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Women Of Early Christianity by Alfred Brittain


It is a noteworthy feature in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire that periods in which empresses figure prominently in the affairs of state alternate with periods in which the Augustae are mere ciphers. Eudoxia, the wife of Arcadius, marks the early limit of feminine predominance in the independent history of the eastern section of the Roman Empire. The Empress Irene, who reigned at first with her son Constantine and afterward alone, marks the later limit of the Roman, as distinguished from the strictly Byzantine Empire, since during her reign, at the beginning of the ninth century, the Empire of the West was completely dissevered from all connection with Constantinople through the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West by Pope Leo. Thus a masterful woman was the predominating influence at the beginning and at the end of the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire as a separate entity.

In the interval between these two limits the most important reign was that of Justinian and the most remarkable woman was, of course, the Empress Theodora. Following Eudoxia were the rival Empresses Pulcheria and Eudocia, celebrated for their beauty, their culture, and their piety.

When the house of Theodosius ceased to exist with Pulcheria and Marcian, the Roman Empire in the East was safely guided through the stormy times which saw its extinction in the West by a series of three men of ability, Leo I. (457-474), Zeno (474-491), and Anastasius (491-518). During this period two Augustae -- Verina and Ariadne -- took a part in imperial politics, and made up in wickedness and intrigue what they lacked in culture and piety. Next followed the house of Justin, which produced two remarkable women in Theodora and her niece Sophia, the latter, though not the equal of her aunt in strength of character, yet leaving her mark on the history of her times.

Following the death of Sophia there was for nearly forty years a break in the predominance of self-asserting Augustae. Of the wives of Tiberius, Maurice, and Phocas, we know merely the names -- respectively, Anastasia, Constantina, and Leontia Augusta. Heraclius's memorable reign was shared with two empresses, the first of whom, Eudocia, did nothing to win publicity, while the career of the second -- Martina -- recalls the wickedness and the intrigue of Verina and Sophia. But the spouses of the successors of Heraclius did not follow Martina's ignoble example, but were women of whom nothing was recorded either of praise or blame. We do not even know the name of the wife of Constans II., who entered upon a long reign after the exile of Heracleonas, son of Martina. Anastasia, the spouse of Constantine IV., Theodora, queen of the second Justinian, Maria, spouse of Leo III., the Isaurian, and Irene, Maria, and Eudocia, the three wives of Constantine V., played so little part in political affairs that they are hardly better known than the nameless wives of the emperors who filled up the interval between the second Justinian and Leo the Isaurian (695-716).

This brief resume brings us to the reign of the Empress Irene, who in energy, in wickedness, and in ambition made up for all the deficiencies of her predecessors. Having devoted separate chapters to the most celebrated Augustae of the Eastern Empire -- Eudoxia, Pulcheria and Eudocia, and Theodora -- we shall group into one chapter our brief consideration of the lives and characters of the less renowned but no less pronounced Augustae of the intervening periods -- Verina, Ariadne, Sophia, Martina, and Irene.

Verina and her daughter Ariadne, through their wickedness and ambition, cast dark shadows over the otherwise bright history of the house of Leo the Great. Verina, the imperial consort of Leo, was a woman of little cultivation but of great natural gifts, fond of intrigue, ambitious of power, and implacable in hatred and revenge. Of her two daughters, Ariadne had married Zeno the Isaurian, one of the most illustrious and able officials of the Empire. Leo, the offspring of this union, was selected as the heir and successor of Leo I., but upon the death of the lad, shortly after his accession, Zeno was raised to the throne, much to the disgust of the empress-mother Verina. She fostered'a conspiracy for the downfall of Zeno and the elevation of Patricius, her paramour, and as a result of her intrigues Zeno had to forsake his throne and flee to the mountain fastnesses of Isauria, his native country, together with his wife Ariadne and his mother Lallis. Verina's brother, Basiliscus, aspired to the throne, but she opposed his claims in order to win the purple for Patricius. After Zeno's flight, however, the ministers and senators elected Basiliscus as his successor, and the new emperor entered upon a most unpopular and checkered reign of only twenty months. His queen was named Zenonis, a young and beautiful woman, who soon gained an unenviable reputation because of her manifest fondness for her husband's nephew Harmatius, a young fop, noted for his good looks and his effeminate manners. An ancient chronicler tells the story of this intrigue:

