It was common knowledge that the empress Theodora was powerful as she was ruthless. Those who dared to cross her met with sorry ends. But despite being aware of her fearsome reputation, John the Cappadocian foolishly pitted himself against her to obtain the throne. In doing so, he underestimated her and overestimated his own ability. That was the last fatal mistake he would make. For the rest of her life, Theodora did all she could to destroy him. Read on to find out what she did.
The Well Informed Empress
Throughout her reign, the Empress Theodora relied on information from various sources to stay ahead of her enemies. Firstly, she had her own unofficial secret service of eunuchs, led by the loyal Narses who kept her informed. Secondly, she had the loyalty of her servants and ladies-in-waiting who took note of interesting events to update their mistress on. Thirdly, she had many friends who she had helped as a champion of women’s rights. These women were eager to bring her any news that might affect her interest. Lastly, the empress rewarded anyone who brought her any information, useful or not. She did this to encourage the public to keep on doing so. Thus, there was no one better informed than the empress.
Theodora Learns of John’s Ambitions
It was through her efficient spy network that Theodora learned of John’s activities. At first, she could not fathom why he was forming a political party to further his own interests. John enjoyed the favour of the emperor and already had great power. Shortly after, she learned of the prophecy of John’s ascension and the nasty rumours he spread about her. Putting the pieces together, Theodora realized that John wanted her out of the way, so that he could take the throne for himself. Aware of the threat he posed, she made it her mission in life to destroy John.
Although she was not on great terms with John, he noted the change in her behaviour towards him. Suspecting that she had found out about the rumours, John feared for his life. To pre-empt any assassination attempts, he hired more bodyguards to defend him. However, nothing happened as time passed and John began to relax his vigilance. What could Theodora do to him when he had the emperor’s favour? What John did not count on was her patience and cunning.
The empress was no fool. She would not make a blatant attempt on the life of her husband’s favourite. Instead, she worked persistently to remove the source of John’s power; the trust and favour that Justinian showed him. She began by pointing out that the actions of John were hurting the people. The great discontent he was causing would surely work against them and could very well lead to another riot. But Justinian refused to remove such a talented official from power.
Next, the empress appealed to Justinian’s fears. John was growing more powerful with each day. It was only a matter of time before he plotted against the throne. If Justinian did not act to remove him now, it would be too late. Even so, Justinian refused to believe this since there was no evidence to show John’s ambitions.
The Hatred of Antonina
Undaunted, Theodora sought out Antonina, her close friend and protégé, for help. It was a wise choice. John envied and hated Belisarius, the husband of Antonina, for his fame and glory. At every given chance, John enjoyed putting down the great general. During the scandal between Antonina and her godson, John made such cutting remarks that he earned her lasting enmity. Despite her faults, Antonina would not allow anyone to insult her husband. Thus, she was more than willing to do the bidding of her mistress.
As an ally, Antonina was cunning and a mistress of intrigue second only to Theodora herself. Both women agreed that the only way to destroy John was through his teenage daughter Euphemia. She was his only child whom he loved dearly. To shield her from the evils of the world, he kept her at home and carefully chose her tutors. One day, John went away for a long business trip. Seizing the moment, Antonina paid Euphemia a visit and struck up a friendship with her. Day by day, she slowly won the trust of the naive girl through sweet words and the sharing of scandalous stories about high society.
Then, Antonina revealed a deep secret. Her husband Belisarius hated the ungrateful emperor and empress for mistreating him. Leading the girl on, she shared that he could not rebel even though the army backed him. He would fail unless he had the support of a powerful courtier, like Euphemia’s father. Naively, the girl conveyed the message to her father. Blinded by his lust for power, John did not suspect a thing. Instead, he was elated. With the support of Belisarius and the army, the prophecy would come true at last. Not wanting to waste any time, he eagerly pushed for a meeting with Antonina.
Springing the Trap
Wisely, Antonina declined to meet him to lure him in further. She pointed out that it would be folly to meet in Constantinople given their status as the empress would learn of it soon enough. A few days later, she sent word to inform him that she was off to join her husband in Syria. If he still wished to discuss matters, they could meet at her husband’s villa near Chalcedon. Taken in by her show of prudence, John agreed to this arrangement. At this stage, Theodora, who was in on all that happened, promptly informed Justinian of the meeting.
Justinian was not open to the news. It was only with great reluctance, that he sent Narses, the royal eunuch and Marcellus, the captain of the guard, to Belisarius’s villa. They had orders to arrest and if need be kill him, if John dared to conspire against the throne.
On the appointed day, John made his way to Belisarius’s villa, with his guards, to meet Antonina. There she got him to declare that he would back a revolt aimed at overthrowing Justinian. At this point, Narses and Marcellus stepped out from hiding to arrest John for his disloyalty. Things would not go as planned. John was big, strong and skilled with a sword. He quickly called for his guards who clashed with the imperial troops. In the ensuing melee, John fled and headed straight for the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to seek sanctuary. That move sealed his fate and proved his guilt. After years of scheming, Theodora had finally won and she quickly moved in to finish the kill.
The Fate of John
On the charge of high treason, John lost his titles, his offices and his fortune. Forced to join the clergy to renounce the throne, the newly ordained deacon headed to Cyzicus to live out his life in exile. But Theodora was not done with him. She felt that her husband had been too merciful. Soon, John found himself implicated in the murder of the Bishop of Cyzicus. During the review of the murder, the commission found him guilty, had him beaten and sent to prison in Egypt with only a rough cloak. Along the way, John even had to beg for food. Rumour had it that Theodora was responsible for his plight.
John languished in prison until Theodora’s death in 548. Only then did Justinian summon him to the capital. Upon his arrival, John learned that he would never return to power. With no alternative, he decided to devote his life to God instead. He worked hard to become a priest since he was already a deacon. But during the initiation, he was so poor that he could not even afford a decent cassock. Thankfully, a monk was willing to lend him one. As fate would have it, that monk’s name was Augustus. So the prophecy came true. John did “inherit the mantle of Augustus.”
Reflections of the Vizier
By the time Theodora was through with John, he had lost everything. Even when he was down and out, the empress made sure he continued to suffer. In contrast, John’s plan against Theodora proved to be amateurish and lacking in detail. He did not plan through until the end or prepare for other possibilities. His fatal mistake was underestimating the enmity of the empress. In the battle of intrigue and politics, John was simply out of his depth against Theodora.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.