I swear, it was pure coincidence that my interview this month on New Books in Historical Fiction happened to go live the same week as the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I did have a vague sense that the film was due for release just before Thanksgiving, but it didn’t even occur to me until this morning, when I saw the review in the paper, that this blog post would go up on the day the film opened.
What makes it a coincidence is that this month I had the fun of interviewing Carol Strickland about her novel The Eagle and the Swan. The Eagle is Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium and the Swan his wife, Theodora—known in her youth, before she underwent a profound religious conversion, as the empire’s premier erotic dancer and courtesan, famous for her performance of “Leda and the Swan.” You can hear and, if you like, download the podcast at the link above.
When I read the book, I was struck by how Roman the world of Justinian and Theodora still was. This didn’t surprise me so much as give me a Doh! What did I expect? moment. Constantinople was (and remained) the head of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Justinian’s rule began in 527 CE—barely fifty years after the Fall of Rome. The novel starts a good ten years before that.
Justinian came from Thrace, born to a family of swineherds, raised to power through the military gifts of his uncle Justin, the illiterate general who preceded him on the imperial throne. He was the last emperor to grow up speaking Latin rather than Greek. Theodora spent her childhood in the circus, as a bear keeper’s daughter—and while not quite the arena where Katniss Everdeen fights for her life, this circus was not Barnum and Bailey/Ringling Brothers either. This was the circus of gladiators and chariot races, of Christians fed to lions, and the like. A large part of the book involves a protracted fight over the need to pacify the population with gifts, parades, and entertainment versus the need to fund the military campaigns that will (Justinian hopes) reunite the eastern and western halves of the shattered Roman Empire. Not to mention the popular unrest that follows when Justinian chooses power over pacification. Population management. Bread and circuses. Panem et circenses.
So listen to the interview. You may find out more than you expected from that long-ago, faraway world. And for some additional background on the author and what drew her to write Theodora’s story, I suggest checking out her “Personal Confession.” I discovered the post only after the interview, or we would have talked about it then. It’s a great story.
As usual, I wrote the rest of this post for the New Books in Historical Fiction site.
In 476 CE, according to the chronology most of us learned in school, the Roman Empire fell and the Dark Ages began. That’s how textbook chronologies work: one day you’re studying the Romans, and next day you’re deep in early feudal Europe, as if a fairy godmother had waved a magic wand.
Reality is more complex. The Fall of Rome affected only the western territories of that great world power, which had in fact been weakening for some time. The Eastern Roman Empire—later known as Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire—survived for another thousand years. Recast under Turkish rule as the Ottoman Empire, it lasted five hundred years more.
But the Eastern Roman Empire endured shocks and fissures of its own, and its survival was far from assured. Under the rule of Emperor Justinian I and his empress, Theodora, it entered a crucial phase. Justinian began life as a swineherd, Theodora as a bear keeper’s daughter, yet they fought their way to the pinnacle of power in Constantinople and, once there, established a new set of governing principles that for a while almost restored the empire that Rome had lost. Carol Strickland, in The Eagle and the Swan, traces the first part of Justinian’s and Theodora’s journey. Listen in as she takes us through the circuses, streets, brothels, monasteries, and churches of early sixth-century Byzantium, all the way to the imperial court.