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A NOVEL OF EMPRESS THEODORA

STEPHANIE THOR NTON

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A CONVERSATION WITH STEPHANIE THORNTON

Q. This is the first novel in a series you plan about the “ forgotten women of history.” Can you tell us what you mean by that phrase and what inspired you to embark on this ambitious project? What about Theodora convinced you that her story had to be told first? A. Our history books tend to focus on men, and while there are a handful of famous (or infamous) women who have been written about many times— Cleopatra, Isabella of Castile, and Anne Boleyn, to name a few—it’s the stories of extraordinary women that few people have ever heard of who most intrigue me. A single sentence in a history book, about Theodora’s involvement in the Nika revolt, originally brought her to my attention while I was teaching world history. After reading Procopius’ The Secret History, an unauthorized first-person account of Justinian’s reign, I realized that there had to be more to her story than the ancient historian allowed for. Theodora was a flesh-and-blood woman, not,
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I suspected, the lusty demoness that Procopius described. I was fortunate to be able to travel to modern-day Istanbul and see Theodora’s monogram in the Hagia Sophia, read the inscription about her piety in the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and ogle the gorgeous Sacred Palace mosaics upon which she might have once walked. I knew then that I simply had to write her story. Q. Why did Procopius hate Justinian and Theodora so much? What other historical record has come down through the ages to complete our current understanding of Justinian’s reign? And are Justinian and Theodora regarded favorably by historians today? A. Other Byzantine writers such as John the Lydian left us histories and records about Justinian’s administration, but The Secret History is the only major primary source we have about Theodora’s early life. While the book was intended to be published after Justinian’s death for obvious reasons, historians are unsure why Procopius wrote such a scathing account. Perhaps he felt slighted at being left out of the imperial circle of power. In any case, it is this book that tells us most of what we know about Theodora. Later writers such as Edward Gibbon and Cesare Baronio mention Theodora, but she is often cast as a sort of notorious femme fatale. More sympathetic biographies have come to light in recent years, including the excellent biography by Paolo Cesaretti, Theodora: Empress of Byzantium. Modern historians tend to view Justinian as the last truly Roman emperor before the advent of the Middle Ages, and his reign as the height of the Byzantine Empire, which began its long decline after the plague and his death.

