History of the West - A Blog on European History

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Month: April 2019

Lust and Poison at the Sun King’s Court

The Laboratory of La Voisin
The Laboratory of La Voisin

The court of the Sun King Louis XIV was known as a gallant place where beautiful ladies with flexible morals were able to calculate chances of promotion quite the way up to the most exalted beds in the country. Competition, however, was fierce and various ladies with respectable charms but little patience turned to strategies destined to improve their pecuniary as well as social conditions in the shortest possible time.

One of these hungry ladies was Marie Madeleine Marguerite d’Aubray, from an equally rich and famous noble family. At the age of 21 (1651), she married the Marquis Antoine Gobelin de Brinvilliers, a wealthy Flemish wool merchant, with whom she had five children. Through her husband she met the flimsy, but charming – and permanently mired in financial difficulties – scoundrel Monsieur Godin de Sainte-Croix, with whom she began a prolonged affair.

Marie’s father considered the affair, did not like it, and managed to send the friend of the family for a year to the Bastille prison, where the hobby alchemist Sainte-Croix  obviously met an inmate colleague who taught him various skills on toxicology. At liberty again, Sainte-Croix returned straight back to his lover, with specific proposals on how the sweetheart could take possession of the family heritage quickly. In the way, unfortunately, stood her father and two brothers and a sister with whom she would have to share the heritage.

The brothers expired mysteriously in the course of the summer of 1670 , but the suspicious Sister Thérèse d’Aubray now developed a strong interest in checking her food  and thus remained alive, although she died before the subsequent trial and condemnation of her dear sister, probably due to natural causes. Although the autopsies of the brothers evidenced certain indications of poisoning, Marie always had an alibi and the servant of the brothers in question, a certain Jean Stamelin called La Chaussee ( “the Way”), was above suspicion.

It came out by accident only.  Sainte-Croix died in a failed experiment in his laboratory, probably by inhaling toxic gases. Since he, as always, was heavily in debt, his estate had to be executed at the local court, where a cassette was noticed and opened, which divulged not only his promissory notes, but also a variety of poisons as well as the lovers‘ full correspondence.

The search of Sainte-Croix’s cassette

The subsequent investigation quickly led to the arrest of the servant, his trial, torture and execution, while Marie fled abroad, first to England, then to Liège – into a convent. After her extradition, she  was subjected to the water torture (see cover photo), then various other gymnastic exercises and finally sentenced to death on the scaffold on July 16, 1676 . So far so good.

Clerical and secular interrogations and torture of Mme. Brinvilliers

Meanwhile, a series of strange deaths of rich nobleman – or at least gossip about it – had aroused the idle suspicion of the court. What advanced the subject to the favourite theme of the courtiers’ natter was the strange fact that Louis Henri de Pardaillan de Gondrin , Marquis de Montespan, began to complain publicly about his wife Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, who – under her artist or bed name Athénaïs – had replaced Louise de La Valliere, the official mistress of Louis XIV, in the royal four-poster bed. Even more shocking, he accused the First Lady-in-Waiting of Queen Marie Therese, Mme. Julie d’Angennes to have arranged the connection for selfish motives.

Louise de la Vallière
Louise de la Vallière
Portraits of the Marquise de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV

The problem  was that – usually – the husbands of the royally selected ladies did not complain about matters they could not change, but tried to draw from the circumstances given the best possible benefits for their own careers. But Montespan was so angry that he not only publicly demanded a duel with the king but also decorated Louis‘ coach with antlers, for which he was promptly jailed. He was subsequently exiled, but did not give up. Although prohibited by order of the king,  he travelled not only to Paris each summer from 1670 to 1686, but also paid for an annual requiem mass for his (quite lively) wife, and forced the two children to participate in a phony funeral.He also announced publicly and repeatedly that his wife had swayed the king with love potions and black masses.


A Catholic monarch could – of course – not sit out such accusations, whether Mme. Montespan had born him seven children or not. Thus, the Marquis fell even deeper in disgrace and the irritated King sent his bloodhounds out for him.

But Louis needed a pretext to make it not look like a personal pursuit – which of course it was. Because in the wake of sensational trial of Mme. Brinvilliers, all the hallways of the court echoed with rumours of poisonings anyway, he created an official commission and special court, a renewed Chambre Ardente, which had already served his blessed colleagues Francis I, Henry II and Francis II so well in the pursuit of heretics. Fittingly, this time it was called Cour de Poison ( “Poison Court”).

For a change, the official task of the court this time was combating the suspected circles of Satanism – the popular assumption was that the cult urged his followers to commit the suspected murders by poison (financial interests were officially taboo). The usual suspects were mostly women – but not only; psychics, spiritualists, pharmacists, poisoners and manufacturers of love potions.

The French police prefect Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie was commissioned to destroy the satanic conspiracy. About four hundred suspects were interrogated and by the enthusiastic use of torture numerous enjoyable confessions were obtained. Everyone accused everybody else, it was a lark.

Philip of Orleans. the brother of Louis XIV, meets the devil himself during a party at La Voisin, Catherine Deshayes
Philip of Orleans. the brother of Louis XIV, meets the devil himself during a party at La Voisin, Catherine Deshayes

But suddenly there was a true lead. A thin trail of the king‘s mistress to a suspected mass murderess and poisoner could be established, the famous La Voisin (also called “Monvoisin” or “Montvoisin”), a person Reynie had noticed before. In the case of Mme. Montespan who was, after all, the official royal mistress, the chief of police suspected not really poison, but the acquisition of love potions to ensure the king’s favour, he thought quite possible – Black Masses might be required for their production  – who knew?

Catherine Monvoisin (or Montvoisin), née Deshayes, usually called "La Voisin"
Catherine Monvoisin (or Montvoisin), née Deshayes, usually called “La Voisin”

In the course of his investigation Reynie had busted two soothsayers, who accused Mme. Monvoisin. The lady turned out to be a winner. It could be determined – reasonably reliable – that she had a customer base that actually reached into high nobility.

Inquiries in the vicinity of the bustling dame rendered quickly that she was perceived to provide horoscopes and black magic, actually sold poisons and love spells and performed abortions as well. In her garden stood a chapel in which demons like Astaroth and Asmodeus were worshiped. These black masses were visited by an illustrious clientele of courtiers and princesses – even the executioner of Paris himself belonged to the circle. Embarrassingly, one of the carriages waiting outside bore the coat of arms of the royal mistress and soon the police could prove visits by Mme. Montespan all the way back to 1665.

Illustration from “Justine” by the Marquis de Sade

Claimed by several witnesses in the subsequent interrogations was that in these ceremonies Madame de Montespan had lain naked on an altar while her petitions for the king’s continuing favour were passed on to the Christian God and the gods of the underworld. She had allowed the priest Guibourg to introduce a host in her vagina and to have intercourse with her while praying. [ Description of the exhibition ] [ PDF ] The daughter of Monvoisin confirmed both the masses and the sales of love potions, but these statements were immediately relegated to the secret archives.

Catherine Monvoisin and the priest Étienne Guibourg performing a Black-Mass on the mistress of King Louis XIV of France, Madame de Montespan - by Henry de Malvost, 1895
Catherine Monvoisin and the priest Étienne Guibourg performing a Black-Mass on the mistress of King Louis XIV of France, Madame de Montespan – by Henry de Malvost, 1895

It became worse soon. Excavations on the site of La Monvoisin unearthed the remains of more than 2,500 aborted, dead-, early- or newborn babies.

Execution of La Voisin
Execution of La Voisin

That Mme Monvoisin was due, was clear – but first royal generosity had to protect the innocent, that is noble, attendees of the masses – their names were removed from the lists, and they were advised to take extensive vacations – preferably abroad.

Madame de Sevigne witnessed the execution of La Voisin and wrote in her letters: “At Notre Dame she refused to apologize, and fought tooth and nail at the Place de la Greve. They brought her to the pile of wood, tied her up in a sitting position with iron chains and covered her with straw. She cursed without pause and repulsed the straw five or six times, but eventually the fires flared up, and she was never seen again. Her ashes are now flying around in the air. Thus died Mrs Voisin, famous for her crimes and pagan unbelief. “[ Source ]

Another mistress of Louis and rival of Montespan, the beautiful Marie Angélique de Scoraille de Roussille (see above), also died suddenly. Rumours concentrated on Mme. De Montespan and Reynie actually investigated her. But several influential courtiers prevented an indictment, including Françoise d’Aubigné,Marquise de Maintenon, usually called Madame de Maintenon, the governess of the royal children (with whom Ludwig later entered into a secret, morganatic marriage),. But after the death of the beautiful Angélique, Montespan quickly fell out of favour.

Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon (1635-1719)
Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon (1635-1719)

Slowly the poison affair fizzled out – the last execution took place in 1683. Reynie was urged to complete his investigation – he probably got too close to some folks dear to the royal well-being. What remained was a new law regulating the marketing of poisons, which became a model worldwide. Divination and soothsaying was banned in France and a decree of 1682 ended witch trials.