|Basiliscus permitted Harmatius, inasmuch as he was a kinsman, to associate freely with the empress Zenonis. Their intercourse became intimate, and, as they were both persons of no ordinary beauty, they became extravagantly enamored of each other. They used to exchange glances of the eyes, they used constantly to turn their faces and smile at each other, and the passion which they were obliged to conceal was the cause of grief and vexation. They confided their trouble to Daniel, a eunuch, and to Maria, a midwife, who hardly healed their malady by the remedy of bringing them together. Then Zenonis coaxed Basiliscus to grant her lover the highest office in the city.|

This palace intrigue was soon brought to an end, however, by the fall of Basiliscus and the restoration of Zeno in 477, in spite of the intrigues of Verina. After Zeno's return, his most powerful minister, the Isaurian Illus, became the object of Verina's enmity and machinations. She even formed a plot to assassinate him, which he was fortunate enough to discover and frustrate. Recognizing that his power would not be secure so long as Verina was at large, he begged Zeno to consign to him the dangerous woman; and the emperor, doubtless glad to be rid of his redoubtable mother-in-law, gave her over into his hands. Illus first compelled her to take the vows of a nun at Tarsus, and then placed her in confinement in Dalisandon, an Isaurian castle.

But Illus had only got rid of one female foe to find a more bitter antagonist in the latter's daughter, the empress Ariadne. She made the second attempt on his life in 483, and used all her arts of intrigue to estrange from him the Emperor Zeno. Finally, realizing that his life was not safe in Constantinople, Illus withdrew from the court, and later attached himself to the cause of the rebel Leontius, who sought to overthrow Zeno. In support of the rebel's cause, Illus turned to his quondam enemy Verina, the empress-mother, who from her prison castle was glad to seize the opportunity to deal a blow to her ungrateful son-in-law. To give the semblance of legitimacy to the cause of Leontius, Verina was induced to crown him at Tarsus, and she also issued a letter in his interest, which was sent to various cities and exerted a marked influence on the disaffected. Leontius established an imperial court at Antioch, but was speedily overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. The two leaders of the conspiracy, with Verina, took refuge in the Isaurian stronghold of Papirius, where they stood a siege for four years, during which time Verina died. The fortress was finally taken through the treachery of Illus's sister-in-law, and Illus and Leontius were slain.

After the death of Zeno, Anastasius was in 491 proclaimed emperor through the influence of the widowed empress Ariadne, who married him about six weeks later and continued to be an influence in politics during Anastasius's long and successful reign.

In Verina and Ariadne we see a mother and a daughter exceedingly alike in character, but frequently at cross purposes with each other because of their similar traits. Both were ambitious, both fond of intrigue, and both ready to commit any crime when it answered their purpose. Verina, pleased at the accession of her grandson Leo, whom she could control, was chagrined and disappointed when upon the lad's death his masterful father was elevated to the throne; and, continuing her intrigues, she lost first her royal station and then her freedom and her life in her endeavor to do an injury to her son-in-law. Ariadne quickly grasped the power which her mother had lost, and has the unusual record of choosing her husband's successor on the throne and of being the imperial consort of two rulers in succession.

We pass now to the dynasty of Justin and to a consideration of the niece of the great Theodora, Sophia, empress of Justin the Younger, nephew and successor of Justinian.

The poet Corippus gives a dramatic account of the elevation of Justin and Sophia. During Justinian's long illness the two were faithful attendants at his bedside and ministered to his every want. Finally, one morning, before the break of day, Justin was awakened by a patrician and informed that the emperor was dead. Soon after, the members of the Senate entered the palace and assembled in a beautiful room overlooking the sea, where they found Justin conversing with his wife Sophia. They greeted the royal pair as Augustus and Augusta; and the twain, with apparent reluctance, submitted to the will of the Senate. They then repaired to the imperial chamber, and gazed, with tearful eyes, upon the corpse of their beloved uncle. Sophia at once ordered to be brought an embroidered cloth, on which was wrought in gold and brilliant colors the whole series of Justinian's labors, the emperor himself being represented in the midst with his foot resting upon the neck of the Vandal giant. The next morning, Justin and his imperial consort proceeded to the church of Saint Sophia, where they made a public declaration of the orthodox faith.

