the marriage of Socrates, friendship, and life and death of the sole

death of Socrates

You yourself, Aristomenes, were you there on the day that Socrates married?

Yes, I was, and it makes me tremble to recall the strange mix of pleasure and pain with which we, his friends, saw him led to the altar. We gathered at the Cock & Bull for his bachelor party. No topless serving girls jiggling with trays, no pole-dancing beauties with marvelous twists and turns caressing poles — Socrates desired only to sit and drink and talk with his friends.

So, what did the man say before getting married? How did he prepare himself to meet that end? We all crowded around to learn how Fate had struck. Socrates insisted that before any talk we make a toast to marriage drained to the dregs. Then he spoke.

Elated that the Redskins had defeated the Cowboys, from RFK Stadium I walked home talking to myself. Can we say that Bigness and Smallness are both in the Redskins? Can we say that the Redskins are better than the Cowboys, because the Redskins are bigger than the Cowboys? Or is it because of the color of their skins? How much redder would the Cowboys’ skins be if the Redskins could skin skin?

Socrates, please, tell us how it happened!

Along with many others, I was laid off from my job as an adjunct professor at the Frederick Douglass Community College. Some proposed a hunger strike in protest. But my unemployment benefits were higher than the meager wage the college paid to its slave-like adjuncts. I was already nearly starving. My belly ached with the ache that has gnawed at thinkers and writers since Hesiod lamented the rocky soil that he worked. So I bought a delicious double quarter-pounder with cheese, a hamburger to truly honor the hungry. At MacDonald’s, that’s cheaper than a half-pounder.

A week later I was evicted from my studio apartment. I could pay the rent with my unemployment check, but they refused to renew a lease to the jobless. Shaken to the essence of my being, I checked into a cheap inn that had at its front desk a hostess named Xanthippe. She was an old woman, but still somehow had a sexy look in the joyfully expanding wrinkles around her eyes. I told her that I had extensively studied philosophy, that I had been abruptly laid off as an adjunct professor, and that I could no longer explore being with students. She invited me to her bed. With one single act of sex, and with knowledge of how law imposes forced financial fatherhood on men, I had no better choice than to accept a decrepit and pestilential Xanthippe as my future wife.

At the Cock & Bull, all Socrates’s friends were distraught. Peter Dronke wept. He said, “Socrates, I’ve come to recognize you as the noblest and gentlest and best man among all who have drank at this bar. How could the best man get married?” Dronke spasmodically sobbed, turned, and walked away without paying his bar tab. But R. Howard Bloch, more a hanger-on than a friend, told Socrates, “You valorize in imputation all the impassioned violence of men for your acts of writing with a pen. You hate women because you choose the voluputations of Venus and a hoary whore so as to gain a patriarchal position in the home.” Socrates, with a look of befuddlement on his face, said nothing in response.

I put two fingers to my mouth. Pushing my lips gently through them, I told Bloch, “Don’t disparage that other-worldly woman, or she will do us grave harm. She is a witch. She can cause the sky to fall or the earth to heave into the air; she can solidify gushing fountains, dissolve mountains, call up daemons and bring down gods, extinguish stars and light up Hell.” Bloch scoffed and said, “Take away that tragic curtain, fold up these linguistic constructions, and set it out in ordinary language.” With a heavy heart I responded, “She has turned you into a chased beaver. You’re obscuring your transformation by the fuliginous fabric of your pants. She forced a man to make monthly payments to a woman who raped him. She could turn me into a frog.” I’d rather be turned into a donkey, which is well-hung, I thought.

Fearing that word of what was said Xanthippe might sniff even from a great distance and that that might spur her to further abuse Socrates, I coaxed him to come with me to my apartment. Having made many strong toasts to marriage, he was weary and quite drunk. Soon he was snoring on my bed even as I spoke learnedly of contraries, hoping he would understand their relevance to the merits of marriage. What if Xanthippe stormed into the room in search of Socrates? I put my cot across the door to be sure that I could insist that he wasn’t here and call for help before she could break in.

After much restless worry I finally fell asleep. Then suddenly the door was smashed in. It tumbled over my cot, overturning it and pressing me underneath like a turtle with a cot shell. I kept my body hidden within my shell and, raising the lid of one eye, warily scanned the room. Two old women, one with a bare sword and another with a lighted lantern, menacingly surrounded the sleeping Socrates. The one with the sword said:

This one, sister Panthia, is the dear Endymion, this one my Catamite, who for days and nights made fun of my tender age, this is the one who poured disdain on my love and not only maligned me with slanders, but also arranged his escape. But I, deserted, to be sure, through the cunning of an Odysseus, will weep, Calypso-like, for my eternal loneliness.

Then she pointed to me:

He’s watching us, he who led my fiancé to the Cock & Bull bachelor party where unkind words were said about me. Later, no soon, no right now, he’ll feel pain for his past pleasantries and present watchfulness.

Panthia proposed tearing my limbs off in a Bacchic frenzy, or at least tying me up and castrating me. I quaked with fear, causing the cot on top of me to jiggle and dance. Xanthippe said no, let him live to see his friend Socrates led to the altar. Then she plunged her sword into the left side of Socrates’s neck and thrust it in to the hilt. After carefully collecting in a leather bottle blood gushing from the wound, she stuck her right hand into the wound and reached down into Socrates’s innards. Grasping his heart, she pulled it out as he rasped forth a moan. She took a wooden box from her satchel, placed his heart into it, and returned the box to her satchel. She then staunched his throat wound with a sponge.

The old women-witches then came toward me. They pulled away my protective cot shell, squatted over my face, and emptied their bladders. I was soaked in their urine. With wetted, stinging eyes I watched them walk out of the room. Then the door suddenly pulled back from the floor onto its hinges as if it had never been smashed in. I felt as if I had experienced a bad, wet dream that had left me extensively soiled. How could I attend my dead friend Socrates’s wedding?

I knew it was impossible. I couldn’t live to do it. I addressed my cot as a death-bringing savior:

Now is the time, my cot, most dear to my heart, you who have suffered together with me so many trials and tribulations as my accomplice and spectator of what happened this night. You, whom alone I can summon as witness for how I was soiled, now that my life promises to lead me to see my dead friend married, supply the saving weapon to me and send me to the Underworld where the blessed dead don’t live to be married.

After this solemn oration I unraveled the rope that held together the cot’s frame. I tossed one end of the rope over a beam near the window and tied the other end into a noose. I climbed up onto the remains of the cot and fitted the noose around my neck. I pushed away the cot’s remains. so that my body would drop, the noose would tighten around my neck, and my inspiration would end. Instead the rope, old and worn, broke. I tumbled to the floor atop the inert body of my beloved friend Socrates.

At that very moment the porter burst into the room. The dead Socrates got up and walked toward him. Socrates spoke to him of his rudeness in waking us from our pleasurable sleep. I was filled with astonishment and joy. Socrates lives! I embraced him and began kissing him passionately as the porter looked at us knowingly. Socrates pushed me away, saying, “You stink like the bottom of a latrine.” Indeed I did, and he began to enquire why. I improvised an absurd joke to shift the direction of the dialogue. Then I took his hand and proposed, “Let’s enjoy the charms of an early-morning stroll.”

Walking through a meadow in the radiant light of morning, I kept studying the spot on Socrates’s throat where Xanthippe had thrust her sword. I said to myself:

You are mad, you were buried in your cups of wine and had merely a bad nightmare! Look, Socrates is untouched, healthy and unhurt. Where is the wound, where is the sponge? Where, finally, is that scar so deep, so fresh?

I said to Socrates:

It’s not without reason that trustworthy doctors maintain that people swollen with food and spirited drinks have vicious and oppressive dreams. Take me, for instance. Because last evening I did not sufficiently restrain myself from the marriage toasts, a rough night brought me dire and wild visions, so that I still believe that I have been splattered and polluted with human blood.

Socrates smirked at this and responded:

You were not doused in blood, but in piss. But I myself had a dream, too, that I had my throat cut. For I felt pain in my throat, right here, and believed that my heart itself was torn out of me. Even now I am out of breath, my knees shaking when I walk, and I crave some drink to warm my spirits again.

Without understanding, I asked Socrates if he, the most blessed and happy of men, still intended to marry Xanthippe. Isn’t getting married an injustice against those who love you? Doesn’t your body rebel in fear at the horror of sexless marriage? How can you endure the idea that marriage is meant to last forever, despite better and worse opportunities for escape, even through sickness and death?

Socrates explained that, for men, marriage is the practice of dying and being dead. Love, he explained, is a prison from which men find release in marriage. If you embrace misology and misandry, you find no reason to fear death, and you understand that marriage is purification that brings men to ennobling love. Moreover, in truth, under long-established paternity law, sexless marriage doesn’t impede a husband from being credited with many children. Many persons’ beliefs about paternity are merely shadows and lies.

I sank to the ground in aporia.

Two weeks later, with his friends watching in silence, Socrates was led to the altar to marry Xanthippe. His friends never saw him again.

death of Socrates

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The above story is adapted from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses 1.6-19 (Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe), and more distantly, from Plato’s Phaedo. Scholars haven’t adequately appreciated the relation of Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe to literature of men’s sexed protest. The above adaptation is intended to advance scholarly inquiry into this important topic.

Several quotations above are closely adapted from the English translation of May (2013). They are (cited by book.chapter.section in Metamorphoses and page in id.): 1.12.4–6, p. 77 (This one, sister Panthia…); 1.16.2-3 (Now is the time, my cot…); 1.18.2-3, p. 83; 1.18.4-5, p. 83 (It’s not without reason…); 1.18.6-7, p. 83 (You were not doused in blood…). The incident of the two women pissing on Socrates is lightly adapted from Metamorphoses 1.13.8. For a close reading of that incident, Watson (2004).

The Metamorphoses emphasizes negative possibilities for marriage. It presents “marriage as undependable, sexual trust as unimaginable, and conjugality as a likely source of humiliation and amusement for others.” Lateiner (2000) p. 316. “The general idea of marriage in Apuleius is that there is an ultimate breakdown of affection.” May (2005) p. 148. In the Metamorphoses, the sexual relation of Photis and Lucius, however, is extraordinarily warm and generous. On optimistic views of marriage in the Metamorphoses, McNamara (2003).

