In Constantinople, circa 500 AD, a girl was born to a poor circus worker and his wife. That child, Theodora, would become an actress, a prostitute, a mistress, a feminist, an empress of the civilized world, and eventually, a saint.
Her colorful life, in some ways not unlike that of Eva (“Evita”) Peron of Argentina, has recently spurred interest by way of a two-book series by James Conroyd Martin, beginning with “Fortune’s Child” and concluding with “Too Soon the Night.”
The incredible life of Byzantine Empress Theodora
Theodora’s storied history begins with her at about the age of five, the second of three girls born to the wife of a bear trainer at the city’s amphitheater, the Hippodrome. Just a few years after the third girl is born, Acacius dies after being mauled by one of his bears.
The mother, an actress and dancer whose name is unfortunately lost to history, devises a plan to have the Greens, the political/sports team that had employed Acacius, hire her new husband as the replacement bear trainer.
To throw herself on their mercy, she choreographs a dance for her three girls to perform in front of them in the Hippodrome just prior to the day’s chariot racing. Her plan falls flat when the girls are ignored; however, the opposing team, the Blues, takes notice of the girls and hires the new stepfather.
As Theodora grows into her teens, she realizes the effect her exquisite beauty has on men. She then becomes a well-known actress and courtesan. Completely entranced by Theodora, the governor of a Byzantine province in North Africa takes her as his mistress.
Eventually, the relationship sours and he sets her adrift with no way to return to Constantinople. A bishop gives her shelter and in the process interests her in his belief regarding the nature of Jesus Christ, a belief at odds with Rome — and one Theodora would espouse until the end.
With time, hardship, and myriad difficulties, Theodora does eventually make it back to Constantinople. There she begins a reformed life and one day meets Prince Justinian, nephew to Byzantine Emperor Justin.
Despite the social constraints of the time and many objections, Justinian gains permission to marry Theodora.
When Justin dies, Justinian and Theodora rule as co-equals. Because the new empress grew up witnessing the often low value placed on girls and women, she becomes an active feminist and demands that certain laws be changed.
Her power extends even to the Church’s rule in Rome, where her influence removes one pope and sees to the election of another.
Justinian and Theodora go on to face two major crises in their rule: the first world pandemic plague that kills much of the known world’s population, and a wholesale city uprising against the throne.
When the rebels appear to be winning, the city leaders, the generals, and even Justinian seem ready to flee by way of a ship that is loaded and standing at the ready.
It is then that Theodora’s most memorable moment in history takes place. She addresses her husband/emperor, his council, and his generals, urging them in a strong, inspirational speech to take courage, stay, and fight. She is quoted as declaring, “I think the purple makes the best shroud.”
New Books about Byzantine Empress’ life
James Conroyd Martin, the author of the duology, came upon Theodora’s fascinating life while studying the Byzantine mosaic masterpieces of Theodora and Justinian in an Art Appreciation course.
Martin explains: “When the professor finished speaking about the exquisiteness of the art, he pointed to the shimmering image of Theodora and said, ‘I am not a writer, class, but if I were, this is the woman I would be writing about.’ At that moment, the idea to write her story clicked in my head.” The mosaics can be found in the Basilica di San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy.
While attempting to stay true to what was known about Theodora’s life and times, Martin chose to create likely scenes and dialogue, as well as a major character: Stephen, a eunuch and confidant of Theodora who is chosen to record in manuscript form the account of her life. Like Eva Peron, Theodora died of cancer at a relatively young age.
Martin is delighted with the success of his two books on Theodora. Over many thousands of books, Fortune’s Child won the Overall Grand Prize, “Book of the Year,” from the Chanticleer International Book Awards in 2019.
The duology has been recorded for audiobooks by the mesmerizing voice actor James Gillies, and Martin is hopeful for a film dramatization, as well as publication by a Greek publisher. Martin, a longtime educator from Illinois, now lives in Portland, Oregon.
He has also authored “The Poland Trilogy,” based on the diary of a young Polish countess in the 1790s.