There’s actually something called “the great man theory of history”. True, it was first floated by the British writer Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, so it’s not exactly cutting-edge news. Carlyle decided world history was determined not by social, economic and political forces but by outstanding men, saying, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” such as Luther, Napoleon or Shakespeare. Many influential thinkers – all men – signed on to support his proclamation, including Nietzsche, Emerson and Kierkegaard.

In the 1960s the feminist movement tried to put women back into the equation and published books recounting women’s achievements omitted from official histories written by – you guessed it – men. To reverse centuries of neglect, this version changed the word “history” into “herstory”, but it could also be called “sistory”, growing out of the “sisterhood is powerful” ethos.

What does this have to do with Theodora, heroine of The Eagle and the Swan? A lot. Because what happened to Theodora is another instance in which a woman’s reputation and legacy have been ignored, devalued or distorted.

In general parlance, the “great man theory” is countered by the adage “behind every great man there’s a great woman” – either mother, wife, daughter, lover, or assistant. Feminists add, “Behind every man there’s a great woman…rolling her eyes”. History is rife with examples of men getting the credit for women’s contributions, and plenty of writers have rescued female figures from oblivion.

Theodora didn’t have the problem of invisibility. Because of her notorious past as a circus performer, stripper and courtesan, she was all too visible in sixth-century Constantinople. Probably it was because of her low social status that she developed (and displayed) her audacity.

Upper-crust women in the late-Roman period were prohibited from public life. They could go to church, but that was about it. Even there, they had to sit in separate areas in the rear or on the balcony concealed by curtains. Young girls were severely restricted, isolated in their homes, forbidden to look out of windows. Women could go to the public baths only at specific times. They wore tunics and scarves that covered them from head to toe. In general, women married in their teens and were expected to be either pregnant or nursing throughout their fertile years. Birth control was unobtainable except for prostitutes who used a herbal concoction of dubious utility.

Performers and courtesans, on the contrary, were free to mingle in men’s activities. Cladding themselves in opaque cover-ups was not on the cards. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”. That’s where Theodora showed what she was made of. She started with nothing but her wits and talent and beauty, and – maybe because she always had to fight for everything – she rose to a position of power whose influence has radiated through the ages.

In the late Classical period and early centuries of Christianity women were considered spiritually and morally weak, the source of evil and temptation. They were blamed for man’s fall from grace, due to his susceptibility to imbecillitate sexus (the feebleness of her sex). In the sixth century B.C.E. Pythagoras decreed: “There is a good principle, which created order, light, and man, and an evil principle, which created chaos, darkness, and women.” Martin Luther climbed on board in 1533, saying, “Girls begin to talk and to stand on their feet sooner than boys because weeds grow more quickly than good crops.”

Lacking any allegiance to such conventional notions, Theodora used her freedom from expectations to become a revolutionary and evolutionary leader. As co-ruler of the Empire with her husband Justinian, she was not only his partner and intellectual equal but a source of reforms that improved legal rights for women, children and the oppressed. She outlawed pimps and procurers who lured (or stole) girls from poor homes to sell in the sex trade. In Constantinople Theodora saved 500 prostitutes. Even her enemy the court historian Procopius admits, she “set free from a licentiousness fit only for slaves the women who were struggling with extreme poverty”.

A generous patron, she established churches, monasteries, hospitals and convents throughout the Empire. She was instrumental in granting women equal property rights, rights of inheritance, and in making concubines equal to legal wives. Women gained guardianship of their children and their dowries. Infanticide was outlawed under her watch. Women guilty of a crime were sent to nunneries rather than prison to keep them from being raped by guards. Together she and Justinian diminished social barriers, relying on merit for appointments, as in the proclamation: “In the service of God, there is no male or female, nor freeman nor slave”.

Because of the sublime mosaic showing her in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, Theodora is the most visible woman of her day. Yet, as to her character, she remains the most mysterious, forever maligned by the gossipy historian Procopius.

A social reformer and innovator, Theodora ascribed to the credo of Catherine the Great of Russia, another powerful monarch: “Behave so that the kind love you, the evil fear you, and all respect you”. Unfortunately for Theodora’s memory, Procopius did not respect her because of her theatrical background. His are the slanderous words that have come down to us in history.

When the young Queen Victoria asked Lord Melbourne if she should read the works of Horace, her mentor told her it was sufficient to know he existed. It’s not sufficient only to know that Theodora existed and that her beauty still illuminates the dim nave of San Vitale. The Eagle and the Swan tells the buried tale of a performer who played her act on the world stage with panache and brilliance. We know her now through the resonance of her performance in our hearts after the lights go out.


Image - Belleza Pompeiana (1909) by John William Godward