The recovery of the lost third book of Apuleius’s De Platone et eius Dogmate should increase interest in Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe. In his summary of Phaedo, Apuleius observed:

the origins of things and their ends come about from their opposites.

{origines rerum et interitus ex contrariis fieri putat.}

Stover (2016) pp. 108-9. At the same time, Apuleius emphasized the prohibition on suicide that Plato sets out in the Phaedo:

he speaks both about dreams and about the providence of the gods, which forbids one to depart from life † … † and he does not think it right to undergo voluntary death, if no reason requires it.

{aeque de somniis loquitur tanquam de providentia deorum vetante excedere †autem† vita; et voluntaria morte obire nulla ratione dictante non iudicat.}

Id. Stover observed:

{Apuleis} takes such pains to emphasize the prohibition on suicide in the Phaedo because of the widely disseminated stories of people killing themselves after reading the dialogue.

Id. p. 154. Lucius himself considers suicide, without negative moral coloring, three times in the Metamorphoses: 4.2.17-22 (by eating poisonous laurel-roses), 7.24.4-5 (by hunger strike or jumping from a cliff), and 10.29.3-6 (by a sword). For discussion, Michalopoulos (2002). The marriage of Socrates, and the more general issue of men marrying, provides an additional, rich context for considering Apuleius’s reading of the Phaedo, Aristomenes’s story about Socrates and Meroe, and suicide.

[images] (1) Death of Socrates. By Jacques-Louis David, 1787 (oil on canvas). Held in Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gallery 601, accession #31.45. Credit to Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931. Image thanks to the Met and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Death of Socrates. By Mark Antokolsky, 1875 (detail of sculpture). Image thanks to Alex Bakharev and Wikimedia Commons.


Lateiner, Donald. 2000. “Marriage and the Return of Spouses in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” The Classical Journal. 95 (4): 313-332.

May, Regine. 2005. “Chaste Artemis and Lusty Aphrodite: The Portrait of Women and Marriage in the Greek and Latin Novels.” Ch. 7 (pp. 129-153) in Smith, Warren S., ed. Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

May, Regine, ed. and trans. 2013. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass: Book 1. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

McNamara, Joanne. 2004. ‘The only wife worth having’? Marriage and Storytelling in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” Ancient Narrative. 3: 106-128.

Michalopoulos, Andreas N. 2002. “Lucius’ Suicide Attempts in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” The Classical Quarterly. 52 (2): 538-548.

Stover, Justin A. 2016. A new work by Apuleius: the lost third book of the De Platone. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watson, Lindsay. 2004. “Making water not love: Apuleius, Metamorphoses 1.13–14.” The Classical Quarterly. 54 (2): 651-655.

Procopius to Sardou: gender in demonization of Justinian & Theodora

St. Marina of Antioch beating the devil

A mass-market book, co-authored by an eminent anthropologist and published in 1996, demonized males. While demonizing and pathologizing men signals social virtue today, demonizing women would probably be regarded as a hate crime. That wasn’t the case in more liberal and tolerant Byzantine society. In his Secret History, the leading sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius demonized both Empress Theodora and Emperor Justinian. Yet, revealing a deep pattern of gynocentric society, Procopius demonized Justinian much more extensively than he did Theodora. More than a millennium later, Victorien Sardou’s play Théodora was a smash-hit in Paris. That play makes clear that convincingly demonizing a woman is scarcely feasible in a broadly popular work.

According to Procopius, Theodora and Justinian were demons. The two of them together were demons:

both to me and also to many of us these two never seemed to be human beings at all but rather murderous demons of some kind, or as the poets would say, “a baneful pair they were for all mortal humans,” who conspired together for the purpose of destroying all the nations and the works of men as efficiently and quickly as possible. They put on a human form, thereby becoming human-demons, and in this way demolished the entire world. … {“these two people”} devastated all of humankind and visited disaster upon the entire inhabited world, no one being able to accomplish this except for these two people. … they worked this evil through a power that was not human, for it had a different source. [1]

Men are no more inherently evil than are women. In eleventh-century Byzantium, leading public intellectual Michael Psellos asserted the moral and intellectual equality of women and men. That idea of gender equality commands widespread public assent around the world today. Regarding Theodora and Justinian as equally demonic rightly suggests that evil has no particular gender.

In practice, men are demonized much more extensively than women are. After describing both Theodora and Justinian as demons, Procopius elaborated upon the demonic character of only Justinian. Procopius reported that a demonic creature was thought to have cuckolded Justinian’s father and was thought to be Justinian’s actual, biological father. Some persons reportedly saw Justinian walking headless about the imperial palace. On one occasion, a courtier looked upon the seated Justinian and said that he saw:

his face suddenly became like shapeless flesh: there were neither eyebrows nor eyes in the places where those things should have been, nor did his face show any other features at all. In time, however, he saw the shape of his face return. [2]

Men historically have been regarded as the generic human being “man.” Men in their sexual distinctiveness have thus been historically diminished. Procopius depicted Justinian as a person who could instantly lose his head or his face. That demonizes the already dehumanized-demasculinized man.

Although Procopius extensively characterized Theodora as a woman, he didn’t thoroughly demonize her. She would “slip into the bed with the Lord of Demons” and so become only his wife. After recounting massive deaths in publicly institutionalized men-on-men violence (war), Procopius declared:

That, then, was what befell the whole of humanity while this demon held human form, and he caused all of it, as he was emperor. I will now relate all the evils that he inflicted on humankind through his occult power and demonic nature. [3]

Despite women’s central role in causing and sustaining wars, Procopius blamed only Justinian for the wars of Byzantium. Procopius attributed floods, earthquakes, and plagues to the occult and demonic nature of only Justinian. With respect to Theodora, Procopius reported:

It is said, moreover, that she had managed to subdue Justinian to her will not by fawning on him but by the coercive power of demons. … given he was so vulnerable to witchcraft, as I just said, Theodora easily put him under her thumb.

The Emperor Justinian was under the thumb of the Empress Theodora. Credit for his successes belongs to his wife. But Justinian alone is  responsible for all evil. In similar thinking, the disproportionate share of men among privileged elites results from odious discrimination, but the much more disproportionate share of men among incarcerated persons is no cause for concern.

Sarah Bernhardt as Theodora in bed

In Paris in 1884, the demonic Theodora was the star of Victorien Sardou’s play Théodora. Amid grand stage-sets depicting the imperial Byzantine palace, Theodora wore many custom-made, lavishly bejeweled costumes. One of her dresses was made from:

bleu de ciel {sky-blue} satin, with a train four yards long, covered with embroidered peacocks with ruby eyes and feathers of emeralds and sapphires. It was the work of the most cunning embroiderers in Paris, and was a perfect mosaic of precious stones. [4]

Yearning for freedom in her oppressive position as Empress, the Theodora of this play would sneak out of the palace at night in disguise to mix with gladiators and chariot-riders and to enjoy a passionate extra-marital sexual affair. She of course despised her husband the Emperor Justinian, who was depicted as “not terribly bright.”[5] But she was intensely loyal to her non-royal lover. When a captured conspirator might have revealed her affair, she killed him by stabbing him in the heart with one of her gold hair-pins. After her lover died of poison that she accidentally gave him and her husband discovered her infidelity, she was condemned to death among public chaos. Like many women, she nobly submitted to having a court eunuch strangle her with a red silk cord as Constantinople went up in flames.[6]

The Theodora of Sardou’s Théodora was massively attractive to women and men. Sarah Bernhardt, a famous actress who herself was the daughter of a prostitute, starred as Theodora. The play ran in Paris for an unprecedented 257 consecutive showings at high ticket prices and generated enormous revenue. The play then went on a world tour, with Sarah Bernhardt appearing as Theodora nearly nine hundred times.[7] For a 1888 adaption presented in the Gilliss Opera House in Kansas City, Lilian Olcott “purchased in Paris exact duplicates of the costumes, properties and all other material, as the French express it, as used in the original production.”[8] Théodora was revived in Paris at the Sarah-Bernhardt Theatre in 1902 and was even more successful than at its premiere. Théodora was made into multiple silent films between 1900 and 1930. The most successful silent film was the Italian Cinematographic Union’s 1922 Theodora. That high-budget film, which included thousands of extras, was touted as “Sardou’s Famous and Sensational Love Romance” and “The Greatest Screen Spectacle the World Has Ever Known.”[9]

Sarah Bernhardt as Empress Theodora

While men are readily demonized, demonizing women is scarcely feasible. Procopius elaborated upon the demonic character of Justinian, but he didn’t characterize Theodora as the “Lady of Demons.” As a scholar recently commented, “we all get the Theodora we deserve.”[10] Because most men act like Justinian’s General Belisarius and most women are obsessed with their own oppressed wonderfulness, we have as our woman-hero the Theodora of Victorien Sardou’s Théodora.

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[1] Procopius of Caesarea, Secret History 12.14,16,17, from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 58, with some changes. Kaldellis translated ἀνθρωποδαίμονες as “man-demons.” The translation of Dewing (1935) and the translation of Atwater (1927) made the same gendered choice. The Greek ἀνθρωπο can mean either male human beings or human beings in general. In context, “man-demons” characterizes “they,” meaning Justinian and Theodora. Hence “human-demons” is a better translation. That’s what I’ve used above. In Kaldellis’s translation, I’ve also changed “mortal men” to “mortal humans” and “mankind” to “humankind” to better translate the gendered context. Jeffreys’s translation of Digenis Akritis made a similar mistake in translating an important passage. See note [3] in my post on Byzantine matriarchy devaluing men’s lives. Kaldellis and Jeffreys are leading translators of Byzantine texts. Their translation failings show the pressing need for more concern for men among Byzantine scholars.

[2] Procopius, Secret History 12.23, trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 59. Justinian being a product of demonic cuckolding and Justinian walking around the palace without his head are described in Secret History 12.18-9 and 12.21-2.