In taking this step, Sophia showed that she had the ambition but not the political acumen of her aunt Theodora. Like the latter, she had been originally a Monophysite; but a wily bishop had suggested that her heretical opinions stood in the way of her husband's promotion to the rank of Caesar, and in consequence she found it advisable to join the ranks of the orthodox. Unfortunately, by this step the balance of the religious parties, which Theodora had so successfully maintained, was broken, and the later years of Justin's reign were disgraced by the persecution of the Monophysites, so that great disaffection toward the throne was created throughout the East.

The religious ceremony was soon followed by the acclamations of the populace in the Hippodrome, which were made all the more hearty through the act of Justin in discharging the vast debts of his uncle Justinian; and, before three years had elapsed, his example was imitated and surpassed by the empress, who delivered many indigent citizens from the weight of debt and usury -- an act of benevolence which won for her the gratitude and adoration of the populace.

Thus auspiciously began the reign of Justin and Sophia, which the royal pair had proclaimed was to be an new era of happiness and glory for mankind; but, though the sentiments of the emperor were pure and benevolent and it was the ambition of the empress to surpass her aunt Theodora, neither had the intellectual gifts equal to the task, and during their reign the Empire was subjected to disgrace abroad and to wretchedness at home.

Much the same ingratitude which Belisarius had experienced at the hand of his imperial mistress was visited upon his eminent successor, Narses, by the new empress. She sent Longinus, as the new exarch, to supersede the conqueror of Italy, and in most insulting language recalled the eunuch Narses to Constantinople. |Let him leave to men,| she said, |the exercise of arms, and return to his proper station among the maidens of the palace, where a distaff should be again placed in the hands of the eunuch.| |I will spin her such a thread as she shall not easily unravel!| is said to have been the indignant reply of the hero, who alone had saved Italy to the Empire. Instead of returning to the Byzantine palace, he returned to Naples and later dwelt at Rome, where he passed away and with him the only military genius great enough to ward off the invasion of the Lombards.

After a reign of a few years the faculties of Justin, which were impaired by disease, began to fail, and in 574 he became a hopeless lunatic. The only son of the imperial pair had died in infancy, and the question of a successor now became a serious one. The daughter, Arabia, was the wife of Baduarius, superintendent of the palace, who vainly aspired to the honor of adoption as the Caesar. Domestic animosities turned the empress elsewhere.

The artful empress found a suitable successor in Tiberius, the young and handsome captain of the guards, and, in one of his sane intervals, Justin, at her instance, created him a Caesar. During the few remaining years of Justin's life, Tiberius showed himself to both his adopted parents a filial and grateful son, and meekly submitted to all the exactions of his empress-mother. Though relying on Tiberius for the sterner duties of the imperial office, Sophia retained all her authority and sovereignty as Augusta and would not submit to the presence of another queen in the palace. Tiberius was already a husband and father. In a sane moment, Justin, with masculine good nature and blindness to feminine foibles, blandly suggested that Ino, the wife of the Caesar, should dwell with Tiberius in the palace, for, he added, |he is a young man and the flesh is hard to rule.| But Sophia immediately put her foot down. |As long as I live,| said she, |I will never give my kingdom to another| -- words that were possibly a reminiscence of the celebrated saying of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, |I am a queen; and as long as I live I will reign.| Consequently, during the lifetime of Justin, Ino and her two daughters lived in complete retirement in a modest house not far from the palace. Her social status aroused considerable interest among the ladies of the court circle, who found it difficult to decide whether or not they should call on the wife of the Caesar. At tables and firesides this question was gravely discussed, but no one would take the initiative of visiting Ino without first consulting the wishes of Sophia. Finally, when one of the ladies, with considerable trepidation, ventured to ask the empress, she was scolded for her pains; |Go away and be quiet,| responded the imperious Sophia, |it is no business of yours.|

When, however, a few days before the death of Justin, Tiberius was inaugurated emperor, he at once installed his wife in the palace, to the chagrin of the empress-mother, and had her recognized by the factions of the Hippodrome. A conflict arose as to what should be her Christian name as empress: the Blues wished to change her pagan name to |Anastasia,| while the Greens urged stoutly the adoption of the name of the sainted |Helena.| Tiberius decided with the Blues, and as Anastasia Ino was crowned Empress of the East.