From 1686 on Ludwig was rather busied by the formation of the League of Augsburg , and through the wars of the Palatinate – and later the Spanish Succession , and the affairs of the court lost importance. The King spent his subsequent years more and more with the Marquise de Maintenon and in the bosom of his family.

Louis XIV with Mme. de Maintenon and family, attributed to Nicolas de Largillière
Louis XIV with Mme. de Maintenon and family, attributed to Nicolas de Largillière

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

Hits: 15

Germany between AD 900 and 1250


Header and below: The famous painting at the town hall of Landshut, Lower Bavaria, depicting scenes of the “Wedding of Landshut” in 1475 between the Bavarian Duke Georg der Reiche (George the Rich) and Hedwig Jagiellonica, daughter of the Polish King Kasimir IV. Andreas. The wedding is quadrennially re-enacted as a magnificent spectacle (last in 2017). Painted by August Spieß, Rudolf Seitz, Ludwig Löfftz and Konrad Weigand.


The two basic tools of statecraft for the Kings of Eastern Franconia after the division of Charlemagne’s Empire were war and marriage, and both influenced the royal exchequer. If the annual campaign was successful, the lion’s share of the newly acquired territories was the king’s to bestow upon a faithful liege, perhaps with some cash as well. If a war was lost, the hand of a royal daughter might mitigate the conditions of peace. At length the more or less classical feudal system developed, wherein liege lord and vassal were bound to mutual assistance by the bilateral oath of fealty; yet in reality an often incessant series of battles, marriages, exchange, barter and trade obscured the lines and enhanced the volatility of the political landscape. War was ubiquitous and unremitting, miring states in feuds that lasted, sometimes, for centuries: England and France fought three hundred years, with intermissions, over the erstwhile Normannic possessions in western and northern France. …

By the end of the ninth century AD, the centre of political gravity in the East moved to Bavaria, where Arnulf of Carinthia [r.AD 887-899] and his, rather ineffective, son Louis the Child [r.AD 900-911] represented the last of the
Carolingians. Between AD 896, when Arnulf fell seriously ill, and AD 911, there was “a power vacuum in the Eastern kingdom. It was filled by new regional rulers, called “‘Dukes’ – of Bavaria … of Alemannia (now increasingly called Swabia) … of Saxony … of Lotharingia … and even of the East Frankish heartland, which seems to have crystallized as a duchy under Gebhard’s nephew Conrad around 906.” (16)

It was not really an Empire in AD 1000, and certainly not “Holy” …

There is a temptation to see the emergence of these regional princes as the beginning of German particularism, but for the time being these were only transient structures, albeit developing their own political consciousness. They could be relatively mature, as in Bavaria, or chaotic, as in Saxony, but it “is a sign of the power of the duchy as a political concept that they too had more or less hegemonic dukes by Louis the Child’s death. The Frank Conrad, ruler of the most ‘royal’ duchy, was a natural successor to Louis, as Conrad I (911-18), but he failed to gain the respect from his ducal ex-peers that he hoped for,” and “when he died, the magnates of ‘Francia et Saxonia’ chose Henry of Saxony as the new king (Henry I, “the Fowler”, 919- 36).” (17)

It was a momentous occasion, and a risk, too: for the first time since Chlodwig, a man was king of the Franks who was not a Frank himself. It was perhaps an accidental bout of wisdom that had influenced the decision, for the Saxonian
dukes and their armies were the leading edge in the border wars in the East, against the Slays and in particular against the Magyars or Hungarians, the latest semi-nomadic issue from the Asian steppe. Henry defeated them in 933, to his credit and popularity. (18) The basis for the wealth of Henry’s family, the Liudolfingians, later called the Ottonians, was slave trade, a most profitable business which benefited from the Saxons’ proximity to the border. They sent grab commandos on kidnapping sprees into the East, to abduct the children of the Slavs [the name “Slav” indeed comes from this business, ¶], and to sell them, especially young boys, blonds at a premium, into the Turkish and Arabian brothels of the Levant.

The hazard of Henry’s election for the Franks was that the Saxons well remembered Charlemagne’s slaughter of 4,500 of their kin, and no one would have been surprised had they sought revenge. But Henry publicly announced to forego retribution, and this message gave rise to the hope that the vicious circle of intertribal slaughter and retribution might be broken. At the occasion of the succession of his father and his formal coronation and anointment as emperor at Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital, Henry’s son Otto [Otto I, r.AD 936-973] promoted equality between the tribes, by inviting all the eastern dukes and being publicly supported by them, in an attempt to strengthen the governmental consensus he hoped to establish.

From left to right: 12th-century stained-glass depiction of Otto I, Strasbourg Cathedral, Henry the Fowler, Henry II, Henry IV at Canossa, Frederick II.
From left to right: 12th-century stained-glass depiction of Otto I, Strasbourg Cathedral, Henry the Fowler, Henry II, Henry IV at Canossa, Frederick II.

In some respects it was easier for the aristocracy to entertain notions of collegiality than it was for the peasants; for the Aleman farmer or Saxonian shepherd, fancies of being a “German” were still part of a distant future. The annals kept in churches describe fiendish prejudices: chronicles portray the Swabians as stupid, the Hessians as overbold, and call the Saxons simply “wild”. Awful was the reputation of the Bavarians; rapists and robbers, gluttons and drunkards.

[* The terminology of the age was volatile; the summary below is provided by Chris Wickham: “The separate concepts “France” and “Germany” did not yet exist; nor even, except occasionally, did “West” and “East” Francia, the terminology historians currently use; both were normally just Francia, or Francia et Saxonia in the case of the eastern kingdom, to reflect the Saxon origins and political base of the Ottonians. (‘France” is of course simply the French for Francia; by contrast in the German lands, the Frankish heartland was only one region among the old ethnic territories of Saxony, Alemannia, Bavaria, and so a new inclusive name eventually appeared, the regnum Teutonicum, though not until the eleventh century.) But the lack of interest of the historians reflects a slow cultural separation. For Flodoard and Richer, Francia was „really“ (northern) France; the East Franks were Transrhenenses, from over the Rhine, or else the inhabitants of Germania, the old Roman geographic term. For Widukind, similarly, West Francia was Gallia, proto-French the Gallic lingua, and Francia was seen as “really” being in the East.”] (19)

Yet the instruments of civil governance, as opposed to war, remained few and crude, hampered by the sluggishness of communications. For the most part, Otto and his successors still governed ambulatory: they moved, with a
long trek of wagons and horses, counsellors and courtiers, bodyguards and jesters, ladies chaste and not so chaste, through the country. Wherever the trek halted, royal duties were performed as long as circumstances permitted it: when the local host ran out of victuals, the wagons moved on. Many parts of the realm would not behold the king ever; the royal visits concentrated upon the old Roman settlements and the newer Imperial towns, mostly sees of bishops: Mainz, Speyer, Cologne, Trier, Worms, Nuremberg and Regensburg, the former “Castra Regina”, i.e. “Fortress by the Regen River”.

The Imperial Throne in the Cathedral of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle)

All in all it was a somewhat haphazard affair Otto found himself king of, when, by a stroke of luck or fate, in AD 951, the opportunity arose to marry the widow of the king of the Lombardy, and thus to secure the Lombardian succession, which included most of northern Italy, for his family, their successors, and the Regnum Teutonicum. In the pursuit of this lucky break Otto happened to set his eyes on Rome as well. The former capital of the world had sunken deeply; the times of her grandeur were a fading memory. Economically and militarily without importance, the city, at perhaps a tenth of her former one million inhabitants, managed a meagre subsistence on a diminished flow of pilgrims visiting the seat of St. Peter. One possibility, however, attracted Otto’s attention, regarding the city’s most venerable resident, Pope John XII. In compensation for a contribution to the bishop’s stressed finances, the king as well as his successors would like to propose their ideas on the future bearers of the greatest Catholic dignity to the people of Rome, and would expect the wisdom of their choice to be honoured in perpetuity. Edward Gibbon reports on another shady deal:

Otho [Otto] the First imposed a treaty on the senate and the people [of Rome], who engaged to prefer the candidate most acceptable to his majesty: his successors anticipated or prevented their choice: they bestowed the Roman benefice, like the bishoprics of Cologne or Bamberg, on their chancellors or preceptors; and whatever might be the merit of a Frank or Saxon, his name sufficiently attests the interposition of foreign power.

Such mutual compliments also caused difficulties in cooperative warfare, for in the meetings of the presumed allies, it could happen too easily that jokes were told, catcalls flew, one word gave the other, and in a minute the hypothetical
confederates went at each other’s throats. Only when the kingdom was confronted with a true danger, the wild hordes of the Hungarians, did the amalgamated troops display a semblance of orderly conduct. When the intruders were beaten by Henry in AD 933, and later, decisively, by Otto in AD 955, and thus ceased to remain a threat to the lives and possessions of
the tribes, it was probably the first time that a collective “German”* sigh of relief swept through the land.

