I adore A Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton. I’ll warn of spoilers, though the protagonist is a historical figure, so pretty much any research into her would result in spoilers too. The story is rich in detail and characterization and she expertly writes scenes that provoke an emotional reaction to the events in the book. The book is about Empress Theodora of the Byzantines who ruled the empire for over 20 years. She was the Empress of the Byzantine Empire and wife of the Emperor Justinian, but came from very humble beginnings.
The first third of the story reeks with desperation and pain. When Theodora’s father dies she is thrown in the harsh world of 6th century Constantinople. In order to feed herself and her family she becomes an actress (prostitute), taking anyone who will have her to stay alive. This is made all the more painful and poignant by the fact that she’s only 13. (Some sources say she might have been as young as 9) She makes some progress and temporarily finds a patron, but that quickly falls apart and she’s left with two children to raise by the age of 16.
Theodora is not the first woman to find herself in such a position. Unfortunately, throughout history and even in modern times, selling your body was one of the few options open to women without another means of income, specifically a father or husband. The restrictions placed on women on some cultures, ancient or otherwise, put them in a very precarious position if something happens to their father or husband. What lengths would you be willing to go to in order to survive? How much would you sacrifice to provide for your children? It’s difficult to read what Theodora goes through in her youth, watching as she becomes distrustful, how the abuse and degradation take their toll.
Things have a bit of a bright moment when she ends up in Alexandria and in an act of pure desperation, breaks down in a church there. She is taken in, pregnant and miserable, and allowed to remain in the convent for several months. It’s not just the peace of the environment that helps her, but the fact that she is free from selling herself, from relying on the base levels of humanity for money to feed, clothe and care for herself. She does find religion, echoing a sentiment that I’ve read and heard many times. Due to her previous circumstances she believed that she had been abandoned by God and was bitter and angry over what she had had to endure. This experience really helps to stabilize her life and character, giving her a glimmer of hope that there might be a way for her to live and take care of her family that doesn’t involve prostitution. While her religion doesn’t have an enormous impact on the rest of the book I love how you can almost physically feel the shift from desperation to peace in this piece of writing.
As Theodora starts to get into positions of power, becoming the wife of Consul (and later Emperor) Justinian, she finds that power does not mean peace. In fact, at one point she even laments that even as Empress men still try to exploit her.
In the later portion of her life as Empress, Theodora faces new problems, including secret children, political intrigue, warfare, plague and betrayal from within. It’s an unfortunate position of those in power to never truly know who is loyal to them. In the case of both Justinian and Theodora, they suffer from blindness in terms of the faults of those they love. Each fiercely defending their preferred companions, despite the crippling destruction those companions have brought to the lives of the royal couple. I suppose that’s a difficulty most people face, not wanting to see the negative qualities or dangers of those we love. Theodora and Justinian are loyal to their friends and to each other until the end, even when they are faced with the cold, hard facts of the betrayals. Not to say that those historical figures get away with their crimes, but it’s fascinating to watch the usually strong and sure characters quaver at the thought of punishing their friends for hurting them.
One character who is really quite fun is Antonina. She starts off as an enemy to Theodora, but they eventually become close and history says they were lifelong friends. She’s crass and sometimes ridiculous, but loyal and fascinating. Historically she is said to have had a lot of influence of her husband, and I can easily envision that with the force of personality that Stephanie Thornton has written.
One of the really interesting events in the story is the Plague of Justinian, which is the Black Death, but about 800 years earlier. It had equally devastating effects, resulting in the deaths of 25-50 million people. Justinian himself is infected by the plague, but survives. This survival would have been nothing short of miraculous at the time and proof that he was the God-chosen ruler of the Empire. I suppose if you caught something that killed that many people, it would be a pretty clear sign that you were meant to be doing what you’re doing.
All in all, Justinian was a pretty successful Emperor, expanding the reach of his Empire significantly through Northern Africa, Spain and Italy. Theodora wielded a lot of power at Justinian’s side, but she unfortunately doesn’t live very long, passing away at age 48. It can be noted that Justinian never remarried so I think it’s fairly safe to assume that he loved her deeply as he outlived her by about 17 years.
Here’s me in the heart of the city Theodora ruled, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul)
Happy reading and thanks for stopping by!