Empress – The rest of the story
“However it occurred…[their meeting] appears to have been a love-at-first-sight thunderbolt. It is worth remembering that among the tons of invective poured over them in subsequent years by doctrinal opponents and political enemies, not a single word accuses either of betraying the other, Their partnership was total, their love for one another complete. ” – Justinian’s Flea, William Rosen
Western readers are familiar with that part of history that was Rome – the Republic, the Empire, Julius Caesar, Nero who fiddled while Rome burned – the classic tropes which are so strongly woven into the cultural fabric of our lives.
They are also familiar with the European Middle Ages, the basis of so many historical novels and fantasies – the names ring with recognition, Richard the Lionheart, Charlemagne, the Crusades, Neuschwannstein Castle and its many copies, the knights and ladies of medieval England and France and Germany and Spain, King Arthur and the middle-ages-that-never-quite-were.
What many of them are not familiar with at all is what came between those two particularly fecund periods of European history, the missing step which connected the ancient Rome to the rousing and romanticised Middle Ages of Western Europe.
That missing step is Byzantium.
Perhaps because so much of its history was spent looking to the east, the Empire of Byzantium, first sibling and then heir to the Empire of Rome, simply never managed to hold the Western reader’s attention.
But it was a rich time, full of passion and power, and it’s disappointing that the only legacy it seems to have left in the Western mind is the meaning which has accreted to the word “Byzantine” when it is used to describe something as being intricate, complicated, and perhaps too difficult to understand.
Byzantium has its own gallery of rogues and heroes, but these names are much less well known in the West. One of the best known of its Emperors was Justinian, whom history sometimes calls “the Great”, perhaps by virtue of the character and identity of Theodora, the woman he made his Empress,
Theodora rose from the lowest rungs of the social ladder to the dizzying heights of Empire – a strong and outspoken woman in a world dominated by men. Much of what is known about her centers on that past, and on the things that she must have done in order to survive it. Period sources candidly name her “Theodora from the brothel”, and accusations of sexual misbehaviour have never ceased to cling to her memory.
But these two, Justinian and Theodora, a somewhat scholarly man much his wife’s senior and the vivid, brilliant woman who understood people and knew how to handle them, between them ruled an Empire at its most brilliant height, and their legacy includes an across-the-board betterment of women’s rights, a law codex on which most of our modern law rests today, and Hagia Sophia. And the unlikely pair were blessed with the kind of enduring relationship, and a complete and utterly mutual partnership based on love, trust and a deep knowledge of one another’s strengths, that not many people have had before or since they ruled Byzantium’s Empire together.
Their lives and times are truly the stuff of story.
Maxentius and Callidora in my story are not, precisely, the historical Justinian and Theodora. The events depicted in this novel mostly happened – but not necessarily in the order I have them in this book, or to the extent to which I chose to take them.
The rising in the final section of the book, for example, has a name – Justinian and Theodora really did weather an insurrection like this, and history has recorded this time as the Nika riots – but neither of them were in the Hippodrome, as I have them do in my story, to personally resolve this crisis.
The Empress’s speech in council, however, is real – in a period of history which has scant primary sources remaining and has been interpreted and reinterpreted any number of ways, that speech has survived, a true gem lost in a mass of glittering imitations, and although the actual words quoted by various books differ a little here and there the gist was the same –
“You may go, Caesar, but I stay, and I will die wearing purple if I cannot live in it.”
It was Theodora, the only woman in a council full of men, in an Empire ruled by men, who saved Justinian’s realm that day – at a price that it seems to be hard for modern historians to pin down. Estimates of casualties from the raid that Justinian sent to the Hippodrome range from 20 000 to 50 000 people – and yes, in my world the number was considerably smaller, because in my world my Emperor called a halt where in the true history Justinian’s general, the celebrated Belisarius, had no such word to stop him.
This is a novel of alternate history. People much like those in my book once lived and breathed and reigned, although my characters are not – quite – those people. Events that occur in my book may have occurred in the distant past, although not – quite – in the manner or the order in which they are depicted here.
I have not attempted truth, except inasmuch as I have tried to convey the emotional truth of the story that I had chosen to bring to a readership which might have been unfamiliar with the names of Justinian and Theodora. For those who wish to pursue independent study of the actual events of their lives and times, there are many history books out there which will serve.
“Empress” is not history – not as you know it – not the compendium of times and dates which define the lives of the Imperial pair. It is, however, true story. If Justinian and Theodora were telling you their own story, independent of the trappings of history, legacy and empire… this is the story that they might tell.