These acts of prerogative were most speciously excused by the vices of a popular election. The competitor who had been excluded by the cardinals appealed to the passions or avarice of the multitude; the Vatican and the Lateran were stained with blood; and the most powerful senators, the marquises of Tuscany and the counts of Tusculum, held the apostolic see in a long and disgraceful servitude. The Roman pontiffs of the ninth and tenth centuries were insulted, imprisoned, and murdered by their tyrants; and such was their indigence, after the loss and usurpation of the ecclesiastical patrimonies, that they could neither support the state of a prince nor exercise the charity of a priest.

The influence of two sister prostitutes, Marozia and Theodora, was founded on their wealth and beauty, their political and amorous intrigues: the most strenuous of their lovers were rewarded with the Roman mitre, and their reign may have suggested to the darker ages the fable of a female pope. The bastard son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Marozia, a rare genealogy, were seated in the chair of St. Peter, and it was at the age of nineteen years that the second of these became the head of the Latin Church. …

[But] we read with some surprise that the worthy grandson of Marozia lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution, and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter lest in the devout act they should be violated by his successor. The Protestants have dwelt with malicious pleasure on these characters of Antichrist; but to a philosophical eye, the vices of the clergy are far less dangerous than their virtues. (20)

Painting – by some ascribed to show Marozia (890 – 937) – the alleged mistress of Pope Sergius III. She was given the unprecedented titles senatrix (“senatoress”) and patricia of Rome by Pope John X. Corner: The Wedding of Marozia and Hugh of Italy, from Francesco Bertolini, Historia de Roma.

Otto’s Italian job had not only secured him the possession of the Lombardy and the connubial attentions of the widow, but his financial health as well. A number of prosecutions for treason which notably reduced the number of John’s creditors, had removed much of the pope’s secular distress, and, in a solemn ceremony, the grateful bishop decorated Otto with the crown and the royal insignia of Charlemagne; since this day Otto referred to himself as Augustus, Caesar, and Emperor. The good-neighbourly relations, once established, persuaded John and Otto to adjudicate two future principles of Imperial ballots: that the candidate who was elected emperor by the German princes would thereby obtain, instantly, the kingdom of Italy as his personal domain, but he was not to assume the Imperial titles until he was crowned in Rome, by the pope himself. The vacant Roman titles were resurrected by the sword of the Barbarians and the authority of a religion; and it was the claim of the new dignity that it bestowed superiority over all the other monarchs of the West.

With so many labours of love and duty on his hands, Otto did not find much time to tend to his “German” affairs. He could have returned over the Alps and collected affirmations of his new rank from the dukes, but the new possessions,
and perhaps the widow’s attentions, required his continued presence in the newly acquired territories. It was the Italians, who now had the frequent opportunity to host the new emperor’s court, who were the first to come up with a single appellation covering all the pale folks from the north: they called them “Teutonici”, in remembrance of Gaius Marius’s victory over the Teutones a millennium ago. The Italians thought that all these tribes whose tongues they could not understand, could understand each other, which was, unfortunately, not the case. But since one Germanic dialect sounded just as unintelligible to them as the next one, they were all called “Teutonic”, ‘German’.

Now that the Regnum Teutonicum also included Italy and a new Imperial dignity, the question was what would happen at the founder’s death. Yet, surprisingly enough, the Ottonians were able to form a relatively stable dynasty, despite some smaller emergencies, and after the deaths of Otto II [r.AD 973-983] and Otto III [r.AD 98310021, the German dukes elected “Henry IV of Bavaria (Henry II, 1002-24), who was Otto I’s brother’s grandson and Otto III’s male line heir. There was no doubt at any of these royal accessions that East Francia was a single political system, which by now included Italy as well.” (21)

Medieval Costumes
Medieval Costumes

When trouble arose, it came from an unanticipated direction. It had been early recognized by Otto and his successors that the princes of the Church were relatively more eager to support Imperial business than the secular nobility, whose interests were dominated by dynastic issues. Ever since the harmonious understanding between Pope John and Otto I, the bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church could be counted on to be found on the side of the emperor, until the cosy relations suffered a setback over the right of investiture.

Conflicts over the authority to appoint bishops were as old as the Church, dating back to AD 337, when Emperor Constantine (on his deathbed, not a minute earlier) accepted Christianity as one permissible religion of the Imperium Romanum and his own. Six centuries later, Otto and his successors claimed the right of investiture as an Imperial prerogative, and for a hundred
years or so the popes were too weak to challenge the emperor’s licence. Under the auspices of Pope Gregor VII, however, a reform movement usurped the clerical hierarchy and reclaimed the privilege for the Holy See. After prolonged arguments and a few rounds of cross-excommunications, the Church won, and the current emperor Heinrich IV had to undertake a journey to Canossa and beg forgiveness from the pope.

The crown was thus forced to abandon the former Imperial privileges in clerical affairs, but the triumph of the Church had consequences that far outreached the rather limited issue of investiture. Since Canossa, the Holy Roman Emperor was a lay Christian like any of his subjects, and this transition of power the Church promptly used to claim the secular authority, that is, the political control, over her properties. The number of administrative entities in the Regnum Teutonicum was much augmented by the addition of clerical domains; three hundred years later approximately ninety German bishops and cardinals, with all the rights of secular lords, joined the thirty or forty leaders of the nobility in the actual governance of the realm.

The Knight, Death and the Devil - Albrecht Dürer (The Scourges of the Middle Ages)
The Scourges of the Middle Ages – Knight, Death and Devil – by Albrecht Dürer

The main consequence of the tug-of-war between clergy and nobility was that it further hampered the emergence of a “German” consciousness, compared with, say, France. The French ethnogenesis developed more rapidly not only because central governance was instituted earlier, it was also centred on an all-important capital. In a perfect antithesis, the possessions of secular and clerical princes in the Holy Roman Empire, as it was called from the fourteenth century on, were divided and subdivided again, and a quilt of dozens of tiny-to-medium-sized dominions alongside the great duchies emerged, and existed until the early nineteenth century. The absence of a great capital contributed to the maturative sluggishness; great towns reflect culture and culture reflects identity.

Without the benefits of a unified language or political centre, the German national birth pangs continued, for attractors of social cohesiveness, a “national” consciousness, were disfavoured by the princes, who saw them as threats to their sovereignty. Otto’s Imperial claim of superiority over the rest of the continental princes, whether they called themselves kings or not, remained a theoretical exercise; de facto, the medieval emperor was not more than primus inter pares. Not that the Imperial designs ever were too modest: one of Otto’s eventual successors from the House of
Hohenstaufen [flor. AD 1138-1254], Heinrich IV, allowed his modesty to claim all the lands in Africa and the Levant, between Gibraltar and the Hellespont, as his personal domain, on the argument that they, as former provinces of the Imperium Romanum, be restored to his authority as the universal heir of Romulus and Hadrian. He also proclaimed his desire to conquer Baghdad and the Caliphate.

It probably saved the Regnum Teutonicum respectively Holy Roman Empire a lot of needless slaughter, when the good man died in AD 1197, at only thirty-three, and his extensive plans remained stillborn. Perhaps it was a family trait: his father, Friedrich I, called “Barbarossa” for his prodigious red facial hairdo, had not allowed the pages of the family book to remain unturned, either: to combine the useful with the sacred, he partook in the Third Crusade but had the misfortune to fall off his horse into a Turkish river and, for his armour, drowned on the road to glory [AD 1190). At least he did not need to witness the subsequent slaughter of his army by the heathen Saracens. Crusades were much in fashion at the time, and in the family, and Barbarossa’s grandson Friedrich II experienced a good amount of the Holy Quest when he became, successively, the pupil, an enemy, and a victim of the Church. (22)

Piazza Federico II at Jesi, Frederick II's birthplace
Piazza Federico II at Jesi, Frederick II’s birthplace

In his minority, Friedrich had been a ward of Pope Innocent III and had been married, as quickly as it might appear proper, to the heiress of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem, thereby to instil in the young emperor a desire for the
reacquisition of the Holy City. Friedrich dutifully delivered the town once again from Arab occupation [AD 1229] but soon tired of the essential stupidity of religious fanaticism. Being a man of religious tolerance, he began to negotiate with the sultan, to establish actual freedom of worship. The scandalous undertaking did not meet with the pope’s applause, as Edward Gibbon assures us:

The enemy of the church [Friedrich) is accused of maintaining with the miscreants an intercourse of hospitality and friendship unworthy of a Christian; of despising the barrenness of the land, and of indulging a profane thought, that if Jehovah had seen the kingdom of Naples he never would have selected Palestine for the inheritance of his chosen people.

Yet Friedrich obtained from the sultan the restitution of Jerusalem, of Bethlehem and Nazareth, of Tyre and Sidon; the Latins [Europeans, ¶] were allowed to inhabit and fortify the city; an equal code of civil and religious freedom was ratified for the sectaries of Jesus and those of Mohammed; and while the former worshipped at the holy sepulchre, the latter might pray and preach in the mosque of the temple whence the prophet undertook his nocturnal journey to Heaven.

