The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora, by Stephanie Thornton

Stephanie Thornton’s novel of Empress Theodora brought to mind the story of Eva Peron. The similarities are striking. Eva Peron, as you may recall was an Argentinian woman born into poverty who became an actress and married Juan Peron, the most powerful politician in Argentina. She was adulated by the masses and despised by those who knew better. She died of cancer at the age of 42. Theodora, who lived during the early 6th century was the daughter of an animal trainer who worked for one of the charioteer factions of Constantinople. In the novel she was eleven when her father died and his death threw his wife and three daughters into dire poverty. Her mother makes a disastrous marriage which costs the life of her youngest child. She sends Theodora and her thirteen year old sister Comito to try to get jobs at the Kynegion Theater. Theodora has only one card to play, and she plays it to the hilt. Her performance of Leda and the Swan brings her notoriety and she becomes one of the most sought-after courtesans in Constantinople. What Theodora really wants, however is to marry a rich man and become a respectable Kyria. Seeking to do just that, she leaves her love child behind with her friend Antonina and goes to Africa at the invitation of Hecebolus, the dye merchant who has been given the governorship of a province by the newly crowned emperor Justin.
The venture in Africa proves disastrous for Theodora and she ends up being pregnant and stranded in Alexandria. She is taken under the wing of a Monophysite priest named Severus, and resolves to change her ways. She gives birth to a son and after a couple of years she decides to return to Constantinople with her son. On the way she stops in Antioch and meets up with Macedonia, a former courtesan she knew from Constantinople. Macedonia is in the employ of Justinian, Emperor Justin’s nephew and heir apparent. Macedonia gives Theodora a letter of introduction to her patron.
Justinian is enthralled by Theodora at their first meeting and is determined to marry her despite the fact that patricians are not legally permitted to marry actresses. Emperor Justin’s wife, Lupicina, is dead set against the match despite the fact that she was a tavern wench when she met Justin, but, in the end Justin over-rules his wife and Justinian marries Theodora. Not long after that, Lupicina dies and Justin goes into decline, dying several months later. Justinian becomes emperor. Theodora brings her daughter Tasia with her to the palace, but leaves her son with her friend Antonina. She does not tell Justinian that she has a son.
Justinian’s ambitions go far beyond those of his uncle. He wants to recreate the Roman Empire. By this time the Roman Empire was divided into two halves and the Western half is in fragments, ruled by Vandals, Ostrogoths, Franks, and other such ilk. Justinian has a top-notch general named Belisarius, and a brilliant fiscal manager named John the Cappadocian. Theodora has little regard for either one. John the Cappadocian is a twice rejected suitor. She manages to marry her friend Antonina off to Belisarius but Antonina is more interested in her godson Theodosius.
Theodora warns Justinian that John the Cappadocian is corrupt and that his heavy taxes are causing discontent among the populace, but wars are expensive and Justinian is not about to let go of his brilliant financial minister. Theodora is proven right when a full-scale rebellion breaks out and the charioteer factions, the patrician blues and the plebeian greens unite in calling for the abdication of Justinian. Constantinople begins to go up in flames, churches, hospitals and other public building are put to the torch, including the famed church the Hagia Sophia. Justinian’s advisors urge him to flee the city. It is Theodora who stands her ground: “However consider whether after you have reach that safety if you would gladly exchange it for death,” She tells him “As for myself, I believe that Imperial purple is a good burial shroud.”
Justinian sends Belisarius to the Hippodrome to quell the Nika rioters, and he promptly does so at the cost of 30,000 lives.
The secret history is a truly remarkable book, told in the first person by a snarky voiced Theodora. It effectively captures the spirit of the times when what is left of the Roman Empire is a shadow of its former self. Christianity is on the rise and paganism in retreat. The culture is more Hellenistic than Roman. Justinian was, in fact the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin. Unlike Rome of the classical period, there is remarkable social mobility. Emperor Justinian himself is the nephew of a Thracian goatherd, and Theodora has risen to the greatest heights from the lowest depths of society. Despite Justinian’s efforts to reunite the Roman Empire, he succeeds only partially and Western Europe sinks inexorably into the dark ages.
As for Theodora, she dies in her forties, probably of cancer, much like Eva Peron. Someone should write a musical about her with a song: “Don’t cry for me, Constantinople. . .”

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