By Martijn Icks
Ravenna is among Italy’s hidden gems. Boasting no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, its rich history as a residence of late antique Roman emperors, Ostrogothic kings and Byzantine governors is everywhere to be seen. Yet where the streets of Venice, Rome and Florence are crowded with tourists as soon as spring arrives, here you can still wander deserted alleys and take your pick among the terraces in the town square.
One of Ravenna’s absolute highlights is the San Vitale, probably the most impressive church of Europe when it was built in the sixth century. It’s still impressive today. Once inside, the visitor is dazzled by the high dome, the disorienting octagonal space and, above all, by the numerous mosaics covering the walls, each seemingly as bright and colourful as they were one and a half thousand years ago.
The empress Theodora towers high above the viewer, the focus of a splendid scene captured in countless little stones. She is arguably even more magnificent than her husband, the emperor Justinian, who occupies the opposite wall with his retinue. In the mid-sixth century, this pair ruled the Byzantine Empire, which was then at the height of its power. Ravenna was no more than a distant outpost of their realm.
Looking at Theodora – taking in her confident gaze, the stately posture, the gleaming pearls and jewels – it’s easy to imagine that she must have been a commanding presence, as the ancient sources indeed suggest she was. When riots broke out in Constantinople and her husband wanted to flee the city, she is recorded to have stopped him in his tracks, remarking that imperial purple made for a fine burial shroud.
However, very different tales were told about her as well. She was supposed to come from very humble origins, the daughter of a Constantinopolitan circus bear trainer. Before she caught Justinian’s eye, she allegedly led a lewd life, performing as an actress and selling her body to excited customers.
Often in the theatre too, and with the entire populace as her audience, she would strip and stand naked at the very centre of attention, having only a loincloth about her genitals and groin (…). Wearing this outfit, then, she would lie down on her back and spread herself out on the floor, whereupon certain menials, who were hired to do this very job, would sprinkle barley grains all over her genitals. Then the geese, which were trained for this purpose, pecked them off one at a time with their beaks and ate them. (Anecdota 9.20-21)
The quote is by Procopius, a contemporary historian. He was in good standing with the imperial pair, even being invited to compose a work in praise of Justinian’s building policy. What neither emperor nor empress foresaw is that he would also write another work, aptly named the Anecdota or “Secret History”, to reveal the ugly side of power. He planned to publish it after their deaths.
In the Anecdota, Theodora’s wicked youth is described in all its juicy detail. Procopius claims that the future empress was utterly shameless and had an insatiable sexual appetite, actively flirting with potential customers (beardless youths were her favourites) and wearing out dozens of lovers during all-night orgies.
Such allegations of promiscuity and unbridled lust were standard fare in slanders of women, who were often attacked for their lack of chastity. In this regard, Theodora is reminiscent of the Roman empress Messalina, whom I blogged about before and who was likewise portrayed as an icon of female sexuality gone wild.
Undoubtedly, rumours about Theodora’s adventurous youth will have circulated in Constantinople. Whether they also reached Ravenna is anyone’s guess. But prudent people would have whispered such stories rather than speaking them out loud. Whatever the empress may or may not have done in her younger years, she was now the splendorous woman gazing down at us from the walls of San Vitale, second in power to none but the emperor. This was how she appeared in public, this was how she was depicted.
In a time without free speech, a critical press or organized opposition, there was no room for negative images of Theodora in the public sphere. Procopius was thus playing a dangerous game. It was for good reason that he kept his Secret History secret.
Unfortunately for the historian, he managed to outlive the empress, but not the emperor. We don’t know how his manuscript survived, but it will not have seen the light of day while Justinian was still reigning and cherishing his wife’s memory. At best, it will have passed from hand to hand among people nurturing a grudge against the regime.
Nowadays, Theodora’s reputation is decidedly ambiguous. Standing before the mosaic in San Vitale, it’s hard not to feel awed by this image of absolute power. But it’s also hard not to think about the story of the geese and the barley grains.