The clergy deplored this scandalous toleration; and the weaker Moslems were gradually expelled; but every rational object of the crusades was accomplished without bloodshed; the churches were restored, the monasteries were replenished; and in the space of fifteen years, the Latins of Jerusalem exceeded the number of six thousand. (23)

Medieval view of Lucerne by Martin Martini 1597
Medieval view of Lucerne by Martin Martini 1597

Peaceful coexistence was not a fashion of life the Catholic Church was prepared to tolerate, and in a short time the natural passions of hatred and ferocity were restored to the treasure of Christian virtues. Friedrich was excommunicated not only once but twice, and at length retired to his beloved refuge of Sicily. The island had inherited, over the last two millennia, a veritable melting pot of Mediterranean cultures: Greek, Phoenician and Roman influences had existed in fruitful competition for centuries, and the results pleased the emperor’s eyes. Sicily became Friedrich’s pet project of a “modern state”, and on account of his good relations to the sultan, he obtained the assistance of Arabian scientists, civil servants, doctors and clerks; his court was the most developed institution in contemporary Europe.

Germany was of lesser importance to him, and he only crossed the Alps twice to inspect his titular possessions. He had surrendered a few of the old Imperial privileges, the imposition of tariffs or duties, for example, to the major German princes, in return for their electoral support of his son’s succession to the Imperial dignity. Such deals were common and the most compelling factor in the gradual diminishment of the Imperial authority. They were called Capitulations, and the name correctly describes their contents. Perhaps comparable to the way the English aristocracy had gained, in the development of the four centuries between the Magna Charta of AD 1215 and the Bill of Rights in AD 1689, more and broader limitations of the powers of the crown, the capitulations of the German emperors decreased their executive powers. Friedrich’s attempt to secure his son’s succession was the last effort to establish a hereditary line on the thrown of the Occident until the usurpation of the office by the House of Habsburg three centuries later.

The form of the actual Imperial election was reformed in AD 1356 with the publication of the “Golden Bull”, which delegated the franchise upon the shoulders of the seven Electors, whose majority vote would ennoble the successful candidate. The original bull named three men of the cloth and four members of the nobility: the three clerical electors were the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, of whom the gentleman from Mainz officiated as Imperial Arch Chancellor and primus inter pares: he was the chairman of the election board, voted last, and supervised the coronation ceremonies. The four secular electors were the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Marquis of Brandenburg and the Duke of Bavaria, replaced later by the King of Bohemia.

The convoluted design effectively prevented the establishment of dynasties for more than two centuries; no single family was permitted to accumulate undue influence by too long a reign. Therefore, at a time when England was ruled by
the Plantagenets and their descendants, the Yorks and Lancasters, and France governed by a succession of Capets, Orleans, Valois and Bourbons, no German dynasty was allowed to leverage a unifying influence upon the German people. This absence explained, to a degree, the differences between the national consciousness of France and Germany: the French perspective was early formed by territorial, that is, increasingly possessive motivations, while the German outlook was restricted to the vagaries of ever-changing and frequently shifting political coalitions.

The project “Germany” had a long way ahead.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

(16) (17) (18) (19) (21) Chris Wickham, “The Inheritance of Rome“, Viking Books 2009 ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 430, 431, 431, 429

(20) (22) (23) Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3 , pp. 1043 (889), 1276 (1088), 1278 (1090) [First Page Number: Mass Market Edition 2005; Second Page Number: 4th Edition 2003-4]

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The End of the Legions

Vercingetorix throwing down his weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Royer, 1899
Vercingetorix throwing down his weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Royer, 1899

It is this year AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years. But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The perhaps most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too.
It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. …
Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in
general, all began to simplify as well. (44)

Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)
Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)

The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)
Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)

Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century.
Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .

The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.

Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire.
Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)

Germanic Kingdoms of the West
Germanic Kingdoms of the West

The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantage of being a province of the Imperium Romanum was explained once to a Gaul by a lieutenant of Emperor Vespasian, around AD 70, and preserved by Tacitus:

The protection of the [Roman] republic has delivered Gaul from internal discord and foreign invasions. By the loss of national independence, you have acquired the name and privileges of Roman citizens. You enjoy, in common with ourselves, the permanent benefits of civil government; and your remote situation is less exposed to the accidental mischief of tyranny. Instead of exercising the rights of conquest, we have been contented to impose such tributes as are requisite for your own preservation. Peace cannot be secured without armies; and armies must be supported at the expense of the people. It is for your sake, not for ours, that we guard the barrier of the Rhine against the ferocious Germans, who have so often attempted, and who will always desire, to exchange the solitude of their woods and morasses for the wealth and fertility of Gaul.
The fall of Rome would be fatal to the provinces; and you would be buried in the ruins of that mighty fabric which has been raised by the valour and wisdom of eight hundred years. Your imaginary freedom would be insulted and oppressed by a savage master; and the expulsion of the Romans would be succeeded by the eternal hostilities of the Barbarian conquerors
.” (46)

The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years.
The unthinkable had happened: Rome had fallen, at least in the West, 1229 years after her mythical creation by Romulus, and for the moment no organized power would defend the western parts of the European continent from the inscrutable advances of Barbarian intruders. Yet nature abhors a vacuum, at least in politics, and before long the competition for the inheritance of Rome was in full progress. It centred on the former provinces of Gaul and eventually led to the “Middle Ages”, which were characterized by a sudden fall and only very slow reintroduction of systems based on centralized administration.
Principally what happened is that the centre broke away – the north-western Germanic states and the Byzantine Empire were to become the pillars of European power, while impoverished Italy lost its political importance.
A side effect of this change was that the “Pax Romana”, which had held most of the citizenry harmless from war for a few centuries – unless they lived in border sections – disappeared and was followed by more than a millennium of
slaughter.

(43) (44) (45) Chris Wickham, “The Inheritance of Rome“, Viking Books 2009 ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 76, 90 – 95, 102 – 103

(46) Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3 , p. 776 (659); First Page Number: Mass Market Edition 2005; Second Page Number: 4th Edition 2003-4

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Woman of Amphissa

The Floozies of the Palatine

Ludi Florales – The Feast of Florals
Detail

The history of Rome has provided us with a surprising number of nasty girls, and here we will have a look at the most prominent. While the competition is crowded, it remains remarkable that no less than six of them, Claudia Livia Julia (usually called Livilla), Julia Livia (sometimes called Julia Drusi Caesaris filia, daughter of Drusus Caesar), Julia Agrippina the Younger, Claudia Octavia, Julia the Elder, the only daughter of Augustus [read her post on this Blog], and Livia Drusilla (also called Julia Augusta), all came from a single family and all lived within one century (58 BC to AD 68), at the same time as the famous Valeria Messalina [read her post on this Blog], Poppaea Sabina the Younger and Poppaea Sabina the Elder, her mother.

Poppea brings the Head of Claudia Octavia to Nero, by G. Muzzioli (1876)

Murder and perversion abounded … as seen in the movie “Caligula” [Download] The establishment of the Imperial Court seems to have brought the, er, emancipation of the girls to a flowering …

One may reasonably doubt whether a more murderous, licentious and scandalous breed existed in the annals of mankind, and they certainly matched the infamous males of the clan – the respective emperors of the age, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Sexual perversion, treason and poisoning are only a few examples of their human fallacies.

Tiberius on Capri
Tiberius on Capri
More floozies at the Ludi Floralia (Flower Festival)

Numbers 10 to 8, featuring: Theodora, Faustina the Younger, Fulvia Flacca Bambula

On Fulvia, politically the most interesting of the ladies and by far the most powerful, there is an exhaustive Master Thesis “A Study of Fulvia”, by Allison Jean Weir [Link to PDF].

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-of-ancient-romepart-i/

No. 10: Theodora
No. 9: Faustina
Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsk
No. 8: Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsk

Numbers 7 to 4, featuring: Julia the Elder, Valeria Messalina, Claudia Livia JuliaCleopatra

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-of-ancient-rome-part-ii/

No. 7: Julia by Leon Francois Comerre
No. 6: Messalina by Eugène Cyrille Brunet
La Reine Bacchanale by Fritz Zuber-Buhler (1822-1896)
La Reine Bacchanale by Fritz Zuber-Buhler (1822-1896)
No. 5: Claudia Livia Julia (Livilla)
No. 4: Cleopatra by Robert Auer
Venus in the Gardens of Lucullus

And the top three, featuring: Poppaea Sabina the Younger, Julia Agrippina the Younger, Livia Drusilla

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-in-ancient-romefinale/

No. 3: Poppaea Sabina
No. 2: Agrippina, murdered by Nero
No. 1: Livia (Drusilla)
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, His Wife Livia and His Fainting Sister Octavia -  Antonio Zucchi
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, His Wife Livia and His Fainting Sister Octavia – Antonio Zucchi
Orgia by Édouard Henri Avril
Édouard Henri Avril depicts fun for all the family …

But if you were curious and DID peek, send us a comment on the debauchery you witnessed! Gory details welcome!

