Book Corner: Fortune's Child by James Conroyd Martin

Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.

Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.

This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.

It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.

But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.

“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”

I nod, taking up a kalamos.

“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”

For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.

Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.

It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.

As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Zoe, Empress of Constantinople

Mosaic of Empress Zoe at the Hagia Sophia

Zoe Porphyrogenita lived most of her life in relative obscurity. She was the second of 3 daughters born to Constantine VIII and his wife, Helena. Zoe was born in Constantinople in about 978. She was the niece of Basil II, the warrior emperor who had co-ruled, as senior emperor, with Constantine for over 60 years. Basil died in January 1025, leaving Constantine to rule alone for a further 3 years before his own death in November 1028. By all accounts, while Basil fought to preserve his empire, Constantine was more in love with the trapping of power, rather than the wielding of it.

Zoe’s father had been emperor since the age of 2, meaning that Zoe was ‘born into the purple’ – born to a reigning emperor. She had an elder sister, Eudokia, who joined a monastery, and a younger sister, Theodora. Zoe’s uncle Basil II refused to arrange marriages for his nieces, as such marriages would give their husbands a claim to the imperial throne. The girls lived in virtual obscurity in the women’s quarters of the palace for many years.

Zoe first appeared on the international stage in 1001, at the age of 23, when her uncle offered her as a bride to German Emperor Otto III (reigned 996-1002). Zoe had set sail from Constantinople, but on arriving at Bari, was met with the news that her prospective groom had died of a fever. Zoe returned home to Constantinople and the continued seclusion of the royal palace.

Following the death of her uncle, and with no legitimate male heir to succeed him, Zoe’s father, Constantine, sought to settle the empire’s future by finally arranging Zoe’s marriage. At the age of 50, in 1028, she was married to her father’s designated successor, probably to add legitimacy to his claim to the imperial throne. Her new husband became Emperor Romanos III, and Zoe empress consort, when he succeeded to the throne just 3 days after the wedding.

Zoe was described by a palace courtier, Michael Psellos, as;

‘a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect … a woman of passionate interests, prepared with equal enthusiasm for both alternatives, death or life, I mean. In that she reminded me of sea-waves, now lifting a ship on high and then again plunging it down to the depths … Zoe was openhanded, the sort of woman who could exhaust a sea teaming with gold-dust in one day … [she] confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state … her eyes were large, set wide apart with imposing eyebrows. Her nose was inclined to be aquiline, and her whole body was radiant with the whiteness of her skin.’

Zoe and Theodora, Chronographia

As empress consort, Zoe asserted herself. Her younger sister, Theodora, was sent to a monastery. Romanos was an unpopular ruler, his economic policies and military defeat in 1030 causing consternation. Neglected by her husband, who took a lover and refused to allow Zoe any say in affairs of state, the empress took a much younger, teenage lover, her chamberlain, Michael. Together they conspired to dispose of Romanos and he was found dead in his bath on 10 April 1034, allegedly poisoned by Zoe or her lover.

Michael IV

Zoe promptly married her young lover and made him Emperor Michael IV. Not surprisingly, their marriage was full of distrust and Zoe was allowed no power or say in government. Michael IV then banished Zoe to a monastery. His reign was no golden age, with the aristocracy opposing the undue influence of the emperor’s brother, John the Orphanostrophos. High taxation sparked a revolt, led by Peter Deljan, who used it as a pretext to end the Byzantine dominance of the Bulgars. The rebellion was quashed within a year, with the aid of Harald Hardrada and his 500 Norwegians, who had joined the Varanagian Guard in 1034. Further losses in Sicily and the emperor’s worsening epilepsy added to the empire’s woes. Not to be forgotten, Zoe began scheming to reclaim her throne. After she was allowed back to court, and unable to bear her own children due to her age, Zoe was persuaded to adopt Michael IV’s nephew, another Michael, and make him her heir.

Michael IV’s life would have probably ended in the same way as his predecessor, Romanos III, drowned in the bath or with a knife in his back, had he not died of natural causes in 1041, after retiring to a monastery. His nephew, Zoe’s adopted son, ascended the throne as Michael V; Michael was the son of the sister of Michael IV. Michael V was crowned in 1041 but immediately turned against those who had raised him to the throne. His uncle, John the Orphanotrophos, was exiled from court and Zoe was again banished to a monastery, an act which caused an uprising in Constantinople.

The people of Constantinople and the church wanted to see the crown returned to Zoe and the legitimate dynastic line. The mob ransacked the royal palace and deposed Michael V in April 1042. The young emperor was deposed after only 4 months of disastrous rule. He was exiled to a monastery, but complaints about such lenient treatment meant that Zoe issued orders for his mutilation. He was blinded, an act symbolically rendering him incapable of ruling, supposedly by Harald Hadrada, the future king of Norway, himself.

Zoe and Theodora

Now 64 years old, Zoe was empress once again.

Zoe’s sister, Theodora, was retrieved from her monastery to rule beside her. As the elder sister, Zoe’s throne was placed slightly forward of her Theodora’s at the joint coronation ceremony, as an obvious indication of which of the sisters was in charge!

The sisters sought to reform Byzantine imperial policies, making new court appointments, ending corrupt practices, such as selling titles, and instigating an investigation into the actions of their predecessor.

In the same year, 1042, Zoe took a third husband, Constantine Monomachos, who ruled as Emperor Constantine IX. Long-admired by the empress, Constantine had been exiled to Lesbos but was recalled to become Zoe’s third husband. Constantine was rich and elegant, with a reputation as a ladies man, but with experience of Byzantine government as a senior civil administrator. He co-ruled the empire with the 2 imperial sisters.

Domestic arrangements, however, were frowned upon when Constantine moved his long-time lover, Sclerina, into the imperial palace, apparently with Zoe’s blessing. The public were not so tolerant and called for Sclerina’s removal; the crisis was resolved by Sclerina’s sudden death from a pulmonary disease.

Emperor Constantine IX

Constantine set about reforming the Byzantine administration, exiling John the Orphanotrophos from court for a second time, and surrounding himself with noted intellectuals, among them Michael Psellos. However, his reforms and neglect of the army led to two uprisings, in 1043 and 1047, respectively, and saw the frontiers of the empire crumbling under incursions from the Normans, the Seljuks and the Pechenegs.

Constantine outlived his wife; Zoe died in 1050, aged about 72. And when her sister, Theodora, died in 1056, the Macedonian dynasty founded by Basil I (reigned 867-886) came to an end. Zoe is remembered in the gold and glass mosaic of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in which she is portrayed with Constantine IX and Jesus Christ. The inscription reads ‘Zoe, the most pious Augusta’.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipaedia

Sources:

britannica.com; A History of the Vikings by T.D. Kendrick; God’s Viking: Harald Hardrada by Nic Fields; Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorre Strurluson; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Ancient History Encyclopedia.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly