When it comes to European history, most Western readers know only the high points, know some of the names even if they can’t exactly nail down the place and the time. They know Rome, and the realms of ancient Greece; they will know of Arthur (well, he’s pseudo history, really, but there are some touchstones…), Charlemagne, Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland and Saladin. They will have heard of the Crusades, and perhaps of the Wars of the Roses, and maybe a place called Outremer. But there’s a peculiar blind spot in the historical tapestry.
Oh, people will know the name… and that’s pretty much where it will stop. There may be some arbitrary factoids or names associated with the concept – but they’re stabs at a random here-be-dragons map. Few people would probably even be able to say with any degree of certainty just when the Byzantine empire existed although they might mutter something about it coexisting with Rome, or the Visigoths, or something like that. It’s COMPLICATED. The very name of the place gave rise to the word ‘Byzantine’ meaning convoluted, complex, and confusing.
In the history of Europe, there’s the Glory Of Rome, and then there’s the Middle Ages. Byzantium is a a missing link, something that existed over there beyond Greece, almost Asian, almost Middle Eastern, something that fascinated but did not find deep roots in the (Western) European psyche.
But in Eastern Europe we all know about Byzantium. It was much closer to home, looming much larger on the horizon. When, eventually, Byzantium fell and was replaced by that other regional empire (the Turkish Ottomans) they too took their toll on the neck of the European woods where I was born. When I was growing up, stories of Byzantium were simply part of my education, part of my cultural milieu.
One story in particular.
As the saying goes, well behaved women never make history. One of my great-aunts rendered that into a more picturesquely rendered paraphrase about how the pursuit of purity and virtue never helped a woman rise in her world – in fact, almost exactly the reverse, in her parlance – and it has always been a fact that a woman who gained a position of power is almost always assumed (at least in the past) to have got there by sleeping with the right people.
In other words, a good woman sat at home and cooked meals and cleaned house and raised children. Those who did not do these things were by definition not good women. And not-good women… got up to all sorts of things that were then whispered about behind closed doors.
In the story of Byzantium, the Empire, one of these women stands like a colossus: Theodora of the Hippodrome, daughter of a bear-keeper, arena dancer, a woman they have called a whore, someone who clawed her way from the gutter into the circles of the aristocracy. Beyond that – into the purple, crowned with an imperial diadem, ruling an empire at the height of its powers at the side of a besotted Emperor.
By most contemporary accounts, she had more than enough heart and spirit and courage to have achieved all this. But because she did so, and did so while female, the rumors started swirling and history has never stayed neutral or even silent on this. Procopius, a Byzantine historian, is famous for his Secret Histories which depicted Theodora as a wanton temptress who used her body and her sexuality to get what she wanted out of the powerful men in her world. Procopius had his biases and so much of what he wrote was exaggerated or even invented. But he helped paint Theodora as what she ended up being in the pages of history books. Sultry, sexual, full of subtle poisonous malice, selfish, given to indulging her own pet people, ideas, or obsessions.
She may have been some of these things. But she was also something that was looked on askance in her world – a strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted and did what she could, what she was permitted by her gender and her society to do, in order to achieve those things. It is quite probable that she was no saint. But she was equally probably not the wicked witch of the east in the image in which she was cast.
I grew up with Theodora and her story dangling before me like some rich Byzantine jewel. When I was younger I had no real means of judging; I read books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the time that she lived in and that was all I had to go on. She was mad bad and impossible but she was fascinating.
And in the end I suppose it was inevitable that she should take root in my storytelling mind and demand that her story – the story of the woman, not the icon, not the two-dimensional harridan, not the evil power who seduced a weak-minded scholar (which some would have Justinian be in some versions of the tale) into breaking all the rules, marrying her, raising her into the aristocratic circles of her time and making them accept her, and finally crowning her as his empress.
So I wrote a historical fantasy which was based on her story – and in doing so I have written another book in MY world, the world in which the Syai of “Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven” also exist in the same way as Greece and China co-exist in our reality. I am writing books which are the building blocks of a much larger world, a world which exists INSIDE MY OWN STORY MILIEU as a huge and ongoing backdrop and in which my individual stories are set, in their own place and time, like jewels, like tiny detailed works of art set into a huge larger-than-life map of a world big enough to contains them all.
“Empress” is the first new fat historical fantasy I have produced since “Embers of Heaven” was published some years ago. It is the story of a not-quite Byzantium and a woman who is not-quite Theodora. But I drew inspiration from both, and created my own version for my own world. This is the kind of story that I so love writing – the sort of tale that unfolds like a rich tapestry, and the closer you look the more glorious detail comes out, until you’re lost in it and can’t quite tell where it ends and that (by comparison) sad pale thing we call reality begins.
I cannot wait to have the readers who loved the Jin-shei books, the readers who might have missed the glories of Syai, join me in this new adventure.