thing that was not advisable was to be on the wrong side of the Empress. She was keenly intelligent, impervious to flattery, and utterly ruthless when crossed.
Theodora, according to uncertain legend, had originally been a “theater performer” as a young woman, which in those days could be a euphemism for a prostitute. Procopius’s Secret History certainly implies this, but being a jilted courtier, he is hardly a disinterested source. Justinian loved her, though, and the two of them made a formidable pair.
Besides his greed and abuses, John had also incurred the Empress’s enmity by suggesting that Justinian abdicate during the Nika Revolt of 532, which nearly overthrew Justinian.
John knew that the Empress hated him, and began to surround himself with armed guards. He returned her animus, but of course never expressed it publicly. At this point, another actor enters the story. Antonina, the wife of General Belisarius, Justinian’s favored military commander, was a close friend of the Empress.
John had made enemies both of the Empress and General Belisarius. Antonina thus saw a chance to destroy John, and by so doing, ingratiate herself with both the Empress and her husband. The best way to frame John, she knew, was to find a way to have him accused of treason. Antonina focused her malevolent schemes on John’s daughter, an innocent girl named Euphemia. Euphemia had taken up residence at Constantinople.
In May 541, general Belisarius departed to the east to supervise the conduct of military operations against the Persians, a perennial enemy of the Eastern Roman empire. Antonina was left behind at Constantinople. She sought out and gained the confidence of Euphemia, who was naive and trusting to a fault.
Antonina put the idea in the young girl’s head that her husband, Belisarius, was privately dissatisfied with the emperor Justinian. Euphemia was receptive to such sentiments. She had heard from her father John’s privately expressed opinions that Theodora was vindictive and untrustworthy, and that Justinian often deferred to her will.
Euphemia asked Antonina why Belisarius did not use the army to take the throne for himself. Antonina said that it would be useless to attempt a coup unless government ministers were also on Belisarius’s side. She cunningly told Euphemia that her father John needed to lend his assistance in a project to overthrow Justinian and Theodora.
Euphemia agreed to ask her father if he would lend his support to such a plan. She had no idea that the entire “plan” was a subterfuge to trap and destroy her father. John proved as gullible as his daughter; he agreed to meet Antonina, as he harbored secret dreams of imperial power.
Thus is the vanity of man again proved to be his undoing.
While John prepared for his secret meeting with Antonina, she meanwhile went to the empress and informed her of the entire affair. Theodora now knew she had the rope with which to hang the venal and foolish Cappadocian.
Theodora arranged for several men to be present at this secret meeting of John and Antonina, so that they might overhear and bear witness to any treasonable statements. The meeting was held at night at a town called Rufinianae. John was overheard speaking of attempting to capture or kill Justinian, and at this Theodora’s hidden agents appeared and tried to arrest John. He somehow escaped and was forced into exile, and all his possessions were confiscated.
Justinian, perhaps out of pity, permitted him to retain some property to live on in exile in Cyzicus. Yet even at this point in his life, he was not free from further scandal. The bishop of Cyzicus, a man named Eusebius, was a hated local figure by the inhabitants. He was eventually assassinated, and suspicion eventually fell on John as having been an accomplice in the crime.
John was arrested, flogged, and thrown aboard a ship to row as a common galley-slave. It was a shocking fall from the heights of power which he had known in his life. He was forced to subsist on charity and begging when his ship called at various Mediterranean ports. Theodora’s venom was not spent, and followed him everywhere. In Egypt, at the port of Antinoupolis, he was thrown in jail for some unknown transgression.
It is said that Theodora continued to try to implicate John in the murder of the bishop Eusebius, even going so far as to apply torture to two men in an effort to have them act as witnesses. When they refused, she had their hands cut off.
John remained incarcerated until Theodora’s death. He was then released and permitted to return to Constantinople, where he laid low until his own death.
It is difficult to have much sympathy for John in this drama, since he had proven himself to be a corrupt and oppressive official while in power. Yet the scheming and double-dealing of the palace players here does nothing to elevate our opinions of the personalities involved. The story of John the Cappadocian again proves that timeless maxim: the wicked are eventually brought down by their own greed and duplicity.
But we have not yet heard the last of the formidable Antonina. There is yet more drama with her name attached to it, which we will save for a later date.
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