In an odd text called the Anecdota (or the Secret History), a 6th-century historian named Procopius compiled a slew of nasty rumors, conspiracies, scandals, and general criticisms about Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), Empress Theodora (d. 548), and other high officials of Constantinople from the 6th century. While much of the bizarre text is libelous and unfounded, there are enough grains of truth within the Secret History to keep it relevant. The longevity of the book is also helped by the fact that Procopius was the most prestigious historian of his time, due to his much more imperially-friendly texts, The Buildings and The Wars, which were acclaimed even within his own lifetime. Nevertheless, despite Procopius’ laudatory and prolific ability as a historian, the tales he presents in his Secret History (which was published after his death) should be treated with the proverbial grain of salt, as the tone he used in the text is one of pure biased hostility. Disclaimers aside, the odd episodes presented in the Secret History are entertaining and merit repeat, if only for the sake of storytelling. One such tale worth telling is that of Areobindus, a steward of the imperial family who reportedly went missing during a time of great whisperings and rumor.
As the story goes, Areobindus was a handsome young man in the employ of the royal family of Constantinople. In particular, he managed to become a member of Empress Theodora’s entourage, and eventually was appointed to serve as her personal steward. Details such as how long he served in that capacity or how well his administered his duties are not known, but he did well enough to earn the noticeable favor of the empress. Yet, good standing with the empress could also be a dangerous thing for Areobindus, as such favor would undoubtedly inspire jealousy and envy in the hearts of those who wanted to replace him. And if the steward did indeed gain the friendship of the empress, then Areobindus could similarly become a target of Theodora’s enemies in the rough politics of Constantinople. Unfortunately, Areobindus did become a target, but as to who attacked him and why, little is known.
Empress Theodora was a beautiful woman, with a somewhat scandalous early career as an actress. Gossips and rumor mills fantasized about what types of lascivious shows the entertainer-turned-empress put on in the years before she married Justinian. As such, Theodora was always susceptible to lusty talk behind her back, and when handsome, young Areobindus became a favored member of the empress’ entourage, his name was quickly added into the ample gossip about the royal court.
During the time that Areobindus was steward, rumors about Theodora’s private life became chaotic. Either occurring naturally, or perhaps fanned by troublemakers, Constantinople eventually became filled with salacious stories about Theodora and her favorite steward. Gossip spread like wildfire, claiming that the empress was madly in love with Areobindus, with added inference that the two were having an affair. These must have been particularly nasty and widespread rumors, as Empress Theodora and Emperor Justinian apparently felt the need to counteract the gossip. Theodora first tried to push Areobindus away, no longer showing him the signs of favor and friendship that had caused the gossip to arise. When the rumors persisted even after the empress had distanced herself from the steward, the imperial family decided to take more drastic measures. Ultimately, Areobindus simply vanished without a trace, never to be seen again. Procopius colorfully described the steward’s disappearance:
“Wishing to refute the charge (though, as they say, she was madly smitten with him), for the moment she made up her mind to maltreat him in the most harsh manner for no reason at all. What happened to him after we have no idea, nor has anyone seen him to this day. For if she chose to conceal anything that was going on, that thing remained unspoken and no reference was ever made to it; anyone who knew the facts was no longer allowed to report them to any of his closest friends, nor might the man who wished to learn of them ask any questions, however curious he might be” (Secret History, chapter 16).
Such was the way that Procopius described Areobindus’ disappearance from Constantinople. Of course, there are many ways that the steward’s absence can be interpreted, and—once again—nothing written by Procopius in his Secret History should be taken at face value. Perhaps, Areobindus hit the road in search of a new start, or the empress might have found the steward employment elsewhere and kept his location secret so as to keep him from being harassed. Then again, there always is the chance that Procopius is telling the truth in this particular tale.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Empress Theodora, painted by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845–1902), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.