Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora

Written by James Conroyd Martin
Review by Misty Urban

Palace scribe Stephen, hauled out of prison, is tasked with writing the Empress Theodora’s life story before she dies, and out of love, he agrees. The unfolding narrative entwines Theodora’s third-person history with Stephen’s first-person recollection of his own adventures, no less interesting. Martin adopts the main elements of Theodora’s life established in contemporary accounts: daughter of a bear keeper, she rises to fame as an actress in risqué roles, travels with an older lover to the governor’s outpost in Libya, and eventually returns to Constantinople and catches the eye of the emperor’s nephew, Justinian. But Martin fills in these outlines with enthralling detail; his Theodora harbors deep attachments and lofty ambitions, is thwarted in her career as a dancer, betrayed by her lover Hecebolus, and converted, after an incarceration in Alexandria, to the beliefs of the Monophysites. She is haunted, also, by the illegitimate children she abandons.

Stephen’s life is likewise a series of harrowing adventures as he passes from the tutelage of a Persian magus to slavers who sell him to a palace guard. His devotion to Theodora is poignant if unrequited, and as she is installed in the Grand Palace as Justinian’s mistress, wife, then empress and co-ruler, they share a special confidence as well as the enmity of the palace historian Procopius.

Martin’s 6th-century Byzantium hums with life, and his polished prose captures the fashions, the food, the social strata, the religious variety—like the stylites, who live atop pillars—and the cultural diversity of an empire that stretches around the Mediterranean. If the imaginative grip slips when Theodora and Justinian finally meet, it may be because the characters’ conflicts become limited to palace intrigues. A planned second book, hopefully of the same quality, will cover Theodora’s 21-year rule, completing the life of this remarkable woman.