[3] Secret History 18.36, trans. id. p. 85. I subsequently cite Secret History by chapter.section and page in id.). That Theodora would “slip into the bed with the Lord of Demons,” 12.32, p. 61. On the evils that he inflicted through floods, earthquakes, and plagues, 18.37-45, pp. 85-6. Procopius reported that a monk called Justinian the “Lord of Demons.” 12.26, p. 60. The subsequent quote is from 22.28, 32, p. 100.

[4] Hart (1913) p. 268. Boeck (2015), p. 119, quotes Richardson (1977), which reproduces verbatim part of Hart’s text above. Théodora opened at the Porte Saint-Martin theatre of Paris, under manager Felix Duquesnel, on December 26, 1884. Here’s some additional information about the production.

[5] Boeck (2015) p. 109.

[6] Hart (1913), pp. 265-9, and Boeck (2015) pp. 109-10, provide summaries of the plot of Théodora.

[7] Boeck (2015) p. 103, Hart (1913) pp. 95, 265. Théodora, “a brilliant success,” had receipts of 1,654,000 francs. Ticket prices were “as high as 60 francs.” Id. Assuming an average ticket price of 30 francs implies a total Parisian audience of about 50,000.

[8] Boeck (2015) p. 115, quoting from Souvenir Program, “Lilian Olcott in Sardou’s Theodora,” 7–8. The Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, Austin. Bernhardt Collection, Box 4.8.

Sardou brought real lions onto the stage for Théodora at the Porte Saint-Martin in Paris. The performance at the Gilliss in Kansas City originally had a papier-mâché lion. However, the drama editor for the Kansas City Times, David Austin Latchaw, suggested that his friend’s Great Dane might pass for a mountain lion and be an improvement. That dog was thus engaged for the remaining performances. He became a noted member of the cast:

At the Wednesday matinee, the dog prowled the cage convincingly until Olcott’s entrance. Having become fond of her, the dog easily got out of the cage that had been constructed for the inanimate lion. When Olcott sat down on a tree stump, the Great Dane crossed to “put his weighty head into her lap and refused to budge.” She stood and “abandoned her lines and business long enough to make the dog leave her; whereupon he walked over to the stump, turned around for a time or two and let himself drop against the unrooted remnant of a forest tree. But the stump resented the intimacy and moved away. The amusement ‘out front’ had been well restrained up to the point, but here it gave way to hilarious merriment. Miss Olcott joining in the laughter.

Londré (2007) p. 147.

Other adaptations of Sardou’s Théodora were produced. Those included one by Robert Buchanan at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. Buchanan’s production opened on November 18, 1889. Hart (1913) p. 96.

[9] See, e.g. an advertisement in the Magazine Theatre Program (New York) in 1922. This advertisement and another similar advertisement are on display in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum (Washington, DC), Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922. Curatorial material for that exhibit states Sardou’s Théodora inspired multiple silent films from 1900 to 1930. The exhibit includes late-nineteenth-century cameo-bearing buttons of Theodora and Justinian. Those buttons were “designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash” (from Dumbarton Oaks newsletter).

[10] Boeck (2015) p. 132. Working about 1900, the French painters Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Georges Clairin painted portraits of Theodora. Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, in 1897 attended a fancy ball dressed as the Theodora of Sardou and Bernhardt. Sigmund Freud kept in his office a photo of Bernhardt in the role of Theodora. Id. p. 131.

[images] (1) Saint Marina of Antioch beating the devil. Icon by Lazaros, 1857. Held in the Byzantine Museum, Athens. (2) Sara Bernhardt playing Theodora, in bed. Detail from painting by Georges Jules Victor Clairin, 1902. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (3) Sarah Bernhardt as the Empress Theodora in Sardou’s Théodora. Detail from Albumen silver print by W. & D. Downey. Held in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Other images of Bernhardt playing Theodora are viewable online: her standing, her against a palace door, perhaps her in disguise, and her looking sullen.


Boeck, Elena N. 2015. “Archaeology of decadence: uncovering Byzantium in Victorien Sardou’s Theodora.” Ch. 4 (pp. 102-132) in Betancourt, Roland, and Maria Taroutina, eds. Byzantium / modernism: the Byzantine as method in modernity. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Hart, Jerome Alfred. 1913. Sardou and the Sardou plays. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2010. Prokopios. The secret history: with related texts. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Londré, Felicia Hardison. 2007. The enchanted years of the stage: Kansas City at the crossroads of American theater, 1870-1930. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Richardson, Joanna. 1977. Sarah Bernhardt and her world. New York: Putnam.

Nikephoros Gregoras to husband being cuckolded by beautiful wife

lioness maulting martyr Basil of Ancyra

In fourteenth-century Constantinople, the eminent intellectual Nikephoros Gregoras wrote an eloquent letter in Greek to an unnamed friend. Gregoras’s friend had a beautiful wife. She began cuckolding him only a few days after their marriage. She apparently was also falsely accusing him of sexual improprieties. While expressing outrage and sympathy, Gregoras urged his friend to accept his marital fate as the natural order in marrying a beautiful woman.

Gregoras’s letter begins with a vague declaration, “I know it very well.” The letter then immediately shifts to intimate, second-personal address. “I know it very well” seems to refer to being cuckolded. Gregoras’s letter shows that he understands cuckolding through examples in classical literature. But his introductory declaration seems personal. It suggests that Gregoras too has been cuckolded.

Gregoras also refers to an unnamed “excellent man” who has informed him yesterday about the addressee’s situation. Gregoras praises the unnamed, excellent man with lofty epithets. That praise lacks motivation. Within the overall context of the letter, the unnamed excellent man plausibly is an alternative rhetorical figure for the addressee of the letter.[1] That alternate addressee re-enforces the the letter’s constructed contrast between the majesty of learning and the disgrace of being cuckolded.

Gregoras playfully chides his learned friend for betraying learning about women. Byzantine scholars knew that Phaedre falsely accused her stepson Hippolytus of raping her after he rebuffed her amorous advances. They knew that Euripides was wrongly tarred with hating women. They knew that the Athenian orator Lycurgus was wrongly impugned for wronging women when he forbid rich women to ride to Eluesis in coaches (carpenta) so as not to shame poor women who lacked coaches.[2] Recognizing Xanthippe’s domestic violence against Socrates enabled Byzantines to have a more truthful understanding of domestic violence than many persons have today. Misandry that went even to the extreme of androcide was never forgotten with remembrance of the Lemnian deeds. Most importantly, women’s great power to promote war was freely and openly recognized in recalling the horrors of the Trojan War.

That some men get cuckolded was no secret in Byzantium. Learned Byzantines knew that the yes-dearing Hephaistos, who at the behest of his wife Aphrodite dutifully made a shield for Achilles, was cuckolded by Ares. Zeus, who had deposed Chronus, the father of castration culture, avoided only through a cloud an affair between his jealous wife Hera and the King of the Lapiths Ixion. Zeus himself, taking the form of a swan, had sex with Leda, the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. And of course Philip of Macedonia, nominally the father of Alexander the Great, had been cuckolded by the Egyptian magician Ammon (Nectanebo), the true biological father of Alexander. In recognition of the serious public problem of false paternity beliefs, the great Byzantine leader Constantine the Great erected a statue of Aphrodite to help husbands learn whether they had been cuckolded.

Gregoras’s letter concludes with unconsoling wisdom. If a man wishes most easily to pass through the alternations of happiness and misfortune that pattern human life, he should either not marry or marry an unattractive woman. Most men would find the second option less attractive. As for his married friend being cuckolded, Gregoras advised him to endure his misfortune with courage and philosophy. By philosophy he seemed to mean classic stories of women wronging men.


Gregoras’s letter, in translation from the original fourteenth-century Byzantine Greek, is given in full below.[3] One of the most poignant, eloquent, and influential works of men’s sexed protest is the medieval Latin letter Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum. In that letter, Valerius attempts to dissuade his friend Rufinus from getting married. Gregoras’s letter to his married friend being cuckolded is a worthy complement to Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum.

Gregoras’s full letter to his married friend being cuckolded:

I know it very well. You understand, my dearest, the affection I have long had for you. You have been able, I believe, to guess what grief I have felt, needless to say, at the news of the misfortune which has just washed over you. I questioned yesterday on this subject that excellent man, “the springtime of eloquence, the joy of the learned, the dear, the amiable, the laudable man.” He told me everything in detail. What he informed me is that you have united yourself to a woman remarkable for her beauty as well as her birth, young, but of deplorable conduct. She has disgraced your bed a few days after your marriage. She was sober-minded, but her conduct today insults you, and worst of all, in spite of all this, she bad-mouths you. As the proverb says, those who wear horns deserve blows.

Hearing this story, I hid myself with shame, by Athena, by Hermes, by the Muses, and I wished to see the earth open under my feet. It is a disgrace, a shameful disgrace to your friends, to learning itself. What an unforeseen misfortune! What an insult! What outrage to the majesty of learning! What evil genius has pushed her to wish to behave against you thus? Do you not know, having heard them yourself, of so many stories, that a reasonable man, who knows how to be wise, doesn’t find agreeable a woman adorned with impudence? No single anchor could restrain her, as one restrains a boat. But the boat that she is breaks its moorings many times and seeks shelter in another port. Do you not know that Solomon says that three things shake the earth and that a fourth it cannot bear: that is a prostitute who meets an honest man or who, after her adventures, washes herself and say she hasn’t done anything extraordinary. Nothing is so inconstant as the mind of the unchaste woman, nothing is more inclined to weave insinuating calumnies and false accusations, and to turn back her own faults upon innocent men. If she has superior social-standing and birth, things that easily toss like dice the evidence on which accusations are based, then one must have the goodness of God and the depth of the sea to be cleansed of insults and slander from the tongue of the perverse one. Do you not know the attitude of Phaedre, the wife of Theseus, to the wise Hippolytus, and how much her calumnies have been stronger than the truth? Do you not know how much the learned Euripides, as well as the orator Lycurgus, suffered from the tales of women, said to be as acrid as smoke, as dirty as dust? Do not you know with what disturbances Xanthippe filled the house of Socrates? Are not the evils of Lemnos due to women? Is it not the same with the evils of the Trojan war?

