Thursday, June 11, 2009

Empress Theodora: A screenplay's a-brewin'!

A couple of nights ago, I was watching a program about the Dark Ages on the History Channel. Conventional wisdom is that the Dark Ages began with the sack of Rome in 476 by the Germans, but the show pointed out that it was only the Western Roman Empire that fell at that time, and that things weren't so completely "dark" in the Eastern Empire and in other parts of the world.

One dramatic part of the show that caught my attention was that of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor Justinian. He was a decent enough fellow, but just 5 years into his reign, there was great unrest in the empire due to his tax policies. One day in 532 when he was watching chariot races between his supporters (the Blues) and their rivals (the Greens) in the Hippodrome that adjoined his palace, the frenzied crowd, instead of yelling at the rival team, began to insult the emperor. Then, horrifyingly, the two chariot teams stopped competing and banded together to storm the palace, accompanied by the frenzied crowd.

In the midst of all the chaos, Justinian (with justification!) freaked out and prepared to make his escape via a sea route open to him. But his wife Theodora put her foot down and insisted on staying, saying: "Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress." She also expressed her willingness to fight and die by quoting an ancient Roman saying, "Royalty is a fine burial shroud." Her speech rallied both Justinian and his supporters, and he was able to muster the balls and the men to quell the insurrection. (Fighting in the city lasted a week; 30,000 died. Justinian went on to rule for another 33 years, until his natural death.)

While watching the show, I was completely caught up in the story of the riots, feeling both the lynch-mob excitement of the crowd and the fear of the emperor. And was completely amazed by the (to me, since I didn't know my history) unexpected turn of events brought on solely by the Empress Theodora's insanely brave last stand.

Who the heck WAS she??

Her story, as I found out after Internet searches the next day, was/is completely amazing, a true "rags-to-riches" story! Her father was a bear-trainer at the Hippodrome. After his death, her mother, a dancer/actress, basically sold the girl (at age 10) into prostitution, in the guise of having her become a stage performer (pretty much the equivalent of "prostitute" at the time). As a teenager, she continued as an actress and became a courtesan (i.e.,"prostitute," just for richer men!). While she was performing, she met Justinian, 2 years before he became emperor. He (also initially from peasant stock) fell madly in love and had her raised to patrician status so he could marry her.

The ancient historian Procopius has plenty to say about her sexual exploits both onstage and privately in his "Secret History" (written in either 550 or 558). Here's one of the milder (!) excerpts:

"Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat."

See this Wikipedia link for even more graphic sexual details, as well as a complete look at her life overall.

My jaw had already dropped in amazement over her empire-saving speech at the riots. Then there was all of the sex stuff in titillating detail thanks to Procopius. Then, after reading further at the Wikipedia link above, I was also very interested to learn what she did once her power, and her husband's, was solidified.

Aside from some very petty personal acts against women of the aristocracy (she forced a couple of them to marry crude plebes far beneath them, though she later tried to make amends by raising the husbands' official status), Theodora actually had a great influence advancing women's rights in Justinian's successful efforts at codifying Roman law. It was fascinating to see her own personal psychological background in play. Empire-wide laws that came into being because of her direct influence: Rapists and "kidnappers of women" were given capital punishment. It became illegal to force women or girls onto the stage or into prostitution.

Theodora died at around age 48, in 548. (Justinian went on to rule until his death in 565, known primarily for his codifying of Roman law and for the "blossoming of Byzantine culture" that occurred during his reign. Oh, yes, and for the 532 riots!) They are both now saints in the Orthodox church.

I can't stop thinking about her! That incredible speech that saved her husband. His love for her and trust in her. Her personal harsh background and her later successful attempts to, because of that harsh psychological/physical past, very drastically help other women and change their lives for the better.

What a goddamn great story! I feel a screenplay a-brewin'...! :)


casu2 said...

ONE sreenplay? Sounds like a trilogy to me, to say the least...
what a story!

Beth Austin said...

I'm really hyped up about how interesting and cinematic her whole story is! Can't believe no one's ever done anything about her before. I just wrote the first scene!