Palace eunuch and secretary Stephen records Empress Theodora’s life as she navigates wars, political and religious crises, a citywide rebellion, and the first world plague pandemic, all in a male-dominated world. As the most powerful woman of the Byzantine Empire, one-time prostitute Theodora installs her own candidate for pope, legislates women’s rights, and shuts down a massive riot, saving the empire.
As James Conroyd Martin stated in his afterword, he did not originally intend to write two books about Empress Theodora. Impossible! Her story was so complicated I’m almost surprised he didn’t require three volumes. As with book one, much of the story is told from the point of view of the eunuch Stephen, her friend/secretary/confidant (before she carelessly sent him to prison for five years…as we know from book one). His part, written in first person, is interspersed with her story told in third person. We get the background of the conflict between the empress and Procopius, who we know—also from book one—intends to write a scathing expose about her and Justinian. This unlikely rags-to-riches story about Theodora is one of history’s most amazing traditions, and her accomplishments stand as proof that anything is possible given the right circumstances. Theodora’s meeting with the future emperor Justinian might have been attributed to luck, but she deserves credit for her future successes. To rule side-by-side as an equal with an emperor in a world that negates women is a major statement of intelligence and audacity. And Theodora has both “in spades”:
Not one to suffer stage fright in her acting years, she had often bolstered the courage of fellow actors so that now she took her gaze from Justinian and peered into the faces of those around the table. Turning back to her husband, she smiled, drew herself up, as if she could attain the height she once longed for, and said, “For myself, I think the purple makes the best shroud.”
When she next looked down the table, she saw Belisarius leaning over toward Mundus in whispered conversation. After no more than two minutes, both generals stood.
“Master,” Belisarius said, “the words of the mistress ring in our ears like blasts from Joshua’s trumpet. If it is your will, our armies are prepared to stand and fight.” Mundus nodded in support.
Theodora brought her gaze back to Justinian. He was looking at her with the oddest hint of a smile, as if in wonderment.
The above excerpt came from the most frightening crisis in their reign, so alarming that they considered running for their lives. They are not the most popular of rulers, and it seems they hang onto their power mostly because of the loyalty of their generals. It’s an ongoing question whether those loyal generals might have an eye to the diadem itself, and Theodora is continually deep in covert plots to ensure their allegiance or uncover the lack of it. And, naturally, our Stephen is usually drafted to do her dirty work. Because of his devotion to her, he always agrees—even though we know it will eventually lead to his imprisonment. Without his selfless love for her, I think Theodora might not have come across in such a good light because she has many undesirable attributes—selfishness, insensitivity, disregard for anything that might reflect badly on her. But Stephen constantly reminds us of her admirable qualities as well—loyalty to her friends being at the top of the list. It’s an interesting character study of a very complicated historical person.