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Q. I know very little about Constantinople in the fifth century AD, which seems so distant and different from our own time. Can you recap the history of Constantinople in a nutshell, to explain why this city above all others became the new center of the waning Roman Empire? A. Constantinople started out as Byzantion, a small trading town perfectly situated at the joining of the Black and Aegean seas. However, after Constantine the Great won the Battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312, and with it the Roman emperor’s throne, he decided to found a new capital. That distant little trading town seemed the ideal place to remove himself from Rome’s decay, effectively splitting the empire into East and West. People from all corners of the empire flocked to the new capital of Constantinople— pagans and Christians alike—and when Italian Rome fell in AD 476, Constantinople became the only capital left standing. Q. Theodora’s rise from pauper to empress of an empire, before the age of twenty-five, remains an extraordinary achievement. How do you account for it? And was the social order of the time really as flexible as her rise suggests? A. Theodora’s rags-to-riches story wasn’t typical for the majority of the population at the time. If you were born to a poor family in sixth-century Constantinople, you would likely die in a similar situation a few decades later. However, for a lucky few, it was possible to climb from the gutters to the palace. Emperor Justin really did start out as a swineherd who traveled to Constantinople with only a few crackers in his pocket. However, as was typical in Rome,
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military men were often perfectly poised to seize the throne when it became available, and Justinian’s uncle, Justin, managed to bribe his way into power, bringing his barbarian, prostitute-turned-wife, Lupicina, with him. As an unmarried mother with a murky history, Theodora experienced an even more impressive rise because she managed to become empress based on her wits and a fair bit of luck. Macedonia’s letter of introduction to Justinian, his infatuation with her, and Empress Lupicina’s death all combined to allow her extraordinary ascent to power. Q. The women at this time seem to be completely dependent on men for their financial security. Did they truly have no options outside of marriage, prostitution, or the convent? A. There were few professions available to most Byzantine women of Theodora’s time. Upper-class women were expected to remain fairly sequestered in the gynaeceum, or women’s quarters, of their homes, so women at the bottom rungs of society actually had more freedom than their patrician counterparts. Regardless of social stature, marriage was the surest bet for putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. The wife was seen as the head of the household and, depending on her class, she might work in the fields alongside her husband or run the family shop. Fortunately, Byzantium’s literate society ensured that many girls could read and write, but that in no way guaranteed their financial success. Some women became prostitutes, often sold into the world’s oldest profession by families eager to rid themselves of an extra mouth to feed. A very few other women became washerwomen, innkeepers, nuns, or
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midwives. Still, compared to modern standards, a Byzantine woman’s prospects were fairly circumscribed. Q. Can you tell us more about Severus, the deposed Patriarch of Antioch, and the Monophysites? How significant were differing religious beliefs during this time in fomenting social and political unrest? A. Severus was one of the eminent theologians of Theodora’s age and a staunch Monophysite. This religious minority believed that Christ had only one divine nature, as opposed to the more prevalent belief of Christ’s dual human and divine natures. This was a hot topic in sixth-century Byzantium, and emperors (and empresses) often chose sides in this debate. (Justinian typically sided with the Dyophysites and Theodora with the Monophysites). In fact, Severus was appointed Patriarch of Alexandria by the proMonophysite emperor Anastasius, but he was deposed when Emperor Justin sought a reconciliation with Rome and needed to rid himself of the heretical Monophysites. Luckily for Theodora, Severus ended up in Alexandria where he had a profound influence on her life. Q. Despite the wide acceptance of Christianity, this period seems incredibly violent, with blood sports offered as public entertainment. Can you help us make sense of that? A. Fortunately for the Byzantines, their culture wasn’t nearly as bloody as that of their Roman predecessors. Early Byzantine emperors did continue the Roman tradition of bread and circuses, supplementing the people’s diet with grain from Egypt and offering
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a fairly constant schedule of games and chariot races at the Hippodrome. Gladiatorial games like those held in the Colosseum were on the decline after Constantine outlawed them in AD 325, but hunts of wild beasts were often staged, and the half-time entertainment might include a bearbaiting like the one Theodora witnessed. However, it’s also interesting to realize that in some respects the ancient Byzantines would have considered our society even more violent than theirs. For example, Byzantine law typically preferred to blind even the worst criminals or cut out their tongues rather than order an execution. Most modern legal systems would deem that cruel and unusual punishment, but the Byzantines would have seen such disfigurement as being kinder than capital punishment. Q. We’re told that the plague kills off half the population of the empire—a loss that is inconceivable to us today. Do we have any idea of how many people actually died? How did the towns and cities continue to function with such a massive loss of life? And do we have a sense of the long-lasting consequences of the trauma? A. The trauma of Justinian’s Plague on the Byzantine Empire cannot be stressed enough. Procopius recorded that the bubonic plague raged in Constantinople for four months and that ten thousand people died per day during the peak of the disease. The city eventually ran out of places to bury the dead and resorted to tearing the roofs from the towers along the Sykae walls and filling them with bodies. The empire’s loss of roughly twenty million people meant a sharp drop in tax revenues and production, a critical and utterly practical problem for Justinian as he could no
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longer finance his wars and massive building programs. His reign might have ushered in a second Roman golden age, but after the plague of AD 542, the Byzantine Empire instead began its long, painful decline. Q. Did your research suggest that Theodora and Justinian were true soul mates, and their romance one for the ages? What do you think Justinian saw in her that convinced him to marry her, and make her an empress? A. Theodora and Justinian had a romance to rival many of the most famous love stories in history, and theirs certainly had a happier ending than the likes of Antony and Cleopatra or Napoleon and Josephine! Procopius recorded that when Justinian first saw Theodora, he fell violently in love with her and that after he made her his mistress, she seemed the “sweetest thing in the world.” Justinian might have had any woman in the empire, but it was Theodora he chose and essentially fought his aunt and uncle to marry. Theodora was an attractive, well-traveled, intelligent woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and in those qualities Justinian recognized his future empress. After her death, he chose not to remarry, remaining a widower for seventeen years. I like to think he remained alone because he knew no other woman could replace Theodora. Q. Theodora and Justinian had no children of their own, but they forged many marriages that they hoped would secure their continuing dynasty. Were they successful? And what happened to the other major historical characters—Antonina, Belisarius, John the Cappadocian, etc.?
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A. Theodora and Justinian did manage to continue the dynasty, but it was extremely short-lived. Sophia and her husband, Justin II, ruled after Justinian’s death, but Justin suffered numerous mental breakdowns and finally went mad. His successor, Tiberius II Constantine, was a military man and not related to the family, although Sophia proposed marriage to him and was rebuffed. Antonina was sent back to Constantinople to seek more men for Belisarius’ latest foray into Italy, but returned to a city in mourning for Theodora and instead convinced Justinian to recall her husband. The last mention of her by Procopius involves her breaking up a marriage between her daughter, Joannina, and Theodora’s nephew, Anastasius. Nothing is known of her death. Belisarius was sent to fight several more of Justinian’s wars, but he remained a diminished man after his belittlement at the hands of Theodora and Antonina. He died in AD 565, only eight months before Justinian. John the Cappadocian continued to oversee tax affairs in Antinoopolis, although Theodora attempted and failed several times to bring him to trial. Justinian recalled John to Constantinople after her death, but he never returned to political power. Q. What would you most like readers to take away from the novel? A. I hope readers appreciate Theodora’s ferocious tenacity throughout her struggles. Regardless of her situation—being thrown out by her sister, abandoned by Hecebolus at the ends of the earth, or facing an angry mob that wanted to kill her and her husband— Theodora never gave up. I think that’s an important lesson. You never know what you can achieve so long as you never stop trying.
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Q. This is your first published novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer so far? A. I’ve dabbled in writing stories since I was in third grade, but I realized my passion for storytelling while teaching history. I began my first novel about Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who stole the crown from her stepson and ushered in Egypt’s golden age, in 2008, but I set it aside to write The Secret History because I simply couldn’t get Theodora’s story out of my head. Teaching history is a great complement to writing historical fiction—I get the best of both worlds, playing with primary sources by day and writing fiction at night. Q. What can we anticipate from you in the future? A. I’ve moved from the alleys of Constantinople back to the sands of Egypt for my next novel about Hatshepsut. I’m currently at work on my third novel, about the Mongolian wife and daughters of Genghis Khan, the greatest conqueror the world has ever known.

