on Eutropia in The Roman Empresses
His person was as deformed as his mind; he was of great size, but his coarse and savage features and countenance, together with his black thick beard, caused him to be looked upon with horror so it was not to be wondered at, that with his forbidding aspect, he was not able to gain the affections of his wife Eutropia; on the contrary, it would have been more surprising if that charming Syrian had not listened to the solicitations of a passionate and handsome lover, whose merit could not but place the imperfections of Hercules in a more disadvantageous light.
Galeria Valeria Eutropia was not exempt from those vices to which her nation was subject. Some authors say she was nearly related to Eutropius, father of the Emperor Constantius. She possessed great beauty, a cheerful temper, and an amorous temperament, and was very fond of pleasures and diversions. She was married very young to a Syrian, whose name and family are not mentioned; the fruit of this marriage was Theodora, whom we shall see upon the throne. Her husband died soon after the birth of her daughter.
Eutropia's beauty suffered nothing from her deep mourning, on the contrary, it seemed to be rather heightened, for it is not probable that her countenance was of a piece with her dress. Nobody is more disposed to receive comfort than a young and amiable widow, whose vivacity and liveliness is naturally no friend to seriousness and grief, and who is surrounded by a crowd of admirers, vying with each other who shall be the first to make amends for her loss. A lover full of life and sprightliness soon obliterates the remembrance of a dead husband, for people are soon weary of fighting in vain after a shadow, and wasting their tears upon an object that can only amuse their imagination. Eutropia paid such respect to the memory of her husband as fashion and the rules of decency required, but did not think herself obliged to carry on the farce further than she was obliged she therefore looked out for a new conquest, and was go fortunate as to make a very illustrious one. Hercules, notwithstanding his rough and unpolished disposition, was far from being insensible to the power of beauty. He was captivated by her charms, and soon found means to let her know it.
Hercules, as we have observed, had a most disagreeable appearance, and was more calculated to inspire fear than love; his mind was as uncultivated as his person, so that he was quite incapable of carrying on his amours gallantly, but his fortune spoke for him, and the luster of the imperial purple made at least as deep an impression upon the heart of Eutropia as the greatest accomplishments could have done. Sovereign authority is a sort of veil that effectually eclipses the imperfections of whoever is invested with it. A lover who wears a crown is always well received, and the eyes of his mistress, being fixed upon that splendid mark of his dignity, have not time to wander about to spy out the faults and deformities of his person; for this reason, although Eutropia had an infinite number of adorers, between whom and Hercules there was no sort of comparison as to real merit, yet he had the preference, as being most able of gratifying her ambition.
Reasons of State might possibly have weighed so far with the Emperor as to induce him to marry Eutropia, especially if it be true that she was related to Eutropius, and consequently to Constantius, his son. The Emperors made a point of marrying into their own families, for we shall find that when Constantius was associated in the imperial dignity, he was obliged to divorce his wife Helena to marry the daughter-in-law of Hercules; thus Diocletian, having formed the design of placing Constantius upon the throne, who was every day rendering important services to the State, it is very probable that he persuaded Hercules to marry Eutropia in order to unite them beforehand to the Emperors by this alliance. However it was, this was the first time that two Empresses were seen reigning at the same time.
Prisca was not at all uneasy upon this account; she saw with great indifference Hercules's wife seated with her upon the throne; whereas Eutropia regarded the matter very differently. Prisca being guided by virtue and good sense, and perhaps by the pure maxims of the Christian religion, was an ornament to her rank and her station, and led such a life as was exempt from all suspicions and censures; Eutropia, on the contrary, indulged in such indecencies as were not at all to the advantage of her reputation. When she first came to the throne she indeed acted very cautiously, but the characteristics of her nation, added to her own natural temperament, soon prevailed, and she gave herself up to pleasures; and, however the fury and resentment of Hercules was to be dreaded, that did not hinder her from being extremely fond of a Syrian, who, being polite and agreeable, found the secret of insinuating himself into her good graces. A woman has a great deal more complaisance for a man of her own country than another, and such a one will always have a great advantage over a stranger. We cannot help leaning towards such a person, for there is implanted in everybody's heart a certain national partiality, that inclines us, whether we will or not, to give him the preference. Eutropia had this feeling for the handsome Syrian, nor had she virtue or resolution enough to withstand the solicitations of a lover who had everything she desired to recommend him.
Eutropia had been married some years to Hercules without having a child, which afflicted him very much, for he was extremely desirous to have heirs. The Empress knew this, and it did not a little contribute to persuade her to an intrigue, which answered her expectations, for she became pregnant. This gave the Emperor all the satisfaction in the world, but, if anything were wanting to make it complete, it was the fear of having a daughter; his desires were, however, accomplished by Eutropia's being delivered of a son, whom he called Maxentius. The credulous Emperor received this present with transports of joy, and caused this shameful production of his wife's libertinism to be educated with all possible care and expense.
Some authors, who are more favorable to the Empress, say that Hercules passionately longed for a son to perpetuate his family, and seeing his wife with child, waited the event with great impatience, and that Eutropia, being brought to bed of a girl, cunningly substituted a boy in her place, in order to ingratiate herself with her husband. It must be acknowledged, for the honor of the Empress, that there are historians who will have it that Maxentius was really the son of Hercules. Be it as it may, the Emperor, who was more interested than anybody in the birth of this child, looked upon him as his son, and accordingly raised him afterwards to the throne.
