Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora

This was the first book of several I had on hold at the library that came available, and I was excited to read it.  I heard about this book on Kate Quinn's Facebook page, and she has a remark on the front page.  This novel took me to sixth century Constantinople, to the life of Theodora.  She had a hard life for some time following the death of her father.  He had worked for the Greens at the Hippodrome, training bears.  The Hippodrome was the main arena of entertainment then; chariot races and circus acts.  The Greens and Blues were the main 2 factions and had political power to support or topple emperors.  Her mother remarried not soon after.  During this time there weren't many choices for a woman to make money.  Because of their address they weren't able to get the widow handouts, so Theodora and her older sister Comito took to begging.  The Greens just jeered them even though their father had worked for them, so the Blues took them in.  Their step father was given a job.  Her mother drank a lot which took up a lot of their money, and their little sister Anastasia was still starving.  Sometimes parents would mutilate their child because they usually received more when begging on the streets.  Their stepfather cut off Anastasia's ears, not long after he left the family and the little girl died, probably from an infection and malnutrition.

Theodora and Comito took to the stage at a very young age.  An actress was no better than a prostitute, because they often took their clothes off or were courtesans at the same time.  Theodora served as Comito's assistant, until she earned her own role.  She was good at being a comedian as well as taking off her clothes.  To make more money, both girls had also become courtesans.  During her career Theodora met a rival named Antonina, who later became her best friend.  Despite her attempts to not conceive, she gave birth to a daughter at age 18.  Her sister Comito had kicked her out because Theodora got in the way of her love life.  Antonina found her in labor on the streets, and took her and her daughter in.  She saved her life and helped to watch her daughter so she could go back to work.  Theodora's mother eventually came to find her and moved in as well.  They lived in an upper apartment for some time, Theodora acting and Antonina using her "skills" on men and her mother babysat.  It was well for a woman to find a patrician to fund them to live with them, a patron.  She met a man named Hecebolus, and he wanted to take her to Pentapolis in North Africa to begin his role as governor there.  She took the risk, leaving behind her daughter and took off.  The lovers didn't last long and he abandoned her.  She had no money and no way to get back to Constantinople.

Theodora managed to get herself to Alexandria in Egypt, where she met an important person in her life, Severus.  At this time there was much unrest in religion.  The Emperors had been trying to force religious unity throughout the empire.  Christians in a few areas believed in Monophysitism whereby Christ had only one nature. But the Orthodoxy insisted upon by the emperors held that Christ had two natures; one divine and one human.  Refugees fled to Alexandria as the dissent continued.  Severus was the Patriarch of Antioch, and he took her under his wings.  He taught her and she became a Monophysite, leading a more spiritual life.  It was the first time in many years she didn't have to sleep with men for money.  In the book it says she had Hecebolus's child, a boy, and that Severus helped her to live while she recovered.  She traveled some time later to Antioch where she met a dancer named Macedonia.  She finally arrived back in Constantinople in 522.  She decided after her spiritual time to lead a better life for her children.  She spinned for work, and Antonina helped her with her children.  Her mother had passed away while she had been gone.

Her destiny was soon coming with the help of Macedonia; she met Justinian, nephew to the emperor Anastasius.  He fell in love with her quick wit and knowledge.  She hid that she had a son from him, for fear what he would think of a possible threat to his heirs or throne.  After the passing of Anastasius and a bill that would clear the way for a patrician to marry an actress, they were married.  She was his mistress first then he raised her to a patrician.  Her daughter came to live with them, and her son stayed with Antonina.  Theodora was crowned along with Justinian, he loved her very deeply and valued her.  She was a very capable empress, helping to stem the Nika riots.  She helped Justinian to rebuild and reform Constantinople.  They built aqueducts, bridges, and more than 25 churches, the best of which was the Hagia Sophia.   In spite of Justinian being Chalcedonian, Theodora founded a Miaphysite monastery and supported the religion all her life.  The plague hit and took almost 10,000 people a day, and Justinian barely survived.  The throne was not without its troubles or enemies. 

Belisarius was a general of Justinian's, and one Theodora disliked.  He made mistakes among many victories, and funneled a lot of treasure and money into his own accounts.  Justinian turned a blind eye to his faults because of his usefulness.  She had matched him up with Antonina when her husband died, so she could have wealth and close ties to Theodora as empress.  Antonina cheated on him with her godson and it was widely known.  At this time, Theodora found out that her friend Macedonia, who had helped her so much in her life to finding Justinian, had allied with her worst enemy John the Cappadocian.  He had found out she had a son and was blackmailing her in exchange for not telling Justinian.  He had also formed his own political party and had spread vicious rumors about Theodora, and he was also implicated in the murder of the Bishop of Cyzius.  She discovered that John wanted her out of the way and so she set a trap for him.  It worked and he was imprisoned until after her death, stripped of his titles and wealth, which were given to his daughter Euphemia.  Theodora was smart and knew she couldn't make such a blatant attempt on the life of her husband's favorite.

Macedonia had told Theodora that her son had died on a boat, but then she found a man his age with an amulet she had had sent to him.  He pretended to be her son, until she found out he wasn't by Antonina.  Macedonia and John's devious plot was uncovered, and Antonina and Theodora cut out Macedonia's tongue and beat her to death.  It was said she was cut to pieces and dumped in the ocean.  Theodora had been deeply betrayed by a close friend, and mourned the loss of her son.  She found out later that Justinian had known about her son all along.  The book flashes years ahead to when Theodora's daughter is married and has a son, and her niece, Comito's daughter, is being married.  They had founded a new dynasty through their siblings, because they never conceived a child together.  Theodora died at the age of 48 from cancer.  She was always faithful to Justinian and they had loved deeply.  Her influence on Justinian was so strong that after her death, he worked to bring harmony between the Miaphysites and the Chalcedonian Christians in the Empire, and he kept his promise to protect her little community of Miaphysite refugees in the Hormisdas Palace. 

My Thoughts:  There was so much to this book once Theodora became empress, that I couldn't include everything.  I skimmed over her enemies and the Nika revolts because I am trying to be concise....trying.  Theodora was certainly a capable empress and ruthless when it came to her enemies.  It is most sad to me that she kept it a secret she had a son, because it shadowed her entire life.  It is not known whether she actually had a son or not but in the book she did.  Justinian never remarried after her death, some say because of how much he loved her.  This was a good book, one historical lovers will enjoy.  There is violence, sickness and sexual promiscuity so be cautious when reading it.  I enjoyed the book because I always enjoy a love story and seeing a woman come from the street to power.  The main historical sources for her life are the works of the contemporary Procopius, scribe for General Belisarius.  One work portrays her as courageous and influential, another shrewish and whoreish.  The third flattered her beauty and piety, so his record has to be taken with a grain of salt.  I love how this author filled in the historical gaps as well as took her own take on Procopius' Empress Theodora.  Theodora did pass some laws that were helpful to actresses, women that were raped or seeking a divorce on the grounds of infidelity.  She was well known for her piety and beauty.

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