What good is it to enumerate in detail, what is the use of telling a man who knows all these things? It was inevitable, it could be said; beauty doesn’t endure through time, free from jealousy. But I let myself be carried away unconsciously by the pain and I let myself be led to talk about things, somewhat beside my subject. I had to console a man gnawed by grief. I do the opposite, I think. I irritate his grief with what I tell him. But you’re a learned man. You know more than anyone else about consoling others who are in the same situation. You will undoubtedly apply the logical remedies suited to the present case. You remember, if the pain has not clouded your memory, that Hephaistos suffered this misfortune from Ares, Zeus from Ixion, the Spartan Tyndareus from the swan, Philip of Macedonia from the Egyptian Ammon. Your suffering therefore has nothing strange to the natural order. Misfortune generally follows happiness. There can be no existence without sorrow. If you personally wished to run the double course of life with the least possible difficulty, you would need to do one of two things: either do not marry, or do not marry a pretty woman so that you won’t have to share your wife with the whole world.

May I see you, a young married man, in good health, and enduring your misfortunes with as much courage as philosophy, so that I am not obliged to plait in your honor tragic chants instead of a wedding song.

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[1] In the penultimate paragraph of his letter, Gregoras clearly refers to his friend in the third person as “a man gnawed by grief.”

[2] See Pseudo-Plutarch, Lives of the Ten Orators, Lycurgus.

[3] Nikephoros Gregoras, Letter 129 (written 1330-1340), original Greek with French translation in Giulland (1927) pp. 220-5. The above English translation is mine. A more recent Greek text for the letter is Letter 123 in Leone (1982) vol. 2, pp. 318-20. Garland (1996), p. 15, declares that Gregoras “is here conforming to the misogynistic outlook typical of Byzantine theology.” Littlewood (1999), p. 33 n. 67, describes the letter as “tongue in cheek.” Neither of those scholarly judgments seem to me to do justice to Gregoras’s letter or to the reality of men’s lives. For a general review of Gregora’s life, intellectual interests, and letters,  Manolova (2014) Part I. On the prior Byzantine tradition of letters of consolation, Littlewood (1999).

[image] Lioness mauling martyr Basil of Ancyra. Illumination (detail) from the Menologion of Basil II, Vatican Library, Ms. Vat. gr. 1613, f. 63. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Garland, Lynda. 1996. “‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen,’ Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court with Especial Reference to the 11th and 12th Centuries.” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines 1–2: 1–62.

Giulland, Rodolphe, ed. and trans into French. 1927. Correspondance de Nicéphore Grégoras. Paris: Les belles lettres.

Leone, Pietro Luigi M., ed. 1982. Nicephori Gregorae epistulae.  Two vols. Matino: Tip. di Matino.

Littlewood, A. R. 1999. “The Byzantine Letter of Consolation in the Macedonian and Komnenian Periods.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 53: 19-41.

Manolova, Divna. 2014. Discourses of Science and Philosophy in the Letters of Nikephoros Gregoras. Ph.D. Thesis. Medieval Studies Department and the Doctoral School of History, Central European University of Budapest.

Empress Theodora, a woman leader with strong, independent sexuality

Byzantine Empress Theodora and her court

While men throughout history have appreciated the beauty of women’s genitals, few have credited women with strong, independent sexuality and full commitment to a career. That’s in part because gynocentrism demands adherence to the myth of women’s innate virtue and the myth of women’s natural moral superiority to men. The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea, however, had both an extraordinary concern for historical accuracy and prudent regard for the danger of truth-telling. In his Secret History, Procopius thoroughly recorded the sixth-century Byzantine Empress Theodora’s strong, independent sexuality and her full commitment to her career.

Before she reached puberty, Theodora worked outside the home as a sex worker in the Byzantine capital Constantinople. Her father was the keeper of bears for the popular spectacles held in that city. Theodora thus grew up with appreciation for the fundamentals of animal behavior, life and death, and performance. As a young girl, Theodora was remarkably beautiful. Her older sister, also quite beautiful, worked as an exotic dancer and call girl. To help her older sister, Theodora carried around the stand upon which her older sister danced. Theodora herself provided special service to the under-served: she served homosexual men, including slaves, who wanted anal sex.[1] In accordance with hetero-normative ideology, market incentives, and personal preferences and comfort, most women prostitutes historically have focused their practice on heterosexual men. Theodora, in contrast, reached out to serve sexually marginalized men.

Theodora worked hard and was dedicated to her career. She unfortunately lacked natural talent in singing and dancing. Not letting that discourage her, she took up work providing background sexual displays in mime shows:

There was no shame at all in her, and no one ever saw her embarrassed. …. Often she would take her clothes off and stand in the middle of the stage by the mimes, alternately bending backwards or drawing attention to her rear, advertising her special brand of gymnastics both to those who had more intimate knowledge of it and to those who did not — yet. Thus did she abuse her own body licentiously, making it seem that she had genitals not in the place where nature ordained for all other women, but in her face. [2]

As a sex worker, Theodora worked long hours to serve many customers. Moreover, she didn’t provide merely perfunctory service:

She would joke with her lovers lying around in a bed with them, and by toying with new sexual techniques, constantly managed to arouse the souls of those who were debauched. Nor did she wait for her customers to make the first pass at her; quite the contrary, she herself tempted all who came along, flirting and suggestively shaking her hips, especially if they were beardless youths. … She often went to the potluck dinner parties in the company of ten young escorts, or even more than that, all at the peak of their physical prowess and skilled at screwing, and she would bed down with her fellow diners in groups all night long. And when all were exhausted from doing this, she would turn to their servants, all thirty of them if that’s how many there were, and couple with them separately [3]

Theodora resented the biological reality of female human nature and strove to overcome it:

Even though she put three of her orifices to work she would impatiently reproach Nature for not making the holes in her nipples bigger than they were so that she could devise additional sexual positions involving them as well. She was often pregnant, but by using almost all known techniques she could induce immediate abortions. [4]

Advancing to a high position in any career requires hard work, dedication, and sacrifices. Theodora clearly was determined to succeed in her career and show the world what a woman could do.

While some women tend toward modesty and lack assertiveness, Theodora assertively placed herself in positions attracting massive public attention. Performing in Constantinople’s amphitheater, Theodora, wearing only a loincloth, would stand at the center of attention. Then she would lie down and spread her legs. Circus hands would come out and sprinkle barley grains underneath her loincloth and onto her genitals. Trained geese then would come out and peck and eat the grains off her genitals.[5] The geese stretching their long, muscular necks into her groin surely thrilled crowds. Theodora provided theater-goers with unforgettable, transgressive performances worthy of modern pop starts such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. Those performances undoubtedly helped to boost her career.

Given Theodora’s career success, she not surprisingly had a great marriage. An eminent Byzantine official named Justinian became infatuated with her. Under Byzantine law, such officials were not allowed to marry prostitutes. Justinian thus at first took Theodora as his mistress. Eager to marry her, he convinced Emperor Justin to annul the law against high officials marrying prostitutes. Justinian then married Theodora. Procopius observed:

it was possible for him {Justinian} to have selected a spouse from the whole of the Roman Empire, to have married a woman who was the most well-born among all women and had been raised outside the public gaze, who had learned ways of modesty and lived discreetly; moreover, she could have been exceedingly beautiful and still a virgin and even, as they say, with perky breasts.

As many young women today understand, career success is what men value most in a woman. Byzantines, from Senators to soldiers, dutifully acclaimed the Emperor’s wife and prostrated themselves in service to her.[6]

Theodora went on to enjoy a gender-egalitarian marriage. The Empress Theodora and the Emperor Justinian “did nothing independently of each other.” In a letter to a high Persian official, Empress Theodora wrote that her husband “does nothing without my consent.” Anyone who administered an imperial order for which Empress Theodora hadn’t been consulted would be put to death:

Were the emperor to delegate a certain matter to a person without first asking her opinion, the fortunes of that person would soon afterwards know such a reversal that his position of honor would be removed in a most insulting way and he would die a most disgraceful death.

To avoid being killed, courtiers assiduously sought to consult with the Empress on all matters of state. Theodora and Justinian thus achieved the ideal gender-egalitarian marriage toward which well-educated couples today still struggle.

Theodora ensured that government policies favored women. She strengthened support for wives’ sexual freedom:

they were given full license to cheat on their husbands and no risk or harm could come to them because of their behavior. Even those convicted of adultery remained unpunished, because they would go straight to the empress and turn the tables by hauling their husbands into court through a countersuit, despite the fact the men had been charged with no crime. All the men could do, even though they had not been convicted of anything, was to pay back to their wives the dowries that they had received, only twofold, to be whipped and then, for the most of them, led off to prison. After this, they had to look on again as these adultresses preened and lusted after their seducers, only more flagrantly this time. … From then on most men were only too happy to endure without protest the unholy deeds of their wives. So long as they were not being whipped, they gave their wives the freedom to do whatever they wished by pretending not to know what was going on.

At the same time, to limit husbands’ sexual opportunities, Theodora forcibly removed women prostitutes from Constantinople. Under gynocentrism, men are reluctant to marry. Theodora forced men into marriage:

All of a sudden each man would find that he had a wife, not because this pleased him, which is how these things are done even among the barbarians, but because it had been decide by Theodora. [7]

She even forced men to marry a different woman from the one that they were already engaged to marry. For example, Theodora forced a man to marry a prostitute rather than his well-born, virgin fiancée. After consummating his Theodora-arranged marriage to the prostitute, he told a friend that his new wife hadn’t been a virgin. For that offense, Theodora had the man punished severely:

she ordered her servants to lift him up the way one does schoolchildren and give his back a good long whacking for showing off and boasting about things to which he had no rights. She then told him not to run his mouth off again.

Fears of similar punishment might help to explain why few persons today discuss men being forced into financial fatherhood.

Empress Theodora was a woman who had it all. She held the highest political office as co-ruler of Byzantium. She also enjoyed a leisurely, luxurious life:

She would rush to her bath first thing in the morning but would tarry there for a long while. Having bathed so sumptuously, she went to breakfast. After breakfast she rested. At lunch and dinner she like to taste every variety of food and drink. Sleep always took hold of her for long stretches, her daytime naps lasting until night set on and she slept again at night until the sun rose.