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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Our Place in the Sun – German Diplomacy after Bismarck

Dropping the Pilot - Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine
Dropping the Pilot – Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine

Header, left to right: German Secretaries of the Foreign Office after Otto von Bismarck: Herbert von Bismarck, his son (in office October 24, 1885 until March 26, 1890), Bernhard von Bülow, later Chancellor (October 20, 1897 until October 23, 1900), Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky und Bögendorff (January 24, 1906 until October 25, 1907), Wilhelm von Schoen (October 26,1907 until June 27, 1910), Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter (June 27, 1910 until December 30, 1912) and Gottlieb von Jagow (January 11, 1913 until November 22, 1916).


The Iron Chancellor had retired – quite against his will – on March 18, 1890. He has always considered his highest duty to ensure friendly relations with all nations surrounding Germany, if possible. That France, irate over the defeat of 1871 but momentarily impotent, would remain the perpetual enemy was clear. What had to be avoided, under all circumstances, was that she found continental allies, in particular in the East, i.e. Russia, to aid her in conducting a retaliatory war. Bismarck’s antidote for this particular venom was to develop the best diplomatic relations with the other two large reactionary monarchies, Russia and Austria. These two nations and Germany signed a
compact called the Dreikaiserbund, the League of the Three Emperors, in which the monarchs agreed to mutual neutrality in the case that one of them were attacked by France or the Ottoman Empire.

Aware that tensions developing between Russia and Austria over the Balkans might eventually exert a negative impact on this treaty, Bismarck conducted an additional pact with the Czar, the so-called “Rückversicherungsvertrag”
or “Reinsurance Treaty”, which held Russia to neutrality in the case of a new Franco-German war regardless of origin, and thus banned the spectre of Germany having to fight a two-front war. Bismarck’s fundamental doctrine was, obviously enough, to keep France diplomatically isolated as much as possible.

To undertake this neutralization of French diplomacy, the Second Empire, one is tempted to say “naturally”, relied on a Foreign Office staff composed chiefly of the nobility and not responsible to the parliament.

No statistical information about the diplomatic corps in the Kaiserreich is as striking as the share of nobles. Of the 548 diplomats in service in the period 1871-1914, no fewer than 377, i.e. 69 per cent, were noble. The percentage of nobles was higher if we count only the foreign missions and not the Auswärtiges Amt [Foreign Office] itself. The ambassadors of Imperial Germany were noble to a man. The most important department in the Auswärtiges Amt was the Political Department IA, which in the period from 1871 to 1914 was 61 per cent noble.

It is true that there was a constant increase in the share of middle-class members of the diplomatic service in this period and beyond it. But during the Kaiserreich such commoners were deployed almost exclusively either in the less important departments of the Auswärtiges Amt, namely in the Trade, Legal or Colonial Departments, or else in the Consular Service. If middle-class people entered the diplomatic missions abroad at all, then during the Wilhelmine period [1888-1918] they were on the whole sent to South Africa or the Middle or Far East, areas which were important commercially but where aristocrats were unwilling to serve.

Not only was the execution of the Reich’s foreign policy in the hands of the nobility, it was, with few exceptions, the northern, Protestant, that is, “Prussian” aristocracy, which occupied the lion’s share of the available posts; Catholics were far less represented.

The exclusive esprit de corps of the German diplomatic service was also promoted by a degree of confessional discrimination. Until 1945 the ratio of Catholics among the diplomats was significantly lower than the national ratio. This situation can only partially be explained by the fact that until 1918 the German middle states maintained their own diplomatic service.

What was perhaps more important was that the majority of south German aristocratic families loathed the idea of state service under the detested Hohenzollerns and that until the turn of the century they saw the real
focus of their social aspirations in the Hofburg of Vienna rather than in Potsdam and Berlin. Whoever reads the extensive private correspondence of German diplomats of the imperial period will be astounded at the almost pathological fear of so-called “Ultramontanism” [the idea that German Catholics and the Centre Party were remote-controlled by the pope], which prevailed among even the highest and apparently most open-minded diplomats and statesmen in Berlin.

There was a widespread conviction that any softness towards “Ultramontanism” would have as a logical consequence the disintegration of the Reich. Catholics could therefore only be recruited into the service of the
Reich if they had taken a firm and unequivocal stand against Rome and against the Centre Party. (36)

Quite contrary to the impression of strength and unity that the Reich government attempted to project to the outside, the formulation and execution of her foreign policy required from the chancellor an intimate understanding of the matters at hand and the ability and willpower to impose them, should the need arise, even against the ideas of the monarch. Bismarck possessed the required abilities and was able to handle Wilhelm I, who could be stubborn at times. But when Wilhelm’s successor Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III succumbed to throat cancer in 1888 after less than a hundred days in office, the third Kaiser of the year, Wilhelm II, took over.

Things at the Foreign Office began to change soon thereafter. The young emperor did not trust Bismarck implicitly, the way his grandfather had, perhaps because he considered himself a natural talent in foreign affairs. In 1890, Bismarck was retired against his will, to be replaced by Baron Marschall von Bieberstein, whom the old chancellor mocked by calling him a “ministre étrange aux affairs”,* and Chancellor Count Leo Caprivi, who had neither knowledge of nor experience in foreign matters and openly admitted that he desired none. By all appearances, the new staff of the office did not understand Bismarck’s security system or thought it expendable. German foreign policy freed itself from the fetters of reality. (* It was a word play on “foreign” and “estranged”: a “ministre aux affairs étranges” is a foreign minister, but a “ministre étrangè aux affairs” is a minister “estranged from”, that is, “clueless about” his affairs.)

Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty, the pièce de résistance of his foreign policy, was simply allowed to expire; the new secretary of state did not even inquire in St. Petersburg whether the Czar desired a prolongation of the compact. The
Russian court, perplexed, could only interpret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inexplicable German hostility, and looked for a new ally in the West. France was ready and willing.

The next diplomatic catastrophe befell the relations with Great Britain. Ever since the Seven Years’ War, which had seen the allies emerging as victors, Anglo-Prussian relations had been amicable, for the greatest part, and the shared victory over Napoleon at Waterloo had forged a special bond. From the 1890s on, however, Wilhelmine Germany embarked upon an unnecessary and rather harebrained naval armaments race with England, which directly threatened the British Empire’s dependence on open sea lines for commerce, communication, and the administration of her possessions.

With the exception of the medieval Hanseatic League, Germany had no extensive history as a naval power, for her geographical position in the middle of the continent mostly obviated this need. The expansion of the French and British colonial empires in the nineteenth century, however, fatally ignited, in certain German circles, a desire for competition. The new Reich subsequently embarked upon colonizing the leftovers; those parts of the globe that other powers had judged too poor to be desired. Eventually, four African territories were identified, occupied and colonized with drum rolls and fanfare: today’s Togo, Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania. In addition, a part of New Guinea, Samoa, Tsing-Tao in China and a few island archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean were obtained.

These appropriations were, alas, no fertile lands which could feed the multitudes at home; to be honest, they were not very useful at all, unless one wanted to study exotic bacteria in fever-infested Cameroon. But there are cases in which beauty is measured by the cost or effort to achieve it, and such was the case with the fledgling German colonial empire. History teachers delivered a continuous stream of lectures and homilies to high school students in regard to the [technically Austrian, but never mind] Empire of Charles V in the sixteenth century, in which the sun, proverbially, never set, and many obedient German pupils – and their parents – developed the desire to keep the “place in the sun” their emperor had publicly claimed for the country at all cost. Logically, the newly acquired German territories had to be defended against thievish hands, which included all the foreign navies that might anchor near the coast at any moment to rob Germany of north-eastern New Guinea and its cannibal villages, who could say?

With the explicit consent of the Kaiser, the German Secretary of the Navy, Tirpitz, had brought a huge navy bill through parliament which enabled the launch, at a feverish pace, of an ever-increasing number of battleships and lesser vessels for the protection of the colonies. New shipyards had to be built to accommodate the program, to the
bewilderment of the British who could not in the world imagine a reason why Germany needed a fleet of battleships, unless to challenge the Royal Navy. Great Britain, consequentially, sought aid against possible German liberties, and by 1912, two decades later, France, Russia and Great Britain were allied, at least defensively, in the Triple Entente, a treaty against Wilhelmine Germany and its valorous allies Austria-Hungary and Italy, the “Dreibund” or Triple Alliance.

Alliances 1914
Alliances 1914

The Foreign Office in Berlin clearly did not understand the realities it created, and its callous recklessness allowed France to play the “German Domination of Europe!” card against the Teutonic menace with great success. While Germany
had advanced her industrial production and consumption faster than any other continental country and had become the world’s second-biggest industrial nation, after the British Empire but before the USA, her political culture had remained essentially pre-modern, which was made worse by the young emperor’s rashness.