During the long apprenticeship of Tiberius, Sophia had held the purse strings and had kept the young Caesar on an allowance which seemed too small to comport with his imperial prospects. Upon becoming emperor, however, Tiberius quickly rid himself of the dictation of his patroness. He gave her a stately palace in which to live, and surrounded her with a numerous train of eunuchs and courtiers; he paid her ceremonious visits on formal occasions and always saluted the widow of his benefactor with the title of mother. But it was impossible for Sophia to overcome her disappointment at being deprived of power, and she set on foot numerous conspiracies to dethrone Tiberius and to bring about the elevation of some one whom she could control. The chief of these plots centred about the young Justinian, the son of Germanus of the house of Anastasius. Upon the death of Justin a faction had asserted the claims of Justinian; but Tiberius had freely pardoned the youth for aspiring to the purple and had given him the command of the Eastern army. Sophia seized upon the acclamation which the renown of his victories inspired to start a conspiracy in his interests, but Tiberius heard in time of the intended uprising and by his personal exertions and firmness suppressed the conspiracy. He once more forgave Justinian, but he realized the necessity of restraining the activity of the rapidly aging, but still clever and intriguing, ex-empress. Sophia was deprived of all imperial honors and reduced to a modest station, and the care of her person was committed to a faithful guard who should frustrate any further attempts on her part to play a part in the game of imperial politics. Thus the ambitious niece of Theodora passed off the stage of action after a career which, beginning with every promise of brilliant success and high renown, had, after many vicissitudes, ended in humiliation and disgrace.

Heraclius's long and memorable reign, from 610 to 641, was characterized by much domestic infelicity. Upon the day of his coronation he celebrated his marriage with the delicate Eudocia, who bore him two children, a daughter, Epiphania, and a son, Heraclius Constantine, the natural successor to the throne. Heraclius's second wife was his own niece Martina, the marriage being considered incestuous by the orthodox and becoming the cause of much scandal. The curses of Heaven too seemed to be upon the union; of the children, Flavius had a wry neck and Theodosius was deaf and dumb; the third, Heracleonas, had no pronounced physical deformity, but was lacking in intellectual power and in moral force. The physical sufferings of Heraclius in his last years were also looked upon as retribution for his sin.

Martina's influence upon her aged husband in his declining years was unbounded. Full of ambition and intrigue, she induced him upon his deathbed to declare her son Heracleonas joint heir with Constantine, hoping thus herself to wield imperial power. |When Martina first appeared on the throne with the name and attributes of royalty, she was checked by a firm, though respectful opposition; and the dying embers of freedom were kindled by the breath of superstitious prejudice. 'We reverence,' exclaimed the voice of a citizen, 'we reverence the mother of our princes; but to those princes alone our obedience is due; and Constantine, the elder emperor, is of an age to sustain in his own hand the weight of the sceptre. Your sex is excluded by nature from the toils of government. How could you combat, how could you answer, the barbarians who, with hostile or friendly intentions, may approach the royal city? May Heaven avert from the Roman Republic this national disgrace which would provoke the patience of the slaves of Persia!' Martina descended from the throne with indignation and sought a refuge in the female apartment of the palace.|

But, though deprived of the outward prerogatives of supreme power, she determined all the more to wield the sceptre through the power of her son. The reign of Constantine III. lasted only one hundred and three days, and at the early age of thirty he expired. The belief was prevalent that poison was the means used by his inhuman stepmother to bring him to his untimely end. Martina at once caused her son to proclaim himself sole emperor. But the public abhorrence of the incestuous widow of Heraclius was only increased by this deed, for Constantine had left a son, Constans, the natural heir. Both Senate and populace rose in indignation, and compelled Heracleonas to comply with their demand that Constans be made his colleague. His submission saved him for only a year. In 642 he was deposed by the Senate, and he and his mother Martina were sent into exile. So violent was the popular rage that the tongue of the mother and the nose of the son were slit -- the first instance of the barbarous Oriental custom being applied to members of the royal house.

Martina was always looked upon by the devout of her age as |the accursed thing.| She had by intrigue won the hand of her widowed uncle, by intrigue exerted a dominating influence over the emperor even up to his dying moments, and by intrigue tried to determine the destiny of her son and her stepson. But the intriguing widow reaped in public abhorrence the natural results of her offences. For a time the people endured the abomination of her unnatural crimes, but at last they visited upon her a well-merited punishment.