Theodora’s hard work, dedication, and sacrifices to get ahead in her career paid off in the wonderful life she had. Theodora is an inspiring model of success for women and girls around the world today.

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[1] Procopius of Caesarea, Secret History 9.8-10 (all the details in the above paragraph). Kaldellis (2010) provides the most accurate English translation of the text. Bill Thayer has made conveniently available online the English translation of Henry Bronson Dewing for the Loeb Classical Library (1935). Richard Atwater’s English translation (1927) is also freely available online. Correctly transliterated from the Greek, the author of the Secret History is Prokopios. I’ve used the more common form Procopius to be more accessible to readers.

Theodora was the Byzantine Empress from 527 to 548, when she died. Procopius apparently finished writing his Secret History in 550/551. Kaldellis (2010) p. lxiv. The Byzantine bureaucrat John Lydus was probably a close friend to Procopius and probably read his Secret History. Kaldellis (2003) p. 134. The Secret History became widely distributed only after a manuscript of it was discovered in the Vatican Library in 1623. Id. p. ix. For a review and bibliography of scholarship on Procopius from 2003 to 2014, Greatrex (2014).

[2] Secret History 9.14, 23-4, from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2010) pp. 41, 43. While naked, Theodora apparently bent over and put her face between her legs.

Subsequent quotes above from the Secret History (cited by section.subsection and page in Kaldellis translation): 9.15-6, pp. 42-3 (She would joke…); 9.18-9, p. 42 (Even though she put three…); 10.2, p. 47 (it was possible for him…); 10.13, p. 48 (did nothing independently…); 2.35, p. 14 (does nothing without my consent); 15.10, p. 68 (Were the emperor…); 17.24-6, p. 78 (they were given full license…); 17.29, pp. 78-9 (All of a sudden…);  17.37, p. 79 (she ordered her servants…); 15.7-8, p. 68 (she would rush to her bath…).

[3] The Christian saint Mary of Egypt was also highly capable sexually. In Mazaris’ Journey to Hades, an early fifteenth-century Byzantine text, Holobolos tells that he fell in love again with “a nun, who had slept with a thousand men, an old flame of mine.” Mazaris’ Journey 128.5, from Greek trans. Seminar (1975) p. 21. An early-fifteenth-century Arabic text tells of men who performed even more extraordinary sexual feats.

With lack of appreciation for women’s strong, independent sexuality, historians have wrongly interpreted Procopius as providing gossip, lies, and rhetoric lacking in truth value. For example, Brubaker refers to “the prurient sexual slander that Prokopios layers on Theodora and her friends (so at odds with our general notions of Byzantine life).” Brubaker (2004) p. 84. That Byzantines engaged in a variety of sexual practices isn’t at odds with an informed notion of Byzantium and of human history generally. For relevant insights, see Garland (1996) and the twelfth-century Byzantine novel Hysmine and Hysminias.

Projecting the marginalization of women onto Theodora in Procopius’s Secret History is silly. Voluminous scholarship celebrates the power of Theodora as a woman ruler. See, e.g. Diehl (1904), Evans (2002), Evans (2011). Nonetheless, Brubaker declares:

Theodora’s main role in the Secret History is to support Prokopios’ condemnation of Justinian

Brubaker (2004) p. 100. Women should not be merely confined to supporting roles. Strong, independent women have existed throughout history. Modern scholars should recognize that truth, especially with respect to Byzantine gynocentric society.

Procopius’s Secret History is an extremely valuable resource for understanding the truth about Theodora. Procopius was a well-informed, well-connected person writing about events of his own time:

Procopius should not be regarded as an outsider, either in terms of genres, or as someone isolated from contemporary opinion. He worked within the conventions of classicizing historiography and, as a well-born and successful official, had good connections to the upper échelons of the empire.

Greatrex (2000) p. 227. The Secret History makes many specific references to persons, places, and events. It is closely linked to the history in Procopius’s Wars. Kaldellis (2010) pp. xxvi-viii. Procopius repeatedly, explicitly indicated his concern to make known facts. Secret History 1.1-5, 4.32, 5.27, 5.38, 8.22, 9.1, 10.12, 15.39, etc. Cf. Brubaker (2004) p. 84. Moreover, many of the facts in the Secret History can be corroborated with other, credible sources. The sixth-century Monophysite writer Yuhannan of Amida (John of Ephesos) lauded Theodora. He also casually refers to “Theodora who came from the brothel.” Yuhannan of Amida, Lives of the Saints 13, from Syriac trans. Ernest Walter Brooks, in Kaldellis (2010) p. 146. The Secret History is “our most reliable source” about Theodora. Kaldellis (2010) pp. lii, liii.

Scholarly disparagement of the truth value of the Secret History is best understood with respect to current difficulties with truth. Consider, for example, this claim:

The Secret History is a successful piece of fiction, a brilliant parody on the imperial panegyric. It tells us next to nothing about Justinian and Theodora.

Brubaker (2004) p. 101. That’s as factually correct as current mainstream media claims about rape, or gender-biased accounts of domestic violence. It obscures truth to the same gynocentric end as does refusal to address forced financial fatherhood. Brubaker’s claim about the Secret History “does the work a serious disservice and flies in the face of scholarship that has established the well-founded nature of the criticisms expressed.” Greatrex (2014) p. 101.

[4] The figure of using multiple orifices for sex was well-established in ancient literature. For some analysis, Kaldellis (2010) p. liv. Catallus’s poems, the erotic wall paintings at Pompeii, and many epigrams in the Greek Anthology refer to sex acts using a variety of orifices. On the latter, see, e.g. a Greek epigram on the riddle of two plus two equals three. The existence of those literary figures undoubtedly coexisted with similar practices in actual life. Merely on the basis of literary sexual references, a scholar declared:

it seems beyond doubt that the sex life of Theodora owes more to male fantasy and literary tradition than reality.

Baldwin (1987) p. 151. That view lacks respect for female fantasy and female action.

[5] Secret History 15.20-1.

[6] Procopius observed:

Nor, indeed, did a single member of the Senate, seeing the state tying itself to this smear of a woman, decide to disapprove the action and denounce it, though all of them would be prostrating themselves before her as if she were a goddess. Nor did any priest make known his displeasure, despite the fact that they would all be addressing her as Mistress. And the populace, who used to be her audience, immediately now and with upturned hands as though in prayer disgracefully demanded both to be in fact, and to be called, her slave. Nor did any soldier rise up in fury now that he would have to be enduring the dangers of campaigning — on behalf of the interests of Theodora. Nor did any other person challenge her; rather, all of them passively let this pollution happen in the belief, I suppose, that it was simply their ordained fate

Secret History 10.6-9, trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 47. Christian allusions in this rhetoric express Procopius’s contempt for tyranny. Kaldellis (2004) pp. 138-40. See also Secret History 9.25 (“touch a corner of that person’s clothes”). Cf. Mark 5:25–34, Matthew 9:20–22, Luke 8:43–48. The society-wide reaction to modern officials adopting tyrannical, anti-men laws and procedures has been similar to the society-wide response to Theodora, as Procopius described it.

Writing in 1904 after having studied Procopius’s Secret History, Charles Diehl, a respected French scholar and a leading Byzantine historian, found reason to follow the public response to Theodora that Procopius recounted. Diehl declared:

this truly superior woman, who, after having charmed an entire public, was able to conquer {sic} Justinian and to reign over a whole nation for twenty years, deserves to be known otherwise and better than only through the gossiping of a sour pamphleteer or questionable legends inspired by her scandalous celebrity.

Diehl (1904) p. 5. Diehl included a chapter entitled “Theodora’s Feminism” (Ch. 15) in which he praised Theodora for harshly suppressing men’s extra-marital sexual opportunities by suppressing women prostitutes and praised Theodora for lessening punishment of women for adultery.

Evans (2002) and Evans (2011) provides more sophisticated scholarly history of Theodora within dominant gynocentric ideology. Theodora thus “championed the rights of women.” Evans (2011) p. xiv. Theodora and Antonina, wife of the eminent general Belisarios, were naturally transgressive women struggling against male domination and seeking to show that women could excel in politics as well as men could. Theodora and Antonina were thus:

two women who knew how to use political power to advance their interests, lead lives outside contemporary social norms and influence the workings of the government. They lived in a period when most women lived lives circumscribed by social convention, and their example shows that women — even if they were born into the lowest ranks of society — could play the power games as well as men.

Id. p. xi. That’s history worthy of a apparatchik under a totalitarian regime.

At a more popular level, a Smithsonian Magazine article (Dash (2012)) described Theodora as “exceptionally beautiful and unusually intelligent.” She, of course, “refused to play the subordinate role normally expected of a Byzantine empress.” The article celebrated Theodora shaming Justinian and other men into participating in violence against men. That’s a prevalent form of gynocentric coercion of men. The Smithsonian Magazine is part of “the Smithsonian Institution, America’s national educational facility.”

With much more insightful analysis that fully engages with historical reality and with the deep meaning of Procopius’s works, Kaldellis recognized Procopius’s fundamental concern with political tyranny. Kaldellis recognized that Theodora was:

a woman who had no conception of the dignity of political life. To have lived under her power must have been unbearably degrading.

Kaldellis (2004) p. 130. Theodora sought “to destroy all masculine virtues.” Id. p. 145.

[7] Theodora also persecuted men for having sex with men. For example, she falsely accused Basianos of sodomy. Despite his innocence and his high social status, she had him severely punished. He was castrated, then killed, and all his property was confiscated. Secret History 16.18-21. Theodora also falsely accused Diogenes of sex with men, but judges refused to convict him. Secret History 16.23-8.

[image] Mosaic of Byzantine Empress Theodora and her court in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Probably created shortly before 547 GC. Thanks to Petar Milošević and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry. 1987. “Sexual Rhetoric in Procopius.” Mnemosyne. 40 (1): 150-152.