Wilhelm II had been born with a crippled left arm and developed a crippled self-esteem; his cousin Nicholas II, the Russian Tsar, once called him a “shameless exhibitionist.” The young monarch had a propensity to evoke the most unfortunate impressions wherever he appeared; his constant demands of greater power for Germany failed to make him popular anywhere, and, to make it worse, these exhortations were often delivered with poor charm and a complete lack of diplomatic sensitivity.

Hence, by 1914, the efforts of Wilhelm’s noble diplomats had resulted in the enmity of Great Britain, France and Russia, unpopularity in the world – perhaps with the exception of the Ottomans – and an arms race of the like the globe had never seen before.

As I have said before, there is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other, the greater the probability that they will go off one day. They did on August 1, 1914.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Making of an Empire – 1871

Header: A mural painted in 1884 by Carl Steffeck depicting General Reille delivering Napoleon III‘s letter of surrender to King Wilhelm I at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870


With Austria relegated to the sidelines of German politics after the loss of 1866, Prussia took over the leadership of the German states, which still
numbered in excess of a dozen. On the map, the changes were slight; the geography of the “German Confederation” was little altered by the disappearance of Austria’s unfortunate allies. More important changes occurred in the economic cooperation of the German states, especially in the critical sector of customs and tariffs. Despite industrialization and the
rising importance of direct taxes, they remained a major part of every state’s income.

 Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben's "Song of the Germans", which became the national anthem in 1922
Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “Song of the Germans”, which became the national anthem in 1922

The Deutscher Zollverein, the German Customs Union, had been steadily expanding in the nineteenth century from its profane origins as the Common Prussian Customs Tariff of 1828: soon it included the southern German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, and in 1867 – Austria having been knocked out of the picture – most of the remaining German states joined up; the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Mecklenburg and the Kingdom of Hanover. By 1869, the Zollverein’s and the German Confederation’s geographical borders were virtually identical. Following a slight update of the political structure, the German Confederation was renamed the “North German Confederation“, the only significant
difference being the introduction of the universal male suffrage at twenty-one years of age.

Funnily enough, the first election results under the new terms caught Bismarck in a rare miscalculation: he had assumed that the victory over Austria would benefit his conservative parliamentary allies most, yet, in the event, the majority of the seats went to his enemies, the Liberals, and a few even to his nemeses, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Zentrum (Centre), party. Due to this unexpected failure of the German voters, Bismarck’s further plans hit a few parliamentary snags, but the Iron Chancellor proved himself fit to overcome mere human challenges.

His reasoning in regard to a possible German unification was that the passions of war might overcome the political impediments again – as they had done in 1866. If the southern states, in particular the outspokenly independent Kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, were reluctant to follow his lead, the fervour of war might tip the scales. A suitable opponent and bogeyman was readily identified in the person of Napoleon III, Emperor of France.

It was true that, since 1815, open hostilities had not occurred between France and Prussia, but Bismarck, an experienced French hand on account of his tour of duty as Prussian ambassador in Paris in the 1850s, had a clear idea which buttons to press to inflame France with patriotic belligerence.

Napoleon III, nephew and successor of the great Corsican, who had proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1852, was in dire need of military, or any other, glory. His Mexican war in support of Emperor Maximilian had been an unmitigated disaster [AD 1861-1867], and the military grandeur of the empire was in sore need of restoration. He had viewed with distaste the emergence of Prussia as the new German power; not so much as a matter of principle, of which he had none, but because he had cast a longing eye upon the Duchy of Luxemburg as the price for his neutrality in the Prusso-Austrian war of 1866. He was furious when Bismarck explained, after the victory, that, since Luxembourg did not belong to Prussia, it could not be ceded to France.

Bismarck interviewed Graf Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff, on the chances of a Prusso-French war. Moltke indicated that success seemed likely, and Bismarck went on to seek a suitable opportunity for
war, a casus belli. He did not have to wait too long.

Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)
Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)

In 1869, the Spanish throne had been left without issue, once again, and after protracted discussion the Spanish crown council decided to offer the crown to Wilhelm’s cousin, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern. When the news of the Spanish offer and the prince’s eventual acceptance reached Paris, Emperor Napoleon as well as his loyal subjects interpreted the message from Madrid as proof of a renewed German conspiracy to encircle France. Proper vigilance demanded to exert the necessary precautions at once; to nip the planned crime in the bud.

The French ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti, was urgently dispatched to the spa town of Bad Ems, where Wilhelm was taking the waters. Benedetti’s orders comprised two objectives: in the first instant, to demand that Leopold’s acceptance be withdrawn, and, for seconds, to demand Wilhelm’s public affirmation, in his capacity as the head of the Hohenzollern family, that under no circumstances any prince of the house was to accept a Spanish offer should one be renewed.

The demands were quite unusual, to say the least, for Napoleon III certainly lacked cause as well as authority in the matter. Wilhelm responded that nothing kept the Emperor of France from discussing the topic with Prince Leopold himself, who was a grown man, and he, Wilhelm, was not his mother. As far as the second demand was concerned, Wilhelm pointed out his lack of authority to speak for future Hohenzollern generations. Benedetti cabled to Paris, reported Wilhelm’s answers, and was advised to ask for a second audience, to repeat Napoleon’s requests. Such reiterated inquiries were not exactly good diplomatic style. Wilhelm’s secretary, Heinrich Abeken, summarized the second interview as follows in a telegram to Bismarck:

His Majesty the King has written to me:

Count Benedetti intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me, in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature.

I rejected this demand somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind [for ever and ever]. Naturally, I told him that I had not yet received any news and, since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter.

[The King, on the advice of one of his ministers], decided, in view of the above-mentioned demands, not to receive Count Benedetti any more, but to have him informed, by an adjutant, that His Majesty had now received [from Leopold] confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador.

His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency, that Benedetti’s new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press. (29)

Bismarck changed the text a bit and leaked it to the French press bureau HAVAS:

After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand
on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their
candidature.

His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the Adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador. (30)

Bismarck's Draft of the Dispatch from Ems
Bismarck’s Draft of the Dispatch from Ems

Bismarck had given the message a new edge.

He cut out Wilhelm’s conciliatory phrases and emphasized the real issue. The French had made certain demands under threat of war; and Wilhelm had refused them. This was no forgery; it was a clear statement of the facts. Certainly the edit of the telegram, released on the evening of the same day (13 July) to the media and foreign embassies, gave the impression both that Benedetti was rather more demanding and that the King was exceedingly abrupt. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted Count Benedetti; likewise, the Germans interpreted the modified dispatch as the Count insulting the King. …

The French translation by the agency Havas altered the ambassador’s demand (“il a exigé” – ‘he has demanded’) to a question . It also did not translate “Adjutant”, which in German refers to a high-ranked Aide-de-camp, but in French describes only a non-commissioned officer (adjutant), so implying that the King had deliberately insulted the ambassador by choosing a low-ranked soldier to carry the message to him. This was the version published by most newspapers the following day, which happened to be July 14 (Bastille Day), setting the tone and letting the French believe that the King had insulted their ambassador, before the ambassador could tell his story. …

France’s mistaken attitude of her own position carried matters far beyond what was necessary and France mobilized. Following further improper translations and misinterpretations of the dispatch in the press, excited crowds in Paris demanded war, just as Bismarck had anticipated. The Ems Dispatch had also rallied German national feeling. It was no longer Prussia alone; South German particularism was now cast aside.

Benedetti, the messenger for the Duke de Gramont’s demands for pointless guarantees (the Hohenzollern family had withdrawn Prince Leopold’s candidature on 11 July 1870 with Wilhelm’s “entire and
unreserved approval”), became an unseen bit-player; his own dispatches to Paris no longer mattered. In the legislative chamber, by an overwhelming majority, the votes for war credits were passed. France declared war on 19 July 1870. (31)

Which was exactly what Bismarck had expected. In a series of clandestine treaties with the southern and central German states since 1866, he had laid the foundation for the eventuality which now had occurred – war with France. In the case that France declared war on Prussia, as it had transpired, the German states had pledged their support to Prussia. Two more agreements Bismarck had negotiated sub rosa, with Russia and Austria, secured their neutrality in the events that now were unfolding. Napoleon could not find a single ally, and the German countries he had hoped to win to his cause now
appeared on the side of Prussia, to defeat the third Bonaparte as they had defeated the first.

Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870
Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870

For the first time since the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in the seventeenth century, a concerted German army took to the field. The campaign of 1870 subsequently became the apotheosis of modern military staff planning, because it largely went as scheduled. For the first time in a substantial European war, the railway lines became the principal means of troop transportation and the coordination of train movements the decisive factor for the appropriate deployment and subsequent supply of the forces. The opening skirmishes along the borders were mostly won, as Moltke had expected, and followed up by a large-scale thrust into the Lorraine. The main axis of the approach aimed at the Meuse River, the crossing of which the French had to deny the enemy at all cost, because it was the last natural defence line on the way to Paris.
Napoleon III had come to Sedan in person, where the French troops were chiefly deployed. Moltke’s plan was to encircle the French army, by the simultaneous forward movement of two pincers north and south of their defensive position, and to use the river to block their retreat. The operation succeeded, and on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III and the French army were forced to surrender. In numerical terms, the Battle of Sedan became the largest victory of modern times achieved in a single encounter: over 100,000 French soldiers had to march into captivity. The emperor’s capitulation vaticinated the eventual success, even if mopping-up operations and a protracted siege of Paris kept the German soldiers busy for a few more months.

Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

On January 18, 1871, in the great Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, the assembled German princes declared the establishment of a new “German Empire”, and unanimously elected Wilhelm I, King in Prussia, to the dignity of “German Emperor” [not ‘Emperor of Germany’]. Since the new entity was technically only an “eternal” federation – as the treaty said – of sovereign princes, who remained independent to various degrees, the Second Empire was not and never became a centralized state like France or Russia.

Anton von Werner's famous painting - Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Anton von Werner‘s famous painting – Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Victory Celebration in Berlin
Victory Celebration in Berlin

Yet soon flaws appeared in Bismarck’s grand design, which was appropriately called a “revolution from above”. Unification was not a result of the will of the German people but a covenant of thirty-six German princes, who agreed on
elevating one of their number to emperor but little else. The German bourgeoisie had been unable to achieve the same political emancipation the citizens of the United States, England or France had secured: not for a lack of trying, but for the bloody repulsion of the reform movement of 1848. The German peoples’ efforts had collapsed in the horror of soldiers that fired upon their own families, and suffocated in the subsequent terror of the political police. These dreadful experiences must not be underestimated: together with the horrors of the Thirty-Years-War still alive in the folkish subconsciousness,
they explain much of the political apathy that abounded in Germany before 1871. For the bourgeoisie, Bismarck’s “top-down” revolution only amplified the feeling of being excluded from political decisions. Peter Watson explains:

In a real sense, and as Gordon Craig has pointed out, the people of Germany played no part in the creation of the Reich. “The new state was a ‘gift’ to the nation on which the recipient had not been consulted.” Its constitution had not been earned; it was a contract among the princes of the existing German states, who retained their crowns until 1918.

To our modern way of thinking, this had some extraordinary consequences. One result was that the Reich had a parliament without power, political parties without access to governmental responsibility, and elections
whose outcome did not determine the composition of the government. This was quite unlike – and much more backward than – anything that existed among Germany’s competitors in the West. Matters of state remained in the hands of the landed aristocracy, although Germany had become an industrial power. As more and more people joined in Germany’s industrial, scientific, and intellectual successes, the more it was run by a small coterie of traditional figures – landed aristocrats and military leaders, at the head of which was the emperor himself. This dislocation was fundamental to “Germanness” in the run-up to the First World War.

It was one of the greatest anachronisms of history and had two effects that concern us. One, the middle class, excluded politically and yet eager to achieve some measure of equality, fell back on education and “Kultur” as key areas where success could be achieved – equality with the aristocracy, and superiority in comparison with foreigners in a competitive, nationalistic world. “High culture” was thus always more important in imperial Germany than elsewhere and this is one reason why … it flourished so well in the 1871-1933 period. But this gave culture a certain tone: freedom, equality, and personal distinctiveness tended to be located in the “inner sanctum” of the individual, whereas society was portrayed as an “arbitrary, external and frequently hostile world.”

The second effect, which overlapped with the first, was a retreat into nationalism, but a class-based nationalism that turned against the newly created industrial working class (and the stirrings of socialism), Jews, and non-German minorities. “Nationalism was seen as social progress, with utopian possibilities.”

Against the background of a developing mass society, the educated middle class looked to culture as a stable set of values that uplifted their lives, set them apart from the “rabble” (Freud’s word) and, in particular, enhanced their nationalist orientation. The “Volk,” a semi-mystical, nostalgic ideal of how ordinary Germans had once been – a contented, talented, apolitical, “pure” people – became a popular stereotype within Germany. (32)

Needless to say, such “contented, apolitical, pure’ people” had never existed outside of the imagination of overzealous history professors and racist journalists. But the “popular stereotype” worked, and resulted in a sort of anti-Socialist and anti-ultramontane nationalism, not truly directed against other nations, rather against the “enemy within” – liberals, democrats, socialists, Catholic, Jews, and so forth – against whose “internationalist” designs Prussian secular and Protestant clerical authorities never tired to warn the burghers. It was essentially a nationalism of the upper strata of society, who attempted to ensnare the support of the bourgeois middle class against the assorted enemies of Kultur. The Second Empire’s nationalism almost amounted to a negation of the effects of industrialization, of modernity, in some ways even of the enlightenment. Its character remained medieval.

The core of this “internal” nationalism was formed more or less, during  the years following the foundation of the Empire, by the nucleus of the “Folkish Movement“(‚Völkische Bewegung‘), to whom we – and the world – more or less owe the First and Second World Wars. It absorbed the “bloody romanticism” of the Napoleonic era [see the article by Elke Schäfer] and was later perceived and used as useful spectre by the elite. Not without reason did the idealized depictions of the “Germania”, below two by Philip Veit, always held swords in their hands.

When a “Deutsche Arbeiter Partei”, a ‘German Workers’ Party’ was founded in Bohemia (i.e. technically Austria) before World War I, its agenda was not to advance the cause the working class, as one naively might assume, but to protect the interest of German workers over Czech or Moravian workers. The German people, meanwhile, remained the political wards of the old elites, which were absolutely unwilling to give up the precious authority they had barely regained after the shocks of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and the Napoleonic wars. The constitution, which the nobility tailored
according to its fears and needs, could truthfully be called anachronistic in its obvious fear of democracy and liberalism.

For the “satisfied, apolitical and pure” Germans, whose picture was frequently summoned by the officials of the empire, did not do too well, unless they were born as nobles. German industrialization went over their dead bodies – Bismarck’s social legislation was not born of his passion for the suffering of the working class, but were his minimum concessions to prevent the socialist revolution. There was unofficial slavery – the Schwabenkinder – and living, working and living conditions in the cities were horrible. 3,279,021 Germans emigrated to the USA alone between 1870 and 1919.

Children working from age five ...
Children working from age five …

The constitutional framework of the German Reich did … differ sharply in key respects from that of Britain or France, whose diversely structured but relatively flexible parliamentary democracies offered better potential to cope with the social and political demands arising from rapid economic change.

In Germany, the growth of party-political pluralism, which found its representation in the Reichstag, had not been translated into parliamentary democracy. Powerful vested interests – big landholders … the officer corps
of the army, the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, even most of the Reichstag parties – continued to block this.

The Chancellor of the Reich remained the appointee of the Kaiser, who could make or break him whatever the respective strength of the Reichstag parties. The government itself stood over the Reichstag, independent (at
least in theory) of party politics. Whole tracts of policy, especially on foreign and military matters, lay outside parliamentary control.

Power was jealously guarded, in the face of mounting pressure for radical change, by the beleaguered forces of the old order. Some of these, increasingly fearful of revolution, were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism. (33)

This willingness, however, was not restricted to Germany: most of the more reactionary monarchies of the continent, in particular Russia but also Italy, Spain or some Balkan countries, feared socialists much more than the armies of their fellow princes, with whom they could always find some arrangement. Yet whatever the real threat of socialism or any other modern development might truly signify, in certain respects, chiefly in its inner relations, the Second Reich showed a distinctly pre-modern character – as if nothing had changed since 1806. It could be seen most clearly in …

… the Reich’s federal structure, which was designed to take account of the special rights and sensitivities of the south German states in particular. The establishment of a Baden Legation in Berlin and a Prussian one in Karlsruhe [Baden’s capital] is an indication in itself of the remarkably “unfinished” character of the Reich’s structure – it is as if the development towards a modern, unitary constitutional structure had stopped at the half-way mark.

But the federal system of the Kaiserreich went further: in 1894 Baden Legations were also opened in Munich and Stuttgart, and a little later Russia even suggested that a Russian military attaché should be stationed in Bavaria. These legations were not merely courtesy institutions but represented an important component of the political structure of the Reich, and they were a pointer to the fact … that the Lesser German Reich, forged by war and diplomacy, in many respects continued to be governed by foreign policy methods even after its so-called unification.

The Second Empire 1871 - 1918
The Second Empire 1871 – 1918

A related problem, frequently reported on by the Baden envoys, was the continued existence and indeed the constant growth of particularism, especially in Bavaria. The perceptive Baden envoy in Munich, Baron
Ferdinand von Bodman, reported in December 1895 from the Bavarian capital that “under the influence of the all-dominating court and of the Austrian-clerical [Catholic] party, all measures … are directed at building up Bavaria as a self-sufficient … state”. Above all in the two Bavarian army corps, according to Bodman, “the Reich and its head, the Kaiser, are being eliminated to the furthest possible extent.”

