Dancing for all She’s Worth

The heroine of my novel, Empress Theodora, lived more than a millennium and a half ago in sixth-century Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Her story is literally a rags-to-riches tale that’s almost too implausible to imagine. It seems like the stuff of fairy tales: either Cinderella rescued from neglect by her Prince or Rumpelstiltskin spinning chaff into gold. Yet the true story of her rise from ignominy to the peak of power is even more outlandish. She was no virginal maiden like Cinderella. Theodora, a “fallen woman”, had to take the wheel herself in order to spin gold out of the degradation of her beginnings.

What we mostly know about Theodora comes from a biased account that labels her a lustful degenerate, an immoral prostitute and an opportunistic slut. That lewd portrayal by the court historian Procopius raises the question: was Theodora a whore or a hero?

Theodora

Like most dichotomies, this one is false. Theodora was both. She was definitely a whore, since her birth in the circus condemned her to a life of harlotry. She had no option but to become a performer; these professions were hereditary – there was no escape. So in her early life Theodora excelled as a burlesque actress, which meant, ipso facto, she was also a prostitute. The most she could aspire to (after becoming the most celebrated exotic dancer of her day, a star akin to Marilyn Monroe) was to become a high-priced courtesan. Which she also did.

It’s what Theodora, the bear-keeper’s daughter, did next that shows her mettle. Rather than remain in the career path she inherited, Theodora struck out to escape it. Her transformation from courtesan to co-ruler of the Roman Empire didn’t just happen by accident. To say such a leap in status was extremely unlikely is a gross understatement. It took grit, courage and what President Obama calls in his memoir “the audacity of hope”, if I may use his words in this context.

The fact that Emperor Justinian married her certainly attests to Theodora’s personal charms and seductive skills, which she had no doubt perfected. But how she conducted herself once she attained that lofty perch is what separates her from being a mere trophy wife. She used her position and power to enact legislation that significantly improved the lives and legal standing of women and children in the Empire. And when the Emperor and his generals quailed before rebels seeking to overthrow Justinian’s regime…well, let’s just say it took a kick-ass ex-harlot to stand up to the howling mob.

This is not to say that Theodora was flawless. But it’s her faults that make her fascinating. Theodora posed the question herself when she first launched on her unlikely trajectory: can a clown aspire to a crown? Conventional wisdom would have said “No way!” Undeterred by convention and perhaps by wisdom, too, Theodora made her own way, and at a time when women typically had no independent way to make.

Back to the question: whore or hero? Dorothy Parker famously quipped, “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” Theodora’s story proves how bigoted and misogynistic that so-called witticism is.

Far from Theodora’s early life wrecking her prospects for the future, her life on the streets gave her a steely determination to escape. A determination that makes even a control freak like Madonna look limp. Her rise from the gutter may have originated with her body and its appeal, but it was her brain and will power that got her out of the gutter with her soul intact.

Her story may defy credibility. But it’s true.

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