The most universally hated man in the Byzantine Empire of his day was the loathsome John the Cappadocian. As the empire’s premier tax collector, he was brutal, efficient and merciless. In private, he led a depraved and shocking lifestyle that made him even more repulsive. But there were two reasons he remained in power for so long. Firstly, Justinian valued his ability highly. Secondly, John was not yet an enemy of Theodora. Everything changed when John became Theodora’s enemy. Find out what insane reason led him to do so.
The Talent of John the Cappadocian
As Praetorian Prefect of the East, John was highly valued by Justinian for his talent. Although John was uneducated, he was intelligent, lacking in scruples, efficient and energetic. One of John’s tasks was to collect taxes for the imperial treasury. And he proved to be very good at it. John did not fear the poor or the rich. He treated everyone with the same brutality; using torture if need be to get the people to pay their taxes. All of his efforts went into reforming the financial system to make it more efficient in bleeding the people dry. So skilled was John at his job that he became the most hated man in the empire. During the Nika Riots, the people forced Justinian to remove him from office. But even though John had nearly cost him his throne, Justinian could not do without his help.
After he suppressed the Nika Riots, Justinian reinstated John at the end of 532. He even made him a Consul and a Patrician as a sign of great favour. The reason for this favour was the many costly wars that Justinian engaged in. To fund his wars in North Africa and Italy, Justinian needed to raise a lot of money. Here, John would repay his master’s trust fully by collecting taxes and cutting costs wherever he could.
The Nature of John the Cappadocian
Rising from rags to riches, John was crude and overbearing in his manner. So proud was John of his worldly success, especially after he became a Consul and a Patrician, that he flaunted his wealth at every opportunity. He had no respect for anyone and even behaved haughtily in the presence of the Empress Theodora. Although she disliked him from the start, she could not act against him since her husband valued him so highly. More importantly, John had given her no cause to do so. Personal feelings aside, Theodora knew that John was an asset to her husband so she held her tongue.
The Shocking Lifestyle of John the Cappadocian
John was no doubt odious in carrying out his job. But, his private lifestyle was downright shocking. He had a great fondness for food and wine, often indulging himself to excess. Unable to restrain his cravings, he would usually gorge himself on delicacies until he was ill for many days. When it came to drinking, there were few evenings that John went to bed sober.
But that was not all. John also had insatiable carnal desires. He loved beautiful women and often indulged in wild orgies with them. Many, lured by his riches, gave themselves willingly. Others he took by force since no one could stop him. Whenever John travelled, his servants carried him on a litter. Accompanying him was a whole procession of beautiful women in such sheer dresses that, they were as good as naked in full public view. Even the jaded people of Constantinople flinched at such a blatant display of lecherousness. The debauched and vulgar lifestyle of John did little to endear him to anyone. But as long as he had the favour of his master, no one could touch him.
John also had another quirk. He had a great fondness for esoteric knowledge. He believed in omens and had some experience with magic. But the thing that intrigued him the most was divination. John never got tired of seeking out new diviners to foretell his future. Due to his reputation, all manner of diviners and charlatans approached him to earn a quick buck.
The turning point came when one diviner told John that it was his destiny to “inherit the mantle of Augustus.” Since Augustus was another term for emperor, John believed that it was his destiny to ascend the throne. This idea took root in his mind and soon he became obsessed with fulfilling that destiny. He saw no reason to doubt it. By his own hand, he had obtained great power and prestige. If the empire were his to rule, he would achieve even more than he already had.
Buying the Way to the Throne
Even though it was his destiny to obtain the throne, John knew it would not be easy. He knew that the road to supreme power was fraught with danger. If he did not prepare for that danger, he could never hope to realize his ambition. After swearing the diviner to secrecy, John decided upon a two-prong approach. Firstly, he formed a political party loyal to him and used his great wealth to purchase support. Secondly, he visited as many provinces as he could to win the support of the people as well. As an incentive, he remitted the taxes of the people who chose to support him. Thus far, John’s campaigns for support bore some fruit due to his great wealth. But until the time was right, he wisely refrained from telling his supporters his true aims.
The Folly of John the Cappadocian
Things seemed to be going as planned. But, John knew he face a major obstacle, the intelligent and powerful Theodora. She would never let him replace Justinian. Well aware of the threat she posed, John decided to remove the source of her power; the love and trust that Justinian had for her. If he could do so, Theodora would no longer concern him. Naively, John assumed that all he needed to do was to spread some nasty rumours about her. In doing so, he grossly misjudged Justinian’s love for her. More importantly, he underestimated Theodora’s influence and ability to retaliate. For years, she had put up with this gross excuse for a human being. But now that he was a threat to her and her husband, she would do so no longer.
Reflections of the Vizier
Theodora was not alone in her dislike of John and his crude ways. But since he was an asset to her husband, she had little cause to move against him. When John tried to sow dissension between her and her husband, his actions aroused the empress’s notice. When she learned that he was eyeing the throne, John’s fate was sealed. He was no longer an asset but a threat. Theodora was now his mortal enemy and would spare no effort in seeing to his destruction.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.