The reign of the empress Irene is noteworthy because of her restoration of the images banished by Leo the Isaurian and his successors, and because it marks the end of all union between the Eastern and Western Empires and the beginning of the Byzantine Empire strictly so called. Hence, it deserves more minute attention than the other reigns we have briefly sketched, and some mention must be made of the history of the religious movement with which Irene's name is so intimately connected.

Leo III., the Isaurian, the most remarkable of the Byzantine emperors since the days of the great Justinian, made his long reign from 717 to 740 memorable by his victories over the Saracens and his long and bitter conflict against the image worship and relic worship which had developed rapidly throughout the Empire and had assumed the aspect of fetichism.

The early Christians, owing to their Jewish proclivities, had felt an unconquerable repugnance to the use of images, and their religious worship was uniformly simple and spiritual. As the Greek influence spread throughout the Church, however, there developed a veneration of the Cross and of the relics of the saints. Then it was thought that if the relics were esteemed, so much the more should be the faithful copies of the persons of the saints, as delineated by the arts of painting and sculpture. In course of time, by a natural development, the honors of the original were transferred to the copy, and the Christian's prayer before the image of the saint ceased to distinguish between the counterfeit presentment and the saint it was designed to portray. As healing power was attributed to many of the images and pictures, the popular adoration of them grew. Thus, by the end of the sixth century the worship of images was firmly established, especially among the Greeks and Asiatics. Many pious souls began to see that this idolatry of the Christians hardly differed from the idolatry of the Greeks, and that they had no potent arguments against the assertions of Jews and Mohammedans that Greek Christianity was but a continuation of Greek paganism. Consequently, a reaction began, which reached its culmination in the reign of Leo the Isaurian, who, because of his active hostility to images, was surnamed Leo the Iconoclast. His measures were severe, and he introduced a movement which involved the East in a tremendous conflict of one hundred and twenty years.

Leo's son, Constantine V., -- Copronymus, -- was a more cruel and determined iconoclast than his father; but into his own family circle he was destined to introduce a member who was to set at naught the efforts of father and son and restore the worship of images to its former flourishing estate. Copronymus himself had had three wives, the most prominent of whom was a barbarian, the daughter of a khan of the Chazars; but for the wife of his son and heir, Leo IV., he selected an Athenian virgin, an orphan of seventeen summers, whose sole endowment consisted in her beauty and her personal charms. As in the case of Athenais, nothing is known of the antecedents of Irene. Who her parents were, what was her education, how many years she lived in her native city -- these are questions of idle speculation. -- Her imperial career shows that she was a woman of remarkable beauty and fascination, of highly trained intellectual gifts and Hellenic temperament, and from this we are led to infer that she had in her youth the best instruction her native city afforded.

The nuptials of Leo and Irene were celebrated with imposing splendor, and the new princess rapidly became an important influence in the life of the palace, winning the regard of her father-in-law and acquiring an indisputable ascendency over her feeble husband. Irene, though a Christian, inherited the idolatry and the love of images and ritual of her ancestors; but during the remaining years of the reign of Copronymus and the four short years in which her husband occupied the throne she repressed her zeal, and by clever dissimulation hid her devotion to the cause of the image worshippers.

Leo left the Empire to his son Constantine VI., a lad of ten years, with the empress-dowager Irene as sole regent and guardian of the Roman world. During the minority of her son Irene discharged with vigor and assiduity all the duties of public administration and enjoyed to the full the irresponsible power of her office of regent. She took advantage of her power to restore the worship of images and thus won the favor of a large faction of the populace and the clergy. She endeavored to bring up her son in such a way that he should continue to be subservient to her, and as he approached the age at which he should assume the reins of government, Irene showed no disposition to yield up her power.

Even when Constantine became of age, he was excluded from state affairs. He had been betrothed to Rotrud, daughter of Charlemagne; but Irene, for the sake of her own power, had broken off the match and compelled him to marry one of her favorites, who was distasteful to him. The maternal yoke, which he had so patiently borne, finally became grievous, and Constantine listened eagerly to the favorites of his own age who urged him to assert his rights. He was finally persuaded to do so, and succeeded in seizing the helm of state. His mother vigorously resisted, but was overcome and compelled to go into seclusion for a time; but Constantine at length pardoned her and restored her former dignity. Irene, however, had by no means relinquished her ambition for sole power, and availed herself of every opportunity to discredit the prince and enhance her own popularity.

