The Secret History
Theodora rises from the foam of her bath like Aphrodite from the waves. Her skin is scented with oils, wan as milk, smooth as a pearl: Theodora stands naked and proud. Hers is the body of an Empress, and in this life she will never be other. Her slaves hustle and scurry with towels and unguents, her eunuchs proffer wine and gossip, her flutegirls play the latest chorus, and in the centre of them all Theodora stands, arms raised, head up, smiling.
She has borne a child, but her belly is still taut and her breasts high. She has known many lovers, but now entertains just one, and he her Emperor: she will never know any other. The sweat and sand of the arena has scoured her skin and the gaze of thousands has both undone and ennobled her. She has held audiences in the palm of her hand and they have laughed and sobbed with her, she who holds now both Empire and patriarchy in her grip.
They are not so different, the conventions of the stage and the strictures of rule, for both are theatre.
Here, now, her slave girls wrap her breasts and her sex in silk, where once she wore leather to hide only those parts which must be concealed. In the streets of Byzantium, they call her the Emperor's whore, Theodora ek tou porneiou, Theodora from the brothel.
In the graffiti on the walls of the Hippodrome they call him Hyacinthos, which is not the name his father gave him, nor the name he answered to when he was a free man. Here in Byzantium, he is a slave of the lannista of the Syrian, and his gladiator's oath is inscribed on his skin in welts and bruises. His hands are calloused, his skin sallow and seamed with the bright sun of these godless lands, and even in his own small cell his body shapes itself to the stances and patterns of a gladiatorial drill.
It is morning. Meticulous as a surgeon, he cleans himself with the cool water from the bucket and the sponge: a clean cut festers less. Today, a day for the games, a fighting day, the boy brings him watered wine and a clean loin cloth to tuck between his legs and belt into place, the tasselled ends dangling over his bare thighs. It is the only clothing he will wear on the sands of the arena.
They ease her silk camisia over her head before she sits down to whiten her face with lead, to redden her mouth with carmine and brush the dark, gleaming lines of antimony along her eyelids. As she works, her hands assured and certain with her sable brushes, the slave girls comb out her hair and rebraid it, fastening the strands in place with jeweled pins and netted pearls. So finely learnt are her arts, practiced on her sisters and her mother before herself, that as she works a scribe reads to her letters from the Christian Monophysite community to which she belongs. Theodora is and will remain a heretic in the eyes of the orthodox church of her Emperor.
After the first fight, when he lived, the Syrian gave him his own fascia, the padded linen strips that he wraps now around his lower legs and his right arm. The leather thongs are dark, and worn smooth, stretched. It's awkward to tie them in place one-handed, but he does not trust the slaves, for whom a sesterce is bribe enough to favour one man's life above another's. The armour is the school's, battered under the patina of thin gold leaf: the two orcrea, greaves, that fasten over his shins and the single scaled metal glove he wears on his right arm, from wrist to shoulder, his manica.
He is dressed. Leaving, he touches his fingers to the worn statue of Diana, standing in her niche. She is not the goddess whose name he calls between clenched teeth when he can no longer be silent, but in all the pantheon of Rome, she is most akin and like all gladiators, he has learned to be superstitious.
Her tunica is of patterned silk, reds and golds, so heavily embroidered it drags at her shoulders and flattens the curves of her body. Heavier yet is the weight of the great golden collar fastened around her neck, the Imperial maniakis, a Byzantine ornament as much Persian as it is Roman. Theodora's is of diamonds and pearls set in gold, so valuable that the slave girl's hands shake as she fastens it in place. Then, her golden crown, tall, a circlet of pendilious jewels. Embedded is the riches of her jewelry is the life blood of her enemies, beggared and ruined, the machinations of her diplomacy and her armies, her intelligence and her resource. She is an Empress.
In the passageways under the arena he receives his sword and his helmet. The sword is short, but sharp: the helmet high and crested, with eye-pieces that will both shade his sight from the sun and obscure it. There is a shield, thin, but in the eyes of the crowd it is an essential trapping for the theatre of the arena and therefore, he will carry it on his arm for the spectacle and not the protection it fails to offer.
Other men wait with him, silent.
Her stola, her cloak, is purple. Deep, rich, the colour only she and Justinian can wear. Theodora will be buried in purple: she will die before she relinquishes the symbolism of her triumph. Even the brooch that fastens it on her shoulder carries the Imperial insignia.
She takes one last look at the Empress in the mirror.
In the arena, all men are strangers.
Justinian is waiting for her in the entranceway to their Imperial box. He is a lion of a man, her Emperor, her heart's companion, and as always for a moment she wishes she could kilt up her robes and run to him. Thus she would have done when they were younger, before he won himself an Empire and gave it to her, when she was still living in her little house by the old palace. The thought passes. Her boots are silent on the marble, but every face turns to her presence, obedient in their obeisance, although the gleam in Justinian's eyes says that he is laughing at her again.
They are watched, she and Justinian. She tilts her chin upwards a fraction, marks the glower of the guard to his right and the frown of the Patriarch to his left, divides friend from enemy and faithful from faithless, marks her escape routes and his. The scarlet curtain to their box is drawn back, sunlight glinting on the gold of the furnishing, and the sound of the crowd beyond is the growl of a chained beast. She walks forward.
Through the dark of the last entranceway, the carcere, he can see sunshine on the gold of the sand, raked clean for his footprints. Sweat springs cold at the back of his knees and in his armpits, and he tightens his grip on the hilt of his sword, but the roar of the crowd is louder than the beat of his own blood in his ears.
The trumpets sound.