Count Anton Monts, the Prussian envoy in Munich, was convinced that “a process of detachment [by Bavaria] from the Reich was taking place,” Bodman reported. Similarly, the astute Arthur von Brauer, who had served for many years under Bismarck, observed in May 1893 that Bavarian particularism was making enormous advances. He wrote to the Grand Duke: “Under the influence of the Old-Bavarian party the monstrous idea is gaining more and more ground that south Germany should be placed under the special hegemony of Bavaria just as north Germany is under Prussia.” In 1898 the Grand Duke of Baden himself felt obliged to warn the Reich’s government against moving too close to the Catholic Centre party because the aim of this party was “to destroy the present Reich in order to create a new federal constitution with a Catholic head.“…

Whether they were based on a sober assessment of the objective circumstances or are ultimately explicable only in psychological terms, these anxiety complexes are of absolutely crucial importance in evaluating the political culture of Wilhelmine Germany. (34)

John Röhl‘s analysis above identifies one psychological factor in the new empire’s policies, but there was another, unspoken, psychological implication. What Bismarck had ultimately “superimposed over a highly fragmented society” (35) was a formula hatched to take account of the specific German situation, that is, foremost, its political particularism; thus
nationalism had to be instilled and cohesion created from the outside, and top-down, instead of bottom-up, and by the people. Yet the decisive factor why Bismarck chose this strategy was that, unlike the crown of 1849, the result would be acceptable to his king. Essentially, an emperor’s new clothes were hung upon ye olde authoritarian Prussian regime.

Footnotes: [29] [30] [31] Heinrich Abeken, Otto von Bismarck – The Ems Dispatch, see Wikipedia

[32] Watson, Peter,The German Genius, Harper Collins 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-076022-9, pp. 112 – 113

[33] [34] Röhl, John C.G., The Kaiser and his Court, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56504-9, pp. 112 – 113 and 153 – 154

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Theodora – Saint and Strumpet

Empress Theodora - painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
Empress Theodora – painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

Related Posts: Procopius / Gothic Wars / The End of the Legions


Very little is factually known about Theodora, but the juicy stories of Procopius of Caesarea have secured her the attention of everybody who bears an interest in history or gossip. On the other hand, a grateful Orthodox Church has turned her into sainthood – commemorated every November 14. Whatever the truth, it is a darn good yarn – great copy, they would call it in New York.

Constantinople, AD 530

She was probably born around AD 500. Procopius relates that her father Acacius was a bear-tamer in the employ of the “Green“, one of the circus parties, and her mother most probably some artist or acrobat. When the husband died, she was left destitute with three young children (Theodora and her two young sisters) to care for, and sought to obtain a livelihood at the circus with the Green party, on behalf of her deceased husband.

Cleopatra by Giuseppe de Sanctis
Cleopatra by Giuseppe de Sanctis

Her pleadings ignored by the Green, she found support with the competition, the Blue, of whom she and subsequently her daughter Theodora became fervent supporters. That in itself might not have mattered much in the greater scheme of life in Constantinople, had Theodora not been crowned Empress of the Realm by dint of her marriage in 527 to Emperor Justinian I, who himself had been a fan of the Blue for life.

View at the Forum

The importance of the circus factions derived from the fact that these groups – far exceeding the scope of circus games – had become social, almost political gatherings. In the early days of the Republic, there had been four teams – the Red, White, Green and Blue. Yet at the time of Justinian, the Green had long since absorbed the Red, as the Blue had swallowed the White.

Various historians have advanced particulars in which the two great factions presumably differed outside of the racetrack. The Green have been labelled supporters of Monophysitism – of which Theodora was a confessor – and, perhaps, the party of the small people, while the Blue professed the truth of orthodoxy and were murmured to be backed by the rich – which did not sound unlikely given that the Emperor was a fervent supporter of the Blue.

Other views have doubted this view by pointing out that the passions of the games alone were quite sufficient to cause havoc on the grandest scales one might imagine. It is reported that in AD 501 the Green ambushed the competition right in the capital’s amphitheatre and slaughtered three thousand of the Blue. Four years later the defection from the Blue and subsequent win of a race in Antiochia of the Green charioteer Porphyrius caused a public riot.

Chariot Race by Sándor-Wagner

Be this as it may, in January 532 the kettle boiled over. Emanating from a stupid affair in 531 in which a minor riot had killed a few members of both parties, two of the last perpetrators scheduled to be hanged in early 532 – one Green and one Blue – escaped from custody and took refuge in a church, which was soon beleaguered by an angry mob.

Justinian found himself in a somewhat awkward situation. Another round of the eternal peace negotiations with the Persians was underfoot, and the equally perpetual angriness of the people over the suffocating taxes the fiscus of the treasurer, John of Cappadocia, exerted from the populace had reached an apex. To take pressure out of the situation which threatened to destroy the public peace, Justinian sponsored a day of races to be held on January 13, to calm the ruffled feathers of the capital’s population.

It seems fairly clear that he intended to distract the crowds’ attention with the certain divisiveness of the show, but soon the partisan chants for the two parties gave way to emanations of popular discontent clearly addressed at the highest authority; both factions, Green and Blue alike, clamoured for the Emperor’s mercy for the two murderers until at length a unified cheer of “Nika!” (‘Victory!’, or ‘Conquer!’) arose, the populace rose from their seats and the astonished emperor suddenly realized he faced overthrow.

Scheming senators had long used the reckless tax hikes of the Imperial fiscus to foment discontent among the people. The irate multitudes laid the palace under siege – subsequent fires destroyed much of the city in the next five days, even the Hagia Sophia. On January 19th, the crowds installed Hypatius, consul of the year 500 and nephew of the former emperor Anastasius on the Imperial throne.

The Throne

Enter the famous story in which Justinian, considering flight, is humiliated by the iron will of Theodora, who emboldens the Imperial household with the winged words that she, herself, would not want to survive the loss of the crown, for “royal purple” she said, “makes for the noblest shroud.”

We do not know who then plotted the way out of the crisis, but the steel will of the Empress may have well played a role. The plot was based on the special talents of the generals Belisarius and Mundus, and the thespian and rhetoric skills of the eunuch Narses. It may not surprise anyone that the plan hatched was based on the metals of Imperial splendour – gold and iron.

Deliberations

Narses was sent, with a bag full of gold as heavy as he could carry, to the hippodrome to bribe or persuade the leaders of the Blue. He may have argued that Hypatius was a follower of the Green, while Justinian was and had always been their man, a Blue. We do not know what did the trick in the end – words or money – but when the Blue suddenly left the hippodrome, the troops of Belisar and Mundus moved in, killing every Green they could lay hands on and thus ended the rebellion. About 30,000 are said to have been slaughtered.

The outcome was providential in the sense that Justinian now had an excuse to have Hypatius executed and all senators he suspected of having supported the revolt exiled and their fortunes confiscated – thereinafter his reign was never in doubt again – neither was the political leverage of Theodora.

She was certainly of low birth, no matter what we think of the pornographic epithets she regularly receives in Procopius’ “Secret History“. Justinian himself, of whom we know much more, was quite a no-nonsense man, hence we may legitimately doubt how far the erotic entanglements of Theodora indeed had the effect Procopius ascertains – but of course we do not know.

What seems more likely is – given the sultry atmosphere of oriental Imperial courts – and bedchambers – that the Empress employed her interpersonal abilities in the perennial fights for influence amongst the court advisors.


It was rumoured that in her youth she had worked together with her sister Komito in a number of the better brothels of the capital, and later travelled with – adult entertainment groups, one might say – through Asia minor and Africa before she arrived – around AD 520 – in Constantinople, where she made the acquaintance of a Mr. Petrus Sabbatius, who was the nephew of Justin I, who two years ago had met the good fortune of being crowned Emperor of the Romans. Two or three years later she married Justinian – as Mr. Sabbatius now was called, being heir apparent to the empire – an act which necessitated the enactment of a special legal act of dispensation from the general proscription of senators marrying – er – actresses.

We must keep in mind that invective writings for political purposes were par for the course in antiquity, one of the more famous examples or victims being Julia the Elder [see blog entry], sole child of Emperor Augustus, who stood accused of serial adultery, even prostitution, by half a dozen Roman historians. Lust and wickedness are ascribed to Theodora in great detail by the quill of Procopius – as Tom Holland relates (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1, pp. 188-9):

Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.

Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.” ( supra)

Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.

Leda and the Swan by Carrier-Belleuse, about 1870
Leda and the Swan by Carrier-Belleuse, about 1870

Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.

She had been promoted to “Augusta” and co-Emperor by her husband in AD 532 at the for Justinian most beneficial occasion of his own ascent to Emperor following his uncle’s death.

It is certain that until her death of cancer in AD 548 she remained her husband’s closest advisor, together with but far outshining Belisarius, Narses, and John of Cappadocia. About the relations of Belisarius and his wife Antonina, who was a dear friend of Theodora and was rumoured to be second only to the empress in carnal knowledge, Procopius also has to relate much.

As mentioned above, Theodora was a Monophysite and hence this minority, which still exists in some Oriental Orthodox Churches, received protection as long as she lived.


Related Posts: Procopius / Gothic Wars / The End of the Legions

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019, Paintings, except where noted, by
Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant)

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