Friday, January 26, 2018

The Secret History - Stephanie Thornton

The Secret History
Title: The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora
Author: Stephanie Thornton
Publication Date: 7/2/2013
Pages: 448
Genre: Biography / Historical / Royals / Fiction
How I Found It: I've had this on my list for a while.
Date Completed: 1/3/17

Summary: Born into poverty, Theodora ended her life as Empress of the Roman Empire. Thornton imagines what that life may have been like, based on the little historical information we have about the woman. Thornton's Theodora is feisty, determined, and indefatigable. 

What I Thought: I honestly knew very little about the Empress Theodora. I knew there was once an Empress Theodora married to Emperor Justinian. That's about it. A bit shameful, but true.

Picking up Thornton's historical fiction account of the woman's life, then, has been long overdue for me. I read The Tiger Queens, another book by Thornton which focused on the women in Genghis Khan's life, a while back and really loved how Thornton crafted such rich stories from such little historical information. She's done the same here. Despite being a powerful empress, there is relatively little trustworthy historical information available about Theodora. Thornton discusses this in her end notes. Normally, I don't love historical fiction because the inaccuracy of it grates on me. Somehow Thornton's work doesn't do that. What little we do know about this woman is nearly as speculative as Thornton's embellishments and changes.

Thornton's Theodora lives an incredible life. She goes from utter poverty to the sixth century equivalent of prostitution and escort service to mother to mistress to empress. It's a meteoric climb. I loved the personality of this Theodora. Despite the litany of misfortunes, she never retreats, never gives up, never backs down. She is a fighter in the truest sense. She would have had to be to change her life in such a dramatic way.

Thornton's version of history does read like a soap opera in many ways. It's packed full of sex, betrayal, power struggles, and twisted family dynamics. It's quite a ride and does feel a little over the top in parts. However, if you know what you're signing on for, it's entertaining and fascinating. I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the sixth century, but Thornton paints a vivid picture of what the era may have been like at various levels of social standing. 

Having read this fictional account, my interest has been piqued. I would love to read a good nonfiction biography of Theodora. Unfortunately, there really is not much trustworthy historical information. Most of what Thornton pulled from is actual a historical account written by a man who had an extremely negative bias toward Justinian and Theodora. There's no doubt she was an incredible woman who saved the throne for her husband at least once, but the details of her life are largely lost to history. As that is the case, I'm glad to have read this account and at least have an imaginative perspective on what she may have been like. 

This book is part of my2018 TBR Challenge!
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Will I Re-Read: Unlikely, but I want to read more of Thornton's other books.
Other Books By Stephanie Thornton: The Tiger Queens

A Reduced Review: We have very little trustworthy information about the real life of Empress Theodora. Thornton takes what little we know and spins it into a riveting tale of an indefatigable woman.


  1. The 'Extra History' YouTube channel has a good series on Justinian and Theodora. []