Monday, March 3, 2014

Channeling Theodora

She was the daughter of a bear wrangler. As a child, she was probably a beggar and in her teens was some kind of entertainer, which in Sixth Century Constantinople no doubt meant prostitution. In a caste-defying miracle, she married  the heir Justinian and with him in 527 became the most powerful ruler in the Byzantine empire, which extended from north Africa to Rome to present-day Turkey.

Most people have heard of Cleopatra, who lived some two thousand years ago, but few have heard of Theodora,  500 years nearer us in time. Hagia Sophia, the cathedral in present-day Istanbul whose building Theodora supervised, still stands, a world heritage landmark. Her political and military influence affected the course of history.

Mosaics at the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy completed the year before Theodora’s death show a serious dark-eyed woman framed by the extravagant gold and gem-encrusted decor which came to characterize Byzantine art.

Years ago, I read The Female City, a book written about Theodora and the city of Constantinople, written in the 1950s by one Paul I. Wellman, an American journalist.  I  tried for a long time to find another copy of the book  and finally on eBay last month I found and bought a well-worn edition offered by an Australian book store.

Theodora was becoming much better known while I was searching for that book. Unknown to me, Wellman’s book dropped the “City” from the title and was reissued. No fewer than three books about Theodora were published in 2013: Theodora of Constantinople by Elizabeth Elson, The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton, and The Bear Keeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw.

I have these three on my list to read, but frankly, I am not hopeful.

Historical fiction can be a little like Classic Comics or, in the case of Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), sheer fantasy. On the other hand,  it can be so convincing (as in the case of Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian) that it seems to make a case for some kind of extra-sensory perception. Mary Renault’s books set in Crete were consulted during restorations of the ancient sites. Readers of O’Brian’s 21 Aubrey-Maturin seagoing novels find it almost impossible to believe that someone with that detailed knowledge of tall-ship sailing never spent any time at sea.

How Theodora came to reign almost single-handedly over all Byzantium is a bit of a mystery.  Wellman paints Justinian as an indecisive recluse who in his later days wore a monk’s habit and spent his time reading the book of Revelations in hopes of understanding why his empire was beginning to self-destruct. He was happy, according to The Female City, to let Theodora make the decisions.

The Female City has all the names and dates right, but it seems old-fashioned and almost voyeuristic in its attention to the lives of Constantinople’s working women. Wellman’s central female characters spend most of their time bathing, dressing up, and plotting their next conquest. Interestingly, all  his other books were  set in the American West. Some were made into cowboy movies.

While it is a wonder that a writer could have researched this material as meticulously as Wellman did decades before Google and the Internet, what he clearly intended as praise of the central character often seems patronizing and trivial: Three cheers for the little lady.

At the end of The Female City, Wellman writes “A man, though he be nothing himself, may be called great through chance fame, or position, not power. But being a woman is far more fateful and important, not only to herself, but to the world. A woman is judged always as a woman, no matter what she does or is, aside from that all-important fact. So this grave injustice has been done by history: though Justinian, far her inferior in mind and spirit, has come down to us as ‘The Great’, the only title given to Theodora is ‘The Notorious’.”

Justinian is indeed known in history books as “The Great”, but far from being called “The Notorious”, the empress Theodora was canonized as a Christian saint.  She was buried in  548 in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the edifices built under her direction, and her feast day is November 15.