Constantius in the meantime met with the like vicissitudes of fortune in Gaul. He was first surprised and beaten by the enemy, but afterwards defeated them near Langres. Hercules subdued the Africans; and Diocletian having humbled the tyrant Achilles, made himself master of all Egypt; so that the four Emperors had the honor of re-establishing the fortunes of the State. The Senate decreed them a triumph, and Diocletian, accompanied by Hercules, went to Rome to reap the fruits of his victories. The Empress Eutropia undertook the journey with her husband, though she was pregnant. She had never been at Rome, and passionately longed to see the capital of the world. She was there brought to bed of a daughter, who was named Fausta this was a new subject of joy to the city, and added very much to the splendor and magnificence of the triumph. It was celebrated with extraordinary pomp, and all classes strove to out-do each other by the most flattering language upon this occasion. The Empress Valeria had the satisfaction of sharing all these honors with her husband, for the Senate, who were very assiduous in obtaining the good graces of Diocletian, for whom the other Caesars had the greatest deference and respect, did not think they could pay their court to him more effectually than by conferring upon his only daughter the honors that had been granted to preceding Empresses, especially since she was so deserving of them. Besides the proud title of Mother of the Armies, with which none but the most illustrious of the Empresses had been dignified, they decreed her a crown of laurel, a glorious and special privilege that had never before been bestowed upon any woman, in consideration of her having had so large a share in and so much contributed to her husband's military exploits. They did not stop there, for, in order to immortalize her name and memory, they gave the name of Valeria to that part of Pannonia which is between the Drave and the Danube. Thus liberal of her favors was Fortune to the princess, giving her no hint of the bitter afflictions that were soon to overtake her.
The Empress Eutropia had a happier destiny. After the death of Maximinus Hercules, her husband, she went to live with Fausta, her daughter, at Constantine's Court. As she was past the age of pleasure, she thought of nothing but how to pass the remainder of her life in peace and quietness, far from the noise and hurry of State affairs. She lived to see that happy change in the empire, occasioned by Constantine, her son-in-law, embracing Christianity, which Hercules and Diocletian had endeavored to extirpate. This religion daily gained ground from that time, got the better of idolatry, and was professed at Court and in all the provinces. The Cross became the greatest ornament of the Roman ensigns and the crowns of the Emperors. Constantine was so assiduous in propagating the faith that not only the imperial family, but the greatest part of the Court embraced Christianity; Eutropia was one of the first to profess a religion that had maintained itself in opposition to all the power of Emperors, who had exhausted all their malice and authority to abolish it, though the Christians in their defense made use of no other weapons than their patience and their prayers.
After Eutropia had been instructed in the precepts of the Gospel, she practiced them with so much zeal and strictness that all the indiscretions of her past life were forgotten. She was as solicitous to promote Christianity as Hercules her husband had been to destroy it. She not only conformed to its laws, but used her utmost endeavors to abolish the impious rites of the Pagans, and even some superstitions that had been introduced among the Christians, to the scandal of their holy religion, which more than anything evinced the soundness of her belief. This was shown in her care to suppress the annual ceremonies that were performed under the famous Oak of Mamre, so remarkable in the Scriptures for having been the residence of the patriarch Abraham, and the place where the angels announced the ruin of Sodom.
This was always celebrated in summer, and a vast concourse of Jews, Christians, and even heathens used to assemble there upon that occasion: the first, to honor the memory of Abraham, the second to solemnize the apparition of their Messiah, who they imagined spoke to the patriarch in the form of an angel; and the Pagans, because they considered those angels to have been, in reality, their own gods, whom they honored by erecting altars there, upon which they placed idols, and offered sacrifices and libations ; so that each of them, for one reason or other, had the greatest respect and veneration for that place, and this occasioned an odd mixture of Pagan ceremonies, Jewish superstitions, and Christian devotions. There was a great fair held every year in that place, which drew an infinite number of people from Phoenicia, Palestine, and Arabia.
Eutropia, taking a journey into Palestine, passed through the Valley of Mamre just when they were performing these ceremonies and saw the impious sacrifices that the heathens offered to their idols and the superstitions practiced by the Christians, who imagined they were performing their duty in a very commendable way. She was extremely offended when she observed that God and the devil were worshipped in the same place; and that this valley, which had been sanctified by the solemn promises which the Almighty had made to Abraham, that from him should spring One in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed, should become a theater of impiety and profanity. She resolved to do all in her power to remedy this evil, and wrote to her son-in-law upon this subject, informing him of what she had seen done by the Pagans, Jews, and even Christians, who all dishonored that venerable place, some by their idolatrous libations, and others by their indiscreet practice of a mistaken devotion.
Constantine, who eagerly embraced every opportunity of signalizing his zeal for the Christian religion, ordered all the idols to be burnt, the altars to be overthrown, and everything that savored of Paganism and superstition to be destroyed. He caused a church to be built on the very spot, and laid under severe penalties those who in the future should dare to profane that venerable place.
History makes no further mention of Eutropia, but apparently she continued the rest of her life in the strictest practice of the religion she had once professed.
Jacques Roergas de Serviez, The Roman Empresses or The History of the Lives and Secret Intrigues of the Wives if the Twelve Caesars (London: The Walpole Press, 1899).