When their father dies suddenly, Theodora and her older sister are forced to support the family by becoming actresses which ultimately leads to a life of prostitution.
When Theodora is courted by Hecebolus, a court official, she believes she has the means to make a better life for herself but it would mean leaving her young daughter behind in Constantinople while she travels to Libya. Believing it is for the best, Theodora agrees to travel with Hecebolus but she realises she has made a grave error when the man’s cruel nature reveals itself. Fleeing for her life, Theodora eventually makes her way back to Constantinople where she comes to the attention of Justinian, nephew and heir of Emperor Justin I, the Eastern Roman Emperor.
Although Justinian is aware of her past and the existence of her daughter, he’s forbidden from marrying an actress and has to wait until the death of the Empress before his uncle feels able to change the laws and bless the marriage to which the Empress was so opposed. After the wedding, Theodora’s hopes of providing Justinian with an heir are immediately dashed when her husband admits he suffers from a rare medical condition that has rendered him infertile. The news is a huge blow for Theodora, particularly since she is hiding the fact she gave birth to a son not long after escaping Hecebolus. The presence of her son at court would complicate matters in regard to the line of succession and place the child in grave danger from rival claimants so Theodora decides to continue to keep him a secret even though it weighs heavy on her conscience.
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora reveals the story of Theodora, the revered Byzantine empress who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful women in the world. The main source of information on Theodora’s life comes from a manuscript called The Wars of Justinian, written by Procopius, an historian, who presented Theodora as a courageous and influential empress. However, Procopius also wrote a second biography called Secret History which offered a far more salacious account of Theodora’s life, concentrating on her life as a prostitute and presenting her as a vulgar social climber. It is this dubious account Thornton has used to depict much of Theodora’s early years, particularly her time as an actress and the fame she gained with her hedonistic version of Leda and the Swan.
Although Thornton has chosen to explore the more colourful aspects of Theodora’s life as presented by Procopius, she has been fair in how she attributes Theodora’s lifestyle as a means of benefitting her family and how she has exhausted all other avenues. Theodora falls into prostitution with great reluctance but her naivety results in the birth of a daughter which makes her even more determined to make a better life for herself. Believing she has found a worthy patron in Hecebolus, Theodora makes the difficult decision to leave her daughter behind while she travels with him to Libya in the hopes he will marry her. However, Theodora’s illusions are soon shattered when she realises he never had any intention of making her his wife. After Hecebolus throws her out, Theodora makes her way to Egypt where she gives birth to his son and then travels back to Constantinople where she is reunited with her daughter.
There is no evidence Theodora ever had a son and it seems Thornton has merely used his existence to inject more drama into Theodora’s life as his secret is eventually used to blackmail her. I’m quite disappointed this became the main focus of Theodora’s life as empress because there were plenty other aspects to explore and we never get to understand why Justinian felt confident enough to call Theodora his “partner in my deliberations”. While the episode where Theodora was instrumental in saving Justinian’s throne by persuading him to stay while the populace was rioting is there, there isn’t much else to highlight her wisdom and her fight for female rights. Theodora was responsible for passing laws prohibiting forced prostitution and was also known for buying girls in order to free them from this lifestyle. Considering the focus on Theodora’s early years, this would have been a nice theme to explore, even though Procopius did later maintain Theodora forced prostitutes into convents.
Theodora and Justinian were also credited with turning Constantinople into one of the most impressive architectural cities in the world but this is only mentioned briefly in the novel when Theodora talks about how the Hagia Sophia is being rebuilt. Instead, the latter chapters focus on how Theodora is duped into believing a servant is her long lost son by her enemies.
In the same way, a large chunk of Theodora’s religious beliefs are never properly explained and I had to look up monophysitism for myself to figure out why it was even being mentioned. What it is to Theodora is never properly explored and I find this strange since her beliefs were in direct opposition to those of her husband’s which would have created plenty of conflict in their marriage. The subject of monophysitism is a complicated one for me since I’m a non-believer, but if I’m understanding it correctly, Theodora believed Jesus Christ only had one nature which was either divine or a perfect blend of both divine and human. On the other hand, Justinian supported the Chalcedonian Creed whereby Christ had two natures, one divine and the other human, which is the definition still supported by most Western churches. While Theodora was often accused of heresy for supporting Monophysite leaders, it is barely mentioned in the book.
I like how Thornton explores the lives of historical females who are often forgotten but I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity because Thornton has chosen to ignore many aspects of Theodora’s life that went a long way into making her the person she became. Real historical facts have been ignored in favour of soap opera elements, mainly around the empresses’s guilt over the abandonment of a child that never existed to the detriment of the one who did exist. The language is also a little too modern with one character in particular referring to her “pocketbook” which threw me completely out of the story.
While I didn’t hate The Secret History, I’m not sure it would have given me enough reason to want to continue reading this author’s books, namely The Conqueror’s Wife and Daughter of the Gods which would’ve been a shame since Thornton obviously improves the more she writes.