Brubaker, Leslie. 2004. “Sex, Lies and Textuality: The Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-Century Byzantium.” Leslie Brubaker and Julia M. H. Smith, eds. Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300–900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dash, Mike. 2012. “Blue versus Green: Rocking the Byzantine Empire.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2, freely available online.

Diehl, Charles. 1904. Théodora, Impératrice de Byzance. Paris: E. Rey. Quoted in the English translation of Samuel R. Rosenbaum. 1972. Theodora: Empress of Byzantium. New York: F. Ungar.

Evans, James Allen. 2004. The empress Theodora: partner of Justinian. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Evans, James Allen. 2011. The power game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London: Continuum.

Garland, Lynda. 1996. “‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen,’ Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court with Especial Reference to the 11th and 12th Centuries.” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines 1–2: 1–62.

Greatrex, Geoffrey. 2000. “Procopius the Outsider?” Ch. 16 (pp. 215-28) in Smythe, Dion C. & Rowena Loverance, eds. 2000. Strangers to Themselves: Papers from the Thirty-Second Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, March 1998. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Greatrex, Geoffrey. 2014. “Perceptions of Procopius in Recent Scholarship.” Histos 8: 76-121.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2004. Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, history and philosophy at the end of the antiquity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2010. Prokopios. The secret history: with related texts. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Seminar, Classics 600 at SUNY Buffalo. 1975. Mazaris’ Journey to Hades or interview with dead men about certain officials of the imperial court. Buffalo: Arethusa.

Kekaumenos knew seductive skills more potent than emperor’s wealth

Byzantine general

Worries and suspicions filled the mind of the eleventh-century Byzantine nobleman Kekaumenos. He assiduously sought to avoid blame while living in Byzantine gynocentric society.[1] Kekaumenos encouraged men to fulfill their traditional role of fighting and dying, yet his worries and suspicions led him to highly untraditional views on men in relation to women.

With respect to men’s personal disposability, Kekaumenos was a traditionalist, but brave enough to express pragmatic qualifications. He considered men to be naturally persons who fight and die for their society. He advised his sons:

When you are enlisted as a soldier, play the man in battle, even if you are going to die. Remember that it is for this reason that you were enlisted, and that no-one is immortal.

Don’t fear death, if you are going to meet it on behalf of your country and the emperor; rather fear a shameful and blameworthy life. [2]

Yet to each of those exhortations Kekaumenos attached a pragmatic qualification:

Avoid petty warfare; for if you are wounded, you will die, and after death you will be a disgrace.

Only don’t hurl yourself into danger pointlessly and without premeditation; for this sort of thing is to be blamed.

These qualifications show Kekaumenos more concerned about a man’s social status than his death or bodily injury. However, showing any concern for gender-distinctive harm to men is quite unusual.

Kekaumenons didn’t sharply distinguish friends from enemies. In ancient Greek ethical thinking, friends and enemies were a fundamental social dichotomy. An ancient Greek man sought to gain friends and lose enemies; to help friends and harm enemies. Kekaumenos, in contrast, didn’t seek to gain friends among men:

you should protect yourself from your friends more than from your enemies.

To have as a friend a snake and a bad man is one and the same thing; from the mouths of both of them comes deadly poison. I never liked to have a companion, nor have I ever lived with a man who was my equal, unless out of necessity.

For when trouble has come, and the companion has also been involved in it, partly or entirely, he will blame his companion. He will shake his head and, even if he doesn’t speak openly, he will say, in his heart: ‘My friendship with him hasn’t been good for me. See, through him I am caught in difficulties’. His companion, seeing him, grieves in his heart, suffering affliction from both sources — from his companion’s grumbling and from his own misfortunes. In small mishaps a friend will be found, but in great and enduring misfortune, let no-one deceive you — there will be no friend.

The man you live with, when you want to eat, will perhaps have no appetite, or indeed, vice-versa. If you wish to sleep, he will be awake. You perhaps wish to have lunch with a friend of yours, and he will grumble. In short, one person has one rational desire, and another has another.

So much for men as friends. Kekaumenos regarded men having women as friends to be no more desirable than men having other men as friends. Wih respect to enemies, men tend to perceive them to be only other men. With his admirable sense of gender equality, Kekaumenos recognized that women could also be fearsome enemies for men:

It is dangerous to quarrel with women, but more dangerous to make friends with them. You will be harmed by doing both. [3]

Kekaumenos understood that women present some gender-specific dangers to men:

Guard yourself whenever you converse with a woman, even if she seems to be one of the respectable ones. Don’t become familiar with her, for you will not escape her snares. Your eyes will be drawn away, and your heart will be stirred, and you will be beside yourself. You will be attacked from three sides: by the Devil, by her appearance and her words, and by human nature. It is a great thing to overcome these.

Yet he also recognized the great value of a good woman to a man:

The man who has buried his wife has lost the half — or even more — of his life as well, if she is a good woman.

In contrast to misleading scholarly claims, men more readily hate other men than hate women. Kekaumenos warned men against their natural tendency to regard women as harmless enemies and good friends.

Kekaumenos had keen understanding of how men sexually attract women. He advised his sons:

If you have a friend in another place, and he comes through the city where you live, don’t let him lodge in your house. Let him lodge elsewhere. Send him the things he needs. He will that way receive you better. But if he lodges in your house, hear how many things you will have to complain about. To begin with, your wife and your daughters and your daughters-in-law are not free to go out of their room and make necessary arrangements in your house. If there is pressing need for them to come out, your friend will exclaim and fasten his eye on them. Even if you are standing with him, he will seem to you to lower his head, but he will be watching carefully how they walk, and turn, their hips, their glance, and, in short, everything from top to toe. When he is alone with his own men, he will imitate them and laugh. … If he should find a chance, he will make gestures of love to your wife. He will look on her with licentious eyes. If he can, he will even defile her. If he cannot, he will go out and make boasts that should not be made. Even if he himself doesn’t say it, your enemy will shout out in battle {15 characters missing; probably something obscene, e.g. “So-and-so fucked your wife!”}

The friend acted with licentious boldness and playful mockery toward the man’s wife. While risky under tyrannical sex regulations, such behavior sexually excites women much more than dull, formal politeness or contractual proposals for affirmative consent.

With even more astonishing insight, Kekaumenos recognized that seductive skills matter more than even the Byzantine Emperor’s great power and wealth. Kekaumenos told the story of a man he knew personally:

There is a man, distinguished and rich, a dignitary, and very well-born, owning fine residences in the City. I am leaving out his name intentionally, for he’s still alive. This man has a well-born wife, whose brother is a general. She is beautiful to look at. Originally she was even more beautiful in soul. She was adorned with understanding and virtue, and instructed in the Holy Scriptures, too.

The Emperor, having often heard about her, sent people to her, in his desire to have an affair with her. He promised dignities and many other benefits for her and for her husband. Her husband didn’t know of it. Then the Emperor sent him off as judge of a theme {a Byzantine political division}. When the Emperor couldn’t persuade her, he gave up.

After three years, her husband the judge came back from the theme. He was delighted with the state of his own home. But then a good-looking and distinguished young man in the provinces pretended to be a relation of hers. He spoke to her husband in the Palace: ‘I’, he says, ‘am a relation of that lady there, the judge’s wife’. After saying much more to him, he made friends with the judge. The judge invited him to his home. The young man deceived him and became his close friend. Why do I choose to speak at length? He had an affair with the judge’s wife.

She who was once happy is now wretched. When this event became known, her husband and her relations were in the grip of dejection and grief, or rather disgrace. The young man boasted about it as if about one of the labours of Hercules. What the Emperor and promises of dignities and riches could not achieve, was done by intimacy and a friend.

The young man was bold, impudent, and cocky. He thought of himself as a woman’s man like the legendary Lothario Hercules. His seductive skills made him more alluring to a another man’s wife than the Byzantine Emperor himself.

Many men seek social status and wealth to improve their mate prospects. That’s foolish. Learning from medieval women’s love poetry and being a jerk is a more propitious way to a woman’s loins.

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[1] The vocabulary of dishonor, shame, shamelessness, insult, blame, reproach, and mockery are pervasive in Kaukaumenos’s Consilia et Narrationes, but honor and praise are sparingly invoked. Magdalino (1989) p. 204.

[2] Kekaumenos, Consilia et Narrationes {Advice and Anecdotes} 54.12-3, 16.11-2, from Greek trans. Roueché (2013). The unnamed author’s father and grandfather are named Kekaumenos within the text. The text’s author has come to be conventionally named Kekaumenos (also transliterated as Cecaumenos). Editors earlier entitled the text the Strategicon, but now it is more commonly called the Consilia et Narrationes.

Kekaumenos addressed the text to his sons, but that seems to have been a convention of advisory rhetoric. Consilia et Narrationes is “not the work of an ill-educated man.” Roueché (2003) p. 27. Kaukaumenos apparently studied the first part of the progymnasmata. Id. pp. 33-7. Consilia et Narrationes seems to have been intended for general circulation.

Consilia et Narrationes apparently was written about 1075. It has survived in only one manuscript, Moscow Synodalis 298 (Vlad. 436) ff. 136v – 229r. That manuscript was produced near Trebizond, probably in the 14th century. Roueché in her introduction provides a full discussion of the important philological issues associated with this work.

Georgina Buckler from 1936 until her death in 1953 worked to produced a critical edition and English translation of Consilia et Narrationes. Buckler was Roueché’s grandmother. Roueché’s critical edition, translation, and commentary drew upon her grandmother’s work. Roueché’s impressive edition, freely available worldwide on the web, is a magnificent tribute to her grandmother’s scholarly work.

Subsequent quotes above are from Roueché’s translation of Consilia et Narrationes: 54.14 (Avoid petty warfare…); 16.13-4 (don’t hurl yourself…); 27.05 (you should protect yourself…);  61.21-62.03 (To have as a friend…); 61.20-1 (It is dangerous to quarrel…);  54.21-6 (Guard yourself…); 55.30-1(The man who has buried his wife…); 42.26-43.11 (If you have a friend…); 43.16-44.08 (There is a man…). I have made some non-substantial changes to Roueché’s translation to make it more readily readable for popular readers.