Constantine became enamored of one of his mother's maids of honor, Theodota. With the insidious purpose of making him odious to the clergy, who discountenanced divorce and second marriage, Irene encouraged him to put away his wife, Maria, and marry Theodota. The patriarch Tarasius, a creature of the empress-mother, acquiesced in the emperor's wishes, and, though he would not perform the ceremony himself, he ordered one of his subordinates to celebrate the unpopular bans. The affair created great scandal among the monks and was injurious to the prestige of the emperor.

A powerful conspiracy was secretly organized for the restoration of the empress. At length the emperor, suspecting his danger, escaped from Constantinople with the purpose of arousing the provinces and the armies so that he might return to the city with sufficient force to overwhelm the conspirators and establish beyond question his power. By this flight the empress was left in danger, because of the possible exposure of the plot and the indignation of the populace. She acted with her customary shrewdness and duplicity. Among those about the emperor were some who were involved in the conspiracy; so, while appearing to be making ready to implore the mercy and beg the return of her son, she sent to these men a secret communication in which she veiled the threat that if they did not act, she would reveal their treason. Fearing for their lives, they acted at once with the boldness of desperate criminals. Seizing the emperor on the Asiatic shore, they conveyed him across the Hellespont to the porphyry apartment of the palace, the chamber in which he was born. The son was now completely in the power of the mother, in whom ambition had stifled every maternal emotion. In the bloody council called by the traitors she urged that Constantine should be rendered incapable of holding the throne. Her emissaries blinded the young prince and immured him in a monastery. As a blind monk Constantine survived five of his successors; but his memory was revived among men only by the marriage of his daughter Euphrosyne with the Emperor Michael the Second.

For five years Irene enjoyed all the delights and experienced all the bitterness of absolute power. Her crime called down upon her the execration of all the best among mankind, but dread of her cruelty prevented any open outbreak against her. She carried on the movement for the restoration of images, and by her outward piety she caused men to overlook the heinous nature of her crimes. Her reign was noted for its external splendor and the strong influence she exerted on all affairs of state. She offered marriage to the Emperor Charlemagne of the West, but he repelled with repugnance all overtures from the unnatural mother and reminded her that her intrigues had prevented the union of his daughter with the Emperor Constantine. In fact, her accession brought about the final severing of all bonds of union between the eastern and western divisions of the Roman world. Pope Leo regarded a female sovereign as an anomaly and an abomination in the eyes of all true Romans, and he brought to an end all claims the Byzantine dynasty might have on Italy at least, by creating Charlemagne Emperor of the West.

These years of power were troublous ones to the wicked queen, because of rebellions abroad and palace intrigues at home. She had surrounded herself with servile patricians and eunuchs, whom she enriched and elevated to the highest offices of state; but her own example had fostered in them ingratitude and duplicity, and, while they showed her every outward mark of deference, they secretly conspired for her downfall and their own elevation. The grand treasurer, Nicephorus, won over the leading eunuchs and courtiers about the person of the empress, and the decision was reached that he should be invested with the purple. Never was Irene more queenly than in the manner with which she received the intelligence of her fall. When the conspirators informed her that she must retire from the palace, she addressed them with becoming dignity, recounting the revolutions of her life, and accepting with composure her fate. She gently reproached Nicephorus for his perfidy and reminded him that he owed his elevation to her, and she requested the proper recognition of her imperial standing and asked for a safe and honorable retreat. But the greed of Nicephorus would not grant this last request; he deprived her of all her dignities and wealth, and exiled her to the Isle of Lesbos, where she endured every hardship and gained a scanty subsistence by the labors of her distaff. Irene survived the change of her fortune for only one year, and in 803 died of grief -- destitute, forsaken, and lonely.

Because of her wickedness Irene's name is perpetuated in history among the Messalinas and the Lucrezia Borgias. Because of her religious orthodoxy she was canonized as a saint, -- a striking instance of how outward conformity to religion covers a multitude of sins.

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