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Questions for Discussion

1. What did you enjoy most about The Secret History? Who is your favorite character? 2. What do you think of Theodora? What do you see as her greatest strengths and flaws? When does she win your admiration and when does she earn your disapproval? 3. What role does luck play in Theodora’s life? 4. Is Theodora a good mother? Is Antonina a better one? 5. Discuss the friendship between Theodora and Antonina. Is theirs the kind of friendship you hope to have? When do they save each other? When do they betray each other? 6. When Macedonia pleads for Theodora’s help after an earthquake leaves her destitute, Theodora deliberately decides not to help. Discuss why she makes this choice and how it comes to haunt her. Would you have done the same?
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7. What do you think makes Theodora and Justinian’s marriage so successful? 8. Justinian is a dedicated ruler. Is he an effective one? Discuss the tactics he uses to acquire and retain power. Do they interfere with his ability to rule wisely? 9. Can you imagine living in Constantinople in the fifth century AD? What kind of life do you think you would have there? What would you most like and most dislike about living in that time and place? 10. Plague had a devastating effect on the Byzantine Empire. Discuss what you imagine the world of today would be like if half the population was suddenly wiped out by illness. 11. Have you traveled to any of the places mentioned in the novel, in particular to Istanbul, the current name for the city that was once Constantinople? How do the places you experienced compare to the way they’re described in the book? 12. What do you hope to remember about this novel?

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