(EXCERPT) Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

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If you haven't had a chance to pick up a copy of BlogHer Book Club's pick Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, here's an excerpt to get you started.


One

Theodora book cover


‘And where is The Pentapolis?’

‘Cyrenaica. North Africa.’

‘North of . . .?’

‘Libya.’

‘On what day do we celebrate the feast of our city?’

‘May the eleventh.’

‘Why?’

‘Why?’

‘Why do we celebrate that day?’

‘It’s the day the City was consecrated. Constantine said — ’

‘Yes, yes. Who has higher status? Consul or General?’

‘Status?’

‘Consul or General?’

‘Ah . . . I . . . General?’

‘Are you asking me or telling me?’

‘I’m . . .’

‘Yes?’

The girl tried to lift her head. She knew if she could only see her older sister, Comito would confirm the answer, but the man was holding her chin tight, his eyes locked on to hers, moving her head was impossible, and she knew too that eventually her teacher would ask a question she could not answer; they’d been going on like this for ten minutes now, sooner or later she would fail and then he would be on top of her and her body would be more his puppet than ever.

‘General?’

‘No. Down.’

And down she went, to the ground, where he kept her for another twenty minutes as he lectured his troupe on the finer points of military structure. Menander’s teaching was thorough, his girls well versed, not only in their routines, but also in the geography, economics and governance of the Empire. Too young to work regularly on the public stages, these girls were worth a great deal as entertainment in private houses; the older ones were highly prized for their conversational abilities as well as their undoubted physical skills. As their eunuch teacher told them, any actress could be taught to dance and sing, to fuck with some skill: those who became truly successful needed intelligence to go with the dance. Other companies might sing prettily and recite their reek and even Latin poems with flawless accents, his girls could actually converse with the men they entertained. Theodora was not yet old enough to be required to do more than dance and tumble, but – like all the girls in the rehearsal room – she would be one day. Having created chaos in today’s class, she’d been singled out for questioning. Menander believed that those who failed in matters of the mind were invariably punished in the body.

Twenty minutes later Theodora was swallowing the sobs, every muscle shivering in pain. Her left leg was ramrod straight behind her, stretched into a back split, her right leg pulled up and across her torso so the foot reached last her left shoulder. Once he’d placed her in this position, Menander bent her forward so her chest and face, leaning on the right leg, were pushed into the ground. At which point their master and teacher laid the full weight of his own body across her narrow back, stretching her frame to its limit, trying – and, as always, failing – to break her will. He wanted Theodora to cry in apology. Eleven years old, and triple that in strength, she gave him nothing but the acceptance of her pain, exactly as she had done for the past six years.

When Theodora’s father Acacius died, killed by the body-ripping claws of his own bear, her mother had assumed she would fall back on the faction her family had supported for generations, grateful for their charity. Like every other citizen of the Empire, Theodora’s family paid allegiance to either the Blues or the Greens, the two parties that ran so much of Constantinople’s life, from local police forces, fire departments and small-time mercenaries, right up to the military and government policy makers. It made sense then, when Acacius died, for Hypatia to form a new partnership with another man of the Greens. Basianus was also an animal-trainer, a good enough man. The bear-keeper’s widow thought it wise for the younger man to take on his predecessor’s job, both at home and in the Hippodrome. Unfortunately, the Greens’ leader was a true businessman, he knew someone else who would pay to take on the chief bear-keeper role, and Hypatia’s second husband was denied her dead husband’s job. The widow, her three daughters, her new husband and – not to anyone’s surprise – the baby on the way were, literally, hungry for support.

Theodora was five, as old as the new century, born in the city of Constantine less than two hundred years since it ceased to be Byzantium and became the holy city of Constantinople, the centre of the new Rome, the sparkling gem in a Christian crown. In the west the Empire was parcelled out among Barbarian kings, some of them not even Christian. In the east there were the constantly disputed Persian borders and Sassanid rulers, none of them Christian. Hers was a century that, so far, felt very much like the one before, not least because the Emperor Anastasius, the frugal old man with mismatched eyes who had banned animal fights in the Hippodrome – much to his people’s displeasure – continued in his opposition to the Council of Chalcedon’s decrees concerning the nature of the Christ. Theodora was too young to know the intricacies of a schism born at the ecumenical council fifty years earlier, intricacies spinning out from the interpretation of a single word to questions of national identity, but even she had noticed that her parents’ friends, and the dancers in their rehearsal breaks, and the man who preached on the corner near their house, not to mention the monks who had recently physically attacked each other for their different beliefs, all took the matter very seriously indeed.

Many people, and more of the religious, agreed with the prevailing Western orthodoxy that the Christ was two in one, both fully divine and fully human; the Emperor Anastasius on the other hand, along with many key figures of faith in the Eastern branches of the Church, was confident in his belief that whatever humanity the Christ had possessed was subsumed by his more vital divinity. In a city founded by a man obsessed – on his deathbed at least – by faith, in a religion needing to formalize its beliefs as it scooped up more and more of the Western world, the core notion of just how divine the Christ truly was could not have been more engaging to the population. All across the City, sailors and soldiers, tradesmen and civil servants, debated the true nature of the Christ as they drank their wine late into the night. Poor women in shared kitchens considered the safety of the Persian border and the vexed question of whether Mary was Theotokos – mother of God, or Christokotos – mother of the Christ. Those scrutinising the market stalls and buying goods from the shops that lined the porticoes of the long Mese fretted over the influx of non-Christian refugees still fleeing Goth kings in the west, and everyone bemoaned the Emperor’s parsimony, his refusal to build them a fine new church. At the age of five, God was everywhere Theodora looked.