[3] This observation has been quoted out of context for crude, anti-meninist point-scoring. That practice is a pervasive, deplorable feature of much recent gender scholarship. See, e.g. Galatariotou (1984) p. 67.

[image] Georgios Maniakes, eleventh-century Byzantine general. Detail of miniature in the History of John Skylitzes, from the manuscript Skyllitzes Matritensis (Madrid Skylitzes), folio 213v. Held in Biblioteca Nacional de España, MS Graecus Vitr. 26-2. The Madrid Skylitzes was produced in twelfth-century Sicily. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Galatariotou, Catia S. 1984. “Holy Women and Witches: Aspects of Byzantine Conceptions of Gender.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 9 (1): 55-94.

Magdalino, Paul. 1989. “Honour among Romaioi: the framework of social values in the world of Digenes Akrites and Kekaumenos.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 13 (1): 183-218.

Roueché, Charlotte. 2003. “The Rhetoric of Kekaumenos.” Ch. 2 (pp. 23-37) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.

Roueché, Charlotte. 2013. Kekaumenos. Consilia et Narrationes. Greek text, English translation and commentary. Sharing Ancient Wisdoms / SAWS website.

men leaders like General Belisarius lick women’s feet under gynocracy

Byzantine General Belisarius

The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius in his Secret History courageously wrote of what a modern editor aptly entitled “The Gynocracy.” Relative to the alternatives, gynocentrism is the best master narrative for understanding the full course of human history. “The Gynocracy,” however, is a particular, personal history of men’s subordination to women in sixth-century Byzantium.[1] Within that history, Belisarius gratefully licked the soles of his wife Antonina’s feet. Belisarius’s gesture has much greater significance — both in Byzantine history and in the history of all humanity. A man leader licking a woman’s feet signifies men’s gynocentric subordination to women throughout history.

Before she married Belisarius, Antonina was an undistinguished actress. She associated with charioteers, gladiators, and other men performers that Roman women found sexually alluring. Antonina herself had strong, independent sexuality. She probably worked for some time as a prostitute. Given her work history, Antonina knew how to deal effectively with the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Antonina had no fear of committing crimes, for she wouldn’t receive serious punishment no matter what crime she committed.[2]

Before he married Antonina, Belisarius was an eminent general. As merely a young man, Belisarius led a Byzantine force that defeated a large Persian army at Daras in 530. The next year Belisarius led another important action against the Persians. Two years later Belisarius led a large Byzantine naval expedition against the Vandals in North Africa. With that expedition, Belisarius brought Carthage under Byzantine rule. In gratitude for Belisarius’s victory, the Emperor Justinian honored Belisarius with a spectacular triumph in Constantinople. Belisarius was also a key player in domestic politics. His troops participated in a massacre of protesters in the Nika Riots of 532.[3]

Antonina probably sought the large gains in status and material goods from marrying Belisarius. On his side, Belisarius was sexually infatuated with Antonina. At the time of their marriage, Antonina was a single mother with many children.[4] Their marriage was tumultuous. She dominated him and ultimately brought him to career ruin and complete self-degradation.

Antonina intended to engage in extra-marital sexual activity from the start of her marriage with Belisarius. Initially she concealed her adulteries. But then she conceived an insatiable passion for their adopted son Theodosios. She acted on her passion. Belisarius refused to recognize that his wife Antonina was cuckolding him with their son:

When Belisarius once caught them in the act when they were in Carthage, he willingly allowed his wife to pull the wool over his eyes. For even though he was furious at finding them together in a basement room, she was not overcome with shame nor even flinched at her compromising situation. “I came down here,” she said, “with the boy to hide the most precious spoils of war so that the emperor doesn’t find out about them.” That was her excuse, and he let on that he had bought it, even though he could see that the belt around Theodosios’ pants had been loosened in the part closest to the genitals. He was so infatuated with this person, his wife, that he could not bring himself to believe the evidence of his own eyes. [5]

With Belisarius repressing the reality of his being cuckolded, he became moody, unpredictable, and depressed. Antonina killed several men and women servants who spoke about her affair with Theodosios. Not surprisingly, Belisarius lost the respect of the men servants in his household. They prudently turned to seeking to please Antonina.

Belisarius came to accept and honor his wife Antonina having sex with their son. Antonina was openly carrying out her adultery. Others were calling her an adulteress. That didn’t shame her. Her beloved son Theodosios, however, became nervous and self-conscious. He eventually fled to a monastery and became a tonsured monk. Antonina grieved deeply for the loss of her son:

Antonina became quite hysterical, changing her clothes and comportment to make it seem as though she were in mourning, and wandered throughout the house shrieking and wailing right in front of her husband. She lamented about what a good thing she had lost; how loyal; how charming; how kind; how vigorous!

She even got her husband to join her in lamenting the new religious vocation of their son with whom she had been having sex:

She went so far as to draw her husband into these laments and make him join in. So he too, pathetic fool, wept and cried out for his beloved Theodosios. Later he even went before the emperor and, entreating both him and the empress, persuaded them to recall him on the grounds that he was indispensable to his household and always would be.

Some men cannot imagine living other than as cuckolds. In a moment of weakness, Belisarius begged his step-son — Antonina’s biological son — to kill his mother. But Belisarius’s desire to have sex with her soon returned; it once again governed his behavior.

Alleging that Belisarius said that she was a horrible empress, Theodora stripped him of his generalship and his servants. He feared, with good reason, that she would have him killed. From a publicly celebrated general, Belisarius became “a private citizen: virtually alone, always gloomy and sullen, in constant terror of a murderer’s knife.” He appealed to the empress and emperor, but they and others now regarded him with contempt:

he departed for his home late in the evening, looking over his shoulder every few minutes as he was walking and scanning the streets all around to see from what direction his killers would come. In this state of terror he went up to his room and sat alone upon his bed, having no intention of doing anything brave, not even remembering that he had once been a man. His sweat ran in streams. He felt light-headed. He could not even think straight in his panic, worn out by servile fears and the worries of an impotent coward. All the while, Antonina, as if she were not fully aware of what was going on or as if she were not eagerly expecting what was to come, was fussing about the room pretending to have heartburn

Antonina actually had asked Empress Theodora to restore Belisarius to her in his former status. Theodora granted that favor, but decided to administer it dramatically. Thus a man sent from the Empress announced his presence at Antonina and Belisarius’s door:

Upon hearing this, Belisarius drew his arms and legs up onto the bed and lay there on his back, serving himself up to be slaughtered, so completely had his manliness deserted him. Without entering the room, Kouadratos presented him with a letter from the Empress. And this letter said the following: “Noble sir, you know how you have treated us. But I, for my part, owe so much to your wife that I have decided to disregard all these accusations against you, giving her a gift of your life. So from now on you may feel confident regarding your survival and property, but as to how you intend to treat her we will judge based on your behavior.”

In other words, as long as Belisarius acted subordinate to his wife, served her, and accepted her adulteries, he once again could serve the Empire as a general. For that reprieve, Belisarius was filled with joy and with deep gratitude for his wife:

He jumped up from the bed and fell on his face before his wife’s feet. Placing a hand behind each of her calves, he began to lick the soles of his wife’s feet with his tongue, one after the other, calling her the Cause of his Life and Salvation, promising that henceforth he would be her devoted slave and not her husband. [6]

That’s an extraordinary gesture of self-degradation — kissing the soles of a woman’s feet. However, Theodora and Justinian required their subjects to express regularly subservience to them in a similar way.[7] Moreover, the story is credible. Procopius himself served Belisarius for many years as his personal secretary. A historian who sought to provide a truthful record of the facts, Procopus plausibly learned from Belisarius himself how he had fawningly honored his wife and pledged to be her slave.[8]

The injustices and degradation that men experience under gynocentrism are scarcely recognized. That’s in part an educational problem. The enormously influential philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Politics:

what difference is there between women ruling and rulers who are ruled by women? For the result is the same. [9]

That’s completely misleading. Under gynocentrism, men and women leaders equally fail men. What matters isn’t the sex of the rulers, but whose interests the rulers serve. The continuing existence of sex-discriminatory military service, lack of attention to gross anti-men discrimination in child custody decisions, the huge gender disparity in the population of persons incarcerated, the prevalence of forced financial fatherhood, the contempt for men across decades of public debate over abortion, bizarre expert contortions in obscuring men’s lifespan shortfall, completely mendacious assertions about the sex incidence of violent victimization, absurd claims about men raping women — these all indicate that women rule the rulers of society. Most leaders of societies throughout history have been men. Most men leaders lick the soles of women’s feet.

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[1] “The Gynocracy” is the title that Kaldellis (2010) gives to Part I (Chapters 1-5) of Procopius’s Secret History. For a brilliant analysis of those chapters, Kaldellis (2004) pp. 142-50.

[2] The facts in the above paragraph come from Procopius, Secret History 1.11-4. Kaldellis (2010) provides the most accurate English translation of the text. Bill Thayer has made conveniently available online the English translation of Henry Bronson Dewing for the Loeb Classical Library (1935). Richard Atwater’s English translation (1927) is also freely available online. Correctly transliterated from the Greek, the author of the Secret History is Prokopios and the general is Belisarios. I’ve used the more common forms Procopius and Belisarius to be more accessible to readers.

[3] The facts in the above paragraph are available in Kaldellis’s historical summary, Kaldellis (2010) pp. xviii-xx, as well as in other Byzantine histories.

[4] Secret History 1.12. Subsequent facts above come from the Secret History, unless otherwise noted. While the Secret History employs rhetoric, it also provides relatively high-quality facts. On the factuality of the Secret History, see note [3] in my post on Empress Theodora.

[5] Secret History 1.12, from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 7. I have substituted “Belisarius” for “Belisarios” in this and other quoted text for consistency with my choice among the naming conventions. Subsequent quotes from the Secret History are (by chapter.section and page number in id.): 1.38, p. 9 (Antonina became quite hysterical…); 1,39-40, p. 9 (She went so far as…); 4.16, p. 19 (a private citizen…); 4.21-3, p. 20 (he departed for his home…); 4.25-8, p. 20 (Upon hearing this…); 4.29-30, p. 20 (He jumped up from the bed…).

