A man named Hermogenes is known to have held the position of magister in the early reign of Emperor Justinian of Constantinople (r. 527-565). Specifically, his name pops up from time to time in records of Justinian’s war with Kavadh I of Sāsānian Persia (d. 531), during which time Hermogenes served as a military commander and an envoy, often working in coordination with Justinian’s most talented general, Belisarius. During the time that Hermogenes worked with Belisarius, he likely also became acquainted with the historian, Procopius, who served as a secretary and legal advisor to the general during the Persian campaign. Unfortunately for Hermogenes, his exposure to Procopius would later come back to haunt him, for the historian eventually decided to write down a bizarre and unflattering story about the magister’s son, Saturninus. The tale in question was included in Procopius’ Anecdota (or Secret History), a posthumously-published collection of nasty rumors, conspiracies, scandals, general criticisms and character assassinations of powerful people who were active during the reign of Justinian.
As the story goes, before Hermogenes’ death in the 530s, he had arranged a marriage for his son, Saturninus. Although Hermogenes died during the negotiations, the engagement proceeded as planned; Saturninus was going to be married to his second cousin, a woman reportedly of great character and beauty. Saturninus, personally, wanted the marriage to go forward, and the bride’s father, Cyril, also approved of the match—as to the opinion of the bride, herself, Procopius remained silent. Whatever the case, the engagement between Saturninus and his fiancé was approved and they went through the steps of selecting a venue, formulating a list of guests, and setting a date for their wedding. Yet, a formidable outside force would soon appear to disrupt the marriage.
While the groom was eagerly preparing to marry his fiancé, the imperial couple of Constantinople were apparently setting up an entirely different marriage for Saturninus. Empress Theodora was reportedly the driving force behind the move, as it was a daughter of her friend, Chrysomallo, that the royals insisted Saturninus must marry. According to Procopius’ account (which is without a doubt embellished), the emperor and empress decided to make the switch on the very day of Saturninus’ wedding to Cyril’s daughter. As the bizarre story goes, Saturninus and his bride had just finished their wedding ceremony and were about to enjoy their wedding night when, all of a sudden, agents of the empress rushed in to abduct the groom. Procopius dramatically narrated the peculiar tale, writing, “No sooner had they shut themselves in the bridal chamber than Theodora seized the groom and carried him off into another one, where in spite of his heartbroken protestations he was married to Chrysomallo’s daughter” (The Secret History, 17).
Unfortunately for Saturninus, the tale only gets stranger from here on out. As the story goes, the kidnapped groom was understandably greatly unhappy with how his wedding day turned out. He took every chance available to complain about the way he had been treated, and eventually took up the dishonorable habit of venting his anger on the innocent wife that he had been forced to marry. He began insulting his spouse in public, often with indecent and libelous remarks. Yet, these rude outbursts severely backfired. Saturninus’ maltreatment of his spouse was said to have greatly angered Empress Theodora, as she was quite a defender of women’s rights compared to 6th-century standards. According to Procopius’ again largely-embellished account, Theodora believed that Saturninus was behaving childishly, and she therefore devised an appropriate punishment for him. The empress, Procopius claimed, “ordered her servants to bend him over like any schoolboy. Then she gave his behind a fearsome beating and told him not to talk such nonsense in the future” (The Secret History, 17). Perhaps the punishment worked, for no further bizarre tales of Saturninus were recorded after this strange episode.
Once again, it should be noted that Procopius’ Secret History was a book filled with gossip, rumor, and character assassination. The tales he told in the text, including the one repeated here, should not be taken at face value. Yet, even if the historical accuracy and honesty of the tale are in doubt, the lively story can still be enjoyed, if only for the sake of enjoyment, itself.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of the wedding of Ashot and Miroslava, from the 12th-century Madrid Skylitzes manuscript, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.