In their tiny home meanwhile, with no pennies to pinch and far more pressing concerns than the nature of the Christ or His mother, while the new baby in her belly kicked her awake, Hypatia seethed that the Greens, the faction she and her late husband had been born into, had failed to take care of them. Having been an acrobat herself, having watched her mauled
husband die in abject pain, she’d wanted anything but the stage for her three daughters. Now she lay awake and planned their first public performance.

There is a break in the racing. Hypatia has bribed the tall Vandal couple who usually perform at this point – a slapstick display of tumbling pornography loved by the crowd, those who are watching at least, those not in a hurry to piss or eat or place bets – and she has taken their twenty-minute slot. For a fortnight she has been rehearsing her three daughters. Even Anastasia, just three, has been drilled in steps and gesture. The girls look perfect, white robes down to their bare feet, garlands of fresh flowers on their hair, beetle-dye to redden their lips and cheeks. They walk out into the centre of the Hippodrome. It is early in the programme, there is maybe a third of the capacity crowd of a thirty thousand. Ten thousand people, though, could be any number to a child of five. Her back to the carved owl on the southern obelisk, Theodora looks past the Nekra Gate, hoping to see Hagia Sophia, the church she loves because her father loved it, but the bench seats rise too high. Men sit on these seats, men of all ages and rank, men used to the smell and sound of this place. The girls have been to the Hippodrome before of course, to see their father work, to watch from the sidelines, to follow him through the maze of passageways and rooms dug out beneath the wood and sand stage, but they have never sat in the audience itself, and they have not stood here before, in the place of performance. They have not held the crowd before.

Unfortunately, they are not holding the crowd now.

Hypatia has rehearsed them in what they must do. Make their way to the centre. Acknowledge the empty Kathisma, where the Emperor would stand were he here – and they are lucky he is not. Turn to each of the four directions: east for Jerusalem, west for Rome, north and south for the furthest reaches of the Empire. Then, the girls having calmed the noisy crowd, forced their silence and attention, Hypatia will make her case to the Greens. The same woman, the same three daughters, the new husband who should be reinstated in the old husband’s job. What could be simpler? Except that the girls do not have the crowd’s attention, and when she tries to speak for her family, Hypatia’s voice does not carry. She opens her mouth but, faltering with nerves and mounting anger, her words emerge as a croak, a gasp, and then nothing. She turns back to the girls, nods that they should take up their supplicant pose again. They do so; the theatrical language is well known to this crowd. Skilled in interpreting chorus gesture, they didn’t need to hear the mother’s monologue to know the daughters were pleading.

Asking for what? yells one rude voice.

Too young even for you, answers another.

I’d give her a go, says a third: your oldest girl, with the lovely
hair.

Take the mother, returns the first voice, at least she’ll know what to do, and we all know – the crowd wait, aware the shout is directed at a famed pedagogue in their midst – you’re a hopeless teacher.

A roar of laughter, applause for the heckler, even less attention for the four at the centre of the ground. Time passing, the races will start again soon, three little girls in white dresses and wilting flower garlands holding supplicant poses, a pregnant mother begging for her family, no one listening.

And then the middle girl steps out and takes up another pose. One she has seen her father take up time after time, in rehearsal, in training, and on this very ground. The little sister catches on quickly: this is a game they play every day at home, Anastasia is the bear, Theodora the keeper. Comito is shocked, Hypatia furious, as the little sisters begin to play. Theodora raps Anastasia on the back of the head with her knuckles, the ‘bear’ turns and growls, the rich men in the front seats smile, someone grins, another laughs. The bear lumbers in a confused circle. Theodora mimes a stick, poking it from behind, whispers directions to Anastasia, who – as always – is happy to do as she is told. Laughter, as Theodora will learn to anticipate, picks its way through the crowd, at first faltering, and then catching in an eager fire. When a critical mass of attention is finally reached, Hypatia steps forward again, the girls once more take up their pose – though not before Theodora has demanded a round of applause with a saucy bow – and the mother pleads her family’s case. And even so, she is rejected. It is too late. Her dead husband’s job has gone to another man. The leader of the Greens is adamant – there is nothing to be done, it is over.

She should have left it there. Hypatia knew the rules, the gesture had been daring enough, brave enough. But something of Theodora’s spirit – a spirit Hypatia was always trying to dampen, knowing it was dangerous in any young girl – had infected her. She grabbed Anastasia’s hand, pulled all three children right across the arena and stood instead before the Blues. The girls in their same pose. The mother with the same speech. The Greens behind them silent in disbelief, the Blues in front, cat-calling and whistling to their rivals at the audacity of the bear-keeper’s woman. The leader of the Blues, knowing exactly what he was doing, acknowledged Hypatia’s entreaty, complimented her on her well-trained daughters, the elder one’s beauty, the little one’s prettiness, the middle girl’s – he paused, he too was an orator – the middle girl’s passion. Then, not speaking now to the woman and her daughters at all, but addressing himself directly to the callous, uncaring – a pause again before uttering the worst of epithets – ‘uncivilised’ Greens, he offered aid to the woman and her family. Said there was, of course, with the Blues, always with the Blues, hope for an ambitious man, alms for an honest woman, succour to children in need. He gave her new husband a job. After more than two hundred years with the Greens, champions of the artisan, the merchant, the working man, Theodora’s family joined the more conservative Blues. And Theodora learned her first lesson in stagecraft. An actress may be as beautiful as nature, or makeup, will allow, but if the audience don’t care, there is no point.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy. Copyright © 2011 by Stella Duffy.

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Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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