[6] In a gynocentric work, Evans obscured the extent of Belisarius’s self-abasement to his wife. Evans merely reported:

He fell on his face before Antonina and kissed her feet. Henceforth, he said, he would be her slave.

Evans (2011) p. 166. Licking the soles of a woman’s feet differs significantly from kissing her feet. The explicit reference to tongue emphasizes the physical abasement.

[7] The Secret History states:

with Justinian and Theodora, everyone, including those of patrician rank, had to make their entrance by falling straight on the ground, flat on their faces; then, stretching their arms and legs out as far as they would go, they had to touch, with their lips, one foot of each of the two. Only then could they stand up again. Nor did Theodora waive this protocol for herself, she who demanded to receive ambassadors of the Persians and of the other barbarians in her own right

Secret History 30.23-4, trans. Kaldellis (2010) pp. 131-2. See also Secret History 15.15. Theodora and Justinian requiring those coming before them to kiss their feet is attested in other historical sources. Kaldellis (2004) p. 136. Id., pp. 128-42, explains the despotic significance of this proskynesis.

[8] Procopius served Belisarius as “assessor and private secretary in the East since at least 527 and would accompany the general for many more years.” Kaldellis (2010) p. xviii. On the credibility of Procopius’s Secret History, see note [3] in my post on Empress Theodora.

[9] Aristotle, Politics, Bk 2, Ch. 2.9, from Greek trans. Lord (1985) p. 74. Aristotle here uses the word γυναικοκρατια (gynaikokratia), which literally means “rule by women” or “government by women.” It’s a relatively rare word in ancient Greek. Kaldellis (2004) p. 149. Many believed that Belisarius betrayed his friends not because he was “ruled by a woman” (γυναιχοχρατία), but because of his fear of Empress Theodora. Id. p. 148. Belisarius’s servile behavior toward his wife after Theodora’s death proved otherwise. Secret History 5.26-7.

[image] Plausibly a depiction of Byzantine General Belisarius. Detail from the mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his court in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Probably created shortly before 547 GC. Thanks to Petar Milošević and Wikimedia Commons.


Evans, James Allen. 2011. The power game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London: Continuum.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2004. Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, history and philosophy at the end of the antiquity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2010. Prokopios. The secret history: with related texts. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Lord, Carnes, trans. 1985. Aristotle. The politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

repressive codes of conduct for communication now pervasive

elephant and monkey arguing

Communicative codes of conduct have become pervasive for in-person conferences and online communities. These codes of conduct repress “offensive communication” far more extensively than did communicative norms in medieval Byzantium.

Under current codes of conduct a person can easily commit the offense of communicating offensively. Consider, for example, the code of conduct for a recent computer programming conference. That code declared:

Harassment includes offensive communication related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion … Be careful in the words that you choose. Remember that sexist, racist, and other exclusionary jokes can be offensive to those around you. Excessive swearing and offensive jokes are not appropriate [1]

Under this code, harassment, which is now commonly defined as a criminal offense, includes offensive communication.  A leading tech-conference organizer elaborated on the offense of harassment:

Harassment also includes slights and negative messages, both unintended and intentional, based solely on appearance (sometimes called microaggressions). [2]

The conference organizer asserted broad jurisdiction for its code of conduct, declared its discretion in judging violations, and stated that it would deport a participant without refunding the participation fee that it collected:

We expect all participants—attendees, speakers, sponsors, and volunteers—to follow the Code of Conduct during the conference. This includes conference-related social events at off-site locations, and in related online communities and social media. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Conference participants violating this Code of Conduct may be expelled from the conference without a refund, and/or banned from future O’Reilly events, at the discretion of O’Reilly Media.

Persons happily attend O’Reilly conferences under this code of conduct. Persons also happily live under totalitarian governments. One should aspire to be under much more liberal rules, or at least to enjoy the communicative liberty that persons did in medieval Byzantium.

While Byzantium had a nominally all-powerful emperor and state-institutionalized Christianity, public discourse in Byzantium encompassed harsh, wide-ranging invective. For example, in Byzantium about a millennium ago, the low-ranking government bureaucrat and poet Constantine of Rhodes attacked the high official Leo Choerosphactes. Constantine did that with a twenty-four verse Greek poem. Each verse of the poem consists primarily of one compound insult word. Some characteristic verses in fairly literal translation:

you flask-in-gullet-pint-mouth-gaping-gulper
you harlot-whore-lewd-beggar-shirt-lifter
you pagan-creed-and-Christ-blaspheming-type
you bride-gift-gnawing-dowry-money-waster
acts unspeakable-nightly-darkness-worker
you gravesite-corpses-robbing-clothes-despoiler

{ λαρρυγγοφλασκοξεστοχανδοεκπóτα
και ψευδομυθοσαθροπλασματοπλóκε
και παντοτολμοψευδομηχανοῤῥáφε
και τρωκτοφερνοπροικοχρηματοφθóρε
και νεκροτυμβοκλεπτολωποεκδύτα } [3]

In the fourteenth-century Byzantine work An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, a wolf publicly disparaged a bear:

You honey-munching, loathsome, squinting dirtbag,
who never dares look up! You cross-eyed, stump-legged
mere toy for foolish gypsies to make sport with,
you who subsist on acorns and on pears
and feeds on myrtle and arbutus berries! [4]

A rat called a cat a “shameful, filthy, flour-shitter.” A deer attacked a boar as “a gross-toothed beast brought up in dung.” An elephant screamed at a monkey to get off the speaker’s stage:

Get out, you utter filth, you skeleton,
you offscouring! You louse-munching, nit-nibbling,
disgusting dirt-face who eats bugs, flies, fleas,
and all the other tiny filthy beasts!
Get off the stage, before you foul us all up!

The invective among animals in this poem seems to be modeled on that among humans in fourteenth-century Byzantium. If anyone spoke like that to a conference speaker today, most likely armed men would come and forcibly remove him from the room.

Disparaging persons as non-human animals has been a common tactic in human communication throughout history. A leading authority on fictional literature about animals noted:

humanizing animals and animalizing human beings have long been mainstays of many adult insults and jokes, especially ones concerned with class and ethnic struggles. [5]

Punishing dehumanizing speech allegedly to support freedom of speech implies illiberality and repressiveness that’s historically extreme. That’s especially true when “dehumanizing speech” is interpreted vaguely, abstractly, and ideologically. Taking seriously proposals for such speech control indicates massive educational failure.

Diversity of viewpoints, vigorous dissent, and harsh invective are vital to maintaining humane, liberal society. A New York University Vice Provost who acted like an intellectual thug in making mendacious claims about “dehumanizing” words is worse than a louse-munching, nit-nibbling, disgusting dirt-faced monkey. University of Sidney Student Union officials who disallowed showing of the men’s human rights film The Red Pill are loathsome, cross-eyed dirtbags. So too are cinema managers in Australia who, under pressure from anti-meninists, canceled sold-out showings of that film. Such persons encourage shouting down unliked speakers and physically assaulting them. They direct public life toward vicious gang warfare. Communicative codes of conduct for many conferences and online communities are part of that same shameful fascist tradition.

Defend freedom of speech by peacefully, bravely, and wisely practicing it.

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[1] From the Python Software Foundation’s Code of Conduct for the PyCon (conference) in 2016 in Portland, OR. With this communicative code of conduct, the twenty-first-century U.S. West Coast is similar to seventeenth-century Puritan New England.

[2] From the Code of Conduct for O’Reilly conferences, as is the subsequent quote. In actual practice, if a woman complains that a man has said or shown something that has offended her, penile officials are likely to spring into punitive action. The man will face considerable risk of social mobbing and being symbolically tarred and feathered. I find the O’Reilly Code of Conduct to be offensive and harassing. Of course, men’s welfare is of relatively little concern. Concern for making communities safe from offensive communication tends to make them unsafe for those historical targeted for real, authoritative punishment — men.

[3] Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) Introduction, pp. 91-2. In twelfth-century Byzantium, leading intellectual Michael Psellos composed 321 lines of versified invective disparaging a monk named Sabbaites. Psellos’s poem to the monk began:

To hell with you, you poisonous snake,
you sea of evils, you flood

Cited in Walker (2004) p. 70. To a monk named Jacob, Psellos composed an eight-part pseudo-canon “portraying Jacob as a gluttonous drunk who, among other things, squeezes wine directly from the fermented mash down his throat to his distended gut.” Id. Leading twelfth-century Byzantine intellectual Theodore Prodromos also dehumanized others:

Theodore Prodromos’s Philoplaton or the Tanner of Leather compares a fellow scholar who intends to “improve” on the works of Plato to “a pig with a brilliant jewel dangling from its snout… a monkey with a golden slingshot in its hands” — this straw Praxiteles, his skin full of filth and hands marked by calluses and cuts, should return to his manual occupations instead of swallowing Plato’s works in their entirety.

Garland (2007) p. 186 (obvious typo corrected).

[4] An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds ll. 844-47, from Greek trans. Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) p. 205. Subsequent quotes are from id. l. 159, p. 169 (shameful, filthy, flour-shitter); l. 425, p. 183 (gross-toothed beast brought up in dung); ll. 971-5, p. 213 (Get out, you utter filth…).

[5] Ziolkowski (1993) p. 7.

[image] Elephant and monkey arguing. Illumination from manuscript of An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, Constantinopolitan Graecus Seraglio 35 (folio 65v). This manuscript was written in 1461 in Venetian Negroponte (Euboea). Nicholas & Baloglou (2003) p. 98. Under the expert and influential legal understanding of Wikimedia Commons, this image is in the public domain in the U.S.


Garland, Lynda. 2007. “Mazaris’s Journey to Hades: Further Reflections and Reappraisal.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 61: 183-214.

Nicholas, Nick, and George Baloglou, ed. and trans. 2003. An entertaining tale of quadrupeds. New York: Columbia University Press.

Walker, Jeffrey. 2004. “These Things I Have Not Betrayed: Michael Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother as a Defense of Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 22 (1): 49-101.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.